A foxhole gospel

How shall the dead arise is no question of my faith. To believe only possibilities is not faith but mere philosophy.”

–Thomas Browne

Easter is not my favorite holiday. It should be, since I adhere to the Christian faith, and the event that this holiday commemorates is Christianity’s central fact and sine qua non. The resurrection of the Christ from death to life, the final impossibility and the signal that we, too, are more than, eternally more than the dust and ash we inhabit in this physical life. It’s the best news ever. He is risen. Hosannah in the highest!

With deft strokes in the comic tradition, cartoonist Shannon highlights the fact that Jesus folded his wrap before checking out.

With deft strokes in the comic tradition, cartoonist Shannon highlights the delightful fact that everyone raised as a Christian remembers…that Jesus folded his wrap before blowing the grave.

But it’s the very focus on that impossible fact that makes me fidgety. Faith is a strange thing for me these days. I don’t worry as much as I used to about what I call the “mechanics” of Christian doctrine, that part that explains how “the cross” is central to the entire “plan” that God has had in place since the dawn of time. I’m not exactly precisely concretely sure what I do believe anymore, but I know I don’t want or need my belief to be an edifice of logic or some scientifically arrived at construction, where failure in one part of the system means collapse of the whole. So the matter of whether Jesus rose from the dead is not as critical an item as it used to be for me. But the question doesn’t go away. We celebrate the resurrection and have done for two millennia, and we celebrate it not as metaphor but as an event that took place. So what do I believe really happened? Do I believe Jesus rose up from the dead?

Even the doubter has a place in God's kingdom. The Incredulity of St. Thomas, by Caravaggio, 1602.

Even the doubter has a place in God’s kingdom. The Incredulity of St. Thomas, by Caravaggio, 1602.

When this question presents itself, part of me answers No, of course not. I don’t believe that because it’s impossible. That answer has frightened me in the past, but I’m learning to accept it. It’s the only answer that a rational creature of earth, which is what I am, can return. The Reasoner in me says, people don’t rise from the dead, not by my experience or by any logic I know.

But I am not ONLY a rational creature, and in fact I consider it likely that my internal Reasoner is the least part of me. I am also spirit and body, and as I mature (if I mature), I become more and more alive to these other aspects of who I am. I think most Christians are able, unlike me, to convert or silence their Reasoner, or at least teach it to relinquish the wheel. A few let their Reasoners become monsters. Lately, my Reasoner is mostly asleep at the back of the bus, but this question is framed in such a way that it can only be fielded by the Reasoner. It’s a question about a fact, so I handle it in terms of likelihoods and probabilities and known data points. The answer that comes back is no, I don’t believe that Jesus rose from the dead. He could not have done.

And yet I pray to God every day with this same risen Jesus at my side, in the deepest place of belief inside me. I strive to live as though his resurrection secures my own, not only from a someday physical death but from my hundred daily deaths, my cowardices and failures and wrongdoings. I remember Thomas Browne’s dictum and tell myself that it is not necessary that what I believe in my heart be acceptable to my Reasoner. After all, everything physically possible is also merely inevitable; it’s the miraculous that makes the journey worthwhile. But if my Reasoner takes over, I lose my spiritual buoyancy.

The wrong time to ask the wrong question. Lego scene by

The wrong time to ask the wrong question. Jesus catches Peter as the disciple’s reason interferes with his deeper belief. Image of Brendan Powell Smith’s Lego scene found on Godbricks.com, used without permission.

There are many questions one could ask, and many ways to ask any given question. Since I desperately wish to be a capital B Believer, I don’t often ask myself whether or not I really think that this-and-such actually, factually happened. For all I know, nothing happens and everything I see and hear and think and do are just the eddies bouncing off of Cheerios in a bowl of milk in a dream inside the mind of a giant tortoise in a lagoon at the back of the North Wind. Those questions become increasingly unhelpful.

What is more interesting and more helpful to me is asking, where can I find evidence today of the God that I hope exists? I never have to look very far if I am open. And on Easter, I might ask what am I willing to let go of — what long-held grudge or too-cherished conception am I willing to let die with Jesus on this day, so that what rises up may be a better version of myself, and by better I mean more useful to others, and by useful to others I mean instrumental not toward some idea of their “salvation” in some prescribed way but toward the working out of their God-given journey however and wherever it may lead them.

I like William Bouguereau's vision of the women arriving at the tomb (Le Saintes Femmes au Tombeau, c.1865) because it's spooky as all get out with that angle only half visible, and because the women express not only joy but also...something like worry or doubt?

I like William Bouguereau’s vision of the women arriving at the empty tomb (Les Saintes Femmes au Tombeau, c.1865) because it suggests that even the first ones on the scene experienced confusion, worry, and maybe even doubt?

It may be a small faith and easily overwhelmed by the voice from the back of the bus, but it’s enough to celebrate with.

Chem House: Or, another post that manages to be about death

In the best of times, one of the streets we use to get out of our neighborhood by car is practically impassable. It’s a narrow street with cars parked on both sides all the time, creating an inconvenient wait for whomever doesn’t get into the street before another car enters from the other end.

But these are not even the best of times, especially for the two nonagenarian residents of a particular house about mid-block. They have been relocated by the federal government of these United States while an assortment of vans and large trucks emblazoned with the Enivonmental Protection Agency legend and logo sit parked outside their home all day on both sides of the street and men and women in masks and reflective vests move large metal drums back and forth with handtrucks and pallets of Optisorb oil absorbent with pallet jacks.

EPA canyon.

EPA canyon.

In the last few days I kept forgetting that these outsized vehicles were there and kept turning into this street on the way to and from my house, then had to try not to click mirrors with them, or rather click my mirrors on their tires. Out of my peripheral vision I saw lots of yellow tape and black oil drums.

Yesterday as I motored slowly through the canyon of emergency response and spill control vehicles I rolled my window down and — watch how I do this — apologized to the young Security officer who stands in the street for barging through his area of responsibility again and saying that I’ll have to remember to take a different street next time. A woman in jeans and a vest behind him on the sidewalk came forward to my car immediately with a smile and told me that they were really sorry for the inconvenience and that they would be finishing and clearing out as soon as ever they could.

I asked if everyone was alright, thinking I’d have to inquire carefully to prevent her from clamming up, but without further prompting she started telling me what she and her team were doing and why, and how long they expected it to take. She handed me a flyer through the window, indicating the URL for a website where I could get more information.

I saw the phrase “Green Lk Chem House” on the paper.

“You mean you have a website for just this incident in particular?” I asked.

“Yes,” she replied. “Well,” she squinted. “There hasn’t really been an incident, it’s just that there’s a lot of improperly stored hazardous material in the house.” She said that the residents — I immediately pictured an old guy of my dad’s generation, his hair in a comb-over and his overalls marbled with paint from odd jobs decades ago — had been collecting chemicals in the house for a long time and not storing them properly. The fire department had somehow been alerted and they had called in her team to have a look.

Look they did and found they did, and came back with their trucks and masks they did. I asked where the residents were, and she said “they’re in a hotel.”

“Studying up on proper storage of hazmats,” I offered.

“One would hope,” she said.

Her name was Kay. Mine was Matt. We shook. Kay said that as community involvement coordinator she was there to answer any questions, and it seemed so. She was not inside the house ordering people around or saying “careful with that, Steve, you’ll blow us all to hell if that barrel falls off your handtruck.” She was just standing across the street, smiling at anyone who came down the sidewalk or rolled down their car window.

Signs of danger.

Signs of danger.

I was surprised by this openness in a federal agency operation. I would have thought they would be pushing people away while they do their work, dissembling and saying very little and reiterating their inability to comment further. Probably I’ve seen too many movies. No, they have a website for the Green Lake Chem House with dozens of enlargeable photos showing basement shelves loaded with jugs of bromides and sulfates and ammonias and goodness knows what-all (“acid, oxidizers, solvents, and other chemicals typically found in laboratories or commercial use”, says the sheet), plus benches brimming with unlabeled mixtures that have long ago separated into scary sludgy solids and murky solutions, and funnels and tubes suspended over more jugs, and empty and not-empty drums stacked in piles out in the back yard.

I went back over there this evening to take some photos. This time not Kay but a similarly friendly, similarly safety-vested, similarly casually dressed man named Jeffrey was there to answer questions. He was talking with a young man who had been walking past carrying a backpack and who seemed very worried about what might have been going on inside the house.

“It was a man and his sister,” Jeffrey told the young passerby. “He’s 93 and she’s 91, and he told us he was doing some experiments, but a lot of the stuff has been sitting there for years.” He said that since he’s federal, he doesn’t know exactly how the discovery was made, but he said that neighbors are claiming that they’ve been complaining about the house for years. Apparently the man called the fire department because he needed help getting his sister downstairs, and the fire department alerted the EPA.

“He was unwilling to dispose of the chemicals voluntarily,” said Jeffrey, who turns out to be the EPA’s on-scene coordinator. “‘All of this stuff has value’, he said. So that’s what initiated our work here.”

It's when the drumming stops that you have to worry.

It’s when the drumming stops that you have to worry.

I’m unsure how obvious it is that I would be absolutely fascinated by a person like this homeowner, even slightly obsessed. I’m not a hoarder, b…wait…let me rephrase that. I’m not a very successful hoarder, but I have hoarding in me. I understand the impulse and if I hadn’t moved so many times and also had to make room in my physical, geospatial life for a woman and two children and two cats, and all their toys and kibble, I would probably never have been able to get rid of many of the things that I have set out on the grass verge next to the street with signs on them that say things like “FREE BAR STOOL — ELVIS SAT HERE”.

I get how it happens, at least with me. Time is escaping our lives at an alarming rate, jetting off like steam from a leaky valve, and yet we often imagine ourselves in a static sort of way, so that it’s possible for us to rethink old thoughts. “One of these days I’m going to fix that thing…finish painting that canvas…get some oars for that canoe…make a workbench where I can mount that drill press…replant those trees in bigger pots…use those old pieces of PVC pipe as hoops for…” The number of things I still think of myself as “intending to do” as soon as I get the time is astounding. But that number of things is not being reduced at the same rate that old age — yes, let’s just say it, my Death — approaches. I don’t know what that latter rate is, but it’s fast, probably a lot faster than I realize (even with all the realizing I’ve been doing about this in recent months), and at some dread hour in the future near or far the arrival of that fell visitor will overtake my to-do list with a sudden finality, and it won’t care about what’s in my basement.

And so I can see how this old guy suddenly finds himself nearly a century old and he hasn’t yet done all the mixing he needs to do. Doesn’t realize that the thought is old, impossibly old, beyond his ability now to carry out. What I want to ask him is, what does he believe he is trying to do? He’s obviously not some mad bomber. Is he, was he a professional chemist? Was there some elixir that eluded him, some El Dorado of cleaning agents the discovery of which would make him famous or rich and after which he still seeks? Has he been operating under the impulse of some old thought of himself as someone doing important work that our valiant military might deploy toward peace and democracy on far shores? What will happen when he finally understands, really understands, that his quest has been cut short, that it’s over? This is the moment I would want to be looking into his face, to encounter in its raw and yet thwarted state that strange Promethean force that makes people behave in ways that are inconsistent with — even orthogonal to — the reality in which they exist. But not to judge or to jeer. Just to gawk. Because I’m in awe. The madness of being alive and having plans, great plans…it’s pathetic and terrifying and lovable.

The game's up.

Whatever the idea was, its time is up.

Unfortunately, at a certain point it’s also a potential “airborne toxic event”*, and therefore a hazard to the neighbors. So, let’s quit the morbid speculation and have another bag of Optisorb over here.

*See Don Delillo’s White Noise.

I’ve been away so long…

Weeks turn into years, how quick they pass…”

–Hal David

One of Angela’s childhood best friends lives in San Jose. Her name is Stephanie and she grew up in St. Louis two houses away from Angela’s. Stephanie came to visit us in Seattle shortly after her son Henry was born. At that time it was just she and Henry. Now she has a partner named Enid, and Enid and Stephanie have together adopted a little girl named Zoe, whom they call Zozo.

We hadn’t seen much of Stephanie since then, and none of us had ever met Enid or Zoe; we saw Stephanie in St. Louis years ago when Angela’s father died — she happened to be in the old city for Christmas visiting her family. She also popped in on Angela one day last year while she was in town and met Millie for the first time.

It’s been a tough year for us, death-in-the-family-wise; my sister, who was not old, died exactly one year ago, and since then, we’ve lost a cousin, two uncles, and an aunt, all of whom were not young. All of these passages have left us feeling…well…feeling how that feels. One of the things Angela and I have agreed on lately is that we want to make more of an effort to visit our farther-flung loved ones, because there isn’t really anything more important than your friends and family, and life is short even when it’s long, and you never know. I have been particularly remiss in this regard. In my youth I considered myself something of a traveler, but it was all for the sake of adventures in which I made the easy acquaintance of numerous interesting and worthy people, only to fail to stay in touch with them. I certainly have never been keen to get on airplanes just to visit people. I actually developed a fear of flying as an adult, when I learned that they only engineer aircraft to barely overcome the forces that would like to pull them to the ground, and that the reason for this is cost-savings and market competition. Each time a plane takes off and lands successfully, it’s just 10 cents surplus of being a miracle.

They go way back. Angela and Stephanie.

They go way back. Angela and Stephanie.

We decided to visit Stephanie and Enid and the kids. Stephanie’s mother Cheryl and step-father Brian would be visiting at the same time, and Stephanie’s family had been like a second family to Angela. Since it’s just two hours from Seattle, San Jose would be a good starter flight, not only for me but for the girls. San Jose is not normally a hot place, really, and at this time of year not even particularly warm, but the Bay area was having a really nice weekend for the first days of Spring during a year when California is experiencing record drought, while Seattle and the northwest have been experiencing such uncommonly heavy rains that an entire mountain along the Stillaguamish River, after twice the average monthly precipitation saturated its loose soil of glacial till,  fell down athwart the river last week and destroyed the small town of Oso in a matter of seconds (the dead so far number 30; rescuers are still searching for survivors, and a dozen people are still missing).

Our purpose was to just hang out. I didn’t know Enid at all, but I know Angela and I’ve seen her and Stephanie when they reunite, and I figured my weekend would be mostly entertaining all the children while the ladies yak-yak-yakked. I didn’t mind this, really, but I underestimated both my spouse and our hosts. When Stephanie asked Angela what we’d like to do while we were visiting, Angela said that she herself would be happy to sit around tall cups of tea and just catch up (see?), but noted that “Matthew gets dragged to St. Louis and hangs out and no one has ever even taken him to the Arch.” At hearing this, Stephanie and Enid hatched a plan with Stephanie’s mom whereby the kids would stay at the house with Grandma Cheryl (Brian would be flying in later that night) while the four of us would drive up to San Francisco and have dinner at…well, you just wait. They could not have chosen a more Matt-friendly outing.

Some of the best behaved travelers in the skies.

Some of the best behaved travelers in the skies. Mara draws, Millie makes things out of wiki stix.

Unfortunately, I was only half thinking of a blog post while we were away, so I only took a few photos, which include only one of Zoe and none of Henry. I’m only posting this because I wrote it, and I only wrote it because I felt like writing. Not great reasons for publication, and I apologize for that, but once again I fall back on the fact that my girls may someday value any jottings that describe family adventures. So here we go.

I’ve Got Lots of Friends

We got into San Jose midday after an easy flight that would have been absolutely trouble-free had I not accidentally left my Buck knife in the backpack I was using for my luggage, which is also the pack I hike with and is thus equipped at all times with the Ten Essentials and their many non-essential cousins. And actually, the flight was a dream; it was only my passage through Security that was unsmooth. They saw it “clear as day” on the monitor as the pack went through on the belt, but they couldn’t find it to save their lives and asked me to come over while they rifled my underwear — this was just to embarrass me apparently, because even though I knew which pocket it was likely to be in I was instructed that I was not to touch the pack while they were looking through it. After five minutes, they checked a pocket they had checked once before and — voila! — there it was. I was lucky. They let me mail it to myself at the small cost of $12 shipping and a trip backward through Security accompanied by two guards to the mailing station, a brilliant little airport amenity that exists solely as a mercy to people who are absentminded enough to attempt bringing cutlery on jet airliners.

Mara arrives at a used book store on the Alameda.

Mara arrives at a used book store on the Alameda. Click to embiggen.

It was a cool but sunny afternoon, and after meeting everyone and hanging out for a bit, I decided to go find a sorely needed cup of coffee. I had previously mapped out San Jose’s used bookshops — what? of course I did that — and it turned out that our hosts lived only four blocks away from one of the city’s best, Recycle Books, and there was a local indie coffeehouse hard by called Crema (there was also a Starbucks and a Peet’s, but I like to keep it small). So while Stephanie fired up the barbecue in preparation for dinner, Mara and I headed out, I afoot and she on a borrowed scooter. I didn’t have much time in the bookstore, but we got Mara Bone #9 (Crown of Horns) and even though Angela had brought some artisan chocolates as a hostess gift, I bought a copy of Karen Russell’s St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, a book of short stories that occupies, in hardback first edition, an honored place on my bookshelf at home. I thought Stephanie or Enid, or both of them, would enjoy it. I almost bought, but did not, a nice hardback first of Wendell Berry’s Life is a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition, not only because I had never heard of the book and so was undergoing that consumer uncertainty that sometimes strikes when you’re holding something that might be a treasure but might also not be, but also I was traveling and didn’t feel like hauling it (or having airport Security consider such writing a dangerous weapon or something unAmerican and therefore confiscable). The prices were reasonable, but it wasn’t a steal, so I passed. Probably a mistake.

The Rosicrucian Museum.

The Rosicrucian Museum the next day. Click to embiggen.

Stephanie and I and Mara and Zoe walked the dogs that evening, and in the dark we passed the Rosicrucian Museum, which, gosh, that startled me. I read about the Rosicrucians either in an Umberto Eco novel or else that ridiculous little book about The Davinci Code, and somehow I had either forgotten or not realized that the order was real. I read their sheet and frankly, I was pretty much in agreement with their outlook. It was all about practicing peace personally in order to achieve peace globally. I can think of less constructive credos.

If You’re Going

Stephanie and Enid’s house is beautiful. Full of art, bright colors, lots of light coming in the windows into rooms where people enjoy life. It’s a craftsman bungalow that was originally as small as bungalows originally were (in Seattle we talk of Craftsman bungalows but they are two and three story affairs and always were, so they aren’t really true bungalows).

Mara, Millie and Zoe in the kitchen.

Mara, Millie and Zoe in the kitchen.

We spent the morning there over a long breakfast of bagels and lox and cream cheese and fruit. I asked the kids if they wanted to go find a playground, since the sun was out again, but Millie and Zoe, who are only a year apart in age, were playing at something and not available for a long walk, so Mara and I hit the road again and ended up at San Jose’s famous five-and-a-half-acre Municipal Rose Garden, which has more than 1,300 plantings representing some 189 varieties.

The fountain in the Municipal Rose Garden.

The fountain in the Municipal Rose Garden.

It was early in the year so there were only a few in bloom, but we got the map and I went around to each of the ones marked as particularly fragrant and stuck my nose in each one that was in bloom. Just because that’s how I think life is to be lived. What else are we doing here? Some of the roses’ names were familiar to me from my days in the nursery business. Sunsprite, Givenchy, Double Delight, Secret, Just Joey.

Secret. It's one of the fragrant ones.

Secret. It’s one of the fragrant ones.

Henry, who is now 14, had a little league game at midday, and in fact pitched for the first time since he was very small. He was nervous about it, doesn’t like pitching, and while he walked a few more than he’d have liked, he also shut down the batter’s box when the bases were loaded by striking out the right players at the right moments. We were all proud of him.

Enid drove us up to San Francisco in the early afternoon. It took an hour or two to get there and we drove around a little along the Embarcadero before turning in toward the financial district and pulling up in front of the Tadich Grill, San Francisco’s (and they claim, California’s) oldest continuously running restaurant. This is a place I could write an entire post about. The Tadich Grill opened during the gold rush of 1849 as a coffee stand. It has changed names once, changed hands a number of times, and isn’t on the same street it used to be on, but it’s the dining establishment that San Franciscan’s consider their quintessential restaurant. It’s just one big room cloaked in a dark wood mantle; the side walls of vibrant yellow ochre are very high and innocent of decoration of any kind. They don’t take reservations, you just have to come and hope for the best.

They'd been waiting for us since 1849.

They’d been waiting for us since 1849. Click to embiggen.

Until a restaurant acquires a little prestige, at least local prestige, it can’t sensibly require reservations. To require reservations is to claim such popularity that more people want to dine at your eatery than it can accommodate. But the Tadich Grill is one of those places that achieves über-popularity and comes full circle, refusing to take reservations no matter who you are. “Your guests may very well have to stand in line waiting for a table,” says their website. “If they are famous, important, or influential people, they will still have to wait.”

Getting bibbed up for cioppino.

Getting bibbed up for cioppino. Click to embiggen.

We got there at about 4:00 in the afternoon, Enid handed the car keys to a valet, and we were seated immediately. The crowd arrived a short time later. The Tadich is most famous for its cioppino, and Stephanie and Angela both ordered that. We couldn’t all order the cioppino, so Enid and I both blazed some gustatory trail, she via the halibut and I by the Dungeoness crab al forno, a baked entree recommended by our waiter, an older gentleman with a vaguely European accent who was cheerful, dignified, slightly and appropriately condescending and just attentive enough. All the waiters were older white gentlemen, and probably all of them had vaguely European accents. I noticed that behind me on the wall was a thing like an old doorbell ringer, probably for getting the attention of the waiter. I really wanted to push this button but there wasn’t anything I needed.

I didn't push it.

I didn’t push it.

Enid grew up in Boston and is accustomed to aggressive drivers. Unfazed by big city traffic, she took us on a driving tour of the city as the sun set. It was the perfect long moment. We drove up California to the first crest of Nob Hill and turned right onto Mason Street and passed the Fairmont Hotel. The views of the bay were startling and wondrous as we descended into Chinatown, thence over to North Beach and Columbus Avenue, where I saw the famous City Lights bookshop and almost started barking like a dog to get at it. We circled around and headed along the shore toward the Golden Gate Bridge, but turned up Divisidero to reascend into the city’s lofty neighborhoods. I was surprised at how big this city was, I mean width-wise. I thought it was just a little hill up from the bay and over to the ocean side, but it’s several hills and several miles, and the miles and hills are absolutely covered with old buildings that have escaped the development that has ravaged urban cores in every other major city in America (I don’t know, I’m just saying that; I haven’t seen that many other American cities). Anyway, with Seattle as my reference point, San Francisco seemed alarmingly vast, and I had no idea that so much of it has been preserved from the years just after their big earthquake and fire in 1906.

I snapped this beauty from the car window, then later found it using aerial imagery, found out what streetcorner it occupies, and learned it was a famous house built by some confectioner named Westerfeld.

I snapped this beauty from the car window, then later found it using aerial imagery, discovered its cross street, and learned it was a famous house built by William Westerfeld, confectioner. Click to embiggen.

Enid gave us the very best tour you could hope to have by car as an introduction to San Francisco. From the top of the hill around Alamo Park, we looked over the top of the houses known as the Painted Ladies at the modern skyline beyond — this is a famous and oft photographed prospect. If there was one place I wish I’d hopped out and taken a photo, that was it. But I was content to just take it all in. From whatever neighborhood that was, we descended to Haight Ashbury, where the hippies still are, and then to Castro, the gay neighborhood, and then the Mission district, where we stopped for ice cream. In all of these neighborhoods there seemed to be restaurants on every block, none of them chains. Enid said San Francisco has a sort of anti-chain ethos. I never saw so many people eating out at restaurants in my life. Everyone in the city seemed to be on the sidewalk or sitting in a restaurant or cafe.

I Need the Water to Wash My Soul

Sunday we all went to the beach. We crossed the Santa Cruz mountains as the morning clouds were lifting and set up a picnic above the tideline. Stephanie and Enid had discovered an uncrowded beach near a small town called Aptos at the north end of Monterey Bay. We had packed swimming apparel for the trip from Seattle, but it was a cold, cloudy spring day in San Jose and we doubted anyone would be getting wet. Except Mara. I knew Mara would go in even if it was snowing. She wore her bathing suit under her clothes. There were seals up the beach in Santa Cruz, and where there be seals there be sharks. For this and other reasons (riptides, I affirmed later), I posted myself on the wet sand so that I could be in the water in a flash if Mara or anyone else got into trouble. We were there several hours and Mara spent the entire time splashing around in the surf and collecting heaps of kelp.

Mara in her favorite element. Nothing would keep her out of the water.

Mara in her favorite element. Nothing would keep her out of the water.

I built one of my elaborate sand castles with tunnels and towers and multilevel courtyards. The sun was shining but the wind was chilly. Still, when I dipped my toes in the water it was not very cold. When it was time to leave, I was overcome by an urge to jump into the Pacific. I could, I was wearing shorts. Henry had done it and had spent the hour afterward shivering. But it had been about ten years since the last time I had gone in over my head in the ocean, and I had no idea when the next opportunity would be. The others were packing up and heading to the cars. I dumped my phone, wallet, keys and glasses on the sand and removed my belt. Mara and I waded out and after advancing and retreating a few times, I dove in. It wasn’t that bad. I did it a second time just so no one could say the first time was an accident. Mara hopping chest deep reached for me and said “hold my hands, Dad, hold my hands!” I grabbed both her hands just as a wave came and she dropped down under. It was a good bonding moment that we were able to relive several times that day.

Seeing 'em is easy. It's hearing 'em and smelling 'em that's the hard part.

Seeing ‘em is easy. It’s hearing ‘em and smelling ‘em that’s the hard part. Click to embiggen.

On the way back we stopped at Santa Cruz and walked out onto the pier to look at the seals that had hauled out underneath it. They’re loud and they stink, just so you know. But hey, they’re livin’ the dream, just like we are. I bet they’d say it doesn’t get any better than this.

Pie

We got our pie at last. I’ll tell you about it, because it’s just plain damn time for a happy outcome. In fact, just because I’m feeling generous and expansive I’m going to tell you the whole story again, even though I’ve told most of it before, because someday I want my children to say of me, even if exasperatedly, that I used to tell this story about the apple tree, and that will necessitate my having told it at least twice. Maybe I’ll tell it slightly differently this time. Maybe not.

Our family apple tree, rooted in a new place.

Our family apple tree, rooted in a new place.

Mom demonstrates the dough nap.

PopPop always got a kick out of the idea of the dough “napping”. Gramma demonstrates this important step.

I grew up with this apple tree, you see. It was a Transparent, and every year when the apples got a yellow blush on their mostly green cheeks and started falling to the ground we would gather them up in the white porcelain bowls we called “basins” or in brown grocery bags and put them in the laundry room, and then Dad would help Mom core and peel them and then Mom would bake some of them into pies and bake the rest into applesauce with cinnamon. A
dish of my Mom’s applesauce, served up in a colored plastic bowl, was a treat like no other on the earth. To this day I do not eat applesauce of any other kind because by comparison to my mom’s it will be bland and watery. The applesauce produced at 1653 106th Avenue Southeast in Bellevue was dense, tart and — in summer when it was just made — warm from the pot. As for the pies, I will not set myself up for failure by attempting to describe the rarefied heights of ecstasy to which I was wafted upon the eating of same. I will say only that I once argued with a man — an apple tree specialist — at a fruit tree expo that I as a fledgling nurseryman took the opportunity of attending, because he dismissed the Transparent in favor of any number of newer cultivars that make for “better pie apples” and he was wrong. There is no better apple for an apple pie than a Transparent. I will say that and also this: my mom makes pie crust the way she was taught by “Creedy”, an old woman she first knew when my parents moved out West from Baltimore in the very late 1950s. It is a way that must be learned at the elbow of someone who has mastered it and it makes the most mouth-watering pie crust that ever was.

The tree was destroyed in the fall of 2006 when my parents suddenly, as if they were packing up to stake a claim in the goldfields of the Yukon, sold the house I grew up in and moved out of it. A matter of weeks later the house was bulldozed. I have not returned to the street since that happened, but just before it happened, while it was still legally my parents’ home, I went round there with my Felco #2 pruning shears and cut fifty of the suckers that sprouted from the top limbs every year, and brought them back to Seattle and stuck them in a bucket of rainwater until I could:

  • chop the suckers into eight-inch sections with at least four nodes each
  • wrap them half-a-dozen at a time into bundles in moist paper towels
  • seal the bundles up in baggies
  • put the baggies in the refrigerator

These were instructions I had been given by a fruit-tree growing friend (a friend being someone who does not try to talk you out of your apple love), who told me October was the wrongest time of year to cut scions from fruit trees and try to graft them onto new rootstock, but said if I was careful and lucky I might just be able to keep the scions viable until late winter.

I was careful and hoped I would be lucky. I rewrapped the bundles in new paper towels every six weeks through the winter, and in late February or early March I took some of them to the Fruit Tree Society’s convention in Ballard, where they had volunteers performing grafts on rootstock they had for sale there. I came home with eight newborn Transparent trees with their bare roots wrapped in plastic. I potted those in ten gallon pots with good soil and fertilizer and lined them up in the driveway where they’d get sun and rain, and proceeded to watch them all sprout a single leaf and die.

Her fingers fairly fly.

Her fingers fairly fly.

Mom taught two new generations of pie-makers that day.

Mom taught two new generations of piemakers that day.

All but one. One of the trees lived through the summer, having grown almost not at all. We moved that fall and I brought it with me and nursed it through another winter, remembering to bring it into the garage when the winds came down from Canada and the cold went deep for several nights in a row. Finally I planted it in our backyard up among the rhodies, where children playing wouldn’t step on it. It produced one tiny apple the next summer, and two the summer after that, but they didn’t grow to full size. Mara and her friend Gwyneth “accidentally” picked the two little apples the second year, but I doubt they would have grown much more anyway. The tree needed more sun than it was getting, I was advised by another knowledgeable friend. When cold came I moved it to a different spot, and it has slowly flourished there. I only got two or three tiny applets the next year and the squirrels got those, as they did the five I got the year after that. But this year 22 of the apple blossoms closed into little lumps and grew into apples, and I covered the tree with a net to keep the birds and squirrels off, and only six of the fruits fell off prematurely, so I ended up with 16 apples by summer’s end. They were not as large as the ones I knew in my youth, but they were the product of the same tree, genetically. The long journey was over.

I called my mom and asked her how many apples it would take to make a pie, and she said about eight apples “the size of tennis balls”.

These were not that big.

“What about sixteen apples a little bigger than ping pong balls?” I negotiated.

She said bring what I had, we’d make it work. So we kept the apples in the refrigerator for two weeks — Mom’s schedule was as busy as ours and it took that long to meet up — and then took them to her house in Issaquah (Dad died in 2011) for an historic baking.

I peeled, Angela sliced, and Mom prepared the kitchen for the event. Mom then showed me how to make the crust, including letting the dough “rest”, the part about which my dad, we always note aloud, used to say “the dough has to take a nap”.

This aroma unleashed will call me out of any corner of earth with a fork in my hand.

This aroma unleashed will call me out of any corner of earth with a fork in my hand.

She's eaten half of it already, but you can still get the idea.

She’s eaten half of it already, but you can still get the idea.

Miraculously, we had enough sliced apples for two full-sized pies, one that Mom made with me watching and one that I made with Mom watching, and even a little one that Mom (Gramma) helped Millie make. With extra dough, she showed Mara how to make what we always just referred to as a pie crust, a simple baked crust sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon, for a snack. Everything came out of the oven looking and smelling and tasting just the way it should. Sometimes we get lucky, and love makes up the rest.

So this odd migration of our family apple tree is finally at an end, or at least an oasis. If we move from our current home someday, the tree is coming with us, one way or another.

Messing about in books

Mara did not jump into a love of reading at an early age. Being read to, sure, and being told stories…always and without end. But not reading on her own. This is something I’ve had to work hard to accept as a parent, and especially as a parent who, in the days before dishes and laundry whelmed my life o’er, was once an avid reader. Mara can read very well when she wants to, and in the two or three months since Angela gave her a booklight her normal bedtime behavior after lights out has gradually shifted from playing in the dark with dolls and horses to reading books. It’s so quiet in there we think she’s fallen asleep, but she’s reading. At various times in the past she has occupied herself in bed with books, but mostly it was looking at pictures. She never liked slogging through big blocks of text. Her favorite books were the critically acclaimed graphic novel series, Bone, by Jeff Smith. Lots of evocative imagery (much of it rather scary for a seven- or eight-year-old, I’d have thought), and minimal text, all of it dialog. While the Bone books will always occupy a revered place on our bookshelf (I fell in love with them after an initial revulsion based on a quick flip-through), Mara has lately moved on to Barbara Park’s Junie B. Jones and other text-heavier books.

One day recently I felt like sitting and relaxing. I considered checking my social pipeline — email and facebook, blogs — because it’s easy and it’s what I do almost without thinking. Then I thought, my daughters almost never see me sit and read during the day, during their day, when they are awake and busy and in the house. There is probably not a picture in their heads of “dad reading a book”, even though the image of “dad’s attention being sucked up by the computer or the smart phone” is doubtless permanently branded on their brains.  How will they ever develop a love of just sitting down with a good book if they never see what that might look like?

Mara was working on her new Ravensburger 300-piece puzzle of puppies, kittens and hamsters. Miji (yes, Emilia’s nickname continues to evolve) was at her Legos on the floor. Angela was busy answering work emails. I went and fetched Timothy Egan’s biography of photographer Edward Curtis, Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher, one of the books I’ve been picking at for months, and settled onto the couch for a spot of good old-fashioned reading. In a trice, Mara left her puzzle, fetched her copy of Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid*, and cozied up next to me. Angela was quick with the camera. It was a moment that I’ve waited for for a long time.

A little parallel book time on the couch

A little parallel book time on the couch.

Mara may not become one of those teenagers that’s always slouched in a chair upside down reading a book, or one of those people who read while walking along sidewalks and crossing busy streets. That’s okay with me. She’s not playing computer games all day or watching TV. She likes to run, climb and hang from things. She’s a healthy kid in all ways. But sitting there side by side, I reading my biography of Curtis and my daughter reading (silently, not sounding out words or whispering or mumbling, which would have been okay, too) about the travails of the wimpy kid… well it just felt like a little piece of heaven.

*I actually disenjoy some of the attitudes expressed in the Wimpy Kid books, such as references to certain boys “getting all the girls”, which, when I was reading out loud to Mara, forced us to stop and have a conversation about what she thought that might mean and whether or not that was a constructive way to approach society. Nevertheless, the books have the right picture/text ratio and Mara seems engaged by the protagonist’s plight, and anyway I prefer discussion over outright censorship, which is not to say that I don’t reserve the right to exercise the latter at any time and without having to justify myself. Selah.

The u-fish were biting

Just past Issaquah on Interstate 90, where the old highway curves up into the hills on its way east to Preston, a train trestle used to pass over the road. I don’t recall ever seeing a train on it, but the bridge was there until 1975, my thirteenth year, when it was removed so that the highway could be widened into a freeway. A few yards east of where this trestle was the highway crossed the East Fork Issaquah Creek, which drains Tiger and Taylor mountains, two of the ancient mountains that the sylvanophile and hiking-book author Harvey Manning named the Issaquah Alps.

The Northern Pacific Railway using its trestle in 1955.

“Northern Pacific Railway’s North Bend Local at Issaquah, 1955″. To reach our fishing hole we parked right about where this photo was taken about a dozen years earlier.

It is certainly dangerous and probably illegal now to pull off the freeway unless smoke is coming out from under your hood or your tire is flat, but in those days a man might without worry pull his old but well-cared-for ’57 Chevy wagon over to the side of the highway early on a Saturday morning and leave it there, leading his young son a few yards through the damp understory of salal and sword fern to the creek’s edge, where the bespectacled and fretful lad would have a hard time casting his fishing line into that deeper, darker water just behind big boulders, which is where — his father said — the fish were resting on their journey upstream. I don’t know how many times we fished there, but my memory of the place seems to encompass multiple events. I also don’t know whether or not it was my first fishing experience. I think not. At least, I think it was not the first place I caught a fish, because there is a very clearly tagged memory in my head of a place — God only knows where, now — called Helen’s Cove, a place of morning sun on the shore of what I remember as a good-sized lake, where there was a fishing dock, and where my sister Jeni and I fished side by side under my father’s tutelage, and where for the first time in my life I saw my pole, which was not in my hand because I was jumping around on the dock at that moment, I saw my pole begin to wiggle and the red and white plastic bobber out in the lake to dip under the surface of the water, and my father shouted to me that I had a fish on and told me to reel him in, and I did, and it was a perch, and it was the first fish I ever caught. “Perch”. I never forgot that word or that fish. I believe that the morning I’m thinking of now was sometime after that sunny morning at Helen’s Cove, and I believe we caught some trout this time.

I remember the fact that the highway crossed the creek because I remember being almost directly underneath the bridge, standing on wet pebbles reflecting a grey sky, when my father kneeling at my side showed me how to smack the fish’ head smartly against a rock so as to kill it quickly. I don’t know that dispatching the fish like that bothered me much at the time, but I do know that I have never forgotten that moment.

I thought of this a few weekends ago. Mara, who is now eight, has told me once or twice that she wanted me to take her fishing. While looking for a fun weekend thing to do on a Saturday morning that promised to warm into one of the last beautiful Saturdays before the darkening of the season, I found Old McDebbie’s Farm and Jim’s U-Fish online. Old McDebbie’s was a petting farm in Spanaway where kids could ride ponies and feed pigs and goats and donkeys (and a camel), and hang out in the barn petting kittens. There was also a pond there stocked with rainbow trout. We piled into the car.

It turned out to be the perfect place.

It turned out to be the perfect place.

Spanaway is south of Seattle an hour and a half or so depending on traffic, and the farm was a little further south, just off Highway 7. It wasn’t so much a farm — no agriculture was being undertaken there that we could see — as someone’s 10-acre rural backyard, into which every rural or outside activity a kid might like to engage in had been provided for. At first blush it seemed a little cheesy for a farm — a putt-putt golf course would not have looked terribly out of place here. Fun, jokey signs and decorations were everywhere, and there were picnic tables and benches here and there around the spacious lawn, which was green and lush. A fountain feature burbled into one of the two ponds at the back of the property near the woods. There was a playground with swings and a play structure, and there were lots of outside games around, like bean bag tosses and hula hoops and the thing where you toss two bolo’ed balls at a ladder of horizontal bars in hopes of wrapping the balls around the highest bar. Angela and I looked at each other a little dubiously; we tend to value authenticity highly, sometimes perhaps too highly for our own good, and we were expecting more of a working farm that happened to have also some accommodation for little people. The carnival atmosphere made our artistes’ hearts quail for a moment.

But the girls loved it and they loved it immediately. It turned out to be the perfect adventure. A fin gets you in, no matter your age, and although almost everything you do costs extra, I considered it a good value because the place was such a rich condensation of fun and hands-on furry activity for the kids (note: there’s no food concession here, so bring your own picnic lunch unless you want to eat candy). Both girls took a pony ride (another $5 each), Mara on Dotty and Millie on Henry, once around the ponds led by one of the helpers there. We fed the animals in the barn ($3/bag of scraps), which was kinda scary. The larger donkey bruised my thumb trying to chomp the stick of celery that I was feeding to the smaller one. One little girl got bit by a pony. In the barn at least, the farm experience was authentic. Millie sensed the potential danger and didn’t want to feed anything larger than a hamster. Mara bonded with some of the barn cats over the course of the several hours we were there. A baby pig was penned in a little circle of fence right in the middle of the yard, with a little umbrella for shade and a sleeping black rabbit for company, and small children who might be intimidated by the full-size pigs in the barn were invited to get inside this pen and pet the piglet.

A responsible child leads Millie around the pond on Henry.

The responsible child leads Millie around the pond on Henry.

In the end, Millie was more interested in the bunny.

In the pigpen.

The girls had a gas. They got to hear the donkey bray, which was a really unusual sound, and the goat kids bleat, which was another really unusual sound. I imagined that a lot of the sounds Millie has been told animals make in her books were that day realized in a new, first-hand way. I say “meh-eh-eh” when I’m reading her a book with goats in it, but the real thing is the real thing, and it’s easy for adults to forget that until you hear the real thing, you have not heard a goat bleat.

Then we fished. I rented poles from Debbie at the gift shack ($2 per pole includes one baited hook, which should do for several hours of fishing; additional bait extra) and we took the girls to the pond’s edge. Fish were jumping out of the water every minute or two, as though they had been trained. It seemed unreal. The hook came with a brightly colored green or orange ball on it, which was supposed to attract the fish, although I don’t know if it was actually food. The lines had no bobbers, which confused me at first. The girls could not cast the lines; I had to do it for them, and it took me an embarrassing dozen or so tries — during which both girls began to get bored — before I could successfully get that hook to sail out over the pond. Debbie had said that the fish liked to hang out in the cool water down deep, so let the hook sink a ways before reeling it in.

Millie's first fish.

Millie’s first fish. Fun, she’ll aver, except for the killin’ part.

So I cast out for each of the girls, then we let the lines sink before the girls began reeling them in. Bingo! Within about four casts, Millie caught a fish. Millie caught a fish! My three-year old daughter caught a fish! She was actually holding the pole when it bit, and Angela helped her land it on the grass. This was where things started getting sad. I got the hook out of the fish’ mouth pretty quickly, and lo, there was a large smooth rock protruding from the grass at my side, just begging for a fish to be brained on it. My impulse was to smack the fish quickly (as I had been taught by that venerable fisherman, my father), but the girls were right there and I had until then failed to consider how this execution might affect Millie. I asked Angela to take the girls away a few yards — a gross dereliction of duty on my part, I now realize, since it was hiding the truth — and I beaned the unhappy pond-dweller on the rock. It’s difficult to hold on tightly to a fish in any weather, but when you’re trying to swing it like a hammer it’s particularly challenging, thus I think I only stunned it the first time, so that its side fins fluttered like butterfly wings. It was over in a few seconds, but I felt like the suburban desk pilot that I am, and also a death-bringing ogre.

Mara's first fish.

Mara’s first fish. This one was still jumpy. If you look closely you can see the fishing line running into its mouth.

Angela took Millie to ask Old McDebbie what we should do with our fish, which I’d put in a bucket with some pondwater. We wanted to keep it so I could cook it up at home. The rule was you had to either take any fish you caught with you ($5) or donate it to charity via the farm (still $5). There was no throwing maimed fish back into the pond. I was worried Mara would feel left out if her little sister had caught a fish and she had not (this turns out to have been more my worry than Mara’s, as usual), so I kept casting Mara’s line out, and bam! it wasn’t more than three more minutes before Mara’s line dipped and she reeled her first fish in. I helped her land it, but the hook was deep and I couldn’t get it out because the pliars-like implement Debbie had given us would not close fully, and I didn’t want to whack the fish with the hook in — not only did it seem, well, not cricket somehow, but it also seemed dangerous, since the fish kept flopping in my hand and I didn’t want to get the hook through my palm. Eventually I carried the writhing fish and the line and the bucket with the other fish (the dead one) over to Debbie’s shack, where she removed the hook (with a better set of pliars), and after asking me whether I wanted to cook it with the head on or off, took the fish to an outdoor washtub and sliced off its head with a knife while it was still alive. I inwardly cringed. In another instant she had gutted it and scraped out its entrails. She was busy talking about the 10-year-old girl whom she had hired to help her that day, how the kid was better than any teenager you could hire; more responsible, more alert, better with the animals, better with the customers. I was thinking that by rights I should have cleaned the fish. In the tradition handed down to me (this part by another fisherman, my friend Jeff’s dad), you clean your own fish.

Angela is fond of old goats.

Angela is known to have a soft spot for an old goat. This is not that goat.

Angela was rather dismayed by the whole affair, and anyway didn’t want me to cook the fish in the same iron skillet I use to make Dad’s Sunday Morning French Toast. “Get another skillet for savory,” was all she said while making a face, and I could tell she’d have been content if the whole fish thing had never happened. The next day I bought another skillet, googled “how to cook trout in an iron skillet”, and went to it. Flour, butter, oregano, some dill, a squeeze of lemon, and the magic of hot iron. We thanked God for the fish and thanked the fish for laying its life down so we could eat, then tucked in. Angela and I agreed that our scaled friends made a good meal. Mara tried it and was not strongly put off, which is to say she ate more than her “no thank you bite.” Millie abstained entirely, and was later heard to say “I wish we didn’t have to kill the fish so we could eat,” this a delayed response to the conversation that Angela and I forced upon the girls about the uncomfortable truth that something — animal or vegetable — must perish in order for us to eat.

Here is one of the wishes I have that will remain an unfulfilled wish as long as I live: I wish that while my dad was alive I had asked him to tell me more details about the places where we fished, what fish we caught, and how we caught them. The business of teaching your children to fish, it strikes me now, is an enterprise to which you want to bring the full collective knowledge and traditions of your tribal ancestors. My dad’s fishing lore would have been a treasured link to my forebears, a bridge from the present to an eternal past. Its loss is like the pulling down of the old railroad trestle at Issaquah, which removed a historic path between two sides of a valley forever but escaped my notice until years later, when I peered out the back window of the family car and wondered what trick my mind was playing, whether this could really be the place I was thinking of.

The Pick-Up Sword

I could be on the topic of my sister’s death for a while. I’m ready to talk about it. So you may want to come back in a year or two if you’re in an up phase and don’t want to be brought low.

I was doing the dishes one day recently and became aware that Millie, who is three and was sitting at her place at the kitchen table having a snack or drawing or something, had begun saying something interesting about her imaginary friend.

“My friend knows how to get people out of heaven. She has a pick-up sword,” she said in that off-hand way that kids have of saying things when they are also peeling crayons or grapes.

“What is a pick-up sword?” I asked, suddenly alert.

“It’s a sword that you use to pick people up and throw them over into the life,” she replied. “To where life is.”

Maybe something like this? Image found on www.kaia.ca and used without permission.

Setting out for heaven? Painting by Kaia (www.kaia.ca) used by kind permission.

I didn’t say anything for a long minute, during which Millie’s discourse wandered off into the realm of sports…or gardening — I wasn’t quite sure. “My friend was telling me  — he was calling the little red thing that was red and round, he called it a baseball tomato.”

I said, “I wish I could use the pick-up sword to bring my sister back to life.”

“It has to be special,” Millie said. “To pick up people. Pick-up swords are super special that you can’t even touch them. Well, you can try to touch them but you have to be super special.”

I wish I were super special.


Categories

The Great Seattle Gargoyle Hunt


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 33 other followers