Archive for March, 2011

Just look! #2 – “The courage of reflected light”

Two kinds of blog posts there are for this blogger. There are posts that I write in one sitting and publish pretty much as soon as I can get the images sized (and in some cases permission to distribute them from other original artists), and there are posts that I return to again and again in draft form, which never really let me know when they’ll be ready until — zowie! — they’re suddenly ready. Nothing seems ready this week, which means the time is ripe for another Just Look post. This is the alley leading from Cherry to James between First and Second avenues, showing the Lowman Building on the right and the Broderick (née Bailey) Building on the left. It’s actually taken just a few steps from the viewpoint of the previous (inaugural) Just Look. Besides the “mood interest” inherent to low, forlorn places that collect trash, bad smells, graffiti and the unlucky, what caught my eye here was the reflection of the sunset in a single window in the curved corner of the 1892 Seattle National Bank Building (a.k.a. Interurban Building) at the end of the alley (actually further, over on Yesler). But looking at the image later I became enamored of all the details in the alley itself — the shimmering cobbles and the broken louvre slats. If you look closely near the left edge you can see part of the name Nathan on a promotional poster in a window belonging, appropriately enough, to the Seattle Mystery Bookshop. The green color cast upon the right wall from the high lamp was not visible to my eye as green but rather gray at the time and I did not “greenify” (enverden?) the image. It just seems to be the way the camera balanced the hues. Click the image for a larger version.

The proverbial dark alley. Whom would you not want to meet?

To the bat cave(s)!

They say that bats live in caves among the grey-green boulders on Tiger Mountain’s Nook Trail. Maybe they do. We didn’t see any bats, but then again the entrance to the caves was blocked by a sturdy wooden barricade — certainly not an insurmountable hurdle, more like an actual hurdle, but a roadblock obviously enough intentional that it would be hard to claim you didn’t realize &c. if the Sierra Club had a rope around your neck and was asking whether you cared to explain yourself. 

Sunlight and moss -- the peanut butter and jelly of woodland experiences.

It’s been a long, cold, cooped-up winter, and my friend Scott and I have both been feeling like it’s time to get some trail under our feet. He has two twin boys, almost three years old (each). Mara is almost six. Not the ideal playdate, but we decided that Scott would bring one of his laddies and I’d bring my eldest daughter (wow! that still sounds like such a strange thing to say) and we’d assay a northwestern assault on what is surely the Issaquah Alps‘ most popular representative.

Bridge on the Bus Trail.

An old rusty bus lying on its side. Perfect for little imaginations, but watch out for sharp metal edges.

In my youth, I used to drive past Tiger Mountain and sneer. Actually, I think I sneered a lot in those days, maybe even continually, so it would be more apt to say I increased my sneer when I drove past High Point Way and saw all the Subarus and Explorers lined up and people heading into the woods with baby strollers. My imagination of the place was that it must certainly have only flat, blacktopped trails lined with benches and drinking fountains. I and my friends eschewed such low-level non-hikes for the calf-mashing adventures awaiting further up Snoqualmie Pass – Snow, Melakwa, Mason, Gem and Annette lakes up the west slope of the Cascades, Joe and Alaska lakes up Gold Creek at the top, and Rampart Ridge and its lakes and tarns further on. 

Scott, whom I have known since 1989, accompanied me to some of those lofty locales. Now that we’re dads, the whole paradigm is different. The ideer now is to get outside, to expose the kids to the wonders o’ Nater, and get good blogging material enjoy what little adult conversation we can weave into it. We chose Tiger because its network of  trails offers something for everyone, from stroller pushers to no-rush hikers on up to the rare-air maniacs (like I was). We took the flat Bus Trail only far enough to explore the old rusted bus, then turned around and came back to the Nook Trail trailhead and started up that.

Along the Bus Trail.

I had mentioned days earlier to Mara that we might go to the bat caves, and she was very excited and actually cried when I later told her that we were simply going to “hike around in the woods” on Tiger Mountain. I was still hoping we might make it to the place called Talus Rocks, where the bat caves are, but in case it turned out to be too far or too steep for Zander to walk or Scott to carry him I didn’t tell Mara that the bat caves were on Tiger Mountain. I think she had put the caves out of her mind by the time last Saturday came. Which was perfect. We just took a long steep walk in the woods, and Mara was not burdened with a fun-crushing desire to “get there.”

A bouquet of ferns growing from a tree trunk.

After seeing the way Mara pushed herself to the top of Squak Mountain when she was only four, I was not at all surprised at how well she did, but I was surprised that Scott needed to carry Zander only once, and that was before the trail, which is 2.5 miles round trip, even got steep. With Mara picking out the increasingly difficult and hazardous path ahead, the microdude marched up even the very steep last 3/4 mile on his own steam. I think the Older Kid Charm factor was working on the little Z-man.

After less than an hour and a half on the Nook Trail rising on the mountain’s wooded shoulders next to very busy streams, we rounded a bend and there they were — massive moss-covered boulders in the darkness of the fir and hemlock understory, lying hard by the foot of the wet cliffs that rose up through the tops of the trees. I announced that it seemed we had arrived at the bat caves. Mara was ecstatic.

At dad's recommendation, Zander circumscribes a muddy patch he dearly wishes to engage.

Hamming among the Talus Rocks.

Talus rocks are boulders large or small that have broken off and fallen from cliffs. The “caves” here are actually spaces between and under the largest four or five boulders, at least that’s what I assume. The path that led directly into the central space among these rocks was blocked by wooden fences. We didn’t go past these barricades, as I’m sure many do, so we didn’t even get to see whatever kind of “entrance” to the caves there might be, if any, but there are other paths among the rocks where you can peer into cracks that open back into dark holes full of absolute blackness. I got a little spooked, if truth be told, because I felt that something dark and wingéd might flap out of there at any moment.

We went around the bend to see the waterfall that we could hear from the rocks, and then headed back down.

Let’s tally: besides the boulders, our outing yielded an old rusty bus, several wooden bridges, a waterfall and the hollowed out, closet sized stump of a cedar trunk that we could walk through. We heard a woodpecker loudly pummeling a tall snag, and a few minutes later we saw some kind of woodpecker, like a flicker only black instead of brown and maybe a touch smaller. Not sure if that’s who was making the noise, but it was fun to see. Mara came home with a piece of sword fern, a salal leaf, a sprig of hemlock and one of Western Red Cedar and one of Douglas fir, some alder cones and a tuft of lychen. And wonderfully muddy boots. 

It was a great day out, and we’ll be back on Tiger Mountain soon, I think.

Piggy back

A pig had been standing on the corner of Pike Street and Post Alley in the Pike Place Market since 1986 and as far as I know had not moved until last month.

The pig is made of bronze and is named Rachel after the prize winning Whidbey Island sow that modeled for the sculpture. It’s actually a piggy bank, and every year, so it is said, the Market Foundation pulls between USD$6,000 and $9,000 out of her in currencies from around the world.

A pig in a pinch. Note the handmade signs visible behind the blonde woman's head. Click to see larger.

Whenever I go visit my friends up at the Post Alley Seattle’s Best Coffee, I walk past Rachel coming and going, and she is almost never not covered with children having their photo taken on it. Many is the time I have broken stride momentarily or walked around a person holding up their iPhone in order to avoid walking through their shot.   

So it is remarkable that I didn’t even notice that for the past month, the pig has been absent. Granted, the market has been under exensive renovation (“so it can stay 104 years old” goes the slogan) and there have been barricades and cones and yellow tape and temporary plywood walls directing and corraling pedestrian traffic for months, so part of the reason I didn’t realize she’d vacated her post was simply that there has been so much of moving things around.

A crowd of Rachel fans looks on. Note the small boys ready to spring. Click to see larger.

Today, however, on my way to meet my friend Erik for a coffee, I came up the stairs from Post Alley and found a circle of people gathering around a handsome, very old truck as if something were happening. The pig was in the back of the truck, and my first thought was…where are they taking the pig? At the coffee shop, Vangie told us that Rachel had actually been hit by a taxi cab in February and roughed up pretty badly and that she was actually returning today after having been away for repairs.

You could have knocked me over with a 5 Deutschmark note. Sometimes I think I’m very observant, and sometimes…well, sometimes I think I’m not very observant.

Erik had known about it. Much of his immediate family lives on Whidbey Island, which for you outtatowners is just up the Pugest Sound a few leagues. According to what Erik has heard, the artist who originally brought Rachel to immortal life and who was called upon to make the repairs lives on the island.

In case you think you might heist this piggy bank, the rebar fastenings and the expression on this man's face should dissuade you. Note plaques on pole and under worker's foot. Click to see larger.

Erik and I took our coffees over and joined the crowd. The men in reflective vests had already hoisted the pig off the truck and within seconds of setting her on the ground were having to pause while kids hopped on and off her back. Eventually they taped her off so they could fasten her down to the concrete in the same place where she has stood all these years.  

Let not man put us under

It is an astonishingly simple thing to pull the teeth out of someone’s head. Did you know this? I did not know this. You just reach in with very strong pliers and pull them out. A little twisting, a little rocking back and forth, and presto, out they come. Considering the fact that skulls thousands of years old are found with their teeth still solidly rooted in their jawbones, I would have thought that there was more to it.

I had my wisdom teeth extracted when I was a teenager, and I’ve always assumed the reason they knocked me out first was because they were going to be using teams of mules, maybe some plastic explosives. My wisdom teeth were impacted — still encased in the jawbone — so it was certainly more work than if they had been daylighted. But even so, sitting through Angela’s operation has made me realize afresh just what snapped-together little creations we are. Anyone with the right tools can take us apart. 

Stalactites and stalagmites

Angela had wanted me to be present if possible for her appointment with dentistry, and while I doubted they would let the husband witness the operation — he most likely to want to sue if things went badly — I promised I would ask, and to our surprise they said I could sit in the extra chair. She’d had one valium the night before and two more before we drove to the little dental mall in Northgate, so she was relaxed even before they fitted her with nitrous oxide and asked her to make a fist and injected her with the serum that gives dreamless sleep.

Then, after my dearie had indeed vacated her consciousness, they used a series of very ancient looking syringes, like small side-loading caulking guns, to inject novacaine and lidocaine into the back of her mouth at strategic points. This took some time. They kept reloading, like Texans at the Alamo. I couldn’t help admiring these tools. They looked like something from another era, and maybe they were, even though their chrome was as shiny as when they’d first been manufactured. I guess it startled me they were not made of some high-grade medical plastic, with different textures for the grip and the shaft and maybe an abstract logo emblazoned next to an irritating name like Adenta or Dentiva or Pullzall. Instead they were just shiny metal tubes, each with a curled metal loop at the top for the doctor to put his thumb in for pushing the drug through the needle.

Who knew we all have a Wharton's Duct? Lithograph plate from "Gray's Anatomy".

Finally she was ready. After all this prep, as I say, I expected a long operation, but at this point the doctor simply reached into her mouth, four times, and with a little cajoling and resorting to a different prying tool took out a huge tooth each time. He was working with his back to me, and I couldn’t hear him well because of his facemask, but he was mainly making wisecracks to his assistant, a friendly and reassuring person whose English grammar was as good as her pronounciation of it was unintelligible. So I had to surmise what was happening from the movements they made, and from the fact that these movements made a sort of pattern, repeated four times, at the end of which the doctor would turn and put something on the tray beside him. The last time he did this I saw the tooth as he took the pliers out of Angela’s mouth — it was bloody but not dripping, and it was large like something from the mouth of the hound of the Baskervilles.

It occured to me how simple it would be, if you weren’t paying attention, to reach in and take out the wrong tooth. And it would come out. And it would just be out. Forever. It made me think that what God has joined together, we should take great care in putting asunder.

Only his were newer. Image of 17th-century Italian forceps lifted from thesmilecinema.blogspot.com.

At one point near the end, Angela’s eyes opened and she rolled them around lazily. I panicked at this, and told the doctor she had opened her eyes. He was not worried, even though a root had broken off of the last tooth and it took another minute or two to pry that piece out (the only part of the operation that did not go perfectly). She had gone back under and, said he, couldn’t feel a thing. I hoped so. I had looked into her right eye to ascertain whether she was communicating pain or anxiety, but it was impenetrable as a whale’s eye breaking the surface of a dark sea then blinking shut to sink again into obscurity. 

I have been having a little fun in this telling, but I confess that I was host to some pretty strong feelings sitting there. My beloved was completely helpless and unable to defend herself or even move and people were using the prying physical force of metal instruments, the equivalent of small car jacks, to remove bones out of her head. I kept flipping between a sort of raw horror at the fact of what I was watching and amazement and gratitude that there were people, good people, who knew how to work these tools and had every good intention toward my wife.

My wife. I looked at Angela, so peacefully abiding there in the tipped back chair, and experienced a deep yearning to connect with her. The absense occasioned by anaesthesia is a bugger. When you watch your spouse or your children sleeping, you feel comforted, as though they are coccooned in some sphere of stillness and safety that you can hold in your hand. I’ve only seen one person reposing in death — my grandmother, two years ago – and that was something else again. She was not there, no part of her was there but what was to be left behind forever. But this felt like an anxious place between. Angela’s spirit was inside that body somewhere, or somewhere nearby, but I couldn’t see her or reach out to her. Unanimated, her face seemed strangely unfamiliar. Her limpness was a shock.

Looking back I can distinguish two dominant feelings. First, speaking of hounds, I felt very protective of Angela in her vulnerable state, like a dog posted there to make sure she would be alright. Not that there was anything I’d be able to do except bark if trouble arose, but I felt an elevated vigilance, a need to watch and record, hear and see everything within my earshot and vision. Second, I felt a momentary but intense loneliness, a longing for this one person, for just her, just Angela. It seemed impossible that that continuous silent communication that we share could be interrupted, and then it seemed even stranger that I should have such a communion with someone I didn’t even know until I was thirty-three years old.

Am I codependent and enmeshed? Undoubtedly. I’ll read a book on that and get some help. But I experienced this longing as a good thing in the end. Looking at Angela lying there unconscious made me want to be a better man today. It made all of those little skirmishes seem ridiculous that my ego gets me into on an almost hourly basis. Defending my dignity, getting my fair share, blah blah blah. As though this person was out to ruin me. She was flattened in a dentist’s chair, no threat to anyone. Her mortal life was literally suspended.

"Please open wide and let me see the holes?" John Everett Millais' "Huguenot lovers on St. Bartholomew's Day", 1852.

I pictured what we are to each other. Being married is like calling over the fence for your childhood best friend nextdoor to ask if they can play, and the answer is always yes. At least it feels like that to me. Of course “play” may not often be the things we once thought of as play, like badminton and Red Light Green Light and Operation. Play these days might be asking for the third time whether we need new mustard at the store because for the first two times our spouse was too busy thinking about whether the paper recycling is this week or focusing on counting teaspoons of baby formula. Or play might be arguing about what a Time Out for one of our family members should look like and what behaviors should qualify as a Time-Out-Triggering Event. Or play might be doing dishes together, you wash I’ll dry. Once in a while, play is playing Uno with our daughter, or cuddling up and watching an episode of Dark Shadows at the end of the long day.

The inflationary increase of adult responsibilities has obviously undercut the value of the word “play”, but it’s all play if I consider that most of the things we do all day long we don’t have much choice about and we might as well say that that’s the fun part.

Come back, sweetie. Come play with me. 

Lignomania

There’s a flowering cherry tree in our front yard, somewhat. The tree is dying and has lost two of the three large limbs that spread up and out from its bole, so that the canopy of the tree is now lopsided. When we moved in, the two missing limbs were not missing but merely dead. One of them was knocked clean off by the little Bobcat bulldozer that our contractor used to level our backyard. The other came off under my foot a month or so ago.

No, go ahead. You were about to ask how a tree limb up in a tree could be under my foot, unless perhaps I had taken my foot up into the tree.

A cherry besieged.

Just so. I was up in the tree. I had gone up into the cherry tree with clippers and a bow saw to remove the suckers. Suckers are those pieces of tree that grow straight up into the air from the topmost branches. They “suck” the energy out of the rest of the tree in a hasty and unruly bid for skylight, and they wreak havoc on that nice spreading shape that homeowners cherish in ornamental trees, so they “suck” in that sense as well. As it were. 

Since it was clear that the tree was dying as soon as we moved in and took stock of our arboreal assets, I never bothered to do the annual sucker pruning. I figured that by now we would have replaced the ailing cherry with a new flowering tree, maybe a crabapple or a plum. Or a ginkgo biloba, Angela likes those and so do I (like Magnolias they are primordially old).

Alack! Most of our yard-time has been spent beating back the strange growth in the backyard that looks a little like salal but acts a lot like a grease fire with water thrown on it, or like that Hydra thing that Hercules got tangled up with, so we’ve never gotten around to the front yard at all. But the suckers had become as thick at their bases as small trees, and were fouling the power lines coming into the house, so it was time to do something.

I climbed up there and chopped down all the suckers and then gave what was left of the tree a bit of a shave. Below and around me a tangle of amputated cherry covered the ground. It took me a while to clean this all up, not only because we are busy and spare time was not burning holes in my pockets, but because…well…this is what I wanted to tell you:

I think I have a wood problem.

Even before I started chopping the largest pieces into lengths that would fit into the yard-waste bin, I had been thinking to myself, “some of those bigger pieces will make good firewood when they dry out.” So I was laying those aside. but as I kept cutting and the thickness of the branches grew smaller and smaller, I kept lowering the minimum caliper for “an acceptable piece”, even as they became twigs. There seemed to be no obvious cut-off line but rather a continuum, so where would a reasonable man draw the line between what to keep and what to toss into the bin?

“Kindling,” I told myself, and kept adding to my pile.

Maybe I'll buy a fat pig, too.

In my head I heard arguing voices that said:

This is turning out to be a lot of extra work, picking these long branches out of the pile and cutting them into lengths, especially since I’ll have to stack them, and maybe even cut some of them again. 

and

Yeah, but it’ll all burn after it dries for a season.

and 

Doesn’t the scarcity of available time for this project dictate that the most important thing is to get this mess out of the front yard? Your neighbors are probably meeting over coffee and shortbread right now to decide how to break it to you that they think you’re a hillbilly and want you gone.

and  

Do you really want to be guilty of wasting this valuable natural resource?

Aside from the obvious obsessive compulsive issues here (the slippery slope upon which my consciousness is encamped) I think my wood problem may actually be part of the larger problem that someone was once helpful enough to label for me as romantic pastoralism. I am under the delusion that I am a creature of earth and soil and seasons, and that it is important to forfeit no opportunity to interact with the earth in ancient and venerable activities, such as gathering twigs.

Most of the time I rise above, keep my head. But my better sense is no match to such a large heap of twigs and branches. It triggers the mania. This is cherry wood, after all, and I’ve already gone halfway around the bend, so to speak, by chopping it all off the tree and making the pile. My ancient landsman’s blood is all up already and coursing hotly through my arteries. I have forgotten that I own a cell phone and a Subaru and that I raise my smoke less than a quarter mile from a Whole Foods in one direction and a purveyor of organic donuts in the other.

I keep rethinking it and trying to change my mind about the purpose of what I’m doing so that I can throw some of the twigs away, but even against my will I keep putting them in the save pile. You see the insanity of it. I feel as though I’ve been gripp’d by some mediaeval mindset to which it might seem completely normal to shoulder a bundle of faggots, like the peasant on the cover of Led Zeppelin’s fourth album, and set out on foot for the market to sell them.

I bet the neighbors don't have stacks of twigs like this.

Well, no harm done, after all. And when it dries out, we’ll have good firestarting material for a whole season.


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