Summer of Discontent

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Every year as summer approaches, I feel my emotions go flat, as if weighed down by the hot and humid mid-Atlantic air that ushers in the season. For years, I couldn’t quite accept the truth of this phenomenon. Summer is supposed to be so wonderful – sun, warmth, longer days, vacation – isn’t it what we’ve been waiting for since January? Depression at a time like this is just ridiculous! Yet, here it is, again, and so insidious in its subtlety: no dramatics, no crying, no morbid poetry; just restless nights, difficulty writing, disinterest in reading, and the usual fear of people.

Why am I writing this? The admission of my depression seems so much more dangerous once it’s recorded. Writing about it is like pulling the stuffing out of a tiny rip in a teddy bear. It emerges as a small ball of innocuous polyester threads and then unfurls, exploding into a cottony mass of shame, judgement and emotions. The bear is left a little emptier, lumpy, slightly misshapen. Maybe the nose is flatter, the right eye askew, the stomach curiously deflated. Even if the stuffing is packed back in, it never looks quite right, or, at least, the way it was before.

But maybe messier is better.

It’s the last day of mental health month, and I’ve been “liking” NAMI’s “stigma free” posts, signing petitions to the U.S. Congress for better mental health care, and sharing articles about mental health awareness all May. It’s much easier to discuss other people’s issues as “other people’s” issues. Nonetheless, their issues are my issues, and, contrary to popular belief, suicide is more prevalent in the spring and summer than it is during the holidays and winter months. Perhaps depression is as well? If this is so, then I am not alone. My issues are “other people’s” issues, too. Who am I, after all, but someone else’s “other people.”

When I named the blog, I never meant for the trash to be taken too literally. Trash isn’t just physical garbage, it’s the flotsam of life in general, sometimes very important to me but worthless to someone else. And, like the trash along the Monocacy, it won’t just go away if it’s ignored. Someone needs to pick it up, look at it, and put it away. If we’re lucky, we might be able to use it again, or turn it into something else, or give it away. And of course we’ll find more of it later. There’s always more. There will be more next year, and the year after that. That’s the way of life.

And so, despite everything, I’ll keep writing.

 

 

 

 

It’s Not My Party

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This piece of trash is just wrong on so many levels. First there’s the picture. We all know that’s not a cigar in her mouth. And, if the picture isn’t obvious enough, the words all over the wrapper will give you a hint: XXL, Wet Mango! Besides all of that innuendo (which is much too subtle a word for something that immediately inspires the knowing guffaws of two adolescent boys), there’s the product itself. Mango flavored cigars? I would ask who in the world would ever be tempted by such a combo, if it weren’t obvious by this open wrapper that clearly there is someone out there who thought, “Hey, great idea!” The sort of someone, by the way, who leaves this:

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In case you can’t tell, that’s the remains of a fire on a well-used trail by the Monocacy River. In addition to cigars, the anonymous fire-starters also consumed Juicy Drop taffy, hot dogs, and Mountain Dew. And, for some reason, instead of using their plastic bags to carry away their trash, they did this:

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Yep, they burned them. Both of them. Like I said, just wrong.

The Green Stuff

There are wildflowers that aren’t wildflowers.  They’re green or brown or furry or smooth or fringed or winged, in bunches and fronds, clubbed, tall, short, and everywhere. They’re “grass flowers.” I discovered a short article about them by Jennifer Frazer on Scientific American‘s blog “The Artful Amoeba,” which was very good but further persuaded me not to tear my hair out trying to identify grasses as well as flowers and birds. Still, I can’t help but notice the grass flowers now that I know that they’re there, and often they’re weird or dramatic enough to merit a picture. Even the seeds and pods can be interesting. Right now there’s so much green that it’s tempting to overlook all of it, but the most average of green stuff is worth a little bit of time.

The Trash We Tell Ourselves

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My most recent study site.

A funny thing happened today. I was flipping through the Bryn Mawr Alumnae Bulletin (Vol. 97, no. 4), scanning for names I recognized (as one does with such things), when I came upon an article called “Talking Trash.” Of course, a title like that caught my attention, and the first sentence was even better: “In Astrid Lindenlauf’s Archeology, Anthropology, and Sociology of Rubbish class, students are examining a rich trove of ritually deposited archaeological finds – votive offerings to the Goddess Athena.” A class about rubbish? Why did I ever abandon my graduate studies thinking that there would be no job at the end of them?!

The article proceeded to detail how Ms. Lindenlauf’s students are researching the various items that Bryn Mawr College students leave at the statue of Athena in Thomas Great Hall, a long-standing tradition particularly observed during exams. As a graduate student, I wasn’t as much a part of such rituals. Having been educated entirely by the public school system through college, I was, in fact, a little jealous of such traditions, obscured, as they seemed, by the curtains of privilege.

Often I felt at a loss in the private school setting, perhaps even doubly so in the classics department. During my first year in college (at the very public University of Maryland Baltimore County), I had a professor pull me aside to remark on how well-written a paper of mine was and to ask which school I had attended. When I answered Frederick High, she looked a bit stymied and asked, “Is that a public school?” I shared this story with my 12th grade English teacher during the following break, expecting her to take it as a compliment to herself, but instead she got angry. “Why shouldn’t a public school be as good as a private one?” she asked. I saw her point and tried to remind myself of it whenever I felt a bit smaller answering questions about my background in graduate school. No, my father wasn’t a professor or doctor or lawyer. No, I didn’t have the money to do that (fill-in-the-blank). No, I have no idea who that person is. It is difficult, though, for a girl who often feels like she has somehow fooled everybody into believing that she is smart and capable, to thoroughly shake the feeling of not belonging.

Somehow, though, I find myself and my ideas reflected in the pages of this austere institution’s alumnae bulletin. I fight against the notion, but did I really always belong? Do I still? Are my ideas worthy? Strange how a little article can arouse such memories and doubts.  Not so strange how much those memories and doubts can hold you back and even stun you into immobility. I have so many stories and ideas that I haven’t shared because I’ve been fearful that they aren’t good enough. Certainly in some cases it’s true, but all of them? It’s still a hard thing to click “publish” every day that I write this blog. The fear and doubt don’t go away. But I’m doing my best to ignore them.

The Standing Dead

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My son has a word for long-dead trees that still stand in the woods: the Standing Dead. The smaller ones he enjoys pushing over, both to test out his muscles and to hear the great crack and groan as they tip and finally fall to the ground. After an ice storm a few years ago, we ventured to the river and found ourselves in dangerous territory. All around us, we heard branches creaking, snapping, and crashing, and the accompanying whump and snap and kersplash as they landed in the forest and the river echoed through the chill, moist air. One such branch missed us by only a few feet. The boys, being heedless daredevils wont to cheer enthusiastically during lightning storms (especially on airplanes) and tornado warnings (which are too few in Maryland, according to them), thought that the whole thing was magnificent, and I had a hard time convincing them that it might be a good idea to go home.

Despite the floods and ice and wind storms that take out these Standing Dead (which, by the way, actually go by the scientific term “snags”), there are still plenty of them along the river.  They are important to the insects, birds and other small animals that use their cavities, dead wood, and solid structure as homes and food sources. Only yesterday, I spied a pileated woodpecker knocking on a snag for insects, and it is always fascinating to peel away the loose bark to find grubs, ants and beetles busily making lives for themselves underneath their surface.

Since explaining to my son the importance of keeping the Standing Dead standing, I have convinced him to leave them alone for the most part.  The large ones, at least, he can’t move anyway, which is fortunate because, whether festooned in vines during the summer, or bent and angled sharply against the sky in winter, these dead trees are really beautiful in their own way.

Trash Collecting Fail

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My older son is obsessed with watching “Fail” collections on YouTube. He finds them hilarious, but, since they’re really nothing more than compilations of people hurting, maiming, or making idiots of themselves, I can hardly stand them. Then again, I’ve never been a fan of physical comedy; I cringed watching “Mighty Mouse” and “Tom and Jerry,” and the “Home Alone” movies are horrific to me. Besides, the word “fail” is way overused.

Nonetheless, I had my own “fail” on a recent trash collecting mission. While heading home after an uneventful afternoon, I heard my son call my name on the trail behind me. I turned to find him balancing a large round object in one hand and the handlebar of his bike in the other. By the way his shoulder sagged in one direction, I could tell that the round object was heavy, and he was having difficulty maintaining his direction on the muddy trail.

“Look what I found in the water!” my son shouted proudly, “A bowling ball! I actually tripped over it!”

He dropped it on the ground with a thump so that I could examine it, and, after taking a picture, I offered to carry it to the bike trailer for him so that he could ride his bike more easily. After he agreed, I hefted the thing from the ground and propped it against my chest with both arms.  It was heavy, most definitely not the ball of a lightweight bowler, but I’m not a weakling and was unconcerned with making it down the hill to the trailer. Unfortunately, the trail was slicker than I realized, and almost instantly I slipped onto my butt and lost my grip on the ball, which rolled quickly and inevitably back into the river. When we followed it to its entry point, my son looked at me accusingly. The ball had plunged straight into a deep embankment, where it could neither be seen nor reached by the longest stick we could find.

Oops.

I suggested that maybe we would be able to reach it this summer when the water level fell. My son leveled me with an incredulous glance. I admit that, considering the amount of rain we’ve been having, a drought seems far-fetched. But, you know, if the water level fails me, I’ll find another way to, uh, unfail.

In the Other Details

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, animals can camouflage themselves and render themselves easily missed by my pathetic human eyes, but, as it turns out, so can some trash. A brown plastic bag half-buried in dark earth is barely more visible than a toad amongst leaves, and a faded can of strawberry Fanta covered in long, dead grass hides itself as easily as a moth against the bark of a tree. Other bits of garbage are fortunately more obvious, even if it’s a green Heinekin bottle under long blades of similarly green grass and stinging nettles. I see you, brilliant blue Bud Light label, and you, you bag of ranch-flavored sunflower seeds. (To which I say: is that really necessary?)

I also see the curious looks I get from the more regular trail-walkers when they catch me knee-deep in garlic mustard taking a picture of a beer bottle. With my unkempt hair, old rubber boots, and muddy jeans, I’m certain that I look more bag lady than responsible mother. Once or twice I’ve tucked my phone in my pocket and pretended to be birdwatching just to save my reputation. (Because birdwatchers are such exemplary people? I don’t know.) I guess I should hold my head high and just tell them I’m a trash-collector who writes a blog. I just haven’t gotten there yet.

The Unexpected

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My grandfather and his brother, and their father before them, were doctors who practiced general medicine in Frederick, Maryland, throughout the 20th century. As country physicians, house calls and home births were the rule during most of their careers. Medicine changed radically during the period, the advent of antibiotics offering cures for countless illnesses that had been lethal throughout history, and the establishment of medicare and insurance ushering out an era when payment for a check-up might have been a dozen eggs. Grandaddy was a natural storyteller whose profession provided him with endless material (much to my grandmommy’s chagrin, at times). One story he liked to tell inspired me so much that I included it in a short story of my own.  While my story wasn’t all bad, it was written during a dark period in my early twenties, and so I tossed it away with a great deal of other material I wrote at the time. It’s just as well. The story is Grandaddy’s, and he tells it best anyway. He’s been gone over 10 years now, but his voice was distinctive. I’ll do the best I can to tell the story as he did, but I promise you it won’t be as good as the version he told in his dark living room, sitting back in his armchair and puffing sweet tobacco smoke from his pipe:

Sometimes I had to deliver lots of babies in the same day, and I had to drive all over the place to get to everyone in time. One day like this, I got a call from farmer Winters [names have been changed] while I was at another house, and he told me that his wife was in labor and I needed to get there quick. I told him, of course, I’d be there as soon as possible, but I was still attending to another mother and couldn’t get there immediately. On the phone he seemed fine: Mrs. Winters had had children before, and there was no reason to be alarmed. So, as soon as I could, and it was quicker than I’d even led him to believe, I drove to the Winters Farm and knocked at the door. Mr. Winters answered, quite upset with me. He said, “Doc, what’s taken you so damned long? I told you to get here quick!” By his tone – he was red-faced and irate and almost in tears – I thought that something must have gone terribly wrong with Mrs. Winters, but when I got upstairs, I found her doing just fine, and I delivered the baby a little later with no trouble at all. After it was over, Mr. Winters led me to the door and apologized profusely for how rude he’d been to me earlier.  “You see, doc,” he said, “my cow gave birth to a two-headed calf this morning, and I was just a little upset!”

I always laughed at the end of the story, but the humor behind the punchline is a little muddled, and the humor I see in it has evolved as I’ve aged.  Is it funny because a two-headed calf is just weird?  Or are we laughing because the farmer was more concerned about his cow than his wife?  Or is the joke that the farmer was worried that his wife would have a two-headed baby as well? As I look at it now, I see that Grandaddy was maybe making fun of himself as well, the doctor looking through his own narrow lens and being blindsided by a completely unexpected explanation.

You’re right, Grandaddy: the unexpected is hilarious. Socks on the sidewalk. Cardinal whistles on the beach. Hats in trees. And I miss you.

 

 

 

Portrait of a Cup from Cici’s Pizza

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Inside the hollow of a tall tree, surrounded by tendrils of new poison ivy, lies a paper cup from Cici’s Pizza, red-and-white striped straw still emerging from its depths. Since it is inside of the tree, no one can see it, or at least this is what the owner of this empty cup believed. He looked at this nook and thought “trash receptacle.” No matter that others see the same space as a home for wild animals, or tree nymphs, or gnomes. Imagination varies wonderfully from person to person. Thoughtfulness, however, is usually a more constant trait.