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Some friends of my wife are out of town and asked her if she’d drop by their farm and feed their animals and just check and make sure everything was okay. Being a good person and a good friend, and also someone with a degree in agriculture, she said yes and asked if I’d come along. Being a good spouse, I hope, anyway, I said yes. And also there was nothing else going on and it would be a chance to get out of the house. I’ve been to their farm several times and I like it in spite of the cows.

It’s not that I have anything against cows. They seem nice enough that it’s a shame they make such good hamburgers, and I actually like them as long as they’re on the other side of a very strong fence. Getting up close and personal with cows is something I do my best to avoid. It’s not that I believe they’re suddenly going to turn into snarling, murderous beasts. I know cows are pretty well domesticated and ones that are used to being around people can be quite gentle. They’re just very large animals that could easily knock me aside without a second thought even if they don’t mean to. Also in the back of my mind there’s this fear they might suddenly turn into snarling, murderous beasts.

So of course when we arrived the cows had somehow escaped from their enclosure.

Fortunately my wife, with the degree in agriculture, was able to do most of the herding of the cows, although I helped a little, mostly from a distance. Then I carried the buckets of feed out to the cows who stuck their heads in the trough before I could put the food in.

“Slap ‘em on the nose if they won’t get out of the way,” my wife yelled. Easy for her to say. She’s got a degree in agriculture. I was convinced slapping a cow would turn it into a snarling, murderous beast. Because there were two food troughs I was able to distract the cows by going to one and then the other and managed to only dump some of the food on cows’ heads.

Then I turned around and I was completely surrounded by the sheep who’d also gotten out of their enclosure. It’s completely irrational but being faced down by twenty-seven thousand hungry sheep was funny to me, whereas a single loose cow would make me want to get back in the car and lock all the doors.

The sheep were also easier to deal with. Unlike the cows, who are distinct individuals the sheep would move collectively. Get one doing in the right direction and the rest follow.

Then we had to collect the eggs even though I would have preferred to hang out with the sheep some more. Chickens may be small but I know they can be snarling, murderous beasts too. So my wife collected the eggs. After all she’s got a degree in agriculture.


Source: Woodland Pattern Book Center

When I heard that New York City had appointed a Rat Czar I thought, well, I guess it was inevitable since they already have rat kings. And a friend of mine said, “Hey, it’s about time they got some representation. Wait, what do you mean the Rat Czar is a human?”

And he had a point. The history of rats is deeply tied up with our own history. For most of it they’ve been seen as enemies—including some really vile propaganda that compared people to rats. I don’t want to highlight that but at the same time I don’t think comparing humans to rats—all humans, not just certain groups—isn’t so far off the mark. Rats are territorial but also social, rats form communities and work collectively. They’re smart and make really good pets. I might feel differently if I lived in an apartment building with a rat problem but there’s a reason our relationship with rats is complicated. They carry diseases but then so do cats, dogs, birds, insects, and humans too.

Rats are also mammals like us, and they’re survivors. Sometimes I think we have such a primal response to them because we recognize them as our ancestors. It was rodents, after all, who survived the mass extinction that wiped out the dinosaurs. Maybe that’s why there’s a long lineage of our not so simple relationship with rats that even predates the medieval Pied Piper of Hamlin, which got a brilliant satirical update in the 1920s by the terribly underrated Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva, all the way up through The Secret of NIMH and Ratatouille. You can throw Willard in there, either the 1971 original or its 2003 remake with Crispin Glover for something a little darker.

Since April is National Poetry Month here’s a poem I wrote back in 1998, inspired from a line from a National Geographic special about rats, “There’s a war going on in our cities…and the rats are winning.”


Rats are winning the war for the city,

Displacing us as they come from below.

While our tactics are softened with pity

Rats are winning the war for the city.

Gassing and poisons aren’t pretty,

And not all is fair in war though we know

Rats are winning the war for the city,

Displacing us as they come from below.


Displacing us as they come from below

The rats teach us something we always knew.

By steady process, since our brains are slow,

Displacing us as they come from below,

The rats whisper to us we are rats too.

Our lives are mingled; that’s the status quo.

Displacing us as they come from below

The rats teach us something we always knew.  

In Space No One Can Hear You Sneeze.

It’s the season when every young person’s fancy turns lightly to thoughts of sneezing, coughing, and congestion, which means it’s time for a pop quiz: Allergy Medication or Star Wars alien?

  1. Chagrian
  2. Muftak
  3. Lotemax
  4. Arcona
  5. Prednisolone
  6. Flovent
  7. Quarren
  8. Qnasl
  9. Amanin
  10. Zetonna
  11. Snivvian
  12. Aqualish
  13. Rhinocort
  14. Zaditor
  15. Xyzal
  16. Gungan
  17. Nausicaan
  18. Ithorian
  19. Gamorrean
  20. Astelin
  21. Claridryl
  22. Sullustan
  23. Pazeo
  24. Grogu
  25. Nasonex

Source: Wikipedia

Answer Key (tip: you can copy the image, paste it into Paint or a similar program, and reverse it)

Staring At The Sun.

For now at least Mondays mean getting up while it’s still dark. That will change as the days get longer, which will also mean the dogs getting up earlier because they’re triggered by daylight. The sunrise means it’s time for breakfast no matter when the sun rises and they have the advantage of being able to go back to sleep. And how they know it’s after 5PM, their usual supper time, when the sun sets a little later each day is beyond me.

Most of the time I don’t even think about the fact that my commute is more or less easterly. I’ve never stopped to look at a compass while driving and I don’t see too many cars with dashboard mounted compasses anymore. When I was a kid one of our next door neighbors had one of those in his car but it seemed like it wobbled so much with every bump and turn it was impossible to get a reliable reading. Then, when we were on a road trip with him he gave us a lengthy explanation of how he was navigating by the position of the sun, none of which explained how he managed to get lost, but that’s another story.

This morning, however, I found myself driving straight into the sun. I’d forgotten that this was a regular problem for bus drivers I rode with in the afternoons—they were going west and, twice a year, the sun would be in the imperfect position of hanging right over the road ahead. I always felt sorry for the bus drivers but I also just couldn’t bear to look.

This morning when faced with the sun I also had an advantage the bus drivers don’t: I could pull over and wait a few minutes until the sun wasn’t directly in my line of sight anymore. I also could have taken an alternate route and I wouldn’t get lost because I’d be navigating by the sun.

Be Their Guest.

There are a few Indian restaurants around that we go to regularly. Most of the time I don’t even think about it but once in a while it occurs to me how, more than thirty years ago, I went to an Indian restaurant for the first time, not having a clue what to expect and being amazed by all the dishes I’d never heard of before. And now if we drive down the road and see an Indian restaurant we’ve never been to before we have a pretty good idea that there’ll be pakoras and chicken tikka masala and malai kofta and naan.

Those terms have become so assimilated into English my spellchecker doesn’t even blink at them.

There’s one, though, that’s a little different. It has some of the old standards but also dishes it specifies are from some of India’s southern states—Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Andhra Pradesh. The spices are different, the flavors more intense. It’s not just what we’ve come to think of as “Indian”.

What also stands out for me is they have a couple of guest books at the front and the guest books are hilariously disorganized. People have written notes diagonally across the page, they’ve drawn pictures. Flipping through one night while waiting for a to-go order I found a couple of notes written in Sinhala script, which was cool.

It’s a big place, always crowded, and while I’d gotten a couple of to-go orders there before I didn’t think I’d really been noticed, but while I was waiting the manager came over to me and said, “Next time you need to come in and sit down. I’ll make you something special and it will be very good!”

We didn’t really plan it and the next time we went in I don’t think the manager was there, or he didn’t see me, so we just ordered from the menu, but it was very good.

I’ve Got The Power.

The power went out.

We knew storms would be rolling through so we were prepared. We had the closet cleaned out and ready to hold us and the dogs if the tornado watch turned into a warning. There are flashlights in a couple of different rooms and the house is small enough that even in the dark I could find them. I’d tested them earlier and, in spite of not having been used in a long time, they worked. We also have good old fashioned matches and I’m pretty sure we’ve got candles somewhere, if it came to that. Phones were charged.

The striking about the power going out, the part that always surprises me, is the sudden silence. Even with the TV off, even when the air conditioning or heat aren’t running, the house has a steady hum as long as electricity is running through it. It’s only noticeable when it’s gone.

The refrigerator, of course, has its own pulse as coolant streams through its veins, a sound pitched just above that of the rest of the house but also, because of its constancy, we only become aware of it when it’s gone. And with the power out the countdown begins. We keep the refrigerator closed to keep the cold in for as long as possible but there’s still the looming threat of spoilage, the possibility that we’ll lose the highly perishables: dairy products, poultry, eggs. Well, the sour cream will probably be fine. The freezer, on the other hand, is in greater danger. How long will the ice cubes hold out? The ice cream? As soon as the frozen shrimp thaws it’s done for. It wouldn’t be right for sushi even if we could plug in the rice cooker.

At least right now the weather is on our side. It’s the middle of spring so the weather is just temperate enough that the house wouldn’t get too cold, which can happen in winter, or too hot, which would happen in summer.

Still I made plans for the long term. There are some large rocks in the backyard I could arrange into a fire pit for cooking. Or I could just use the neighbor’s fire pit. They wouldn’t have to know. I’m pretty sure they weren’t home since their lights were out.

The dogs had all been out and taken care of business, so they were fine. I thought I could always go outside too, before I remembered the plumbing doesn’t need electricity.

We still had the cars, and once the worst of the storms passed there were plenty of places we could go. The power has gone out before and we’ve always managed. I just always want to be prepared for whatever could happen. I want to stay calm and know that we will get through.

I was in the middle of reassuring myself when the power came back on, and everything was fine again. Still that was a pretty grim thirty seconds.

A Walk In The Woods.

Have you ever walked down a path and ended up going for so long you start to wonder if it would ever end? That happened to me recently when I decided to take a walk down a local trail I’ve only seen part of. My wife said that since I don’t take the bus I don’t walk as much as I used to I should get out and walk, and while Radnor Lake has been my usual place she suggested the Richland Creek Greenway Trail as something a little closer to home and for a change of pace. She and I had walked about a quarter of a mile down it a couple of years ago and I’d wanted to go back. This time I decided I’d walk the entire thing.

I didn’t stop to check the trail map or even do any research before setting out because, hey, why would I? I drive by it regularly and it’s obviously a popular trail. As many people walk it I thought, how long could it be? It didn’t occur to me that at least some of those people, like my wife and I, walk part of the way down it then turn around and go back.

I will say this: most of it is a beautiful trail. Most of it follows Richland Creek, and there are a few spots where you can step off the trail and walk right down to the creek. A lot of people were down there with their dogs. Because it’s such a nice trail and because it was a beautiful day I passed a lot of people walking their dogs, and almost every dog I passed was either playing in the creek or soaking wet.

When I got to a bridge I was finally into terra incognita. But it wasn’t far and I just thought, well, I’ll see where this goes. It went through a wooded area, up over a hill, around a bend. A couple I’d seen earlier passed me and I thought, oh, I guess the path circles back around not too far up ahead.

Then for a long stretch I walked past part of the McCabe Golf Course, where I’d once tried out for my high school golf team, disastrously, but that’s another story, on one side and the creek on the other. Walkers were protected from errant balls by a tall net. As the path went up and over another hill and past homes I started to think, Wait, just how far does this go? Am I still on the right path? The absence of saguaros was the only thing that kept me from thinking I’d taken a wrong turn and ended up in Albuquerque.

There were plenty of people around so I wasn’t really worried, though. I just kept going, wondering how far I’d gone.

When I saw the Star Bagel Café I finally had at least some idea. The distance from the trailhead where I’d parked to the café is, by road, a little over four miles. I hadn’t walked that far because the trail had its own as-the-crow-flies direction but I still knew I’d gone pretty far. And it was still a beautiful day and there were plenty of people around. I felt fine, but I’d been on the trail long enough that I’d wondered if I should turn back. The café was my sign that really the only thing to do was keep going. I guessed, correctly, that it was approximately halfway and I was far enough in that I should just keep going.

With a wooded area on my right and a rise topped with railroad tracks on my left I laughed, wondering just how much farther it could go, and at that point the trail turned back onto a familiar stretch that led back to the parking lot.

Five miles in all. It was a fun walk and I plan to do it again, this time knowing what I’m in for, although that last part is why I’m glad I didn’t do any research. Part of the fun was knowing where I’d end up but not how I’d get there.

Close Enough For Government Work.

About a month ago I heard the sounds of trucks beeping and a few loud thumps early in the morning. Construction noises aren’t unusual in my neighborhood; pretty much any house that sells these days gets knocked down and replaced with something bigger. But when I looked out the window I saw approximately three thousand Nashville Metro trucks and a whole crew of workers in hard hats parked at the end of our driveway. Marks had been spray-painted on the street months earlier so I assumed the work had something to do with that. I walked up to see what was going on.

“Hey,” said one of the guys, smiling at me. “You don’t need to get out of your driveway, do you?”

He could have asked that before they decided to park their trucks right in front of it and completely demolish the end of our driveway, removing the big culvert pipe that goes under it for drainage. But I said no then asked how long they were going to be.

“Less than an hour,” he said. And he was right. I think it took them less than forty-five minutes to finish the job, installing a new culvert pipe and covering the whole thing with packed gravel. It wasn’t pretty—they removed the concrete walls that had been on either side—but it was functional and I thought maybe we could save up enough money to have new concrete walls installed on either side to help hold the gravel in place.

And then a little over a week ago I was about to start working when I heard construction sounds again. I looked out the window and once again there were approximately three thousand trucks parked in front of our driveway. I walked up to the street to see what they were doing.

“Hey,” said a different guy, smiling at me. “You don’t need to get out of your driveway, do you?”

Again this seemed like a goofy question but I laughed because I had a good idea of how it would go. And this time they actually hadn’t blocked the driveway. The only trouble we’d have getting out, if we needed to, would be navigating around all the trucks in the street. He added that they’d be out of the way in less than an hour, then asked if I thought they were doing a nice job.

They were. The new concrete walls on either side of the driveway look very nice. Joke all you want about government work. Sometimes they get things done.

Finding My Way In.

When I moved all my stuff out of my cubicle the one thing I was most worried about, most protective of, the one thing that made me beg my boss–who’d offered to clear out everything and box it up and leave it in the hall to save me the trouble–to let me do all the packing myself was a simple small glass bowl. It doesn’t look like much but I painted it myself during my second round of chemotherapy, at the Nashville Gilda’s Club, which offered, among other things, a weekly art therapy class. I was really lucky to meet people there who’d had cancer, in some cases decades earlier, and who were doing fine. It was nice to get together and make stuff.

So the bowl has a lot of personal significance for me, and it also became significant at work a couple of years later. A new person had just been hired and she came to my cubicle for some training. She saw the bowl on the shelf next to my monitor and asked what it was.

“It’s a goldfish bowl,” I said.

“You’re really into dad jokes, aren’t you?”

I’m not sure if that was a compliment but it helped break some of the tension that’s always present when work brings strangers together.

So this week I was involved in training another new person. We all went around introducing ourselves and talking about what we do. I’ve held a lot of different jobs in the library but I explained that what we’d be focusing on was something that I’d been doing almost from the beginning and that I kept coming back to in spite of my efforts to move on to something else. And then it hit me that I had a perfect opportunity, so I did my best to deliver a classic line.

Source: giphy

It was a great way to break some of the tension, although I worry that I might have sounded more like George Costanza than Al Pacino, which could be a little too much insight into my personality.  

Source: Yarn

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