Thirty minutes

Thirty minutes of compost

I need a pitchfork. I hate that I have to buy new. Pitchforks should come weathered, like jeans, and be readily available at well-publicized garage sales in the suburbs. (I thought about buying a pitchfork on Craigslist, but it seems like the first page of a bad novel.) The strip mall tool store couldn’t be more wrongheaded with its massive b&w portraits of men plastered with quotes nobody ever said about how important it is to be hypermasculine. I wish I'd worn my yellow knit dress up in here so I could stand in line all black and yellow with my tote bag and polka dot water bottle.

The entire idea of plunging the pitchfork into my compost pile for the first time calls up images of skewing sleeping voles and God knows whatever else could be in there, but I do it anyway in my father’s old Brooks Brothers shirt and my original, not-made-in-China boys' hi-top Chucks. I keep it together. It is resplendent autumn and Juliette is out back with me also busying herself with not thinking about what small animals might be living in the compost pile. We are first-timers, and as I lift and turn its organicness, we observe that, after 18 months without benefit of the pitchfork, our compost is nevertheless real, and very beautifully black.

 

Thirty minutes with my grandmother

The nursing home that I object to her having been placed in is undergoing renovation. The only wing that hasn’t been updated is the one Muz is on. Not one unmedicated person alive is joyful enough to sustain their good humor in the face of these oversized sunflowers and vines that someone in charge of interior design neglected to subdue.

Her door is ajar. Mrs. Lieberman, her roommate, is in the corridor, fully clothed and alert at 7:45pm, visiting with a friend. Mrs. Lieberman explains that the aide is getting Muz ready for bed. My grandmother never went to bed before 10, 10:30. Who are they turning her into? When my mother and I are allowed in and Muz becomes aware that we’re there, she turns her back to us in bed, scolds us, “Why didn’t you call?” Why didn’t we indeed, we could have. She probably asked us to. She did ask us to. I could have called, but instead deferred to my mother, who chose not to, afraid that her mother would tell her not to come after a lifetime of the same.

Muzzie faces away from us, toward the curtain that separates the two sides of the room. I wish, I wish. I wish she was dressed and up chatting, like Mrs. Lieberman. What does she do with her very sharp mind all day if she’s not reading or watching television or going to the seasonally appropriate programs? I’ve got to ask Susan, her POA, the woman who chose to place her here until she dies. My friends ask me if I can take her in, move her to Virginia. How long does she have left, she’s 103. How long do I have left to figure out the right thing to do and not eternally piss off my mother? This is why family members withdraw. There’s entirely too much to fix.

 

Thirty minutes ( x 2) in Harlem

1

We’d left early. It took maybe 28 minutes after struggling with the front carrier, descending the flights of stairs into the 92-degree humidity-soaked heat, then moving fairly effortlessly through the subway, to arrive at the wrong library. The Countee Cullen branch of the NYPL crouches behind heavy scaffolding around the corner from the Schomburg, shrunken and plain in its shadow, the antithesis of a destination. Good grief.

2

Just days ago, Zuri, my infant granddaughter, hollered with woe as I got everything wrong at storytime: pulling not quite all of her body out of the carrier, spilling the contents of the diaper bag onto the library floor, placing her on my lap when she needed the comfort of my shoulder, I mean, you name it. The other mothers and the dad and caregivers and children? Appropriate and engaged. The librarian? Excellent. Animated without being obsequious; organized, informed, kind. Experienced. Everyone was experienced except me.

But it’s Friday at noon, and that is behind us. Mommy and Me yoga class, one block away, starts at 12:30. Do I have enough energy to even do the asanas once we get there? Yes! No! Let’s change your diaper and sing a diaper changing song and then decide. Let’s stretch out on mommy and daddy’s king-sized Tempurpedic with a book, and then…

 

Thirty minutes with Chan

The renovation of this SoHa studio is so new that the clear removable film is still on the refrigerator shelves. Airbnb. The toiletries are top-notch, the sheets kind of deliciously nubby and wrinkly, but not linen. There isn't much: a wooden folding chair, decent lighting, and a box a/c unit that’s set at POC temperature, not white-people-totally-freeze-me-out on this sweltering pre-Labor Day evening. I have hand-over-hand pulled myself up the two flights of stairs by the antique handrail. It’s 8:30 and I want to “marry the bed” as Anne Sexton once said, but it’s too early I can’t go to bed yet I want to so bad after bouncing and rocking and cooing at and feeding and teaching my Zuri Bean all day, up and down the four flights of stairs, up and down the flight of stairs in the apartment, up and down the subway stairs, bouncing bouncing (thank you ugly grey Tevas bless you whichever goddess made me throw them in my bag before I left Virginia), walking seven sticky blocks I want horizontal and closed eyes but it’s too early LOOK THERE’S THE VANITY FAIR WITH CHANNING TATUM ON THE COVER the people who own this minimalist-everything place felt strongly that Chan NEEDED TO BE HERE, and I’m up ‘til 9:00 easy, way past once I brush my teeth and tuck into the piece, lingering, renewed. 

The following night, exhausted per usual, I turn the key in the lock, smile. Chan, honey, I’m home.

 

Thirty minutes talking about ditching cable with Asa

A sports fan must humble herself at the myriad altars of tech in order to eliminate cable and watch the playoffs in real time (while the players are playing-off). Asa said to me, multiple times, It’s a one-time purchase: HD antenna or rooftop antenna, Roku/Fire box, cable(s). Get these sports here and these other sports there and tv shows from these ten places and probably a couple of networks will come in clear, but not others. Why do you need a landline, you can use Google phone to give out to strangers.

Nothing about this is easy. The youngs make it look like it’s easy, with their no-landline, no-cable selves, but they’re accustomed to stuff being hard, it’s been an uphill 25 years for the 99 percent. My friend Christine finds it easy enough, but that is, we discovered five minutes into the convo, because she doesn’t watch sports. I must have teams of overpaid people in real time on my tv—not computer—screen at least 20 times every year, and no, I’m not going to a sports bar the menus are always tragic and I can't wear my seriously unattractive slippers.

 

Thirty minutes of blog-related technology

It may have taken Nelly Kate thirty minutes to figure out how to get my time-elapse video loaded onto this page after I gave up. Thanks, Ace.

What is this thing called love?

"the drum is basic, complicated. the heart. but common, somewhat monotonous and redundant it is one voice that is always percussive."   --Ralph Lemon, geography

"the drum is basic, complicated. the heart. but common, somewhat monotonous and redundant it is one voice that is always percussive."   --Ralph Lemon, geography

My old pal J and I had a brief email exchange about anxiety. She handles her anxiety by being married (as did her mother), and I handle mine by not being married (as does my mother, with partial success). I mention to J about the dead middle of the bed, my arms askew, that means so much to me.

I keep a dream book. In it, I’m often admonished by old friends like J to get it together. I am late or unprepared, eternally missing the set of resources I need to take care of business. In my dream book, my son dies, light pours into high-ceilinged rooms, or a shoreline opens up beside me in a restaurant. In real life last year, my plumber and my mechanic cheated me. People tell me those things would not have happened if I was married (to a man). Perhaps I would’ve just dreamed they did.

But yesterday I did a headstand for the first time in years. Not because I couldn’t have been doing them all along, but because I forgot about them and nobody reminded me. Spouses remind you of stuff. Sometimes this is called nagging, but a lot of times it’s really helpful, even though maybe you don’t want to hear it because it’s one more thing to have to be responsible for. Yesterday morning my yoga instructor quite nonchalantly said, Anybody who’s working on headstand take this time to do so. In 2009, the last time I held a full-time job that I had to commute to, I regularly popped into headstand at the office to help myself deal with having to interact with co-workers while doing the work I was hired to do in a repurposed storage space. (I’m not much of a coffee drinker.)

In order to answer that infernal, cosmic question, What is your purpose here? I have to dial way back and say OK not Aqua Zumba or rewriting one poem for 11 years or growing arugula into January or even discovering fabulous patterned tights in clearance bins. I’m here to dish out love in big scoops. 

I am here to love, and what makes this a challenge right now is Boko Haram. I am here to love every soul who kidnaps and massacres. It’s my job to identify them as fellow human beings and love them with the intent that just a glimmer of it will be enough, one day, to spare a life. A knife drops from a hand and both bodies walk away. The Matisse Cut-Outs show was open 24 hours a day during that last stretch before it closed at MOMA in New York. That’s the kind of love I’m talking about. That’s what I want for those Boko Haram guys, an incessant invitation toward love and beauty. 

Mister Señor Love Daddy is my Icon of the Day.

People cheat me. That’s kind of OK. It feels the same as that tiny stretch of time after I fell over trying to get into headstand yesterday. It feels like that triangle I make on the mat with the crown of my head and my forearms, the space in that triangle that waits for me to fill it with a renewed trust that wipes out apprehension and embarrassment and anxiety until the next time I fall.

In the middle of my bed at night sometimes I do tryouts. When I was a cheerleader (who am I kidding, I’m still a cheerleader), that’s what auditions were called. I do potential partner tryouts then fall asleep laughing because when I place various guys next to me my imagination shouts NO super loud inside my entire body. I suspect my feet are just too smooth and soft right now. My feet are heaven and yours are…not. Please go. I know I’m probably missing out. I’ll get serious someday and log into OKCupid and let you know how that turns out.

My ex-spouse and I created an in-house card company called Out/Back before we even got married (seriously, we were project-oriented). We made valentines with bubble wrap, ribbons, newspaper, you name it. We agreed, I think, that the love message was critical, and that we were lucky in it. We mailed love to our friends. Then we stuffed our kids with it and we were done!

I told a short-term 21st century boyfriend I loved him. High on Vicodan after oral surgery, and telling his truth, he replied, You love everybody. (Slurred. You luh errrbody…) He was right, and I told him so.

Call your mother and ask her about love and just see what she has to say.

Big Law for Beginners

26 interviews, 12 second looks, 9 callbacks, 7 offers

My son Asa started work in October. I pictured him waving at me from across the country, wishing me Obamacare, picking up his new briefcase, jumping into his grandparents’ 2005 Chevy that got him through school and driving south to East Palo Alto to begin his career as an attorney. He even went to bed early the night before.

DLA Piper (on left) Silicon Valley

DLA Piper (on left) Silicon Valley

There are fountains outside the firm’s highrise and a Four Seasons steps away. When I went there last year to take pictures—and I understand that not every parent takes photographs of her child’s place of employment—the security guard tensed up. One false move and it’s your ass, small white-haired woman. I chatted him up. My son works in the building! We’re very proud! My friend Gary says he’s a big macher!

How did Asa arrive at global behemoth DLA Piper, where his office has a door, red Ikea sofa, standing desk and a nice view? Asa and I talked a bunch during his three years at Stanford Law. I took notes. He says Big Law means rich people hire you to defend themselves from other rich people who are making their lives more difficult. I’m thinking, Define ‘difficult.’

For most students in the T-13 (top ranked US law schools), getting to Big Law means doing On Campus Interviews (OCI), an interviewing frenzy early the second year of law school. The interviews lead to callbacks, then job offers. Using a lottery system, the law firms pay the schools to interview students. They then decide who they want to see again. When law student and law firm shake hands, the student signs on as a summer associate, and must screw up significantly to not be offered a job with that firm upon graduation. DLA had already asked Asa back after the previous summer, but he wanted to check other firms that were doing intellectual property (IP).

OCI is like speed dating. Thirty-minute sessions back to back, the same interview again and again with different people. Asa did 26. I asked how he managed to keep a smile on his face. It was easy, he said. They’re all nice people. (I have to take his word for it.)

Twelve firms requested a second look; Asa turned down three. His nine callback interviews took him from Silicon Valley to San Francisco, DC and Philadelphia. By Philly, he was running on fumes and just wanted to visit his old roomie, Francis, who’d just started med school. (Hi, Francis!) Doctors-to-be endure a version of this. Our friend Emmagene spent this past fall interviewing all over the lower 48 so she can match and do her residency and become a full-fledged emergency medicine M.D.—the firm but pleasant and often unnervingly young physician who treats you when you land in the ER for some unexpected unpleasantness. They (the hospital interviewers) want you to have questions, she says. I don’t have questions. You seem fine. Your city is fine. Emmagene did feel a bit of anxiety around drinking the appropriate amount of alcohol in the various contrived social settings because You don’t want to be the person not drinking. 

Asa corrects me when I surmise that big law firms are all the same. Some offices are new, some are crazy old, some do a lot of pro bono. DLA employs over 4,000 attorneys on six continents. Someone at DLA is always working, that probably means, unlike in my pink office where the CEO, CFO, CIO, custodial, security, admin staff and board of directors switches off the lights about 11:00pm and heads upstairs to bed.

The thing everybody hears about Stanford and Silicon Valley—that the pantheon will show up—is no lie. Asa: I was talking to this interviewer dude about how I like to be around engineers and computer scientists. Dude: We should get coffee and talk about where you want to go in your career. Asa tells me:

  • He's the former CEO of Napster and we went for coffee.
  • This guy can make my career.
  • And I had to remind myself that I wasn't interested in the kind of career he would make.
  • He's a partner in a huge firm.
  • He just likes to build companies.
  • I'd like to write a book about him, or something.

        Ex-Napster CEO was concerned and reached out to Asa. Ex-Napster CEO said, I know people like you—tech background, computer scientist in the past (ed. note: In computer science, you can have a past at age 25)—who’ve gone to law school and gotten pigeonholed into careers they didn’t want…. So how do you not become the patent clerk or whatever you don’t want to be? That’s easy. You just refuse to do it.

        Speaking power to truth?

        Most students aren’t interested in Big Law until they get wind of the paycheck. In that crystalline moment, a path to pay off their loans appears. Practice saying, I’m really excited to get started in Big Law. Firm A blew past Asa’s version of this line. Apparently, Firm A only hires true believers. Why didn’t you want to work for a firm in the first place, they queried. When Asa first told me about that interview, he said the firm didn’t do the stuff he's interested in. But later he wondered aloud if he was impressed or annoyed by them seeing through him.

        Asa loved the Santa Clara public sector interview guy and longed for what he sincerely called The unbelievably fantastic experience:

        •   They have no money for a formal training program, so you have real cases.  
        •   They put you in a courtroom and you're the lawyer for misdemeanors.   
        •   All sorts of great experiences, like field trips to prisons. (!)

        But it's an unpaid internship and they can't really offer you a job afterwards; they don't have any money. Look at the United States of America where if you’re not already financially comfortable you cannot do good public sector lawyering right out of law school! Over here, Robert Johnson! Have another guitar.

        I ask the American question: How much does your blackness figure in the hiring? Asa said It’s gotta be a little bit black man, but more the special combination of factors that’s a huge deal in IP: a degree in hard science, being into law, wanting to work for a big firm, black guy. I’m the only one, he says, and I’m reminded of his older sister Rae, currently the only African American Ivy League PhD candidate in environmental science. This (period) gets (period) old.

        The Leadership Council on Legal Diversity (LCLD) does what people's lawyerly relatives do at family gatherings—share information about the workings of the field. Asa’s LCLD contact went down his callback list and gave thumbs up to all but one firm. Firm B, it seems, was on rocky ground, having just fired a bunch of people. This kind of guidance is a huge help. All you connected, lawyerly relatives-of-other-people, please go directly to the website.

        Nearing his self-imposed decision deadline, Asa tells me that a competing firm would have to be extra cool [to get the nod]. What are your criteria for coolness, I ask. It’s a feel thing, he replies.

        Firm C: spectacularly uncool. Someone could do a Tumblr. Asa was personally offended by the unfortunate style choices made by the associates and partners at this Bay Area firm, and was shaken by the experience. I don’t understand, he exclaimed. These are the nerdiest people I have ever been around in my life! Super smart, ugly glasses, bad hair, bad teeth. No concept of fashion. Yale grads. (I see you Hillary, Bubba, Clarence Thomas.) They thought I was a good fit!

        He got an offer from his #1 in DC. A few years defending evil corporations at Firm D would make it much easier to go into prosecuting. And there were other black attorneys in the office! But alas, not cool enough, Firm D. Not extra cool. 

        Summer associate offer swag.

        Summer associate offer swag.

        Asa says DLA does a lot of pro bono and the people are nice. They courted him when he got offers from their competitors. Asa had just started his summer stint at DLA in DC when Chief Justice Roberts swung the Supremes to validate Obamacare and the office went nuts into nonstop party. Wikipedia says DLA was 12th largest donor to President Obama’s 2012 campaign. So I'll work some secondhand swag. I'll admit Christmas has a certain sparkle this year.

        A note of gratitude: When you buy a new electronic something, some of the money you’re forking over pays the attorneys who litigate the patents filed for said item. My sincere thanks for your small part in helping Asa pay off his law school loans. Enjoy your gizmo!

        Text Your Mother with the headlines, but call with the deets. She’s got a lot to keep straight now that you’re a big macher.

        b rdy (addendum, w/dress)

        T in Victoria Beckham at Rose and Jon's wedding

        T in Victoria Beckham at Rose and Jon's wedding

        I found the zipper (and pockets!) as I took the dress off after Rose and Jonathan’s wedding. (Reception was super fun, btw; dance floor was poppin’ all night.)

        My new son-in-law, Oba, and I had to eat, get dressed and get across the river to Norfolk to the venue by 3:50 pm because Rae, a bridesmaid, said they’d lock the doors after that. You can lock the doors to a wedding? (We did not question her in any way.)

        I gave myself 20 minutes to make up my face. Powder concealer eyebrow powder eyeliner mascara eyeshadow other random powder stuff, mirror and the brush set I’d agonized over at Harmon Face Values in Westfield. I put the Lancome fold-out eye makeup instruction sheet on the bed, but did not have time for what I really needed—several YouTube how to apply makeup videos. I needed an hour or my mother in the room. I had neither.

        Oba was waiting downstairs, wanting simply to be with his wife so they could look elegant together and feel old married compared to Rose and Jon. I attempted the pantyhose (sheer, black, with tasteful little dots) five times but did not master the personal engineering that allows your upper thighs to not feel wrong and punished. I started to perspire. And there was the dress: terrific, seriously discounted, mine. It had been tough to get on at Last Call, a detail I’d shared with no one. I’d counted on discovering the dress’s hidden zipper, imagining my smile-sigh as the dress glided on. But Posh Spice’s design crew was a clever bunch, and I was out of time. Most of my makeup came off on the lining of the dress as, arms flung into Warrior I, I pulled, tugged, yanked, laughed and meditated it over my head, shoulders and arms. Teeth were involved.

        Rae had said I needed a dark lip. On trend, Mommy. Chanel’s Midnight was perfect; I plucked it out of my lipstick bag. Perhaps it had that damp sandpaper feel because I’d bought Midnight the last time a dark lip was de rigueur; the mid-1990s, as I recall. Midnight looked like 10:30 am by this point, but we were out the door.

        Complete strangers (female) at the wedding:

        I love your dress.

        What a great dress!

        Love your dress.

        I love that dress.

        Somebody’s husband, sotto voce I just want you to know, you’re wearing that dress.

        My ex-husband:  (complete silence/no comment)

         

        Listen. Call your mother the day of the event, preferably in the morning. OK?

        b rdy

        Birthday time, and this year I’m womb-ing it at my mother’s in Plainfield, New Jersey. (Shoutout 1972 Cardinals and Parliament-Funkadelic.)

        I got back from my $65 haircut (Ridiculous, my mother said. Not ridiculous, I truly believe) and she was hyped to shop, but we had to go to the doctor’s office first to get her pacemaker checked out. Dr. Khanna doesn’t get why having my mother jump a lot in his office doesn’t trigger the reaction she gets from the pacemaker when she’s in the sanctuary and the bass is thumping and the percussionist is taking the congregation higher. I didn’t explain.

        Our family friend Rose will marry Jonathan on November 2. The wedding is formal and in the American South. The last time I wore a formal was when, with profound relief, I gave up my debutante queen’s crown (tiara, in all honesty) to my successor in 1973. Here is the text my mother sent me last week:

        We can go to jrsy grdns when u r here & cnsgn shops   b rdy

        This is like receiving orders from a five-star general. She means: have money, the proper undergarments, minimal jewelry, a single agenda, bottled water and adequate stamina. We will shop until the goal has been achieved.

        I love shopping like this. She is from New Jersey where (some) parents encourage their children to spend as much time at boutiques and malls as they do at school. We went to Jersey Gardens. We set up in two dressing rooms at Last Call (at Needless Markup) – one room for my mother and the purses and stuff we came with, and the other room for me and the clothes. I tried on 9.5 dresses (I count the two that didn’t make it over my hips as .25 each). My mother loved the bubble dress – I felt like bubbles in a washing machine when I had it on. It was a shift made of light blue iridescent disks that shook like the skinny women’s dresses from that show Hullaballoo in 1967. Super cute, and great for shimmying, but not for November, my mother decided. And Rose’s mom I think wouldn’t have dug it.

        I loved the khaki silk off-the-shoulder Zac Posen to 100% death. It is still in the store, in case you want to buy it. I could not figure a sane way to make it work, even at 30% off. I’d found out this morning that my car repair would be $309, and I just spent a bunch on windows. Ta ta, Zac. We were effing stunning.

        So I try on this silver, gold and black shirtwaist number, not really paying attention to it, as I’d quickly grabbed it off the rack. I look in the mirror and, no lie, say Oh my God. Step into the dressing room aisle and the woman who is helping her friend buy something to wear to her son’s bar mitzvah looks at me and says Oh my God. Her friend peeks her head out and looks at me and says This dress was made for you, oh my God you look incredible. I walk in to show my mother and she nods. Says nothing. Then: How much is it? I don’t know. I can’t afford it it’s perfect isn’t it perfect?

        Am I 17? This happened with 90% of the flawless stuff when I shopped with my mother and it was happening again like 42 years hadn’t passed since we’d had a shopping trip like this just the two of us.

        The woman helping the bar mitzvah mom says Is it 30 or 50% off the lowest price on the ticket? I say I don’t know and she barks Find out! My mother says, You can’t afford it, you can’t do this. I remove the dress, a Victoria Beckham (Posh Spice, my son Asa later remarks). We go back out on the floor for another run, bring in a new batch. This batch has a svelte sparkly silver/black cocktail dress with a nice V-neckline. It’s snug, but my mother says it doesn’t look hoochie. It reminds me of a swimsuit (I spend a lot of time swimming) because it’s so obviously flattering. I’m not excited, but I’m good with it. My mother says I could wear it with a bright cashmere cardigan and matching shoes to classy imaginary lunch with similarly attired imaginary friends maybe on a soap opera; the dress is versatile like that. I go out to ask a salesclerk if it’s 30% off. She says it’s 50% off, like magic. I’m turning to go back into the dressing room to give my mother the good news, when bar mitzvah mom’s friend pops up out of nowhere and says Was the dress 30% off? I say I didn’t ask. She says Where is the dress? You didn’t leave it in the dressing room you left it in the dressing room? Bring it out here and find out! What is wrong with you? I don’t get out much, I say. The clerk laughs.

        LGW and me, Lewes, Delaware, 2011.

        LGW and me, Lewes, Delaware, 2011.

        Whoa OK I go back in and there’s a retired kindergarten teacher frowning because the dressing room clerks won’t let her go into the dressing room with her adult son who’s trying on shirts. My mother and I show her the dress and she says Oh my God. Victoria Beckham there’s no discussion get the dress. I tell my mother I can walk away. She says, You can’t walk away. I know I can walk away and am willing to show Loretta Wynn what I look like when I do not go over budget. I take Victoria out to the floor and it’s 50% off the lowest price on the tag like magic and I see bar mitzvah’s friend and wave You were right and she nods, does not smile, she is a 5-star general.

        What’s the place that has the coffee I enjoyed so much in California, my mother asks me as we climb into the Maxima that is actually an aircraft carrier outfitted with a Mission Accomplished banner. Starbucks, I reply. Maybe they have one in Westfield, she says.

        Call your mother when you’re ready. Oh my God is she prepared.

        Me, or your lion eyes?

        Here’s a 2012 piece – not mine – about an "underage" male cougar trying to get into Harrah’s, from the Daily Mail. Way to collar and release him, Alyson! (Fist pump!) Recognize the trap? 

        In North America, if, like my daughter Rae, you're going to be about black bears, you need to negotiate the cougars, too. 

        Near the end of Rae’s summer ‘11 field study in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, she texts me:

        How is the beach?!? I hope you all are having a fabulous time…this morning I saw my first mountain lion!! Xo

        I’m in Delaware with my mother and dear friends Judy and JP, driving inland ahead of a nascent waterspout. The sky in the rear-view mirror is that slate grey, big storm color. Jim and my mother want to stop for fried chicken. I want to dodge a tornado and find out about the cougar without alarming my mother. She’s at the beach she loves the beach Do Not Disturb.

        I reply:

        We just left the beach; 1st clear, beautiful day. My mother cried, she was so happy. Excellent news about the mt lion! Where did you spot it?

        Rae:

        I was going for a jog this morning and found a lion stalking prey, as luck would have it. It was amazing!

        [As luck would have it!]

        Me:

        Please define “found”!! Was the cat doing its hunting near a trail & your sharp eyes and ears picked up the movement? So exciting! Did you stop or slow down?

        Rae:

        I was doing crunches and in the distance I saw this tan animal that was incredibly still. I got closer (not too close) and got so excited when I realized!!!

        Henri Rousseau painting: behind a screen of foliage, the mountain lion eyes my daughter doing crunches on the trail in her Be Bear Aware baseball cap. No wry words of encouragement – my stock-in-trade – flow to my fingertips. I am in mommy text shock.

        Later, out of earshot of my mother, I share the news with Judy and JP. They make jokes, but only because they have to.

        Several days later, Rae calls and breaks it down:

        • ·      I got up really early to go for a jog in a state park. There are foothills where the park meets private property.
        • ·      I was doing lunges, crunches, and stretches, listening to music on my headphones.
        • ·      I saw this animal.
        • ·      It was pretty far away.
        • ·      It was so still, frozen.

        [Animal behavior asterisk. Animals – like dogs – are always looking around, sniffing.]

        • ·      I thought, What is that?
        • ·      It was totally tan with a white chest.
        • ·      The color pattern made me realize immediately, That’s a mountain lion.
        • ·      There was a creek separating us.
        • ·      I was trying to figure out if it was coming toward the park and me, and it wasn’t.
        • ·      It wasn’t a big lion, probably a juvenile.
        • ·      Then it just crouched real low and did that lion predation move.

        [Mommy asterisk: I can picture that move. Bet you can, too!]

        • ·      I didn’t stay for very long, because you never know.

        [Mommy asterisk 2: Almost breathing!]

        • ·      I stayed long enough to watch it and to find out where it was going; about four minutes.
        • ·      I don’t know if it saw me and didn’t care, or if it didn’t see me.
        • ·      Mountain lions aren’t known to attack people. They’re more likely to go after your dog or horse.

        [General asterisk: Next time take a decoy inflatable dog or horse?]

        Now that I see the picture from the Harrah's article, young cougars do look kind of adorable. But they're still wild. A bit of a red flag for me.

         

        Bonus Round 

        Kelley, a field assistant from U Nevada, Reno, invites Rae to help her search for mountain lion kill sites just before Rae bids farewell to the little town of Minden to go back to a may-I-say-grueling year of school.

        Here’s why these young women and their colleagues hike way into the wild to do vertical climbs to even more remote areas:

        • ·      When a collared mountain lion’s GPS signal lingers in one geographical space for a long time, the scientists assume the lion is killing and/or eating its prey (usually deer).
        • ·      About 2 – 3 weeks after the kill, the researchers go looking for carcass: a hoof, lots of tufts of fur, basic evidence of a dead animal.
        • ·      They already “know” the cougar because they’ve been following its movements from the signal emitting from its collar.
        • ·      Info from the kill site helps them determine patterns: Where are the mountain lions taking down animals? Which animals? Why are they going after people’s horses, or baby deer?

        Rae: I feel like I barely survived it.

        Me to myself: Feeling that way right now!

        Me to Rae: What was the experience with Kelley like?

        Rae: We get to one kill site and do everything we get to do there, then talk about boys. Can’t talk while hiking, it’s too steep.

         

        Call your mother when you’re back from the kill site, but before you text the photos. Texting, like email, has its limits.

         

        What this is about:

        I write Call Your Mother to negotiate the world-unto-itself that is the mother-offspring relationship. There’s something to be said for seeing one’s mother or child as a regular human being (with magic that can make you feel deliriously great and inconsolably distraught). So I say that here.

        My two children, Rae (female; professional DNA: wildlife ecology; latent: opera, natural hair care) and Asa (male; professional DNA: patent litigation; latent: sports writing, music) are currently grad students on opposite coasts of the USA. I’m divorced from their dad, (Brad) Curtis Grant, but not because we didn’t have the time of our lives raising these two together. My mother and grandmother (professional DNA: senior Jersey girls; latent: Imelda Marcos & Marcus Samuelsson) rep Union and Middlesex Counties, respectively.

        I launched Call Your Mother in autumn 2010. Hi! Thanks for stopping through. As they say at Izzy's in Cincinnati, "Hurry back!"

         

        300 lbs. of Cinnamon

        I started writing this dispatch at my good friend Anita’s house. I live in a “low-lying area” (between a creek and a river) that was evacuated so Hurricane Irene could take over the space in a more expansive manner. Anita is a librarian and manager of her branch. Her house–just across town–hasn’t lost electrical power in almost a decade’s worth of big storms. She is the Emergency Contact of My Dreams.

        Anita’s wisenheimer (but mainly smart and fabulous) son sent her this email after reading my August 8 post about Rae’s field work with Ursus americanus:

        Ma,

        I didn't tell you about my plans for this weekend? I'm planning to go swimming with Great White Sharks in the Great Barrier Reef while wearing a wet-suit made out of raw, freshly cut t-bone steaks. I was thinking about poking a wasp nest with my finger and sleeping on a mattress full of bedbugs first, though...

        What do you think?

        Nick

         

        Capture 1

        “I was thrilled!”

        On Rae’s dad’s birthday, the person whose turn it was to check the traps called Carl, then Carl called Rae to tell her they had a bear. The trap was in a remote area at the top of a mountain all the way up a little winding dirt road. Forest service and fish and wildlife personnel access only.

        “It was awesome.”

        Cinnamon (not her real name) had taken the bait: cookies with M&Ms from the grocery store. Most black bears are black or a very dark brown. But like people and other colorful animals (flamingoes!), black bears vary in color. Cinnamon is a cinnamon-colored black bear. Her cubs are black. Cinnamon’s real name is the secret agent-sounding Green 99. All bears in the study are named with a color–for the region they occupy–and a number. Except for the first 20 bears at the study’s outset in 2001. Carl and Jon named those bears after their favorite players from the Denver Broncos. (Shoutout to Trevor, Brian, Ed, Rod, and the crew. Raise a paw if you’re with me!)

        Cinnamon’s three cute little cubs watched the action from a nearby tree. Unsurprisingly, Cinnamon was through, and was making a lot of noise in the trap. I ask Rae how bears sound. (In children’s stories they speak like humans.) She says they growl and kind of bark.

        To recap, we have mama bear in a trap, growling and barking, with her cubs up a tree. “Bears are never very good when you separate them from their babies, “ she tells me. I think, Who is? But I don’t know if I say this to Rae.

        This is how it goes once the bear is in the trap:

        1)   Stick the tranquilizer gun through the bars at the entrance to the trap, and shoot into the bear’s shoulder area from a close position.

        2)   The bear falls over. (The tranq dart knocks the bear out for about two hours.)

        3)   Open the door.

        4)   Everybody pulls the bear out of the trap. (What must this be like?)

        5)   Put/carry the bear to somewhere shady and flat.

        6)   Take her/his stats.

        7)   If it’s a sow and she has cubs nearby, tranquilize them, if possible, to measure, weigh, and tag them.*

        This is a photo of Rae taking Cinnamon’s temp with a rectal thermometer. Cinnamon was at 99.5 degrees; a little low, but healthy. Carl handed Rae the thermometer, “OK, it’s your first time on a bear.” The rectal part was Carl’s version of a surprise.

        Rae had her tranquilizer gun moment two days later with Green 68. [Note: Green 68 was lured by pie. Luke, a wildlife biology student intern with the Nevada Department of Wildlife, is tasked with shopping for sweets for the traps. He seems to bring enthusiasm to this part of his job.] Green 68 filled up the entire trap. Rae, a novice, couldn’t miss. The tranq dart is propelled by carbon dioxide, and makes a sound like air moving very fast (ssssshooop). “You know like in the movies the assassins have those guns that place a red dot on the target? It’s just like that,” Rae says. Maybe one day she will have her own nature show where she can choose her wardrobe. (A dream come true, fingers crossed.)

        *About the tagging:

        1) Carl’s and Jon’s and Rae’s study is out of collars. The collars cost about $5,000 each, and right now they’re in search of money. So, instead…

        2) The bears get tattooed. In a monitoring procedure called “mark recapture,” the captured bears are tattooed on the inside of their lip and a tag is affixed to one of their ears. The ear tags “are like insurance,” Rae says. Just pick up a pair of binoculars, read the tag from far away, and record the bear’s location. In the event the tag comes off, the bear still has the tat. This way the bears don’t have to be tranquilized so often for the team to keep track of them.

        3) I'm feeling bad about the tattooing. Rae says environmental biologists can’t catch a wild animal and not keep track of it. “The bear is unconscious; you lift up its lip and write,” she says firmly. (I am reminded of when we visited a little farm when she was in kindergarten, and she bottle fed the cutest fuzzy black lamb. I asked the farmer how long she kept the lambs. “Oh, not very long. They become lamb chops,” she laughed. “I love lamb chops,” small Rae exclaimed, holding the bottle to the little lamb’s lips without wavering.)

        4) The team keeps track of the number of times their bears are captured. If they capture a lot of bears, and many are first timers, they know there’s a large population.

        5) Reminder: the point is to find out where the bears are and what kinds of habitats they’re using in order to, eventually, prevent destructive human-wildlife interaction. (Please see August 8 post.)

        Capture 2

        Here’s Rae’s recounting of Green 68’s capture:

        Green 68 had two cubs that gave us a run for our money. She was in the trap and the cubs were around the trap waiting for her. You have to be really quiet. They’re so little and fast they just zoom by you. There’s such dense vegetation, we couldn’t catch them. We all hid and waited. We tranquilized mom and took her out of the trap to a shady spot on the ground. The cubs came back to their mom in about 30 minutes’ time. Then they started nursing while she was unconscious. They’re about 6 months old. It was easy to shoot them. Carl did it.

        Here's Rae and one of Green 68's offspring while it was spaced out. Completely sweet. 

        Both mama bears had already been tattooed before their August recapture.

        Final shoutout of this post goes to Oba, Rae’s boyfriend in NYC who had their new apartment all ready when she got back, and found the rectal thermometer factoid TMI. This was his maiden voyage as a wildlife ecologist's urban life partner. If he was freaking out, he did it away from his Blackberry.

        BTW, the Ray May Fire in NV (mentioned in my last post) was contained in 3-4 days. Hurricane Irene did an excellent job on the Great Dismal Swamp fire, which must be the primary reason she rolled through this part of VA.

        Text your mother photos of you with wild animals, remembering to indicate that they’re unconscious and you are not. 

        Doughnuts by the fire

        Long post.

        Last night I received this text from Rae: "Uh oh. Big wildfire and my bear habitat is burning..." My thoughts, in this order, were: 1) Her asthma, triggered by airborne irritants, is just as bad as it was when she was little. She has to take all of her meds. Now.; 2) How far away is the fire and how fast is it approaching?; 3) The gas card I sent has not yet arrived via Priority Mail, so odds are there's not enough gas in the tank to get her as far away as she might need to get; and, finally, 4) Poor bears!

        I haven't heard from Rae today, which I believe is a good thing, except she said she'd text when she got the gas card. The Ray May Fire (!) is, at the time of this posting, 70% contained. We've got a gigantic fire raging here in the Great Dismal Swamp, which straddles North Carolina and Virginia. I'm north of the border. We'd had a couple of clear days, but as I write this, the wind is shifting, and I can smell the smoke again, and apparently the smoke is evil. Here are some of Rae's (emailed) comments on the GDS fire:

        ahh!! i didn't realize the dismal swamp was PEAT SWAMP!!! Peat is a type of soil that has more carbon than any other kind of soil, plant, anything. When peat swamps burn accidentally or are burned on purpose (to clear for agriculture), more soil carbon is released into the atmosphere than is really imaginable. It's so so so so SO bad and is actually the leading cause of climate change globally. :(

        She’s disappointed that no Nevada bears took the bait last week. Look how big the trap is! Carl and Jon and Rae loaded the traps with honey-soaked doughnuts. The bag of doughnuts (or, alternatively, raw meat) hangs from the roof way back in the trap. The bear ambles into the trap and pulls on the bag of food. That triggers the gate at the entrance, which then slides shut. The plan is to trap the black bears long enough to place GPS collars on as many as possible so the ecologists can track their movement. (The bears’ longitude and latitude are downloaded hourly from the collars.) While the bears are tranquilized, the scientists take a DNA sample, too. I would appreciate it if a bear or two would oblige these good people so Rae will learn how to do this stuff. Safely.

        The team left some traps in the immediate Lake Tahoe area, which is thick with tourists and summer residents right now. People call the scientists to alert them that a bear has been trapped. I keep trying to envision, say, the Lake Tahoe Welcome Center parking lot with a bear trap in it. (Is that what she’s talking about?) Rae and Carl go out every morning to check the traps set in remote areas in the Eastern Sierra. The parts that aren’t burning.

        There are less than 300 black bears in Nevada, all in the Lake Tahoe Basin area, and close to 30,000 living throughout the California wilderness (and, in some cases, dangerously close to people). The Tahoe area has a couple thousand black bears. They roam back and forth, looking for good habitats. The jaguars of Texas and Mexico are supposed to do the same thing, but there’s that highly inconvenient La Migra fence in their way. Jon left Rae and Carl in Nevada last week to work the jaguar problem: how to allow jaguars to move around the border region in their natural pattern without interfering with immigration. Jaguars are one of the few migrating species along the border. If they aren’t able to move around, there’s a good chance they’ll go extinct. 

        Shall we lighten up?

        In the run-up to the post-trap bear research adventure (fingers crossed for post-trap bear research adventure), there’s always good old US culture world:

        1. Rae said Carl and Jon’s road trip to an outfitter–a big store for serious outdoors people–in Reno was like “traveling to Bloomingdale’s” for her. She’s glad she didn’t bring anything cute to wear; “People haven’t heard of fashion.” She’s even been wearing a sweatshirt, which is significant adaptation for a woman who was wearing Louboutins this time last year. I’m hoping for a photo of Rae in the cap Jon and Carl gave her. The cap says, “I Am Bear Aware.” (The fellas rejected her NYC law firm-branded hat. “Can’t have that,” they said.)

        2. When Rae was tracking lions in Tanzania with the African Wildlife Foundation and the African People and Wildlife Fund two summers ago she had water buffalo for dinner one night and pasta (left by an Italian researcher) the next. Last week at Carl’s she had meat loaf (she thinks maybe for the first time) made with elk and served with hot sauce. Elk gravy being hard to come by?

        3. She tells me she went to water aerobics at the Carson City community pool. We agree that water aerobics is a great workout, and we go together when we can. Rae asks me why the demographic is always people “your age and female.” I posit that young folk peek in at the classes, decide it’s for old women (= scary feeble), and pass, so they never know.

        4. “There are zero black people. It’s just me. That gets annoying.” Everybody in Minden knows her whereabouts. “Was that you I saw jogging yesterday…?” But there were lots of black people at the outfitter in Reno. “Even women.”

        5. It’s beautiful there. There’s snow on the mountain peaks. She’s happy to be in the wilderness, breathing what was, before the fire, gorgeously clean air. She says the men “are really masculine.” Manly men. Gaston from Beauty and the Beast.

        6. On Saturday night Rae really wanted to go out. She tuned in to the one radio station that sometimes plays pop. “I wanted to put on heels, get a drink, and dance.”

        Call your mother when you're in the wilderness. Plenty to discuss! [Note: Just got the text. The gas card arrived!]

        Better.

        This is not the failed potato plot from last fall (see entry below). This is the plot that Yahya and Sophia tilled and cultivated before they moved in December. Juliette, my gardening partner, and I inherited it, and it's in a much sunnier location in the backyard. This season the balance of sun and rain has been ideal so far. My water bill isn't nuts, I'm rising earlier in the morning, and we have mushroom mulch and a wheelbarrow. Too much mulch, it seems, because there's an abundance of leaves and few tomatoes, peppers and assorted stuff we planted that's supposed to appear when the garden goddesses grin. 

        I found the Garden Rant blog, maybe from someone on facebook. These could be good people. Everybody likes to post pics of their gardens to show how hard we're all working and how beautiful and challenging dirt/soil can be. I am in that number. Our backyard garden needs worms. Where do they come from? This fall, Juliette and I will plan better and not just a) buy whatever's cheap; and b) plant stuff fairly haphazardly so we can't tell the difference between cauliflower, collards, and cabbage, especially when the cauliflower doesn't show up, just sprouts beautiful, strong bluegreen leaves.

        Call your mother with recipes for random leafy greens so she doesn't have to figure that out, too. Thanks. 

        No mastery whatsoever.

         

         

        I admit to being relieved and inspired by a TED video that my good friend Drozda sent me this week. TED is an expensive soapbox for accomplished people's ideas. (I snuck into the TED conference about 10 years ago when it took place in Monterey, California. Yes, Herbie Hancock was in the audience, and yes, the air crackled with A-game energy.) The presenter, Dr. Brene Brown, studies vulnerability. 
        The photo is of the potato section of my small vegetable garden. My friend Juliette had kept the spuds behind one of her French doors in a brown bag for weeks. I felt so clever as I followed the directions and cut them up so that each section had 3 - 4 eyes, then planted them in my crooked rows just before the rain so they'd get the real thing, not water from the hose. Of course, it rained forever. It rained really hard forever, and the gusts were 45 mph, and of course potatoes don't like too much water, so living beneath it holds little promise for them.
        During this same stretch of my life, I am also doing a lot of other stuff that I don't know how to do. Like creating flowcharts. (I am a graduate student.) My children and many of their friends whom I've known since they were afraid of artichokes have raced to the top and picnicked there, and I am here in the thick middle and I am vulnerable. Call your children when you're vulnerable. Call your mother when she can't help but be confused. Maybe crack a couple jokes.

         

        Birthday Mama

         

         

        On Children
        Lyrics by Khalil Gibran, Music by Ysaye M. Barnwell
        Your children are not your children

        They are the sons and daughters of life's longing for itself

        They come through you but they are not from you and though they are with you

        They belong not to you

        You can give them your love but not your thoughts

        They have their own thoughts

        You can house their bodies but not their souls

        For their souls dwell in a place of tomorrow

        Which you cannot visit not even in your dreams

        You can strive to be like them

        But you cannot make them just like you

        Strive to be like them

        But you cannot make them just like you
          
        Music by Ysaye M. Barnwell, © 1980 Barnwell's Notes Publishing; recorded by Sweet Honey In The Rock® on "Selections." <www.Ymbarnwell.com> <www.sweethoney.com> Used by permission of the composer.


        It seems obvious that you call your mother on her birthday. If your mother is no longer on the planet, or if she is conventionally unreachable (coma, working or vacationing in seriously remote location, whereabouts unknown, you're "dead to her"), thoughts in her direction could soothe–or clear–a heavy soul. 

         I'm not at all sure that my son, Asa, knows my birthday. Asa is 23, a first year law student. I know Asa loves me every day. I didn't want him to have to realize with a start two or three (or ten) days after my birthday this year that he'd missed it, and feel some pang of guilt or personal disappointment. So I texted him on Sunday and we talked that night (he'd been reading for 7 hours, with 7 ahead of him). Good conversation. Before we hung up, he wished me a happy birthday. (Asa cooks, usually from scratch. Please post recipes suitable for an academically inundated student. I'll make sure he gets them. Thank you.)


        My mother is giving herself a big 80th birthday brunch this year at a country club.  Pierre is creating the cake. I cannot say enough about Pierre's cakes. Totally worth throwing a party just to get some of that Pierre, avec fondant. (You do see this. I am not throwing this party. My mother is infinitely superior at event planning, and we all know it.) My mother called me first thing (I was born at 6:15am and she likes to reinforce the memory), then fell silent the rest of the day. With my mother, no news is bad news. No news is not what we want. She called late the next day to say she'd been "a basket case" the whole day because she found some unwelcome something in her left breast. (She gets a mammo on Tuesday. Please send light. Thank you.)

        My daughter, Rae, called me (maybe twice) on my birthday. She is a first year Ph.D. student. Rae loves me every day. If she ever misses my birthday, it will be due to her being in some remarkable circumstance (tracking lions, for example), and she probably will have arranged to get a card to me, regardless. (Rae rides her pink Schwinn on Manhattan streets. Tell your vehicle driving New York friends to share the road. Thank you.)

        Happy birthday. Make faces in the mirror. Take a load off (everybody, Fannie, your fabulous self).
         
        [*Listen to Sweet Honey in the Rock sing "On Children" here. Then sing it with them, with me. --T]


         

         

        Moving into the mama void

        Edith Coleman, photo by Toni Wynn, Thanksgiving 2007

        This is Muzzie, my grandmother. I played croquet in her backyard. I never quite believed how thoroughly blue her guest room was. Powder blue everything. Powder blue air. Muz was my first piano teacher, and the first person to ask, "When are you going to get your Ph.D.?" I think I grew into womanhood guided by the light in her bright eyes, and propelled by her take-no-prisoners energy. Did I ever sit on her lap? More Muz in another post. Right now I'm stuck in a memory of the perfection of her tall, tantalizing, lemon meringue pies.