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April 1 is no day for fools. It’s the kickoff to the most important month of the year – Poetry Month. It’s not marketed nearly enough. There should be cards and decorations, parties and mascots. Children should dress up as Emily Dickinson or John Donne and be exempt from all non-poetry related homework. Speaking should be limited to verse. Car dealerships and clothing stores should trumpet discounts for customers who bring in a sestina or smaller discounts for villanelles. Until I can make this dream a reality, we’ll have to settle for a poem a day.
You can’t beat the dead Irish for poetry. A close second is the living Irish. Here’s a favorite of mine by Seamus Heaney, who is still kicking it poetry-style. I met him once, at a reading in college, where I was so tongue-tied and awestruck, I blurted out, “I just love you so much!” No joke. He looked at me like I was a stalker, but signed my book anyway.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.
Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down
Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.
The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.
By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.
My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.
The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.
I get a lump in my throat even reading it now. I love the imagery. I can almost smell the peat, and the milk “corked sloppily with paper” is an unforgettable image. His young self’s awed impression of his father and grandfather is finely rendered. Then the abrupt shift at the end – there is more going on here. He’s not a calloused-hand laborer like the men before him. He’s a poet. We can’t help but wonder how comfortable he is – or they are – with this. Feel the sadness of “I’ve no spade to follow men like them.” Just whisper it under your breath…”somebody has I-S-S-U-E-S….”
This poem gets better and better upon rereading. Every time, I notice something new, which all good poetry should enable. I love the gutter ‘u’ sounds in “snug as a gun” and the hint of violence. I love the emotional “By God…” he adds to his praise of his father. Picture the line without it: not the same.
I’d write more, but this is inspiring me to dig my old (and signed!) copy of Heaney’s poems and read more. Happy Poetry Month, everyone. Offer up a couplet as a tribute.
I gave blood yesterday. I don’t do it often enough, but I try. I got the guilt call from the Puget Sound Blood Center the night before. As soon as “PSBC” comes up on my phone, the only question is who it’s for – me or my husband. A friendly voice starts, “Hello! May I speak to Hilary Meyerson?” I was making dinner and doing about ten things at once. I also knew my week was crazy, as I’m packing for a trip, trying to finish a freelance job and sew a heron costume, all by Friday, so I cut off the spiel before she starts. “Are you at the 3-day emergency supply?” Pause. “Yes. Can you come in tomorrow?” she asks.
Yes. Yes I can. Because local hospitals only have 3 days left of my type of blood and somebody needs it more than I do. Plus, I’ll get a cookie.
I took the first appointment, and was there when the doors opened, myself and a bunch of other donors milling around the door when they unlocked it. We all grab our clipboards to fill out the usual questions regarding tattoos, sex with hookers, travel to unstable countries and pregnancy and hand it to the volunteer, who is now under siege by the rush. I check out my fellow donors. The punk rock chick behind me, with braces on, gives her birthdate as the exact day I graduated from college. She tells me, “I got the guilt email. How about you?” “Phone call,” I answer. The bald man next to me nods and points to himself – he got the call too. There are six of us – all got a call or email the day before. One is giving platelets, and one is giving “double reds” a slightly longer process which allows a single donation to be split into two transfusions. While we’re waiting, a guy from the oil change place down the street (he was wearing his uniform, with his name embroidered on a patch) comes in. He doesn’t have an appointment, but he’s on his way to work and he has time, can they take him? No, they are full now, but they have openings at 3. He says he’ll come back after his shift.
I’m looking at my watch, because I’m on the clock, but I already feel better. About life, society, people. The news is full of crap stories about the world going to H-E-double hockey sticks, yet here are a bunch of people who are showing up just to do some good. All ages, all walks of life. I felt the same way about jury duty. Turns out, there are a lot of good people out there. It’s enough to make you want to start holding hands and singing Kum-ba-ya.
My husband inspired me to give blood. He’s negative. Like A neg. It’s rarer than my universal donor O+ and they call him alot. He gives every 60 days and the techs swoon when they see him coming with his dreamy popped veins just begging for a needle. He has a demanding job that requires his presence – yet he makes time for this. I chided him once about how he couldn’t attend a school event or meet me for lunch yet when he gets the call he cancels his meeting, clears his schedule and gets himself to a donation center. He said, “You do lots of volunteer things. Political campaigns, school stuff, the community. This is one thing that I can do. I have to do SOMETHING that gives back.” I was duly chastened. And I made my next appointment.
I’m turned away occasionally. I have freakishly low blood pressure and sometimes they can’t find a pulse and they have concerns about taking blood from corpses. A tech once told me, “Can you hold on here? I need to get someone else. I’m not sure you’re alive.” But yesterday I was a respectable 80/60 and cleared to give. A stick, a pinch and three games of Sudoku on my phone later, and I’m a pint lower.
My favorite part: I’m “helped” to the canteen i.e. the cookie and juice table, by a volunteer. She’s approximately 117 years old. I’m holding her up. She’s very sweet and deaf as a post. She bellows at me, asking what I want to drink and I yell back a V8 would be great. She gets it and goes back to reading her Danielle Steele novel. After a few minutes, she looks up, surprised to see me, and bellows again what can she get me? I tell her I’m good, she’s already gotten me something, and she goes back to her book. This happens two more times. But I love that this lady gets herself up and gets her bony ass down to the blood center to volunteer. How great is that? I hope when I’m her age I’m bellowing about people and doling out cookies. There are worse things. Sometimes the volunteers are sulky teenagers. Last time, it was two high school girls who sullenly slung me an OJ. “Mandatory community service for graduation,” one told me glumly, sporting her private high school sweatshirt. Good, I thought. It’s good for them to see who comes through here. There are worse things.
While I eat my cookie and drink my juice, I read the info sheet on who is getting my blood. Trauma victims, natch. But lots of others you don’t think about. Kids with leukemia. They need a lot. A heart surgery patient uses a ton. Burn victims. Organ transplants. Women after childbirth. There is definitely time in my day to do this.
So that was that. I finished my snack, got the instructions to drink lots of fluids and left, with a cool purple arm wrap. Other donors were arriving. Old, young, pretty, not-so-pretty, impatient, serene. All there to help unknown strangers. I felt pretty good about world when I left. Plus I got a cookie.
I’ve been thinking about food. Nonstop, actually. Probably because I have been on this fracking nutritional cleanse for too long. So today I’m getting around to updating my friend’s poetry tutorial and indulging in some vicarious eating through poetry.
Here’s a favorite by William Carlos Williams. It’s one on the first poems my kids learned because it’s so short and sweet.
This Is Just To Say
I have eaten
that were in
you were probably
they were delicious
so sweet and
There are lots of interpretations of this famous poem, most of which I don’t subscribe to. Is he talking about virginity? The forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge in Genesis? No, I doubt it. It’s a note to his wife, a love poem. The halting structure mimics sheepish speech. I picture the poet with his hat in his hand, his pleading yet mischievous eyes. The title, which also serves as a first line, gives a self-deprecating tone. The word “just” tells us this isn’t a big deal, yet at the same time, his tone is thoughtful. It’s not that he ate the plums, it’s that his wife was saving them for breakfast. It’s not an ode to plums, in a John Keats manner, it’s a humble ode to marriage. Mundane things make a difference; I’m sorry I ate your breakfast. His humble “Forgive me” tells us what kind of husband the poet is. The lack of punctuation renders it even more humble – this is a tiny, insignificant moment in their married life, yet he’s raised it to something else. I particularly like how he ends with their taste. The last line lingers like a fading note of a song. I can almost taste a cold sweet plum now. And not in a smoothie.
A final note: this distinctive and brief poem is so ubiquitous it makes it ripe for parody. There are so many out there, and my family is no exception. No one in the house can finish anything off without leaving a smart aleck note like this one:
This Is Just To Say
I have eaten
all the Cougar Mountain Cookies
on top of the fridge
bet you would have liked some
they were delish
Of course that’s just us. Poet Erica-Lynn Gambino has a better parody:
This Is Just to Say
I have just
asked you to
get out of my
Nice, eh? OK, so I’m off track of my food poems. I’ll try to get another one up tomorrow. I’d love to hear other people’s favorites. Read “Osso Bucco” by Billy Collins. I’ve already done some of his poetry, but there is no better homage to gustatory satisfaction and contentment than that one.
I’ve noticed that no one writes poems about kale smoothies. That should have been a clue before I started this cleanse.
Today is day 4 of my liquid meal week. Although I know you’re dying to hear about my pureed cucumber, lemon and cashew shake that was dinner last night to tell you about my gym.
My gym is totally ghetto. I love to tell people about – it’s like an over-the-top parody of a bad gym in a sitcom. It’s cheap, and I mean crazy cheap. Let’s put it this way, taking my kids to Starbucks for a hot beverage and a pastry each would cost more than I pay per month. But never have the words “you get what you pay for” rang so true.
It’s a hideous building. I think it used to be a tire store or something. I know the aerobics room used to be a liquor store, and when that went out of business, the gym annexed it and now I do body pump and an occasional yoga class where people used to buy plastic bottles of Popov vodka. I have NEVER showered at the gym, and unless I’m looking to get a staph infection, I never will. It’s just plain not sanitary. The gym is staffed with lots of incredibly disinterested folks, who seem to change weekly. They’ll sigh and look annoyed if you tell them there are no more paper towels in the dispenser or the ladies room is on fire or anything else that interrupts their conversation. When it rains, the staff place buckets around the gym, on treadmills and rowers, to catch the roof leaks, rendering 20% of the machines out of commission on a rainy day. This is Seattle. We have a lot of rainy days.
The personal trainers are particularly bad, with a few exceptions. They will take each member through a complimentary “customized workout” when they join, during which there will be a heavy sales pitch for more sessions and various supplements and powders that will enhance your workout. The customized workout is always the same. I’ve been there enough that I see when they are doing the twisty thing with a medicine ball, I know squats with the hand weights are next. Never mind if you have back issues, or other problems. It’s all the same. I did my complimentary session with a meathead who had me do something so bad to my back, I could barely walk for a week and my doctor told me I was an idiot to even try it. So now I do my own workout, or the one that I got from an awesome trainer I found outside of the gym.
So why do I go? Beside the crazy cheapness? Well, that is a big part. I’d feel really guilty about not going to an expensive gym. So it makes sense to pay less to NOT go to my gym, right? Besides that, it’s all about the people. Not the staff. The other gym goers. The beauty of the cheap gym, is that it takes all comers. It’s one of the few really diverse places in our corner of Seattle. I used to go to a fancier gym, closer in my hood. Weekday mornings, it was packed to the gills with fit affluent mommies toned within an inch of their life. Evenings and weekends it was the fit daddies working the treadmills. Everyone was between 30-45, and everyone was white.
Not so, my hellhole gym. It is packed with, well, everyone. In the hours I go, it has a ton on senior citizens. I love the old guys on the treadmills, walking so slowly, in their chinos and cotton sweaters. They look like Mr. Rogers. Yesterday, I helped one guy off – his oxygen tank tube kept getting in the way. The old ladies meet for low, low, low impact aerobics, or as a call it, “shuffling around the floor to show tunes” or take turns on the weight machines. One of them has one of those wheeled walker things that is also a seat, and she moves it around, from machine to machine, with her tiny dog sitting in the basket, panting the whole time. No one seems to mind. It’s also cheap enough to get high school and college kids, lifting weights for some teams, I imagine. During the weekday mornings, where my old gym was bereft of men, there are plenty. Some are unemployed – again, it’s so cheap this is do-able, but some, I imagine are waiters, night shifters and other service industry folks. Sometimes I have to wait for a treadmill when the Muslim women in their headscarves are on a roll. The Chinese women hog the crappy sauna, and never lower their voices, despite the sign. A heated discussion was happening yesterday when one woman jabbed me in the leg while I was near dozing in the heat. She wanted to know how to pronounce the last name of her new doctor. Her English was ok, but she was going to meet a Dr. Cao after and she didn’t know if it was “Cow” or “Chow.” The locker room is like that – all ages, colors, ethnicities. It’s fun.
I see my neighbors at the gym, the ones I like. The ones who don’t or can’t pony up for the fancy one nearby. My friend L., regularly picks me up so we can go together or sweat through a class. We motivate each other. My husband is being swayed by the brand spanking new facility down the road that is CLEAN and has crazy amenities like towels. But I think I’ll stay with my ghetto gym. Besides, the new one is 3 times as expensive and then I’d really feel bad about not going.
So today, I’m enjoying not going to my filthy, cheap, diverse gym. Tonight I’ll be having a blueberry and spinach smoothie for dinner. And since diet and exercise are the key to healthy, I’m feeling in pretty good shape.
The juicer arrived today. The UPS man dropped it on the step. I’m a little intimidated. It’s for week 2 of my cleanse, where I’ll only be allowed one solid meal (lunch) and two liquid ones. Liquid dinner will be things like kale-and-apple smoothie. Not sure this is going to fly.
I’m really not missing the caffeine. As expected, it’s the sugar and bread group I’m craving. Our dinners this week are fine – last night was lamb chops, the night before salmon, and the ubiquitous chicken tonight. No cows on the cleanse. I made a big pot of lentils and spinach that lasted several nights and looked exactly like the remnants of the moss that was power-washed off my roof by a condescending man with a beard yesterday. I’d say it tasted better, but I didn’t actually taste the moss, so it’s 50/50. I made the kids a side dish orzo with butter and parmesan (they are sick of lentils) and I almost ripped the spoon out of their little hands. Why did I never appreciate noodles before? O butter and cheese, I worship thee.
Also, I’ve had it with these damn Girl Scouts. It’s bad enough a hundred of the little green-sashed fiends hit me up for orders. Now I have to run the gauntlet of their sad little faces every time I go to the grocery store. They block every exit like they are protesting health and wellness. Their mothers stand behind them, glaring accusingly as I duck in for more quinoa and kale. Look, ladies, you’re the ones pimping out your girls as cookie whores. Do you think I want to pass up a box of Thin Mints? Shouldn’t there be a mandatory corridor through, like there is at abortion clinics? This is just cruel. I can’t be held responsible for my actions if you’re waving Samoas at me.
How will I make it through juice week?
I’m on Day 2 of the Dr. Junger Clean program. It’s a month long detox and cleansing diet program. The gist is, no dairy, wheat, caffeine, alcohol, sugar and any other good stuff. This first week is just the “Elimination Week” where we eliminate all those toxic foods. Next week the real fun begins – breakfast and dinner are liquid, and not the fun beer or wine kind. Fresh squeezed juices and smoothies with exciting ingredients like kale and blueberries. A normal meal of certain kinds of lean protein (no beef) and fruits and salad for lunch. A mandatory twelve hour gap between dinner and breakfast. It’s enough to make someone go Charlie Sheen on their family members.
The main impetus behind this cleanse is my husband. He had some kind of come-to-Jesus moment, but in his own Jewish health nut kind of way. He was reading his sacred text (Men’s Health) and was swept away by the writer’s proselytizing experience with Clean. He had to buy the book read more about toxicity and intestinal flora. The doctor/author promises immunity from cancer, depression, constipation, and every other ailment. Apparently, our skin will glow so brightly that you’ll be able to read by us in the dark. We’ll be able to withstand earthquakes and conservative talk show hosts. I think it gives you the power of flight and invisibility as well; come to think of it, we may actually become Charlie Sheen after the cleanse, with tiger blood and Adonis DNA. (This may be an exaggeration; I got bored reading the book so I skipped some parts.)
So far, Day 2 is not so bad. I gave up the evil Diet Coke a couple of weeks ago. (I do this about twice a year, and then fall off the wagon and get pulled back into it’s artificial brain-killing fold). Today I had a smoothie with coconut milk, berries and avocado for breakfast. (Yes, sounds weird but good.) Not missing the caffeine yet, though my poor husband can’t say the same. It was fun watching him attempt to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the kids’ lunch without benefit of coffee. It took about 20 minutes as he just stared at the bread for a while before moving slowly to the fridge to figure out what the next ingredient was. I can already see what will be my temptation. SUGAR. And bread. And maybe the dairy. I have this holy vision in my head of an English muffin, slathered with butter and drizzled with honey. Mmmm….
By next week, I’m pretty sure I’ll be willing to sell one of the kids for one.
I’ll try to keep the blog updated as my journey to intestinal and spiritual health continues.
So it’s that time of the year when I interview high school students for admission to my alma mater, Middlebury College. After doing this for about 10 years as a general alumni interviewer, I somehow agreed to be the Washington State committee chairperson. Meaning I get the list of a couple of hundred high school seniors applying to Midd from Washington, and I find an alumna/alumnae in their area to interview them. I also invariably get a pile of interview candidates myself, especially in the final week when I get all the kids whose interviewers bailed out at the last minute.
I love interviewing. It is so damn entertaining. It also helps keep your eye on the ball as a parent. Not because the goal is to have your kid get into a great college (which would be nice) but to have a kid who is a FUNCTIONING YOUNG ADULT. Who cares if they get an A in English/Biology/Astrophysics? Can they shake hands? Make eye contact? Hold up one end of a conversation? Do they have an interest? Any interest is fine. Now, can they articulate this interest clearly and intelligently? Kid, if you can, you’re in. I can’t guarantee college, but you’re going to do fine in life.
One thing that I’ve found disappointing in our new economy is the lack of jobs for teens. When I started interviewing, back in the early 1990s, every kid had at least a summer job. I worked at the Gap for minimum wage one summer, and worked at a local ski shop during the winter. Now that seems to be a rarity. All those retail jobs have been snapped up by college grads or adults with families. High school students have jammed schedules during the school year, and their summers seem to be filled with vacations and all sorts of prepackaged enriching trips and experiences. Kudos to those who do a full time volunteer gig at a summer camp or service organization. But few have a crummy job, which I think is fantastic experience and matures kids in a hurry. A job where a teen has to interact with the public is invaluable. A jerky boss, boorish customers, bratty kids – these all bring about frustrating situations that have to be handled on the fly. Even the most laudable summer programs- building houses in Ecudor with a church group, wilderness mountaineering with NOLS, marine biology studies on a research vessel – shield kids from these realities. The students who have been lifeguards at the kiddie pool, waited tables, worked on a landscaping crew – they’ve got some new social skills. I recently interviewed a young woman who taught beginning skiing at our local mountain. First day, she was presented with a bunch of crying 4-year-olds, one of whom cried and shied away from her the whole time. The parents dropped them off for their lesson and left. Think of the situation: she had taken the training of how to teach the kids to ski, but no experience in childcare and parent management. She couldn’t call on her own parents to bail her out, as one can in a purchased program experience – she had to deal with all the kids, then have a discussion with the parent of the cryer at the end of the lesson. Then see them the following week. And the week after that. At the end of 8 weeks of lessons, all those kids were skiing happily down the bunny hill, but the instructor probably learned more. It was 8 weeks of being an adult.
My friends love hearing my stories about the duds. These are the kids whose parents I want to call after the interview, and say, “Um, what the hell have you been doing for the last 17 years? It isn’t working.” Some kids are just immature and have zero awareness of how to conduct themselves in an interview. (Q: “So have you visited the college?” A: “Yeah, I did one of those stay-with-a-student things in the dorms. I got SO drunk.”) Then there are the multiple candidates I’ve had who have some fantastic item/club/volunteer project on their resume, and when asked about it, say, “Oh I just did that for my college application. I really have no idea what the organization/club/project does.” If your parents have paid for a great educational experience, use it. Have something to say about it. I had one kid who went to France on a school-sponsored program. The only thing he could say about the whole trip was that he ate a really good crepe and it was windy at the train station. Really? That was money well spent. Another did a home stay in Spain, living there for two weeks with a Spanish family. She deemed the experience, “Amazing.” I asked her to explain more. Answer? “I can’t really. It was just…just…amazing.” Surely you can tell me just one thing that struck you, that was interesting, challenging, exciting, fun, difficult? “Not really. Just the whole thing was amazing.” FAIL.
I can’t believe I’m going to sound like an old person, but some of the old classic advice our parents gave us is still invaluable. Show up on time. Don’t dress like you’ve been camping for the last six months or living in a tent city unless you have been. Send a goddamn thank you note – even email will do. Have some questions that will indicate you’ve at least read the brochure on the college. Yes, I know you’re applying to 35 colleges, but when you ask “Where, again, is Middlebury? New Hampshire?” it just doesn’t reflect well on you. Have at least one decently challenging book you’ve read that you enjoyed and can talk about – and all props to J.K. Rowling, please don’t say it’s Harry Potter. Great series – just not what I’m looking for in a high school senior’s reading material. (I’ve had at least 3 students bring this up when I ask about books).
I hope my own kids can carry a conversation at age 17. I hope they don’t answer their cellphones during a college interview. I hope they thank the interviewer for taking the time to meet with them at a coffee shop and for buying them a hot chocolate. Most of all, I hope they have enough interest or passion for something – sports, books, a class, a trip, a person – and that they can express that interest. Holy cats, I hope they are not the sort of people that make ethnic/homophobic/other minority group slurs during an interview. Or ever. (Yes, this has happened.) I hope they are interesting and mature young adults.
If you’ve come to this blog because I’m interviewing you, and you Googled my name, congrats. You should always do that for an interview. Know that I’ve looked you up as well – might be time to rethink that Facebook profile pic of you with that beer bong, know what I’m saying? When you meet me, look me in the eye, shake my hand and say, “I read your blog.” You’re already ahead of the game.