January 27, 2005


Dr Kwan, our histology professor, has a cat named Rusty that he shows pictures of, whenever he so chooses. His lectures go something like this:

"This is a pascinian corpuscle, you can tell because it looks like an onion"
click, new slide
"these eosinophils look like christmas cookies, with little red sugar granules, don't get them confused with the paneth cells of the crypts of Leiberkuhn that look like little cinnamon flavored tic tacs"
click, new slide
"the villi of the rumen look like french fries"
click, new slide
"Rusty likes to play with his toys. Sometimes he tries to have sex with them"
click, new slide
"To know the difference between the cross sections of the villi and the crypts, just think that villi look like kiwi fruits with seeds in the middle and crypts look like strawberries with seeds on the outside"
click, new slide
"Just think of the cytoplasm as an egg white, the nucleus as the yolk, and then that makes these Nissle bodies sprinkled pepper"
click, new slide
"Don't you think these plasma cells look like the spooks of a whale?"
click, new slide
"That is rusty, my son. Rusty Kwan. He is asleep on the chair in this picture. Anyway--"
click, new slide
"The plasma membrane is like raisin bread with yummy fat raisins or proteins throughout"
click, new slide
"Axons of nerves in cross section look like cheerios, and you can tell elastic fiber because it looks like lasagna noodles."
click, new slide
"See these refridgerators? They are filiform papillae of the tongue"

January 25, 2005

Cumberland Island, Reflections on 3 visits

I had been there twice before, once as a five year old in a red bathing suit with white polkadots and a ruffle around the waist, and then again, briefly, when I was eleven, as we sailed Feather back north to the Chesapeake. Cumberland Island, sixth barrier island from the north, nearly on the Georgia/Florida border.
What do I remember? From the first time, I remember staying at the Grayfield Inn (although the name of the Inn is not something I remembered). It was a bed and breakfast, the first I had ever been to. I remember sitting in the front parlor as my dad checked in, and being served pink lemonade. I hadn’t realized that lemonade came in pink, but was most disappointed that it tasted just the same as the yellow variety. My feet didn’t touch the floor, and neither did my three year-old sister’s, whose bathing suit that year was a little turquoise bikini with pastel-colored seahorses floating through the pattern. I remember watching a lady on the wide green lawn in front of the Grayfield Inn feeding wild turkey and deer at dusk. I remember wanting to clamber in the live oaks all day, but eventually having to leave the leafy haven and follow my parents onto the burning white sand dunes, where my feet never felt cool enough, to the beaches. The trees of the island are laden and laced with Spanish moss, but I think the memory of that must be a memory tacked on to my Cumberland Island memories from some other stashed-away, what-Georgia-is-like memory. I don’t have any particular memories of the trees’ dressing.
The next time we were there, we stopped, it seems like, for just part of the day. I know Sunsinger was with us because I have a picture of my sister taking a picture of Hannah and Dan, the children on Sunsinger, waving their arms in front of Dungeness, the Carnegie’s ruined mansion. I don’t remember clearly, but I have a vague feeling that my parents may have been arguing that day and that the island was a relieving place to evade close-quarters and quarrels. I think I felt run-down, and not as excited as the other kids. I may have even been more independent that day, lagging behind the two families or blazing ahead by myself. I was reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin at the time, and I think I placed the story on Cumberland Island as I remembered it as a small child. I wasn’t nearly as impressed with Dungeness this time. It was just several unfinished brick walls, covered in vines, with chimneys and empty windows. It was hardly spectacular, and there weren’t slave quarters surrounding the house like I had inserted into my memories with the help of my book. I must have remembered it then as something more grand from my five-year-old memories. Strange how you can remember remembering something from times past, but the original memory can no longer be remembered. (When I was two and my sister had just been born, an adult asked me if I remembered what it was like to be in my mommy’s tummy. And I replied matter-of-factly, “Yes, it was like dancing in yogurt,” which seems like a reasonable answer. I don’t remember being in the womb now, but I can’t imagine making something like that up. I am pretty certain that I did remember it then.) I remember more feeling and less picture from my last visit to Cumberland Island.
This time, I arrived on Feather again, with my dad, and three friends, but I came twice as old as the last time I was there. I told my friends that Cumberland Island was a beautiful place, that there were wild horses and armadillos that lived there, that there was a beach with dunes, and old mansions. I had seen the horses once before (I don’t remember if it was when I was five or eleven), but had never seen an armadillo there. How did I know they existed? Had someone else on my previous visits seen one? Had I read it somewhere? No matter; this time they abounded. We saw one the first night, rooting around the palmettos, and six more the next day—big, little, fast and bouncy like rabbits, snuffling and ignoring us like hogs, all very strange, cute, and scaly. They were the highlights of our days—in the evenings on Feather, we would all recount the doings of those little fellows and eagerly imagine having a “dillo” as a pet. Ben was certain that the one he touched would swim aboard to join us at any moment.
Though the ‘dillos provided ample entertainment and excitement, what struck me most about my first walk through the live oak forests again, were the saw palmettos. The jungle green leaves, like jazz-hands in every direction, glowed with the sun shining through them. They happily reached out and waved at us on the path, they spread low and covered the ground with their wide palms, and millions more extended in every which-way to greet the warm buggy air with delight. They were as tall or taller than me, and were impenetrable on either side of the path (except to the armadillos)—how could I have not remembered these glorious plants that must have blinded my vision to all else when I was shorter?! Their brilliance, even in the shade, was blissful. From the boat, our view of the island read: brackish water, tidal shoreline, palmetto!, live oak canopy, sky. That middle layer was just so bright and green! It beckoned to be walked amongst. So we did. We walked several miles all three days we were there, always enjoying the peace of the island forest, especially after walks along the beaches where crashing waves bellowed in our ears incessantly. I could almost taste my adulthood in the way that I wanted to walk, walk, walk through that place. My wonder hadn’t died, but when I was five, I just wanted to stay put, playing forever in a single tree. When I was eleven, I reluctantly trekked to the ruins with the grown-ups. I don’t know what I would have rather done, but it always seemed like the adults had such an agenda and walking was always part of it. This time, I enjoyed walking for walking’s sake. It wasn’t so much the place we were getting to, but enjoying the minutia along the way. Noticing how the lichen was light pink on one tree and deep magenta on another. Looking at the different bromeliads and ferns perched along the oak branches, snow-like. Seeing how individuality within species made the forest burst with interest for me. On and on I wanted to go; each turn in the path was new. Sometimes we came across marshland and horses, and, once, I saw a four foot snake jump from one branch to another as we rounded the bend. I loved continuing on, taking each step in. It was like unwrapping books—the telltale shape of the present doesn’t give away what the content is; likewise, the expectation of similar green live oak and saw palmetto paths didn’t lessen the excitement at finding new arrangements of these plants.
I climbed in a few live oaks, because the shapes were so bent and inviting. I have always loved to climb in trees. But this time, I didn’t want to play in them all day like I did when I was five. I was impatient to explore the next place, to follow the path farther into the forest, to dance on the beach and crush the washed-up shells under my heels and toes. That’s something I liked to do when I was eleven. EL DESTRUCTO! my parents called me. Despite the destruction I was causing, I didn’t feel like I was destroying anything too badly. The beach was littered with shells, too many similar, boring ones for anyone to care about. And how satisfying to feel the lightly curved dome crush under your foot into the sand! Like popping bubble-wrap.
I hadn’t remembered the smell of the paper factory that blew in from a few miles away on the mainland. All the paper factories we passed on Feather the first time down the coast seemed to be located in industrial yucky places. I must have forgotten that lingering nasty smell from my Cumberland Island memories because it just doesn’t fit with the rest of the lovely-place memories. Though my newest impression of Dungeness was better than my eleven-year-old impression. It was lovely, even though it was just walls and ivy and window holes. We had a nice picnic in the grass of the old calico pergola, finishing off lunch with headstands and cartwheels.

These similarities and differences of impression all reflect me, Alyssum, at different points in my life, though I feel like they also all reflect me, Alyssum, at every point in my life. I think I still live my five-year-oldness at times. That precocious, jovial kid who liked to play, play, play and watch animals at dusk still makes her appearance fairly often. The independent, book-worm, sailor girl is still me, without a doubt. Though I’d like to think I’ve wisened and matured a bit since half my life ago, I’m really not all that different. Changes in friends, wishes, and goings-on are some of the few things that mark my aging. And of course, changes in impressions. Slight variations in the way my memory plays itself out, and the way it chooses to interpret the present and store it for the future.

Triple Diagnosis, Tanzania Spring 2001

“You have a lot of friends in there,” he announced, referring to the critters living in my gut. I was sitting in a relatively comfortable and clean front room of a Tanzanian clinic in Arusha, when the squat, Indian doctor came back with his diagnoses. Too ill to be amused or surprised, I wearily accepted the prescription he handed me and left to fill it before falling into bed to recover over the next week. How did I get there?
The fun began one day when, after living for two and a half months in a rural homestay and in our tents, Stephanie and I decided to take a break from the world surrounding us, and pay to spend a day in shwank, luxurious, quiet, pool-side solitude. We paid dearly. Not only did we shell out our two thousand shillings for the touristy privilege but our crisp crimson sunburns mocked our attempt to shirk the cries outside the Novotel walls for mzungu (white person) to buy “batiki”, or for “sistah” to take a “tax”. As good-humored gals, we were able to laugh off the pain for the first couple days. Until we ran out of aloe. And until I was awakened one night by Stephanie’s concern,
“Amana, are you okay?” I drowsily roused myself from my half-slumber state and as I put conscious effort into comprehending Stephanie’s question, I winced in pain from the burn on my back, and wondered why so many dogs were barking and howling outside.
“You were moaning, Amana, are you okay?” she repeated.
“Oh, I’m sorry. Yeah, I’m okay, my back just hurts.”
“It’s alright. I just didn’t know if you were in pain or what. I thought maybe you were just listening to the dogs.” I tried to figure out what the logic of her statement was as I settled myself down to the rest of the still, sharp night.
Next morning we were up early to meet the other 18 students, the drivers, and Reese, our academic director, at the office so we could leave for Yaida Chini where we would spend three days with the tongue-clicking, hunter-gatherering Hadzabe. On our walk to the office, the long rains began, which made Stephanie and I late. While every Tanzanian in Arusha ran for cover, she and I plodded along, ears back like the uncomfortable pack-laden donkeys we walked past in the streets in the downpour. Thus we began the drive soaking wet. The interminable drive. For hours, the worst part was feeling my back sear with pain every time we hit a divot in the tarmac road, as it hit my seat back. My burn was taken to a new high—or low, depending on your perspective—and it felt like I had ten billion paper-cuts where my naked skin had dared to show itself to the sun in this modest country. In addition to the sunburn, I was tired and sore from trying to sleep the night before in one position in my cheap, concaved, mosquito-netted cot to avoid agitation and more whimpering. So I slept in the front seat of one of the four land-rovers. This meant that when we left the tarmac, only an hour into the drive, my head hit the ceiling and the window every third second as we swerved left and right to avoid the unavoidable potholes, water runoffs and ditches. When we stopped for lunch, at a dusty, tin roofed duka (store), my classmates piled out to enjoy a tepid Fanta passion in the shade, and some maharage na wali (beans and rice), but I spent the time taking advantage of the metal box in the sun as a bed. It was hot personified, but at least it was still, and I could stretch out in the back seat.
On the road again, my car mates decided to test the reactions of Tanzanians as we drove past, waving frantically with both hands like we had seen plenty of kids do to us. There was a rainbow of expressions shown to our display; from drop-jawed disbelief at the crazy wazungu (white people), and smiling faces and friendly waves back, to kids booking it across fields toward us to whistle and scream and wave back at us as their herd of goat and cows moseyed off in the opposite direction. Fun as that was, it didn’t last very long. We stopped one last time for gas in a place that looked to me like a western ghost town suddenly populated by Tanzanians for a movie. At the gas pump, a man attempted to barter with Reese for one of us.
“Either give me five hundred shillings, or give me one of the wazungu for a wife.” Right. (What kind of a deal is that?) Off we drove, none of us newly betrothed, into nowhere.
There are two kinds of mud in Tanzania. The good kind looks like terracotta earthenware and driving on it is like driving on ice. As the rain cloud moved steadily in front of our caravan, we were rudely provided with a constant track of this slick, ice-like road. We’d fishtail one way then the next, the driver swerving left and right just to stay on the road, and all the passengers staring open-mouthed, wide-eyed, and white knuckled at the fact that we managed to avoid sliding off the road and flipping the land-rover. From our ice-like roads, we came to a river, the opposite bank of which was made of the other kind of mud, misleadingly called black-cotton soil. Such a name conjures thoughts of warm winter nights by the fire in brand new fuzzy black cotton flannel pajamas. The soil is not comforting like that. It is infamous for reaching towards unsuspecting wheels driving on compact, dry, hard land and ripping them mercilessly from this luxurious state of driving into utter land-rover hell. Once a vehicle enters black cotton soil, only the best driving, the most pitifully pleading prayers, and good luck can get it out again. So, on the relatively safe, red, icey-mud side of the river, the drivers poised their automobiles to survey the situation. Together, they sighed heavy deep breaths, shook their heads, looked at the far bank, discussed possible maneuvers, and looked disapprovingly once more at the inevitable. Each car took a deep breath on our side of the river, and then plunged down the bank, forded the river and gave its all up the other side. Not that this tactic actually worked. No, we spent a good half-hour diving the four cars one by one into the mocking black mud that merely spat back in our faces and pulled the car treads deeper. Eventually, via the aforesaid talent, prayers, and luck, we all managed somehow to clamber up the hellish river banks and continue on toward camp in Yaida Chini where our other academic director, Anna, was waiting for us.
The next obstacle was a stretch three hours long of roads filled with cobbles and boulders. Some of that section was flat, but I remember most of it crept steadily downward so that it seemed like there was no way out of where we were headed. We slowed to a crawl, but the cars still creaked and groaned with every meter forward. The same crunching shudder of school buses was echoed in my head, as my brain crashed against my skull with every lurch of the vehicle. Just as I started to close my eyes against the interminable jarring,
“SPRANGK!” exploded one of our shocks. With one shock missing, the jarring became more intolerable and irritating and then,
“SPRANGK!” again thirty minutes later. Every half-hour, a shock exploded on the steep bumpy path, until, what do you know, there were none left. We all felt like popcorn in a hot buttered skillet. Just when our eyes became accustomed to darting up and down and side to side in anticipation of the next lump in the way (to keep vision level), we came to flat, open bushland. Acacia thorns tore at anything that dared to leave the safety of the car interior, and we were again driving on ice-mud again, but other than that, it was a welcome respite from the bouldered road.
We came to a puddle, as we’d come to many before, but it was deeper than most and the petrol-engined rover managed to promptly splash some water up into itself and stall out. To the rescue our vehicle came; good, trusty and exhaust billowing diesel-engined land rover! We push-started the petrol car and proudly the caravan trekked for another hour in the waning sunlight of the day. And then we hit what the drivers explained as a dead end (it looked like the rest of the bushland to me) and realized that we had taken a wrong turn back by the random acacia, and so we had to retrace our steps for another hour, as the sun set on the horizon.
At this point, sunburn was forgotton, obstacles we had passed through were forgiven, but my carmates and I were so tired, cramped, weary, hungry, and worn-out; all we wanted was to find camp, eat some grub and crash out in our tents. Suddenly the land-rovers all stopped and we had a brief moment of elation as we prepared to grab our tents and sleeping bags to set up and go to sleep. But we were not at camp. The night was silent and dark, and there was no welcoming smell of food. The cars had stopped, and the lights had been turned out and the engines had been shut off. But the reasoning was not that we had found camp, rather that we were a long way from the middle of nowhere and still had not found it. The drivers hoped to hear camp, or see a light from it, with the cars dark and quiet. Thus we sat deaf, dumb, and blind in the night, except for the thick umbrella of starlight above and surrounding us. After several minutes of not hearing or seeing the camp, but enjoying the nighttime sky, we left. I don’t know what prompted the drivers to continue into the hinterlands, but their intuition was rewarded because we shortly saw a lantern! Everyone clapped and celebrated. And did so again! And we almost did a third time but realized that if the light we saw was really a lantern light-beacon, we’d be there by now. Alas, after ten minutes of driving toward the light, it became two lights and half an hour later we were reunited with our beloved Anna, who had come to find us in her land rover. From then, the drive only took an hour and a half into camp where we exhaustedly set up tents and fell into them.
Everyone slept long and hard, except me who longed to sleep but hardly did. Come morning, I blundered to the food tent, wanted to vomit at the smell of breakfast, blearily declared myself unfit to go hunting and gathering with the Hadzabe, and crawled back to my sleeping bag. I checked my temperature—oh, wow, 103.5oF, no wonder I feel like there is an axe in my skull—and slept. Once the other students went off into the bush with a short man who carried a bow and wore only an ochered loincloth, Reese got me to move my bag to the food tent so that they could keep an eye on me, and so the camp cook could make me some ginger tea. I had had the tea once before during my time in Tanzania when I felt a bit under the weather in Tarangire National Park. The strength of the tea is akin to body odor, although not as repulsive—just strong. I drank what I could, but most of it came back up. At one point between hot and cold spells I awoke to see a Datoga lady standing nearby decked out in all her finery: brass ankles half-way to her knees, ivory bangles and rings on both arms and hands, beaded bicep wraps, more arm brass bangles, a comb in her hair, and large scarification marks encircling her eyes. Anna took a picture at the woman’s request, so I’m fairly sure it wasn’t just a fever-induced hallucination. I vaguely remember Reese and Anna discussing how little water there was here in at camp, and how if I were really sick for more than a few hours, they wouldn’t be able to keep me hydrated. Next thing I know, we’re back in my favorite place, the car, and we’re headed to Haydom 3 hours away—the nearest hospital. Another girl, Elewa, joined us because she had a headache, and the academic directors didn’t want to take any chances since only one car could afford to leave the group. A small Hadzabe man showed us the way. He sat in the front seat with the driver, bouncing in his seat, clasping his bow and poison arrows, pointing this way or that around bushes and trees as I slept in the back. I woke up drenched with the sweat of my fever breaking—my sleeping bag was soaked through—and headed into the Lutheran Missionary Hospital for diagnosis, as Reese gave the Hadzabe man some coins and his thanks. (I wonder how the man got back home? It took us several hours by car to get here, and there were no buses back to the man’s homeland. I suppose he walked, and I feel bad for that). I find it amusing that, as the daughter of an emergency room physician, I had not yet had occasion to exploit the services of a hospital as a patient, and that my first such experience was literally in the middle of Africa. Where exactly?!?
The moment we stepped inside, the smell of humanity hit us over the head like a ton of bricks: that putrid smell of body odor, vomit, smokey-goat, fecal material, urine and bad breathe all rolled into one. Ah, yes, the smell of humanity. Nothing quite like it. Hmmm. Quite different from the sterile, metallic smell I usually associate with hospitals. There were people crammed into the first room. One man lay across the bench with a puddle of his vomit under his cheek and caked on the floor where it had dripped. A woman with a raffia-looking skirt made of thing strips of leather bawled and moaned in agony. A comatose man on a stretcher lay oblivious to everything else. He had an IV, and his fluid bag was held up by a knocked-together wooden stand. People swarmed around me as I struggled to stay upright in my delerium. A nurse called us into a room, before others, probably because we were wazungu, and asked me what was wrong in Kiswahili.
“Mimi ni mgonjwa sana” (I am a very sick person), is all I could muster, and Reese filled in the details. I remember her writing my name on a card to file. She spelled it all wrong, Emlisisrm Pole (Pole means empathy), but I didn’t correct her since I doubted they would ever have to get my file out again for another visit.
It was Sunday, so no doctor was on duty. Thus, they could only do lab-work. I sat on the stoops of the lab building for a few minutes watching two amputee eight year olds have a mock sword fight with their pink-bandaged stub arms. They seemed to be the happiest people there. Inside the building, the lab man lead me to a table, and then scrounged around in an aluminum box of sharp implements. Nothing was sterilized or at least packaged separately. I reasoned that viruses like HIV can’t stay alive outside the body in dry conditions, and anyway, the blood that the piercing object would be touching would be squeezed onto a slide anyway, and so I allowed him to prick my finger with a scalpel blade for a malaria spot. I collected a disgusting sample of my stool and gave it to the lab man. He checked me for malaria and ameba (both negative) and I was sent away. Wary of bringing me, a sickling with diarrhea, back to camp where water was inaccessible, Reese decided we should just go back towards Arusha. And so our sixty-six mile journey to Babati began. Only sixty-six miles! But it took us seven hours. The entire road from Haydom to Babati was atrocious; made of ice-mud, two-foot deep ruts to get stuck in, and potholes that would break our shocks if we had any. I slept—to the amazement of my companions—but was vaguely aware that at one point the land rover fell into the wheel ruts that our driver had been so carefully avoiding by driving with one wheel on the median between the ruts, and one on the banks of the road. The land-rover was nearly lying on its side, the ruts were so deep. When it happened, it was dark, and we were in bush country. Nonetheless, within twenty minutes, two men appeared from nowhere and helped us dig the tires out with sticks and hoes. I was still in the back seat, sliding off the seat in my sleeping bag as they rocked the rover to safety. Several more hours later, past midnight, we arrived at Babati where a gracious hotel manager made us ugali (Tanzanian play-doh-like porridge) and maharage (beans). That night at the hotel I came to a definite conclusion: you know you are sick when your urine is brown and your stool is yellow and watery.
The next day, the roads weren’t nearly as bad, and we had tarmac to drive on for the last hour. Once in Arusha, we stopped at an Indian doctor’s clinic where they used more sterile means to extract blood from my finger, and collected another disgusting sample of my stool. I sat and leaned against the wall in the lobby, waiting. The little old doctor emerged in his white coat, and declared, “You have a lot of friends in there. We saw ameba, giardia, and shigella (bacterial dysentery). No wonder you are sick!”. With drugs in hand, I settled into bed to get well at the South African owned Outpost. Two or three days later, the other students came back and trickled in to see how I was faring. One was terribly upset.
“Reese says you have Typhoid fever!! I’ve been so worried!” I wondered how Reese could get the diagnoses so wrong, and assured her that I didn’t, that it was only three other ailments at the same time. Besides, it would be another whole month before I’d come down with Typhoid.…

Ice Storm, Lexington, KY 2003

I heard one branch crash before I went to bed, it fell a foot from my car. As there were plenty more branches hanging with ice precariously above the lot, I moved my car to the road, out of so much harm’s way. As I walked back to my door, the wind blew and icebergs in the trees above me shrieked their torsion. The branches that usually bring me such peace and respite from the city landscape were threatening and creepy. I went to bed and dreamed of trees dropping out of sight, one by one, as the real trees outside provided my subconscious’s soundtrack, cracking and breaking with the weight of the ice.
I woke up and saw a war-torn scene out my windows. Pith and splinters in the road passed for blood and guts, gaping yellow wounds dotted the dark wet bark of the trees where branches and limbs had been peeled off in the night. Our parking lot was strewn with wood and ice, and still there were branches crashing every so often, menacingly warning of the harsh weather beyond my door. I went for a walk to explore this new world, and was instantly humbled into taking baby steps on the ice-pebbled sidewalks to avoid slipping. Sirens honked and whistled as emergencies took their toll and called for help around town. Falling sleet made a slushy sound, softer than the ice it formed, belying the destruction it caused.
On one home, there were Christmas lights still adorning the eves. They were the white ones that drip from the main line in angled threes and fours, imitating the icicles that we rarely have in Kentucky but love to see during the Yule season. They were sad, sad—drooping mightily and yanked from their staples by the real icicles that mocked them mercilessly. The heavy frozen water mocked everything, though. The tall, stout oaks were snapped like pick-up-sticks. Only blades of grass and the smallest saplings escaped the breakage rampage. They were encased in glass, like museum objects, a perfect half-inch of ice displaying their fine tenderness. One such sapling caught my attention, and pleased that it was not harmed, I started to pinch the ice chunks off it’s little limbs to lessen it’s weight, as if to stop its growth from being stunted. A few rounds slid off readily when I bent the limb to break the ice, but then with one snap, a twig broke off in my hand with the ice, and I felt very bad for having interfered. This was the ice’s war, and I was just a spectator. I continued down the street.
In front of one house, a tree had uprooted, torn down two electric poles, swiped the side off a roof and demolished an SUV parked below. The auto had its emergency lights flashing for no other reason than to hail passersby to the party going on in the lawn. A supermarket cart had been turned into a bonfire receptacle, and a keg of beer had been brought in for the occasion. Several college-aged kids and a TV crew congregated in the yard around the blaze. “Man, sucks about his car, but this is great!” I overheard. Though I smirked, acknowledging the irony of the situation, it struck me that this would probably be the same kind of guy to say “Man, sucks about the dead people, but shooting guns is great!” With all the arboreal carnage surrounding me, and impending “possible war with Iraq” blaring from the media for weeks, I couldn’t help but think such thoughts.
I watched a branch fall, crashing and tearing with it more branches, sending a shower of frozen water glass before it. It occurred to me that this was simple. There was no fanfare, there were no instant replays, no slow-motion repeats. There was no one heralding the fall, pointing it out and preaching its horror. This was not television, so hyped up and sensational, it was just outside, the day.
I started walking towards the arboretum where friends had spent the wee hours of the morning jumping into the stand of wild, tall grasses.
“It was amazing,” they had told me, “the ice broke slowly beneath us as we landed, and it made a perfect cushion.”
On the metal electric pole by the hotel I watched bug sized drops of water wriggle underneath the sheet of ice stuck to the pole. They were pulled by gravity to join the creeks in the street, but fell jerkily as they navigated between the frozen pole and ice. It reminded me of blood vessels, and if the water was the blood of the ice, then the streets were full of blood, too, and not just pithy innards of the trees. The war was between trees and ice, and there were casualties on both sides.
As I walked on Alumni towards the arboretum, I had to walk in the grass since there was no sidewalk. The grass attacked my boots with every step. Each blade was covered with a thick layer of ice, but none were crushed because they were ironically supported by the ice itself. It was like a foreign legion that had gone into a weak country and had given the weak grasses their arms and taught them how to fight. The clear-covered green soldiers stood alert and attentive, waiting for my kick-step when the ice would launch here and there like shrapnel and the grass with bases blown apart, would hug my ankles and toes, top heavy and already disenchanted with war. More water blood spattered my pants.
Weeping willows thought they were on the ice’s side, already bowing and sweeping the ground with their branches. They were hopeful when the ice started to pull down other trees. They let the ice coat them, positive that by cooperating they would be spared. But like the Arabs that cooperated with California officials and showed up to register as Arab immigrants in America and were detained for days without reason, the willows lost hope when they witnessed several of their fellow species split in two by the storm.
A small grove of sumac were slathered with an especially thick coating of ice: it was at least a full inch thick all the way around each trunk, limb, twig, nodule. Sumac sticks that would normally be slimmer than my pinky finger were now heavy and fat enough to lay in my open palm, distressed and phallus-like, though not erect. The ice around the main trunks had twisted and turned, crackled and creased as the outer limbs had gained their extra weight throughout the night, causing an illusion of bandage swathed sumacs. Why would the ice cause so much damage, pillage so many other species and then coat this one specie with beautiful bridal-veil bandages?
I reached the stand of wild, tall grasses, and instinctively kicked the base of a still-standing frozen clump, to rid it of so much weight. But the weight of the ice was surrounding the grass, not just the base of the clump, and so, with my kick, the grasses bent in half, bowed over with top-heaviness. I jumped into the stand to experience the “perfect cushion” that my friends had spoken of, but I only crashed through breaking ice and got wet. I tried it a couple more times, but their experience was undoubtedly much different than mine. It made me sad that when I crashed into one clump of tall grass, the lower ice would fall off the next clump, causing it to collapse, which would cause the next clump to collapse, and so on like dominoes. These grasses had stood tall though winter and even the ice storm, and then here I came, barreling into them, and breaking them. For what? I left the stand of grass, cold and ready to go home, tired of seeing so much destruction. I slipped on the black-ice on the pavement, fell and sliced my palm open. Red blood dribbled down my wrist, and stained the pavement, joining the splinters and melting ice there. With a sigh of resignation, I allowed that I too was part of this war, but then walked briskly home, ignoring the beatings of the grass soldiers at my boots, and huffing with disgust when strings of icicles nearly skewered me as they fell from electric lines overhead.

The Bed and the Wind

Deep under the covers
in the warmth, in the comfort
of security and softness
I peek outside and think
“I’m sure some would choose that
but I am here and here is where I
want to stay.”
Perhaps I’ll change my sheets,
maybe I’ll turn up or down the thermostat.
Somenights I’ll sleep nude, other nights
I slip into a flannel nightgown, and socks remain.
--I know I would be okay out there—
but is seems flat, insipid
compared to this soft, beautiful, lumpy
bed of mine, my love, my enjoyment and enrichment.

You know, recently my bed has ripped the covers away
as though to give them to
a sleeper I can’t see on another pillow.
It has its own mind and hangs
the sheets in the wind to air out
when I still want to snuggle in the morning.
The wind is not exciting to me, though it is part of me.
Yeah, that wind bends my arms, whips through my skull
in zephyrs and hurricanes.
I think my bed knows that
and is pushing me to leave its embrace.
Push, push, push
still it allows me to rest there.
One day, though, as I lay down for my
most restful hibernating slumber, I am confronted
with Bed Bugs!
Excuse me, I say………
HEY, I yell to my bed, THIS IS FUCKED UP! You are
not some crappy mosquito netted fifty year old hay
mattress in Africa! You are my bed,
here, at home!
You are supposed to allow me
to lie, to rest, to recuperate!
I change your sheets, I flip the mattress,
I put pretty brocade pillows on you!
And for this you bring me bed bugs?
Those intolerable crawling
invisible unnerving
insufferable insects!?
And I am gone.
I am forced to leave by no wish of my own,
Out of my bed and into that wind that is part of me.

Oh, it is winter.
Oh, I have missed my hibernation, and am ipso facto
even less prepared to face the cold.
The wind shoots through me and I cry
bitterly, afraid I shall never have a good bed again.
I can repeat the exact temperatures and velocities
of the cold wind of this winter
the short chills, the deep freezes and tiny thaws, but
suffice to say that
I have been faced with every kind of winterness and many
more than a few times.
I look in windows at others,
hibernating comfortably in their beds:
some snore, some toss and turn,
others sit up reading in bed with a booklight
while still others rest quietly, well.
Meanwhile, I wrestle with the wind.
it tousles my hair and teases me.
How especially trying to have
something that is part of you
tease you so mercilessly, tease you into crying
and accomplishing less than nothing.
It hurts. And yet I think it is beautiful.
The way it dances with stirring snow crystals or
left over oak leaves.
That’s what I try to harness in myself,
those moments of unexpected fascination and loveliness.
To hell with that bed of mine!
Rather, that bed is no longer mine and
To hell with thinking of it so.
Ring in the wind; endless hours
of entertainment and challenge.
The bed was gentle and good, but
Out here, I find, is anything but flat or insipid.

Maybe one day I’ll have a tempur-pedic:
a perfect, supporting, healthy-back bed.
Or maybe I’ll call an African hay mattress my bed.
Either way
the wind will always be there, winter or not,
outside of the bed and inside myself--
I am learning, am reminded that I
have nothing to worry about.

Jan 22, 2005