Sunday, September 26, 2010


It's time. The earth has revolved enough that it is now time for flannel. I'm talking flannel shirts and flannel sheets and flannel PJs. And this move to the warm and fuzzy fabric is one I savor every year.

It helps that autumn is my favorite season. It helps that, late each summer, I start yearning for the day I can pull out my favorite shirt: a red flannel long-sleeved shirt that has been slashed by branches while hunting, that has been worn and washed so many times the cuffs are fringed, that has buttons replaced at least three times, that has a collar worn to incredible softness. Is it time yet for my red flannel shirt? Is it? Is it?

Well, now it is and I'm loving it. I adore the cool mornings and chilled evenings of September. I adore the warmth my red flannel shirt grants me.

Flannel is an interesting, and old, fabric, one commonly associated with manly men like lumberjacks and farmers. Grunge rockers and skateboarders now wear plaid flannel as fashion statements. I read that there are clubs whose sole requirement for joining is to be "plaid clad" (wearing flannel) on Fridays.

Growing up I liked flannel because, like corduroy, it meant school was starting (which I liked), hunting season was starting, and, most of all, jumping into bed would be a cuddly adventure. My mom was quite precise in our seasonal swap-outs of percale sheets for flannel, of seeksucker pajamas for flannel, of shorts and sun-tops for jeans and flannel shirts. It was a ritual I always savored, providing regularity, predictability in my universe.

My red flannel shirt has been a favorite, not just because of the one I have, but because of those of others. My dad's flannel shirts were a constant in cooler weather, usually meaning that something fun was about to happen, like a trip to the wheat fields near Aberdeen, or a trek to the grouse country of Arbon Valley, or even a drive to the dump, a place filled with mysterious treasures! A mentor in graduate school, a distinguished PhD, rose highest in my esteem, not in his cap and gown for graduation ceremonies, not in his shirt and tie for teaching us about "Paradise Lost," but in his red flannel shirt and tough pants for trekking the hills south of town. Now that's what a real Renaissance man wears.

This isn't the first time I've waxed poetic about a shirt. A poem in my book, The Silence of Bright Star, tracks the adventures of a periwinkle fleece shirt my late husband wore non-stop, so much so that most pictures of him were in that shirt.

After he was gone and
his family wept over boxes
and books and clips of his image,
his mother asked,
"Didn't he have any other shirts?"

He did, but not like this one.

That poem tells how I now wear that shirt, knowing that its fuzzy warmth, stoutness, gentle touch will make the cooler season quite palatable. Fleece really does want to be flannel, don't you think?

Following my mom's model, I'm now doing the seasonal swap-outs in my closets, pulling out the wonderful flannel nightshirts (including the one my daughter made me, white flannel printed with cows wearing leather biker jackets), the snuggly sheets (cheerily stamped with mittens and hats in blues, pinks, and purples), and, of course, that precious friend of mine for years, the red flannel shirt.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Un-Known

This week I thought about things we maybe don't need to know, maybe the un-known. I say this after watching my mother undergo cataract surgery four feet away from me. Glass separated us. I could choose to watch the procedure either in "person" by turning my head to the left or "up close" by looking straight ahead at the TV screen, where the surgery took place and was recorded, with edifying narration.

Okay, so what did I need to know about my mom's cataract surgery? That it worked. That she didn't hurt. That it was a good decision. Did I need to see the emulsification of her cataract and the subsequent vaccuming of its debris? Maybe. Did I need to watch as the surgeon cut her eye? No. Especially no if I were looking to my left and actually watching the surgeon slice my mother's eyeball. No.

That got me thinking about the pop phrase TMI (Too Much Information). It's all around us. We don't ask for all the data shared with us, non-stop, nearly everywhere we go. Even though I was flattered with my gut doctor telling me, as we reviewed my colonoscopy pix, that my colon was one of the most beautiful he'd seen, I'm not sure I needed to discuss the appearance of my colon with him. I would probably have been fine with his saying "Everything looks great" and not jointly trekking through the curving highway of my scoped entrails.

When I'm shopping, I really don't need to see the details of that woman's body, squished as it is in undergarments too small and knit outerwear that's too thin. I really don't need to see the details of that man's body, who is apparently choosing to not wear undergarments under his sweats. Nor do I need to see the forms of my co-workers who just finished their workouts, all wrapped up in Spandex. I do not need to see that woman's expensive implants, as perfectly pert as they are. I do not need to see that young man's underwear as he bends down in front of me at the checkstand.

There is much on television I do not need to see. I do not need to know the details of daily life of Snoop Dog, the Osbornes and even the Kardashians, as beautiful as they are. I do not need to know how Sandra is doing now that Jesse is "out" with his inked floozy. I do not need to know what angst Jen is going through without a man. Spare me, please. And I REALLY don't need to know the details of Kate Gosselin's new body. Really.

At work I learn more about employees than I want to know, including their sad realms of health and domestic relations, as well as the pieces that are missing from their ability to determine what behavior is appropriate for the workplace and what is not.

At home I learn more about my neighbors than I need to know. Please spare me the late night staggering about in the driveway or the ramped up diatribe of an unhappy adult child.

In the political realm, I shudder at the excess info I receive, starting with LBJ's scar, through Bill's philandering cigar work, to Palin's sad saga of unwed child hooked to a narcissistic stud.

Spare me, please.

I think of a mentor I had in graduate school, a very reserved, pretty much up-tight Renaissance scholar. To him, Milton was cool ("bomb"). To him, Herrick was racily erotic. To him, the courtly love tradition was where it's at. I savored his observations, in person and, after leaving campus, in more than a decade of joyous correspondence. I appreciated his shock at the impudence of full and unsolicited disclosure. He yearned for coyness, for the valor that is discretion, for the ability to hold back information that may be unsettling and unnecessary. He liked nuance and hints and serendipidous revelation.

Maybe I'm more like him than I think. Maybe the overload of skin and disfunction is more offensive to me than I typically let on. I'm thinking that there is some profound joy in discovery, in mystery, in hesitation. Though I appreciate all the wonders of immediacy that technology and the web allow us, maybe I long for the day when imagination was given a chance to work, before graphic full-face video exploded any doubt. Maybe I long for the more refined, graceful days of Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck, when less really was more.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010


While outside knitting I saw a precious thing on the table: the exquisite shell of a spider, a perfect mold of its body, head and legs. Black and white lace it was, a half inch long and not heavy enough to tip most scales. Beautiful, I thought. I knitted a row, looked up again and it was gone, blown somewhere by a slight breeze. I looked on the deck, even got down on my hands and knees, and could not find it. The fairyland carapace of that spider was gone.

That got me thinking about exoskeletons, the chitonous cases that wrap insects, crustaceans and spiders. I found that "chiton," the semitransparent horny substance that makes up the exoskeleton, comes from a word that means "tunic." So this tunic of hard material protects a bug, a crab, a spider from the dangers of existence. Like the knight's armor, the exoskeleton ensures that the soft, vital organs of the creature won't be punctured or slashed or crushed or pulverized.

That's a great system, don't you think? All except for one thing: what happens as the creature grows? Exoskeletons don't come in "One Size Fits All." So the creature has to go through a very, very risky phase: it has to shed the old shell, assume a position of complete vulnerability, and patiently await the completion of the new, larger, more comfy shell. Lots could happen during that wait. Dangers abound.

I'm thinking we go through the same kind of shelling, shedding, shrinking, shuddering, shelling again. We develop thick tunics of indifference and avoidance to persons and situations that could harm us. We allow emotional chiton to shield us from the barbs of the mean-spirited. We hunker down in our comfortable carapaces, ducking from the unfamiliar, staying with the known. This is a good system...until we start growing.

I remember the exoskeletons I've shed. A remarkable one involved a discovery in my third year of college: I was shocked to learn that people were interested in knowing what my thoughts were, without having to preface those thoughts with an introduction of who I was connected to: whose child, wife, sister, mother I was. It was truly a revelation that my ideas were valued, without a connection to other persons. With that unveiling came a huge responsibility: my ideas had to count. They had to mean something. I couldn't just spout the thoughts of others, but had to take time to absorb writers' and speakers' tenets, synthesize them, and build my own set of ideas. It was a daunting prospect, but one that has brought me joy for decades. The chiton of mimicry was off; I had to think, boldly, for myself!

Other shells have come off reluctantly, painfully. Morphing from the fairy-tale wife/mom, living happily ever after, to the single mom raising a child alone, paying 47% of her gross income for rent each month, going without a car for six months...that transformation was not one I asked for. But the growth that came with such a change was incredible. I learned, in my new single mom exoskeleton, how to budget, find free fun, and build a tight bond with my daughter. I learned to share lessons of focus, frugality, and confidence, as the chiton in this shell toughened and protected.

Decades later, when my husband died, I had to leave the comfort of that wonderful carapace of wife. Oh my goodness, did I NOT want to leave that shell. It was a spectacular safe haven, filled with laughter, adventure, kindness, and love. But his death tossed my exoskeleton to the wind. A shuddering shape of vulnerability, I had to grow a new shell. On some days the task was devestatingly difficult, like the day the 100 year rain flooded the lower level of the house and plugged the storm drains in the driveway. The image of me ankle-deep in water, sobbing as intensely as I was scooping water and debris out of the storm drain grate, cursing my husband for deserting me, is an image I'll never forget. The storm toughened me. Within days, I took a knife to the soggy carpet that sulked in half of the house's lower level. I cut it in six-foot strips, rolled it and put each roll into the truck. Did the same with the sopping carpet pad. Took it all to the dump. Got rid of that mess and grew some new armour at the same time.

I did not want to leave that shell, but had no choice. Now I'm stronger for all that, encased in a new exoskeleton that will guard me for awhile. Then I'll struggle again, as the chitonous tunic drops and I face new challenges. Like the insect, the crab, and the spider, I will move on. I'll leave the old shell behind and hunker down in a grander carapace for the days to come.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010


I’m a mountain-top kind of girl. Give me a summit. You can have the moist green divot bejeweled with a tumbling creek. I’ll take the top bunk, thank you very much.

Seems I’ve been that way as an adult for a very long time. The Tetons, Big Horn Crags, Seven Devils….these were the rock stars of my twenties. Jarring blocks of granite, that’s what I wanted watching my back. I used to lead trips into the exhausting trials of Heaven’s Gate, opening up the wilderness of the rugged range just east of Hell’s Canyon.

To entice the na├»ve folks who signed up for my annual “Seven Devils Torture Trip,” I’d stash fifths of Jack Daniels and tins of smoked oysters. On the last climb out, after nearly nineteen miles and a couple of thousand vertical feet, my hiking buddies would be vengeful. I’d have to bribe them: “Just around this bend, just above this crossing, just below that summit."

Then, when they were convinced I was demented or satanic, I’d suggest we take a break. I’d wander in the brush and come back with treats! The last quarter mile was not so tough, with a couple of swigs of Jack and some oysters in the tummy.

Peaks. That’s what I like. My late husband and I had our first “real” date among the Seven Devils’ peaks. An incredible storm swooped down upon us and we huddled in one of our tents, hoping that the lightning zaps would spare us. He told me that this was a good sign: our love had been tested in the crucible of that storm and it held. He was right.

Peaks. That’s what I like. When looking for a spot to camp, I like the summit or, at the very least, a saddle. Surveying what’s out there is important. Nineteenth century landscaping protocol dictated having a fine vista, a spot where one could survey the expanse of her holdings, could monitor the work of her grounds crew, could ruminate on the wild spirituality of Nature Untamed.

We always sought such spots out when rambling in our truck and camper unit. One summit in the Escalante region of southern Utah was particularly impressive: we set up lawn chairs to watch the sunset. Wild turkeys surrounded us at dusk. Elk moistened our windows with their hot breath before dawn. Sunrise was an incredible sacrament, marked with the taste of strong steamy coffee and the deep smiles of gratitude.

Peaks. That’s what I like. My daughter and I just hiked around on Mt Hood. Oh my goodness, what a creature, that mountain! We took the ski lift up, disembarked, and scrambled above the tree line. Clouds sifted through the rocky top of this volcano. Sun tried burning all mist away, but failed. Wind slashed across talus slopes, hardly fazing the tiny tundra blooms of pink, white, yellow. Hiking out to Zig Zag Overlook, we traversed an incredible conifer forest scrambling to hang on, a deep vee canyon littered with the debris of spring run-off, and lush greened meadows, musky and ripe. A trek this high was worth repeating and we agreed to tackle a trail on Mt. Rainier in the coming days.

She and I may not make such a trip, given the soggy forecast in front of us, but we know quite well the joys to be had near the summit. We know of the sacred pleasures offered by peaks.