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Birds and Beasts

Every two months I receive my copy of the magazine, “Poets and Writers.” Sometimes I do not read every page/article. Often, I read only those of immediate relevance to me and my work. I always read the regular page that offers prompts for poets, writers of fiction and writers of nonfiction. The prompts intend to stimulate and inspire writers to write about the topic presented.

A recent prompt for writers of nonfiction is a suggestion to write about a pattern or routine observed in nature that applies to one’s own everyday habits.

At my desk, through the double sliding doors that open onto the patio, I watch what I call my zoo. The creatures I’ve watched for several years now are families of squirrels and rabbits and flocks of hummingbirds. Each group has its own distinct characteristics and persistent behaviors—behaviors that both astonish me and remind me of my own traits and habits.

The squirrels, rabbits and quail occupy the spaces under two adjacent and similarly trimmed bushes. Most of the year, virtually every time I lift my eyes from my work one or another group is out there, putting on a show designed, at least, to entertain me. I know they’re just going about their lives, as am I, working at my desk.

One of the two bushes serves as the incubator and bedroom of the “children,” as I call them. The other bush is occupied by the parents, who actually spend most of their time caring for their children. The squirrels, rabbits and quail share both bushes—children to my left and parents to the right.

In the spring, the parents arrive. For days, courting activities occupy most of their time. Next they make ready the children’s incubator. After gestation, the babies are born there, the quail first, followed by the rabbits and squirrels. For nearly a month, procuring food and feeding the children takes virtually every moment for the parents.

When the children are old enough, much activity is devoted to preparing them for their adult lives and activities. They go on expeditions to explore the nearby territory. I cannot see all of that territory, or what the parents do/say to tell the children what is done in each area. And still a great amount of time is focused on food, especially for the children.

Adolescent activities are especially delightful to watch. A pair of squirrels uses the entire area I can see as playground and gymnasium. They sit up and spar like boxers, push each other around, and run away to be chased and tagged by their partner. The rabbits hop and race all over the yard, each daring the other to overtake them.

When the time is right, the children simply disappear. The squirrel and rabbit parents clean their areas under the bushes. Before they do that, the quail parents spend several days obviously mourning the absence of their children before they clean up their space. The squirrels and rabbits have only one set of children, each season. The quail have at least one more brood of chicks before the end of summer.

I cannot hear what, if anything, the squirrels and rabbits say to each other, but I hear whole conversations by the quail. Their vocabulary ranges from the “What,” of courtship, and the “Who” of parenthood, to an accusatory “Where” when both Mom and Dad are each sure the other has misplaced the children who have actually left home to begin their lives as adults.

This spring, I observed new, never before seen by me, squirrel activities. Suddenly one afternoon, I espied what I thought was a dead squirrel, sprawled next to the incubator bush. I planned, when I came to a stopping point in my work, to call the maintenance department to come remove the body. But next time I looked out, the “dead” squirrel was nowhere in sight. After that, for more than a month, even during intense feeding activity, the squirrel appeared in mid-afternoon, tidied his couch, and lay down for a nap of about 20 minutes.

Usually, the napping squirrel disappeared when he was wide awake. But one day, to my astonishment and delight, he arose after his nap and bathed himself. Like a bathing cat, he licked all the parts he could reach. Then he licked his paw and used it to wash his face and head, including behind his ears. When he finished, he rejoined his mate in the task of feeding the children. I saw that only once, but—because all other behaviors occurred routinely—I am sure it happens regularly.

For the first time, sometime after their children had flown the coop and they themselves had departed, I observed the quail parents’ return with a group of nearly full-grown quail (I’m sure one of their broods). For three consecutive days, they all returned to the area. The parents herded the adolescents into the space under the incubator bush. They actually pushed one or two strays to go in. I’m sure they were telling the children that space was where they should raise their own families. One day, they also led the children on a tour of the adult bedroom.

The squirrels and rabbits have all disappeared, now. I don’t know where they go, but I’m sure, like human snowbirds from northern states, they must have winter hideaways somewhere.

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Like the inhabitants of my zoo, I am a creature of habit. Some observers equate my behaviors to similarity to those (others) among us who are defined as being on the Autistic Spectrum or sufferers of the Obsessive/Compulsive Disorder. I do not disagree with that allusion. After all, my behaviors and routines have not changed very much, if at all, since I can remember having them.

For example, I cannot begin a day, a writing session, or preparation of a meal without first tidying up my surround. Indeed, for most of such activities, I tidy up both before and after they’re accomplished.

Tidying up, what squirrels and rabbits do at the beginning and end of the season, is often for me easier than it is for most folks. I have a place for everything, and everything must, when not in use, be in its assigned place. When something not currently in use is somewhere out of place, I experience the same kind and amount of discomfort as one does when their shoes are on the wrong feet. In my old age, I’ve been able to relinquish some of this compulsion. Now, the result of tidying up is frequently a matter of making neat stacks of papers or lining up things on desk or kitchen counters, rather than returning each item to its assigned place.

All my life, I’ve also practiced a number of equally non-varying routines. Like tidying up, certain regular activities must be performed as routines. Morning preparations for the day have a certain order that I am unable to violate easily. Teeth first, washing face next, and so it goes. Evening preparations for the night also have a certain order. I’ve not come to these routines in a random manner. They are based on efficiency. It doesn’t pay to wash my face before I brush my teeth. Toothpaste cannot be trained to not dribble down my chin; if I’ve washed my face first, I will have to do it again. Likewise, there’s no point in parting my dry hair; that, too will have to be done again after I’ve washed it. As I’ve grown older, I tend to forget rationale and routine for many activities. I get pretty annoyed with myself for absentmindedness, for forgetting the routine and the reasons for it.

As for feeding and otherwise parenting children (and being a housewife), I can only say that meals were served regularly, by the clock. Laundry, cleaning, and grocery shopping were done on certain days. Each child had essentially the same bedroom décor and furnishings. (Each had their own basic color scheme.) When the children had all flown the coop and I was working at a regular, nine-to-five job, regularity was replaced by the pressures of time and necessity, but it took several years for me not to feel that same shoes-on-the-wrong-feet discomfort.

I’ll mention only in passing the whole issue of which sock and shoe to put on in what order. When I was in second grade, for days I was late for school. I was most definitely not dallying. I thought about and practiced all possible permutations of the order for socks and shoes, in order to determine how to save time. James Galbraith would have been proud of me and my careful research. Galbraith was the author of “Cheaper by the Dozen” and other books about his seminal investigations that led to time/motion efficiency theories and practices. My own early work pre-dated my knowledge of his efforts. (Contact me if you want to know the result of my socks-and-shoes research!)

There’s more, but you must by now see that there’s plenty of evidence to support the idea that living life with a certain amount of regularity and routine makes really good sense. I believe need for and a certain amount of practiced routine is innate. There’s a reason animals build nests before their offspring are delivered. Tidying up has a practical effect for efficiency. Children must be fed, for growth at least. Maybe the order of putting on and tying socks and shoes doesn’t really matter, but the idea of efficient application of task and time taken is basically sound.

There are those who manage to survive until old age brings forgetfulness as a routine practice. Animals persist in training their young to follow specific routines for almost all situations they will encounter. It’s possible to consider those humans who live life as a series of random events in a chaotic surround were never trained. On the other hand, I “trained” three children to live as though their lives depended on routines, but only one of them has evolved to a form of tidy and regular life.

Thus continues the battle between believers of heredity and believers of environment as paramount in how we behave. I’m not convinced, either way, but I’m convinced that I was born the way I am. And there I rest my case.

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At the beginning of this blog, I mentioned hummingbirds. That’s another blog.

Wordsmith Unlocked

Lively
words that had been lorn, alone,
burst into flower,
gathered new life,
again filled my mind.

Slowly,
words that had been locked inside
trickled past brain cells,
slid through fingers,
tumbled over keys.

Quickly,
words that had been lost in space
covered blank pages,
flew through ether,
trembled with meaning. 

Lovely
words that had been left unsaid
found voice in darkness,
fell on keen ears,
gave substance to love.

How to Procrastinate

How to Procrastinate

I’ve been thinking of ways I procrastinate when I have a major project to do, and can’t seem to get started. If you’re like most folks you, too, manage to find other things to do, things that probably don’t need to be done anywhere near as much as “The Project.” Sometimes, it’s hard to even think about those things, so I provide, below, a short list of ideas that might help you do a good job of procrastination.

You can do any or all procrastinations for any effort, in no particular order and depending on how desperate you are:

  • File your nails—this task can take as few as ten minutes or, for greater procrastination, you can make it last for a half-hour.
  • Polish your nails—you have options for a half-hour quickie or a full, all steps included, job that can take a mere 2.25 hours, or as much as 3.75 hours. It depends on which preparations you make before you actually apply polish, how many coats of polish you use, and how long each takes to dry.

I usually go for the big job that includes cuticle preparation, an oil soak for 10 minutes, and five different kinds of clear polish that take ten or fifteen minutes to dry satisfactorily. (Actually, the final coat takes about two and a half hours to dry solid, so I can bump into something and the combination of polishes doesn’t smear.)

  • Check all your pens and markers to see which ones are out of ink and can be thrown away—this is a fairly quick procrastination device. The length of time to allow for it varies proportionately to the number of writing and coloring instruments you can find. You might survey only those implements on your own desk or you could scavenge the whole house, including the bedroom of your thirteen year old daughter.
  • Load more paper into your printer—a really quick intervention. It shouldn’t take more than five minutes unless you have to unwrap a whole new ream of paper, in which case you might stretch it to ten minutes.
  • Make that appointment with your dentist—the length of time to accomplish this exercise depends primarily on the number of people in your dentist’s office. Time elapsed can range from ten to thirty minutes. It’s a matter of how long you are on hold.
  • Straighten, delete items from, or add items to:
    • Desk drawers—allow at least fifteen minutes per drawer; if you get carried away, you may take a half-hour for each drawer.
    • File drawers (those in file cabinets)—Consider how deep the drawers are from front to back, how tightly packed they are, and how much reading you must do in order to decide what to keep (and/or refile somewhere else). For each drawer you can take between a half hour and a whole hour.
    • Kitchen and/or Pantry drawers / shelves / cabinets—these require, at best, only guesstimates. Each could take as few as fifteen-to-twenty minutes or as long as a half hour or more. If you go all out, probably you can spend at least a half day, maybe a whole day, getting your whole kitchen straightened up. If you are compulsive enough, and think you can take the time, you can wipe each surface clean as you go, and add another five to ten minutes to the time you estimate for each component.
    • Clothes closet(s)—Oooh! This one’s pretty big. You can simply go through a closet and scan the contents for things you can / should remove and discard or donate. You might add to that a re-organization—by type of garment, for example, or you can go all out and arrange the garments by color, length, where you are likely to wear them, or how often you wear them. You almost certainly have a much better idea than I of how to plan for this work.
    • Garage—the garage, most likely, is the biggest activity of all options for the procrastinator. A real quickie, for the average two-car garage in which both cars are usually parked, should take only two or three hours. But, for the same garage with no cars ever parked in it, you can easily spend a full day, or more. Beware: nearly all predictions for how much can be done in how long turn into final reports of time taken that are approximately twice as long as predicted.
  • Balance your bank account(s)—here, I hesitate to prognosticate. This activity can take as little as twenty minutes or as long as two hours (and, possibly, the account still doesn’t balance). Variables include how many transactions you’ve made, whether (or not) you recorded them as they occurred, and, possibly, how good you are with basic arithmetic. 
  • Work on your photos / albums—the first variable, here, is the number of photos involved. The depth of your work may be simply gathering all loose photos and sorting them by album, or you might be really anxious to get all of your photos really properly organized and securely positioned in their intended albums. It seems to me that the best thing to do is decide on how long you will give to this task, work that long and only that long, then quit before you find yourself trapped into twice or three times the allotted time.
  • Make lists, of everything—I love lists and practice their usefulness as often and as much as I can. The amount of time you devote to list-making is entirely up to you and may be restricted to only one list for the hardware store or an overall list (perhaps of lists) that encompasses everything from phone calls for the day to Excel charts for long-term planning. The lists listed below are only a few suggestions. I am sure your list of lists (even if it exists only in your head) is the most practical for you and your situation.
    • To Do
    • People to call / email / send a note or letter
    • Things you need / want
    • Recipients of next December’s Holiday Greetings / Newsletter
  • Call as many people you can think of (especially the long-winded folks)—I’m sure you know better than I how long you want to talk with each contact. Probably, you will want to set aside a block of time available, rather than predict actual time involved.
  • Work in the garden—some people can spend as little as fifteen minutes in the garden. Others like to take a half- or whole-day. It’s entirely up to you.
  • Exercise / Walk—I have to procrastinate to do either of these, so I’ll leave it up to you.
  • Take up bird-watching—the amount of time you spend on this activity depends on your particular circumstances and/or need to procrastinate.
  • Start a New Project—this strategy is for only the most serious procrastinators. You can take a few minutes (say a half hour) to sketchily outline your new project. At the other extreme, if the New Project will take as much or more time and effort as your current Project, and you need to provide a detailed proposal, it can take days. Only you can determine and make an educated guess about how long it will take you to create a plan and complete work on your New Project.

I’m sure I’ve left out many opportunities for procrastination. You will think of some yourself, as you read through those listed above. At least this is a start.

Good Luck! Enjoy your status as an Official Procrastinator. You’re in the best of company. 

Review: “Grendel,” by John Gardner (1971)

“Tastes like milk,” said my mother-in-law of John Gardner’s Jason and Medeia, and I realized that she was, as I am, a synesthete, able to experience sensations in unexpected ways, like hearing colors or seeing smells. It is a relatively rare, and very pleasurable, talent.

Grendel, by John Gardner, doesn’t taste at all like milk. It is far more potent in its poetry, like a hunter’s kettle roiling atop broken tree limbs, filled with the remnants of several days in the woods: body parts, meat and bones, dried blood, wild berries, mushrooms, and pungent spicy leaves. 

It is also orchestral music, rising and falling in multiple movements, occasionally punctuated with puns and sudden childlike outbursts. Grendel tells his own story in fragments, an ongoing threnody insinuated beneath and between the details of the familiar Beowolf legend. He emerges from and retreats to the cave where his mother still lives in a stuporous haze, visits a pontificating dragon whose ultimate words of wisdom, after almost twenty pages, are “seek out gold and sit on it,” and observes and makes raids upon the local Danes until a stranger comes across the sea with a challenge for him alone. 

I first picked up a copy of Grendel in a bookstore a number of years ago, but did not buy it at that time. I put it on my list of “Books to Read Soon.” A couple of months ago, I finally got a copy; I read it straight through. I was so enthralled I sent an e-mail to six friends, recommending it as a delightful read. Two of them quickly replied saying that they, too, had recently read and very much enjoyed the book! Go thou and do likewise. You won’t be sorry!