Sunday, January 28, 2018

Pickled Pigs Feet

I’ve just finished reading Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, possibly the best novel I have read in years.  On the surface it has to do with the lives of various characters connected in some way to music or the music industry. In its larger sense, it is a meditation on identity and existence as creature of time.
Pickled pigs feet. I haven’t thought of those in a number of years but this morning as I was thinking about Egans’s book, they popped into my head.  I think they are one of those foods  like chitlins and scrapple that if you are not raised eating them, you have no desire to try.  They really belong to a different time and place, to a different you.  As a boy I can remember my father bringing home big jars of pickled pig’s feet.  When the jars were opened and a pigs foot was pulled out a sort of gelatinous mass clung to them.  It was not a pretty sight but the vinegary taste and crunchiness as you chewed the meat off of the bone was addictive.  The thought of them still invokes  the ghost of those memories on my tongue.
The pigs feet were a calque of my father’s boyhood like those words that crept into his speech from time to time from a mysterious time and place that I knew little about, somewhere in the tributaries of the Little Wicomico.  Words like “gunny sack” and “doggone”  joined words for food such as hominy, fried green tomatoes, poke and squirrel.  I’ve never tasted squirrel myself and, I don’t think as an adult my father had either - he said it was good but a bit greasy. Egan begins her novel with a quote from Proust to the effect that when we re-enter memories of the past we are trying to recapture something of that self we were at the time and that it is a dangerous journey.  It is certainly true as a scientific fact, that every atom that constitutes my body now is different from the ones that made it up when I was a child. In that sense, you can never go home.  Whatever we were then, is not what we are now.  Even so, in looking at those residues of childhood in our words and foods, we can get some sense of the landscape that formed us.
I don’t know what my father’s childhood was like.  His parents were both dead by the time he was eleven.   But the foods that he liked were a form of transmission. Something that carried over.  When I unexpectedly hear pickled pigs feet come into my mind, I recognize without knowing it that I am a carrier, too.   Words fill my mind of the foods I once ate that I doubt turn up on any of my children’s menus: tongue, oyster stew, Cool Aid, Navy beans, mapeline syrup, liver and onions…   I wonder if when my children search their minds they feel the same;  those forgotten foods of the past bringing to life once more some aspect of the past and of themselves that they have forgotten.  Proust is right, it is dangerous to try to reclaim an Eden that perhaps only exists as such in our minds.  Our lives are composed of many selves.  Even so, those clues about what we were at one time are tantalizing and in some ways still a part of us.  As a matter of fact,  there is a certain item that I would like to add to my shopping list.

Friday, December 22, 2017

First Day of Winter

First Day of Winter

Daylight has peeled pale bracelets
into the bark of the dogwood tree.

My daughter boards a flight to Buffalo
taking her children to their roots for the holidays.

Congress has just passed a bill giving tax cuts
to those who already hold the country’s wealth.

Squirrels scrounge for black walnuts
buried in the corpses of the daylilies.

Outside my window a woman waiting for a bus
paces the sidewalk talking to the sky.

On a highway in rural Mexico
a school bus somersaults killing ten children.

I stare into space after  words
that disappeared from sentence I was about to speak.

In Norwich 600 years ago Juliana held a hazelnut
containing  everything that has been made.

I will never make sense of this life.

Monday, November 06, 2017

Our Connection to The Wizard of Oz

      Anyone who knows anything about our family knows that my mother was born in South Dakota.  Mom’s great-grandfather, Michael Ryman came to Dakota Territory in the early 1880’s and settled near the town of Warner just a few miles south of Aberdeen in Brown  County.  When the Ryman’s arrived, Aberdeen was little more than a train stop.
     I am reading a book by David Laskin called The Children’s Blizzard that tells the true story of one of the most unexpected blizzards in American history.  It took place in 1888 and hit the Dakotas especially hard.  Laskin tells that the family of L. Frank Baum, who wrote The Wizard of Oz, moved to a farm just a few miles above Aberdeen and Baum lived there in the early 1800s when the Rymans arrived.  For a while Baum tried his hand at a variety of stores in Aberdeen and failed miserably before eventually moving to Chicago where he wrote his famous book.
     Everyone who has ever seen the movie of The Wizard of Oz remembers the line where Dorothy says, “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.”  The funny thing is that Baum himself had never ever been to Kansas.  The descriptions that he made of Kansas in the book actually were memories that he had written about Brown County in the summer of 1888, “Not a tree nor a house broke the broad sweep of flat country that reached the edge of the sky in all directions. The sun had baked the plowed land into a gray mass, with little cracks running through it. Even the grass was not green, for the sun had burned the tops of the log blades until they were the same gray color to be seen everywhere.”  What he was describing wasn’t Kansas but the neighborhood of our Ryman ancestors.   That is something to think about the next time I watch The Wizard of Oz.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Help Me With This Story

I've been trying to work on this story for a while and it just doesn't seem to want to go anywhere...though it seems like it should.  So in the tradition of crowd sourcing, I am family sourcing. If you have time to read through what I've started (which, granted, isn't much) here is what I'd like help with. (1) Do you think it is worth working on further or do you think I should just cut my losses and try something else. (2) What are your thoughts about the direction the story should take? In other words, what do you think comes next. I'd like your ideas.  I'm also open for any editorial suggestions about what is already here.


John woke, opened his eyes and wondered who he was going to be today.  Light creeping in around the shades revealed that the old wooden clock on the wall was still there and as his eyes created shape from the darkness he recognized everything in the place where it had been when he’d closed his eyes.  The open closet with his clothes on hangers below the wall clock and the book shelves that his son had built for him years ago in the indented space beside it where his eyes rested as he lay in bed were still there.  So, when he turned his head, were the dresser and the dilapidated plant shelf that he brought in for the winter.
The difference was rarely anything he could spot immediately, though for a series of days, he had woken to realize that he was living in a foreign country and, for another stretch of time, that the president of the United States was also the Grandmaster of the KKK. Most of the time, though, it took him awhile to figure out what was different.  One day, he had the constant memory of having taught at a school where records of his employment revealed that he had actually never worked.  Another time in conversation with his wife, he was referring to an episode from his childhood where his parents had taken him to Yosemite, only to have his wife remind him that this memory was from a story he had written and had not actually ever occurred.  Today, was more like that. At first light, there was no crack in the cosmos.

John went into the kitchen and grabbed a mug off of the rack of cups on the counter.  It was glossy and black with white letters saying, DRINK ME,” a joke gift from his daughter who’d picked it up in the airport on one of their excursions, Dubai or Florence maybe.
            “This is for you – for first thing in the morning,” she’d said.  It wasn’t because of a reputation for being an early morning grouch. In fact, John was more of an early riser, but at one point he had tried explaining to her his sensations of never waking up the same person. The cup was her faux solution.  “Strong black coffee, first thing, will bring you back to reality.”
            John liked to think of the cup in another way.  He imagined all of the images and ideas in his head swirling around, the rush that seemed to change from day to day, sometimes from moment to moment even on those days when everything seemed outwardly banal.  Despite the amount of writing that his work required of him he could never make the ideas come out in any rational form on the printed page in ways that were not stiff and clich├ęd. Attempts to verbally explain what he was trying to sort out were even more hopeless.  He felt as though the words pouring out of his mouth were those of a ten-year old.  The command of the bold white letters on the cup’s black background made him fantasize that the swirling black liquid he drank were all those thoughts, and when he took in their deep caffeine there would be not only that easing of the muscles and loosening of mental clouds, but a kind of clarification distilled in his mind by the hot liquid. 
            When John turned back towards the table from filling his coffee cup, a man was sitting at the kitchen table. His hair was gray and straggly, his face nearly round.  The aura he gave off was of a man out of his time.  He was dressed as though ready to play a part in a nineteenth century biopic of the American mid-west, but what he wore was clearly not costume. It was his everyday clothing. John was used to slight shifts in the fabric of his world, but this was unusual.  He knew instantly, though, that this was someone to whom he was related.
            “You got more of that coffee?” the man asked.
            John reached over and grabbed a mug off of the tree.  He opened the top of the Keurig and popped in an innocuous morning blend and pressed the button.  When the brown liquid finished pouring out, he turned back around and handed it to his visitor. “I guess I’m supposed to know who you are.”
            “Henry,” the man said. “Your grandfather. That’s a fast cup of coffee.”
            “My grandfather was Frederick.”
            “Not that one. Three generations back. Henry Mueller.”
            “Oh.” John said, recognizing the name. “Why –“
            “The same reason as you’re here.  I woke up this morning and here I am.  This is the furthest, though.”  Henry’s speech carried with it the definite accent of her person whose first language was German.
            “What are you talking about,” John hedged.
            “You know…it’s never the same.”


Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Second Time Around

As most of you know my daughter Maya is getting married in September - September 9 to be specific. In the spirit of George Santayana admonition, "Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it" she has been thinking about thinking ahead about how going into this marriage will be different different from the first and posted the following blog in her Lilies and Elephants forum.

Learning From My Past, As I Head Into My Future

Yesterday, July 10th, was my former wedding anniversary. Thirteen years ago I walked down the aisle in a ballgown dress with six bridesmaids, seven groomsman, and approximately 200 guests. The wedding was fabulous. Basically my entire family on both sides flew in from out of town, some for whom I know it was a stretch time wise and financially. It meant the world to me, truly. The room was filled with people we'd each known over the past 24 years, many that we hadn't seen in years. It was a grand scale event that I became so wrapped up in planning that, in hindsight, I realized I was more focused on the wedding itself than the next 50 or so years of married life ahead.  But at 24 years old and one of the first of my friends to get married, that's what I did.

I think I knew, or at least had a nagging feeling, walking down the aisle that I was making a mistake. But I'm a dreamer, with my head often in the stars, and I thought I was being unrealistic wanting more than I had - a good-hearted, steady, reliable man who loved me and wanted to spend his life with me. I thought it should be enough. As it turns out, it was not. We were not, as a couple. Had it, no doubt my life would be drastically different than it is today. There are moments when I think about how my life changed course on January 24, 2007, the day we decided to split. But I have no regrets. It was the best decision for us both. I believed it then, and I haven't doubted it a day since.

In part, I think I simply wasn't ready for any of it. Some people know exactly who they are and what they want at 24 years old. I was not one of those people. I didn't realize that at the time, of course - I took the route I always expected I would. College, full time job, grad school, marriage, house, plan for a family. It wasn't until the "plan for a family" part began that I realized how unready for this life I was. It's funny how one day you can wake up and discover "this is really going to be the rest of my life if I do nothing about it right now." You'd think vows such as "for as long as we both shall live" said in front of 200 people including a priest would do that. But for whatever reasons, it didn't. It was the startling realization that I could be someone's mother, that if we had a child he would always be their father, and that we'd be inextricably tied forever in that way, no matter what else happened in our lives, individually and as a couple.  It occurred to me then how little we'd talked about the details, the actual realities instead of the "one day"s. It felt almost like a reverse Truman Show  - like a story that I played a part in, and suddenly it became clear that it was my life. We had moved along the path in front of us. We had never questioned if it was the path we should be following.

Today, I'm just under two months from my wedding (it's two months from this past Sunday, but who's counting). I am almost 38 years old and have lived a lot of life since my last wedding. I know it's given me experience. I believe, or at least hope, it's given me wisdom. Now, my fiance and I talk about the little details, plan for the actualities of the future. Things as minor as interrupting our (very food motivated) dog while she's eating, playfully tugging at her ears and tail to make sure she doesn't mind, in case a future child did the same. We discuss the larger aspects of life and the minutia, having a plan, yet being able to go with the flow (OK the go with the flow is just him, I practically plan out my underwear a week in advance). We thing of the what ifs, even the unlikely ones. We have the difficult discussions now, so that we don't have to confront startling differences we never realized were there when a situation arises. We may not always agree, but we have learned where each other stands, and how to compromise where we must. We dream together, but also confront the facts. I certainly am no expert in relationships. Less so in marriage. But I'd like to think I've learned a bit along the long and especially topsy turvy road to where I am now.

If I could give advice to anyone getting married, or thinking about it, it would be this:

1. Don't ever, ever, ever assume. I don't care if you have to ask 10 different times in 10 different ways to make sure you understand each other - not that you always agree, but that you know where each other stands.

2. Every answer to the above doesn't have to be a yes or no. If you don't know, say it. There are some questions I can answer with much more certainty at 37 than I could have at 27.  It's better for someone to know you haven't made up your mind than to be surprised when you change it - especially about something major.

3. Compromise is incredibly important and it's not always 50/50 in every individual situation. In the end, it should about even out, but don't keep exact score.

4. Sometimes, a topic may be so crucial that you don't feel you can compromise. Pick your battles, but stand your ground when it matters most. Otherwise, there's a high chance of bitterness and resentment down the road.

5. Don't count on anything outside of the two of you to make your marriage happy. If your marriage will only be happy if your life together goes exactly as planned - ideal home, family exactly as you imagined, jobs on the current course, etc - you need to reconsider. Your partner should be enough for the marriage in and of themselves - not as part of a larger plan that comes along with them. Because we know what happens to the best laid plans.

6. Don't count on either of you changing, but understand that everyone does in some ways. Meaning this: love and marry the person for who they are in this moment, not for who you think they could be or who they used to be. At the same time, everyone evolves and grows, or so you hope. Shifts in each of you, with age and experience, are almost inevitable. Allow each other some leeway, especially as the years progress. I personally wouldn't want my spouse at 64 to be acting like they did at 24.

7. Sh*t is going to happen. This basically an absolute given. To you as a person, to you as a couple. The things you never expected to bother you will. Things you expected to worry about for years to come, you'll get used to.  When these things happen, know that you're in good company, and try not to let it discourage you.

As I start dotting the i's and crossing the t's of the details for my next wedding, I can feel a glaring difference between my first wedding and this one. We have a total of two people in our bridal party, one on each side. We're having a 15-ish minute ceremony at the same site as our reception. There will be about 65 guests instead of 200, a good number of whom are between the ages of 1 and 14. We're not doing a shower (bridal, I am showering) or a registry. I personally don't care if everyone - that's not in the actual wedding - shows up in their PJs. What I do care about is that half of the time our discussions about wedding plans dissolve into laughter. that we enjoy cooking dinner together as we discuss our plans, that what we can't wait for most is the opportunity to spend our lives together, whatever that may bring.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Old Fogey's College Advice

Last month, my great-niece Haidyn graduated from high school and will be heading on to college.  She will be the first of her generation in our family to do so.  I know that my parents (her great-grandparents) would be very proud of her.  They were never able to attend college and, in my mother’s case even finish high school.  I know something about how Haidyn must feel because, though it seems common place – even compulsory – now, I was the first person on either side of my family to attend college. It is a bridge that, once you cross over it, you can never go back. The best analogy is that it is something like it must be for men and women who go away to war.  No description of it to others is going to convey what it is like to those who have not been there.  You leave not being the same person who entered.  It changes your world view; you can no longer see things in the same way you once did. 

While advice from a 71 year-old man is about as welcome as dandelions in a suburban lawn, I’d like to offer a bit of it for any family members of Haidyn’s generation that are planning to go college.  The first is: go away to school.  Education is more than only books.  Learning first hand that there are people who see the world differently than you do – who talk a little differently, dress differently, have a different background of experiences, have value systems different from yours – is a part of the education itself.  Simply living in an environment that is different from what you are used to broadens you,  teaches you something.  Seattle doesn’t feel the same as Phoenix.  There is a poem by Wallace Stevens called “Anecdote in A Jar” in which he places a jar on a hill in Tennessee and instantly that jar becomes the central reference point for everything we do. While our house, our home town, our family may always be the emotional center of our universe, it is not the physical center.  Moving that glass to another hill gives you perspective and that is not something that you get by staying home or going to Florida for spring break.

When the time for college came, I urged all of my children to pick a place that was not in their geographic backyard.  Pat was the first one and, in all candor, he would have been very comfortable staying in Buffalo and going to UB.  Instead, he went spent his first year at Syracuse University because at the time he was interested in going into journalism and the school had a good reputation.  It was not the best experience. He had gone to high City Honors in Buffalo where the students were highly motivated. His friends went off to Harvard, Stanford, etc.  They were kids who were bright but worked hard for what they got. What he learned at Syracuse was that the rest of the world was not like this.  They were interested in partying, joining frats and drinking (some things haven’t changed). Having to go to class was a minor annoyance for them.  Their parents paid for their education, so they didn’t care. Despite good classes, Pat learned that Syracuse wasn’t for him.  He also learned that he was more interested in political science and ended up transferring to Buffalo.  Nevertheless, he learned something valuable.

In a somewhat different vein, Maya went to the University of Indiana and, her first reaction was an incredulous “Everyone there is white!”  On the up side, she added that despite their counterparts in New Jersey, school officials and employees at IU were actually friendly.  While she learned that she could probably never live in Indiana, she loved the school, and her education and made long time friendships.

A second piece of advice that I would give is to take some courses that you enjoy.  You may not get the chance again to try out some of the things that colleges and universities give you a chance to do.  I know. For some people that sounds frivolous, like a luxury.  I’ve worked with enough students over my life time that have come from backgrounds where they thought they would never be able to make it to college.  They are seeking an education to get a good job, to lift themselves and their families out of poverty. They feel the imperative to stick to the game plan and pick up skills and a certificate that can be cashed in for a better standard of living.   I respect that.  Not everyone has a choice. But in that case, what people are looking for is training, not education – and that is a whole different ballgame.   Education is expansive, not one directional.  My model here is my son Eli.  Eli was admitted to the architecture program at the University of Maryland. It is extremely competitive and famous for the fact that during the junior and senior years students basically sleep all night in the architecture studio.  Nevertheless, his first couple of years he experimented with classes that appealed to him like calligraphy and Italian.  It’s made him a more interesting and empathetic person and over a decade later, he is doing just fine as an architect with his own firm.   You have your whole life to work, often in ways that give you little time to pursue things that really interest you.  Haidyn, I have no idea what you are  planning to study or what your career plans are, but I say, take advantage of it while you can. Let yourself grow. 

My final wish for each of those of the next generation is that if at all possible, you take a semester abroad – or spend some time living in a foreign country.  It combines both of the first two experiences that I mentioned and adds a deeper third dimension. Each of my children was lucky enough to be able to live for a while in another country prior to having to get out and dive into their job or career:  Pat (Germany), Maura (England), Melissa (Guatemala), Maya (Australia), and Eli (Turkey). Again, it is a fact of life that this is not possible for everyone.  If you are already married and supporting a family, it probably is not a possibility. On the other hand, when Maya took a semester in Australia with IU, aside from plane fare, it cost her no more than she would otherwise have been paying.  She got all of her college credits and even ended up finishing college a semester early. While going away to school is a big step towards allowing your perspective to broaden, you are still to a large extent playing on home field - more or less the same language, same laws, same religious and cultural values.  Staying for some time in another country allows you to be able to shift your prejudicial lenses some. We all have them and, particularly in this era of Trump nativism, it is crucial to be able to get outside and see what the world looks like from another vantage point.  There is no better educator than travel.

Last week my grandson Connor graduated from middle school, Maggie and Owen had their kindergarten graduation, and Daisie, the youngest of all my grandchildren Face Timed with me and said Grandpa for the first time.  Chances are that by the time Daisie is ready for college, I won’t be around any more. Those of us who have been through college have frequently heard that in its origin the word educate means to draw out.  It is not about cramming stuff in, but about bringing yourself out to a larger understanding of the world. I am fortunate that all of my children value education – in the broadest sense of the word, so I know that Connor, Maggie, Owen, Daisie and all of the others will do fine without my advice.  It is comforting to know that. Still, one of the prerogatives of getting older is the freedom to stick your nose in and say it anyway. Education transforms.  I can’t imagine who I would be now, if I’d never had the opportunity for college.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Barn Burning

I’ve said on a number of occasions that I am glad that I keep a journal.  One of my projects over the past few years has been to go back to the entries that I began keeping in the early 1980’s and read forward.  It keeps me honest and prevents me from rewriting my personal history in a way that makes me out to be the hero. (It is amazing what you forget.)

There are some nice surprises, too, and I came across one of those when I was reading in my 1994 journal earlier this week.  I discovered a poem that I had written and forgotten for some reason. Perhaps my sensibilities were different at the time and I thought it was incomplete, but on reading it again I really liked it and decided to resurrect it.

The immediate impetus was that Maya had to do a report on Wiliam Faulkner’s story “Barn Burning” and I had read the story to be able to help her if she had any problems. 

Barn Burning

After years of moving from place to place,
Of constant boils and pinworms from shared beds
Of welfare saying “college is not for you,” “wash dishes”
I understood Abner’s need to put the match to the hay.
Now I live in the white house
Am become one of the columns that is part and support.
It is difficult not to keep glancing out the window to see
If the barn is still standing
Or if perhaps sleep walking I have reverted
And handed it over,
To the flames it deserves.

From an aesthetic point of view, what I like about the poem is that it achieves a sort of simplicity while at the same time, it seems to me, still being to be able to speak to a reader in on terms that s/he can relate to in relationship to their own lives.  It is a middle ground between merely reporting and trying to cram in unneeded material, as I am prone to do. 

More to the point, however, it serves to keep me honest.  After writing the blog about Dad and the military the other day, I’m particularly mindful that, in Faulkner’s famous words, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.”  More than ever, I’m convinced that is true.