Fingernails

I followed a set of fingernails down the hall one day at school. Not just ordinary fingernails, but amazingly long fingernails.  Each one, and yes, there were ten of them growing from each of one of my colleague’s fingertips, was at least two inches long.  It makes my skin crawl just to think of them.

The long fingernails reminded of a book my Aunt Millie used to have called Ripley’s Believe It or Not. It was a compilation of the best and weirdest from the newspaper column by that name which ran in newspapers across the country.  Each time I visited Aunt Millie’s house in Florida, when I was a kid, I read it from cover to cover with horrified fascination.  One item which particularly repulsed me was the rather sinister drawing of an ancient Mandarin official with fingernails like croton leaves which corkscrewed and bent back on themselves.  They were three feet long. Believe it or not.

It seems that during a period in Chinese history, men of a certain class let their nails grow extremely long as a symbol of their exalted position.  The longer the nails grew, the less able were the officials were to perform any sort of labor, and finally, any sort of task at all.  Others had to do everything for them.  This was a sign of great power and wealth.  Paradoxically, the more helpless the men were, the more powerful they were.  This is the same kind of thinking that produced the custom of binding feet.  Women of the upper classes in that same country became utterly dependent on others to move them from place to place because their tiny, mutilated bound feet were thought to be a sign of beauty.  Ripley’s drawing of the nails was meant to be grotesque, to shock, and it did.  So did hearing about bending little girls’ feet back and tying them.  And, like so many things which shock at an early age, they formed an indelible impression.

In China, it was certain men who grew their nails so long.  In our culture, it is certain women.  Being a lifelong short-nailed person, I don’t pretend to know what motivates someone to grow really long nails or to have acrylic ones glued on.  I have trouble imagining what makes a woman spend 75 dollars plus to have inch long slivers of plastic, called backscratchers by some, glued over her own nails.  This is only the beginning of a ritual meeting with a manicurist. A ritual which involves shaping, polishing, buffing and who knows what else.  These pseudo-nails must be periodically reapplied by the manicurist to hide the nail’s natural growth, like coloring your roots.  But, this is the fashion among certain women.  Women who stop short of the kind of nails I followed down the hall.

The nails I followed down the hall were different.  They were natural.  Our school secretary wore long acrylic nails.  I asked her how she was able to type with such nails.  She demonstrated for me.  She used the pads of her fingers rather than the tips.  Typing that way didn’t seem to slow her down. I mentioned the fingernails I had seen.  The secretary told me that they were much shorter they used to be.  I was amused that her reaction to the natural nails was much the same as mine:  They turned her stomach.

I wonder what kind of life a person with fingernails that long must lead.  Certainly, no life that resembles mine.  How does she dial her phone, zip a zipper or pick up anything tiny?  I wonder why she grows them so.  Perhaps it is just because she can.  Is it a display of power and status like the Mandarins, or simply vanity?

I think of all the things she can no longer touch with her fingertips, of cheeks she can no longer caress, babies she can no longer cuddle, of hands that must go unheld, of how her lover’s lips must go untraced. I wonder why someone would pay such a price for status, for power, or for vanity.

307

Tomorrow we are off to Wyoming for a few days.  We will visit dear friends, enjoy cooler air,  harvest any rhubarb that may be left and make a pie, laugh a lot, hike favorite trails, eat great food and generally have a wonderful time.

The friends we are staying with are resourceful people who like to recycle, refurbish, reuse old buildings.  Another friend, who was relieved to get it out of her yard, gave them a playhouse her children had long since outgrown.  The following is what they did with it.

 

The Hen House

The shell, a cast off playhouse

Too soon outgrown.

Come get it and it’s yours.

Remade, repainted, reroofed,

Capped with a rooster vane

Spinning in the Wyoming wind.

Retrofitted with a single light bulb

To repulse the bitter cold.

Even Tyson rejects pre-frozen chickens.

12/5/12

 

Maggie and Moseby, Part Two

Part Two

Maggie was perfectly content being an only cat.  She had her choice of the fine perches in the best windows.  She had her own dish and clean water bowl with no other cat to gross out when she stuck her feet in.  There was a spot in the sunshine on the front porch just for her.  The dust bath, hers alone.  Best of all was the warm air vent in the kitchen.  It was her ultimate luxury. When the furnace was on, she would press up against it and writhe in ecstasy.  When I went to bed, there was her solo spot by my feet in warm weather and by my back in cold. Maggie went in and out and in and out on demand.  If she wanted cat company, she could go next door to visit Grace’s indoor cat Phoebe, through the window. Most importantly, she could ignore me completely and not worry about some other cat getting held or petted instead of her.

I didn’t see all this cat contentment.  I saw what I wanted to see.  I thought that since I was gone all day and often in the evening, Maggie must surely be lonely.  I knew just the thing for her, another cat.  I was wrong.

Maggie was not pleased when I found Moseby in the free ads and brought him home. Like Maggie he was already neutered.  He came from a family with a new baby.  A gray tabby weighing in at over 12 pounds, Mose was a big guy.  Compared to Maggie, a giant.  When I brought him home and let him out of the carrier, he bolted for the basement door like he knew where he was going.  He hid out in the basement for three days before putting in an appearance upstairs again.  I didn’t search for him.

From the beginning it was obvious that Mose fancied himself a lap cat. At that 12 pounds in the summer and more in the winter, he was a lap full.  It was hard to read or knit with him draped across my lap.  There was no place for book or yarn.

Cautious, maybe even a little cowardly, Mose didn’t seek confrontation so Maggie worked her will on him from the beginning.  She was a lot smaller than he, so she had to use her wits.  Since she was a lot smarter, the contest evened out, like the time she got even with him for taking her spot in the bathroom. Maggie had the custom of accompanying me to the bathroom every morning and sitting on the edge of the tub.

Like many cats, Maggie was fascinated by water.  She would bat at the stream coming from the faucet as the tub filled.  She also enjoyed standing in the bottom of tub retreating as the water rose and approached her feet.

Not long after Mose moved in, he began joining us in the bathroom.  Much to Maggie’s disgust, he usurped her place on the edge of the tub.  One morning, Mose was late arriving for the morning ablutions.  I was already in the tub.  Maggie was in her old spot on the edge.  Mose came in a jumped up next to Maggie.  There was enough room for two to sit comfortably, but like kids who can’t share the back seat of the car, Maggie left when Mose arrived.  This particular morning, she jumped off in disgust and went over to sit on the scales. As she sat, she stared at Mose.  Then I saw a gleam in her eye.  Before I could react, she launched herself and rammed the unsuspecting Mose right in the side, unseating him and dumping him into the tub.  He and I shot up from the water. I was as frantically trying to protect myself as he was trying to find something dry to land on to get out of the water.  Water flew.  I yelled. Mose yowled. Chaos reigned. Maggie smugly watched, then tail held high, walked sedately out of the room.

 

 

 

 

 

Maggie and Moseby

 

Part One

For the first time in my life, I was living alone. I was 44 years old.  Living alone was lonely and scary but, once I got used to the solitude, I enjoyed it. Even so, there were times I missed having another beating heart around.  I determined that once I owned my own house, I would get a low maintenance presence to talk to.

Finally, I bought a house.  Once I settled in, I decided the time had come to get a cat.  When I checked the “Free” section of the classifieds in the Capital Journal, I found an ad which read, “Free cat to good home. Two year old black and white female, neutered, declawed.”  I called. The family who owned her had two toddlers and they were moving. Two good reasons to get rid of what a harried mother saw as just another mouth to feed, yet another mess to clean up. I took my own kids, who were visiting for the weekend, along to check out the cat. We all approved, so we brought her home and named her Maggie.

In keeping with typical cat coping behavior, Maggie overwhelmed by the new surroundings, disappeared as soon as she was set free in the house.  That evening before I went to bed, I decided to find her to make sure she was okay.  It was then I discovered I was losing my mind.  I looked everywhere a cat could possibly hide.  I moved furniture, peered up the chimney, and rattled the windows and screens to make sure she hadn’t slipped through one.  I opened closed doors, closets and drawers.  I called, “Kitty, kitty, kitty,” the whole time. I found no cat.  I looked, then looked every place again, carefully poking and tipping, sliding and feeling.  I listened for purring and the very soft thud of cat feet.  I heard neither.  She wasn’t there.  She wasn’t anywhere.

Had I really gotten a cat? I thought I had.  My kids had gone, so I couldn’t check with them. She’d vanished.  Where had she found to hide without a trace?  I checked the entire house again.  No cat. Impossible.  I was really, really beginning to wonder if I had rounded the bend and lost it this time.  ­­There was no trace of a cat except for the food, water and litter pan I put out.  I must have imagined her. Living alone was getting to me.  There’s a word for imaginings so real, but I wasn’t going there.  Instead of worrying any longer, I went to bed to sleep on my dilemma.

About 2AM I awakened to a scratching and rustling very close to me. My bed was directly under a large open window.  I froze, barely daring to breathe.  I listened hard.  The noise came from inside the room.  I lay very still.  Rustle, rustle, rustle.  Then the sound of fabric tearing and a thud. A small thud like a small cat would make when landing.

I turned on my bedside lamp.  Out from beneath the bed, where I had looked at least three or four times, strolled Maggie. I jumped up and got down on the floor to peer under the bed, fully expecting to see a secret cat trap door slamming shut.  Instead, I saw a corner of the dust cover on the box springs hanging down.  That must have been the tearing fabric I heard.  Maggie had discovered a small opening and crawled in  to hide until she felt safe enough to come out.

I picked her up and stroked her.  I felt like I held my restored sanity.

 

To be continued…

 

Verbing and Nouning

 

 

I recently watched a New Yorker video featuring one of their copy editors, Mary Norris, who is also known as the Comma Queen.  She talked about the verbing of nouns a term which in itself breaks the rule of not using nouns as verbs.  This rule or dictum is enforced by the New Yorker in the case of some nouns such as impact.  She states that the New Yorker will not allow its authors to use impact as a verb. For example, I found this dictum about not verbing impacted my writing.

I’ve thought about the verbing of nouns some and have written about it some on other occasions.  My conclusion is that I don’t like it, but occasionally find myself using the bastard words.

I am all in favor of keeping the English language alive, but I see little need to take the lazy way out which is what I think much verbing is.

Let’s look at one of the examples Mary uses:  She suggests that writing something impacted you is a less satisfactory way of saying something had an impact on you.  I agree.  Verbed nouns grate on my ears much as the word “moist” does on other ears.  Accessorize, prioritize, federalize, incentivize.  Ewww.

I’m trying to think of an example of an acceptable mutation.  Hmm, I wonder if mutate is a verbing of mutation.  There, maybe I thought of one word that might be acceptable,  since to mutate is to make a specific kind of change.

Uh oh.

I looked both words up.  Turns out mutation is the nouning of the verb, mutate.  Oh no.   whole new group of words to examine for okayness.  This is going to keep me busy for quite a while.

Later

I’ve come to the conclusion that if we didn’t noun verbs, our language would become cumbersome, indeed.  For example, a runner is a person who runs.  It’s a lot easier just to noun that verb rather than affix the clause, “a person who…” does whatever,” ad inifinitum.

While this usage seems perfectly acceptable to me, I still cringe at the verbing of nouns.

As Whitman wrote, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” $133.42

Flags

 

 

Sometimes events converge the way I would plan them. This year my iris bloomed on Mother’s Day.  I cut a big bunch and took them up to put on my mother’s grave.

My mother was a passive woman.  She fought very few open battles against my father, as he from the patriarchal seat of absolute authority issued the orders with which he ruled our family life.  However, there was one battle Mother waged and won.  The battle was over two bushel baskets of iris bulbs.

In the summer of 1951 my father changed jobs.  Our family was transplanted from Alabama to Idaho.  My parents purchased a tract house, one of a row that had been plopped down on the bare spots created when bulldozers scraped off the layer of sparse vegetation which grew in that high, dry latitude. Going from lush Alabama to the near desert of Pocatello was horticultural shock of a kind my mother did not intend to tolerate for long.  Iris were her favorite flowers.  She determined to take two bushels of bulbs along with us to plant despite my father’s hard habit of throwing out anything for which he could not see an immediate and pressing need.  He declared that taking those bulbs was ridiculous.  It was stupid, a waste of space in the moving van.  She didn’t even know if they would grow in Idaho.  He scowled his most frightening scowl.  The thunderheads of anger at having his will thwarted loomed over our family.  We all took cover except for Mother, who for once, held her ground.  We were amazed when she won.  The bulbs went to Idaho where they flourished in a thick braid the length of the back of our house.  We children delighted in them, too.  They were a sign that some battles against our father’s intransigence could be won.

It seemed that there were iris each place we moved after that.  It was taken for granted there would be.  If there were none growing when we came, then some were planted.  They were tacit reminders of her victory, like flags taken in battle.

I have continued her custom of planting iris wherever I live.  I have done it because I like them and because they remind me of her.  Here in Kansas, I learned, iris are often called flags.  Here in Kansas, I have fought my own battles.

I felt a smug immunity when I turned forty.  There would be no mid-life crisis for me, then I stumbled over my hubris and began a free fall into despair.  During the four years it took me to climb out of that dark pit, I sought help.  Twice I came away no better.  I hoped the third time would be different.  I had interviewed a therapist over the phone.  I told her my situation.  She said she thought she could help.  I had my doubts, but I got in my car and drove the 100 miles to her office to give her a try.  She met me at the front desk after I had filled out the forms.  We chatted as we walked down the long, carpeted halls to her office.  I follow her in and looked around.  “You like iris,” I said.

“Yes,” she laughed.  For, you see, iris where everywhere.  Her office was a veritable garden of things with iris on them. There were pictures and pillows, plaques and a throw. Small sculptures and ornaments covered the tables.  There were iris on things I’d never thought of putting flowers on.

Surrounded by these battle flags, I knew this time would be different.

 

 

 

 

Transported

Libraries are fond of using displays to encourage patrons to read more.  One of the most hackneyed is based on the theme of books transporting us to realms beyond our day to day lives.

Yes, the idea is hackneyed.  Yes, it is trite. Yes, I was transported by the last book I read.  Absolutely taken from here to there and even more I wanted to stay in that place, among those people.

I read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Annie Barrows and Mary Ann Shaffer when it first came out in 2009.  I loved it then.  I told everyone I knew it was wonderful and they should read it.  They should have.  It was wonderful.

Then I moved on to the hundreds of books I’ve read since.

A couple of weeks ago I was scanning the shelves of books on CD at my local library branch, looking for something, anything to listen to in my car, when I saw Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Societysitting there.  I knew I had read it seven years ago and enjoyed it.  I also knew that one of the upsides of my aging memory is that I can read books I know I have read in the past and enjoy them as if it were the first time through.  This aspect of my fickle memory is a wonderful thing.  It enables me to pick out books I know I’ll like and not waste time on clunkers.

So, I grabbed the box and headed to the checkout kiosk.  As I walked, I looked over the cover notes.  There was a list of narrators.  I don’t like multiple narrators.  I almost put the box back on the shelf.  I am still dancing a jig that I didn’t.  The narrators were perfect, having several fit this book exactly.  I liked it.

I liked it so much that I really would love to go to Guernsey in 1946, the year before I was even born, to see the places and meet those wonderful people.  I want to live there then in that place and time. There it is. Transported.