Backyard adventures

Backyard adventures

I didn’t actually grow up in an apartment in the city, but it’s been a long time since I’ve had access to personal green space and so my instinct is to stay indoors when I’m at home. My house sits on a very nice piece of a land, though, so on Saturday, after an hour or so of trying and failing to find something to do in the living room, I decided to grab my camera and go outside.

My pair of backyard ibises have been joined by a new couple, so there are now four of these goofy birds that roam my yard looking for grubs, and I heard them honking noisily so I thought I’d get the group in action. By the time I came out, though, they were gone. Since I was already outside, though, I decided to make the best of it. After a few weeks of rain my gardens are looking quite lush. I don’t know squat about flowers, so if anybody can identify any of these species, let me know.

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Palm trees always make me think of the opening scene in Apocalypse Now.
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These grow high up on a tree that spills over onto my neighbor’s yard. When the flowers aren’t in bloom the tree is quite scraggly.
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I can’t imagine the evolutionary advantage to growing tiny flowers in the middle of the stem, but they do look lovely. Maybe plants prize beauty over practicality as much as any oter species.
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This is actually a potted plant on my balcony. I’m sure they guy who sold it to me told me what it was, but I either wasn’t paying attention or forgot. The flowers only bloom in the morning. When I brought it home I didn’t even realize it had flowers.
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I like the ant crawling on this thing.

Earlier this year I bought some chickens for a downtown chicken factory. They were adorable and I loved them, but in one brutal weekend they all caught bird flu and died.  In September I got around to buying new chicks, these from a farm a little more connected to nature. “Local chickens,” as they are known, are hardier than factory chickens, and I couldn’t have a second chicken plague sweep through my property in a year.

My local chickens, though, weren’t sexed, so instead of six hens I got three roosters and three hens. They’re young enough that they all still get along, but the Internet warns me that probably two of the roosters will have to go away eventually.

Anyway, my local chickens (all of them have names and personalities, by the way) are much more curious than the factory chickens, and explore all over the yard. This time I found them as far from their coop as they could go, hanging out under that purple-flower tree. I took some chicken glamor shots of them. If they were ever in a band, these could be their publicity stills.

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Left to right: Lemon Drop (vocals), Stripe (bass), P.B. (lead guitar), Chain Mail (rhythm guitar), Strawberry Shortcake (keyboards), Slimer (piano), Hey-Hey (dancer)

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I learned this summer (or rather, someone who knows about this stuff pointed out to me) that I have four coffee trees growing in my backyard. Apparently, if I really wanted to, I could harvest them, dry them, roast them, and make a cup of coffee or something. It probably wouldn’t take good, since I am doing nothing to maintain or nourish the trees.

A palm tree grows beside my coffee plants. From far away palm trees look nice, but up close I find them, or at least their bases, a bit gross. See:

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I always appreciate an inviting walkway, and I found a couple not far from the coffee trees.

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Before retreating back into my living room (so much time in the sun! it’s scary out there!) I came across this little shoot growing near yet another palm, and I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to get a good shot of it. This is the best I could come up with.

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Home

Home

Saturday morning I got a text message from my sister: “Call me when you get this.”

My first instinct is to worry. Messages like this can only signal a death in the family.

However, ever since my grandmother died, and my sister’s and parents’ dogs, there has been nobody in the family who is both a candidate for dying soon, and a close enough to me to justify me calling home ahead of schedule.

So I told myself that probably the message didn’t sound so ominous when she sent it. Probably she wanted to know how to fix her computer, or what we should get our parents for Christmas.

I poured myself a coffee and called her. We talked for about a half hour, and when we hung up I bought plane tickets to go home.

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Old photos

Old photos

I dug through my photo collections yesterday trying to find a particular shot that I may or may have not taken on a trip to Uzbekistan last year. I was unsuccessful, either because I didn’t take the picture, or I did but it wasn’t as good as I remembered it being.

It doesn’t matter. Once I was in my Photos app there was no reason not to keep looking. (On the contrary, there were lots of reasons to stop what I was doing and address my actual current life.)

I have a huge stack of old photo albums that I still carry with me and lug from house to house and country to country. I used to display them in a low bookshelf that has also been dragged all around the world since my parents gave it to me back in the early 1990s. For a while the pictures shared the shelf with knick-knacks and souvenirs. On the bottom shelf was a shoebox full of unsorted pictures that I promised I would someday put into proper albums. I still have that shoebox, and I still promise myself that I’ll do sort them someday.

Eventually the bookshelf overfilled, and first the knick knacks and then the box of pictures were removed to make room for more albums. (I also made it a point to start buying albums that were slim, because there just wasn’t much space on the shelves.)

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Spiders

Spiders

I read somewhere recently that no matter where you are in the world, there is almost undoubtedly always a spider watching you.

I think the point of this tidbit was that there are a whole lot of spiders in this world, and we shouldn’t be afraid of them, because they are all around us all the time and aren’t bothering us.

One might even be crawling on you right now, maybe in your hair or on the back of your leg, and that’s fine, right?

(You should probably stop to check now. It’s okay, I won’t judge.)

But of course that’s not how I read it.

Don’t get me wrong. I like spiders. Most of them anyway. When I was a kid, my mother told me that spiders are good luck, and a classmate told me that they are the smartest bugs. In retrospect, those points probably had more to do with Charlotte’s Web than any actual science, but the impression was made and I thought of spiders were both cool and smart.

The only times I’ve ever had this belief challenged were those times when the spider was really big and I was trapped with it in the bathroom. It’s hard to think positively of anything that’s invading your private time.

Since reading that, though, I’ve become a lot more aware of spiders watching me. I think they know I’m onto them, too, and are just messing with me. There’s one crawling on the painting behind my TV right now. Today there was one crawling at my office, hanging out on the computer cables. For the past week there’s been a fingernail-sized pervert living in my shower, just behind the shampoo. And today, as I had dinner on the balcony, a little orange guy hopped on my bike and watched me eat, as if pepperoni pizza were a perfectly normal part of the arachnid diet.

Were they always there, these spiders, just watching me as I went on my way, wholly oblivious to them? Or is this all some weird spider conspiracy to drive me crazy?

Do I even want to know?

Free book!

Free book!

Once upon a time (well, earlier this year) I dedicated myself to writing a short story every week, which I shared here. Some of them were admittedly junk, but I was quite proud of a few of them. I took those favorites and collected them into an ebook which I posted on Amazon, because it was easy and because they didn’t mind that I use a pen name (screw you, Apple! stop invading my privacy!).

I shared it with family and friends, and then moved on, but someone recently convinced me to try advertising it, and since I’m all about doing the easiest thing possible, I have decided to run a promotion on Amazon. So starting today, my book, Selected Daydreams, is available for free. (If you use Kindle Unlimited, it is always available for free, so as to appease my aunties who are cheap and won’t pay $2.99 for anything.)

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Peaceful as a hurricane eye

Peaceful as a hurricane eye

When I was nine years old and convinced that I would someday be an astronaut, I lived on the twenty-first floor of a condominium placed snug against Luquillo Beach in Puerto Rico. It was a one-bedroom apartment and there were three of us, but all of the couches pulled out and became beds and so I slept in the living room in front of the TV and developed what was in retrospect a probably unhealthy relationship with MTV. (Madonna’s “Like a Prayer,” which was a hit at the time, and New Order’s “True Faith,” which wasn’t but still seemed to get played quite a bit—these two invariably bring me back into that room, with all the thoughts and sensations of being small and helpless but eager and defiant. A bunch of salsa and merengue hits will do the trick as well—Sergio Vargas’s “Si Algun Dia La Vez,” Willie Colon’s “El Gran Varon,” pretty much any of Wilfrido Vargas’s soundalike absurdities, whether they were hits that year or not—but since I don’t live in a Puerto Rican community anymore, I only hear those songs when I deliberately play them on my iPod, so I’m clearly already in the mood for nostalgia. Madonna and New Order are more likely to blindside me at the supermarket.)

We actually lived in Puerto Rico for just over a year, most of which we spent about a mile away from the beach, in a small house in a neighborhood on a hilltop on the other side of the highway. From the top of my street I could see the Atlantic as a blue horizon and smell the salt air, though I suspect you can do that anywhere in Puerto Rico. It’s a small island, after all.

But for the last two months that we lived there were stayed in the apartment on the beach, and those memories are more vivid. Perhaps because I was nine, and my experiences were cementing into memories that I would carry with me for the rest of my life, instead of the gelatinous impressions that are pretty much all that is left of my earlier years. In many ways I suppose my life as Me began in that apartment.

Good memories: the balcony faced the sea. We’d leave the sliding doors open to allow in the breeze, and whether I sat in the living room or out on the balcony it still felt like I was sitting outside. There was nothing between the building and the beach except a small strip of patio; I remember the back door in the lobby leading straight out onto the sand. At night—and during the rare parts of the day when my family was quiet—you could hear the ocean washing against the shore as if you were in a giant seashell.

I once had a bouncy ball bounce over the railing and disappear. I ran down to the beach and looked for it, but it could have gone anywhere, up to and including alternate dimensions of time and space. My family asked me what I was doing, but for some reason I was unwilling to explain. It wasn’t a particularly treasured bouncy ball. I just wanted to find it again.

My teacher at school wanted me to belong to one of her after school clubs, but it meant me missing the bus. She asked my mom if she could drive me home instead, and somehow this was okay. I rode in the front seat without a seat belt. We talked the entire way home, though I can’t remember a single conversation. She drove a Toyota Camry and it smelled like coffee. She wouldn’t turn off the car, just pull up somewhere near my building and let me get out. Somehow this was okay, too. I must have made some kind of impression on her that she was willing to chauffeur me around; I can’t even remember which club it was she wanted me to join.

A teenage cousin made me a fishing pole out of a Pepsi can and a stick. He made himself one, too, and we went fishing in a creek near my building. I didn’t catch anything, but he caught two fish that we fried up and ate back at the apartment, even though when he gutted them some weird parasite came running out of the fish’s stomach and scurried down the drain.

Not-so-good memories: Not far from our building there was a line of crude shacks where fisherman sold the day’s catch, alive, dead, or cooked, depending on your preference. (I’m told that in subsequent years the Board of Health demanded that the shacks be replaced with proper sanitary structures, but back then these things were barely-standing, with hand-painted signs and live animals dangling in sacks above the counter.) We bought a bag of crabs and had a neighbor cook them for us. I didn’t let on that it bothered me, but I did quietly excuse myself when the crabs started screaming.

Once a kid on the bus grabbed my lollipop and threw it out the window. An older kid in the back caught it in midair and gave it back, and on the way home I ate my lollipop and cried at the same time while half the kids mocked me and the other half stood ready to defend me. I don’t think I was the smallest kid on the bus but I was probably the easiest to pick on.

The fingers on one of my hands were swollen for most of that year in Puerto Rico, because a cousin of mine dropped a cinder block on my hand. It wasn’t his fault, we were trying to redecorate my grandmother’s garden and, well, that wasn’t such a good activity for small children, as it turns out. Cinder blocks are heavy, and he was either six or seven years old. The block tore the skin and fingernail clean off my middle finger. I don’t remember any of the adults being especially upset. They wrapped it up and told me stories about relatives who had lost limbs doing weird things. Amazingly, they had quite a few examples to share.

Memories, neither good nor bad: The day before we left a cousin trapped me in the kitchen and asked me if I felt sad about leaving. I said no, because I honestly wasn’t. Her face, mean-looking at the best of times, turned vicious and she insisted that I would be devastated without her. Then she stormed off. We didn’t see each other again for twelve years.

A big storm passed over our city. We ate in the living room and watched through the sliding glass doors as the sheets of rain streaked across the sea. It wasn’t hurricane season but my cousins—there were always relatives in our house, at least in my memory—said it was anyway, and the adults told us and each other hurricane stories. The previous summer my cousin—the mean-looking one—and I had played in the street during a tropical storm. We were both small enough that we could almost swim in the rain-swollen gutters. I’m pretty sure we tried, anyway. I very quickly conflated their hurricane stories with my own tropical storm playdate.

I spoke to my mother this weekend, and as it always does the conversation turned to Puerto Rico. I haven’t been back since I left nearly thirty years ago. My parents keep in touch with their siblings, though, and my mom always tries to tell me about them. I listen, and can mostly keep track of the names and goings-on of these increasingly distant relatives. This time I listen, though. It appears that they’re all giving up. Buying the next available seats on flights heading to the States, no caring about the day or even really the destination. Some are staying behind to sell their houses or pursue their insurance claims, but right now, at least, none intend to stay.

In my lifetime immigration has become a hot-button issue. As Americans our point of view assumes that people from around the world are eager to come to us. Some see it as nefarious and others as a blessing, but the underlying belief in America-as-magnet is unquestioned.

Puerto Ricans aren’t, of course, immigrants. We are Americans, and are simply relocating from one part of America to another, just as people from New Orleans moved to Houston after Katrina.

But I understand that for my family, moving from Puerto Rico to the mainland isn’t that simple. It is immigrating. It’s a permanent change, and not one that they had wanted to make. It was something that people did a hundred years ago, or that they did today from remote war-ravaged countries.

And now it also happens at home.

And I have to wonder, will it stop there? The Europeans who came to America in centuries past didn’t stop in New York or Boston; they kept going, into parts of the world that appeared as little more than blank spaces on a map.

When we can’t take care of this group of Americans—or the next group, if there is a next group—what happens when Americans start looking for a fresh start? Am I looking for a fresh start?

I don’t think much about Puerto Rico—my mean-looking cousin was almost absolutely wrong. We used to go every summer, but after that year we stopped. My world has grown a lot since then, and memories of the apartment on the beach are mostly, though not entirely, consigned to that fuzzy bin of early childhood memories. For all I know the apartment itself has been consigned to a rubbish heap after the storm. And the seafood shacks, building codes and all, are probably gone. My grandma’s finger-destroying garden, all the other places a nine-year-old would scamper, chasing and being chased by other floppy puppychildren. What is left, and where do we go now?

I think I’m back

I think I’m back

Or at least I’m going to try.

The past two or three weeks have been the first time since about April that I’ve felt like I should be writing, as opposed to doing whatever I’ve been doing. Between work and travel and just being me, I haven’t had a moment to squeeze in much of anything. I’ve taken to waking up at four in the morning so that I can get at least a little exercise in before my day gets going. (I’m not really getting in shape but at least I’ve been able to arrest some of the bloat.) Moments where I’m not doing something for someone else have been so few and far between that I’ve relished the hard-won break and forced myself to rest.

Until a few weeks ago, when I realized that I was spending quite a bit of time watching TV, fiddling with my camera, or (okay, fine, I’ll admit it) playing video games, and it was starting to become a waste. I haven’t read a book in months, and haven’t put any writing up on my wall. More to the point, I wasn’t enjoying resting anymore. My writing muscles were crying out for some exercise.

This week I picked up the new edition of Marianne Moore, and the line about “imaginary gardens with real toads in them” reminded me that I had a goal once, not long ago, and I need to get back to it.

So here we go again. I have a few posts queued up, and I believe that I can spend at least part of some mornings doing some writing instead of lingering over my coffee and playing Peggle on my phone (which is what I did this morning).

I think I’ve exhausted my supply of good old pictures, though, but I bought this expensive camera so I better start using it. (I mean, I live in the middle of Africa, it shouldn’t be hard to find something to photograph.)

I hope you’ll all join me again. I certainly look forward to reading your pages again, too.