This Tinyletter is dedicated to the vanity license plates LADY DI, NANNY NA, DEB RG, PIETA and BOCKUS. Shine on, you crazy stars. And special thanks to Grace, who out of the blue sent me a lovely reminder to start writing again.
One Sunday afternoon in late July I put C and Oona on a sleeper train to Moncton, to New Brunswick, to the Norhumberland Strait, to an entire month at the cottage. Two weeks later I will follow them with the car. Meaning I have two weeks to myself, which in turn means two weeks trying to do everything in the world.
I kick things off by having an art sale. It’s a lot of work (the packaging, and then the packaging, and the constant lying to drugstore postal clerks) but my funds for studio rent are getting perilously low and something must be done. It goes well, and suddenly I’m busy. Too busy. Just to make sure I don’t start feeling good about anything for any reasonable length of time, everyone in the universe starts calling and texting and asking for a million other things. Some are important. Most are not. Meanwhile I’m going to work every day, and for some reason that’s busy, too. (Why are people trying to “get ahead” on things, especially when all that means is just randomly emailing me their incomplete bullshit? I have no idea.)
Also: the week before I’d been getting some wandering but insistent pains along my neck, around the back of my head, behind my ear, and I should have known some interesting elecricity was on its way. Sure enough, my jaw goes into full rebellion with a classic TMJ episode that lasts about ten days. It did motivate me to find a new set of exercises, which have helped immensely, but no exercise will ever make that kind of thing disappear when you’re in the throes of it. You just have to keep going.
Once my jaw pain had crested, my left eye decided to go buggy, filling up with floaters and the occasional blip like a missing frame from a film. Blip. Things were vaseline vague but, unfortunately, not Elizabeth Taylor glamorous. And because it was the same eye as my recently repaired retina, it made me a bit nervous (also, once you tell other people, they tend to get all over you about doing something about it). So I went in to see my ophthalmologist. No new tears, he said. Everything’s where it should be, he said. I listed off my symptoms again. So what’s the problem? I asked. You’re old, he said.
Old isn’t great. Also not great is stress, I think.
So in the end I sold some art (thank you, again, to my wonderful clients, who continue to rescue my faith in humanity just when I think it’s dipped permanently below the horizon) and got a few months ahead on my rent and did some work around the house and some freelance work and whole boatloads of nonsense in my regular job and in the end I managed to get almost everything done that I needed to do but this fall I will be *rethinking* a few things. This whole what we’re doing and why business. Because while jaw episodes and eye episodes will come and go, this aging stuff just hangs around and hangs around, like old ladies in a bingo hall, just waiting for that blackout number to finally drop.
As for the cottage: it’s fine. Going in August is different; at a certain point the weather turns ninety degrees, and the stupid humidity of July saunters off like a slavering dog. The wind picks up. Some days you need a jumper.
Also: for two nights running something with claws is being very disruptive to my sleep. Actually there are two, these things with claws. But one quantity is known––a squirrel who works the very top of a tree above the hut where we store our wood. And he works it maniacally, throwing down bits and bobs as fast as he can, as if he were the villain in an 80’s-era video game. And the sort of hut that stores our wood is a pre-made, comes-with-the-wood-inside thing, a kind of pod, and to the delight of the squirrel this hut has a corrugated tin roof. And so: tink, tink, tinktinktink TINK PLUNK TINK on and off throughout the day but most especially at 5:30 in the morning. And so I go out and throw some stones at it but I am such a bad shot that he hardly flinches. Just looking at me with one eye. Furiously chewing.
The other thing with claws is unknown. It visits somewhere around a particular bottom cupboard in the kitchen, but it has not actually been in the cupboard because there’s no way in and no evidence (mice are all about the evidence) of him/her/it being there. Just this kind of unconfined scratching at 12:30, 3:30, 5:15 in the morning. And so I get up and walk around, intentionally heavy, and look at things in that Blair-witch way using the flashlight on my phone. And the scratching stops. I think he/she/it is underneath the cottage, doing God knows what. I even go out and flash the light under there, trying to see a pair of eyes, and find nothing, but at least that stops the party for the night.
What can a guy do? In a week we’re supposed to be getting the cottage raised and straightened, and I’m hoping this will damper his enthusiasm. But in the meantime it’s me and 12:30, 3:30, etc.
And then, by some force of boredom or nature, the scratching stops, and does not return. There is a giant bald eagle, erect and vigilant (put that on a t-shirt) in the lot next door, and I’m hoping that my scratchy friend provided himself as lunch one day. Perhaps Mr. Squirrel could be dessert.
Can we talk about bad temper? Can we talk about temper tantrums? We let Oona join some other girls and their family at a bonfire on the beach. She stays for about an hour. Then it is quickly getting dark and she is supposed to have a shower before bed, so I go fetch her. There’s that classic argument in front of other people where I have to tell her repeatedly that it’s time to go and she keeps not listening and wanting more time. Finally her mom comes down to the beach as welll, and Oona races back to the cottage and throws a tantrum. For me this is simple. It’s as simple when I go pick her up from school, or from a playdate, or some class or day camp: it’s time to go. Do not run away from me. But then mom gets involved and hey, let’s talk about feelings. Anyway, things do not go well from there.
I remember some long ago parent-teacher inteview (who exactly is being interviewed, in this scenario) where my maths teacher (I say maths because he taught all of them: algebra, physics, geometry, trig, calculus) pointed out that I was not doing the necessary amount of work and consequently not doing well in his subjects. Reaching for any excuse (and “feelings” was not on the table back them), I said I was bored. This was plausible because I scored really well in all my humanities, and people considered me smart. The truth was that I was lazy and just not very good at maths (and in many ways not very smart). But now I had my maths teacher going to great lengths to explain how his subjects were interesting and necessary. More importantly, I had bought myself some time.
I used that time to learn how to cheat. The real trick was timing: just an exam here and there, just enough to float you along and out of trouble. Hey, it was a small town school in the middle of nowhere and with enough nerve you could get access to anything. A lot of people don’t lock their cabinets.
ANYWAY, I guess what I’m saying is that I remember that devious, dissembling heart. And that I still know it. And I’m not going to have a discussion or debate as to why you are losing your temper, because I know you will reach for any excuse at all. In fact, I could probably come up with a greatest-hits list off the top of my head:
It’s not fair.
I just needed two more minutes.
We were just getting started.
That’s not the time you told me.
I never get what I want.
They get to stay, how come I don’t?
I hate you.
It’s not fair.
I hate you.
Which is fine. Everyone has the right to not like something, and to be unhappy about it. What they don’t have the right to do is throw a fit and tear off across the playground or disappear into the bowels of the school. Then we’re into something else entirely, and that particular movie has a crime and punishment theme.
We go into Port Elgin for a drive. We also go to get more alcohol, but the sky is darkening and the air is close and still and promising nothing, so it’s really about the drive. The drive is something to do. Some kind of action. How many things in life happen just because some kind of action is needed? No decision, just action. A drive, a meeting, a walk, doing laundry, calling that guy. The highway is a dead grey snake, has no centre line, is just bumps and patches and the up and down of endless hills through endless trees, welcome to New Brunswick. Did you see the abandoned house there at the end of the lane? Don’t worry, there’s another one every ten minutes. TEEMING with ghosts. Port Elgin used to be nice, or so C tells me. Grand houses on the water. But then the ferry closed and now it just looks like a Stephen King short story. Then again, my eye is still buggy so it might just be that. It’s fine. Which is not what I could say about their local beer selection. Ugh.
We front-load our chores––which are mostly painting and replacing boards related to eaves, and the ungodly mess that comes with that––so that the last three days are free. This works out on a number of levels, including increasing amounts of darkness and rain and a full-scale invasion of mosquitoes. There have been other years when they are bad, when you sit behind the window screen and watch them mindlessly climb and bounce and gather like some miniature winged zombie horde, but this experience feels different just from how suddenly they come on. Unfortunately, almost all our remaining repellent is of the children’s variety (a lopsided drawing of an elephant on the label is aways a bad sign) and its effectiveness is on par with butter or nursery rhymes. Mosquitoes! The pointlessness. For me, the only relief, after they’ve had a really good feasting, is cold water (I’ve also been told that the only ingredient in AfterBite is baking soda, so there’s that).
The drive home is long. Looong. We eat a lot of fast food. It is not always so fast. Often the talk at these various pseudo-meals with my (almost) nine year-old is about not always looking at what other people are eating, what they ordered, what they have, do they have more, etc. This is a specific kind of talk. It is about looking at what you have, and trying to appreciate it, and being grateful for it. So much with these kids (listen to me, the old man) is about the menu, and endless choices, and constantly being able to upgrade your selection. This is the road to unhappiness, I tell her. Someone will always have more, have better. You will never be happy looking over your shoulder, I say. In fact, you will never be happy if you’re always looking up. This insistent distraction of chasing things. I understand this is contrary to the follow-your-dreams stuff she is usually bombarded with, from everyone all the time, but I do not believe that we can all get to the end of the rainbow just by playing Journey really loud. I’d rather have her thinking about things in the here and now, and accepting things as they come, as they happen, as they sometimes fall out of the sky, for no reason whatsoever, and sometimes it’s nobody’s fault and sometimes it’s yours. The rainbow is, in fact, often grey, blue, black. And this includes not-perfectness, not-a-picnicness, pretty shittyness, and absolute total failure. All on the menu, all arriving on your plate, in a giant half-cooked mess, and you still have to pay for it, and no, they don’t take credit.
And that’s it. I have nothing to plug, nothing to try to sell you. My shop isn’t even back open yet.
I hope everyone had a good summer. We expect so much. But September swings open with its opportunities for work. I saw a good quote from Doris Lessing today:
Whatever you’re meant to do, do it now. The conditions are always impossible.
Take care everyone,
Draw things, paint things, write things, make things.