Saturday, May 28, 2005

Close Up And Personal

Long, long ago in a not-so-faraway suburb I was employed by a now long-defunct doc-in-the-box. I used to bring vials of pondwater to work and, on a slow afternoon, I'd pass the time by looking at hydras and rotifers and other little creatures swimming around under the microscope lens. I'd lose myself in the little subaquatic world; it was a small, perfect happiness.

I don't get to use the microscope much at work these days. I work in a hospital, a far more respectable joint than the walk-in clinic that -- I can't remember now -- either had been or would subsequently become a vacuum cleaner dealership. So smuggling in vials of pondwater might be just a wee tad overly louche for the general atmosphere of high-minded medical seriousness of my current workplace.

If I refer here to the orifice that produces the particular effluent I do routinely inspect at work, I will probably draw hordes of ultimately-disappointed Googlers to the blog. As it is, I am frequently startled by the search terms that bring people to my basically prudish and repressed little quarter of the network. I wish I could somehow teach Google to advise them that, no, you will not find "Amanda Wildfire" anywhere on Anita Rust, nor does the House of Toast cater to those who have a "stethoscope fetish." Said orifice shall, then, remain nameless. Let's just say it rhymes with Carolina, and is prone to various catarrhal effluxes that can be investigated by microscopy.

Echos of that small, perfect happiness return as I scan the slides for branching fungal hyphae, madly swimming, flagella-propelled little protozoans, or epithelia studded like poppy-seed cakes with bacillae. Peering into the microscope is when I most feel like a doctor -- or at least like the doctors in the various novels and biographies I'd read as a child, doctors who were always peering gravely down the barrel of a microscope in the leper colony dispensary about to make a brilliant diagnosis and cure. It's not much like that, actually. But you knew that.

Mostly, we pack up the various effluents and ship them to the lab, where the machines take over. I'll never forget the day when a lab report reached my desk announcing that my patient had a serum sodium of "-1" which I probably don't need to tell you is electrophysiologically impossible. I was, however, most amused. Which is something.

I do, sometimes, on my more autistic days, mournfully announce "I should have been a pathologist," by which I really mean "I should have been a librarian." Optimally a glamorous, sexy (uh, oh -- here come the Googlers) forensic pathologist, a la medical thriller heroine. But, absent that, at least someone who can lose herself in cellular and subcellular worlds. The microscope shrinks the microscopist as much as it magnifies the specimen. Down to the vanishing point, optimally. But I blew it. I became an internist, where beautiful histologies come packaged in unruly, hankering, babbling human beings.

It's little wonder that I've taken to disappearing amidst the blown-up and cropped-down, uh, generative appendages of weeds.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Consider the Mustards

It was a big car, and new, one of those oddly bulbous models, thick and snout shaped. I was idling behind it at a red light when the housing around its license plate caught my eye. Rather than simply bearing a dealership name, it read: St. Pio. Pray, hope, and don't worry.

I'd usually dismiss such surreally situated religious advice as tacky, but, for some reason, this little automotive sermon moved me. Maybe it was the weather -- days of chill fitful rain followed by days of cold gusty downpours. I'd begun to doubt the very existence of the sun. I wanted to believe in something. Or maybe it was the overwhelming Catholicity of the intersection where I was idling, dominated by the sheer, somber red-brick, rain-darkened facade of St Agnes' Church, and its nearby rectory and parochial school, leaving no doubt what saint was boss of that little corner of Arlington.

Or maybe it was my initial misreading of the saint's name.

St. Plo ? I've never heard of him. Or her. What an odd name. Eastern European, maybe. Or something out Calvino's Cosmicomics. Could it be a joke ? About J. Lo ? That I'm just not getting ?

Or maybe it was the strangeness of the quote itself -- the grave "Pray, hope," followed by the banal and chipper "don't worry." It reminded me more of that old pop tune, "Don't Worry, Be Happy !" than of a standard religious exhortation. What obscure Eastern European (or extraterrestrial) saint could have uttered such a hybrid spiritual prescription ? The same one who also might have advised

Repent, relax.

Praise God, eat roughage.

Google -- that hagiography-of-hagiographies -- quickly corrected me. Saint Pio was a Capuchin who died in 1968, who known for his extreme piety, his long, contemplative masses, his love of and dedication to ceaseless prayer and his compassion for miscreants. He was in poor health, which he bore uncomplainingly, ate very little, worked 19 hours a day and never took a vacation. He also had stigmata. Sweetly perfumed stignata. And could "bilocate.""Pray, hope and don't worry" was, apparantly, his motto. Maybe it sounds better in Italian.

The upright seedpods of mustard plants remind me of the upraised arms of people praying. Reaching heavenward, outward, upward. Imploring, addressing, welcoming, calling down, calling forth. Desiring. Submitting. It's a vulnerable posture, practically begging for a heavenly wounding, a ravishment. The mustards are, of course, cruciferae -- evoking the ultimate Christian wounding.

But it's spring, the season of flowers. Seedtime's month's away. But just as Easter is implicit in Christmas, it's secretly afoot. The four-petaled mustards are everywhere -- small ones, tall ones, white ones, yellow ones, sparsely and densely flowered ones. Observing them week after week, I suddenly understood their modus operandi. How they get from point A -- pretty little blossoms -- to point B -- sere upraised arms.

As the petals and stamens drop away, only the long, fructified, green pistils remain. They become the mustard plant's upraised arms. And, lest we forget, moving outward from the ovary, up the pistil's slender style, we reach the very end of the arm, the palm, the stigma -- the point of fertilization, ravishment, wounding --

I watched the pale ark of a car turn left and sail down Mass. Ave. toward Boston. Full of a strange, renewed hope that the sun would indeed come again, I felt a tentative prayer arise in my heart:

Dear St. Plo, gracious Patroness of misreading, devotional automotive accessories and gratuitous botanical homologies ...

I was not used to praying. My orison stuttered to a halt.

Would it be a prayer of gratitude ? A plea for intercession ? A simple cri du coeur ?

I wasn't worried. The words would come.

Saturday, May 21, 2005


It's little wonder that, after submitting this morning to the dental hygeinist's little probing and scraping ice piculums, I would be contemplating the sharper side of the natural world.

Humans are, of course, amalgams of hard and soft, of sharp and dull. Teeth rise up out of tender, pink gum-cushions, and are full of red, living pulp. The problems arise at the interfaces.

As the hygeinist scraped, and I rinsed and spat the usual sin-of-floss-omission red, I noticed a white cloth toy hanging from the dental light: a tooth, a bicuspid, upon which someone, well-intentioned I'm sure, had drawn a big broad fuzzy smile. In red ink.

I have to tell you I said, wiping the pink froth from my lips with the dental bib, that tooth has an awfully bloody looking smile. Maybe it's just the context...

The hygeinist laughed. Most patients, she said, think it's cute. She'd had one other patient, though, think of blood.

Just one ???

I lay there too incredulous to feel pain. There's nothing -- I repeat NOTHING -- about dentistry that's cute. Except for my endodontist's yellow mini-cooper convertible, which is damned cute.

So, anyway, it seems poor tooth # 12, tooth of many recent endodontal tribulations, is afflicted with "pockets." Deep ones. (Like the ones I'm going to need rectify the situation.) Which probably means it's fractured. Which cannot be proven without a periodontist. Who will need to do "surgery" in order to find out.

Surgery ?

Why do they insist on calling it surgery ?

Surgery is when they take out your spleen, or your aneurysm, or a piece of your LUNG, for goodness sakes. Couldn't they just call it a "procedure" ? Or, even better, "a little procedure" ?

And after this "surgery" if they DO find a fracture, the tooth must go. Immediately. Or there will be "bone loss." Which could affect the adjacent tooth. And after the "extraction" ? Bone grafts. Implants. Bridges.

Which brings us to one of DK's favorite Mr. Natural riffs:

Where does it all end ?

In the grave, son, in the grave.

Never mind that tooth #12 currently feels fine. Chipper, in fact ! Top notch ! First rate ! Best it's felt in years ! Man'o'man just bring it on: taffy, jawbreakers, tofu jerky ! It's ready to take on the world !

Doesn't matter. There are...pockets.

Suddenly tooth #12 is feeling a little poorly.

Green-around-the-gills. Rashy. Hypoglycemic. Chlorotic. Neurasthenic, even. Afflicted with a case of the vapors. It collapses, moaning softly, onto its pockety pink pillows, asking for cool compresses for its fevered crown.

And I, ever the obedient custodian of my failing cusps, lie back, close my eyes

and open wide.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Lune de Moi

The unsettled spring continues. Today was cool and almost still; the sunlight was filtered and flat, bright but veiled. Some gray clouds moved below a scrim of high haze. There was just enough wind to impart a sense of restlessness and distraction to the day. Or maybe I was projecting something inner onto the landscape.

I went walking, this morning, in the Broadmoor Wildlife Sanctuary. I wanted to walk the trail loop beside the Charles River which I'd missed last time I visited. So I consulted the map and set out over the boardwalk by the marsh, stopping to watch the turtles and listen to birdcalls. Lily pads and arrow arum were emerging out of the bronze and green water

and out of Narcissus' watery, bog blogging forehead.

I got to thinking about contingency. About how I had come to be a woman who walks in the woods with a camera.

It's really quite odd. Aside from the hiking trips of the early years of my first marriage -- one of the few elements of that misbegotten union for which I am truly grateful -- I've spent most of my adulthood indoors. This spring I've seen lady's slippers and lilies of the valley for the first time in forty years.

It took a wreck to get me back outside. And that's where the contingency comes in. Pure, harrowing contingency. If I hadn't stopped to pee before I left the veterinarian. If I'd lingered a few more minutes over the bill. If I'd driven just a little faster or a little more slowly. If pony-tail man's friend had waited another thirty seconds before ringing up his cell phone. But the forces of the universe all converged at that split second to bring about the intersection of pony-tail man's pick-up and, ultimately, my second cervical vertebra.

Convalescing, able to do most everything but move my head, I started walking by the river. Then taking pictures.

So that's how that happened. As in hap.

Contingency takes me back even farther. To another collision. It's June of 1951, Montreal, my parents' lune de miel, during which (in the usual manner) there occurred the improbable intersection of one human oeuf and one out of a swarm of million sperme. What if one of the 999,999 unsuccessful contenders had won ? Where would I be then ?

Or back a few years before that: my Dad, an Army sargent, on patrol somewhere in Europe during the last days of the war. A sniper shoots. Hits him in the leg. What if the sniper had been a better shot ?

No Montreal, lune elsewhere, and certainly no miel.

And, of course, no moi.

Astonishing. And as deliciously, dizzyingly absurd as the Powershot's IMG_1952.jpg, iconically and coincidentally named for the year of my birth --

-- which condenses the morning's restless, milky sunlight into a familiar pair of eyes looking back at me from the dark, weedy swamp water.

The last two fruits at the bottom of everyone's cornucopia of contingency.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Bugs Out

DKs macho little machine, aka the Canon Powershot A80,

has been strutting its stuff,

and, I must say, its macro ability -- even without the beautiful little D250 close-up lens that one can screw into its front -- is impressive.

And with the little lens,

it's almost ridiculous

But none of the digital pictures I took of the stand of bellworts by the path came out as well as this (digitally scanned) film photo.

The film image is soft, gentle, dreamy.

And even though -- maybe even because -- one can't see the wings on the gnats on the feathers of these 35mm geese, the image makes its visual point which, to my mind's eye, is the arc made by the black-and-white heads as they disappear behind the embankment.

A snippet of the previous night's dream came to me yesterday morning when I was blow-drying my hair. The dream was about a wooden chair -- a strange, misshapen hybrid of a chair with two seats. In the dream, I offered to take it and place it in my room where my zafu was. The day before, DK had showed me an old newspaper clipping, a faded photo of a two-headed turtle. That's the literal origin, I think, of the conjoined chair. Initially I wondered whether the two seated chair symbolized some Buddhist-Christian merger. It was, after all, to take the place of the zafu. Now I think the symbol serves equally well for a partnership of digital and analogue.

Now if only the macho little machine came with a dream-lens attachment, or at least a USB cable for downloading dream-images directly to photoshop !

Sunday, May 15, 2005


Whose woods these are, I think I know.
His friend is in the White House, so
they did not mind him chopping here.
Just watch his safe fill up with dough !

-- No Tree Left Behind

Saturday, May 14, 2005


Suddenly the world is very, very green. It's a uniform, brilliant sea of verdure with barely distinguishable features. Lush, not stark. Color triumphant over form. My photographic life, so simple amidst the stripped branches and tangled vines of winter, is in disarray. Recalibrate ! Recalibrate ! klaxons the alarm. As flowers appear, my eye latches onto them as if they were lifesavers, and promptly goes into field guide mode. I become a collector. With a wild flower life list. Ohhh, look ! A stand of bellwort ! And the purple deadnettle's back ! Is that you, downy brome ? There behind the English plantain ?

To complicate things, I've been bringing DKs little digital camera along on my walks. It's an alien little device with a macho name -- Powershot A80 -- whose behaviors I am only beginning to fathom. It's a gigantic leap from viewfinder to LCD monitor, a leap not easily made by someone who has yet to make her peace with her bifocals and who hates scrolling through little electronic menus. There's something simple and comforting about looking through a viewfinder, turning the focusing ring on the lens, and seeing the world grow more or less clear. That's what Leeuwenhoek did, and Galileo. And Louis Daguerre. With DK's little device it's all auto-focus: half-depress the shutter and, after a whirr and some inscrutable blinks of various tempi and colors, one may shoot. Matters are out of one's hands. Important looking rectangles appear on the LCD screen. Sometimes one, sometimes three or four. I address them:

No, you ninny. I said focus on the SEEDHEAD right there in front of you, not on the tree across the field !

What's the song -- I talk to the LCDs, but they don't listen.

LCDs do, however, unpredictably, display various strange hieroglyphs, and even stranger graphs, purporting to inform me, I think, of how much light I just used. Or how much light I should have used. Or something.

Stll, there is some mercy. In the form of a knotweed leaf, surprisingly orange and beautifully folded.

And then there's the mushroom that has an important teaching to impart. Digital zoom.

A digital image, my child, is like unto an ultra-compressed sponge which,upon addition of water, swells to five times its size.

Or like unto a luscious strawberry which can be freeze-dried into a dense little pink nugget for inclusion in space-age, hermetically sealed astronaut meals.


Ohhhh, now I get it ! Optical zoom you do with your lens while standing next to the mushroom. Before you shoot. Digital zoom you do on the privacy of your own computer screen.

Isn't that somehow cheating ?

To take this pretty flower

and pluck this from it ?

And what about the fact that, given its druthers, the original image would prefer to be a monstrous 31 inches wide ? Oh. My. God. Be afraid, be very afraid my Superego counsels. Immediate gratification rocks ! screams my Id, dying to rush home and dump the Powershot's stash of images into Photoshop. No more waiting a week for the developer's scanned film files to be posted on line ! Rad !

I met my fully digital counterpart on the river path yesterday. She was about my age, similarly graying and bespectacled. She carried a tripod and a digital SLR with a susbstantial lens hung on her neckstrap. I was sitting on a low fence squinting at a grape hyacinth in the Powershot's LCD. I nudged a empty bottle of PowerDrink out of the way with my toe. She approached, and we conversed.

She was besotted, she said, with the springtime riverbank. Wasn't it beautiful ? She'd been taking pictures of birds and fishermen. And me ?

Weeds I replied, eyeing her rig. Is that a digital SLR ?

She nodded.

Sweet, I whispered, weak with gearlust. Then there was the call of a mockingbird -- or was it a Mephistophalean chuckle -- and the rest is an unpixilated blur.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Ring Tones

I prewoke the alarm yesterday morning, and turned it off. It was 5:10, which left 5 minutes of bedtime. The clock radio would emit a loud click at 5:15, but there would be no ensuing NPR news drone, so I lay there with one eye open, hoping a trickle of morning light would be enough to keep my reticular activating system activated. I listened to the sounds of the morning -- hungry cats stirring on the floor, DK breathing, and two musical notes, pitched a major third apart: mourning dove and the little morse-code-like tinnitus in my right ear. A pleasant, quiet duet. Just enough.

But it didn't take long to re-enter the world of more-than-enough.

At the click of the clock I got up and headed toward the shower. DK had propped a fresh bottle of the usual shampoo on the towel rack. After a long search when good old Ivory Shampoo disappeared from the cosmetological marketplace, DK and I settled on this type. Its main virtue ? It looks and smells like soap. Regular, plain, clean-smelling soap. Not a fruit stand, spice shelf or tropical garden. Soap.

It may have been our usual shampoo, but it came in a new type of bottle with an ominous new boast on the label. "Now With Amino Acids !!!" As if I didn't already feel guilty enough about using shampoo with various animal-related fats, now they'd gone and added animal protein to it. "Great," I thought. "Why not just blenderize and bottle a cow ?" As if putting "amino acids" on hair did anything anyway.

After a brief mea culpa, I dumped the stuff on my head. Cue spice rack in a fruit stand by a tropical garden. Full of musky quarupeds in heat. I gagged. And rinsed. And rinsed. And RINSED. No avail. I would have to stave off musky quadrupeds all day. Great. Multiple Chemical Sensitivity patients within a radius of ten miles of me would collapse in death throes. I'd have to shave my head. Or scalp myself. Or submit to the guillotine.

Which brings me to the topic of ring tones. For cell phones. Who would have thought there were so many bad jingles in the world, made worse by translation into electronic beeps ? Apparantly these have become commodities. The marketplace trafficks in these odious things. Believe me when I tell you I have heard the whole musical (sic) spectrum of these. Emitting from patients' purses and pockets. Interrupting my brilliant medical advice.

"Sir or Madame, you appear to have a viral upper respiratory infection, and consequently antibiotics will not help...."

Cue: Frantic, beeping rendition of I can't get no satisfaction. Embarrassed patient fumbles in purse or pocket. Brief, whispered furtive conversation ensues.

Hello ? Oh, hi, hon. I'm at the doctor. No the DOCtor. I'm in the exam room. Uh huh. Yes. Right now. I'm with the doctor. No, I told you. What ? No, that won't work. Call Frank. The number's on the table by the TV. I still think we should go with the chocolate. At BJ's. Put it on the VISA. Mm hmm. Talk to you later.

I know I am about to sound like a luddite granny waxing nostalgic for the halcyon good old days (before them new-fangled auto-MO-biles) but damn, those bakelite bell-and-clapper rotary dial jobs were sweee-ee-eet. And had the added advantage to being anchored to one's house. As opposed to cell phones. Which allow ring-tones and human yammering to be introduced virtually anywhere. Church. Concert Hall. Grocery. Car. Subway. Bank. Sidewalk. Cafe. Wilderness. I listened, once, while a woman in the adjacent stall of the cinema ladies' room had a long, animated phone conversation with her pal. While peeing. Like a racehorse. Much to the outrage (and secret envy) of those of us with bashful bladders.

I see a patient from time to time, an older guy, who endeared himself to me from the first by announcing "I am an existentialist." One day I entered the exam room where he'd been waiting for me and found he'd taken the clock off the wall and was removing its battery. The lugubrious, inexorable "tick tick tick tick" of the cheap pharmaceutical timepiece was driving him mad. He knew I wouldn't mind. After all, we'd had many conversations about ambient noise, and our sensitivity to it. How we both have had to flee stores with blaring muzak.

I understand completely, Mr. S, I said, as he placed the clock and battery side by side on the exam table, and we enjoyed an all-too-brief moment of silence together.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Born Again

Wonderful things are erupting from vine

and thorn,

and branch,

and trunk

and ground

crowding up so vigorously they seem to shoulder each other aside.

New arises from old, as well as on and beside old. This little cantilevered pod has persisted, perpendicular, for months. It has survived snow and rain and wind, amazingly tough.

Elsewhere, a skeletal grass blade coils through a grape hyacinth,

furrowed orange blossoms appear on dehiscing bark,

spores and ferns stand side by side,

and four long, rusted pods persist, like ancient boats beached in the crotch of a branch, beside parturient clusters of pink nubbins.

This -- this ground, this moment, this body -- is where all things start. And are and end and then begin again.

Happy Mothers Day.

Friday, May 06, 2005

A Hallmark Moment

The path, little more than a trampled line through the new grass of the meadow, leads to a little clearing on an embankment above the river. Until last weekend's river clean up, there had been old mattresses and heaps of trash and clothing strewn all about. It certainly is a fine, relatively private congregating place, and obviously had been used for drinking parties and maybe even living. But it had been vacant all winter so we cleaned it out. It took a surprisingly short amount of time.

"Look !" said a young man. We approached. He pointed to a single, big egg in the sticks and dead leaves of the forest floor. "How sad," said a young woman. "An abandoned egg."

A single Canada goose watched us from the downstream end of the little glade. It sat on the ground, a big feathery loaf, and craned its languid head in our direction. Another goose paced on the meadow path, as if standing guard.

I returned to the glade yesterday, late, after work, to catch the last of the day's sun. Both geese were still there -- the sentry on the path, and the one within the clearing. I began to suspect it was a mother brooding her eggs and her protective mate. I leaned against a tree at the water's edge and peered through some branches at the goose. Six feet below, a few dozen yards past the old milldam, the brown water rushed past. There was a big, broken, empty egg at my feet, probably the same one we'd seen a week ago. I took some pictures of it. Then the brooding goose, maybe ten feet away, stood and began to preen her chest. Beneath her was a clutch of six, big eggs.

I took two pictures -- downcurved neck and bill, the vast gray chest, the eggs -- and tiptoed out. The sentry, surprisingly enough, neither rushed nor hissed at me. I thought of the female goose sitting there, patient, through the cold spring night. Through the weekend's promised cold downpours. Just as she'd wintered amidst the ice and trash of the cove.

I wished her happy mother's day and left.