A commitment to attend a youth basketball game, the schedules grandmotherly texted to us, now holds one last opportunity to attend on Monday evening at 7:30 p.m.
A phone call to Virginia Department of Transportation on February 8, and a neighbor’s phone call to VDOT that same week, ‘pot holes multiplying and deeper by the day,’ brought the gravel loader and grater to Rosemary Road for the first time since July 17, 2023.
An impressively steady and unchanging headache all day today confirms that I am afflicted by a cold but have withstood the evidently harsher version of it, which so many around me seem to be hosting, sneezecasting, muling to and fro.
Eighth and ninth class observations within a three week window happened this morning in the two farthest-from-Shanks buildings; I have managed to put together the 600-word write-ups during each class session, then conference with the teachers while walking back to Shanks together. Five more, Friday, Monday, and Wednesday.
A stop-off at Cburg Kroger today had me carrying home sweet potatoes, garlic paste, and Gatorade, with the first two elevating a sriracha peanut butter broth ramen brewed to tame this blerg.
A side-shed hour standing with the chickens as they free-ranged a bit, turning their time in the sunlight to dust bathing, except for Tiny Honey who chose instead to scratch leaves and pull worms.
A book award committee with an intermediate deadline of March 3, so there is time to get to these last two titles (in the first round) but the first ten have me going to the refrigerator for that Gatorade.
A sighting of yellow flowers across the road near the mailboxes tells us the daffodils have bloomed on February 21 for the second year in a row.
And that sighting is through a today-installed picture window, which replaced the one that inexplicably presented us with an expanding diagonal crack in one pane, lower left to upper right, sometime in early December, after which my brother quipped as chemists do “you do realize that glass only appears stable and is actually in a flow state?”.
An air dancer (guardian) is on a timer near the coop and run, set to intervals of fan-fed animation during daylight, unevenly but more or less for 20 minutes each hour, and this afternoon, despite its flailing or perhaps because of it, high above and circling intently were a trio of turkey vultures and a pair of red-tailed hawks (whose earnestness about actually attacking the chickens we have yet to confirm; today they remained distant).
Along with the daffodils, today bloomed 2024’s first invitation to do an external promotion review this summer; rules of the house, strictly enforced, are no more than two because three last year was one too many and four the year before were two too many.
Mid-February scatters into stolen moments as the semester’s Week Five tides rise. There are classes to prepare and teach and observe, micro-interim administrative hand-offs to receive (push exchange yields soon thereafter to pull exchange), and a pair of stout reading lists for different awards and recognitions. The hours hand waves in its dinky circles, hello-good-bye, hello-good-bye, again, though time’s passing isn’t so much doldrum-thrum as labored, more-so than usual, for three fitfully stacked oncoming weeks.
Duty-whines aside, in and among those stolen moments, I am provisionally sizing up and laying out interlocking puzzle pieces toward a conversation and workshop session I’m due to lead in April with the Food Studies group, framed primarily by the question, “Is Food Studies a Discipline?” Provisional intuition says that it is not, or, rather, that where the Food Studies label circulates and sits, there are semi-baked artisanal cracker crumbs and runaway shreds of cheese that only almost made it into the pimento cheese, but there is not as of right now any large-scale organizing will of the sort that a cohering and widely shared theory would be useful for. I could be wrong! Depending upon how long cast is the shadow of this disciplinarity question, it’s early, and I am an interloper in that my own engagements with Food Studies are recent and probably naive, as such. Nevertheless, this question is intriguing enough to me to follow for a while. To engage it further, I have checked adjacencies (as a bowler needing bumpers might do) with Visual Studies and Writing Studies. I mean that because Visual Studies and Writing Studies have, each in their own time, rallied a not insignificant measure of attention and energy at their own disciplinarity questions, there are cross-checks and angles by which to compare, albeit lightly and with due consideration of all the ways such comparisons become complicated.
Approximately a decade ago, with the publication of Farewell to Visual Studies (Penn State UP, 2015), James Elkins sent into circulation an adapted version of an introductory lecture from 2011. The short piece consists of two elaborated lists, a list of farewells to unfulfilled promises (“Farewells”), and a list of “things [he’d] like[d] to see visual studies become.” Returning to the question I am considering, as a Rhetoric and Composition/Writing Studies academic transposing the disciplinarity question now onto Food Studies, I’ll post Elkins’ list once as it appears in Farewell to Visual Studies, and again with modifications posed as a rerig for Writing Studies and Food Studies.
List of farewells for Visual Studies (Elkins):
Visual studies should be harder to do.
Visual studies continues to depend on a relatively small, fairly fixed set of theorists.
Visual studies continues to look mainly at modern and contemporary visualities.
List of farewells rerigged for Writing Studies:
Writing studies should be harder to do.
Writing studies continues to depend on a relatively small, fairly fixed set of theorists.
Writing studies continues to look mainly at modern and contemporary composing practices and compositions.
List of farewells rerigged for Food Studies:
Food studies should be harder to do.
Food studies continues to depend on a relatively small, fairly fixed set of theorists.
Food studies continues to look mainly at modern and contemporary foods.
List of absences for Visual Studies (Elkins):
Images need to start arguing.
Visual studies needs to make more adequate use of its images.
Visual studies needs conversations about its own history.
Visual studies shouldn’t bypass non-art images and scientific images.
Visual studies should be engaged with the phenomenology of the making of images: like art history, it has yet to think seriously about what kinds of knowledge can come from the making of art.
Visual studies needs to resolve the unclarities of its politics.
Visual studies is confused about ideological critique.
List of absences rerigged for Writing Studies:
Writing needs to start arguing.
Writing studies needs to make more adequate use of its texts.
Writing studies needs conversations about its own history.
Writing studies shouldn’t bypass non-creative writing and scientific writing.
Writing studies should be engaged with the phenomenology of the doing of writing: like media history, it has yet to think seriously about what kinds of knowledge can come from the doing of writing.
Writing studies needs to resolve the unclarities of its politics.
Writing studies is confused about ideological critique.
List of absences rerigged for Food Studies:
Foodstuffs need to start arguing.
Food studies needs to make more adequate use of its dishes.
Food studies needs conversations about its own history.
Food studies shouldn’t bypass non-culinary foods and scientific treatments of food.
Food studies should be engaged with the phenomenology of the making and eating of food: like culinary history, it has yet to think seriously about what kinds of knowledge can come from the making and eating of food.
Food studies needs to resolve the unclarities of its politics.
Food studies is confused about ideological critique.
In each list for Writing Studies and Food Studies, I have boldfaced the rerigged lines that seem to me to be worthy of entertaining, even momentarily, and I have italicized the lines that suggest instead a hint (or greater) of dissonance, surfacing a quality or condition that just doesn’t quite seem congruous with the network of activities and materials that correspond with the named field of study (albeit from my own small, humble, and unavoidably limited standpoint).
Having stepped through the exercise, it leaves me with doubts about whether it generates much in the way of new insight or possibility. Might not be map to follow if we want to venture farther into the maze. Heck, it does more in service of recalling the questions about what it means for Visual Studies to have given up the ghost, so to speak (coincidentally? not conincidentally? at the same moment when Visual Rhetoric was still gaining curricular and researcherly traction, almost as if Visual Rhetoric, even if it did not get big time sustaining uptake in any of the field’s prominent organizations or journals, was untroubled by the overtures about Visual Studies’ end). And so the light turns green on the EMF meter, but I don’t know if it blinkers toward anything significant for these other two pairings, writing and food.
I don’t know yet whether I will return to Elkins’ lists or make new lists of my own for the April workshop. I am thinking that I might instead switch to an approach influenced by Steven Mailloux’s 2000 RSQ article, “Disciplinary Identities: On the Rhetorical Paths between English and Communication Studies,” where he cited Janet Emig’s 1982 CCC article, “Inquiry Paradigms and Writing.” Here’s that long excerpt from Mailloux, citing Emig:
The changed rhetorical conditions of disciplinary formation become strikingly evident in the 1982 volume of College Composition and Communication. The February issue alone contains Janet Emig’s “Inquiry Paradigms and Writing” and Maxine Hairston’s “The Winds of Change: Thomas Kuhn and the Revolution in the Teaching of Writing,” as well as reviews of rhetoric and composition collections that refer explicitly to disciplinary paradigms.’ Addressing her fellow researchers in composition studies, Emig argues that “our responses concerning the nature, organization, and evaluation of evidence reveal our inquiry paradigms, both those we elect to inhabit, and those we may even help to create” (64). She then goes on to elaborate the most important characteristics of an inquiry paradigm:
1) a governing gaze [a steady way of perceiving actuality]; 2) an acknowledged, or at least a conscious, set of assumptions, preferably connected with 3) a coherent theory or theories; 4) an allegiance to an explicit or at least a tacit intellectual tradition; and 5) an adequate methodology including an indigenous logic consonant with all of the above. (65)
Emig demonstrates how these characteristics inform disciplinary research into writing and how such phenomenological and ethnographic paradigms contrast with traditional positivistic paradigms, which sometimes are “simply, globally, and, of course, mistakenly” identified with “The Scientific Method.” Not only does Emig cite Kuhn in explaining her notion of “paradigm,” but she also clearly distances composition from traditional notions of science out of which came the scientific rhetoric used by teachers of public speaking earlier in the century.
The phrase “inquiry paradigm” rings nimbler than “discipline,” in part because inquiry paradigms haven’t imposed their ordering functions so deeply into the higher ed org charts (i.e., stabilizing, yes, but also overdetermining to the point of entrenchment in many cases the delineations walling off common questions by walling off departments and programs), and so it may turn out to be a better choice for inviting engagement on the question(s) about Food Studies and what, if anything, coheres its domain of activity. The governing gaze can refer, simply, to an in-common-ish attention structure sufficient for cooperative guidance (and corresponding leadership). Each of the other criteria–set of assumptions, coherent theories, an intellectual tradition, and an adequate methodology–steer me more toward uncertainty and less toward crisp, identifiable anchors, whether the ponderables are posed for visuality, food, or writing.
For this preliminary go-round, I’ll let this end with a ‘good enough’ nod; it’s gotten me thinking in ways I wasn’t before. Nothing conclusive, not yet. Senses of new and reshaped possibilities. And there is time, pocketed in dips and dives intermittent throughout the next couple of weeks, yet with sufficient momentum that I can pick these ideas up again with the goal of chilling the aspic for setting it more firmly by mid-late March.
This morning, the second morning since the Wednesday late afternoon incident, upon opening the coop door, the flock descended the ladder and settled in pretty much as they usually do, Bitumen and Lightfoot at the feeder, Tiny Honey who is rebounding from her molt heading straightaway to the water, and the others kicking walnut tree detritus and leaning in for the scratch grains mixed with layer pellets, a half cup of which I scatter every morning to ease traffic at the feeder. Keeps peace. Their eyes have been up and searching, noticeably scanning for signs of return since the Wednesday late afternoon incident. This was apparent late yesterday, when I hurried home after teaching to share a few minutes with them before they tucked in, to play the xylophone cover of Shake It Off so as to warm their crossover into the dreamscape. Although I didn’t know it at the time, A., driving separately because it was undecidable for the first half of her day whether she would go to campus at all, happened not to be long behind me. The hens were almost all inside the coop when we arrived at 5:42 p.m. ET (sunset being 5:45 p.m. ET). Only Fluffy-foot, the head hen, was visible there in the coop doorway, posting up as she does for one last look-around before going in for the night, but when I emceed the Taylor Swift tunes, she doubled-back, down the ladder again, and soon after her followed Bitumen, then Lightfoot, then Cinnabon. Everyone can stay up a few extra minutes at times like these, linger for a few plinks, elongate the softly transitioning dusk. Tiny Honey stayed in; her January molt has accompanied a tendency to rest, to hold spacetime with the eggs, and so this was nothing out of the ordinary, her settled reserve.
Different this morning, the second morning since the Wednesday late afternoon incident, was that after opening the door, setting down food and water, as we walked back toward the house, there came a sharp bird call from the vicinity of the run. Was it from the trees above the run? From one of the hens? Once, twice, again. Three or four seconds between each call. And this was a new sound; a sound I hadn’t heard before: an intense callout expressed so as to travel the holler’s uneven landscape, a sound for finding, for carrying, for bringing back.
Still, for days after a hen dies, it is not uncommon for those who were closest to her to mourn the loss of their friend. From the safety of the coop, they call out, using the same sound that means “Where are you?” when they are free-ranging in the yard and can’t find a missing member of the flock. A grieving hen avoids interacting with the flock and sits in a corner with puffed-up feathers like a chicken that feels ill.
And so it happened, on Wednesday afternoon, a Cooper’s Hawk attacked and killed Big Sweetie. The chickens had been out of their run for 90 minutes. Big Sweetie was creekside, curating the muddy banks with Lightfoot and Cinnabon when the raptor made first contact. The offshed feathers tell of an encounter that started on one side of the creek and continued to the other, where A. found Big Sweetie moments later, fatally injured, likely a broken neck or back, as the hawk exited the scene. I wasn’t at home, but A.’s messageless call at 4:50 p.m. ET, near the end of the writing group session I was on (from my campus office), let me know something was not as it should be. There are known risks in free-ranging, especially in mid-late winter, but so too are there deleterious impacts for always and only ever being cooped up. This is not to rationalize away the incident but to take responsibility for caring for vulnerable birds under conditions of a sometimes-predative surrounds. Rather than go long with forensic redescription, though, Big Sweetie deserves a few more eulogistic words.
One of the Wonder Hollow Six, she and her small flock came home from the Radford Rural King in a small cardboard box on April 18, 2023. We’d sought a pair of Cinnamon Queens, a pair of Black Sex-Links, and a pair of Calico Princesses that day. As entropy would have it, with the last pair, we ended up with one Calico Princess, Big Sweetie, and one Buff Brahma, Fluffy-foot: Rural King bin sisters, if sisters from other mothers. Calico Princesses tend to have a shorter lifespan (~3-4 years) than the other breeds, a fact we learned only after bringing them home. Big Sweetie quickly distinguished herself. She was in those especially formative days the biggest and the sweetest, easy to find during that stage when chicks are all down plumage, befuzzed and nonstop peeping. The other chickens grew and eventually caught up with her in size, but never in sweetness. Her sweetness was observable in her seemingly caring deference to the other birds, a conflict-averse friendliness, a palpably joyful regard for human attention, an implicit jolliness. A. identified her quickly as her favorite bird of the six (as Bitumen is special to me, Big Sweetie was and is to A.; what can explain how such a feeling forms?).
Ten or twelve weeks ago, when Craigs Mountain neighbor H.’s on-the-loose but thankfully slow dog lumbered with a drooling hoggishness through the holler, all of Big Sweetie’s commatriots darted with astonishing speed to the woods, but Big Sweetie, even as she was evidently terrified, rather than running—freeze!—went into statue mode, standing still-still in the tall grass, as if seized by the threat. Nothing happened. And yet, this confirmed an understanding that Big Sweetie was not in the same way as her sisters equipped with a flight response. It was as though because her disposition was deeply defined by friendliness, joy, and curiosity, there was nothing left over for capacitating fear.
I have a hundred more anecdotes: about how she was, we think, the first to lay an egg, and how, thereafter, she would linger in the run when each of the other hens laid their first (few) eggs in September and October, companionably close-by but not over-bearing, proximally supportive and being in such a way that hints at the calling of an avian doula, were there such a thing; about how she wanted so badly to be able to perch but didn’t have the flap and spring coordination of Bitumen, Tiny Honey, Lightfoot, or Cinnabon, and still she tried and tried and tried until one day she reached the roost; that night she sat on the roosting bar for 30 minutes after dark, extending her accomplishment, holding onto the moment all for herself (and for A. who photo-documented it from the window) after the others had gone inside the coop for the night; and about what a friend she was, like the day—which just so happened to be the first day of classes last fall—when she went deep up into the pine woods with Lightfoot and Fluffy-foot, the three of them would not—golldammit!—come for calling nor for the irresistible rattle-shake of mealworms in a plastic cup, so I had to climb and navigate bramble and sweat (before leaving for work) only to nudge them from their holdout. The thing was, while the other two birds were entranced in a forest floor dust bath, Big Sweetie was just standing there, along for the joyride.
Might not be cut out for chicken-keeping, is one thought, one topic of conversation these past 48 hours. Or maybe, instead, this is exactly the structure of feeling we owe to this ecosphere, a structure of feeling that has gone thin socioculturally such that it is uncommon to interact with chickens in this way, to engage them as friends, good, giving, and profoundly mutualistic in what they provide us and each other. It’s been a heavy couple of days. We miss her; we’re sad. And not just we the hominids. The Wonder Hollow mixed flock is looking and calling so hard for their sixth and biggest-hearted; a song of sorrow, and so too a together and onward song, expanded by a life with Big Sweetie so fully and lovingly in it.
Food Writing preparations for Thursday’s class session sidewinded unexpectedly to Agriculture Canada’s 1970 (revised) volume, Methods for Sensory Evaluation of Food. The small internet-archived book has just 64 pages, and most of them provide models for Likert ratings and corresponding statistical lookups so as to go easy on calculator-keying. Especially telling about the book’s time and place are selection of foods features in the examples: peaches, “fish-potato flakes processed under two different sets of conditions” (16), and, here, “three samples of goose meat” (30).
I don’t think I want to go the meandering long-haul distance on this one; it’s too tangential to our focus on whether and to what extent, if so, food evaluation is plausibly indexical, relatable from one person to the next, communicable, and so on.
Without venturing too far into the numbers, I want to pose as a methodical backdrop categories of appearance/aesthetics, aroma/scent, taste, texture and consistency, temperature, and overall flavor, which I understand to be a more integrated and holistic sensory impression, whereupon each becomes inflected with the other (much of which I have adapted from sites like this). From this context, we have a system of a certain sort, and yet, this is meant to provide an antecedent for the more active and applied part of the class, which will include sampling an apple, mandarin orange, or banana, listening again to “Are You Really Appreciating the Apple? from Savor, and “Eating an Orange” from A Pebble for Your Pocket, and then, through writing and conversation, engaging reflectively on the relationship between experiential knowledges and the techniques, associated with mindfulness, in this case, for granting greater (or is it simpler, if intensified) saturation to the sensorium, while eating. I know, I know, 99 word sentence. Blog forgive me. I am mulling over the contrastive frames for experiential transposition, and that sets up promisingly in this first model, assigning ratings to discrete qualities, as compared to the mindfulness meditation that invites spacetime flux, the cosmos in a bite of tender goose meat, or GMO fruit, as the case may be.
Mixed Mess, the name Roanoke forecasters have assigned to this Saturday’s maybe precipitation, a could-be-rain-but-might-be-snow guess, also happens to be the name I had assigned, before reading the weather forecast, to the porridge I prepared for the Wonder Hollow Six late this afternoon. Mixed Mess—the chicken treat slurry, not the cusp weather event, but then who can reliably say—includes two eggs, two overripe bananas, a half cup or so of quinoa, cinnamon, crushed eggshell, and equal parts sweet potato skins and carrot peels from a lunchtime ramen bowl. (90) 🥕🍠❄️💦🥚🍌
Twenty-twenty-three in a word was reparative, rested-through with healing and repair of different sorts: reconnecting with longtime friends, quieting the email inbox and impulses toward glinty but ever-toilsome careerism, and too, physically, sticking with the trouble of massage and physical therapy regimens, and making a certain amount of peace with the notably prevalent Western mythology that embodied life is possibly pain-free, when it turns out that time wags a finger and says no it’s not.
I re-read those resolutions from 2017, a good enough set for an echo:
more laughter, longer beardgrowth, occasional blog entries, regular running, new tattoo, Grand Canyon, more kimchi, early yoga and earlier meditation, watercolors, heartier alliances, coalition building, political resilience, generosity and kindness, when to habituate and when to digress and when to rest, longer olive branch, mightier dynamite, more olive branch dynamite, cayenne hot chocolate, eclectickler reading, more drawing, bigger optimism, more sunshine, and more laughter.
Running is out, but there is biking, swimming, and yoga ahead. No Grand Canyon coming up. Olive branch and dynamite were administrative tactics, and although I will have a brief interim administrative stint in 2024, all that’s needed for a few months is a steady hand and a positive outlook. I will be doing well if I continue the reading and writing and drawing rhythms that found cadence over the second half of 2023. Cayenne hot chocolate is always a sure, why-not treat, but it’s better enjoyed infrequently, every third month, let’s say.
In numbers, 2023 reduces to the following easily tabulated scores. There’s always more in that hazy margin of activities that don’t deserve to be record kept for future lookbacks in future orbits: hours around the house doing this or that, the repairs and painting in the shed, cooking, mowing, and so on.
Email confirmations tell me I spent 40 hours in the pool at the Christiansburg Aquatic Center in 2023.
Forty rides totaling 25 hours, 41 minutes on the stationary bike, according to Strava. Most of these were in the cold weather months, Jan-Feb and Nov-Dec.
20 hours, 32 minutes with the healthy back set of exercises, each on its own standing as a 16-17 minute clip.
This averages 100 minutes each week of fitness activity, but these figures are not especially flat considering that some months saw a lot of activity, and others, less.
There were 29 blog entries in 2023, more than I’d posted in any other year since 2011, back when del.icio.us bookmarks were automatically setting up at EWM. I also posted a handful of entries at the RIDE Blog for ENGL6344, but I haven’t included those in this tally.
I drew 41 new illustrations, including the last six in the Cirque du Felinity set. ProCreate doesn’t make it especially easy to get to the time-spent ticker for each image, but these average maybe 2.5 hours each, which I would crudely extrapolate to 100 hours of drawing. But this, too, falls very unevenly across the months. Not as much drawing in the summer months, for example.
I’m tempted to extend this to workside scores for committees and teaching, mentoring and advising, review tasks, letters, and more, but I will resist that temptation, and, anyway, Faculty Activity Reports are due at the end of January, so I will have cause to look back at 2023 through the lens of productivity. There were events, like rallying for a response to the proposed landfill nearby and like listing and selling the Ypsi condo, but these, too, are difficult to quantify. Hours pile up. One other outstanding impression as we flip the calendar to ’24 is that I was in Michigan in every month except April, and that meant seven round trips by car, one half trip (returning to Va. on January 5), and one roundtrip flight for a campus visit, so 3,500 miles on the Subaru and occasional twinges of fatigue from packing and from 120 hours in the car. This is one score I’d like to be a tiny bit lower in 2024, though I do miss Ph. and Is. and T. mightily when I am not in Michigan.
That’s it; that’s the look-back roundup. May 2024 clear way, wiser and kinder as we go.
Before Sunday, I hadn’t expected to be clocking time for the second post in a week, but when on Saturday morning I read on p. 49 of Julia Skinner’s Our Fermented Lives about the Korean phrase, son-mat, or “hand taste,” it sent a few associations sweetly-breezily chiming. Skinner translates son-mat as “the taste of one’s hands,” which extends to flavorly style, or how it is that food we make expresses unique orchestrations of techniques and timings, of spice profiles and even microfloral zest, especially microfloral zest. It’s this last detail, the links connecting son-mat to the transmission of bacteria and yeast, that is most important and most fascinating, for me, about this phenomenon, such a quiet inheritance as it is. With a bit of searching, I was quickly learning that son-mat also translates to “mother’s hand taste,” the title of artist and researcher Jiwon Woo’s remarkable microbiological installation, and even “mother’s care.” Thus, favorable son-mat figures as inheritable across multiple generations one’s culinary capabilities, and these pass-it-on-sendings are inseparable from food expressed as nourishment, and as love1When writing about such things, while it always seems necessary and important to note that not all mothers convey son-mat, within my frame of reference this resonates. And so, in exploring it, I am not as interested in universalizing good-mother idealisms as I am in noting formidable, constitutive relations that are, for me, continuous, haloed paradoxically in wonder and grief, and beholden these now 27 years since my mom died to an ever-puzzling absent-presence, which must also at the same time be written as present-absence. Bad son-mat, on the other hand, is placeheld by early childhood lore about a friend whose mom was, albeit with the justification of “hard times,” serving expired raviolis with greenishly tinted meat filling from time to time and other unforgettable negligences and horrors. Chef Boyardee rot, while bacteriologically a lot, son-mat is not.. Woo’s project is more than worthy of a slow and careful look, for it sets out from son-mat to inquire into familial-digital (or hand-cultured) microflora, collecting samples, magnifying the microorganisms, tracing their communicability, and creating, in one case, a mechanical process for making son-mat booster-balm, and, in another case, a set of blown glass figures resembling the microscopic morphology.
I haven’t plumbed deeply enough into son-mat to learn whether the microflora travel in all directions and across mixed kinships, but I am curious and will get there eventually, check into this even more than I have thus far. Today as it happens would have been my mom’s 75th birthday, and damn sure that would have meant a massive semi-sesquicentennial cake, but death stunts that kind of celebration and instead you get memories of melted candle wax from the birthday before she died, which I guess would’ve been to celebrate her 48th. Twelve twelve 1996. Then was the time I was living-working in Saginaw and then Bingham Farms, 750 miles away from Kansas City, where she and my dad had moved during my undergraduate years. Actually, while I worked in Bingham Farms, it wasn’t possible to live in Bingham Farms because it was, and is, one of those non-residential enigmapalities meant only for businesses, not for residents. So I lived in Keego Harbor near Walled Lake, where I walked my dog Tony2Best ever Cairn terrier mix, rescued from the Isabella County Animal Shelter shortly after my parents’ divorce in 1989. on the rails to trails trail most afternoons, and was, as I remember it, somewhat adrift, second-guessing why I was there of all places and adjusting multi-line insurance claims of all things. I talked with my mom pretty regularly that year by phone; she consoled well my early insurance career second-guessing and assured me life would be long and I could, if I wanted to change, change.
When I think back to her death, as each year passes those recollections are marked with greater uncertainty. I know-know some things vividly well: that Ph. as a kindergartner was there, finding her that Wednesday morning, that premature deaths of otherwise healthy-seeming people spawn an abundance of causal questions, that she had just a made a pot of spaghetti on the evening of June 10 and that it lingered there in the refrigerator for a few days, the oddest (or strikingest) of lifeline-seeming artifacts. Can’t recall who-with, but I remember a conversation about whether I would be having any of it, or whether it should be frozen. Nah. Nope. She was a good and giving cook, prepped many a full-hearted and nourishing meal for me, but her spaghetti sauce had been corrupted along the way by I don’t know what, exactly, except that it was hauntingly chunky with large pieces of onion and green pepper. Blech to the dish, not to the chef!, as the saying goes. I just could not abide mouthful-sized cooked green pepper, not texturally, not for the bitterness, not for the posthumous son-mat. I guess the sauce was concocted to my parents’ mutual-ish liking, though they were not married any longer by then; I’m fairly certain Ph. wouldn’t have touched a plate heaped with that version of spaghetti sauce, either, although I suppose the separability of elements is one justification for the crude knifework on the veg matter. Pick it out, if you don’t like it.
The autopsy was inconclusive, but not for lack of comprehensiveness, and that comprehensiveness led to low-key disfigurement and bruising, the sort that leaves me now wondering whether we eventually opted for a closed casket service. Quiet day; I haven’t asked around to any of the few who would remember. It did seem like a question we considered at length, to subject this grandly confusing, unexpected, and life-redefining event to such display, and to what end, for whatwhom, so that casual friends and coworkers could claim something like “closure.” Some of these faith rituals and their rationale are brazen, bizarre. So although I cannot quite reassemble with clarity a hingework memory about open or closed casket, I do remember dwelling in a timeless moment, casket-side, exhausted but keen, and in that moment, her hands were still as they had been. They were unfazed. The image holding blinkless in that instant has a unique durability; I remember it so well. What explains its endurance best, I guess, is that those hands are now more or less my hands. At 49, I recognize them in the place where my hands are, replicas matching in shape and proportion, structure and skin elasticity, starkly defined lunulas.
So although I cannot neatly trace son-mat, there are long-lasting inheritances with hand-taste and I suppose hand-shape, too. I imagine son-mat to have conveyed through my own hands; it is a friendly and traceable linkage one can, without too much leaping, see across years and distances the sort of microfloral transference that would lend flavorlets to food-making, such as when I make that kale and sweet potato soup Is. likes so much, or when I fry an egg for T., like the last time I was in Michigan just before Thanksgiving. But it’s here, too, that son-mat, or hand-taste, ties in with something discursive, more viral than microbial, if we can still entertain the theoretical plausibility of Burroughs, that language, too, transmits and is heritable, with it flavorings, castings of memory, the stuff like this entry that frosts alphabetically what should have been a birthday cake.
When writing about such things, while it always seems necessary and important to note that not all mothers convey son-mat, within my frame of reference this resonates. And so, in exploring it, I am not as interested in universalizing good-mother idealisms as I am in noting formidable, constitutive relations that are, for me, continuous, haloed paradoxically in wonder and grief, and beholden these now 27 years since my mom died to an ever-puzzling absent-presence, which must also at the same time be written as present-absence. Bad son-mat, on the other hand, is placeheld by early childhood lore about a friend whose mom was, albeit with the justification of “hard times,” serving expired raviolis with greenishly tinted meat filling from time to time and other unforgettable negligences and horrors. Chef Boyardee rot, while bacteriologically a lot, son-mat is not.
Best ever Cairn terrier mix, rescued from the Isabella County Animal Shelter shortly after my parents’ divorce in 1989.
Heaps have happened in the two years since closing on 2537 Rosemary Road, a closing that signed off two years ago today. To mark the anniversary, I thought I may as well attempt a short rewind, recollect some of the moments and fragments:
The biggest of upgrades so far amount to attic foam and crawlspace encapsulation. There are fewer mice (two in 2023) and no snakes on record in the attic, and the crawlspace is no longer exposed dirt. It is lit, sealed in plastic, and fitted with a remote hygrometer, so that from the up-above we can monitor conditions in the down-below. Without crawling under there. The next biggest of upgrades are the front shed foundation waterproofing and the back shed attic critter mitigation. The front shed would run rivulets of water after rain storms, so we found someone who would excavate below grade, inlay gravel and drain tile, and refill. It still needs better landscaping; recent rains have led to settling in a few spots. But the garage floor is dry (and coated, too, on the inside with Drylock), the foundation effectively patched, tarred, re-sealed. As for the back shed attic, we found someone who would pull the abundance of chewed insulation, squirrels nests, and black snake skins, and who would then block gappy edges with hardware cloth. The job was difficult, and the results were uneven. One squirrel was trapped, so we had to undo the hardware cloth, let him escape, then put the mesh back. And the backside hardware cloth was so poorly done that I spent a day on the roof in October reworking it, repairing the repair, so to speak, and buttoning things down so there is no abovehead critter activity and, although rustic, the meshed eaves don’t call attention to themselves.
There was a load of slate rocks for the side shed, and lots of clean-up there, too. Eventually, with the cleanout and painting of the upper shed, we ordered a haul-off, though that, too, ended up being over-priced. The market here is damned tricky when it comes to getting bids on things that can then be punctually and professionally executed. Our projects are peanuts-scale compared to the mcmansion mimeography happening on the other side of the county. And, fair is fair: there is beaucoup contractor payload to be made nearer to Blacksburg, whereas we’re out here on the quiet end of a dirt road and without all of that engineering and computer science money to really vie for priority. Description, not complaint.
The Wonder Hollow Six, a mixed flock, have been among the highlights of 2023. Chickens are free ranging here and loving it, though they do sometimes wander to distances and places we’d prefer they avoid, like the middle of the dirt road (Fluffy’s favorite spot, lately) and the foot of our nearest neighbors’ tree, where they will scratch until interrupted. Two planting cycles have in the garden taught us much about what stands to thrive, how to manage insects, watering schedules, and so on. This past summer was excellent on the front end, but iffy and eventually bug food on the tail end.
A couple of days ago we hosted an arborist for an hour-long consultation, walked the holler and noted a few of the trees: the massive white oak that sends acorns aplenty down the right of way, the catawba whose trunk is hollow and see-through yet it regreens and fruits as if all is fine and good, the pair of black walnuts nearest the house that have been pollarded like a bad haircut but that are healthy otherwise, pending some touch-ups, the cedar who is crowded by a few tree of heaven saplings that will soon be cut out, the various ornamental redbuds and dogwoods and witch hazels, and the massive stand of mature white pines that will, in the next 50 years, topple or suffer disease or die standing up or all of the above and in any order.
The black walnut in front is, if we estimate by trunk diameter times three, somewhere between 75-90 years old. Might’ve been a sapling when the house was built in 1948 (easy to remember because that’s the same year my mom was born in Ogemaw County, Mich.). And although the trunk has a weeping spot, it is solid and appears to be healthy to an arborist’s eye. He also spotted a vertical seam that suggested a crisis on the order of a lightning strike, a vehicle strike, or a life-threatening hard freeze at some point along the close-to-a-century it has witnessed.
The to-do list is still long and pricey. We’ve made repairs to the control switch for the pump, but the pump is old, and the water system would do well to be upgraded and have filtration added. I drink from the tap, and we get the water tested, but hard water corrodes lines and stains metal surfaces like faucets and sinks. The roofing and siding is 25 years old and aging. The roofs of the back shed and small addition to the front shed need cool seal or tar recoating, respectively. I’ve made strides in the front shed to replace missing insulation and to fit openings where wallboard was missing for who knows why. The electrical all checks out, and with any luck, if I can get my day job to cooperate, I’ll be able to get the rest of the front shed interior into shape so it will be more hospitable to mycology, the worm farm, and a small workstation where I can spot up for writing sessions or for working on the Wonder Hollow Six micro-documentary.
In these two years, we’ve learned a lot about infrastructure, too. The Verizon copper network did disappoint, as the land line was as likely to spit static as to connect for audible phone calls. Adding to that, HughesNet was terrible, too, in that the signal was intermittent at best. We’re on Starlink now, and it’s solidly consistent, yielding only to occasional lapses in quality, usually due to cloud cover. The DIY in-ground irrigation system sprung a leak last summer, as well, which meant no water feeding to the back shed or the midyard spigot. With the foundation repair we ripped that half of the system all the way out, figuring above ground hoses are adequate and another solution will eventually come around. We also bidded out a couple three minisplits, and although the units are under 2k apiece, the bids came in between $13k and $17k, and for that price we can no thank-you and instead get a couple of nice sweatshirts and long johns for holding heat in those spaces. The out buildings all have heat, and we can probably update the window AC units if absolutely necessary, even though we don’t have a clear or consistent need for that right now. I’m still thinking about a mini-split in the Moon House, but it isn’t today’s problem.
The day job I mentioned has also been the site of spirited flux in the two years we’ve lived out this way. I was administering the writing program, but the fevers were rising heat and no breaks (seriously, the midnight enrollment panic emails from an asst. dean in July were too too much), so I decided it best and necessary to step back, salve to the comb, like we do with the chickens when one of them gets pecked at more than they deserve. English Departments I’ve worked in have tended to be corrosive like volunteering for gout. Wonder Hollow has been a quiet and slow offset to workside flare-ups, and time will tell what is next, though I only know it has to involve more self-set reading and writing rhythms, more walks and swimming, better boundaries from the all-hours emails about unnecessary crises, and stepping back from corrosive forces like back-biting, or suspicion, or sniping, and so on.
By the end of year three, I hope to have the bloom room fruiting mushrooms well enough to learn about the local farmers’ markets. I’d like to get the rest of the rocks from the excavation work into place along the creek. Plant some red buds and learn to propagate from cuttings some of the dogwoods and witch hazel. Do better to harvest and freeze the baby bok choy in June. Plant a deep purple lilac near the front shed. And some bamboo, just enough for what we hear is a great playground for the chickens. Mightcould stack a Davinci bridge over the diverter pond. Get a 3.5 gallon cauldron for Big Soup get-togethers. Green house dreams. Al fresco meditation platform at mossy ledge. Sunflower patch. Asparagus and rhubarb, too. Outdoor pizza kitchen, crafted so as not to entice the family of bears to visit unwelcomed. Wood stove for front shed. List goes on.
Two or three times a week, I switch into trunks, throw duffel over one shoulder, and drive to the Christiansburg Aquatic Center for an hour in the lap pool. The facility bears all the markers of an overlapping space, a latticed blend, parts Christiansburg point of municipal pride and parts Virginia Tech swim and dive venue, signposted with various logos, insignia, counts of olympians, and clock-kept swim records. Lap reservations sort of require Signup Genius sign-ups; I say “sort of” because they also admit walk-ins, and on weekends, especially Sundays when the pool lanes are toggled from widths to lengths, the walk-ins can outnumber the reservation-makers. Smelt run. Scheduling sinks to a point of more swimmers than lanes, turns out. It’s only happened to me once: make a reservation but there are no splashways to splish, even two to a lane, and the best I could get was a “not my problem” shrug from the lifeguard and a “we’ll make note of it” from the front desk. Better luck next time. But like I said, that happened only once.
I am not much of a swimmer in that stylistically my priorities are to stay afloat and move around. I have a cap and goggles, so maybe once costumed I look like I should be able to do more than tadpole awkwardly. These shoulders are uncooperative for overhead strokes. I can do it. Two surgeries in 1995 wag their finger, and there will be rotator cuff paybacks for days. Pain. By this I mean pain. Nighttime numbness. Searing hot immobility of the type that leaves me flustered and wondering how to get things down from high shelves, like breakfast oats, or pants-on and socks-on myself…get dressed. Instead, once in the water, I crawl, letting form and pattern crossovern chimera-like between frog-style and dog-style with the unaesthetic low standard of Rule One and Only One: an airway must be finding air. A markerboard near the door reports the water temp as a few tenths of a degree warmer than 80F, and then I carry out the starfish question, “How slowly can I swim?” This translates to calm, measured crawl, a focus on the breath and on patterned movement, a gravity-modified moving meditation.
Considering the past 18 months have included what at times have been excruciating, plans-changing lower lumbar back pain, the cool movement and reduced gravity have made stretching and strengthening again seem possible. The worst of the wincing intensities have, for the most part, subsided, and although there are pain body reminders and close calls, swimming has helped. Sometime in July we splurged on the gear for aquajogging simply for a change of pace, and the assorted webgloves and foam flotilla lend variety to an hour of crawled laps. I have found a routine I quite like, down and backs with high knees crossing over, slalom or barrel-stepping, simple jogging, unicycle patterns, Detroit Hustle, and so on. Gentler is the wayfinding that gives up on speed.
Without concluding too grandly–no cartwheels from the high dive, I note the practice because it has become a buoyant ritual, grounding not in the terroir underfoot sense but instead because it resets something like biotemporal anchorage, inducing a kind of be here now interval that quiets the senses (not quite to the point of lights out silenced sensory deprivation), buffering for a few breath cycles the weight of the world, laminar clearings amidst turbulence.
Coordinating via email: Zoom call, Saturday brewery meet-up, another eventual meeting (please send in your every availability for the week of the 27th); trail of comments on research projects; only a few per day; skim social media, which for me is limited to Instagram and Facebook; sometimes I hear people call these “insta” or “the book” and I want to be the sort of suspenseful 1974-borne who pauses accounts cicada-like going back underground for the next seventeen years1The shutdown tempts me, yet I remain, in part because the peripherality is manageable and not as much of an attention succubus as it once was.. Hold on the dog is barking hold on. Okay I’m back. The dog is ‘O’ but I sometimes jokingly call him ‘Y’ and also sometimes ‘sister,’ like ‘Z’ back home, but these are private jokes between us and there is no laughing only blank looks. A dry humor. Warming up keystrokes, warming up to Healthy Back series on Back Exercises App, which I have done 137 times this year for not quite 40 hours, stronger but the healing interventions have been happy baby and five minute intervals twice daily sprawled on foam neck and back stretcher, a spiky half moon that arrived with no instructions and whose guiding diagrams online are inconsistent, sometimes with the sharp curve up head-side and other times tail-side2Knocking on wood, after more than a year of physical therapy and seriously debilitating intervals of back pain, I have not felt any such pain in one week. Pack your bag of tortures, homo dolores!. There is no laughing only blank looks.
Earlier this fall Han’s Non-Things invited us into a distinction between biopolitics and psychopolitics3We read Non-Things in ENGL6344: Rhetoric in Digital Environments as lead-up to How to Do Nothing.. I don’t have the book closeby here in Michigan, but I recall that the distinction suggested an era of biopolitics, even as it continues, has ceded primacy to an era of psychopolitics whose machinations are principally digital, playing out in the circuitry of endless streams, clickbait, outrage, enclaving, context-collapsed post-truth entropy, willful parasitism, attentional complicity, and expansive sociocultural zombie drool. When we jumped next to Jenny Odell’s case for bioregionalism, the prefixes began for me to phosphoresce, and, out of that phosphorescence emerged questions about psychoregionalism (the states of mind patterned in a sited, terrestrial surround). And then with Kristin Arola’s argument for and demonstration of a land-based digital rhetoric, which sets up a layering of semiosphere, or semiotic-rhetorical orders, and biospheres, or organic-biotic orders, the prefixes dominoed again, leading next to a triptych of sorts, with semiosphere, biosphere, and psychosphere. The spheres are more or less congruous, non-neat shapes that align and overlap, or don’t. More oblongs than circles. To recast them as heuristic would be to consider them as hues with chromatic weights, then to notice which is drawn down and which is amplified in a given scenario. An arc across the weeks this semester has been to care for each of these spheres both as they were rendered by authors, but also in terms of what reshuffles into the front channel when one is dialed up and the other is dialed down. Within the context of digital rhetoric, the semiosphere (closely matched with the so-called infosphere, arguably, which suffers the exuberance of dataists) is whizzing and buzzing, but the bio- and psychospheres are mined, predated upon, ignored, and even obliterated. Granting a record of harm, then, a justice turn for digital rhetoric (and its corresponding disciplinary namesakes) shifts reparative, setting out to heal, to repair, to mend. And there is much more to say about this; for now I wanted only to note the spheres/oblongs as taking hold among the gauges; to check with these is to feel the broken world, and to carry on attuned to its tolling gravities.
The shutdown tempts me, yet I remain, in part because the peripherality is manageable and not as much of an attention succubus as it once was.
Knocking on wood, after more than a year of physical therapy and seriously debilitating intervals of back pain, I have not felt any such pain in one week. Pack your bag of tortures, homo dolores!
We read Non-Things in ENGL6344: Rhetoric in Digital Environments as lead-up to How to Do Nothing.