May Contain Additives

“The abstractions of science are too readily assimilable to the abstractions of industry and commerce, which see everything as interchangeable with or replaceable by something else” (41).

Life is a Miracle (2000), Wendell Berry
Image by Hans from Pixabay

Strangely, since questions surfaced and circulated about chlormequat chloride in oats (and in, increasingly, in the bodies of people who have eaten those oats) a couple of weeks ago, it hasn’t been easy to find, much less to follow, that story’s diffusion. The Journal of Exposure Science & Environmental Epidemiology published the Temkin et al. article in February, and then USA Today‘s Mary Walrath-Holdridge authored and published a piece soon thereafter, “Study finds chlormequat in Cheerios and Quaker products: What to know about the pesticide.” When I mentioned in ENGL2014: Food Writing last week that I do still eat oatmeal most days for breakfast, only that I now take each spoonful with my fingers crossed, several new questions arose: What even is chlormequat? What effect is it having on mice? Why are we only just learning about this now? Is chlormequat chloride used on all oats? Just the cheap stuff? Just the stuff not otherwise labeled organic? I didn’t have many sure answers, but I said I would look into it and report back. So this is some of that; that, this. A writing teacher’s porridge, unsweetened.

Chlormequat chloride is a “growth regulator,” and something of a stalk straightening agent, as I understand it. An applied chemical, chlormequat chloride guides the oat plant (avena sativa) to an ideal form: vertical stalk, perpendicular to the earthen plane; no slouching; optimum height. The 2024 Temkin et al. article found that chlormequat chloride showed up in the urine samples taken from 77 out of 96 people (83%). Evidently, we don’t know a whole lot about the effects of chlormequat chloride on humans, but we can with a little bit of plausible extrapolation pause with concern for the what we do know about the animal studies in which chlormequat chloride does observable harm.

So while I tell myself I am eating delicious, nutritious oatmeal, I am probably eating something more like oatmeal+chlormequat chloride, or oatmeal+a pretty good chance of chlormequat chloride. I make the cross-my-fingers joke as a way to cope with these unavoidable and late-discovered, later admitted additives; it’s not like we can confirm the presence of chlormequat chloride visually, much less pick it out. Still, we must eat.

Oatmeal+chlormequat chloride, or how about we call it CC oatmeal, is merely another in a continuous stream of announcements about additives. Earlier this spring there was the cinnamon+lead recall, which I remember hearing about and wondering, how does something like that sidewind beneath notice such that we only learn about it when preschoolers begin exhibiting lead ingestion symptoms after snack. This week, Lunchables, a popular Kraft Heinz snack pack, have been in the headlines again, as Consumer Reports announced that these convenient miniature meal kits contain nearly the maximum allowable daily limits for sodium, lead, and cadmium–and this comes within a year of Lunchables ascending to the status of a bona fide lunch unto itself in the eyes of the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) guidelines.

These formulations–oatmeal+chlormequat, MTCI cinnamon+lead, and Lunchables+cadmium–are biochemical realities. The cinnamon was recalled. But the Quaker Oats and Kraft Heinz Lunchables examples elicited the predictable corporate hedges along the lines of “our products are wholesome, verified to be safe and entirely obliging of all FDA standards.” It’s a well worn path and a familiar refrain, and rather than make this about corporate (ir)responsibility, I have been thinking about it in terms of how it figures into food anxiety, insinuating doubt and causing everyday consumption habits to punctuate, as an underscore would, with uncertainty. How much should we worry about this?, was another question I heard not long ago. I don’t know. The ‘this,’ is it really only CC oatmeal for today’s breakfast? Tomorrow’s? I simultaneously understand ‘this’ as also much bigger, about food processing and industrialization, a dying planet, a broken world. I really don’t know. And can only come up with maybe we learn to grow oats again. Maybe we track down some brown sugar and a dash of fuckitol. Maybe we continue to cross our fingers.

Friendly Silence

A Meal at Google
When I visited Google, I shared a silent meal with some of the people who work there. Afterward, they wrote to me and said, “Never before in that cafeteria have I had a meal that wonderful. I was so happy. I felt so peaceful. Nobody said anything in that whole room full of people. Everybody was quiet from the beginning to the end of the meal. In the history of Google, that’s the first such meal we’ve ever had.” (55)

Thich Nhat Hanh, How to Eat (2014)

I understood by mid-January that the Spring 2024 semester was probably going to rise tempestuous and run roughshod over the time I had been devoting to more regular reading and writing rhythms. It wouldn’t quite be right to say that the reading and writing went altogether dormant; it just shifted, as it is prone to doing, to other things. Even as I had a mid-January deadline for a chapter and as I was tuning plans for the classes I would teach (one a first run, the other a second run), I said “yes” to reading for a book award committee, and “maybe-could” (interpreted as yes!) to another reading-heavy committee. Both sets of reading have lit up the mix board, so to speak. It still feels good to read and read widely, to experience that silent symphony of serendipitous this paired with serendipitous that. Clicks of comprehension are oftentimes almost clicks of invention.

Yet, piled up, deadline-driven reading blankets a semester with an even deeper entrainment. Entrainment, Jenni Odell explains in Saving Time, names the exteriority of temporal regulators in a life. Too much entrainment, though, begins to feel like all of one’s time is planned for you; and so we become busy-busy, and morning noon and night governed. Asynchronous communications, such as text messaging and email, can (and oftener and oftener do, in my experience) function as entrainment reservoirs, brimmed with extras to fill in so the endo-calendar is always chock full. Administering writing programs for a decade braced me for treading again into the brittle psychosphere, a not infrequently brainfogged arena machinated by entrainments which are backed up by reserve entrainments, as when I said yes to the committees, and as when I agreed to be interim director of the PhD program.

Yet, I did say yes. Was not coerced. And I had a pretty good idea of what was ahead. The known trade-off in this is a kind of self-regulated, inevitable quietude in other areas, for example, like having less of a say here, engaging only intermittently on Facebook or Instagram, responding more slowly to texts about social engagements, drawing less, and quietly waiting for sweet flashes of downtime to consider again saying yes to anything more. Another way to approach this would be to underscore that these rebalancings of time amount to sourcing one’s own equanimity; it does little good for me or anyone in my everyday orbit to witness any apparent suffering brought on by a set of circumstances I clear-headedly agreed to.

Now that it’s April and my song is getting thin, I am taking some relief in knowing that these committees are wrapping up, and my interim term lasts only for another month or so. The last day of classes is April 30. And the reading, piled so richly high and smartly wide ranging as it is, has given me a lot to think about, including a more refined sense of possibilities for a class I am due to teach in fall.

Under the quiet, busy din of the semester, though, I have begun to understand the trade-offs in one sphere of activity dialing up, while another sphere of activity dials down, and how, throughout these adjustments–both self-set but also heavily entrained–I am perceiving the silences, lags, intervals of evident inactivity as friendly silence. A decade ago, I would have instead felt some low-level stress marked by tidal entrainment. Friendly silence (and its corollaries in composure and patience) clocks a lesson slow learned.

Whirligig Oubliette – Tournament Pick’em Invitation 🏀

It’s March again. For the 20th year in a row, March means it is time to squander 30 minutes daydreaming about NCAA men’s basketball tournament glory by participating in the Earth Wide Moth Tournament Pick’em, Whirligig Oubliette, such a delightful torture as it is. So little has changed: we’re still using Fibonacci scoring with points increasing round by round (2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21). You’ll also receive bonus points for upset picks (+1 point for upsets in the first round; +2 for upset picks thereafter). 

Everyone is welcome to join, so pass along the invitation. You still have a few days, but time is running out for getting your pets to eat treats that will alleviate decision fatigue, or finding a friend in western Kansas who can talk you out of rooting for the Big Sky champion. What even are athletic conferences anymore?! 

So, sign up! It’s free to join this year’s group on Yahoo!, Whirligig Oubliette (ID#35970). If you have questions, you can reach me via email at dereknmueller at gmail.com. Invite your friends, deep fakers, frenemies, faux-frenemies, Great Lakes ystäväs, mud daubers, crows and crow feeders, dumptruck drivers, electricians who fix broken switches on short notice, flyers of homemade kites, people who convert VHS videos to digital formats for a living, banjo strummers, night sky oglers, Bluetooth dentists, orderers of fancy cupcakes for classes, youth baseball coaches, corn chip finishers, etc. The group has space for the next 49 who sign up. Egoless, impermanent stakes: reputations are made (and quickly forgotten) right here.

Yahoo! Tournament Pick’em
Group: Whirligig Oubliette (ID# 35970)
“20th annual.”

Firm up your selections any time between the selection show on Sunday evening, March 17, and first tip of the round of 64, sometime around noon EDT on Most People’s Birthday, Thursday, March 21. ”

Updated: Congratulations to Patrick, who won by a suspiciously wide margin. On the bright side, Duke lost somewhere along the way. Be well and suffer not, friends, until next March when we do this again. -Derek

Februaryisms 📅

One-Off Non Series #00 “The Disentangler.”

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.

Is Food Studies an Inquiry Paradigm? 🍱

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.

Where Are You?

Big Sweetie.

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.

Back at the house, I read this, an excerpt of an excerpt from Melissa Caughey’s book:

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.

Wonder Hollow Six (left to right): Lightfoot, Bitumen, Tiny Honey, Big Sweetie (front center), Fluffy-foot, and Cinnabon.

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. 

Big Sweetie (top) stubbornly remains deep in the pine woods along with Fluffy Foot (bottom) and Lightfoot (right) who are entranced by a forest floor dust bath on Monday, August 21, 2023.

***

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. 

Wonder Hollow Six head hen, Fluffy Foot, expresses “Where are you?” callout for Big Sweetie, who was killed Wednesday afternoon, 1/31/24, by a Cooper’s Hawk.

Goose Meat For Tenderness 🪿

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 🐓

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) 🥕🍠❄️💦🥚🍌

[WSLS Weather Authority, 2024]

Farther Away Than They Seem 🔭

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.

From “Resolving in 2017

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.

Seventy-Five Years 🧁

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.

Notes

  • 1
    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.
  • 2
    Best ever Cairn terrier mix, rescued from the Isabella County Animal Shelter shortly after my parents’ divorce in 1989.