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.


  • 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.

Rinse in River Lethe

A year’s end knocks. Oh, you’re early! Nevermind. Lost track of time. January soon. Knocks again. Annual report is due. What happened. Why? Pause, take stock, reflect. Rewind the tape but play it back at 1.5x normal rate, skip ahead, skip to the end, yawn because hyper recall is fatiguing and sometimes also boring. River Lethe’s feeding forks are vacant oblivion, forgetting, usually with negative connotations. Remember though, forgetting, too, is a clearing, a gift, and an inevitability. Maybe there can be more lethegraphy, forget-writing, gone-noting, in the new year. 

Memoranda from Lulls

A few anterior questions for research design: Who—individual, department or program, college, institution, field—needs to research? Why? Do research designs do more than install (strict or suggestive and flexible) rails for procedural fidelity? How much of what shows up later in a methods section is accountable to planning versus zig-zagged execution? Method’s slow way-twining of ‘above’ (meta-) and ‘along’ (-hodos) cannot at every resting beat be comparably discernible. Are research memos, then, only ever generated from a resting beat, casting a perchance motley-at-best crumbtrail?


Illustration from Tom Lavoie, Sr., given as a gift to graduating seniors on the 1991 Beal City Aggies (19-6), Class D Michigan State Quarterfinalists.

While I’m already on that 1991 flight path (x-referencing this FB post), here’s one more scraplet of mid-Michigan memorabilia, a drawing by my hs coach’s dad, Tom Lavoie, Sr. He’d created a series of these for seniors that year, I think. My variation, shown here somehow held on for years from place to place, but eventually it succumbed to the dankness of whatever dark basement tuck-away it was temporarily stored in. I took a photo of it before I pitched it (5-6 years ago?) and then just a couple of weeks ago, reflecting on that 90-91 season, I looked up the photo and retraced it in Procreate. I mean, why forget when you can remember? In particular, I remember Tom Lavoie, Sr., as oftentimes nearby, especially for those winter break practices, which he showed up to during the holidays, joining the workout session by arming himself with football blocking pads, and fouling us as we took turns doing power-ups (could be it was only the bigs who endured this; I don’t quite remember). Possibly sounds worse than it was; it added just a little bit extra to the already-demanding exertions of again and again picking up a ball from the floor, willing it to the upper outer corner of the backboard. I assume this kind of thing–being fouled over and over by football pads–explains the band-aids, dazed-headedness, aching elbows and knees, bloody sock, and lost shoe shown here. We were always taught, if you’re gonna foul, then foul (later at Park, Coach English, too, doubled-down on this defensive philosophy: spend your fouls well, wisely; you only get a few of them to give!). Google gave me a phone number, so I tried calling Tom Lavoie, Sr., this morning, left a message of gratitude on the answering machine for the drawing, for caring enough to show up as he did for us–and, too, for the difference made by his son, who died at too young an age (53) in 2011. ?

Added: Tom Sr. returned my call; we chatted for 30 mins about a lot of it remembering basketball, the drawings he made for players at Beal City and also for the women’s programs at Alpena HS, the former BCHS players he still hears from, and also about how–coincidentally–he graduated from Michigan State Normal School before it was EMU, studying Phys Ed and finishing in Ypsi in 1956. Mentioned, too, the anecdote about how he and Tom (his son, my hs coach) had gone to a Dick Baumgartner shooting camp in Indiana and were astonished to learn that the diameter of the rim is twice the diameter of a basketball, and facing much disbelief about that, Baumgartner would have to climb a ladder and show it to be true (empirical evidence being observable and all)…and how he had to do that same thing when he shared that lesson in later years at Alpena.

Episodes 2

“The depth and complexity of human memory is staggeringly rich.”

Douglas Hofstadter, I Am A Strange Loop (2007), “Of Selves and Symbols,” p. 86

Picked back up again from Sunday, April 26, 2020.

Photo: A visit to @Bag, the plastic Kroger tree-snagged flotilla installation in Ypsilanti, Mich.

The time when I woke up refreshed and hopeful on the last June Sunday morning during Year One of pandemic. The time when…and then I read a FB post from an uncle lauding Trump, a badly re-shared (copied/pasted?) Twitter spitshot–aren’t they all?–about heritage and about second amendment and about slighting iffy Joe. The time when seeing that just so happened to coincide with Trump’s being in the news for retweeting a video of clashing seniors in Florida, golf cart-riding white folks shouting “white power” (fascists, maybe? certainly not anti-fascists), the President characterizing them as “good people,” and that this is not a deal-breaker for family members, ooh, balling a hard fist it’s telling. The time when the work of interacting at that site of worldviews splitting wide fork, taking notice of uncles-led sides-drawing, focusing again on what really counts among relational accountabilities.

The time when minutes after taking a Zyrtec generic pollenguarding allergy pill I could not remember whether I had taken one today or was that yesterday. Did I? The time when, upon visiting Michigan to return Is. to her mom’s, they were setting up for a garage sale and there was an enormous second edition Webster’s dictionary and all I had to do was look at it with bibliophilic eyes and ask where did that come from before everyone said “thought you’d want it.” The time when getting a new-old dictionary felt like antiquing except that this dictionary might really get some use. The time when upon reaching the condo, what converges are slightly different dispositions on housekeeping, mine being a preference for tidiness and simplicity, but knowing too that’s then my work, to make it so. Swept and wiped counters and, coarse-side sponge to poly shell, shined the tub and enclosure. The time when I didn’t really think twice about it but sent Ph. a text to let him know I was going to eat the snacks in the cupboard only for him to respond that he meant to but hadn’t gotten groceries, thinking I was being sarcastic maybe, and then I followed again to SMS no really, I owe you, because I’m truly eating these opened bags of chips and also that kind of melted to a giant, rock solid caramel cluster container of cashew and candies, a refrigerated glob that took some handiwork and possibly tools to get out of the jar and into a bowl. The time when it also clicked that yeah, I do tend to have issues with finishing food, always finishing, never wasting, that we’re all still five years-old sometimes and hearing synaptically echoed and haunting the charged scolds of parents, living that compounded static out for a good part of our lives. At least a few years, sometimes more.

The time when the president of the condo association that was megalomaniacal–also pricey!–in its legalistic onslaught emailed again with a personal swat about tone and courtesy, about how and why to be gentler with making requests about plants that were by our [unnamed] landscaping company weed-whipped beyond recognition, about how we really should be more generous with loyal hard-working companies we hire and pay to do good work, even when they do shitty work, oh, and you cannot have the name of the landscaping company so as to post a review, but they will plant a replacement hosta, only weeks later to find out that instead of planting it they just ding-dong-dashed that hosta, leaving it on the porch, never finding its way to the soil and now it’s gone, vanished-gone, never-seen gone. The time when by responding, no worries, we’re all good here, I was read back a finger-wag about how by saying I never saw the plant I was implicitly calling the landscaper (still unnamed) a liar and about how ghastly and gruesome was my position. The time when shew are people going through some stuff and handing off their snarls and with vitriol slashing through deep suspicions about others. The time when the only things left to work with are clearing, forgiveness, and compassion, let’s make a path for you to go forward along another day and that tempest in you, keep its fire, fine, but channel it where rage will not shred what endangered goodness still orbits. The time when the hosta taken down in late May was scarred but okay, finding sunshine and still trying its best in late June. The time when its growing back grew back.

Photo. Sideyard, Ypsilanti condo, brownstone with cedar fencing stained to match, mosses and plants, algae-glazed left-behinds for returning to whenever.

The time when sitting side-yard at the two-storey Michigan brownstone in Lakeview Estates, wobbly chair because the pavers were some years ago pulled up and reset by an amateur (who possibly had not filled out the proper modification forms, though to the amateur’s defense, what exactly was modified in the crooked reset?), their mossy grout restored now, their wabi sabi angles somehow a more honest accounting for time and resourcefulness than would’ve been any more groomed or polished magazine cover sideyardscape don’t trip. The time when the surrounds was still only missing a laughing Buddha statue because that one’s in Virginia and also because the local nursery didn’t order poured form figures this season due to the pandemic. The time when first it was requisite masks for the good of public health and then added to that were the concrete inconveniences of no poured form yard decor and between government and Coronavirus so many precious white-fingers-clutched liberties tottered, they cried. Jesus wept; Buddha laughed. The time when the plants were more than enough in the sideyard, a fenced, angular parcel becoming, three lavender plants thriving over there, three sage varieties thriving over in the V corner, plus a giant anise, another small lavender, a cluster of long grass, a recently transplanted greenstem forsythia, what PictureThis app quickly computes for me as a species of Easter tree, also known as Chinese gold bell, Greenish-flowered forsythia, dwarf cutleaf forsythia, golden bells, and whose botanical name is forsythia viridissima, can you imagine having that name?–a plant from neighbor K, and then there are ferns, double-escaped onions (one getaway from the market, another from the refrigerator), stonecrops (graveyard moss), a giant hosta whose leaves gulp for water and sunshine, and two spearmints–also a chipmunk, skiddish but not too skiddish to dig soil near the lavender plants–also a table and small storage bin covered with algal film and a little bit of bird shit, a lounge chair, a very modest and weathered patio set, a wagon tucked in here by Ph., I’m guessing, but room enough for coffee and a laptop in the shade where there’s birdsong and a power tool intermittently screaming change to straight lines and sawdust from across the street.


“The depth and complexity of human memory is staggeringly rich.”

Douglas Hofstadter, I Am A Strange Loop (2007), “Of Selves and Symbols,” p. 86
Photo: The time when two experimental cracker doughs were spread on silicone sheets laid atop wire racks for sliding into a dehydrator.

The time when I woke up tired on the last April Sunday morning during Year One of pandemic. The time I yawned over coffee and oatmeal ritual and plucked yesterday’s dried honeydew, apple spirals, and bananas soaked in lemon juice from silicone sheets to make room for something else. The time when I attempted two cracker doughs, one based on lentil sprouts and the other based on mung bean sprouts. The time when the waft of cracker doughs constituted with sprouts more than with any other ingredients and the smell’s description, what word could it be but “disappointment.” The time when there were other ingredients mixed in like oatmeal, onion powder, dill, salt, shredded coconut (lentil batch) and like white pepper, black pepper, salt, lemon juice, popcorn, and mustard (mung batch). The time when flax and chia were in both experimental doughs but those ingredients were mostly for nutrients and texture, bonding and composition and flavor, not scent.

The time when the other three trays rounding out the dehydrator–as the crackers baked (call it “dried”)–where cantaloupe and I wondered if the cantaloupe, cheap as it was for being $1.88 per unit at Kroger last Monday, was any good. The time when the cantaloupe’s hydration–its juiciness–was all wrong when cut open but then I sliced it into narrow strips and loaded it onto trays anyway. The time when the compromise on cantaloupe quality pertained only to one of the discounted cantaloupes but to the other one, actions being louder than words, you said, you’re garbage. The time when I tossed the second cantaloupe. The time when the experimental cracker doughs and cantaloupe slices dried (call it “baked”) into the afternoon. The time when I set a timer for one hour and just before the hour was up I used the pizza wheel to score the approximately square shapes of eventually crackers knowing too I could have used a butter knife. The time when as I rolled the pizza cutting tool, not having had lunch yet, what would I have?, thoughts drifted to the oddness of a world blue, more than 50,000 people dead of Coronavirus in the U.S. this month and the president’s expressions of sorrow, pain, remorse, heartache were imperceptible, or, if we’re going to be charitable, they read to me as insincere, performed, dutifully noted. The time when thousands of people died in a month and the flags stood at full mast. The time when so few people on TV seemed upset, when after scoring cracker lines, there was a moment of wondering at a heart’s generalizable capacity to know or worry or anticipate the sorrow of others.

The time when grey springtime afternoons were swiftly swallowed up by a new blog entry and some reading and a walk to campus to scan a few chapters into PDFs needed for rounding out the promotion packet. The time when, how long would it take for the crackers to be really, really crisp? The time when I skimped on yoga and did (modified) push-ups and situps instead and had a granola bar for a snack. The time when handwriting with greater swellforce than before started to matter and I downloaded iFontMaker and for $7.99 or the price of more than four iffy cantaloupes. The time when I installed iFontMaker and set mind to scrawl a handwriting character set spontaneously as if a rapid prototype blinked from so many years of muscle memory and sinew memory and bone memory and fingernail memory and lunula memory and cuticles and interstice…so many memories, more than translate but the attempt is still okay and the font better than expected so here’s to hoping the crackers will be, too.

Not Just Any

Family photograph at the holidays, maybe 1984.
Family photograph at the holidays, maybe 1984.

Overnight, planted digitally from the Pacific northwest by my aunt, not just any photo but this one, my dad’s family at Sheboygan, Wisc., holiday, my grandfather, Arvin, notably a WWII veteran, front-right, my parents to the right, brother just behind me, genuine smiles in a moment I can’t quite remember until I see this, but where is memory, anyway?, because then it is there in front of you, kermit frog-eyeing a collapsed cookie monster, an early 1980s Jim Henson haircut, almost but not quite matching shirts, and especially my great-grandmother, Meta, her hand at my back bringing me closer. #relations

Have Some Soup

A friend whose dad died not too long ago just the other day statused about how the loss of a parent ((((stuns)))) you with new base time, increments reset. If it had a sound, it would be the kind of droning low-tonal yawp-hum that would make clockfaces crack, gears melt, springs and innerworkings wrench and bend, digital and analog both, no matter. How long has it been since they died? How many week-months? How many day-years? Nevermind BCE, nevermind Christ’s West.

Apropos for a Monday, today makes twenty-one years since my mom died. It’s nothing to cake about. Seven-thousand-and-some days. 183,960 hours. An e-annotation+8 in seconds. Googling these figures, I learnt too there’s a country song about this duree, “Twenty One Years Is A Mighty Long Time,” but I didn’t listen to it. The Earth flips axes (re-begin your geocoding, GISers!), but you can figure out how to walk it right-side up, footfalls alternating, gravity adequate again. Even if it takes a defiant while. There are mysteries without shits to give about them. Like, I don’t know why I mark deathday this year. Who even cares! Mother’s Day was okay. Some years you really feel it on a birthday or Mother’s Day. Some years, deathday. Probably because of the moon. Wounds long-healing have good days, good hours, bad days, bad hours. For twenty-one years and probably for longer than that.

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Snowdrops or Photo of Snowdrops

White snowdrop flowers
February’s Snowdrop

Upshot mid-February. Maybe Valentine’s Day or the day after, but before the 16th. Snowdrops or snowbells or crocus. Is the plural for crocus, crocuses? Doesn’t matter if they’re snowdrops. I’m sure they’re snowdrops. Well, almost sure. Surer is that Michigan’s regreening is mistimed this time. The snowdrops keep to themselves, don’t express a whole lot, or not anything I can hear where I stand when I pass by them front door in-going and out-going. But then this one photo jogs a memory about how last season’s tomatoes wilded into an unmanageable mess yielding more on vine rot than wedges of lightly salted gushes tomatoseed and sunshine. It’s something. Cannot say yet whether it’s the snowdrops or their photo or the tomatoes long since turned over in the side yard that share the quiet wisdrom, not quite lesson and not quite imperative, do better with gardening this year.

Butterfly Zag

Monarch Butterfly, El Rosario Sanctuary, Michoacàn-Mèxico.

Monarchs are “tough and powerful, as butterflies go.” They fly over Lake Superior without resting; in fact, observers there have discovered a curious thing. Instead of flying directly south, the monarchs crossing high over the water take an inexplicable turn towards the east. Then when they reach an invisible point, they all veer south again. Each successive swarm repeats this mysterious dogleg movement, year after year. Entomologists actually think that the butterflies might be “remembering” the position of a long-gone, looming glacier. In another book I read that geologists think that Lake Superior marks the site of the highest mountain that ever existed on this continent. I don’t know. I’d like to see it. Or I’d like to be it, to feel when to turn. At night on land migrating monarchs slumber on certain trees, hung in festoons with wings folded together, thick on the trees and shaggy as bearskin. (Dillard, p. 258, 1974)

Before shelving Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, one of the small handful of books (at focus’s edge) I finished on this research leave, I flipped back to a couple of dog-ears to see if there were passages I wanted to keep, post, circulate, remember later. Remember when a blog was a good location to stash miscellaneous passages? In this one, mostly about monarchs and their migration, I must have taken as wonderful (i.e., wonderful enough to warrant folding the corner of the paper) the swarm’s seasonal navigation as it maybe? does it? draws on some faint memoria, a directional inheritance, passed along grid cells from every butterfly mother and every next one before her. Fascinating and strange to think of a group veer, much less over the open expanse of a great lake in summertime.

But of course reading the passage again–no same two ways through it twice–its emphasis on the veer, on turning, stand out. This, the sort of turn spotting that is more akin to following the turns taken by ancestors, those redirects inherited, a quietly encoded rule for monarchs next. So it’s a curious aside that extends turns–more than the multimodal turn, the archival turn, the digital turn, and so on–to that which is only remembered, ancient monuments, a mountain or a glacier. Turning, bending around figments; the butterflies know, but how would we regard such knowing? How would we judge it if we, too, were prone to such predictable and long-established path-following as this?