Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Of shooting stars and fireflies

We have started to settle into our new house, and at least the first floor doesn't look like we just moved in. We're also slowly discovering the character of our new neighborhood, including its more permanent residents, like this garden snake that welcomed my husband home yesterday afternoon.

Yesterday we also met our more immediate neighbors, a couple from Texas in their late 50s who moved all the way to Ohio for the quiet and for the chance to own a large piece of inexpensive land. Our neighbor, to my husband's dismay, mows every inch of his several acres so it does put a bit of pressure on us to keep up our front and back yards looking pristine.

On the other side of our road, divided by the road that goes directly into my small college on the hill, there is this beautiful cornfield where the corn is almost ready for picking.

At the bottom of our street, closer to the nearby town, we've learned to drive very slowly because the deer like to graze openly in people's front yards. Here there were two does and three fawns that were hardly perturbed when I stopped the car to take their picture.

Yesterday, my husband's big project was building a bird-feeding station. He likes to joke that he invested less than $1 on it because nearly all the materials were obtained from our new property, including the brackets, the post itself, and the stones. We haven't seen many birds at the station yet, but I think once word gets out we will. And, thankfully, we have not seen a single squirrel. (That's Lizzy there playing with something.)

Yesterday I spent almost a solid hour weeding the small huerto, or vegetable garden, which was overrun with weeds, some taller than the tomatoes that are planted there. We now have all kinds of tomatoes, some dill, and one rhubarb plant, so we'll see whether I get any kind of cosecha by summer's end.

The other source of joy in this beautiful new place is Lizzy, who couldn't be more playful and who is always ready for a good romp, chasing one of her balls or toys, like she was in some kind of athletic competition. She is clearly delighted to have such a big yard to claim as her own (one that is, lucky for us, fully fenced).

Because she spends so much energy having fun, Lizzy likes to take a lot of naps, which is quite alright by me. I've also started joining her, making the most of these warm afternoons after I've done my many tasks for each day.

Last night, my husband and I sat on the deck of our new house just as dusk became night and the fireflies were everywhere, making it seem like the tall trees were festooned with Christmas lights.

Suddenly, we noticed that some of the fireflies were flitting very high up on the trees and that, higher still, there were shooting stars intermittently criss-crossing the darkening sky. We had trouble making out what were the fireflies and what were the shooting stars and I thought to myself that this was a lovely quandary to face.

I'll take the shooting stars as a good omen, but every day we should be thankful for it all, the good and the bad, because without the bad the good wouldn't feel as good when it is here.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The newness of it all

We closed on and started to move into the new house on Friday and on Saturday morning a close friend and I went and picked up the new addition to our household: Lizzy, the Brittany Spaniel. Although Lizzy appears to be purebred, in the Brittany Spaniel world, like in the rest of the world, "blackness" is a disqualification (believe it or not) so Lizzy couldn't begin to dream of qualifying for any best in shows. But that's alright by me. As I told another friend, like Lizzy, I also "look white" but am not.

It's been a hectic weekend, with my husband doing all the heavy lifting (with our college daughter's help yesterday) and with me turning the new house into a comfy and welcoming home. Lizzy hasn't made things more difficult, surprisingly. Except for vomiting in my car when my friend and I arrived back in our small college on the hill (we picked her up from her foster mom about 30 minutes away), and for a couple of peeing and one pooping "accident" inside the house, Lizzy has been as easygoing as you could want in a dog. It's like Geni reincarnated.

But Lizzy is no Geni in the fact that she absolutely, good spaniel that she is, adores to play. Stray street dog that she was, Geni never did quite understand the concept of play. That's not a problem with Lizzy. I bought her a squeaky ball and she has now mastered the art of rushing across the yard at her highest speed (which is not inconsiderable) to fetch the ball and bring it back. I'm seriously considering getting her a Frisbee because I think that she would love to chase and jump at it to get it. We'll see. I've already purchased a new leash and harness for her (pink color, of course), ordered her a collar with her name and my cellphone number stitched on it, and bought her a doggy car harness to keep her safe when we're traveling.

Day 2 with Lizzy today began with a long walk on the roads near my now former tiny apartment near the woods, and more moving boxes and things (and they are endless!) from said apartment to the house, and her first experience being left on the deck by herself. She quickly proceeded to figure out that this wasn't a bad thing and enjoyed sunning herself, just like a Puerto Rican dog would do.

By this afternoon, when my husband began to haul things out of the garage into our humongous basement (it's like another country down there!) to convert the former into his dream space, Lizzy had become so possessive of "her" yard that she started barking at the strange person who kept walking by the deck. My husband came up and let her know it was him, but she was unconvinced and kept issuing short growls of warning, just in case.

Meanwhile, the cats, who have taken Lizzy's arrival and stay in a display of good humor that is truly impressive (I had envisioned a constant war, at least on Magellan's part), have also made this new house very much their home. Darwin, for instance, found the space under a gigantic fern that the former owners left behind and which sits on a ledge just over the front door, irresistible and spends most of the day there, instead of fighting with Magellan as he did in the tiny apartment. My husband and I think that the fern allows him to play at jungle cat in his very creative mind.

Magellan also has adapted well to her new surroundings and to Lizzy except that she's doing her "throw yourself on the floor" thing a lot because I think she wants more attention given that mine is now divided four ways.

My husband couldn't be happier with his nice new office space, and I'm very content here ensconced upstairs in a pink room with frilly pink and light green curtains, which obviously used to belong to a girl. The only major drawback was that we couldn't create the TV room that we had envisioned on the second floor loft area because there are no TV cables that come all the way to the second floor so the TV sits in the living room, which none of us likes because we like that space to be conversational. But de los males el menos as my abuela would've said.

Still, my college daughter had a good idea and suggested that we turn the loft area into a reading space, which we've never had. So we positioned the big chair we used to have in the living room in front of the wide windows that look onto the grove of trees that belongs to a colleague across the street and soon, very soon, I'm going to spend some good time sitting there, starting War and Peace, finally.

I became a "doctor" (albeit one of those who can't cure a thing) almost a year ago, but it's now, with this house, that I feel that I finally live like a professor, whatever that means. I told my college daughter that I'd always thought I'd know I'd "made it" when I had a master bedroom with a master bath and walk-in closet. OK, so I don't have tenure, but I've certainly "made it" in some ways and I feel blessed and humbly thankful for the bounty of these days.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Living in the moment

In preparation for adopting a new rescued dog to add to our small "pack" (now consisting of my husband, the two cats and me), I've been reading the three César Millán books (of "Dog Whisperer" fame), and one of the bits of wisdom that he stresses is that dogs live in the moment, that they don't fret about the past or the future, but appreciate (or are aware?) of every minute as they are living it.

I'm consciously trying to implement this dog approach by making the most of each summer day that's left. Last night, for example, I was in bed by 10 p.m., which is unheard of in our household. Although while on vacation in Puerto Rico we always managed to be in bed by that time, which is optimal given that I'm up by 6 a.m. or so, here in Ohio we (or at least I) have trouble getting in bed before 11 p.m. There's always one more thing to do or one more e-mail to answer or someone else to tend to. But last night, I actually was able to get in my comfy, warm bed, while I heard the cool rain fall outside, and could take up my book (the fabulously written A Death in Belmont by Sebastian Junger) and read for a few minutes before my husband and I called it a night.

Earlier that afternoon, in a long conversation with a nineteen-year-old, she wondered why it's so difficult to be disciplined in all aspects of life, and I told her that (even at 47) I have the same problem. I can be very disciplined for many things but there are other aspects of my life (like getting to bed early!) that elude my efforts at control. Still, while I am a control freak, I do realize that you can't control all aspects of life. After all, as some very wise person (supposedly John Lennon?) said: "Life is what happens to you while you're making other plans." I'm living proof of that.

In tangible things I can control, though, like my scholarship, I'm being productive this summer. This week, I sent off my first full article to a journal, American Quarterly, and am now holding my breath, hoping that they take it or, at the very least, ask for revisions and re-submission. I'm working on a second article, about a novella by Ramón Emeterio Betances, which I hope to send later this summer to a Puerto Rican journal, and have started thinking about a third article I've been asked to write about a Puerto Rican poet for a collection of critical writings about him. I also managed to write (with the help of my husband's keen-eyed editing) an opinion piece about Sonia Sotomayor's confirmation, which is now being pitched to different newspapers by a colleague. Thus, it's not like this summer has been or is devoid of "work," but that the work has felt more like fun than obligation.

Nonetheless, for what remains of this wonderful (if rather coldish) summer, I'm going to make a point to get a hold of those more elusive goals and make good on them, too. As I tell my students, you have to be "hungry" for something to have ambition and to have the discipline to achieve it. But if that "hunger" is there because you think it's expected of you but it's not really your own, then you will continually sabotage yourself and end up saying one thing but doing another, which isn't conducive to self-knowledge or to building trust-based relationships with others.

My ambitions this summer, apart from getting to bed at a more reasonable time, also include becoming more of a locavore and taking better advantage of all the fresh produce available in these parts. For one, I'd like to try to bake a peach cobbler a week (even though the newspaper today reports that the Ohio peach crop is down by 65 percent!). The goal is not to gain more pounds (I'm also on a quest to reduce girth through regular exercise and better eating) but to share with friends and neighbors (the first one I made earlier this week disappeared in one day, split among five or six people!).

Once our new dog is here (maybe tomorrow? Saturday?), I'll have more lessons to learn from her (who'll be re-named Lizzy, in honor of Elizabeth Bennet of Pride and Prejudice fame), and she will also have to learn from us (including obedience classes!). But I hope that what I remember this summer most for was for how I didn't just talk the talk but walked the walked to a more conscious, present way of living.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Of wind roar and blue acts of defiance

The motorcycle takes off like a jet and the wind roars outside my helmet the way I imagine a tornado might sound. It's exhilarating to feel how we cut through the air and the speed at which we move feels many times it's real measure.

We have left our quiet house on this placid Sunday in search of adventure on the roads that snake through the countless corn, soybean, wheat, horse and steer farms in these counties. We find a nearby cornfield and I ask my husband to take my picture so you can see how tall the corn is getting, although it's not yet ready for picking. (I look like a tiny alien with a huge head!)

Back when I was a city girl living in the city I knew next to nothing about fresh corn, about how it was grown or how to pick the best ears in the stores. Now I find myself introducing other city girls to country living after having spent eight years in these parts.

On our way to nowhere, we come across the "shocks of straw" that Amish farmers prepare for keeping straw from spoiling before winter. They seem odd for those of us used to seeing the large mechanically prepared hay bales that dot most of the farms around here. But they are actually strangely beautiful against the blue sky of an idle Ohio afternoon.

When we stop to take this photo, we disturb the dogs of a large Amish family, and they all come out to their back porch, where they have obviously gathered, to see what is happening. I take my picture and I yell: "Sorry!" as I get back on the motorcycle but I don't see any of them smile or wave as we take off.

Now we go in search of a blue barn one of my graduating seniors said last semester that existed on a close-by road. According to this rural legend, an Amish farmer got upset with the strict regulations of his community, and instead of painting his barn pristinely white, like all of his peers do, he painted it blue. Little did we know that this farmer, for whatever reason, but definitely as an unequivocably in-your-face act of defiance, painted all of his buildings in a pretty jarring blue.

When we turn the motorcycle to head in the direction of home I suddenly have a hunch that peach season might have just started, and ask my husband to stop at our favorite orchard. Unfortunately, a large blackboard on their front porch explains the closed doors by noting that their peach harvest froze in January, and invites us to return in August for their apples (which are delicious!).

Off we go in search of another orchard where we are rewarded for our perseverance. We buy a half-peck of peaches and a large block of unsalted Amish butter, which is the unparalleled ingredient for perfectly flaky pie crusts, and I'm already making plans for the first peach cobbler of the year.

To end such a mellow Sunday, my husband and I sit outside on what used to be our porch furniture and now has become a social gathering place for our little apartment complex and spend some time chatting with a new neighbor and her two girls, and with a neighbor who will soon depart with her very energetic rescued beagle-mix.

All in all, it was a perfectly lovely day and I give thanks for that.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Woodpecker Central

We not only have a lot of deer and squirrels around here, we also have lots of woodpeckers. Today, my husband got a picture of the gorgeous red-headed woodpecker, which is very uncommon. S/he was eating out of the thistle feeder set up for the Goldfinches.

We also, as you know, have several Pileated woodpeckers that visit our suet cage. They scream, like monkeys in the jungle.

The red-bellied is quite common and comes often to the bird feeder.

Also common is the Downy, which is the tiniest and cuttest of the four and who loves the suet.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Home, sweet home

After a week of fun in the sun and of seeing the whole family, we are unmistakeably back in Ohio at the small college on the hill, where coming across deer and other wildlife is a daily occurrence.

This young deer (probably a fawn?) seemed reluctant to run away when I stopped the car to take a picture for this post. S/he hangs out alone in the most visible of places, like the lawn in front of one of the department houses, right next to a main road. S/he eventually scampered away when I tried to get her/him to look straight at the camera.

While we enjoyed our time in Puerto Rico, my husband and I are both glad to be home and to return to our leisurely summer routines, including taking long walks in the evening and the occasional visit to the college bookstore, which sells locally made ice cream.

Next week brings the promise of a closing on our new home and, if all goes as planned, we should be able to move next weekend. We'll see if that's the case. We're both eager to have a house again (the garage will be most welcome by both of us, although I think most of all by my husband, whose motorcycle has weathered an entire year in an outside parking lot). And I'm especially looking forward to not having to have the cat litter in the one tiny bathroom of this apartment. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

While Darwin is very happy to have us both back (even though he really likes my "college daughter," who looked after them while we were gone), Magellan is especially pleased because she gets to go out again and sit in her "throne" while my husband and I sit outside and enjoy the summery weather.

I've always felt that the best thing about traveling is getting back home, and that certainty gets stronger everytime I'm away and I return.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

A little shopping and a visit to the dead

This morning, my husband and I left my parents' house early for Old San Juan, one of our favorite haunts, to have a big breakfast at our must-eat-there café, La Bombonera, and then to do a little bit of shopping (well, for me to do that and for my husband to tag along, more or less willingly).

At my small college on the hill, because so many of my colleagues and friends have ties of one kind or another to Britain, there are a lot of tea drinkers, and there's almost the assumption that we all share the same background and are, therefore, also tea drinkers. But having come from a Spanish Caribbean, coffee-producing island, I've never been a tea drinker, so my husband and I shopped instead for the best coffee made here to bring back for friends (and my "college daughter"), who put in a special request for it.

After our short shopping spree in Old San Juan was over, my husband and I went in search of my abuela, who is buried alongside my abuelo in the Old Río Piedras Cemetery. I didn't remember much about the location of the tomb (my abuelo died in 1977), but the sepulturero was in hand to guide us quickly to the pantheon where my abuela's ashes and my abuelo and his relatives all rest together.

There were no flowers on the tomb and my husband weeded its surroundings, remembering how particular my abuela was about her garden. We both promised her that on our next visit to Puerto Rico we would plant some perennials and spruce up the tomb.

Before leaving, we took a walk around the cemetery, which is obviously old and largely unattended. In fact, there were many broken tombs, overturned and empty flower urns, and several tombs on top of which there were abandoned pairs of shoes. Walking through a Catholic cemetery is always an experience, and here are some of the pictures I got.


It's sad to think of the dead as being so dis-remembered, but I assured my abuela (and abuelo, as well) that she is sorely missed, and that we will tend to her next time we're here. I know she would be pleased.

I am not the best of Catholics, and that's probably the greatest of understatements, but I like the idea that there are creatures with wings and blazing swords that are champions of good that we can pray to for solace and strength and guidance. Angels, saints and virgins are all part of our liturgy and represent some of the most beautiful iconography in our culture.

Although the cemetery looked sad and nearly abandoned, the statues of angels and virgins still stand stately guard over the dead, reminding us that they meant something to someone sometime, while the many, closely set tombs also stand as silent but eloquent witnesses of that.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

A walk on the beach

This morning, my husband and I took advantage of a beautiful morning to take a long walk on the beach. Surprisingly, at least for me, there are a lot of people who walk on the beach from very early in the morning (lately, we've been going to bed by 10:30 p.m. and getting up by 6:30 a.m., if not earlier).

During our walk, we came across several people walking their dogs on the beach, and the most memorable of them was Newton, a tiny (5 pounds?) puppy who was as eager and as fearful as puppies are, all at the same time. After about 30 minutes of walking, we turned back so we could get ready for our busy day.

On the way into the apartment building, after my husband had written "Greetings from Puerto Rico" in the sand in Spanish so I could use it for this blog, I noticed these pretty beach flowers, which hide the homes of the tiny hermit crabs, or cobitos, that are ubiquitous in many of our beaches.

This photograph doesn't do justice to the beauty of the marullo, that final part of the wave that rolls and gurgles and foams, like a poem written in salt water.

Back at my parents' apartment, where we will stay until our return to Ohio (my husband on Monday and I on Tuesday) he noticed this miniature flower, pushing through the cement wall on the side of the apartment building's parking lot.

"The desire to live overcomes the worst circumstances," he said, and I couldn't agree more.

Our day included a stop at the salon I've been going to for more than a decade to get my hair done and later a 2-hour lunch with old friends, which was cut short because we had to get going to meet up with my arriving sister and her kids. My brother arrived a few hours later to join his wife and kids, who have been here for several days.

By this evening, my entire family, all 13 of us, were reunited at the apartment by the beach, which is no longer "ours" but my sister's. There, we all celebrated her birthday and being together, which is a uniquely special event this time around.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Days in the tropics

For dinner yesterday, my husband humored me and took me to a restaurant I've been wanting to try for at least a year. It's owned by my favorite chef, Wilo Benet, and it's called Payá.

We arrived and I started with a Mojito Colada, which is just that, a Mojito and a Piña Colada combined into one deliciously dangerous drink. I'm usually not a mixed drink kind, preferring the more sedate option of a nice glass of wine, preferably Pinot Gris. But this drink sounded so enticing that I couldn't say no when the waiter suggested it and, I figured, I'm on vacation so it's a good excuse to try something new.

Of course, the Mojito is a typical Cuban drink and the Piña Colada was supposedly invented in Puerto Rico, so the merger is a nice concept, too. The drink, like the food, fulfilled its promise. It's one of those drinks that make you forget that it has rum in it, so they're a one-drink proposition, at least in my case.

My husband ordered a sangría, but we can safely say that it wasn't as good as the one he occasionally makes himself at home, which is the best sangría I've ever had. My food, which I had to take a picture of, consisted of a pastelón de amarillo con carne molida, arroz y habichuelas coloradas and tostones. My vegetarian husband didn't have luck with the Puerto Rican fare because everything had some kind of meat (even the beans had ham, as is traditional), so he went with a veggie stir-fry that he liked.

My mistake was to order chicharrones de pollo as an appetizer. Not only were they finger-licking good but they were generously portioned so by the time the actual food came around, I was already half full. Still, that didn't prevent me from ordering flan de queso for dessert. All in all, I consumed a prodigious amount of food (in my defense, I did bring a doggy bag back with half of the pastelón). But I know I won't be making it back to Payá anytime soon, so that was my rationalization.

Friday morning, this was the view from "our" apartment window and it was lovely. I absolutely love it when the sun shimmers in the surface of the ocean. I remember asking my father, many years ago, to give me the word for what the sun does when it reflects like that against the water. He said: "Rielar," and I was spellbound. Even the word has a magic that evokes the beauty of what it describes.

In the afternoon, my family went back into the beach and we spent the afternoon facing the ocean and having good quality time. Tomorrow, the family grows by 62.5% when my sister and her children and my brother join us.

This vacation, which has finally felt like one, is quickly winding down.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Fun in the sun (finally!)

My husband and I arrived in Puerto Rico yesterday afternoon and after spending some time with my parents we all packed up the car and drove to our pied-a-terre while here, an apartment right in front of the beach in Isla Verde.

Before going to bed early last night, my husband and I looked out of the windows and saw this gorgeous moon, smiling back at us. My trusty digital camera isn't powerful enough to take a good picture, but I think it gives you the idea of how beautiful that brilliant moon was, like a glittering pin on the indigo sky.

This morning, these were the views that welcomed us from "our" apartment windows, views that are a balm to my tropical soul, which is in eternal yearning when in the wilds of Ohio.

On the right side of the building, there is a very old cemetery where relatives still care for their dead by keeping the tombs pristinely white and the urns filled with colorful flowers. I hope to have more pictures of the cemetery soon after my husband and I take a stroll through its avenues.

Early this morning, we went to the pool, where my husband cooled off from the wonderful heat, and did a little bit of swimming in lieu of running.

Meanwhile, this was my view, as I caught up with magazines I had pending and simply feasted my eyes and senses, while the sun sizzled on my (very well sun-screen protected) skin.

After walking out to the beach and meeting a darkly tanned, white-haired, American guy who was walking with his three dogs, two of them rescued satos, and all of which (unlike my erstwhile satos) loved jumping in and out of the warm sea water (one of them was even lapping it!), we went back to the apartment to change so we could take a long walk to reconnoiter the area.

Happily, we found a Starbucks about a mile away and took a break from walking to have our coffee, before setting back to the apartment. Before coming to my parents', I took this picture of a large, rotating chair in the apartment, which is most felicitously located, and where I plan to spend not a few hours reading and drinking in the glorious, blue Atlantic, the ocean of my soul.

Monday, July 6, 2009

On the road again

One of the fun things my husband and I did yesterday, on our 15th anniversary, was get on the motorcycle and take the road least traveled to see what there was to see.

At one point, we came upon this church next to a road that curved upward and my husband declared this a good road photo, so I took one of him coming down the hill toward me.

Later, we came upon what has to be one of the smallest post offices in the U.S., and I got off to take a picture while my husband (in the background) waited for me. He got me this cool helmet that has a movable face shield to make it easier to take pictures with the helmet on.

Tomorrow, we're on the road again, but this time back to Puerto Rico for a week to spend time with my parents, my siblings and my nieces and nephews.

When we return to Ohio, I hope all will be settled so we can get ready for the move to our new home (but more details on that will be forthcoming once the deal is finalized). Meanwhile, things here have been pleasantly summery.

My husband likes to do work outside on his laptop and Magellan insists on keeping him company. She will meow demandingly at the door and poise herself so she can be ready to bolt out of the screen door, if we're not paying attention.

I have started making my mental list of what I'll miss about this, our fourth home in eight years in Ohio, and one of those will be Mr. Crow, the one crow that hangs around our small apartment near the woods because he (at least I think it's male) has figured out that I put out wildlife feed in the mornings. He's taken to crowing loudly some mornings if I take too long to put the feed out! I've named him Poe.

This is the best photo we have of him so far, but I'm hoping we'll improve on it as soon as we can get one with my husband's camera. But every time Poe sees my husband, he flies away. I'm also going to miss the five or six radiantly yellow Gold finches that perch on my thistle seed feeder regularly. But my husband is sure we'll have plenty of birds in our new home. Still, I wish I could leave my birds from here a forwarding address to let them know I'm not going far...

For now, we're off to Puerto Rico tomorrow. We'll be staying in an apartment with a view to the beach so I look forward to posting pictures of that soon. Until then, may the road rise to meet all of us.