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Sunday, February 26, 2017

The tomatoes of 2016

Image may contain: food

2016 was a bad year for blogging for me. I lost three of my animal friends - Scooter, Nikki, and Baby Boy - and I really had the wind taken out of me. I'm realizing now that I have some stories to tell from 2016. In some cases I told those stories elsewhere, on ephemeral sites like Facebook or Twitter. I'm gathering the information from those sites and presenting it here.

I didn't get seeds started until very late in the season, possibly not until late April or early May. I had picked up a packet of Better Boy and a packet Black Krim, a variety I had always been interested in due to the promise of its exotic color and flavor. Everything I read about this variety warned about low germination rates and low yields, so I decided to start more of that variety than the other.

I think I had a better germination rate for Black Krim than Better Boy. Both were started in terra cotta planters on a windowsill that would get the morning light, a spot that has given me good germination success in the past. After a few weeks on the windowsill I decided it was time to begin giving the seedlings some exposure to the outside world by placing them on the front porch (which receives sunlight from midday on) before I left for work and bringing them in at the end of the day. After a few weeks of this hardening-off, it was time to move them into an outdoor nursery, large planters with eastern exposure nestled under a Rhododendron. By early June they were ready to be planted in the yard.

I didn't dig a dedicated garden this year, and the one I had dug back in 1992, directly over a shallowly-buried gas line, has been allowed to grow over. (My last real garden was in 2006, in one half-heartedly dug next to the 1992 garden, but I haven't planted one since then.) But there are some spots that are good for planting around the foundation of the house. There is also a spot in the back yard behind the shed, rosebush, lilac, and garden swing. For years it had been in the shade of a neighbor's arborvitae growing along a chain-link fence. After some new neighbors moved in a few years ago, they removed the arborvitae and replaced them with a white plastic fence. Almost immediately weeds sprang up along the fence, big, exuberant weeds that would regrow as quickly as they could be pulled. Something was special about that location, I realized. That was where I would plant tomatoes.

I had too many.

I filled the space by the fence with Black Krim, six or seven of them.

Image may contain: plant, tree and outdoor
Black Krim tomatoes. This used to be a very productive weed patch. Some of the weeds can still be seen in the background - I haven't torn them all out yet. This is facing south-southeast at about 3:45 PM. The lilac bush is casting a shadow. The tall stake is about six feet tall. July 14, 2016
Image may contain: plant, outdoor and nature
A baby Black Krim! This one is about two inches across, bigger than I realized when I saw it and the other tomato babies yesterday.
July 14, 2016

Image may contain: plant, tree, outdoor and nature
Another view of the former weed patch turned garden. There are six Black Krim plants here. The two biggest ones have been in the ground about five weeks, and the smaller ones have been in about three. They were all started from seed at the same time in mid-May. July 14, 2016

The south-facing side of the house receives full sunlight for most of the day, plus reflected sunlight from the house. The heat there can be horrible, and the soil along the house has been baked into lumps of light-tan clay. I had covered it with several inches of cut grass at the end of the previous year in anticipation of planting a new garden there, and now the soil seemed much more friable. I planted Better Boys on the west half of the garden, and Black Krims on the east half.

Image may contain: plant, tree, outdoor and nature
Better Boys along the south side of the house. These get midday sun exposure, but even by 3:45 the house is casting a shadow on them. The middle one is the one I was tying up when I was stung by a hornet. As I was taking this picture I watched a hornet fly under the aluminum siding over the basement window. I'm gonna have to keep that in mind. July 14, 2016
I planted other tomatoes in odd spots. A lone Black Krim was placed along the north side of the house, which receives precious little direct sunlight, and mostly in the hours around sunset. I also planted a single Better Boy on the east side of the house, where I had once grown eight-foot-tall Chadwick's Cherries,. I put the remainder in large pots on the east side of the house in a line parallel with the south garden. 

Image may contain: plant, flower and outdoor
A lone Black Krim on the north side of the house. This one gets almost no direct sunlight, except for a few hours before sunset. It is well over three feet tall, and is nearly the size of the ones by the fence. It also has several baby tomatoes! July 14, 2016

(Note the sewer vent cap painted like a giant mushroom. )
Image may contain: plant, tree, outdoor and nature
Another view of the weed patch tomato garden. July 14, 2016
By mid-August the tomato harvest had begun.

Image may contain: food
First Black Krim! (Ever!) Picked August 13, 2016.
The color came out too red in the photo. It was really more brown than red.)
Image may contain: plant, tree and outdoor
The Black Krims between the lilac and the fence. This used to be a very productive weed patch.

Image may contain: plant, tree, outdoor and nature
The potted tomatoes. Better Boys in the middle, Black Krims on the sides.

Image may contain: plant, tree, outdoor and nature
South-facing, East side. Black Krims. The one on the right was damaged when I knocked it over with a hose. I've added hose guides around it, but it never recovered.

Image may contain: plant, tree, outdoor and nature
South-facing, West side. Better Boys.

Image may contain: plant, tree, outdoor and nature
East-facing, mostly in shade. Black Krim.

Image may contain: outdoor
Black Krim, fence garden. Last tie is at the very top of the stake.
Image may contain: plant, flower, outdoor and nature
North side. Black Krim. Receives less than three hours of sunlight each day. Possibly the tallest of all.

Image may contain: plant and nature
Ripening Black Krims, North side.

The "weed garden" tomatoes grew best and most vigorously, despite (or because of?) considerable shade. The lone plant on the north side of the house grew almost as vigorously. The plants on the south side grew well, but needed the most attention; the high heat would dry them out quickly, and in the end they seemed almost stunted. So too the potted tomatoes, which also seemed to display nutrient imbalances. The lone tomato on the east face of the house grew well, but produced few if any tomatoes.

I harvested bushels of tomatoes, eating them raw, fried when green, in sandwiches, and cooked into sauce. I did not find the flavor of the Black Krim as as exciting as I had expected, and actually preferred the Better Boy for most applications. I may actually start fewer seeds this year, and may reverse the locations of the tomatoes relative to 2016. We'll see how things go in 2017!

Poem: The Winter Garden

Here's a poem I wrote back in February 2015, which was almost the end of an especially harsh winter. It's nominally about the gardeners' madness known as "The Februaries," which I have managed to resist for another year.

The Winter Garden

There's a madness that comes upon gardeners
when the Winter has worn on too long
and Spring is just out of reach

It's the reason there are so many extra seeds in each seed packet.
We call it The Februaries.

Seeds will sprout in their own time
they respond to the rhythms of the season, the length of the day,
the coolness of the night

You can't plant a tomato seed in December and expect to have tomatoes in March.
Seeds don't work like that, and every gardener knows this.
Seeds started in February have a lousy germination rate.
They will rot in the soil, and those that sprout
will produce seedlings that are weak and leggy
stretching desperately for sunlight that isn't there
waiting to be bathed in warmth that is weeks away.

Yet every year, some - many - most gardeners will give in to the madness
convince themselves that this year maybe, just maybe
things will be different.

The seeds will sprout, the seedlings will be robust,
and will grow into plants eager to be transplanted into the garden
as soon as the soil can be worked.

Weeks later, as March brings with it the promise of new life
the gardeners will look with disgust at their seed flats
empty but for a few scraggly seedlings embarrassing to view

And they will throw out the lot,
toss it into the compost,
and plant the rest of the packet.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

See the crescent of Venus!

Venus, 42x zoom, February 19, 2017
Because the orbits of Venus and Mercury are inside the orbit of Earth, we can see these planets display crescent phases when they are between us and the Sun. Venus is a lot closer to Earth during these crescent phases than during other points in its orbit, so it appears much larger - to the point that the crescent of Venus can be discerned with the naked eye by keen-eyed individuals. My eyesight is nowhere near good enough for that, but the zoom feature of my camera, combined with a high shutter speed mode, has allowed me to take pictures like the one above. (For a sense of scale, with the same settings the Full Moon fills the entire vertical space of the image.)

From February through March 2017 Venus will put on quite a show in the west after sunset. Unmistakably bright, its crescent will be getting thinner while the disc of the planet itself is increasing in size - meaning the planet will maintain its brightness, even though its appearance through binoculars, telescopes, and high-zoom cameras changes dramatically. (See this page, which is continuously updated, for more information, and the full version of the table below.)

How the crescent will grow through March 2017. Source
This isn't a rare occurrence, but it's worth getting a look at when it does come along. Check it out through late March 2017!

Venus, 42x zoom, February 24, 2017

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Poem: Ora Pro Nobis

This is my first published work - that is to say, my first written piece to appear in a publication (Word Fountain, The Literary Magazine of the Osterhout Free Library, Winter 2017 issue.) I have previously had the tremendous honor of having my work appear on the buses of the Luzerne County Transit Authority as part of the Wilkes University / LCTA Poetry in Transit series, and I have of course published numerous pieces online on my own blog, Another Monkey. But this is the first time my work was submitted, selected, and published in a physical magazine that people could hold in their hands! Copies are limited but will be available at the Osterhout Library in Wilkes-Barre, PA. The entire contents of the magazine will be made available online at some point.

Ora Pro Nobis
Harold Jenkins

Between the worn wooden pews
parishioners in a double row
approach the priest to take Communion
rocking with each step

Fewer every year
thinner, fatter, grayer, balder
fewer baptisms, more funerals

No more bazaars to mark the end of summer
with Polkas and bingo and beer
No more ancient pipe organ playing the hymns
sung in the tongue of the people who built this place

Storybook saints line the walls
silent in their stained-glass windows

A dragon hides behind the robes of a Pope
looks warily at the armored figure in the next window over
Does he wonder what fate awaits him
when the pews are empty and the organ falls silent?

He does not. He is colored glass and paint.
It does not matter to him
if in a few years he is a storybook window in a church far away
or shards of colored glass in the rubble
of a church that used to be.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Poem: 2016 is over, and what have we learned?

I wrote this poem after I got to the Be Daring Open Mic at Adezzo in Scranton on Wednesday, December 28, 2016. The first two verses were already in my head, as well as the fourth and fifth. The third was put together while listening to Fresh Air on the way up to Scranton. The sixth needed to be there. The ending was totally stolen from Tiffany Ryan Bates, formerly of the blogs SuperTiff and If I Were Queen of the World.

Update, 1/1/17: This isn't the poem I originally intended to write. That one would have been much angrier. But I've done angry poems before, as recently as last month, and I didn't want to dwell in the anger. The theme would have been "Screw You, 2016," which was too similar to stuff I've done before. It would have featured this bit, which is about as far as I got with it:

You took David Bowie
Leonard Cohen
three of my cats
two of my friends...

Then I thought about it a bit. The losses of Scooter, Nikki, and Baby Boy were devastating, as were the losses of a woman I had known who finally succumbed to the traumatic brain injury she had sustained in a car crash months before, or the death of another friend, a hilarious and brilliant and infuriating and generous and materialistic pork-loving Jew whose big heart finally gave out. All these losses and more, much more. Losses sustained by me, unknown losses by listeners and readers, losses opening up realms of grief and pain...I decided that wasn't what I wanted to say about the year. I didn't want to dwell in grief and pain and so much sorrow, either.

So I asked myself: Is there anything positive I could say about this year? Any particular that could be related as a universal, any universal that could be related as a particular, that would be in some way encouraging and uplifting?

This is  what I came up with.

2016 is over, and what have we learned?

David Bowie taught us that it's OK to be ourselves
whoever or whatever we are
and when we get tired of being ourselves
it's OK to become someone else
and be that person, too

Leonard Cohen taught us that it's never too late

he didn't get started in music for his first third of a century
and spent the next five decades becoming
the most loved and respected musician of his time

Carrie Fisher let us know

that we don't have to hide our illness
or our battles
We can be open and honest and damned funny about it
That princesses can kick ass and shoot straight
strangle the bad guy
and sometimes kiss their brothers

Bernie-or-Bust folks taught us

that if you work real hard you can achieve your goals
even if you have no plan for what to do when you get there

Donald Trump taught us a lot of things

that it's not enough just to be right
you have to be able to convince others that you're right, too
(I expect he'll keep teaching us lessons
for the next four years or so.)

The Ghost Ship taught us to always know where the exits are

know how to get out of whatever you've gotten into
that if the place where you've come to party looks like a deathtrap
maybe it is

2016 taught us many things

time is fleeting
tomorrow is not guaranteed
love the ones you love while you have them here
and keep on loving them after they're gone
use your breath to tell them you love them
tell them now
not one bad thing can come from that

Thursday, December 01, 2016

Poem: Some thoughts on the outcome of the 2016 U.S. General Election

I started writing a post about the 2016 presidential election a while ago. What the turnout was like at my polling place (unusually heavy), what it was like to cast my ballot, the vibe I got from the other people in line...the creeping horror of watching the results come in from North Carolina, and Ohio, and ultimately Pennsylvania, and realizing that the worst-case scenario was coming to pass...

I tried, but I couldn't.

Trump won. Trump won the Electoral College, the result that counts. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote - at the time of this writing, by a margin of over 2.5 million votes - but that doesn't count for anything but bragging rights. Trump doesn't have that. Trump will always have to live with the fact that the majority of voters wanted Hillary Clinton. He does not have a mandate. I don't think he'll give a damn.

There's plenty of blame to go around. I voted for Hillary. I argued for her online. I confronted people who posted anti-Hillary memes yet still somehow considered themselves anti-Trump. That wasn't enough.

I have friends who went out and knocked on doors and made phone calls and busted their asses trying to convince potential voters to vote for Hillary Clinton. I didn't do that. If I had, would that have made a difference? Probably not. If a thousand other people and I did that throughout Pennsylvania, would it have made a difference? Possibly. But just Pennsylvania would not have made a difference. Other states would have needed to have gone blue as well.

What happened?

It will take a while to analyze all the data. My first thought was that the people who voted for the first time ever for Barack Obama in 2008 (for the FIRST! BLACK! PRESIDENT!) and for the second and last time for Barack Obama in 2012 (in lower numbers) didn't bother to turn out for Hillary Clinton in 2016 (just like they hadn't bothered to turn out in 2010 or 2014 to give Barack Obama a Congress that would work with him rather than against him at every turn.) But it may not have been as simple as that. Many longtime Democratic voters flipped for Trump this time, including many in Luzerne County, where I live. This simultaneously lowered Clinton's vote totals while raising Trump's. In effect, these "turncoat" Democrats did double damage compared to Democrats who stayed home or Republicans who voted for Trump.

Stay-at-homes had a big impact. Despite the unusually heavy turnout I encountered (which, it turns out, was 2-to-1 in favor of Trump in a city that has consistently voted Democrat), overall turnout is alleged to have been the lowest in twenty years. Why did people stay home? Some, apparently, because they hated both candidates so much that they wanted no part of either of them getting elected, and decided that they were fine with whoever won - but would deny any culpability for either candidate's victory.

Others, I hear, decided to stay home because they figured Hillary had it in the bag. I find that hard to believe. While at times it seemed unbelievably preposterous that anyone would be stupid enough to vote for Trump, it was pretty clear that he had plenty of support. Even if you assumed (as I did) that many of them were just loud-mouthed idiots who were making the noise of a dozen or more actual voters, anyone who took the election seriously knew that there was a possibility, however remote, that Trump might win.

I don't think most people took that possibility seriously. I think the people pumping out Hillary Hate until the last moment thought that, come the morning after, they would be sneering at the stupidity of all the sheeple who voted for Crooked Lying Hillary Clinton. The Bernie-or-Bust types and Stein and Johnson voters figured that they would sit back, curse the Hillary supporters, and spend the next four years reaping the benefits of her Presidency while throwing rocks. I don't think even Donald Trump himself thought he would win; in his final speech the night before Election Day - actually, the morning of Election Day - he sounded sheepish and tired, a man who had put in a lot of effort but who was finally accepting that he wouldn't win. I think he and his supporters had plans for the next four years, and they didn't involve embracing Hillary Clinton as President or adopting the position of a loyal opposition working with her cooperatively to further best interests of the United States.

He won. She lost. Democrats didn't take the Senate, or the House, either. And despite the fact that he clearly lacks a mandate from the voters, Donald Trump will be appointing Supreme Court justices with little-to-no opposition from Congress.


For three weeks I've ranted and raved about this outcome. None of that will help. I expect that Julian Assange has another Wikileaks release coming soon, one which will cast serious doubt on the legitimacy of Trump's victory. Whether this release comes before or after his inauguration probably depends on which one Vladimir Putin decides will create the maximum chaos.  But I managed to distill my anger into a single poem. Anyone who has followed me on Facebook since the election will recognize elements of my posts and comments in this piece. It was first presented at the Be Daring Open Mic Thanksgiving Edition at the Cafe Adezzo in Scranton, PA on November 30, 2016.

Some thoughts on the outcome of the 2016 U.S. General Election

America, you fucked up.

Two-hundred and forty years since you declared your independence,
seventy-five years since you joined a war against fascism,
you turn around and hand your country to Fascists.
Not just the presidency, no, that wan't enough.
You gave them the congress, both damn houses
and threw in the Supreme Court to boot.

Trump voters, I ain't even mad at you.
Not much, anyway.
(Well, that's a lie.)
Fish gonna swim, birds gonna fly,
folks like you gonna do what folks like you gonna do.
You won. You own this.
For the next four years, whatever happens is on your head.

Busters? Hey, I liked Bernie, a lot.
I was gonna vote for him in the primary.
Then I got a look at some of the crap y'all were posting.
You swore up and down that Hillary would never win.
And guess what? You did it! All those "dank memes" paid off!
Now what?

Stein and Johnson voters?
Yeah, you tried real hard.
Too bad your candidates didn't win.
Did you really think they had a chance?
Or were you just making some sort of noble gesture?
Well, you did your part for the cause.
You helped get Trump in office.

Boy, you had it tough.
Sit on your ass instead of stand on your feet.
You could have made a difference.
Instead, you just stepped aside and let Trump win.
You get the most blame of all.
You did nothing, and let evil triumph.

The rest of us?
You're probably as tired and pissed-off as I am.
We can't just crawl in a hole and hide.
Two years til we can take back congress.
Two more after that til we're done with this jackhole.
We've gotta fight, and keep fighting
and remind everybody else
that even if they fucked up this time
they get a chance to atone for what they've done.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Tunnel and bridge on Dundee Road, Hanover Township

Dundee Road is a narrow two-lane road in Hanover Township, Pennsylvania that runs between Middle Road on the south and the Sans Souci Parkway on the north. I rode this road many times as a child in my grandfather's car, and my uncle's, and my mother's and father's, too. The road passes through a tunnel and under two ancient bridges, as well as under Route 29.

This road was rarely taken out of necessity. It's a scenic route, flanked by trees on both sides.  We would take it on Sunday drives, fun outings sometimes culminating in visits to the cemetery where my family is buried. It was a tradition that whenever we went through the tunnel we would beep the horn to hear it echo.

For as often as I traveled this road as a child, I rarely took it as an adult until a few years ago, when I realized it was a convenient shortcut on my commute to work. Traffic and road conditions are inconsistent enough that I never trusted it on the drive in, but it was a fun and nostalgic route to take on the way back. And sometimes the afternoon sun would light up the trees in a way that was simply amazing.

Dundee Road is currently closed to through traffic, and is scheduled to be closed through 2019 so it can be used as an access road for a large-scale construction project - a project I fear may include removing these old, decrepit, and obsolete bridges, and possibly the tunnel as well. I have long wanted to get these photographs, but for a small connecting road it sure gets a lot of traffic. Even today, I had to step out of the road to let a parade of construction vehicles drive through, and then had to get out of the tunnel in the final photos when a truck drove up behind me. 

The first three photos show the view after you go through the tunnel from the Sans Souci side. I don't know if this was a foot bridge, a rail bridge, or some other sort of bridge.

The next two shots are the view of the same bridge from the other side. I had to step out of the road while taking these images so several construction vehicles could rumble past.

Here is the tunnel seen from the south side looking towards Sans Souci. I took this from a side road into a small housing development - a relatively safe spot to take a photo of a tunnel.

It's somewhat less safe to take a photo from inside a tunnel, even on a road that is mostly closed to traffic.

And it is considerably less safe to adjust your camera's settings while you are stopped in the tunnel to change the settings to favor proper exposure of the scene at the end of the tunnel over the interior (and interior graffiti) of the tunnel. 

So when you hear a truck roaring up behind you and realize that storm clouds rolling over the sun mean you've lost your light, it's time to call it a day.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Poetry in Transit: After the flood

I almost didn't submit for Poetry in Transit this year.

The theme of Poetry in Transit for 2015-2016 was "River," and for my submission I asked myself what I most thought of when I thought about the Susquehanna. I remembered sunrises and sunsets spent on the Nanticoke-West Nanticoke bridge. I remembered blue shadows of the bridge on the ice. But most of all I remembered the haunting images of stains left by book covers on the ceiling of an aunt's house in Wilkes-Barre after the 1972 flood, and the piles of accumulated treasures, trinkets, and mementos, waterlogged and left at the curb in West Pittston for weeks following the 2011 flood.


Books  pressed against the ceiling
a lifetime of memories at the curb
Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" at sunset
unseen fish breaking the surface of morning
girder shadows blue on the ice
thus will I remember you

The theme for Poetry in Transit 2016-2017 was "Flood." But I felt like I had already said what I wanted to say about floods. Anything else might feel forced, even redundant.

Besides, I wasn't feeling very poetic around the time the call for submissions came out. I had recently lost my muse, and I was in a pretty bleak mood.

For the past few years I have had a muse in my life. She was young, beautiful, and an amazing poet and writer. I was infatuated with her from the first time I had read her writing. I met her in person nearly a year later, completely accidentally, almost but not quite completely at random. We had a story together that was long and complicated or painfully simple and trite, depending on your point of view. We were never really a couple, but we did a lot of things together, and I got a lot of poetry (and several short stories) out of the deal.

Everything came to an abrupt end earlier this year. My muse was out of my life.

The aftermath hurt like hell. The past few years I had spent catering first to her needs, then her wants, then her whims. I had prioritized her above everyone and everything else in my life. When it was over I looked back at the wreckage of my life and realized what a mess I had made of my relationships with my friends and my family. I remembered the happy, fun things she and I had done together, places we had gone together, and now those memories all seemed tainted, ruined. I remembered how I had felt about her, and wondered if I would ever allow myself to feel that way again about anyone else.

As I tried to think of something to say with the theme of "Flood," nothing came to mind. I was blocked. I kept coming back to what an idiot I had been for imagining things might turn out differently than they had.  Any damn fool could have seen from the beginning that this was how things would end. It killed me to realize that everyone else had been right and I had been wrong. The worst part was how inevitable it now seemed. How predictable.

As predictable and inevitable as a flood coming to a community built on a river.

I knew then that - perhaps not for the last time - she had once again served as my muse.

I jotted down some lines. Revised them. Revised them again. Agonized over one word. Changed it. Changed it back. Erased the whole thing and started over.

Eventually I was done. I submitted it. Then I contacted a friend and told her I had found my poem.

This is dedicated to everyone who has been through a flood and survived, looked at the destruction it left, picked up the pieces, and got on with their life. It's especially dedicated to every person who sees it while riding the bus and thinks, "Yep. I knew someone like that."

After the flood

She tore through our world
turned homes into rubble
covered memories in muck
ruined all that we loved
But we have survived
We have rebuilt

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Poetry in Transit Rollout, August 19, 2016

The Poetry in Transit 2016-2017 Rollout will be Friday, August 19 at 5:00 PM at the downtown Wilkes-Barre Barnes & Noble on the Square (near Boscov's.)  This will be the third year that one of my poems will be featured as part of the project, which posts short pieces by local and regional poets in the advertising space of LCTA (Luzerne County Transit Authority) buses. This is a tremendous honor, and it's very exciting to know that someone may look at my poem and be touched by it, or be inspired by it - especially if that inspiration is in the form of "Hey! I can write something better than that! Next time they do one of these things, maybe I'll submit something!"

Here's an article about the event, which surprisingly features me pretty heavily:

Wilkes University, LCTA launch Poetry in Transit at Wilkes-Barre Barnes & Noble (Gene Axton, Wilkes-Barre Times Leader)

Homes turned to rubble, memories landed in muck and beloved locations ruined — rather than addressing the events of a flood directly with his contribution to this year’s Poetry in Transit collection, Nanticoke resident Harold Jenkins’ “After the Flood” aimed a spotlight at the corners of life that encroaching waters run into and disrupt. 
The 48-year-old writes from experience, letting memories of the 1972 and 2011 floods break through to his six-line poem. “After the Flood” is one of 15 works by local writers chosen for the flood-themed 2016 Poetry in Transit collection... (read more here, including a sneak preview of my poem for this year!)

UPDATE, August 18, 2016: The Citizens' Voice published an article today. I'm not mentioned in it, but my poem is used as the photo for the article! Mischelle Anthony, Sara Pisak, and Maddy Brozusky (aka Maddy Blake) are all interviewed:
Another local poet is Crestwood High School senior Maddy Blake, 17. Despite her age, Blake is an accomplished poet in her own right — a two-time “Poetry in Transit” veteran and long-time creative writer. 
“With this year’s theme being ‘flood,’ I was far too young to remember Agnes, so I chose to attack it from a much broader topic, bringing hope,” she said. 
Blake, who plans on enlisting in the Army after her final high school year, loves the uniqueness brought by the project that she believes “is missing from many other art endeavors.” 
“With ‘Poetry in Transit,’ you’re reaching an audience you never would’ve normally gotten,” she said. “Typically, with art-related things, you have the same crowd attending and patronizing ... With this, it’s exposing a brand new group of people each and every day to the writing, and it’s awesome that it’s in public spaces like this.”

A look back at my pieces from previous years:

My 2014 submission was an excerpt from "Hands," a poem I had written in November 2013. At the time Mischelle Anthony, who runs the program, knew me from my association with the Northeastern Pennsylvania Writers Collective and our readings at The Vintage in Scranton, so she assumed I was from Scranton. (I didn't notice the error until it was too late to correct.)

My 2015 submission was custom-written for the project, which that year had the theme of "River." I made a list of all of my most pressing memories of the Susquehanna River, and then recast them as a poem.  (I expanded the piece and read the longer version at the 2015 Rollout. You can see it here.) Two of those memories have to do with floods - the flood caused by Agnes in 1972, and the damage of the flood of 2011 - which made things difficult when it turned out the theme for 2016 was "Flood." But I found a way to deal with that.

To see how, you'll have to wait for the post that will appear after the Rollout!

Wednesday, August 03, 2016

Baby Boy, 200? - August 3, 2016

Romeo, Baby Boy, and Hershey, the three animals we inherited from the neighbor when she died.
As of this writing, August 3, 2016, only Romeo is still alive.
We lost another cat today. This was one we inherited from the woman next door when she died back in 2011. She had given him the appalling name of "Baby Boy," which we kept, though I mostly called him "Mister Baby Boy."

I don't even know how old he was - at least 11, possibly as much as 14. Her husband died in 2001, and she had gotten herself some pets in subsequent years - first the pug Columbus (died in 2011, possibly causing the downward spiral in her physical and mental health that led to her death later that year) and the chocolate lab Hershey (who died in June of 2015), then the cat Tinker (ran away, presumed dead), the longhaired cats Romeo (still with us) and Juliet (died sometime prior to September 2011, when her mummified remains were discovered) and the tuxedo Baby Boy.

I had met her cats, though most of our encounters took place through a window. My first meeting with Baby Boy took place in the weirdest way. It was perhaps sometime in 2009 or 2010. I was on the phone with a friend, in my basement, when for some reason I looked up and saw a cat staring down at me from the rafters. "What are YOU doing here?" I asked. I caught him, and dropped him off at the neighbor's house. I have no idea how he got into the house. He may have slipped in while the garage door and the door into the garage were both left open at the same time while someone was packing out some stuff.

The neighbor actually turned the cats out of her house sometime around then, possibly even before he found his way into our house. After she went into the hospital in September 2011, never to return, we brought them back into her house while we were taking care of Hershey. After we moved Hershey into our house, we brought over the cats, too, though both Romeo and Baby Boy had habits of escaping back into the Great Outdoors. Romeo stopped doing that fairly quickly, but Baby Boy kept it up until he had a tussle with the local feral Tabbies, an encounter which left him with his scalp sliced open. (It healed quickly with daily applications of Neosporin, though the eyebrow whisker on that side never grew back, making him look like a lopsided Martian.)

He had the most striking eyes. That was the thing I noticed when I saw him looking down from the rafters. They were a yellow-green almost exactly the color of glow-in-the-dark stuff glowing, or the color of a firefly's light. I saw that glow for the last time today at the vet's. When the vet brought him back to us wrapped in a blanket after he had been put to sleep, the light had gone out.

Baby Boy seemed to have the worst reaction to the fireworks this past Fourth of July. He came to bed with me, something he had dome sporadically before Hershey died, but only rarely since Nikki died. He was panting hard and his heart was racing. He slept on my head, and by my side, and on my back, and on my hip.

Other than that I did not observe any major change in his behavior until recently. He continued to come to me during my morning ablutions for his treats, something he had been doing since long before Nikki died. But in the last week he had been coming back to bed with me, showing the same sort of restlessness and panting and racing heartbeat he had shown on the night of the Fourth of July.

In the last few days he had been panting even during the day. At first we thought it might be because he was hot - temperatures have been in the 90s lately. Then we wondered if maybe being near the air conditioner had brought on respiratory issues. He eventually moved from his perch near the air conditioner to a cool bar covered in linoleum - kicking off everything that was already there.

Today was the first day of my "weekend." After I made breakfast, fed the cats, and did all of my other morning routines, I Googled the phrase "cat keeps panting." The information I found online was not encouraging. In short: if this is a real issue, it will not get better on its own, and even with treatment, the prognosis is very, very poor. My mom observed his tongue-out panting today and decided to make an emergency appointment with the vet for 3:20 this afternoon.

Baby Boy was calm - and not panting - as we got ready to take him to the vet. He didn't complain much when I put him in the carrier. He stayed calm as I set the carrier on the lawn to make room for him in the back seat. He didn't cry until my mom got into the back seat with him. But the whole way up he has perfectly calm - no panting. He didn't pant as we waited to be taken in for our appointment until I took him out of the carrier to hold him. After I put him back, he didn't pant until we took him out again for the vet tech to do a preliminary assessment.

The vet saw us at around 3:30 and quickly took Baby Boy in for X-rays. He confirmed that the panting the last few days was a symptom of fluid filling up Baby Boy's pleural cavity, making it increasingly difficult for him to breathe and for his heart to pump. The prognosis was grim: imminent death, possibly any minute, probably before we could get  him back home, certainly within the next week, or an extremely expensive procedure involving a tube into his pleural cavity to drain the fluid, followed by an extended stay in an oxygen tent, followed by imminent death.

When the vet tech brought him back from the X-rays his condition had worsened drastically. His breathing was audibly labored and seemed to be through liquid. His tongue was turning blue, and a few times he just lay on his side and stretched his legs out while gasping. The decision to opt for euthanasia was emotionally wrenching, but as his condition rapidly deteriorated we realized it was the right one, and the only one - unless he didn't last until the procedure.

He did.

He's gone now, and we'll have another box of ashes to add to the stack next week.

He was a good boy, a nice boy. He got along well with the other cats. He loved treats in the morning, and would often jump into my bed to wake me up if he thought I was sleeping too late. In addition to his striking eyes, he had the hilarious habit of lying on his back with his legs in the air, prompting the question "Baby Boy, are you dead?" How ironic that that question is now a happy memory of a cat who has died.

"O, I die, Horatio."
"Ummm, my name is Hershey. Can I eat your treats?"

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Nikki, September 1999 - April 18, 2016

Once upon a time, there was a cat mommy who had a bunch of baby kittens at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, where your Annie worked. She loved those kittens very much, but one day she had to move them and she left one behind - and that one was you! Annie saw that kitten and said "What a cute little kitten, I need to rescue it!" So she saved you, and kept you in a drawer, and fed you with a baby bottle and made you poop with a wet washcloth! But she couldn't keep you at work, so she took you home and put you in a box. But she couldn't keep you there, because she already had a bunch of kittycats, and she had to go to work. She called her mommy and asked if she could take care of you, and she said "Sure, I'll have Harry come down and pick him up." So I came down and saw you in your box, and said "What a cute little kitten!" And we took you to see your Uncle Ben, and when we were leaving his house, I fell and almost dropped you, but I didn't, though I hurt myself! And then I drove you all the way back from there to here, only I couldn't have the air on because the breeze might kill you! And then your mama saw you and said "What a cute little kitten!"And you were just a fetus-cat, and your mama fed you with a baby bottle and made you poop with a wet washcloth. And your Babki gave you Dolly to keep you company, and you've had Dolly ever since - here she is, right here! And then one day you bit your mommy - bit her! - and you said "I am no longer Nikki the fetus-cat! I am Nick-Nack, rough and tough, brave and bold!" And we all loved you, and we always will.

This was Nikki's bedtime story. It was the story of his life, and I told it to him every night for the last few months as we went to bed. He would sleep in the crook of my arm, like a teddy bear. He would get out of bed several times each night, to get a drink of water or go to the bathroom or do whatever cats do in the middle of the night, but in the morning I would wake to find him back in in my arm in his usual spot.

Nikki was born in early September 1999. Here's the story as my sister told it:

He was less than 24 hours old when I took him. His mother had given birth in the early morning (about 5 am) under the steps of my NASA building, moved the whole litter except for him by 11 am, and by 7 pm, it was clear she wasn't coming back for him. That night was going to be cold, and he surely would have died. My friend Shelly and I took turns keeping him warm, bottle-feeding him, and making him pee and poop, and he lived in our desk drawers at work for a few days. When that became unmanageable, I boarded him at my vet's for a few days. Then Mommy agreed to take him, and I believe you shuttled him up to PA. His eyes weren't open yet, and he wasn't even a week old. He had a long and good life. (By the way, he was the best-looking kitten in the litter, though only the size a credit card.) 

I had already been planning to visit my sister to see an REM concert at Merriweather Post Pavilion on Friday, September 10, 1999. I was opposed to taking on another cat. We already had two cats and a dog, and adding a newborn kitten to the mix was going to present a huge workload. But my mom had recently retired and would be able to perform the every-four-hours feedings that would be required for the first few weeks.

He was such a tiny thing when I first saw him, blind and helpless and only a few inches long. He had been checked for contagious diseases like feline leukemia and FIV, so it was safe to introduce him into a household with other cats. That weekend we got geared up for what we would be needing, kitten formula and kitten baby bottles and the like. We took him to visit my uncle and his family in Maryland. While leaving their house, carefully holding the box with the kitten in front of me, I missed a step set into their sidewalk and fell. I smashed both of my knees, but kept my grip on the box. It never touched the ground, and Nikki never knew what had happened. He slept through the whole incident.

I had to drive him back from Maryland to Pennsylvania - a two-and-a-half hour drive in stiflingly hot late summer weather - without air conditioning. The cold draft could have killed him. We both made it.

My mom took on the task of feeding him with a baby bottle and making him poop with a warm wet washcloth. He took to the baby bottle with vigor, but as he bit off nipple after nipple, we felt sorry for all cat-mommies out there. Then one day he decided he was done with the bottle, and bit my mother instead. That was when we started him on solid food.

Nikki lived in a box for the first few weeks of his life. He had two companions: a life-sized cat doll called Mommy, and a small stuffed dog called Dolly.  My grandmother won Dolly - a toy dog with a baseball cap - at bingo in her nursing home in 1998, the year that she died. She intended it for my nephew, but it never got to him. When we got Nikki we put Dolly in the box with him to keep him company. Nikki was initially half Dolly's size, but in a few months he was bigger than her. Dolly was Nikki's favorite toy all through his life. He would carry her around the house by one ear, purr-crying as he walked. Sometimes he would yowl and slam her around - I think he was demanding that she come to life.

Nikki was many things: rough and tough, brave and bold, loving and kind. He had a thick neck, almost as big as his head. He hated wearing a collar, and would simply slip the collar over his head. Then he would take the collars off all the other cats and hide them in odd paces. Every once in a while half a dozen collars would fall out of the rafters in our basement.

For a while he had a habit of opening the cabinets under the kitchen sink and resting on the plumbing. We eventually had to get a child lock to keep him from doing that.

There is a pecking order among the animals in the house. It is based on in-house seniority - not size, or age, or species. The Senior Animal gets priority at the food and water bowls, and enjoys other privileges. When Nikki came into the house, Haley was the Senior Animal, though Ashes was the Senior Cat. Ashes was not particularly welcoming to the new kitten, though Haley took to him right away. Haley died in May 2005, promoting Ashes to Senior Animal - a position he held for less than a year, until his death in April 2006.  Minnie moved into the Senior Animal spot, but she also died in October 2006. Nikky suddenly found himself in the spot of Senior Animal.

For much of the last year of her life, Haley slept with me in my bed. She was at my side much of the time, lying at my feet as I worked on the computer, taking increasingly longer walks early in the morning until she couldn't any more. After she died, Ashes attached himself to me, sleeping on my bed and staying close whenever I was on the computer. When he died, Minnie did not take the spot near the computer, but she did move into my bed. (One of the first signs of Minnie's illness was when she spontaneously fell out of bed and was unable to jump back up.)

After Minnie's death, Nikki attached himself to me. As with most of the Senior Animals before him, he moved into my bed and took a spot next to me when I worked on the computer.

Just before Minnie died, we had taken in a stray. She brought our cat count to four, along with another cat my brother had rescued back in 2000. Then we took in Scooter in the Summer of 2007. And then, in 2009, we rescued some orphaned feral kittens as quickly as we could before a neighbor could poison them all, as he had poisoned their mothers and some older ferals.

Suddenly Nikki felt his position as Senior Animal threatened. For a while he boycotted coming to bed with me, after I had taken some of the kittens into my room for a night. Eventually he relented, and came to be friendly to the younger cats - as well as the older (but still junior) cats and dog we inherited from another neighbor when she died.

For the last few years, Hershey had also slept in my bed. He slept at my side, often on top of the covers, pinning me in bed until I could convince him to move. Nikki slept alongside him, sharing his warmth but still huddling against me. When Hershey died, Nikki began searching for a new sleeping position. He experimented with sleeping at my head, then on the nightstand near my head, then on my head, then on my back. He eventually found his comfort spot, sleeping in the crook of my arm like a teddy bear, his head pressed against mine. He would jump out of bed several times each night, but would return to his spot each time.

As Nikki began to show symptoms in late 2015, I was able to monitor him closely in bed. I felt the increasing prominence of his spine. I listened to his breathing and his heartbeat. Most importantly, I was able to give him his medication last thing before we went to sleep and first thing when we got up.

In his last week Nikki was showing weakness but still able to jump up and down from the bed. I worried that soon he would lose that ability. But more than that, I was afraid that by having access to the whole house, Nikki had too many places where he could hide away and die. One morning - the Thursday before he died, I think - I woke up and he was not next to me. I called his name and heard muffled crying in response. I found him under the bed. I decided that we would have to start sleeping somewhere else.

I set up a sleeping spot for him in our parlor. I laid out numerous blankets for him, as well as the towel-covered pillow that had been a favorite sleeping spot for him when I wasn't in bed. I laid out a sleeping bag for myself, though I added a folded out twenty-five year old foam sleeper chair after the first night. In this way I was still able to sleep alongside him for the last nights of his life.

Each morning I was surprised to see him still alive. Friday morning, Saturday morning. Still alive. Still drinking on his own. He had lost interest in eating sometime in late February, until we started offering him different, cheaper types of cat food, which he ate with gusto for a few weeks. By Easter he had stopped eating again, until we offered him some leftover ham. He loved the ham. After a week or so we ran out of Easter ham had to go out and buy more.

He had lost so much weight, nearly three-quarters of what he had weighed in late 2015. His body had become nearly flat. Yet still he went on.

I think he stopped eating on Saturday.

Still he hung on. Scooter had died so quickly, relatively speaking. Nikki was not. But we could not bring ourselves to take him to be put to sleep. Not because of reluctance on our part. On his last few trips to the vet he had been utterly terrified. We were not going to put him through that. I would not let him die in fear.

I was amazed to see him up and about Sunday morning. He seemed to rally at night, and prowled the house a bit. He would drink water, and find a place to pee. He would find a comfortable place to curl up. In the morning, he would usually be hovering over me, or sleeping nearby.

Sunday he did not drink. He did not eat. He had stopped jumping up and down on the chairs. He barely changed his position throughout the day.

Sunday night I told him his bedtime story again, as I had every night. As he lay on the floor next to me with his back to me, I placed Dolly, his favorite toy, on the other side in front of him. After a while he reached out and put his arm around her.

I woke up extra early Monday morning, expecting to find him dead, expecting to need to take his dead body to the vet's to be cremated. But he was alive, awake, and aware again. I took my shower early and spent a good long while sitting with him before I had to go to work. I handed him off to my mom, kissed him, told him he was my best friend, told him that I would love him forever.

We agreed that if he was still alive Tuesday morning, we would take him to be put to sleep.

I imagined what it would be like. I remembered what it was like when Hershey died. I imagined stopping the procedure before the first injection, so I could tell him his bedtime story one last time.

He died Monday afternoon at about 4:00. Dolly was with him when he died in my mother's arms. I stopped for two big bags of ice after work. Set him up in a bathtub overnight. Placed a towel on the bags of ice, placed him on the towel, covered him with the blanket.

I dreamed of him that night. Dreams of him dead and watching me, following me with his head after I took him to be cremated, the vet explaining to me that that this was perfectly normal.

I woke up Tuesday morning dreading what I would have to do. I took a shower, had breakfast. Wrapped his body in a towel and put him in the car. Drove him to the vet's and made the arrangements.

This morning we picked up his ashes. The box is tiny. There wasn't much left to cremate. I will put Dolly alongside him. As they were at the beginning, so they will be now.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Scooter, July 2007 - March 23, 2016


Scooter died in my arms today.

He started to show some symptoms a few weeks ago - vomiting brown bile (more often than usual) and a loss of appetite. A visit to the vet two weeks ago didn't yield many answers, but he was given a shot and we left with some stuff to treat the possible causes. Over the next week his loss of appetite worsened, an we took him back for an emergency visit last week. Tests showed some slight worsening in some measured items from the previous week - most worryingly, the loss of half a pound - and he also seemed to have developed a cold. He received hydration, and we left with more meds and a plan to monitor and schedule a follow-up.

He got worse in the subsequent days. On Sunday after work I spent several hours holding him as he dozed, listening to his breathing, feeling his heart beat. He seemed weak, but he was still mobile, in his own way, and was able to get around on his own. I repeated the ritual on Monday after work, and while he seemed weaker, he was still able to get around on his own a little. But, unlike the previous evening, he would now groan whenever his position was changed. On Tuesday morning we arranged another appointment for Wednesday, today, my first day off. By Tuesday evening, the last day of my work week, he was weaker still, no longer able to support his own weight, instead lying with his legs splayed out. (We noticed him lying like this on his second visit to the vet.) He wasn't groaning anymore, but instead was exhibiting what seemed to be trembling seizures.

I had a dental appointment Wednesday morning, but when I came home I picked Scooter up and held him again. His breathing was shallower than ever. He was not aware of his surroundings, and was mostly motionless, except for the occasional tremor and "questing" behavior - the sort of behavior animals display when they are looking for a place to die.

It seemed likely that his health was collapsing, that he might not even make it to his 2:00 appointment.

I soothed him as best I could while my mom got ready to head out. I talked to him, and sang to him, and called him by all his nicknames ("Scooter Pie," "Scooter MacGruder," and "Scoot McShmoot," among others.) I recounted for him the story of his life. I told him he was a good boy. I told him we hoped he could stay with us, but if he had to go, that was OK, because we didn't want him to be in any pain. I kissed him dozens of times on the top of his head. I cried, a lot.

He began seizing again, and then questing.

I called my mom over. She wasn't quite ready to go. She petted Scooter and talked to him a bit. Then I told her to finish getting dressed so we could go. It was 1:00. It takes fifteen to twenty minutes to get to the vet's. I didn't think Scooter would make it.

As my mom turned to go, Scooter seemed to watch her, even though I don't know if his eyes were focusing on anything. And then he just...stopped.

I didn't call out to my mom. I didn't yell for Scooter to come back, as I had done when our cat Josie died in my arms fifteen years before.

I watched him for a while. Listened for breathing, felt for a pulse. Blew on his ears. Nothing. He was in my arms, his face near mine. I closed his eyes as best I could.

My mom came back out, ready to go. I told her what had happened.

We headed up to the vet's, now going up to drop Scooter off for cremation. I called ahead as we pulled out of the driveway to let them know that we wouldn't be needing the 2:00 appointment after all.

The vet asked our permission to perform an autopsy. He was curious as to why a cat who, despite chronic health issues, died so quickly while displaying so few symptoms. A few hours later he called with the results: vascular angiosarcoma of the liver. Not much that could have been done, other than surgery and chemotherapy, with a very poor prognosis.

Here are some photos of Scooter through his life:

July 17, 2007

August 25, 2007

September 21, 2007

Thanksgiving Day, 2007

February 16, 2008

September 20, 2008

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Springtime by the numbers

I wrote this poem on the last day of Spring in 2013, two hours before I read it at an open mic. It works just as well on the first day of Spring, which is today. I've made one tiny edit in this version.

Springtime by the numbers

A three at the top of the page meant
cold, windy days, wet weather,
fish on Fridays and giving up candy

Four brought with it brighter days
and frosty mornings
a feast of chocolate
and a sense of change

Five meant things were wrapping up
the tests had a special sort of urgency
Flowers for the Virgin
put there by little girls in white dresses
Sunny mornings and sunnier evenings
that beckoned us to put our homework aside and play

Six, though, six was special
even the nuns didn't feel like working anymore
and they gave us extra sessions of recess to break up the day
A six at the top of a page or a test or a quiz thrilled you
and made you feel like it was a bad joke
Blue skies and cool breezes
Afternoons after school spent on the swing set
listening to the birds and watching the clouds drift by
and wanting to stay there forever.