Fang??

Everyone needs a job. Everyone’s got a job. Think of it this way:

“See, I think there’s a plan. There’s a design for each and every one of us. You look at nature. Bird flies somewhere, picks up a seed, shits the seed out, plant grows. Bird’s got a job, shit’s got a job, seed’s got a job. And you’ve got a job.”

So says the caring old woman Inman meets in the forest in the film version of Cold Mountain.* I recalled her words yesterday as Samuel and I walked with his ridiculous little black dog on a leash into the health care unit to visit mom.

Coco’s got a job.

We had hardly stepped off the elevator when a resident in a wheelchair noticed her as she was sniffing along the floor (imagine the assault on her senses!!), oblivious to the turning heads and sudden smiles she invokes. “Oh, look at that!” exclaimed the man, clearly enamored and delighted with the unexpected encounter. I stopped and let Coco investigate his chair and the floor around him more thoroughly so he could study her comical shape, flapping ears, short legs, tight body and smooshed face with some leisure. She’s lean for a pug, with well-defined shoulders that taper such that she could boast a waistline if she could boast. Her fur covers her frame as tight as sausage casing, her face says “what?” flatly, her brain is clearly clueless as to why the humans around her are so intrigued.

You’ve seen this silly face before, this sleek body.

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It’s ridiculous. Mom likes to say she’s ugly enough to be cute. My favorite photo is with incognito Samuel. I think it’s her best what-face.

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Jim in the wheelchair smiled big, asked her name, told us about the dog that comes special to visit him sometimes. I picked Coco up and brought her closer to him. What is it about an animal’s warm, lovely, silky fur that is so soothing? He reached for her head instantly and stroked around her velvet ears several times. Much as I wanted to give him a little more time to enjoy her softness, her silliness, her perkiness, her ridiculousness, delighted as I am to provide him these bright and pleasant moments, Samuel’s time was limited. Thinking of Mom’s recent back surgery and ongoing recovery, I closed the conversation with a well-wish. “We’re off to visit my mom. I wish you all the best in your own recovery.”

“Oh, I’m here for the rest of my life,” he said with as broad a smile as he’d had for Coco. “I knew that coming in.” Oh! How I wished protocol didn’t prohibit me from giving him a hug!

Coco’s job is to make people smile. She doesn’t even have to try. Walk her through a health care unit where some people are hurting, some are sad, some are harried, some are lonely – and a remarkable, involuntary thing happens. People smile. They stop in their tracks and smile. Coco doesn’t smile, mind you. She just sticks out her tongue. People smile. Starting with Mom.

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We prepared ourselves for a little jaunt and got on our way with Miss Princess perched on a pillow on Mom’s lap. One man we passed in the hallway on our way to the courtyard looked down, beamed, pointed, laughed and said, “Fang!” Somewhere in his memory bank lives a dog named Fang? Or she looks like she has one? (One fang?) Maybe her tongue incessantly sticking out to one side looks like a fang? We had no time for the backstory but ….  Fang??

Smiles happened every step along the way. Long hallway, elevator, lobby, mail room, corridor leading to courtyard… Every step brought smiles.

Every step except one. You know as well as I do: There’s a grump in every group. Along came Kathy, hunched and cranky. She scrunched up her nose (unknowingly imitating Coco?) and peered toward the object on Mom’s lap as if her disgust reflex had sent a red flag up the pole, the unspoken question being “What is it?” Mom volunteered, “Her name’s Coco.” Grumps are good at grunting, and that’s about all we got in return, making us eager to part company. Grumpy, Grunty, Crusty Kathy shuffled off, obvilious to the pall she took with her, and Mom and I proceeded to the courtyard.

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No one is under obligation to like this dog, pet this dog, smile at this dog. But most do. That’s what makes me think Coco has a job whether she knows it or not. Which makes me think we all have a job whether we know it or not. We might think of a job as the work we get paid to do, or got paid to do, or wish we got paid to do. But let’s hope that’s not all it is. Let’s hope that no matter how we occupy our days, we take a lesson from Coco and somehow bring what she brings – at least here and there – into the often hurting, sad, harried and lonely days of others. Who’s to say even Crusty Kathy didn’t grin as she walked away from us? I’d like to think so! Coco surely worked her magic even if we didn’t see it. 

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*Charles Frazier’s outstanding Civil War novel is one of my all-time favorites for not only its story line, but mostly for Frazier’s artful and amazing era/person/region/situation-appropriate use of English. This quote is not in the novel. The old woman, given the name Maddy in the film, says it as she mercifully slaughters one of her beloved goats to provide a meal for Inman, the main character, a soldier on the run, perhaps to lessen the blow of her sacrificial act for today’s sensitive viewers, perhaps to give him a gentle reminder, a renewed understanding of the why of his heart wrenching journey. In the book she remains nameless but infuses her time with Inman with many other thoughtful, wise and helpful words. Do get yourself a copy and slowly work your way through this exceptional book.  Cold Mountain, Charles Frazier, Random House, 1997

Pigs in the Backyard

First of all, not my backyard. Not my front yard. Nor my side yard. Nor my woods. To anyone who knows me: Don’t worry. I do not have pigs and I am not getting pigs. I do like pork though, and thank God some people want to raise them. There is a fabulous little breakfast place on 2nd Street in downtown Charlottesville called Bluegrass Grill. The first time I went in there I knew I’d love it because the staff wore t-shirts with “Don’t Worry, We Have Bacon” on the back. They even have bacon jam! It’s on a menu item called Smokey Joe, and available in little jars too, to take home. You want to try this, believe me.

My neighbor Tracy has pigs in her backyard, two of them this year. They are gilts, not barrows, which I learned from her means female, not male. These are fine gilts, each about 80 pounds now in early July. They will get to be about 300 pounds by the time their short but wonderful life is over.

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Pigs love acorns, and acorns make very good pork. If you are going to raise pigs for meat, you had best put them where they can eat acorns. Tracy’s pigs live on prime real estate:

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What you see is a fenced enclosure skirting the tree line. Those are mature oaks producing a feast of acorns for two constantly-eating pigs. Here, have some more, I imagine the oak trees saying to the hungry pigs during a rainstorm or a windstorm when their acorns rain down. What do I need with all these acorns? Every few days, or however often she deems it time, Tracy moves the fence along the tree line, which is not as problematic as you might think. The fencing comes in 100-foot lengths and has stiff uprights every ten feet or so with sharp points you can poke into the ground.

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The beauty of the system is that she can make the fence any shape, she can go around or in front of trees or other immovable objects in the landscape, and she can contain the pigs in one part of it while moving another part. There is a solar-powered electric zapper around the perimeter to keep them from trying to escape, but seriously, if you were these pigs, you would not want to escape.

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They have sun, shade, mud to wallow in, a terrific bath for cooling off, acorns galore, bugs, grass, leftovers. Pigs’ noses are as sensitive as our fingertips so they find the best food even among the rocks, sticks and other natural inedibles.

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I met Tracy a few years ago after she and her husband moved in. We all have our busy lives – work, family, meals, rest, projects, outings – and I hardly saw her until a month ago or so when I needed eggs. What? I needed eggs?? I have 27 chickens in my coop and I needed eggs?

Chickens don’t start laying until they are 4-6 months old and mine hatched in early March. That makes them four months old now. I know I will be inundated soon, but I’m not yet, and I wasn’t a month ago.  Tracy has 14 chickens I think, and I was happy to pay her for some. A couple weeks later she asked if I wanted some for free because she was about to be overrun. I gladly took them and gave her a jar of my homemade strawberry jam in return. She mentioned the pigs, and I said Can I come see them sometime?

There are pigs practically in my backyard! I did not see the ones she had last year, nor the previous year. I did not see this year’s until I needed eggs. I could have bought eggs at the supermarket but farm eggs are better. Most people know this. I’m so glad I needed eggs, contacted Tracy and got hers. She’s really nice, and now, besides getting great eggs,  I have met her pigs, toured her garden, borrowed a book (Edible Landscaping by Michael Judd) and lent a book (Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier – she will love the chapter with the hog). I laughed when I asked her what those tall pretty flowers in her garden were and she said, “tall pretty flowers.” (None of us have to know everything!)

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I got two bunches of wild onions for my woodland garden (aren’t they beautiful?!) and learned something about raised bed berms – and she told me I am welcome to come get rocks for my stream bed. If you had six feet of stream bed left to lay and you saw all the rocks in Tracy’s field and you could go collect them, I bet you would, just like I am going to. Right?

Maybe today is a good day to contact a neighbor of yours. Maybe you don’t need eggs, but you can connect or reconnect for some other reason. Chances are good you have a neighbor who is really nice too, maybe someone you haven’t talked to in a while. Maybe your neighbor is on the shy side or otherwise hesitant to call you but would welcome a friendly hello.

Maybe your neighbor doesn’t have pigs (okay, most likely your neighbor doesn’t have pigs), but you will find something very cool to talk about anyway. And you might learn something, or exchange funny stories, or find something in common that you didn’t know about before. And it will be a better day.

The Happy Wanderer, a.k.a. The Prodigal Rooster

None the worse for wear, one of the roosters showed up this morning, having found his way through the woods from the bottom of the hill, drawn perhaps by the incessant crowing of the not-yet-relocated little d’uccle roosters that clearly have a Napoleon complex. I surprise myself with the thought that perhaps this chicken has more than a pea brain.

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Ha! he says. Thought you fooled me!

I’d been alternately imagining him and his buddies enjoying a safe haven or having met a quick demise. Their haven would be filled with worms, beetles and other forms of chicken protein, reasonably sheltered and dry, and they would take turns on lookout for enemies. Your turn, Jack, I’m hungry.

Only one turning up raises questions. Dissention in the ranks? Full on attack with one survivor? Out for a morning stroll, got distracted by a buzzing bee and randomly wound up back home? Vague deja vu recollection of having been carried to this location. Oh look, a path! I wonder where it goes…

This big boy can’t tell his story, but he has one. So do his buddies, but theirs remain a mystery for now. We each have our own story. Sure, they are mixed up with other people’s (and sometimes chickens!), turned upside down at times by circumstances beyond our control, filled with surprises and challenges (good or not). Our own chapters don’t usually turn out the way we think they will, but the next chapter always builds on the last. And no one can take our story away. Say it like the sea gulls in Finding Nemo: Mine! Mine! Mine! If you forget how adorable they are, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H4BNbHBcnDI)

The other day I was reminded of Ruby Thewes in Cold Mountain. I appreciate this movie, and watched it start to finish again last night.  I appreciate the window it gives into the ugly, bloody, complex, unfair story of that conflict, showing teenage boys who don’t make it through the battle, the old woman killing her beauty of a goat in order to give Inman food, a young widow depending on her hog to get her through the winter, and love unable to write its full story because arrogant, powerful people play their games with no regard for human and societal cost.

The book by Charles Frazier that the movie is based on, by the way, won a National Book Award and is exceedingly well written. His writing is so on point with the culture, geography, flora, fauna and language of the time, and paints exceptional images of the heart-wrenching trek Inman took near the end of the Civil War to get back to Ada. Even just contrasting the movie scene of the widow, her baby and the hungry Union soldiers with its corresponding chapter, “bride bed full of blood,” would make for a highly worthwhile evening. How much we take for granted. How easy we have it.

The stories of individuals, no matter what era or location, brings me back to this prodigal rooster. I’m stuck now again though. If I leave him outside the coop, he will scratch in my nicely spread mulch to find his worms, make a mess of things, and perhaps invite the predators to come closer and put the other chickens in harm’s way. If I keep him, I’m back where I was before: What To Do!

This whole chicken enterprise is easier when you don’t have to make tough decisions and can just happily watch a silkie explore her new coop, starting in the brooding box we put her in for kicks last night. Coco, who has her own tales of woe, couldn’t quite reach her.

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I then closed the brooding box door and watched that chick start with a look of Huh! Now what do you want me to do? and then make her way outside.

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I imagine that later, after she made her way out that coop through the egg-shaped door, while she huddled on the ground with her friends late last night, she let them talk a bit. She waited while the others compared notes on their stylish hairdos and told of the shiny, fancy bugs they had caught.

Then she told her own story: Hey, I gotta tell y’all. I’d just chomped down on a big fat greenish beetle and all of a sudden I was grabbed from behind and put in this strange place with fine wood shavings underneath — not like this rough chunky mulch we scratch around in all day. A flat-nosed black thing with big eyes and no hairdo at all to speak of — she really needs help, that one — looked up at me and terrified me, but I didn’t let on. I’m cool…