Author: humbleswede

Herd Overheard

Here sits the hippo, 
Plush, plump, but petite,
As she patiently pauses 
On her living room perch, 
Possibly pushin' one paltry pound.

Previously, though,
Hunkered in my basement bunker,
I'd heard a pounding from on high,
Felt the trembling 
of ceiling tiles.

Could it be?
A herd 
Of hefty hippos
Hustling through 
Our humble home?


It's just a paddle-pawed pup
Practicing his pounces without pause,
Past 55

Tree Story

Tuesday morning, walking the dog
We're saddened to see
The first in our region,
Though small of scale, still
A catastro-tree.

A fallen cherry
Petals strewn, 
Sprawled across a lawn, roots out,
A casual-tree of
Monday's wind

Farley wants to offer fluids
Instead we opt
for social distance,
Resuming our trek
Around the block.


Circuit complete
We round a bend
Surprised to find 
Hard at work
A pair of treEMTs

One with shovel 
The other
With stakes
They urgently strive
To tresuscitate.

Three hours pass, now
This news to report:
Blossoms blooming, standing tall
To our great releaf,  
A full trecovery.

Being Here, Not There

Thursday evening we convened in the living room… of ten different families. It was a social gathering, corona style.  We were supposed to be having an actual party in Bethesda to celebrate my mom’s 90th birthday…or as she would say it, “my privileged ability to survive for 90 years with great health insurance and then Medicare paying for everything I need.  Big deal.” As an aside, she has also informed me that she thinks that should she get the dreaded virus, she does not believe it would be a worthwhile use of Medicare funds or medical resources to provide her with any life sustaining treatments or equipment. Suffice to say, she doesn’t like being fussed over.  She reluctantly agreed to the real party. We didn’t even inform her that the virtual party would happen. I had merely told her that my sister and I would love to be able to talk to her and see her on her birthday.

The previous weekend’s lead-up had been frustrating as we took several phone calls and attempted meetings to determine that in fact my mom’s computer didn’t have a camera or a microphone.   Those are kind of important. Still, she had a monitor, so she could see us. She had a phone, so we could hear each other. We, meaning I, decided it was worth a shot.

In our living room, Nancy, Sarah and I wedged into a love seat and logged in.  I spoke to my mom on the phone, trying to get her to install the grid view so she could see everyone on the screen…and by everyone, I added, “I mean just  my family and Barbara’s.” My mother declined. She had endured enough of my tech support. Five minutes before the meeting, she informed me that she was heading down to check the mail.

This surprised me, since the hallway from my mom’s apartment to the elevator is approximately seven miles long.  On top of that, there is often a 2-week wait before the elevator arrives. My mom also no longer walks at the brisk pace that used to be her trademark.  Going to check the mail is definitely not a 5-minute task. I sighed.

My Aunt Peggy was first to log on.  She is not as old as my mom or my mom’s brother, her late husband, but still, she did exhibit the lack of social distancing from her camera and microphone that sometimes betray an age gap from younger generations.  No offense, Aunt Peg. We were very glad you made it…and with no tech support! She was followed by my sister and brother-in-law. Slowly the other guests logged in. I informed them all that Mom would be back sometime within the next two or three days.  She just needed to check the mail. I might have detected an eye roll or two had the resolution been better.  

Once the meeting began, our obvious inexperience with virtual meeting etiquette became clear.  Very little voluntary muting occurred. My mother, having returned from her trek, needed to be informed that her phone and the speaker phone that she had turned on for my father’s benefit, may have been the reason that everyone else in the meeting was recoiling, grimacing, and holding their hands over their ears.  She finally turned off the speaker, and the air raid siren subsided. To compound the awkwardness, many in my family would fall into the introvert category. This was evidenced by the fact that my sister chose not to speak until spoken to, and one of my cousin’s children positioned herself to the side of her computer for the entire conversation, allowing us a fine view of the fence in her backyard.  We are not a showy bunch.  

Fortunately, this allowed my mother, who may have had a glass of wine with dinner, to take on the role of emcee.  We turned on captions, ostensibly so that my father could follow the conversation, but it turned out to be more for our reading pleasure.  My mother let out a guffaw each time the transcriber referred to Peggy as Piggy. There were other blunders, but I can’t recall them. Then, as we serenaded her from all corners of the continent, my mom’s appreciation was, shall we say, a bit muted:  “I didn’t hear the altos.” Perhaps a mild dig at two grandchildren, who actually have singing talent but had demurred when asked to perform a duet. There was a moment when each of us had to invite our canine friends to send their best wishes. Farley had to be roused from his bed to sniff the screen, but Homer, now the elder statesman at nearly two years of age, allowed as how he would prefer to continue his nap.  “I think we just might have to let the sleeping dog…you know…stay sleeping,” my nephew said.


“He said, ‘He’ll just have to let sleeping dogs lie.”

“Oh, yes, very original. Haw haw.”  That from the birthday girl. Oh snap!

“Well,”  my cousin suggested. “Let’s hope we can get together for a real party in October.  I was thinking maybe the 17th.”

“Or maybe, how about October 7th,” my mom suggested, a date she chose because it happens to be my sister’s birthday.

“Okay, but I was just looking at weekends, figuring that some people might find that an easier day to travel.”

“What did she say?”

“I thought people might prefer a Saturday.  The 7th is a Wednesday.”

“Oh are you going to be in Timbuktu?”  My cousin’s work calls for lots of travel.

“I don’t know.   I just thought a Wednesday would be kind of challenging .”

“Oh, yeah.  Good point.”

“Well, I don’t have a calendar in front of me.

Slight pause.

Then, my niece’s husband, not to be left out, chimes in from his left wing position at left couch on the left coast with this gentle non-conformist interjection, “Uh, we would prefer a Wednesday.” 

It was funny.  Trust me.

I guess these days, you don’t say, “You had to be there.”  

Because we can’t.

Sunday Jitters – From a Long Distance

Sundays are so different from Saturday.  It’s hard to believe they can stand to be next to each other.  Saturday, so bright. So carefree. So full of hope. Sunday, so…so…so Monday Eve.  I get the Sunday jitters somewhere after breakfast or after church if I got myself there. 

This Sunday’s anxiety didn’t seem to be fueled by the idea that I wasn’t ready for school, or the idea that things might go wrong the next day.

I think this Sunday’s discomfort came from the mix of the uncertainty of the world and disappointment about something that didn’t work.  

The day before, a bright crisp Saturday, had seemed full of positive thoughts.  I had busied myself with unimportant tasks like walking the dog, picking up twigs and branches, and having myself a mini bonfire with all of those dead tree parts.  

I had big plans for  a Google Meet Party for my mom’s 90th birthday this week.  We had put the real party on hold for social distancing reasons, of course, but a little get together on the Internet might be just the thing to celebrate and then allow my mom her peace and quiet.  She had reluctantly acquiesced to the party in the first place. I called my sister, who approved. I called my mom, who agreed. I made a video for her to show her how Google Meet worked. Here’s how to say yes to the invite.  Here’s how to click the Join button. She watched it and emailed back, “I think I understand.”

That was Saturday.

Sunday dawned an overcast grey. Typecast.  I had scheduled a 10:30 test run with my mom.  It’s always best to be prepared. At 10:30, I joined the meeting.  At 10:37, Sarah suggested that I call my mom. She picked up quickly.  She was trying, but it wasn’t working. I coached her through the steps.  She followed the directions, pausing to scold herself when she opened the wrong window.  At 10:50, a thin ray of sunlight. Her icon appeared on our screen. We welcomed her. “Hello?  Mom? Can you hear us?” No response. “Mom, see if you can unmute yourself.” No response. “It’s in the lower edge of the screen, toward the middle.”  No response. No image either.

“I think you’d better call her again.”  This was Sarah. I heeded her advice and phoned again.

“Mom, do you see a little microphone symbol at the bottom of the screen?”

Yes.  She tried clicking it.  No change.  

“Mom, how about the symbol with the camera.  Can you click that?”

She tried clicking it.  No change.

For an hour, I tried taking her through settings, looking for a way to activate the microphone or the camera.  No luck. At one point she got to a screen that listed accessories or devices that were disabled. “Yes, Mom, look down that list.  Find the microphone that’s disabled, and click it.”  

She couldn’t.  She said it said, “No microphone found.”  Was it possible that there was no microphone on this computer?  Why yes, when you stop to think about it, a 12-year-old desktop computer with a separate cpu certainly might  not have a built-in mic. Huh? And no camera? Why yes. That, too, was possible.  

So much for a Google Meet Party.  We’d all be chatting without the guest of honor.  This would not do.

“What about that tablet you got her a few years ago?”  This was Sarah again. I was dubious.

“I don’t think she knows how to use it, and it’s one of those Android tablets.  I can sometimes muddle through it, to find something, but I don’t think I can walk her through it over the phone.”

We tried anyway.  She said it was charged.  That surprised me. I set up another meeting.  She turned on the tablet. She found the email.  She clicked the invitation. She clicked the Join message. 

Nothing happened.  I suggested that she try to get to the extensions to download Google Hangouts.  This was like speaking Greek. Then she clicked the Invitation again, and squealed.  A message had popped up. “Do you want to install Google Meet?”

“This is great.  Say yes. Click Install.”

She did.  “Nothing happened.”

“What do you mean, ‘Nothing happened?’”  

“Nothing happened.”

“Maybe you didn’t really tap it.  Try tapping it again.”

This went back and forth, with her saying she HAD tapped it, and me saying maybe she hadn’t tapped it RIGHT.  Finally she got some action. “There’s a circley thing going round and round.”

“That’s a good sign, Mom. It’s just downloading.  This could actually work.”

The circley thing, though, was the Android version of the Mac’s  Rainbow Wheel of Doom. It never stopped. After 25 minutes, I released my mom from this torture.  She could go back to her New York Times. “Maybe just leave it on and come back to it later. Lots of things are working slowly these days,” I offered hopefully.  It was a faint hope.

Two hours later I called her back.  “Any luck with the circly thing?”

“No change.”

I sighed.  Heavily. She apologized.  “It’s not your fault, Mom. It’s just disappointing.”  

That was how Sunday differed from Saturday.

31 Things I Learned in March

1. Finding a time to write was not the biggest challenge of the month.

2. Social distancing isn’t just a phrase about shunning people.

3. Zoom is not just a kids TV show or a drinking game

4. Being able to work from home is a privilege.

5. Working from home is not a picnic.

6. Having a job is a privilege.

7. Comic sans still has magical powers…at least for getting me unstuck.

8. My students are resilient.

9. My house smells like dog again…fortunately we don’t have to worry about guests.

10. I need to be nudged (or shoved) to write.

11. I hope I don’t someday remember March 11 in the same way I remember September 11.

12. 31 is a really big number when you are only on number 12.

13. I love my country, but sometimes I am embarrassed by it.

14. Farley’s arrival day and pi day coincided, and I have no idea what the connection is. But I love both Farley and Pie.

The Paddle Pawed Snuggle Hound suggests a revision.

15. I touch my face a lot.

16. I have become proficient…and maybe even commendable, at washing my hands.

17. I am wordier than most.

18> It’s not really so much that I’m wordy, so much as that I find myself often, for inexplicable reasons, thinking of new things mid-sentence, or even mid-word, and those new thoughts require new clauses, or if not clauses, perhaps appositives, in order to fully address the concept that I’m exploring.

19. I may not have the virus, but I do have issues.

20. Comments sustain me. (I actually already knew that, but it’s like a shout out to those who were so consistently monitoring my posts and encouraging me).

21. I miss my class.

22. I miss my colleagues.

23. I have some distant writing partners who have come to be a big part of my writing life in the past 3 years. I miss them during the non-March portion of the year.

24. A new corollary to the truism “You gotta play to win.” It’s the Orioles’ motto now: “If you don’t play, you can’t lose.” #stillundefeated

25. Grid view on Google Meet is cool.

26. Curbside takeout: much better than McDonald’s Drive thru.

27. Laughter is healing and dogs are very funny.

28. I am an influencer.

29. Sometimes doing something absurd is the right thing to do.

30. It’s not a sign of weakness to say that you are afraid.

31. In tough times, people can do things once thought inconceivable.

A Retrospective

It was a strange twist of fate–no, more like an unconscious coincidental choice, but that sounds far less romantic. Let’s go back to the first one. In a strange twist of fate, on this 30th day of March, this 30th day of the Slice of Life marathon that this sprinter who could never finish a marathon appears to be finishing for the third consecutive March, I began recording a read aloud for my class this evening. The title? I Survived. The title has more words, but they do not go well with the “strange twist of fate” theme that I am struggling to develop. I recorded the first 3 chapters, my daughter filming, my puppy adding odd squeaking sound effects at ill-timed moments of drama, and felt that, yes, this is a March where it feels like the theme is survival.

I had written-off this writing challenge before I had even started. I began the month listing my excuses, granting myself permission to fail. It sounded like this:

Logic says that this is not the year for me to try to write a story every day in March.  I have report cards to write this weekend. I have parent-teacher conferences later in the month.  I have a wife who’ll be having foot surgery in a little over a week, and, because the timing makes no sense, or because his ears look too floppy to resist, we’ve decided that this month will be a good month to adopt a new puppy. 

Notice that there was no reference to a pesky pandemic looming just beyond our shores. I assumed my biggest challenges would be doing the chores that my wife normally handled or cleaning up after a leaky puppy. Maybe juggling conferences and teaching, too. Yes, it promised to live up to the name: it’s called a challenge for a reason.

Now, I sit in my former-sports-cave-turned-virtual-classroom and contemplate the strange journey that this March has been. I listened to the Grateful Dead this morning as I wrote an email to the parents in my class. I don’t usually listen to music while I work (unless it’s Deep Focus). I am prone to taking cosmic meaning from song coincidences, so “Box of Rain” seemed somewhat fitting, but later, when “Truckin'” came on, and that “long strange trip” line broke through my semi-concentration, I had to pause. “Indeed,” I thought. Profound moment.

But it certainly has been strange. March 10, I take a day off from school, sacrificing some poor sub to the wolves that a few of my students become when I’m not around. Nancy’s surgery goes well. March 11, I return to school for the oddest of days. “Teachers, please check your email for an important announcement,” followed by scurrying teachers carrying ominous red folders, students pinballing between “snow day” exhilaration, disorientation, confusion, sadness, and fear. Kids, who could see farther into the future than I, were hugging their friends goodbye. We emptied lockers, loaded backpacks, and I stupidly gave a speech about taking this “distance work” seriously so that the missed days didn’t count as snow days, but instead as school days. Yes, because that’s what was really important.

I knew little of the story then. We wondered if the closure would last a few days, a few weeks. The next day, my dutiful students waited at the door of their Google Classroom, and I was late. I was posting a story and commenting on others. I came to my new classroom in the basement and found 83 comments, all so impersonal in their tone:

Where is he?

He said to be here when school started.

He’s probably overslept.

Maybe he forgot to reset his clock to Daylight Savings.

For some reason I really didn’t like the way they said “he.” It sounded cold. It sounded distant. So this was remote learning?

I’ve been on time every day since. We’re all working to make it seem more personal. More like real life. I have certainly realized how much my eyes tell me. The sensation of reaching someone through the wires and the waves with only the typed word is very eerie, like feeling around the house in a blackout. A classroom without faces deprives me of so many cues. I’m grateful for Google Meet (even if it is clearly inferior to Zoom, as some continue to remind us). We’re learning slowly to adapt.

At home, too, I feel sorry for myself at times, but realize I’ve gotten incredibly lucky, too. This puppy that seemed so ill-advised in my first imagining of the month, now seems like a savior. His goofiness, his affection, his need for contact, his exuberance. They are all the things we’re craving. For him, too, this new work set-up has been a blessing. I cringe now when I think that I’d been planning to head off to work, my daughter, too would have headed to work, and my wife, planned to be home for one week and then head back work. I can’t imagine this puppy being left at the house. Yes, we had arranged for a dog walker, but still.

It has been a month of togetherness but a month of separation; a month of sitting together but a month of solitary walks; a month in front of screens but a month with no sports; a month of “what me worry?” and a month of relentless worry. It has been a strange trip…but so far, we have survived.

The Great Escape

This could have been about Farley’s foray into the neighbor’s yard, but I didn’t witness that, so I’m not going to write it.  No, it’s about a different kind of escape.

Two days ago would have been opening day for my favorite baseball team, the Baltimore Orioles.  I know this is going to seem trivial, but I’m really missing sports, and I’m particularly missing the start of baseball season. I know that we are practicing looking for silver linings, and I could certainly find some in this case.  For the Orioles, the longer that the start of the season gets postponed, the longer they remain tied for first place in the standings — and generally listed in first position, thanks to alphabetical order. The longer the season is postponed, the more work I get done.

But, that doesn’t carry me very far.  I miss the optimism of opening day. I missed the anticipation of opening day.  I miss seeing the deep green field, hearing announcers whose voices I’ve missed for six months. I miss a smooth swing, a biting curve, and  a shoestring catch.

I think the thing I miss the most is just the escape.  The mostly mindless passage of time. Well, not mindless, because there’s a lot of thinking in baseball, but mindless in the sense that in the end it’s all really of no consequence.  Everything now seems of great consequence. Sure, that escape sometimes brings guilt, as I put off a work task or a yard task to wander into the world of bloop singles and Baltimore chops, or those new-fangled sabermetric stats, like launch angles and WARs (wins above replacement, I know what it stands for, but don’t ask me to explain it).  

I know that the world of sports can also be infuriating.  I’m often disgusted by the mentality of owners, the commercialism of “the product,” and most recently the blatant cheating of some teams, but still, I’m programmed to expect baseball to start at the end of March, and to associate it with spring and rebirth.  This year it’s missing, and it’s ironic that it’s a year when we most need escape and reminders of rebirth.  

I’ve gotten more work done, because I had no hockey to watch all month, no spring training to read about in the blogs, no opening day to race home for.  I sit in my man cave, and what? I write? I am writing right now, as I face my TV with no temptation to turn it on. I’m angled toward an Orioles jersey, signed baseballs, and my Orioles Mr. Potato Head, my orange foam finger, my vintage pennant, and my carved image of Camden Yards, but none of those things tell me to turn on the game or head to  No. They’re silent.

It’s a weird time.  It is slowly dawning on me that baseball was my way of shutting off my too-busy mind.  It was my way of detaching from worries and pretending that I could just play. It was my recess.  I’m realizing that I need to find new ways to separate from work and politics and a runaway virus.   I know that there are people who will be missing much more than baseball. I know that I shouldn’t complain. I know that I will certainly find other ways to occupy myself. I think I’m just realizing that baseball was doing more for me than I had understood.

Now, I’m off to wrestle with my puppy, who has no concept of virus, corruption, or social distancing, and definitely no worries about what he’s missing.