Voices Inside My Head

I’m raking.  It’s my mind and body workout in the fall.  I’ve set the workout on my watch to “other,” since it doesn’t recognize raking as a legitimate workout.  “Listen, watch, it’s definitely as much of a workout as taking a walk, especially with our pee-at-every-vertical-plant-or-post pooch.”  

“I’m from California,” the watch responds.  “We don’t rake that much.”

“Well, let me tell you, my arms burn after a while, and my heart rate is certainly elevated, so yeah, it’s a workout, okay?”

“Okay, fine, that’s why we have the “other” category.  It’s for you oddballs who don’t have a gym membership or a Peleton.”

I don’t listen to music or podcasts while I rake.  Instead, I have imaginary conversations.    

Sometimes these conversations are with my trees.  We have a complicated relationship.  On the one hand, I’m a huge fan.  I’ve mourned the demise of several old friends on our block over the past few years.  I’ve celebrated the beauty of our local deciduous creatures. This year I’ve spent a lot of time admiring, photographing, and pointing out the brilliant foliage.  I think my wife is tired of the constant interruptions during our walks as I ogle another spectacular maple. So, yes, I’m a fan of the reds and yellows and oranges blazing against the cool blue skies.  

“You are looking spectacular this year,” I say to one of the swamp maples in our backyard.  “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you so vividly orange.”

“Why thank you,” I imagine them replying.  “It was kind of a rough summer, what with the lack of rain and with you refusing to water.  But that rainy stretch last month seemed to give us a few extra weeks in that metaspace between green and brown.”

That’s when we’re on good terms, mid October usually.  Things get a little rockier toward the end of the month.  “Hey, bud, did you notice that I just raked this afternoon?  Any chance you could wait a few days before you do that confetti thing again?”

“Look,  dude, stop blaming me.  I hold on as long as I can.  There are other factors involved here.  Have you considered complaining to the wind or to gravity or to the tilted planet?”

“Oh great, a maple tree with a science background.”

I don’t only converse with the trees during these raking sessions, though.  During today’s workout I had the elections on my mind.  I passed the time in an imaginary debate with my neighbor.  I have never actually had a political discussion with my neighbor, but I have been informed by another neighbor that we would not agree on much.  Things get fairly heated during these conversations.  I’m pretty sure I know his Fox News talking points, so I’m fighting back with my NPR rebuttals.  “Listen, your problem is that you’ve bought into that whole idea that all government is bad.”

“Uh, yeah,” he says, as though this is about as obvious as wind, gravity, and leaf piles.

“Well, I don’t think that’s true. Government isn’t just boondoggles and bureaucrats, you know.  It’s roads and parks and libraries and fire departments and public pools and snow plows and schools, you know.   I mean, I teach in a public school.  I’m basically a government worker, and I work with great people, honest people, people who are definitely putting more back into the economy than they’re taking out. They’re building for the future.”  I say much more, but you get the idea.  I’m crushing this guy.  He’s barely getting a word in.  He’s crumbling like dried leaves.  I’m pretty sure he’s swapping his Trump flag for an AOC tattoo.

If you’re imagining me losing my leaf raking focus during this debate, feet planted, vigorously (obsessively) scraping one small patch of lawn until I’ve dug a three-foot well, well, I can see how you might get that idea.  Still, somehow auto-rake pulls me through.  The piles are growing.

I’m so on track that the debate ends and now there’s a sportscaster in my head.  “He’s really locked in, today.  I see he’s doing his circular system.  That’s a veteran move.  Look at the rotation.  First it’s the big clockwise route, encircling his foe, but I’m noticing he’s putting a lot of pressure on that left arm.”

“Well, he is a southpaw after all, so that’s to be expected.”

“Oh wait, he’s pivoting.  Now he’s going counterclockwise in a smaller circle.  That’s a new wrinkle.  When did he become a switch raker?”

“I read some reports that he was doing a sort of new age training in the off-season.  It’s really improved his versatility and his endurance.”  

“That’s remarkable. Look at the pile he’s building.  Ya gotta love the shrinking circle approach.  Those leaves haven’t got a chance.  It’s a clean sweep.”

In the end, I take a deep breath, surveying the tidy scene.  The lawn hasn’t looked this pristine since spring.   I lift my eyes to where I imagine my maple’s head would be.  “There,”  I say in that smug, British voice I like to adopt when I’m feeling superior.  “I’ve bagged your leavings, my lawn is clear, and now I shall take my leave.”  

Pretty happy with that parting shot. 

I hoist my leaf bags and turn to go, but as I stride toward the gate, I swear I see that cheeky maple wave its one remaining leafy branch in my direction, a menacing glint in its hollows.  It winks at its swaying sidekick and says, “Hold my ROOT beer.  I gotta relieve myself on this dude’s lawn.”  

Touché, tree.

Writing Gooder Than I Talk

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been better at expressing myself in writing than in talking.  It’s not a stutter or an articulation problem.  It’s not even really shyness.  I think after years of speaking in front of kids and parents, I’ve gotten pretty good at dealing with shyness.  My preference for writing has to do with the editing functions.  In writing, I can fix an imprecise word.  In writing, I can reflect on what I really mean.  In writing, I can choose not to share or print or send.  It’s a little more stupid-proof.  Talk is just too untamed, uncontrollable, untakebackable.  And frankly, sometimes that scares me.

This Friday provided a good example of that.  I didn’t write on Friday.  I definitely talked.

I was in a good mood at lunchtime.  For one thing, I had been relieved of my one-on-one duty.  I’d spent Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday working all day with a challenging student.  On Friday I’d been back to my more varied schedule, floating between fourth and fifth grade classes working with about 15 different students. That was more satisfying and stimulating.  I don’t think I said anything really stupid.

For another thing, it was Apples vs. Pumpkins Day, and though I hadn’t entered anything in the faculty cooking contest, I had put in my dollar, and I was ready to taste, judge, and vote.  I entered the teachers room and surveyed the spread of apple and pumpkin dishes.  It was an impressive array.  There were ten to twelve numbered items up for judging.  The numbers substituted for the chef’s name.  This wouldn’t be a popularity contest  (though the apples might have disagreed).  

Now, if I were writing my thoughts as I sampled each item, I might have been more reflective about my commentary.  What with it being an anonymous contest, one couldn’t be sure whether one was sitting at a table with the person who’d baked the forkful of apple pie one was putting in one’s piehole.  But I wasn’t writing or typing, of course, because I needed my hands to hold said fork.  And besides, I might have gotten crumbs on my keyboard.

No, I wasn’t writing, and I had some Friday afternoon giddiness to contend with.  I was pretending to be Paul Hollywood on The Great British Baking Show, or Marcus Samuelson on Chopped.  I’d take a bite of the Dump Cake, pause, close my eyes, and then say something British, like, “Mmm, a bit of a soggy bottom,no?” or I’d nibble a corner of the Pumpkin chocolate chip cookie and say, “I’m not sure the texture is quite right.  I’m looking for a bit more crunch.”  I was looking for an opportunity to label something “toothsome,” but it didn’t quite fit any of the entries.  This was fun.  

I’ve also never ever been accused of having a good poker face.  In fact, I’m really bad at anything connected to poker.  So I made faces with each taste.  Apparently this was entertaining to the other people in the room.  They laughed a lot.  I thought they were laughing with me. 

Finally, though no one asked (there was a ballot box on the table), I declared that I was voting for the pumpkin bread, with its clear but not overly assertive pumpkin flavor, its delicate texture and confident crust.  I arose from the table feeling quite full and full of myself.  I had talked good.

It was only later in the afternoon that I learned that the pumpkin chocolate chip had won the contest, and, surprisingly (to me, the non-poker-playing supid talker), the person who had made the pumpkin chocolate chip cookie that I had sort of, kind of dissed, might have been in the room while I was giving my…er…expert assessment.  Oops.  

This made me feel bad.  However, like many intellectually-challenged injudicious speakers, I set out to make things better.

As I walked down the hall at the end of the day, I spotted Annette, the winner of the contest.  Ooh, here was my chance to right the wrong.  Did I write a congratulatory-slash-apology note?


Instead, as I walked toward her, I said, “Hey, congratulations on the big win!”

“Thanks,” she said, smiling.  It looked like she meant it.  She didn’t seem mad.  This would probably be the place that Writer Me would have paused to reflect and then say something discreet and polite, something like, “You deserved it,” or “Don’t spend those winnings in one place.”

But no.  The stupid train was on a roll, and the brakeman was apparently asleep.  So, this is what I said.  “Hey, were you there in the room when I said those bad things about your cookies?”

“Nope.”  She paused.  “But thanks,” she added  And this time, I’m pretty sure she didn’t really mean it.  I watched, finally speechless as she walked past me down the hall.

That evening, I related the story to my wife.  She’s usually good at making me feel better, reassuring me that I’m still a good person deep down or that I’m being too tough on myself.  This time was different.  She gasped.  “I’m afraid there’s nothing I can say to make you feel better on this one.”

This is why I prefer to write… and reserve my mouth for chewing on pumpkin bread.

I’m very sorry, Annette. Fortunately the voters spoke gooder than I did.