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Zero Degrees at Dawn

Monday, February 5, 2007



No school again today. It's sunny and clear; no additional snow has fallen. Zero degrees at dawn. Far from sleeping in, the heat struggling to bring the high-ceilinged living room up to temperature (and baking the back bedrooms in the process) woke me up at 4 AM, and I have been occupying my brain by worrying about sundry things, most of which I can't control, ever since. Bill, temporarily ill with a Superbowl-induced blarrrgh. (Liam: "Where's Daddy?" Me: "Sick in bed." Liam: "Do you want me to check on him?" Me: "No, we'd best leave him alone now." Liam: "OK. Just want to be kind.")
I put my nose in Liam's sweet bunch of white hair and breathe in his scent, thinking. About a treasured friend, stricken with cancer. The inexplicability of life's pathways. The turns and bends in the road that offer only uncertainty. The feeling that I ought to be able to know what lies ahead, and simply can't. The stuff of wee hours.

Today, the school's problem seems to be that it is too cold. Do children's brains shut down at zero degrees? Mine doesn't. Mine shuts down when they have their tenth fight of the day and complain that they're bored. When my studio floor becomes a minefield of scented markers and wet paint pots. At this rate the kids are going to be doing make-up days until July. The wisdom of the school district's decision escapes me. Are all children in Alaska homeschooled? I hear it's really cold in Minnesota. Do they still have school there? The trend of shutting down schools for a quarter-inch dusting of snow or diving temperatures seems to be firmly entrenched in southeast Ohio. I can only imagine how it drives the teachers nuts, trying to fit in a whole lesson plan once in a blue moon. My new refuge is a pair of headphones, plugged into Pandora's free Web radio or an iPod. I can disappear inside my work, even as Spongebob natters and the kids thunder through the studio begging for another tangelo to be peeled. I'm heading down the homestretch of that 200-drawing job. I started working on it in late September. I've promised myself not to do that to my Muse ever again. These promises have always fallen by the wayside when the furnace craps out. High mindedness doesn't survive long in cold like this.

Here's how Liam spends much of his time. He had help on this track from BOTB, who took time out to start its construction off. I love seeing the two of them on all fours, talking wood-track physics. Liam is now reading track layouts and copying them, then adding his own embellishments, such as the elevated skyrail. Watching him work, I have to glow at his focus and foresight. It's lovely to watch, and the soundtrack--soft humming and singing--is just as delightful. I like having my kids around. But they miss their friends and the stimulation that going to school provides. I feel I should be presenting lesson plans to them.

The cardinals are cold, hunched down on the snow like tea cozies. I'm going through unprecedented amounts of suet dough, suet, peanuts and seed. I bought 15 pounds of canned peanuts at Wal-Mart last night, two bags of cornmeal, two magnum jars of peanut butter. I think I still have a couple of 5 pound tubs of lard in the basement. I'm tired of making suet dough, when a huge batch lasts but a week, but I'm glad I'm here to see the birds through this deep freeze. I wonder how the bluebirds would fare without it, and that keeps me going. At this point I make the recipe times seven. That's a lot of ingredients, and pretty painful to stir.

And yet there's food out there for the seed-eaters. I always marvel at what's revealed by the snow. It's anything but a cover-up: it reveals all. A spent goldenrod head seems uselessly fluffy, and yet this junco evidently got a meal out of the seed fallout it dropped into the snow. I wonder if they bother to shell goldenrod seeds, or just swallow them whole. They're minuscule, smaller than a mustard seed. There are so many things I don't know. Does the snow make it possible for them to see and eat seeds they wouldn't ordinarily be able to detect? Is that why juncoes seem to fare well in snow?

I go out for a few minutes just to throw more seed around for them, and feel as if I'll die. Baker, in his sweater, pees just off the front stoop and races back inside, stands bug-eyed and shivering atop the heat register. And yet the birds sleep out in it, and they weigh about as much as a first-class letter. How do they do it, on a diet of itty-bitty seeds? How is it that humans have gotten so very soft, that we have to build these enormous, climate-controlled boxes to live and roll around in?

The art of birds. What are the juncoes trying to tell me? Don't worry, be happy, like this little dancing Woodstock we drew. We were fine without you, but thanks for the millet.

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