November: A Guest Poet

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NOVEMBER

I.

Leaves reign down
waiting
mutating
leaving long limbs
Exposed like raw pain.
“THE LORD GIVES AND THE LORD TAKES AWAY.”
Blessed be the name of the Lord?

II.

Blessed be
Blessed be
because pain weathers well.
As leaves to earth
We return to the genes of our souls
bare, not
barren,
becoming at last
Who we always were.

–Rita H. Kowats
c’90

This poem hangs on the wall of my living room all year long. A friend wrote it after deaths in her family. She gave me a copy when I was falling downward after a loss. She did it in beautiful calligraphy–inky, black letters on ivory white paper torn around the edges, and then mounted on a dark red background. The tails of the calligraphy g’s sweep down beyond their assigned spaces in graceful arcs–reign, waiting, mutating, leaving, genes. A small red leaf with saw-tooth edges floats down to the bottom of the page. I had the poem  mounted on black and set into a chrome frame.

I love that poem and have read it often over the years, nearly always with a few tears–not from loss, but from the joy and the assurance of who I have become–who I always was, loved by such special friends and family.

After many years apart, I lunched with Rita this week and we picked right up where we left off. We talked about the poem, old friends, November, and writing. She keeps a blog with more lovely poetry you can check out–Spirituality Without Borders..

 

Permission to use the poem granted by Rita Kowats.

photo credit: <a href=”https://www.flickr.com/photos/sudachi/2110812718/”>Sudachi</a&gt; via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a

 

Shadows and Other Companions

I’m working alone outside and suddenly a shadow, rather large, is moving beside me in the gravel. It’s only happened to me a few times and only at the height of the summer when the sun is high. It’s unnerving, somewhat like having someone come up close to you at your elbow without warning.

I stop, glance around, and finally look up–an eagle, or perhaps a red-tailed hawk, circles above me, right between me and the sun.

English: clouds and shadows over the Mediterranean

English: clouds and shadows over the Mediterranean (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In recent years I’ve developed an urge to sketch. Even though I enjoy writing, I’ve never done well writing to a journal. Perhaps if I kept a journal with very short entries accompanied occasionally by a sketch, I might be more productive.

My first entry would be that shadow bird on the ground beside my feet. My second entry? The seal that went with me on my walk last week. No, no–it was indeed swimming and I was indeed walking, but we were, without a doubt in my mind, together

I walk on a road beside Liberty Bay. I hadn’t gone far that morning when I noticed that black, shiny, bowling ball head swimming rather close to shore, not far from me. He was headed the same way I was. After a short distance, he dropped down into the water, and disappeared for maybe 30 seconds, but then surfaced–again almost even with me. We apparently were swimming and walking at the same speed. This continued for the distance of what would have been about a block. Occasionally he would dive, but his head was at the surface more often than not.

In my journal, I would draw his head in the water, and I’d color it in with my black felt-tip marker. It’s difficult to miss those shiny black heads when they’re swimming close by. Then I’d draw in the gentle little wake he was leaving in the quiet morning water.

I might do an entry for the stately Canadian geese I met swimming yesterday on my walk. The lead goose held its head high. The 13 geese who followed formed a teardrop shape behind their leader. I told them, “Good morning,” hoping they might turn around and join me, but they had places to be, things to do, and couldn’t be bothered to change directions.

English: Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) swim...

English: Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) swimming in Palatine, Illinois, USA. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Just now, as the sun is setting, I went to close the slider to the deck. I heard–and then saw–a noisy flock of Canadian geese flying by, just skimming the water. My friends? I quickly counted–13 geese. Close enough.

In my journal Number 14 would be down in the corner of the page, visiting with the seal.

Do You Give a Fig about Figs?

“I don’t give a fig about….”

Ah, but you would if you grew them! Then you’d give figs your full attention.

Toshiba Digital CameraHowever, yes, if you lived during the time of Shakespeare, you might be quite comfortable using that phrase, “I don’t care a fig….,” as it was a common expression. It came from the Spanish word Fico (fig) which had come to mean a particular gesture. By putting your thumb between your first and second fingers and thrusting it at someone, you could send a message of contempt.

But the gesture precedes Shakespeare’s time. The word sycophant (brown-noser or bootlicker) comes from the Greek word sykophantes, which meant “one who shows the fig,” a vulgar gesture.

The dark side of fig history? Perhaps

Ah, but the bright side!

In late summer, my fig tree becomes the center of my yard and garden. The ripening plum and pear trees, quite beautiful themselves, bow down to the fig. And why not? They’re relatively rare. You’re probably more familiar with dried figs or fig newtons. Few people I know have ever tasted a fig–and when presented with the opportunity, they tend to take a step back and change the subject.

But consider this bit of fig history. Fossil records of figs date back to about 9300 B.C. They were likely one of the first plants cultivated by humans, in the area that is Egypt today. Ancient writings, including the Bible, often refer to fig trees. Buddha achieved enlightenment while sitting under a bodhi tree, a large sacred fig tree. The Greeks passed laws forbidding the export of their highest quality figs. The Romans? They considered figs to be sacred.

I hate to admit how long it took me to develop a taste for them, and now they’re my favorite fruit of all my trees. Figs contain potassium (which helps lower blood pressure), dietary fiber, Vitamin B6, copper, manganese, and pantothenic acid.

I’ve seen figures that indicate there are over 700 varieties of fig, or Ficus, trees. They like dry, sunny sites, so my tree thrives in its southern exposure. Able to tolerate seasonal drought, they’re found growing wild in the Middle East. Today California is one of the largest producers of figs, along with Turkey, Greece, Portugal, and Spain.

Deep-rooted and aggressive, fig trees are not recommended for use in urban areas. I occasionally panic when I notice my tree’s rapid growth. The last few years, the tree had escaped its cement block enclosure and was headed toward the drain field at a good clip. I spent quite a bit of time cutting it back last fall. This summer it produced its heaviest crop ever. Turns out that fruit sets on new growth, so when I cut it back so severely, it spurred fruit production. Family and friends couldn’t keep up with them, so I hung a “Figs for Sale” sign on the mailbox and sold about ten dozen.

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Unlike most other fruit trees, the blossom of this tree is internal–a particular wasp gains entry through a small hole in the fig in order to pollinate it.

I like them best just eaten raw, right off the tree, but my Fig Heaven cookbook (“70 Recipes for the World’s Most Luscious Fruit”) suggests all kinds of mouth-watering recipes, including “Cheese-filled Fresh Figs.”

Cover of "Fig Heaven: 70 Recipes for the ...

Cover via Amazon

Goat cheese pairs especially well with figs.

Besides being connected to an obscene gesture, fig trees have another dubious cultural distinction. The leaves of the trees, so critically shaped, often covered genitals in nude sculptures and paintings. They were often added long after the creation of the original art object to “protect” innocent viewers and their souls. But besides covering privates, those leaves do a good job of covering and protecting their fruit.

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One of William Shakespeare’s characters in Antony and Cleopatra exclaimed, “O excellent! I love long life better than figs.”

Hmmmm….maybe.

 

Summer Snapshots

Another summer slides through August and with it, all those moments of wonder that caught me off guard. These moments keep me getting up in the morning. They make washing yet again another batch of dishes just a routine and not a chore. They help me live with a sense of anticipation of what I’ll see today.

The Potter took this lovely shot when we stayed with family on Chuckanut Drive, one of the most beautiful drives in the country. We awoke to a cloudbank below us that looked like we could reach out and touch it. He actually took this last fall, but it was so beautiful I couldn’t resist sharing it here. This is a western view, looking out toward the San Juan Islands.

Chuckanut1Fall13The kale not only over-wintered, but in the drab and dreary early spring it exploded into wild growth. I eventually pulled it up and planted new, but only after I had eaten and shared bags and bags of it.Toshiba Digital CameraMy Hawaiian Hoya plant, which trails some 15 feet along a ceiling beam in the living room, puts out exquisite, clusters of star-shaped blossoms every summer. Each waxy star is less than the size of a dime. Their fragrance during the night will knock your socks–or your nightcap–off! I occasionally cut it back, but I don’t remember every re-potting this 35-year-old plant.Toshiba Digital CameraBumble bees in the lavender–what great company when I’m in the garden! We work around each other, respecting each others space. When I do get in their way, they get a little ruffled, but never angry.Toshiba Digital CameraA little daphne had died at the back door some years ago. Plants do not like this “dead spot.” Shaded and under the eaves, whatever settle in there has to survive without sun or much water. I fussed for a year or two about what to plant and couldn’t come up with any good ideas. One day I noticed that this fern had sprouted! I planted the smaller fern at the corner to keep it company.Toshiba Digital CameraNorm, a master craftsman, as well as a master friend, built a beautiful swing seat for my old swing frame over the winter, so it was ready for lots of summer sitting. He has saved me many times over the years–replacing, repairing, and sometimes removing, like the fallen tree that blocked the driveway.Norm2014 I have a magical rocking horse for adults in my living room that he built some years ago. His equally creative wife took this photo.

 

 

 

 

 

Scarlet Runner Beans were the hit of my garden this summer. Toshiba Digital CameraA delicious big pole bean, it also displays a bright red blossom, so it’s like having a huge bouquet of flowers in the vegetable garden. I’ll plant those again!

And from a lazy summer drive around Hood Canal, a photo taken from the west side…..

Toshiba Digital CameraMister Rogers, one of my favorite philosophers, knew about summer time and August. In The World According to Mister Rogers, Fred Rogers wrote, “How many times have you noticed that it’s the quiet moments in the midst of life that seem to give the rest extra-special meaning?”

 

Alert: Courtesy Police on Patrol!

It’s happened to all of us. You’re entering a public building, just about to let the door swing closed behind you, when you notice someone else approaching the door. Do you stand awkwardly and wait, holding the door, or let it close?

Old door at the entrance to the library of Kha...

Old door at the entrance to the library of Kharkov Polytechnic Institute (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It happened to my friend Helene as she was entering the library. She chose to let the door close. Big mistake.

She walked slowly into the library, deep in thought. What was the name of that author her friend had recommended?

“Thanks for holding the door for me.” Helene heard the words, but they didn’t register as being directed at her. She was still trying to remember the author’s name, or maybe even the title of the book.

“Thanks for holding the door for me,” a little louder. Again, Helene heard the words, but her mind was still wandering through that mystical Land of Titles and Authors.

“Thanks for holding the door for me,” this time loudly enough for Helene to realize it was addressed to her. Absent-mindedly, she answered, “You’re welcome,” and strolled toward the fiction shelves. Only then did what had just happened connect for her.

I was mad about this for days. I’m not sure why I was so annoyed. Helene is one of the sweetest, most gentle and caring people I know, good through and through–and only occasionally a little absent-minded. I was defensive of her, likely.

But a greater irritation grew. When did this courtesy of holding a door for someone become an obligation, a requirement? If it’s expected, it’s no longer a polite gesture, a gift–it’s obligatory, a rule.

And then I realized my real concern. I use the same library. I walk through those same doors once or twice a week, and I’m often preoccupied with my reason for being there. That woman is still out there and could come after me. I had to be ready!

So how will I answer the Courtesy Patrol Person when it’s only a matter of time before she corners me?

“Oh my gosh, you poor soul! (my hand on her arm) Did I neglect to hold the door for you? What an injustice that was! (hand to my forehead) How could I have been so insensitive? (both arms stretched out above my head) How can you ever forgive me? I will regret this forever!”

Yes, maybe too cynical.

Well, how about, “Guten tag! Ich bin eine Deutschlander. Sprechen sie Deutsch?” (with a quizzical and friendly grin)

Or even, (looking at my watch), “Ah, I think you might be mistaken. It’s not quite the hour when door holding is required. I think that starts at 4:15 p.m. That’s all right (patting her back), don’t feel bad–sometimes I confuse those starting times, too! It’s a lot to remember, isn’t it?”

Or maybe, “Hmmmm….(moving closer to look at her carefully). You look just like–you ARE! You’re Henrietta! Remember me? We served on that committee together! Wasn’t that a hoot? You look like you’ve lost weight–and I love the way yhou’re wearing your hair now! Who does it? (do not give her time to answer, important to talk rapidly, not give her a chance to interrupt) Do you ever see the old gang? Remember the night after the gala when we–no, don’t worry (wink, wink). I won’t tell a soul! So good to see you! Let’s get together some time and catch up!” (leave quickly)

In the end, I might simply go with Helene’s reply, “You’re welcome!” And then I’ll add (with a smile), “It was nothing!”

 

 

Walking on Clam Shells

Some people walk on paths of rose petals. Me? I walk on paths of clam shells. No, they’re not nearly as cushioned, velvety, and fragrant as rose petals, but they keep me moving. The gulls in my neighborhood pick up clams from the beach, fly up and over a hard surface, like the asphalt road, and then drop them, usually cracking the shells so they can eat the innards. These empty, broken shells accumulate alongside the road, right in my pathway. Occasionally a gull meal has been interrupted, and I notice a soft, glistening clam still inside the broken shell.

My mother walked on Seattle sidewalks, up and down those inner city hills, and always wanted to write a book about walking. Now, in an assisted living home, she moves around in her wheelchair on smooth linoleum hallways and flat courtyards.

I am not a long distance walker. I walk for perhaps 20 or 25 minutes a day and that’s it, unless it’s a special walk with a friend. Why do I walk? I walk first of all in order to sleep through the night. Between that and perhaps a little bit of gardening, yardwork, or housework, I have no problems sleeping. I walk because I know it will clear my mind and help me think straight. Fresh air? The stimulation of movement? A different setting? What is it in that walking action that often will help me come up with a creative solution to a problem, or an idea for a writing project?

I walk because I’m an introvert, but I like to see just a few people on an otherwise very quiet day at home. I don’t initiate conversations, so a friendly “Hi!” is as much of an interaction as I need, but occasionally I meet walker friends or neighbors and we visit briefly–and once in awhile, more than briefly. Sometimes I meet Charlie, the 85-year-old man who walks two miles a day. He’s a retired printer and makes stained glass creations as a hobby. Sue, who doesn’t live in my neighborhood, but walks daily in it, always knows more of what’s happening on my street than I do, so I enjoy visiting with her to get the latest local gossip. This morning not many people were out, and I found myself waving to the garbage truck driver.

I walk because I know it will give me energy for facing the rest of the day. On the days I skip walking I almost always notice that old lethargy battling for my body. I also walk because I’m excited about what’s out there today! What plants are blossoming? How’s the work coming on the boathouse my neighbor’s torn apart? Any eagles or ospreys? Is there any fragrance yet from the wild roses that are just opening?

I walk because I know from all the research that I am healthier for it. My heart and lungs are getting exercise, in addition to other muscles. My lower back muscles are being strengthened. I can splurge on that leftover piece of pie.

And, with my mother in mind, I walk because I know it is a very special privilege, and I’m going to take advantage of that privilege while I can–even if it doesn’t take me down a path of roses.

One of my favorite quotes is this one:

We’re all just walking each other home.”
–Ram Dass, spiritual teacher

Splashes of Color Here and There

Snap! Snap! Snap! It was the sound of the tulips being dead-headed that got to us. The dozen or so workers, men and women, moved almost as a unit down the rows of fading and yet still bright red tulips, shearing off the blossoms with their hands, changing a flaming field of red to dull gray-green in a matter of a few minutes.

We were only a few yards away from the dead-heading action in the Mount Vernon tulip fields. The pregnant young woman standing next to me sighed, “It’s sad, isn’t it?”

The tulip fields in Mt. Vernon, WA

The tulip fields in Mt. Vernon, WA

What a brilliant time of year! Even the small dandelion in a crack of the sidewalk is an Toshiba Digital Cameraintense yellow. And the light is changing as the sun’s position to the earth changes. This morning, the first sunlight reflecting on a fogbank confused me for a moment–it seemed the sun was rising in the western sky.

 

Several days later we drove along the western side of Hood Canal and stopped at the Whitney Rhododendron Gardens. A little Toshiba Digital Cameraearly, but still those splashes of color made us vow to return next spring. I’m guessing the rhodies will be at their best color right about now.

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The Potter's favorites are the yellow shades.

The Potter’s favorites are the yellow shades.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And then, a few days later, we made a trip to the Bloedel Gardens on Bainbridge Island where we saw more rhodies and azaleas, trillium, Dutchman’s breeches, the last of the camellias, and the first of the big, long-stemmed primroses. The skunk cabbage blossoms were gone, but their huge leaves looked like they’d been polished with oil.

Skunk cabbage at Bloedel.

Skunk cabbage at Bloedel.

What we see beyond the asphalt, beyond the sidewalks, is so dear in all the seasons, but in this particular season, it glows!

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“Everyone needs beauty as well as bread, places to play and pray, where nature heals
and gives strength to body and soul alike.”
–John Muir

 

Yellow Flocks

Last spring I realized my daffodils had gotten completely out of hand. I have a nice mix of different varieties, but they had grown out of their little clumps and were scampering back and forth all over my garden areas. After they bloomed and died back, I spent a lot of time in the early summer digging and thinning. I gave little bags of bulbs to anyone who even thought about approaching my back door.

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A good friend told me an old family story about his grandfather who grew up in Cornwall, England. He was an acclaimed runner, and in the spring he sometimes ran through whole fields of daffodils in order to get from one place to another. As he ran, the story went, he kicked off the blossoms of any in his path.

Yellow trio in my neighbors' yard: oregon grape, daffodils, and forsythia, all blooming at once

Yellow trio in my neighbors’ yard: oregon grape, daffodils, and forsythia, all blooming at once

Ann Lovejoy in her column in early November of last year told another daffodil story. Many years ago Mary Sam, a healer and granddaughter of Chief Sealth, lived in a log cabin on Bainbridge Island on what was then known as “Welfare wagon road” (near Phelps Road and Ellingsen today). Years later a neighbor, Dick Krutch, noticed that she had planted daffodils around where her cabin had been and also around the neighborhood.

Krutch decided that if this woman made such an effort for an old road and cabin, he would like to continue the effort. Over the years he has donated over 100,000 daffodils for the island’s neighborhoods. If you visit Bainbridge Island this time of year, you can’t miss them along the roadsides. Dedicated volunteers have kept the project going.

This variety, the “King Alfred Type” bulbs are a large, hearty, golden blossom. The original King Alfred daffodils were developed in England in the late 1800’s. Lovejoy said that since Port Townsend had a British consulate with gardens, Pacific Northwest gardeners were among the first Americans to grow this sturdy variety that can live for generations.

However, this true King Alfred daffodil is not sold today. Over time, the name “King Alfred” became a generic name for all the bigger “yellow trumpet” varieties. Some botanists believe that nearly all the original King Alfred bulbs in North America were wiped out by a viral disease by the mid-1900’s.

The only true King Alfred variety may be found in old yards that date back to the early 1900’s. A few Dutch bulb growers continue to grow them in order to keep them from becoming extinct, but they’re rarely sold.

Since my house dates back to the early 1900’s (and some bulbs I planted 40 years ago came from a yard of that age, also), do I have the original King Alfred in my yard? I like to think so. Regardless, I enjoy all those spots of bright yellow and remember that closing line of Wordsworth’s poem that I memorized in grade school:

Greeters at my back door

Greeters at my back door

“And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.”

Rivers of Ice

Like a little kid, I barely resist the urge to push people out of my way so I can get up to the ship’s rail to see better, but people around me are also excited and I’m afraid they might push back. When I see a hole open, I dive for it. Directly in front of me is the face of Johns Hopkins Glacier, about one mile wide and about 250 feet high. It extends another 200 feet or so beneath the water’s surface. This tidewater glacier moves about 8-12 feet a day, a slow river of ice heading for the sea. Occasionally, a big section will crack off and splash into the water, a “calving,” but we’re not lucky enough to see that today.

Johns Hopkins Glacier, September 2013 (courtesy of the Potter)

Johns Hopkins Glacier, September 2013 (courtesy of the Potter)

I doubt that I’ve ever seen so many cameras in one place. I sense that we’re all aware of being swept back into that earlier Ice Age when continental-scale ice sheets covered much of the Northern Hemisphere, reaching as far south as what is today the Upper Midwest. My friend Jean lives near Ice Age debris in Wisconsin. She helps maintain her section of the Ice Age Trail.

The glaciers came and went, but in the mid 1700’s up in the Glacier Bay area, just north of Juneau, Alaska, they started a final retreat. Since then, many inlets and bays have opened up, and in 1980, President Carter signed the conservation act that turned that whole area into Glacier Bay National Park.

The air is cold and it’s raining lightly, but these sightseers, unlike glaciers, do not retreat. Occasionally I move aside to let someone in, and then go to a different deck for another view. I try to memorize the scene in front of me, especially that beautiful, deceptively soft, light blue color of the glaciers.

We finally retreat to our room and watch from our little deck. Here, away from people, we can actually hear the glaciers–a kind of crackling or rustling sound. Once we hear a loud crack that sounds like a gunshot.

The ship, moving very slowly through the inlets and bays in order to protect the area’s humpback whales (we’d seen a group of about 14 a day or two before), visits a number of other glaciers that day. Chunks of ice float in the water around us, and with the binoculars we see a harbor seal resting on one of them.

You, too, can visit Glacier Bay National Park. There are some stunning photos and videos at their website, www.nps.gov/glba/index.htm You can explore the whole website, but don’t miss “Photos & Multimedia” in the menu on the left hand side of that first screen. Scroll down to the bottom of the next screen and watch the two videos. Perhaps take a quick overview flight in the first one, “Glacier Bay from Above,” and then watch “What’s So Special about Glacier Bay NP?” You will see Glacier Bay like very few visitors do–in sunshine and blue skies. This is rain forest country, with only about 50 sunny days a year, so most of these videos were taken on very rare sunny days. Treat yourself!

Seahawk Mania and the Existence of Quarterbacks

The Pacific Northwest has gone just a little crazy over football after the Seahawks’ win of the Super Bowl. Even those of us who never watch football have found ourselves glued to the games and, truth be told, actually cheering.

I sub in school libraries occasionally and found myself subbing in an elementary school the Friday before Super Bowl Sunday. The principal had relaxed the “uniforms only” rule for that day and the kids could wear sports t-shirts instead (or colors of their favorite teams). I wish I had counted the Seahawk jerseys I saw–a sea of blue and green all day long.

The day before the big Seattle victory parade, I was again subbing, this time in a high school library, and I overheard plans and scheming all day long. Predictions at that point were for a 200-300,000 crowd. We’re located on the Kitsap Peninsula, a 10 mile drive and a ferry ride away from Seattle, but the seniors early in the day had planned that this day would be their “senior skip day.” Excitement turned to disgust when they realized a bunch of juniors were going, too. In the end, a sizable number of ninth and tenth graders must have joined the ranks–the staff speculated that at least 2/3 of their student body was gone the next day. And predictions were wrong–a crowd of some 700,000 showed for the parade.

But earlier, the day before the big game, five women friends and I gathered for lunch. Eventually the discussion turned to football’s finer points. That was a stretch since what we five know about football could be written in a big black marker on a toy football. It was pathetic.

Betty (I’ve changed names to protect all of us) was the most excited. She and her husband, who rarely watch television, had watched the game against San Francisco and could hardly wait for this game. “I bought hot dog fixings and we’re all set–we’re going to have popcorn, too!” She passed the bowl of spinach to Dora.

“Maybe I’ll watch, ” said Dora as she tackled her spinach. “You know, I didn’t know what the ’12th Man’ was until two weeks ago.”

“Neither did I,” added Rochelle (who grew up in football-crazy Ohio).

“Well, I knew THAT!” exclaimed Margaret. “But I didn’t know until recently that the two parts of the team, defense and offense, aren’t on the field at the same time. Imagine that!”

“They’re not? said Dora.

“I didn’t know that either,” added Rochelle.

“Well,” explained Betty, as she fumbled with her roll as she buttered it, “A few of the players do stay on the field, though.”

“I don’t think so.” Margaret was running a little interference.

Henrietta took a sip of tea and entered the line-up. “Did you know there are no quarterbacks anymore?”

“Really? Are you sure?” I was feeling blind-sided.

“Yes, really–no quarterbacks,” Henrietta defended.

(She emailed the next day that she was mistaken–she thought cornerbacks had replaced quarterbacks, “But actually they both exist.”)

“So who’s predicted to win?”

“Denver.”

“I heard Seahawks. It’s going to be a close game, a good game.” Betty had the ball and was running with it.

“So you’re predicting a close score?”

“That’s what some people are saying.”

Yep, we were all blind-sided!