Little Ely

            Two men, cousins, in a truck on a field trip, bumping along abandoned roads, stopping in ninety-degree-plus heat to survey playas, checking for evidence of the geological history of these Nevada wild lands. It’s a sere rock-strewn landscape, with traces of past volcanoes, the uplift and folding of old lake beds. As this day wears on, clear skies washed blue, sunlight on the hood and raking across the open barren stretches, they talk about the day, family, food, and where to spend tonight.

            “How’d you get the bandage on your left hand?”

            “Nikki. No inhibitions, but you think of where he comes from….He may not be a good dog, but we’re trying,” Dick says. “He’s better. Really.”

            “There’s an old camping spot I remember off this side road,” Jim says. “Haven’t been there in years.”

            “Sure. Let me know when it’s time to turn.”

            They find the right dirt road and their white truck grinds its way along. As they drive, the landscape changes, signs of recent wildfire coming up lapping against the road like a blackening tide, scrub is shorn away, a few skeleton fingers of brush all that remain. Though the fire passed months ago, a tarry sooty smell daunts them. When the cousins reach their campground, they find a good turnaround, the beaten down evidences of their old refuge in a series of broken rings of past camp fires. But there’s no pleasure in being here.

            “Ugh, let’s head up that mountain,” Dick says. “Got to be a better site somewhere towards the ridge. Plus we’ll get some elevation; it’ll be cooler.”

            They’re getting tired, conversation becomes more erratic.

            “How long has it been with Nikki?” Jim says. “The shelter gives you support?”

            Dick thinks before he answers. Longer than he should.

            “Two months yesterday. He’s learning,” he says. “He seems to be liking us more. But no impulse control. He’s still heading out after the cats, and though he’s sorry after, if I weren’t keeping a grip on his collar, I don’t know. That’s what happened when he bit me,” Dick raises his bandaged fingers. “He does get it that we don’t want him hurting them– still he can’t make himself stop. It’s more like an attack than chasing. I need to see that change.”

            “You’re keeping them apart?”

            “You bet. We don’t need more vet bills.”

            “Well, Nikki had a hard life. Street dog from Tijuana.”

            “We’re trying to work it out, but gosh, some days I don’t know why the shelter staff ever took him on. He’s maybe capable of getting an idea of what we need, but can he actually do it? Does he care?” Dick shrugs, worried. “I guess we just keep trying.”

            The two find a good spot well up the mountain, maybe 8,000 feet, with dusk reaching and deepening below across the vast bare valley. They spade out a hollow and surround this makeshift fire pit with rocks. From up here under a few twisted pinyon pines the grandeur of the deserted land is glorious, the low wind constant. If you squint down, the marks of the past wildfire around the old campground they left down behind are a mere detail, hardly visible any more. They cook a simple meal, hamburger and rice with onions and a tin of tomatoes. It’s hot and good and they eat well. The night has securely fallen, sleeping bags spread on the ground near their fire pit which has burnt down to a glow of embers and an occasional fall of burnt charcoal. They raise their beer cans to the open sky, but Jim hears a funny noise behind him.

            He turns, localizes the rustle as it repeats. He flicks on his headlamp, and there, in the circle of brightness is a small black puppy butt, with the busy part of the puppy inside the camp kit box.

            The puppy is the dirtiest, likely the scrawniest, puppy either of the guys has ever seen. Here at about 8,000 feet elevation as close as most folk ever get to nowhere, its presence inexplicable. The puppy seems interested rather than dismayed by their attention. Jim reaches and his hand gets a wet lick, the pup lets him touch it, pat it. Dick is first to make the logical assumption.

            “Water. Poor thing must be perishing of thirst.”

            They use one of their bowls, rinsed out, and fill it with water. The puppy plunges in, and doesn’t stop for anything until it’s licked out the last drop.

            “And hungry– look at those ribs.” Jim fills another bowl with cooling leftovers from dinner. This disappears almost as fast as the water did.

            “But how in dickens did you ever get here?” Jim marvels as the puppy comes over hopefully to see if the magical source of food has more.

            “She’s a pretty little thing under all the dirt. Part Border Collie, maybe?”

            “Yeah with some other stuff mixed in. Never wore a collar, look at the neck fur.”

            The pup will take petting, if no more food is immediately going to appear.

            “No injuries I can see. She’s still hungry, you know.”

            “Do you think it’s safe to give her more? That was a lot of food on an empty stomach…”

            The guys make it about ten minutes before they give in and fill another bowl of leftovers. The puppy makes sure that vanishes quick as the previous load did.

            They sit in silence, Jim’s experienced hand finding exactly the best scratch points behind the pup’s half-pricked ears.

            “I have a dog,” Dick says defensively.

            “I know,” Jim says. “And my job has me travelling more weeks than not, to reserves where I can’t bring a pet. I’m no good home for a dog.”

            “Well, maybe we can figure out where she’s from.”

            Jim gazes past the glow of the fire pit out across the valley. There are no lights until near the horizon, how many long miles away.

            “I don’t even see ranches,” he says. He puts another handful of branches on the fire, kicking up the flame by a few puffs.

            “How did she end up here on our side of a mountain? Think she saw or heard our truck?”

            “Come to that, how’s it that she’s still alive? Been hungry a while. A puppy maybe two, three months old, out on her own? Odds are, she shouldn’t have made it.”

            “Yeah, odds are. A lot of hungry coyotes out here. Rattlers, accidents.”

            They offer her more water, which she appreciates. She makes her way over to one of their sleeping bags and curls up on the toe of it. Her tummy is round with food. She lifts her ears at them, brown eyes reflecting the light of the fire.

            “Bet she’s full of fleas,” says Jim.

            There’s enough connectivity that Dick calls his wife Trish on the cell and of course he tells her about the pup. Then he goes pretty quiet, only making a few agreeing noises, though these get slower as the phone call goes on. He’s not inclined to talk after that call, but opens another beer.

            “Everything okay with Trish?” Jim says too brightly.

            “Yes. It’s all good,” Dick says.

            They both look at the dog who has settled by Jim’s feet and is tracking them and their talk with lifted eyebrows. She sits up at the sound of a distant coyote calling in the night.

            “Watch it you little pup,” Jim says. “You stay close by, tonight, you hear?”

            There’s no problem with that. The only time she leaves the guys is when she goes off to do her business, when they can hear her paws scratching to cover up.

            “Almost like a cat,” Dick says.

            “We should go to sleep, miles to cover tomorrow.”

            Later in the night the thought of fleas doesn’t stop Dick when an investigating cold wet nose pokes his cheek and a requesting paw pulls at his sleeping bag when the air has gone cold. The puppy snuggles down well tucked into his sleeping bag against him for a couple of hours before she moves over to Jim’s bag.

            When Jim wakes sometime around four, he feels the warm knot of puppy curled up against his stomach. The stars are magnificent with the slightest hint of lightening at the East, if you use your imagination. He falls asleep again in no time, the crisp dry cold air contrasting with the coziness inside the sleeping bag.

            She’s there in the morning when they roll out of the sleeping bags at dawn. Looking hopeful, though in the early light they can see she’s not only dirty but she has her rather long black tail with its white tip tucked well between her legs. She receives some bread and canned turkey they were planning on for lunch, and when she goes off to do her necessary business, Jim notices how careful she is, thinking she acts as though discretion is important. Maybe it was, he thinks. A puppy out on her own doesn’t want predators to know her location. She’s back fast, as though she wants to be sure of where they are, all the time.

            “That’s a cute pup,” Dick says.

            “Sure is,” Jim says.

            “I have a dog,” Dick says.

            “That’s true,” Jim says.

            They pack up, load the truck, check that the fire is well and truly out, dug over and drowned with some of their precious water. The dog sits waiting by the passenger door to the truck. When they open it, she tries to hop up, but she’s weak, and scrabbles when she tries, so they lift her in and she curls herself at Dick’s feet, because Jim’s driving this morning. She’s dead asleep in no time and sleeps whenever they are driving. Dick wonders, watching her, if she dared to rest when she was out on her own.

            As the lack of lights last night indicated, there are no ranches, no farms, not little houses or big in this huge wild place. It’s some hours before the cousins come in to the dusty town of Ely, Nevada, and they have by then firmly decided that they are not leaving this pup at an unknown animal shelter about whose policies and behaviors they know nothing. They stop at the pet store and supply themselves with dog kibble, a harness, a collar and a lead.

            “Little Ely,” Jim says. “How’s that?”

            “Yeah,” Dick tries the harness on Little Ely, who does not think this is a good idea. But she merely goes limp and looks at them with those big brown eyes, her white chest and paws surrendering to their bad plan. Once the blue harness is fastened in place she sits up with a clear expression of resignation, but then she smiles up at them, hopefully, tongue lolling, and of course it’s time for a bit more food for the dog.

            The rest of the long morning as the men do their work, stopping at playas and taking rock samples, Little Ely shows she doesn’t really need a collar or a lead, much less a harness. She is with them; she knows, apparently, she doesn’t want to be anywhere else. Neither man has ever had a dog so sensitive to what they are doing, nor so silent. She already looks much better, and either their frequent pats or her own tongue has made of her quite a neat little dog with her too long puppy tail still tucked, her big white paws, and a streak of snow down her forehead widening over the muzzle with its black nose.

            In the late morning Little Ely makes her first sound, a tiny whimper.

            “What do you think, Dick?” Jim says. “Let’s stop and see if that’s a request.”

            Apparently it is– Little Ely trots off barely far enough for politeness and does what must be done, covering the spot in proper dog fashion by kicking up some dirt. The she’s back at the truck, ready to go on.

            “You suppose she came from some ranch — you know how they often have a passel of dogs and puppies, and when they take hay bales out to the steers in the back of beyond some dogs just pile on for the ride, get off and have some fun when they’re there, and hop back on when they’re whistled up?”

            “Mmhm,” Jim says.

            “A puppy can get too excited to get in the truck on time. or someone might forget to whistle.”

            “Yeah,” Jim says. He bends down and strokes the smooth black head with its tiny stripe of white. “Could be.”

——————————————————————————————————–

            The cousins are due to stop by the Granite Mountains station before spending their last night out, and Jim calls ahead to explain the presence of a puppy. It’s okay, the answer comes, since they’re not officially open to the public because of COVID. However there are two mature mutts, both large dogs, in residence already, pets of the staff, who are allowed one each if kept under good supervision. The cousins speculate if Little Ely will be dog shy or stranger fearful when she meets these new elements, but when they set her down on the pebbled drive and the older dogs advance, she is all shy friendliness and dog manners. With the people too, and she seems to settle in without the least hiccup or concern, as silent as ever, meeting noses and beginning to romp with the big dogs.

            “Look at the tail,” Dick whispers to Jim.

            “Wow,” Jim says, because that long tail is finally out from between the small haunches, beginning to twitch a wag.

            The cousins obtain the data they need and after a leisurely time watching the dogs play, they head off to the Granite Mountains cabin on the far side of the range for the night.

            “I have a dog,” Dick says.

            “I’m not the right guy at the right time for this dog,” Jim says. “But she’s not going to some shelter and a random home.”

            “Yes,” Dick says. “You bet.”

            The Granite Mountains cabin is partway structured into and among great granite boulders of rounded rock, in an area of mountains built up as though some giant’s child idled eons away by piling time-rubbed boulders, some the size of trucks or greater, into barely balanced piles. All unfinished. The stones catch light, glowing gold at morning with smoky purple in their shadows, bleaching to white in the flat brilliance of day, then fading to pinks and lavenders as dusk approaches, until in the night they borrow reflections of both moon and stars to shape themselves in the blue darkness. The front of the cabin comprises a great deck cantilevered out between the rocks, without a barrier at the edge, so if you step out at night you need to be very careful, for a fall from that height will have consequences on the unforgiving rocks.

            Night falls as the cousins’ truck trundles up the familiar dirt road to the cabin, and Jim is worrying.

            “I’m going to keep Little Ely in tonight. She could fall off and break a leg,” he says to Dick as they reach the parking place down below the cabin. Looking up at the perched deck above then, Dick agrees.

            “She can have no idea what lies beyond that edge of the porch,” he says. “She hasn’t seen it in the day. She’s going to have to figure out the potty issue, though.”

            “Yeah Little Bit,” Jim says to the pup. “Hope you’re flexible.”

            Little Ely is happy to be with them in the fascinating cabin with its back rooms made of spaces between massive boulders, and she trots all through the place, her nose busy with the fascination of odors. Trade rats and mice, the scent of a ringtailed cat who sometimes comes out to see if human visitors can be persuaded to slip out a treat, or if not, are they careless enough to leave some food where it can be sampled. But not tonight, the presence of a dog, however small will discourage any approaches for sure.

            The men settle down by the wood stove, enjoying its quiet crackling and the warmth which even in the cabin, is extremely welcome. The puppy eats with such pleasure it’s a temptation to overfeed. Dinner warms in a pot, the plop of breaking bubbles sending a fine aroma of chili through the room. Purchased corn muffins wrapped in foil warm on the stove. Beer cans open, Jim and Dick settle down to talk over the results of the trip and what new expeditions this one has suggested for the winter. Little Ely, belly full of kibble, lies between them, an old bathmat under her for comfort, her gaze going from face to face, to her empty bowl, then from face to face. In the darkness she sighs.

            “Where’s Little Ely?” Jim asks about half an hour later as the cousins bestir themselves to fill bowls with hot dinner.

            “I heard her head over there,” Dick says, gesturing to the far corner where a pile of wood is stored.

            Jim flicks on his headlamp and follows Dick’s gesture.

            “Yup,” he says, after a few moments. “She figured out what to do about not going outside. She found the furthest quietest spot she could find. I’ll clean that in the morning before we head out.”

——————————————————————————————————–

            The sun bolts up, transforming the gold of morning to the white of day as though in a hurry. This finds both men subdued; they wash up all pans and bowls, knives and spoons they’ve used, lock down the outhouse after dosing it with a scoop of lime. In the meantime Jim’s flipflop goes missing and they discover Little Ely giving it a good chew by the porch corner in the new shade. They bolt the front door, leaving it as they found it.

            “She figured out the edge of the porch as soon as she could see,” Jim says.

            “She’s not dumb,” Dick says.

            There’s a lot they don’t say.

            The three get in to the truck, and Jim notices that Little Ely is brisk and energetic enough to get herself in now. She’s basically recovered from what must have been days out on her own, and already the black and white coat has a sense of gloss to it. The tail is out and it even wags sometimes, the white tip stirs as they start on the drive out from the cabin back to houses and people and stores.

            There comes a time in the long hours of driving through hot sunlight when without debating it Dick says–

            “We’ll go to my house,” and Jim feels a funny sensation he’s not quite sure of, as though he swallowed something without chewing.

            “Okay,” he says. He carefully doesn’t look at Dick.

            The world changes around them, from the blowing brilliant bleakness of the southwest dry lands to the creeping grayish suburbs of identical houses and straight roads with lanes named after some developer’s girlfriends. The driving slows, the truck looks less as though it belongs, and the silence in the cab grows thicker.

            “What are you thinking?” Jim says.

            Dick stops, reverses neatly up into his home driveway with the front lawn xeriscaped, the green gray of agaves echoing lands through which they have traveled over the past days.

            “Who’s thinking?” Dick says, which makes Jim laugh, a little. “I called Trish at our last rest stop,” Dick says. “She’ll be out in a moment. She’ll bring Nikki, so we can do introductions outside the house, on neutral ground, and we’ll just see what happens, I guess.”

            Jim pulls out the harness, gets it on Little Ely and snaps on the lead. Dick steps out of the truck and stretches. Jim opens his door, takes the pup in his arms and  gets out, setting the puppy on the driveway where she shakes herself as though getting rid of the last of travel. She wags solemnly at him, asking what do we do next, so he walks her away down the street all the way to the corner as Dick’s front door opens and Trish comes out, her arm pulled straight by a straining brown dog no bigger than the puppy. Dick and she manage an awkward hug around the dog, then Dick kneels down to greet it, too.

            “Hi there, Nikki,” he says, and Nikki gives his bristly cheek a quick lick, though he seems distracted by the sight and scent of the puppy down the street. Dick takes over the lead and brings Nikki down onto the neutral territory of the sidewalk and gentles Nikki there, settling him, getting between him and the pup until he calms down and seems ready to pay attention to his human.

            “That’s a good dog, Nikki. That’s the way.”

            In a little time an approach seems possible, so on short lead with a hand on each collar, the two dogs meet, touching noses, looking away, Nikki bristling a little, Little Ely playing politely submissive.

            Puppies are easier, Jim thinks, watching this, still wary. Maybe it helps that Little Ely is female, so there aren’t the same dominance issues there would…

            When it happens it’s so fast that human reflexes can’t possibly compensate. Perhaps Dick’s hand slackens, perhaps not. But Little Ely yips, and her face opens in a slash of wet red blood, and Nikki is raising a sound like a demon as Dick pulls him off. In an instant Nikki slumps in apology, and Jim, his arms full of the bleeding scared puppy, sees exactly what Dick meant. Nikki knows what they want of him, but he simply can’t stop himself.

            “How bad is it? Is Ely okay?”

            “It’s a vet visit,” Jim says, clamping the puppy to his chest. “But missed the eye.”

            Firm and calm, Dick walks Nikki away, takes Nikki back to the house. Trish saw the whole thing from the driveway and her eyes are round, but she says very little.

            “Can you call the vet?” Dick says to Trish. “Let’s take the truck,” and of course, as Jim climbs back into the truck it makes sense, the truck can deal with some dog blood on top of its other adventures, they sure don’t want to take the family car on this expedition. Or Jim’s Subaru, parked out on the street waiting for him. Thank goodness for trucks.

            Also, as Dick says later, thank goodness for a good vet. The puppy endures an exam, a shot, some deft stitches, incarceration in a plastic Elizabethan collar, while the cousins bring the vet up to speed on their field trip and what they know of the puppy, and all that they don’t.

            “Two months, maybe three,” the vet says. “This is one heck of a dog. Quiet, even putting in the lidocaine. No microchip though. Your Nikki who bit her, that’s the brindle tan I’ve seen here a couple of times?”

            “Yes.”

            “It felt like more than a bite,” Jim says.

            “It looks like more than a bite. You were all lucky. Lucky neither of you got in the way and lucky Nikki’s as small as he is. You may have to think,” the vet gives Dick a level look as he strokes the black flank. “To which animal do you owe the most? You have two cats. How has Nikki been with them?”

            “We keep them strictly apart,” Dick says, “even more, after today,” but his face is troubled as he looks into Little Ely’s upraised brown eyes and expectant expression.

            To her it’s as though nothing very important has happened. Her face may be sore, swollen, but she has humans and things to learn and a place to be. This man in white with stern hands whose smell makes her nose wrinkle, may have hurt her, but his touch has gone gentle and she’s willing to be friends anyway, now that he’s stopped and he’s petting her.

            “Did you pick up Nikki from ALL Paws?” The vet names the shelter known in town for its no-kill policies.

            Dick nods.

            “Talk to them. I’m not sure you can ever let Nikki loose in the same space as other pets. They need to know that. There are animals born that way. Others learn it. But once learned, for some they can never let go of the behavior.”

            The cousins say nothing as they leave after settling the bill. Little Ely seems glad to be headed out with her people. Her tail is wagging and Dick watches it as though it’s fascinating.

            Trish meets them at the top of the driveway.

            “Is Little Ely all right? I’ve let Nikki in to the house. The cats are in our bedroom and the den.” But she doesn’t exactly say all this sequentially– it comes out tumbled and yet to both the cousins it’s perfectly clear.

            “I think it’s time for a beer,” Dick says. “It’s too late for you to drive back home, Jim. You stay the night and we can talk this over.”

            But even while they drink their beers and chicken sizzles on the grill, no one seems to want to talk about the black and white puppy who is everywhere in the green back yard with its few orchard trees, and the patio.

            Trish is oddly quiet too, and Jim keeps feeling he’s interrupting when he speaks to her even though she hasn’t said anything. They eat their barbecued chicken and potato salad and string beans, have some ice cream, and no one seems able to talk about Little Ely.

            “I’ll take her to bed with me?” Jim says after dinner.

            “No,” Dick says, “maybe she should sleep with us.”

            In the morning, Trish is setting up coffee when Jim comes out ready for the road, wondering. There is a good smell of muffins in the oven and a smile on Trish’s face. But does it mean anything?  Dick emerges, sets kibble and fresh water for Nikki then opens up the downstairs study. Nikki bristles out, goes straight to Jim, even though he’s met Jim before, sniffs Jim’s socks and legs aggressively with stiff steps and makes a small sound deep in his chest that is not friendly, before turning his shoulder and going to his food.

            “How’s Little Ely?” Jim says, and his heart is sore. He knows one thing for sure, what Dick and he said in the truck traveling, still stands. No random home for this most particular pup named Little Ely.

            “She’s great,” Dick says.

            “We made a mistake last night,” Trish says. “Lost track of the cats and I wasn’t able to find Little Ely. Finally located her under the bed, in her Elizabethan collar, no less. There she was all stretched out and nose to nose with our scaredy cat and he was stretching out to her. I was so pleased. She wasn’t supposed to be in the same space as he. That cat must have squirted past me when I was trying to get the two cats into the den away from Ely. But this morning they’re friends. Sitting together looking out into the back yard.”

            She shakes her head, her eyes bright.

            “I said to Dick, you know I hadn’t realized how much we were giving up to make the relationship with Nikki work. But we’re always going to have to be watching him, guarding him. He’ll never be able to live with our cats, and they’ve been with us longer than he has. If we had grandkids coming to visit, Nikki would have to be locked up. He’s okay with us, but not bonded. He needs a refuge with no pets and no children.”

            “We’ll keep talking this over,” Dick says. “But I think this puppy has a home, here, with us.”

            The air goes out of Jim. He puts his stuff into the Subaru, so Nikki won’t pee on it like he did last visit, and he’s quiet through breakfast.

            “It’s been a great trip,” he says to Dick. “And a great stay. Thanks to you both.”

            “Go see Little Ely before you go,” Dick says. He knows Jim. “Our rescue dog.”

            Jim lets himself into the bedroom and Little Ely comes racing to him, dancing in dog greeting, her tongue lolling in a dog laugh. But then she quiets, perhaps she knows he is a touch sad, and he bends down to hold her paws in his hands.

            “No, Little Ely,” he says. “You’re not a rescue dog. You’re a self-rescued dog.”

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Filed under blog, camping, experiences

I’m back, and better…

            I’m back. I had cataract surgery this spring, and I’m willing to call it a medical milestone. Not a Hail Mary type of surgery, but one done for millions. Yet, to me, and to many like me, a transformation.

            Imagine having yellowed vaseline smeared generously on both the lenses of your glasses. That’s how I’ve been. But, you say, you’re an artist, so how can you have allowed the situation to get so bad without hammering on your ophthalmologist’s door demanding help? Think human nature, fear, and all the things we’re told will inevitably get worse as we age. Who wants to line up for surgery in a time of COVID to have one’s eyeballs tampered with? Especially when you think that maybe impaired vision is better than no vision, and there’s no guarantee for any surgery’s success? I had the impression that I’d never have fully correctable vision again, surgery or no surgery.

            In my early sixties I’m younger than the average to have this done, and I think my myopia made my cataracts affect me more than a person who had less distortion. I also wonder about a childhood under the African sun. I didn’t know just how blind I had become. I wasn’t driving anyway, so that wasn’t an issue. True, I had in the past few years taken to telling people that if I seemed to be rude to them in public it was because I couldn’t see them. COVID restrictions of course forced me to wait until the vision loss was even more extreme.

            I would say that the most painful part of my surgical experience was the pre-op COVID nasopharyngeal test which was performed by a lovely young nurse trained by Torquemada. She apologized afterwards while I sneezed and tears bled over my eyelid on the sampled side. I was amazed there was no real blood from her swab poking about in what felt like my brain.

            I also hated getting up so early while the world, in March, was still dark and cold and it seemed lonely being one of the first patients of the morning at the surgical center. At least, I thought, I get to sleep through this. I let the nurses poke about while they checked everything, and then checked it again, cheerful and unfazed. Then they slipped me into sleep. After an hour or so of vague nothing, and a few images of lights and voices in the background, I woke up and they let me go home. Outdoors was painfully bright– someone in the process should apparently have told me to bring my dark glasses, but it was a very minor slip up.

            It’s a slow recovery, not because it’s painful but because you are reminded all the time of the strictures until you heal– six weeks of multiple times a day eyedrops and about two weeks of never bending over, no water on the side of the face most recently done, no heavy exercise (at heart I am a farmer, so that’s hard….) Just remember that the actual incision is tiny, and so long as you use caution and patience, the odds are tremendously in your favor. But you are told not to sneeze and not to vomit– both of which are not, perhaps the most controllable of events! Having been told about the sneeze caution, I started on over the counter antihistamine pills two weeks previous.

            Another reason I found this down time perplexing, was that I was even blinder in the two weeks after the first surgery because I really am profoundly myopic without correcting lenses. If one isn’t extremely myopic I think the process would feel shorter, and the ability to do normal things would be there. I thought about the options for what lenses the surgeon would implant and selected the simplest, a monofocal set of lenses that would improve but maintain my myopia. Multifocal lenses are more complicated, and do not do as well in low-light circumstances, according to my reading on the subject. I love low-light circumstances, especially for painting, so that was a consideration. I also preferred the idea of continuing to wear glasses, because I’m used to the protection they lend, especially as I am a person who does lots of dirty work in my garden. So I had my lenses improve my vision from nearly minus eight to a mere minus 1.75 and minus 3, planning on spectacles to take care of my distance vision.

            Two weeks after the second eye surgery, I had an appointment with my ophthalmologist, who gave me my temporary prescription. I went immediately to one of the shops that specializes in same-day production, and I spoke briefly to a young man, telling him I wanted frames similar to the old ones I showed him. Little did he know what a blur he was to me! But he showed me an example that was a close match, and started to hand me a basket so I could collect an assortment of those I liked. I said, “No, thanks, I’ll take these.”

            He faltered, truly taken aback.

            “What? You can’t do that…” he said. “No one looks at only one frame.”

            “But I do,” I said. “I’ve only had one of my COVID vaccinations and I want to be as fast as possible in here, no insult intended. These glasses will be temporary, because the post-cataract surgery sight hasn’t settled yet, and I want to get them and go, as efficiently as possible.”

            And so it was.

            Now I can see ALL THE THINGS! I can see the fur on the cat sitting in my lap with perfect detail, and I can count the Coulter pines on the ridge line over Santa Barbara, and I can trace the edges on all the trees and buildings and slopes between. I could blather for hours about how marvelous this is! There are so many details, the shadows of pebbles and the blades of grass, and the sharp deliberate outlines of mountains surging against the thick blue horizon. I am drunk with detail and the gorgeousness of light.

            If you are worried about having your own cataract surgery, I can tell you I worried about mine too. I memorized just about everything that might go wrong. But I also realized after the first eye went so well, that even if the second surgery was a disaster, I was already so much better off than before.

            A fortunate person is born to see, but to get the chance to be born twice…no wonder I must sound drunk.

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Shifting Seasons

I’ve kept rather quiet for a while on this site due to several influences. The fraught politics of last year could bear some blame, but more personally, my cataracts made it difficult to write. You who are familiar with what I post here​,​ will probably wonder, was I able to paint, and weirdly enough the answer to that is yes​.​  I think it’s because you do not entirely paint by sight. Instead, you have trained muscle memory after decades of practice, and a sense of values and tones, rather than exact detail. Detail can be had for the simple effort of peering at everything up close.

Indeed, while I still painted landscapes successfully while way too blind to drive, I also created a tightly photorealistic series of paintings of fat persimmons on a counter, a few drying leaves (they still are on a tabletop in my studio,) and some twigs. I shall do a post or two dedicated to the cataract experience, but not right now. Right now my mind and heart are occupied by something more urgent to share. 

Fireside in wintertime

 Like many of us who are able, I’ve had my vaccinations, so has my husband. Our daughter who is here until August, just received her second Moderna shot, and is curled up with a headache. A good headache, you might say. As I’ve settled into the joys of better vision I’ve realized how dirty the house really is, and how much easier it is to work when you can see. Indeed I did a spate of painting to fullfill my ideas for a new show of works which will be hung before the end of this month. But the new vision has also let me engage more, even though distanced, with friends. 

A few days past, I received the bad news that a dear friend, a man I’ve known first through writers conferences, then by shared conversations about writing, painting and music for more than seventeen years, faces a bad prognosis after over two years of struggling first with one cancer, then a second. I shall call him James. 

I’ve been in conversation via email with two other friends, who, like my friend James, I met through the writers conferences. They are such good men, and I’m really glad of their friendship.  One of them, Bill, sent to us an email about James, with whom he is in a writers group. They met up last night for the first time since COVID hit….


James is in good spirits, Bill said, “and we talked some about the temporary presence of our lives. He is focused on being here now, until he isn’t. We laughed quite a bit and read our stories to each other—stories of androids with souls, a couple who’d forgotten how to love, a child whose imaginary friend imagines him, a space crew sent back in time through the collision of an asteroid, a aged surfer who teaches his grandson to ride into his fear. What a joy to share!!!The greatest gift we can give James or each other is a note of love, a memory, a link to a work of music. He is relishing these things.”

Doesn’t that give you pause? I turned around and invited two much younger friends to lunch in our backyard. Anne and Ginny, (thirty and twenty eight for ages.) Made them pan bread, which is a fresh yeast dough cooked in a covered cast iron frying pan, to be eaten hot with butter or dried tomatoes, all sorts of cheeses and garlic, sauteed peppers, and we had a marvelous time.

 
 So now I’m saying, thank you James, for reminding me. Thank you Bill, for telling me. These sharings are the real matter of our lives. 


And I think of James who has struggled to stop smoking over all the years I’ve known him, but the cancer he has isn’t from the smoking. I think of his battle with morbid obesity, which has been this burden to him and this guilt– he has felt he caused his own problems– but it isn’t his weight that is killing him. No, it is another part of nature, over which he never had control.


 Surely there is a lesson here we can grasp and do our own barbaric yawp. Sometimes we need to just live and share and not think about how we ought to do it better. There may be no better. We may waste all these good times and things, food and fun and music, punishing ourselves for what was never meant to be. If friends love us, that is the feast and celebration. 


I tagged James, sharing one of my favorite pieces of music, a symphony by Berwald. It is an experience, as all music is. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z0G1Z9dwyPU

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The Cat Who Wants Too Much

Our cat, Hopkins, at eleven months, well over thirteen pounds.

When the tiny tabby, just over two pounds, arrived from the shelter, we were warned that he was spicy and bitey. One of the smallest cats we ever hosted, but full of will and want. A silver brown tabby, with eyes turning gold.  He was always leaping, bouncing and hopping. In the first days when we needed to keep him separate from our other older cats to start the gentle introductions between them, whenever we entered the room, he would greet us bounding towards us on his hind legs, front arms outstretched as if to grab us in a hug. 

Hopkins at the shelter being vaccinated. Note the woman’s hand holding him for scale.

But Hopkins was bitey, yes, frenetic, yes, and we knew while this was cute the cuteness would not last longer than his tininess. To have a grown mid-sized predator on your hands without some calmness and kindness towards humans, who lack fur to protect them from enthused play, is a scenario that loses its humor quickly. 

We named him Hopkins, in salute to Gerard Manley Hopkins and his poem ‘Pied Beauty’, for if ever a tiny cat had speckles, dashes and spots, this one did. We had a guest at the time, a young man who was so skilled in animal handling that I wish he had decided to use those skills as his career. This man took on the handling of Hopkins, letting him play ferociously, wrestling his tiny savage self with firm hands, and actually demonstrating for our five-year old cat Watson, how to play with a kitten on overdrive.

Hopkins around three months.

We’ve raised a lot of kittens in our time, but we’d never seen a kitten so hyper as Hopkins. He had a royal presumption about him, a feeling of the feral, the untamable, even though he loved us and wanted to be close and cuddled, and liked to sleep in a padded box by my pillow. Indeed we wondered, was there any chance there was some splash of an exotic breed in this kitten that made him so much more so, than one normally expects? 

Watson and Hopkins, early days.

Watson did not know what to do with this scrap of energy, and it took a lot of sessions of our young man demonstrating how to spin a kitten on the carpet and roll or flip him over with a quick hand. Watson showed signs of conflict in himself– he would cry when he saw the kitten bite a human hand like someone objecting “That’s not right!” He would make little essays and charges, then deflect or retreat as though afraid of hurting the miniature monster. Finally, one evening, Watson dashed in and bashed the kitten with a paw, claws hidden. After that, one bit at a time, he began to understand he could play with the mite and hit him, and even gently bite. It took weeks, though, and our friend had to continually encourage Watson with advice and example.

We lost our oldest cat Kitsune in this time period to a cancer of the throat, and again, our young friend demonstrated his skills as an animal handler during that difficult time. But our friend soon responded to a call from his home, headed back through a dip in the COVID numbers, and we missed his kind presence. Hopkins showed the loss, he kept looking for his friend, checking by the door to no avail.

In the meantime  Hopkins grew. From just under three pounds he stretched and bulked to six, then eight, then ten. We tried to keep him exercised and much handled, something that you want to do with any young animal who will be a companion. He was profoundly affectionate, attentive, but still rough. It concerned us, but we hoped he’d mellow in time as he reached his adulthood. But when would that be, and how big was he going to be? 

I should also mention that this was a young cat who, if you played with him using wand toys, showed a truly daunting ferocity, a dedication and even savagery in his behavior, such that I was concerned that if Watson played too, someone would get hurt, and I was very careful when I put the toy away that I used some sleight of hand, because what if Hopkins seriously objected?

About six months into his life with us, we received news from our daughter that there were two newly captured feral kittens in desperate need of a home. They came from a feral colony near her place, the same colony that had given her a rather problematic but character-ful black cat of her own, all too fittingly named Ravage. It took us no time at all to say yes. The little guys arrived in October, weighing perhaps four pounds each, black with greeny gold eyes. Jinx and Jasper.

Two feral bits of feline.

Our planned careful introduction of Watson and Hopkins (who now weighed over ten pounds at about seven months) to the little guys was not as slow as we’d planned because there was a jail break and the next thing we knew we had a malestrom of cats playing, playing and playing, all over the place. Curiously, it was Watson who made all the noises, sounding like a querulous baby, as if trying to say “I don’t know how to play, be nice to me. don’t bite so sharp. don’t hit so hard,” while the little black kittens and Hopkins were dashing and rolling, play biting and batting all over the house.

What we discovered, was that like some miracle, Hopkins’ roughness melted. He’d needed kittens to tame him. Now he played and rumpused and rioted, but he did no harm. He became far gentler with us. He had always distinguished between my husband and myself and been softer with me, but now we saw him, despite his huge enthusiasm, being even more careful yet, with his new kittens. 

Hopkins before the arrival of his new kittens. Wound up and ready.

Is this the cure for some overly energetic and predatory young cats? Find them some kittens to teach them kindness? I don’t know if this would work for all. But in our household over many decades of living with cats, we have seen the falling in love between young fixed male cats and tiny kittens, and it is a marvel when this magic happens. Seeing a young powerful cat contemplating his kittens with a loopy tender affection is wonderful.

Hopkins and Jinx and Jasper.

I could string you a sequence of names of the cats we’ve had who have done this while we watched, and our hearts melted. Hopkins is now over thirteen pounds of cat at approximately eleven months, and we are grateful for his transformation!

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Banana Cream Pie

Bananas cause strong reactions in people. If you like them, I suggest you may enjoy my personal banana cream pie recipe. If you do not like bananas, don’t waste your time trying this, because it is indeed deeply banana flavored.

Most of the past recipes for this dessert that I’ve eaten have been tremendously over sweet, often using meringue, or heavily sweetened pudding. This one pushes towards a more refreshing note, though it doesn’t lack sweetness. There are three main ingredients, the pie crust, the pie filling and the topping. Chilling is part of the process– though it is not an intensive job to make this, it does need refrigerator time. 

First, make and prebake a simple crust. Not a crumb or cookie based or graham cracker based crust, instead a simple slightly salty plain crust pastry. 

1 1/2 c all purpose flour

1/2 tsp salt,

1/2 tsp sugar

1/3 cup od cold butter, chopped up a bit

2 TB grapeseed or other flavorless oil

1/3 cup ice water with a squeeze of lemon or lime in it

Preheat oven to 423 F.

For fast production, place dry ingredients in your Cuisinart, throw in the butter and zap until finely mealy. Put in the oil with the machine still running. Stop and toss the result into a bowl, dripping or drizzling the lemon ice water in, while tossing the pastry crumbs with a fork. Treat tenderly and toss to combine until the crumbs have begun to gather. With your hands, gently press together this dough into a rough round shape, flatten with a light hand and then roll out on a preferably cold or cool surface. I love a flat circular pastry rolling bag for this, and a French or Chinese rolling pin.

 Keep your touch light, and when your crust is round and thin, settle it well into a 9″ pie pan. Prick it all about with a fork — you can use pie weights or beans to keep the crust perfectly unbulgy, or if you are like me, you will simply check on it in the oven after about five minutes and poke any bulging parts with your fork to make them collapse.  Place the pan in your preheated oven and bake until nicely browned, roughly ten minutes, then cool to room temperature.

Next, make the filling pudding by taking a stout cooking pot, and mixing together:

1/4 tsp salt

1/3 cup of sugar

3 tablespoons flour.

Mix thoroughly. Take 1 1/4 cups of milk and warm in the microwave about one minute, you want it warm but not steaming, or you will cook the flour in the dry mix too fast on contact and make it lumpy.

Take an egg and beat it to break up the structure a bit in a pyrex pint measuring cup using a fork– leave the fork in it.

 Slowly blend warmed milk into dry ingredients in pot. Then bring this mixture to a boil, cooking after lowering the heat so it doesn’t stick, for two minutes. Remove from heat. Temper hot mix into eggs, beating fast as you add each spoonfull so you don’t end up with curdled eggs. When you’ve mixed about half the hot material into the egg you can then mix the eggy part back into your pot. Turn stove back on and bring the mixture to a bubble, then remove from heat and allow to cool. While still warm, add a tablespoon of butter and a teaspoonful of vanilla extract. Turn into a bowl. Cover with plastic wrap. When its heat is moderate, let it rest in fridge. 

When the cooked pudding is getting quite cool, (close to refrigerator interior temperature,) take three large ripe bananas and peel and slice them, drizzling lightly with lemon or lime juice. Fold into the cooled pudding mixture.

Take a cup and a half of extremely cold whipping cream, a teaspoon of vanilla extract, a package of whipped cream stabilizer and three tablespoons of sugar, and whip together until well stiffened and easily forming peaks. 

Fill the cooled pastry shell with your banana and pudding mix, cover with the whipped cream and serve.

Here’s my pie waiting for the whipped cream….

This is a pie that must be stored in the refrigerator and kept cold. With the stabilized whipped cream, this pie will stay in fairly good shape in the fridge for perhaps three or four days. Some people like to add dark rum when whipping the cream for the topping, others like to drizzle some on the pie at serving. I think it’s just fine without! The bananas have a surprisingly emphatic presence in this pie.

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Two Cats

        I found this older post that I never put up, so I’ll share it with you today.

        Look, I know my Little Watson is a pig. He loves food, he’ll take any extra licks he can get. He’ll deftly sneak in under a friend’s whiskers to get that extra bite. Later, he’ll go after the final few molecules with that efficient tongue, polishing all the bowls. But not tonight. He has known Kitsune, our ‘fox’ cat for over five years now, and has always been willing to slip over and enjoy Kit’s food, so what was different?

IMG_0236

            Tonight Kitsune came back from the vet. After a dental cleaning under mild sedation, Kit was extra impaired, staggering with aftermath sleepiness, pupils dilated, drooling down his chin and white ruff.  Nothing to eat for Kit since last midnight, so he was truly ravenous.

            Most days when I feed these two, I sit by to make sure Little Watson doesn’t come in to sneak Kit’s food. Most nights. that’s my job after serving their meals and it’s always Watson who invades the other bowl and has to be removed.

            I looked up after a few minutes tonight, to see a complete reversal. Here we had Kit, who’d bolted down all his own dinner, setting his muzzle deep into Little Watson’s barely half-eaten meal. Astonishing also, because Little usually finishes half a minute ahead of Kit. This time, Little Watson had backed off, and was watching, dare I say wistfully, as Kitsune munched down Watson’s food. There was no confrontation, indeed, if there were any struggle, my money would be on Little Watson, not Kit, to carry the day. Watson’s a powerful, assertive little cat despite his bad left eye.

            I intervened, moving Kit back to his dish, which had a scant trace remaining in it, and returned Little Watson to his. Watson started eating, with zest. Nothing wrong with his appetite. Kit leaned over, took a sideways step and then another, leaned harder, hopeful, …and Little Watson, my glutton, stepped back, like an invitation. Settled down into the cat becomes an egg position to permit his friend to eat. What is a human to do? Well, suspecting that Kit might be sick from overindulgence, I ended up removing Little Watson’s food, and offered it separately to Watson. He ate a little from my hand, but Kit lunged over, wanting more– and yet again, Little Watson backed off as though to say, friend, you need it more. It felt like kindness, it looked like generosity. I’ll call it both.

Watson looking back copy

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To Tell the Truth

            November is nanowrimo month– National Novel Writing Month. Without a plot, without a plan, I sat down and started a new story, hoping it might bring me to a conclusion by month’s end and the 50,000 words of a new novel that the nanowrimo experience aims to produce. 

            My heroine Veronica, known as Ron, has polished her new app, which she hopes will take the world by storm. She aims it at the media, believing that this app will allow everyone to tell truth from lies. Applied to photos, videos or voice recordings, her app highlights even the most subtle of discrepancies or differential sources, so that no one need be misled ever again. Why does she care? Because her young husband has slipped deep into a conspiracy cult that has cobbled together an alternate reality in which he lives, and he will not, and cannot, allow her to try to lead him out. 

            Ron, idealistically, thinks the best thing to do with her app is to send it out to the world, spreading it to all media that she can think of, and to universities and other institutions. She hasn’t thought about how much it will be hated by all political parties. She hasn’t considered the international elements who will be threatened in their efforts to manipulate the world stage. She never imagined that advertisers would have blood in their eyes as soon as they realize what this app could do to their sales. Truth in advertising? Never! So she panics and goes on the run, assuming that if she just gives this app a day to spread, the simple fact that she gave this away for free will protect her as soon as these outraged and menacing elements realize what she’s done. She’s not putting it out for bid, she’ll not sell to the highest bidder or blackmailer, there’s no putting this genie back in the bottle. She just has to disappear until the pace of the news catches up and makes her safe and uninteresting once more.

            What happens when you send an announcement of a truth-revealing app to the media, with the free app attached? Well, who values something given away for free? What idiot would simply open a free app and try it? No one who’s read about identity theft…. Ron has become too accustomed to the free and easy ways between programmers, and she’s been so deep in perfecting her app that she hasn’t stopped to think.

            But there are some elements out there, including her husband’s cult, that understand the power of her offering and they are frightened. They believe it will be possible to put this genie back in the bottle if they can get hold of the author and however many copies she’s carrying with her in a pocket full of memory sticks. Some are even willing to give her a price for it.

            As she realizes she is actually being pursued, Ron panics, and does her best to slip through the busy streets of her city. When she is captured and interrogated, she begins to see a very different price for her work, and a very different value.

            It takes a thug to remind her of the basic truth, that you cannot make a person change his mind. Force doesn’t work. Even an app, can be seen as force. What happens to Ron, what unexpected friends rise to the challenge of allying with her, what the final price may be for her peace, these questions drive.

            I have never been so seat-of-the-pants in writing an unplanned novel before. I don’t usually have a great fondness for outlines, but this was surely one of the wilder writing efforts I’ve ever tried. Is it any good as a novel? Oh, it likely has holes big enough to drive a semi tractor-trailer truck through, but it’s been such a ride, I won’t worry too much about that until this draft is done! I’m at 47,849 words today.

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Carry On

I’m concerned, hearing more people talk about relaxing their covid regimes.

“Oh, it’s fine, I’ve met up with them before,” one woman I paused to talk with on my walk said about her plan to spend Christmas with sixteen family members from three states, in a rental house in Oregon.

“We saw each other in August.”

“But isn’t the question what they’ve been doing since you met them?” I said. “It’s the going out and shopping, the kids at school, and doctor appointments…?”

She waved a dismissive hand. “It’ll be fine. We’re all family.”

“Well if you’re all masked that will help,” I say, letting my doubt show.

“It’s okay,” she says again, but looks away, and I don’t believe she’s saying they will all mask. “Masks, it’s so hard to find any that fit. Besides, you can’t live in fear.”

A quote at which I decide I don’t care any more. But now, hours later, I’m a bit ashamed. Of course I do care. Covid doesn’t distinguish between relatives or intentions, fear or bravado. It only wants opportunity. But I have a sad feeling that nothing I could say would take the shine off this woman’s plan with the lovely house in Oregon and her sixteen relatives from three states.

Please, friends, be careful. Don’t drop your guard. Don’t let the weariness of this strange and strained regime we try to follow get your guard down. We can still do this. And we must still care.

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A Change in Pace

Working in the studio during this lockdown seems so unchanged, and yet the news is ever on my mind, challenging my concentration. I cannot believe the latest series I’ve produced is unaffected.

I pulled up a lot of images of persimmons — not the ones I grow, but my neighbor Ginny’s Hachiyas. I also opened up my sketchbooks and found my drawings of persimmons on my passageway counter, plus the dried persimmon leaves I saved from last fall.

This set of three paintings are the results of my staring at these various items and rearranging them in my mind. I plan on at least two more before I go to some other topic….

Here’s an image showing how I start, a rough sketch in colored chalk — complete with rub-outs, and a placement of my darkest darks.

Here’s how that sketch ended.

And since I waited I can now show number five.

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Garden Hours

morning harvest mid July 3

I wander through the garden before the warmer hours and blinding sun are full on, (cataracts make a difference in the dazzle when you’re outdoors, even with a hat.) Hanging from the netting, beans beckon, fistfuls of NorthEasters, a superb Roma type stringless and of superb flavor, Carminat long and slender the color of garnets in sunlight, and the old staple from the 1850’s, Kentucky Wonder. Then I must pay some attention to the Oriental Express eggplants, gleaming curves so purple they verge on black and shining smoothly under fuzzy leaves like felt.

Tomatoes next, a puzzle of which can be left one more day to bring their sweetness up– but please pick before any one goes mushy. Black Krim, Amish Pink Paste, Cherokee Black, Brandywine, Striped German, Japanese Trifele, Marbonne, Nepal, Indigo Cherry, Rose, and of course Sungold. Who creates these names? Purple kale, cucumbers (Piccolino are fantastic),then some sprigs of rosemary, basil and a handful of hot peppers, Serrano of course.

kale and tangerines

I set the basket in the moving shade of our sycamore tree then take another basket to go after fruit. My navel oranges, Washington and Roberts are mostly past, so I take a few Fremont tangerines, three Mexican limes, some Eureka lemons, late-season apricots (only good for cooking), Dapple Dandy plumcots and a few ready-to-fall Pettengill apples. The first and second plantings of zucchini have given up but I have some nearly grown new plants out, and there will be more squash before two weeks are past. Pleanty for my give-away box at the end of the driveway.

Which reminds me, there’s been a wonderful aspect to this time, in that people are responding to that give-away in more personal and enthusiastic fashions. We receive envelopes with greetings, bottles of preserves made from our produce, and even though the bin has a big sign on it “FREE–GRATIS!” I’ve found embarrassing presents of money in it. I have a small collection of the hand-written notes, and fine memories of people calling out with a thank you or a description of what delicious meal they made with our produce.

It’s enough to keep me busy, planning meals around this garden’s generosity, but don’t forget, the corn’s ready too. Lovely ears only marred by corn borers. Does anyone know why corn borers are so variegated in hue and pattern? Are they really several species of these aggressive moth children, with an identical fondness for sweet corn? But they look the same to an uncritical eye when they emerge from their pupae. You’d think on such a diet they would reward the eye with colors and pinwheels of pattern, but no…dusty brown gray is all we get for the loss of tasty kernels.

Yesterday I set several sixpacks of soil I seeded with eggplant, zucchini, and even a few tomatoes into the coldframe my husband rebuilt. You look at me askance. Coldframe? It’s summer isn’t it? Yes, indeed it is, but remember we have an ocean influence here, so our nights drop into the fifties most of the year, even in summer. And temperature, as my father taught me, is vital in encouraging germination. I don’t know if he would have shaken his head over my trying a few late tomato sets, but I think it’s worth the experiment. I’ll report later, how that goes. The sun’s on full, and I’m retreating to think about food.

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