I’ve been using my Kindle as a flashlight the last couple mornings. At 4:30 a.m. the display lights my way from a bedroom to a hallway to the kitchen, where I can light a light and make some quiet coffee and pull on shirt and pants.
For 7-10 days we’re staying with our son and his wife in the Sierra Nevada mountains, at their 800-tree apple orchard, where we have come to visit and to pick apples. Yesterday morning Tizi and I picked 600 pounds of Yarlington Mills. It was work. It was good old-fashioned honest manual labor, and I was muscle weary and dead tired when we finished. (Long days of more work lie ahead.) I may have been tired, but I was done sleeping by 4:30 this morning anyway. I’m cursed with the habit of waking up preternaturally early (to use a fancy word I have always loved—I honestly don’t get that “preter” prefix, but I’ll take it). To get up and wander about someone’s house, even a close relative’s, at that hour feels anti-social. The clank of a spoon is a gong, the flush of a toilet is a roaring waterfall, a cough or sneeze is a car crash.
Mornings, wherever I am, are mostly for reading. Just now I’m reading something on Kindle. What is it? I don’t remember the title. A bad thing about Kindle: you don’t look at a book cover every time you read. You’re not reminded: Oh, it’s Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver. When you open Kindle it goes directly to the last page you read. Then you click a few times to get to the title page.
Right now it’s Joy in the Morning, by P. G. Wodehouse, an aptly named bunch of British nonsense published in 1946. This morning I’m making myself read this book (forced joy), determined to hang in there for 30 minutes or so, because when I read in bed at night, especially after a day of apple picking, I can get through only 3-4 pages—in relatively, I might even say preternaturally, large font on the display for old eyes reading in bed at night. Three pages and out. Next time I open to the book, I think: What happened? What’s going on in this story? Where were we? So this morning, I’m focused on Joy.
Kingsolver engaged large themes: gender politics, environmental change. Wodehouse is all froth and fun. The story is so weightless I embarrass myself reading it. The fun is that I’m keeping company with oddly named characters: Nobby Hopwood, Stilton Cheesewright, J. Chichester Clam, Boko Fittleworth, Barmy Fotheringay-Phipps. And reading along, provided I’m awake, I stumble upon sentences like this:
“The first sight of Boko reveals to the beholder an object with a face like an intellectual parrot.”
“This man of letters is a cross between a comedy juggler and a parrot that has been dragged through a hedge backwards.”
“Like so many substantial citizens of America, he had married young and kept on marrying, springing from blonde to blonde like the chamois of the Alps leaping from crag to crag.”
“It isn’t often that Aunt Dahlia lets her angry passions rise, but when she does, strong men climb trees and pull them up after them.”
The story is so silly, so weightless, of such little moment, it feels like a waste of time. Shouldn’t I be reading Dostoyevsky?
Embrace the silliness. You can be serious later.
Yes, a cough can be a car crash.
I get coughs these days that can’t be stifled. The cough is triggered by something going on, or not going on, in my gullet. I recall my father saying one time, “Floyd has a difficult time swallowing.” Floyd Campbell, his best pal, couldn’t swallow? I was young. They were old. I couldn’t imagine. You swallow how many times a day, when you have to, a bit of saliva, a glass of water, a bite of sandwich. It’s like heartbeat. It just happens.
But lately I’ve been feeling liquids, just a few drops, taking a wrong turn, going windpipe-ward rather than esophagus. Muscles soften, fail to do their automatic work. Breath knows where to go, food and drink know where to go, but there it is, the fact of being an older person. A sip of coffee, a small sluice of water, there can be an errant trickle down the trachea. Resulting in a choke dressed up as a cough.
“Reductions in muscle mass and strength are well known complications of advancing age.” Thus reports the National Library of Medicine. And: “In fact, people over 65 years of age have seven times higher risk for choking on food than children aged 1–4 years of age.”
So watch out.
It happens this morning. A sip of water, noise. I disturb the peace.
My muscle mass will be tested today. We’ll be pressing apples, making cider. You don’t just press a few. Think tons of apples. By the end of the day, three tons.
It’s a complex production. On one end, the station Tizi and will work, it’s lifting and dumping. Between 9:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m. I’ll lift roughly 3000 pounds of apples, in lugs (appropriately named) that weigh roughly 35 pounds each, dumping each lug on a conveyer that carries the apples—sorted, screened for spots of rot and bug bite—to the press. Inside the barn, David and his associate Cody take over, minding the machinery that crushes the apples and pumps their juice to containers where fermentation will begin.
It’s repetitive work, it’s mindless work, and it is glorious.
At one point, David steps outside and hands us a clear plastic glass. In it, the juice. “This is the only apple we press,” he says, “that makes green juice.”
It’s cool and green and delicious. It goes down easy, and it goes where it’s supposed to go. The muscles in my throat, like those in my back and my arms, know what to do.
After such exertion you sleep like the dead. That too is glorious. Then, awake. Kindle light, coffee, some reading. And daybreak.