A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

You Gave Me Words





You gave me words. You spoke them with the soft, refined vowels and inaudible r’s of Kent, near the English channel.  Up, no, more, eat, drink, sleep.  Baby.  You read aloud Beatrix Potter to the three-year-old at your side to prevent her from being jealous of her new sister.  She wanted to hear Mrs. Tiggywinkle.  Again.  Again. Again. The words flowed over me.  Pinafore, plaited, hedgehog, starch, stout, damask, goffered. 
You lose words, now.  Over the phone, your words wobble and falter.  This place where I am… your place, where you live… Four thousand miles away, I gently find the words you once gave me.  I pass them back to you.  Massachusetts.  Alaska.
You gave me whole sentences.  When I left your side to enter school, my sentences were so much yours that I spoke them in your voice, a little British child in New York.  I can already read.  I read my books in the rotunda while the other kindergartners are learning phonics.  I shed the accent, but I still sat in the rotunda with my books, my words, my sentences.
Now, your sentences sometimes turn on themselves and unravel.  Their endings become unwound from their beginnings.  The edges fray.   It’s like… that author, you know, but nobody reads him the way they used to, I suppose he did go on a bit, paid by the word, but such brilliant characters…  I rebuild sentences for you.  Oh, yes – you always loved Mr. McCawber, Mrs. Malaprop, Mr. Fezziwig.  I rewind the yarn of your thoughts until you catch up the needles again, and find your pattern.  And what about Miss Havisham, forever in her wedding dress?  Two plain, one purl. 
You gave me stories.  I loved the impossible ones: Alice in Wonderland, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Black Riders.  I loved the might-have-been-real stories, too: The Picts and the Martyrs, The Hill War, The Railway Children.  You took me to the library.  Again.  Again.  You spent so much time at the library with your children that the library offered you a job.  You worked at that library for thirty years. You were never a librarian.  You’d never even gone to college.  Everyone thought you had.  You had so many words.
Over the phone, I offer you your stories back.  Remember the Amazon pirates in their red caps?  Faraway Moses?  Wild, Fiona, stalking the Scottish highlands in a beautiful, righteous snit with her brother Ninian?  Roger sliding downhill in his knickerbockers?  I’ve passed these stories on to your grandchildren, I tell you. The hard-bound editions, dark-green covers discolored by time, are stacked in Molly’s bunk.  Lizzy will use anything as a bookmark.  I hear the smile in your voice.    Nesbit’s time-traveling children have survived the test of time.  The harbour lights are shining on Wildcat Island.
You gave me your own true tales, the wispy-distant ones you could barely remember even before the sands began to shift.  You hid under the table, listening to the doodle-bombs overhead.  If the engine of the unmanned planes cut out, it meant they’d run out of fuel.  If the engines died, the bombs would fall.  They fell somewhere.  Not on you, though – not on you. There were ration cards and victory gardens.  The beaches were covered with barbed wire.   There were no oranges. 
I pass your childhood back to you, and you reweave it with me, joyfully.  You picked berries and rosehips in the hedgerows.  When you were naughty, you threw partially dried cow pies. You do not question the paradox, the intrinsic anachronism of my recalling a time a quarter century before myself.  Your big brother John and his friends collected fascinating bits of broken planes from the hills.  John is gone now.  John let you play too, even though you were little. Your daddy had a job that was secret, but special.  He was allowed a petrol ration.  Later, you learned that he helped develop radar.  His name was James.  He was quiet and gentle, brilliant and kind.  He died when you were still a teenager.  I never met him, but you gave him to me.  I give him back.  James.  Daddy.
You gave me the stories you wrote yourself, as an earnest nine-year-old sitting down with pen and ink and a blank notebook.  Margaret wrote stories, too.  She lived just down the road. The four volumes are perfect in their utterly precocious imperfections. You penned highly derivative British boarding school books -- fan-fiction for a genre that was already a parody of itself, from fifty years before Harry Potter.  Angela did the illustrations for both of you. 
When your granddaughters reached the age you were when you began your first ambitious opus, I read aloud all four of the volumes you produced before puberty.  Angela grew up to be a real artist.  I cannot draw nearly as well as your friend could when she was not yet ten.  You named your fictional boarding school Saint Margaret’s.  I tell you about Lizzy’s writing.  I tell you that she asks me, anxiously, if her highly derivative cat-warrior fan-fiction is as good as your books.  Your young heroines discovered a Nazi hideout in a cave.  Lizzy’s fearless cats find and raise an orphaned puppy, and win a war against a rival clan.
You gave me your adventures, from that mysterious grown-up-but-before-I-was-born time.  They were rich and improbable, historical, other-worldly.  All those A-level exams, but you saw no point in University.  You didn’t want to be a spinster teacher or a spinster nurse.  You learned to touch-type more than sixty words a minute.  On a manual typewriter.  You were fluent in French.  You worked in Switzerland.  You joined the Foreign Service as a secretary, but before long you were in Cambodia transporting secret mail bags and translating codes. Sihanouk was in power.  The Vietnam War was raging. The Khmer Rouge were rising.  Your embassy was sacked.  Almost everyone fled.  You stayed.  And after that, after three years of that, you were immediately posted to Turkey.
No, you tell me, they didn’t send me right away.  I had a bit of time in London.  A few months.  A summer.  I helped with… that tunnel.  You know.  The Channel Tunnel?  The tunnel to France?  But that wasn’t built until years later, I don’t think?  Wouldn’t this have been the mid-sixties?  Yes, yes the tunnel… there were just two chaps, and me.  They were working on getting that agreed, all worked out.  I carried all sorts of papers back and forth for them, to the French, at their, their… the French Embassy, in London?  Yes, the French. 
I Google it later.  The Chunnel didn’t open until 1994, but England and France officially agreed to build the tunnel in 1964, and carried out the initial extensive geological survey.  It was faster than the post, so I offered to carry the papers.  We got it all worked out about the tunnel.  The Channel Tunnel.  I never knew.  You still have stories to give me.  I will tuck that one away and give it back to you, too – next week, next year, whenever you need it.
You gave me my own details, the ones I was too little to remember.  You had an argument on the way to the hospital about what you were going to name the boy you were sure you were going to have.  You would have gotten your way.  I would have been James.  Like your father.  The engineer I never knew.  He was a lot like me.
The details snarl and snag, so I untangle them for you.  Remember the trip we took in the Rocky Mountains?  I was three months old. I had no words then.  But you granted them to me later, more vibrant than all the dusty carousels of slides.   A tour bus pulled in right next to your Volkswagen Beetle and its occupants stared down as you tried to nurse me discreetly. In 1972, breast-feeding was not in vogue.  I was eighteen months old when you took me in for testing on my blind eye, to see if anything could be done to repair it.  I had to be lightly anesthetized, and I developed acute separation anxiety for a while afterward.  You’re sorry, you say.  The eye was useless anyhow.  I got over it, I tell you. 
But, you say, your voice a four-thousand-mile, forty-seven-year echo, you still worry.  You still worry about my having only the one eye.  You always have.  I remember.  We remember. We remember that you always worried.
I’ve done just fine without that eye, I tell you.  Pretty well, in fact.  I laugh.
Yes, you say, laughing with me, winding forward, fast-forward across the blurring calendar of years, I guess you have done pretty well. 
Your voice still sounds like Kent.  Like the English Channel. 
You give me words: I love you.
I give them back: I love you, too, Mum.


Tuesday, October 15, 2019

The Birds and the Bees



[Sample personal ads from those who benefited from a more traditionally-minded health class curriculum during their impressionable youth]
(F seeking M) Do you love snowy winters, long walks, dark starry skies, swimming, and fishing?  Are you hoping for children, and willing to commit to being a dedicated father?  Do you agree that relationships should include long-distance travel and plenty of time apart?  Do you enjoy long nights spent hanging out with the guys and watching the Aurora Australis?  You’re in luck!  Heavy/chubby strongly preferred. Densely feathered underbelly a must. 
(M seeking F)  Are you a connoisseur of the arts? I’d love the opportunity to show you some of my dance moves and sing you my signature song.  I know you’ll love it.  You’re into bright colors, I’m guessing.  Who isn’t?  I mean, not on you, of course.  Only on me.  My colors are very bright.  The brightest.  And did I mention my dance moves?  I want to wow you when I shake my tail.  But I will stop dancing once there are eggs.  Obviously.  I’m great with eggs.
(F seeking M) Looking for that one special guy to share my busy and fulfilling life.  I recently took over the family business from my mom, and I’m looking to settle down and start a large family.  If you enjoy luxurious and spacious apartment living, plenty of female company, hexagonal architecture, and organic locally-sourced honey, you might be my match.  Employment is not necessary.  Getting along with my hard-working sisters is crucial.
(M and M seeking F)  The two of us have been bros for a while, and we agree it’s time to find the right lovely lady to raise twins with.  He’ll piggyback one and I’ll carry the other one, natch -- and you’ll be free to enjoy as much fruit as you need to produce milk for those fast-growing kiddos!  Heck, we can even help you find some tasty arthropods to snack on – all while staying on alert for snakes!  If the thought fluffs your cottontop, just give us a wave with those cute little hands of yours.
(M seeking M)  Are you fond of strolling through fields of wildflowers and lush grass, with occasional adventures to windswept crags and mountaintops?  Are you a vegetarian who is into cuddling up in warm natural wool on cold winter days?  I’m a down-to-earth outdoorsy guy, but I get a haircut once a year, whether I need it or not!  If you, too, are among the 8-10%, then you understand why I’d prefer you to ewe.
(F seeking M)  My hobbies include hunting, napping, rending the limbs from zebras with my massive jaws, more napping, and having sex every twenty minutes for three solid days.  You don’t have to come along for the hunting part.
(F seeking M) There’s no time like the present!  And by the present I mean right now.  Immediately.  As soon as possible. Extra-fluffy tail a plus, but not required.  Must be willing to return to own territory before nightfall without even thinking about touching my collection of spruce cones.  Seeking up to 16 guys for leaping, running, acrobatics, loud chittering, and hot NSA action.
(F or M seeking M or F)  I’m a bonobo.  You’re a bonobo.  Enough said.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

What you learn when you are unable to walk for a quarter of a year, and also happen to be me


  • Living in a rustic unplumbed cabin in the woods outside of Fairbanks -- accessible only via several hundred yards of snowy trail and narrow, gappy, and uneven boardwalk – is a really great idea, until it isn’t.
  • Procrastinating about your need to use the outhouse while on crutches definitely does not improve the situation.
  • The fold-down ice spikes on the crutches work pretty well, but they are not designed for durability over many miles. 
  • Those spiky things collect snow.  If you try to use the same crutches indoors, with the spikes folded up, the snow will melt out and make the floor cold and wet and extremely slippery, which is bad in so many ways.  So, so many ways. 
  • Life is full of this kind of super-obvious design flaw. 
  • You need a second set of indoor-only crutches. 
  • Put a hat over the open toe of your leg brace.  Then put a plastic bag over that.  That’s it. That’s all you need, even at thirty below.  Those brace things are sweltering. 
  • Briefly pause to contemplate whether it’s actually better to have this injury occur in December in Fairbanks, for this reason alone.  Review all the above issues.  Tough call.
  • Your fear that you will become a weakened couch potato while injured is unwarranted.  Everything, including getting off said couch, takes four times the effort it used to. The amount of sweat generated by crutching half a mile uphill in the snow is epic. 
  • Now you have weird shoulder muscles that you didn’t even know could happen. 
  • All this muscle tissue has migrated directly from your injured leg, which now resembles linguini.
  • You find yourself staring at the alien linguini in the shower, once you can take showers again, which you’re grateful for.  You are especially grateful for the accessible shower stall in your office basement, the one with the fold-down bench and hand rails. 
  • You recall dim childhood memories of people complaining that making everything ADA accessible would be expensive and inconvenient, and you wonder about those people, who are now elderly.
  • You wonder whether such rumination is a form of schadenfreude.
  • No matter how strong you become on crutches they still suck because you are a tool-using ape who is really used to having hands to do things and make things and just carry this one stupid mug of coffee, and now you need another set, but growing another set is unlikely, and why can’t you get ANYTHING done?
  • You can put the coffee in a Thermos in a backpack.

  • Talking to your upbeat and helpful coworker who had this same thing happen to him two years ago is, literally, the best therapy.  Because, look, he’s fine now.  Athletic, even.  His calves are normal. 
  • You are not in the habit of looking at everyone’s calves, but now you are.  Stop looking at his calves, because even though your intent is not weird, that’s still sort of weird.
  • If there’s anything better than positive and pragmatic advice from your coworker, it’s the orthopedic stuff he loans you.  Specifically, the pirate leg.  It’s really called an “i-Walk” but it’s definitely a pirate leg.  Why don’t all temporarily one-legged people use these things?  They are amazing.  Aaaargh!
  • Getting through TSA with crutches, a metal leg brace, and a pirate leg -- in four different cities, because  you got really good deals on fares by planning your trip way back when all of this was most definitely not on your radar -- is a royal pain, but faster than you would think it would be. 
  • You get a lot of tight, pitying smiles.
  • You’re going to have to set the tone on this.  Our culture is hella awkward.  Crack jokes about your pirate leg. 
  • Everyone wants to help you.  Punk-looking teenagers and old ladies and people of all races and walks of life want to hold the door for you, just like they did when you were a week shy of giving birth to twins and looked like a cartoon dirigible. 
  • Even if you don’t really need that stuff with the door or whatever, this restores some of your faith in humanity, especially if you’ve ever made the mistake of reading the NewsMiner comments section. Or any comments section.
  • People you barely know – the kind of people you run into near the bulk bins at Fred Meyer -- and whose names you only recall half way through your three minutes of chit-chat about the price of pecans – are genuinely concerned, and seem to understand more than you would expect them to about your particular, peculiar lifestyle and frustrations.
  • Being intensely visible can be exhausting -- but feeling known and understood is not so bad.
  • Everyone has a story about their cousin’s neighbor who also busted an Achilles, or their own time on crutches after they had bunion surgery. 
  • These stories aren’t useful the way your coworker’s advice is useful, but let these stories be told.  It’s not about the particular story.  Every single story really has the same plot, which is, hey, wow, we’re all human! 
  • It’s a good plot. 
  • The people who help you the most aren’t necessarily the ones you would have expected. 
  • This might be because you’re the kind of pig-headedly insecure person who is pretty much never going to respond to “Tell me if you need help with anything”. 
  • Your pride and obstinacy will only allow you to take up offers from the person who says, “You are drugged to the gills, post-surgery, so I will walk beside you along the boardwalk, to make sure you don’t fall,” or the person who says, “You can’t drive, bike, walk or run to work, to the store, to anywhere – so, what time should I pick you up?” 
  • You resolve in the future to be one of those people.
  • All this kindness makes you realize that if you told people about all the pain and fear and insecurity and loss in your life that they can’t see, they might actually care about that, too. 
  • You still aren’t telling. 
  • You vow to try to remember that other people aren’t always telling, either.

  • Your nearest and dearest – particularly your children, who are definitely old enough to help out a lot with the chores that are now insanely difficult for you – suffer from a deep crisis of ambivalence, guilt, and resentment. 
  • They want to help out.  Totally.  That would, clearly, be the Very Right Thing to Do, and they want to do Very Right Things. 
  • They do help. Some.
  • But they also want you to be exactly the same as you always have been, which means doing All the Things. 
  • One of the things is taking care of them. 
  • Actually, many, many of the things are taking care of them. 
  • You do the things.  You hop up a ladder to kiss your big children good night in their loft bunks.  Every night.  For three months. 
  • Sometimes love builds fortitude, muscles, and calluses. 

  • Your surgeon told you that you’d run a marathon again. 
  • Your physical therapist told you that you’d run a marathon again. 
  • You tell yourself that you will run a marathon again.
  • You run a marathon again.