It Just Isn’t That Simple

I am waging a war here in the North Country. I am waging a war against spiders. I am the General and I am losing. Look, we bought the house in 2000, but the spiders think they are the real owners. That’s eighteen years of warfare. The two World Wars didn’t last that long. Okay, you can talk about the Hundred Year War in Europe, but I’m not a historian and I’m sure it wasn’t about spiders.

I could stop the small weapon action with the whisk broom and rent a power washer. I could blast every shutter and every cornice and every eave. But I would lose. Seven minutes after I drive off to return the power washer, there would be a new spider web being spun, like a never-ending fairy tale. Sometimes I feel like we are living in something like the Addams Family house…or Castle Dracula in Transylvania.

Spiders. Living in the woods. Where is Stephen King when we need him?

I guess it just isn’t that simple.

I spotted a cluster of Indian Pipes (Monotrope uniflora) on the path down to our dock. I always thought they were Saprophytes…living wholly off the decayed detritus of the forest floor. But no. I glimpsed something in the New York Times the other day that alluded to the fact that scientists are finding that the way the Pipes get nutrients is more complicated.

I guess it just isn’t that simple.

The other day, my wife, Mariam (this happened on her birthday) was thinking about particle accelerators. She asked me a question about String Theory and it’s relationship to Quantum Physics. (She knew I was a science teacher for 34+ years). I thought about the question for a minute. Then I told her:

“Honey, it just isn’t that simple.”

So, on a recent night, Mariam and I went to a concert.

The second part of the concert featured a world acclaimed pianist. Before she came on stage I looked up at the piano she was going to play. It was one large piano, a concert Steinway Grand…about the size of a ’49 Cadillac. If it wasn’t for its odd shape (like a piano) it reminded me of the coffin that Andre The Giant was buried in.

[Full disclosure: My son, Brian, lives not very far from the Steinway & Sons factory (when they built them in Queens). He has no connection with the Steinway company so I’m not sure why I’m disclosing this].

We were in the second row. Great seats except you couldn’t see the pianists hands working the keyboard (music terms)…but then again you couldn’t see anything on that stage because of the size of that piano.

She played the piece with total abandon and gusto. It was breath taking…except I couldn’t take my eyes off the collar of the guy in the front row. It was not straight. He was there with his wife (she sat in front of me) and two children.

My first thought was what kind of wife was she? She let her husband go out into public with a messed up collar. Then she leaned forward. A tag on her blouse (shirt, top…whatever) was sticking up. I thought what kind of husband was he, letting his wife go out in public with a tag showing in her mid back.

I considered making a deal with Mariam (she admitted being distracted by his collar after I brought it to her attention), that she could lean forward and straighten out his collar while I tucked the tag inside her top.

We were conflicted. Mariam rejected the idea.

I took another sip of Chardonnay from the ‘sippy-cup’ and settled back to listen to the last movement of a piano concerto.

But I couldn’t take my eyes off the couple in front of us. He was clearly in love with his wife. He kept looking at her and even stroked her arm. She paid little attention to his attention…she chewed gun during the concert.

Was this a dysfunctional family?  Did she really love him?

Then I looked at the two children they made together. The daughter was a pretty 18-year-old with freshly washed auburn hair. The boy was a well-behaved ten-year-old who sat patiently through a concert that he probably didn’t really want to attend. But this couple, with his collar and her tag, were responsible for their very existence.

I guess some things are just not that simple.

 

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A Hint Of Green: Southbound On Train #238

[Everything is ON TIME]

Aboard the 12:10 train for Penn Station

I check my watch as the train jolts into motion.  It’s 12:09.

There was a time when Mariam and I would make the trip from Manhattan to Rainbow Lake in one day.  It was 305 miles from our apartment door on W. 93rd Street to our driveway at 58 Garondah Road, deep in the heart of the North Country.  Oddly, it was exactly the same distance from the driveway of my childhood home (420 Front Street) in Owego, New York.  But that’s beside the point.

We left our city apartment in November of 2011 and moved to the Adirondacks.  My childhood dream was realized…I was living in my favorite playground.  Now, I could hike, kayak and bike to my heart’s content.

Reality set in quickly.  I had serious lower back issues and my right foot was problematic.  Hiking became less enjoyable…it actually became unbearibly painful.

“Age appropriate,” said my orthopedic surgeon.

“Thanks,” I said as I thought about where I would store my snowshoes and x-country skis.

Fast forward to the present moment.  We no longer make the trip to the city in one day.  Our favorite hotel is on Wolf Road in Albany.  Mariam has since retired from her job of fifty-one years in health care.  It wasn’t a total break, however.  She is now the President of the Hemophilia Association of New York.  That means quarterly trips to the city.  We’re on such a trip as I write this.  We’re old hands at this, although we still use SIRI to get from our hotel to the Albany-Rensselaer Amtrak Station.

I’d like to say that the gentle rocking of the coach is nap-inducing, but in reality, its nausea-inducing.  We make sure our seats are close to the restroom.  The train is really not rocking at all, it’s jerking me from side to side like a Yuma cowboy at the County Rodeo.  I’m having trouble hitting the right keys as I write this.  I’m using my MacBook Air without a mouse.  The heels of my hands are firmly planted on the deck of the laptop, but still I hit the wrong keys.  Three sentences ago, I meant to type “The train is really not rocking at all…”, but what appeared on the screen was: “Yug brain is ggreally not frocking ab vall”.

I’d like to say that in a half-hour, I intend to stroll back to dining car to sip a cognac and play a few hands of Whist, but in reality, there’s is no dining car on this particular train.  What made me think I was on the American version of the Orient Express?  But, hey, given the present state of rail travel in a country that sold its soul to Detroit and spends zillions of dollars on the Interstate System, I should be happy to settle for what we do have.

And, this trip is a little different for another reason.  I’m running away from a very long and depressing winter in the North Country.  It’s still January at Rainbow Lake.  I had to shovel a path to the garage just yesterday.  I’ve been filling the bird feeders two or three times a day.  Our respite in the city, where flowers are blooming I’m told, is only for a week.  Then its back to the snow, which I promise, will still be present in our front yard until early June.

As I look out at the Hudson River to my right, I do not see any snow…only on the tops of the distant Catskill Mountains.  Alongside the tracks, in the trees that line the river, I see wisps, mere hints, faint washes of pale green.  Spring is arriving in this middle land between the Adirondacks and urban New York. Across the river, on the western shore, I think I see forsythia shrubs in bloom.  The yellow is intense.  Some of the trees are starting to bud with a reddish hue.

[One of the many lighthouses of the Hudson River.]

It’s great to see color after six months of a monochromatic grayness.

Now, if I can only hold myself steady against the jerking of the train, and not slam the right side of my head against the plexiglass window sustaining a slight concussion, I can end this post.  But, I must find my email first.

We’re passing a nuclear power plant.  I think I’m starting to glow.

Do I see the George Washington Bridge coming up on my right?  Soon, we’ll be in tunnel on the west side of Manhattan and I will lose the wireless.  This is my second posting from a moving train.  I’ve done it!

[All photos are mine.]

 

April Idyll

[Source: Wikipedia]

If you’re like me, you have a lot of time on your hands.  Maybe too much.  I’ve found that staring out of the window at the daily accumulation of snow passes the time quite well.  Sometimes I stand close to the window and my breath fogs the glass.  Remember that scene in Dr. Zhivago?  Unbelievably, this can get a little boring so my default action is to find something to update on my laptop…and watch the bar at the bottom of the screen move to the right, making my computer a better thing to own.

I found myself staring out of the window this afternoon.  There was plenty of action at the suet cage and feeder as the birds (saw a Tanager today) fill up on sunflower seeds.  Of course, they should be busy nesting and mating but there’s no time for hanky-panky when survival is a first concern.  My hearing is still above average for someone my age, so I know I wasn’t mistaken when I heard two Finches talking:

“We came back from Capistrano for this?”

Another easy way to break the mid-spring blues is to book an appointment with your eye doctor.

So I did.

I knew there might be trouble when I sat down in the waiting room and began to shuffle through the magazines.  A copy of National Geographic caught my attention.  There was a rock climber on the cover so I was naturally interested.  I used to rock climb, back in the day.  My friend Greg and I would drive to the “Gunks in the Catskills and walk around with a brilliantly colored Perlon rope and lots of climbing hardware like carabiners and chocks.  The gear clanked a lot and we liked that.  We were good, and the more we climbed, the better we got.  I guess that’s an obvious thing, that practice makes perfect.

But, I digress.

As I turned the pages in the Geographic, something felt amiss.  I checked the cover.  It was the April issue so it should have been filled with the hot new stories from around the world.  But, something was still amiss.  I checked the cover again.  It was April alright, but the year was 1996.  I did some simple head math and realized that I was holding a magazine that was 22 years old.  What does that say about my doctor?  What equipment did he have back there?  Call me naive but did they even use eye charts back in the mid-1990’s?  I doubt it.

I put the Geographic down and began to go through the other offerings that were there to make the time easy passing.  I saw a Country Living, six copies of Highlights, four copies of Bow Hunter, the latest issues of Golf, People and Time.  Under those I discovered a six month old Reader’s Digest, two issues of Good Housekeeping, one copy of Rotarian and one copy of Where To Retire.  I prayed the doctor was running late.  I had a lot of reading to do.

It was then that I saw the Holy Grail of doctor’s office magazines.  The Pennysaver.  Pinch me, I’m in heaven.

I began to leaf through the issue.  So much to get and so little time.  There was a quarter pager ad with the heading: MILITARY SURPLUS.  The first item in the ad was for Black and White Mickey Mouse Boots.  Did I miss something in some war?

The next page had a small ad that simply asked: GOT MUD?  There was a phone number listed but I forgot to jot it down.  Next page sported an ad: ELVIS COLLECTIBLES.  The location was Malone, about 30 miles to the north.  What poor soul’s life had gone so bad in Malone to force him or her to part with anything about Elvis?  I made a mental note to not look for real estate in Malone.  On the same page was a large ad that said: WARNING: DON’T BE A VICTIM OF ‘GHOST’ TAX PREPARERS.  Ghost tax preparers.  There’s a story there somewhere but I didn’t have time to make notes.

They were calling me.  It was my turn.  I asked for a moment to check one last ad.  ANTIQUE AND COLLECTIBLE CARS 1937-1977.  I almost tore the ad from the page.  Here, finally, was my 1952 MG!  Just before I ditched the paper, I caught sight of one last ad.  It was for a free bag of Real Country Dog Food.  When I saw the words: U Pick Up, I headed back to the exam room.

My head was spinning.

I sat in a reddish dentist-like chair.  There was a chart of the Anatomy of the Human Eye.  I wondered how they got this drawing.  Someone had to have had their eye sliced in half longitudinally.  I shuddered.

The nurse left to get something and the doctor hadn’t yet seen me.  I was free to look around.  I was quite startled when I looked at the wall in front of me.  There was a mirror and it reflected the eye chart that was on the wall behind me.  Now, if it was being reflected in the mirror, the chart had to be printed backwards.  Sounds like a lot of trouble.  Why didn’t they just pin a chart to the wall and forget the mirror?

[So where is my reflection?]

The mirror.  That’s when things got really spooky.  I was looking directly at the mirror, but there was no reflection of me.  Now, I know that happens in vampire movies, so I had to think things over.  This was scary.

I’d rather be back home staring out at the snow falling than to sit in an exam room and hope I was wasn’t among the living dead.

[All photos are mine except where otherwise noted.]

 

Late Night Thoughts On Milkweed Pods

[Milkweed seed pod. Photo source: Me]

I’m not a collector, really.  I do have quite a few paperclips but I wouldn’t call it a collection.  My fondness for fountain pens and Moleskin notebooks is legendary, but I practice self-control…most of the time.  My grandmother’s barn was filled with a mountain of old tires, but they weren’t hers.  They belonged to my step-grandfather who was convinced that he was going “make a killing” in the rubber market when the next World War broke out.  Now, he was a collector.  I don’t think I own even one baseball card.  I do have several Bob Dylan concert tee-shirts, but they are never to be worn.  Somewhere among the many items I have from my father’s house is a Vote For Ike and Dick button.  I don’t know how we came about owning it since my parents were New Deal Democrats.  I don’t have a shadow box filled with butterflies stuck through with pins. (More on that later.) I have a fair number of CD’s but not nearly as many as my son-in-law, Bob.  He could open one of those booths in the court of a Seattle mall and make a fortune.

Bottom line here: you won’t see me on any episodes of Hoarders.

On one of our road trips I chanced to buy a rubber band ball.  I’ve spent way too much time trying to figure out how this ball was put together.  It continues to baffle me.  If any of my readers know how they’re made, please text me.  If your explanation has to do with having a double life in Honduras or China, the secret will stay with me.

[My rubber band ball. Photo credit: Me]

But, I digress.

A few nights ago I was in my office/library pencil editing a chapter of my next novel.  I was tired and my creative juices were running dry.  (Actually, they’ve been running dry since 1959.)  It was then that I noticed something behind my Staples pencil holder.  It had been there, semi-hidden, for about six years.  I pulled it out and parts of it flew away.  It was a milkweed pod (Asclepias sp.) that I found in a field a year or so after we moved here.  I’ve always found the milkweed seeds and their bounty of fluff a miracle of nature.  Perfect dispersal method.  The wind.  These little puffs will drift about on the slightest breeze seeking a new home to grow up in.

One reason I brought the pod home was to give me a chance to look at the seeds through my new binocular microscope that I nagged Mariam enough into buying.  Hey, I was a Science Teacher for 35 years!  You can’t turn that off by relocating to the middle of nowhere in the Adirondacks. (Note to husbands: if you nag her enough, your wife will get it for you.  Just don’t start with 1953 MG’s, Adirondack Guideboats or any kind of sailboat that sleeps 6.  Work up.)

[My binocular microscope. Photo source: Me]

I began to ruminate.  By my taking this one pod home that day six years ago, I had prevented the growth of a large number of new milkweed.  How many?  Well, I went straight to Google, of course.  I found that the average pod contains an average of 226 seeds (Wilson and Rathcke, 1974).  One doesn’t have to be Stephen Hawking (God Rest His Soul) to calculate that, if all the seeds were viable, I had prevented 1,356 potential milkweed plants from taking root.

The implications depressed me.  I had broken a natural chain of events.  I had disrupted a cycle of nature, a small one to be fair, but still I had to own the sin.

So, what’s the big deal? you may very well ask.

Well, once inside Google, you must stay inside Google.  Follow the paths of limitless information and you might be surprised where it leads you.

Who doesn’t love the Monarch butterfly?  Nature Centers around the country celebrate.  4-H clubs, Scouting groups of all kinds have Monarch activities.  (My daughter made a special study of them in her elementary school science class). And, here’s the bit that will haunt my dreams for years: the milkweed is essential to the life cycle of the Monarch!  The caterpillar stage eats only milkweed.  They can not survive without those little seeds.

And, (I can’t cite references on this) the Monarch butterfly is listed “at risk” on some nature websites.

My story, then, ends here on a dark note.  Have I contributed to the “at risk” factor of the Monarchs?

In some minuscule way, I did.  And, if my actions were repeated by even 1% of the rural population of the Northeast, the beautiful butterfly will find less to eat and more to die from.

The Monarch butterfly; the name by the way, in Homeric Greek means “one who urges on horses”.

That’s another blog post for another time.

[A Monarch butterfly. Photo source: Wikipedia]

But, there is something you can do to help right my wrongs.  Go to www.monarchjointventure.org and explore.

 

Reading Lamp

[The Ideal Reading Lamp.  Photo source: Me.]

Other than a wind storm that blew in a window in our screened-in porch, downed branches and howled like a demon on Bald Mountain, there really isn’t very much to write about these days.  I should note that the aforementioned window has not been removed, for cleaning or otherwise, by us in several summers.  It was simply too stuck to remove.  Perhaps the house has shifted on its foundation over the years moving the windows (plastic inserts, really) into misalignment.

Whatever.  The wind took care of all that last night.  To make matters even more difficult, the power went out while we were struggling in the frigid porch.  At one point, I felt like Captain Blood battling with the mainsail in a typhoon off the coast of Tasmania.  I felt like Heathcliff on the Yorkshire Moors.  I felt like Scott in the Antarctic.  I felt like Sir Edmund on the summit of Everest.  I felt like Dorothy during the tornado in Kansas.

I felt like all these people, but it was only me and Mariam on a freezing evening in April.

Life in the North Country.

Life in the North Country. There is the ever-present darkness, arriving early in the winter but not soon enough in the early spring.  A very fine segue, if I say so myself, to bring up and write about reading lamps.

Go ahead.  Google “Reading Light”.  You will come up with hundreds of choices from places like Lowe’s, Wal-Mart, Amazon and L.L.Bean.  And the lights themselves?  The designs will look like something from Captain Kirk’s room, a toddler’s bedside stand, a bordello in New Orleans or from a dark corner in the recesses of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

All of those models shown are functional, to a point.  Most of them are of fine quality.  Some, absolute works of art.  But it’s what they have in common that’s interesting.

They dispel the darkness and allow you to pull a Kindle, iPhone or even, heaven forbid, a book made of paper up to your chest and put you in touch with the written word.

For me, there’s an added factor.  I have an innate fear of the dark.  My reading lamp allows me to exist in a cone of light where I am safe.  Where nothing can get to me from under the bed.  Where I can doze and wake and still see around me…into the dark corners where dark things of all sorts and sizes dwell.

I can lean into my latest New Yorker magazine, my newest copy of a Jo Nesbo mystery.  Perhaps I’ll read a few more pages of Proust (I’m determined to read The Book while I can still breath).  Maybe I’ll dig deep enough into the pile beside my bed and find the second book of the Hornblower series.

During the course of my reading life, I’ve gone through dozens of lamps.  It’s hard to believe, but I’ve only found a handful that suit me and my needs.  As I grow older, I find I need more light, but I can’t use the large lamp on my nightstand…Mariam is asleep only a few inches away.

There’s always the old stand-by, my headlamp.  It’s the way I read when I’m camping and don’t want to risk the more romantic candle in a tent with down sleeping-bags.  And who can really read by candlelight, anyway?  Maybe Abraham Lincoln…and look where it got him.  Besides, a headlamp leaves a reddish mark around my forehead.  I can’t get up and wander to the bathroom at 3:30 am looking like I just had a cranial tattoo done in a shop off Sunset Strip.

The lamp I am presently using is an older high-intensity light. These lights pre-dated the LED’s that are so commonplace today.  The only drawback to this lamp (it provides great illumination) is that it gets hot.  So hot, that if I accidentally touch the area near the bulb with oven mittens, I will burn off three layers of my epidermis.  And, I can tell you from experience that one will have trouble sleeping with the odor of burnt human flesh in the bedroom.

This is the lamp I now use:

[My reading lamp.  I had to turn the build away to keep it from blowing out the camera in my iPhone.  Photo source: It is obviously mine.  Do you think I would let some stranger in to take a picture of my light at 12:39 am?]

In our guest bedroom is a typical Adirondack-themed reading lamp.  I have no idea if any of our house guests read at night…but we provide one anyway.  For me, the cone of light is too small to fully illuminate my book.  It looks cute but I would rate its functionality at 4/10.

[Guest bedroom reading lamp.  Photo source: Me.]

To put the light out on this blog post, I can say that my favorite reading lamp (pictured at the top of this post) is both esthetically beautiful, functional, simple and gentle on my eyes.

The problem is: it’s located in a small hotel in Knowlton, Quebec, Canada.

And, I don’t steal things.

 

Cabin Fever 101

 

[A view from the front door.  Photo is unfortunately mine.]

 

Mais ou sont les neiges d’antan!

[Oh, where are the snows of yesteryear!]

–Francois Villon

I can tell you where the snows of yesteryear are.  I can also tell you where the snows of today are…and I can tell you where the snows of tomorrow, next week or two months from now are going to be.  They’re on my front deck, my back deck and three feet deep in our tiny yard.

I wonder why the oceans of the world still contain water.  Most of the moisture of our blue planet seems to be covering the 1.3 acres that surround our home.  In the last week, I’ve shoveled enough of the solid form of water to fill the Erie Canal.

Which brings me to the topic of this post.  Cabin fever.

In legend and lore, in story and in song, the subject of cabin fever is quite common.  It is a well-known condition that affects those in the North Country.  From the gold miners of the Yukon to the fur trappers of Manitoba, grizzled men with beards and red suspenders have been known to lose their minds when confined to a lonely cabin…while the snow falls relentlessly.  Some simply open the door and walk out into the frigid swirling blizzard and are never seen again.  Some crawl under their Hudson Bay point blankets and fall asleep while their wood stove burns low and then turns to embers and then goes out.  Someone will find the body in the Spring time. Others have been known to take their own lives, once the bottle of hooch is empty.  And, others have turned to their fairest friends and best buddies and put a bullet into an unsuspecting brain pan.

I, myself, was driven by near insanity to simply walk out the front door and into the Adirondack forest.  But, the screen door wouldn’t open because of the snow accumulation.  Besides, it wasn’t nearly cold enough…it was only -18 F.

I have been driven to violence.  Two days ago I took a Macy’s carving knife (with a serrated blade) and hacked at a leftover breakfast burrito from the local health food store.

My misery knew no limits.  It puzzled me because, well, we don’t live in a cabin, we live in a house with a number of rooms and a fair library in my den.  There’s always cable television (something the gold seekers of ’49 didn’t have).  No, we have Spectrum with 200+ channels but nothing worth watching.  We have the internet, but how many anti-Trump postings can one person click “like” on?  And, one gets weary of playing Spider solitaire 377 times a day.

So, what to do?  Go out and shovel?  No, we’re expecting 6-9″ this afternoon.  Go to Whiteface and ski?  The lift tickets are too pricey.  Pay $90+ for a chance to get frostbite and/or a compound fracture of my left leg?  Don’t think so.

I think I’ll find a comfortable position on the sofa by the picture window and begin to count the snowflakes as they fall, minute by minute and day by day for the next three months.

 

 

Adirondack Angst

[After the shovel and before the car door incident.  Photo is mine.]

Once upon a time not so very long ago, there was a man who lived in a house, with his faithful and patient wife, in the Great Wilderness known as the Adirondack Mountains.  These mountains are located in the far reaches of upstate New York.

This man was sore of back and gray of hair.  He had recently spent five weeks in the high desert of California.  He went there looking for solitude and warmth, but instead he found himself surround by neighbors with strange cars and small barking Chihuahuas.  He also wore fleece nearly every day, until it was time to leave…of course.

The man’s eyes stung from the smoke of distant fires and he went through five and a half boxes of tissues, so frightful were his allergies.

Upon returning to his home in the North Country, there was a January thaw that put his limbs at risk with the ice and constant dripping of masses of snow that had recently befallen the countryside.  Then two days ago, his weather app on his iPhone bespoke of a new storm that promised a foot of snow followed by thumb-numbing cold.

When this man awoke this morning, he put off looking out of the bedroom window for fear of what he would behold.  But, he also had another app on his iPhone that told him how much daylight was left in the day.  He checked the temperature.  It was 4 F.  He saw that 75% of the day had passed.  He decided he should get out of bed and shovel a path to the car and clean the snow from the car and try to start the car.

The first two tasks were accomplished with sweat, frost on his mustache and a lower back that had pleaded with him to stop the punishment.

Now to start the car.  But, alas, he found all four doors frozen shut.  Not to worry, he thought.  I have a can of de-icer in the garage.  He pushed the button and the garage door creaked open.  He found the de-icer and pushed the button to close the door.  It didn’t move.  He tried to spray the little button but nothing but a faint hiss came from the spray hole. He shook the can and determined it was full, but not a molecule of de-icer was to be found.

[The frozen car. Photo is unfortunately mine.]

He returned to the house with the spray can, but he was broken of heart and frustration welled up in his soul like a backed-up toilet.

Why have the gods of the North Country forsaken him?  Why did he feel as alone as a Democrat in Mississippi or a Quaker at a Microsoft convention?

Why didn’t he stay in California and buy more tissue boxes?  What had he done in this life or any other life to deserve such anguish?

He checked the weather app on his iPhone and saw that the forecast predicted a low of -22 F for the overnight hours.

The old man poured a cold beer and sat waiting for the bathtub to fill.  He had added about two cups of blue crystals that promised muscle relaxation.  (It never worked before, but tonight would be different).

But this man had a plan.  He would build a fire in the downstairs stove and he and his wife would have a dinner of hot soup.

All will be well tomorrow, he thought.  After all, tomorrow is another day.

He sipped his beer and considered how existentially alone one is in the Universe.  Or, at least in the North Country.