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.

Joshua Tree Diary: The First Days

I looked in the mirror late this morning and decided I would need a haircut sometime in the next few weeks.  Trouble is, we’re a few miles from the Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Base (the largest U.S. military base in the world, I’m told) and nearly all the haircut places offer a “military cut”.  Well, I really don’t want to have my head shaved at this point in my life, so I have to find a salon that can make a guy like me look like a guy like me.

So, here we are…in Joshua Tree, California.  The high desert, the edge of the Mojave, the northern edge of the National Park.  Our home is very well appointed with a fenced in backyard and cable TV.  We’re quite pleased with the rental we’ve chosen for the month of December.

[Part of our rental]

[Our private backyard}

I’ve struggled to come up with a catchy title to the blogs that I will be posting for the next month (we’re here only for December before we head to Santa Barbara for a few days of hiking and beach walking).  I’m calling this series of blogs The Joshua Tree Diary.  Lame? Maybe, but you haven’t been through what I’ve been through lately.

We arrived from Los Angeles on December 1 in a rented Nissan.  We passed the Joshua Tree Inn where Gram Parsons OD’d (see an earlier post about that on my website…it’s called “Room 8”).

We seemed to have arrived during a cool spell.  It got below freezing last night and may do so again tonight.  We were treated to the clear desert sky and the rising of the Super Moon last night.

[The Super Moon on Dec. 3. Sorry, but the iPhone doesn’t do well with this kind of photo]

Okay, so how did we spend our first days here?  We’ll I got here running a slight fever and a cough that would freak out most circus animals.  My throat felt like I had hosted a demolition derby and my chest felt like I inhaled  a quart of vanilla yogurt…I was not well.

We did manage to get to the National Park Visitor Center where I intended to purchase a Golden Pass (we left our other one home).  This allows seniors free admission to the Parks.  Two years ago when we purchased one at Devil’s Tower National Park, the cost for this lifetime pass was $10.00.  Now they charge $80.00!  And, these parks are ours anyway, we pays taxes…don’t get me started.

Next stop was getting a temporary visitors card at the local library.  I gladly paid $10.00 even though I will only be using it until December 31.  I’m not carrying anymore “book” books.  They are heavy and bulky.  I’ll give my copy of David Copperfield to a woman who runs a tiny used bookstore a few miles away along Route 62, towards Twentynine Palms.

I bought a copy of the Hi-Desert Star…couldn’t find a copy of the New York Times anywhere.  An ad caught my eye and it was then I realized that we were living amidst a culture that is quite different from Upstate New York.  I hope this guy finds his goal and makes off for the hills and gets rich from a lost mine (there are many out here).

[Ad from the Hi-Desert Star}

How am I feeling today?  I think I turned the corner.  I don’t think it’s hit or miss anymore.  I don’t think it’s touch and go.  I don’t feeling like I’m going to die out here…and become just another statistic.  I felt well enough to drag myself and Mariam to the Joshua Tree Saloon to sip a glass of Lagunitas.

[Joshua Tree Bar & Grill]

All of the above happened in the first four days.  We haven’t set foot in the Park yet.  Maybe on Wednesday we’ll hike the Skull Rock Trail.  It’s short and the ‘skull rock’ boulder is looking more and more like me.

Having said all that, this is what we’ve left behind:

[An Adirondack scene. Pretty, but no shoveling]

Right now, I’ll take the desert and deal with sand in my shoes and not frost on my finger tips.

My First Two Weeks Back In New York City After Five Years Of Living In The Far North Country


[Say what you want…this comes with the apartment]

Okay, It’s maybe three or four weeks now since we’ve left the cold and hostile fields of the North Country for the Cold and hostile streets of the Big Apple.

So, you might ask, How are we doing?


[Across the street from out building. A line waiting for cookies.]

I’d say just fine.  It isn’t last year like Florida…that’s for sure but it beats the forty or fifty times I’ve already shoveled the path to the garage and the way to the road back home at Rainbow Lake.

Am I sorry we’re spending the winter in slushy New York?  Am I sorry we’re sub-letting a great apartment near Lincoln Center?  No.


[The famous Ansonia Building…just steps away.]

Do I miss the beautiful snow falls and the freezing lakes?  Not really.  I just had an injection in my lower back which would have prevented me from skating on anything other than my front deck.


[The view across the street.]

Do I miss the shoveling? No. I’ve mastered that skill years ago.  I don’t miss the two feet of snow…It’s my back remember?

I’m remembering all the great nights and days that Mariam and I had in the 20+ years of living on the Upper West Side.  Yes, I miss the quiet snow falls of the North Country…but it’s not forever.  We’ll be back when the Black Flies begin to surface and the Canadian geese have returned to Ontario.

There’s so much to do there.

There’s so much to do here.

I’m a conflicted guy.

Coal For Christmas


[Artwork:Watercolor sketch by Paul Egan (Date unknown)]

Note to my readers: If you think you’ve read this blog before, don’t thing you’re getting senile…(the doctors won’t release such information)..this is perhaps the third, maybe fourth time I’ve posted it.  Hey, maybe I’m the one getting senile.  I’ve tweaked the story several times to try to make the narrative better, clearer and more truthful.  This is not a made up story by me.  It really happened.  

It’s another year and another chance for me to share this holiday memory…Happy Holidays to you all!

 I am a grandfather now, feeling every ache and sadness of my seventieth  year. The stories that my father told me about his father has taken on new meanings. I’m the old one now. I am the carrier of the family history. When a recollection of a family event comes to mind, be it a birthday party, a funeral, a wedding or a birth, I get my journal and I write with haste, in case I might forget something or get a name wrong or a date incorrect. Or, forget the event entirely.

This is especially true when the snow falls and the Christmas tree decorations are brought down from wherever they live during the summer. There is a certain melancholy mood that comes with the wintertime holidays. The sentiment of A Christmas Carol comes to mind. It is a time to listen to the winter wind blow, put a log on the fire, pour a little more wine and to recall and celebrate the memory of those who have passed on.

It’s time for a Christmas story. It’s time to think again about my family and how they lived their lives so many decades ago.

I was raised in the post-war years. My parents were not saying anything original when they would tell me, or my brothers, that we had to be good…very good…or Santa would not leave us a brightly wrapped present, red-ribboned and as big a box as a little boy could hold.  No, Santa would not leave such a wondrous thing. But he wasn’t so vengeful to leave nothing in our stocking. No, he would leave a lump of coal…if you deserved nothing more.

My father grew up poor.  Not the kind of poor where he would walk barefoot through ten inches of snow to attend school or go from house to house asking for bread.  It was just the kind of poor that would keep his father only one step ahead of the rent collector. Dad would often make a joke about poor he was as a child.

“I was so poor that I would get roller skates for Christmas but I would have to wait until the next year to get the key,” he would say with a sly smile. It was a joke of course…wasn’t it?

His parents provided the best they could, but, by his own admission, he was raised in the poverty that was common in rural America in the 1920’s.  My grandfather and my grandmother should be telling this story.  Instead, it came to me from my own dad and it was usually told to his four sons around the time it came to bundle up and go out, find and cut a Christmas tree. I heard this story more than once when it was cold and snowy in the 1950’s. It comes from the years when my father was a child, when the winters were probably much colder and the snow so much deeper.  And, the overcoats were thinner and the socks had holes and the footwear was not insulated.

It was northeastern Pennsylvania. It was coal country and my grandfather was Irish.  Two generations went down into the mines. Down they would go, every day before dawn, only to resurface again long after the sun had set.  On his only day off, Sunday, he would sleep the sleep of bones that were weary beyond words.

Because of some misguided decision on his part, my grandfather was demoted from mine foreman to a more obscure job somewhere else at the pit.  Later in life, he fell on even harder times and became depressed about his inability to keep his family, two boys and two girls, comfortable and warm.  It all came crashing down, literally, when their simple farmhouse burned to the foundation.  After seeing his family safely out, the only item my grandfather could salvage was a Hoover.  My father could describe in minute detail how he stood next to his dad and watched him physically shrink, slump and then become quiet.  He rarely broke the silence after that and died in a hospital while staring mutely at a wall.

But all this happened years after that special Christmas Eve that took place in my father’s boyhood.

It was in the early 1920’s.  The four children were asleep in a remote farmhouse my grandparents rented.  Sometime after mid-night, my father woke up to a silence that was unusual and worrisome.  It was too quiet.  There were no thoughts of Santa Claus in my father’s mind that night–the reality of their lives erased those kinds of dreams from his childhood hopes. There was no fireplace for Santa to slide down.

He pulled on a heavy shirt and slipped out of bed.  The floor felt unusually cold against his socks.  He crept down the stairs to the kitchen where he knew his parents would be sitting up, talking and keeping warm beside the coal stove.   But the room was empty and the coal fire was burning low.  The only light was from a single electric bulb, hanging from the ceiling on a thin chain.  My father noticed the steam of his breath each time he exhaled.  He called out.

“Mom? Dad?”

He heard nothing.  He pushed his cold feet into cold shoes that were six sizes too large.  Shuffling over to the door, he cracked it open to a numbing flow of frigid outside air.  In the snow there were two sets of footprints leading down the steps and then behind the house.  He draped a heavier coat over his shoulders and began to follow the prints.  A pale moon helped light the way. The tracks led across a small pasture and through a gate.  From there the trail went up a low hill and faded from his sight.  He followed the trail.  Looking down at the footprints he noticed that they were slowly being covered by the wind driving the snow into the impressions.  A child’s fear swept over him.  Were the young kids being abandoned?  It was not an uncommon occurrence in the pre-Depression years of rural America.

In his young and innocent mind, he prayed that the hard times hadn’t become that hard. But deep within, he knew of his parents’ unconditional love and concern. He knew he and his brother and sisters were cherished and loved.

He caught his fears before they had a chance to surface. His parents were on a midnight walk, that’s all.

At the top of the hill, he saw a faint light from a lantern coming from a hole near the side of the next slope.  He slowed his pace and went to the edge of the pit not knowing what he would see. He looked down.

He knew this pit from summertime games, but it was a place to be avoided in the winter. The walls were steep and it would be easy to slip in the snow and fall the dozen or so feet to an icy bottom. The children never went into that field after the hay was cut and the autumn leaves had fallen and the snow began to drift.

He dropped to his knees and peered over the edge.

At the bottom of the small hole were his parents, picking fist-sized lumps of coal from a seam that was exposed on the hillside.  They had nearly filled a bucket with the chunks of black rock.  They looked up, quite surprised, and saw my father standing a few feet above them.  They looked back at each other with a sadness that was heart-breaking.  They certainly didn’t want to be caught doing this in front of one of the kids, not on Christmas Eve.  They stared at each other and then up at my dad.

“Boy,” my grandfather said, “The kitchen stove is empty.  Come on down and help us get a few more lumps, will ya?”

My father was helped down and after only a few minutes his hands were black from the coal.  Two buckets were filled.  They helped each other out of the pit and walked back to the house together. My father and his father carried the buckets between them.

In a very short time the coal stove was warming up again.  My father sat up with his parents until they finished their coffee and the house was warmed a few degrees.  Dad kissed his mother and father and went upstairs to bed. He fell asleep, he always would say, with a smile on his face.

Twenty some years after the midnight trip to the coal-pit, my parents and my two older brothers moved to Owego, New York. I was born two years later, in 1947.

. . .

When I was a young boy, my father took me aside one Christmas Eve.  I had not been a very good boy that day, and I was afraid.  Neither of my parents, however, had mentioned the threat that would be used to punish a child if you were naughty and not nice.


My fear left me. Father’s voice was warm and full of understanding.

“Pat,” he said, “If anyone tells you that you will get a lump of coal in your stocking if you’re not a good boy. Tell them: ‘I hope so,’ then wish them a very Merry Christmas.”


[Artwork: Unfinished watercolor sketch by Paul Egan (Date unknown)]

When A Leaf Dances A Snowflake Will Soon Fall


I’m sitting on the front deck of our house which sits on a small rise above Rainbow Lake.  It’s late September in the North Country of New York State.  The trees are oddly out-of-tune with the season.  Some are brown, dead and waiting to drop to the ground.  Some are just hinting at the blast of hues they will splash your color receptors with–in a few short weeks.  And, some trees have ignored the short daylight and the 41 degree evening temperatures.  They are holding their chlorophyll until some command from the Horai and, they too will reveal their true colors.

I’m sitting on the front deck, breathing through my mouth and trying not to cough.  I am just getting over a mild case of pneumonia that I seemed to have picked up while traveling to my high school reunion.  My chest is feeling clearer and my temperature is roughly normal.  I’m sitting here wearing a fleece vest–but that’s nothing new.  I just took it off three months ago after wearing it pretty much since this time last year.

But I’m not doing nothing.  I’m watching a leaf dance.

It’s movement caught the corner of my eye as I took out a bag of recyclables.  A tiny maple leaf, part brown, part red and patched with black is caught at the end of a long strand of spider web that reaches from the roof to within a few inches of the floor boards.  Don’t even try to see the gossamer thread, its invisible as far as I’m concerned.  For me, the leaf is dancing its gentle pirouettes on the air.

That’s why I’m sitting on my front deck.  I’d be napping if I had not seen the leaf and I would be missing this special private recital.

Just now, I hear a skein of Canadian Geese flying westward.  Their honking has interrupted my silent concert.  It has led me to think of the passing summer–and the approach of the cruel and harsh months of ice and cold.

Winter usually begins without warning.  In the Adirondacks, it could come on the next cloud–it all depends on your elevation.  Here, beside the lake, it comes with seeing the first snowflake.  Usually heavy with moisture, the first flakes are soft, pure and slow to reach the ground.  Unless you find pleasure in winter sport, it’s a rough road until the Big Melt.

But, soon, if a strong wind doesn’t take my leaf away, a snowflake or two will collide with the leaf and adhere to its surface.  Then another will join–and then another.  The weight will cause my leaf to break its attachment to the thread and fall to the deck.  It’ll get swept away by new winds and then rot into the soil, under inches of snow, in our yard.

I have to go inside for a box of tissues now.  I wonder if the leaf will wait for me?

I doubt it.  The leaf owes me nothing.


Digging A Grave On A Beautiful Spring Afternoon

I stood in the soft loam, nine inches below ground level, leaned against my shovel, and thought about death and insects.  This is not a difficult thing to do when you’re helping to dig a grave on a day in May when the gnats and flies are biting ankles and arms.  After all, it is the Adirondacks.

Life is hard up here in the North Country.  The temperature can flirt with -40 F or the high for three days straight can be -9 F.  Yet, despite the cold that causes a finger to turn black and be amputated by a surgeon, the little annoying insects survive.  I get the science here.  They winterize themselves by simply not freezing, or if they do, some sort of chemical prevents lethal cell damage.  So, what seems to spend months in a state of near-death, merely needs a few days of warmth to emerge and find an unprotected patch of skin to bite and suck the blood (and they do).

Humans are different.  We don’t possess these uncanny abilities to stay alive when death is all around.  And, the tragic irony goes further.  Someone who was alive and breathing on a Friday afternoon, can be as dead as dead can be on Sunday morning.

Which brings us to cemeteries.  Many of my readers know that I am a volunteer photographer for an online group (something like Ancestry, but free).  I spend a fair amount of time roaming the forgotten, lonely country cemeteries in and around Franklin County.  I don’t find my fascination with cemeteries morbid in any way.  Indeed, I find them endlessly interesting.  I learn about local history, admire old headstone carvings, copy heartbreaking epitaphs and just sit and wonder about the lives that are behind the names on the stones.  I was roaming a large cemetery near Malone when a pickup truck stopped beside me.

“Genealogy stuff?” The driver asked.

“Kind of,” I replied.  These were two cemetery workers beginning on the spring burials.  I was thinking quickly.

“Do you dig all the graves with a backhoe?” I asked.

“Almost all,” the driver said.

“So you dig some by hand?”

“Well, this guy next to me is heading up to Brasher Falls.  He’s gonna dig one by hand.”

“Can I help him?” I asked.

“I’m sure he’d love an extra hand.”  He then gave me directions.

Half an hour later, I’m waiting at this particular cemetery when the young man pulls up in another truck.

“I’ll bet you never thought I show up,” I asked as I approached him.

“Oh, you.  I forgot.  Guess I didn’t think you were serious.”

He extended his hand. “Ray,” he said.


So, I watched as he measured.  I watched as he cut the sod into slabs.  I watched as he spread out a tarp to hold the sod pieces until after the burial the next day.

I stopped watching and I picked out a shovel from his truck and began to dig.

I thought of many things.  The vast majority of human burials for thousands of years, were hand-dug.  I don’t know when the backhoe came on the scene, but digging a grave by hand will soon become a forgotten act of loving labor.

That’s correct.  I think about my taking a small role in preparing a hole for another human to be laid to rest is an ennobling act of a high order.  A guy on a machine is very different from a simple soul with a shovel and a blister.  While I dug, I made some quick mental calculations.  The grave was 8′ x 4′ x 6′.  That amounts to 192 cubic feet of earth that has to be moved.

I glanced at the sun.  It was getting low in the west.  We were about 65 miles from home.

“I won’t be able to help much longer,” I said.  I also had just lifted a sod piece to the tarp.  It must have weighed 40 pounds.  My back surgeon would have slapped me until my ears bled.

After another thirty minutes, I had enough.  Enough of moving soil and scratching insect bites on my shins.  I put the shovel back into his truck, gave him a cold bottle of water I purchased on the way, and said thanks and good-bye.

I’m sorry I couldn’t have finished the job with him.  I wanted to shave the sides and make everything just right to receive the old woman whose funeral was the next day.  I wanted it to be right for her.  I had no idea who she was, but this was going to be her final home…it had to be right.  But, I left that to  Ray.

I have no illusions about how hard it can be for many people to think about graveyards.  I’ve watched most of my family buried in St. Patrick’s Cemetery in Owego, NY.  I’ve stood in the chilly rain and watched a broken-hearted family inter their mother.  It went well beyond the definition of sad.

I recently visited the grave of a former student of mine who was murdered by her husband.  I stood and reflected on her sitting in my classroom thirty years ago and smiling at my goofy jokes.

In a few weeks, I shall stand over the graves of my Irish relatives in a sea-side graveyard in Inishcrone, County Sligo.

As we drove along the country roads, I thought about the irony of life.  The insects “die” a temporary death during the deep winter, only to reemerge as hungry and voracious as ever.   An old woman lives in a hospice, in her home, wherever, and dies when the warmth of spring arrives.

One departs while one arrives.

It’s one of life’s exchanges.  I suppose it’s fair.

It doesn’t really matter.  There’s nothing at all we can do about it.  We can curse and scratch at the newly reborn insects…and we can cry at the departure of person.

I can’t spot any glitches in this.  If you can, you’re a better, more perceptive person than I.  For even the insect who comes back after sub-zero temperatures, must die at the end of the summer anyway.

No matter how you look at it, it’s a one-way street for every living thing.