Friday, February 17, 2017

The Blog Has Moved!

As all good writers are supposed to do, I've created an author website. Or rather, my husband has. He's a web developer.

No worries: I brought all of my neuroses with me when I moved.

Please come join me at www.laurajacksonroberts.com. Please? There will be free cookies.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Things I Do in the Night

I was awake to see the torrential downpour that flooded the National Road on Saturday night. At 1:30 AM I pulled back the curtains beside my bed to watch sheets of rain coming down and ponding on the road. I watched for a long time, listened, and counted the seconds as the traffic light down the road changed from red to green to yellow to red.

I do that a lot, in all kinds of weather. I watched the ice storm the night before. Sometimes I watch our local deer herd pick or race their way across the four-lane road and filter down into the neighborhood via my yard. If it happens between one and four-thirty AM, I've seen it, heard it, felt it, or smelt it. (That includes dog farts. They happen more than you think when the dog is asleep, which begs questions about our own fortunate obliviousness.)

My name is Laura and I am an insomniac.

There are two kinds of insomniacs: those who cannot fall asleep and those who cannot stay asleep. I fall into the latter category. My ability to fall asleep is almost super-human; most nights it takes less than a minute. It's as though I'm a light switch: either on or off. Ben and my father are like that too; we all fall asleep instantly and wake up in the same manner. Shawn and Andy, however, are like irons (the kind I never use because my family doesn't give a shit about going to school or work looking like they just fell out of the overhead bin on an Airbus A318). They take a while to wind up and a while to unwind. Shawn's falling-asleep routine takes over an hour. He's got to shower and get into bed. He reads on his phone and reads his Kindle. He rolls around and thinks Shawnly thoughts. He pets the dog. He pets the cat. And by 12:30 a.m., he's finally asleep. (Years ago I banished Shawn to another bed because he snores and kicks, so this routine doesn't affect me at all.)

I consider myself the more fortunate of the two of us. That is, until 2 AM rolls around.

So why is it that I cannot stay asleep? This bizarre pattern began three or four years ago, and I blame my bladder. Everything was going to well until it decided that it could no longer do its job for a full night. I strongly suspect that it's protesting the fact that I incubated two life forms in its personal space. Bladders are sensitive creatures. They get huffy, and once they're mad, it seems they stay mad for the rest of our lives: Oh, you're planning a road trip? How cute. Better allow an extra hour for all of the stops you'll be making. Caught in a stand-still on the interstate? Hope you have tinted windows and a wide-mouthed water bottle. Oh, do you have to sneeze? Good luck with that because I'm gonna let loose like a pack of kindergarteners at a Christmas cookie party. 

So when the little jerk wakes me up to pee, I'm up. That's it. I can't fall back to sleep. I pee and then I go back to bed and listen to the dog snore (or fart) and watch whatever varmints are prowling around outside and sometimes eat a box of cookies  handful of carrots and eventually succumb to the blinding light of my phone and the deplorable torrent of social media. It's proven that the bright screens of our handheld technology keep our brains awake rather than putting them to sleep. In fact, scientists who study insomnia recommend vacating the bedroom entirely when sleeplessness hits. Get up, they say. Leave the scene. The worst thing to do is to lie there and roll around for hours and stare at the clock.

Are you people serious? Show me one person in the entire world who follows this advice. Find me a person who actually gets out of bed and goes downstairs and polishes the silver or scrubs the algae off the side of the fish tank. (Reminder to self: scrub the algae off the side of the fish tank. You don't even know what's in there these days.) None of us go any farther than the fridge, and then we take whatever we've snatched back to bed and fill our sheets with crumbs and then roll around in the crumbs and look at besweatered basset hounds on YouTube.

My doctor doesn't know if my insomnia is due to anxiety or my autoimmune issues or just general bad luck, but he prescribed me Ambien.

Don't flood me with Ambien warnings. Yes, I've tried melatonin and it affects me adversely. Yes, I've tried chamomile tea--did you read the part about the peeing? How do you people drink a cup of liquid before bed? My kidneys and bladder get together after dinner every night and triple-dog dare me to put the kettle on the stove. Just one cup. It's only Sleepytime. Everybody's doing it. You'll feel great. 



So when I really can't sleep and I really need to sleep, I bite an Ambien in half at 2 AM and swaller that sucker down. Usually it takes about 20 to 30 minutes to fall asleep, but it works. I don't take them often, but once a week or so, I'm really glad to have that Rx bottle there.

There is, of course, a down side to Ambien. Perhaps you've read about people who do things when they take Ambien? In 2006, Rhode Island Rep. Patrick Kennedy crashed his car near Capitol Hill. He had taken Ambien.

Why the hell would you take Ambien and then get into your car, you ask. But the news reports answer back that many motorists have no memory of getting behind the wheel to begin with, that the Ambien made them do it. These people are called "Ambien Zombies" and use the "Ambien Defense" in court, often successfully. In 2009 a flight attendant from Texas took Ambien and woke up in jail, having run over three people. She was sentenced to only 6 months. Other people have figured out that if they can stay awake, the drug gives them a freaky high, complete with flashing lights and moving walls.

Okay, maybe you should be flooding me with Ambien warnings. Fortunately, these side effects and these incidents are extremely rare. But there is one thing I have been known to do on Ambien: I shop online.


In those brief moments before the drug has completely taken hold of me, when I'm irresistibly drowsy but for some reason fighting to stay awake, I get on Amazon. And damn you, Amazon, for storing my credit card information and providing users with that super-convenient Buy It With One Click button. You suck almost as much as my bladder. And at least my bladder only ruins interstate travel. You cost me hard-earned money.

There is, however, an upside. You know that feeling when you come home and there's a package waiting on your porch? It's like Christmas. It's out there, it's waiting to be brought in and opened, and it's even more exciting when you have no fucking idea what's in it. What the crap is that box doing there, you ask yourself. I don't remember ordering anything. And then you wonder who might have sent you a little surprise. Your mom? Your best friend? Your spouse?

Nope. In fact, it's you who have sent yourself a present. How thoughtful of you to think of you! You're such a good person, always thinking of you.

I have no answer to my insomnia problem. Indeed, I don't even know the cause. I do know that I read some really fantastic articles in the night. I get ideas for essays, I find knitting projects I want to attempt and pasta dishes to try. And I bookmark all of them. And then I forget about them entirely when I wake up quite naturally on my own at 5:30 a.m., no matter how rough the night has been (yet another sign of a sleep issue).

Perhaps I need a sleep study. Perhaps I need a long-term solution that doesn't depend on pharmaceuticals and cookies carrots. But my insomnia problem evaporates from the forefront of my mind during the day. I forget all about it until 2AM rolls around again and I remember that, dammit, I should have called somebody or done some research or at the very least purchased a chamber pot. Insomnia is a chronic problem for an estimated 10% of adults, and far more have bouts of sleeplessness. $63 billion is lost in work performance every year due to insomnia. America is losing its health, its productivity, and its sanity to an inability to rest. I'm not quite sure when I'm going to get some.

On the other hand, those three 12-inch nonstick skillets I ordered in the wee hours of Cyber Monday 2014 cook a hell of an omelet.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Hiker, Be Healed

This blog has been sitting in the pipe for two weeks, so it's outdated already. But since you're here....

Winter has come early to West Virginia, and with the arrival of the bitter weather comes the end of hiking season for me. Oh sure, I could drag my sorry self out into the woods in the frigid cold; sometimes I do. However, I'm finding myself more and more affected by the chill. A companion to my Sjogren's Syndrome is Raynaud's Phenomenon, characterized by hands and feet that turn white when exposed to cold. It's exceedingly painful, and when I run them under warm water to revive them, the sensation is agony. My feet freeze in my ski boots now, and gloves are an absolute necessity, even when taking out the trash. Thus, hiking in the winter isn't just a matter of donning a hat or an extra layer; it's a matter of keeping my extremities from suffering actual vascular damage, and I haven't really figured out how to combat that particular foe, yet.

The extreme cold appeared early this year. It's only December. We still have oak leaves clinging desperately to the grove in the backyard, and so it looks more like fall than winter, but the ice has crept across the surface of the fish pond, and the flurries have been flying for two days now. I'm sorry to say that my hiking routine suffers with the falling mercury.


Just moss. Lovely, soothing moss.
My Nature Writing class a few years ago was immensely valuable because it forced me outside, and in so doing I made a discovery about myself: I need the forest. 

I know that's the most obvious thing in the entire world. But it wasn't to me. 

My father has known this very thing about himself for 70 years. He, too, needs the forest. He disappears into it every weekend with the dogs. As a child, I always went along. The forest was a part of my life. Saturdays and Sundays were for dog-hikes. Hundreds of hikes. Hundreds of hours over the years, one walk at a time. He never really had to ask me if I was coming along; it was understood that I would. Looking back, I'm not sure I ever asked myself if I wanted to go. I just went, as if by default. Saturday, Sunday, woods.


Birch bark is the best bark.
Of course, I took it for granted, as you do as a youngster. And it wasn't until I was surrounded by ocean and concrete in St. Petersburg, Florida, that I began to realize the emotional and spiritual value of the forest. For the first time in my life I couldn't just disappear into the trees. Certainly, there are parks in St. Pete, places with sandy paths through scrubland and cypress where you can spot an endangered Gopher Tortoise if you're lucky. But the wild? The deep forest? It was a world away, tucked inland, and most unfriendly to hikers. Florida isn't a land where you hike around. Rather, it's a collection of snake and skeeter, and this is probably why Florida hasn't lost all of its wilderness entirely. It's inhospitable. You can't really live in Florida's forests.

You'd think a woman who wants to be a nature writer would have realized the healing power of the woods long before her 36th year, but that's exactly how long it took me. Of course I knew I liked being there. Of course I had fun. And of course that unmistakable hemlock and spruce smell--the very scent of West Virginia itself--worked its way into my heart before my 10th birthday. But before my thirties I didn't really carry burdens heavy enough to warrant true healing. I hadn't yet met the enemy that is anxiety, the demon of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. They're both big and heavy, and while a little white pill goes a long way, it doesn't take me to the finish line.

I keep Xanax in my purse, just in case things suddenly feel out of control. I'm not ashamed of it, but I certainly wish I were instead one of those people who walks around with Cheez-Its in her handbag. I also wish I were a person who sits in the passenger seat of the car and thinks, "Wow, there is absolutely no chance of being crushed under the wheel of an Ocean Spray truck today." But I'm not. In fact, on most days, I'm quite certain something is going to crush, smash, or flatten me.

Enter the woods.

No, seriously. Get off your ass and literally enter the woods. Go. Need a kick in the pants? Read about how nature affects mood. How it affects the pulmonary system. The kids' brains. Read and read and read, or just take my word for it and get your boots on.

Because when I enter the woods frantically scanning for an oncoming delivery of cranberry juice (sometimes those guys just pop out of the forsythia bushes, you know), I come out feeling so much better. Science will back me up on this one, over and over again. It will also assure you that a walk in the woods will boost your creativity and help you get un-stuck in your stupid brain.

A few weeks ago we had a quick warm spell before the temps plunged, and I took that opportunity to disappear into the forest to burn off some anxiety. I've been struggling with big-picture things like my unfinished book and my nonexistent writing career, as well as smaller tidbits like a moody 10-year-old and the fact that the cat won't stop trying to fornicate with my heated throw.

I didn't have time to travel to distant lands, but I did make it to the Serpentine Trail at Oglebay Park. It's a recently re-discovered trail made suitable for woodsy types who have to be back at school by 5 to pick up their rugrats from kung fu class. Ironically, you have to park in the lot of a loud tourist trap: a series of buildings draped in Christmas lights and adorned with speakers blaring Bing and Elvis and anyone who ever stepped up to the mic to get their holiday rum-pum-pum-pum on. 

Perhaps because I could still hear the traffic on Rt. 88 as I descended into the woods, I felt the need to leave the trail almost immediately. The choice was to either walk on the path and feel a moderate level of natureyness, or to bushwhack my way through the tangle of brush, fall down the hill, and land in a muddy gulch. I chose to land in a gulch, and though it didn't shut out the noise of traffic, it made me feel pretty good. And just a little wilder. (Because there's nothing so badass as a 37-year-old woman in a pink Columbia jacket who grabs life by the nads and leaves the trail in a city park for a whopping six minutes.)

Hey, it helped.

Despite the tameness of the afternoon's adventure--I tried to spice up the rawness of the experience by fording a few streams and leaping out at a startled runner a la Ursus americans, but he didn't see the humor in it at all--the forest did what I had asked. Like a mossy green Xanax, the smell of the earth and the hemlock stand I found at the bottom of the trail worked its way through my sinuses and into the pit of my stomach. And despite the fact that I was underdressed for the temperature, I stayed well past the moment when the sun dove beneath the hillside. I stayed until I was calm again, until the live wires in my brain fizzled and died, snuffed out by the fern grove and the soggy peat.

Did you know soggy peat does that? It actually snuffs out anxiety. 

I felt so much better, in fact, that when I re-emerged from the woods, I had completely forgotten about the consumer paradise that awaited me in the parking lot. One moment I was swinging on a monkey vine (far less embarrassing if you do it in private) and the next I was enduring a cruel rebirth. I popped out of the deciduous forest and landed in a fog of exhaust. Seven tour buses were lined up beside the tourist trap, and elderly visitors stood about the lot and on the grass vaping and stuffing fudge and ice cream into their gobs. I could no longer hear the chirp of the pileated woodpecker I'd seen, and I smelled carbon monoxide rather than earthy peat. Brilliant red and green lights flashed around a manger scene, and Bing sang about that genetically-mutated flying caribou we all seem so obsessed with. As I stood and surveyed the scene, I felt both saddened that these old smokers had come from afar only to miss the best part of the park, and relieved for the same reason.

I've learned to go to the forest when I'm overwhelmed, when I'm feeling too much. That's often, of late. I haven't always been impressed with the eastern hardwood forest--in the winter it's so dreary--but it's easy to dismiss the value of nature if you don't realize it's capabilities. How human of me to brush it off until I learned what it could do for me. How sad. Nevertheless, I am reborn a believer. 

Sometimes I think the world offers little outside of the forest. Go, and be in it. 

Just keep your distance. Sometimes I have to pee out there.






Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Infuriating Thing About Un-Readiness

"Excuse me, how's the book coming?"
The idea of grad school is to fine tune your education. When you apply, you do so because you've found the thing. Your thing. The path you want to follow. When I finally decided I wanted to be a writer, I found a program, and people, who would teach me, and they did. I learned, and am still learning, how to write.

I've been finished with graduate school for several months now. I have a few publications scheduled in the next half-year, but most days are quiet. Most writing days are solitary, and they end on a cliffhanger: will she finish this book? Will Varmints be worth revisiting tomorrow?

Cliffhangers suck. Nobody likes them, and yet they keep the audience coming back for more. When a television show ends in a cliffhanger, the cast and crew have to come back for the next season. The audience is waiting because they know the plot--they're invested in it. They watched the buildup, the climax, and the abrupt ending. Not so with writers. Nobody gives a crap if I come back tomorrow, because nobody has any idea that I'm here today. Nobody can see me on this Sunday morning, sitting here in my unicorn onesie with mismatched socks and hair that looks like I just crawled out of a badger hole because cooking Thanksgiving dinner wore me out.

"What do you mean by not done?"
I can tweet the hastag #amwriting until the cows come home, but now, nobody cares until I produce a publication. Nobody is waiting for my draft. Nobody wants to know about the essays I start that fail, or the extensive amount of time it's taking me to find the proper voice for a middle-aged possum who's trying to fill out an eHarmony profile in what is starting to feel like the most ridiculous thing I have ever written.

And this leads me to the ever-growing worry that occupies a larger and larger chunk of my brain: What if I'm just not ready?

To my left sits a metal bookshelf I bought at a consignment store for $20. It's seafoam green and it holds every book I've read in the past two years of school. Forty or fifty. Each book bears an author's name and a publisher's imprint. Those people did it. They wrote the damn book, they published the damn book.

They were ready. I do not think that I am. And the infuriating thing about un-readiness is that it won't be moved by force. And while I agree that a writer must, simply, shut the door and write, every single day, the practice of writing may or may not nudge the ready-meter to the left or right. Readiness comes when it will.

"Stop pushing my butt, lady."
Ever try to move a dog who doesn't want to? Nugget is a collie-doodle, according to the mutt genetic test. I've never thought of either breed as being especially strong-willed, and she's not, unless I push her butt. Applying force to Nugget's rump causes her to plant her front paws and push back against me, even when I push her away from things like a knife-wielding Benjamin or a clawed-feline looking to snag a chunk of fluffy tail. And likewise, pulling on Nugget has an equal and opposite reaction: she instinctively pulls away from me. No matter which direction I try to force my doodle to go, she resists me. And yet, it takes only the slightest patience, a brief hint of a kind word ("Come 'ere, Nuggie") to move collie-mountains.

If I'm interpreting my own metaphor correctly (and I'm not sure that I am), it would seem that I need to stop pushing my own butt. To be kind to my hindquarters. But also to continually nudge. (And offer treats.)

The book I'm writing has taken several iterations. I have big decisions to make about it, not the least of which revolve around genre. This book doesn't yet have a home on any shelf, but it will, someday, and at the moment, I've written some truths and I've written some (fun) lies. I don't know if those two states of honesty can coexist on a publisher's desk, on a bookstore shelf. Thus, on any given day, I pick a direction and push myself. A week later I might reverse my course and pull myself another way. And all the while, my inner doodle is planting her feet.

Here, I lose the metaphor. Is the doodle my writing? Is the doodle me? Is the doodle the universe?

Hell if I know. And so I'm forced to wait, to get comfortable with un-readiness while friends around me finish manuscripts and win awards and remove the collars from their necks. And no matter how many essays I read about writers who also were not ready, I find no comfort in this perpetual state of uncertainty.

"We'll just wait here while you finish the book."
It's Schrodinger's varmint. Until I open the box, the book is both fiction and nonfiction. The book is both complete and incomplete.

And yet, I'm not sitting alone all day, every day, wringing my hands. I'm doing things I've wanted to do for two years. I'm out of my office more than I'm in it. I'm having the experiences I need to have, being with people rather than with a computer screen. Until I go out, I'll have nothing about which to come back and write. My kids missed me when I was in school. Weekend trips were postponed. Walks in the woods put off. Finally, I can and will do these things, despite the fact that they limit my writing time. I'm finding joy in a more open schedule.

Still, the unreadiness clings to me like the scent of wet dog. I get whiffs of it even when I'm out and about, but I can't seem to wash it off with a definitive end-date. I try to scrub myself clean with pep talks and mindfulness, but these are like the candles I burn to cover up the scent of the foyer carpeting where Nugget poops on rainy days.

I'm not ready to finish the book. I'm not ready to finish anything, today. I'm kind of thinking about chewing a sneaker, though.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Riprap

Note to readers: I wrote this blog on Monday, the day before the election, but didn't finish editing it until Friday. I won't be addressing the election because this is a nature blog, a sacred place.

When I began this blog, I did so for a class called Nature Writing that I took my second semester of graduate school. I loved that class because one of the requirements was to keep this nature blog. We had to choose a spot in nature and visit it every other week. What we wrote about was up to us. Naturally, I chose Piedmont Lake, though everyone else was a lot smarter, choosing a spot close to home. I had to drive an hour each way. Totally worth it though. That's how Piedmont Peace, The Blog was born. And though I didn't know exactly what revelations would come to me as I visited the lake by myself, over and over again, in the winter months, I was pleasantly surprised to have more than enough to write and think about every time I went. And it made me wish I'd been blogging for decades rather than weeks because I'd have a Piedmont book written by now. No place in my life is more deserving.
November weenie roast on Fall Chore Day.

I was at the lake, the cabin, yesterday for the annual fall cleanup day. As a child I hated fall chore day. It signaled the finish line for fun. While an adult with a boat can entertain herself via fall fishing well into October (and thanks to climate change, now November), a kid loses at least 50% of his interest as soon as the water becomes too cold for swimming. Fall cleanup day means putting the porch furniture in the house, blowing the leaves out of the gutters and off the roof, hiding beadspreads from mice in Rubbermain containers, and winterizeing the dock. That means Dad has to put on his hip waders and enter the 60-degree water (and this is a warm year) to take the float off the end. The rest of the dock is supported and will sit quietly above the sand when the conservancy lets down the lake, but the float has to find its way to the shoreline for the winter.

The dock moves out.
This year, though, the dock ritual incorporated much more detailed efforts. Some months ago, Dad received a letter from the Muskingum Conservancy Watershed District (henceforth MCWD or "the bastards") telling him that he and every other resident of Goodrich Road had to have their docks out of the water by the end of December. Completely out, at our own expense and effort. The reason? MCWD has aerially visualized shoreline erosion in the vicinity of our docks. That means somebody went up in a plane and saw muddy water flowing out from our cove, most specifically from our dock and a few other docks. The letter went on to say that the Conservancy will be riprapping the shoreline in January to combat this problem.

Riprap at the dam
You've seen riprap. It's a wall of rock piled upon the shoreline to stabilize and prevent erosion. I've seen it in the ocean as well as in fresh water. I've seen it on riverbanks. It prevents erosion from both wave action (of which there is very little in Piedmont due to the 9.9 horsepower limit) and runoff. It's not a new concept. Robert E. Lee was assigned to an island riprapping project when he was in the Army Corps of Engineers. The poet and nature writer Gary Snyder spent time in his younger days as a trail crew member in the Sierra Nevada riprapping mountain trails for horse travel; in 1965 he published a book of poetry called Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems.
November on the lake

The titular poem, Riprap:

Lay down these words
Before your mind like rocks.
             placed solid, by hands   
In choice of place, set
Before the body of the mind
             in space and time:
Solidity of bark, leaf, or wall
             riprap of things:
Cobble of milky way,
             straying planets,
These poems, people,
             lost ponies with
Dragging saddles —
             and rocky sure-foot trails.   
The worlds like an endless   
             four-dimensional
Game of Go.
             ants and pebbles
In the thin loam, each rock a word   
             a creek-washed stone
Granite: ingrained
             with torment of fire and weight   
Crystal and sediment linked hot
             all change, in thoughts,   
As well as things.

Snyder's riprap comes together, rock by rock, word by word, to form a beautiful trail of language leading us to a higher state. When we read it we actually ooze metaphor out of our pores: poetry is a riprap of words, carefully constructed for maximum strength and impact.


But the reaction to the MCWD's decision to riprap our shoreline wasn't poetic in my family at all; it was a real shit show. In fact, the whole of Goodrich Road rose up in angry protest. First of all, people just plain hate to be ordered around. Life at Piedmont Lake is good, but life at Piedmont Lake is also tremendously frustrating because the residents don't own the land. You can't cut down a tree without permission. Houses may be olive green or dark brown or gray, only. When you get a letter ordering you to paint the concrete blocks of your foundation, you do it. When you build a deck and forget to ask permission first, you pay a fine. Swimmers may not swim past the end of their docks, nor may they jump off their boats or rocks. We all do it anyway (because screw MCWD), but there have been times when the ranger has busted us and ordered us to behave ourselves. You can enjoy yourself at an MCWD lake, but actual fun isn't encouraged. We go out of our way to project the appearance of compliance while at the same time doing all kinds of rotten things like diving off the boat at the dam and paddling an unlicensed kayak. And sometimes I've had to pay for it. But eff the Conservancy.

This time, though, we don't have a choice. On January 1, the riprapping begins.

The shoreline in mid-spring.
Let me take a moment to describe our shoreline. The Eastern deciduous forest gives way to a gentle slope of grass about 15 feet wide. My father has encouraged small trees to take hold along the embankment, offering gentle privacy from passing fishermen and dappled shade in the heat of the day. Canada geese rest on the grass in the morning sun and, in May and June, cattails emerge and yellow water iris spring from the water's edge, drawing bees and butterflies. The lake's gentle waves lap the faces of small boulders, some overgrown with tree roots where thin water snakes make their summer homes. A rock sits just offshore, waiting to teach little children to jump and swim, a perch where I once counted dragonflies and dangled my toes in the lake, where my sons now practice their circus leaps. Leafy water plants begin to grow in the shallows as the water warms, and minnows and shiners dart to safety whenever a largemouth bass passes by. The mother bass spawn in the shade of the forest, endlessly guarding their nests until the fry hatch and move to the weed beds in the shadow of the saplings on the shore. In deeper water, bluegill and sunfish hide under the dock, guarding their own nests in the sub-aquatic vegetation, and even further out, saugeye lurk near the bottom and patrol the edge of the underwater forest.

In two months those bulldozers are going to roll up and maul the ever-loving shit out of our shoreline. Viva la riprap!

The MCWD agreed to send an engineer to a Goodrich Road meeting of the minds, and to his credit, he came prepared and he came in peace. I did not attend, but Dad did, and he reported back that this young professional truly listened to the concerns of the residents. In fact, he took a fair amount of abuse from an angry group of old men. He explained that the erosion had become a problem, but he took to heart the concerns of the dock owners. Someone had already riprapped his own shoreline with natural-looking boulders many years ago, and this engineer conceded that it was as good a job as any engineer could do. He agreed not to riprap that man's shoreline. Moreover, he went back to the Conservancy and presented the Goodrich Road residents' cases so successfully that MCWD decided not to riprap the entire shoreline of the cove. The new plan involves riprapping only some areas. Alas, our shoreline is the one in greatest need of reinforcement, due in part to a neighbor who ripped all of his trees out of the embankment several years ago in order to improve his view. One can hardly blame him for wanting a nice view, but the consequences have been direct and severe.

Yellow Iris and the jump rock
Bring in the bulldozers. If only I had had the forethought to dig up those water iris when I could still
find their bulbs, I could have overwintered them in my fish pond and replanted them in the spring.

But the shoreline won't be the same in the spring--where would I plant them? It'll be a massive wall of rocks, and any vegetation that had grown in the mud or in the water will have been crushed by the machinery. Forget for a moment the fact that we had to take apart the dock yesterday so Dad could walk it through the water and anchor it on a nearby shoreline where it can sit, undisturbed, for the winter. Forget for a moment that when we reassemble the dock it will have to be rebuilt to go up and over the riprap. Forget for a moment that no adult, dog, or child will be able to access the water without breaking a leg or an ankle. I don't love those components of this process, but I can live with them. We can use ladders. The dogs will find a way.

My biggest concerns revolve around the riparian zone. What is going to happen to the shoreline habitat? The sub- and emergent-aquatic vegetation? The animals like turtles who may be trapped as they try to enter the water?

That's a real question that's milling around in my head. I don't know the answer. What will happen? Thus far I've written this piece with a rather dour tone, haven't I? Research into other states' DNR pages indicates that riprap isn't going to be the end of the world. If done properly, it will stop the erosion and still provide fish habitat. If erosion due to runoff is reduced, so too will be pollutants carried in that runoff, thereby reducing algae blooms. Additionally, riprap may protect wetlands by preventing floating vegetation from being stripped away.

Still, I don't look forward to the riprapping.


Enter the marital disagreement. My husband, the fisherman, is whoop-whooping the incoming riprap with boundless enthusiasm.

"You know how many fish we catch at the dam," he always reminds me. "Have you not read about the smallmouth and largemouth populations that gather around a rock wall?" I have read about them, and he's right. Craw love a rock wall. Where there are craw, there will be smallies. Where there are cracks and holes, fish will hide and spawn. This project has the potential to create bountiful fishing opportunities if they do it right. Algae grows on rocks. Small fish eat algae. Big fish eat small fish. Bigger fish patrol the shoreline.

Bass magazines back this up. Anglers never pass up a good stretch of riprap.

If they do it right.

Thus, the family remains a hung jury. My father mourns the swift death of his shoreline, of his trees, and of the way it's been for 40-some years. Shawn is eager to reap the benefits of a bouldered habitat. And I find myself torn, both hoping for the best and expecting the worst. It's difficult to find ourselves "in the way" of a judgment that's already been passed. Might we have been able to bring in more natural rocks? To plant shrubbery and more trees? I think I'd have more faith in the engineers were they not working for the organization that sold its soul to Antero, the frackers, for $95 million dollars.

Passing our dock around the neighbor's.
"We're doing this for you for free," they told the residents at the Goodrich Road meeting. You don't have to pay a dime. We're fixing things for you."

Fixing. I'm suspicious of that word when it comes to environmental engineering.

I know that in this world we have to trust some people and suspect others. But only hindsight reveals how we did with our gut feeling, if we chose wisely or poorly. I find myself fighting the urge to cling to the way it's always been, to rebel against riprap simply because it's a change. Change is not a bad thing, usually. Nature herself is not static. But riprap isn't nature. Show me a time when man tinkered with nature that ended with a result better than one nature could have achieved itself.

Then again, the whole lake is manmade, the fish dumped in out of the backs of trucks, the water levels raised and lowered by a set of steel doors. Perhaps this entire experiment is just one wild adventure in commerce. As of the posting of this blog, I remain doubtfully hopeful.


The future, for now, looks rocky.



*Roy Blount Jr., Robert E. Lee

Friday, November 4, 2016

The Pee Problem: Making a Mockery of My Horror

It may be time to admit that I have a problem on my hands. Admitting is the first step, they say. One can go on for years and years with a problem, but until they acknowledge its existence, it's hard to find the impetus to make a change.

So here goes: I've got a cat pee problem.

For about a year now, I've been trying to tell myself that I don't have a cat pee problem. Cat pee problems, after all, are for lunatic collectors of felines. Hoarders. People who don't take care of their cats. People who adopt and adopt and become so nose-blind to the smell in their houses that they no longer notice any odor at all, when in fact the stink is wafting up the street and dropping joggers on the pavement. Cat-pee houses sometimes have to be torn down. When my dad bought the building for his law practice, one room had been inhabited by a crazy cat lady whose cats thoroughly saturated the carpet. I don't know how they got the smell out of the wood but I know it was time-consuming and expensive. I've dealt with my share of dog pee, and it's benign and downright fragrant compared to cat pee. Cat pee is no joke.

And here I want to stop and scream, "I'm a dog person anyway! I can't have a cat pee problem if I'm a dog person!" There's a stigma associated with the smell of cat urine. I'm loath to even bring it up because the scent itself conjures an image of a raving woman in a house dress standing on her porch with hair curlers and a shotgun. Tidy people--people who have their shit together--don't have cat pee problems. Dog people don't have cat pee problems.

But of course, they do. I've been very quietly reaching out to the cat people I know. Growing up, we never really had cats, and even though I've been a cat-owning adult for some time now, I still feel like a newbie. My inexperience reveals the fact that I've never really gone all-in with cats; I just sort of have them around, and until now, the cats have held up their end of the bargain. They've used a litterbox, slept on our furniture, and tripped us every few days. I'm pretty sure those are the three main things expected of them.

The cat friends have assured me that they've all had a pee-er at one time or another. Cats who've peed on chairs, on curtains. My mother-in-law had one who peed in only one corner, and when the corner was unavailable because a piece of furniture covered it, he was fine. What the hell, cats? My obsessive Googling indicates that the reasons a cat will pee boil down to two categories: a physical problem or a behavioral problem. A physical problem is simple to treat. A behavioral problem, not so much.

The cat in question is Putter (pronounced "put-her"), an 11-year-old tortoiseshell female we adopted the day before I found out I was pregnant with Andy. At the time we had a Doberman and a business of ferrets--four, to be exact. She was a tiny kitten and she took her share of abuse from the weasels who thought she was one of them. Ferrets have tough skin and bite each other hard, and they used to drag her around by the scruff of her neck. They toughened her up. Then Andy arrived and rocked her world. The dobie died, we adopted Nugget, our collie mix, and Gimli came along as a stray kitten shortly thereafter. And then--Heaven help her--Ben was born. A few months after Ben came along we rescued Maya, our German shepherd. Now, Panther has moved in too, and through it all Putter has been more tolerant than I'd have expected a cat to be. She does seem to try. She bonded with Gimli, ignores Nugget, hates Benjamin, and hides from Maya. She despises Panther and adores both Shawn and my electric blanket.

Needless to say, the cat has endured a lifetime of inconsistency. Animals, children, and chaos all coming and going. It's not ideal. But the urinating is only a recent development. She's hung on for a long time. Like all female cats, Putter's been under the impression that this is her house and that she's the monarch. At times she appeared so stately that we were convinced the urinator was Gimli. I'd yell at him and run him off and grumble about selling him down the river, and I feel pretty bad about this, in hindsight. Only in the last year did we figure out who the real culprit was.

Our first visit to the vet revealed a raging urinary tract infection. Poor Putter, we all exclaimed. No wonder she was peeing on the rug. She's been sick for months and nobody thought to have her examined. What terrible humans we are. We got her feeling better, but after a brief hiatus the peeing returned. Grimly, the vet told me that the problem was behavioral and would be a challenge to treat.

Cat urine is perhaps the most offensive substance in the domestic human-animal world. Give me yak, give me hairballs. Give me a dog rolling in a dead fish. Anything but cat pee.

Felinine
See this amino acid? It's Felinine. The S in there is sulfur. While the cat urine takes its sweet time soaking into Benjamin's bedroom carpet, the molecules begin to break down. As they do, the sulfur cleaves off. So now sulfur is just down there, rolling around in the pile, and the longer the urine sits, the worse it smells. Fresh cat pee isn't easy to find. Day-old cat pee is unmistakable. Week-old cat pee? Might as well head down to the ol' bunker and dig out the gas masks.

There's always a reason for an animal's physical attributes, and evolution had a plan for cat pee. Unneutered male cats have a high concentration of Felinine in their urine so that when they mark a tree in the wild, the scent can power through rain and still act as a stinking, blinking beacon in the yard for any other dude who decides to wander through. Nature, you sly genius. However, Putter's girly urine still contains more than enough Felinine to ruin my carpet.

The pet stores are happy to sell me a variety of cat pee products. Off. Dumb Cat. Anti-Icky-Poo. Things that crystallize. Things that de-funkify. Things that repel. The Nature's Miracle people would have me believe that their enzyme formula is the way to go, that enzymes are really the only tool for combating the smell. I'm not so sure. I've spent several hundred dollars on big gallon jugs of Nature's Miracle, saturating the carpet over and over again. The smell always remains. And if I can smell it, Putter can smell it. That stink is a big flashing cat sign: Liked it the first time? Come on back! 

While I'm fighting this battle with the world's rudest amino acid, I'm also going slowly insane. The pee has gotten into my head. In the first few months, I could easily detect the smell of cat pee. I'd walk up the stairs and get a whiff. I'd announce to Shawn that there was fresh cat pee somewhere. He'd never be able to smell it, but I'd get down on my hands and knees and crawl around with my schnoz smashed into the carpet until I found the wet spot. Then, like a pointer, I'd tense and alert the family. Pee! I found pee!

But after a few months, I guess I went a little nose-blind. In Pavlovian style, I learned to associate the smell of Nature's Miracle with the presence of feline urine, and the two scents blended together to form a ball of confused frustration in my sinuses. Had I or had I not treated that particular swatch of carpet? Was it damp because I had just cleaned it the day before or was it damp because Putter had peed on it again? I started spending more time on the floor, bloodhounding my way around the room, baying when I thought I found another wet spot.

Ba-WROOOOOO! 

These days, it goes like this: Walk up the stairs, stop in my tracks. Do I smell something? Is that cat pee? Enter Ben's room, drop to my hands and knees. Smush my nostrils into the carpet and proceed to hoover around the room. Sniff. Fresh pee or old pee? Damp or dry? Felinine or Nature's Miracle? Can't decide. Get in the car and drive to Petco. Purchase a gallon of enzymatic cleaner for $42.99. Return to the room and pour the entire bottle into the corner. Sit and watch the puddle. Sniff the puddle. Sniff my pants. Ask myself if they smell, too. Remove my pants. Sniff the knees of the pant legs and decide they reek of pee. Wash the pants with enzymatic cleaner. Sit in Ben's room with no pants and watch the puddle dry. Open a window. Air out the room. Sniff the cuff of my shirt. Imagine it smells like pee. Remove the shirt. Wash the shirt. Sit in Ben's room in my underwear and watch the puddle dry. Leave the house in clean clothing to go to Ben's Halloween party at school. Ask my friend if I smell like cat pee. When she says no, decide she's wrong. Subtly remove myself from the group and retreat to the corner of the classroom so nobody can smell me. When Shawn arrives, ask him if he smells cat pee on me. Tell him he's wrong when he says no. Go home. Notice the yard smells like cat pee. Take off my clothing again. Notice the dog smells like cat pee. Notice the shower smells like cat pee. Drive to Petco in clean clothing. Buy another gallon of enzymatic cleaner. Pour it on the rug and watch the puddle dry in my underwear. Sniff my hair. Wash my hair. Ask the mailman to come upstairs and tell me if he smells pee. Argue with him when he says no.

I bought Putter an expensive self-cleaning litterbox. She likes it. She uses it. There's no evidence that she's peed on the rug since I gave it to her. She seems to be happy.

But I still smell pee everywhere. On me, on you. It clings to the curtains, to the trees. It blows in on the wind. I smell pee in the car, on the kids. The plates come out of the dishwasher reeking of urine. When people come to the house I turn on fans and open windows. I light candles and flick on my Scentsy warmers. I bake a turkey so the house smells like roasting bird flesh rather than cat whiz. I ask Shawn and the children to smell the rugs, the wood, and my own body over and over again. I inhale until my lungs hurt and I get woozy.

And nobody else can smell it. Nobody believes me.

But I smell cat pee.

This morning, as I wrote this blog, I took a break between the seventh and eighth paragraphs to pour a gallon of vinegar on the carpet. I found the treatment on YouTube. I treated half of the area and left the other half untreated so that I can compare the two later, when the liquid dries. They say that if you can question your sanity, then you're still sane, but I'm not sure if that applies to someone who spends half of the day on her stomach inhaling a faceful of ammonia.

This is my life, now. I'm Edgar Allen Poe's tragic murderer, smelling the thump thump of cat pee under my floor boards.

Why will you say that I am mad? The disease has sharpened my senses--not destroyed--not dulled them. Above all was the sense of smell acute. I smelled all things in the heaven and in the earth. I smelled many things in hell. How, then, am I mad?

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Varmints

The word varmint has become an integral part of my lexicon in the last 15 months. Aside from the words calamity and Ben, I may have used varmint as a hashtag more than any other. It peppers my conversation now, and I have to admit that I like it a lot. I think my life is richer for the presence of the word varmint. Thus, Varmints, The Thesis was born in my second year of my MFA program.

Because who doesn't want to read about animals?

Dogs and cats are the obvious choice for animal stories, and the bookstore has the titles to prove it. Chicken Soup for the Dog Lover's Soul. Simon's Cat Gets Neutered. 101 Tales of Noble Pets Guaranteed to Make You Sob Like a 20-Year-Old Who's Just Been Dumped by Wren, the Grimy Hipster Guy Who Makes Organic Soap Out of Sheep Snot. These are just a few of the titles you can find in the "schmaltzy dogs" section.

Schmaltzy dogs dominate the animal storytelling industry. Show me a movie about a dog that doesn't end one of two ways: a) with Rufus getting hit by a car or taking a bullet for little Bobby and dying with quiet dignity while his humans wail, or b) with the final scene revealing that Rufus actually survived the shooting/road rash and, as the crescendo builds, he limps over the rise in the dusty driveway and drags his ever-loyal hindquarters down the lane to the waiting arms of Billy. Er, Bobby. Whatever I called him. That's the MO for dog stories.

But if we pull back a bit, we can see how much room there is for a whole complement of animal stories that don't revolve around young Bobby's flat cat. We cross paths with animals every day, as soon as we leave the house. And, for most of us, those animals are urban critters like squirrels, crows, and deer.

Varmints.

That time Mama Rat brought out her babies and
then I poisoned them all.
The word has a distinctly negative connotation. The very definition of varmint is "a troublesome animal." People dedicate time on weekends for varmint hunting. You can walk into Cabelas right here in Wheeling and buy a varmint rifle. Go to YouTube and check it out, if you have the stomach. I normally do not, but when I was doing varmint research for my thesis, I found a British varmint hunter with a channel on which he posts videos of his nocturnal rat hunts at the family dairy. I don't begrudge him a rat hunt. God knows I've had my share of trouble with rats, and poison is a far worse idea because it works its way out into the food web, into hawks and owls and such. In the video, he scopes them and shoots them. The only part of the video that truly disturbed me was when he said he pops them right in the brain so they don't suffer. Then, he zooms in on a dying rat who is clearly having a grand mal seizure, and he says, "See? He's not in any pain." And the rat thrashes. But, it's a rat. And the death of a rat is far more complicated--ethically--than Old Yeller's.

Skippy, the groundhog who lives under the porch.
That's why I like varmints. They really stir up complicated thoughts about morals and ethics. And, more importantly, the varmints pull the curtain back on a very interesting phenomenon and a very sad one: as we see to it that our megafauna disappear, these adaptable little critters fill the empty void. Megafauna have highly specific needs. The mountain lion, for example. The wolf. These are predators who used to populate Appalachia, and they were responsible for controlling deer populations. But, as humans always do, we came in and tinkered with the lion and wolf populations (translation: we killed them all). Now the deer run rampant and eat my hosta every night and my garden looks like shit.

But what we're really doing is making room for the varmints. And though we've waged war on
varmints in the same manner that we waged war on the apex predators, the varmints reproduce quickly and adapt easily. Ever have a raccoon problem? I do. I caught two little jerks in my fish pond this summer at 6am. I went out into the dark to feed the cat and there they were, red-handed in my pond, reaching for my fish. They'd unscrewed the lids on my koi food and dumped it all into the water, and they'd thrown the cans into the neighbors' yard. My father came over when he heard the commotion and told me to call Critter Control, to get those two varmints out of there.

I declined to do so. First of all, my dad thought that the critter guy would just release them in a happy forest where they could go on to lead a life of raccoonly fulfillment. Not so. I know from past experience that the law dictates a trapped raccoon must be destroyed. But let's say for the sake of the discussion that I was okay with that. After all, raccoons aren't in short supply. Nobody is going to miss two trouble-makers. What's the harm in making them disappear before they eat my big, beautiful koi?

Busted in the fish pond.
There's no harm, outside of my own moral compass. But I'd be flushing my money down the toilet. What did I learn in a year of research for Varmints: The Thesis? I learned that there is always another raccoon. Always. Another. An endless supply of little masked bears waiting in the wings. The raccoon you saw this morning isn't necessarily the raccoon you saw yesterday morning. The trash raccoon may be a different fellow from the pond raccoon. So yes, I can call the critter guy and have him trap and destroy my pond offenders. Another raccoon will arrive shortly, taking up the mantle of his koi-snatching, trash-digging relatives.

This is why varmints are so successful. There are always more of them. Moreover, varmints are endlessly adaptable. In this article from Lousisiana Sportsman, the author reports on the state's feral hog problem. The gist of the article is that feral hogs have surpassed white-tailed deer in terms of what hunters bag, and that the hog has lots of hoglets (er, piglets) and most of them survive. They'll eat anything.

Now, granted, feral hogs are a different category of animal from deer and raccoons and possums. Hogs were introduced to North America back in DeSoto's day, while raccoons have been here for ages. Raccoons are a native species. But the point is that varmints adapt, and do so quickly. That's precisely why they become varmints. They're just fine with whatever changes we make. The big beautiful animals can't hack life with the humans, but the critters we love to hate thrive right under the porch. Grilling out tonight? Guess who's licking the drippings after you go to bed? Erecting a little storage barn down by the tomato garden? Way to provide a solid roof over their heads down in their hidey holes. Varmints. You can't piss 'em off. You can't drive 'em away.

Research from the 1960's.
I envision a future, sometimes, that's pretty bleak. But it's not one too far out of the realm of possibility. Imagine us in fifty years. We've triggered the collapse of the oceans. We've deforested the shit out of our own country, to say nothing of the Amazon. Water quality sucks. Obviously the black bears aren't doing so well. The Yellowstone wolf project was a huge failure--we shot them all when they tried to eat our sheep. Now look at the coyote population. It's exploded. We have coyotes coming out of our asses. We try to shoot them; they just keep coming.

Because they're varmints, and they're thriving. And on so many different levels, you've got to respect raccoons and varmints in general. They're adaptable. They're successful. They're bound and determined to make a life in a place that seems harsh and unfriendly. They're up for meeting a challenge even if it claims their lives. And they're driven to take advantage of every situation. that. In calm moments when you've finished picking up the scattered trash and pulled the severed frog's head from the pond waterfall, consider how well these creatures reflect human beings.

It's is interesting, isn't it? When humans take advantage of every situation, we're bold. Explorers, meeting our manifest destiny. By God, we conquered that wilderness and made a life for ourselves in the great unknown. Sure it was risky, and many of us died. But we made ourselves fit.

Slappy, our resident fox squirrel.
Now consider a varmint doing the same thing: the rat who moves into the basement because he and his buddies can survive the winter. The groundhog who lives under the porch next to the dryer exhaust. The possum who eats the leftovers in the dog bowl on the deck. The raccoon who snacks on my big, beautiful Japanese koi. It's not manifest destiny. It's a series of offenses punishable by death. And yet, like the Europeans who marched across this country and decided that they belonged, the varmints like it here. It's slightly risky living but the rewards are glorious.

A.B.C. Whipple wrote about Canada geese in his book, Critters, noting that many geese have eschewed migration for a cushier life overwintering in city parks. It's easier than flying south, the geese have decided. The Canada goose is the only species we know of that has actually overridden its evolutionary urge to migrate. Stop and think about that. Think about migration. Some animals migrate knowing they'll die at the end of their journey, knowing that the trip will be hazardous and exhausting. Monarch butterflies take four generations to complete a full cycle of migration. But the Canada goose has decided within the last hundred years not to migrate. Boom, just like that. How cushy must life be among the humans for a species to make such a mind-boggling change, to override evolution itself?

Sweet Pea, the deer I stupidly hand-feed.
I want to say it's not easy being a varmint, that they take a huge risk in affiliating themselves with humans, in living on the fringe of our society. But it's not really true, is it? First of all, they don't live on the fringe. Let us not pretend they aren't under our feet at all times, or under the porch, or watching us from beneath the yew bushes. More importantly, we've all but invited them in. Our existence is too easy to ignore. The rewards vastly outweigh the risks of hanging around with the human crowd. Sure, once in a while you end up in a trap, bound for an unsettling fate. Occasionally, you get popped in the brain by a trigger-happy Brit with a night-scope. Once in a while, the Roberts' German shepherd roughs you up in front of your buddies, leaving you to limp home beaten and bedraggled. It's doesn't matter. You'll be back. And if you aren't, your kin are waiting in the wings to take your place a thousand times over. You've adapted. You've become a part of the landscape, the ecosystem. These humans aren't going anywhere, and neither are you.
Homo sapien

Varmints, you're golden.