Sunday, May 31, 2015

Fading into mush

Although we spent a recent weekend at Piedmont with the kids, I'm having more trouble picking out topics for a Piedmont blog than I did when I went alone. Just as I mentioned in my first entry, when I'm with my family, there are a lot of voices in and out of my head which sync up into a droning beat of noise punctuated by spikes and dips. And when I have time to stop in the evening and write, or think, I often fall into a heavy sleep instead. 

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The kids bickered. As a child I remember wondering why my mother found it so infuriating. Now, it seems perfectly obvious that the developing fetus triggers a reflex in the mother, and this makes her nerves vulnerable to the irritation of bickering. One child is often being picked on, so there's a protective instinct, but more often it's simply akin to fingernails on a chalkboard (here my mentor comes out and slaps me for using a cliche, but this early on a Sunday I cannot locate a more accurate sensation). 

Someone always needed food, or a worm on their hook, or some dog had pooped right in the driveway (you may remember that from early, solo blog entries as well). Piedmont isn't so peaceful, with my family. It's still fun, and it's a salve on a chapped soul worn raw from a few weeks in town. The lake heals, and remains a source of joy. But as the weekend matriarch, I find responsibility to be a far louder voice than the quiet call for serenity.

The lake at noon, looking east.

This winter I made eight solo trips to Piedmont. I didn't expect to love them as I did. The drive is long, and the winter was bitterly cold. I'm a warm-weather gal; the cold closes in on me and, unless I'm on the ski mountain or something, feels unfriendly and stank. I waited for the warmth to come as I made my Piedmont trips, but now that it has, I hesitate. I don't wish for more cold at all, but I do mourn the loss of my solitude, and my freedom to walk in the woods and on the ice. Now, the lake is crowded. (And by crowded I mean there are, at any given time, 10 boats within sight. I know: horrors.) There are fisherman in front of the dock, and church campers at the camp, and in the cabin my mom is resting (her health is poor) and my dad is in the garage tinkering, and the children are tossing toys and insults on the deck, and there are five dogs going in and out of every door every time one is opened. It's mad chaos in comparison.

I loved my winter trips. My spring trips. I loved every trip I undertook alone, and I saw more, learned more, than I had in 35 years of lake trips. I saw it as a natural place rather than a weekend vacation site. Just the thought of my new perspective makes me both excited to have experienced it and wistful for another taste of it.

Northern rough-winged
swallows have nested in the dock
floats for years.
I'm one of those "highly sensitive people" you read about. It's a curse, really. The world is just too much for me. John Coffey, in The Green Mile, says that he feels like there are bits of glass in his brain, and I often feel that way about things. Loud noises bother me, and I detest wind for the feel of it on my face, garish and offensive. That's right: wind bothers me. That's how sensitive I am. At the lake I get up very early so as to avoid sensory overload, but my dad gets up very early too, so even then solitude is hard to find, and it's always accompanied by the responsibility of motherhood, of constantly turning an ear inward to listen for little feet on the stairs. 

To make matters far more complicated, Shawn and I now get cell service at the lake. We switched from ATT to Verizon. Once a month, Shawn has to be on call. He's a programmer, and when a server goes down, he needs to a) know about it, and b) be able to reboot it. The rotation is every four to five weeks, and so for the past nine years, every fourth or fifth week, we were stuck in town. In order to be able to go to the lake on on-call weekends, we had to make the change in carriers, and now the world can reach us at Piedmont. Facebook and CNN can find me. And though it's a necessary change--we made the decision to switch when Nugget was hooked and the cabin phone wasn't working and we wondered, what if it had been more serious?--it's intrusive to be connected. There's a weight I imagine I feel, now. 

We can at least check the radar for incoming weather, Shawn's on-the-side passion.

I enjoyed the weekend so much, and it was fun. But it wasn't restorative. Not entirely, anyway. Returning to Wheeling, I didn't feel as though I'd been able to turn inward at all. There was no time, no quiet moment. The woods are closed now, the poison ivy thick and the vegetation thicker. The brambles and thorns and poisonous leaves reach out over the hiking paths just aching to get a lick at my legs. I won't go in. (As you'd imagine, I'm highly susceptible to poison ivy. I require cortizone shots.) 

One of the [illegal] jump rocks.
This weekend, the storms have been popping up everywhere. We chose not to go to the lake, and the radar has confirmed that we made the right call. The lake was slammed several times on Saturday. Yet, part of me wishes I could be out there, alone, listening to the thunder volley about the hills as it comes in--you can never tell where the storm is because the sound echoes all over the lake; it's on my Top 10 Favorite Things About Being Alive list. 

Perhaps the universe is telling me that I need a few more solo day trips. The children start day camp soon. I might have to invest in a few tanks of gas in the coming months. 




Shawn discovers the water is 71 degrees.

The whole fam damily

Though his smoked chicken was outstanding, the process of smoking meat is
one more way to offend my senses.

B gets a story.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Don't Feed the Humorist

Another blog on writing thoughts.

I know, you all groan inwardly. Here again we must listen to the obsessive-compulsive, Type A, neurotic mess of a writer talk about her own insecurities and do a little whining, followed by a predictable conclusion. We just came to see the duck fucking she promised us a month and a half ago.

Well, first of all, I keep wanting to write about the randy mallards but then I realize it might go into my thesis, so I'm hesitant to blog about it.

Wednesday was my birthday. It actually sucked royally because I was recovering from an obscene migraine, and four days later I'm still so darn fatigued and headachey that I'm wondering if maybe I contracted Lyme Disease while romping around in the wilderness of Belmont County for the last few months. Oh yes, I'm a horrible hypochondriac. Just a mess of a hypochondriac. All winter I had a twitchy eye (or was it a twitchy finger?) and I was sure that there was a growth on one of my lobes. And then I switched to the far more realistic fear of an impending-anaphalactic reaction. Every time I took any sort of pill I was certain my throat was going to close up. I'm absolutely off my rocker, I know. I never did continue with the medication that was prescribed to me, because it clouded my head. And now that the stress of school is over, the anxiety has largely melted away. I even managed to ride in the passenger seat with Shawn driving and not brace my feet against the dashboard in crash position. That's progress.

What does this have to do with my birthday? Not a damn thing. I had a migraine; it makes you stupid for a few days. It was a tangent. Anyway, the Lyme Disease thing...I'm calm about it, for once, and curious, and cautious. It's something I'm keeping an eye on. Stiff neck, headaches, fatigue, confusion, joint pain...those little bastards are out there. There's nothing so creepy as a parasite. Anyway.

As I lay there miserably on my birthday reading my plethora of Facebook birthday greetings, a theme emerged: You're the funniest person I know. You're so hilarious. You make me laugh.

Holy shit, Batman. Don't tell an obsessive-compulsive that she's funny. It's too much.

I know I'm funny. God didn't give me the gift of beauty, or a quick wit, and he didn't make me much of a public speaker. (In fact, I think I'm far more likely to pass a thesis defense if I just sit there and shut up for an hour. Opening my mouth can only screw it up.) The one thing He gave me was a sense of humor. A very specific, sarcastic, biting one. I've learned to be careful; last year I almost ended a friendship when I made what I thought was an innocent crack about a friend's pants. Not everybody appreciates it. But, it seems that many of my Facebook friends and my writer friends do. Write more funny, they say. Where's the funny, my local writing group asks when I show up without something to read.

Do you know how hard it is to write "funny" on command? In fact, out of every ten essays I write, only one is funny. That blog early in the semester that everybody loved about my encounter with a rabid squirrel and walking into a log? That was me being "on." Most of the time I'm not "on." And as for the Facebook folk, they only see me when I'm "on." Funny people shut the hell up when they're not feeling funny, lest they be discovered as an ordinary, not-so-entertaining human being. When I'm not funny, I'm not talking, or writing.

Also, I've discovered in my MFA program that there's a huge difference between a funny quip and a funny essay. Quips are easy. They're like the whoopee cushion of writing. Writing a humorous essay, or story, requires the literary equivalent of a room full of fart gags, and chances are that after a few air biscuits the reader is going to be bored. That's a lot of pressure (pun not intended but I'll go with it), and what's more, humor doesn't sit in a jar waiting for the lid to be lifted so it can burst forth. Imagine the circumstances that came together that day last winter for me to write that humorous blog: the dog had diarrhea, the trapped squirrel, the log in my face, the fricking flat tire...that morning was a gift from the universe.f

(I think I just stated that walking face-first into a fallen tree was a blessing.)

Therein lies the part where "writer" comes in. I don't get those sort of funny days very often, so this means I'm going to have to rely on my skills. (Ugh.) And in turn, that's where the insecurity comes in. I'm not sure I can force funny on any given day. Rather than a steady stream of comedy, it seems to come in wee bursts, all-or-nothing funny flash-floods.

I read 300 pages of Freudian humor analysis this past semester. Freud taught me how to craft his version of a joke. But even if I had any respect for Siggy himself, I couldn't agree less with the way he deconstructs humor. Sure, somebody has to do it. It's interesting to note why things are funny to the joke-teller and the joke-receiver. But I think analysis falls apart in my hands when I'm writing something funny. Sometimes a joke is just a joke. I don't give a shit why you laugh at what I say, as long as you laugh. Any press is good press.

Moreover, when I went to a one-day conference at school last fall, I sat in on a humor lecture. And there was no comedy in that room. That is to say, it was dark humor. Sad, ironic, look-what-the-characters-have-come-to humor. The essays didn't make me smile. Sigh. I hate that kind of irony.

Okay, I love irony. Writers feed on irony the way my kids live on cereal. In high school we were force-fed irony until we puked up Sophocles. Our discussions were led while the word "Irony" was written on the chalk board in huge letters, as though irony were the orgasm of our literary roll in the hay. And, I suppose it is. But dark, ironic humor isn't particularly funny to me. If you don't smile when you read what I write, it's not humor. It's not comedy. It's not fucking funny.

That's not particularly scholarly of me, is it? I just want to make you people laugh. Life is serious enough, and nature writing has the potential to be a serious downer due to the fact that we're all in a sorry-ass situation of our own making. (Irony! God, yes! Right there!) But dammit, if you keep telling me how funny I am and how I should do stand-up in my kitchen and write a Sedaris-esque book, I haven't a chance in hell. Lower your expectations. Then, maybe I'll come up with something cleverly humorous just to stick it to you.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go check my scalp for a bullseye rash.

Monday, May 11, 2015

The Weekend of the Century

The blog goes back to Piedmont, now. And what a weekend we were blessed with.

Responsibility

It takes an awful lot of work to get six people and five dogs out to the cabin for two nights. I am the designated organizer, now that my mom has health problems. I made the list, I did the shopping, I did the packing, and the hauling, and the children's overnight bags. I filled the gas tanks, and remembered toilet paper and sunscreen and dog food. And when we got there on Friday afternoon, Mom and the children and I, I did the unpacking so she could rest. For the first few hours, I hated every minute of it.

Being the sole soul in charge is trying. Shawn helps me by hauling, but this time he was at work and in addition, he has ADHD, so his contributions are usually limited to asking where we're going and putting milk in the liquor cabinet. He is my partner in this life, but the weight of forward momentum is always on my shoulders. At all times I am responsible for three lives, plus my own. At times, I feel very tired, deep in my soul. Friday night was one of those nights. Shawn joined us late, after he'd come home from work and loaded up his own collection of things, like his smoker. I made food for the kids and they had a grand time jumping off of the rock, when they weren't fighting.




Two months ago that rock was high and dry, and encased in ice. This has been an extreme year, so far. The air was 90 degrees, and the water had risen to 76. Far too cold for me to go in past my waist, but the kids toughed it out until their shivers prevented them from speaking. As they stood on the rock we saw two water snakes go by. They are Northern Water Snakes, and they lurk along the shoreline living under tree roots. They eat frogs and craws and minnows, and they're a snake that gives birth to live young.

The mental image of a snake giving birth is icky, by the way. I'm not anti-snake, but any time wiggly things come out of other wiggly things....it's just a lot for the old brain to handle.

Birds

As we sat on the deck, Mom and I tinkered with my new Cornell Ornithology bird app. A towhee and his mate were fluttering around the yard and when I played the bird call, the male immediately approached me. He dove at my head, he sat on the roof above me and in nearby branches, calling and calling. His mate was on her nest in a boxwood beside the screened porch, while he flirted with my phone for several hours. Not that I'm anthropomorphizing or anything, but he was quite the sleazy guy. Looking for cloaca on the side. (Actually, in truth I felt I'd screwed with his little bird brain by playing the app, and I had a serious case of birder's remorse.)

On Saturday we were fishing and heard a tremendous murder of crows in the nearby woods all calling and cawing together in fury. Interspersed between these calls were the angry screeches of a red-tailed hawk. Whether the hawk was too close to the crows' nest(s) or the crows were too close to the hawk nest, we couldn't tell. But after twenty minutes of bawdy hysterics, the crows came flying out of the woods and over our heads with the red-tailed hawk in hot pursuit. The hawk swooped low over our heads on his/her way to the west, and settled into a yard a few lots down. The crows didn't come back.

Within an hour of the hawk sighting the lake's resident bald eagle appeared. This was very exciting, because I hadn't ever seen the eagle leave the southeast end of the lake, the headwaters. Nor do I know if there are now a pair of eagles or not, but I hope there will be. The eagle was in our large cove and swooped over our dock, heading eventually back to the southeast. It was very exciting.

On Sunday morning, I saw a hooded warbler, which I have never seen before, and was delighted to encounter. The woods are full of such different birds than the urban backyard, and the songs are all new to me too.

Fish

The weekend's spectacularity (that's a word, right?) really stemmed from the fishing. We rarely come out in May, and this past weekend the water was cold, the air was hot, and a vast school of white bass moved into our cove. In 36 years at the lake I've never seen a white bass, nor have I seen them school around the dock as they did. It felt like a swarm of locusts, almost, because they hit on every single cast. I caught 10 fish in 10 casts; Andy caught 20 in 20. In fact, I caught more fish on Saturday than Shawn and I have caught at Piedmont in our entire 13 years together, combined. The four of us brought in well over 100 fish on Saturday, and it continued into Sunday.

While 90% of the species during the day on Saturday were white bass, aka stripers, as the afternoon progressed we began to pull in a few saugeye. White bass school and hit in a frenzy, but saugeye are bottom-dwellers. Unlike bass, they have sharp teeth and razors on their gills, and a frustrating habit of extending their gills outward when handled in an attempt to slice open human fingers. Ben and Andy became rather adept at "lipping" the bass, but we had to handle the saugeye for Ben, at least, because of the potential for injury. Saugeye are a farm-produced hybrid between a female walleye and a male sauger. They do reproduce on their own but are easy to grow and stock. Walleye need colder water, so the saugeye is particularly well-suited for the warmth of these Ohio reservoirs. They're a favorite fish in Piedmont, along with the muskellunge. Anglers often troll slowly around the shoreline for saugeye. They have the creepy walleye eye, which appears iridescent and wonky at times. Though Piedmont is known for it's saugeye, Shawn and I have tried unsuccessfully for years to catch them. We caught more this weekend than we knew what to do with. 13-year-unlucky streak: broken.

In the evening we began hauling in large crappie. They like cold water and they were lurking in the growing weeds about 10 feet off the dock. We caught several the size of dinner plates. Well, salad plates, anyway.

Get ready for some fish photos.

Dad's 14-inch crappie on Sunday at dawn

Ben's big crappie

Ben's beefy striped bass (white bass)

Lengthy saugeye

Andy's crappie

The record fish of the weekend: Ben's 16-inch saugeye caught on his Spiderman pole



The children, I think, have no idea how unusual this weekend's fishing was. Piedmont is a spring and fall lake, and we really only use the cabin in the summer. By the time we get established out there, the only fish to catch are bluegill and catfish. Fishing is terribly slow in the summer. In the pre-children days, Shawn and I spent a lot of time spring fishing, but it's a fading memory. When the water warms another ten degrees, the lake will shut down and the poor kids won't understand what happened.

Nevertheless, this weekend will remain in their memories for most of their lives. They may never catch that many fish in 4 hours ever again. I certainly haven't. And our experience reiterated why I think fishing is such an important hobby. Somehow, I differentiate it from hunting quite a bit, though not everyone does. It's the idea of catch-and-release, the idea that humans can be part of nature, dip into nature for their own enjoyment, and at the end of the day, restore it and go home to our world. Anglers, assuming they are responsible, don't hurt anything, and I think anglers are some of the strongest proponents of environmentalism you'll encounter. We don't want chemicals in the lake, we don't want jet skis on the water. We want our fish to have structure, and we want stable populations. Anglers are sticklers for the rules. (Insert paragraph about the rapacious Amish who disregard fishing regulations and catch limits, who catch as many fish as they can and grind them up to put on their fields. We can't stand the Amish anglers. In fact, I saw a pontoon boat struggling along with about 20 of them on it, each with about 8 inches of room to cast.)

Fishing is a perfect way to introduce kids to nature, to instill a love of the outdoors without asking them to do something they can't: sit still. Kids need action, and meditating on the dock doesn't do it for them. Andy learned how to take the fish carefully off the hook (and how to avoid dogs), and Ben learned how to "lip" the bass. Every fish went back into the lake. Not that there's anything wrong with eating fish, but there's something to be said for the thrill of the catch followed by the impact of watching your hard work swim away. It's not a lesson they'll realize they've learned for many decades. And I'd love to say, "America, take your kids fishing," but I find that any time "America" makes up its mind to do something in droves, it inevitably screws up the natural world. So I'm not really sure I want every family out there with us. In fact, we told nobody about our white bass school.

But, America, take your kids fishing. Just be careful. Be calm. Be sustainable.

Fauna

During our campfires on Friday and Saturday nights, we heard frogs. It sounded like a great chorus. Two notes: an ascending trill followed by a descending trill, something like this. It came from the forest. On Saturday night, Dad and Shawn and I went down to the dock to look at the Milky Way (which wasn't visible thanks to the light from a new derrick the gas company has erected across the lake, thank you very much Antero) and we realize it was one damn frog making a noise so loud as to be heard for half a mile. Research indicates it was a Gray Tree Frog, and a loud mother humper at that. I don't know what I'd do if he was on a tree near my bedroom window.

The second night we were sitting there with Mimi and Pop and began to hear a series of yips and barks and howls. Someone made the idiot mistake of identifying it as a pack of coyotes, which it surely was. The kids were terrified. On the lane a few years ago someone left their golden tied up outside over night and the dog was killed, and on Saturday another neighbor lost her pug for several terrifying hours. I worked very hard to explain to the kids the nature of coyotes, and the bad-guy image that they and wolves have unfairly earned. Still, it was an ongoing ruckus and both kids ended up in their dad's lap.

The eastern coyote is actually a cross between a western coyote and an eastern wolf. They're larger than their western coyote counterparts, thanks to the wolf DNA they've absorbed over the years. There's a fascinating documentary about this "Coy Wolf" on Netflix. And eastern coyotes are well-suited for urban life. We have them in our neighborhood at home, from time to time. They are one of those species who thrive around humans. A critter cam in our backyard would be more likely to catch a coyote than one at the lake.
Google Image of an eastern coyote

Also of note is the sudden appearance of gray squirrels at the lake. In Wheeling we have red and fox squirrels, and never a gray. Suddenly, the gray squirrels have come to Piedmont. Or, perhaps, I've suddenly noticed them.

Food

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the ribs my husband smoked from 9am to 6pm in his smoker, with hickory chips. Phenomenal.

Not so phenomenal was the doggy diarrhea had by my parents' sheltie on the boat the next day after she snuck a rib out of the trash. It was Mother's Day, so I cleaned up the mess. (Dad, apparently, doesn't do dog poop, period.)


When the shock and effort of getting out there with two squabbling kids wore off, I had the weekend of my life. In fact, on the boat ride, when the spring-green hills were sandwiched between the blue of the sky and the blue of the lake, I was 100% certain that I've never loved any place on earth as much as I love that lake. It's not sexy; it's not the Grand Canyon or the Caribbean Sea. It's the element of my childhood home, I think, that makes it so vital a part of me. "Happy" isn't even the proper word. Rather, the lake brings me a deep contentment that I don't think I've ever felt anywhere else quite so strongly, including my own home.


Finally, a view of the cove where I spent my cold winter walks.

The dam at the northwest end of the lake.


Monday, May 4, 2015

The World-Famous Horseshoe Curve

Aerial view of The Curve

We intended to go to Piedmont this weekend, but an opportunity arose to take a little road trip instead. Every year we visit the famous Horseshoe Curve in Altoona, Pennsylvania, with our very good friends, who also happen to be train aficionados. In fact, they introduced us to The Curve when Andy was very little, and stoked his love of trains into a roaring blaze of devotion. Now, they have their own little guy (who, at the moment, is terrified of the blasting horns and screaming brakes), and of course Ben is just as excited about trains as any other red-blooded American kid. It's a rapidly inflating ball of burgeoning testosterone.

There's always time for fisticuffs.

The Horseshoe Curve is a 2,375-foot long curve around a bend in the Allegheny Mountains. It's quite astounding. Built in 1854, it was constructed over the course of three years with picks and shovels, and no heavy equipment (I'm not sure there was much heavy equipment in 1854). It was so vital to the war effort that the Nazis had a plan to blow it up in 1942. 


It took us almost three hours to reach The Curve, one-third of the way across the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. But it was easy driving, and the Allegheny Mountains are so good for the soul. Now, my husband will murmur something about my running a stop sign and blowing through a toll without paying, but that's hearsay. (And who creates a toll booth that only takes $1 bills? I had a $10. There was no human manning the toll; there was no change offered; there was no swipe machine. Screw you, PennDOT. When I get my bill in the mail I'm going to puff up like a chicken, grouse about it loudly, consider making an angry phone call, and then change my mind and pay the bill like a chump.) I had an endometriosis attack in the car and the day's plans were threatened, but we pushed on and with the help of 600mg of Ibuprofen and sheer maternal determination, we made it, and had a great day. 

Why is an entry about a marvel of engineering taking up space on a nature blog?

Because I can't quite decide where The Curve fits. Obviously, it has earned the adjective "marvel". And I fall under the spell of trains myself, so I can understand why little kids are so enchanted. The larger trains we saw were approaching two-hundred cars. We saw a mail train--FedEx and UPS, trains with tanker cars, an auto-train, a coal train, and a few years ago we saw a trash train (who knew that trains haul garbage?). 

I like the way trains sneak their way through the mountains, along riverbanks. I like the way they appear, in PA and WV in particular, in a wild place--like during a paddle on the Youghiogheny River--briefly passing through and hauling pieces of the human world, here and then gone. Even on a day on the river, their presence doesn't offend me. It just feels efficient.

On their commercial, CSX claims that one gallon of gas can take a train 500 miles. In doing a little reading I see that the notion of environmentally-friendly passenger trains is debated, and that high-speed trains may or may not be the environmental godsend that their proponents claim. (Though electric trains are quite green.) In terms of freight, however, there's no comparison. Two hundred cars being hauled by three engines. Two hundred trucks off the road. What a statement.

It was so odd to see the auto-train go through, with over 100 [train] cars, each one carrying 8-12 vehicles which will end up on the road soon enough, just making the problem worse. 

In a sense, railroads are about dominating nature. In another sense, moreso than roads, railroads are about working with nature, or even bowing down to nature. Trains are heavy beasts, and engineers have had to work with the topography of the land rather than plowing through it. The trains need nature on their side to make the system work; they cannot conquer it. Hence, the building of the Horseshoe Curve. We've got an enormous mountain, boys. Should we blow it up and go through it, or use our brains and follow its topography even if it means three years of digging? They wisely chose to go with nature rather than smashing their way through her.

Of course, I'm not dumb enough to think that The Curve has anything to do with respecting nature. It's about physics and economics. But, I'm cool with the final product.

And my guys were happy. We spent the day high in the Allegheny Mountains, tucked into a weird mix of forest and iron. Normally I have a hard time breaking out of black-and-white thinking when it comes to nature vs. man, but on this occasion, the blend felt quite comfortable.





Drone view



video
They raced every train.