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Roads Not Traveled

Friday, October 30, 2009


I knew it was the last bike ride of summer. The kids knew it, too. On a fine Sunday, threatening showers, we took off down Dean's Fork, one of my favorite roads around here. It has a beaver pond and natural gardens that defy belief. It has grass growing down the middle, even in the well-traveled upper part, which should be your first clue that you don't take your new Subaru down there.
Nevertheless, Dean's Fork has an allure that calls me every day, because I don't yet know what's down there, a situation that, by the time you read this, will have been remedied.

We timed it just right for the Joe-Pye weed, for the tall ironweed and the jewelweed and the tickseed. These photos just don't do the late-summer tapestry justice, but you can get a hazy idea how spectacular all these weeds, jumbled together in a wet meadow, can be.
Joe-Pye weed is the misty mauve stuff. Tall ironweed is the brilliant royal purple, and tickseed sunflower is the yellow, and jewelweed is the orange. Mmm. Late summer tapestries.

Needless to say, there were ruby-throated hummingbirds in the jewelweed, an embarrassment of riches.
We rode and rode, stopping every now and then just to consider the green halls of summer.

A hay musk ox was lurching along in the meadow below the beaver pond, but he froze stock-still when he saw us coming, like the Marsh Man.

Brief digression: This is the Marsh Man. He looks like a willow bush, but he's really a man, who lurches over the marsh. But when you look at him, he stands stock-still, and looks like a bush again.
His wife is the Marsh Crone, who makes a brew every spring that wakes up the birds and animals that gets them thinking about making more birds and animals.Written and illustrated in 1960 by Ib Spang Olsen (why can't I have a name like that?) and given to me and my sister Micky by my sister Barbara sometime in the 60's. Only about five inches tall, it is one of the books that stayed upstairs, one of the gold standards of children's literature, far more magical to my mind than many of the books that get all the attention.

I am so excited. Today, Friday, it's supposed to hit 75, and the moist dark air at 6 AM holds a warm promise of Indian summer. Bill called Shila up last night and talked her into rearranging her schedule so she and I could take off on a girlhike.* Ever since we almost ran into ruin on Dean's Fork, we've been itching to conquer its 7 or 8 mile length by foot. We want to see how bad it gets; we want to see who and what lives down this forgotten trace. So we're parking a car at either end, packing lunch and lenses and dog cookies and Chet Baker's leash (because there are bound to be cattle), and walking the whole durn thing. I cannot wait.

Zick + Shila + Chet + cameras + unexplored territory = fun

I hope we can't get into too much trouble riding shanks' mare.

*Bill is very good at talking girls into things.

But back to the late-summer bike ride. The kids were very, very tired when we finally got home.
I trailed behind, as always, and this is what greeted me when I came up the driveway. Corpses.

Chet Baker knows what to do when people lie down on the ground.
He gives them doggy mouth-to-mouth resuscitation until they giggle.
Chet Baker, I hope you are up for a much longer walk today.
I am game, Mether. I will walk twice as far as you and Shila, because there are bound to be squirrelts.
Walking with my family is my favorite thing.
Boston terriers: small dogs with giant kisses. It's as if they were bred for it.

Chet Loves Spaghetti

Thursday, October 29, 2009

I continue to spend my days cleaning. Cleaning out the old. Making room, not for the new, but for us. Killing about 10 billion dust mites with every sweep of the vacuum cleaner and sponge. Having cleaned both kids' bedrooms of 13 and 9 years of crap, respectively, now I am infected with the certainty that the rest of the house, if I were only to peek behind its figurative curtain, is even worse than their closets proved to be. I chip at it, bit by bit, knowing that I could and should keep at it until things are back under something resembling control. And do nothing else for the next couple of months. On the top shelf and in a chest in Phoebe's closet were my hospital release papers from her birth. Instructions on how to deal with a leaky postpartum body and a book on breast feeding. And she is practically old enough to...aggh, I can't even think it.

So I walked into the studio today and looked at the unit next to my old desk computer which was sold to me as a "desk organizer" but which in reality is a plastic support system for a giant haystack, a cornshock of contracts and papers that at one time, oh, say three years ago, were very important, vital, even, but which have aged to a point where they can now be thrown away. Permits, contracts, signed agreements; anything that smacks of legality or permissions goes into the Amish-style cornshock. I did find the contract for my current book, which I perused with some bemusement and replaced. Most everything else I threw out. Ahhh, that felt good. But purging it is something that I can only bring myself to do triannually.

Thank God Shila is in the same deep-cleaning mode, and we call each other and have hour-long conversations about throwing crap out and how somebody should really come in with a snow shovel and help us out here. We can talk and throw crap out at the same time.

All of which is to say that I am posting about Chet and spaghetti because my life is pretty colorless right now; well, no, it is the color of dust bunnies.

We really don't have many rules for Chet Baker; he is such a gentleman. Don't eat the hamsters is a new one. But most "dog people" would be shocked to see us allowing him an occasional seat at the dinner table. Big no-no. We also play tug 0' war with him and he snarls and growls ferociously at us. Thus far, these flirts with anarchy have not produced a slavering were-beast, a severed artery, or anything remotely near it. They are just things Chet Baker does, and the world continues to spin, and he remains our adored pet.

Sometimes Phoebe shares a seat with him. When there is spaghetti, he is usually up in her chair before she can get there.
He studies the spaghetti with such longing, mingled with regret that it is not going into his cakehole.
He watches each bite as it travels to its destination.
And at the end of the meal, he gets a little spaghetti sauce over his kibble. I've all but stopped buying the Cesar meals I used to moosh into his Royal Canin to increase its appeal. The gravies and roasts and sauces I make taste ever so much better. Whoops, am I breaking another dogrule? Thought so.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go let Chet in, because, having completed a chiptymunk patrol, he is barking and leaping against the screen door. I gave him a prophylactic spanking on his firm little rumpus as he trotted in. Just in case he might do something naughty.

Stuff, Bittersweet Stuff

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Stuff. We get rolled under our stuff. Never is that more apparent than when we are forced to move, or to paint a bedroom. You look at a kid's bedroom and you think, "There isn't all that much stuff in there, he's just a kid." And three days later, after you've been sitting on the floor going through the endless junk in his closet and bureau and bookcases, after you've found the tiny knit cap they plopped on his blonde head the day he was born, after you've found the two lost and expensive library books he incorporated into his bookcase and those long-lost lecture scripts you were dumb enough to put in one of his Spiderman folders, you realize that we all accumulate stuff, a bit here a bit there, until there is so much it takes three full days to sort, organize, give away, and/or toss it all.

Bill decided to give Phoebe's room a makeover, and Saturday morning waay too early, considering we had had a gig the night before, he began moving her stuff out into our living room. Liam was sad. Nobody was making over his room. So in a fit of equality, I decided to get new carpet for him as well as Phoebe. Which, I realized a little too late, meant that both of their rooms would have to be emptied. I thought it would save money to have the installers do two rooms at once. I did not fully appreciate what we were getting into. Bill worked like a dog to get Phoebe's room painted, all four walls a different bright color (!)

I'm waiting for the installers right now, and they had jolly well better show up this morning, because four days of living with two bedrooms' worth of stuff jammed into our living room has been about four days too many. It looks like something you'd see on COPS, clothes draped on everything, stacks and boxes of junk...arggggggh

and I have been bereft, inwardly wailing like a banshee wandering the moors, unable to settle when my house is upside down. It reminds me of the mood I was in when our kitchen renovation took 4 1/2 months. When I was cooking on a hotplate in the living room, all our food in boxes.

But these are the things you do when you make two more people and work them into your world. Their stuff becomes your stuff, becomes your problem to keep or dispose of. I sat on the floor doing children's book triage, separating the wheat from the chaff, smiling as I remembered stanza after stanza of those perfectly worded bits from Miss Rumphius and Goodnight Moon and The Napping House and The Polar Express and all the Beatrix Potter books and yes, Where the Wild Things Are; they are all there, now boxed and labeled in the basement, along with two big boxes full of Thomas the Tank Engine books and puzzles and three huge totes of trains and tracks. Things that served us well, things I realize with bittersweet pain that he's never going back to, not until he makes another person and works that person into his world.

And that will be all too soon.

More Glories (who could resist?)

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The morning glory was so surpassingly beautiful that I found myself photographing it whenever Bill and I were on the deck birding. This photo is soft, due to rain and low light, but it's the only one that seems to capture its unbelievable shade of sky blue.

The compositional possibilities of heart-shaped leaves and saucer blossoms were intriguing.

I think I loved it best in the rain, because the colors were truer, and the blossoms lasted all day, sometimes even into the next morning, before shriveling into pinky purple balloons and disappearing.

But oh, when the sun came out, the bud and petiole shadows played across the flowers' canvas.
And the light came through their gossamer tissue, never the same blue from day to day or moment to moment, always going through the spectrum of blue to lavender
and Wilhelm Langguth and Bolton and Grey Sprite seemed so happy to be blooming alongside this miraculous plant.

One day Bill saw a bumblebee go in a flower and he grabbed my camerajust in time to see the bee tumble out, the way bees do, which is why they're called bumblebees--because they're so heavy-bodied they are a bit clumsy. But they seem to do fine anyway. They aren't aware that by human calculations, the physics of their wing loading actually contraindicate their becoming airborne. So they fly.

these two by Bill of the Birds

Chet loved them, too.

Morning Glories

Monday, October 26, 2009

This was the view out our raised deck sliders all summer. Oh, I miss it so. When you can have color like this for practically nothing, why wouldn't you have a few planters out every window? We do!

This spring, I planted eight seeds in a little plastic eight-pack. Four were moonflowers, and four were Morning Glories, "Heavenly Blue" variety. They all came up, but the moonflowers never were able to shed their seed coats; the cotyledons rotted inside. The same thing happened to three of the morning glories. It was too darn wet for them, raining and raining, and morning glories and moonflowers hate wet feet. But the fourth morning glory survived, and when it got its first true leaf I planted that little plant down below our deck and watered it now and then.

It writhed around on the ground for awhile, throwing out tendrils, and then took a hint in the form of a trellis and began twining up, up, up.

The kids really didn't notice it until it started peeking up over the deck railing. At about that time it started blooming from the bottom up.

And Phoebe and Liam would go out every morning and count the blossoms. One, five, eight, 17, too many to count. They'd run back in with today's count. I miss that, too, now that they're getting up in the dark to go to school. We would go out into the back yard by Liam's willow just to gaze on it, this tower of flowers.
All from a single seed.

Plants give us so much, if we let them into our world.

The Tornado and the Rainbow

Sunday, October 25, 2009


I don't know whose photo this is. (Now, thanks to Mike McDowell, I do: Eric Nguyen, the late and incredible weather photographer. It's real, too.) I don't know where it was taken, or even if it's real, and I'm breaking tradition to post it here (I always use my own photos). I love it so much, because it perfectly captures my soul these days.

Bill got a bee in his bonnet this weekend, and even though we went to bed around 3 AM Saturday morning after our Orangutangs gig, he got up at 8 and started moving stuff out of Phoebe's bedroom so he could paint it. Each wall is a different color: Sunrise Beach, Fruit Punch, Dusty Aqua and Ocean Mist. It's like a Caribbean dance party in there. I was charged with running to town for supplies and buying carpet to complete the makeover. Poor child has been staring at white walls for 13 years. She's more than due for a room in the colors she picked. God bless her Daddy for taking the initiative. There was stuff in her closet from the year she was born, for Lord's sake, from 1996. I am not kidding. Stuff about how to breast feed your baby. And now she's practically old enough to have her own baby, and she still had all that crap in her closet.

However. This means that until the carpet installers come Weds. morning, all her bedroom furniture, clothes and crap are in the living room. Which sets my orderly soul a-wandering, tearing its hair. Doesn't bother anybody else much. But I am like a banshee on the moors, wailing, when my house is all upside down.

Well, Liam moped and moped around because nobody was painting HIS room so I bought a carpet remnant for his room at the same time I bought Phoebe's, and then I realized that that meant that we'd have to put the contents of BOTH their rooms in the living room, which actually can't be done, and that also meant that I'd have to weed all his crap and clothes and books out before Wednesday. So I spent most of today, a perfect blue and gold fall day, doing that. And all I got done was the books. He has a LOT of books. And most of them break my heart to give away so really all I did was weed and sort them, and box up the ones for the basement, the Goodnight Moon and the Blueberries for Sal and the Letting Swift River Go and the Miss Rumphius and the Nuts to You, all the ones we know by heart.

By 2 pm I had had it and I called Shila and we decided to go on our own little fall foliage tour. And we took our cameras and Chet and had the most wonderful time photographing dilapidated barns and horse noses and the like. And no, I'm not posting those photos now because I am tired and it is late.

But Shila and I had a hoot exclaiming and freaking out over every little thing, it's like we're high all the time, but we don't use anything but beauty. It's good to have a friend like that, someone who can fully freak out over a sundog or a caterpillar or a certain slant of light through the veins of a leaf. It's not good, it's great to have a friend like that.

So the light was dying and we turned toward home where Bill was making us a homemade pizza. mmmm. And we were going up County Road 12 and I saw a sign for Dean's Fork Road and thought, wow, wouldn't it be cool to take crappy scary old Dean's Fork all the way up to our house? Everybody says it doesn't go through but my new Subaru has all-wheel drive and so does Shila's RAV-4. So I hollered back to Shila, "Hey, you wanna try to take Dean's Fork all the way home?" and her eyes lit up and she said "YEAH! Let's try it!"

Which was the MOST ridiculous thing to try, because everybody knows Dean's Fork is a piece of crap of a road. There are leaves all over it and it's barely wider than a forest path. And I had never been on the lower end of it. And we probably had ten miles of it to navigate.

The thing about off-roading is that the first few ruts and puddles you hit are bad but not that bad and the road just leads you on and on and before you know it you are mushing through the most gooshy and dangerous ruts and puddles, lakes, really. And you're telling yourself, "Hey, this isn't so bad. Look how far I've made it. What a car I have!" but inside you're biting your psychic nails because each puddle and rut is just a bit worse than the one before and you are that much farther from civilization. But I was emboldened by Shila right behind me in her Toyota and I kept mushing on. And I do mean mushing.

Finally we came to a lake in the middle of the rutted path and I knew it was probably my Waterloo so Shila and I got out and mucked around a bit and decided we had better back out of it and try to turn around and get the hell off Dean's Fork before pitch dark, which was in about 20 minutes. So she backed up and got up on terra firma and I backed up and my rear wheel went smack into the worst deepest rut which threw my front into a sashay and all of a sudden my left front wheel dropped off into nothing. I stopped and opened the door and that wheel of my precious new Forester was hanging off in space over a six-foot drop into Dean's Fork Crick. Oh, sh------t. Oh Shila I am so screwed, I am so screwed look at my car look at my car somebody's gonna have to pull me out of here! Aggghh I am panicking. I am envisioning my new car rolling slowly down greasy side up into the rocky creek bed, me and Chet in it. And Shila gets out of her car and points out that three of my wheels are still on the ground, albeit gumbo mud. "Have you tried backing up?" she asked and I said, "No, the only thing I have tried is panicking."

So I throw it in reverse and breathe a prayer and gun it and that car just backed out like Bossy out of her stall. So I did a twenty-point turn in the narrow road with Shila coaching all the way and we made our way back, refording all the puddles and ruts, until we were on pavement again. And pavement never, ever felt so good.

Shila has a bumper sticker on her car that says, "My Other Vehicle is My Imagination" and I told her I want one for my car that says, "My Other Vehicle is My Stupidity."

When Shila and I get together we are like a couple of hunting dogs, egging each other on, running wild. When I thanked her for coaching me out of that horrible jam, she said, "Well, you're welcome, but there's no way you would have taken that road if I hadn't been along." And I had to admit she was right. But it's good, no, it's great to have a friend like that.

The Hubbub and the Healing

Thursday, October 22, 2009

I've just returned from a road trip to West Liberty, West Virginia, just north of Wheeling. Three weeks ago, I visited a Zickblitz upon the campus of West Liberty University,

giving a library talk, a luncheon talk, a Hughes public lecture, and hanging 46 of my paintings from Letters from Eden in the school gallery. (Art professor Robert Villamagna and I hung them all in about two hours using a only a hammer, nails, a length of string and our eyeballs, the finest measuring device known.) There was a public opening, and there were a couple of dinners, too.

All this happened over a four-day span. It was really fun. I talked a lot, interacted with students and faculty, stayed in the fabulous alumni house on campus:

Yes, that'll do. Just fine, for a few nights.

I felt so honored to be invited, so delighted to share some stories and paintings with interested, like-minded people. I love being caught up in the current trend of honoring area artists and writers. It's smart; it makes sense, and I thank English professor and Hughes Lecture Chair Peter Staffel for thinking to invite me. Let's face it: it's more affordable than bringing someone in from another state or foreign country, and it sends a message to students that there are creative people worth engaging all around us. That sends a message that they have permission to grow up to be one of those people; that they don't have to flee their homes in order to make their mark. If nothing else, at least I can offer them a living, breathing example of someone who lives in Appalachia and writes and paints about that life.

I can function pretty well with a lot of hubbub, and I enjoy it, but there comes a point when it's time to recharge the batteries. I'm a textbook introvert. When called upon to be an extrovert, I can rise to the challenge, but my resting mode is introvert. I'd guess that most writers are introverts, and many, if not most, artists.

Although there's kind of a stigma associated with being an introvert, I don't believe that it's any better to be an extrovert. It's just different. As Murr points out, it's about from whence you draw your energy. Extroverts draw it from other people, from the hubbub. Introverts draw it from within, and they must flee the hubbub to recharge.** Extroverts accomplish a ton of good things, giving of themselves on boards and committees, gathering others around them, sharing their vision. But I think that a lot of good things come from people who like to work and create by themselves. If the world was composed of only extroverts, we'd all go crazy. If we were all introverts, it would be a really quiet, boring place. We balance each other, even if we don't always understand each other. Right, Dearest?

**thanks for this crystallization, Murr.

Along about the last morning of my stay, it was time to walk. I wished I had Chet Baker with me. I've found that being alone with him is better even than being alone. He fits perfectly into that special space where I'm delighted to finally be still and quiet and alone, but I'm just a tiny bit lonely, too. He doesn't analyze or criticize, go off on tangents or make any background noise. He just keeps me company.

I drove north up Route 88 toward Bethany and took the first right turn I found, which is Garrison Run Road. I had seen it on my first evening and made a mental note to check it out. Oh, was I glad I did.

To my eye, this looks like a place which has been strip mined and recovered. I may be wrong, but I think that's why it looks like it does. Which is pretty ironic, because I found it heartbreakingly beautiful with its forest dress taken off.
I don't know. Maybe it's just hayfield. Let's call it hayfield. That's a mighty old barn. Maybe it pre-dates strip mining.

There is actually a palm warbler in the middle of this shot. I didn't bring my telephoto lens, d'oh! because I didn't think I'd have a chance to sneak off and be in nature.
There were migrant meadowlarks singing their little hearts out, too. Oh, what a balm that was to my ears.

There was a big clump of foxtail growing up in the bend of the barn roof, catching the morning sun. I'd never seen that before!

In this landscape, you can see some of the taller buildings on campus, nestled in the forest. It's such a beautiful place to go to college. If I studied or worked there, I'd come to Garrison Run as much as I could. I wondered if any of the students knew to come here to get all fixed up again.

Soon I plunged down into the woods, leaving my car a couple of miles behind. It was so golden, so alluring in the morning light. I could have walked down that road all day.

Oh, pardon me! I didn't realize...

May I ask what exactly you two are doing?

They weren't talking, and I still haven't figured out what these two sugar maples, which appeared to be from separate root systems, were up to. Whatever it was, it was pretty sexy, so I left them in peace.

I walked awhile longer, having a conversation with a redtail and some song sparrows, and then it was time to go back to the surreal world.

As I came up out of the woods, the light played across the hayfields

and the chicory set its blue up against the sky and asked me to pick which I liked more

and neither of them won, really, because they were both beautiful in their own way, and I loved them both the same.

Heartfelt thanks to West Liberty University, and especially Peter Staffel and Robert Villamagna for making it all happen.

Terrier TV

Wednesday, October 21, 2009


As the hamsters go about their hammy bidness, Chet Baker watches and salivates.
Mmm, meals on wheels.

The first two days we had them, he did almost nothing else but stare into the hammy tank. It got so bad I had to put them in a bedroom so I could have my boydog back. Now, he’s attuned to their schedule, and only bothers to watch them when they’re active, although he does check on them throughout the day, as a diligent terrier will.

Nobody watches anything like Chet Baker watches those hamsters. Their every move is fascinating to him. He loves it when they run on the wheel. HEY UR DOIN IT RONG

He loves it when they pop out of their little Kleenex box house or their toilet paper tube. He really loves it when they eat. Mmm, cornbread.

Chet is hell on chipmunks. In fact, having these hamsters around to fantasize about has increased his hunting acumen by about 300%. Since the hamsters came, Chet runs off excess energy and hunting desire by making dozens of laps around the house each day. He’s in terrific shape, since he runs at warp speed, zigging and zagging. The chipmunks are on red alert all the time. The deer are looking over their shoulders. The rabbits only come out at night.

So what could I have been thinking, bringing two small defenseless baby rodents into the same house with the lean, mean hunting machine that is Chet Baker? Well, I was thinking it would all work out. The eternal optimist, with an asterisk**

**ready to make it all work out.

There have been two incidents in which Chet forgot that these are not doggie hors d’ouvres, but cherished family pets. The first was when I heard a shoving sound and found Chet pushing the hamster tank with his paws until it teetered on the edge of its little table. Ai yi yi. A couple more lunges and it would have tipped over and …

He got a spanking, a big spanking for that. No lunging at the hammy tank, Chet BAKER.

The second incident was the very next day when Phoebe walked into the living room, hammy cupped in hand right under her chin, and Chet Baker leapt straight up in the air and nipped her finger in attempting to make the hammy his own. A startled yelp from Phee brought me around the corner like a mama bear. That was an even bigger spanking for Chet, one he has not forgotten.

It’s important that Chet understand that infractions will be severely punished, without exception. And after that second spanking, he got it. Now, when the kids are cuddling their pets, he pointedly walks out of the room. For the first two evenings, he walked into the kitchen, jumped up on a hard wooden chair, and curled up in its seat, as if he were giving himself a doggeh time out, removing himself from temptation. It was beyond adorable, rolling eyes and all. Of course, he got lots of extra kisses and bits of cheese for coming up with that idea all by himself.

He’s settled down very well. That’s not to say we’d ever let the hammies out of their cage out of our sight for a half second. The rule is, they have to be in their cage or in your hand if Chet is in the house. We shall see how it all works out. It is a severe test of a terrier’s trainability, to be sure. I am waiting for your essence...

It is a character building experience. But if Chet Baker has anything, he has abundant character. With the help of a couple of spankings, he is the Perfect American Gentleman.

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