Nothing is clear when you take a blow to the head big enough to knock out all your syntax, but after my thoughts started tracking again, I realized it could have been worse. Lying flat on your back on a frozen lake is actually more comfortable than you'd think. And what if the damage had been permanent?
Lying flat on your back on a frozen lake is actually more comfortable than you'd think. And what if the damage had been permanent?
As Scott recalls it, I was just on my way over to the sled to get the bucket when I flipped over. I was planning to go Bucket Sailing. The wind was strong and the friction was nonexistent and I thought I could get quite a ride if I could catch a bucketful of air. It might not have been the best plan for someone who tips over while putting on her socks. Dave's seen that. He asks me why I don't drop the sock when I feel myself tipping over, and the answer is it never occurs to me. I'm not defending this, but it's the truth. So I imagine if I'd caught enough wind in that bucket, I could have zipped over that lake like God's own puck doing twelve knots, getting farther and farther away from the boys and yelling help help help help and they would have been hollering drop...the...BUCKET! because they know it wouldn't have occurred to me. So. For some of us, brain damage is hardly noticeable.
Anyway, one thing about a visit with Scott and Kevin never changes with the scenery. Scott is a chef. He doesn't know how to not be a chef. Mid-week Dave patted his new paunch and answered the morning breakfast query with "you know, I'd be just fine with a piece of toast and peanut butter," making a little peanut-butter spreading gesture to demonstrate simplicity, and in a few minutes Scott had saddled the table with toasted home-made rolls and honey and preserves and sturgeon roe and reindeer sausage and cream cheese and a smoked salmon trio (king, sockeye, silver) and trout cheeks and moose nuggets and I think there was a little jar of peanut butter in there too, and all in less time than it takes the sun to climb over the mountainous horizon and scratch its butt.
Speaking of buckets, I didn't have much left on my Alaska bucket list. I was sort of interested in getting a really good bald eagle photo but the mooses kept getting in the way. We went for a walk in the woods near a frozen lake and came upon a nice set of mooses, and Scott took their measure and began to stalk them, just as though we weren't in the internet age and hadn't seen plenty of videos of people being stomped by mooses. But he correctly judged them to be of the benevolent and protective order, and more interested in chomping willow than in stomping us.
Meanwhile the wind had let up and the temperature had squeaked past freezing and that turned everyone in the state giddy. Scott and Kevin and their neighbors are in the habit of sitting around their fire pits and shooting the breeze nearly every summer evening, and the breath of spring was upon them all. Blazes lit up the taxiway all down the block. It was tube tops and whiskey and tall tales right down the line, while I pulled a chair up as close to the pit as I could get in my Nanook suit without bursting into flame. It was a jolly time. By the evening's end we had recruited an official Watch Neighbor with a northern window and a spot of insomnia, and prevailed upon her to bang on our window if the northern lights showed up. And sure enough, just past midnight, the window was banging and the dog was going off and the northern lights were going on, and we lurched into the night in our coats and pajamas and watched the mountains toss a green scarf across the sky.
Alaska is beautiful. Damn slippery in spots, but beautiful.
So I don't get to have a fur hat, but I can still enjoy my Alaska vacation as long as I wear everything in my suitcase at once. It's not even that cold here, according to our friends Scott and Kevin, whose credibility on the matter is beginning to wane. This year, Alaskans have to travel to Atlanta to visit their winter. Whether you think ten degrees is warm or cold depends on which direction you're approaching it from. But it's cold enough for me. Scott and Kevin are the people we used to visit down the valley in Oregon who had emus and pigs and alpacas and trout and sturgeon and sheep and peacocks and ducks and goats and a slope of wine grapes AND the ability to put it all together in splendidly edible form, plus day jobs. All that. You never knew what they'd be up to at any given moment: rendering lard, or stripping milt from live trout, or making cheese, or knitting a tractor out of steel wool. They're right handy folk.
So we couldn't wait to see what they were doing in the new digs in Alaska. There is no garden. The house is relatively small. They've confined themselves to (1) dog and (1) cat. How were they planning to make our Alaska visit perfect?
Well, the first door past the bathroom opens to the hangar, and just past the ice cream freezer and the beer fridge there are a couple planes in it, and we got in one of them and taxied out to the runway and into the air to pop up a valley and peer at two turquoise glaciers and watch the snowy mountains pink up in the sunset, and got back in time for dinner and some of the wine they made when they still had grapes, taking care not to disturb the moose on the taxiway. There's some Alaska for you. What else?
I'd brought a bird book and binoculars. Things seemed strangely quiet in the bird department, so I consulted the internet. There are five birds wintering in the Anchorage area. They're all named Hank. Ha ha! Just kidding. They are named raven, raven, raven, bald eagle, and raven. I put my book back in the suitcase. What else?
We went up a beautiful snowy path through the mountains and watched Kevin attempt Ski-Joring, which is having your dog pull you on cross-country skis. It probably works better if your dog is not a German Shepherd bred to round up the group by dashing back and forth from one person to another, and who has not already been trained not to pull at a leash. I'm just guessing. Also, Kevin and I have an equally tepid grip on verticality. What else?
"We could go ice fishing."
Scott hadn't done that yet, himself. He's only been here a year. But he did have a virgin ice augur he wanted to try out, and a chisel, and a few sets of Carhartts that stand up by themselves in the garage and probably walk over to take a pee a couple times a night, and an easy walk to a lake. We pulled a sled of gear onto the ice. "Do you think it's really thick enough to stand on out there?" I queried, and Dave shrugged. "Either way, we'll have a good story," he said, with a gallant arm thrust forward. "Ladies first!"
It was thick enough to land a 747 on. Scott augured away in a stiff polar wind. I was in heaven. For someone with a sturdy Viking chromosome and a need for discomfort that is not of the spiritual variety (I like cold: I hate anxiety), this was the ticket. Snowy mountains reared above and the ice was cracked into partitions a foot deep. Snowball jellyfish lurked below. It was fascinating. I tip over on dry land for no reason at all. What could go wrong?
Really, I have got to quit smashing my head. I'm afraid to go to Kaiser to get my glasses adjusted again for fear they'll enter an advisory about domestic violence into my medical record. This time, the glasses were in no danger. I was flat on my back with the birdies tweeting. My Viking chromosome was splayed out with me, all uff da, his little horned helmet rolling around with a micro-clatter. Scott, who has some medical training, was trying to peer into my eyes. That's easy to do. They're small and set close together and you can take in both of them in one glance. "How do you feel?" he asked.
"Flurdo piffling blurgit imminy," I said, but he wouldn't take my word for it, and checked my pupils again. I guess that's where the brain goo leaks out, if it's going to.
I don't know how many cubes a day you're allowed to keep when you're ice fishing, but Scott and Dave had reached their limit after a few hours, and we went home with a goose egg.
I should probably put ice on it, but I don't want to.
"Why would you want to go to Alaska for vacation? In the winter?"
Why not? Dave and I have never been inclined toward the tropics. There's something about being comfortable outdoors nearly naked in the wintertime that just seems wrong, somehow. Something morally corrosive about being caressed by gentle breezes, with nothing better to do than fend off parrot poop with the itty bitty umbrella in your drink. You go to Alaska in the winter and you can appreciate the warm shower and the cozy bed quilt and the two-inch view of the mountains through the peep-hole in your balaclava, and your heart is the gladder. You come home from Belize and your nice comfortable home life looks like a pile of crap.
It's probably even more fundamental than that. I have a Viking chromosome inside me somewhere that beckons me north. It's the strapping chromosome with the little horned helmet. The chromosome said harr! Head for the pole, and our more practical friends Scott and Kevin agreed and added a recommendation to pack warm gear. We received our instructions and bought gloves and hats. Snow boots. Insulated trousers. And what most people call "thermal layers" and Dave cannot be dissuaded from calling "panty liners." We were ready.
Scott picked us up at the airport and took us to downtown Anchorage. There weren't enough degrees out there to rub together and make a spark. And the wind was blowing. Dave and I looked like sleeping bags on legs. Giant walking larvae. Charitably speaking, we were penguin-shaped. Everyone else was hatless, busily peeling down their zippers and fanning their necks. I'd seen something like this in Maine one winter. Kids were coming in from playing outside and their mom said "how is it?" and they said "nice! It's above!" by which they meant it was above zero degrees Fahrenheit, which is a totally stupid temperature. Don't they know what zero degrees is? It's no degrees.
Anyway the Fur Rondy was going on. That's short for Fur Rendezvous, and there are sleds and dogs
and parades and snowshoe softball games and, everywhere, people wearing carcasses. One man had an entire wolf wrapped around his face and his companion was trailing lynx paws for ear flaps. A fox curled up on someone's head as if it were trying to get a better view. And those hats with dingleballs? Actual balls. I thought: we're not in Portland anymore. And then I thought: great thundering Thor on a toy pony, I want one.
I tried on a fox hat. It was fabulous. Its provenance via the leghold trap was invisible. I could have bought it then and there, but I could only have worn it then and there. You cannot wear slain headgear in Portland, Oregon. We have standards for earnestness. Shit: there are thresholds you can't cross in Portland unless your shoes pass the hemp detector. Nobody's packing, but if you wear a dead critter in Portland, you will be liberally sprayed with ocular bullets of shame. Nobody thinks a thing about it in Anchorage. If it hadn't been Fur Rondy, they wouldn't have had the stuff on at all: you wouldn't even think of putting on your fur until it's below. So there's that. Fur is really, really warm.
And it's really, really gorgeous, all of it, from snout to dingleballs. You can make a case that it's even more gorgeous wrapped around its original beating heart, and no one could disagree, but it's gorgeous this way, too, and unquestionably the thing to wear if you're a naked human trying to make a go of it in the Arctic. There aren't that many humans in this state (Alaska, not naked). It's even possible there are few enough that most people can get a hat and there will still be critters left too. I don't know.
My friend Linda is the credit whisperer. She has a ferret-nose for credit cards that can get her free travel, and she loves to travel. She's got all the cards stacked up in a spare room somewhere and if you visit she can fan them and ask you to pick one out and put it back and then she shuffles them again and says "is your card the Southwest Air VISA ending in 4498?" and then you're all "that's amazing." Periodically a 747 pulls up outside the street and a uniformed gentleman hops out and rings her bell and asks if she'd like to pop over to Italy for the weekend for free, and she says no thanks she's having people over for dinner, and he says well all right but please accept this complimentary tray of hors d'oeuvres, and then he bows and gets back in his plane. I've known Linda for over forty years and in all that time I've never known her to pay a finance charge on a card or spend money on an airline ticket.
I, on the other hand, have no such army of cards working for me night and day. When airlines started offering frequent flier programs I signed up for them. I had accounts with MiracleMiles and SkyStash and OpenFly and none of them would let you set your password to "oh shit," which is the only way I could remember it. You could only get points by flying but I never seemed to fly the same airline twice, and after about fifteen years I had enough points on several airlines to bump me up to an extra bag of pretzels. Once I got all the way up to free-ticket status on the Grace L. Ferguson Airline and Storm Door Company and went to cash them in, only to find out that they'd been bought out by Consolidated Amalgamated and they had a whole different program. Then I got up to the threshold 25,000 EaglePoints on Patriotic Air and went to cash them in, and the minimum had been bumped up to 35,000.
After a while, credit cards started offering rewards programs. My own credit card was generally sacked out on the sofa watching reruns so I kicked it out and got a Nordstrom credit card. It didn't offer much but at least it was something, and it seemed to make the nice fragrant lady in the store happy, and my kind of person is very intimidated by fragrant Nordstrom ladies. Every time I spent $2000 they'd send me a $20 gift certificate, redeemable only at Nordstrom. You can't actually buy anything at Nordstrom for $20, so whenever it came around I'd go give them the gift certificate plus ten bucks and come home with a pair of socks.
So I was ripe for the picking the first time a salesman at the airport wanted me to sign up for his airline's reward card. Why, I would get 10,000 points just for signing up, if I did it right then and there and didn't consult anyone. The mileage points inched up imperceptibly with my regular purchases, but I never seemed to use that airline again. I got another airline card that gave me even more points, but I kept switching back and forth because I'd already gotten a head start on the first one. My goal is to keep all my cards at an approximately equal level below redemption level. I'm sixty years old and I've never cashed in any frequent flier miles.
Recently I wrote about how Pluto, the former planet, got demoted because it hasn't cleaned up its neighborhood of space debris. It's not that Earth is completely tidy, but at least it's not surrounded by crud. This is one of the attributes that allows us to call ourselves a planet. (Also, we're the ones who got to define "planet.") There are asteroids and meteors and comets and other dust bunnies in the vicinity but for the most part our planet has long since vacuumed up everything major in the region. The odd space rock will wander on through, but those don't count against us; we're just being hospitable, even to the point of occasionally giving them a soft spot to land. (Sorry about that, dinosaurs. And Russians.)
We do get to keep a moon. A planet can accumulate a pet moon in a number of ways. It can start out with a gang of dust and gas around it that begins to associate ever more closely until it spheres up. Or, it can steal an already-made one that was just passing through. The way we got our moon was that somewhere along the line something huge smacked into us and knocked a chunk out. So our moon is like the loogey we hawked that didn't quite clear our shoulder.
The reason there's ever a solar system in the first place is that masses are attracted to each other, because space is a big and scary place to be by yourself; we call it gravity, but it's really atomic loneliness. Of the stuff in the disc that became our solar system, almost all of it got claimed by the sun itself, and the leftover dribs and drabs became us, our planet buddies, and other miscellany. Everything started to bunch up. We get something solid to stand on because we are close to the fire, so all the rocky bits and iron and metals with a high melting point were at our disposal. There isn't that much of that. Most of the stuff running around the sun, by far, is in the big gas planets. Jupiter's the biggest, having formed first, and Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune had to make do with what was left over. I'm not sure you can land on Jupiter or Saturn, although you could maybe sort of land through them. Uranus and Neptune are icy, so you could stand on them. Briefly.
We're all very fond of our moon and many of us have thought it would be cool if we had another. So a few years ago we found out we do! Sort of! We have our own Trojan Asteroid, and it orbits with us, if not around us. A trojan asteroid is a space rock that travels in the same orbit as a planet or a planet's moons, simply by positioning itself at a Lagrangian point. So there you have it.
Lagrangian points are certain locations--five of them--at which the combined gravitational pull of two massive objects, like the Earth and the sun, allow a smaller object to travel with them rather than going haywire. Our trojan is leading us around the sun, even though it is only a thousand feet across. It's like a weiner dog straining at the leash. I don't know why it's called a trojan. It has no protective qualities at all.
Since there are only five Lagrangian points associated with the Earth and the sun, you'd think scientists could have found the sucker before now, but it's little and hard to see in the daytime, which is all the time. But also, it doesn't just hang out at the predicted point. It oscillates around it, wildly, in what is called a "tadpole-shaped loop," and if that doesn't cheer you up, you should probably seek pharmaceutical help. Scientists might have been encouraged to refer to its path as a tadpole-shaped loop in order to avoid calling it a spermy loop. They're in enough trouble with the Trojan thing.
So we can't gaze on our trojan at night, but still it's ours, and the least we can do for it is give it a better name than "2010 TK7." I'm going with Skippy.
Many of you were probably paying attention the other day when I wrote a nice poetic segment about window glass rippling with the passage of time, only to have the notion ruined (not that I'm pouting or anything, but ruined) by friends Kat and Roxie who both pointed out that window glass is not a slow liquid and does not puddle up over time. And that turns out to be true. All the ripples in old glass were there when it was new glass, and it's a natural consequence of how the glass was blown. Modern glass is manufactured differently and does not ripple.
And evidently this has been true for the whole time I've harbored the belief that glass sags. I learned it early. "In fact," whoever originally told me said, "if you examine a pane of old glass, you'll discover that it is thicker at the bottom than at the top. Eventually it gets thin enough to shatter in place."
I might have squinted at a window then but decided it was too subtle for me to tell. And old glass does have a way of shattering. Just like new glass. Doesn't matter. I loved the idea of liquid glass. I still do. I want to believe it. For lo, it is very good.
People make assumptions all the time and get proven wrong just as often. Remember the guys who set about to see which kind of cutting board was better at reducing bacterial contamination? They ran some preliminary tests on marble and plastic and went ahead and threw in an old-fashioned wood cutting board too, and much to their surprise, the wooden board was WAY better at staying clean than either of the other two, which were assumed to be better because they're so much less porous. The bacteria were crawling right into the pores in the wood, like innocents in a dark alley, and not coming back out again. Wood murdered them.
Some ideas are easier to let go of than others. I felt better about my wooden cutting board immediately. But the window glass! I loved the puddling window glass from the moment I heard about it. Not too long ago I observed that one of our old windows--one with fifteen separate panes--had some panes rippling horizontally and some vertically. It made no sense to me. It was clearly (ha) an original window, and our hypothesis about rippling couldn't account for a vertical ripple. But did I question the premise? No. I wrinkled my brow and carried on. The weird thing about this is that it's not even something science needed to solve. People who made window glass in olden times obviously knew it was rippled right off the bat. It's something that got un-learned.
It would be like people now saying that cars from the fifties and sixties began to clank and rattle and smoke and sputter and die by the side of the road as they aged, when many of us are old enough to know they did all that when they were brand-spanking-new.
But oh, we cherish the cool ideas, even when they're proven wrong. There are still people living today who think the world's only about six thousand years old. You can't persuade them otherwise. I really don't get hanging onto that one though--the truth is so much cooler.
All right. Ants. I admit I didn't see you at first, but by the time the four-millionth of you marched through, I was on to you. Don't think for one moment I can't see you all lined up straight like a bunch of uniformed schoolchildren from some foreign country where they're freakishly obedient. Now. This was all very cute when you used to come in here in April and take off again in May, but it's been dragging on longer and longer, and The Management is no longer cool with this. And now it's freakin' February, for fuck's sake. There's going to have to be some changes. We're going to have to have some ground rules.
Number one. Stay on the ground. There's plenty of room in this house along the baseboards without everyone having to traipse off into the sugar drawer or the pantry or anything.
Number two. There'd better not be any number two.
Number three. As soon as you get all properly lined up on the ground, I'm going to spray your asses with Windex and wipe you up with a sponge. I can do this all day long: I literally have nothing better to do. Yes? Question?
Speak up. You say that all of you together are more like part of one big body than a bunch of individuals, and that if I Windex all your asses, it will be like clipping a fingernail? Your point?
Your point is that Big Mama has already laid more eggs than I've Windexed asses in the time it took to call this meeting together. Your point is that if you put all the humans on one side of a scale and all the ants on the other side of the scale, the scale wouldn't even tip. I'm fine with that. I wish you all the best, somewhere else.
Number four. Okay, here's how it's going to be. I am going to lay in a vat of Windex and have a spray bottle in every room. Five or six times a day I am going to spray your little asses--do you even have asses? I mean, not with cleavage or anything. If you do, I'll spray them. You won't like it.
Don't even think about going over to that cat dish. Don't. You know what will happen? The cat will come toward you and put her nose right on one of you. That's right. And then she'll back away fast and make noises for a long time, and believe you me, you don't want any part of that.
Number five. In about a month, I'm going to go online and tattle on you to all of Facebook. That's right. I'm going to harness the collective wisdom of the smartest species that ever lived. And all my friends are going to send me a bunch of advice involving Borax. Believe me, you don't want any of that. And then I'll start to hear from a trickle of my other friends who don't necessarily vote the way I do but they're my friends anyway. And they're going to recommend a protocol of poisons capable of dismantling the entire back yard ecosystem. I would watch my little fannies if I were you.
Number six. And then I'm going to keep with the Windex and the wiping clear into September. Questions? You in the back.
neener neener neenie neen neen
Okay, yes, I see that the little fellow I referred to as "you in the back" is not actually in the back at all. In fact, there is an unbroken line of you behind him that goes through the dining room and around thecorner. I see that now. All right, listen up. It's Windex and death to all of you for the next eight months right up to the day you decide to waltz off somewhere else. I'd think about that if I were you.