First deer, lasting lessons

NOTE:
The following was written by my daughter and first guest blogger, Becky Clough.

In early November, while at home in Maine, I shot my first deer. It was a gorgeous, golden fall morning a mere three days into the season, when a brawny buck with an early rut on the mind strode into the light of his final feed. With great weightiness I can say he did not know I was 50 yards away sitting so still, rifle raised, poised for a swift, ethical shot that I took without hesitation. He dropped in his tracks.

I approached the large beautiful animal, sobbing with disbelief. Taking my gloves off, I knelt with a hand on his head, put an acorn I’d been carrying in his mouth, then gave him a drink of my water. In offering his spirit a last bit of food and drink, I attempted to establish a grounding place—a foundation of respect for experiencing the long, arduous and emotionally complex process of actually harvesting my own meat instead of just thinking about it. This moment was three hunting seasons in the making, backed by unyielding support and education on the matter from my Dad. Although I’d spent countless hours sitting still, walking slowly, scanning the snow-filled forests of northern Idaho and western Maine, seeing deer tracks as I lay in bed at night every November, it never seemed like actually being in the right place at the right time, with the right wind, facing the right direction could ever manifest into a real deer. Until it did, quite suddenly. 

After a congratulatory 6:20 AM sip of my Dad’s whiskey, and being engulfed in a long, proud hug wherein I wept into my Dad’s chest (and he told me whatever I felt was completely acceptable) it was time to snap a few photos and do the real work. (More thoughts on taking photos later.) Riding waves of emotion—disbelief, gratitude, heartache, sadness, relief—I committed to field dressing the animal while getting the feel of a buck knife in my hand as the third generation of Clough to carry it. I attempted to be careful and composed doing, frankly, the most grisly of tasks, which I’d only observed once before.  I knew, though, that burying how I felt was not the point of hunting, and had never been one of my goals. In those visceral moments, bloodied and profoundly human, I was connected to my best self. Diving into something I did not fully understand, I was focused while also feeling. I was vulnerable, inexperienced and alright with it, telling myself it was okay to feel pleased and broken-hearted at the same time. Fifteen minutes later, as I removed the still-warm heart of that animal to bring home to a dinner plate, I felt a conflicted sort of contentment I’d been living too far away from for too long. 

And yes, in regard to the tradition of posing in camo holding up the head of a beautiful, wild animal you’ve just shot, it is weird. And tiring. But I did smile. I also understood why, to folks who do not approve of hunting, such photos (and hunting in general) appear, at face value, to be grimly sporty and soul-less. How could I smile in a moment of such melancholy? Minutes before in my adrenaline-fueled cry, wasn’t I just lamenting how it felt so suddenly wrong because I respect wild animals perhaps more than I do most people? Well, I did not set out on this journey with expectations about the size or weight of a deer, or about counting antler tines as a way to determine my camouflaged prowess. I never thought in the many years that lay ahead of me I’d see a buck quite that mature while hunting, never mind have the right conditions to shoot it. Even now, weeks later, I still feel odd when my Dad, who is not known for his pride, urges me to show so-and-so the picture of my “big buck.”

I became a hunter in adulthood with a handful of simple goals: I wanted to keep putting effort into pursuits that lend to my increased self-sufficiency by way of filling my own freezer. I wanted to eat food that connects me physically and emotionally to a place and that place’s ecosystem. I wanted to remember that when I am eating meat I am eating an animal; an animal that lived wild and well and died quickly. I wanted to carve out a place in my own heritage from which I had become disconnected. 

I am smiling in the photos. I’m smiling because I’m accomplishing my goals, because I know that few other hunters would feel the same deep sense of reverence I felt next to that animal, it being my first. I’m smiling because, for the next year I’ll have a freezer full of the best, leanest, 100% truly organic meat I can eat and share with my friends and family. I’m smiling because my Dad is taking a picture of his daughter, a successful hunter. 

The following few days were filled with more opportunities to learn and feel my way through harvesting my own meat. With my nose to the grindstone alongside my experienced hunting buddies, I had space and time to verbally process my way through skinning, quartering, cleaning and butchering every morsel of venison off that deer, for which I am truly grateful. Under caring tutelage, I was shown the basics of the entire process, learning by doing things I don’t believe I could have tackled alone. It really wasn’t until that last step—butchering—that the whole experience started to feel less macabre and barbaric and more acceptable and satisfying. In fact, I found great joy in butchering, a task that was surprisingly intuitive and mindful. Finally getting to decide how thick I wanted my chops, what recipes I wanted to use with my rounds, whether or not I wanted more stew or burger throughout my winter, brought deer hunting back into a realm that felt well-balanced and wholly worth it.

It feels prudent as well to recognize that, although hunting is the original task, being able to and choosing to do it in modern times is a privilege not to be overlooked. Like many other sporting activities, hunting has become more expensive and commercialized than it needs to be. Even if done “on the cheap”, using thrift store camo that doesn’t fit, and a hand-me-down rifle, venison does not pay for itself. The monetary cost of hunter education, licenses, tags, firearms, ammunition and gas money can’t compare to the further luxuries of being mentored, of having the free time to scout, spend time at the range, and sit quietly in the woods for hours on end. I am grateful to afford and have access to such privileges. 

But by far the best part of my hunt has come in the weeks to follow. Telling stories, and preparing meals with my loved ones. Sharing the bounty. There isn’t a more labor intense and pleasingly authentic meal I could eat, or pay for anywhere in the world, than the meals I’ve been eating with this venison. The first bite I took of tenderloin, seared in a well-seasoned hot cast iron and deglazed with the bourbon we had on hand, actually brought tears to my eyes. For a big, older 4×5 deer, the meat is tender and mouth watering. Besides the taste, and the umami unique to well prepared wild game, eating food that I brought from the forest to the table is an experience unparalleled yet in my life.

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Posted in Creatures great and small, Family and friends, Mindfulness, health and healing | 2 Comments

Last sunset over Sur La Mer

Don’t revert back to island time until at least November.

If ever there was a day to honor that golden rule of mine, it was the first of September. One of those bluebird Rangeley days, it was perfect for a long bike ride. Or doing most anything, as long as it was outdoors in my chosen place soaking up the essence of late summer. Sun shining in a cloudless sky, balmy breezes laden with balsam, and calm, clear water ringed with rafting loons, it should have made mindfulness—being in place and in season—effortless.

But there I was, failing miserably. Racing past woods, over streams, pedaling to the tempo of my tortured thoughts, I was unable to really hear the birds calling or see the fleeting beauty all around me. I just couldn’t escape what I’d seen and heard back inside my cabin. Marsh Harbour, Abaco, my other chosen place, was gone—destroyed by Hurricane Dorian.

A few days ago, I had living in the present—being right here right now—all figured out. Every late summer lakeside moment had my full concentration. After all, there was no need to let my thoughts wander to where I’d be come April, to dream of long, lazy days in the sun waiting for Rangeley to thaw out. No need to start strategizing the minute the leaves showed hints of yellows and reds. I already had my place, my mud season hideaway, picked out, locked in. I’d left my deposit check sitting under a conch shell on the kitchen counter there last spring so nobody could take my spot. Now I was free to focus on my primary home and every glorious reason why I rooted myself here through the change of seasons. There’d be plenty of time after Thanksgiving to let my migratory clock start ticking, lots of gazing into the wood stove plotting my itinerary down to Marsh Harbour, the JetBlue “codeshare” hop over from Florida to my favorite little out-island airport, the short ride to settle in at Sur La Mer, our rental cottage. Easy peasy. No worries. Done deal.

“I’m baaaack!” I’d announce like the house had been waiting just for me all winter. I’d kick off my sandals, and rush to crank or shove every possible window open to the Sea of Abaco. After all, the house was named Sur La Mer, or “On The Sea,” for good reason. And I was there to take full advantage! Built on rock pilings on a narrow strip of peninsula known as Eastern Shores, if Sur La Mer was any more on the sea, it would be floating. “Breathtaking!” TripAdvisor said of the open ocean views mere steps from every window. But for me, that term was too generic, too all-over-the-map to describe how it felt there. How being surrounded, almost immersed, in the shimmering aquamarine sea hit me right down to my solar plexus. How watching the way the weather shifted the water colors—from turquoise to sea glass green and all shades in between—steadied my breathing. How it opened my heart along with my winter weary eyes and made me leave my “good beach book” open, unread, in my lap. If somehow, somewhere a beachfront location better than Sur La Mer existed, I had no need to go look. Fishing right off the front deck and the “back yard” beach. Snorkeling from shore. Close to town but tranquil and “away from it all.” Restaurants enough when we wanted to go out to eat, groceries enough when we didn’t. And the people? Well, they were some of the happiest, welcoming, down-to-earth people anywhere. Check, check, check…and check. After years of hopping from island to island honing the wish list, I was home. And exciting as it was exploring new places and meeting new people, just knowing I could go back to Sur La Mer “God willing and the creek don’t rise” was comfortably exciting. Like the story book I’d tuck under my pillow as a kid, I could always dive back into each colorful page, soothe myself with the promise of happily ever after.

Or so I let myself believe. Until September 1.

A never-before nightmare came true when Dorian hit Abaco and its surrounding cays as a Category 5 hurricane. Wind gusts up to 220 miles per hour. Storm surges more than 20 feet high. Incessant, torrential rain. What an unimaginable combination of forces could do to an island and its people. The sad, sickening details left little hope, little doubt, turning all the news story hype, the hypotheses and experts’ talk of “worst possible” scenarios, into useless chatter. What was left of Abaco, Grand Bahama, and many of the nearby islands was a horror story.

“It was as if a sniper loaded the eye of Dorian into a high-powered rifle and aimed straight at Marsh Harbour and our place down there,” Tom said to anyone who still wondered. Folks who already knew and loved Abaco didn’t need to ask. And others who previously had a vague geographical concept of us going “somewhere in the Bahamas” couldn’t help but see. The weather advisory map was on every TV channel and all over the Internet, a red, churning bulls-eye centered on Abaco in a slow crawl over to Grand Bahama. BAM…spot on.

Then came the aftermath, the footage of unrecognizable places and missing faces. I stared, squinted and shook my head at image after image of what the meteorological circles and arrows had actually left behind. At first, I tried to drown my denial with Captain Morgan and the familiar taste of my last happy hours at Sur La Mer. I failed miserably. Then I tried to write about it, somehow caption what I was seeing. Hard, but do-able, I kept telling myself. “Use your gift, your English degree, your Thesaurus, if necessary. You can always find words!” But finally I had to concede to what I believed my whole life to be a cop-out, a lazy writer’s lame excuse: “No words can describe what I saw.” I deleted every trite, worthless description.

“Horrific, catastrophic, apocalyptic…GONE,” reported a reconnaissance pilot who flew over the island. Blunt, to the point, and so sadly true, those were the words I was left with as I scanned the aerial footage. Was that the airport? The harbor? Where was the row of shops and restaurants along Bay Street? I couldn’t find a point of reference in the rubble or the flooded, flattened, treeless landscape. Bleary eyed and broken too, I had to back away for awhile, get back on my bike.

“How could it all be GONE? Wiped out?” I cried to the treetops. How could my days at Sur La Mer be over, taken away so suddenly by the same wind and waves that lulled me to sleep, put me at peace? And what about all the families beyond my little hideaway who’d built the soul and structure of Abaco? What about Lydia and Keith, my friends who tried to ride out the storm?

Realtor, property manager, and descendant of British loyalists who settled in Abaco, Lydia was the reason Tom and I found Sur La Mer in the first place. She loved to expand her island “family” and immediately brought us into the fold, gave us first dibs on renting again. “You can never sell this house or fix it up too much,” we teased. “You’ll put it out of our price range!” She’d been featured on the HGTV channel showing Sur La Mer to an island oasis hunting couple, and we’d watched with excitement and more than a little apprehension.

“I feel like I’m right on the water,” the wife cooed when she saw the sand and surf from the living room windows.

“That’s because you ARE right on the water, you silly…..!” I yelled at the TV. But she just couldn’t see Sur La Mer the way Tom and I did. She noticed the lack of stainless steel appliances, granite counter tops, and side-by-side bathroom sinks. Saying something about a “total gut job,” she moved on in search of less rustic real estate. Good thing for us, though. So what if the water pressure in the kitchen was non-existent, the toilets needed a double flush, the deck chairs were duct taped, the original pine floors scuffed and sagging. It was a house in the Bahamas! On the sea! It had survived plenty of tropical storms, hurricanes even. So, naturally, it was windblown and rusty here and there. And it could stay quirky and quaint just the way it was.

Our friend Keith, owner of Dive Abaco, knew how we felt. “Aaah, yes, you’re staying at Sur La Mer!” he said. Eyes the color of fair seas and a kindred sense of humor, he gave us a mini French lesson while we booked our next snorkel trip. “On the sea,” he said, slapping his hand on top of the counter, then moving it underneath. “Not Sous La Mer. Because sous would be under the sea and you wouldn’t want that. Not inside the house, anyways.”

Guiding people on and under the Sea of Abaco was Keith’s job, his passion for decades. Every day the weather permitted, he’d lead people out to the reefs, over coral towers and down through deep canyons teeming with fish. He’d take you to meet Gidget the Grouper, get you face to face with stoplight parrot fish, queen angels, and every eye-popping species out there. “Vitamin Sea,” he called it. And he made sure you got a good, healthy dose. Until September 1.

When Dorian hit, Keith and his wife, Melinda, lost everything but their lives. Boat, home, business…everything. They were without insurance, too, or any hope of the nest egg that would someday come when they needed to sell off their investments on Abaco and retire. Melinda said she felt blessed, though, “simply overwhelmed by the outpouring of love and concern and offers to help” and the generous online donations coming from all over the world. She gave thanks for all the shared memories—of laughter and adventure and long, carefree afternoons floating along behind Captain Keith. And hoped that everyone could continue to smile, hold that close.

Lydia lost almost everything to Dorian, too. Except her family, her faith and her will to help her community survive. Almost immediately, she saw to it that those who could stay and wanted to stay had basic necessities. She mobilized a search for still-livable dwellings for the displaced who needed shelter, for volunteers coming to help, and for those wanting to eventually return. As of this writing, she’d coalesced enough food, clean water, clothing, medicine, supplies, and volunteers to help keep makeshift neighborhoods healthy and hopeful day by day. “God has many hands and feet,” she said. “He’s got this.” And, in Lydia, God and the people of Abaco have a heart as big and strong as they come.

After hearing from Melinda and Lydia, I knew it was self-centered to be wondering about Sur La Mer, to need to see for myself what happened. Too difficult to imagine where anything used to be, warned a friend who rented down the shore. But when he sent me a link to a closeup video, I knew I had to look. Over and over I paused the picture where the narrow road used to wind past the ferry terminal, along beaches on both sides, and into the stone pillared driveway. But there was nothing…no road, no walls, no splinters of sea foam green from the exterior walls, nothing even floating around the vague shadow of the old foundation. Any last vestige of a house was obliterated, erased. Stripped of all trees and scoured right down to limestone, the very shape and contour of the surrounding land held nothing familiar.

I stopped trying to make sense of the pictures, of somehow trying to rearrange puzzle pieces that were no longer there. And when the images kept me awake that night, I didn’t block them. I snuggled into my warm, dry bed and let them come. When finally I drifted off to sleep, I dreamed I was back at Sur La Mer, back in the vivid, happy moments I’d shared with Tom and his sister, Chris.

“Magical,” Chris kept saying soon after she settled in. Believing it was the only place in the world you could watch the sun rise and set over the same house, hear water splashing and palm trees rustling from all rooms, she moved from bedroom to living room to the second floor loft in daily affirmation. “The best thing about going home from here will be painting it,” she said each evening, scrolling through the pictures on her phone. “I’ll call this Sunset on Eastern Shores. And this one, I’ll do in pastels. See if I can capture the crazy endless blue at Casuarina Point.” She’d paint the turtle we swam with over Mermaid Reef, too. “The coolest thing ever,” she said before entertaining us with a rum-inspired imitation of Crush from Finding Nemo.

I awoke with a smile and two, simple words. Love and gratitude. That’s what Sur La Mer still stood for, how it could teach me to turn grief into healing rather than despair. It gave me a special space in time for capturing precious moments, for connecting with people stronger than what nature took away. The lesson in the loss, for me, is never losing sight of the quaint little cottage by the sea or the void left in its place. So, as the days turn to winter and the trees to gold, I will carry it into my “here and now,” grateful for every second my travels return me safely home. And if and when I find another sanctuary on the sea, I will raise a toast to Sur La Mer. Before. After. Always.

Tom and his sister, Chris, at Sur La Mer

Please join me in helping the people of Abaco by donating to a relief effort. Here are the two mentioned above.

Posted in Mindfulness, health and healing | 10 Comments

Weather…or NOT!

I’m not sure who the audience is supposed to be for most National Weather Service “special advisories” in my area. Especially this one:

Special Weather Statement for Northern Franklin County (June 15): The warm air temperatures this weekend in the 70s and lower 80s may cause people to underestimate the dangers of the cold water temperatures, which are currently only in the mid 50s. The cold water temperatures can quickly cause hypothermia to anyone immersed in the water when the water temperature is below 60 degrees. The average submerged person could lose dexterity within minutes and be unable to accomplish simple tasks. Anyone on small boats, canoes, or kayaks should plan accordingly if recreating this weekend and use extreme caution to avoid this threat.

It was the real deal, dominating the online weather forecast with so many capital letters and exclamatory symbols it might as well have been an all-points bulletin about a serial killer on the loose or an SOS to all ships at sea.

“Seriously?” I said. Sitting there in my shorts, all-season fleece jacket and slipper socks, I got the feeling that whomever the national weather authorities thought they needed to alert, they weren’t from around here.

As a seasoned Rangeley resident, I know that May typically translates to “May I please put away my hat and gloves a few days before my Memorial Day cookout?” Then comes June-uary when, even if I get a few of those almost-summer teaser days, I’m not gonna dig out my bathing suit anytime soon. And I’m certainly not gonna go and immerse myself yet. Not intentionally, anyways.

Coming up to Rangeley and places like it as a kid, I used to intentionally immerse myself in the lake as soon after ice-out as possible. I didn’t have AccuWeather radar or emergency bulletins to warn me not to “underestimate the danger.” I didn’t even have the sense that God gave geese. But I had my Dad, standing on the dock as I cannon balled past him, hollering something about being a numb skull and going into cardiac arrest. I could barely hear him, though, with the cold, cold water closing over me, making my heart nearly stop and my head go numb.

It didn’t take too many summers for me to realize why waders and wet suits were popular things. And why my parents waited for those rare 90-degree days to do the Mom and Dad swim-shuffle up to their waists and back to shore. Not because they were old. Because they were wise.

Before my Big Move to Rangeley, I used to pay pretty good attention to winter weather advisories. That’s because doing so could grant me official National Weather Service permission to “work at home” instead of slip-sliding down the turnpike to spend eight hours in an office cubicle. It could also clue me in to an ensuing snow day. That way, I’d keep one eye open the next morning for the best weather-related “news you can use” in a house with teenagers and a teacher husbandthe list of school closures. When our town finally scrolled across the TV screen, I’d authoritatively announce that they could all stay in bed and shuffle back there myself.

Out here, thoughespecially during the Never Ending Winter of 2019I barely bat an eye. Seeing a generic weather “statement” is kinda like when I’m sliding into a 180 in the Subaru and the little red squiggly icon flashes on the dash to tell me, officially, that my road surface is frozen and I need to exercise caution. Ya think? Geez, so glad I got that super helpful validation so I wouldn’t be befuddled and skidding toward a snowbank at the same time!

Who needs to click on the little red exclamation banner across the daily Rangeley forecast to read the painfully obvious? Not me. Something about having snow piled past your window sills imparts an innate sense of knowing. Nor’easter coming? Got it. Freezing rain turning to snow to rain then back again? Been there, doin’ that. Even on the days I try to ignore what’s all around me, a few steps off the back porch keeps me up to the minute on current conditions in my area.

Yup, after ten winters and almost-summers on the Big Lake, I instinctively already know. Or if I don’tpromptly and preciselyI act as if I do. Meaning I assume I’m gonna need a Gor-Tex coat, a few layers of fleece, socks up to my knees, waterproof gloves, all-terrain footwear, three different hats, tear-away pants, an umbrella, a shovel, a couple flares and a cell phone, even if the only coverage I might get is with the flashlight app.

Try as they might to encapsulate my local weather into a one or two-line forecast, the nerds at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) hardly ever hit it right. That’s becauseto borrow an analogy from my software development tech writing daysit’s like nailing Jello to a tree. There are just too many ever-changing variables to squish into a blanket statement. Mountain currents, lake effects, you name it. Efforts at articulation usually end up with too little too late or somewhere in La La Land.

It’s still a fun guessing game, though, logging on to look, getting the meteorological low-down on what I can see coming across Bemis from town, or what the really big Great Lakes are supposedly sending my way. Then I concur with Tom, my resident Joe Cupo, and try to plan accordingly. Most days, it goes something like this.

Me: What’s NOAA saying about today’s weather and the possibility of outside activities? (I pronounce it Noah, with Biblical intonation).

Tom (on his NOAA-defaulted laptop): It’s fine if you don’t mind getting wet.

Substitute wet with frost bitten, wind blown, dusty and/or burnt and I pretty much have my custom, regional AccuWeather forecast.

Unless, of course, I’m on vacationdown the mountain for a tropical mud season break. Now that really ratchets up the entertainment value of looking at the Rangeley forecast! I read the special weather advisories out loud, sometimes hourly. And for even more giggles, I check out the live action on the Bald Mountain Camps web cam, just making sure how much snow, sleet or other fun stuff is getting dumped on my frozen lakefront back home. It doesn’t change a thing I’m doing. Except a little barefoot happy dance before I intentionally immerse myself in the warm, warm water.

Posted in Seasonal celebrations and observations | Tagged | 4 Comments

I dream of Genies (remastered)

Green light
So bright
First thing I want in sight
I wish I may, I wish I might
Have it glow again tonight.

I wished with all my heart, clicked my heals together, squeezed my eyes tight then opened them again. Over and over. Aaaand…nothing. I didn’t bother bundling up out on the porch to star gaze into the murky, still-winter dusk. Or even peer out the front window where my “forever Christmas” LED light display brightened up the white birches and my mood until it got buried in a four-foot drift three months ago. Nope, I was holed up in my living room, staring at my DirecTV Genie 2 receiver, hoping against hope that the damn status light would go green.

But, alas, my wish was not to be. No way, no how. Genie had gone back in her bottle and taken her two little sisters—downstairs Mini and bedroom Mini—along with her. And with no fairy godmother or Jiminy Cricket coming to restore my once magical whole-home DVR satellite television, I had no choice but to wait for the next available service tech to show up and rescue me.

“Remember when just being up here in this little cabin was the fantasy? When camp TV meant watching the wood stove or the fire pit and you liked it?” I said to myself, sounding eerily like my father. “Turn that damn thing off and go outside!” he’d bellow if he came home and found me binge watching game shows during summer vacation. “But it’s not summer,” I said to my lifeless screen and the surrounding darkness. “Not even close.” It’s final episodes till fall season! Time to wait out the good weather watching The Good Doctor!

But I couldn’t. Not unless I wanted to stream it off the internet and watch my Verizon Home Fusion data overage surge through the roof. And worst of all, I couldn’t record it. That’s what DVR was for until Genie turned into a gremlin.

For a whole year, I hadn’t even cared what my Genie 2 setup looked like. Didn’t know if its lights were twinkling a certain color, or what lights it even had. So enraptured was I with whatever wizardry the DirecTV guy had performed, I never really checked out what was behind my magic wall of endless programs coming out of the northern sky. Oh, I knew there was a free equipment upgrade back there. And, as a retired technical writer, I knew it wasn’t just running on fairy dust. But why poke around with optimal performance, with what was finally letting me be one of the cool kids who could record stuff while watching other stuff—in two different places, fast-forwarding and pausing every riveting moment in sync with my sleep cycles and biological urges?

And then it happened—the fate my mother-in-law warned about when acquiring anything computerized, digitized, or smarter than a toaster oven. It “all went at once.” And being the hapless dummy holding the control “clicker,” I was screwed, stranded up High Tech Creek without a paddle. Had I not given complete control over to them thinking machines, I would have at least been able to tweak my rabbit ear antennae, replace a blown tube, or dial up a working channel. Instead, there I was, numb as a plugged owl, gaping at a troubleshooting screen in place of my prime time lineup. “Error 775—No dish communication,” it said above a bunch of numbered steps with circles and arrows pointing to plugs and parts I never recalled having before.

My first fix-it step was to sound the alarm to Tom: “There’s snow on the dish! Can you please go scoop it off?” It being a Monday (AKA “those hospital shows you watch” night) and not a Wednesday (AKA “I’m really looking forward to Survivor” night), he might have been a bit more enthusiastic about putting on his boots to trudge out and inspect the situation. But he did as asked, verifying there were “no visible obstructions.” (Believe it or not, we hadn’t just experienced a dish obliterating snow storm. That happened when we had the flu. And I think it was a Wednesday, so Tom powered through like one of those “gotta get the job done” DayQuil commercials.)

A few hours and a bunch of unplugging and re-plugging later, I needed re-verification. “Are you sure there’s nothing blocking the dish and the cables?” I asked, until I got “the look” warning me to stop. “Sure, there’s a crap ton of snow over the dirt that’s burying the underground cable coming toward the house,” he seemed to say. “And a whole mountain of snow blocking me from actually seeing what’s going on when the cable comes from there into the house.”

So I was left to my own devices. Literally. I hauled the Genie 2 receiver, the downstairs Mini, the power adapters, and the cluster snarl of connection cords out onto the rug for closer inspection. “No fairy dust happening here,” I said, “But would ya look at this house dust!” I did what any self-respecting tech savvy girl would do when crawling around behind her home/office componentry. I grabbed a rag and dusted it off. Then, lest that be my only sense of do-it-myself accomplishment with the current procedure, I unplugged everything, untangled it and laid it out in a pattern I thought I could reverse. Next, I plugged it all back in again, checked that each thingum’s power light was green, and waited.

“Green light…so bright…” I whispered, watching the newly-discovered Genie 2 status light. Green is good. Green is good. So’s flashing green, I reminded myself. It means there’s a ghost of a chance you’ll get solid green. Silent drum roll. Inhale and hold. Aaaand…nada. Solid yellow. Never a mellow color when it comes to operational status. As a documentation specialist for many years and many “black boxes,” I’d written my share of front-panel status light descriptions. And I sure didn’t need a how-to guide for interpretation. Basically, flashing green to flashing yellow means “Go get a cup of coffee, put in a load of wash…and hope for the best.” And when you come back and see solid yellow? That’s better than a red light which, of course, stands for stopped dead. But stuck on yellow means “I thought I could, until I churned and burned and decided I couldn’t.” My cue to get up off my aching knees and call DirecTV support.

I did learn a couple things on the phone with tech support. That a 775 error message is not caused by snow, rain, or other flying debris landing on the dish. “That’s a 771 error,” the rep said, leaving me wondering just how infinitesimal the list of possible problems could be. I then learned that being walked through the disconnecting and re-connecting procedure again via speaker phone and an exotic accent yielded the same grey screen and no-go status light. And that, surprise…surprise…I needed an onsite service technician.

While I was on the phone, though, did I also know I qualified for some even better DirecTV upgrades? Yup, I figured as much, and preceded to “no thank you” my way through the latest up-sell offers. (As a loyal longtime customer, I’ve also learned that amassing every DirecTV programming “deal” onto my bill is kinda like leaving an old shed unattended during a Rangeley winter. You know snow and ice keeps piling up on it, that the roof is sagging under the pressure. And if you don’t shovel a few layers off now and again…boom…it’s just too much and you need to start from the ground up.)

Nope, I just wanted to resume my status quo, hopefully before I spent any more prime time nights in the dark. Doug, my whole-home service technician seemed tentative but upbeat when he arrived. “Oh, jeez, you’ve got one of those!” he said when he spotted my Genie 2 receiver. “That model was installed for free last year for a reason. But, if it hasn’t acted up until now, maybe you’re one of the lucky customers.” He had an unflappable Foghorn Leghorn voice that seemed like it could recharge anything within range.

By the time Doug was outside getting snow in his boots and wind in his face checking my equipment with his, my hopes were growing dim. “No more magic from this Genie,” I thought. Then suddenly…zip-a-dee-do-dah… there was my status light glowing green and my TV lighting up my living space!

The problem, Doug reported, was up on the garage roof about as close to the dish as possible without being in the dish itself and, therefore, a 771 problem versus a 775 problem. The initial cable was hand tight but not wrench tight. “So I gave it a couple good cranks and there ya go!”

“But couldn’t it loosen up in the future and all go at once again?” I wondered. “Nope,” Doug said. And then he used the old tactic I’d come to recognize as the service tech’s version of “paying it forward.” Doug blamed it backward. “The previous installer shoulda wrenched it down, but he just fingered it in place and probably forgot to recheck his work. I’m surprised it held for a year.” You’ll never see it on the grey screen of death as one of the official DirecTV errors. But other than Acts of God, apparently most loss of connectivity is caused by your previous installer being a Mickey Mouse.

Doug was my hero, I had to admit. I was delighted that I could put my Genie 2 back
behind the TV to secretly work wonders without another thought. And I was in the process of doing so when…oh noooo…whatever daytime drama had been playing suddenly switched to a grey screen. “Error 775—No dish communication,” it read. What the….? Lucky, troubleshooting the cause required only an instant of hunching on the floor in repeat status check mode. The cause was me. I’d shoved the receiver just a bit too hard into the corner and unplugged the damn thing! A classic PEBKAC error, as we used to say in the business. You won’t see that on any official self-help screen either, because it stands for Problem Exists Between Keyboard and Chair. Meaning the equipment is fine but the customer sitting at her computer desk is a complete doofus. Or, in my case, PEBGAC (Problem Exists Between Genie and Couch). But, no need for another support call and promises of even more magic than I could handle upta camp. I plugged it back in all by myself just in time for Survivor. Zip-a-dee-YAY!


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Posted in Camp connectivity, Home working and house making, Remodeling and reorganizing | 7 Comments

Two flu inside the cuckoo’s nest

Most days, playing the “How far are you from…?” game is kinda fun.

“How far are you guys from the doctor’s and the drug store?” people from away want to know.

“About 35 minutes from the healthcare center. Another hour if we have to get a prescription filled.” We tend to answer in increments of time spent on the road, not miles traveled. Because we’re not talking about highway miles or the kind of miles connecting the Redi-Care clinics and the super-mega pharmacies down in the flat lands. Further questions tend to stop there. The out loud ones, anyways. Are we crazy? In denial? Or both? Plenty of folks wonder, we imagine, but keep it to themselves.

“It’s all good,” we insist. “We’re good.” We might not have 24-hour walk-in care, but we try to avoid needing it with walks in the woods and good choices. And if and when we do need prescriptions, we’re happy trading Walgreens on every corner with the walls of green lining our route down to getting ’em filled.

Sassy and sure of ourselves, we are. Regular rock hard, year-round Rangeley toughies. Until we were heading down Pucker Pass the day after a huge snow storm, hightailing it to Hannaford to get our Tamiflu prescription, Influenza Type A = 2, Tom and Joy = zero.

A few days before, Tom figured he’d come down with the Rangeley Crud—the holistic, pragmatic diagnosis we locals give to pretty much anything that ails us from the time the first log goes into the wood stove until we stop getting our feet soaked in frozen slush in the spring. Symptoms include a cough, crud coming from any or all cranial orifices, and a drop in energy that makes putting on your “yard slippers” to take the dog out a wicked chore. I concurred with the diagnosis, especially when the crud crept my way. “Just a cough and a few aches,” we said. Nothing that a few days of downtime and some homemade “cough syrup” couldn’t cure.

Then Tom started sounding like a deranged werewolf caught in a Conibear trap coughing up a giant fur ball. And I was somewhere between a sputtering old two-horse motor and a sump pump trying to work the sludge out of the basement. When we finally dug the digital thermometer out of the bathroom “drugstore drawer”—our under-the-counter solution to convenient self-care—we knew we needed a third, more professional opinion.

And then, there we were, bundled up like Kenny from South Park, trying to keep the Tacoma between snow banks on the way to pick up our pills (and enough ready-to-eat chicken noodle soup for a fortnight). Diagnosis in hand, we’d progressed from being a bit under the weather and off the grid to tiny pinpoints of infection in the Western Maine corner of the the official National CDC 2019 Influenza Outbreak Map.

“How did this happen?” I muttered into my coat collar. I was too fogged over to come to any comforting conclusions, but my feverish little monkey mind wanted answers anyway. “Whelp, we finally lost the germ lottery,” mumbled Tom. Always level-headed and even-tempered, he could still weigh the laws of probability and register 101.8 degrees Fahrenheit. “But when? Why this year? Who or what did we touch? And where?” I persisted, the journalist in me hell bent on writing the story of how we went from low-risk, drug-free independents to ailing losers packed full of pills.

“Stop asking questions!” Tom groaned from deep into the couch the next day. Apparently, the flu was keeping my body down, but not my need to know. “Do you want more tea? How ’bout more soup? Did you take your pills? Wanna watch another movie? Taking a nap? Think I should check your temp again? Are you warm enough? Too cold? Still coughing? Anything yucky coming out?” The Curious George in me had suddenly turned into howler monkey from Hell. So I kept my inquiries quiet, quarantining myself to inner speculation. Were the darn Tamiflu pills actually doing anything worth the amount of money I paid for them, half-price coupon and all? Or was the ogre guy in the Tamiflu commercial, who grew bigger and more beastly the longer he waited to get on the $300 pills, just a big pharma scare tactic? Where were my slippers? Could I make it upstairs to bed? Whatever happened to those Beatles cards my Mum bought me when I had to stay home with the flu in 1964? Would they be worth anything now if I hadn’t stained the Paul card with chocolate ice cream kisses?

More than anything, I wondered if we could beat the odds—maybe feel like getting out of our snarf chamber, or at least out of our jammies sooner than the predicted two weeks of downtime. Until Tom asked me something for a change. He opened one eye and, in a little boy voice, told me he wanted a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. And I knew we were screwed. I’ve watched my husband eat at least one sandwich a day for more than 40 years, and never have I ever seen him mow down a PB&J. I don’t even think he’d eaten one since he was 12. Something to do with his mother buying government sized cans of peanut butter and having to stir it with a ginormous spoon. I guess even luncheon loaf was better.

The farther we got into cabin confinement, the more questions the dog seemed to have, too. “Why are they barking so much? How come they never used to eat in front of the TV and now they’re slurping supper watching Survivor? Will I ever go for a walk again? Since when does going out mean going five feet off the back steps?”

Since dog whispering was obviously not one of those six sense things that sharpens when your other senses fade, I just didn’t have all the answers. But I did manage to figure out a few other things.

  • Cabin fever is way different than a cabin fever. Cabin fever is when you want to get out, but the weather is preventing you from moving your able body off the back porch. Having a cabin fever means your body is so snowed under on its own that you can barely get out of your own way as you shuffle back and forth from the bathroom. And you’re grateful you don’t live in Publishers Clearinghouse territory because there’s no way you could run outside to claim the check when the people with the flowers and balloons showed up.

  • Regular “indoor day” camp games are not fun anymore. You need to leave Monopoly to the gifted and talented and Yahtzee to the calculus nerds. And the silly things you used to entertain yourself with when you got bored with cards and board games? Don’t even bother. I thought lying in bed in the middle of the day was a perfect time to play Find the Shapes in the Knotty Pine, a game my daughter Becky and I invented during a long rainy afternoon. We found a dragonfly, several prehistoric fish, a dog turd flying through the air on a boomerang, and a harbor seal. But I tried for hours and got nothing. So I switched to Staring At Drifting Snowflakes for a few more hours. Then I went back downstairs and played a little Stack the Soup Cans and Yogurt Cup Jenga. Fun times.

  • When your cabin mate is just as sick as you are, it’s a good thing. That way, he’s not in your face acting like Superman just because he can put on pants and sit up at the table to eat. And you’re not up in his business either, wondering how many more episodes of Gunsmoke he can watch or when his hair is gonna look normal again. You’re on the same slow rolling wavelength, able to carry on whole conversations with a few mono-syllables, snorts and grunts.

Now that Tom and I are “out of the woods” health-wise and into our normal backwoods routine with sounder minds and seemingly superhuman bodies, I’ve been able to put the Influenza Type A 2019 episode into context with our otherwise fit and unfettered lifestyle. Hindsight, I know, is not 20/20. But it sure becomes a heck of a lot clearer when you get your groove back! And thanks to the perspective that only loosing and regaining your status-quo can bring, I know a few things better than ever. Flu happens. Crud creeps in. And if you’re lucky to live long enough, you’re likely gonna come down with it a few times after you put away your Beatles cards and stop eating peanut butter out of a huge can. Accepting that inevitability with humor and trust is part of showing up, weighing the odds, of not being afraid of what might happen when you pack up your life of convenience and move to your cabin for good. It’s about seeing the glass as half full and, when it’s not, figuring out what you’re going to do to level it off again. Immunity is wonderful. But being cooped up with your cuddle buddy ain’t that bad, either. Especially when you can’t wait to get back out there and do the Rangeley weekly post office/IGA/restaurant loop. Hugging folks. Touching menus and all sorts of sketchy surfaces. Opening mail from the far reaches of the CDC outbreak map. Enjoying crazy, high-risk in-town stuff with our peeps. And, of course, washing the winter “bugs” off our old, weathered hands when we’re done and ready to settle back in.

Posted in Community, Mindfulness, health and healing | 7 Comments

New math for a new year

“Some days you eat salads and work out. Some days you eat cupcakes and refuse to put on pants. It’s called balance.”

Yep. I sure liked that quote back about a month ago. I stopped scrolling through my Facebook feed, slouched back in my PJ/cabin pants, smiled smugly, and really let it resonate. It was just so true. Life choices didn’t have to be in constant balance like I was on some sort of teeter totter between healthy and “who gives a crap.” I could and would offset my treats with salad, my slouching with tromping. Maybe not daily, but seasonally. Like a mama black bear snuggled in the snowy hillside, I could and would even myself out by spring.

Then, sometime after ringing in the New Year with an “eat, drink, and be merry ’cause you never know how many more new calendars you got left” attitude, it hit me. Hard. Mama Bear emerges svelte and raring to go from her den because she doesn’t eat. For months on end. I, on the other hand, was not genetically programmed to live off my fat stores. I could not just hole up for a long winter nap and hope to burn off all my omnivorous unfettered scavenging. Instinctively, I knew that, of course. Knew it when I was foraging for treats in the toe of my Christmas stocking. Knew it when I sat there in my stretchy pants deep in denial searching for feel good quotes.

Luckily, long about a month ago, I sat up straight, called a come to Jesus meeting between my current self and my ideal self, and launched Operation Looser Pants (OLP). Mission accomplished, I knew, would take time and patience. Infinitely more time and patience than had been required to replace my daily protein cereal with peanut butter cups. It wasn’t like flipping a switch and…BOOM…suddenly I’d be back on track. Because bringing a screeching overnight halt to food highs with nothing but low fat, low carbs, and zero food enjoyment would feel like crashing to the ground when the mean kid suddenly jumps off the other end of the teeter totter. However badly I needed to, as Bob Marley would say, “square it up, Bud,” I needed humor, determination, and a long, clean slate of calendar days between now and my sleeker self emerging from my cave come spring.

Looks like I have plenty of company along the way! Now that we’re weeks into the New Year, there’s no shortage of regimens, fixes, and do-overs to support my transformation. On Facebook, all the Best Bakers Ever are now awarding themselves gold stars for posing next to their juicers instead of their Christmas cookie jars. (That shift was so sudden and seismic that even out here I could feel the quaking of thousands of kitchens rocking off their foundations.) And on TV, those folks on the commercial who were so thrilled to get their Peloton bikes? Well they’re still spinning away while the snow piles up outside and their kids stand by waiting patiently for kale and quinoa casserole. Suddenly, I was bombarded from all angles. Try Keto! Go Paleo! Join Weight Watchers! Start your Whole 30 plan today! Eat Mediterranean! I felt stuck. Kinda like being trapped in the slow checkout line at Walmart—in between the glossy “Lose Weight, Gain a New You!” magazines and the grab-‘n-go snacks.

Been there, done all those plans (or some equivalent thereof). I weighed and measured and counted calories. I paid money to put a couple of zeros next to my counted calories so I could call ’em “points” rather than food choices. I shocked my system into starvation mode. I eliminated good carbs and natural sugars till the food pyramid was just a flat plateau I stood atop to scan my environment for every possible morsel of meat. And along the way I learned that any sustainable looser pants plan must leave enough room for real life, must rely on celebration and moderation rather than constant calculation and mediation.

Why not just buy bigger pants? Conclude that living life to the fullest at my age means filling up my pants, and gracefully graduate to the the next size? Because while having baggier britches is just one measure of a balanced life, for me—out here anyways—it’s a pretty big barometer. Because I’m not talking about my college jeans or the waist cinching corporate pants I grew out of decades ago. Or the hanging out in the Old Port slacks that only match one sweater. I’m talking about my going anywhere besides my couch everyday Rangeley winter pants. The flannel-lined Cabela’s jeans that are so stretched out before each wash they qualify for a new notch on the women’s relaxed fit size chart. “Even more room,” as JetBlue would say. When those babies get really snug, it’s a sign of a bigger problem.

I started to get suckered back into thinking I needed drastic measures, like metering my food into teeny weeny color-coded containers—or amping up my workouts with something “powerful” or “extreme” and way more hip than trudging through the snow. Then I saw this simple proverb: “The secret to living well and longer is to eat half, walk double, laugh triple and love without measure.”

Bingo! That made perfect sense, just as it did to the wise Tibetans who made it their truth. A basic formula built on a foundation of contentment was the sort of food pyramid I could stay on top of. And no matter what pants I wore to get there, I realized I was already on my way. I love my life, how I can fill my days with adventure as easily as with simple serenity. I love how my circle of family and friends holds me ever so tightly at its center as it continues to grow. I love how my husband still wants to share all that we have built together, even through these long, cold Rangeley winters. And, now more than ever, I really do love myself, what I’ve become deep in my core that transcends my aging body.

And the laughing triple part? Got that covered and then some! I laugh at everything, especially wildly inappropriate things. I laugh until I end up crying. And when my daughters and I get together you can multiply that times three. We got to belly laughing so hard over Christmas that the button on my holiday pants almost popped off and cracked the glass on the door of the wood stove!

So, with the loving and laughing parts under my belt, I’m freer to concentrate on the walking double part of the equation. In theory, anyways. Walking, or some form thereof, does get challenging out here this time of year. But I’m not letting myself get discouraged by the fact that zero times two still equals zero and other self-minimizing thoughts. As much as the wind chill factor and snowpack will allow, I’m getting out there for my daily treks, and spending almost as much energy getting the necessary layers and gear on to do so. When that’s not feasible, I’m bouncing on my indoor mini trampoline like a snowshoe hare in sweat pants.

And the eating half part? I’m pretty sure the proverb isn’t referring to halving my daily intake of sweet, gooey stuff. So salads, good grains and healthy, locally sourced protein (AKA deer meat) is what’s for dinnah as much as possible. I’m also pulling in parts of the Mediterranean Diet Plan. Supposedly, it’s The Best Diet Plan for 2019, and I always aim for what’s best. Especially when it allows a glass of wine with my evening meal. Not two or three, mind you. That would mess up the math. Instead I savor every drop with gratitude—and fond memories of how, a month ago, having a Bailey’s nightcap was a religious experience.

“I’m doin’ OLP,” I’ll tell folks if and when they notice my pants getting looser. “On the Tibetan plan.” Sounds mysterious enough to somehow work, and exotic enough to start people wondering if my secret involves finding yak meat at the IGA.

Meanwhile, I know a life lived in balance isn’t about arriving at the finish line in a body that measures up to some false standard of perfection. That’s not healthy or realistic. Nope, I wanna slide in there half used up, a carbernet in one hand and some Valentine chocolates in the other. But when I do, I sure hope to still be in my well-worn, patched up everyday Rangeley pants.

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He’s got Beagle Diet eyes

All Kineo dog wants for Christmas is a treat…or two…or three. Trimmings from the holiday roast. Blueberry pancake morsels smothered in cream cheese. A can of Ol’ Roy filet mignon flavor “wet dinner” that, in days of yore, would almost split the seams of his Christmas stocking till it was plopped into his bowl in all its glistening glory.

All he’s gonna get, though, is a big, lumpy elk antler chew, and the hope it’ll distract him from what will not appear to his wondering eyes this year. 

“Merry Christmas, old guy. Gnaw on this instead.” I’ll say, unwrapping it for him and tossing it his way. “Ol’ Roy never got anything this healthy.” Kineo will probably lick it a few times, give it a half-hearted push with his snout, sigh, and continue staring mournfully at his empty food bowl. “And because Mommy bought this special bone, she’s helping to rescue another good dog like you who can have a nice Christmas, too,” I’ll tell him.

Still not impressed, Kineo will bury his head behind his Santa pillow and resume the endless wait for his next meager meal. Inconsolable, he’ll be, and nothing short of presenting him with some juicier, meatier, elk parts—or any animal by-products—will renew his holiday spirit. Because, alas, he’s on a diet and has been since before Thanksgiving. Without consultation or consent, his Purina chow scoops are closely rationed, his table scraps a dim, cherished memory.

Who goes on a diet at Christmas? A beagle who’s starting to look like a Yule log, that’s who. A dog who’s so far down on the “smartest breed” list that, given the chance, would crawl into the Purina bag and not come out till he’d housed the whole 20 pounds. A cherished family member who needs some extra tough love to guide him through the holiday eating hurdles so he can scamper rather than waddle into the New Year. And, judging from his expression, he’s not hopping on board with a “healthy eating” regimen, better nutritional habits, or any other feel good way of sugar-coating the fact that his steady food stream is down to a trickle. He’s die-ting. As in he feels like he gonna die ’cause every little ting that used to be tossed toward his yapper between meals is now gone.

“At least you’re not wearing a cone of shame ’cause you’re recovering from surgery and have turned into a licking time bomb like last Christmas,” I told him. “That hurt worse than a few tummy grumbles. Besides, you’re Lord Bemis Camp Beagle, Ruler of the Afghan Realm and Beyond. You gotta live long and prosper. And that might not happen if you’re too rotund to lord over anything but the couch.”

Not one for words or, thankfully, much whining, Kineo just gave me a long, sad look saying that he still was not buying any of it. “Talk to the belly!” he pleaded with his enormous gingerbread eyes. If only he had manual dexterity and enough energy to get off the couch, I swear he would’ve picked up the phone and tried to call the Franklin County Animal Shelter to come get him.

Five years ago, Kineo had witnessed his brother Toby (may he rest in peace ‘neath the snow drift in the back yard) go through the same weight-loss journey. But his nonexistent neural capacity didn’t allow him to remember, never mind learn, from how hard that lesson was. How Toby’s ritualistic dinnertime prance around the pantry was suddenly rewarded with one measly scoop out of the food bucket and, a few gulps later, he’d be dumbfounded worse than ever as he contemplated his empty bowl. How instead of pre-washing every dish before it went into the dishwasher, Toby was left standing in the kitchen, watching me with pitiful, gravy-colored eyes as I rinsed the dishes myself, and his favorite bad habit trickled down the drain. How, because he was named after a majestic Maine mountain, he vowed he wouldn’t cave like Toby and follow in his fat footsteps. 

“C’mon Kinny. Who’s my Little Drummer Beagle?” I said, tapping his shrinking tummy as I tried to lift his spirits with his all-time favorite Christmas carol. But he didn’t even care that his paunch percussion was off, that his ra pa pum pum wasn’t reverberating like a taut bowl of suet this year. 

A few more days of being followed by Kineo’s silent, hungry stare, and I started changing my tune. To match his hang dog mood, I made up a new version of Bette Davis Eyes even more haunting than the early ’80s ballad.

He’s getting fat and old 48375837_285833858950553_6017139209058385920_n
He wants a treat surprise
He thinks I’m mean and cold
He’s got Beagle Diet eyes
He’d rather turn into dough
He’s not believing the lies
He’s eating dirty snow
He’s got Beagle Diet eyes

But try as I might to mirror his suffering, Kineo couldn’t muster more than a weak wag of his tail. “You’re just killing me softly with your songs,” he seemed to say, his pupils lipid and dark as the pools on Bemis just before the freeze. 

He’s still my Zen beagle, though, my mentor—the face at the top of my Spirit totem. Because sooner rather than later, I know he’ll be inspiring me to shed my increased holiday heft, too. Till then—and even though I know the only sound he really wants to hear is more kibble clattering down into his bowl—I can’t help but add a little Smokey Robinson into the mix:

Now there’s some sad things known to man
But ain’t too much sadder than
The tears of a hound
When there’s no food around


For more Beagle Zen, see:


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Channeling my inner beagle

All I really need to know about retirement I’m learning from my beagle.

It’s not that I lack two-legged role models. My husband Tom, who should be a poster boy for AARP, is a shining example, as are many friends and family who have crossed this bridge before me. But when it comes to learning from the best, old Kineo dog is my Zen Master.

I always thought leaving the world of work-for-pay behind would feel more eagle-like than beagle-like. I’d soar up, up and away from earth-bound limits and weighty commitments, honing my sights back down on what I really wanted and needed. But then my path toward retirement became as roundabout as a rabbit trail through the pucker brush. And when I finally made it to the finish line, I was channeling b + eagle energy.

Sleep. Eat. Romp around. Repeat. Become enraptured by a leaf. Let the wind tickle your nose and flap your ears back. Drop when you’re weary but scamper while you can. Kineo’s teachings are as simple as they are profound. He’s never read the Tao Te Ching and can’t begin to explain how he walks his path with so much delight and gratitude. And he certainly doesn’t know that “freedom from attachment” is a thing. Still, he shows me “The Way” way better than my shelves full of New Age books and hours of fireside philosophizing.

“Watch and learn from the Beagle Buddha,” I remind myself whenever Tom and I take Kineo off road far enough to unleash him. We’ll be half way up the hill behind our house and Tom will reach down and unhook him from the tether that’s so often necessary for the traits of his breed—a nose and heart as big as the North Woods and a brain the size of a pea. “Good boy. Go on now you’re FREE!” I holler. Then I stand back and watch a live demonstration of the power of letting go.

It doesn’t happen all at once. So bent is he on sniffing every possible leaf and hummock that, at first, he can’t feel the loss of pull-back from his master, can’t shift his own weight into forward momentum. Then, like a lightening bolt, his new reality hits home. He stops, looks up, and a pinpoint of awareness flashes through the dimness of his primal dome. ZING! He’s on his own! His tail wags double time and I swear he smiles. Then, in a nanosecond, he throws himself into overdrive so fast his hind legs almost outrun his head. Woooosh! Suddenly a floppy-eared Taz/Wile E. Coyote shape-shifter, Kineo beats feet off trail. He’ll circle back eventually. But not until he’s celebrated every square inch of his independence.

“Ever wonder where you’d end up if you took your dog for a walk and never once pulled back on the leash?”

I started pondering that quote by author Robert Brault about the same time I started pondering retirement. “Hmmm…I’d end up somewhere deep in God’s Country where I wouldn’t turn around till my legs gave out, or my heart or my belly called me back home,” I thought. I wouldn’t really know for sure, though, until I went from kinda retired to full-on retired. And I was kinda retired, or at least I told myself that, for a long time.

As I said, mine was not a direct route, a threshold I just crossed over one day and then…boom…I was done working. Already a veteran technical writer before my Big Move to Rangeley, I’d been laid off and rehired, had quit and switched jobs so many times I was worn out enough to just fade away and not look back. Then, when Tom retired from teaching and I settled into a new home office steps from the Big Lake—and many miles from anyone needing the “propeller head” networking guides that used to be my claim to fame and a nice paycheck—I was ready to follow him out to pasture for good. Until I got a “remote” writing contract doing the exact same challenging but cool stuff that used to require commuting all over the place. Wonderful manager, terrific customers, most of whom were on the West Coast and didn’t need me at my desk till late morning. Good pay, flexible hours, great projects using the latest in high-tech publishing tools.

“But I feel like I’m retired,” I’d tell folks who wondered when I’d match my husband’s occupational status. “I travel. I make my own hours. I get tons of fresh air and exercise whenever I want. And I get paid.” Best job I ever had.

Until it wasn’t. Six years later, the fulcrum started to shift. Updated tools sent digital book making back to the Dark Ages. “Challenging” lost its cool factor. And customers got really cranky. For awhile, I kept pushing forward in “it’s OK as long as I can travel, take boat rides, and ride my bike” mode—sucking all the goodness I could out of life in a rural retirement community while telling myself I wasn’t getting sucked in the wrong direction when I’d turn my back on the lake and return to my desk. Gradually, though, I began to feel the pull-back—of meetings and deadlines and the never-ending cycle of rewording the same old stuff—more than my freedom. It might be long and really pliable, but I was on a leash, nonetheless. A retractable one. And my collar was beginning to chafe.

Finally, I cut myself loose last May. I got on early Social Security, bought myself a brand new laptop cleared of any company-sanctioned templates or Skype for Business appointments. I was free! Free to write whatever and whenever the “right” side of my brain wanted while relegating its nerdy left side to crossword puzzles in the Mountain Messenger. Free to watch the lake and the open road without watching my watch.

But none of that happened all at once. At first, I just couldn’t let it. I’d been a good, loyal professional too long, was too conditioned to pats on the back from my managers and the sweet treat of a bi-monthly paycheck. Could I actually shift into autonomy, embrace freedom? Or would my ego convince me I needed to fill up my calendar with some sort of busy work that kept me tethered to reward and recognition?

As with most life altering questions, it didn’t take long for full immersion into Rangeley summer to grant me an answer. And, as usual, when the answer hit I was on my bike heading off into the wild blue and green yonder. Suddenly, mid-pedal, I knew in my core that I didn’t really need my watch or my odometer or most of my old habits. A pinpoint of new awareness flashed through my self-induced fog. I was FREE, and I honestly and truly felt free. I’d turn around when I was damn well good and ready, beckoned home by a warm bowl of food, family, and all the comforts that really mattered.

Somewhere back on my New Age self-help shelf I remembered a passage that likened the power of detachment—of letting go with “focused surrender”—to shooting an arrow from a bow. Authentic freedom, it said, isn’t attained simply by releasing the arrow to fly, straight and true, toward its target. The act of pulling back the bow, of grounding yourself and shifting your sights on what you’re aiming for before you actually let go, that’s where the real magic happens. Kineo already knew that. Fortunately, it didn’t take me a dog’s age to catch on. No reading or over thinking required. ZING! Woooosh! Reality aligned with everything I was shooting for when I came to this retirement community in God’s Country. And like my beloved beagle mentor, I began to master the art of moving meditation, to honor the wisdom of returning to stillness.

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Posted in Beagle Zen, Creatures great and small, Mindfulness, health and healing, Retirementality | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Black gloves, silver lining

It’s August and I really wish I knew where the heck my gloves are.

Yup, you read that right. I’m smack dab in the middle of real Rangeley summer, those few precious days when I can confidently expose both my lower and upper extremities. At the same time. Outdoors. For more than a half hour. And I can do so while immersing myself in my favorite thing this side of the lake: logging endless miles on my mountain trike as long and as fast as I can before darker days descend again. Still, here I am, peddling into the glorious wild blue and green yonder, thinking about my goddamn gloves.

As in hand-warming, protection against snow and ice gloves, not the gardening gloves or fall cleaning gloves I should be thinking about this time of year. And not Prada or some other pricey mail order label that ceases to be “the thing to wear next season” the minute it arrives at my log cabin post office in Oquossoc. I’m obsessing over a plain, black pair of gloves. The ones I bought at Reny’s for $14.99. The ones I’ve been missing all summer.

Last time I remembered seeing them was back in May. As in “May I please put away my gloves, and everything fleece, especially that headband that makes my regular ball cap hat head look like a good hair day?” They were in my bike sack which, by Memorial Day, looked like the sale bin at L.L. Cote. (You know, the one that’s right inside the entryway that you try to walk around but can’t resist pawing through the huge cluster snarl of chartreuse neck warmers and last season’s triple extra-large t-shirts people didn’t even want to buy to wear doing yard chores?) If I dug deep, I could unearth my black gloves to keep my fingers from freezing to my handle bars when not-quite-spring tried to turn into maybe-summer. Then I’d move ’em with me because they weren’t just for biking. These were my utilitarian, almost-all-weather pair—my go-to gloves for wherever I went. Lightweight, portable and nearly waterproof, I could carry them in the front pouch of my ancient windbreaker like a Mooselook marsupial, or pocket them in one of my fleeces, padding my pre-bike season flab with little glove love handles.

But, just as I dared to think I might not have to keep them “on hand” in all my travels, the gloves went missing. I set out to shift them to one of my other winter waiting spots and poof…the gloves just weren’t there to transport. Not in my bike sack, or my pockets. Not anywhere anymore.

“It’s OK,” I said. “You don’t need them, not right now, anyways. And by the time you do, they’ll turn up.” It was June, the first day of full-blown Rangeley summer. Not seems-like-summer or June-uary or “I have more goose bumps than common sense for putting on shorts this morning.” It was biking weather worthy of all my winter daydreams. Temps in the high seventies all day. Bluebird skies. Balmy breezes. So why was I laser focused on not having gloves in my bike sack “just in case” rather than on the lupine-lined road ahead?

Because I’m called Fidget for good reason. As in “Fidget: To make small movements, especially of the hands and feet, through nervousness or impatience.” Tom bestowed the nickname somewhat affectionately when we first met and he decided to make the verb into a proper noun just for me. Fidget is all about business—her’s and everyone else’s. She frets over schedules, dust particles, paperwork, whether or not she can drink all the milk in the gallon before the “best used by” date, and cheap gloves. If I let her, she’d take over my whole program. But, thanks to the Big Move to Rangeley and wanting to do more with my retirement than fiddle about the house, another side of my self has emerged to keep Fidget in line. She’s an easy-going, free wheeling, tie-dyed Zen Momma I like to call Joyride.

Joyride doesn’t sweat the small stuff. To her, cheap gloves and fidgety crap like that is all small stuff. She’s too busy flying around on mega-coasters or easin’ on down the road to care or listen. She held her own pretty good, too, for most of July, basking in each glove-less moment, looking lovingly at my naked hands on the handle bars and appreciating how daily exposure was transforming their “Nana skin” from winter crepey white to sun-toasted marshmallow gold.

Try as I might, though, my pedaling meditation was still being hijacked. The thought of gloves magically reappearing kept buzzing around my brain like a pesky house fly that just wouldn’t leave the room. Should I look in my bike sack again? How ’bout Tom’s? In my pockets? In the vast vortex of irretrievable items under the Subaru seats? In that dank creepy space above the basement steps or the cold weather baskets I kept pawing through like a frantic squirrel? Had they flipped off my lap in a parking lot, or unintentionally been dropped into the recycling bin where they’d soon be found at the “Rangeley Plantation Walmart” by some lucky Flatlander? Was one of my girls really desperate for gloves the last time she visited?

While my Joyride side soaked up every drop of July sunshine, the Fidget in me knew that, at any moment, July in Rangeley could turn into “but Ju-LIE.” As in when visitors say, “You told me I wouldn’t need warm socks up here this time of year, but Ju-LIE!”

Without my precious gloves, I feared that even August could become “but Ah guessed” overnight. As in “Ah guessed it would stay summery in Rangeley by now, but Ah-guessed wrong.” Then, mid-trail one day, it hit me. I was ONLY worrying about gloves! Both sides of my brain did some sort of harmonic convergence and drummed that into my psyche louder than the grouse I’d just flushed into the woods. I was having the best summer of my life with nothing better to fidget over than a stupid pair of gloves! No work deadlines or unmet milestones pulling me back inside till I was good and ready. No health issues or house projects from hell. No family drama or maternal misery. Both my daughters were doing OK. Better than OK, actually. They were thriving. At the same time. And my husband? Well he was all that a a girl named Fidget could ever hope for in an adventure buddy/camp compadre and then some.

Whoever said that our greatest blessings are also our greatest curses probably wasn’t talking about gloves. But, in my case, it fits. Now when my silly gloves come to mind, I don’t get mad. I’m glad they went missing. And as long as they come out of gestation or I get to Reny’s for a new pair by Septem-BRRRR, I’m good.

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What WAS I thinking?

I like not having tons of lingering questions hanging over me. Especially out here in the willywags with my husband of more than 40 years, I’m glad to usually find answers to everything from the monumental to the mundane. Did we make the right choice moving up the mountain for good? What’s for suppah? How many more months till we can go on MediCare? Where’s that scratching noise coming from? Which fruit or flower-themed festival is in town this weekend? Who’s gonna drive our UPS packages past the causeway come December? If one or both of us doesn’t know, we make something up and stick with it.

There is, however, one big, burning question that shall remain unanswerable in this lifetime. One that has haunted me since childhood, all through my formative years and on into what should be wise old womanhood. And even though I can feel it coming—bellowing forth from an all-seeing, all-knowing male interrogator—I remain dumbfounded, seemingly perplexed.

“What were you thinking?”

“Ummm…that I was going to somehow miraculously get away with whatever I was doing before you saw how horribly wrong it turned out,” I say to myself, head hung low.

Typically, my onlooker’s quest for knowledge involves a moving vehicle and centers around my performance while operating said vehicle. Especially a boat trailer. Moving in reverse. Or a Subaru that, despite the commercials, is not really equipped to maintain traction in all-weather conditions.

Like the time during the ice storm last winter when I assumed all-wheel drive would help me negotiate the driveway without plowing into a snow bank and almost hitting “that tree stump right there in plain sight” in front of me. “What were you thinking?” Tom hollered, as he stomped up the driveway to take my place behind the wheel.

“Ummm…that I’d be able to throw it into reverse and rocket my way out of this mess before you came charging out of the house and you’d be none the wiser till you spotted my huge ruts come springtime,” I wanted to answer. “That I was driving the official car of Maine and was thereby granted super powers.”

But such things, I’ve learned, are better left unsaid. Especially when my dad, my grandpa, my husband, or whatever guy who happens to be a curious witness is obviously too busy storming to my rescue to listen. Besides, from the look on his face (inherited, no doubt, from his forefathers), he’s already come to his own conclusion. “She has the intellectual capacity of an earthworm and, Lord help her, wasn’t thinking much of anything.”

As far as I can tell, this need to know is purely a guy thing. Guys ask. Girls squeeze their eyes shut, think of a better place, and don’t answer. I understood this basic fact of life, this mysterious difference between the sexes, before I knew much about the birds and the bees or figured out that men are from Mars and women are from Venus. I was born on the receiving end of the question and I’d better learn to live with it. It helped, though, realizing that my mother would never beseech me and my sister the same way my dad (“Mac”) did and why I, in turn, would not do so with my daughters. We’d need to save our strength, to get our stories straight. That way, when Father comes home, discovers whatever mess we’ve made and demands, “What were you thinking?” we’d cover for each other, cut him off at the pass and stand tall with our silence.

“Don’t ask,” we’d say as Daddy came through the door. “She feels terrible enough about it already.” And I, like my mother before me, would try to explain the inexplicable on our daughter’s behalf. We’d never let on what she was thinking, just field the question. It’s what we girls do. Whenever we are around to bear witness, anyways. When not, we reach out as best we can in sympathy and solidarity.

I wished my mother was actually there with me the first time I remember being asked the unanswerable. She was out trolling around on the lake with my father for most of the afternoon while I wrapped all but a few feet of line around the dock and the trees trying to perfect my spin cast. The boat had barely throttled down for a landing when Mac spotted my cluster snarl and his cry bellowed across the water: What were you thinking? 

Mum gave me a “you poor thing” look. And while she stayed quiet, I could see she yearned to answer for me. “Ummm…that if she fumbled her first few practice casts, she could Houdini her way out of it. That when you finally came back, you wouldn’t see a little dock dweeb standing next to an eagle nest of knots, but a girl who could fish just like her daddy.”

Mac was still wondering what was going on in “that little blonde head” of mine by the time he walked me down the aisle so Tom could officially assume his quest for insight. “Good luck with that,” I thought. While I was sure I’d married Tom because he had all of my Dad’s good qualities minus the really annoying ones, I sensed it wouldn’t be long before he’d take up wondering what I was thinking right where Mac left off. And I couldn’t begin to tell him the truth.

If I remember correctly, it wasn’t my vehicular navigation shortcomings that first begged the question from my new husband. It was my disassembly of household objects requiring more mechanical aptitude than a monkey to put back together. Or more precisely, my tendency to force household objects back into some semblance of their former function.

“What were you thinking?  Tom asked.

“Ummm…that somehow the vacuum cleaner dirt canister worked just as good when I shoved it in the wrong way.  That I’d figure out it didn’t and be able to suck up this cloud of dust before you came into the room.”

Even as a new bride I knew silence was my salvation. So was taking comfort that these sorts of interchanges didn’t begin or end with me. Way back before the dawn of formal written language, I bet the first cave man pleaded for an answer. Then, when he didn’t get one, he left petroglyphs on his stone walls to try to make sense of what he couldn’t understand. He carved a man behind a woman, his loud interrogation funneled toward her in deep, squiggly lines while she crouched, shoulders hunched and palms raised in universal “I dunno” posture, next to the fire she’d let burn out or whatever rudimentary tool she’d wrecked.

Now that we live in the digital era, I sometimes wonder why the question isn’t listed on insurance claims—right under the description of whatever auto or homeowner’s possession I need replaced or repaired and how, in my own words, I hopelessly junked it up. That way, instead of filing it under “Acts of God” and providing details about how a tornado or other force of nature wrecked my stuff, I could go to the special “Acts Without the Sense That God Gave Geese” part of the form, complete the “What were you thinking?” section, and make it official. And meaning could finally be extrapolated from my contribution to historical data.

But, in truth, I am more grateful than curious, relieved that my answers can remain undocumented. Especially that time I shaved a couple layers of bark off the pine tree at the top of the driveway. Well, actually, I didn’t do it, the fender of the new boat trailer did. “What were you thinking?” Tom yelled when he came back from launching the boat, his look of utter disbelief honing in on the crumpled fender, then to the naked trunk, and back at me.

“Ummm…that my depth perception was a bit better than it actually was. That when you said to swing the trailer wide when I got back to the driveway, you didn’t meant really, really wide. That, despite what it says on the rear view mirror, objects aren’t closer than they appear.”

I just winced and shrugged. Luckily, no insurance claim was ever filed. And the stately old pine tree, still standing tall above its 30-year-old graying girdle, ain’t talkin’. Tom stayed mostly quiet, too, as he pried the fender back into place with hammers and wrenches. But I betcha somewhere back in the most primitive part of his brain he also wanted to take out his knife and leave a petroglyph on that tree truck. In honor of our forefathers and for all posterity, he longed to carve a couple stick figures—of him with big question marks funneling out of his mouth—and me with shoulders hunched, head hung low, and palms raised in universal “I dunno” posture.

 

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