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


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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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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.

 

Posted in Everything else | 3 Comments

I dream of Genies


When we first starting coming here, any talk of having television “upta camp” would’ve been as far out as waiting for a magic carpet to take me to the end of the rainbow. “And what would you like for your other two wishes?” Aladdin would ask. “Immortal life and money growing on birch trees?”

Back in the very beginning, I dreamt only of electricity coming up our rutted road and into our cabin. Then I longed for a toaster oven, a couple of lamps I could switch on and off from the wall, and maybe even a coffee maker to plug in on top of my plywood counter.

For more than 20 years, watching “camp TV” meant picking one of two channels with very similar programs: the wood stove or the fire pit. Television, and pretty much anything more electronic than a boom box tuned into “The Mountain of Pure Rock,” was the stuff of fairy tales. Only the really, really spoiled women dared to dream of watching Oprah way out here. And when a stray antennae or satellite dish sprouted up among the forest canopy, the rest of us could only stare at it like a unicorn or a leprechaun had landed on some lucky biotch’s roof.

Visitors from away didn’t always understand that the only big screen we had was the one keeping mosquitoes from swarming as we watched our own National Geographic episodes live from the porch—especially after they got water logged and the thrill of going to the Pine Tree Frosty wore off.

“But what else do you do up here?” one of my daughter’s middle school friends, who reportedly had Nintendo and her own TV/ VCR in her bedroom, asked.

“We play Yahtzee and Monopoly and eat s’mores and read,” we said. “We read a lot.”

“Woah. You mean like chapter books?” the girl said. By Sunday morning, her attention span was shot. And that was in the summer.

It took another decade—and talk of an eventual Big Move to Rangeley—before the possibility of television ever crept into our “someday” planning matrix. The year was 2009, and I knew I had forever crossed the “it’s just a camp” line when my mother-in-law almost fainted in my kitchen. We brought her up to see how we’d expanded our tiny log cabin into a year-round residence and added a few twenty-first century conveniences. “You have a dishwasher?!” she gasped.

Yep, built right into my faux marble counter top! I didn’t dare interrupt her “I never even had hot running water in my camp kitchen” story with the news that, after being the only neighbor with a naked roof for miles, I was finally going to join the DirecTV lineup.

“I s’pose this will be kinda nice in the winter,” Tom said just after we made the Big Move. He was kicked back in the new double recliner watching our first ever camp TV, which also happened to be our first ever flat screen, hi-def, bigger than a breadbox TV. It was a huge buying decision, solely mine to make, while Tom had been away working out the last days of his teaching contract before retiring. Did we really need to bring a boob tube into our “dream” log cabin? Was it time to ditch the tiny Discount Warehouse set we bought back in the ’90s, even though it still had some life left to it? “Yes!” I decided in a moment of early spring slump. I closed my second novel of the week and called DirecTV.

A few days, a really tall ladder and some serious roof hook-ups later, our local installation guy clicked through the remote, and presto chango! We could see glaciers calving into the Gulf of Alaska, the real shades of The Color Purple, and every single palm frond and bug bite on Survivor. And even though we didn’t get suckered into the ultimate-supreme-money-grows-on-birch-trees channel lineup, we were enchanted. Who needed the sports/movie super-mega-bundle dish package when, by the end of the first winter, we were like two kids who finally made it to the Magic Kingdom and just couldn’t stop gawking? We didn’t have a bedroom TV and a kitchen TV and a bedroom TV. We had one TV in a small corner formerly known as “the beagle room” that was more than just “kinda nice.” It was a freakin’ fairy tale. And forget DVR! All that fuss over recording and rewinding so you didn’t miss a single plot twist or witty comment? That’s what bladder control, and looking forward to reruns during the “dark months,” were for.

“Just record ’em,” friends would say if I was ever torn between seeing who got Chopped and who was The Biggest Loser on the same night.

“Can’t,” I’d say. “Don’t have DVR.” But I did have a whole-room-length HDMI cable that I could stretch from my laptop to my TV and stream away. And, as long as I wasn’t on the brink of a data overage on my Verizon broadband account, I could see whatever I imagined I’d missed the night before. It was the perfect setup, I thought, way better than I ever dreamed lake front TV viewing could be.

Then came the winter of my discontent, when I convinced myself that hundreds of programs coming out of the North Woods sky or off a tower atop Bald Mountain onto only one TV wasn’t enough. It all started, as most ruminations do out here this time of year, with a bad body image nightmare. How was I ever going to emerge from my cabin come May looking better than the couch potato I’d been the year before? By getting another TV, I decided. A TV in front of an elliptical machine that could just barely fit in the loft bedroom. Then, on days when it was too gloomy to strap on my ice cleats and go outside, I’d watch it to ease the monotony of shuffling in place up under the eaves in February. No need to shell out more for DirecTV which, thanks to the premier channels that used to be free but now cost an arm and a leg, was right up there with paying for car insurance or buying groceries. All I needed was another HDMI hookup and enough Verizon wireless gigabytes left on my data plan and, for the first time ever, I’d have a bedroom TV. Not my bedroom, because that already had the best lake view in the whole house, but in the bedroom where company could watch it off their devices when they got water logged and the thrill of going to the Pine Tree Frosty wore off.

Then DirecTV called and my field of dreams expanded exponentially. “Good afternoon Miss Joy. Did you know that you qualify for a free upgrade to a whole-home DVR package? We’ll replace your old equipment with a Genie 2 receiver and wireless Genie Minis for up to three TVs.”

Say WHAT? Free? I peppered the phone rep with all manner of questions about free actually meaning they weren’t going to start ratcheting up my bill right after I got used to having all this new stuff kind of free, and grabbed the next available installation appointment. Viola! Suddenly the gates of the Magic Kingdom were wide open so Miss Joy could venture to the far corners of DirecTV Land all her friends bragged about!

Installation was set for sometime between noon and 5 p.m. the following Friday. But sometime between noon and 5 p.m. the following Friday, a Stormageddon got here before Josh, the regional DirectTV guy and, somewhere in the snow drifts between here and Waterville, he called to say he’d have to cancel. “No problem,” I said, trying to keep my voice from quivering. “I’ll reschedule online.” Five more days crawled by as I watched The Price Is Right downloads holed up in the attic bedroom until, finally, the DirecTV van pulled down the driveway. I scampered to the door, chirping out a welcome like one of Cinderella’s desperate step-sisters. But Josh was not my prince that day. Cancelling my original date with him had voided the too good to be true free upgrade deal, he declared, and he’d arrived without my Genies. I’d have to wait at least ten business days for the offer to reappear on my account for him to do his magic. Swoosh! Back to the Price Is Right reruns and treading air while I ached for the ability to watch anything I wanted whenever I wanted, simultaneously, in one or two rooms 25 feet apart.

I’d waited more than 20 years for the first TV, I could wait a week or so for the second, right? Barely! By the time Josh finally installed the new Genie in the beagle room and the mini Genie in the loft, I was happy dancing up and down stairs like I was on Space Mountain with a FastPass. I got the whole-home fairy tale at the touch of a button, including a spare Genie and remote in case I fancied cramming a third TV atop Tom’s dresser or, who knows, out in the garage attic. “I’ve got all the bells and whistles now!” I cheered each time I grabbed a remote. Then I got something even more splendiferous: A February thaw—the kind you can’t ignore no way no how out here in the woods in the dark months. I strapped on my slush boots and my all-weather layers and burst out the door for some real deal exercise.

About halfway down the road, striding into the sun with Indian Cove Brook starting to flow and the chickadees twittering, it hit me. Cool as my Genies were, they could stay buried for a bit. The real magic—the best live show in town—would not be available for reruns.

 

Posted in Home working and house making | 3 Comments

A licking time bomb


If by some Christmas miracle the ghost of my Nana could have visited Kineo, she would have gently cradled his head, met his big brown eyes with her own, and said: “If it ain’t your hip, it’s your ass or your elbow.”

Even though he’s not a little, old Scottish lady but an old beagle, Kineo would have agreed. Maybe not about the hip part because, last we could tell, his hips were fine. But his ass end and elbow? Not so good. And one eye was pretty sore, too.

He wasn’t supposed to be a Christmas catastrophe. He was supposed to be all healed up from his minor “elective” surgeries. He was supposed to snap right back just in time for his mommy and daddy to drop him off at doggy daycare and celebrate their 40th anniversary in the balmy Bahamas without worrying about his beagle boo-boos. But, of course, he hadn’t really elected to be operated on. He never said “Oh, sure, as long as I need to have a cyst taken off my elbow and a skin tag off my eyelid, you might as well go ahead and take my testicles, too, while I’m under.” We said that on his behalf—and then forged merrily ahead with our best laid plans.

The pre-op vets concurred. Kineo was a Stugged Wonder. Well, actually Stugged (Sturdy+Rugged=Stugged) Wonder was our nickname, but they saw how he got it. “Wow, he’s so strong and healthy for an eleven and a half year old dog!” said the Maine Woods Mobile vet, who previously only saw him for an average of ten minutes a year to administer vaccinations. Unlike his older brother Toby (may he rest in perpetual peace ‘neath the rabbit tracks in the back yard), Kineo was not plagued by assorted issues. Unlike Toby, the only PetMD search Kineo had ever prompted was “Why does my dog insist on eating dirt?” Yup, naming him after a stugged Maine mountain had been a good call. And we were super proud (and kinda cocky) that we could rely on quick trips to the Oquossoc Fire Station once in a great while when the backwoods vet swung through to meet his health needs.

‘Twas a few days before Christmas when Kineo finally set feet inside a real animal clinic in Farmington. “Wow, he’s in really great shape for an old dog,” the vet remarked. “He should do fine.” He wagged his tail and sniffed, totally unaware that this first-time visit was gonna be a doozie. Why risk anesthesia just to neuter the old boy, we always said.  But now that Kineo was a candidate for one-stop surgery, might as well “fix” the potential plumbing issues that plagued old Toby and, while we were at it, make him a better playmate for his doggy girlfriends, we figured. So we signed all the consent forms to “get ‘im done” and left to do some last-minute gift shopping.

“Mommy bought you a can of Ol’ Roy filet mignon flavor dog food for Christmas!” I told Kineo when he walked gingerly out of recovery later that day. He wagged his tail, unfazed and not too much worse for wear after his stem-to-stern overhaul. “Do we need to put one of those cone head collars on him?” I asked almost as an afterthought as we were leaving the clinic.

“Is he a licker?” the vet wondered.

“You mean like Baileys or Kahlua?” I thought to myself. “No he’s a good boy,” I said. “We’ll keep an eye on him.” We lifted him into the Subaru and went on our way back up the mountain, leaving the $12 plastic cone (that the vet had in ample supply for a very good reason) an hour a half away in Farmington.

It took a few days for the anesthesia to wear off and Kineo’s instincts to kick in. Apparently, he didn’t agree with the post-op instructions to let the stitches dissolve gradually as he healed. He preferred to try to self-heal—to tug out those silly little suture knots and lick his wounds to his heart’s content. By then, of course, keeping an eye on him meant never closing our eyes at the same time for more than a second, night or day. And keeping both ears open, too.

“Heard him going after himself again at about 3 a.m.,” Tom said wearily when I found him curled up on the sofa with the dog’s head in a gentle but firm vice grip for the third morning in a row. “The little bugger got a pretty good head start on reopening his incisions before I got to him.” From parenting newborns to providing hospice care and everything in between, we were keen to all manner of threatening night time sounds. But, until then, chronic dog lapping had not been one of them.

That’s when our answer to the perfunctory “How was your Christmas?” line of questioning changed from relating our travel and festive dinner plans to quietly smirking and saying our holiday was different this year. We didn’t think folks wanted or needed the whole ugly truth: We spent Christmas peering at our dog’s shriveled sack and zippered elbow, fretting about foul discharge and how to keep his head pointed up and away till we could talk to the vet. And, being resourceful Rangeley woods dwellers, we became very, very inventive. We adapted YouTube videos about homemade cone collars to make use of materials already on hand. For the first prototype, Tom cut a cone shape out of a giant laminated poster I’d kept from my cranio-sacral therapy training and affixed it with Velcro strips and duct tape. But that didn’t stop our Beldar Conehead beagle. He became a 3-D illustration of the human spinal column and how a canine can twist his vertebra like a Slinky. Prototype # 2 featured an airplane neck pillow, a rolled up towel, a backwards tee-shirt and tons more duct tape. It kept Kineo from reaching his elbow but was no match for his Houdini hound contortions toward his crotch.

How the heck Dr. Jeff the Rocky Mountain Vet could go to Mexico and all over creation to spay and neuter hundreds of dogs and let them walk out of the free clinics unfettered by any head gear became a subject of fascination for me. Maybe Animal Planet just didn’t want to show all the “bad” dogs who ended up festering in the jungle. Or maybe I had a particularly tenacious licker on my hands. Regardless, there I was, a few days after Christmas, snapping a photo of oozing dog junk stitches to send to the vet in Farmington for further instructions. (And making a note to myself to delete that image from my Christmas in Rangeley 2017 photo album as soon as possible!)

“Anyone coming through Farmington today who could pick up a cone collar and antibiotics from my vet on their way up?” I posted on the Where Can I Find It In Rangeley Facebook page. Less than a minute later, I got a yes from a beagle lover and my new best friend, Amy Cooper. And just in time, too. While Tom went to town to meet her, I was “keeping an eye” on Kineo as he lounged by the wood stove. I was doing OK—not eating or going to the bathroom or anything besides staring at his intact sutures. Until the nanosecond in which I left the room to grab my glass of water, and came back to the dreaded sound of serious, hard core slurping.

Tom came home to find me one-arming Kineo’s head on my lap, while my other hand pinched his bleeding elbow boo-boo into a desperate version of a backwoods butterfly closure. We clamped him into the “cone of shame,” pumped him with penicillin, and heaved a huge sigh of relief. He had no choice now but to hunker down and heal up.26172266_1787177327968668_3443104351945885544_o

“Spending New Years Eve with this ol’ dubber, (my parents’ 11 and a half year old beagle) keeping him from incessantly noming on his nads,” Helen posted on Facebook. The caption prompted plenty of comments on how she could liven up her baby sitting stint with festive cone decorations, including shoving plastic olives on a long stick into his cone and making him into a “beagle-tini.”

“Hah! He’s a liquor after all,” I commented with a smiley face.

We were in the Bahamas celebrating our anniversary,  just far enough away from our chaotic Christmas to see the humor.

“Awwww…what a good boy!” we said.

 

 

 

 

Posted in Beagle Zen, Creatures great and small, Seasonal celebrations and observations | 3 Comments

Two un-a-peelin’


We don’t get many trick-or-treaters out here. But if we did, Tom and I weren’t worried about giving out much candy this year. Our zombie impressions would have scared the kids right off the porch. And we weren’t even wearing masks.

“Do I look any better today?”I asked on Halloween morning.

Like any good husband who’s been married forever, Tom tried to put positive words around what I’d just seen in the mirror. “Ah…well…a little bit of pink, smooth skin is better than bright red and scabby, right?” He closed his eyes and gave me a feather soft good morning kiss, careful not to rub his sore spots on my sore spots.

“I guess,” I said. It was hard to believe I’d stop looking like Blotchy Bemis Boogeywoman anytime soon. And how much longer before this Creature from the Black Lagoon would turn back into the handsome man who normally shared my lakeside bliss?

Any day now, supposedly. That’s what we bargained on when we carefully blocked out enough time for our once-in-a-lifetime “his and hers” facials. “Apply twice a day for two weeks to exfoliate sun-damaged skin,” the directions read on the tube of innocuous-looking white cream. We knew we wouldn’t look our best but, after all, what was a few weeks of paying the price for decades of fun in the sun? Once a fair-skinned blondie, I was a “sun worshiper”—faithfully lying prone and lifting my face to its rays from May till September. “You’re nice and tan now,” my dad said when I was a teen, “but you keep laying out there like that and you’re gonna look like an old hag when you’re my age!” Tom, on the other hand, happened to be a red-headed fish worshiper and, therefore, bowed his bare face toward sun-drenched trout pools for hours on end.

“Got good color on my face today,” I’d often say to myself in the mirror. Not too pale, not too red. And no shriveled old hag yet either. Heck, how could I be a hag when I barely ever got a zit, when (according to my girlfriends) I didn’t have my rightful share of crows feet, frown lines, or lip puckers? But what I did have, underneath the good color and plump tone, was really, really dry skin. And, although I could feel it more than see it—flaking off my forehead and parched around my lips—I was pretty sure that, under the right light, I looked like the Sahara.

When I finally went in to get a professional opinion, the dermatologist agreed. “I’m glad you enjoy such a healthy, outdoor lifestyle,” he said. “And I’m really glad you’re wearing sunscreen.” He was a ray of sunshine himself, glad about pretty much everything, which came as a big relief. Not that I usually go to grumpy doctors. But in my limited experience with dermatologists, I found them to be dour and callous. “How long have you been digging at that?” they’d ask before dispensing whatever salve I wanted badly enough to subject myself to their scorn.

My new skin doc was compassionate, funny, and totally cool with the fact that I had just come from Florida and was rounding out my Rangeley wind-blown winter with a trip to Hawaii. “Not to worry. This didn’t happen overnight,” he said, pointing to my forehead. “Lots of people your age get this kind of sun damage. I’ll give you a cream that bonds to the damaged cells so your immune system attacks and kills them before they turn into something worse.” Eventually, after the dead skin sloughed off, I’d have baby soft skin again, he promised. But the Pac-Man on my face application phase…that could be rough.

That’s when he showed me a picture of an actual patient. The poor sucker was two weeks into his treatment and calling him a “pizza face” would have been merciful. He looked like an extra pepperoni pizza that got run over by the Domino’s delivery van. But much better, I reminded myself, than the examples of “something worse” the doctor had toward the back of his picture book.

Tom, who was waiting in the other exam room, got the same diagnosis and prescription for the blotchiness on his temples just below the shade of his fishing cap. “No huge hurry,” the dermatologist said. “You can share a tube of cream whenever it makes sense to stay close to home for awhile.” So we filled the prescription and stashed it in the medicine cupboard till after summer but before holidays and traveling—a good time, we figured, to “get this one done.”

By the week before Halloween, we were looking pretty scary. The “good color” on my forehead had gone from a neutral desert beige to red, scorched sandstone after a relentless drought. Neglected bits of cheek epidermis were now an inverse road map of half-assed sunscreen application. And I had a serious red wine mustache. From a rare Scabernet vintage.

“Someone set our faces on fire and stomped ’em out with football cleats,” I moaned. “Yeah,” Tom agreed, “we’ve been charred up good and stabbed with a fork.”

I was glad I’d seen the in-progress picture in the doctor’s office so I wasn’t shocked stupid. Tom was grateful he didn’t see the picture, and solemnly declined my offer to Google one up for reference. “Next time I go to town I’ll have to wear a baklava,” I whimpered.

“You mean a balaclava, a ski mask,” he said. “Baklava is a flaky pastry.”

That, too. After the longest stretch of “PJ days” in my adult life, the front of my pajama top reminded me of when I was a kid and I’d upend the last of the bag of potato chips toward my mouth and cover myself with crumbs. Mesquite barbecue chips. Crumbling off my face. Perfect timing, though. I was exfoliating right along with my favorite white birches. And by the time I heard my neighbor rev up his leaf blower, I wanted to run over and borrow it. Not for my yard, though. There’s a reason why the universal symbol for fall is leaves swirling every which way in the wind. A leaf blower is just high-powered artillery for waging a futile lawn battle against nature. But I suddenly wanted  one—for my face—to blow the fallen remnants of my red and brown visage into oblivion.

We were closer to hideous than healing when someone knocked on the back door. Not ready to show myself yet, I made Tom answer it. Jehovah’s Witnesses had come to call, making their rounds way past where trick-or-treaters bothered to venture. “Are you religious?” they asked Tom. “No, but I’m spiritual,” he said. “Do you believe in a Divine Creator?” they asked. “Sure,” he said, gesturing to his surroundings in the Church of the Great Outdoors. After eyeing the raging scourge on his face, they bowed heads and offered a prayer—blessing the Bemis castaway.

“Did you tell them all that stuff on your face was penance for trout worshiping?” I said. We had to laugh. And except for stretching all the boo-boos around my mouth, it felt really good.

Posted in Mindfulness, health and healing | Tagged | 3 Comments

Back where it all began


Heading north toward Rockwood, Tom slowed the Subaru to a crawl. I’d been peering out into the steady rain since way before Greenville, picking faded memories out of old landmarks, retracing my way through the steely blues and mottled greens of a Moosehead spring storm.

Then, at long last, there it was. Mount Kineo towering up out of the lake, its craggy cliff face dominating the fir-lined peninsula on the opposite shore. My rock. My childhood center of gravity, back in focus again for real! And, even though I knew it was silly to think it somehow would not have stayed put since the last time I laid eyes on it, I was giddy. The old mountain was still there for me.

Turning toward the dog, I said what I’d been longing to ever since our daughter convinced us that a handsome, rugged beagle pup deserved a legendary name. “Look Kineo…there’s KINEO!”

He wagged his tail, no doubt wondering why we were calling him more than once when he’d been perched right between us the whole ride up from Rangeley. Woods, water,  more woods—kinda like home, but not. Probably smelled really good, too, if only he could venture from the back seat, stop teetering his front paws on the console, and just get out and GO.

Pretty much my feelings, too. But instead of an instinctive need to scour and sniff every inch of this legendary terrain, mine were a mixture of dogged resolve and calm reclamation. After four decades, I could hardly wait to be back on my old stomping ground, to seek out what had changed, immerse myself in what never would.

“Almost there,” I said. Almost to the bridge over the Moose River, to the road into The Birches. Almost all the way back. From that part of the lake, Mount Kineo would show a different side, morphing from a barren, imposing rock wall to the forested gentle giant that stood front and center in my earliest memories.

Long before I heard the term “happy place” or ever had a need to return there in my mind, I had The Birches shoreline of Moosehead Lake and Mount Kineo. From the time I was six, my parents let me wander alone out to the dock without a life jacket or any concern that I was not being watched. I’d hop out of my sleeping bag before the lake got too riled up, fling a line as far out toward the mountain as my little casting arm was worth, and sit on an Army surplus canvas stool with one eye on my bobber for hours on end. Even then, I knew that my fishing pole was more or less something to do with my hands while I gazed across the water. “Looks like a giant, tree-coated woolly mammoth laid down beside the lake and decided to stay forever,” I remember thinking. And, despite being afraid of the boogeyman, the dark, and you name it, I felt as calm as the early morning lake, protected.

Life hadn’t begun to happen yet. I didn’t have anything to escape from, to overcome, no hurts that couldn’t be healed with a hug or a laugh. Yet something wise in my soul turned my time out on the dock into a teaching moment, instilled a promise in my six-year-old head. No matter what, lake plus mountains equals good. I was just learning to add and spell, to put thoughts and then words to the pictures my teacher flashed in front of me. But I already knew everything I really needed from the simple shapes and basic elements I learned to love that first summer. Go down by the water. Watch it pool around the rocks and ripple, as far as you can see, to the rolling hills and distant blue peaks. Stay. Rest. You belong here.

So began the indelible need to return, if only in my mind, to Moosehead and later, to Mooselookmeguntic. There, as life became sad or too serious, I could be six years old again. I could be whole, innocent, perfect. I could stare at the lake when I wanted to think—and when I couldn’t bear to think. I could stop myself from getting caught up in what I was supposed to be or do, and just be. I could remember my first pair of sneakers, of how proud I was to see them stretched out on the dock underneath me. They weren’t fancy, just plain old Keds. But compared to my “special” shoes (and the brace I’d be wearing by the following summer), those sneakers felt beyond average. They were magical. Never mind just looking at Kineo, I swore I could run all the way to the top!

“Kineo, I present to thee Kineo the wonder dog!” I said. We’d arrived at The Birches Resort long enough to throw our stuff into our cabin and turn around and gawk. Never having seen Roots, the dog was not moved by my Kunta Kinte impression. So I didn’t try to lift him over my head in ceremonial triumph and just let him plant his nose and all fours into the turf. Back inside, I marveled at how the little log housekeeping cabin had not changed much since the last time we stayed there in the ’70s. With its original field stone fireplace and log walls chinked with horse hair, the “Catch a Falling Star” cabin was only a few modern conveniences away from when it was built in the 1930s. Still “rustic with a view” as promised. And I was in heaven.

Not that Tom and I had gone without rustic with a view. Hardly. Thirty years ago, after selling our cabin way the heck up on the Seboomook end of Moosehead, our search for our next (and final) camp building lot brought us to Rangeley, to Mooselookmeguntic. We found the perfect spot, a gentle slope through the white birches down to a clear, cold, uncrowded lake. It reminded Tom of spending summers on Great East Lake, and me of my long, serene sojourns on my fishing stool. I couldn’t see Mount Kineo, of course. But I was surrounded by mountains in every direction. And I could definitely see us building a new legacy right here, tucked in the woods off the beaten track, but close enough to the picture postcard town of Rangeley.

Going back to Moosehead some day still surfaced in conversation from time to time. But how could we ever justify driving up there to stay in an old log cabin when we had our own good-as-new cabin on another big, moosey lake? The answer came in a serendipitous invitation from our friends in town. The same friends who remodeled our original Rangeley cabin into our dream home were building just up the road from The Birches. Would we like to come up and see their new lot? On my birthday weekend?

So there I was, Memorial Day weekend, sitting on a picnic table outside Catch a Falling Star, paying tribute, and realizing that booking a cabin as a birthday present to myself was a very smart move. Otherwise, once I saw that view, I’d have surely stayed right there anyways, immobilized, wonder struck. Had the image I kept in my mind’s eye really morphed from a crumpled Polaroid print—into the digital desktop wallpaper I found as inspiring as it was distracting—to materialize right in front of me?

On the morning of my birthday, I was still pondering. But in order to give myself the ultimate gift, I knew I had to step away from the picnic table and go a ways up the shore. Not way the heck up to Seboomook, but to a tiny log cabin just up the lake from where I sat. Back where it all began. To HOJET.

“Daddy, why’s the cabin called HOJET?” I asked, using my best Dick and Jane reading voice to sound out the wooden block letters that hung over the cabin door. It was 1962, my first trip to Moosehead, the first of many voyages down the Moose River and out across from Kineo onto the lake to dock in front of the two-room cabin. “Water-access-only” meant nothing to me yet, and wouldn’t for many years. Roads didn’t bring you to camp, not all the way. A 12-foot boat did, one crammed so full with boxes of canned food and the block of ice we had to buy in Rockwood to load into the ice box there was barely room for the four of us to bounce across the waves.

“HOJET,” my Dad said, “is the first letters of each person’s name in the family who owns this cabin.” Wow, I remember thinking. They built their own cabin here and claimed it forever with that carved sign. Way better than writing out “Joy’s Fort” (if I knew how to print that well) and hanging it above my special hiding place in the back yard. Everyone else, myself included, was a lucky visitor to HOJET, to this magical cabin with the made up name in the land of Bullwinkle and the beached mammoth mountain.

But who were they, this HOJET family? Some really nice people who let us stay there when they weren’t was all I knew. When and how money changed hands, I didn’t care. And did we need a key to get in? Or could we just pull on the curved branch of a handle, open the thick wooden front door and make ourselves at home? Who knew? All that mattered was it was ours. Mine.

For Memorial Day weekend and another glorious week after school got out, everything in and around the cabin became my place, my movie reel of the simply wonderful things that could happen just because it was summer, we had that spot, and we had each other. “Bare running through the woods!” my parents hollered each time my sister and I finally stripped off our wet bathing suits and scampered naked toward our PJs. Remembering the bears we saw at the Rockwood dump, we’d shriek with laughter, until the night one of them came to visit. Wondering what the commotion was on the front porch, Dad peered out through the diamond-shaped pane of glass in the front door and saw the neck fur of a really tall, fully upright black bear. They all figured I ‘d have nightmares, but they were wrong. I still loved to sleep in my bunk under the front window right next to the door. I’d snuggle in my sleeping bag, suspended on a log frame crisscrossed with rope, listening to my sister whispering from the opposite window bunk. “Don’t those loons sound like lake ghosts?” she’d ask. “Sssh! They’re just singing,” I’d tell her, and hunker down deep till the sun came back up.

“That was a looong time ago, honey,” Tom said. “A lot’s changed, especially with this road connecting the camps. Lots of people have torn down the really old cabins, built new ones. And, by now, even those new cabins are getting old.” Probably, I thought, as I followed him and Kineo up the road past The Birches. But possibly, some relics remained. And maybe, if I conjured up enough old birthday girl juju, I’d find what I was looking for.

“I’ve gone too far,” I said about an hour later when I walked down a driveway and looked across at Farm Island. Apparently the little girl steps I used to take in and around the string of cabins between The Birches and Black Point didn’t match the determined march of a woman in nostalgic overdrive. And my original path—through the Indian paintbrushes, around the spruce tree that Dad swore hid a nesting partridge I could never find again, past the front of the creepy “Boo Radley” camp—wasn’t easily translated to road miles. Maybe after we got the boat in the water I could re-calibrate, get my bearings. But that was doubtful, too. I’d found the Boo Radley cabin, its grayish-blue shingle siding and cobwebbed front porch no less creepy after another half century of disuse. Aside from that, though, I was lost in the Moosehead episode of HGTV Log Cabin Living. Tom’s advice to look for authentic, old-style—or added-on-to old-style construction—wasn’t workin’ for me.

So I did what I’d learned to do at times such as this. I called on my Spirit buddies, my Mom and Dad in Heaven. “Hey, guys, I know you know I’m here and it’s my birthday, and I’m hoping you can help me out a little, give me a sign. Wished I’d asked more questions years ago while you were still around. But if you could tell me now, that’d be great.” I’d turned around and was retracing my steps, noticing the “new” road signs at the top of some driveways that looked like they were from Anywhere Lake, Maine. Moose, loons, a black bear or two, cutesy plays on words about life on a lake with moose and….

I stopped, took a deep breath, and a long, hard look at a driftwood-shaped sign of a loon floating beneath vertical capital letters. From way back in my memory banks, a name surfaced to echo what I was seeing. THE DUNNS. I’ve got to get in touch with the Dunns and ask if we can use the cabin. My Dad’s words reverberated through me as I headed down the driveway, hoping I was right. Was the honey-colored natural log exterior now stained a chocolate-brown with an L-extension built off to the side? Could that small back stoop outside the kitchen window be the same one the bear tracked past as he ambled out of the woods? The location seemed right, the view across the lake to Kineo spot on, the pitch down to the lake the same.

And there it was—a front porch leading up to a weathered front door on a small original cabin. Above the curved branch of a door handle and the diamond-shaped window hung a block-lettered sign made of ancient wood: HOJET.

I froze. My body didn’t want to budge from where I stood bolted in place. And yet, I felt myself moving. Every cell—all that I was and ever would be—rushing, pushing, reaching out in larger and larger circles of distant memories that rocketed back to my very core. I was six again, running up the path from the dock in my magic Keds, dangling a breakfast-sized brook trout from my pole. “What a nice treat for your Daddy’s birthday!” I could hear my mother chirp, her smile so broad she always looked like the sun was full on her face. I could smell the fish frying with a side of eggs, could count the playful slaps I gave my Dad on his rump as he stood in the kitchen. “Fifteen, sixteen, seventeen. But you said you’re thirty-three years old today,” I giggled. “If I give you that many birthday spanks, my hand will fall off!”

“I found HOJET!” I cried out to Tom.

“What the heck is a HOJET?” I imagined him saying. He’d forgotten that part of the story and, I guess, never sat around Great East with his family stringing together initials for potential Clough camp signs like my family did after our reading material ran out. He brought the dog around front so they could see for themselves, while I cried happy tears, mumbled gibberish, and watched Kineo across from Kineo, exploring every inch of my beloved landscape.

I never did meet the Dunns, not that trip. But when I do, I’ll thank them. For my best birthday present ever. For their new and old signs that pointed me home. For giving me the foundation to “move up to camp for good,” to a home that still has the old, original cabin where my girls spent summers laughing and playing at its center. And then I’ll ask if I can look around some more. Hopefully, as kids and grand kids of the first Dunns of HOJET, they’ll understand why I need to anchor myself there now and again—to let my past flow from me like waves, soothing the rough spots, leaving me awash in pure peace. They’ll know, as I do, that you can’t really go back. But you can stand in a spot that has spoken to your soul forever and, just for a moment, feel the years vanish.

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Olympic inspiration


Once again, recliner-deep into the 2016 Olympics, it hit me. I’m way more comfortable being a sedentary spectator during the winter Olympics than I am during the summer games. Never having had skates or skis successfully strapped to my feet for a significant lapse of time, I watch the downhill and ice competitors with the same awe as I watch birds in flight. They are graceful, powerful, fast—but fly too far out of the realm of possibility for me.

Somehow I can’t distance myself as far from the summer events. I do, after all, own Nikes. And even though they aren’t parakeet yellow, which seems to be the official color of the 31st Olympiad, I do put quite a few miles on my pair. I got pretty close to record speed in them once, too, when I had the wind—and a four-foot garter snake—at my back. I also own a pair of spiffy Spandex bike shorts, and a swimsuit styled for function more than form. Sometimes, when I reach peak performance, I even wear all my all-terrain gear for different events on the same day.

“Not bad for someone who had a Mark Spitz poster in high school,” I told myself back in July. No marathon sessions in the sand chair for this girl! When I’m not out finding new ways to get vertical, I’m pedaling cross-country in my signature sport: mountain triking. Returning indoors to full-sized mirrors, I’m seeing a better, more robust version of myself in my sixties emerging. “What a treat it will be to settle back and catch up on the Olympics,” I said. “I’m out there every day, too, giving it my best shot.” Then I saw Simone Biles, Kerri Walsh Jennings, Mo Farah, and Michael Phelps, Micheal Phelps, Michael Phelps. “Another four years,” I said, “and I’m still a sluff.”

I am, however, a totally inspired, romantically patriotic sluff. I find the fifth NBC replay just as thrilling as the live gold-medal clincher. And by the time the Star Spangled Banner plays, my lips are quivering.

Never the most agile, athletically gifted girl in the arena, I’m cursed with the kind of ego that thrives—and destroys itself at the same time—on comparison. So while I find the Olympic performances breathtaking and uplifting, I do tend to regain my equilibrium with a staggering, deflated sigh. A near waste of skin, I sit back and watch with the same mixture of aloofness and utter fascination I adopted in grade school. Sidelined on my sofa like I’m back on those bleachers, I escape to the safety of where I’m most active: my head. I start pondering things like: What differentiates Olympic potential from average, all-around ability? What, exactly, separates Mary Beth who could prance across the balance beam in seventh grade, flipping her perfect pony tail without flopping onto the gym floor, and Mary Lou Retton? Not the coaching and the hours of trial and failure, the everlasting will to succeed and a body to back it up—I mean before that. Are you born a swimmer or diver or hurdler, knowing that someday—if you put your mind and heart into each attempt—you’ll be the best in the world? Or is it more of a gradual awakening? You dare yourself to jump across the creek without falling in, then try half the length of your lawn and, eventually you’re long-jumping the equivalent of a school bus?

Whatever the discovery process, it’s apparently what the athletes put behind their God-given potential that places them so far ahead of the pack. Years of strain and sweat. A desire to reach their inner limit and the guts to convince themselves, day after day, that they still have a micro-second or a millimeter left to go. I’ve been puzzling over this “right stuff” question since the ’92 summer Olympics, when I remember studying Lynn Jenning’s face after she crossed the finish line of the women’s 10,000 meters. Everything she had went into those last laps, bringing her into third place. The bronze medal was hers! She looked ecstatic, relieved, fulfilled. “That’s it!” I said. “I’d be outta there. Job well done, time to kick back.” I was wrong, of course. She came back for more in ’96. And so did Carl Lewis, even though the NBC broadcasters kept referring to his “last Olympic appearance” four years earlier. “You don’t get the kind of gleam Carl has in his eyes unless you’ve got a fire burning deep down that isn’t ready to die out yet,”they said.

Twenty years later, that fire-burning analogy was still haunting me. Way back when I first heard it, I remember thinking: “If I start right this very moment applying Olympic determination to the gifts the good Lord granted me, I’d probably be the next Nora Ephron. Keep toughing it out in my one-room office, never waylaid by writer’s block or a sluggish economy and, another four years from now, I’ll be a best seller.”

The 2016 torch was barely lit and, there I was, making bizarre mental comparisons, wondering when I let my fire get snuffed, imagining the stellar view from first-class I could have had on a ship that sailed long ago. But why?  Why, in this game I play with myself, do I elevate my mental prowess, my writing gift, to the top of the medal stands, while the rest of my anatomy stays securely slumped in my typing chair? And why the heck do I revert to seventh grade, focusing on Mary Beth on the balance beam instead of Debbie in the wheelchair? Wouldn’t it be better to regress to a time when I let the Olympics inspire me without self-deprecation? Like the 1976 Summer Olympics. All I had a mind to do back then was concentrate on Bruce Jenner. Not his times or his distances in the decathlon…just Bruce Jenner. Woah, never mind, can’t go there either, I decided. Best file that one away as a really interesting story for my future grandchildren!

Part way through the women’s gymnastics events, I realized if my inner critic had a face, it would look like Martha Karolyi, the US women’s team coordinator who’s always glowering in the stands. Did she ever smile, do a victory dance, a righteous fist pump? Not from what the cameras showed. Pan up into the stands and, there she was again, scowling and shaking her head for each tenth-of-a-point the women fell short of absolute perfection. How did they keep giving her their all, I wondered, when she just kept giving them the stink eye?

Simone Biles, Martha’s golden girl, helped set me straight. “I’m not the next Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps,” she said. “I’m the first Simone Biles.” Amen, sister! Be your personal all-around best. Put your own yardstick ahead of the media’s. Embrace the judging and the scoring and the infinitesimal comparisons between almost-the-best and the best in the world without letting it suffocate who you really are!

Competition is good, I realized. Without it, there’d be no sports, no Red Sox championships, no Olympics, no Mark Spitz posters. Life would be as bland as store-brand vanilla ice cream, as tedious as a roomful of those New Age Moms who want every kid to get a prize just for showing up to the party and not biting anybody. Except I wouldn’t even have the relativity to be annoyed, to want different flavors. The challenge is how to incorporate healthy comparison into my own journey to the finish line, to take away pointers from others pursuing their dreams in ways that push me to be the very best first and last Joy Clough.

During the second half of the summer Olympics, I shifted my focus to my own A-game, on the thrill of victory more than the agony of defeat. I cheered the times I managed to pull out of a disastrous double full twisting front flip to stick a perfect, upright landing on my walking path. I honored Bald Mountain as my Olympic pinnacle, paid tribute to my record-breaking snorkel strokes, looked forward to perfecting my stadium sprints to the front of the next U2 concert. And, as I saw Martha Karolyi finally smile and shed a happy tear, I did too—mind, body, and soul.


 

For more inspiration, see:
Just like riding a bike….not!
Working out…and up…and all over
Homebody building

 

 

 

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