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Weekly Column

3/18/12: Almost Blown Away 

Saginaw, March 10, 2012, 2:30 a.m. Joe and I were asleep in our small 1870s brick farmhouse where we’d raised our two children, and where he still maintains his cardiology practice three days a week. Because he was covering Covenant Hospital this weekend I’d driven to Saginaw to be with him.

Wah! Wah! Wah! Our alarm shrieked, rudely signaling its switch to battery power. We shot out of bed and into a pitch-black world. Everyone in our area had lost electricity.

Uh-oh. Could another storm be approaching? A dangerous one had hit the Tri-City area at dinnertime. The Weather Channel had confirmed a tornado in the northern part of Saginaw, exactly where we lived. Massive lightning had continuously ripped the black sky: a 30-second mega-wind followed. Then – nothing. The main storm had roared by just two miles east of us. At bedtime the weather was calm.
It still was, now.

So, why had the power gone? Could a substation have been damaged earlier? Sleep was impossible, so we dressed and drove into town to Denny’s for coffee, and light, and remembered another terrifying Saginaw weather event 26 years ago.

August, 1986. The afternoon sky, in shades of yellow smeared with green and black, looked ill. An eerie quiet blanketed the three acres of wooded land surrounding our home. Birds and insects were mute.

Nervously we gathered our two young daughters and went inside. Ten-year-old Jen watched the sky upstairs while my husband monitored the TV. Five-year-old Lisa soothed our skittish puppy in the kitchen.

Suddenly - WIND. Large trees moaned. Windows rattled. County sirens wailed. Joe ran out, looked up and registered shock. Dashing inside he yelled, “Basement! NOW!”

We snatched up the children, grabbed the pup and rushed down.

Seconds later there were tremendous BOOMS!! Then, loud CRREEAKS! (Large trees were splitting, groaning, and falling.) One deafening CRACK!! (Lightning had struck the huge elm near the living room. The pungent stink of roasted sap lingered for days.) Then, THUMP! THUMP! over and over. (Chimney bricks were going… going… gone.) The wind screamed.

An eternity later, it was over.

The house had survived. But our vast green lawn had completely disappeared under a carpet of huge, flattened trees. What an incredible sight! Nobody said anything. We simply stared, blown away. Every downed tree tidily faced east, suggesting straight-line winds. Rain and dime-sized hail still pummeled shocked leaves. Weirdly, two giants close to our home had collapsed mere inches from it. Parallel to it. But, incredibly, not on it.

Some mortar-weak chimney bricks had been ‘shuck-plucked’ gone, like random kernels of corn pried off a cob.

I wish I had a nickel for every gawker who drove by for the next three weeks. We’d be rich. Sixty-one big trees were toppled that afternoon. It took five full days for a crew of ten men armed with chainsaws and tree-eating machines to clean up. Other people lost roofs: cars and sheds were overturned or crushed. We’d experienced an EF-1 tornado.

In 1953, when I was in elementary school, a twister dropped briefly into Saginaw and inhaled our apple tree along with various dish-y clutter from our dining room table, which it also tried to suck through the small, open window. That EF-5 monster roared on to flatten Flint. 113 people died.

Ten years ago, here at Sunnybank House in Traverse City, I hastily herded six garden visitors into the kitchen one biliously dark afternoon. Everyone watched a funnel cloud form - but not touch down - just south of us.

During this weirdly warm spring I’ve begun monitoring the weather at bedtime.
I’ve seen, first hand, how easy it is to be blown away.

3/11/12: Irish Music for Love and War 

Joe and I drove around Ireland’s southern and western part thirty-eight years ago, captivated by its ruined castles, glorious houses and immense, sheer cliffs. The heaving Atlantic endlessly pounded the land. Shepherds and their black-and-white collies minded countless grazing sheep amid hilly, richly green landscapes. Horses were everywhere. Some were so magnificent I could hardly believe my eyes. Ireland’s stud farms produce some of the world’s grandest horseflesh.

Village pubs often featured a fiddler who delighted listeners with Irish jigs, and wonderfully intricate folk tunes. Patrons would often sing along, frequently in Gaelic. Dogs sitting at their owners’ feet enjoyed the fun, their tails thumping the floor vigorously.

Danny Boy is a fiddler-favorite. An ancient tune, Londonderry Air, was ‘borrowed’ in 1910 by lyricist Frederic Weatherly, who modified one of his own verses to fit that old melody. (Londonderry, a completely walled Irish city, is probably the finest in Europe.) Danny Boy is sung at funerals, or played by pipers. Parents of children gone to war get emotional when they hear it. Lovers embrace this song. It belongs to everyone, and has always been my favorite. I offer my version, in the player at the bottom of the screen. (Please, always listen with earphones.)

The Patriot Game was penned in the late 1950s by Dominic Behan, son of author Brendan Behan, to commemorate a twenty-year old boy, Fergal O’Conlon, a volunteer member of the IRA who was killed during a border campaign.
I’ve decided to include my rendition of this song as well, because Ireland has been frequently torn by wars. (You can hear it by pressing the right hand arrow or forward button once on the player at the bottom of the screen).

Honestly, we felt time slow down, there. Men took milk to market with horse-drawn carts, and women bought produce from local markets and carried their purchases back to nearby crofts in large aprons. Ancient bikes with woven baskets leaned on fences and stone walls. Almost every farmer wore a wool tweed cap.

At our isolated B&B we asked the owner to awaken us very early, as we wished to explore the area on foot. She laughed, a wicked gleam in her eye. “I can assure you that will be no problem. Simply leave your (screenless) window open, and you’ll have a special wake-up call, sure enough!” Hmmm. She must mean birds…We did as instructed. About 6:00 a.m. a fat brown donkey thrust his large, bewhiskered head into our bedroom, took a deep breath, and shrieked out a raucous series of raspy hee-haws that elevated us two feet! The beast, hugely amused by our shocked response, refused to be hushed until we fled the room, laughing, for a wonderful breakfast. The eggs had been laid a few minutes previously, and milk from the family goat was still warm, rich and creamy. The cheerful proprietor apologized for Boomer’s indescribable ‘music,’ but it was halfhearted; she kept chuckling in the kitchen.

One other memory will forever be associated with Ireland. In Dublin we wandered past an ancient little shop housing a booking agency advertising flights to America. On one wall was a large poster that reduced us to tears of laughter. Below the picture of two, ah, amorous, gleeful, high-flying mallard ducks were the words “Fly United.” It took the best part of ten minutes before we recovered any dignity whatsoever. We’ve never seen that outrageous poster anywhere else. Even decades later, I still laugh. It’s helped memorialize an absurd, delicious, stupid, wonderful time when we lived on a shoestring and fulfilled a dream – to go back to Joe’s roots (his ancestors hail from County Cork) and be part of rural Ireland for a small while.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day, everyone, just a bit early! And by the way, if you’re afraid of snakes, Ireland’s your place…

Father Patrick banished every single one.

3/4/12: Book Fare 

This time of year tries my patience. Interesting books make slushy, mushy, slip-slidey days pass painlessly.

I love well-written thrillers. Joseph Garber’s 1995 bestseller, Vertical Run, absolutely blew me away. It’s about a regular guy who must cope with the unthinkable.
A businessman goes to work one morning, brews coffee, then greets his boss in the adjacent office. From that instant, nothing would ever be the same.

William Kent Krueger has written a splendid series of mysteries, beginning with Iron Lake, featuring likable Cork O’Connor and his family and friends. Eleven books, which should be read in order, kept me riveted. Wikipedia comments:

Krueger's stories always include an element of life in and around Native American reservations. The main character, Cork O'Connor, is part Irish, part Ojibwe. When Krueger decided to set the series in northern Minnesota, he realized that a large percentage of the population of the county he had selected as a model for the fictional Tamarack County of his books was of mixed heritage. The idea of researching the Ojibwe culture and weaving the information into the stories held great appeal for him.

Henry, an elderly, wise Ojibwe, is psychic. His relationship with Cork and his family is fascinating.
These believable characters are easy to care about.

Some tomes have changed my life. Dana Carpenter wrote a best-selling book, 500 Low-Carb Recipes. Its offerings are simple and delicious. And her little pocket book, Dana Carpenter’s Carb Gram Counter, has a succinct, informative introduction. Here’s a snippet.

There is no such thing as good sugar. Obviously sugar, brown sugar and corn syrup are all bad for you. However, so are the ‘natural’ and ‘healthy’ alternatives like honey, concentrated fruit juice, Sucanat, dried sugar, cane sugar, malt syrup, rice syrup, turbinado, fructose, dextrose, maltose or anything else ending in ‘ose.’ All of it is sugar and all of it will cause an insulin release.

Eliminating most carb-listed foods made it possible for me to dump unwanted weight. Thirteen years ago I’d get ‘the trembles’ about three hours after eating a ‘healthy,’ carb-crammed breakfast of juice, whole grain cereal, fruit, milk and toast. (Insulin levels naturally rise with the carb load, and three hours later they’re still up, driving blood sugar down. You have to eat again, usually more carbs, so the whole cycle starts over. In its simplest form this is the natural physiology of carbohydrates.)

I evaluated my typical food intake per day and found I was sometimes eating over 500 carbs, far more than the human body can effectively manage. (Carbs are calorie-glue, stored away as fat.) I learned that keeping to 25-50 carbs a day ended hunger-shakes and the desperate need to eat. And, it was simply amazing how quickly the pounds disappeared. And stayed gone. I’ve felt wonderful ever since.
Bonus: my migraine headaches vanished.

Focusing on meat, fish and vegetables is a more natural way of eating, recently rediscovered as the ‘Paleolithic diet.’

A fascinating, slim tome titled The Sociopath Next Door, by Martha Stout, Ph.D. (pub. 2005) has helped me understand these baffling people.
Sociopaths are born without consciences, and therefore don’t experience guilt. They “have no empathy or affectionate feelings for humans or animals.” Most sociopaths learn to abide by societal rules, but sometimes they’re ruthless, and emotionally and/or physically injure living things, often out of curiosity. (I speak from experience.) By some estimates, one in twenty-five humans is sociopathic. Dr. Stout explains how to identify and cope with these people, and reclaim one’s life. It was a revelation.

Finally, there’s Kitty Ferguson’s book, Stephen Hawking-An Unfettered Mind (pub. 2012). Stricken with ALS in college, Hawking has lived his entire adult life trapped in a destroyed body. All he can do, literally, is blink, and think.
But oh, what a mind! He has transformed theoretical physics with his astounding, intuitive leaps.
Ferguson has movingly written of this man’s life and work.

If you have some time, click on
this link to experience the enormity of what Hawking thinks about, and what we humans are part of.
It’s a breathtaking experience.

2/26/12: Gulp! 

When not making music I find myself still fascinated by The 1900 Sears Roebuck Catalogue (see last week’s column for Part 1), which stocked everything an American (mostly) rural family needed. Exploring its 1100-plus offerings became a national pastime.

While 98% of the merchandise was really useful, charlatans expertly manipulated gullible consumers into purchasing lotions, potions, gadgets n’ gunk supposedly imported from Europe, Asia and Egypt, which were guaranteed to fix what they were coaxed into believing was broken.

Take, for example, the new, improved Rational Body Brace, meant to be constantly worn ‘underneath.’ (See picture, below.) This contraption consisted of thick, adjustable leather straps that wound around the female torso to connect to brass abdominal plates. Described as

the greatest boon to weak, suffering womankind, [it] cured drooping shoulders, weakened internal organs, falling of the womb (?) and bladder afflictions.

But wait! How did the poor thing manage to use the toilet? She’d have to divest herself of outer clothing, petticoat and corset, then remove her strapped-on hinder-bustle and hip pads, which were strapped over the RBB. Then, undo that. Whew! Imagine accomplishing this in the typical outhouse, in the dark. Where would all that stuff be hung while she was, ah, spending a penny? Egad.

Then there was the Princess Bust Developer. This gadget was first cousin to the toilet plunger (see picture below). Its business end was made of nickel and aluminum, and it guaranteed -

the right exercise to the muscles of the bust, to restore normal circulation to flabby, undeveloped parts. Soon restored to a healthy condition, [busts] expand and fill out, becoming round and firm and beautiful.

The accompanying Bust Cream or Food, in a peanut butter-sized jar, further enlarged busts two to six inches. Prospective customers were assured that countless testimonials from grateful users always expressed ‘perfect satisfaction.’ Jeez. Plastic surgeons today would be finished if this wonderful food were re-discovered in some dusty Chicago warehouse…

Consider The 60-Cent Princess Hair Restorer. (Don’t scoff: 60 cents was a lot of money, then.) This marvelous tonic grew hair on bald heads, stopped dandruff and itching, and prevented hair from falling out, or turning gray. Applied properly it produced mountains of lush, gorgeous tresses. (See picture below.)

But the most unnerving offerings were in the Drug Department.

It probably never occurred to ladies (and gents) that they suffered from sub-par complexions until a remedy for their ‘problem’ was discovered. When one consumes Dr. Rose’s French Arsenic Complexion Wafers,

even the coarsest and most repulsive skin and complexion, marred by freckles, moth,(?) blackheads, pimples, vulgar redness and other disfigurements slowly changes into an unriveled purity of texture, free from any spot or blemish whatever. Pinched features become agreeable; facial disfigurements are permanently removed. We recommend ordering one dozen large boxes. Perfectly harmless when used in accordance with our directions, it possesses the “Wizard’s Touch’ in producing, preserving and enhancing beauty in form and person in male and female by developing a transparency and pellucid clearness of complexion, brilliant eyes, soft and smooth skin, where by nature the reverse exits.

All this from pills containing Arsenic! Now, marvel at their Electric Liniment.

By a newly discovered process this liniment is electrically charged by a powerful current of electricity, whereby the ingredients undergo a powerful change, which when applied to the most severe cases of Rheumatism, Frosted Feet, Chilblains, Sprains, Bruises and Growing Pains, effects immediate relief. It never fails in its magical effects. (Emphasis theirs.)

Every product came wrapped in plain brown paper, with a 100% money-back guarantee.

Finally, there was the Egyptian Pile Cure…and pure Spirits of Turpentine - for internal consumption, reason unspecified…gulp. I felt pain after reading all this. The average life span then was 48 years. Consuming/applying this rubbish probably insured a quicker end.

Six years later, in 1906, The American Pure Food and Drug Act was passed by Congress. This single piece of legislation saved many people from skinny wallet syndrome, possible injury - and death.

I guarantee that statement, 100%.

2/19/12: Zap! 

Yesterday, rummaging around in our attic, I found a thick, dusty reproduction Sears, Roebuck 1900 Consumers Guide. A few pages really gobsmacked me.

First, a quick sliver of background info.
Richard Sears, born in 1863 in Minnesota, worked in his teens as stationmaster for the railroad. One day, while he was selling tickets, a local jeweler padded out to the station, inspected, then refused a shipment of watches; the shipper offered them on consignment to Sears. Hmmm. Why not? He sold them easily. And ordered more. They went, too, snicker-snack. Aha! Electrified by the possibilities, he quit his job and set up a full time mail-order watch business. It was a success. But, watches broke. He needed a repairman. A guy named Alvah Curtis Roebuck answered his ad. Their business grew. Thousands of other items were added. And so was born a giant, still thriving industry.

1900 was an interesting time. Most folks lived in a rural environment, with no easy way to get supplies. Sears, with his fifty-cent yearly catalogue in 1900, had, in just three years, expanded into a business where nearly anything could be ordered at reasonable prices. For example, the gorgeous Acme Regal Steel Range, for coal or wood, sold for $21.30. It would go for thousands, today. The catalogue’s 1100-plus pages were crammed with detailed photographs and clever sales pitches.

Testimonials reassured customers of the merits of the more, ah, esoteric items.

One offering galvanized me.

I stumbled upon The Heidelberg Giant Electric Belt, equipped with an 80-gauge alternating current. If a man wore it for a few hours each day, in just one week this marvelous belt, which

…is really magical in its power, will cure any case, no matter how obstinate… It’s perfect in its relief of the peculiar diseases of men, driving out impotence, circulating blood into the seminal glands, enlivening them into a healthy glow. In most cases of sexual weakness the full power of this belt is required, but a cure is certain. It cures indiscretions. It restores joy. Throw physic to the dogs. Strengthen and cure yourself at once.

The attachable front electrode cured diseases of the stomach, liver and kidneys, and restored ‘ruined, deranged nervous systems.’ If doctors failed a man, this belt was The Answer. A man could discreetly wear it under his clothes, and be constantly zapped at the intensity level of his choice.

Women would also benefit. The dangly, designed-for-men electrode attachment in front, called ‘the electric sack suspensory,’ could be disconnected and replaced with the stomach electrode thingy. She’d be -

…cured of brain collapse, or forms of elementary insanity, nervous and sexual exhaustion not too severe or of long standing. It should cure headache, indigestion, pains in the back, and any stomach ailment, immediately. Even cancer of the stomach has been known to be arrested, to yield to and be cured by the wearing of a genuine Heidelberg Electric Belt.

It would be mailed in a plain brown parcel, with a ten-day money-back guarantee. Prices began at $4.00 for the twenty-gauge AC belt, and soared to a shocking $18.00 (a small fortune, then) for the 80-gauge model.

Ladies did flirt with ‘elementary insanity;’ they’d caught the fashion bug. The Sears catalogue showed the latest Paris look. Some shoes, for example, ended in super-long, lethal-looking points. Waists were cinched from an early age, to present the desirable ‘hour-glass’ shape. This must have been agony. Organs were gradually displaced, affecting childbirth, and breathing. Wire bustles dangling off their behinds, and bust-cages in front enhanced the look, and the discomfort. Check out the photo below. Wasp waists were aptly named: ‘ideal women’ mimicked insects. Never mind: electricity, the new marvel, could surely shock outraged bodies into accepting fashions’ necessary demands.

Truthfully, even 112 years later, that belt still radiates power: just reading about it gave me quite a jolt!

2/12/12: A Zillion Things to Love ❤ 

Valentine’s Day – with chubby cherubs awash in hearts, clutching bows n’ arrows, sporting disconcertingly toothy grins — is an ancient holiday.

I looked up the guy. Turns out the Roman Emperor, Claudius II, arrested Mr. Valentine for professing Christianity, but while personally interrogating him the Supreme Ruler was struck by his prisoner’s intelligence and wit. Here was a really interesting fellow, willing to argue with his Royal Self without being obsequious. This was huge. Claudius must have been starved for someone to just chew the fat with. (Folks close to the emperor would always agree with whatever Claudius thought or decided - about anything. Fear of his unlimited power made for boringly agreeable colleagues.)

Valentine refused to renounce his faith, but tried instead to convert Claudius to Christianity. The nerve! His chutzpah fascinated the emperor. After a vigorous discussion and debate lasting some hours neither man would be moved, so, annoyed and frustrated, and mainly for political reasons, Claudius reluctantly had him ‘arrowed.’ Before he was executed, though, Valentine fell in love with the jailer’s daughter, whom he’d supposedly healed during his imprisonment. He wrote her a love note, signing it “your Valentine .” Therein were sewn the seeds of a massive hearts n’ flowers industry that took root eighteen centuries later in Victorian England. Perennially popular, it’s blooming still, everywhere.

Mulling all this over, I thought I’d review what I love to love.

(Nearly a decade ago I was nearly killed by a three-quarter ton pickup truck. I’d been flattened in a blink, and then, incredibly, I was back. Many months later, when I’d mostly reassembled myself, I fell in love all over again with life and all its delights, and yeah, even its disasters.)

Each day is Valentine’s Day, for me. I love big trees, small gardens, silky fringe, and Pittsburgh-style steaks. Weeds delight me, and chipmunks, and hot water bottles, and bag balm and bananas and bees and Joe and my children, and my home, and my sister, and Mom’s nicely seasoned black iron skillet, and fresh, aromatic coffee strong enough to trot a mouse on, and spider webs’ intricate designs. I love books, doors, a pillar’s curves, a rich turn of musical phrase, griffin toenails, the soft riffle of fabric, and oh, so much more. Truth to tell, I loved it all before, but my own personal Big Bang has certainly rebooted my appreciation for embracing now. This minute.

It’s all we have, really.

Life is good. It is simply good so much of the time. When bad times intrude they have the peculiar knack of making good times even more appreciated.

Oh - and I love the letters I get from you, readers. Every one. I love that you buy my book and laugh reading it. I love to add pony poop to my flowerbeds, then watch plants take heart from its peculiar power to elevate them…(I know, I know; my truck-adjusted brain frequently bounces around like this. Resistance is futile...)

Hmmm. I guess I’ll offer this valentine column to Life, with all its valuable, awful, lovely, eerie, nonsensical, titillating, interesting, naughty, exciting turns. Happy Valentine’s Day to you, and thanks for the trip, so far. It’s rarely been boring.

Bewhiskered Emma-dog’s beautiful brown eyes, fringed with golden lashes, inspired My Funny Valentine. She knows all about love. Those lyrics just popped into my head as I was sifting through my piles of loved sheet music, so I sang it.** (Earphones are Dee-rigueur.)

And, Happy Valentine’s Day to you, faithful readers. Indulge in a chocolate-covered cherry and give a lusty cheer –
because you’re here!

** To hear the song, click the forward button once to get to the 2nd song in the site's main player, located at bottom left.

2/5/12: Oh, Deer! 

Deer - a ‘red flag’ word for country people. They plant up lovely gardens, but wake up to find they’ve vanished down the throats of that four-letter plague. Anguished gardeners wring their hands, grind their teeth, or grope for guns, outraged by these midnight marauders’ audacity.

They’ve dangled bags of soap, sprayed smelly, expensive potions, spread hair from the barbershop around their property’s perimeter, bought a pooch, rented a lion, set out battery-powered radios (whose blather deer eventually ignore). They’ve experimented with motion-triggered, raucously chuckling gnomes, or sprinklers. Once a desperate fellow even tried peeing his boundaries, which worked for a while, but the fascinated deer decided urine garnished their salad-y feast. They’d become part of the a-pee-l. (Only wolves consistently honor this sort of boundary, which must be constantly refreshed.)

Finally, many gardeners wilt, and toss in the trowel.

Don’t hold your breath here; if I had the perfect solution, I’d be rich. But I can offer some suggestions that beleaguered folk can ponder, now that spring is near.

Deer need fleet feet to flee. Surround your garden area with chicken wire securely achored with garden ‘pins’ so you can mow and walk over it. Deer, stepping onto it, usually stop in nervous shock, and back off. Loosen it in winter to make it billow. Begin laying it at least ten feet from the plants you wish to protect. Confused and unnerved by the alien feel, most bambis move on.

Fences work. But you have to do them exactly right. Electric ones deliver, but if they’re unmarked, scantily wired (one thin line), or too low, deer simply step/jump over them and munch away, unshocked. You must flag the electrified lines. If deer don’t see them they’ll brush by them before they grasp they’ve been shocked. Then, of course, it’s too late. They’re in.

Many people can’t reasonably encircle large areas; it’s impractical, and expensive. But just about anyone can create postholes and install a ready-made eight-foot wooden fence around a smaller perimeter they care about. Deer must see over barriers; they hate feeling trapped; they’ll never jump blindly. A predator could be waiting.

You could raise the fence a foot off the ground for added height - (deer don’t kneel to peek in) - and add long poles with waving, lightweight flags atop them, at intervals. With all that motion, and no way to see inside, deer will visit other, easier salad bars.

By the way, as long as you’ve gone to all this trouble, bury chicken wire under the fence to block digger-rabbits. It’s a lot of work, I know, but it has to be done just once.

I encouraged one man to install a used chain-length fence around his garden. He then poked ten-foot vinyl pole extenders into the existing hollow galvanized steel fence poles and attached chicken wire to these high poles. Finally, he sprayed it all green, then planted fast growing vines, which took over the fence in summer. In winter the vines’ dark-stemmed tracery collected snow, and actually looked pretty good. He had no further problems. Note: it took a week to build, after work.

Deer noses keep them alive. They’ll usually avoid plants that interfere with their ability to sniff approaching terminators. One homeowner, though, reported a bambi who didn’t seem to mind. The beast devoured the fellow’s scented geraniums.

Go to Google; type in ‘how to avoid deer.’ Sprays are offered, but these must be refreshed regularly. And, they ain’t cheap. Read the customer comments before you open your wallet.

You’d be surprised just much helpful information is out there. I found a paperback book, for example, called “Deer-Proofing Your Yard and Garden,” by Rhonda Massingham Hart, which offers suggestions, accompanied by wonderful drawings, for management of this perennial problem.

Don’t give up!

1/29/12: Flaky Pursuits and Born-Again Woofs 

It was lovely outside. Snow had refreshed the half-melted landscape, lending an air of crispness and monochromatic starkness to my garden. In the dark of this very early morning I pulled on my deep blue gloves and went out to pursue snowflakes. Standing in the stillness I held out a finger, as though to catch butterflies, and waited. Their intricate, unique architecture is an elusive prize. If one lands, I’ll have perhaps a second to admire its beauty. Even through the glove it senses warmth, and that is the death of it - or, say the sages - its transformation into something else.

Ah! A perfect flake settled onto my finger; I stared; a second later - gone. Snowflakes always remind me to cherish the moment, to really look at things I see all the time.

It was snowing when I woke a few days ago at about four a.m. A nosy soul, I thought it would be the perfect time to find out what my neighbors were up to. I bundled up and went across the street into Hannah Park. It’s right there in black and white - all the latest news about who’s doing what, where.

Turkey tracks! Heavens. I hadn’t realized turkeys lived around here! Oh - a raccoon had ambled by quite recently, leaving prints uncannily like ours. I learned to read animal news as a child, when my parents rented a cabin deep in the forest on Elk Lake. Until then I hadn’t truly grasped that another fascinating world wakes up and moves around while we’re snoring away.
A week ago I woke up gagging on skunk odor, and ran outside to see her tracks on the front lawn; they’re unmistakable.

Recently I split a coconut husk to add bits to my cereal while I watched a squirrel tear open a golf-ball-sized black walnut husk. Huh. What would that rodent do with a coconut hunk? I trotted outside and plunked a small piece of the white meat down where he’d been. Inside again, my spyglass gave me a fine close-up view. The coconut strip, about an inch long, was inspected carefully. He finally bit into one end, chewed, and - phloof - spit it out. But - wait a minute!

     …Actually, that wasn’t too bad…

Reconsidering, he scarfed down the rest, then paused to ponder the taste.

     Verrry interesting…

He sniffed hopefully around, in case he’d missed something, so I ran out again and dropped two more strips in the same place. The minute I left, he bounced over and devoured them with no hesitation. Yum!
Crack a coconut sometime, and leave a chunk out there; squirrels are fun to watch as they dig out the meat. Actually, we both tackle this task using many of the same movements.

Emma, my friend’s rescued-from-hell dog (read her story in Last July’s column), who hasn’t barked in the two years she’s lived with her forever family, has begun alerting Les when certain strangers jog past the farmhouse. Her woof is barely audible. Mostly, her cheeks puff. Les has bat-ears, though. He always goes to the window, checks, and says, “Thanks, Emma; everything’s fine.”
She’ll sigh, and relax.
Recently, though, she’s been thinking about using her voice to ask for something for herself. Nothing ventured…So, the next time she wanted out, she risked it.


When Les came, she looked first at the door, then up at him.

Outside, please?

Smiling, he opened the door. She scooped up her shredded tennis ball and pranced proudly into the snow, tail wagging, head high, eyes shining! They were talking! And she’d made it happen!

We live just once, but, if we work it right - if we learn to look for, appreciate and be part of life’s small delights and tiny triumphs, once is enough.

1/22/12: A Haunting, Haunted Man 

* * Note: To listen to the song mentioned in this column, simply press play below, at the bottom of the window. * *

In Baltimore, Maryland, we find a real-life mystery. Who has marked Edgar Allan Poe’s birthday every year for nearly 60 years by leaving flowers and a bottle of good cognac at his grave? This annual ritual has finally stopped, probably because the mysterious person has died, or is incapacitated. He/she took great care never to be identified, so the world will remain forever in the dark. It’s fitting, somehow…

Mr. Poe was an intriguing - some say mysterious - fellow, dogged by personal tragedies, which certainly flavored his tales of horror and death. I think that writing passionate poems and macabre stories helped him cope with the chaos that was his life. (For a little while he was in great demand as a lecturer and teacher, but fortune never smiled on Poe for long.)

Bad luck haunted him. Edgar’s mother died when he and his two siblings were very young, after which his father abandoned them. A wealthy couple, the Allans, adopted him. His kindly stepmother loved him, but his stepfather saw Edgar only as someone he could groom to run his thriving tobacco business. Poe would have none of it. His hero was Byron: he longed to pursue a literary life. He even wrote a book in high school, but his headmaster (what a toad!) advised Mr. Allan not to allow its publication, which infuriated young Edgar. Thus began a monumental battle of wills between stepfather and son.

Thanks to his wife’s entreaties, Allan finally agreed to send Edgar to the University of Virginia, where he excelled. The wretched man, though, slashed Edgar’s funding. He had to burn his furniture to keep warm. Debt piled up.

(Google Poe’s life, first listing, for three intriguing photos, and much more detail.) He went to West Point, but lasted only eight months; he married his very young cousin; she died of consumption. Mrs. Allan became ill, and begged her husband to contact Poe before she died, but his wicked stepfather refused, so she died calling for Edgar. When Poe found out what Allan had done, it nearly killed him.

Allan was an awful man.

I’m skipping over years of his life to pick up at the end of it. Poe, engaged again, traveled toward Philadelphia to see his fiancé, but left the train in Baltimore - (Why!) - and vanished. Friends found him five days later, incoherent, wearing someone else’s clothes. He was immediately hospitalized. In rare moments of consciousness he called out for someone named “Reynolds” over and over…

Edgar Allan Poe died, penniless, a few days later, on October 7, 1849. He was just 40 years old.

But oh, what he left behind is amazing!

Poe’s poems should be read aloud. I first heard Annabel Lee recited in college by a professor who possessed a rich, deep voice and a flawless delivery. When he finished, there was not one sound in that room. People had tears in their eyes, bowled over by the author’s ability to express such passionate, even pathological longing, for the beautiful Annabel Lee.

It’s powerful stuff.

Last evening, feeling a little sad that Poe’s mysterious visitor is no more, I decided to put Annabel Lee - the last thing he ever wrote - to music. (This is what I love to do during our long, cold winters.) Down in my little basement studio I read it aloud again and again, and suddenly, the melody formed. In another hour I’d chosen the accompaniment and, well, here it is.

Wait! To properly hear it, plug in earphones. The tinny speaker in your computer lacks depth. Their use will emphasize Poe’s brilliant, haunting narration of the agony of loss. (Most poetry conveys a sense of joy, hope and even humor. A few cleave comfortably to musical conversion: Annabel Lee, eerie, and mortally sad, is one of those.)

Requiescat In Pace, Mr. Poe.

All music © 2012 by Dee Blair.

1/15/12: A Woman Captured 

Yesterday I strolled downtown in this weirdly warm January to meet a visiting English friend for lunch. “So,” she said, as she looked me up and down - “What on earth do you do in winter, with no garden to tend? Veg out?”

My eyes gleamed!

“Actually, I’m a musical mole, burrowing into my basement’s tiny recording studio at around 4 a.m. almost every morning. With messy hair and rumpled clothes I mutter lines and hum - the perfect picture of a slightly odd archeologist, except – I unearth marvelous poems that seem to beg for music! I have a ton of moldy old books down there that sometimes reveal gems, if I’m patient. Hunting them is like mining for gold - often a really tedious effort. Lately I’ve been scanning my much-thumbed 600-page Oxford Book of Classic Poetry. Some stuff in there makes me snore, but one, written by an English cavalier who lived from 1618 to 1657, stood out. Richard Lovelace word-painted a marvelous picture of a young woman whose long, pale hair flew every which way in the wind as she tried to re-braid it. He was completely smitten - unraveled - by the sight. (I loved her name - Amarantha!)

Turns out he was wealthy, well loved (especially by the ladies), and a legendary raconteur. I found an oil painting of him by somebody famous - William Dobson, I think, which portrays him as a doe-eyed, dashing fellow, with his shining armor and shoulder-length hair.

Fatally wounded at Dunkirk, he died without a farthing to his name, having given his all for King and country, but he left us his wonderful verses. Other of his poems are much more famous, but this one won my heart! He titled it:

Song (Is this an invitation, or what?!) to Amarantha, that she would Dishevel her Hair (‘Dishevel’- An almost lost word…)

     Amarantha sweet and fair
Ah, braid no more that shining hair!
    As my curious hand or eye
Hovering round thee- let it fly!

     Let it fly as unconfin’d
As its calm ravisher, the wind,
     Who hath left his darling th’East,
To wanton o’er that spicy nest.

     Ev’ry tress must be confest
But neatly tangled at the best;
     Like a clue of golden thread,
Most excellently ravelled. (Ra-vel-led.)

     Do not then wind up that light
In ribands, (ribbons) and o’er-cloud in night;
    Like the sun in’s early ray,
But shake your head and scatter day!

(Three other lusciously sensual verses follow, but I used just these.)

“I remember yelling ‘Richard! You caught her!’ In a blink the melody materialized, and then I tried dozens of instruments before settling down with my choice. When his words and my notes felt comfortable with each other I laid the song.

“I think he happened upon that slim lady just as her three-plus-feet of hair was being blown around in the warm summer wind. She’d stopped what she was doing for a minute and her hair accidentally came unbound - (women never chopped their hair off back then, you know) - and Richard Lovelace, clanking around in his armor, spotted her exactly then, wrapped in sunlight and tresses, and snatched a pen - (what did they write with back then?) and ka-bam!! Art happened. I’ll bet it fell out of him. I’ll bet he couldn’t scribble it fast enough!

“After recording it I needed to run around the block twice to siphon off excess energy and excitement.”

I paused for a breath and grinned, thinking what a peculiar sight I’d been - a rumpled, happy old lady dashing around outside in the waning hours of a warm January night...

“Oh,” my friend said, overrun by that avalanche of words.