February 27, 2015

Happiness is....

Happiness is a shelf full of color coded books

The fact that I didn’t know I wanted to be a Librarian until my mid (ok, late) thirties is a little mystifying. Aside from my lifelong obsession with books and libraries and the fact that I’ve been extraordinarily close to not one, not two, but three librarians in my life (none of whom were related to me), both of which could simply be symptoms of being a bibliophile, there were other clues. 
There was the whole, wanting to check my books out to my friends thing in Elementary school so I would know where there were, at all times, because I loved them (the books that it, I mean, I loved my friends obviously, but I didn’t need to know their every movement) – that idea, by the way, didn’t go down very well with my buddies, although I think they humored me for a while.  Also, there was that time when I got my first label maker and wanted to label and alphabetize everything in my house (Ah, all nice and organized).  There was also the naming of one of my children after a librarian in a movie - no, not the librarian from Ghostbusters, I wouldn’t do something that silly. (It was the one from the Mummy.)

And finally, there is my habit of color coding my books. Oh, I can already hear what you are going to say. “You do what?”  And you’re laughing, aren’t you? I know, it’s slightly crazy, but, BUT, it makes sense if you, like me, have the critical combination of owning shelves and shelves and shelves (and shelves) of books and having an odd form of photographic memory that allows me to remember what almost any book I own looks like (too bad that’s the only bit of photographic memory I have). So if, for example, your husband asks where the copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales is, you can say, "black, with green writing. Small bookshelf upstairs." And you’d be bang on the money.
Yes I know that’s not how libraries are organized, but barring the institution of Dewey in my house – which would combine my love for organizing books and my love of labeling things, but would probably be over the top – it’s be best way to keep all my beloved books in order. Plus, and here’s the kicker, it makes me happy. Stupidly, ridiculously happy. Probably my favorite house we’ve owned was the one in Charlottesville, because it had one long wall of floor to ceiling bookshelves, all color coded. (Almost) All of my books, all in one place, all in order. Stupid happiness. And no matter where we have moved, my weird color coding of book has gone with us, along with the ridiculous sense of happiness it brings me every time I go hunt for a book, or even walk past my shelves.
Trust me, I’ve gotten a lot of crap for it over the years. Our house was once in a magazine and someone commented online on my “asinine” color coding and speculated that it was only done for the spread and that no one would actually organize their books that way. Before I could respond, I was surprised to find multiple commenters claiming they had the same method for shelving their books. So while I might be a little crazy, at least I’m crazy in a group. (a very organized group). Will poked fun of it for years until he fell prey to its usefulness and started remembering books by colors too. People chuckle when they come over for dinner and ask, eyebrow cocked, why I would bother. But, as with many things that are done simply for the pleasure of it, the answer is still just “Because I like it that way. Because it makes me happy.”  I mean hey, I don’t understand why people run, but I try not to judge.

Although really? Wouldn’t it be more fun to stay home and read?

Just kidding.

Do what you makes you happy. Even if it’s simple. Even if it’s crazy.

I’m a sap for hobbies

I once read that “collecting” is the most common hobby among Americans. I can buy that, because I collect. Hobbies that is.

I love hobbies. They give me a needed break from the everyday world, allow me to focus both my mind and pocketbook on the trivial and provide for me a unique sense of identity.

But as much as I love hobbies, I have a devil of a time keeping them. My passion for a hobby can be so blinding that it no longer becomes a break from the everyday world, it become my everyday world.

I have, in turns,

· Tended a massive garden

· Captained (and mostly repaired) a wooden boat

· Carved duck decoys

· Tied flies

· Hunted deer, ducks and rabbits

· Trained a dog who hunted as poorly as I did

· Scoured the countryside for letterboxes

· Made fine things (mostly sawdust) in a woodshop

· Photographed wildlife and wildly cute grandkids

· And a couple others I’ve already forgotten

Each of these was MY hobby. While a recreational pursuit is in my focus, I have little doubt that it is the money-sucking avocation to rival my money-generating vocation. I’m at heart a tightwad, but I’ve never had hesitation laying out the bucks for a rototiller, a table saw, a huge camera lens or a 24-foot wooden boat that was probably better suited for fish habitat.

And each was a bargain. I’m quite certain that every dime you spend on a hobby extends your life a day or two. If you work in a stressful job, as I always have, the chance to perform a mindless-but-enjoyable task to please no boss but yourself is respite with a capital “R.”

Which brings me to my latest passion – with a capital “M.” I make sweet and sticky maple syrup.

A few years ago, when Gillian lived in Vermont, she sent to me a small set of “spiles.” A spile is the spigot that you hammer into a maple tree with the expectation that the precursor to pancake heaven will trickle into your bucket. When I visited her that summer, I couldn’t help but buy a whole selection of big, little, plastic and metal spiles from the real Vermonter (plaid shirt, abbreviated vocabulary) at the country hardware store.

Making syrup is not unlike watching comets. Before the big moment, you crave (and buy) every bit of equipment made . You check your calendar again and again. You wait. And wait.

Then you spend the briefest of times scrambling like hell and loving every minute.

For most of the year, maple trees are pretty much like oaks and elms. They stand tall, provide good shade and cover your yard with leaves each fall.

But for a few weeks in February and March, they go a bit crazy. When the nights are below freezing but the days are warmer, they trees start shuttling sap from root to stem and back so frenetically that they overload. The sap tries its best to pop out from under the back, much to the joy of ants, bird and guys with earflaps on their hats.

We usually think of Vermont or Canada as the only sources of maple syrup, but at one time maples were tapped all over the East and the Midwest. There was good Yankee logic in it. Before the Civil War, white sugar was expensive stuff that came from Cuba and other exotic climes. The Native Americans, however, showed us how to get that sap out of maple trees and boil it down to syrup and eventually a honey-brown sugar. We were so thankful that we stole all their land and gave them smallpox.

The pioneers now buy C&H and most regular folk douse their pancakes with thick corn syrup infused with a hint of artificial maple flavor. But there are saps like me all over the “sugarbush” who brave the cold and spend enough money to by an International House of Pancakes lifetime pass to make a few ounces of pure joy.

I started with three trees and now tap seven – with my eye on another down the hill. I tramp down our hill with a five-gallon bucket, empty the various pails and jugs slung from my tries, then hump the sloshing load back up the hill.

When I get five to 10 gallons of sap, I get to use the toy that occupied me through the warmer months. I built and continually tinker with a wood-fired evaporator. It’s really a pile of concrete blocks topped with a turkey roaster, but it’s what makes mapling a perfect guy hobby. I get to sit around all Saturday poking sticks in the fire while watching 5 gallons of sap boil down to 8-12 ounces of syrup.

And I get to wear a red wool hat with earflaps! Maybe this is it – the hobby to end all hobbies.

Not a chance.


February 20, 2015

To The Beach We Go

Linger and Stay

--> There are places in this world that I react to almost violently. A visceral, oozing out of part of my soul which then latches onto that place, never to be retrieved by my body. It goes beyond liking a place, or even loving a place. It’s much deeper, and harsher that that. I’m not sure if I believe in past lives, but if I did, if I do, maybe that explains it. Places I loved so deeply once upon a time, that when I encounter them again, I feel a deep-rooted link almost the moment my feet touch the ground. The first time it happened, I was 11 and we had just walked, bleary eyed after a long flight and then a jostling, bumping train ride, out of Victoria Station and into London. Parts of Vermont were like that for me. Practically all of Ireland has me in its grip. And then there is the Oregon coast.

The beach, here, is unlike what almost anyone imagines when they think of the word “beach”. You don’t go to the Oregon coast to sunbathe or swim, scantily clad, in bathtub temperature waters. It’s not a sit on a stripy chair and order cocktails kind of place. No. The Oregon coast is harsh and wild and breathtaking. And cold. Always. Even when it’s warm, the wind can whip up and bore a chill right down into your bones. But it’s also like a really good book. Comforting and familiar, restful at times and then again, also with a hint of danger. And so beautiful it hurts. It’s for sweaters and hats and letting the soles of your feet sink into the cold wet sand for just a moment before the surf chases you further inland. It’s for climbing great hulking rocks and walking for hours and peering into tidepools to watch green anemones sway gently with the waves, even though they are trapped in small pools, well away from the surf until the tide comes back in.
This summer, we rediscovered the beach of my childhood. Quite literally, the beach where I lived as a toddler. A quiet beach in an out of the way village, it’s more discovered now than it once was, but even on a busy day, almost no one climbs through the tunnel in the cliff and out onto the long, secluded stretch of sand on the other side. It is my favorite place. No beach-front houses. No shops selling taffy and kites. Just the sand and the sea and the pock-marked and fossil studded rocks that spread out toward the cliffs. The waves crash so loudly that voices are lost in the sound. It’s perfect and terrible and wonderful. So beautiful, it’s painful.
It fills me up, going to the beach. It recharges me. And yet, I love it there so much that often, I don’t even want to go, because I know I’ll have to leave.  It’s the same with all of the places that have become a part of me, or which I have become a part of. Someday I want to go and just stay. Stay within sight of looming cliffs and squat lighthouses and secluded beaches littered with sun bleached driftwood. Like Miss Rumphius, when I am old, I will go and live by the sea. And never leave again.
For now, we linger too long, at the beach. Even knowing how slow and twisty and black the drive home can be in the dark. We linger until the last bits of sun have gone. When the cold wraps around you and everyone pulls the hoods of their sweatshirts up over their ears. We linger until there is nothing to do but pull ourselves away from the little bits of our souls that will remain there and head home.

A beach, a song and such a 60’s day

Salt air, bright sun, bronzed bodies – how can anyone not like a trip to the beach?

I’ve had the good fortune to bake my bones on beaches from Southern California to the Mediterranean to the Caribbean. I’ve even shivered on the gravel that passes for a beach on the Oregon coast.

But one beach, too far from home, continues to haunt me.

In 1966, my father was offered the chance to attend an Army engineer school for National Guard sergeants. It would mean, however, spending three months in Arlington, VA, -- the opposite side of the country from our Redding, CA, home. So he and mom packed the family into our old Ford Galaxy, hooked up a 16-foot funky old trailer and headed east.

While I theoretically liked the idea of adventure and it was just an exchange of a “C” for a “V”, I was still a typical freshman boy. Freshman boys don’t do anything without complaining. I think it is the acne.

With much show of disdain I left my friends and I left my familiar haunts. Virginia, as it turned out, wasn’t all that bad. I even made a few new friends in the trailer park who insisted – in that slow accent – that a “Coke” was a “pop.” Funny, but no southern comfort to me.

The redeeming quality to the trip was the proximity to Washington, D.C. and the surrounding landmarks that dappled my textbooks. Dad was a mailman, a soldier, an engineer – and a history buff. We spent every day he was off duty and my brother and I were out of school looking for our American roots. If it was too hot or too rainy, we went to the Smithsonian. I spent a lot of time at the Smithsonian.

It was an education that I now cherish, but eventually a boy has to put his foot down. The sun was out, it was Saturday and there was supposed to be a beach within driving distance. Dad gave in.

I was as excited as a 15-year-old boy could get. It would be wall-to-wall beautiful girls in bikinis who would almost faint with admiration when they watched me body surf onto the glistening white sand.

History I paid attention to. Geography, not so much. “Beach” has an entirely different meaning when it applies to Chesapeake Bay.

No waves, except when my little brother splashed. No surf. More cigarette butts than sand (this was pre-Earth Day). And 10-times the well-covered moms than the bikinied girls. Who were all protected by tough-looking guys making those cigarette butts. And whose 1966 bikinis would qualify as yoga suits today.

Still, it was better than sitting in that little trailer in Arlington. Until the Mamas and the Papas wafted from someone’s towel-side radio.

“All the leaves are brown, and the sky is gray...”

No. Don’t do this to me. Not that song.

“I’d be safe and warm, if I was in L.A….”

OK, so Redding is farther from L.A. than Washington is from Quebec. It’s the safe and emotionally warm part that counts.

“California dreaming, on such a winter’s day…”

It wasn’t winter, but I bundled up in a towel (until I started to bake) and hid my eyes from my all-knowing mom. California dreaming… My buddy Rex and I out on our bikes. People who said a Coke is a Coke. Girls I knew who I could at least imagine in bikinis.

I went home with a mild sunburn and a song forever lodged in my head. I truly love the beach, but it only takes a little sand to click “replay” in my head. Every beach is a memory.

But not to worry, they are good memories. Now when I hear that haunting harmony, I remember the hug from Mom. And I remember thinking that Redding wasn’t so bad, after all. And I remember regaling my friends with tales of the almost-South.

And I remember a question that made me a better writer:

How can so few words mean so much?

California dreaming.


February 13, 2015

Love Language

The language of love is a funny thing. It starts out, often enough, all sonnets and poetry, or at least sweet, wooing words. It softens over time to a comforting sense of the known. It ebbs and flows and, if you are lucky, settles into a shared secret code. A dialect of memories and sayings and moments in time that separate you from the outside world.

Will and I, after almost fifteen years of marriage and a handful more from our before-we-were-married days, talk to one another in a jumble of movie quotes, often altered to fit the current situation or misremembered, although we tend to misremember them the same, so they seem like the real thing to us. It doesn’t sound romantic, I suppose, but it is, in fact, the language of love between us. The compilation of eighteen odd years of growing up together, growing toward one another, and as time has passed, the beginnings of growing old together.

They aren’t great words of love. We’re not spouting off Casablanca or Gone with the Wind. In fact, more often that not, they come from crappy, cheesy movies that we have watched time and again, so awful that they are wonderful. And it has become so prevalent that we catch our children quoting lines from movies they have never even heard of, much less seen. But even to them, at eight and twelve, they have become a secret code between us. A language of family. A language of love.

I only hope we don’t become so unintelligible to the outside world by the time another 18 years has passed that we have only each other to speak to. But then again, that wouldn’t be so bad. We’re MFEO, after all.


Hearts of my heart

I am not an artist.

I remind myself of this about this time of year when my heart overrides my talent. I love my wife, Cecile, dearly. But on Valentine’s Day I try to say that in something besides words.

Despite the lexicon of romance authors, you can’t “make love.” You live love, you give love and you bask in love. And you make the objects and activities that demonstrate that you do.

I am not an artist. But I am a maker.

When Cecile and I were young marrieds on a tight budget, I felt bad that I couldn’t give her the diamonds and exotic trips I saw in the TV ads. But one January day I noticed a large tree limb that had fallen near our duplex.

On a whim, I took a handsaw to the limb and cut off a hunk. I looked at it for several days trying to decide if I could make it into something close to a Valentine.

Remember, I am not an artist. In elementary school, my specialty was gooey clay. After pounding, twisting and poking it as long as the teacher would let me, it still looked like a lumpy blob. But when I took it home to Mom, she would give me a big hug for making her another ashtray. Ashtrays were the dominant décor of living rooms back in the unhealthy days. And any lump with a dimple qualified.

The piece of tree limb had no more chance of becoming art than did my lump of clay. But I was as determined as ever to try, first with a whittling knife (my God, oak is hard!) and eventually with a saw and a drill-mounted sander. The result was almost the shape of a heart, so I used my knife to write “To my Love” on it. Maybe “scrawl” is more accurate. My knife-writing is worse than my third-grade pencilmanship.

But Cecile loved it as much as I loved giving it to her. She kept it on her desk for years.

Periodically through the years, that same urge to give Cecile something from my hands welled up. I never had a plan when it happened, but I was inspired by stumbling upon a tool or something to shape. The basic design decision was already made for me – a heart. I am, after all, not an artist.

My craziest idea came from a softball-sized chunk of pink granite that I found in Oklahoma. How hard could it be to sculpt it? All those Greeks did it without power tools.

I now have a deep and abiding respect for sculptors. After dulling every chisel I could find, I attacked it with a carbide blade on my Skill saw. The stone heart started to take shape about the same time the electrical heart of my saw chewed itself to pieces on granite dust.

But with a variety of grinders, it also became recognizable. And again Cecile gave it a place of honor.

Through the years, I’ve made several wooden hearts, mounted a heart-shape stone and polished more pieces of tree limb into gifts.

I’m not an artist, but making a heart lifts my own heart. As I writer, I live with the tyranny of words. All day and much of the night, my ears, mind and fingertips are flooded with words.

But in the shop, it’s just me and a heart that is trying to get out of a piece of wood or other material. I don’t play the radio. I usually wear earplugs. And I don’t talk, even to myself.

Working on some new way to make that heart lets me think about the woman who owns my own heart. I grind, carve and mold in silent contemplation of the blessing I have.

This year I suddenly had the urge to try metal work. I put a small chocolate candy into a tin can half full of wet plaster of Paris. After I finally dug the chocolate out, I melted lead fishing weights in another can and poured the silvery liquid into the mold. Ta-da, a heart! Not much more elegant than that original tree limb, but a heart for Cecile never the less.

I only burned my hand three or four times. Then splashed myself with stain as I prepared a wooden mount for my fishing-weight-cum-Valentine. And when it was done, I noticed the mount was as pocked and unsophisticated as the lead heart.

Oh well. I am not an artist.

But I make. And I love. Happy Valentine's Day.

February 6, 2015

Huey Lewis and Whistle Pops

It’s raining buckets here in Portland. We lucked out with several unseasonably warm and dry weeks in January and now, as the weather gods are wont to do, we are being made to pay for it with that particular kinds of bone chilling rain that seems to define winter in the Northwest. And so, of course, I’ve been dreaming of summer.

It’s the rain’s fault, really. Although not in the way you might think. You see, normally, I ride my bike as much as possible. To work, to school, to the store. But after getting a thorough soaking yesterday on my way from work to the bus stop to pick up one of the kids, I decided all further transportation this rainy week would take place in the car. And in the middle of driving through this morning's onslaught, Huey Lewis and the News came tumbling out of the radio speakers and despite having to squint out the window to see, even with the wipers going full blast, it was summer.

A summer evening, to be exact.

I don’t have a lot of memories that are linked so firmly to music. Probably because I am the world's worst music identifier. The standing joke in our house is that any time I’m asked “Who sings this?” I answer “Hall and Oats.” Because, hey, it might be Hall and Oats. And if it’s not (well, even if it is) I don’t know.  But Huey, Huey Lewis I know.

I would have been about eight or nine, right about the age Evelyn is now. Old enough to come out on the boat with dad while mom stayed home with a toddling Garrett. Old enough to sit on the deck of our cabin cruiser, my skin prickling with that too much sunshine feeling that my children will probably never feel since now-a-days, parents have to be sunscreen Nazis (with good reason), and watch the wake from our boat turn from foamy waves into soft ripples as they splay out behind us on our way across the lake.

There are all sorts of associated memories that pop up in my mind when I remember those evenings. The sugar sweet strawberries and cream taste of a Whistle Pop suckers from the marina gas station. The thrill of fishing the cherry out of the Shirley Temple I would get if we made it across the lake to that bar, the one with what seemed like a zillion steps leading from the dock to the dining room. The smell of the water after a hot day, not fishy or stinky, but planty, and green. A great blue heron standing in the tall grasses along the shore, watching us, watching him. The scratchy feeling of an old beach towel, the game of watching for the "Sea Pig" to cross our path. All tied up with Huey Lewis crooning in the background.

I can’t remember what the boat looked like. I don’t recall what was inside the cabin or what color the hull was. But I remember how much I loved being there. Adding layers over my swimsuit as the sun set and the wind picked up on the water. Seeing the lights of town twinkling in the distance on our way home, starting out like a shimmery mirage and then growing larger and brighter and more familiar the closer we got. I remember Huey Lewis singing “Happy to be stuck with you” on the beat-up black radio and thinking, “Yep, me too.”


I can’t get no satisfaction. But I can hum it.

When you hit about 60, you get a free pass to be annoying. Annoying kids are just pests, but annoying old men are just, well, old men.

By now I’ve perfected all 50 Shades of Gray Irritations, but there is one I have employed for as long as I remember.

I hum.
I’ve suffered countless elbow jabs and shooshing fingers over the years, but it has only become worse. Now I also sing.

Neither would be bad if I did them well or even knew the words to the songs I share. But quality is not the object of my vocalization. I’m just sharing what my mental radio is playing.

Portrait of a hum
A few years ago, one of my students launched a blog called “The Song in My Head.” Several times a week, she would become conscious of a song playing in her head and then research the lyrics, popularity and background. It was one of the most interesting student blogs I’ve read.

I never had the time nor inclination to delve into the details of the songs in my head. For one, they change too quickly. For another, I can’t remember them five minutes after I stop humming.

The thought of singing in a choir or, God forbid, performing on a stage terrifies me. But give me a shower stall, an empty hallway or a workshop that requires ear-protectors and I am the star of Clyde’s Pretty Good Record Co.

And any other time, I’m probably humming.

Most of the songs are from the musically amazing period of my youth – the 1960s. I think that all of the nuclear tests back then created not monsters, but the best songwriters in history.  The Eagles, Simon and Garfunkel, the Beatles, all of MoTown. Every few years something that I hummed in high school comes back as a hit song. It is Baby Boomers' reparation for having to put up with Richard Nixon.

Some songs come up in my repertoire frequently. “Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone,” sounds great while walking through the University basement after hours. “My Girl” pops up when I think of my wife (it’s also her ringtone). “Mrs. Brown You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter” can stick with me for weeks. And sounds unintelligible when hummed.

But I drift to classical, try a little country and sink into the blues. “The Voice” TV show may be my ultimate undoing. After every episode, I find myself mumbling through a catchy new tune.

The hell of it is, I know this will get worse. My ears are already cratering from all the loud music I listened to as a teen (Baby Boomer’s penance for electing George Bush). That means I’m well on my way to one of those really annoying old men: Deaf as a post but sitting in the corner humming at increasingly high volume.

Ah, but at least I’ve got great songs to hum.  
-- Clyde