Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Rising Of The Light

Author's note: I actually did write this on the Solstice, but Blogger had a fight with my browser and they weren't speaking to each other. Fortunately they've made up now. Happy Solstice, everyone, and happy birthday, Dad. Stay warm out there as the year turns back toward the light.

Solstice again.

It's been a weird winter. October was warm - almost fall-like, with mild temperatures and minimal snow. November was ghastly cold - more like January than November. We had snow - plenty of it - but it remained so cold that it never packed down. It was loose and dry, squeaking under my boots, fluffing at a kick.

December has been like March. It's been up and down temperatures - snowing one day, raining the next - and three Sundays in a row it has spiked up warm and poured down rain and snow both - sometimes both together, snowflakes and raindrops rattling together against my windshield and my windows. We've had thaws galore; the upside - if it thaws enough - is that if there's only a little ice on your driveway, it will soon be either so rutted that your traction is excellent, or it will be gone entirely. The down side is that if you have thick ice, or a few inches of snow, the rain and warmth will melt it into something so slick you're risking life and limb to walk or drive on it.

Oh, well. It  is Alaska, after all. But this is very weird weather for December.
Last night - -well, or this morning, really - I was called in around 1 a.m. I told the client I could be  at the clinic in about twenty to thirty minutes. As it turned out, this was wildly optimistic.

It was snowing when I went outside: Wet, dense, heavy flakes. I had about 3 or 4 fresh inches down. No big, I thought as my Border collie went gamboling out into the yard. It's coming down pretty hard, but fresh, damp snow should provide me reasonable traction going down my hill, and it's the wee hours so there won't be much traffic once I hit the road.

I was right about both of those - but it wasn't much help. I hardly made it onto the main drag when I cruised in to an area where the snow was falling much more heavily than at my house.

Driving into heavy snowfall like that makes me feel like I'm in the Millenium Falcon and I'm making the jump to hyperspeed. The snow comes at you in long streaks, like you're driving into a meteor shower. I was on the tailing edge of a migraine, with the attendant visual weirdness, and I found this distracting and vertiginous. In a further 50 yards this was not my biggest problem. By then the more pressing concern was that I was driving into a whiteout. The road was completely hidden in churned snow and the only indicator of whether or not I was in my designated lane was the rumble of the buzz strips bracketing the lane. The problem being, of course, that it was difficult - if not impossible - to tell which buzz strip I was driving on.

I slowed down, of course; pretty soon I was going around 20 mph, peering into the dense white of the falling snow, guessing at the lane, grateful there is no one else on the road. Behind me a pair of headlights has appeared, drawing closer; at this point I was considering getting out of my truck and walking out in front of it in the hope that I might see where the lane was. But the headlights have come near, and it's a semi. I decide instead to keep going, slowly, slowly. I have a client coming in who needs me; if she is braving the roads, I have to do the same.

At long last, after miles of whiteout, the snowfall diminishes to something a little more driveable. I speed up to 35 and make it in to the clinic in one piece. The client is waiting for me. I test, diagnose and treat her little colitis dog, who is wiggling happily (despite her extremely bloody diarrhea) and who spends 30% of her time trying to kiss me. (The dog, I miean, not the owner).The rest of her time is divided evenly between cuddling with her owner and trying to escape the exam room so she can explore the hospital. I release them with medication and warnings to drive carefully.

Hm. Speaking of that... Now it's 2:30 and the snow is now coming down hard in town, as hard as it was on the road headed in. Maybe I'll just crash here for a bit and drive home when I've had some sleep.

As it turns out, sleep isn't on the agenda either. I get a call at 3:30, a dog with a proptosed eye. it's a Boston - a short-faced breed with shallow eye sockets. It's not hard to knock the eye out of such a shallow open socket, but it still needs attention  - and anesthesia, and a procedure - to put it back. The dog already has previously-existing damage to the NON-proptosed eye. I advise the owner that we're now risking the vision on the good eye. They take some time to think it over, but don't call back to bring the dog in.

Around 4 a.m. I fall asleep and doze fitfully til 5:30, at which time I hear my staff coming in. I get up, shower and go upstairs to the main floor of the clinic. Ah, here we go: a Boston with a proptosed eye has come in. I have a look. It's very red and swollen, and the cornea is dull and gummy. The other eye has a cataract. I decide that maybe waiting to reduce the proptosis is a bad idea. My tech (the Divine Miss Em) is willing, so we sedate the Boston and put her on anesthesia.

Reducing the proptosis is as slick and satisfying as it always is. I place some stents and suture the lids together to protect the swollen globe. I try to talk owner into vaccinating the dog - five months old and never immunized, on the grounds that it was too small. The owner - who was apparently a tech a few years ago in another state - was told that a dog could not be vaccinated if it was below six pounds.

Hm. Six pounds, you say? Why six? Why not five or ten - surely rounder numbers? If we're just being arbitrary, why don't we pick one of those? Unless we're picking 6 in an attempt to appear NOT to be arbitrary. I rack my brain for the possible sounrce of this bizarre advice.

Ah, yes. I have it: This is advice from the Secret Breeder Handbook - a book of fallacious "knowledge" that seems to circulate amongst a certain segment of the dog-breeding &/or dog-owning population. The information in the Secret Breeder Handbook is incorrect, but it bears such a weight of authority in the minds of those who swear by it that all my education and experience are for naught: I and my best advice - no matter how assiduously supported by objective testing, logic and evidence -will be ignored in favor of the dogma [so to speak] contained in the hallowed pages of the Secret Breeder Handbook.

Sigh. I'm really too tired for this this morning. I need more coffee if I'm going to take this on.

I spend a few minutes explaining the biology of vaccines and the AAHA and AVMA recommendations (and the reasoning thereof) for puppy vaccines. I do not mention that unless the owner was a tech in another Universe, not just another state, the mysterious 6-pound cutoff is something entierly made-up and unsupported by any biological reality. Luckily the owner is willing to be educated and we do in fact vaccinate her puppy - which I hope sincerely we've done soon enough that I don't see her back next week with her cataract, her sutured-shut eyelid AND a raging case of parvo.

So now I am updating the blog while I wait for rush hour (and possibly the worst of the snowstorm) to be over. I can handle tired and I can handle rush hour and I can handle snow; I'd just rather not handle them all at the same time. I intend to go home, snuggle in with some dogs, and sleep. Maybe for a long time. A week, even. By then the light will be rising a little - not much, but maybe enough that I'll feel restless and wakey - instead of that drowsy, deep-winter hibernatory feeling I have right now.

So how did you spend your Solstice?

Monday, November 7, 2011

Coho Mojo

Author's note: This is why I've been busy... kinda. There's also getting ready for winter and all that. I think I'm done smoking fish for the season, and if I'm not ready for winter yet it's sort of too late since I have about 8 or 10 inches of snow down. I wrote this one several weeks ago but my computer had a fight with Blogger and now they aren't speaking to each other, so it's been slowing down the posting. Sorry about that.

Here’s the thing about fishing: I grew up with the idea that it was something that was mostly done by kids and adult men. As a kid, I never heard about women who would take off early on a Sunday morning to go fishing – and certainly not by themselves or in groups of other women, the way men and children often do. I’m not entirely sure why I had this mental picture of it; after all, one of our family legends - one of those oft-told stories, too good to die – is about my mom fishing in the Sierras of California.

She and my stepdad had gone camping in Yosemite. My mother was, at the time, eight months pregnant with my youngest brother. I can remember her in her camping duds: maternity pants and hiking boots, and an adorable sort of maternity hoodie that she’d made herself. My mother is a capable seamstress, and often made clothing for us when we were little, and for herself as well. She chose a dark burgundy and navy plaid for the hoodie, and equipped it with large warm-up pockets in the front, like you have on your standard sweatshirt. I can just picture her hiking happily about with her little plaid maternity hoodie and hiking boots and her absolutely enormous belly. Bear in mind that she and my stepdad were camping in a two-man pup tent. It’s not all that easy to crawl in and out of those in general, much less with an eight-month pregnancy on board. But my mother loved being pregnant, and always felt very good physically when she was, so perhaps this wasn’t as much of a stretch as it sounds.

They had hiked up to a place called Ireland Lake so my stepdad could fish. He was very stern and serious about it. He scoped about the lake looking for a good spot, and brought out his fly-fishing rod and his Webb Coachman dry flies and his spare leader lines. My mom had no fishing rig, so he cut her an 18-inch branch from a tree and gave her some spare leader line, but couldn’t bear to part with one of his flies; he might, after all, want to change flies, depending on what the fish were striking.

My mom took her stick and her leader line and crawled up amongst some rocks with her 8-month belly. She had a safety pin in her hoodie pocket, which she bent into a hook of sorts by opening it very far and pressing it against the rocks until she had something she thought might work. She caught one of the abundant little green grasshoppers that inhabited the lakeside and impaled it on her safety pin and then dangled her line over the edge of the rocks, jigging it experimentally in the water. It wasn’t as scientific and professional as my stepdad’s approach, but what the heck: something to do, right? And she wasn’t in the way, casting shadows in the water that might scare the fish where my stepdad was sternly fishing away.

Before long, something came roaring up out of the depths and struck my mother’s line - and lo and behold, she landed a trout.

Having no creel or any other receptacle – all of which was with my stepdad, who as the real fisherman, was the one who would need it – she stuffed the fish in the pocket of her hoodie, clambered back over the rocks and along the shore to where my stepdad was casting with his upscale fly rod. Clutching the fish in place over her belly, she was practically dancing in glee, asking “Can I keep it? Can I keep it?” – because she wasn’t sure it met the size limit. I gather some confusion ensued; I guess I can understand that. There’s my stepdad, all focused on his fishing rituals, and his near-term pregnant wife comes up all hopping around and incoherent with excitement and clutching her belly – which was no doubt squirming in a somewhat disconcerting manner, since there was a live fish in her hoodie pocket.

That was the first fish of the day, and my mom caught another three with her stick and safety pin before my stepdad caught one with his fiberglass rod and his dry flies. Mom actually decided it might be best to stop fishing, if she wanted the marriage to last.

You’d think, given this history, that I’d regard fishing as something women were really good at, maybe better than men – but mom never took us fishing when we were kids, and other kids always went out with their friends and siblings, or else their dads. No one else’s moms went fishing. That was a dad thing. It wasn’t really part of our lifestyle growing up.

Still, up here in Alaska – where the quality of our salmon and halibut are world-renowned – it’s a lot more of a thing. In fact, I’m pretty sure that if you haven’t gone fishing by the time you’ve lived here for 15 years they revoke your citizenship and chuck you out of the state. I managed to skim under that wire, having lived here for 16 years without once catching (or trying to catch) a single fish. When people find out about this they look at me with varying forms of consternation, confusion or astonishment, and say, “You’ve never gone fishing? Never?” in the tones one might use if someone confessed they’d never been outdoors. “What? You’ve never gone outside? Never?”

I decided, therefore, that this year I would go fishing – in part because I want to keep my Alaskan citizenship (really! They throw you out of the state if you don’t try it! I swear!) and partly because I kept hearing on the radio that officials were downgrading escapement estimates of certain salmon runs - to numbers that were record highs. So sorry, we’re downgrading our estimate of the fish coming up that river, and our new downgraded estimate is the highest run ever recorded. We apologize for falsely raising your expectations, but you’ll just have to make do with a record-breaking abundance of fish. We feel so bad.

As it happens, my friend J and her husband K (who, you may remember, I married almost two years ago), have a boat. K likes to go out into Prince William Sound, launching out of Whittier, to fish. Weather isn’t always good – the first weekend we tried to put together a trip there were 9-foot seas – but if it is, PWS is beautiful -and kinda fishtastic.

Sunday we had a good weather report and everyone had a day off, so down to Whittier we went. We had snacks, drinks, fishing licenses galore, sunscreen, safety gear, bait, cigars and a dog – all the stuff you need for a fishing trip. In addition I had my hoodie with a salmon on it and I was wearing the earrings my brother Tode made me that remind me of salmon: A dark orange-red teardrop of glass with iridescent green flakes that glimmer fish-scale-like when I move.

The drive to Whittier is gorgeous – well, it is Alaska, after all! – and not that long; a couple of hours. You get to drive by Potter’s Marsh, a famous and important migratory waterfowl sanctuary, and also the Portage Wildlife Reserve, where their woodland bison graze close enough to the road that you can see them as you drive by. Sometimes you see Dall sheep or mountain goats on the cliffs as you drive down. And for some reason there is one particular spot where everyone seems to stop to get water from a pipe sticking randomly out of the Cliffside. It’s good water, but seriously: You’re going to stop at a stretch of road bounded on one side by a sheer cliff and the other by a sharp drop-off into the icy waters of the bay, park your car on the verge on one side of the road or the other – on a bit of a curve, mind you – and fill up from a bit of black pipe sticking randomly out of the side of the mountain? Really? Oh, and you’re going to cross the road to do it because you’re parked on the far side? And you’re doing this at ten fifteen on an overcast night - which I will grant you is before sundown, but it is overcast, the speed limit is 55, and visibility isn’t really the greatest, nor the road the widest, at that point – and remember, it’s on a curve so you can’t see very far in either direction, since your eyeballs can’t see around the corner. Trust me on this. But you’re still going to stop and get water there? Really?

Oh, well. No one was killed, anyway, so I guess that’s okay.

To get to Whittier you have to cross under the mountain through a one-lane tunnel. Because it’s one lane, traffic has to go one direction for 15 minutes, then stop; there’s a fifteen minute pause to clear everything from the tunnel, and then traffic can go the other way. The tunnel also accommodates the train, so you want to be sure to obey the rules. We’d timed it to get to the tunnel on the first Whittier-bound opening, and by consequence arrived at the docks when there were only, like, 15 or 20 people in line waiting to put their boats in.

It was a truly gorgeous day, and K expertly backed the trailer down to the water and J expertly helped. I inexpertly held lines when told to do so, and helped walk the boat down the pier when told to do so and got on board when told to do so. K put on the tunes, lit up a cigar and motored us sedately out of the marina and into the Sound.

Once clear of the marina, we cruised out into the waters of the PWS. Many another boat was out and about. We kept an eye out for sea otters (mainly spotting the well-known PWS Mock Otter, composed of mats of seaweed and likely-looking bits of flotsam). K found a place he thought likely and we started trolling.

It was sunny and hot, and the motion of the boat was soothing. J and I relaxed on the rear deck, chit-chatting and keeping an eye on the fishing rods. These were set up with down-rigging, lures and bait. After a while the starboard rod-tip bowed violently toward the water and then sprang back up.

“Fish on!” J called, and K idled the boat. I pulled the rod out of its socket and began to reel. It felt like there was some resistance – but then it seemed too easy, all of a sudden. As the line came in, it was clear my fish was gone – along with the center portion of the bait, mowed away by a fish that had managed to slip the hook. We re-set the line and kept trolling.

Things were slow initially - slow enough that I started to wonder if I was a fishing jinx. But J and K didn't seem to worried, and I was distracted when, for the fun of it, we went into a little bay and did some sight-seeing. We crossed paths with a harbor seal there, and plenty of birds, but no larger wildlife. After a bit we cruised back out and set up in another spot.

Pretty soon J’s line bounced and jigged. “Fish on!” we both chorused, and this time the fish didn’t slip the hook. I tried to watch closely without getting in the way while J landed a nice fat Coho. Okay, now I see how it’s done: You reel the fish in close to the boat, ease it back into the net (which one of your helpful companions will be wielding), pull it on board, take the hook out and stun it with the hefty little fish bat. Then you pop a couple of gill veins to bleed the meat and stick it in the fish locker.

Okay. That’s not too scary.

The Coho you pull out of Prince William Sound tend to run between 8 and 12 pounds. Also known as Silvers, they’re pretty fish, and a ten-pound Coho looks pretty substantial when you pull it flipping and wriggling into the boat. It’s hard not to look at them without thinking of succulent, fragrant fish steaks on the grill… or coming out of the oven… or poaching in wine … Well. It’s nowhere near the limit, but at least we’ve gotten a nice start on future dinners.

J caught another fish almost immediately. I started thinking: Hmmm. I want to catch one now. In fact, I was starting to feel left out. I didn’t want to be the only one who didn’t catch a fish that day. So I invited my mother’s fish mojo to make an appearance.

We trolled quietly along. All of a sudden my line jigged hard. J and I chorused our “fish-on”, K cut the engine and I started reeling like mad. The fish was strong and fought a little, but at K’s instructions I dropped the tip of my rod and kept the line tight and reeled it onto the net. It came out of the water sleek and fat and gleaming silver, its sides blushed with a delicate faint rose, its eyes silvery green with the mysteries of unknown seas.

Well. My first fish, and it’s really kind of beautiful.

Still, this isn’t catch-and-release fishing (which, when you think about it, is kind of fish torture), so we dispatched my catch as quickly and mercifully as possible, and returned to our fishing. Having found a good spot, we trolled there for a while. I caught two more (limiting out my Coho allowance for the day) and J hit her limit shortly thereafter. J took the tiller, since she and I were limited out, and K did some fishing. We had a bit of a lull, during which we watched a sea otter for a while, and also a sea lion peevishly snapping at gulls and other water birds, perhaps trying to eat them, or perhaps just snapping in annoyance at them. We cruised slowly back and forth, admiring the otter and enjoying the warmth of the early evening. We hadn’t limited the boat yet;. I had three fish, J had three and K had two. Now we were cruising in pursuit of his limit when the unexpected happened.

The rod next to me jigged hard, bowing almost double and jumping in its socket hard enough that I thought it might leap out and go overboard. “Fish on!” I yelped, grabbing the rod reflexively to keep the rod from going over. I almost couldn’t lift it out of the holder. I started reeling furiously. The line jerked sideways, nearly taking the rod out of my hands.

“Fight it! Fight it!” K shouted, practically hopping up and down. I started laughing with exhilaration, shades of my mom and her trout; the fish was so strong I could barely reel against it. In fact, I didn’t think I was making much progress, and the line was singing against the reel. I looked at the reel and paused for a half second in confusion. Not only wasn’t the reel bringing in any line, in fact the line seemed to be going out despite my efforts to bring it in.

Um… eh?

At about that second K heard the rising hum of the line as it stripped off the reel and he whipped his head around.

“Give me that.” He said shortly, taking the rod from me. He braked the line hard with his thumb, snapping the rod upwards, trying to break the line. Then he reeled frantically, and tried a second time to break the line. The rods were rigged with 50# test. At first he thought we might have hooked a sea lion or a shark – but if he couldn’t break the line, whatever it was weighed less than 50 pounds, so we probably wanted it.

K put his back into it and began working furiously, braking the line with his thumb, hauling the tip of the rod up and reeling in the slack at a vicious pace, using his thumb to keep the fish from stripping the reel again. The drag was set for smaller fish, and was not enough to keep whatever was on the line from taking back what line had just been reeled in. It seemed like a long time, but it was probably only a few minutes before we started to see the flash of silver scales just under the surface of the water. J snatched the net and leaned over the side of the boat , managing to scoop the net around an absolutely enormous salmon, three times the size of anything else we’d caught that day.

“Holy crap! Holy crap!” I am saying, dancing from foot to foot. “That is freaking HUGE!”

“Haul it in!” K is shouting, as the fish makes a nearly-successful bid to leap out of the net. J foils it by tilting the net to close it up against the side of the boat, but the fish is too heavy for her to pull it on board while it bounces and lunges in the net. I grab the long shaft of the net handle behind her hands and heave. Between the two of us we land it.

“Shit, that’s a King!” K exclaims. We all look at each other. King salmon, also known as Chinook, are usually river-caught. Because of their size and their light-orange, buttery-rich flesh, they are a prized sport fish.

“Are we allowed to keep it?” I ask. K snatches up the fishing regs.

“Limit in PWS… two Kings per stamp per day,” he says. We all beam. We have a King stamp. We are golden. We stun our fish and pop its gill veins. We can’t stop staring at it. K has a scale. We weigh it. It’s 28 pounds.

“Well… that’s not the biggest King salmon I’ve ever seen,“ I allow, “but that was still really exciting!”

“It’s not the biggest one I’ve ever seen either,” K says, “but in all the years I’ve been fishing in the sound, I’ve never seen anyone catch a King out here. The ocean-caught ones are the best; they haven’t started to lose condition by making the spawning run. This is pretty special - so whatever you’re doing, keep it up.”

We take pictures with the fish. I have to admit it’s pretty amazing. When it lays next to the other fish – which seemed so large and substantial only minutes ago – they seem almost puny beside it.

Well. I’m calling today’s fishing efforts a win. Still, K is one shy of his limit, and we still have daylight. He decides we still have a little time to troll. He resets the bait. No sooner does he set the line than it pops fee of its downrigging. He goes to reset the downrigging – but to his surprise there is a fish on already. He lands it in short order, and now we’re done. The boat is limited out on Coho, so there’s no excuse to go on fishing.

We pack it in and cruise back toward the marina. As we cruise along, K, puffing thoughtfully on his cigar, says, “Well, ladies, I have to thank you. That’s the first time all season we’ve limited the boat “ He takes a detour into a small inlet with calmer water where he guts, heads and fillets our catch. We divide it up and head for home. I am slightly windburned, and a little tired, but wholly content. Everyone caught their limit, plus we got a bonus King. I am not a fishing jinx. In fact, I believe I’ve inherited the mojo.

Well. That’s rather satisfying. Thanks, mom. Between that and the late-graying gene, I feel pretty lucky, inheritance-wise.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Putting Food By

Just checking in to let you know I am NOT dead - although if you saw me first thing this morning, you might disagree (since my cat is sure I don't actually need to, you know, SLEEP at night, so long as I can restore myself by petting him constantly). It's just that I've been way busy processing the results of this summer's harvests (of various types). When I get caught up again, I'll have some stories to tell. I'm on the home stretch, more or less; so if you can find it in your hearts to be patient juuuust a wee bit longer, I will be back with a tale or two.


Thursday, August 11, 2011

My Own Private Oregon Part III: The Oregon Country Fair

My life is full of serendipitous coincidences. One of those is this.

When I was making my plans for dog care, it happened that I was at Wildwood one day. They volunteered – bless them! – to keep Raven for me while I was gone. They would've taken at least one more, but they were also babysitting another dog that week, and for some reason five dogs are more manageable than six. This is really true; I'm not sure why, but I've found it to be the case.

As it happens, S's mother lives in Eugene. I had planned to call her and invite her to join us for one of the cookouts. But not long after Wildwood had volunteered to sit Raven for me, Susan called.

"What days are you going to be in Eugene?"she asked me.
"Fifth through twelfth," I told her.
"My mom is having surgery, so I'll be down there taking care of her from the 4th to the 11th," she said.
"Wow, really? Then of course you must join us at our reunion. You are, after all, a fribling."

Here I will pause to explain that there's a tendency in our family to invent terms for certain things when no word exists for them. A fribling is a friend who is like a sibling; someone who had become family in a real sense, not through the graces of blood or marriage, but through those of merit and affection. If nothing else, it's convenient to have some code for this, rather than explaining it over and over. Those who know us well know we have friblings, and needn't have the long-form explanation every time.

At any rate, we arranged that one of the events S would join us for – between-times of taking care of her mother – was the Oregon Country fair.

This, I gathered, is an Event. It takes place on only one weekend in the entire year, Friday through Sunday. My brother Mike used to work security for it – which, I gather, consists in large part of sweeping the grounds after closing each night for stragglers. The technique is to form a human chain, hands linked, and walk from one end of the grounds to the other. Any person you meet has to leave unless they are wearing a wrist-band authorizing their continued presence. Those who have wrist-bands are allowed to duck under the linked arms of the sweepers. All others are gathered together and kindly but firmly evicted.

I was struck by this method of clearing the grounds. It seemed odd that a human chain was required – why would people be that difficult to get to go home? What's the incentive to try to sneak past the go-home time and try to lurk after hours? – but that was before I went to the fair.

For one thing, the grounds are enchanting. It looks like Sherwood Forest – treed and grassy, with shaded and sun-dappled dirt paths wandering between and among the booths and stages. The booths themselves are wooden structures, built among the sheltering trees. Some of them have second stories built up in the trees themselves; they look like balconies and decks, bowers and Robinson Crusoe cabins, with an enchanting Disney-esque charm. These are private areas for the booth workers and fair staff to use. I envied them that, their green-shaded perches, from which they could look down and watch the fair pass by.

The patronage of the fair is a trip in and of itself. Kind of like an acid trip, really. Or so I imagine, having no personal experience of that, so here I may misspeak - but to me it seemed like acid trip meets Disney meets Haight-Ashbury. People are creative about their clothing at the fair – fair-workers and patrons both. No sooner had we been ushered in (by a series of astonishingly cheerful and energetic people, each of whom seemed to take great personal delight in the fact that we'd come to the fair) than I saw every costume imaginable. There were people dressed as pirates and Vikings and various animals. One man was painted head to toe in black and orange tiger stripes, wearing only a pair of brief fuzzy shorts. Another couple strolled the fair on stilts, wearing long furry pants and short furry vests, small horns sticking up out of their hair, like very tall fauns. Other people looked as if they had been lifted out of Alice in Wonderland and set down amidst the fairgoers. An entire series of people was dressed in lime green, for the lime parade (where they all gathered together and strode through the fair, inviting people to join the lime-light and take a call on the telephone lime and so on). One man walked around with a live and apparently amiable python draped over his neck. There were belly-dance costumes (my sister amongst them, having been forewarned, and joining into the spirit of the thing), and people who looked like they belonged at a Renaissance festival. There were, of course, a majority of people dressed in everyday clothes, and there were quite a few dressed in very little at all. One man (who I did not observe, but S did) came dressed only in three socks: One on each foot, and the third where he evidently felt it would do the most good. Several women wore only a brassiere on top (pretty ones, naturally), but more had opted to forgo that in favor of body paint. I saw one woman gorgeously covered in painted peacock feathers all over her bare back (and presumably her front). Many opted for flowers (either painted, or fabric ones stuck on by means I prefer not to contemplate). I saw a few wearing little electrical-tape X's (YOW – think about removing that later!) and one who opted for skirt and waist-cincher and nothing else whatsoever. A few had little tufts of feathers or other decorations somehow jauntily perched over their nipples (clearly not pasted to their skin, so I'm not sure how they were attached, but it seemed rude to either stare long enough to figure it out or to inquire). I kept thinking: This would never fly at the Alaska State Fair – but at the Oregon Country version, it seemed strangely appropriate.

The people working the booths were sometimes just as well-costumed. There was one booth filled with gorgeous hand-made masks of all kinds – Mardi-Gras masks, masks shaped like cat faces and other animals, Green Man (or Woman) masks, funny masks, half-masks, full masks, little eye masks with edges like flames, painted and beglittered. They were made of shaped leather, painted, decorated with feathers and fabric and ribbon and what-have-you. I wandered through this booth in admiration of the beauty of the work, and glanced up to see one of the booth workers beside me, posing for a fairgoer to photograph in front of a wall of masks. He was lithe and muscular and brown, with rich dark curly hair falling about his ears, dressed only in a pair of very brief shorts so decorated in leaves that you could only guess at there being fabric beneath. A braided leather strap diagonalled his bare chest, holding a polished drinking horn that rode at his hip. The illusion was so complete that for a moment I was surprised that the tips of his ears were not pointed where they peeked out from his curls. I had to laugh at myself. I mean, in real life, how often do you have to remind yourself: Of course his ears are not pointy, he's, you know, a HUMAN, not an elf or a faun or a wood-sprite? But the illusion was so complete, I actually did have to remind myself of that.

The people-watching was worth the price of admission in and of itself – but the art. Oh, my, the art. Eugene is the glass-working mecca of the United States, and nowhere is this more obvious than at the fair. There was gorgeous work to be found, booths filled with beautiful hand-made glass tempting the hand, sating the eye. There were gorgeous ceramics works, things made lovely through the beauty of the glazes or the shape of the vessels. There were fabric works and leather works, metal works and woodworks. One shop sold nothing but horns – pairs of horns made of Fimo clay, strung on a leather cord to tie them about your forehead, in every color and design imaginable. There were rounded horns, slightly curved. There were angular horns, spiraled like ram's horns. There were delicately-twisted little unicorn horns, rising from nests of down and fabric. One of the booth workers wore a series of spirally ram horns, gilded in bronze, all about his head, like the nimbus of some pagan god.

There were of course the usual souvenir t-shirt-or-tote kinds of things, or the yearly fair coffee cup – but very few of those. And of course there was fair-food, although it was a bit upscale from the usual. A drum circle played the entire time, audible all over the fair. When you neared the circle, the drumming thundered in your blood, echoing in your bones, calling up that fierce, atavistic, primitive creature that lives, thinly buried, at our core. Further away, the drumming faded to a heartbeat, the pulse of the fair, as if the event itself were a live thing, a creature of marvelous design, vital and aware.

As usual at such venues, I had my eye out for the souvenir – the one thing that I really really wanted, enough to pack it and carry it home. Of course, many things were tempting – the glass, the leather, the charming little horns – but in the end, I decided I wanted a mug from one of the ceramics shops. These were glazed beautifully in blue and bronze, with white-glaciered mountain peaks standing beneath a white sun, and pine trees and soaring birds picked out in the glaze. They reminded me strongly of the view out my front windows, where eagles and cranes and swans fly by, and the Chugach mountains stand tall and peaky, harboring snow in their crevices all year long. But after traversing the entire fair, I could not find my way back to that booth again.

No matter. My sister L was going back the next day, and my sister H had bought a mug from that booth that I used as an example to explain what I was looking for. L obligingly agreed to look for the booth and buy me the mug I described. Only when she went back the next day, all that kind had sold. But she evidently asked if there were more stashed away, because her sister from Alaska really liked them, and they reminded her of the view from her house. L returned with a business card and the promise of the artist that if I took a picture of the mountains outside my window and sent it to him, he'd make me a mug that looked like that.

Wow. That's kind of cool.

In retrospect, that sort of creative accommodation fits right in with the spirit of the fair. The Oregon Country fair was really, really cool, the whole thing, from start to finish. I understood the need for the human chain to clear the grounds; the Robin-Hood trees and huts and balconies made for a lot of hiding places, and the charm and warmth of the ambiance made for a lot of temptation. Mike mentioned that the after-parties were of fabled quality, and I could see why people wanted to stay – and how difficult it could be, by any means other than the human chain, to ensure that only those personnel who were authorized remained.

It was a perfect experience – nothing to regret, not even being unable to find the ceramics booth again, since I had the promise of being able to get my mug after all. I have pictures galore of the view off my balcony (some of which have been posted on the blog in the past), so nothing could be easier than emailing a photo. I admit I was tempted by the horns (I have a history of wearing horns – literal and, I'm sure my family would say, figurative) – but S suggested we make our own from, you know, actual horns, which she would have available to her in the fall. I liked that idea enough to be content that I didn't buy some there – and of course, now ideas are percolating in my brain as to how exactly I want to decorate them. I took no pictures (sorry, Gus) – but because of the sort of "clothing optional" culture of the fair, photography is somewhat discouraged – or at least expected to be discreet and by-permission. It's the unique culture of the fair that permits the degree of comfort with undress that is there; in another context, those who were comfortable being half-naked in public might be dismayed to find a photographic record. Out of respect, a certain discretion is observed. And in fact, it does seem rather normal there. Certainly none of the kids – and recall, there were several teens present – seemed even slightly fazed by it… and realistically, that's the group I'd have expected to have the least comfort with it. Certainly the younger kids were more interested in chasing each other about and eating enormous cookies than in the fact that they were cavorting within feet of a woman sitting at her leisure under the trees in a skirt and a waist-cincher and not another stitch nor trace of body paint nor any concealment whatsoever over the way God made her. My nephew Mr. D is of course an old hand at the Oregon Country Fair – he's been many times, growing up as he has, just down the road from the grounds - but for the others it was all new and different.

For me it is the charm of it, the complete immersion in a different world, that I recall the most. Granted that the charm of it, and the world that it is, is due in part to the sort of accepting nature of the fair; but part of it is the enchantment of the setting, the abundance of art, the happiness of the attendees – cheerful despite the very marked crowd. Somewhere in the fair there is a large raven, built out of wood, that observes the fair with a benign eye, and I think it will be a long time before I forget passing beneath its wings with the cheerful crowds, the drums in the distance calling to the blood, the pulse of a living thing, vital and sentient.

When I got home, one last serendipity remained for me. I walked into Town Square Art Gallery, my favorite art store, intending to quiz the owner (a friend of mine) about how one establishes a gallery presence for art – because Michael is way too talented not to have his work out and about in the public eye, but in Eugene – remember, the glass-working mecca of the United States – you can't swing a glass rod without hitting a glass artist. So how to find a venue?

My friend J, owner of Town Square, told me that you find a gallery that doesn't have anything quite like what the artist is doing, and establish a relationship there. Having a look at Mike's work, she mentioned that she didn't actually carry anything like his work. Would she be interested in carrying his work? Yes, she allowed, she would. So I put her in touch with Michael, (and his stuff is now, in fact there, so you should obviously run down and get some of it, because it's really cool).

Well. That's satisfying. But serendipity wasn't done with me. Because the minute I walked into the gallery, there – right in front, where I could not miss it – was my mug. My knees locked and I stated for a moment. Really? I picked it up and carried it to the back where I asked one of the girls, "Where is this artist from?"

"Oregon. Road's End Pottery."

No way. My mug was waiting for me – exactly the style and size I wanted – at home. How cool is that? I didn't even have to carry it home, risking breakage and causing worry. And in its way, that little event prolonged the fair for me, brought it back here to Alaska to resonate in a little more than just memory. It's a small piece of the fair, a tangible link to it – and now it sits on my desk, along with a gorgeous handmade marble from Mike. They both give me a smile every time I see them. The mug grounds me, as mountains always do – a necessary thing, in the work I do. A handy fringe benefit, and not something I'd have expected a simple coffee mug to do – but there you are. There's a certain magic in the piece. The marble… that does something else. From the outside, it looks like a clear dome above a cobalt-dark four-petalled flower. When you turn the marble to look down through the clear dome, the dark leaves of the flower form a cup which looks as if it contains a spiraled galaxy, or maybe the core of the Universe right before the Big Bang. It makes me feel peaceful when I hold it and look into it, its solid and substantial weight a pleasing contrast to the celestial quality inside the cradle of the petals. The inside looks nothing like the outside – which is maybe a good metaphor for the Universe, come to that. Much is contained within it that you would not expect at first glance, and when you turn it to look into its heart, there will be within it an unexpected beauty that gives you peace. It is, somehow, larger on the inside than it is on the outside. The Tardis marble, I suppose.

Little bits and pieces I brought back, small things with surprising power and a gravity all their own. Anchors to my own private Oregon.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

My Own Private Oregon, Part II: Go The F*ck To Sleep, Or: Will I Need A Vacation To Recover From My Vacation?

Author's note: If you don't know, "Go The F*ck To Sleep" is a children's bedtime book by Adam Mansbach - the title of which cracks me up, and seemed appropriate to the fact that I just COULD not sleep for almost a week, between pre-vacation and vacation excitements.

How I arrived at the family reunion alert and perky is beyond me. I didn't sleep the night before I left– I mean, at all, in fact didn't even try – so I can only conclude that the briefness of the plane portion of the trip was a major factor. Or maybe I was just excited. Or maybe it was my brother Michael's special magic. Or maybe it was just one of those things.

The lack of sleep is mostly – though not completely - my fault. As usual before a trip there were a million things to do, of course, but between making arrangements for my cases to be cared for in my absence and making my private arrangements, it was more than I'd expected. Luckily, the 4th of July – a Monday – the clinic was closed and I was not on call, so that gave me an extra day to get everything done.

One of my pre-travel tasks was a haircut – and I mean a serious haircut. I was anticipating it'd be hotter in OR than I was used to in AK, so I wanted to have a little less mane to contend with. This is usually something not even worthy of mention, but in this case I'd been growing my hair out for several months for the express purpose of donating it to Locks of Love – so when I got it cut I really got it cut. Fourteen inches, to be exact. It freaked me out a bit. I've never voluntarily had my hair that short. In fact, the only haircut I ever had that was that short was one given to me at the age of three by my older sister, then aged five. She very carefully spread out newspapers to catch the mess, and made me squat down in the middle. Then she cut my hair about six inches long on the one side - and about two inches long on the other. Strangely, my mother was not best pleased with her. Even though she put out newspapers and everything! I'm sure you're nearly as astonished as my sister was to learn that her thoughtful preparations somehow didn't endear her to my mother at that moment. I was perfectly happy with it, of course, but I was only three and could not have cared less what kind of frightful mess she made of it. Since then I've become a lot vainer about my hair, however, and quite a bit pickier about who cuts it. I personally don't think short hair suits me (in part because, due to its waviness, it tends to poof out and scrunch up when short, in ways that are unpredictable no matter how good the cut).

Still, it's for a good cause, and for that reason I pretty much didn't care how dorky I looked. It's just hair. It grows back. And mine luckily grows fast, so I figured that no matter what kind of Bozo the Clown effect I got, it wouldn't be for very long. Besides, it's an easy charity for me, a chance to help someone with little effort on my part and only a temporary sacrifice of vanity. I can grow hair like nobody's biz. I know this will surprise you, but I can even grow it in my sleep! I know! Amazing!

At any rate, between my head practically floating away from lack of hair and the usual pre-travel shenanegins (complicated by Independence Day activities) , I wasn't getting much sleep anyway for a couple of days. There was an added distraction in that I'd be going along, industriously setting things up for travel, when I'd suddenly go: Aaaugh! What's that on the back of my neck?!? Hmm, okay, that would be your own hair, you moron. I've had long hair my entire life (my sister's tonsorial debut notwithstanding). I'm just not used to feeling it move like that on the back of my neck, as if small spiders or maybe a fleet of mosquitoes are dancing around on my nape. It's not restful.

As for the night before travel – for some reason I decided to watch a couple of movies. I don't know why. I just did. So by the time I got done with that, it was time to pack and drop off dogs and go. I'd already planned everything I was taking with me, so it didn't take more than 15 minutes (and probably less) to pack. I'm notoriously a light packer – I once went to Africa for 13 days with only a camera bag and a single shoulder-carry duffel, not even full – so I managed to get everything into a single standard-size student backpack. I still felt like I was over-packing – I took a rain shell, even though my brother had told me it rarely rains in Eugene in July, and none was forecast – but you know how it is. Sometimes you just can't help yourself.

At any rate, I arrived at the airport in good time, kicked off my travel shoes and deconstructed my backpack for the security scan, made it to my gate with an hour to spare. I napped a little on the plane – which is never restful, but I got a lot of practice at sleeping in an upright and locked position while I had pneumonia this winter for three months, so it was actually better than it might have been. The hop to Eugene left Portland 1o minutes late but arrived on time. Since I had no luggage, Mike waltzed me out of the airport and into his house in hardly any time at all.

Unfortunately, my sister-in-law K had a bad cold, so she was feeling droopy. My nephew Mr. D was already in bed. Tode and K and I had some hard cider and general happy-to-see-you family chat. I went to bed, read, slept. Hmm. Still not that tired. Up early, and Tode made me eggs and really good coffee. Mr. D bounced and smiled and was generally charming. K, unfortunately, felt worse. Having just a few months ago had a kind of nagging cold that worsened the next day, and worsened more the day after, and then blew up into a big fat bacterial pneumonia, I was fretting, but I tried to confine my remarks to "Wow, when I was sick over the winter the thing that helped the most was sleep and antibiotics. So don't feel you're letting me down if you want to nap. A lot." Personally, I detest being hovered over, and I imagine most adults are the same, so I tried really hard to shut up after that, apart from volunteering to help Michael set up the rental house he'd booked for the family's accommodations, so that K could stay home and rest.

On the way to the rental, Michael and I went by one of the glass-working studios in which he plies his art. One of his partners and mentors, Shag, was in the midst of making goblets, the bowls of which he blows by hand, the stems of which he makes, astonishingly, from closed, hollow tubes of hand-made glass. This is a difficult technique. As glass cools, it contracts, and if you leave an air reservoir inside (as you must if the stem is to be hollow),the air will contract when it cools, either collapsing the stem or shattering it. Yet here stand one glass after another, the bowls of them lush and round as a ripe plum, the stems elegant and whole. Graceful and voluptuous, the glass so thin it looks frail and ethereal; yet these are things forged in fire, and the glass is hard as tempered Pyrex. They're not unbreakable, of course, but they're what Michael refers to as "hard glass"; much stronger than the same thickness of "soft glass", which would be the kind you would normally find if you were to (for instance) buy your wine glasses at an ordinary store.

At any rate, it was pretty interesting to see what beauties emerged, quite casually, from the cluttered confines of a small workshop. It is of necessity hot (because there's a torch and kiln involved) and there are of course large quantities of glass rod and various mysterious tools and instruments. There is also a water bath used to cool the glass abruptly (when this is called for, it's generally, if I understand it, when the artist means to break off the end piece of a rod in order to discard it; immersing the hot glass in water will put thermal stress on the glass, so that when the glass worker taps the rod smartly against the rim of a large coffee can, the glass breaks where he has asked it to, and the scrap glass – called frit – falls into the coffee can.) The space is filled with the necessary arcana of the art, and there are various bits and pieces of projects laying on the scarred worktop. To one side squats the utilitarian bulk of the kiln, graceless as a stump – but when opened, its glowing maw is filled with forged glass, all gleaming , voluptuous curves and brilliant colors, graceful as water and dense as glacier ice. It is a lovely irony that this kind of glass has properties of both ice and water – and yet it is made of earth and born in fire. There is a strange charm in that, for me.

Still, there was the house to provision so after a short inspection of Shag's glassworks, we continued along to the house where we filled the fridge and freezer with staples, and left a supply of dry goods (cereal and the like) on the counter. Knowing his audience, Michael had included several kinds of local microbrew, and some good coffee for the grownups, and frozen pizzas and the like for the kids. We distributed folding cots here and there to augment the accommodations and then we were off to the airport to gather rellies by the carload, dividing them between two vans.

It's amazing how many car seats you need with three families of kids. And then there is, of course, the luggage. Luckily my family is by and large disinclined (as I am) to schlep huge quantities of luggage hither and yon. I've done enough traveling, both domestic and international, that I am heartily sick of dragging big suitcases about. Unless I'm planning a 3-month stay somewhere, I'm going to try to get it all into one bag I can easily carry. If it doesn't fit, do I really need it? The answer varies, but for the most part comes down on the side of "Nope". Except for that dang rain shell in my backpack.

With everyone and everything incorporated into the vans – with every seat occupied, but with a little cargo space to spare – we deposited the main mass of people at the rental house. Bedrooms were apportioned and luggage dispersed, and immediate inroads began on the food supplies. K came by a little later with Mr. D (who had been at summer day-camp during all this) and some bad news: Having felt progressively worse and more feverish as the day went on, she went in to see her doctor. Turns out she has walking pneumonia.
Well, crap. THAT just sucks. Having spent most of my winter that way, I'm pretty sympathetic. We (as a big group) have planned a big giant burger cookout, but K goes home early – wisely – to sleep. My other brother (known to you as MaskedMan) mans the grill, the kids play in the fenced back yard or wrestle each other into happy exhaustion in the rumpus room, the grownups sample local microbrew and eat and weave in and out through the tides and eddies of conversation.

The next day in the morning Michael leads a hike up the butte. I've been there – on my last visit to Eugene, lo these many years ago – and I'm afraid that, cold-adapted as I am, it will be too hot for me to enjoy. I stay at the house with my mother, who – at seventy-six – might still attempt such things, except that she's had a total hip replacement and it likely to need knees done before much longer. We have an enjoyable, rambling catch-up sort of conversation, and I, at least, am surprised when the rest of the crew returns home. There's lunch and an astonishing amount of romping from the kids, considering they just hiked the butte. They are like small nuclear reactors, powered by a glowing core, perpetually in motion. Mr. D is excited to see his cousins; in particular Mr. I, MaskedMan's son. They are of an age – only a few months apart – and look enough alike they might easily be mistaken for brothers. They gravitate to one another like magnets, but it seems to be a peaceful conjunction. There is, at any rate, no screaming, no tears, no broken bones or broken toys, and blood is not spurting to the walls.

My favorite Aunt (who is also my only aunt, but would probably be my favorite anyway, unless I had one who was equally cool but also gave me a million dollars and a pony) has arrived with my absolutely hilarious cousinette (who is not my only cousin, but is certainly a favorite of mine). We plan a giant take-out Chinese and Vegan feast (two restaurants are required for this feat). Eventually we assemble a vast buffet, eat and share, mix and match dishes, and drift leisurely in the conversational waters. By the time the leftovers are being packed up I am sleepy (finally! Maybe I've realized I'm on vacation at last!) Mike and Mr. D and I head home, where K has slept most of the day; she is still wan, but starting to feel better. We have a beer, chat, relax, make each other laugh. Tode gives me a popsicle before bed, and now for some reason it really feels like a vacation.

This is a thing which I think plagues some people: We tend to get so busy that we forget to relax. To stop being so busy, to let go of all the frantic accoutrements of everyday life, to. leave work and similar cares behind and take fallow time and spend real attention on just being. I am more than guilty of taking work home – I give my unlisted number to certain clients; I carry the clinic cell on weekends when I am not on call if I have a dicey case that might need my attention; I think about cases and clients while I am on my own time. I do this a lot. And there is (it seems to me) a tendency in modern life to schedule vacations so that they are so packed with activity there is not time to relax and just be. My family is good about consciously scheduling no more than one event per day, and intentionally scheduling "off" days and blocks of time in which we might do no more than laze in the yard, enjoying the breeze and maybe a beer, letting the chirps and squeals of the kids wash over us like the rustling of the leaves overhead.

There is a danger in vacationing with so many interesting people, especially ones you have not seen in some time: It is tempting to spend all your time interacting with them, hearing stories, telling your own, so that there is no time left for the mere enjoyment of simple company. That kind of perpetual motion and input can be exhausting, not restful at all, so that when you are done you need a vacation to recover from your vacation. But there is, sometimes, a peculiar magic that takes place internally for me. I don't know where or how I came by this; perhaps it's a result of growing up an introvert middle child, fourth of seven, surrounded by people more extroverted than myself. Perhaps it is a gift of medicine, a thing learned at some cost in the service of my art: The ability to both engage and disengage at the same time, to be clear of thought and entirely focused on whatever is at hand, and at the same time to stand in a small oasis of peace and clarity, no matter how frantic the activity around you. Maybe everyone experiences this and it is only notable to me because I came to it through effort and struggle. Whatever the case, it allows me to listen to all the stories, watch the bouncing kinetic antics of the children, savor the luxuries of having no responsibilities, no cases pending, no one who needs me, right this second, to help them with a matter of life or death – and to do so while feeling myself at rest.

So, as it turns out, I do not need a vacation to recover from my vacation. The days of disruption and sleep deprivation prior to Eugene began to settle about me like the folds of a luxurious skirt, falling into place in voluptuous abundance around me. And in the end, despite the massive inputs of the day, I did in fact go the f*ck to sleep, peaceful and calm, at rest in the cradle of my own private Oregon.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

My Own Private Oregon, Part One: You Can’t Pick Your Relatives

Every two years or so, we have a family reunion. My mother is the driving force behind these. She had seven children, and although many of them have, through various accidents of life and circumstance, ended up within a 10-minute radius of her home (and others are but an hour or so further out) there was a time when we were scattered to the four winds. Some of us still are. Admittedly – and surely, unsurprisingly – I am the furthest afield here in Alaska. But there are two others who have somehow escaped being drawn into some mysterious maternal vortex which has caused over half of us to congregate on the Eastern seaboard. One of them – my youngest brother – lives in Eugene.

When Michael moved to Eugene – with his wife, who is so excellent we'd have adopted her if he hadn't had the good sense to rope her into the fold by marriage – I thought: Well, of course. Is there any town on the entire planet more perfect for him? I think not.

As a general rule, we try to trade off on coasts for the reunions. For me – thousands of miles further away than any of my siblings - the trip east is arduous and exhausting. But I yield to the temptations of communing with my family, none of whom I would see for years and years on end if not for the reunions, and I make the trip, miserable as it is. It's always worth it. Oregon, however, is a hop, a skip and a jump for me. Child's play. I'd've gone anyhow… but it was really lovely to arrive in good fettle, not on a flight that has required me to leave Alaska at one in the morning, nor travel all night only to arrive exhausted, rumpled and cranky at my destination, and thence to need two days to recover.

Accordingly, I arrived in Eugene just after 9 in the evening the day before everyone else. I was not jet-lagged, cranky or exhausted, and although I might indeed have been a bit rumpled – it is, after all, air travel – and undeniably I arrived hungry (since now you have to pay as much for food and in-flight entertainment as you do for the flight itself), I was cheerful, energetic and excited to see my baby brother. Who, I will in all fairness report, is as richly accomplished as any of us and a good deal taller than some of us (who will not be mentioned, but I notice you are all staring at me for some reason), so the term "baby brother" really only designates his birth order. He is, undeniably, the last sibling born.

Michael – also known by family nickname as Tode (and if you need to see the evolution, it went: Michael, Mackel, Mackelroni, Mike-o, Mito, Mitode, Tode) – is as cheerful and level and calm and good-hearted a brother as you could possibly ever want. He is also prodigiously talented, clear-thinking, generous, kind and a wonderful husband and father. He started his education aimed at the sciences, with thoughts of becoming a physical therapist, but switched to fine arts midway through – a move I have a great deal of sympathy for, as I was myself torn between studying art and science. In the end I decided it was easier to have art as a hobby than to have medicine as a hobby, so I went the science route. Tode went the other way. Here I'll admit that when he did so, I was a little surprised. As kids, my sisters and I were always drawing. Tode, not as much. My sketching sisters and I all went into science, and our much-less-frequently-sketching brother went into art. Go figure. But when he started doing art, it was clear he'd made the right choice: He's gifted. Despite all my crayoning and sketching and painting and sculpting and smithing, he's a better artist than I will ever be.

His wife, K, is an exquisite match for him. Herself a talented artist, she (like Tode) has an analytical mind and is an incisive thinker. She makes her living with computers now, but I've seen her work, and it's good. She also has a gift for motherhood; she is calm, steady, patient, and firm, and rides the line between indulgent and disciplined with a deft grace and innate fairness that has paid off in the good temper and persistent cheer of my nephew, D. The two of them – K and Tode – are a united front, and while some of D's good nature is only attributable to him, it is certainly encouraged by the combined efforts of his parents. He's seven, and rather than being overwhelmed, cranky, overstimulated, grumpy, or otherwise fractious at the thought of having fifteen or so relatives descend upon him all at once, he was happy and excited, but well in hand. This was a lucky thing, since I was staying in the house with them, so I was glad not to be a disruption for him (or the rest). But there are so many of us that even if you laid us all out like cod on the floor, there wouldn't be enough space, so my brother rented a large house (complete with view) in the collegiate part of town, near the U of Oregon campus.

Meanwhile, Tode (having picked me up from the airport in Eugene) drove me to the house, offered me a beer and made sure I had a snack. (Best. Baby. Brother. Ever.) The next day we went back to the airport and picked up twelve more of us. Sardining us all into two minivans, we trundled over to the rental house, which was capacious (by necessity) and nicely-appointed (by good luck and the diligent offices of Tode, who went to some trouble to acquire good accommodations.) Two more came in a little later, flying into Portland and driving to Eugene, and two more flew into Eugene and rented another minivan (and God knows we needed the space). There are still more of us who could not attend for various work-related reasons. If those had managed to make it, we'd have needed another house.

From past experience, we've determined that the way to do things at a family reunion is to plan no more than one event per day, and preferably one that does not take up the entire day unless it is a restful sort of event. There were only two events that had to be on a particular day, one on Friday (the Oregon County Fair) and one on Saturday (pool-party barbecue day, requiring the reservation of the pool house.) Everything else was flexible, and attendance is never mandatory; if an event doesn't interest you, no one quibbles if you choose to skip it and have a nap or a read. After all, part of the point of a reunion is to, you know, reunite, so you really should have plenty of time to lounge around and chitchat, to eat and drink and catch up and tease one another and generally enjoy seeing your rellies. Even if most of them are taller than you and you have to peer up at them from a great distance. And here I'm not mentioning any names, but I'm glaring at all the offenders, which means anyone older than eight. That means you, you twelve-year-olds-and-up.

It was an excellent reunion – some of which I will detail for you in post number next (to avoid making this one 1,000 pages). If you find these things boring, feel free to skip ahead to where I will (with any luck) be posting about fishing or medicine or animals or some such nonsense. But for a post or three, if you like, you can come to the family reunion with me, cyberversion. Of course, that might mean you have to meet my rellies, but that's pretty safe. I'm the only one who bites, and you're already used to me.

They say you can pick your friends, but you can't pick your relatives. This is, at least in our case, somewhat untrue; we have a thing called a "fribling", which is a friend who has become part of the family, so much so that they are invited to the family reunions and are included in family celebrations and events. So, demonstrably, at least in some cases you can pick your relatives. You are kind of stuck with the ones you were born with, though, and in that I've been lucky. I like them all – and I mean genuinely like them, would voluntarily spend time with them even if I did not have to. They are smart, kind, good-hearted and generous. They are ethical and moral, and willing to act upon what they hold true. And they think. Their opinions – social, political, artistic, personal and otherwise - are the result of actual thought and consideration, not of the meme of the moment or of some local hysteria or a hot sound-bite. I don't necessarily agree with all of them, but I respect that they are opinions formed of reason, a personal code of ethics and due consideration.

They are none of them perfect – and no more am I. But they're damned good, and I'm lucky in that.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Cleaver Beaver

This morning - oh, wait, it was early afternoon by then (dang endless daylight! Gets me all confused!) Where was I...? Oh, yes. This afternoon I was driving out of my driveway in search of coffee when I noticed that one of my aspen trees had fallen down. This was to my right on a steep slope above the lower arm of my drive, and while the trunk was entirely on the slope, with none of it laying in the drive itself, I made a mental note to clear it when I got home.

But you know how quick thought is. As I drove past it, after a single hasty glance, a whole bunch of thoughts popped into my head. It took only a fraction of a second to think: Wait a minute. That's a young tree, not likely to be rotted in the trunk, so why would it have broken? Also, there was no wind last night to knock it down. And did I mistake it, or did that one microsecond I glanced at the break-point show what look like chisel-marks...?

So I put on the brakes, backed up 10 feet and squinted up the hill, hunched over my steering wheel to get the angle. Hmmm. Suspicious. I put it in park, told Finn to stay put and got out. The hill there is extremely steep, not conducive to climbing (or at least, not unless you're a quadruped of some description), so I only went up about 3 feet, just far enough to get a better look. Well, hm. That DOES kind of look like chisel marks. Peering closely at the dirt and leaf-litter on the slope, I thought I might be discerning a little trail of some kind - but it's pretty subtle, so I might be making that up. I ponder for a few seconds, shrug, make my way back into the drive... where I notice that the upper part of the tree has been sectioned into two or more lengths of trunk (two that I can see, anyway). There are multiple small branches that appear to have been chewed off the trunk, raggedy-edged, scattered here and there. The leaves of the aspen are just now wilting, and the exposed wood is still slightly damp. The short sections of trunk also have the scalloped appearance of chisel-marks at the ends, and there is a flattened area a foot wide in the weeds at lakeside.

Well, what do you know. I have  a beaver in my lake.

Then I think: Hm, do I really? because I haven't seen any signs of it, and the lake has no stream of running water in or out. But then I think: Well, streams aren't essential. I've seen beaver lodges in swampy wetlands. The main things seem to be deep enough water to sustain the beavers both summer and winter, and enough trees nearby for food. So maybe I DO have a beaver.

I've lived in this house for 13 years, and never seen hide nor hair of a beaver anywhere near here before, which is what makes it hard to believe I have one now.  On the other hand, it's quite a bit harder to believe that some human agency is responsible; what person would climb six or seven feet up that steep and slippery hill to cut down - with an axe, mind you, not a chainsaw or some more convenient device - a small, not-that-spectacular aspen tree on private property? And then chisel it into smaller sections, and drag those across the drive and toward the water? To say nothing of apparently gnawing the small branches off with their teeth.  There are, after all, any number of larger, more conveniently-placed trees to vandalize. Although those aren't aspens - which I like, and am not best-pleased to have gnawed down, damn it all. But that's wildlife for you. The moose eat my birches when I'd rather they eat my willow and alder, and the beavers apparently want to eat my aspen when I'd rather they eat... well, my willow and alder. Beasts these days. No consideration for my landscaping preferences. Ah, well. What are you going to do?

By now I'm pretty sure I'm not just hallucinating the potential presence of a very large semi-aquatic rodent setting up house right next door to me, because I can't put together a logical explanation that does not include a beaver. I can't picture some person doing this, particularly at night - because I'd for sure have noticed the tree down yesterday evening, around 6:30, when I was on my way to my friend Lori's house for socializing and general girlie debauchery. I did bomb in and out pretty fast  - zipping home after work to feed and walk dogs and collect bratwurst and a movie, and zapping back out equally fast to go to Lori's. Moreover, as it happens, I was out late that night. This was necessary, as we grilled the brats, drank beer, talked about boys (and mutual guilty pleasures such as "True Blood" and "Spartacus Blood and Sand" and any movie that includes horses, sword fighting, or - preferably - both) and generally enjoyed ourselves. For a while we picked over agates and other interesting rocks, some rough and others polished smooth and satiny, that Lori picked up at an agate beach she knows and flies to from time to time. Lori is an excellent pilot (and in fact, if you need a flying adventure in AK, I highly recommend you contact her at SkyTrekking Alaska so she can fly you around for fishing or hunting or Iditarod or what have you. She'll land you safe, and she seems to know everyone and everywhere interesting in Alaska. Apart from which, she's a ton of fun to hang out with. But I digress).

Anyway, we watched "Dear Frankie" (a truly charming little gem of a movie which no one seems to have seen) and by the time all was said and eaten and drunk and done, it was well past midnight. We're at that stage of summer where midnight is dusk, now - not full dark, but not exactly the full-light twilight it's been for the last few weeks. So it's possible, on the way home, that I missed seeing the downed tree when I pulled into my driveway at one in the morning.... but I don't think so. So I'm fairly certain that my little stealth tree-faller was at it between one a.m., when I got home, and 6 a.m., when I was up and about and letting dogs out. Certainly before 2 p.m. when I left the house in search of coffee. I'm 100% certain that it didn't happen earlier than 6:30 last night. Being as how beavers are largely nocturnal, the beaver theory would fit with the timing. And I'd just about guarantee that if a person was in my driveway messing with my trees, my dogs would have gone ballistic. So even if my other logic were faulty, I still can't see another theory that fits better than the Marauding Beaver theory (aka the Castor canadensis caper).

So now I guess I'm on beaver watch. I'll have to try to protect my remaining aspens. I love them - their quivering leaves flashing green and silver in the slightest breeze, their straight white trunks, the way they change their silver-green leaves into shimmering golden coins in the fall; the way they cover my drive in gold leaf like alms before winter. So while I'm sympathetic to the needs of the local wildlife, I really hope there's something else out there they can be convinced to eat, instead of cleaving down the rest of my aspens.

Years ago, a friend of mine's little boy had a sore throat. Meaning to tell his mother that he had a hot scratchy throat, he tried to say he had a fever in his mouth. But because he was learning to talk, he said instead "Mom, I have a beaver in my mouth." So despite the depredations on my aspens, I guess it could be worse. I may have a beaver, but at least I don't have a beaver in my mouth.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Smoking Fish

I know. Fish don't usually get going so fast they smoke.

Recently I unexpectedly came into some salmon. This is a Good Thing, nearly as exciting as coming into money. For one thing, salmon tastes way better. For another, it actually can be used as a means of barter, nearly as good as monetary exchange, (although much more satisfying, as in: I'll trade you two pounds of Dall sheep for a King salmon fillet, or I'll trade you a jar of bear meat for a couple of silvers – you know, that kind of thing.)

How did this happen, you ask? Well, my boss wants to go fishing next week, but he's on call. I volunteered to take his on-call, and he volunteered to give me a fillet. But as it turns out, he didn't give me a fillet. He gave me a good-sized Playmate cooler FULL of fillets. Have I mentioned that I like my boss? And also anyone else who gives me free salmon. Just sayin'. I also got some rockfish in with the mix, but my boss assured me it's a bland and boring fish, and needs to be prepared in a way which adds flavor to it. Okay, I'm game. I love making crap up when it comes to cooking. The victims of my culinary excesses may not love it so much, but since I'm congenitally incapable of following a recipe as written, it's probably a good thing that I am perfectly willing to try any number of weird concoctions – and if they turn out to be complete crap, it's a further good thing that my dogs are willing to try even weirder ones.

So all of a sudden I've got salmon. Which is almost as good as having crab legs – which is great, except for how hard it is to wear pantyhose, since the spiny bits make it just about impossible to pull your pantyhose on without getting a run in them. That has nothing to do with smoking fish, of course –although anyone who has crab legs is, by definition, smokin' – but smoking fish is a whole other challenge. I tried to smoke a fish last year, actually. I got it lit, but I couldn't get it to draw.

Okay, lame-ass jokes aside, this is my inaugural fish--smoking year. I've lived in Alaska for 16 years, which means I've been pushing the limit. I'm pretty sure that if you haven't smoked or canned or otherwise preserved some subsistence-type food item within 15 years, they revoke your citizenship and boot you out of the state. I've skated under the wire by consuming many such items and also freezing a few – but freezing, though it is a means of food preservation, hardly counts. Freezing is sort of automatic up here, if you wait a little. It doesn't take any special talent. If you wait long enough in the season, all you have to do is chuck it outside and it freezes. No special talent required.

Still and all, it was only a matter of time before the fish-smoking police would have caught up with me, so – even as we speak – I'm sitting on my back deck, typing this and keeping an eye on my smoker – which is starting to smell pretty good, if you want to know the truth. I have a Border collie (yes, Finn, still feeling well) at my feet basking in the sun, and I'm being dive-bombed by dragonflies, but the mosquitoes are largely done for the year – at least at my house. And in any case, if the alder smoke wasn't enough to keep them at bay, there is always the Two-Foot Rule, to wit: Any mosquito that comes within two feet of me will be summarily killed without mercy. If they stay two or more feet away – well, live and let live. The bats and dragonflies need something to snack on, after all. I'm not greedy. Well, not about mosquitoes, anyway. On the other hand… did I mention the smoker is starting to smell pretty good? Like smoke and carmelizing brown sugar and salmony goodness.

Now here's the thing about salmon: It's my second-favorite fish - second only to halibut, which (if you don't know) is food of the Gods, ambrosia, mana in aquatic form. It would be one of the "Two G's" – good, and good for you – except that to call halibut "good" is to insult it with faint praise. It's more like "exquisite and good for you".

Salmon is, however, a very fine fish indeed. They're packed with antioxidants (all those lovely omega-3 fatty acids) and are an excellent source of high-quality and very tasty protein. Besides, it's pretty hard to make salmon in any way that isn't yummy. Bake it, broil it, poach it in wine, make it into chowder, smother it in herbs and grill it, cook it with sliced lemon and dill and garlic, slather it in sour cream, bury it in fish-packs or massage it with dry-rubs – practically anything goes, with salmon. It's a very robust fish, and a forgiving one as well, and the flavor allows you to pull off a myriad of gastronomic feats with aplomb. However, I confess that of the many delicious ways I've eaten salmon, it's possible that smoked salmon is my favorite. Especially the way I've had it up here.

There are lots of people in AK who smoke salmon so good it will make you weep. Your knees will go weak as all your blood rushes to your tastebuds. Angel choirs will sing. You may have a religious experience. You will be reluctant to swallow, to let that flavor escape from your tongue, so you will be tempted to communicate for several hours by means of gestures and grunts so as to be able to keep that delectable flavor in your mouth juuuust a little longer.

Now, I'm not saying my maiden voyage into the smoky waters of cured fish will be anything quite so special… but I will say I relentlessly quizzed several of my fish-smoking pals for tips. There are some common themes – for instance, the fish I like best is always done with a brown-sugar brine. However, techniques and spices vary. I went with a dray-pack method, in which the salt and sugar and spices are mixed together dry, and the prepared (filleted, sliced and towel-dried) fish is layered with the dry-pack and kept cold overnight. By morning, the dry-pack has sucked moisture out of the fish, which is much firmer, and is now marinating in a thick molassesy brine, heavily sludged with undissolved sugar and salt. I've elected to use alder wood for my smoke. In an hour or so I'll need to check to see if I need to put more wood in the smoker, but the "busy" part of the program is over. And now I'm hanging out, watching the squirrels and the birds, admiring my six-foot-high fireweed (flowered out only about halfway up the spike, if even that much, so according to legend, there's plenty of summer yet ahead) and generally keeping an eye on things. So far it's been relatively simple, thanks to the generously-shared knowledge of my Alaskan peeps.

I've noticed, however, that there are certain things that people fail to mention about smoking fish.
  1. For one thing, you will get sticky. Very, very sticky. I've discovered that having a pack of Wet Ones on hand is a good idea. If not for that, I would still be trying to unglue my fingers from the paper towels.
  2. On that subject, you're going to use up at least half a roll. Maybe more.
  3. Your dogs will try to help you with this project. Don't let them.
  4. Even if you don't let them, avoiding smoking a little Border collie hair in with the fish is a bit of a challenge.
  5. Pam is your friend. I mean the cooking spray, not the vampire.
  6. After you have finished cutting fish into brine-sized pieces, packing it into the brine (or the dry-pack mixture) and washing and drying your hands the approximately 27 times it will take to get rid of all the sticky, you will discover that somehow, many small circles of plastic, about the size produced by a regular three-hole paper punch, have mysteriously appeared, adhered tightly to your skin. This is not plastic. These are random leftover fish scales which have cleverly eluded the best efforts of soap and water. Despite appearances, you are not stuck with them until the end of time. You can eventually peel them off your skin. Don't give up. They make wire-bristle brushes for grills, you know. Just sayin'.
  7. If you want to keep inquisitive insects, lint and random dog hairs off your fish while it is drying after the brine (so that it forms a useful little skin called a pellicle, which helps keep it moist during the smoking process), a few yards of ultra-cheap tulle from the local fabric store are worth the $3 investment.
  8. Fish scraps will occur – bits and pieces of skin or fragments of flesh that come apart during the preparation. Another word for these scraps is "dog food". Or so I am assured by every dog in my house.
Now, I've tried to make sure I followed all the rules, so that I don't end up poisoning myself or others. For instance, when the fish is drying, they say it should be kept cool – which, according to the books, means no more than 65 degrees – and that a fan may speed the drying process. Hmm. When I got up this morning, my back deck was 50 degrees, and there was a light breeze blowing. Perfect. Fans? We don't need no stinking fans. Well, not that kind of fan, anyway. This is Alaska, dude. Cooler than 65 degrees is kind of normal.

I'll let you know how it turns out. It's really not that much work, once you figure out the little handy tricks. And if I don't actually poison myself… well, I did mention that smoked salmon is my favorite, right? I can vacuum-pack it and have smoked salmon aaaaaaall winter long. Just so long as I manage to have periodic amnesia and forget there is smoked salmon in the freezer, because otherwise I'll just eat it all in a week.

In the meantime: Smoking fish. In Alaska, it's not just a good idea. It's the law.

Update: Having eaten several pieces of fish thus prepared, I have not suffered ptomaine poisoning, botulism, vomiting, diarrhea, seizures, coma or death. Grimaces of disgust were completely absent, and if I didn't precisely hear angel choirs singing, there was at least definite loud humming. These observations make me think it's mostly safe to eat. There is one small problem, though, since it is evidently kind of addictive. I probably need to adjust my brine. Less cocaine and more Monkey-Butt powder, probably. Okay, I'm kidding. There's no cocaine in it.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Aflack... Aflack... AAAFFLLAAAACK!

Finn's been poorly lately.

One day not long ago he was lying on the bed next to me, pressed hard up against me, a fine tremor of stress shivering through his tissues and vibrating through mine, waking me. He looked at me anxiously, ears flattened in distress, wagging his tail in a nervous, tentative way, and urinated where he lay. A lot. All over the bed.

This is MOST unlike Finn, so - apart from leaping to my feet and whipping the sodden blankets back before things could soak in to the mattress, I made immediate plans to pop him in and run some blood work.

The last time Finn peed on my bed, he'd leaped up one day while I was folding laundry on the foot of it. He walked with deliberation to the center of it, fixed me with a glance and, once he was sure I was watching him, urinated where he stood. Right in the middle of the down comforter. My immediate thought was AAACK! BAD DOG! - but the one hard on its heels was: Finn doesn't do things like that. Something's wrong. If he was just being inappropriate he'd have lifted his leg on the bedpost - but he didn't. He camped his back legs out behind him, slightly crouched as if something hurt him, and just emptied his bladder right there, all at once. So: No scolding, and yes workup.

I ran a urine sample the next day and sure enough: He had a bladder infection. Well, thanks for telling me, dude; it's harder to pick up in males because when they go out it's pretty much par for the course that they hike their leg about 71 times and pee a little bit on everything in creation. So unless they do something else - something abnormal - you have no way of knowing. He may not have thought of it in exactly those terms, but in his own way Finn was letting me know he was in distress and needed help.

Finn is a Border collie. They have a useful ability to use their eye to control livestock. Unlike my Raven dog, Finn isn't much of a stock dog. He's what is sometimes referred to as a "loose-eyed" dog, meaning that he hasn't got a lot of the vaunted and much-esteemed Border collie Eye. But there is one thing he can do with it that Raven can't. Finn has a particular way of looking at me that compels me to really look at him: Closely, carefully, with observance and attention.

Sometimes he uses this talent just for fun. One time I was hosing out the back of my pickup truck, which had a shell on it. Consequently I was duck-walking around under the low canopy, concentrating on flushing out a large quantity of sand and gravel from the bed. This was, unsurprisingly, taking a long time; sand and gravel sink below the water flow and tend to stay put. Finn was wandering around in the driveway with me, hopping into the truck bed every so often to inspect my progress. I'd given him a pig ear to help keep him occupied, and kept  half an eye on him while I worked.

At one point Finn jumped into the truck bed and gave me that Look; I could feel the weight of it resting on me, a gentle and persistent touch, quietly demanding my attention. I glanced up to see him gazing intently over his shoulder at me, pig ear clamped between his jaws, one corner of it pushing his lip up in an absurd lopsided grin. When he was sure he had my full attention he turned to face the lowered tailgate, tossed his pig ear high in the air, leaped out and caught it on the fly, and landed adroitly on the driveway. He turned around to look at me again, gently wagging, as if to say "What did you think of that? I invented a new game! Didja see my technique? I didn't just catch that pig ear, I threw it, too, and I don't even have hands! I should get at least 8 points for the dismount, don't you think? I should probably get a ten, though, for creativity and style."

Naturally I laughed my sodden butt off, so he demonstrated the rules for me several more times. And, thus rewarded, Finn has persisted in the use of this particular Look. Which is in part how I knew, when he urinated all over me and my bed whilst fixing me with that expression, that something was Really Wrong.

I took him to the clinic and drew some blood. It was a Sunday; I was there alone. I waited for the bloods to come out, expecting signs of infection or possibly kidney disease. What I got was hypercalcemia. Very marked hypercalcemia. Enough to max out the capabilities of our blood analyst unit.

A peal of dread rolled through my chest when I looked at it. As a general rule, hypercalcemia in dogs means cancer until proven otherwise. And of the cancers that cause it, the most common one is lymphoma - which, in dogs, is incurable. The next most common are perianal cancer and bone cancer - and Finn had no such masses present.

Hell and God damn it. I love this dog. He's only eight. This can not be happening.

I admit I said a lot of really bad words while I thought. I went through my rule-out list of causes of hypercalcemia - the HARDONS list: Hyperparathyroidism, Addison's disease, Renal disease, vitamin D toxicosis, Osteomyelitis, Neoplasia, Spurious. My bloods had already ruled out Addison's disease, renal disease and osteomyelitis. There was no history of vitamin D toxicity (and I'd know, as this dog is with me pretty much 24/7, and when he's not under my eye he's in a run at the clinic.) That leaves me with hyperparathyroidism, spurious (lab error, essentially) - and cancer.

I drew more blood to be sent out to an outside lab to test inonized calcium levels and parathormone levels. The results would rule out lab error - confirmation or denial by an outside lab - and hyperparathyriodism. I also - while waiting for that test to come back - Xrayed Finn's chest. The commonest cause of hypercalcemia in dogs, as I said, is neoplasia - cancer. The commonest cancer to cause it is lymphoma, and the commonest form of lymphoma to cause it is a form called mediastinal lymphoma. The mediastimum is the structure in the center of the chest that contains the heart, the trachea and esophagus, the great vessels (aorta and vena cava) - and a cluster of lymph nodes just forward of the heart, at the branching of the mainstem bronchi. Lymphoma itself being a disease of the white blood cells, it forms most commonly in liver, spleen and lymph nodes, though it can go anywhere the bloodstream does.. Finn had no enlarged lymph nodes in the periphery of his body - the ones you can feel under a dog's jaw or armpits, in the junction of the shoulder, in the inguinal region or behind the knee. But the ones in the abdomen are harder to reach, and the ones in the chest, impossible. Those must be imaged.

The lateral view of Finn's chest looked okay - maybe a little hazy in front of the heart, but no visible mass. But the V/D view - one taken with him lying on his back - told a different story. There, in his mediastinum, right in front of his heart, is an unmistakable mass. Unmistakable.

More bad words, but I kept them to myself this time, both to avoid offending my co-workers, and as a way of whistling past the graveyard - pretending that I didn't know that death was stalking my household, its dark and roving eye fixed, for the moment, on Finn.

Meanwhile, there's one thing that cannot be ignored. Finn is still PU/PD - polyuric and polydipsic, which means he's peeing and drinking like a racehorse. The real problem here isn't the inconvenience; it's that, with calcium that high, you can induce kidney failure, and that, if left untreated, can potentially kill a dog faster than cancer. Something had to be done about this. There are there are choices: One is diuresis: simply running vast quantities of fluid into the dog to dilute the excess of calcium. It's a temporary fix, though, and may take days to produce the desired result. The second option is a calcium-wasting diuretic, one that excretes calcium preferenetially to other minerals. This isn't a bad option per se, but its capacity to drop the calcium is limited. And given the extreme numbers Finn was posting, I doubted it would help enough to make much of a dent.

That left option three: Steroids. Prednisone will dump excess calcium like a bad boyfriend. It's also cheap and well-tolerated, and tends to stimulate the appetite - which would be a good thing, since Finn - normally the most food-motivated of dogs - had started refusing food. There's really only one problem with it in a case like this: Pred induces MDR proteins.

MDR proteins are cell-membrane transport proteins that eject harmful substances from the cell. In the case of cancer, this is a bad thing: it means that medications that are meant to kill the bad cells are ejected before they can do the job. Normally, pred would have the additional drawback of destroying your ability to achieve a histopathological diagnosis (which means a diagnosis based on tissue samples examined by a pathoologist under a microscope)... but since I wasn't going to crack Finn's chest to biopsy lymph nodes this was not my main concern. My main concern was the MDR proteins. So there we are, Finn and I, between a rock and a hard place. If I use pred, I begin to induce MDR's, and the MDR proteins will close off any window I have for more-aggressive chemo that will earn me a longer remission. If I DON'T use pred, his kidneys will shut down and we'll lose much faster.

Still, you don't induce MDR's instantly, so I started Finn on pred on Sunday to dump his calcium; sparing his kidneys was the first obstacle, and I suspected the hypercalcemia was in part responsible for his poor appetite. I knew I didn't have long to decide what I would ultimately do. I'm in no way opposed to treating cancer - and have done it (sometimes with spectacular success) with any number of patients, not to mention four of my own dogs (Finn being the fifth such candidate). In animal medicine we aim for quality of life over length of life - after all, no dog is making it to sixty, and what matters to them is not how long they live. It's how WELL they live. And there's another factor: Of the chronic diseases, Cancer it the most curable one we have. We can't cure heart failure. We can't cure kidney failure. Past a certain point we can't cure liver failure, either. Treat them, yes. Cure them - short of a transplant, no. Cancer, we can cure. Not all cancers, of course, including the profoundly accursed lymphoma, and there's a cost - but as a group, cancer is the most curable of the chronic diseases.

This is all well and good, except for one big fat "however", being this: Lymphoma in dogs is a non-Hodgkin's form, and though medical science is always, always in pursuit of a means of curing it, that means has not yet come to hand. So based on the standards of medicine as they stand today, my best hope with aggressive therapy is a remission of some months' duration, and that may be hard-won... or possibly, unachievable. Not every dog will do a remission. And I have to consider the cost to the dog and the length of good time I propose to offer him in trade for the bad time I will cost him during treatment.

I thought about it from the minute I saw the high calcium levels, through the second blood draw and the Xray and while I was pending my other tests. Finn would do anything I asked of him - but he's a worrier. He hates procedures, and although he submits to them and tries to do as asked, he really really hates them. He is anxious and afraid, wonders what he's done wrong, is sad and uncertain for hours or even days afterwards. Can I in good faith put him through weekly procedures for this?

On the one hand: He's only eight (albeit, about to turn nine). On the other: It's not fair to torture them 'til they die. You have to strike a balance for the dog, do what's fair for them even if it's not the most time you can potentially gain for them. And ultimately, if you lose them now or lose them later, you're still going to grieve them. That won't change. All you can change is when. And with all that in mind - and Finn's temperament foremost - I decided that if it should be bad news, I'd stick with pred for as long as it would give me, and then, when it could give me no more, I'd do my best to help Finn die as gently and easily as it is in my power to make it.

A hard decision, but when I made it I knew it was the right one. It settled into my being with a little click, fitting in such a way that I knew, sad and grim as it was, it was the right choice for Finn.

Two days later the test came back: Hypercalcemia, and low parathyroid levels. So I've ruled out lab error, and I've ruled out hyperparathyroidism. That leaves me with one answer left: Hypercalcemia of malignancy, with a mediastinal mass telling me it's lymphoma.

I really expected this to just hammer me to my knees. I love this dog. Love him. He is charming and funny, sweet and willing, easy and kind - and so beautiful. Mainly that's his expression. My father once remarked that when Finn looks at you, you see his whole soul in his eyes. That's really kind of true. He is an honest dog, and a generous one as well. He gives you all he has, right off the bat, unreservedly. So what I expected was devastation, and I spent the entire day tensed, braced to stave off the well of pain and despairing of my dog lasting even 'til his 9th birthday, a week hence; he was that ill. But instead, once I was home and had a chance to drop my defenses, the fear fell away and what I had... was peace.

I found this confusing, and a little annoying. I knew what he had was bad. I'd already lost a dog - my beloved Buddy-dog - to lymphoma in the intestine. So how was this going to be okay? But I felt, somewhere unshakable, that it was going to be okay.  And after fighting that for a while, I gave up; I didn't understand why, but it was still there - that peace. Maybe it was just acceptance; we all die, sooner or later. Maybe it was just the understanding that whenever we part, Finn and I, it will hurt - and when is immaterial to that. The pain will still have to be endured, regardless of the date of its arrival.

Still: There's what must be done today.

Finn did well on his pred at the start. It is a medication that often causes excessive drinking and urination, of which he had plenty to begin with. But the pred did its job faithfully; Finn's calcium dropped like a rock. Within 36 hours he was actually less PU/PD than he was before we started the pred. He ate well for a few days - but then I noticed an alarming amount of weight coming off him, very fast. I upped his food, but he continued to drop weight and his appetite began to fade.

This is not just bad - it's really bad. Finn is very food-motivated, and in the past I've had trouble keeping weight off him, not keeping it on him. Things were moving alarmingly fast. The spines of his scapulae were like knife blades under his skin, the muscle on his shoulder blades gone. The vertical processes of his vertebrae stood up stark and clear, revealed by his atrophying back strap muscles. His arms and legs were thin and flaccid, his normal robust muscle tone gone, and his face looked hollow, the bones pressing against the skin from within, no longer clothed in normal flesh. Moreover he was weak and tired. This is a dog who had once had a leap so graceful and effortless that he seemed to float from the ground to the pickup bed, as if lifted there by magic. To see him climb laboriously, one foot at a time, into the cab of the truck - well. Not looking hopeful. I weighed him. He'd lost six pounds. That's 15% of his body weight, gone in less than 2 weeks.

The one thing about being backed against a wall like that is this: You have nothing to lose by punting. If you make a gamble and it doesn't pay off - well. You were losing anyway. So punt I did. I invented a protocol using a mitochondrial modifier. That went okay for a week, and then Finn started vomiting.

Well, crap. Okay, anti-emetics to control that, discontinue my invented protocol, taper the pred. Two days of that... and well, at least he has his appetite back; in nothing else, he'll at least eat well 'til I have to make the tough decision.

But then I noticed something. Finn stopped losing weight. In fact, he also seemed a little more cheerful. He'd eat anything I put in front of him, but now it seemed like it was actually putting some flesh on him.


Within a few more days, Finn was energetic enough to be really rather annoying - and there was great rejoicing. Mind you, it's a bit of a shock to be driving down the road, minding your own biz, and have something wet and warmly slimy suddenly thrust through your hair, smearing unidentified goo along your neck and then rolling down the front of you to land in your lap. This would, of course, be the drool-soaked Aflack duck (kindly provided by the Aflack dude, who gave me two because I told him Finn loves Aflack ducks). He does, too - he loves to bite them and make them say "Aflack... aflack... AAAAFFLLLAAACK!" Over and over and over again. Until your brain explodes. At any rate, the Aflack truck-duck is now mute, having been Aflack'd to death. Still, Finn keeps poking it over my shoulder so I can throw it into the back seat of the cab for him, because evidently driving is no longer interesting enough. We also have to have GAMES while we're on the road. (The Aflack house-duck has, unfortunately, kept its voice... which I know because I hear it every so often at FIVE IN THE MORNING, thank you very much, since Finn likes to get up and play with it while I'm trying to sleep. This can be ignored only so long. And "so long" is also a lot shorter if the spit-slimed duck is poked invitingly against your cheek several times, in repeating intervals of approximately 2 minutes, or else possibly dropped directly onto your forehead. Just sayin'.)

So: Hmm twice.

I'm inclined to be skeptical by nature, so I wasn't prepared to go all hog-wild about this. I took a "let's just wait a little and see" attitude, but I did feel that Finn was sturdy enough to go someplace with his sister Raven in the truck with us (something I'd stopped doing when he got sick, figuring he didn't need the stressor.) The first time I did this there was a clash of renewed sibling rivalry; even this was encouraging, since Finn had been so extremely passive when he first got sick. He'd defer to the back seat without even token resistance, leaving Raven the run of the front. But this time I had to banish him to the back, a correction he took with seemingly good grace.

Ahh. Peace. All is quiet on the western front. Until the Aflack truck-duck shoots forward and thumps against the dash hard enough to bounce back into my lap. So two things: one, Finn is maybe not as happy about the back seat as I thought, and two, maybe he should be pitching for the Yankees. Although I'm fairly certain he'd rather catch for them.

The upshot at this point is that Finn is, for the moment at least, well. It's unclear to me if this is a long-term remission - perhaps even a spontaneous remission, which does happen independent of treatment - or if it's just a lull, a temporary respite. It's too soon to tell. But in the short run I'm grateful for all I can get with him; he's very dear to me, and I'm not eager for a parting of the ways. And even if it means he's obnoxious and annoying and drops his spitty duck down my neck umpteen times a day, I'll take it. And I'll kick the soccer ball for him, and throw his Ceasar Milan designer squirrel frisbee until my arm falls off. I'm glad he feels well enough to be a pain in my behind, day and night. And i even admit that I don't really mind that much hearing "Aflack... Aflack AAAFFLLAAACK!" approximately one hundred and seventy-one times. In a row. Every few hours. Until my eyes bleed. The main thing is: the dog feels good.

But I am kind of considering some kind of de-voicing surgery on the Aflack house-duck.