Saturday, September 14, 2013

Sleep, Sweet Sister

Well hey there… I’m not your usual host, I’m her older sister stepping in to bring you up to date.

If your usual Vet were here, she'd surely say… “I’m SO sorry I’ve neglected my story telling duties, but it was for a REALLY good reason.  I’ve been busy with changes in my job, and visiting my family, and I just needed a little sabbatical.”

If she were here.  Which, sadly, she is not. 

So you have me. 

My younger sister was a wickedly smart, hugely talented, quirky, endlessly entertaining, complex, independent, and occasionally troubled Veterinarian who practiced her passion in the only place she could imagine living, Alaska.  And she finally did take that sabbatical.  One from which we will not see her return.  In May, 2013, the Vet on the Edge - my sister - passed away.

If you have followed along with her tales of life in the wild, you know that a while back she had pneumonia.  Although she had technically recovered, I think it took a much greater toll than any of us but her knew.  Some of those closest to her were concerned for her health, but she chose to struggle with it alone, and in May that struggle came to an end.

She will be sadly and sorely missed.  There are many years of tales that should be following here that she will not get to tell you.  But if you will pull up your chairs one more time, I will tell you a tale of my own, one about your host and narrator, about a talented and funny Veterinarian who lived in the wild land of Alaska. About the little sister she once was.

I suppose I should tell you who I am.  I’m the older sister, the one who, much to our mother’s dismay, took shears to my sister’s hair when she was three… something she remembers clearly and I remember not at all. Except, of course, from the many times it’s been told at family functions as part of our family’s oral legacy. 

I am the missing sister.  Our mom thinks of me as Haley’s Comet flying into the family’s night sky just once every 72 years.  Our dad once referred to me as the geigenshine – the trail of particles left behind as the earth travels through space – something even astronomers rarely see.  My nieces and nephews think of me as a unicorn – an exotic creature with mystical powers that they all know lives in the forest, but that they only barely catch glimpses of. 

What they say is true.  In one sense my sister and I have not been close since I left home at 15.  Our relationship has been one of intermittent phone calls and rarer emails, often occasioned by my need of some veterinary advice. We did not keep up with the details of each other’s lives.  And yet, once she’d helped me work through some veterinary conundrum, the conversation would bounce and spring and dash in all directions like spring lambs cavorting in the grass.  My husband would shake his head and chuckle that any two people could talk so fast and leap so quick and never miss a beat.

In another way, and despite the long gaps in contact, we were as close as it’s possible to be – we were sisters, just 2 years apart, and I’ve known her all her life.  I *know* her, who she is… was… how she was made, what strange mechanisms rumbled about in the darkness of the emotional undercurrent she hid with her ironic sense of humor and her quirky take on life.  We sprang forth from the same genes, the same tribulations.  We shared talents and intellect, quickness of mind and of words.  We shared the ability to skip lightly from idea to idea, from observation to conclusion, like big horn sheep springing from outcrop to tiny outcrop along the edge of a vertical rock face.

Once, I was regaling some of my bellydance friends online with the tale of how I discovered that sheep eat goats whole (at least goats think they do), and how I know that dairy goats have much better brakes than draft horses.  At the end of my story, a third-connection acquaintance – someone  I’d never met in person or even emailed with directly – said I’d made her laugh until she cried.  She said the only other person who ever made her laugh like that was a blog she read, and that I reminded her of that writer.  She posted a link to this blog. 

It seems that we were so much alike that even random folks we’d never met could identify us as sisters by our words alone.

And yet for all we were alike, we were as much different.  I came into this world as blunt and raw as lava struck from Haleakala by the goddess Pele.  My sister arrived with a winning, graceful charm, sailing smoothly in like Botticelli’s Venus on the half-shell.

I think I must have been 7 or 8 when I finally understood the power of her charm.  We had been trundled off to bed and our parents had tucked themselves in for a bit of bedtime reading.  Neither she nor I were ready to sleep, no shock to those of you who know she mostly functioned without it.  I had gone to our folk’s bedroom to try to wangle out a stay of bed-time execution.  I had hit upon a question, a science question, a clever and interesting one, no doubt – science questions were always good for getting their attention. Perhaps one question could be parlayed into another and yet another and maybe into half an hour or more of that delicious space beyond the bedtime rule.  Somehow, my parents detected my ploy (who knew parents could figure out that sort of thing?) and I was sent packing back to bed. 

As I turned the corner from their door into the hall, there was my little sister, slipping under my arm and through their doorway. I watched as she laid her head down on mom’s knee, turning just so, like a puppy going belly up for a tummy rub.  She turned on that charming smile - if you ever met her in person, you’d know the one - and flashed her dark eyes with the thick velvet lashes. Then she said something that made mom laugh and it was done.  Just like that she had captured the up-past-bedtime prize, the Stanley Cup of parental attention, won the Superbowl of sibling rivalry.  I knew I had been aced, skunked, shut out.  Well and thoroughly trounced.  Game, set, match to the girl with the wit and the charm and the velvet lashes. 

It’s funny though, I never held her to account for it.  I knew it was her gift. And even though we were rivals, she charmed me with it too.

If you’ve been keeping score, you know we have a plethora of parents and an even larger number of siblings – full and half and step – not to mention friblings and others who have volunteered as family.  Four of us share the same two parents, and of the four I think she and I were the most different. I’m fair skinned and freckled, with gray eyes and straight blond hair that turned mouse brown as I grew.  She had olive skin, curly chocolate hair and hazel eyes with lashes lush as pampas grass.  I was a stick until my mid-twenties but she always curved like a girl.  While I’m not tall, I break the average. And she, as you know, was always short.

When I was 10 and she was 8 we both had 4-H lambs. They started out as they usually do - bottle babies with big liquid eyes and soft nubby white wool and tails that waggled wildly when they nursed.  And they ended as 4-H lambs are expected to - in white waxed paper in the freezer.  My reaction to a dinner of lamb chops we knew by name was to eat hearty and become a sheep rancher when I grew up.  Hers was to cry for weeks, then grow up to be a Vet.

We differed on what did and didn’t matter in men, too. I said the right man had to be smart and have table manners, she said she didn’t care if grease ran down his chin and he wiped his fingers on his shirt, as long as he made her laugh.  We differed on marriage - she never married, and I kept marrying until I got it right. 

I brewed wine and she brewed beer.  Even in the same hobby we took counterpoint.

We even differed on the blessing-ness of the late-graying gene we both inherited from mom - she thought it was a gift and I wish my hair would just finish going silver already (something Mom assures me it will never do. Ever. Salt and pepper is the final endpoint. Live with it.)

Despite all that difference, I think she needed to *tell* me that we were different.  She used to call me up with one problem or another she was having and ask for my advice.  She’d listen carefully to the best I had to offer, all very practical and well thought out, then she’d set about telling me all the reasons it would never-ever not-even-remotely in-a-million-years not-on-this-planet-or-any-other work for her.  At the time it used to frustrate me no end, but now I wonder if she needed to build the contrast because, underneath, we were in some ways so much alike.

Both of us believed that the things we did without much effort - the talents we were born with - didn’t create anything that anyone could really value.  That if someone said something nice about our artwork or our intelligence or our contribution to others it was only because they were polite.  Neither of us believed they could really mean it. Neither of us could take in people’s appreciation or respect, their gratitude or thanks, their acknowledgement or praise.  I think it created in her a sadness, an isolation that she defended against with her charm, her wit, her ability to entertain.  Her gift gave her a way to cope, a way to keep that sadness at bay.  Without that gift, I had to live with my demons, share space with them all the time, and eventually I had to confront them and make peace.  I think perhaps my sister never did.

Once, while I was working in Florida, I took the glass-bottom boat tour of Wakulla Springs.  We cruised over the outlet where the underground river flows out into the greater pool.  Wakulla flows more gallons per hour and at greater speed than any other freshwater spring in the country.  Looking down through the glass, you can see the outlet like an underwater cave.  And that huge volume of water rushing out by the thousands of gallons looks like … nothing.  It’s so clear that you cannot see it at all - just the bottom sand sparkling there beneath the boat as if the torrent of water at the outlet was as placid as the surface we were floating on.  I asked the guide how far up the spring the divers had explored and he said not far, that the current was too much for human beings to swim against for long.

I think my sister was like that.  On the surface, she was sparkling and light, with a humorous observation for even the darkest events.  But underneath there was in her a current of sadness that she swam against, camouflaged by her humor, transparent and unnoticed.  I think that’s why she often didn’t sleep, because she needed to keep swimming. I think its why she always entertained us, because that humor brought her light.

I think her humor was her truest gift, her compassion was the power in her life.  And I think the pneumonia took her stamina and finally the strength she needed to swim against the tide.  

So I will just leave you with this…

Sleep, my sweet sister. Rest. Our dreams go with you. Calm waters await, you do not need to fight.  Just know that sometime in our long future I will flow down the mountain like Pele’s lava and I will meet you again when you return like Venus on the tide.


To you who knew my sister through her writing… she left a little gift.  There are unpublished stories.  From time to time I will post one for you here. 

And she left a manuscript.  It will take a while, but we (her siblings) are working to bring it to print.  It was her dream, something she worked long and hard to realize and we will take it through that final step.

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.