December 1/365 Happy Things

Our house is blessed. We adopted a “bonded pair” of cats three years ago, with no planning. Rich claims that I didn’t even warn him, which is mostly true. Seneca and Opal arrived, our furry Yin and Yang, the best of friends. Never were ears cleaner, or purrs louder.

snuggling 3
No basket is too small.

Then Rufus arrived, this time with every human on board concerning the adoption. A skinny pup standing in the center of our circle, bravely wagging his thin tail. And life was good…until I got crazy and twisted arms so we could adopt Miss Sabine. Only Conor was sure this was a good idea. Now my two brindle dogs, my ink accident (Rufus) and bleach spill (Sabine), sleep curled into one another. Rufus, always the sweetest one, says she smells terrific. She watches him through wise amber eyes, and accepts his adoration.

love.jpg
Enter a caption
Advertisement

November 30/365 Nowhere

In a way, I’ve traveled widely and yet been almost nowhere. I will probably never know if my impressions bear any resemblance to the real because they are all birthed from the words of writers better than me. I hope that Eudora Welty is right about the importance of knowing one place in order to understand all other places. I have known a few places down to their cores. I also hope she is right about journeys:

It is our inward journey that leads us through time – forward or back, seldom in a straight line, most often spiraling. Each of us is moving, changing, with respect to others. As we discover, we remember; remembering, we discover; and most intensely do we experience this when our separate journeys converge. Our living experience at those meeting points is one of the charged dramatic fields of fiction.

― Eudora Welty, One Writer’s Beginnings

November 29/365 While in Maine

We discovered a few rules about seafood while in Maine. First, we didn’t know about the difference between clam bellies and clam strips. Turns out, to my shame, that we are more a clam strip kind of family, which means we are not open-minded to gobs of deep-fried, snot-textured seafood. It marked us as outsiders, non-New Englanders, people-who-don’t-know-better. Second, we learned that the boy should stick to lobster rolls after he turned green over his roe-laden crustacean. Much the same color as the tomalley in the lobster, it turns out.

November 28/365 College Hunting

Duncan thought he wanted to go to a college in Maine, so off we went in search of the perfect SLAC.* At Colby, the cheerful young guide said “awesome” too much, and there was something that set us off about the campus. Bowdoin positively glowed with New England essence, but every student we met was type A to a scary degree. At Bates, the young guide entertained us with free-wheeling ideas, such as starting a Viking House (complete with braided beards and building long boats) and we fell love with the school instantly. It was the only college that didn’t accept my boy.

* Small Liberal Arts College

November 27/365 Small Destinations

I need to get to the Tractor Supply store today or the dogs will go on strike. No, that isn’t true. My dogs are not good at organizational activities involving social change. My cats are, but they have plenty of food in the house. The dogs will simply turn their eyes on me, Sabine’s golden ones, and Rufus’s pools of chocolate, full of kindness and longing, and I will despair. So out into this drizzle of cold rain I go.

puppies-1.jpg

November 26/365 The Poconos

If they build another water park, my well will likely run dry. Our house is in the shadow of three mega water-wasters, here in the water park capital of the world. Great Wolf Lodge, Camelback Resort, and Kalahari Resorts* are in a corporate pissing contest to see who can have the most slides, most towers, most pools, indoors and out. One expands, then another shoots past, and I consider our aquifer and our well that goes 265 feet down. I wonder when I will turn on a faucet and hear air.

* Yes, a water park named after a particularly dry African desert.

November 25/365 Why I Never

You promise yourself you will never be one of those people, the ones with regrets. You swear you will travel to the furthest ports, taste all the food, dance with abandon, and see the sun rise and set over every ocean. You tell everyone, when this one last thing is tied up, when college loans are paid, when you get a little money in the bank, when this contract is over, you will be on that plane. Then, you don’t. The George Bailey effect.

November 24/365 The Genesee

The Genesee flows north, like the Nile. Unlike the Nile, it meanders all over the place getting to Lake Ontario. In Wellsville it bisects the town, a gentle green-banked river most of the year. By the time it reaches Letchworth, the river carves deeply into walls of rock. It grows by Rochester into a power-generating force, tumbling over three falls in the city, and providing the resources for that area’s manufacturing history.

We stood on the bridge near the Genesee brewery on a cold, wintery day. Conor and Ivy squabbled, but I heard only the water. Hello, old friend.

Genesee river
Looking north
Genesee falls
The high falls, looking south

 

November 23/365 My Place

I have trouble keeping my place.* I tend to speak up at inopportune moments, blurting out something uncomfortable. I often cry when trying to say something important, which makes everyone look away, at clocks and phones. I sense comedy when I shouldn’t, and laugh too loud. It is best, you will agree, that I avoid situations when proprieties are important.

* I know this concept seems dated, and I don’t really mean “place” as class designation, but rather as socially appropriate behavior. I am always the wild boar in the china shop. No diplomatic posts for me!

November 22/365 Where Are You?

Friends I have lost to distant places:

  • Julia, whose family home was delightfully named Quince Cottage, in Oxford, of course.
  • Carol, who went from Micronesia to live/work in Egypt and Indonesia, now retired in Hawaii.
  • Sharon, who disappeared entirely with no trace.
  • Mary, who survived the death of one husband, and now lives in an RV with another and keeps moving.
  • Kai, who went back south to Charleston, once she tired of taking Jarbo’s shit.

 

 

November 21/365 Harper’s Ferry, WV

For a stretch of years, we often visited Harper’s Ferry. Bob and Etta Mae ran a B&B overlooking the Potomac. Their house was a contemporary multilevel built into the hillside. The lower two floors were the bits rented out – two bedrooms with private baths separated by a common area with hot tub and wood stove. Bob grew Paulownia trees, and their young stalks covered the hillside. We always coordinated our visit with friends – Tim and Kate, or Marie and John.*

Eventually, Bob and Etta Mae sold out and moved to Texas. We haven’t been back to Harper’s Ferry since.

PhotoScan (12)
Kim, Kate, Tim, and Rich on The View’s front porch
PhotoScan (13)
Kate and Rich, The View
PhotoScan (14)
Marie and Kim, coffee on the patio

* I’m not really a B&B sort of traveler and hate meeting strangers before breakfast or when relaxing in a hot tub. Vacationing with friends solved everything.

November 20/365 Overland Park, KS

Stealing from Gertrude Stein: there is no there there.

Blond houses swirl out from fronds of cul-de-sacs. Three car garages, vinyl fences, those silly little pointed evergreen shrubs. Everything taller than the sod is pruned and surrounded by tinted mulch. Once this was open land, and after the oak and hickory were felled, the little bluestem grasses grew up to five feet tall. Blue bell flowers, cone flowers, paint brushes, thistle – raggedy, buzzing, dripping-with-life flowers.

Then, this was a place.

November 19/365 The Kielbasa Plate

We settled into a booth at Park House. Red Stripe beer was $1.00, and for $2.00 we shared a kielbasa-and-cheese plate, which was exactly as you would expect, tiny slices of sausage and cubes of cheddar, with a mound of crackers. This was Pittsburgh at its best – cheap, real, like home. I’ve looked up the website to view its current incarnation. Falafel, gyros, hummus, and, somehow, pierogies still. I hope that a young couple, dearly in love and living paycheck to paycheck, are sharing a happy hour plate there tonight.

November 18/365 Joe

A black crow greeted visitors to The National Aviary in Pittsburgh. The sign said, of course, to keep one’s fingers out of the cage. I always ignored that. I knew this fine fellow, and there was a spot on the back of his head that particularly needed gentle scratching. I wasn’t a total fool, so I kept alert; when his head moved I was outside his beak-reach instantly. Then he always bobbed his head twice and said “Hello Joe!” over and over. “Look, that crow’s talking!” As a crowd formed, I’d wink at the wise bird and move on.

November 17/365 Steel Towns

There are no beautiful steel towns. Every bit of nature and artifice has been hammered, choked, rusted, and polluted. Fine brickwork eroded by acids. Stained-glass coated with grime. The stunted trees grow listlessly, and there seems to be no end of garish plastic flowers standing in for the real thing. Worker housing was cheaply built, and not meant to last. People have patched the patches until every building shows a distorted face, a grimace, a freak show.

November 16/365 Hark!

We rented an apartment that had once been mill housing during WWII. Midland Heights was built high above the town, a convenience when the smoke from the blast furnaces would have blanketed the valley. Our unit was on the end, so in the fall we could see the ribbon of the Ohio below us. On still nights when fog draped the river, the mournful horns of blind tugboats sounded, reminding me somehow of angels and danger.

November 15/365 Along the Ohio

The Ohio River flows northwest from Pittsburgh through steel town after steel town. When we moved into the area in 1988, the mills were dead or dying. Some, like the J&L works in Aliquippa, were leveled. Ten miles of shoreline left as fractured pavement and weeds. In Midland, where some specialty steel continued in production, the shuttered large mill towered over the grimy town, a black skeletal cathedral to progress long passed.

November 14/365 Summer in Portugal

Conor calls me with an expensive idea. A month in Portugal, two required classes, and no idea how to pay for it. Why would he want to do such intensive coursework in Portugal, where I’m sure the sun will be burning in a cobalt sky and no one will want to stay indoors? I’m lost for a moment imaging dry brown hills, bowls of briny olives and sardines, and an orange so sweet it can change my life. How can I tell him to be practical, when I cannot?

November 13/365 Places Unknown

Places I can barely imagine:

  • America before strip malls and highways.
  • A night sky with no ambient haze at all.
  • The ancient Appalachian forests, before European settlers cut everything down.
  • Clean rivers. Really, any clean river would do.
  • The Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of New England and Canada, teeming with fish.

 

November 12/365 Fictions

Some imaginary places I have been:

  • Anarres. Especially in a plain, empty room, where Takver has left a piece of delicate art for others to enjoy.
  • Arrakis, nothwithstanding the stench of bodies and Spice.
  • Tom Bombadil’s house, after a good meal.
  • Narnia, before the winter ended.
  • The sitting room in Longbourne, with Jane and Elizabeth, waiting for visitors.

 

November 11/365 St. Claire Strip Mine

The boys and I hiked along the ATV trail onto the side of a strip-mined hill outside St. Clair. The ground, as far as the steep cliff down to the valley, was covered with fractured shale. We began to pick up flat plates, flipping them over to see if the fossils were whole, prying at the thin layers of rock. Our hands blackened quickly, and we began to save the beautiful ones. Alethopteris, neuropteris, sphenophylum – the 300-million-year-old fern imprints had been laid bare when the mountain was destroyed.

November 9/365 Mine

The large white house sat empty in the winter. Marcie and I dragged our sleds up the small hill to the top of the driveway, and with precision we steered between the trees. Later, when we tired of sledding, I would sit on the front steps and imagine owning such a fine place. It’s been for sale now for years, but still costs more than we can manage. Plus, seriously, who needs six bathrooms to clean? (The realtor’s description of the property overlooks the existence of the small pet cemetery; that seems a shame.)

November 8/365 Lenger Island, Federated States of Micronesia

On February 15, 1944, the bombs rained down on Lenger Island, a volcanic peak poking up in Pohnpei’s lagoon. The craters spot the island, like scars of a childhood disease, now lost in the wrinkles of rainforest. We anchored our boat off the remains of the seaplane dock and set off to see the ruins. Lenger is private land, so permission was required to explore. It didn’t take long to find the skeleton of the aircraft hangar; islanders long ago repurposed the metal skin, leaving the bones and forest to entwine. I only found one cathedral in Micronesia – this one.

Lenger dock
Seaplane dock, Lenger Island
Lenger debris
Something left behind.
Lenger
The Hangar, Lenger Island
Tree buttresses.
Lenger 3
The Hangar. (Note that our friends give perspective to the height of the roof.)
Lenger 4
Better than a stained glass above the altar.

 

November 7/365 Queen of the Finger Lakes

 

Seneca Lake
Seneca Lake, NY

Sometimes you just have the love the big girl. Forget for a moment the slender, fey chick – that’s Keuka. Or the pure-as-the-driven-snow virgin – that’s Skaneateles. Sometimes you just fall head-over-heels into the clear blue water that is Seneca. She’s a glorious lake, glacier-born, with depths that are just approximations. There be monsters in her, lurking, teasing. At her north shore, a walkway stretches miles, lined with willows bent by her constant wind. They toss their hair in the sun, and dance to her music. Even in sweltering July, Seneca washes over me with a deep coolness, a blessing.

old man willow
willows-in-wind.jpg

November 6/365 Rehoboth Beach, DE

My honeymoon, May 1982. We were broke, so we stayed at a guest house for a rainy, mildewed week. I learned to play Ms. Pac-Man in an empty arcade.

As that marriage tanked, I spent a bitter April afternoon on the beach with someone I’d never see again. It marked my end of belief.

And the last time, Rich and I drove there as dawn was breaking, just for the day. We were in the sun too long, and drank too much, so I ended up unable to bend my sunburned knees, and vomiting beside the road back to Washington.

November 5/365 The Barnes Foundation

There was an art museum designed by a collector, inside a building designed for the art. Somewhat crazy Albert C. Barnes, inspired and stubborn, made sure that it would stay exactly as he designed, even after his death. Every piece frozen in relation to other pieces; every room unchanged. Admission required a reservation, and days were limited in order to allow students primary access. This museum celebrated exploration over adoration.

But there wasn’t enough parking. The wealthy neighborhood didn’t like the traffic. The collection was priceless.

It broke my heart when they “recreated” The Barnes Museum, without its soul.

The original museum in Merion, PA, was perhaps the best museum I ever wandered through. No room was particularly large, and art was arranged much like in Gertrude Stein’s salon – everywhere! If you want to learn all the back-stabbing, grand-standing, legal wrangling that brought about the shiny new museum in Philadelphia, Jed Perl’s article in The New Republic explains it all.

November 4/365 Fallingwater, Mill Run, PA

Fallingwater, 2007
Fallingwater, 2007

Today the rain pours down across Pennsylvania, continuing this season of astonishing tropical storms, and I’m sure the roof is leaking, somewhere, in Fallingwater. The relationship of the building to water defines the beauty of Frank Lloyd Wright’s most famous house. The waterfall beneath will be glorious today, but in some corner of a square window, or a line of the roof, there will be a slow drizzle, water proving yet again that it will find a way in, erode the stone and concrete, and carve the landscape to suit its fancy.

 

November 3/365 Route 16/Cloud Peak Skyway, Wyoming

We chose the scenic route. A rookie mistake. Snow was falling as we set out, but when we dropped down the mountains into Cody, it stopped. We figured that the Big Horn Mountains should be lovely in September, with lots of scenic overlooks for pictures and places to stop for a picnic lunch. We were hoping to see Devils Tower before spending a couple of days in Rapid City, SD.

Snow flurries began at Ten Sleep, WY. The flakes melted as soon as they hit the pavement. Elevation 4,426 – still lower than Cody. The road climbed, and now the snow fell in earnest. We could see the signs for Meadowlark Lake, but could no longer see the edges of the asphalt. Elevation 8,199. We drove slowly in a cone of white, following rapidly filling tracks of a car somewhere ahead of us.

The conversation went something like this:

“Should we stop?”

“Where?”

“Do you think we should turn around?”

“How? We can’t see anything.”

“What the fuck are we going to do?”

A quick look over my shoulder at the boys sleeping in the back seat.

Then, as if on cue, a black shape poked through the white on the right of us. Then one ahead. Now two figures on the left, and a couple behind us. Rich braked slowly, afraid of sliding, afraid of hitting them, simply afraid. Black Angus cattle. This is free range country, with no fences. The cows were walking on the road that day, through the snow. Going our way.

We followed the cows for miles along that twisting lovely road, the promised vistas cloaked, our picnic eaten in the van as we crept along at a cow’s pace. We finally reached a pass and began a slow descent, and the snow turned to rain and then fog. The cows turned off the road, and we sped on. Later we saw the clouded outline of Devils Tower, but fled when the rain began to turn to snow again. September can be tricky in Wyoming.

November 2/365 Cooke City, MT

There was a buffalo called Herman who walked up and down the Beartooth Highway the summer Rich worked in Cooke City. He had probably wandered up from Yellowstone and had no intention to head back just yet. A solitary bachelor, like many who once worked the abandoned mines which were leaking poisonous chemicals into the Yellowstone watershed. The environmental construction crews gave him wide berth, as they also steered clear of the moose calving on the mountainside and the occasional grizzly or black bear. Herman walked toward Cody at dawn, and then back toward the Colter Pass as evening fell.

Herman
Herman, in the morning.

The Soda Butte Lodge has two webcams pointed up and down the main drag through Cooke City. Nothing much is happening today. It’s snowing, but it snows ten months a year at that elevation.

November 1/365 My Pittsburgh

My favorite way to enter my favorite city, Pittsburgh: through the Fort Pitt Tunnel, on I-376.

The approach to Pittsburgh from the airport, through clots of ugly suburban sprawl, promises nothing. The interstate flattens out the rough hills, and you drive up a long rise at Greentree, and then down toward the square tunnels cut into the side of an old mountain. The tiles of the tunnel glow yellowish green. Local drivers always, for no reason, brake before the end of the tunnel, before emerging into a world of light, three rivers, jagged skyscrapers, and bridges everywhere.

I have no pictures of this view, but there are plenty online. Here’s a nice assortment. It’s next to impossible to get a good photo from the Fort Pitt Bridge, and most people take the easier Mount Washington vantage point – Mount Washington sits on top of the ridge of land opposite the city, which the tunnel burrows under.