Time Recaptured

Friends in early childhood were situational, and they weren’t really friends; you met them in the park or in other places your parents took you. Eventually you were old enough to venture out on your own, and then you could “make friends” with other kids in your neighborhood (this was before the world was such a scary place that real play was replaced by parentally arranged “play dates”). Again, initially you had location in common – which, as I think about it, has always been necessary to starting a friendship.

Eventually you were discerning and actually chose your friends. In your teens they were kids you “fit with,” people like yourself; later perhaps you became friends with someone because you admired them and in some way perhaps you and the friend enhanced each other. Lovers and friends were more distinguishable then than in this generation, although throughout history and even in my youth (when the earth was still cooling) it was wise for lovers to also be friends.

Friendships most often seem to be killed by distance and time, or rather, the lack of time.

Lately I’ve been making friends from a distance. The Internet has removed that once-essential first step of friendship, Location. The irony of this is that while I have made a number of new virtual friends (some of whom I eventually got to know personally), the Internet has also reconnected me with a number of far-flung old friends from various periods in my life, friends who had been “lost.” Yesterday I received these wonderful lines from one of them:

I’ve never felt pressured to write
By anything you’ve said or implied.
But yes, there is an urgency about it,
Brought on, no doubt, by my own sense
That time has been lost
And that writing is the only way
To try to make up for it.
It’s simple – the more I send,
The more I get back.
And therein lies the time recaptured.

Well said, old friend. How delicious is the recapturing!

Skunks and the Women Who Trap Them

My neighborhood – the large area between the Adirondack mountains and the St. Lawrence River – was wilderness until shortly after the Revolutionary War. People migrated through here, heading west; loggers came and some settled; small farms were carved out of the woods; trappers set their lines and sold their pelts; and all of these activities continue today.

The migration now is mostly our children seeking excitement or jobs in distant cities; machinery and fewer mills have reduced the number of jobs “in the woods;” small farms have become hobby or part-time operations or have been consumed by large free-stall milking parlor dairies; the trappers – at least the ones I’ve met lately – now wear bras (probably at least some of the time). Oh, sure, there are still the guys out there with their steel-jawed traps and their clubs, inflicting pain and death on the local wildlife population and presumably finding a market for the bloodied skins, but there are also quite a few women who have taken up the trade.

As you might expect, these women see trapping as part of their household responsibilities rather than some perverse or violent form of recreation or income generation: it’s a tough job and somebody has to do it. They usually start small, say with a mouse-size Havahart trap, but eventually they all move up to something that will catch a squirrel (the one who’s eating the birdseed in the feeders) or a raccoon who has become too fond of sweet corn. Of course, if you set a trap big enough to capture a raccoon, there’s a good likelihood that sooner or later you’re going to catch a skunk, and that’s why the conversation at an average cocktail party around here might run to discussion of what to do once that skunk is in your trap. So it was at the opening of the Frederic Remington Art Museum’s recent show: the curator (Laura), a past-president of a local theatre organization (Ellen) and I were discussing Laura’s post-opening chore of relocating the skunk that sat at home in the trap under her porch. We all know something about this.

It’s really quite simple. A skunk is a bit like a little boy with a squirt-gun: he’s loaded, and the first human being he runs into will be a target. With that clearly in mind, the skunk trapper holds up a good-sized blanket, being very careful to conceal hands, feet, and every other body part behind it as she SLOWLY approaches the trapped skunk. She gently drapes the blanket completely over the trap. Once under wraps, skunk, trap and blanket can be gently lifted onto the back of a pickup truck. In theory, you can now drive your skunk to it’s new home without incident, but good sense suggests that you probably don’t want to do this if your vehicle is the family sedan…

After driving to a suitable location (the yard of a good friend, the site of the church ice cream social, the wedding reception of your ex – there are lots of possibilities here…), it’s time to release the skunk. This will be made much easier if you had previously tied a long rope or rope/stick combination to the trap latch or door and practiced opening it from a distance… (I’ve found that rolling the trap onto its top allows the door to flop open, but I haven’t yet tried this with a skunk in it). Again, remember the little boy/squirt-gun analogy… Let no part of you be visible to the skunk!

And so Laura’s black and white friend has a happy home in a distant wood (twenty miles distant, that is), the porch smells like a rose, and all’s right with the world. Let’s sing a chorus of “I’m a WO-MAN, W-O-M-A-N! Say it again!”

I hear that Havahart has just come out with a husband/boyfriend size trap, and compared to the four-legged skunks, relocating those critters should be a piece of cake. The family sedan caveat won’t even apply.

Chum

Several weeks ago I spent an interesting and enjoyable few days pooting around the Upper Hudson with a Toronto chum. Here, at the site of the Revolutionary War Battle of Saratoga, she gets a better understanding of the lay of the land.

We followed the routes of ancestors, pored over old land records, visited museums and historic sites, stomped through old cemeteries and visited locks along the waterway connecting Lake Champlain and New York City. She taught me the value of “trying on” a locale to better understand one’s ancestors; I taught her that ice cream cones are sold in Stewart’s shops and can be found in nearly every village.

Here’s to fun with a purpose, and here’s to friendship!

Friend

I pushed him once too often. He needed the push, or rather, he needed to take action, but he couldn’t take the push. His exact words as he left my life are forgotten now, although I do remember thinking profanity wasn’t ever expressed more eloquently than in the irate oration of this man. My front door – no stranger to his exits – punctuated the sign-off message with a profound slam, and then there was a very long silence.

That was the surprising part: he didn’t come back. The almost daily visits of the past twenty years completely ceased, and I got used to days and weeks uninterrupted. He was still around, but even in this North Country where no one is a stranger, our paths didn’t cross for almost two years. He had a woman companion (no doubt the reason he was able to “give me the mitten”), and I was glad for that, and a woodpile appeared in his driveway, so apparently he did make the call I was suggesting when he lost his temper with me. I hoped he was doing okay, but frankly the relief of no longer being the best friend of a person suffering mental illness was a relief I savored. I just never thought I’d be savoring it for so long.

Today while weighing the relative merits of Keebler and Nabisco in the local supermarket snack-food aisle, I became aware of a shopping cart close to mine, looked up, and there he was. I don’t know how long he’d been looking at me, but his eyes were filled with tears, and instead of “Hello,” the words, “I’m so sorry” flowed from his mouth. We embraced, a long emotional embrace, causing shoppers to make U-turns and forego crackers rather than confront this soppy pair. I told him I don’t ever care if he calls me names or gets furious with me, but he if he ever again disappears on me for two goddam years, I will hit him right side of the head with a two-by-four.

As I drove home, my mind wandered over the memories of what nearly a quarter-century of this friendship was like. How many phones had he smashed? How many dents in the front door? I thought about the morning he discharged himself from the hospital – an I.V. line, a string of obscenities and me trailing behind; remembered the call (made in my absence, from my phone) to the crisis center to come pick up his body in half an hour; thought of being in his tiny cabin as he flailed his ax, committing murder on a block of wood in the doorway; considered the night spent with him in the emergency room, his hand slashed open by the propane heater he had raged against. And who could forget the Town Court appearance where he put on a drunken oration Richard Burton would have been in awe of. With him there would always be times like those, and there would not be apologies.

And yet, he is a wonderful friend. On the good days, no one has a better sense of humor, a quicker wit; no one is smarter than my friend, no one more fun to be with. He has nursed sick animals, maintained diabetic cats, and comforted me through the death of dear pets; it was this friend who introduced me to P.G. Wodehouse, Gilbert & Sullivan and led me to Randy Newman. Have a question? Just ask him, and if he doesn’t have an informed, insightful answer immediately, expect a typed, researched response left on your dining room table within 24 hours. Baseball, science, literature, music, history – choose your topic, and my friend will bring it to life with sensitivity, intelligence and often humor.

So here I am, back on the merry-go-round again. I know there will be days when I’ll ask myself how I ever got into this relationship again, but right now I am feeling a warm sense of happiness. Thanks, Keebler and Nabisco. There’s been something missing from my life.

Coyote Call

I’ve lived in the North Country for thirty years, and during that time the howling of coyotes has become one of the common night sounds – a chorus of varying voices. It wasn’t always so, and in fact it was such a thrilling novelty back in the 1980s that one winter evening we hosted a potluck supper and invited John Green, biologist and coyote expert, to give a short lecture to the assemblage and then take us out into the woods on a “coyote call.”

John brought tape recordings and explained the different voices the animals use to communicate. We listened intently and several of us took turns doing vocal imitations before donning parkas, hats, mittens and boots and setting out for the hilltop (which seemed an appropriate howling location). Surely Sherman’s army was stealthier than we, and if Wiley had been anywhere in the vicinity, he wouldn’t have stuck around to find out what this gaggle of wise-cracking, flashlight-bearing, two-legged amateur naturalists was up to. Although it was a rip-snorting good time, no canines returned our calls that night.

In the years since, I’ve occasionally made efforts to commune with the coyotes. Sometimes I’ll try to initiate something by stepping onto the cold, open back porch and howling into the stillness of the night; other times I attempt to join in a conversation of nearby wails and yips that’s in progress. In the first case, sometimes my neighbor (who attended the potluck…) howls back; in the second, the woods immediately go silent.

I can only guess at how my efforts might translate, but it’s probably something like the time the sheep got into the carrots. I was staying with friends in Costa Rica and early one morning discovered the small herd munching happily on garden produce. Not knowing quite what to do, I grabbed a half-eaten carrot (because I didn’t know how to say “carrot” in Spanish) and ran to the kitchen waving it and yelling, “Las viejas!!!” The cook gave me a very baffled look… and then began to laugh heartily. I had informed her that “the old ladies” (viejas) – not the sheep (ovejas) – were into the carrots! And so it must be with the coyotes: I think I’m yelling, “Hey! How are you? Gather ‘round here!” and they hear, “Ich bin King Kong!! Run for your lives!!” Like the cook, Wiley has probably had a few laughs. He has never answered my calls.

Last night, in the heat of a passionate rendezvous, my mate emitted several fairly loud erotic moans. There was a “beat” of silence, and then suddenly through the open windows came a deafening and enthusiastic chorus of canine wails, barks and yips. Passion gave way to uncontrollable laughter as we realized we had finally communicated something our wolf-like neighbors could understand.

Is it not possible that all animals may share a language of passion, of fear, of need; of hunger or joy or anger – a language that transcends syntax? Humans have simply lost the ability to understand it. The coyote love song may not be very different than our own, and “calling” to them from a warm bed is much more pleasant than those old back porch efforts. John Green probably knew this, but he didn’t tell us.

Thelma and Louise-in’

After a wonderful weekend with a group of Ontario Friends – more on that later – this wizard is leaving on a road trip with my buddy Louise from Toronto, and the blog will go silent for awhile. I asked her if I could blow up the tanker truck this time, but she reminded me of my non-violent Quaker ancestry.

FINAL SHOOTING SCRIPT, final scene, Thelma and Louise by Callie Khouri:

They [Thelma and Louise] are still looking at each other really hard.

THELMA: You’re a good friend.

LOUISE: You, too, sweetie, the best.

MUSIC: B.B. King song entitled “Better Not Look Down” begins. It is very upbeat.

LOUISE: Are you sure?

[Thelma nods]

THELMA: Hit it.

Louise puts the car in gear and FLOORS it.

Watch for us in the Hudson Valley… Thelma and Louise live!

Escape From Danemora

Last night I had a very funny conversation with THE FIRST ESCAPEE FROM DANNEMORA, some fifty years ago. Gerry has been a Canadian since the Vietnam era and is the owner of the pub we frequent.

He told about being in the States visiting his daughter on June 7, 2015, picking up a newspaper, and seeing a full-page story on the prison escapees going out through the steam tunnels and exiting via a manhole. “I thought, holy shit! There’s only 3 of those manhole covers in the whole town! One of them was in my back yard! I’ve stepped on that thing dozens of times!!!”

Gerry’s dad spent many years inside the prison as a guard, as did every other resident of the tiny town with the exception of a couple who owned a small grocery store. Dannemora is the place where the worst of the worst criminals are sent, and Gerry commented that Richard Matt and David Sweat were “horrible men.” Dannemora is mentioned in an old movie set in Alcatraz. An older inmate tells a young one, “You’d better be careful or you could be transferred to Dannemora.” It’s a bit creepy just driving through the town, passing right next to the massive cement walls with their guard turrets.

Anyway, dinner and beer were excellent – as always. ‘Chatted with Jeff, the part-time bartender we’ve come to know over the past nine years. He’s passed his nursing exams, quit smoking, and was great to catch up with. We also met a new “friend” who was reading Richard Fry’s book, “Mythos”, a retelling of Greek mythology as only the former butler to Bertie Wooster could tell them!

A perfect evening.