Sunday, November 24, 2013

gambling in the valley of fire, star trek, a severe weather alert, tom jones, shooting deer, and frozen water pipes, or ... it’s not unusual

Last weekend was not the first time I was in Vegas. About 35 years ago I was there, stopping briefly while traveling across country from Chicago to Santa Barbara with my sister and her husband and two cats in a dusty, old, white station wagon, hauling a trailer full of stuff. They were moving to their first house; I was headed to a term of study in Mexico. In a message to me before my trip last weekend, my sister said:
Remember when we drove through there ... We went in one of the casinos and you put in one coin and hit the jackpot and walked out.
My memory is slightly different. As I recall, my sister allowed Jim and I exactly 30 minutes in Vegas, and yes, my sister runs a pretty tight ship. The whole trip was well organized with snacks consisting of saltines and sardines (or were those our meals?). We changed drivers every two to three hours to stay fresh. It was August, and Elvis was all over the radio.

Meanwhile, Id like to share this picture from the Valley of Fire
State Park, which is just outside of Vegas. See Picasso?

I remember it was dusk as we drove into Vegas, coming down out of some mountains, the city a beckoning glow in the middle of a darkening, flat expanse, like a pat of neon margarine in the middle of a burnt pancake. The only life at the end of a bleak highway. Beyond the glow, shadows and more dark, and beyond that a pale thin sunset stretching for miles.

And here we see a funky monkey head, right?

My brother-in-law and I were excited to try our luck on The Strip, and with exactly one half hour to play, the pressure was on. The pressure felt good. Like a challenge. I traded a dollar bill or maybe two for a cupful of nickels and settled into the slot machines, dropping coins, pulling levers, anticipating the clinkety-clink and clackety-clack and … nothing. Repeat. Then, in the twenty-ninth minute on my last nickel a racket of proverbial silver came tumbling out of my machine, and it made me panic, and it made me smile. I gathered up my coins, carted them over to the cashier, got me a twenty-dollar bill.

So which story is true? Did I win on the first nickel or the last? My sister’s story turned prophetic, for last Friday I was in a casino (anywhere you go in Vegas is a casino, from the gas station to the sushi bar), and Louis gave me a dollar to play. (Note: This casino was nowhere near as freaky as the one that looked like Paris. As a matter of fact, I liked this casino just fine.) I picked a machine—are they still called slot machines?—and sat down. I addressed the machine in a subdued yet Nortonesque-like manner, inserted the dollar bill, pulled the lever. Things whirled and spun and a chip of paper spit out, like the parking stub you get at the airport. Eventually, with a little help, I figured out I had won five dollars. The cashier turned out to be another machine, and with reluctance I let that machine suck away the stub of paper that proclaimed my winnings. When the machine spit out a five dollar bill, I relaxed. Okay. I get it. I gave the five back to the machine in exchange for five ones, paid Louis back his dollar, and went on my merry way, done with gambling for another 35 years.

Back on the home front, one of my favorite things popped up Thursday. A Severe Weather Alert.
Friday was sunny and mild, but along about 5:30, I saw this severe weather lurking behind the trees.

Soon it came rolling in.

By Saturday morning, with barely 10 degrees on the thermometer, a strong northwest wind, and an inch of snow by the door, Elliott’s paws were making a quick crunch crunch crunch as he dashed out. By Saturday night, the water pipes were frozen.

The Valley of Fire and the Vegas Strip are oddly similar. Both are testaments to creativity in the School of Non-Subtlety. The School of How Odd Can You Get. The School of How Grand Can It Be. At the Valley of Fire, the woman in the gift shop asked if we were Star Trek fans, then told us that Capt. Kirk’s death scene had been filmed just up the road in the Canyon of Fire. I searched for this death scene on YouTube, which you are free to watch, and found another scene filmed in the Valley of Fire. (Yes, I’m just guessing, but pretty sure). It’s a lot funnier than Kirk’s demise, especially along about 2:37.

If you are interested in a more serious look at the Valley, but not without its aliens, watch this video. The videographer walks to Mouse’s Tank, which is also what Louis and Finn and I did.

By now, with all this audiovisual, I am wondering if there is such a thing as The Vegas Influence. A lingering Las Vegas sensation. Perhaps Vegas is why I chose to play my Tom Jones DVD while working on candles the other day. I recently bought a portable DVD player / CD player / radio / TV (if only I could get a station) that fits nicely on top of my refrigerator.

See? There’s Tom. In my cabin.

My appreciation for Tom Jones came late in life—which may be the only way it does come—and the inclination, of course, is to share a video of him in his bow tie and ruffled shirt, dancing to beat the band and the ladies, but I decided on this clip instead.

The DVD set I have is a compilation of segments from Tom Jones’ TV show from the late sixties and early seventies, and on it are some of the duets he did with his guests. He sang not only with Burt Bacharach, but with Aretha Franklin, Little Richard, Joe Cocker, and Janis Joplin. (The best duet by far is with Janis.)

I suppose the fact that I like Tom Jones indicates that there is, indeed, a little Vegas in my soul. And just as Vegas is more than The Strip, so is Tom Jones more than, well, whatever you might think.

Due to the Severe Weather Alert, I had decided Friday to skip the Saturday market in Marquette. Instead, Saturday morning I lollygagged about the cabin and took my usual walk to the river. The thermometer remained just south of ten degrees, but the wind was not bad and the snow had paused at a depth of about three inches. A number of deer and coyote tracks crossed my trail, and, as usual, I got gaga over the Queen Anne’s lace, now sporting jaunty caps of snow.

Heading back to the cabin, I heard a shot. Then another, and another. Five in all, close together, and closer to me than I’d ever heard before. From each I could feel a slight reverberation. It’s not unusual this time of year to hear shots. People have gone into the woods, climbed up into trees, hid behind blinds, are shooting deer.

And did I mention my pipes are frozen?

Sunday, November 17, 2013

the big two-parted week

Part One (earlier in the week)
Up early on a morning that is darker than night. The waxing moon has set; its light no longer reflects off the snow, no longer lightens the windows. Like an old Kleenex, I nestle into this pocket of time that seems to be neither day nor night, just somewhere between where I take refuge. It is cold, frightfully cold for November, and a fire struggles to find its warmth.

Boxes stacked by the door, packages destined for thither and yon. “Thither and yon” reminding me of a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movie, but which one? “Thither and yon.” Was it Fred’s funny little valet who said it? Perhaps. I should watch all those movies again, see if that valet says “thither and yon.”  Maybe watch the movies this winter as the cold settles in.

Prior to being boxed up for thither and yon.

All day the thermometer hovers just above 20 degrees. An occasional blast from the west wind. A bit of snow, but not much. Once in a while drifting clouds break apart. A startling sun. An eagle hunkered down in the snowy branches over the bend in the river, by the island.

Thither the eagle.

Elliott had thought he was going to spend the night out but in the middle of the night I got up and called him in. In the morning I see his pawprints making a straight line through the snow from garage to front door.

Part Two (later in the week)
I am in Nevada at the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area on the outskirts of Las Vegas. I am walking through a canyon with Louis. Sun fills the whole huge sky and a light, dusty wind blows cool in the shadows. Underfoot a rocky trail and rocks all around. Loose rock, jutting rock, soaring rock. Rocks that fold and rocks that jag. Rocks that form crevasses and caves with mysterious hidden interiors. Bold, bald-faced rocks streaked with earthy colors that shift with each movement of the sun. When my foot slips across loose rock my attention is drawn down, but with each new step new vistas appear and rocks also draw my attention up.

Thither and yon, another new vista.

Along the jagged outline of a ridge to our south, two desert bighorn sheep. They stand still, posing. We stand still, take pictures. We walk on, looking up occasionally, keeping track of the sheep, and eventually they move down the face of a boulder, disappear.

Over yon stood bighorn sheep.

Saturday I walk into a casino. Overhead a pale blue sky smudged with thin white clouds seems to go on forever. It takes me a moment to realize that the sky is actually a ceiling. I am enclosed in a mock rendering of the streets of Paris. I am enclosed in a Las Vegas casino. I see a bronze (or bronze-like) statue of a frumpily jacketed man caught in mid-stride as he stoops slightly over a push broom collecting ahead of him a pile of dust and debris. Is this the first thing I see? Even before the pale blue painted sky? I am not sure. Surely it is unimportant, but it is the only thing in the whole immense, cacophonous enclosure designed and built to look like Paris that I do remember clearly. That statue and the blue painted sky and the bathroom. (There was a ladies room so big I walked through two broad rooms of sinks before getting to more rooms lined with hundreds of stalls. I was the only one there. The only person in this immense bathroom. An oasis echoing with emptiness. Everyone else outside, on the streets of Paris.) I keep thinking about that statue, cannot figure out why one bronze, life-size sculpture of a street sweeper. On the streets of Paris.

Sometimes, high levels of noise and visual sensation freeze my brain, scoop the life right out of me, and such was the effect of the Paris casino. Later, still somewhat numb, I felt sure that no time soon would I find that pocket I always seem to need in order to clear my head and make sense of things. That no time soon would I find space in which to sift through it all and pick out the few words that could maybe wrap my week up into a neat little package, no matter how clumsily tied.

Is where I find peace so immalleable? Must these pockets I take refuge in be of such specific time and space? Can they not happen in a desert?

But I know nothing is immalleable.

I was listening to Louis talk about Vegas and Nevada and canyons and casinos, about his story and some of the steps and stumbles that have moved him through his life and to this place. It was somewhat of a ramble, but maybe more pointed, but my listening did ramble, and I came to a place I did not expect. I came to a comfortable pocket where I found one sentence. Sometimes, I thought, it simply helps to listen to another person’s story.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

the incredible saga of hedge apples and fear

Saturday about four a.m. and a cold November rain drums on the cabin’s metal roof. A log has flared in the woodstove and firelight dances across the chestnut-stained wood ceiling. Either one or both of these things has awakened me, and I listen and watch as hedge apples and fear run through my mind. They seem to be like apples and oranges. No relation. And that brings up one thing about hedge apples: If the fruit of the Osage orange can be called an apple, how different can apples and oranges be?

The fear from earlier in the week has passed, so I focus on the hedge apple. The funky fruit that is neither an apple nor an orange has been on my mind as an old friend from the Chicago area has been writing about them in his near-daily online “ramble.” These rambles bring together Dale’s morning walk and his rambling mind, and a couple of months ago hedge apples started falling and scattering across his path, something they have been doing, apparently, all his life. Dale and hedge apples have a history, and Dale’s wife believes in hedge apple magic.

So my old friend has been writing about hedge apples. He tells us how many he sees and where he sees them and what shape they are in. He tells us what this might indicate about the weather and the state of the world (though with that last I might be exaggerating), and he provides the occasional hedge apple snapshot. He informs us that every time he picks up a hedge apple to take home to his wife this makes her happy. That, in turn, will make him happy. And we have read tales of hedge apple bowling, which is a fine outdoor activity for kids. What interested me most, though, was the hedge apple’s reputation for repelling household pests. And I wondered: Could hedge apples rid my cabin of cluster flies?

It was, indeed, the dawn of a new cluster fly season when Dale started writing about these magic apples from the orange tree, and even though I had already taken the drastic measure of using poison to kill the flies, there were yet some die-hards creeping in and clustering on the windows, mostly, I noted, between one and five in the afternoon. I thought Dale might send me some hedge apples through the mail so I could experiment with their repellent capabilities, but alas. Some fear of the post office was expressed, of possibly breaking rules, and the hedge apples never arrived. I resigned myself to not experimenting with hedge apples vs. cluster flies and merely continued to enjoy Dale’s reporting on the millions and thousands of hedge apples that he was seeing, that I would never see, could never see, not up here, not so far north, not where the Osage orange does not grow.

Then, all of a sudden, bam. Last Saturday. Hedge apples atop the muffin case. In Babycakes. On Washington Street. In Marquette. Two glowing green hedge apples just sitting there like radiated brains. Where did they come from? How did they get there?

“Hey, did you see these hedge apples?!?”

I had stopped at Babycakes to get a cup of Earl Greyer tea to go. Babycakes is a warm, spit-and-polished-wood-type place with overflowing muffins and scones in a glass case and teas and coffees from around the world displayed behind the counter—the very same counter that has those homemade dog biscuits in a glass jar by the register. Babycakes smells of baked apples, cinnamon, and dark roast, and it always sounds soft and murmury as folks relax at a few small tables and sip and eat and chat and read or stare at electronic devices. Lately when I stop at Babycakes I am so focused on my mission of getting that cup of Earl Greyer to go that I take little notice of all this—except for that one time, that incident with the dog treats—and then, last Saturday, there were the hedge apples, all convoluted and bright appley green sitting on top of the muffin case next to one of those raised cake display things in which, if I remember correctly, there was some kind of pie.

I was standing in a short line and two fellows fell in behind me so I started talking hedge apples. One said he needed some fresh hedge apples as the spiders in his basement were beginning to build up, and the other said he had noticed hedge apples for sale a month or so ago at Econo, a local grocery store.

Say what? Hedge apples at Econo?

So everybody already seems to know all about hedge apples, and you can get them anywhere and everywhere—Econo, Amazon, eBay, and For all I know, Dr. Oz and Dr. Phil have been busy prescribing hedge apples to cure all ills, personal and societal, and Martha Stewart has taken it a step further and shown us how to make centerpieces and wreaths and candle molds from this marvelously textured fruit.

I didn’t have time right then to race over to Econo to see if they still had hedge apples for sale, but later in the week I stopped at the Econo up in my area, in Houghton. I did not see any hedgies. A couple of days later I called the Marquette Econo and spoke with a guy in produce.

“Do you have hedge apples?”


“Hedge apples. I heard that a while back you had hedge apples.”

“You mean hedge balls?”

“Yes, I guess so.”

“We have hedge balls, for the spiders.”

“You do?”

“Yeah. They’re kind of green and bumpy.”

“Yeah. OK. Hedge apples, hedge balls, what’s the difference. How much are they?”

“Ninety-nine cents each.”

“Do you know where they come from? I mean, they don’t grow around here, do they?”

“I don’t know. I think maybe they come from Indiana. Somewhere down there.”

“And you have them now?”

“Yeah. I’m looking at, oh, about three dozen or so right now.”

“Wow. Great. Thank you.”

So on my way to the Winter Market I stop at Econo to get some hedge apples, I mean hedge balls. It is about 9 a.m., and as I take pictures I notice an Econo staffer eyeing me. I ask her about the laminated sign that rests on top of the hedge balls, wanting to know who wrote it because it is written, at least in part, in first person and weaves a tail of “Old-timers in Iowa” and how with toothpicks “us children” would make animals out of hedge balls before “mom” put them around the house to banish spiders. The staffer said she didn’t know who wrote the sign, but she did know that Econo sells a lot of hedge balls. I said I was interested to see if they kept flies away and she said yeah, that would be great. Flies and wasps. Her boyfriend, she said, had got stung by a wasp last night in bed.

I bought six hedge balls and took them to the market with me. They are a little ripe, which is how this woman at Econo described them, but they have a nice citrusy smell with a touch of fresh apple. At the market, some folks knew all about the apples and their anti-spidery qualities; others were hedge ball neophytes. I was happy to share what I knew about hedge apple balls, making sure to clarify that it was all just rumor and innuendo. As far as I know, the effectiveness of these apples in any capacity has not been scientifically tested, and, as we all know, if it ain’t scientifically tested, it just ain’t so.

Now, if you are any kind of regular reader of this journal, you know I have a book called Animal Energies that describes the habits and ways of various animals and extrapolates meaning from those habits and ways that humans might well pay attention to, especially if such-and-such an animal has entered your life in some way. Oh! If only there were a book called Funky Fruit & Vegetable Energies. If there were, I would be looking up Hedge Apple and reading:

If Hedge Apple has entered your life …

Because, as I said, hedge apples and fear were the concurrent thoughts in my head at 4 a.m. and most of the week. The fear passed, and no, it had nothing to do with spiders. It was not nearly so concrete. It was more a state of mind that manifested as fear, grabbing onto bits and snippets of the past, the future, and the right now, and basically sticking to whatever it could to give itself substance. To make it real. And it was astoundingly successful.

If Hedge Apple has entered your life …

Hedge Apple did not banish Fear. If anything, Fear banished Hedge Apple. Fear distracted me, kept me at bay, kept me working hard to work around it, delayed me, pissed me off.

If Hedge Apple has entered your life …

But I couldn’t do anything about it. The fear.

But I did share it.

And that made it better.

But ultimately, I believe, it just righted itself.

If Hedge Apple has entered your life …

Oh. I know what Dale would say.

If Hedge Apple has entered your life, perhaps it is time to see the dichotomy that is inherent to all life and welcome the tension it brings as well as the magic it can create.

Though Dale, I suspect, would say it in far fewer words.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

just another pea picklin’ week, but i’m calling it an international photojournal with drops of water

Late Thursday afternoon Elliott and I walked to the river and down along its near stretch. It was drizzling, as it had been all day, though perhaps misting is a better word. At times there was an honest-to-goodness, no-nonsense rain, at other times nothing, but most often just this little bit of something and a steady fog. A heady aroma of cedar and spruce steeped in the moisture, and drops of water hung from bare branches and old berries.

Drops of water #1.

These drops caught my eye, I suppose, because they did not drop, after all, but rather hung there in suspense, not moving a whit. They must have dropped eventually, but I did not see it.

Drops of water #2.

Elliott had spent most of the day in his nest of coats, the fleece coats that used to belong to Buster. This nest, which includes a few other things, such as a pair of my socks neatly rolled and tucked, developed a while back, shortly after Buster died. I piled his things in the middle of the floor intending to get rid of them, but then couldn’t, so shoved the pile in a corner. Elliott did the rest, and for quite a while this past spring it is where he slept. But Elliott likes to move around a bit, a bit like Goldilocks, only not so quick to judge, and after favoring one nest for a month or so he moves on to another, say the laundry basket or the corner of the sofa. But now he’s back in Buster’s old coats, and that makes me happy.

Wednesday night I heard wolves howling. I was snuggled under my covers and the wolves were somewhere out there in the woods, maybe along the river, and at first I thought coyotes, as usual, but the howling stayed pure, no yipping, no barking, no vast array of vocalization and jocularity as there always seems to be with those coyotes. Wednesday night it was just a howl starting low and deep and rising up hollow-like but full, too, spreading out all the way to the moon and stars, whatever little sliver of moon there was beyond the beads of fog. The door was open a crack to let in the air, and in came the howl, too. Then another, and another. The next night and the night after it was just those crazy coyotes bouncing their jokes around, hamming it up.

Earlier in the week, an early morning of about 15 degrees. The dew was caught off guard. It froze solid to dead flowers and grass. Though if the flower heads hold seeds, how can they be dead? And if their roots are alive, well.

Drops of water #3.

And much earlier in the week a flurry of photos came in from America’s Great Southwest and from Italy. The photos seemed to arrive all at once, like a cascade. Many were of signs, like this one.

Photo by L.P. Gallucci

Many were of dogs, like this little guy.

Photo by J. Williams

And some were of graffiti.

“The beautiful things in my life are not things.”
Photo by P.T. Allen

Receiving all these photos made me feel as if something was happening, as if maybe I too was elsewhere. All these other elsewheres with blue skies and rattlesnakes and funny dogs and leaning towers and buildings with blank walls that people scribble upon. But clearly that was not the case. Clearly I was just here and it was just another ordinary week of candlemaking, of walking with Elliott to the river, of noticing lingering raindrops, and of thinking hey, maybe I’ll write about this.

Photo by P.T. Allen