Category Archives: nature

A pandemic diary: Being here

May 17, 2020

Saturday I attended an online meeting of the Atlanta Writers Club, an organization that predates the last pandemic and is rolling with the punches during this one. Sadly, another much-loved Atlanta event has gone dark: a monthly jam session for singers, including my wife. A bandstand plus a roomful of vocalists and fans is beyond social distancing, and Zoom can’t fill the void. My wife misses working with fine local musicians; I miss hearing her sing the jazz standards we both love. No one else ever dedicated “My Funny Valentine” to me.

Even without the jam, we had a perfect spring day, the kind that’s becoming rare as climate change pushes winter closer to summer. The mercury topped out at around 80 degrees with no humidity and scarcely a cloud in sight. The breeze filled the living room with the sweet, lush fragrance of honeysuckles, which Fats Waller immortalized in “Honeysuckle Rose,” and are like nothing else, anywhere.

It was a day to sit back, savor what we still have, and rest our souls for tomorrow. I’m not the spiritual type but I gotta tell ya, boychik, Ram Dass was onto something when he said, “Be here now.” Where else can I go? Take care, be here, and be safe.

Do not operate heavy equipment while reading this post

Being a writer takes purpose, a thick skin, and not least, concentration. To produce pages, I need to tune out the world and stay in the moment, focused on the story and absolutely nothing else. It makes me appreciate my grandmother’s favorite saying: “One thing at a time, and that done well, is a very good rule, as many can tell.”

I can’t imagine what she’d think of today’s vortex of tweets, texts, multitasking, and general chaos. She’d survive by drawing on the inner strength that carried her through the Depression and other very tough times. She certainly would not give a darn (her word) for self-care snake oil like this video on how to optimize your life.

After watching the thing several times, I’m still not sure if it’s a serious manifesto or a modest proposal but I’ll assume it’s real. Claiming the average person wastes 21.8 hours a week, it gushes, “This six minute video could add years to your life,” and offers various cures. Example: “If you order your coffee while you’re still at the gym, you can pick it up on your way to work practically without having to stop.” What if the place is busy or the barista accidentally gives you—shudder—decaf? You might lose five or ten whole minutes that you could’ve spent learning Ukrainian.

“Read a book while you cook, but not the whole book. There are services now that actually just give you the short version of the book. Same info, way less time.” Try reading a dictionary, pal. “Shorter” ≠ “Same.” It’s “A Tale of Two Cities,” not “A Tale of Two Townships.”

Finally, there’s this, which reads like the writer is on diet pills: “At the gym, check your emails on the bike while drinking a meal replacement shake with an added shot of MCT oil to stabilize the glucose in your bloodstream and prevent you from getting hungry until dinner or maybe ever again. You’re saving time and feeling great. And when you save time and feel great, you’re going to have more time and energy to plan out how to save more time and feel even better.”

This isn’t just snake oil, it’s a pyramid scheme. You multitask and keep one step ahead and plan how to multitask better and keep two steps ahead and plan more efficiently and get three steps ahead and cram more activity into each day and and optimize every last second. The treadmill never stops, let alone takes you to the top of the pyramid.

I’m not saying we should be slackers. All my life, I’ve tried to do each job a little better every day. I worked at being healthier too, because my family has a history of heart attack and stroke. But when I’m off the clock, whether at 5:00 or 9:00 or 3:00 the next morning, I’m done, son. My idea of optimizing is sitting on the porch with friends, listening to music, and drinking beer. What good is adding years to your lifespan if you’ve forgotten how to spend them?

It’s a safe bet that when your optimized life nears its end, you won’t pine for videos and MCT. You will slowly turn your head toward the window and notice the colors of the new grass and the morning sky. You’ll hear a whole gang of birds, each with its own cheerful call, and watch some kids zipping by on bikes, laughing and hooting for no particular reason. You’ll decide this would be a fine time to sit under that big tree with a real full-length book and….

“Slow down, you move too fast
You got to make the morning last
Just kicking down the cobblestones
Looking for fun and feeling groovy” – Simon and Garfunkel

Farewell to a friend

The dragonflies were coming out at the beach last week, a new cycle of life beginning with the season. For my wife and me, a stage of life was ending, as we cleared out and sold the beach house we’d owned and cherished for the last sixteen years.

Beach house

Growing up in the Midwest and not being the imaginative type (think Lake Wobegon), I never dreamed I might someday have a home by the water. I spent lots of summer days swimming in lakes, but never went to Florida for spring break. I had no clue that the world’s most gorgeous beaches lay on the Gulf of Mexico in the area once called the Redneck Riviera, now the Emerald Coast.

Then my girlfriend and I visited friends there and were entranced by the white sand, the balmy turquoise-blue water, and the cool, laid-back vibe. We bought a condo, got married on the beach, and a few years later traded up to a house, where we spent the best times of our lives. Swimming in the Gulf as little fish nibbled our toes. Riding our bikes to get ice cream at ten a.m. if we felt like it. Floating in our pool with Pat Metheny on the outdoor speakers. Kayaking in the rare dune lakes all around us. Eating sweet Gulf shrimp on the beach at sunset. Joining our neighbors for a Fourth of July pig roast, complete with a New Orleans funeral procession for the pig, then watching fireworks all along the coast. Catching beads at Mardi Gras in Panama City.

The Mardi Gras parade in St. Andrews, a few years before the hurricane

Of all those moments, the very best were the clear nights when we lay in our deck chairs for hours on end, marveling at the Milky Way and the planets, talking, and just being together. My wife’s creative spirit and loving heart touched every corner, from the wreath on the door, to the screened porch she had put in, to the nature photos she took and hung on the walls. We could go down anytime and find everything as we’d left it, waiting for us like an old friend.

But eventually, managing the place became a struggle. Meanwhile, our historic beach town was ruined by a plague of mini-Trump Towers, hideous new houses that blocked our Gulf view and were full of obnoxious tourists. These are the kind who bring their guns on vacation, then forget and leave them for the next group of renters (or their kids) to find. They overran our formerly uncrowded beaches, tore around the streets on golf carts, and shot off tons of fireworks even when it was nowhere near the Fourth.

We fought back. When some jerks got raucous in the house behind ours, we fired up the stereo and introduced them to John Coltrane at top volume. But it just wasn’t paradise anymore. And when Hurricane Michael slammed Panama City and came within twenty miles of us, it was time to sell and move on.

I know it’s the right decision. I still feel like I’ve torn out part of my heart. Little things remind me of the place all  the time: no more beach house keys on my ring, several beach-related bookmarks to delete from my browser, the storm forecasts I don’t need to follow anymore.

But we gave our home a proper farewell. We donated lots of household goods to people who’d lost everything in Michael (and didn’t need the National Hurricane Center to tell them it was a Category 5). On the last evening, we walked down to the beach with boxes of shells we’d collected over the years and cast them back into the sea.

Our last sunset

Like Hemingway’s Paris, the beach is a moveable feast, a state of mind. We can see the same stars and planets from our porch in Atlanta. It’s spring and this Sunday is Easter. The dragonflies will be back soon.

Dave closing door.
Goodbye

Frogblog update: They come knocking!

It was the kind of Southern summer night that makes you long for winter in Minnesota. The heat was enough to wilt Trump’s rug, and the air was so thick you could cut it with a sharp tongue.

Tree frog.Suddenly on our sliding patio door, there appeared a primordial being. Not a mere raven, tapping, tapping, oh no, but a hyla cinerea, peering, leering at us with massive eyes and gripping the glass with four elastic, futuristic feet.

What was his purpose? Maybe he’d seen me capturing and relocating some tadpoles a few days earlier and wanted revenge, or just a status report on the young ‘uns. Of course, frogs don’t usually show any “parental investment” beyond mating and laying eggs, but with my luck, maybe I’d ticked off the new age dad of those tads.

frog_ridersmallOr maybe he was just looking for bugs, but if so, one of them found him first.  This is sort of a twist on the classic song “Straighten Up And Fly Right,” by Nat King Cole and others, which begins “The buzzard took the monkey for a ride in the air/ The buzzard told him everything was on the square.”

In any case, our visitor soon tired of trying to breach the defenses and hopped off into the night.  It was just another little reminder that even here in tranquil, perhaps over-civilized suburbia, we’re not the only or even the original tenants.

Unfortunately, these guys may not be around forever.  Will we be?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Frog follies part 2

Tadpole in water on pool cover.

One of our guests (blurred to protect identity – of photographer)

Coming back from a beach vacation is never pleasant, especially when you start wondering and worrying about what might’ve befallen the house while you were away. My wife and I got home from one blissful, relaxing Florida trip to find our A/C had conked during a sweltering June. Another time, a pinhole-sized leak in a pipe drenched the basement. This summer, the place stayed cool and dry. We just had a bumper crop of tadpoles in the backyard pool.

Yep, those frogs are after us again! Not content with swimming in the pool and serenading us every night, the nervy little critters commandeered the place as their personal Plato’s Retreat and maternity ward. I tell you, friends, if I weren’t such a placid, unflappable, Zen type of guy, I’d be going off on frogs like Newman on dogs: “They have no place living among us! Vile, useless creatures…”

Backyard pool with cover.

The frog farm

Of course, they’re not really useless; among other things, frogs eat mosquitoes, which at the moment are upon us like a Sharknado. The tads weren’t born in the pool itself either, since we’d left it covered, but were in the rainwater that collected on top.

When we first got home, the water seemed ALIVE! with them, probably dozens, wiggling their little tails and darting frantically all over the place. It reminded me of certain, uh, male anatomical scenes from one of those old sex-ed movies we watched in school. (I know, I’m dating myself again. Did I mention the movie was in black and white and was made on something called “film?”)

The population shrank considerably in the next few days, probably becoming a weekend brunch for the birds. I would’ve let the survivors hang around until they grew up, but when I did a little research to refresh my high-school biology, I found it might take 3-4 months, and I figured by that time they’d probably croak.* So this morning, I scooped the remaining taddies into a bucket of water and dropped them into a creek where they might have a chance. Did any of them bother to thank me? Humph.


*One benefit of being older is the freedom to employ bad, overused puns without irony or explanation. Got a problem with that, pilgrim?

Dragonfly days

Blue dragonflyAs long as you don’t have to go home, Saturday morning can be a great time in a beach town. That’s when all the rental places turn over, with the last batch of summer people checking out and the next crowd not arriving until afternoon. This gives us long-term beach bums some precious peace and quiet: no loud pool parties, amateur fireworks shows, golf carts buzzing up and down the streets, or Atlanta-like backups on the highway and in the grocery store.

You can set up your beach chairs wherever you please and walk the white sand without dodging boogie boards. Or you can take your coffee out on the screened porch if you’re lucky enough to have one, listen to the waves and the songbirds, and watch all the dragonflies that appeared in the last couple of days, this time of year being one of their peak seasons.

For me, and I suspect, a good many people my age, life seems a lot like one of these mornings, but not always in an idyllic way. I recently left one career behind, and though I’ve published a couple of short stories, my first novel and my career as a fiction writer are still at an early stage in the countdown. Other people may have children who’ve moved out, graduated, or gotten hitched, but aren’t having grandchildren yet.  And if you have aging parents, your life is always as uncertain as theirs.

Intellectually, I knew this would be a transition time. Emotionally, my attempts to “be here now,” as Ram Dass wrote, are up against the feeling that my life is in the fourth quarter (and sudden death doesn’t include overtime). My body isn’t helping, as it still wants a daily caffeine blast that could waken a dead volcano, and gets crabby when I try to do something important like reaching for a pillow  without getting out of my recliner.

But here by the sea, if you can just open up your senses, the natural, wild world becomes the best medicine. Walking the shoreline, it’s clear that the saying, “It’s never the same beach twice” is the truth, and the new, with long sandbars and higher waterlines, is as beautiful as the old. You realize what miracles those big* dragonflies are as they swoop around the houses and trees, magically hover for a split-second, then dart away.

At night, you go back to the porch and over a few weeks watch Venus and Jupiter move toward each other in the sky, appear for a moment to be almost joined, then pull away again. Things change, and we will too. We always have.

 

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*How big are they? The other day, one touched down at Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport, tanked up on jet fuel, and took off for Dallas before anybody figured out what it was. (That’s the kind of joke I’d usually save for a small child, but since none are around, y’all will have to do.)

 

Announcing…my first fiction!

pelican4_v2

Pelecanus occidentalis

As much as I love blogging, I’ve got another kind of writers’ itch that demands a scratch. And now…”The Fourteenth Pelican” is live and ready to read!

If you’re a fan of Carl Hiaasen, Tim Dorsey, or Garrison Keillor’s Guy Noir, you’ll like this short, tongue-in-cheek detective yarn. The hero is an intrepid (?) private eye named E. Z. Green who specializes in environmental cases. In this one, he’s trying to untangle the mystery of some slightly addled shorebirds and save the beautiful beaches of Florida’s Emerald Coast (or as some of you may know it, the Redneck Riviera).

Not since “The Maltese Falcon” has the detective genre witnessed such a gripping tale of lust, greed, and — ornithology!

I had a lot of fun writing this. I hope y’all enjoy reading it too.