Sunday, December 21, 2008

Winter solstice


Woo hoo! Made it to another Winter Solstice. That’s 36 since I moved north and always a moment for optimism. The end of the dark days and now we start gaining sunlight. Slowly at first, but almost a full day by the end of January. January also makes a habit of being clear and cold which lets the sun shine more than in the overcast days of November and December.

But, then we’ve had a lot of clear, cold days up until now, so, who knows. The drive home was beautiful, trees covered with hoarfrost lining the road giving it that Christmas card picture look. Here and there the lights of a decorated house showed through the branches, creating a festive contrast. Nice dry road too. Only problem was the three moose in the road, two of which I had to honk the horn at to shag them off into the pucker brush. Couldn’t see any stars or northern lights, meaning clouds probably moving in which is good because it will warm up a little for my trips later in the week. And, to complete a good night, I got a Hawaii quarter in change. That makes all 50 and fills the nice wood cutout for the state quarters my son gave me for Christmas a few years ago.

Getting to the solstice seems to be a little tougher every year, and maybe that is why I chose not to do anything about Christmas this year. The past four years haven’t been much in that regard anyway. I get to wake up alone and spend the day alone, then drive 80 miles to spend an uncomfortable hour throwing presents back and forth with my daughter and her boyfriend. A couple of days later I have gotten to drive 600 miles to spend a day in a hotel room with my son. The anxiety, apprehension and disillusionment are just too much. Sometime after Christmas there is always a pleasant evening with my friend Gail and that is about it.

But I know others do enjoy the holiday, so I have a present for you. I had told myself I wouldn’t do this (put short stories on this blog) but I guess this a special time, so here you go. Look, I know it is derivative and kind of a hack plot, but it is MY Christmas story, so deal with it.

PENNY'S CHRISTMAS STORY
Augustus Birch-Alder


Christmas that third winter we spent up in the Talkeetna Mountains promised to be cold and empty. The solstice came and we looked forward to more daylight but, though we had plenty to do and we hadn't run short of food yet, we were just skimping by. I had a poor season trapping the year before and that last winter's catch just about paid for this year's outfit. That meant getting by with a lot of worn out things we wanted to replace. The children's clothes would have to go another year with a few more patches. I had to repair the dogs' harnesses instead of buying the new ones they needed. And, as Christmas approached it meant little or nothing was left to buy toys for the children, both of whom had suffered the trials and the joys of our remote life without benefit of schools and playmates and all the other things a kid might find in a town.
Christmas Eve found us pretty low, but we did go out and cut ourselves a little spruce tree to at least remind us of the season. My wife stood it up in a corner of the cabin away from the stove and after we put the few ornaments we had on its branches, we sat much of the day just looking at the little tree as if some miracle might put presents underneath. Of course in the practical atmosphere of life out here, that sort of thing just didn't happen so easily.
We ate a joyless meal of sourdough hotcakes and after reading the children the story of Dickens' Scrooge for the third year in a row, we packed them off to bed. For them, at least, nothing could diminish the expectations they had for the morning and that put us as parents into an even deeper depression knowing there was little for the children to find under that tree in the morning. We tried to warn them, but children have a faith that we as adults tend to lose with the passage of time.
With the children asleep, the two of us sat silently contemplating the tree almost as if in mourning. No noises broke the heavy silence save for an occasional crack of wood in the stove or the rustling of a squirrel or shrew or the little ermine who had taken up residence somewhere under the floor. I recall now thinking all we needed was a howling blizzard to complete the scene, but the sky stayed clear with all the stars out and northern lights waving and bouncing above the horizon.
A quick movement caught our attention and we watched as over by a wall, a wiggling little white animal struggled with whatever it was he was dragging behind him. His struggle continued and minute by minute we saw a little more of his hind end as he came out from under the base log. Finally his whole body showed, then behind, clamped tightly in his jaws came the shrew that would be his Christmas dinner. Why the ermine chose this particular route was beyond us; we'd never seen him go all the way across the cabin floor. You have to know that for as small as they are, ermines aren't afraid of anything and there he was backing diagonally across the whole cabin floor.
At the point where he came right between us, he stopped and dropped his prize, or at least let go of it. He looked at each of us, probably to see if there was any danger and when we didn't move, he grabbed his shrew again and continued on his journey.
He moved the shrew another five feet or so and then stopped again and looked up at us. Now I'm not one of those people to go giving animals little human personalities, but I swear that little white animal looked at us as if he understood the situation.
First came the usual quizzical look, his rounded ears emphasizing the question in his eyes. Then his eyes narrowed as if he'd decided something, something he wasn't sure he should do. He dropped back down on all fours, but instead of grabbing the shrew and pulling it, he nudged it back the way he had come, well, not exactly. He nudged it off course a little in the direction of my wife in her rocking chair. He moved his burden maybe halfway to her chair and then stopped and backed off, watching. When nobody moved, he returned to his task and pushed his dinner another two feet toward her, then backed off again.
We looked at each other, then back to the little white animal on the floor who was now standing upright looking first at her, then at me.
"You don't think...?" she started to ask.
"I don't know," I said.
Our words startled the ermine, but he didn't back off, rather he chattered back at us.
"See what happens if you try to pick up the shrew," I told her and she reached for the dead animal on the floor. The ermine didn't move; he just watched her hand as she slowly reached for his offering.
When she picked the shrew up by its tail the ermine dropped to all fours and ran toward the base log again, but halfway there he stopped, turned and stood erect and looked at us again. My wife reached over to the kitchen board where a chunk of moose meat was thawing for our dinner the next day. She cut a small piece off the roast and tossed it on the floor near the ermine. He raced for it, grabbed the meat and hightailed it for his hole, disappearing somewhere under the house.
""Strangest thing," I said. She looked a little silly sitting there holding the shrew by the tail and I asked her what she planned to do with it.
"I don't know," she answered, "I never really got a shrew for Christmas before." The ridiculousness of the idea gave us both a quick giggle.
"Well, he gave you what he had," I said and our eyes met for a long moment. The truth of the statement fell over us, opening into an idea we both came to simultaneously. From looking at each other, our eyes began to glance around the cabin. What did we have?
"You know," she said, "they might not taste so good, but I bet I can make some Christmas shapes out of that sourdough."
My glance fell on the red coffee can. "With some tin snips and a little imagination, I'll bet I could make a couple of ornaments for that poor little tree over there," I said.
We went to work, but it didn't stop with the first two ideas. A stick of wood from the kindling box, with a few notches from a knife and a swatch of cloth that was to patch my parka, became a doll. A forgotten sheet of corrugated tin, with a few new bends grew into a sled.
And, though it wasn't much, a couple of twigs from a spruce with some cones and another slip of cloth, made something of a corsage for, the woman I was sharing this life with, who by this time was pulling the first batch of those sourdough Christmas cookies from the oven. A touch of her homemade cranberry or blueberry jam added just the right colorful decorations to them.
With the second batch in the oven she began finding pieces of cloth and slivers of wood and pretty soon there was a bed for the little doll. And, how she did it, I never saw, but out of the bustle in the cabin that night, she even managed to find time to make a lanyard of braided moose hide strips for the pocket knife I was always losing from my belt. We stayed up and worked through the night as one idea merged into the next and by morning when the children awakened, they found two exhausted parents, but their Christmas had come to pass.
They came out very quietly, looked at the decorated tree and the treasures underneath. A shaft of morning light came through the window, fell directly on the tree and lighted that tree better than all the twinkling lights in the world could have done. It shined bright green, and red off the coffee can ornaments, as the children approached it in awestruck silence. But, as children can be on Christmas morning, the quiet didn't last all that long as they touched and then fondled and then began laughing and playing with their Christmas presents, presents they, at least, had known all along would be there.
When their mother brought out those colorful sourdough cookies they never even noticed the sour taste as they gobbled them down. There was joy in our little cabin where the day before there had been none.
The sleep we'd lost the night before never seemed to bother the two of us as we watched the two little ones playing and talking and shouting and giggling their way through the morning.
With all that was going on in the little cabin I hadn't noticed the end of the kitchen board where there were a few more pieces of moose meat laid out. The first I saw them was when our little ermine popped his head out from under the base log. I was surprised to see him come out with all the commotion around, but there he was. When she noticed him, my wife reached over to the pieces of meat and tossed one toward the ermine.
At first, the little critter ducked away from the projectile, but when it landed with a plop in front of him, apparently not a danger, he scampered out and grabbed the meat, turned and ran for his hole. Just before he reached it, he turned around and started to back in, pulling the piece of moose meat behind him.
As he was about to disappear, he dropped the meat and looked at us. Now, again, I'm not one to see human things in animals and it's probably my imagination, or at least it's what I wanted to see, but I swear that little fellow looked at each one of us, then he winked--that's right, winked--before he grabbed his dinner and disappeared.
Now, how ermines can wink, well, that's beyond me to figure out.

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Interesting quotations

"In the final analysis your life is only as good as the background music you dance to." – that was me

"Whether you think that you can or you think you can't, you are right." – Henry Ford

"You want to feel alive until the day you croak" – Frank Gallagher Shameless

"Smooth is good but sailing takes a brisk wind" – me

"I'm a drinker with writing problems." ~ Brendan Behan

"Religious Freedom is not about stopping persecution; it’s about being the one who gets to do it. Glory!" – Mrs. Betty Bowers, America's best Christian

It doesn't matter what you write, it only matters that you write.

"Give someone a book and they'll read all day. Teach someone to write a book and they'll spend a lifetime mired in paralyzing self doubt." – internet meme

"It's been a long time since I heard my backbone crack – Chuck Berry

“Don’t think you’re on the right road just because it’s a well-beaten path.” – JD

"I was the only person up on the hill with both racing numbers and a handicapped placard." – Kitty Delorey Fleischman, a grandmother who occasionally still races her Porsche in hill climbs.

Like most writers, I feel like a reprobate who does not deserve to live on any day that I do not write, but I also feel that four or five hours is enough to earn my stay on the planet for one more day. – anon

"Religion was invented when the first con man met the first fool." – Mark Twain

Shit happens; you just come up with a different plan. – Kitty

Your body is not a temple. It's an amusement park. – Anthony Bourdain

Never too late for a happy childhood – Berkley Breathed

A real writer doesn't just want to write, a real writer has to write. – Internet meme

"It was like the aftermath of an orgasm with the wrong partner" – David Lagercrants, "The Girl in the Spider's Web"

The non-writing writer is a monster courting insanity. – Franz Kafka

If the muse is late, start without her – Peter S. Beagle

We never comprehend how heavy the things are we insist on carrying until we set them down. jd

Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be. ~Mark Twain Actually you could do the same thing with the word "really" as in "really cold."

If you are looking for an experience that will temper your vanity, this is it. There's no one to impress when you're alone on the trap line. – Michael Carey quoting his father's journal

Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing. – Benjamin Franklin

It’s nervous work. The state you need to write in is the state that others are paying large sums of money to get rid of. – Shirley Hazzard

So far as I can remember, there is not one word in the Gospels in praise of intelligence -- Bertrand Russell

You know that I always just wanted to have a small ship to take stuff from a place that had a lot of that stuff to a place that did not have a lot of that stuff and so prosper.—Jackie Faber, “The Wake of the Lorelei Lee”

If you attack the arguer instead of the argument, you lose both

If an insurance company won’t pay for damages caused by an “act of God,” shouldn’t it then have to prove the existence of God? – I said that

I used to think getting old was about vanity—but actually it’s about losing people you love. Getting wrinkles is trivial. – Eugene O’Neill

German General to Swiss General: “You have only 500,000 men in your army; what would you do if I invaded with 1 million men?”

Swiss General: “Well, I suppose every one of my soldiers would need to fire twice.”

Writing is the only thing that when I do it, I don’t feel I should be doing something else.—Gloria Steinem

Exceed your bandwidth—sign on the wall of the maintenance shop at the West Coast/Alaska Tsunami Warning Center

One thing I do know, if you keep at it, you usually wind up getting something done.—Patricia Monaghan

Do you want to know what kind of person makes the best reporter? I’ll tell you. A borderline sociopath. Someone smart, inquisitive, stubborn, disorganized, chaotic, and in a perpetual state of simmering rage at the failings of the world.—Brett Arends

It is a very simple mind that only knows how to spell a word one way.—Andrew Jackson

3:30 is too late or too early to do anything—Rene Descartes

Everything is okay when it’s 50-below as long as everything is okay. – an Alaskan in Tom Walker’s “The Seventymile Kid”

You can have your own opinion but you can’t have your own science.—commenter arguing on a story about polar bears and global warming

He looks at three ex wives as a good start—TV police drama

Talkeetna: A friendly little drinking town with a climbing problem.—a handmade bumper sticker

“You’re either into the wall or into the show”—Marco Andretti on giving it all to qualify last at the 2011 Indy 500

Makeup is not for the faint of heart—the makeup guerrilla

“I’m going to relax in a very adult manner.”—Danica Patrick after sweating it out and qualifying half an hour before Andretti

“Asking Congress to come back is like asking a mugger to come back because he forgot your wallet.”—a roundtable participant on Fox of all places

As Republicans go further back in the conception process to define when life actually begins, I am beginning to think the eventual definition will be life begins in the beer I was drinking when I met her.—me again

Hunting is a “critical element for the long-term conservation of wood bison.”—a state department of Fish and Game official explaining why the state would not go along with a federal plan to reintroduce wood bison in Alaska because the agreement did not specifically allow hunting

Each day do something that won’t compute – anon

I can’t belive I still have to protest this shit – a sign carriend by an elderly woman at an Occupy demonstration

Many people hear voices when no one is there. Some of them are called mad and are shut up in rooms where they stared at walls all day. Others are called writers and they do pretty much the same thing. – Meg Chittenden

Life should be a little nuts or else it’s just a bunch of Thursdays strung together—Kevin Costner as Beau Burroughs in “Rumor has it”

You’re just a wanker whipping up fear —Irish President Michael D. Higgins to a tea party radio talk show host

Being president doesn’t change who you are; it reveals who you are—Michelle Obama

Things sports announcers say

"… there's a fearlessment about him …"

"He's got to have the lead if he's going to win this race."

"Kansas has always had the ability to score with the basketball."

"NFL to put computer chips in balls." Oh, that's gotta hurt.

"Now that you're in the finals you have to run the race that's going to get you on the podium."

"It's very important for both sides that they stay on their feet."

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"It's tough to win on the road when you turn the ball over." Oh, really? Like you can do all right if you turn the ball over playing at home?

Cliches so imbedded in sportscasters' minds they can't help themselves: "Minnesota fell from the ranks of the undefeated today." What ranks? They were the only undefeated team left.

A good one: A 5'10" player went up and caught a pass off a defensive back over six feet tall. The quote? "He's got some hops."

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"Somebody is going to be the quarterback or we're going to see a new quarterback."

"If you're gonna play running back in the SEC you're gonna take hits."

"That was a playmaker making a play."

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