Welcome to The Squeaky Pen

...where life is slow, and ripe with rural treasures

Thursday, August 25, 2011

When Did I Grow Up?

I was on a plane Monday, a puddle-jumper taking me from Syracuse to Laguardia, the first stop on a two airplane leg to Bangor, Maine to visit friends for a few days. I don't care much for flying, but consider it a necessary evil in that I have friends in far-flung places and do, in fact, like all aspects of travel with the exception of getting to and from. So unlike the old days when I would wring my hands and draft wills a week before a flight, now I just show up at the airport and say, "Whatever."

The plane out of Syracuse was a little prop jet that held maybe 40 people, two seats on one side, one on the other, and a ceiling so low I remarked to the smirking and solitary flight attendant that I felt like the 50-foot woman. I settled in and was soon joined by a man in his thirties who seemed...addled. He passed by, turned around a few times, then realized his assigned seat was the one next to me.

"I guess you can tell I don't fly much," he told me in a lovely southern drawl as he clicked the seatbelt shut. "Do you?"

Do I fly much...

From 1992 to 2008, my business took me, literally, around the world. I've eaten dinner, played chess, watched two movies, and reclined in sleep for 9 hours on a 15-hour flight to Hong Kong. I've flown on planes in Africa that were straight out of a Tarzan flick, one with only 6 seats that floated over the Maasai Mara and its man-eating lions below. I've been in first class on Air India, when the plane reeked of curry and on which flight attendants were dressed in flowing saris. I've crossed the ocean so many times I can't count and even flew the Concorde a few times, my certificate (signed by the pilot) that I've gone mach one hanging on the wall over my desk.

Do I fly much?

"Yes," I told the nice young man this week. "I do."

We taxied out to the runway and I could tell my travel companion was tense. "I guess you don't like to fly?" I asked him. "Uh, no ma'am, I don't," he said. "This is only my third flight ever."

Without really thinking about it, my voice dropped into soothing tones. "The little planes are kind of fun," I told him. "You zip down the runway and then poof! You're in the air. It's like an insect soaring off with none of the lumbering of the big planes as they heave themselves off the ground. We'll have some bumps but it'll be fine." I patted his arm.

We shot off like a big bee and indeed, there were some bumps, one or two real stomach-droppers. I wasn't exactly thrilled with the jolting ride to New York City but kept my cool for the nervous fellow to my left. We pushed through the clouds and I recalled a flight I'd taken from Chicago years ago, when I freaked out before take-off and the flight attendants poured champagne down my throat for the duration, promising me that we'd be fine and providing tissues so I could mop at my sobbing eyes. My travel companion then, my business partner at the time, did not pat my arm and tell me everything would be okay. He rolled his eyes and was probably negotiating with the crew to move him to a different seat (they didn't). The Chicago trip was not my first freak-out on an airplane. I have been, shall we say, a reluctant flier most of my life, and at times an impossible one. I've taken tranquilizers, swallowed shots of alcohol, and finally -- realizing I would have to change jobs if I didn't get this under control -- developed an OCD-style of counting to soothe my jangling nerves. My intense fear of flying, while not completely conquered, has at least been corralled.

As we began to descend into New York on Monday there was a loud sound and the man next to me jumped. "Landing gear," I murmured. He smiled at me and said "Boy, if I could fly with you every time I'd be fine!"

If you only knew, fella I wanted to say, how long it's taken me to get here.

I'm flying home today (Friday) on two more puddle-jumpers with the threat of Hurricane Irene roaring up the coast. Not sure counting is going to work this time. After I finish this column, I'm thinking about rummaging around in my friends' medicine chest. Maybe they have a few tranquilizers in there...


Thursday, August 18, 2011

Golf...and Golf...and Golf

We have a joke in my family: there are two annual holidays...Christmas and member/guest. Christmas is self-explanatory. Member/guest is a golf tournament held every August at our local course.

For the last 21 years, my sister and I have played in the ladies' member/guest at Mountain Top Golf Course. We've won twice, the last time so long ago that no one who now plays even remembers. Pat and I are happy that the tournament has blossomed, these days drawing many and excellent players. My sister and I have also blossomed to be better players, but we're older now. Our aging doesn't necessarily mean we're not good, but the challenge of this tournament has tripled, making it harder to win though more delightful if we do. Every year we think, "maybe this is our year." Since 1995, it hasn't been.

Setting aside the stress of possibilities, I've been enjoying August on the golf course, most particularly this week. Course workers have been busy clipping grass and watering greens, setting up fences and new tee signs, trimming overhanging trees and in general making the place crisp and ready for the ladies to do their best over the weekend. Tomorrow is our first day of the two-day match. Tonight, on Member/Guest Eve (as we call it), my sister and I visited a friend and co-member/guest entrant at whose home we had drinks and chatted about the weekend festivities. We also talked about two fellow golfers we lost this summer, women too young to die so soon. The tournament this year is exciting, though a bit melancholy. Twenty-two teams have signed up, less two friends. Every day of life, we realize, is a gift.

I can't write long tonight. It's late, and we have a breakfast date tomorrow at 9, followed by sign-in at the course at noon. There is a Christmas morning quality to this event. We watch the skies and hope for sun (just as on December 25 we hope for snow). When we arrive at Mountain Top, there is the trilling of women, all hopeful that their shots will be long and true. For two decades Pat and I have practiced and practiced (and practiced). Some days have been good. Some days have been great. In the end, though, all that counts is the weekend. Maybe this year will be ours. If not, at least we're still here. So indeed, even if we lose, we realize that every day is a gift, out there near ponds and bunkers and rolling grassy hills.

My sister and I will again look skyward tomorrow, hoping for sun, and that friends gone too soon are watching from wherever they might have gone. We hope that our shots will be long and true, and that next year -- win or lose -- we'll be back to try again.

Sue and Elaine, know that we will miss you.

Friday, August 12, 2011

That's No Bone Under The Barn!

I've always been fascinated by idioms and their origins. For example, "close but no cigar." Its origin, according to a little online research, is that carnival games of skill, particularly shooting games, once gave out cigars as prizes. A contestant who did not quite hit the target may have been close, but didn't get a cigar. Then there's sitting in "the cat bird seat." This idiom references mocking birds, who are sometimes referred to as cat birds. Mocking birds typically sit at the top of a tree, hence the cat bird seat is at the top where the view is good. And another favorite, "it's raining cats and dogs." The origin of this one isn't known for sure, but one theory is that in old England, cats and dogs would sleep on the roofs of houses, which were made of hay. When it rained, the roofs got slippery and the cats and dogs would slide off: thus, raining cats and dogs.

I mention my interest in idioms because my cousin Russ and I have come up with new one: "That's no bone under the barn" (the meaning of which is "I'm not lying"). This idiom and its origin will give you a little insight into my family.

For too many years to count, my sister and I have fiddled around with the Ouija board; or more accurately, a variation of the Ouija board. Having a more than healthy fear of tampering with "the beyond," Pat and I created our own version of a Ouija since the board itself is said to have, by those who claim knowledge of such things, tricky qualities (ie, the official Ouija board draws in evil spirits). So we use scrabble letters and a wine glass thinking we're circumnavigating trouble. We don't consider consultation of the Ouija terribly serious, but at the same time we don't want to mess with something other-worldly and potentially alarming, just in case.

Anyway, a few years ago Pat and I found ourselves with nothing much to do on a rainy evening and so dashed off to the Ouija. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't (don't ask me details of this phenomenon or whatever it is, that's a topic for another post; just go ahead and for the moment assume that for us, for a long time, it worked). After a rather extended stretch of positioning our fingers on the up-ended wine glass and staring at each other, the glass began to move. Our Ouija spirits that night, among other things, told us that one of our long lost cousins had been murdered and was buried under a barn on some family property. The cousin, who I'll henceforth refer to as "M," had been missing for 30 years, simply up and vanished one day never to be heard from again. We shared this newfound information with family members who, understandably, thought we were nuts.

Some weeks later another cousin on the opposite end of the family, Russ, stopped in for a visit. With great excitement and much hand-waving, my sister and I told Russ that we believed "M" to be buried under the old family barn. Russ became serious and said: "I think I've seen bones under that old barn," which at this point in its architectural life was little more than a crumbling foundation. Like miners hearing there's gold in them-thar hills, Pat, Russ and I jumped into our cars and raced to the old barn several miles away.

For the next hour I, being the terrier of the family, crawled around under the structure, pawing through moss and stone and weeds and who knows what all. Russ sat outside providing instructions on where he thought he saw the bones, and my sister sat atop the foundation, smoking cigarettes and offering lofty though unhelpful advice. Finally, just as I was about to give up, I emerged, holding a thigh bone high in one hand, my face dirt-streaked and triumphant. We had, at last, solved the mystery of "M's" disappearance! He had come to a grisly end in a shallow grave. To the Ouija! we cried, which we were sure would name his killer.  

Now I do have some sensible members of my family. Russ's sister Judy informed us, as we displayed the bone on my dining room table for all to bear witness, that this was a cow bone. "It's not!" Pat and I insisted. "This is a bone from "M's" leg! The Ouija told us so!!" We even went so far as to take the bone to a local policeman, who frowned and patted our foolish shoulders. He took the bone away and was never heard from again. As far as I know the officer still has it, is probably using the bovine thigh as a doorstop or to stir his fireplace embers...because, of course, it was a cow bone. Russ, so like my father in his mischievous nature, confessed he planted the thing there when he heard through the family grapevine of our Ouija encounter. The date of the bone excavation, which my sister and I failed to notice at the time, was Halloween.

This ridiculous tale has now become folklore in our tribe, Pat and I the simpleminded foils of our cousin's good humor. While we look back on the incident with fondness, these days when Russ's words seem suspicious, I squint and ask, "This isn't a bone under the barn, is it?"

Hence the birth of a new idiom, at least among my kin.

I have a secret hope that "that's no bone under the barn" will go viral, and someday will appear online as an official idiom. If it does, I implore the writers to get the facts straight, even though my sister and I will appear to be in the league of Dumb and Dumber when they do. Should Googlers roll their eyes at the explanation, c'est la vie. If nothing else, Pat and Russ and I will have been contributors to American vernacular.

(And by the way, "M" has been located...he's alive and well and living in Washington State. Since this discovery, Pat and I have elected to steer clear of the Ouija. Its spirit informants seem...unreliable.) 

Friday, August 5, 2011

High Summer High

There's nothing quite like being in upstate New York in high summer. Grass is a fading green and roadsides are peppered with daylilies and Queen Anne's Lace. Mornings I sit on my porch and sip coffee, enjoying my petunia baskets and a not-quite-warm breeze. Evenings are intoxicatingly cool. I have a fan spinning in the window though it isn't necessary. Even in August I'm tucked under quilts as I drift into sleep. Harry the dog snuggles down by my feet, buried beneath blankets that people due south can't imagine needing.

I've been talking to my southern friends this week who are wilting under blistering temperatures. My friend Liz reported yesterday that in northeast Arkansas it was 107 degrees. Here (I bragged) it was 62 and raining. My friend Gloria in Tennessee is sweltering in an office whose air conditioner fails daily. I once lived "down there" and remember well the dreadful heat. The rub, in the north, is snow in February. But I'll take snow and ice over 100+ on the thermometer. I'm a northern girl, a soul who relates to fireplaces and hot brews. And in August, when sweat drips from the chins of my poor friends south, I have no need for a window unit. This is what summer should be: warm by day, cool at night, sunny; ripe tomatoes on the vine, flower-filled afternoons, and with an occasional shower. Bliss! 

Last weekend I attended a party on a nearby lake. In attendance were old friends. We barbecued, canoed, reminisced. We built a fire and looked out at a body of water where Canada geese returned at twilight. Later, we star-gazed. The milky way was there, along with the big dipper and, according to one friend, the summer triangle. Another friend reported seeing a comet streaking by. The sky was a portrait of lights.  

How, I wonder, did I ever live anywhere else?

In a few short months fat snowflakes will fall and collect in my driveway. I promise not to complain. The stock market faltered today, another "correction" they say. I don't think I care. I think now, in my fifth decade, I'm more interested in what's happening outside my windows. As another friend once said, a friend who was taken too soon years ago, life is good. He was right. Life is not about Wall Street, it's about cool summer breezes and stars and geese sailing onto a quiet lake. Life is about my peaceful porch late at night, and mourning doves, and the crow I watched patter across my yard early one morning. Life is my sighing dog at my feet, calm and innocent. And friends who have been near this week. 

Indeed, life is good, here this summer in a small place I call home.     


Monday, August 1, 2011

Guest Post: Books...My Friends and Lovers

By Mark Perrin

In 2005, while living in Minneapolis, I joined the ranks of the out-of-town commuters in accepting a job in Montreal (yes, there is a direct flight between the two cities). This six-to-twelve month assignment was an exciting career opportunity that transformed into a five-year venture.
   
Like all commuters not stuck behind a steering wheel, I searched out distractions in the midst of my to and fro travels. Although office work did occupy my time, the need for alternative activities was inevitable. I watched my fellow travelers go through the Soduko phase, peer at films on their laptops, click through Kindles, and, with Wi-Fi now available, delight in the fact that there is never a need to detach from Internet life. And there I sat…with my book.

I have always loved reading, starting the morning with coffee and an engrossing book and ending the day in bed with that next chapter. As I devoured the books of “popular fiction,” I discovered a thirst for something else.  I tried history and biographies, but then thought about my mother, an avid reader herself who suggested during those high school summers that I read the classics. Thus my search began to find the best novels of all time. I found lists from TIME Magazine, Random House (Board’s List and Reader’s List), and many other “Best 100” options.  But I finally settled on a wonderful list compiled by Leisa Watkins who did a ranking average from TIME, Random House, the Radcliff List, BBC, and Guardian Unlimited. I was shocked at how few I’d read. So I now have my ranking of the 100 best novels of all time (and an additional 200 thrown in for good measure since I didn’t have the heart to leave out some of the great books that didn’t make the top 100).

An obvious next step: buy a Kindle, right? No. Don’t get me wrong: I think the e-book reader is an amazing invention. But rather, off I went to used book stores and bought so many books online my mailman probably wondered what new business I was starting. And my love affair with hardcover books endures. The thrill I experienced in opening my 9-volume Nonesuch Dickens set of Charles Dickens (there are three Dickens’ books in the top 100), or the excitement of finally getting Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow and my early edition of Kenneth Graham’s The Wind in the Willows with its beautiful illustrations, was like being a kid again, opening that special Christmas gift.

Yes, I love reading a great book. But I love the feel of a book, a sensation not unlike meeting a new friend, or going on a first date. There is the binding and the typeface. I notice the book’s length (like a person’s height), the number of chapters (their age), the dust jacket (their looks), the introduction (the first impression). I will randomly
open a book to the middle and read a page to get a sense of the author’s style – something I watched my mother do and could never understand until now.

Oh what a journey it has been! I crossed the country (Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road) and traveled the cosmos (Douglas Adams’ A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy). I have a newfound appreciation for the Brontë sisters and Jane Austen. I found humor (John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany) and anguish (Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms); spiritual journeys (Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe) and delight at rediscovering children’s stories (A.A.
Milne’s Winnie the Pooh and Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland). Did I love every book so far? Of course not.  Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury was disorienting at first, while the sentence structure in Henry James’ The Ambassadors was frustrating; Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness was filled with gloom. Am I glad I read them? Absolutely.

And now, each time I pass through my library, I pause for a few minutes and glance at all my new friends and lovers – Hardy’s Tess, Dickens’ Pegotty, Tolstoy’s Levin, Alcott’s four sisters, Huxley’s John, Wharton’s Countess Olenska, Austen’s Emma, du Maurier’s Rebecca, Waugh’s Charles Ryder, Margaret Mitchell’s Scarlett, and Ayn Rand’s Dagny, to name a few. All I need do is glance at the book’s spine and I am once again filled with the memories and emotions of my dear friends. The Kindle somehow…pales. I am in love, not just with the words, but with the books.

By the way: of the top 100 books: 60 down, 40 to go.

Editor’s note: If anyone out there in the void would like the top 100 list, please email kmyasas@aol.com and I’ll be happy to send it.

About Me

Newspaper columnist; blogger; author of Delta Dead; author of 101 Tip$ From My Depression-Era Parents; author of Australian Fly; editor: "A History of the Lawrence S. Donaldson Residence"; "The Port Washington Yacht Club: A Centennial Perspective"; "The Northeastern Society of Periodontists: The First Fifty Years"; editor: NESP Bulletin; editor: PWYC Mainsail; past editorial director: The International Journal of Fertility & Women's Medicine; past editor of: Long Island Power & Sail, Respiratory Review; Medical Travelers' Advisory; School Nurse News; Clear Images; Periodontal Clinical Investigations; Community Nurse Forum