Trees with a Twist of NaNoWriMo

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North Carolina Arboretum (11/4/2017)

I hope this opening sentence doesn’t make anyone click away, but I’m not quite done posting fall photos. Remember how I’ve taken more than 400 fall photos this fall? I wanted to share a few more. This is likely to be my last “fall photo” post, so please come back if, like my son, you find fall color a bit ho-hum. If you like fall color, this post is dedicated to “Fall Color around Town.” When I couldn’t resist, I would snap a photo or two of a particularly brilliant tree. The reds were remarkable at the end of October; the oranges were slower coming along, but they got there.

Originally, I had thought of doing a series of posts on fall in different locations: fall at the Carl Sandburg House, fall at the Biltmore Estate, fall in the neighborhood—you know the kind of thing. Then I signed up for NaNoWriMo. I delayed it until the first day of November, and I made no plans whatsoever for this novel that I was planning to write. But I did commit to NaNoWriMo, and, much to my astonishment, I am still “in the game.”

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Waynesville, North Carolina (11/2/2017)

What kind of person commits to writing a full-length work of fiction as part of a game? Yet the worldwide count for NaNoWriMo participants in 2016 was a staggering 384,126. Even the language on the NaNoWriMo website speaks of it as a game: “How do I win NaNoWriMo? What are the prizes? Is there an entry fee?” There’s a WikiHow article on how to win NaNoWriMo (I ought to bookmark that). It may be hard for WordPress readers to believe, but there are people who don’t know about NaNoWriMo. I had to explain this writing phenomenon to a woman at my son’s basketball game on Monday. She had never heard of NaNoWriMo, but she was curious as to why I was sitting in my van, typing furiously away on my iPad, during the 30 minutes or so before the basketball game started. (The coach likes players to arrive 45 minutes ahead of time. Thanks to my son’s choice of a less traveled route that GoogleMaps advertised as nine minutes faster, we did arrive 45 minutes early on Monday—which gave me more time for NaNoWriMo.)

To my surprise, she seemed very impressed that I was writing a novel. Were she to read my draft, I suspect she would be less impressed. I find little that is impressive about pursuing this objective: I did it more out of peer pressure than anything else. Last year, my daughter, along with a few of my nieces and nephews, participated in NaNoWriMo. I advised her against it, but she persevered anyway. We have this strange relationship in which she encourages me to do things (some creative, some housekeeping-related) and I discourage her from doing things: she knows I need encouragement, and I know that she tends to overdo. On the whole, I have been helped more by her encouragement than she has by my discouragement—okay, I haven’t seen much improvement in the housekeeping arena, but that has taken on the status of a lost cause, so I am not surprised.

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Biltmore Park (11/3/2017)

She has “won” NaNoWriMo twice, but I have not been allowed to read her novels. This saddens me, as I feel that my gifts really lie more in the editing department than in the creative department. (You won’t be able to tell that from this post, into which I am determined not to put much time, since I am supposed to be busily at work in the housekeeping arena today. A prolonged dentist appointment changed my mind: I felt that I deserved a reward for having an unexpected procedure. What better reward than writing an impromptu post? But the housekeeping needs aren’t going to go away just because I’m ignoring them. The piper must be paid eventually.) My daughter’s novels belong to the potentially lucrative genre of science fiction, and she is a good writer. Maybe one day I’ll persuade her to let me have a look.

Now that I’ve written a third of my own novel, though, I can see why she doesn’t want to let anyone read hers. I am literally making it up as I go along, and I find it difficult to believe that anyone could be edified by a perusal of my 15,881 words to date. Technically, I haven’t quite reached the one-third mark: 50,000 words is the official goal. Here’s the teaser from NaNoWriMo’s site that got me hooked:

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is a fun, seat-of-your-pants approach to creative writing. On November 1, participants begin working towards the goal of writing a 50,000-word novel by 11:59 PM on November 30. Valuing enthusiasm, determination, and a deadline, NaNoWriMo is for anyone who has ever thought about writing a novel.

Three phrases did it:

  1.  “seat-of-your-pants.” I am the original fly-without-an-outline writer. I can make outlines because my high school teachers forced me to, and my writing is better when I do, but I so much prefer to hit the ground running.
  2.  “goal.” I doubt if I would play the piano today if my mom hadn’t offered me the incentive of a new Nancy Drew book if I practiced every day for a month. I cannot seem to successfully meet my own goals, but I have a decent success rate of achieving goals that others set for me. Sad but true.
  3. “anyone who has ever thought about writing a novel.” My thoughts of writing a novel have mostly been motivated by my desire to earn filthy lucre. I much prefer writing essays, but I never heard of anyone who made money writing essays. (Please correct me if I’m wrong. I’d even make outlines if that would help my essays make a bit of money. I did submit an article speculatively to a magazine back in my college days and received a small sum when the article was printed, but that was a fluke. I tried that blind submission tactic a few times as a new mom and met with rejection.)

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Barn at the Carl Sandburg House (10/14/2017)

But, sure, I’ve thought about writing a novel. I had no idea how difficult novel-writing was until November 1. I lifted a plot from a suggestion a Facebook friend had made and tweaked it a little, but finding ways to advance the plot has not been my problem. My difficulties have been technical. How do I move my character from the commuter train (which I stupidly set in a real location), down the sidewalk, and into the Boston Public Library? (Oops, I gave it away there. Yes, a visit to Boston and its suburbs would help me right now, but there’s that filthy lucre problem that I mentioned earlier.) Do I need to tell every thought she’s having? Every text she’s receiving on her phone? What if the owners of the actual house that I’m writing about have a problem with their address appearing in my novel? I’m getting ahead of myself there and assuming that this assortment of words will be published. Why would it be?

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Asheville, North Carolina (11/5/2017)

Also, I find myself borrowing from every person or situation I’ve ever experienced. I’ve always wondered how novelists manage not to alienate their family members or friends. There is Thomas Wolfe’s well-known example—and he was a resident of Asheville, North Carolina, too! It would be a little too neat if the book that offended people from Wolfe’s past were You Can’t Go Home Again; that book was published posthumously, so it didn’t matter how many folks he offended. Wolfe’s earlier book, Look Homeward, Angel, reportedly resulted in his receiving death threats from residents of Asheville, which he had fictionalized in his novel. As an Asheville transplant, I am aware of the angry local reactions to Wolfe’s novel. Perhaps that’s why I chose Boston and its suburbs instead as the physical setting for my “novel.” (The quotation marks are necessary.) But, oh, how much time I am losing, zooming in on maps of Boston and images from the library, looking up schedules on the MBTA’s website—and all for what? So that I can claim to have won a game at the end of November?

For the moment, I am trying to ignore all the reasons that I shouldn’t keep writing and forcing myself to try to meet the daily quota of words. (Even my encouraging daughter told me that I shouldn’t expect to “win” the game on my first try. I think she’s concerned about the cluttered condition of the house. Or maybe she’s concerned about my sanity.) But, if you see me here on WordPress a little less for the next couple of weeks, you’ll know why.

Happy Thanksgiving to all, if I disappear until December 1!

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East Asheville (10/18/2017)

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So Many Fall Photos, So Little Time

I take too many pictures. This is an indisputable fact. None of my children would quarrel with this statement. If I even start to say the “p” word when I’m on a walk with my older daughter, a frown creases her usually amiable face. Her brothers are more tolerant—two of my sons will obligingly take photos on request if I’m driving or lacking sufficient room on my phone. My younger daughter has a natural eye for a picture—much better than mine—so she’s tolerant of picture-taking, as long as it doesn’t make her late.

If you live in the mountains and you take too many pictures, what happens in the fall? You wind up with way too many pictures. Rekindling my blogs this fall has worsened the situation: I bet I’m not the only person out there who takes photos speculatively, thinking, “Oh, this will make a great blog post” or “I bet my readers would like to see fall at the Biltmore.”

From a statistical point of view, I thought it would be interesting to see just how many pictures I have taken this fall, but that information has proved elusive. I searched for all files in my “Pictures” library taken between 10/1/2017 and 10/31/2017; fall starts on September 22, but the date range proved difficult to set between months. The resulting search showed 713 pictures taken in October alone. However, not all of those photos were unique: I’ve started resizing (or “optimizing,” to use WordPress’s term) photos that I insert in blog posts. At first, I resisted optimizing, but I’m trying to make my storage space last; at least 50 of those files are resized photos. Some photos are scans and have nothing to do with fall color. Other photos are associated with events like my son’s birthday, the Highland Games, or Halloween. Still, my conservative estimate is that I’ve taken at least 400 fall photos this year. Wow. What was I thinking? So much frowning for my daughter cannot be good. (She wasn’t with me on most of my fall-color excursions—fortunately for her.)

Mostly, my photos aren’t that good, either. Occasionally, I’ll get out my son’s DSLR camera, and then—if I can remember how to use it—the photos might turn out well.  Primarily, I take photos for three reasons: 1) to capture the “thrill” of glimpsed beauty; 2) to capture a moment in time; 3) to have fodder for blog posts (sad but true). Occasionally, there’s a fourth, practical reason: to streamline life. It’s quicker to take a picture of a recipe than it is to write down all the ingredients; it’s quicker to take a picture of my insurance card than to copy down the info. And it’s handy to take a picture when I’m choosing between two dresses, particularly if I need fashion advice from my daughters.

I’m borrowing the word “thrill” as a reaction to beauty from L. M. Montgomery’s beloved book about an orphan girl who finds a home on Prince Edward Island. Yesterday my son and I started listening to Anne of Green Gables on our way to his out-of-town basketball game. (Please don’t tell his middle school buddies.) I may have waited too long to share this book with him; he was rolling his eyes occasionally. My eyes, on the other hand, filled with tears as I listened to Anne’s excitement about finding a home at last and to the details of her loveless existence prior to arriving at Green Gables. When I first read Anne of Green Gables, I was a child, so the pathos of her situation was lost on me.

My son came up with one of his one-liners as we were nearing home. We had to pause the book, and I said reassuringly, “You know that she gets to stay, right? After all, it is called, Anne of Green Gables.” His response? “Yeah, I mean, it’s not called Anne of Asylum.” Anne of the Asylum might be a slightly better title, but I see his point. Even Jane Eyre, part of which is set in an asylum for orphaned children, avoids the word “asylum” in its title. Authors have to think about marketing.

I bring up Anne of Green Gables because taking a picture is my instinctive response to the “thrill” that I get when I see a particularly beautiful tree or view or sight. The word “thrill” appears 37 times in Anne of Green Gables! The first time Anne uses the word “thrill,” Matthew is driving her from the Bright River station to Green Gables; Anne sees one beautiful sight after another—apple trees in bloom arching over the road, a lovely pond at sunset:

Below them was a pond, looking almost like a river so long and winding was it. A bridge spanned it midway and from there to its lower end, where an amber-hued belt of sand-hills shut it in from the dark blue gulf beyond, the water was a glory of many shifting hues–the most spiritual shadings of crocus and rose and ethereal green, with other elusive tintings for which no name has ever been found. Above the bridge the pond ran up into fringing groves of fir and maple and lay all darkly translucent in their wavering shadows . . .

“That’s Barry’s pond,” said Matthew.

“Oh, I don’t like that name, either. I shall call it–let me see–the Lake of Shining Waters. Yes, that is the right name for it. I know because of the thrill. When I hit on a name that suits exactly it gives me a thrill. Do things ever give you a thrill?”

Matthew ruminated.

“Well now, yes. It always kind of gives me a thrill to see them ugly white grubs that spade up in the cucumber beds. I hate the look of them.”

“Oh, I don’t think that can be exactly the same kind of a thrill. Do you think it can? There doesn’t seem to be much connection between grubs and lakes of shining waters, does there?”

Later, Anne uses the word “thrill” to describe how she feels about the poetry in the Fifth Reader, about puffed sleeves, about the upcoming church picnic, about having tea with Ms. Barry, about acting out a romantic scene, and many other experiences. Marilla, a spinster who has had few children in her life, is “thrilled” when Anne kisses her on the cheek. “Thrills” are few and far between as we get older, but the beauties in nature can be counted on to thrill the most stoic among us. Last week, even my oldest son, who describes himself as “not a nature person,” posted a photo of a particularly beautiful Japanese maple on Instagram.

I love Anne’s reaction to some birches she observes while at church one Sunday: “‘There was a long row of white birches hanging over the lake and the sunshine fell down through them, ‘way, ‘way down, deep into the water. Oh, Marilla, it was like a beautiful dream! It gave me a thrill and I just said, “Thank you for it, God,” two or three times.’” Last week, my son and I sang the Doxology in the car as we drove along a particularly beautiful stretch of the Blue Ridge Parkway. It seemed the best way to respond to the “thrill” we felt.

October was a beautiful month at Green Gables, when the birches in the hollow turned as golden as sunshine and the maples behind the orchard were royal crimson and the wild cherry trees along the lane put on the loveliest shades of dark red and bronzy green, while the fields sunned themselves in aftermaths.

Anne reveled in the world of color about her.

“Oh, Marilla,” she exclaimed one Saturday morning, coming dancing in with her arms full of gorgeous boughs, “I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers. It would be terrible if we just skipped from September to November, wouldn’t it? Look at these maple branches. Don’t they give you a thrill–several thrills? I’m going to decorate my room with them.”

Now that it’s November, the brilliant leaves are fading and falling. The austere beauty of winter is insinuating its presence, although a few trees still valiantly fly the red and orange battle flags of fall. Scattered leaves tumble and scurry over the street outside the coffee shop where I’m typing. Winter will be lovely in its barebones way, but there is a thrill in autumn’s glorious colors that I’ll miss.

Farewell to a Fish

leaf strewn mereFarewell to a Fish

Oh, Faramir, your lot was clear: to bring us golden bliss.
Six weeks, alas, would scarcely pass ere something went amiss.
We watched you flutter your bright fins and wait upon your food;
My memory of you must not be of your last, darkened mood.

No, let me rather think on days when you were filled with zest
For flakes and bowl, for water clean (you know we did our best).
But, in the end, our wisdom failed: you sickened, and you died.
No healing touch of king had I; yet, Faramir, I tried.

And will we get another fish? But, no, thought cannot bear
To fill your empty bowl so soon: we’ll wait ’til next year’s fair?
For now, the bowl we’ll stow away–the pebbles and the net;
We’ll bury you beneath the clay, but we will not forget.

So, Faramir, float gently down into this leaf-strewn mere:
A final voyage for steward’s son upon a golden bier.

by Sandra Fleming / Copyright @2017

As you will gather from this tribute, our goldfish Faramir, whose arrival was described here and whose exploits were chronicled here, passed away over the weekend. Saturday morning, my son put a Tetra Flake in Faramir’s bowl before leaving to play chess in a Halloween tournament. Fittingly, my son dressed up as Aragorn, who, like Faramir, is a character in J. R. R. Tolkien’s trilogy, The Lord of the Rings; Aragorn is the stalwart Ranger who eventually becomes King of Gondor. My son had named our goldfish Faramir after the younger brother of Boromir, who is part of the Fellowship of the Ring. Boromir and Faramir are the sons of Denethor, Steward of Gondor, who rules Minas Tirith in the absence of a king. Boromir, the older brother, dies defending Merry and Pippin in The Two Towers. Later in The Two Towers, Faramir appears and aids Frodo and Sam. In The Return of the King, Faramir is injured; he develops a high fever and is rescued from a funeral pyre by the quick actions of Pippin and Beregond, a guard. Near death, Faramir is saved by Aragorn, who, as King of Gondor, has power to heal.

Aragorn at chess tournament

Is this his Viggo Mortensen face or his don’t-take-my-picture face?

When I came home from taking pictures at the chess tournament, I noticed that Faramir was very still—too still for a fish that has always been active; typically, he swims to the surface when he sees one of us coming with the bright orange container of fish flakes. He did not swim up on Saturday. In fact, he was motionless, and I saw his breakfast flake floating, untouched, in his bowl. Alas, I am no king of Gondor and do not have the power to resuscitate even a goldfish. I changed his water multiple times, tried a salt-water bath, and even massaged him, per the directions that I found online. When my husband and son got home, I asked my husband to try to open Faramir’s gills, which was one of the suggestions, but to no avail. Fortunately, my son had done well at the tournament, winning all his games and tying for a first-place trophy, so he was in good spirits when we broke the news to him.

Even though my son named Faramir, I developed an affection for this foundling of a fish, whom we acquired at the fair. I suspect his sudden death may have been because of a change in the type of water we used? We switched from distilled water to spring water after I read an article that suggested goldfish would benefit from the minerals in spring water. At first, he seemed fine, but we didn’t consistently buy the same brand of spring water. As I’ve subsequently learned, spring water varies greatly, and the Great Value spring water may well have had bacteria or parasites that made Faramir sick. At any rate, he hadn’t been very active for the past few days; when I went to feed him lunch on Saturday, I realized that Faramir was unlikely to ever eat a flake again.

Faramir seems unwell

I took this photo of Faramir on Wednesday, October 25, to document his apparent depression. By Saturday afternoon, he was gone.

A week or so before his death, my sister had half-jokingly shared an article with me about how fish can get depressed. Earlier in the week, Faramir was hanging out at the bottom of the bowl, and I wondered if he was depressed. We didn’t have time to move him to the tank, so we continued our routine—three flakes each day, water change every few days. Here I thought I was doing the best thing for the goldfish in switching to the spring water, but, as I so often do when I look up something on the internet, I quickly read one article and stopped. On Saturday I remembered these apt lines from Alexander Pope’s “An Essay on Criticism”: “A little learning is a dangerous thing. Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring; / There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain, and drinking largely sobers us again.” The irony of Pope’s warning to avoid “Spring” water was not lost on me.

It rained heavily Saturday afternoon and evening, and we put off dealing with Faramir. On Sunday, my daughter had invited a friend over, so it seemed courteous to remove the fish bowl. Then my husband had a brilliant idea; some of you LOTR (Lord of the Rings) fans might appreciate his suggestion. He said, “Since Faramir was Boromir’s brother, perhaps it would be fitting for him to go over the Falls of Rauros, too?” He was referring to the way that Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli had put the fallen Boromir into an elven-made boat, which floated over the Falls of Rauros and down the River Anduin to the sea. Giving Faramir’s namesake a waterfall send-off seemed appropriate. Conveniently, we have a water feature with a tiny waterfall in our back yard—hardly the Falls of Rauros but something.

We went out by the pond—it was very windy yesterday, and we even saw snowflakes. After I read my hastily penned elegy, I quoted Pope’s lines about “a little learning is a dangerous thing.” Nothing went as planned. My husband videoed both the reading of the poem and the floating of the leaf, but he kept the camera on me rather than on the fish; also, Faramir fell off the leaf immediately and drifted under the falls. Ultimately, we buried him near the pond. I apologize if this over-the-top funeral for a fish seems macabre, but somehow the pomp and circumstance were helpful. I do miss seeing Faramir swimming eagerly up in his bowl every morning.

At least my son isn’t too sad about Faramir’s death, although he no longer has a pet to work with on his Pet Merit Badge for scouts. He wants a dog, and a fish—even a gallant goldfish like Faramir—proved a poor substitute.

From The Two Towers:

Now they laid Boromir in the middle of the boat that was to bear him away. The grey hood and elven-cloak they folded and placed beneath his head. They combed his long dark hair and arrayed it upon his shoulders. The golden belt of Lórien gleamed about his waist. His helm they set beside him, and across his lap they laid the cloven horn and the hilts and shards of his sword; beneath his feet they put the swords of his enemies. Then fastening the prow to the stern of the other boat, they drew him out into the water. They rowed sadly along the shore, and turning into the swift-running channel they passed the green sward of Parth Galen. The steep sides of Tol Brandir were glowing: it was now mid-afternoon. As they went south the fume of Rauros rose and shimmered before them, a haze of gold. The rush and thunder of the falls shook the windless air.

Sorrowfully they cast loose the funeral boat: there Boromir lay, restful, peaceful, gliding upon the bosom of the flowing water. The stream took him while they held their own boat back with their paddles. He floated by them, and slowly his boat departed, waning to a dark spot against the golden light; and then suddenly it vanished. Rauros roared on unchanging. The River had taken Boromir son of Denethor, and he was not seen again in Minas Tirith, standing as he used to stand upon the White Tower in the morning. But in Gondor in after-days it long was said that the elven-boat rode the falls and the foaming pool, and bore him down through Osgiliath, and past the many mouths of Anduin, out into the Great Sea at night under the stars.

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A Day without Butterflies

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A light mist hung over the brilliantly colored maple by the parking area.

Last Saturday wasn’t a good day for a hike: my college son, who isn’t a fan of hikes (probably because I dragged him on too many during his formative years), was home for fall break; a football game that my husband and sons wanted to see was on TV; and the sky had been overcast all day.  But I knew that this week wasn’t going to be good for hikes because of my husband’s work schedule, and I hadn’t been on a walk of any length since Tuesday.

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Skipping the North Carolina-Notre Dame game proved to be a smart play for this UNC fan, since UNC lost.

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To the right of the parking area an overlook shows the valley, filled with clouds. A trail on the right leads to the site where George Vanderbilt’s hunting lodge once stood.

Leaving the boys at home with the football game as a temporary bond—their ages and tastes are quite different, but college football has the power to draw my sons together—my self-sacrificing husband and I drove off on the Blue Ridge Parkway, with the summit of Mount Pisgah as our destination. (My husband was divided in his loyalties, but I take it as a compliment that he chose me over the game.)

Although we’ve camped at Mount Pisgah several times, I can only recall hiking to the summit twice before. In 2001, our youngest daughter was only three, but she handled the 1.5-mile hike up to the summit AND 1.5-mile hike down with amazing determination. (That should have clued me in to her strength of character and her physical stamina. She is now studying ballet in college.) In 2011, we hiked to the top again. By then, our youngest son had joined the family, although my middle son was off at Boy Scout camp, so we still lacked a full roster. On both occasions, what struck me even more than the view of the surrounding Blue Ridge Mountains were the beautiful butterflies that swarmed around the wildflowers below the observation platform.

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Hard to believe a three-year-old went up and down that trail on her own, but she was determined to keep up with the older kids.

It’s not logical, but somehow I expected to see those butterflies on Saturday, despite the mist that draped heavily over every tree and stone on the trail up to the summit. We’d seen cars with their lights on before we got to Mount Pisgah, but my husband figured they’d forgotten to turn off their lights after leaving one of the tunnels; it wasn’t raining, and there didn’t seem to be a National Park Service ranger on the prowl for speeding vehicles. Silly us: we got to the Mount Pisgah trail lot, looked around at the creeping fog, and said, “Oh. That’s why.”

Still, the sun was peeking through the tiniest bit as we started the climb upward. We’d only been on the trail for a few minutes when we ran into someone we knew: a teacher who was gamely shepherding her two young cousins on the way down from the summit. We exchanged greetings but didn’t think to ask her whether you could see anything from the observation platform. She was scrambling to keep up with her energetic cousins, so she didn’t have time to chat.IMG_0385 (480x640)

You can see where this story is going. After an arduous climb—more arduous than it might have been because we’d forgotten to bring our trusty hiking sticks—we encountered a woman and her daughters coming down from the platform. An unspoken law of hiking is, “Let the faster person pass you,” so we’d stepped aside to let them pass several minutes before. “There’s nothing to see,” she informed us, as we headed towards the creaky wooden steps.

She was right. No butterflies. No view. Just a large antenna, some brown wildflowers, and dense white clouds as far as the eye could see. Frosted with fog, red-oak trees waved their leaves mockingly at us.

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A very Tolkien-ish tree on the trail

But you know what? We had the platform to ourselves. In fact, we didn’t see another person the whole way back down the mountain. I’ll admit I was disappointed that there were no butterflies. I’m no naturalist, but butterflies have been seen as late as mid-October in this part of western North Carolina. Earlier in the week I had seen a blue butterfly at the Arboretum, but the elevation here was much higher. Maybe butterflies only come out when it’s sunny? This could be a learning opportunity.

What we did have on Saturday was atmosphere. The golden leaves glowing through the haze made us feel like we had stepped into a different world. We’ve just finished listening to Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, so Lothlorien, the golden realm of the elves Galadriel and Celeborn, came to mind immediately. Sure, I’d have preferred to see a brilliant blue sky and blue mountains glazed with the golds and oranges of fall leaves instead of a blank whiteness at the summit. But the effect of flaming leaves against the pale mist was stunning. Magical.

IMG_0389 (640x480)Some sunny day, I’d like to try Mount Pisgah again. But mist in the mountains creates its own beauty, particularly when the leaves are golden and brown and the only sounds you hear are the birds calling, the wind blowing, and your feet tramping down the path towards home.

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When Fish Have Wings: The Exciting Life of a Goldfish Owner

Until yesterday I’d never given thought to the phrase “a fish out of water.” The long-suffering goldfish in “The Cat in the Hat” came to mind immediately, which betrays my age; born in the 1960s, I practically cut my teeth on Dr. Seuss. If you’ll recall, a six-foot cat in a striped top hat shows up uninvited at the home of two children on a rainy afternoon. I’m not sure this storyline would fly in an age of stranger danger, but it’s probably okay to let in a talking cat, even when your mother is out? Promising fun and tricks, the Cat wreaks havoc while the officious family goldfish tries to evict him. Children’s programming was limited back then, and I looked forward to “The Cat in the Hat” TV special. I especially liked the Cat’s song with foreign words: “Cat, hat, In French, chat, chapeau!  In Spanish, el gato in a sombrero!” Still, I felt sorry for the fish, who tries to keep the irrepressible Cat and his minions from destroying the house. Who doesn’t pity the fish when Thing One and Thing Two toss his bowl about as if it were a football or basketball?

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Art from “A Fish out of Water” article on the Dr. Seuss Wiki at FANDOM and licensed under the CC-BY-SA.

Although his bowl nearly breaks during the Cat’s shenanigans, ultimately the fish leaves the safety of water on his own terms: he hops out to scold the Cat or to call for help. A few years after the publication of “The Cat in the Hat,” Seuss’ wife, Helen Palmer Geisel, wrote “A Fish Out of Water” about a fish who outgrows his bowl; her book was inspired by “Gustav the Goldfish,” a short story written by Seuss under his real name, Theodor Geisel. Out-of-water fish must have amused the Geisels. Me? Not so much.

A fish flying from its bowl sounds like something from a children’s book or a Saturday morning cartoon—except that it really happened last night. Imagine my horror this morning when I glanced at Faramir’s bowl to make sure that he’d lived through the night and saw that Faramir wasn’t in his bowl! Since my daughter had already left for work, my first thought was, “Did the fish die in the night? Did Emily dispose of him?” Wildly, I looked around, and there he lay, his vivid orange-and-black body motionless beside the bowl, not gasping for air but staring wide-eyed at me. I shrieked, and my husband came running from the breakfast room.

Bryson may sleep through high winds, but he knows what to do for a dying fish: he scooped him up and put him in the bowl. Breathless (not literally, like poor Faramir), we waited to see what would happen. To my amazement, Faramir seemed to breathe a little. Belatedly, we realized that Bryson should have scooped up Faramir with the net rather than touching him, but at least Faramir was back in the water. Mainly, I was relieved that the fish wasn’t dead . . . yet. By the time my son came down for breakfast, Faramir was moving around a little, although one of his fins seemed to be stuck to his body.

While Bryson drove David to his homeschool classes, I researched what could be done for a fish snatched from the jaws of death. Neither Bryson nor I had much doubt as to why this had happened: Bryson had added water to the bowl before he went to bed, bringing the water level up to just below the rim. Had I been paying attention, I could have told him that was a bad idea: I’d read the day before that it was better for fish living in a bowl to have more air at the top. Alas, I was on Facebook at the time. I don’t fault him. A supportive husband, Bryson had read my post about Faramir and had stepped up his vigilance with the fish’s water. He’d used the trick of diluting, rather than changing, the water with other fish: who’d a-thought this fish would make a break for it?

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“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” may not apply to Faramir.

Happily, I found one practical suggestion for Faramir: fish have a slimy coating, which could have been affected during Faramir’s time out of water. Adding water conditioner was the recommendation; fortunately, we had a small bottle in the cabinet. Almost immediately, Faramir’s fin seemed to come unstuck, and his swimming improved. Thank you, fish forums!

Faramir refused to eat even one Tetra-Fin flake, however, which seemed ominous. Then I learned that fish food can go bad. In our ignorance, we’d been feeding out-of-date food to Faramir since bringing him home from the fair. Bryson bought a small container of food and two gallons of distilled water after he dropped off David. When he got home, he moved Faramir to a tiny bowl; next, he emptied the larger bowl and, using distilled water, rinsed off the rocks in a colander. After adding fresh water and water conditioner, Bryson returned Faramir to the bowl and gave him a flake of the new food. Lo and behold, he ate a flake!

Will there be any long-term effects? Who can say? He doesn’t seem quite as active as before, and he still has the black splotches (possibly from ammonia poisoning): maybe they’ll go away, if we keep his water free of waste and leftover food? I’ve also read that the change in color could be genetic; the black-and-orange combination is rather striking—perfect for Halloween! Whether because of his ammonia burns or his personality (do fish have personality?), Faramir has been very active since we brought him home. A little less activity might be good for him.

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Fish with a death wish?

That leads me to the next question: why did he jump? Was it simply because he had the opportunity? Some folks say that goldfish will jump, if you don’t keep a lid on the tank. (On the fish-care forums, there was a lot of hate for those of us who keep fish in an open bowl, but I’ll address that in a moment.) Others suggested that fish jump when breeding or when they don’t like something about the water. With the water level so high, an active fish like Faramir probably couldn’t resist the temptation. Apparently, he has little in common with Karlos K. Krinkelbein, the rule-keeping fish from “The Cat in the Hat.” As my daughter said when she heard the latest development, “He’s a jumper.”

Is a tank in Faramir’s future? Probably—but we don’t want him to suffer the same fate as Merry and Pippin, whom we bought at PetSmart in the fall of 2013 because we didn’t win a fish at the fair that year. See? It’s a lose-lose situation with that fish game at the fair: if you win a fish, you bring home an unhealthy fish; if you don’t win a fish, you have disappointed children whom you placate the next day by buying them healthy fish. For Merry and Pippin’s well-being, we also invested in our first tank, but it wasn’t really large enough for two fish. Right from the start, as you’ll learn if you watch this video of my son introducing the fish to his college siblings, Pippin tended to gobble up all the food, leaving Merry to fend for himself. My daughter’s friend suggested that Pippin should be renamed Fatty Bolger, an amiable hobbit from The Lord of the Rings; presumably, Fatty enjoyed not only a first and second breakfast but even a third breakfast.

Food squabbles weren’t the worst of it, however. One day, my younger daughter rushed up from the basement to report that Merry’s fin was caught in the filter! Even though turning off the filter freed him, his fin was damaged (shades of “Finding Nemo,” but, trust me, that wasn’t a “lucky fin”). Before long, he died. Then Pippin also swam up to the filter, got caught and injured, and died shortly thereafter. See why we have a phobia about tanks with filters? Still, Faramir does need more room (assuming he makes it through the weekend). I’ll have to read up on tanks and filters before we make that transition.

How can I be putting so much thought and energy into this foundling of a fish? Clearly, my son isn’t the only one who cares about him: I found myself talking to Faramir several times today, although I did that annoying parent thing and called him “Frodo” instead of “Faramir.” In my defense, we once owned a betta fish named Frodo. Frodo was very short-lived, but Dave, whom we bought at the same time, lived for more than two years. Dave and Frodo were kept in separate bowls because the pet store people told us two male bettas shouldn’t be in the same space, and they used to glare at one another. After Frodo died, Dave’s existence was less intense but also less interesting. (My daughter dubbed him, “Dave, the Boring Betta.”)

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Merry and Pippin joined the family on September 23, 2013–just one day late for Bilbo and Frodo Baggins’ birthday celebration on September 22.

I fervently hope that my next post here will be a typical descriptive piece about one of our hikes and not an elegy for Faramir. While the poet in me might enjoy composing it, the parent in me wants Faramir to live a long and happy life. After so much emotion expended on one fish, it would be nice to get a good return on our investment. That is the problem with fish, though: they’re not much trouble—or not usually—but they can’t go on a walk, or learn tricks, or show affection. . . . I can’t complain: Faramir may be trouble, but he has added more drama to our lives than I was expecting. The moral of this story is, if you name your fish for an epic hero, he may decide to have adventures befitting his name.

Welcome to our world, Faramir!

Faramir the Fish became a part of our family over a week ago. I won him at the Mountain State Fair! At the time, I felt bad because my 12-year-old son had clearly hoped to do the winning himself. For $5.00, my husband, son, and I received a bucket of ping-pong balls that we attempted to toss into one of numerous tiny fish bowls (the actual fish were kept somewhere else). Only one of our 35 balls actually made it into a bowl. The midway at the fair is one of those places where it pays to be cynical: they’d lose money if the rate of success was much higher than ours.

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The fair took place the same week that Irma hit our corner of North Carolina. Happily, the weather was perfect when we finally made it to the fair.

Although my son would have preferred to win the fish himself, he was excited to have a pet again. I’ll probably alienate readers by confessing this, but I’m not much of a pet person. Neither is my husband: his family briefly adopted a cat, but neither of our families ever owned dogs. (My parents used to tell us that we had little sisters instead of dogs—no offense, Lesley and Christie!) I’ve concluded that my disinterest in owning a pet is due to a character flaw—a lack of warmth, or affection, or optimism, or interest in the outside world? Owning a dog might help me work through those issues, but it’s a vicious cycle, since I’m unlikely to ever own a dog.

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It feels great to beat the game at the fair.

Most of my children have expressed interest in owning a pet. Poor kids! It’s hard to overcome the anti-pet instincts of not one, but two, parents. Our objections largely had to do with expense and care issues; over the past six years, we’ve put two kids through college, and two more are currently in college, so there have been other places for money to go. Add in the inevitable home maintenance costs and the odd car incident, and there goes any extra money. My husband was concerned that he’d wind up being the one who took care of the dog—and what about when we went out of town? So, no dog. My middle son wanted a rabbit, but his timing was off: we’d just had child #5, and I felt overwhelmed with homeschooling four kids and maintaining the much-larger home that we moved to before the baby came.

We have owned fish on and off through the years, though. My husband’s dear grandmother wanted all the great-grandchildren to have one of those betta fish who lived with a lily (remember those?). Mark lived for more than two years! Lion was next: my daughter won him at a school carnival, and he proved fairly long-lived. If Faramir stays around much longer, we’ll haul up the tank from the basement. Merry and Pippin were its last inhabitants; we briefly owned a Frodo, but he went to the Grey Havens before we’d had him long. (Yes, there’s a Tolkien theme; check out this post for more about my Tolkien obsession.)

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The setting sun was a challenge during the high-diving show.

Currently, Faramir inhabits a classic goldfish bowl on the island in our kitchen. At the moment, he only has rocks to keep him company, but, as my daughter pointed out, he might appreciate a plant or two—something he could hide behind. I’m excited that he’s alive, because we’ve heard reports of other fish acquired at the fair that didn’t make it a week. From our previous fish experience, we knew to use distilled water rather than water from the tap: maybe that’s helping? Or maybe it’s the devotion from my son?

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Fish aren’t that easy to photograph.

While I’m not thrilled about pets, I am thrilled about the name that my son chose: Faramir, continuing the Tolkien tradition. His name could be spelled “Fairamir,” as a nod to his place of origin, but I’d rather be accurate than cute. David picked the name “Faramir” in gratitude for my winning the fish (we were down to our last five balls when I made the lucky toss). Faramir is possibly my favorite character from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy (turns out he was Tolkien’s favorite as well). It’s hard to pick a favorite LOTR character when there are so many good options: Frodo, with his desire to do the right thing and his openness about his weakness; Sam, whose folksy comments and sturdy courage get him and his master through many a dark moment; crusty Gandalf, whose bark is much worse than his bite; Éowyn, a feminist trapped in the wrong time and place; and, of course, Aragorn, the humble, healing would-be king who veils his glory in the tattered garments of a ranger.

Faramir, the undervalued younger son of Denethor, proud steward of Gondor, is more approachable than Aragon, although he resembles him in his humility, patience, and wisdom. Both soldier and scholar, Faramir takes a chance on the halflings that he encounters on the borders of Mordor, even though he suspects that his father will not approve of his assisting Frodo rather than dragging him back to Minas Tirith. Without the respite that Frodo and Sam received under Faramir’s care, would they have had the strength to complete their task? In fact, Sam uses the staff that he was given by Faramir to whack Gollum, when Gollum finally betrays them to Shelob. And what a resolution to Éowyn’s heartbreak: ultimately, she and Faramir, both convalescing in the Houses of Healing, find one another; Faramir’s kindness and love melt the bitter frost of the shieldmaiden of Rohan.

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I skipped the Twister for the second year in a row (but I rode the Tilt-a-Whirl).

Yes, David could hardly have chosen a better name than Faramir for our new fish. Initially, I was excited about Faramir’s black patches, since those in the service of Gondor wear black-and-silver livery. When my daughter heard me comparing our goldfish’s black spots to Gondorian armor, she said, “Mom, I hadn’t wanted to tell you this, but David and I think Faramir is developing more black spots. He may have ammonia poisoning.” Oh, dear. I did some research, and it appears that she is right: before he came to us, Faramir was apparently kept in a waste-filled tank and was burned. The black patches mean that he is healing, but we should not overfeed him, and we need to change his water several times a week (at least as long as he is living in the little bowl).

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See his black spots?

For Faramir, every day of life is a miracle. Actually, that is true for all of us. May I make the most of having life today!

When Trees Are Not Our Friends

A couple of weeks ago, my feelings about trees underwent a change. Trees have always seemed like friends to me: I liked to climb them and to sketch them, to sit under their shade and read or to stroll beneath their branches. I’ve thought about changing the name of my blog from time to time, but I like the fact that it gives a nod to Joyce Kilmer’s poem “Trees.” Heck, I’ve even made the pilgrimage to Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest. Then Irma came along.

Oh, I know I have nothing to complain about, compared to the folks who lost homes, boats, vehicles, livelihoods, and even their lives down in Florida. Still, the morning that we woke up to this sight in our driveway, I began to realize that Tall Trees + High Wind = Potential Catastrophe.IMG_0157 (1280x960)

The night before, violent winds had tossed the trees surrounding our house. After two hours of flickering lights, we were relieved at 12:15 a.m. when the power finally went off and stayed off.  I’d been trying to print my son’s homework (air printers aren’t always our friends, either): every time the internet connection was nearly complete, the lights went out. We armed ourselves with flashlights and went to bed, but sleep was slow in coming.

Most of the trees around our house are hardwoods, but that didn’t matter to Irma. Limbs struck the roof, and mysterious objects crashed to the ground. My husband, who isn’t the worrying sort anyway, wasn’t much comfort: he was trying to sleep in case he got called into work. Drowsily, he told me that hardwoods don’t fall and went back to sleep. Thrashing branches and howling winds with gusts up to 31 mph kept me awake for a long time, but my efforts to see into the dark yard were useless.

Around 4 a.m., the winds died down, and I slept. The next morning, we didn’t even notice the tree in the driveway: a limb had hit my son’s trampoline, but we didn’t see any other damage. Suddenly my daughter, late to her work, dashed in to ask if someone could move a car so she could get out. And there it was, a majestic red oak, no longer destined to shade our yard or provide refuge for squirrels: down it had been thrust by those vicious winds, and down it would stay.

When I looked around at all the trees that could have hit our house, I knew we had dodged a very large bullet. Even the two cars parked in front of our house had escaped. Gazing around uneasily, I realized that we were surrounded by threats: tulip poplars, white oaks, red oaks, sourwoods, maples, and pines glared menacingly at me. No longer did our wooded yard seem a friendly place.

And what to do with this large obstacle blocking our driveway? My husband doubtfully said something about chainsaws and getting his dad to help, but, given his schedule, we agreed that professional help was the best solution. Happily, he knew a guy to call: two hours later, Element Arbor was tackling not only the large oak (wish I’d measured it!) but also a hemlock. The air buzzed with the sound of chainsaws, since our tree was not the only one to fall in the neighborhood.

As my son and I cleaned up the fallen leaves and branches that afternoon—his class had been cancelled, so the unprinted homework was not a problem—I heard the wind from time to time. And I trembled as I would not have the day before.

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Yet there was beauty even in the broken limbs, especially of the oak trees: never had I seen acorns so fresh and green. What will the squirrels eat this winter, I wonder? Surely the acorns fell too soon, and many will be carted off when the neighborhood crew clears away the brush. IMG_0160 (960x1280)Something about the red wheelbarrow, the crumpled leaves of bright orange and yellow, and the aching green of the new acorns caught at my heart.IMG_0162 (960x1280) After the rain—the ground was drenched, saturated with Irma’s angry tears—everything looked fresh and clean. My son had voluntarily gone out and started clearing leaves from the driveway: he hadn’t done it quite the way I’d have liked, since he’d pushed the leaves to the side rather than sweeping them up and dumping them in the wheelbarrow. But he and I were both busily working outside, feeling industrious, drinking in the cool air that had a nip of early autumn. And how could I be sad any more?

Although Irma brought destruction—in a small measure—to our yard, she also forced us to step out of our normal lives. No orchestra practice that afternoon, no boy scouts that night, no computer to tempt us back inside, and still no power, so my mother-in-law graciously invited us over for dinner. How pleasant it was to sit around her lovely dining table, eating spaghetti and talking of past storms and future plans. My in-laws were happy to share the leftover blueberry pie and softer-than-usual vanilla ice cream that we’d brought over, and we were happy to have a place to charge up all our devices. (I wish I could say that a day without power had cured us of the desire to check our devices, but that would be a lie.)

When we got home, yellow lights were gleaming in more than one window. Hooray for the power workers who had been pushing themselves since the wee hours of the morning to restore power! Aside from the ice cream, everything in the refrigerator seemed okay; even the milk was drinkable, according to my son. And, when all was said and done, the enormous oak tree hadn’t hit our house.

But I do feel sadder, if not wiser. Wisdom would be for us to call in a tree expert some time and have him check the remaining trees, especially those likely to fall on the house. I hate to lose any more trees, but I remember the menace in that howling wind.

The Red Wheelbarrow

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.

–William Carlos Williams