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Welcome! I  hope you’ll find something here to warm your imagination and spirit, and spark some thoughts. What I  really hope is that you’ll ‘add a log to the fire,’ by way of a comment,observation, or a story!

Please visit my other web-site http://www.storyconnection.com where with my partner Liz Mangual we showcase some of the ways you can engage us with your school, library, or organization.

mosquito signIt seems that it’s that time of year again.  People seem to be telling lots of stories about mosquitoes, much of which I suspect is exaggeration, hyperbole and even outright lies. Now I don’t want to come straight out and accuse anyone else of stretching the truth- take this sign that some folks in the Adirondacks put up for instance- I don’t know if it was to attract tourists or keep them away, but half a dozen of my friends who know just how much I’m a stickler for the truth sent me that photo and suggested that I might ‘go on the record’ and tell it like it really is.  They know about the years I spent in Alaska and my friends said that it is my civic duty to set some things straight, so that’s what I’m going to try and do, at least as far as the common Alaska variety goes.

 

People tell about how big Alaska mosquitoes are. My first year in Alaska an old sourdough bush pilot tried this one out on me thinking that I’d be gullible enough to believe nonsense like, ” I saw a mosquito land at the Fairbanks airport, and the ground crew  filled it up with jet fuel and changed it’s spark plugs before they realized what it was.”  What bull!
So now the truth. Alaska mosquitos really aren’t that big at all. The one that flew in my cabin window and snatched a #10 can of beans was at least two pounds smaller  than the turkey I cooked for Thanksgiving that fall.

Alaskans like to brag about how tough and strong their mosquitoes are. Believe me, they’re not that tough.  An hour after he flew off with my beans that mosquito had to come all the way back to get a can-opener.alaska state bird

 

But I did have some really bad trouble with mosquitos my second summer though.

You know, if you live in the wilderness it’s crucial to keep your tools sharp.  So one of the first things I bought myself that first winter was a grindstone for just such purposes. When the mosquitoes returned from their migrations that next summer, here came that same mosquito that stole my beans. I could tell it was him because he wasn’t just buzzing, he was farting up quite a storm. I guess he didn’t want to bother with can openers anymore and thought that grindstone would be just the thing to put a fine edge on his bill.  And off he flew with it.

 

For some reason that particular mosquito must have taken some kind of personal dislike towards me. Later that summer I was out in the yard washing my clothes. I didn’t have any electricity out there at my cabin and I was using a big old metal washtub.

I heard a deafening buzz and then just as clear as a bell I heard him say,  ”I’m  BAAACK! “His intentions were clear- he was on a straight course towards the top of my head. There was no time to think.  I just grabbed that washtub, dumped out the dirty water, and put it over my head for protection.

That’s when I heard a terrible hammering, loud as thunder. That blood sucker was drilling straight through the washtub.  And on account of him having my grindstone, his  bill were sharp enough to do the job in a hurry. In no time at all his bills was clear through the metal and starting on my skull.

But I was well on the way to becoming a sure enough sourdough myself, learning to live in the wilderness and prepared for just about any eventuality.  I always kept a leather-man tool on my belt, even when I was in bed, so I reached for it quick, unfolded the pliers, lifted the washtub just enough and to bent that deadly bill snug up against the inside of the washtub.  Now that little devil was stuck tight. I had him!

Or so I thought.

Well his bill was stuck but his wings were still free. I have to admit to a certain admiration for that little mosquito.  Desperate as his situation seemed, he didn’t give up. He began flapping his wings with all his might and before I knew it he picked up the washtub and me right with it and headed south.

I don’t know how he knew it was going to be an early winter, but he knew and he just kept flying non- stop for two weeks and a day until the finally ran out of steam and landed.

Fortunately, I knew just where I was. Spring Valley New York where I grew up.  That mosquito had deposited me right in my parent’s back yard on Willow Tree Road.  Right then though, I made my big mistake.  I guess I felt a little sorry for that mosquito , He looked just about plum worn out and he still had a considerable way to go to reach warm weather. Truth is, I’d grown fond of him during our passage. So I decided to straighten out his bill and set him free. I watched him wobble off looking somewhat dazed an confused.

mosquito-sculpture

I had a good visit with my parents.  I knew they worried about me and I did my best to reassure them that I was doing just fine up there in the Last Frontier.   You know what the best part of my visit was? Catching those late summer fireflies just like I used to do when I was a little kid.  They don’t have fireflies in Alaska.  I wasn’t quite  as fast as I had been but I still caught a good jarful.  Of course I let them go after I used them for some late night reading.

But this is where letting that mosquito go came back to haunt me. I reckon that an Alaskan Mosquito had never set eyes on a New York Firefly before, and the best I can figure it, when that mosquito set eyes on one of those lightning bugs, it must have been love at first sight.   Because a couple of weeks later, just as I was thinking it was time to get back to Alaska, I was sitting around late one night on the back porch  Here came a whole squadron of mosquitoes, and every one of those mosquitoes had bioluminescent green headlamps and bills to match.  I knew in a flash what had happened. My mosquito had mated with a firefly and these were the offspring.  I can’t say for sure whether it was nature or nurture  but it was clear to me that these Fire-Skeeters were looking for me and their intentions were not kindly. It was time for some more quick thinking.

“Quick Dad, throw me  the keys to the car,” I screamed. He could tell by the tone of my voice that this was no time to ask questions, so he tossed me the keys to the Rambler, I made a dash to the car, waved goodbye, and started driving North on the New York State Thruway. I was on my way home.  But and those fire-mosquitoes were on a mission and they chased me the whole way.  Somewhere near Milwaukee, they realized they could slow me up by puncturing my tires, so I had to stop about every ten miles and spray the tires with mosquito repellent to keep them at a distance.  That slowed me down some. By the time I got home there was four feet of snow piled up around my cabin.  Those mosquitoes were cold and discouraged and sat down together in a huddle to make plans for the winter.

Unfortunately, because I was gone so long, I hadn’t had time to cut firewood.  And it was cold. I quickly assessed the situation and realized that a great opportunity was right at hand. While those Fire/Skeeters were distracted with their deliberations I snuck up on them and snapped off all their bills and then stacked em up in the woodshed- must have been a good three or four cords. I remembered to leave a few intact for future purposes.  Whenever I needed fire for the rest of the winter I just thawed one out and stuck it in the stove or fireplace.They burned with a beautiful greenish flame.  I kind of missed the crackle of spruce and birch wood, but after awhile I got used to the buzzing of the fire.

Next spring when the mosquitoes came out I knew the “survivors” would be back for me and at me. Just about the time I figured they would arrive I took to sitting in the car as bait and waiting for them to show up.  I was watching the Aurora Borealis dancing in the sky one night when I noticed a matching light veer off and head my way. It was one of those green-eyed green -billed Fire-Skeeters and just like I planned I jumped in the car and waited for it to drill its way through the roof to get at my head.  I used my trusty leather-man, it had never left my side, and fastened him tight  just like I did with the washtub. Then I had him fly the car back to dad. He knew just where to go because what I forgot to mention before was that that original mosquito didn’t just fall in love with the firefly.  There was a menage-a trois going on with a homing pigeon that my parent’s neighbor kept. So that was a Homing Fire-Skeeter I sent on it’s way. The car got there in good shape. But Ramblers were heavy cars, and the mosquitoes were so tuckered out by the time they got there they were nothing but skin and bones.   Dad saved one of their leg bones and mailed it to me.  Got it right here in my pocket.  Ask me about it if you see me  and I’ll be glad to show it to you.

Well, that’s about all I can tell you about Alaska mosquitoes so I hope now you won’t believe any of those exaggerations that so many people indulge in.  Being a responsible storyteller, it’s important to me to stick to the truth. My reputation depends on it. mE7dpgJtjqtB85sYgaiE75Q

Right now, there are a lot of people across the country shivering and digging out from another big snow storm and that has got me to reflecting on my years in Alaska.

A few evenings ago I was sitting in the sauna at the gym and thinking about what a wimp I’ve become, following that though to the time that Storytelling Saved  My Life. Now this is a bit longer post than I usually share, but if you stick with me  you’ll be glad you did because what I’ve got to say might just help save your life too.

I probably was getting a little light headed from the heat in the sauna when the words of Robert Service’s most famous poem, The Creamation of Sam McGee came to me…

“There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.”

And  then came the unsettling  realization that in the 43 years since I’d spent winters in the Yukon and Alaska, I’d become less the hardy northerner and more of Sam McGee. Maybe you had to learn the poem and remember that Sam exacted a promise that if he froze to death his pal would stuff him in the boiler of an old derelict paddle-wheeler.  A promise made is a debt unpaid, and so Sam got his dying wish.
“And there sat Sam, looking cool and calm, in the heart of the furnace roar;
And he wore a smile you could see a mile, and he said: “Please close that door.
It’s fine in here, but I greatly fear you’ll let in the cold and storm—
Since I left Plumtree, down in Tennessee, it’s the first time I’ve been warm.”

The very first  three  weeks I spent in Fairbanks Alaska, the high, the high temperature was 40 below zero. If I remember correctly it hit minus 58 for a couple of days.  Of course, I’ll admit it was always nice to be able to end a day in my own personal log cabin sauna at the close of those short days. It was heated by a wood fired Yukon Stove and there was nothing better than finishing up a session with a  jump in the snow  and then  stand stark naked watching the aurora borealis dance in the black starry night. The day that I first arrived in Fairbanks  was no stove oil for the heater  in the house, so I stoked up the sauna and spent the night there.  Not a steam boat furnace but mighty cozy nevertheless!

I’m usually a pretty social guy, but there are times I really like to have a sauna all to my lonesome.  I admit that it’s not something I should be bragging about but I know how to clear out a crowded sauna pretty fast.  I just keep pouring water on the hot rocks until it gets unbearably hot for everyone else. And the reason that I can tough it out is that I learned a little secret from an 85 year old Athabascan man that I met in the village steam bath on the Yukon that summer I’d kayaked the 2000 miles to the Bering Sea.  That’s the trip I’d started with the Sam McGee Memorial Poetry reading on the marge of lake Lebarge. Meska Savage was his name and he taught me to stuff my nostrils and the lining of my mouth with the seed tufts from the Alaska Cotton plant to keep the mucus linings from drying out and singing up.  Of course now I was taking shortcuts and using cotton balls from Walgreens.

What I really want to say here is that in the 12 years I lived in the north country, I learned a lot about taking care of myself in extreme conditions .  I learned these things from Eskimos, Indians, Tlingit, Haidas, some of who  were over 100 years old, and I learned from guides, hunters,  trappers. miners, loggers, and  fisherman.  Navy seals might know a little more about survival skills than I do now, but not much.

I learned so much and so quickly  that the prospect of spending a night out with wind chills below minus sixty held no more anxiety than flicking off one of those monstrous Alaska  two pound mosquitoes you might have heard about and hopefully have never had to fend off.   I came to Alaska as a Cheechako (that’s Alaskan for greenhorn) but after a couple of years, some of the old timers were already calling me Sourdough Bob.  Heck, by the end of that first month I was already a full fledged member of the 5 mile 50 below club… you earned that distinction by walking the 5 miles to town from our little log cabin ghetto called called Wolf Run in 50 below .

But the the truth of the matter is that by the time I actually arrived in Alaska I was already pretty well prepared for the rugged life of the far north. I had been in training since 1955 when I was a seven years old.

Maybe you’re old enough to remember the Quaker Oats commercials from back in the mid fifties?  1955 to be exact.  That’s when Sergeant Preston of the Yukon and his dog King started offering One Square Inch of the Yukon in their ads for Quaker Puffed Rice  ( shot from cannons so they said)
I was 7 years old in 1955 and when I  sent away for the deed to my very own first square inch of the Yukon, believe me, my destiny was set… there was NOTHING that was going to get in the way of my getting to the Yukon and Alaska.  I started reading everything I could get my hands on. I read about the land and the people, and became  especially interested the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898-tThe stampede that started in Skagway Alaska… and was made famous by Charlie Chaplin’s movie The Gold Rush.  In 1971 I made it to Skagway, then on to Lake LaBarge,  and then the paddle to the Bering Sea. The following year, I met  and heard the stories first hand from a number of old timers who actually prospected in ’98.  I even got to meet a native american man who guided some of the boats through the infamous Whitehorse rapids.
But going back to 1955- I wasn’t just reading about the Yukon. As soon as the deed to my one square inch arrived. I began training for it, and preparing for my eventual arrival in that northern clime where I was now a land-owner.  My grandfather Morris had a kosher butcher shop in East Boston and on one of our family trips that year, I asked him if I could see what it felt like in the big walk in freezer at the back of the shop. He didn’t see any harm in that.  It was COLD in there with all those chickens and sides of kosher beef, but I toughed it out for a full five minutes.  The next day I stayed for ten.  Lucky for me, I could talk to my grandfather about things I didn’t necessarily want my parents to know about. I told him about my plan.  We spent a whole week in Boston on that trip and by the time we headed back to New York, I could spend an hour in that freezer without even wearing a sweater.
Eventually there was no more hiding my motives. Over the years I kept coming back to that freezer and thickening up my blood. Lucky for me my father was a research scientist and he got interested in my “project.”  I guess  at  that time in his career when he was trying to make a mark, he didn’t have a lot of compunctions against human experimentation. He got interested in how long I could stay in that deep freeze and he kept careful records.  I went back and checked in my scrapbook before I started writing this. It was from Dad’s scientific training where I also got instruction and  firm guidance in being very careful about reporting  only the truth of things. That’s how come I can say  that by the time I graduated high school I’d worked up t four days, 13 hours and 6 minutes exactly . I  have to admit though that I did get some extra help from my grandmother. Every eight hours like clockwork she’d dash into the freezer with a hot bowl of Matzoh Ball Soup for me. Sometimes she even stayed in there with me for a couple of hours telling me stories of the old country and those cold Lithuanian winters. So maybe there were some genes working in my favor too.
So like I said, by the time I finally made it to Alaska I was ready for whatever old mother nature was ready to throw at me.  I was ready for the cold, I was prepared for avalanches, for falling overboard in icy water, I was ready for moose, bear, wolves and I even knew how to handle myself if I was ever attacked by a flock of those those two pound mosquitoes that Alaska is so famous for.
But there was one thing that I WASN’T ready for and that was my own arrogance  and stupidity and it damned near killed me.  The only reason that I’m alive now and here to tell about it is that STORYTELLING SAVED MY LIFE.
I had to think hard about whether I’d write about this.  It’s embarrassing and puts me in a bad light.  But after I’d made it out alive, I told myself that if I could save even one other person’s life by this admission then it was incumbent on me and I had an obligation to tell about it.  So here goes.

I’d become known to the old timers as Sourdough Bob, but I had  another nickname too,  my own personal private nickname.  I called myself “One Match.”
I could, and I still can start a stove, fireplace or campfire with one match. I can do it in the damp, I can do it in the rain,  I can do it if the wind is blowing forty miles an hour. I was so confident in my fire-starting skills, that on principle I never carried more than one match.  Of course I kept it dry in my old Boy Scout double sealed, waterproof container.  There was no sense taking chances.

I’ve mentioned how much I learned from hunters, trappers, fisherman, loggers  and such. Of all the old timers I ever met, I learned the most from Poopdeck who I met when he was 78 and who passed away in Homer Alaska at 97  (still swimming in the town pool just a few months before the end).  He’d done all those things and more.  So naturally he knew a few things a young fellow like me ought to know. No one was less inclined to give advice when it wasn’t asked for or to push his own opinions on any one else. He must have got wind of that one match brag of mine though and so this one time he took the liberty of telling me,

“Bob,” he said, “I want you to remember this. When you camp be sure to take PLENTY of matches and keep them dry. This One Match business is a dangerous flibbery flabberty.  And while I’m telling you what you didn’t ask for let me remind you of a couple of other things.  Always… I mean always be careful, look around and pay  close attention to where you pitch your camp.  And when you set out on the trail ALWAYS let someone know where you’re going even if you’re only going out on a day trip.  Alaska can be an unforgiving place when things turn bad.”

I guess I stopped listening after Poopdeck said… Plenty of Matches. I know you’re thinking,  ah, that ‘s how he got in big trouble.  But that wasn’t it.  One Match means One Match. I know how to build a fire and I’ve never failed. It was the other two pieces of advice that I ignored that almost cost me my life.

At the time I’m talking about, The Day that Storytelling Saved My Life, it was a gorgeous late September morning. I should have stuck to my original plan and made sauerkraut that day. A darn moose had gotten into my cabbages and eaten every last one except for that puny one in the northwest corner of the garden that didn’t get as much sun.  The moose had even eaten half of that one too but at least there was still about eighty or ninety pounds of it left give or take an ounce or two.  (I did let my record keeping slip a little during that summer)

When I looked out my window and saw that the bay was as flat as a mirror, and checked the charts and saw that he tides were perfect, I thought, wow, this is a perfect day,
a great day to paddle across the bay and hike up to  Grewink Glacier. I was so eager that I almost left without setting the mosquito traps. I baited them with a couple of puny thirty pound king salmon I’d kept on ice for just such purposes and launched my kayak and caught the outgoing tide.

It was so calm I barely had to paddle… those enormous Kachemak Bay tides carried me past Bird Island and easily across the 5 miles to the roadless side of the bay.I  saw the usual assortment of sea birds, dolphins and orca whales on the crossing.  But watching those two baby grizzly bears skinny-dipping was a real treat. A lot of people have asked me about how I took the photo. The mama bear was nearby and she was the one who helped me out with that.  It’s a little bit out of focus but it was a small camera and kind of hard for her to hold it still.Crossing Kachemak Bay

At

At At

At Glacier Spit I beached the kayak and headed up the  faint trail. It was a glorious day. Being early fall there was a veritable riot of berries. I feasted on blueberries,crowberries, and cranberries and saved some for the trip back to share with the bears. I watched eagles circle and soar, and as I followed the rush of glacier meltwater up to the source I delighted in the great swaths of late blooming fireweed still blanketing the meadows in magenta majesty.

After reaching  Glacier lake  I took a  look at my watch and saw that I still had plenty of time to take a little nap and get down the trail and catch the outgoing tide for the trip back.  I used the leading edge of the glacier as an alarm clock.  On previous hikes there and with my careful record keeping I’d discovered that if I stood in exactly the right place facing a very particular place on the glacier, I could shout and perfectly figure how much time would elapse before the echo came back.  I positioned myself for an hour and fifteen minute snooze- that would give me time to get back to the shore before the wind was likely to pick up- I shouted “ Time to get up Bob” towards the glacier and dropped off to sleep.  Climate change deniers… you are wrong!  Because after this was all over I realized that the glacier had receded a foot or two, throwing off my calculations.  The echo wake up call didn’t come back for an hour and twenty minutes and that five minutes that I overslept might have made all the difference.

I tried to make up those five minutes racing down the trail, But by  the time I got back to the beach, the calm bay had just turned into a churning, whitecapped  fury, pushed by 40mph winds. It wouldn’t matter how strong the outgoing tide was running… there was no way I was going to make it back across the bay that day.  I’d have to spend the night in the woods and wait for the predictable calm in the morning.  But I wasn’t worried one bit.

I’ve always said, you’d have to be a fool to starve to death living by Kachemak Bay.  Food was not going to be a problem.  Besides the abundance of berries, at low tide you could pry loose more mussels in 5 minutes than you could eat in 5 weeks.  Have you ever tasted a mussel freshly harvested and steamed open over an open fire?   Food was not going to be a problem.

Shelter was no problem either. I hadn’t brought a tent or sleeping bag… but I had my big buck knife and I went right to work cutting spruce boughs and making a nice tight little lean- to.Then I hollowed out a fire pit, and gathered enough  tinder, kindling and logs to keep a roaring fire going all night.  And all it took was One Match to get it going!  I was feeling kind of proud of myself.
Food… no problem .Shelter… no problem. Fire …no problem…I even had my evening’s entertainment,  a well weathered copy of Jack London’s short stories in the back pocket of my Carthart Jeans.  I loved Jack London’s stories ever since I’d read Call of the Wild and  White Fang and To Build a Fire, all in one weekend I spent in Grandpa’s freezer.

Thanks for staying with me this far. You’ll be glad you did, because this is where I’m getting to the details of How Storytelling Saved My Life and remember I’m only sharing this with you because it might help you out of jam some day.  Have you ever read to Build a Fire?  If so, you might start thinking about how it ends with the hero freezing to death.

As darkness came on.here I was, snug as a bug an and twice as smug…One Match had done it again… the fire was roaring and  my belly was full.. I’d steamed the mussels with  seaweed and and ate a  perfectly cooked Dolly Varden trout I’d plucked from the stream with my bare hands just before the sun went down.  You can’t eat better than that at Ivar’s Acres of Clams….and that’s the best seafood restaurant in SEattle!  Don’t miss Ivar’s if you have a chance.

After dinner the bay was still churning,the wind was still blowing, the temperature had  dropped below 32, but it didn’t matter. the fire was throwing plenty of heat and I soon drifted off to sleep.  I must have been thinking about the mosquito traps back home. I was in the middle of a  dream about getting drained dry by one of those suckers when I woke for a moment, shook off the dread…looked around and to my surprise it was snowing!  Kind of early for Kachemak Bay but not really all that unusual for September.  Big heavy flakes of wet snow had drifted down and covering the ground about two or three inches.  But no problem… the fire was going strong, so I went back to my dream.

It was just when I was being carried off by two of those mosquitoes and one of them was saying, “Let’s eat him now so the big ones don’t take him away and eat him first” when I was startled out of the dream by that fateful crack.   It almost sounded like the report of a high powered rifle, followed by something that sounded like more like a groan… and then a snap! Then then came the avalanche!

Yes it’s true.  Just like in Jake London’s Story , where the hero built his fire too close to a pine tree,and the weight of the snow, cracked a branch and an avalanche of snowed slid off and put out his fire and would soon put out his life.  My fire was cold out- buried in a food of snow that had slid off the Sitka Spruce I was camped under.

And now Poopdeck’s advice came back to me loud and clear now. “Bob…be real careful about picking your campsite. I’ll admit to a brief moment of panic.  But I got right into action.  I remembered seeing a big hollow log I’d seen not far from the campsite when I’d been foraging for firewood.  It wasn’t going to be the Hilton, it wasn’t even Motel 6,  but it was a place I could get out of the cold, get out of the damp breeze, warm myself with my own body heat and at least survive the rest of the night.

I know what your probably thinking- that there was bear in that hollow log.  No there was not bear. I’m not that foolhardy. ’d rattled a stick in there first just to be sure.  t was vacant and exactly the right size… just big enough around for me to squeeze into, and long enough to leave me about a foot on either end.  I crawled into that life-saver with a strange mixture of emotions;  feeling stupid for my cheeckako mistake, yet proud of my sourdough resourcefulness.  And then exhausted from the long day, I fell into a deep and dreamless sleep.

When I woke up the sun was already high in the sky. The storm had passed and it was a gorgeous  Indian Summer DayI  looked out from the head end of my abode and could see steam rising from the beach rocks… the snow had melted… all of it….the birds were singing in delight… and I could see the Bay… calm and inviting for my return paddle.  It was STILL Paradise!

Until that is,  I tried to get out of the log. And that’s when I discovered  that I couldn’t move forward and I couldn’t move backward.  I’ve never really been able to explain this scientifically.  It has something to do with temperature and expansion and contraction… but somehow because of the rapid cooling then warming of that  hollow log, the ‘hollow’ had shrunk, and the log had had filled in the spaces. Just enough to trap me in a wooden prison.  I’d been in plenty of claustrophobic situations before, during my cave exploring days, and I’d learned that you could always wiggle a bit…change the orientation of a hand or  arm, leg or foot and pry oneself loose.  This time though all such efforts were in vain.  I mean I was Stuck, capital S Stuck.  I wasn’t going anywhere.

And then…I remembered that last piece of Poopdeck’s advice.  Always tell someone where you are going. That’s when the fear and dread really hit me.  I hadn’t told anyone where I was going, nobody would be looking for me. I was well off the beaten track… the chances were almost nil that I would be found  before I died from lack of water, or hypothermia or just plain being scared to death.

I  now had plenty of time to think about just how foolish I’d been before I finally expired.  Yes, the One Match thing along with a lot of my other wilderness bragging was just so much flibberty flabberty after all.  After awhile though the panic, and the disgust with myself subsided and a strange kind of peace and acceptence washed over me.

It’s true what they say about being close to death.Some of you may have experienced this yourselves.   Your whole life runs like a movie before your eyes or in your mind.  In this case. I started reviewing my life and adding it up… Of course I thought about all my loved ones, and friends so far away and out of reach and that made me sad. But an interesting thing was happening. The more I reflected on my life, the better I felt about it.   I’d been a good person.  A great friend.  A hard worker.  Kind to strangers and animals. I thought about all the good I’d done for other people… and the more I thought about it… the more I came to realize and appreciate that I had lived a truly exemplary life!

Just when I was feeling so good about myself, I remembered something I shouldn’t have forgot. There’s always two sides to every story.  I needed to also take stock of my shortcomings. And so thought, and thought and thought.  I thought about it for a good hour and twenty three minutes ( I did record that in my log later)
But as hard as I tried,  I  simply could not find another side of the story.I could not think of one thing, not one single shortcoming… not one.. As much as II wracked my brain, in the end I had to admit. I had truly lived a truly flawless and exemplary life. And I might have expired right there and then in blissful reverie if a deeply buried memory hadn’t bubbled up. I WASN”T perfect… I remembered ONE lapse.  It all came back to me.

It was only one time… just once…  but one time. I ‘d been telling a story  and  I had stretched the truth. I was in New York and telling some friends i that I had hitched all the way from Alaska on the back of one of those 747 sized mosquitoes…. and the fact was that it wasn’t true. That mosquito had only made it to St. Louis before it tuckered out and broke into that blood bank and left me stranded on Route 66. I’d actually taken a greyhound the rest of the way back East.

Yes… it was only one time. But the fact of the matter was that  I had  stretched the truth. I was NOT that completely exemplary person I’d just made peace with.

And folks at that  very moment when I came to grips with that awful realization …it made me feel  small… so small… so small…
that I shrunk a full notch and that was just enough to be able to wiggle out of that log… grab a ride  on the back of a passing killer whale, get back home- skin that mosquito that had blundered into my trap… sell the fur… and by myself  the lap top computer I’m writing this from today.

So you see, that’s how Storytelling Saved My Life.  I hope you’ll never have to stretch the truth but if you just don’t have any choice, it just might save your’s sometime too.  I know my dad would be proud of me about how careful I was with the truth in sharing this account with you.  I’ve never forgot what he told me. “ Son, you be careful and never and I mean never, let the truth get in the way of telling a good story.”

I’m writing in the late afternoon amber light, a week past solstice, sensing but not quite sure that the daylight is lingering for a minute or two longer. I can use such encouragement at the moment, and am grateful for the returning of the light.  But at the same time I’ll relish these short days and their invitation to rekindle the practice of kaartsiluni. Read on and and you’ll l soon find a contradiction here since what follows is a repost from a few years ago… but rising to my own defense, I can already tell you that the new stories are announcing themselves.  Some of the new ones are ancient ones.  More about that in the next post.  For now… consider Kaartsiluni!

___________

Here are the words of Majuak, an Inuit elder from Diomede Island in Alaska, describing karrtsiluni to Arctic explorer Knud Rasmussen in his 1932  book The Eagles Gift.

‘What is karrtsiluni?’  I’ll tell you that now.  But you won’t get anything more from me today.’ In the old days, every autumn – we used to hold great festivals or the soul of the whale, and these festivals were always opened with new songs which the men made up.  The spirits had to be summoned with fresh words – worn-out songs must never be used when men and women danced and sang in homage to this great prize of the huntsman – the whale. And while the men were thinking out the words for these hymns, it was the custom to put out all the lights.  The feast house had to be dark and quiet – nothing must disturb or distract the men. In utter silence all these men sat there in the gloom and thought, old and young -ay- down to the very smallest urchin, provided he was old enough to speak.

It was that silence we called karrtsiluni. It means waiting for something to break forth.  For our fore-fathers believed that songs are born in such a silence. While everyone is trying hard to think fair thoughts, songs are born in the minds of men, rising like bubbles from the depths – bubbles seeking breath in which to burst.  ‘So come all holy songs.’”

I like this idea of silent, patient reflection in a spirit of homage to great life holy and full of awe.  So, let’s enjoy New Year’ eve, eat, drink and be merry, but hold off on those calendar driven resolutions until we’ve sat quietly with good company.

Let’s give ourselves some karrtsiluni time (skip the dark and gloom if you must).  Let’s think fair thoughts, alone and together, and may our new songs, rise to the surface and break forth, carrying us together in our quest for a life of meaning and contribution to each other and the planet.  I look forward to the  expression and celebration of these “new songs” together.  For the moment, I’m turning down the lights.

Robby's first bookHi Folks… I originally posted this a year ago.  My mom died recently and I though it a good time to republish this piece…..

Although my somewhat dazed expression in this photo from 1950 may not reflect it, I’ve had a lifelong love of reading, which I attribute in no small part to my mother’s lifelong love of reading.  As of this writing, mom has been continually engaged with the same book club for well over 40 years!

I got my first library card when I was about three.  There I stood looking up at Ms. Heitman from her perch at the reference desk at the Finklestein Memorial Library in Spring Valley N.Y.

“ May I have a library card?” I asked (I’d already been instructed in the difference (between may I and can I?)

“How old are you?” asked Mrs.Heitman,

I counted on my fingers…”Three!”

“Can you write your name?”

“No.”

“You have to be able to write your name to get a library card at The FinklesReadingTogether-1tein Memorial Library.”

“I’’ll be back!”

And I was , and motivated as I was it was within a few weeks. I’ve been haunting libraries, and surrounding myself with books ever since.

Our son Chris has been visiting us this week, which among other things presented an opportunity to look through family photos.

This photo of Chris and Renee’s daughters, Maya and Raina is a treasure.  Maya is eleven, Raina is one and to see Maya reading to Raina is a treasure. Maya is reading a book we gave to her some years ago.

DSC00600Now here’s a picture of Liz and I reading to Maya when she was about 2+.  We’re reading  one of the Golden Book classics, Big Brown Bear, published in 1948  the year of my birth. It’s the first book I have a clear memory of and which in another post I’ll credit with pointing me to ten years of adventure in Alaska (that as they say is another story)

So there’s a lineage here of the love of books and reading.

I’ve been thinking a lot about legacy gifts recently and suddenly I pictured Maya and Raina, together someday far in the future, two venerable old sisters, poring over a family heirloom- this photograph of the two of them, and a rendering of the moment by my incredibly talented artist friend Peter Menice. Peter recently created this Dig Into Reading poster for me for my 2013 Summer Reading Library Tour.  I figured this could make a great Christmas gift for the girls and Peter was just the person to pull it off.  granddaughters reading peter

Let me just say that when I presented the idea to Peter it was a like lighting a firecracker with a short fuse.  Peter just about exploded with enthusiasm and burst of possibilities.  That’s Peter always ready willing, eager and ready to take an idea or concept, collaborate, create, and find an opportunity to express his passion and find a way to bring his core and essence to his life and work. (Find Peter at PeterMenice.com)

REVISED EDITION- Here’s how that photo of Maya and Raina became one of Peter’s interpretations and creations.

“The best way to to squeeze the wine out of good fortune is to dance on it with ready feet.”  So I have heard.  What good fortune to have a friend like Peter, What good fortune to have been given the legacy of the love of reading.  What good fortune to have    had an opportunity to pass it on.  What good fortune to watch my granddaughters grow,  and to be  truly curious kids and what greater good fortune can there be than to see their love for each other.

So here’s to the love of books and reading, here’s to families reading together, and here’s to the creative and collaborate spirit. I invite my friends and readers to follow as Peter renders this though his imagination, spirit and talent.

I really welcome and encourage comments, reflections, memories that this process may spark and would also be grateful to those who see fit to share this post/process with folks who you think might appreciate it.  Thanks!

Just couldn’t resist putting up this work in progress… the latest in a series of posters by our great friend Peter Menice … this one for California libraries who will be doing a Paws for Reading theme statewide.   We’ll have more to say about this and replace it with the finished version soon.

 

Paws for Stories Draft 2

 

And like a thunderbolt he falls...He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ring’d with the azure world, he stands.

The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.
(Tennyson)

In 1969 I was booted out of my college poetry class for sticking tenaciously to the opinion that Tennyson’s Eagle would have a different resonance for someone who had experienced the soar and dive of said avian majesty.  “The import and meaning of the poem lies wholly within the poets words.” That or something to that effect was the considered and inviolable position of the esteemed professor.  That’s what he was clinging to and my dissent earned me my eviction. I had no experience of eagles at the time. But that was about to change.  It was experience I was after, not talk about experience, and after one more anthropology class that began with about four weeks of debate about functionalism vs. structuralism, I found myself hitchhiking to Seattle in the middle of the winter, and soon after on a ferry headed to Alaska.A month later,I was one of two white people in a small Haida fishing village, trying to learn my way around lines, nets, winches and for the first time in my life a culture not my own.

Not long after, I was taking a dreamy siesta on a rocky beach when I was startled out of my reverie as a bald eagle came swooping down almost directly over my head from his Douglas r perch- and made a stab at a herring 50 or so yards off shore.  The feeling was visceral and left me almost breathless.  A few years later on a remote island where I was doing field research for the Alaska Fish and Game Department, I had another even more visceral encounter with our national bird.  Perhaps it was the bright orange rain slicker that I was wearing. I was clearly something that didn’t belong. The eagle saw fit to editorialize by taking aim from about 500 feet, carefully calculating wind speed and current and anointed me with the remains of it’s fishy breakfast. But at least I was finally vindicated.  Tennyson’s poem conveyed nothing of the immediacy of the impact or aftermath. Nor so the words of that other great master of poetry and the English language, Steve Martin.

Pointy Bird
O pointy birds, o pointy pointy,
Anoint my head, anointy-nointy

Call it self serving or congratulatory but with an additional 40 years under my belt (and an expanding waistline to prove it) I clasp even more tenaciously to the proposition that experience mediates experience- that “been there, done that” deepens what I now look and listen for, how I reflect on and synthesize my experiences, what stories I choose to tell whether personal or folkloric, how I weave them together,  how I tell them and how they have come to subtly shape how I continue to lead my life.  In short and to borrow an academic term, my narrative intelligence has increased. To put it in terms I’m more comfortable with, more and more I am thinking like a storyteller and living a storied life.

Does this make me a better storyteller?  It depends.
I can’t help but think of the sign I saw a few years back on billboard for a building supply company.  (A modern way of keeping proverbs in the public eye)

Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit.
Wisdom is knowing not to put a tomato in a fruit salad.

Tops and Bottoms by Janet Stevens- Highly Recommended!

Tops and Bottoms by Janet Stevens- Highly Recommended!

It depends whether I choose to bring myself to the edge of the story, to the heart of the story, to create a bridge to the next story, and of course whether I do this judiciously and skillfully.

It’s harvest time here in the mid-Rio Grande Valley now, a time I like to tell a story that appears in various  guises, but is best known as Tops and Bottoms.  Rabbit gets the best of Bear in three negotiations about the division of labor and the division of the harvest for a plot of land they share.  Rabbit generously lets Bear choose whether he’ll take his 50% from the tops or bottoms of the crop. Only after he makes his choices does Rabbit choose what to plant.  (I love Janet Steven’s picture book of this story)

Probably costs more than $5

Probably costs more than $5

When I was about 8 I was obsessed with such things as seashells, fossils, skeletons and perhaps because of a trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Egyptian Room, mummies.  So when Tommy (name changed in a generous gesture in case the author, editor and judge of The Book of Life is keeping score and has not yet apportioned Tommy’s place in eternity) sold me a sight must remain unseen genuine cat mummy for a very hard earned 1956 five bucks, I gladly forked it over. It was with great anticipation that  I reached  into the brown paper bag Tommy handed me and pulled out a very flat, and not totally dried feline specimen of not so vintage feline road kill.

Do I tell this story as a preface or postscript to Tops and Bottoms?  Sometimes yes, sometimes no.  Again it depends.  But either way, the knowledge that I’ve been on the receiving end of an ill-considered deal, creeps into my telling.

One for the Storyteller One for the Listener One for the one that Heard

One for the Storyteller
One for the Listener
One for the one that Heard

 

Here’s a proposition fellow storytellers.  We are more than our repertoires.  Even with traditional stories, our willingness to bring more rather than less of ourselves into our tellings adds flavor, juice and sustenance to those three apples that fell from heaven.Take a bite of the most local apple you can   find- chew on it for awhile and let me know what you think!

(This is the first in a series of posts on “You are More than Your Repertoire)

granddaughters reading peterHappy Happy!  My granddaughters are happy! Their grandmother is happy!  Their great-grandmother is happy! I’m happy! Following up on my previous Reading Legacy post- Cartoonist/Ilustrator and great friend Peter Menice (Petermenice.com) ‘translated’ the photo of Maya and Raina reading together.  Here is what he created.  Peter populated the illustration with author Sandra Boynton’s characters from But Not the Hippopotamus- the book the girls are reading in the original photo.  The signed print is my New Years gift to the girls, and another copy a birthday present to Belen, my mother in law.

I’m thinking about how much fun this collaboration has been with Peter and also looking forward to our upcoming first live presentation together… The Toonist and the Teller Together at our local library in Rio Rancho New Mexico.

I recently encountered this wonderful sentiment from Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi whose book,  from Aging to Sageing has inspired  me to further my explorations of Legacy.  The Reb says…”The only way to get it together is….together!”

May this new year bring my friends and colleagues a legacy of wonder, discovery and rich collaborations large and small! TTogether!

ReadingTogether-1

 

 

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