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WHAT THE WALRUS SAID--Our Authors' Blog--

LET'S THINK

 

 

I'd spent all morning on the telephone—for an article, I interviewed an eminent physicist, whose theory is stunning: consciousness, he told me, is a fundamental force, like gravity. Our thoughts help shape the universe.

 

It fogged my head.

 

So I escaped outside, to breathe frigid January air, hoping to clear my brain.

 

In our meadow, tracks crisscrossed the snow, white-tailed deer, red foxes, fishers….I imagined myself one of these creatures, in the oncoming sub-zero night. I'd shiver in a thicket, gazing up at a black sky, and icy stars.

 

Then I heard a cheerful "Chick-a-dee-dee-dee."

 

It perched in a nearby bush. Turning its head, the chickadee aimed one tiny obsidian eye at me. It turned its head again, to study me with its other eye. What to make of this lumbering beast, in Arctic boots and a silvery parka? 

 

I had a feeling about this atom of feathered fluff—for right now, at least, it was a friend.

 

Impulsively, I reached out my arm and extended my index finger. Now the chickadee contemplated my finger, turning its head to give each eye a view. Decision made, it fluttered off its twig, hovered, then landed, its feet curling around my finger like tiny hands. Its black-dot eyes gazed into mine, curious.

 

It rested on my finger for what seemed forever. Then the bird repeated its message. 

 

"Chick-a-dee-dee-dee."

 

Its feet uncurled and it fluttered up, hovered a moment, eyeing me cheerily, then flew out across the meadow snow, until—just a dot—it disappeared among dark maple trees.

 

I thought of that physicist. If he had it right, just now two separate consciousnesses teamed up to make adjustments to the Milky Way. To some tiny extent, we shifted the cosmos.

 

--Richard

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REEVE

 

 

 

We just looked out our new apartment's window—we're up on the third story—and we saw Reeve taking her morning zigzag run, trailed by her human friend, Ben Power, who maintains a more measured pace.

 

This winter morning our building's park is totally white—tamaracks and cedars, pathways, everything frosted. You'd think Reeve, a rescue dog from Louisiana, would object to our northern New England winter. She's small, with short brown hair, definitely not a malemute. But no—she dashes through cold and snow, sniffs, then dashes on, loving every sub-freezing moment.

 

These days, we enjoy other people's dogs, and Joyce lets no dog-owner go unmet.

 

Out our window, before we knew them, she watched Reeve and Ben. She saw Reeve's absolute devotion to her human friend, and her willing obedience, shaped by no more than treats, kind words, and love—when Ben calls, here comes Reeve, fast as she can.

 

I'm out for a run most days, and Joyce told me, if you see that man and that dog, say how much your wife admires their close relationship, and his warmth with that dog.

 

I did, and so we met Ben Power and Reeve, which produced some surprises. Ben, we found, is a Broadway musician, currently on furlough because his show, Come From Away, is on a pandemic hiatus. He's sitting it out in a condo, near our building. He's half British, half American, and he's a skilled performer on the Irish flute and Uillean pipes.

 

We decided to post this story because another couple stopped us in the corridor—"Who," they asked, "is that man who is so wonderful with that dog?"

 

We humans are emotionally complex. Dogs just feel what they feel. A dog is content to be respected and loved. So let's take happy dogs as signs, that this world, so often seeming dark, has light in it, and joy, too, if your morning walk is rich in newsy scents.

 

--Richard

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THE WELCOMING COMMITTEE

 

Here are two dogs with a message for all of us.

 

Pfynn, the German Shepard, and his neighbor, Gracie, are welcoming Gracie's new housemate.

 

Here's the back-story: a friend of ours discovered that a co-worker faced a dilemma. A visa snag had stranded her husband in Spain. For an unknowable length of time, husband and wife must be separated. With everything so iffy, housing became a problem for the co-worker.

 

Our friend stepped in: until the situation with your husband straightens out, she said, stay with me.

 

Pictured above, you see Pfynn and Gracie greeting the new roommate, as she arrived, with matching messages: "Welcome Home, Indre," and "We're So Glad You're Here, Indre!!!"

 

In these unsettling times, we thought this little story, of a friendly hand warmly extended, would be worth sharing.

 

--Joyce and Richard

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STAR NOSE AND NOSMO

 

 

My latest mystery novel, Star Nose, is just out—it's about a child under threat.

 

Killers murdered his mother. Now they're hunting him. He's a troubled seven-year-old who trusts no one…except a Pembroke Welsh corgi.  

 

That's Henry. He's the housemate of the novel's protagonist, Cooper North, just retired as a prosecutor, but still in the game. Here's a confession: in my various novels,  Henry is the only character borrowed from real life.  

 

He's an avatar of our own corgi housemate, Nosmo, who pops up in most of my novels, under various aliases.  

 

Here's why: we both loved Nosmo. Also, maybe Shakespeare or Dickens could invent a character like him, but I couldn't. So much personality in that short-legged body.

 

Preternaturally astute eyes, for one thing. You could see him thinking. And he had extraordinary empathy. He felt what you felt.  

 

At midnight once, I came back from the hospital where Joyce was under treatment for acute myelogenous leukemia. At that point, decades ago, her odds of surviving were four percent. I felt low, and weary. I dropped into bed, instantly unconscious.

 

At three a.m., I jolted awake. Nosmo sat beside the bed, silent, but staring intently at me. Seeing me awake, he virtually nodded, then trotted off to the stairs, looking back to make sure I understood.

 

I did. Wearily, still not wholly awake, I followed him downstairs, then out the back door. While he did his business out in the darkness—that's why he'd summoned me awake—I sat hunched on the deck's steps, head in hands. Gradually, I felt warmth—Nosmo, leaning against my side.

 

I don't know how he soundlessly woke me, just by willing it, or conveyed he needed to go out. What I did know then, and know now, was that Nosmo felt my misery and hopelessness. He leaned his warm body against my hunched body to offer solace.

 

He's still with us. He's in this new novel, Star Nose, under a different name—offering an unhappy child solace.

 

--Richard

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CORVID 19

So here we are, like so many others, sheltering in place.

 

Every so often—masked and gloved—one of us ventures out to the grocery store. We don't need to stop often at the gas station, these days.   

 

We drive into town to walk less frequently. It's depressing. This once bustling community's now a ghost town, no stores open except the pharmacies, empty parking spaces everywhere, just a few walkers hurrying by, masked like us.

 

Here's what the coronavirus epidemic has taught us—

 

It's the people around us who truly matter in our lives.  

 

Friends, certainly, and we keep in touch via telephone and e-mail. It's others, too, though. People we may have taken for granted, who now seem essential.   

 

Three cheers for the billionaire tycoon who invents a new internet company, or an electric car. Bravo to the actor who wins an Oscar. However, they're in another galaxy, far away.  

 

Michelle cuts Joyce's hair—she's important to us. Also, our lawn-service team, and the fuel-truck driver who keeps us warm. There's Jim, all-around fixer (carpenter, electrician, plumber), upon whom we rely, totally. Then, an appreciative nod to all the mask-and-glove-wearing workers at the health-food co-op and the supermarket, who stock the shelves and answer our questions and check us out, and stay cheerful.

 

We shouldn't forget Joyce's cousin, who drives a propane-delivery truck, but always has with him a special telephone, because he's a volunteer EMT and, any time, day or night, a call can come in: somebody's life needs saving.

 

If we still lived in the city, we'd be appreciating the bus drivers and subway drivers who every day put on a mask and go to work, knowing that it may be today they take a viral bullet.

 

Nurses, too, of course, and physicians, and hospital staffs. Police officers, firefighters….

 

We live in a celebrity obsessed culture. We hope  this pandemic, amidst all the terrible damage, helps us realize it's unsung people around us who really should be sung. Because, in our actual daily lives, it's they who matter.

 

Our society is them. Among them are heroes.  

 

When all this is over, we'll try to remember.   

 

--Richard and Joyce

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FOX IN WINTER

 

 

Get yourselves to Florida, an old friend e-mailed. It's 77 degrees here, and the breeze off the Gulf is balmy.

 

Tempting, no question. Northern New England winters are tough. Cold, snow, ice, and winds that freeze your nose.  

 

With our friend's admonition on my mind, I went out this morning for fresh air and to check the  icy path to our oil tank, not wanting the fuel-truck driver to slip. On the way back to our entryway, to get salt to sprinkle, I saw tracks.

 

They came from our pinewoods, passed near our front door, and then angled off across the snow.

 

Fox.

 

An expert tracker once told us dog tracks zigzag, because of attention-deficit disorder, but a fox walks straight and purposeful.  

 

I come out every day to see what news is printed on the snow. Red squirrel, down from a tree, bits of its spruce-cone breakfast littering the snow. Fisher, bounding across the white meadow. Deer everywhere. Tiny tracks, the passage of a white-footed mouse. Meanwhile, no matter how cold, chickadees cheerfully flit in the balsams. Overhead, ravens exchange raucous messages.  

 

We've been particularly mesmerized by the fox. It's mysterious. No tracks in new snow. Then, a half-hour later, tracks. Passing in front of a window, but never seen.

 

Today, though, at lunch, Joyce suddenly stood up, pointing out the window: "Look!"

 

Fox.

 

She trotted, that fox, just on the other side of the pond. A redhead so gorgeous—with an enormous fluffy tail—we wanted to run down and pet her, which would not have succeeded. She's a wild thing, hunting mice.

 

She turned her head and looked up at us, in the window, eyes dark and sharp. Then she vanished into the pinewoods, on pressing business.

 

Her beauty, though, lingered in the January air.

 

Does that make bearable a long winter in this climate? I'm not sure.

 

A little, though, it helps.   

 

--Richard

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CREATURE IN OUR CLOSET

We've had a trying week with nature.

 

Snowstorms. Single-digit temperatures.

 

Meanwhile, a deer mouse cached food in our car's heating system, requiring a visit to the dealer for an expensive fix. It's not our thing, but this time we set traps, because mice can severely damage a car. Also, a house's wiring. We caught four mice, and after that the influx stopped.

 

Then we saw what looked to be a tiny, dark-furred mouse racing across our living room carpet. This visitor—it's practically a pet by this point—didn't act mouse-like, because it regards us resident giants with contempt, practically running over our feet.

 

It turned out to be no mouse at all. It's a short-tailed shrew. It weighs about the same as a dime (we looked it up), but it's our smallest, yet fiercest, mammal. It's a predator. It will attack prey several times its own size. Luckily, we're bigger than dragonflies or mice. Shrews may fight each other to the death, with the victor eating the loser. Daily they must eat their own weight.

 

We tried a mousetrap baited with peanut butter. No dice. We tried a plastic pail with a bit of smoked salmon on the bottom and a ramp offering an easy way up, theorizing that once the shrew dove off the pail's rim to get at the salmon, it would be trapped.

 

No dice.

 

We'll be getting a Havahart humane trap, hoping for a speedy capture and release, far out in our woods.

 

Also, we've installed netting around our hemlock shrubbery to keep our neighbors, white-tailed deer, from decimating it this winter.

 

We watch them, on these frigid mornings, hoofing the snow to find plants to eat. We imagine living out there, as they do, and it horrifies us.

 

Once upon a time, animals had these forested hills to themselves, including the black bears who occasionally lumber across our lawn and the red fox that patrols our pinewoods and the wild turkeys marching across the snow, down by the pond, and the two resident woodchucks, currently snoozing for the winter in their burrows.

 

Now we're here, and we're trying for détente.    

 

--Joyce & Richard

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Where Cows Once Trod

 

 

They had us at "Robots."

 

We'd never heard of this company, in Royalton, Vermont. But they'd set an open house, to show off their robot workforce. So we drove down I-89, to see kissing cousins of R2-D2 and C-3PO.

 

Richard's latest novel, Caliban Rising, a thriller, has a plot driven by artificial intelligence, controlling squads of robots. It reflects the  unease many of us feel, as the technology shaping our society evolves at high velocity—we stand on shifting ground. 

 

A tiny Vermont town seems an odd place to see cutting-edge tech. 

 

There's an old joke: "Vermont has more cows than people." In fact, decades ago, it did. When we settled here, Holsteins and Jerseys dotted the hillside pastures. Now, what farms remain are likely to raise organic kale or make gourmet cheese from goats' milk.

 

Vermont is still America's most rural state, but we aren't what we used to be.

 

Here's what we expected at GW Plastics: a  pipsqueak operation in a converted dairy barn. What we found was a sprawling factory complex in—yes—what once were cow pastures, with branches in San Antonio, Tucson, China, Mexico, and Ireland. They mold plastics into hyper-precise components for surgical instruments, hospital equipment, automotive parts….

 

We saw a menagerie of robots. But what really mesmerized us were the giant arms, housed in Plexiglas cubicles, each like an octopus's writhing tentacle. Under the sea, each octopus tentacle contains its own brain, and so it seemed with these steel tentacles.

 

A robot arm stretches far back to fetch a component, then whips around, like a striking cobra, to connect that part to another component, pluck up what it assembled, twist sideways, snap it precisely into a slot, and….

 

Every move exact, at lightspeed. Working all day and night, never tiring.

 

Human workers can't match that productivity. And the jobs these robots do would give humans repetitive strain injuries, and numb their brains. Even so, with all its robots, GW Plastics still needs humans to design and program, and to assist the robots. They actively recruit workers. So do other businesses. All over we see "Now Hiring" signs.

 

Tomorrow, though? Will your next attorney or physician be an artificial-intelligence algorithm?

 

Will the joke then be—"Vermont (replace with your favorite state) has more robots than people!"

 

—Joyce & Richard

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There But For....

Joyce and I recently visited an old friend from Florida at her new home in Virginia—a "lifecare" facility, offering varying degrees of care depending on need.

 

Our friend's husband died, and soon after she contracted a disorder that, for all practical purposes, left her paralyzed. She didn't give up. Through rigorous physical therapy, and determination that amazed the staff, she regained her ability to walk and to care for herself. She graduated from "assisted living" status to "independent living."

 

She uses a walker, for fear she might fall, but—she walks.

 

We arrived for dinner and I stood in the dining hall looking at the legions of residents, many using walkers, many in wheelchairs, all frail. 

 

Our friend told us about her fellow residents—that man was a general. That woman was vice president at a bank. And that one was….

 

I felt great sadness. Partly, I think, seeing all these people who had declined, I foresaw my own eventual decline, and its inevitability unsettled me.

 

"All these people," I blurted out. "All so vital once, and accomplished, and now…how do they cope?"

 

Not my most diplomatic moment, with our friend standing beside me, leaning on her walker. Thankfully, she didn't point out my insensitivity. Instead, she stood silently, musing. Then she spoke, and I've been thinking about it ever since, turning it over and over in my mind.

 

She said just one word.

 

"Acceptance."

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Song

 

 

I walked into our pinewoods to look at felled trees—two years ago, a freak windstorm devastated this forest, leaving heaps of dead wood. 

 

I'd hoped to see infant pines and spruces pushing up through the tangle.   

 

I saw only dead trunks and limbs and branches.   

 

I'd been felled myself, a week before—sudden pain, ambulance, emergency room, long wait while physicians figured out what caused the agony, then a midnight emergency operation and—at three a.m.—wheeled into a hospital room.

 

Now I stared at dead trees.   

 

What happened to me could afflict anyone, anytime. You can't prevent it. It's that tangle of intestines writhing inside us. They can twist. Friends lost a dog to it. She died in two hours.

 

We're all Frankenstein's monster. We're stitched-together scraps. We lurch through life.

 

Staring at those fallen trees, that's what I thought.

 

Then, something happened, an odd little thing.

 

Suddenly—out of that dead wood—a song welled up, ineffably sweet.  

 

No big deal. Just some bird telling other birds he owned this woodpile, keep out. At least, experts say that's what bird song is about. I don't even know what bird it was.

 

But it wasn't about the bird. It was about that stunning music, welling up from the dead wood.

 

I suppose it didn't mean anything. Just an invisible bird singing. Or maybe it means whatever I decide it means.

 

So I'll be thinking about that.

 

--Richard

 

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