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

BOMB CYCLONE

 

 

Our apartment went black.

 

Outside, the same "bomb cyclone" ravaging much of the country ravaged us. Snow. Sub-freezing temperatures. Winds gusting to 70 mph. Falling trees. Downed power lines.

 

We had two battery-powered hurricane lamps. Just enough light to save us from bumping into tables. Too dim, though, to read a book or magazine.

 

No television. No radio. No internet. No CD player.

 

Just sitting in the dark, thinking.

 

We thought about how much of our consciousness, here in the twenty-first century, is regulated by pixels. We almost forget we don't actually know those pixel-generated people on our tv and movie screens. What we see on our "devices" constantly modifies our perceptions. Ukraine? Washington? Such places may occupy more space in our heads than our own community, all around us.

 

Now an artificial intelligence program can write essays and stories and tell jokes and totally fool us into thinking it's a real person.

 

Just some thoughts, sitting in the dark.

 

--Joyce and Richard

 

 

 

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ROAD CUTS

 

 

I have lately become unsettled by road cuts.

 

We have lots of them here in northern New England, spots where workers building a road dynamited through a hill, so the road could run straight and level, leaving a rock cliff on either side.

 

I have the same unsettled reaction to cliffs in general.

 

On top lies a few inches of soil, where grasses grow, and trees. Below that, it's granite or basalt or limestone—rock—down to the molten core.

 

What unsettles me is the thinness of that topside soil fringe. We see our world as blue and green, but in reality—except for that thin living layer—we live on stone.

 

I realize our New England soil is especially skimpy. I've seen spots in the Midwest where the soil goes down feet, instead of just inches. Even so, underneath, it's rock, all the way down.

 

Road cuts unsettle me because they force us to see life's fragility. Given a nudge, some kink in the climate, say, or a whack from a large asteroid, and our world of water and chlorophyll could so easily become what it's built upon.

 

If that top fringe goes, we might as well live on Mars, or some moon of Jupiter.

 

—Richard

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BIRDHOUSE FOREST

 

 

South Hero Island, in Vermont, offers stunning views of Lake Champlain. It also offers "Birdhouse Forest."

 

Driving north, toward Canada, you pass a sign: "White's Beach." Look to your right.

 

Most travelers stop here, where a swamp borders the road, unsure what they're seeing.

 

Every tree sports a birdhouse, each in bright flower colors—rose, lilac, daisy, buttercup….

 

This might be a fairy city.

 

Even a few dinosaurs roam among the trees.

 

All this began when two neighbors learned tree swallows eat huge numbers of mosquitoes. Living beside a swamp, they had mosquitoes. So they decided to craft twenty swallow houses and put them up.

 

Swallows came, and flew through the swamp on mosquito hunts. So the neighbors put up more birdhouses, and more, and more….

 

Twenty years later, Birdhouse Forest is a swallow city, with 800 brightly colored birdhouses. For an added frisson, they installed carved wooden dinosaurs. Probably the reptiles wouldn't scare away mosquitoes, but still, worth a try.

 

Keep a lookout, driving America's back roads—you never know what you might see.

 

--Joyce

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A BIRD IN A BUSH

 

 

One July afternoon, when I was ten, a classmate and I bicycled through the hills outside of town.

 

We rode through a tippy landscape of slopes and valleys, where brown-and-white Herefords grazed in green meadows, and maple and sycamore leaves riffled in the breeze.

 

In a small pond, on a floating log, a line of painted turtles sunbathed.

 

I took it in without noticing, the way we breathe.

 

And then, in a bush, a flash of blue—it startled me.

 

One sneaker planted on the road to balance, I stared.

 

I knew what it was, because my father had just returned from his annual session at furnace school, learning the new models, and he'd brought me a gift: The Golden Nature Guide to Birds, 112 Birds in Full Color.

 

I'd never particularly noticed birds. Now, having gone through that book, page by page, mesmerized by the golds and oranges and scarlets, and the sharp black eyes, I knew what I saw in that bush.

 

Indigo bunting.

 

Blue as the zenith.

 

In a moment, it vanished, deeper into the foliage, I suppose.

 

Many decades later, I still remember that indigo flash, so stunning it seemed a message.

 

Message received, but never fully understood.

 

Keep alert, I guess. That would be one thing.

 

Because, any time, you could pedal past a marvel, thinking about something else.

 

You'd miss it.

 

--Richard 

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ARCTIC PATROL

 

 

 

"We'll stop at this iceberg for lunch," the sergeant told me. "But first we do a drive-around, to check for polar bears."

 

This was a routine two-man snowmobile patrol over frozen Baffin Bay—the French-Canadian sergeant and an Inuit constable. They constituted the entire Royal Canadian Mounted Police detachment at Pond Inlet, the Inuit village at Baffin Island's northern tip.

 

I was just a visitor, along for the ride, swaddled in a borrowed RCMP parka. My hands had started freezing, so the constable loaned me his spare dog-skin mittens—last winter, distemper killed every sled dog in town, and the Inuits salvaged what they could.

 

After lunch, we roared past more frozen-in icebergs, jutting up like buttes and mesas, blue and green. We headed toward Bylot Island, all that stood between us and Greenland.

 

A glacier covered the island, and we faced a nearly vertical ice wall.

 

"Get a good running start," the constable instructed me.

 

I watched the two Mounties roar up and over. I started up after them, but too slow. Near the top, my snowmobile's treads spun. No traction. I slid backwards, ever faster, toward the rocky scree at the glacier's base.

 

I squeezed between boulders. Lucky. On my second run, I made it over and saw…more ice.

 

I saw lots of ice during my stay on Baffin Island. I ate raw seal blubber at Pond Inlet's annual spring on-the-ice party. My hotel was a large Quonset hut, where the nightly menu consisted of Arctic char. I remember purple evening skies and kids riding tricycles in the midnight sunlight. What I remember most, though, is the Inuit constable.

 

"You might as well call us Eskimos," he told me. "That's what we call ourselves."

 

He'd been born in an igloo, and raised out on the tundra. When Canada decreed all indigenous children must be schooled, his family migrated to Iqaluit, the larger town at the island's southern tip. He befriended the RCMP officers there, and it led to his career in law enforcement.

 

So here we are, the constable and I, in Pond Inlet's town hall, to fax a report to the main RCMP post in Iqaluit, and I hear him muttering to himself: "This baud rate's way too slow!"

 

So complained the man raised in an igloo.

 

Here's another moment: he's describing Pond Inlet's winter, since spring seems frigid enough to me, and he says it's not the cold he minds, but the weeks of darkness.

 

"My wife, my kids, me—every winter we take a vacation," he said. "We fly down to the Caribbean."

 

--Richard     

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SWIMMING WITH MONSTERS

 

 

After he anchored his boat at the reef, the ichthyologist let us choose—Richard opted for aqualung, Joyce for snorkel.

 

Here, not far out from George Town, the Grand Cayman Island capital, we looked down through perfectly clear Caribbean waters at black bat shapes gliding across the white sand bottom.

 

A moment later, we swam among them. They looked like B-2 Spirit strategic stealth bombers.

 

Sting rays.  

 

We should have been frightened of creatures that looked so lethal. In fact, the Australian conservationist and zookeeper, Steve Irwin, died after accidentally disturbing one and receiving a sting to the chest.

 

Yet, we felt no fear. We felt charmed.  

 

As Joyce snorkeled near the surface, rays flew up and swam with her, gently flapping their huge wings. She felt surrounded by friendly dogs.

 

Richard, near the bottom with his aqualung, found himself escorted by a squadron of the black animals, each the size of a dining room table. One swam up from behind and wrapped its wings around him, scuba gear and all.

 

And what Richard would always remember, looking into those brown eyes—sentience.

 

Maybe humanity doesn't need to go as far as the stars.  

 

We can find intelligent alien life here on Earth, and in its waters.

 

—Joyce & Richard

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PRESIDENTIAL

 

 

We just read a CNN story so touching we felt a need to share it.

 

In the small nation of North Macedonia, a child experienced bullying on her way to elementary school.

 

They bullied her because she has Down syndrome, a genetic condition that causes learning and health disabilities, and makes you look a little different.

 

President Stevo Pendarovski heard about the 11-year-old girl and took presidential action—he walked Embla to school.

 

Holding her hand, he strode with her, to the school's front door. Then he sat down with Embla's parents, to hear the problems they face every day and to discuss solutions.

 

"They should not only enjoy the rights they deserve," the president said of children like Embla, in a statement to the press. "They should also feel equal and welcome in the school desks and the schoolyard. It is our obligation, as a state, but also as individuals, and the key element of this common mission is empathy."

 

Maybe, in a small, obscure country, empathy is easier to find. 

 

--Joyce and Richard

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PROTONS, ANTI-PROTONS, AND BISON

 

 

After I left O'Hare, I drove  out of Chicago, then through farmlands and hamlets, until a futuristic skyscraper loomed on the horizon—Fermilab.  

 

Scientists took me down into the buried accelerator, a subterranean ring, 3.9-miles around, where they crashed protons into anti-protons, to study the debris.

 

That's how physicists here discovered the "top quark."

 

I had a day rife with bosons and gravitons, gluons and photons, and chalkboards covered with equations—finally I had spinning head syndrome. So I went outside, taking a break.

 

Sunshine, and a tremendous gabbling of waterbirds.

 

Fermilab's accelerator generated tremendous heat, which went up into a surface pond to radiate off into the atmosphere. Always warm, steaming even in January, that pond became a heaven for ducks and geese.

 

I wandered off to look at the lab's approximately one-thousand acres of reconstituted tall-grass prairie. Something moved behind those thick grasses, tall as a basketball player, and the grasses parted—I gazed at the enormous head of a bison.

 

Fermilab maintains a herd of bison, currently 32, with little bison born annually, aiming to preserve a bit of the ancient prairie.

 

So, under my feet, subatomic bits of energy whizzed and collided. Down there, I suppose, and in the skyscraper, our future understanding of reality's underpinnings is evolving. Up here, I'd stepped back centuries, to when giant grasses covered the prairies, and vast herds of bison roamed.

 

After all that, heading back to Chicago to catch my plane, I found I'd lost my rental car in the lab's huge parking lot. I had to enlist security guards in a patrol cruiser to drive me around until I found my wheels.

 

There's meaning in all that, I think. Someday, maybe, I'll figure it out.

 

--Richard   

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THANKSGIVING VISITATION

 

 

We woke early this frosty Thanksgiving morning, and looked down from our third-story apartment at our building's little park, with a hillside meadow beyond—we saw a fox.

 

A handsome red fox, healthy and robust, with an extravaganza of a tail. It stalked the mowed meadow, sharp eyes alert for mice, ears pricked.

 

For a moment, it strolled along the park's macadam walking path, just as its twin pranced up, equally handsome and healthy and robust.

 

We thought: the Magnificent Mr. Fox, and the equally Magnificent Mrs. Fox. They brought beauty into our morning, and wild joy.  

 

In a moment they hurried up the knoll, and over, and were gone.

 

We have much to be thankful for this Thanksgiving. Right now, though, most of all, perhaps, we're thankful that, in this world, there are foxes.

 

--Richard and Joyce

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JUST PUBLISHED

 

 

My new novel, just published, is The Girl Who Got Her Tiger On (And the Dog Who Had Her Back)—it's a small departure for me, because it's a young-adult thriller.

 

It's not much of a departure since I'm unsure there's much difference between a young-adult novel and an adult novel, except the YA protagonists are youths.

 

In this story, the heroine is a 17-year-old telling about what happened when she was only 12, just after her father's helicopter blew up in Afghanistan, and her mother became deeply depressed. She felt she had "bad weather" in her head. Amidst all that, new neighbors move in, creepy people, she thinks, and she starts watching them—trying to do the right thing, she gets deep into danger.

 

 There's a new boy across the street, who wants to be her friend, but she avoids her classmates. With all her troubles, they seem shallow to her.

 

Virtually all my novels have a corgi character, and this one does, too. He's the heroine's best friend, William, a Pembroke Welsh corgi, who "helps" with her surveillance of what she calls "The House of Evil."

 

Novels are about characters—usually humans—going through difficulties. Maybe they're destroyed. Maybe they're changed. But, on that basic level, I don't think the protagonists' ages matter much.

 

--Richard

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