Take a Hike

When the pressures of life start smooshing your head like a vise, when outside forces conspire to turn your stomach into an ulcer factory, hold your head high, take a deep breath and run like hell. That’s what Amadeus and I do, and I swear, it works like a Harry Potter spell.

Where you run is important– obviously, a crack house is not a good destination for stress-relief. Bars are smoky and can be quite expensive. Retail therapy is good if you have money, but if bills are a cause of your distress, it’s not a realistic solution. This is true of Caribbean cruises as well. And hookers.

Our cure for the blues, and our escape from the daily grind is hiking. We literally head for the hills. We throw on our jeans, pack a few sammiches, grab some bottled water and take off.

When the weather’s warm, we fish and camp out. When a chill hits the air, when the leaves turn to fire and start pirouetting  from trees, we hit the trails.

I love doing this. I love the fact that my husband grew up here and knows these hills and valleys like he knows his phone number. We discover new places, and revisit ones that he’s seen and wants to share with me. Seeing the world with him– even these small patches of the world– is one of my greatest pleasures.

Yesterday, we traveled about two hours away, to a fantastic trail head along the Buffalo River, deep in the Ozark Mountains. We took our cameras and clicked over 500 shots between us. What’s funny to me is that, when we get home and unload our SD cards, we discover that a lot of the same things have caught our eye– we often take the same shots at identical angles, at different times. A million things to see on the trail, but the same stuff grabs us. We’re spooky that way.

I wish I’d done this with my children. I wish I could have instilled in them a love of the Great Outdoors, but I never did. I was too busy trying to keep us afloat at the time, and a big backyard or football practice field was as close as we got to nature. I take comfort in the fact that I was raised a big city girl. When I first arrived in the Ozarks, twenty-something years ago, I had to inquire as to whether sheep bit. I couldn’t identify a robin and I thought eggs grew in styrofoam boxes. I was a new bride, and my new groom moved us to a God-forsaken trailer in a God-forsaken pasture, where goats frolicked on the hood of my Volvo, chickens laid eggs in our living room and snakes occasionally greeted me on the porch. For some reason, the marriage didn’t last, and those years didn’t attune me to nature. That came later, when my son and daughter grew up and I had time to consider the things that made me happy. I fell in love with bicycling and bike trails, which led to walking trails which led to hiking and camping and fishing and tree-kissing.  When I met Amadeus, I found someone who loved being outdoors as much as I do, and it’s an integral part of our lives. Maybe there’s hope for my kids yet. Maybe one day, they’ll find solace in nature. I know that at their ages, I’d rather have listened to the Sex Pistols and chugged tequila. As my daughter points out, at this stage of the game, packing a bunch of crap into a car, wrestling with fish and sleeping on the hard ground is not her idea of relaxation.

The beauty of the woods is overwhelming. The shapes and textures of the trees tell us stories. There are boulders as big as A-frames and plants so stubborn they could grow through steel. Every leaf is a masterpiece. Animals are standing around, peeking at us through the brush, though we seldom see them.* Water bubbles up from deep inside the Earth and trickles over silk smooth rocks.  Emerald green moss clings, fungi sprout like lace. Below is the river, as ancient as the world, winding like ribbon around bends and turns. I stop often as we walk the path, breathing the pure air, listening to the sounds of the rushing water and the wind pushing through the leaves. I’m in the moment. I can’t think about anything but the woods. At the same time, my ADD does double time, because everywhere I turn, there are a million treasures– it’s impossible to take it all in.

It’s the most glorious art form. We joke about taking so many photos, but really, I understand why we do it. We’re attempting to capture the thing that’s making our hearts sing. We’re trying to preserve it and take it home with us. Though it’s impossible to recreate through a lens, we try. We sit in our living room and transfer the mementos of the day to our computers. We’re tired and happy, our legs ache in a nice way. As we study each shot, we talk about what we were thinking when we took it– why a particular tree spoke to us, what a cutie the little snail-shell was, how impossible it was to capture the altitude of the trail or the gargantuan size of a rock.

When we hike, we’re enveloped in a soft cloud of serenity and beauty. It rides home with us at the end of the day, and we float on it as we fall asleep at night. We wake up Monday morning, and our worries are greeting us at the door again, but somehow, they just don’t seem as bad.

*One bear sighting and I’ll be simultaneously crying, running, screaming and peeing in my pants.

Publishing Hell and a Padded Cell

Oh my gosh, it’s so great to see you! It’s been a long time. I’m writing this from my chicly decorated padded cell at the VanLandingham State Hospital. It’s beautiful here– peaceful and quiet, and we get to wear these swell canvas jackets. They’ve even untied my sleeves a couple of times since I’ve arrived. The food’s not great, and they refuse to entrust me with forks, but I’ve been needing to drop a few pounds anyway. Before they bring me my white paper cup of pretty little pills, I thought I’d give you a little update on what’s been happening in the Land of Moonbeam.

I had a birthday recently, and it was fantastic. My husband, Amadeus, bought me a huge set of acrylic paints, which means I no longer have to step on the old tubes I had to get some color onto a canvas. We went to dinner and hung out and it was all very soft and sweet. I love that man with every cell in my shell, and since there are something like 100 trillion cells in the human body, you can sort of get a picture of the depth of my feeling for him.

~~~

It seems that during my toughest times, magical things start to occur. I’m probably being a little cryptic here, but I want to thank my beautiful blog friends for the little miracles that you make happen in my life. Thank you for every time you push the PayPal button, which always seems to happen at the most fortuitous times. Thanks for every blog award you bestow upon me. Thank you for the gifts that appear in my mailbox, and for the beautiful words that appear in my inbox. These things mean so much in my life, and I can’t tell you how they brighten my world. You folks are the keenest people on the planet.

~~~

We just commemorated our first anniversary. It took us by surprise– this year has zinged by, which we figure is a good thing. How horrible it would have been if we’d turned to each other and asked, “Gosh- it’s only been a year? It feels like thirty,” though in a lot of ways it seems as though we’ve always been together.

We celebrated by going for a hike near the Buffalo River. There are few sights quite so beautiful as the Ozark Mountains in the fall. I’m not kidding, if you ever get a chance, swing by. The drive was as fabulous as the hike, so gorgeously breathtaking that it made me cry. The roads around here twist and climb and curve and bend; the trees are glowing with fire and glitter, their leaves splashed with a thousand shades of yellow, orange, green and red. You drive up a steep road, and it feels as though you’re about to plow into a gorgeous oil painting. Walking the trails around here fills my heart to the bursting point. There are no troubles in the woods. We have no bills or worries or family matters to tend to. There’s no technology pulling at us, no political nastiness, no war or sadness. Methuselah old trees and ancient boulders remind me of what’s real and important– nature is the quiet foundation of a sometimes troubling world, and it’s this foundation that heals and soothes us. I told Amadeus that it was like we were filling our souls’ fuel tanks, and he agreed. I can’t think of a better way that we could have celebrated our first year as man and wife.

~~~

So, you may be wondering: with all of this happy-happy joy-joy going on, how did I end up at VanLandingham? Well, it’s like this. A few months ago, I decided to try my hand at self-publishing. I wrote a little book of light verse, and was excited at the prospect of learning to convert it into an e-book. It sounds like a simple undertaking, but let me tell you something– I could have grown trees, chainsawed them down, ground them into pulp, made my own paper, squeezed ten million berries to make ink, painstakingly applied calligraphy to every page, spun my own thread and hand-bound eight thousand copies and it would have taken less time. I read tutorials, watched YouTube videos, visited forums, studied manuals and formatted and reformatted that little tome about twenty-five times. I finally got it onto Smashwords, which is a site that supposedly distributes written works to all the Important Places, and makes them available to view on Kindles and Nooks and iPhones and laptops. The trick is to publish it in such a way that it’s readable on any device. Days and weeks passed. My hair turned white, my eyes sunk into their sockets, but I finally got it done.

“Yay!! I finally got it done!” I told Amadeus, only to find that I’d screwed something up and had to start again.

“Yay!! I finally got it done!” I told Amadeus, only to find that (although it had made it into the Premium Catalog) it wasn’t being distributed anywhere at all.

“Yay!! I finally got it done!” I told Amadeus, who was no longer listening to a damned thing I had to say on the subject.

But finally, I did do it. I finished the project. I formatted the hell out of that little sucker, and it looks better than a lot of e-books out there. But was that good enough for me? Noooo….I decided to do an audio version. Because, you know, not everyone owns a Kindle or an iPhone or an Android. Sure, they live in caves and drive horses and buggies, but I wanted to make this accessible even to Amish people and those whose technological advances ended with the Sony Walkman. Besides, I have friends who are audio book fanatics, and I wanted to ensure that I could push my stupid little book of rhymes on them.

If I could ever offer an aspiring author one helpful little piece of advice, it would be this: get rich. Get rich so that you never, ever have to deal with any of this yourself. Hire people to format your book. Schedule time at a recording studio and hire Quincy Jones to engineer your work. Get in touch with Meryl Streep and offer her big bucks to narrate your story, even it’s just a retelling of The Three Bears. Step away from the computer.

I’ve worked on the audio portion of this project for five six seven weeks now. At first, it seemed like such a simple thing. Amadeus has a twelve-track recorder, and a big upright bass. We recorded some spiffy intro and outro music, and I narrated the book. But there was a glitch in getting the damned thing from the recorder to the computer. I finally got my son to do it for me, but the output was too low– you couldn’t hear a word of the audio, it was so muffled. When it became clear that it couldn’t be repaired, we had to re-record the entire thing. I discovered Audacity, an editing site, and went about learning how to use it, which was like going to medical school to learn to apply a Band-Aid. Audacity required one type of formatting; the site I was uploading to required another. I had to install yet another program to reformat it. While all of this was going on, I became more and more aware of the flaws in the recording; I worked on adjusting the sound quality, and getting rid of some bumps and thumps and clicks. Worst of all, I began to hear the sound of my own breathing in the mic (although I’d turned away between poems). I sounded like my Great-Aunt Ida, the one with the drinking problem and the four pack a day cigarette habit, whom I just invented here for illustrative purposes. I listened to that ridiculous little book so many times that at one point, I considered snipping my vocal chords, just so I’d never have to hear to the sound of my own voice again. Little by little, I began to lose the tiny smattering of sanity that I’d retained after my unfortunate childhood and misspent youth.

One night, after another 10 hours of fruitless attempts at getting this thing done, I told Amadeus, “I think we need to re-record my audio book again.” He looked at me as though he might rip out my vocal cords himself, so I quickly dropped the subject. I just kept struggling through–I put the audio book on one site, only to find that it wasn’t going to work there. I tried to place it on another site, only to discover that they’d only accept audio versions of books that were on Amazon. For some reason, my book hadn’t appeared there yet, so I had to go back to the e-book itself, reformat it specifically for Kindle and hope that Amazon would take it. They did. I excitedly went to upload my recording, then learned that the way we recorded the audio book wouldn’t work for the new site after all. It had to be divvied up into tracks. It had to be perfect. I asked for advice from musician friends, but all of their suggestions involved buying editing programs that cost about eleventy kajillion dollars, which just isn’t feasible for us.

Finally, I swallowed my pride, shed my dignity and invited myself to a friend’s man cave. He lives out in the sticks, and has a recording studio down in his basement. I’d been sick for two weeks with some sort of stress-induced bronchial/ walking pneumonia/ near-death thing, but I didn’t care– I just wanted to get this thing DONE. Amadeus brought his bass, recorded his bits, and he and our friend shot the breeze for four point five hours while I hacked and sneezed my way through the narration (I think I introduce myself on it as “Boodbeab BQueeb”). Finally, it was DONE! FINISHED! PERFECT! It sounded clean and semi-professional, and at 3:00 a.m. we had it in the can (well, on the flash drive), and headed home. I hugged my new producer five times before we left, and Amadeus ten more before we fell into bed, exhausted at the end of our horrific ordeal.

I woke up several hours later, chugged some coffee and listened to the final version. I would love to tell you how beautiful it sounded, with its lovely bass solos and the lilting, satin tones of my voice. Sadly, the whole thing sounded as though I’d slowly fallen into a deep well, or an echo chamber from hell. It was horrible. In our host’s sleepy state, he’d mixed it wrong, and sent us home with an audio so un-listenable that only dogs and maybe my mom could tolerate it. I started to laugh. I laughed and laughed and laughed, and then Amadeus made a few phone calls.

And here I am, at VanLandingham’s. Did I tell you how peaceful it is here? And about the spoons?

Heaven and L

 

Not me. Not even close.

 

I turned fifty a few weeks ago. I’d been gearing up to write about it for quite a while, but when the time came, I just had too many mixed emotions to do it.  For one thing, it was difficult even typing the number. 50. There. I did it. I was going to go all Roman numeral and just start telling people that I was “L,” but that seemed a little lame.  Pig latin is kind of a dead language, so “ifty fay” wasn’t going to cut it either.

My roommate, Amadeus, said, “Tell me what you want to do on your birthday, and we’ll do it,” but my mind went as blank as Paris Hilton’s facial expressions. I posted an ad in the Rants and Raves section of Craigslist asking for ideas, and got a few responses.

“Go skydiving!”

“Stay at this lodge!”

“Watch this porno video!”  It was, after all, Craigslist.

Then, someone wrote and said something like, “Shame on you for thinking that fifty is ancient. You should go out camping in the woods with some friends, and just enjoy the day. Eat some s’mores.”  I liked it.

So Amadeus  and I were going to go to the Buffalo River.  I sensed that a bottle of champagne might enhance the whole nature experience, so that was in the plans too, but in the end, he had a flat and we ended up at Sears instead.

“Actually, this is kind of good,” said Amadeus. “I wanted you to shop for your gift anyway. You like clothes, so I figured you could buy some.” It was a little overwhelming . A whole mall at my disposal?

I’m unemployed and semi-practical, so I decided to opt for some new undergarments. I hadn’t done any serious foundation shopping since my last mid-life crisis birthday two years ago. But, being that it was my big 5-0, I figured I’d forego the Sears industrial granny panties and Teflon bras and head for Victoria’s Secret instead. I’d never actually shopped there, and gee, it was my birthday.

I stood basking in the beauty of all the silky, lacy shininess, and was greeted by a middle-aged, friendly looking woman.  “May I help you?” she asked. “Well,” I told her, “it’s my birthday, and uh….I need some bras?” She grabbed my hand and said, “You come with me.”  She dragged me back to the pink Victoria’s Secret dressing room and I confided to her my desire for cleavage and the 5 for $25 panty special. My new friend measured me and studied my upper torso (you know, the part where the boobs are). I looked at her badge. “Bunny,” it said. What a happy-sounding name. “We’re going to fix you right up,” she said cheerily, and told me she’d be right back.

Bunny was going to save me, I just knew it.  I have to tell you that I was a bit anxiety-ridden. For one thing, I’m not exactly used to having carte blanche with a charge card. I didn’t want to spend a lot of Amadeus’ loot, though he’d given me no limit. Secondly, I’d lost some weight since that last birthday bra thing and I’m having body image issues. Losing weight means losing boobage, so I knew I was down at least a half a cup. Oh yeah, and I had just turned L.

The first bra Bunny brought was too big, the second was too small, and the third was just right. “Okay, now we have a starting point,” she said. “I’ll be right back.”  She returned with a handful of gorgeous, late-model numbers with all the bells and whistles. Solids, prints, lace, underwire, minimal padding, convertible straps, a built-in CD player and one that made me look like Dolly Parton’s little sister.  The price tags ranged from $45 to $85, which made me kind of choke a little.

“Oh gosh, ” I said in wonder, trying the Dolly’s Sis model on and studying my silhouette. “This bra could totally change my life.”  Bunny smiled knowingly.

“But it’s a lie,” I said. “I need a more honest bra. Plus, Bunny, I have to tell you that, while I know that a lot of your customers come in and spend tons of their men’s money, I just can’t do that to my roommate. I need something more practical, like your two- for- one special. “

Infinitely patient, she left and came back with some bras that were more Ford Taurus than Mercedes.  They were still beautiful and all, but much more simple than the others she had shown me.  I tried one on. It didn’t alter my universe, but it was nice.  Still, looking into the mirror, I grimaced. Fifty. Sigh….”I’ve lost weight and I’ve gone down a whole cup size,” I confided.

“Listen,” said My New Best Friend Ever, “you have to put this all into perspective.  There are women who come in here who’ve had mastectomies. They have no breasts at all. And you have to stop worrying so much. You look beautiful. Chin up. Shoulders back. Enjoy your day.”

I knew at that moment that I loved Bunny with all my heart and soul.  She really was lovely. She looked like a former stripper- kind of faded and world-weary, with big blonde hair and a warm smile.

“Okay,” I said, “I’ll take two. Black and taupe.”

She rolled her eyes. “Get a pattern! Do something fun!”

“I can’t really afford fun,” I said. “I have to go functional. But I swear, Bunny, I’ll pick out fun panties– at least one pair.”

We went and got my sensible colored bras, four solid colored panties, and one, as a concession to my new-found friend, with a butterfly print on it. I was still a little anxious about the cost of all of this, and about the whole day in general. I headed back to the dressing room to gather up my things, Bunny following behind. She wasn’t through counseling me.

“You know, you have to get a grip on this,”  she said. “We have teenaged girls coming in here who are getting their armpits liposuctioned. What kind of priorities are those?”

“I know,” I replied, secretly adding armpit lipo to my plastic surgery wish list. “I know none of it matters at all. There are people starving all over the world, and I’m worried about turning fifty. But the way I’m feeling is just temporary. I’ll adjust.”

“I know you will, hon,” she said.

“You are so great, Bunny,” I told her. “You’ve really made my day.” We were both getting all teary eyed, bonding over  those bras.

“You are too. And I’m sorry for lecturing, but you wouldn’t believe what I see and hear, working at this place.” She paused thoughtfully for a moment, then asked, “How old do you think I am?”

“Um….”

“Sixty-five.” I was shocked.  She appeared at least ten years younger.

“What I’ve learned is this– you have to be happy within yourself. None of this stuff matters.” She motioned around the cute little dressing room. Oh my god, I adored my philosopher/ bra saleslady. We sniffled. It was such a touching conversation. Then:

“I find my happiness with Him,” she said, pointing up to the ceiling of the dressing room. At first I thought she meant some roofer or something, but then I realized she meant The Man Upstairs, The One Above the Mall.  Uh oh.  “Do you know Him? Do you read the Bible?”

“Um…no. And I’m really not into organized religion.”

“Neither am I,” she said, “but you know, you have to make a decision. Do you want to go to Heaven, or do you want to go to Hell?” Great. Yet another decision to make. I couldn’t even figure out which bra to buy, for Pete’s sake.

I groaned inwardly. She was trying to save me– in the Victoria’s Secret dressing room. I love things like this, but at the same time I hate it, because when very righteous people find out that I’m a died-in-the-wool heathen, it often ruins the mood.

“Well, see, I have a problem with that concept too. But I do see what you’re saying, and I am listening.” For a moment, I considered the fact that if getting saved meant that I stayed as well-preserved as Bunny, it might just be worth looking into.

She looked at me sadly for a moment, shook her head, then left the dressing room without a word.  I gathered up my purse, my two bras and five panties and went to the register. Amadeus met me there, and I told him about my fabulous saleslady. A cashier rang up my birthday gifts and put them into one of those adorable pink striped bags.

“Wait,” I told Amadeus. “I want to go and thank Bunny, and tell her goodbye.”

I looked around the entire shop, but she was nowhere to be found. Nowhere. Poof. It was a little spooky. Had she even existed? Had she been sent as some sort of birthday present from God?

“Wow,” I said to my roommate as we left the store, “I think I met a real live Victoria’s Secret Angel.”