Monday, May 31, 2010

Memorial Day Memories

Memorial Day weekend. Memorial Day. Drop one word, and you get a very different connotation. The first is three full days away from the office, or, around here, the first busy day of summer as an endless stream of vehicles hauls boats, kayaks, camping and fishing gear, and people to the sun and lakes of the Northwoods. The second is a solemn day of remembrance, a day for color guards, cemetery decorations, patriotic music, and speeches.

This split is not limited to celebrations in the United States. I was re-reading my journal entries from Martyr’s Days spent in Madagascar. Apparently I was fortunate enough to be there for two March 29ths that were semi-attached to a weekend, so we celebrated the day as a full holiday weekend those times. The first March 29, in 2003, I had been in country for about two months and was still in training. I really had no idea what was going on. Our language and cultural trainers did their best to explain the history of the day, but it mostly translated badly as “Independence Day.” Yet, what I expected out of Independence Day wasn’t what I saw. It was a very solemn event with few organized community-wide activities like a parade or festival. My host brother left town to go to the capital to spend the day with his siblings and my host father went to the next town over to give a speech. So, three other trainees and I left town for a weekend-long bike excursion into the country.

When the next Martyr’s Day in 2004 rolled around, I had been at site in Bealanana for nearly a year. It still took my faithful sitemate, Elizabeth, to make the connection of “Martyr’s Day” to “Memorial Day.” We had just returned form our momentous 60 km hike down the mountain and back a few days before, so we didn’t do anything extraordinary for this Martyr’s Day weekend, but as volunteers only got official Malagasy holidays as days off, I know many other volunteers who did take advantage of the three full days. So, instead, we observed the solemnity of the day:

March 29, 2004 Malagasy Memorial Day. I was re-reading my journal from a year ago (2003), and somehow I’d had the impression that this was their Independence Day. Then Elizabeth said “Memorial Day,” and I realized how well that fit. We went to the ceremony at the monument in town and it was very much like the familiar U.S. celebrations: colorguard, armed contingent, officials, speakers, even a veteran. Oh, and scouts in uniform. Very patriotic. Yet very Malagasy.

The Sous-Prefet (equivalent of a County Board chairman) delayed all the proceedings as usual - so much so that even his wife walked into town ahead of his car. Then, the usual raising of the flag, national anthem, laying of wreaths, speeches. The mayor’s speech was short and to the point. Then the Sous-Prefet. Arrive late, talk long must be his motto. I was sweating from places I didn’t know I could sweat by the time he finished. But at least Elizabeth and I weren’t seated with the VIPs this time, so we didn’t have to fully pay attention…

I’m amused to read how the following part of the entry reflects on our recent down-the-mountain adventure, as one of our “guard des corps” (body guards) was the commander of the small legion of Malagasy troops (gendarme) standing in observance of Martyr’s Day.

Elizabeth and I amused ourselves by noticing the old gendarme from the walk down the mountain was the man barking orders at the troops today - and then noticing him notice us and informing the guy next to him who told the next guy and so on until the whole guard was now looking at us. We could just hear him saying, “Don’t look now, but there are the two white girls I saved from a bug.”

Always a good thing to have an in with the local military unit. (Oh, and if you don’t know the story of the bug, remind me to tell it sometime.)

Sadly, I never attended another Malagasy Memorial Day observance. The next year I had moved to Fianarantsoa, and was well warned that if we came within sight of the gathering at the monument, we would be dragged into the proceedings and seated in the V.I.P. section. We sent Dan as our sacrificial representative and the rest of us celebrated with a picnic brunch inside the compound, then, I think, took a long walk around the city in the afternoon while everybody else was busy getting drunk.

So, as I walk to the cemetery this coming Monday morning, I will remember standing in the hot sun, dust and sweat of March in Madagascar to honor Malagasy killed at Ambatomanga - and the good company I kept on those days.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

A new county song

After listening to a relative's review of past relationships again this morning, there came the outline to a new potential hit song:

Lasting impression: that one-night stand.
Lasting depression: that one that broke your heart.
Lasting oppression: the one you married.


My parents will be the first to complain that my sister and I are doing very little in the way of providing them with grandchildren. My sister and I will be first to confirm the truth of that statement. (Although my sister is admittedly several steps further down the road than I - she at least has a boyfriend. The only thing showing an interest in me at the moment is our fifteen-year old cockatiel, who, upon being left alone with me for an extended period of time last winter, laid her first egg.)

And while this is a crime to some nth degree, we have at least attempted to plug that gap by providing a granddog.

My sister took the lead in this when she welcomed home a puppy that grew into a gentle giant named Cooper. Unfortunately, we lost Cooper at Labor Day last year, but several months prior we’d absorbed a foster dog named Wrangler. Wrangler, a miniature-pony sized Labradoodle with mad-scientist eyebrows, takes his role as constant companion and best friend very seriously.

Wrangler’s first and most obvious dislike is to be left alone. His devotion knows no bounds - neither window screens nor fences nor the presence of other animals will prevent him from searching out his family. More times than we’d care to count we’ve had to go track him down after he’s escaped in an attempt to find us. In fact, the very first weekend we had him was during my sister’s master’s degree hooding and graduation. We left the three dogs (Cooper, Wrangler, and my sister’s housemate’s Golden Lab, Cyrus) in their second story apartment. We returned several hours later to find a lady standing at the end of the driveway, Wrangler in tow. She said she had caught him wandering the fields of the neighboring high school, near where his former owners lived. She thought she’d seen him around my sister’s place, so she brought him back.

I ran to the house to check on the other dogs, who were still very much there. Wrangler had attempted to break out of the bathroom window, which, for a little bit of luck, was only open a crack. He eventually broke out a screen and jumped onto the porch. If he’d managed the bathroom window, it would have been a 30 foot fall to the pavement below.

Even now, earshot, and preferably eyeshot, is as much distance as he allows between us.

My new job has caused a bit of a problem for all this. Normally I leave home at 7:30 AM, and the earliest I return is 5:30 PM, but usually my schedule keeps me away until 9 or 10 at night. For a dog that needs near constant companionship, this just doesn’t work.

Enter my father. My father’s business as a seasonal plumber, especially in the spring season before Memorial Day, involves a lot of driving to a variety of northwoods cabins and time in the outdoors. Wrangler has fully absorbed his role as apprentice. He relishes “going to work.” He accompanies my father to each place, has learned to wait for instruction on what he can or can’t do at each house, and spends his time either following my father into crawl spaces or splashing in the many lakes and chasing chipmunks in the woods. He observes carefully as my father does repairs - and if it weren’t for the lack of opposable thumbs, probably would have applied for his journeyman plumber’s license by now.

This as become so much his normal gig that when I do come home to stay for weekends, more often than not I find myself chasing back through the woods to my parents’ house to find the dog. But that’s normal - grandma and grandpa’s house is always more fun that your real home.

While a granddog might not be the little human my parents are anticipating, at least my big puppy can offer many of the same benefits: entertainment without the need for the providing maintenance. And the best benefit of all: when you get tired of him, they can just send him home.

As my father said as he dropped off the dog this evening, "He's the son I never had. Thank goodness!"

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Bear Saga

A few days I ago I dreamed there were 15 big black bear in my yard (inside the fenced-in part). Today, I woke up to one large, three-legged black bear in the unfenced portion of my yard.

My uncle's dogs, who have been with me for the last 10 days or so, had been restless all night. Finally at 6 AM I gave in and let them out to the porch, where the take the dog-door into the large dog pen. Tumbleweed, the youngest, was more enthusiastic than usual - and I quickly saw why. There, running across the yard was a large black bear.

I was relieved I'd only let the dogs into the pen and not the open yard. But then they didn't shut up. They kept barking. I headed outside and saw that the bear wasn't in any hurry to leave the yard.

And now, four hours later, it's still not in a hurry to leave the yard.

[update: I realized out a few minutes ago that it's not a "he," it's a "she" and she must've been just biding her time with her two little cubs up a tree somewhere. I don't think it's the same sow as from the "Bear Necessities" post - I'm pretty sure that one had two front legs...I think. It is, however, the same bear that was raiding my parents' birdfeeder last summer. Anyway, you can mentally fix pronouns as you go from here]

He's hunkered down underneath some big red pines, about 50 yards from the house. I've wandered out several times, only to have him look at me, and roll over and go back to sleep. At one point I thought he might be dead. I walked across the yard to the corner of the old barn - easily within 50 feet of the bear - and he just looked at me. Then, when I got to the corner of the barn, he finally stood up and did a display of aggression by attacking the tree next to him. I backed off.

That's also when I figured out that this bear is the three-legged bear that visited my parents' bird feeder last summer.

After that, Dad drove in, the dogs have barked, and I backed my car out. He's moved all of 20 feet. Not really normal for a bear.

So I called the Wildlife Service. They're sending the trappers out. Apparently they already have a bear trap set just a mile or so down the road for a nuisance bear. I think I've caught him.

Updates to come soon - the trappers are still a couple hours away on another job before getting here. The bear doesn't seem to mind. Honestly, he looks so comfortable I'd be tempted to go curl up next to him in the sun and shade.

We'll see what happens next.

Update 2: So, the bear and her cubs have wandered off down by our pond. The Wildlife Service is sending the bear trappers, but they're on the other side of the county. And I am spending an unscheduled day working from home. This is what makes life with wildlife interesting!

Final (?) Update: Well, the guys from the Wildlife Service showed up with live bear trap in tow. Unfortunately they were about 20 minutes too late and Mama had taken her cubs off to the south. I filled them in on details, and they headed down the road to where a neighbor with a chicken coop had reported a bear break-in the night before. I sort of enjoy the novelty of bear and cubs in the neighborhood, especially of the sow is going to be so chill about things that I could get within a few yards of her before she got at all upset. Seems like the right kind of bear to have, if you're going to have one at all.

That said, as I was updating my own bear story, a friend from across town was riding her bike home and literally almost ran over the rear end of yet another bear. They all seem to be out and about right now. Maybe today is the day of the teddy bear picnic?

...geese, chickens, turkeys, omby and water buffalo...but this is certainly something I never had to deal with in the third world...

One final update: Late in the afternoon I loaded my uncle's dogs into the car to return them to whence they came. I left them briefly unattended while I returned to the house for something. They jumped, snarling and barking, out of the back of the car and chased off into the woods. I yelled and screamed and go them to come back. I locked them safely in the car and went and grabbed binoculars. Sure enough, the two of them had treed a bear. I watched it make its way back to the ground - this one had all four legs intact, and judging from the size, was probably a yearling or a two-year-old. That makes four bears within a baseball toss of my house all in broad daylight in one day. That's a personal record.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

My Life as a Status Update

The phenomenon that is Facebook has created a whole new means of communicating: the Status Update. (For those few remaining of you that have resisted the pull of social networking, a “status” is a brief statement about what you’re doing/thinking/feeling/marketing/observing that is visible to all of your friends or friends of friends or just plain everybody depending on your privacy settings.) The result of this status updating, which could be done near constantly with all the minutia of one’s life if one wished (Erica is waking up. Erica is getting dressed. Erica is making breakfast. Erica just realized she’s late for work...again…), is that all your Facebook contacts know what you’re doing, even though you may never actually exchange a personal communication with them.

In some ways this has made my life so much easier. People claim they don’t have time for Facebook. I don’t have time NOT to use Facebook. I don’t have time to sit and send e-mails to every single one of my 322 friends. That would be nearly one e-mail per day for nearly a year just to send a single message to each friend. Never mind replies and actual content. And so, I rely on occasionally updating my status to remind people that I am still alive, should they ever feel the need to actually speak directly to me.

And so, my life over the last several months sounds something like this:

Erica celebrated her first Valentine's Day with to her new job. It hasn't given her any diamonds (yet), but hey - sometimes employment is a girl's best friend.

Erica has recovered her Luther ring from the depths of the safety deposit box.

Erica can't understand how she just suffered massive grilled cheese sandwich FAIL.

Erica takes the bypass so she doesn't have to drive past the Culver's sign each day...

Erica never thought her introduction to *live* public radio would be a polka show...!!!

Erica made her percussion debut tonight - on bar chime and rainmaker.

Erica gives thanks for washing machines.

Erica apparently lives in the Single Best Town in America...

Erica thinks that a day that you get congratulated for doing nothing more than managing to pass another 365 days on the planet is wonderful. Thanks to all!

Erica made cookies yesterday. Shhh...don't tell anybody.

Erica received her order of three guilty pleasure books in the mail today.

Erica: You know the economy is still pretty bad when there’s a foreclosed and auction sign on the lawn of the temp employment agency…

Erica wonders about returning to her hotel room to find a used bath towel hanging on the back of the bathroom door. One that was not used by her.

Erica has officially been un-adopted by her dog.

Erica could, should and would, but doesn’t want to.

Erica left her iPod at home. She’s going to have to listen to the wind and the birds on her walk today.

Erica is celebrating the anniversary of the patent for blue jeans by wearing blue jeans.

Erica keeps her left foot firmly planted on the floor of the car when driving an automatic.

Erica just vacuumed the Halloween decorations off the front of the house.

You get the picture.

Unfortunately, this does very little for those people who aren’t on Facebook and wouldn’t know the status of my continued residency on this planet unless I actually communicate using one of the millions of other means at our disposal.

Then again, the complaint has been raised against me that I am guilty of “Vaugebooking.” I prefer to think of these updates as indicating a universal state. They could potentially apply to anybody or anything at any time. They just happen to apply to me at that moment.

What is more fun is the extrapolations and associations that others make. Let the comments begin!

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Bear Necessities

Spring sprung a lot earlier than usual around these parts. Thanks to an incredibly unseasonal string of 70 degree days back in March, just about everything seems to be happening about three weeks early. I guess especially after such a lame summer last year everything wants to get a head start now, and was rather undampened by the five inches of heavy wet snow we got last weekend. One good thing: snow in May just doesn’t stay.

This happened several weeks ago now, but since I’ve been so negligent of this space, it never got written down.

It was just dark on a balmy (and I mean balmy!) Sunday evening back in early April. It was about nine and I had just gotten off the phone with a friend. It was just beginning to cool off and a busy work day ahead was calling me to bed. I walked out on the porch to close the door. I briefly thought about letting the dog out that door to do his evening business, but a noise fortunately made me stop.

Out about 20 feet beyond our deck there was a horrible crying noise.

“Noooooooooooo! Noooooooo! Nooo!” wailed the sad sound.

“Noooooooo! Noooo! Oooooooo - nooooo!” it continued.

My heart stopped - I’d never heard such a thing. It sounded like a lost and hurt child.

One of the bulbs in the outdoor floodlight had burned out and the other had been stolen by the winter pond skaters, so I had no way of looking to see if I could find something. And as much as things might sound human, I know very well that any variety of animals, from cats in heat to mountain lion, can convince somebody that there is a person in distress in the dark.

So, I ran for the phone. And, of course, called my daddy.

I held the phone out into the dark (while a very baffled dog sat at my feet trying to figure out what was interrupting his evening routine) for my dad to hear the noise. It came and it went, and soon was accompanied by the scrabbling of claws on a tree. Whew, at least it really wasn’t human now.

Dad was just as confused as I. Raccoons? It’s said they say it with far more abuse than a slap. Porkies also make a lot of noise this time of year.

But then the noise was joined by another, deeper and far more primal noise:

“No. Ugh. Hupmh. No.”

At least I’d already decided the first noise wasn’t human, but that second one, if it had come from an adult male human, would’ve had me dialing 9-1-1. The “no” was so clear that I fully expected the other lower octave noises to become words.

That was the last straw. I finally dug up a flashlight in hopes that the beam would go far enough into the woods to uncover the mystery.

Much to my surprise, the flashlight beam did reveal the intruder - it was much, much closer than I originally expected. And from the way it was crouched and snarling at me, my first thought was, “Wolverine!”

But just a few seconds later I saw the two black shapes scrabbling on the tree alongside the crouched menace. Then my brain kicked in, and I realized it was the momma bear and her two itty, bitty cubs. And they were making a fuss that I’m sure, like any human mother with twin toddlers throwing a tantrum in Walmart, was embarrassing and stressing her beyond intelligible words.

The next day my birdfeeders were taken down for the summer, and my attempts at an organized compost pile were abandoned. The bears are back - with these twins, the count stands somewhere at momma, two-year-old (last year’s yearling), twin yearlings (last year’s twin cubs) and two new cubs. That’s just the one family - there are still the three three-legged bears out there somewhere.

Since that day in early April I haven’t seen the bears myself. But pictures of this family made it to the front page of our local paper after they took up a week-long residence in one a tree downtown. Whatever the economy elsewhere, looks like it will be a bearish summer around here.

Friday, May 14, 2010


Earlier this week I was gently reprimanded by one of my two readers for the criminal neglect of this blog. Fair enough. So, to one of my two remaining fans - this comeback is for you.

But, as it is a Friday night and the end of a long week, I’m afraid I’m going to have to steal a move from another blogging friend’s playbook (which I think she ever-so-elegantly lifted from yet another creative word choreographer) and present you with a Seven Quick Takes Friday.

(The only downside is I’m not sure I have seven things to talk about. Well, hopefully by the time you finish reading this I will have thought of seven.)

1. The Job is going well. Hard to believe I’ve been on it for over three months now, and I still haven’t gotten fired. Not sure what I’m doing wrong, but I’ll keep trying to figure it out. As of now, I’m attached at the hip to three major projects, have fingers firmly planted in the pots of four more, and threatened soon to be ball-and-chained to five others. If only the gym teacher that failed me during the juggling unit could see me now.

2. I still manage to have a “life” outside of work. However, that “life” usually consists of me manhandling a sixteen-foot piece of intricately wound metal tubing while in the presence of others likewise manhandling pieces of wood and brass and generally annoying anybody within earshot. Rehearsals continue to consume at least two nights of my week, usually three. And a lot of the miles on my car. As they say, I wouldn’t be doing it if I wasn’t getting something out of it. I seriously believe that this uses the parts of my brain that would otherwise rise in mutiny over the parts that are required for The Job if I didn’t distract and exhaust them on a regular basis.

3. I’ve been in the media a lot lately. Newspaper, radio, community newsletters, TV. My most recent TV appearance mostly consisted of B-roll of me being rather expressive while conversing with others about topics completely unrelated to the rather serious subject of the story, and me being introduced while the footage shows me walking away from the camera. Apparently I have a face and an attitude made for radio. Better yet, newsprint.

4. My dog has decided I am unworthy as a caretaker. My schedule now usually has me leaving the house by 7:30 or 7:45 AM and not returning until 8, 9 or 10 PM. He has been spending a lot of time on the job with my father. Since this is the spring opening for all of the seasonal cabins, this means the pup gets to ride around to all these fun cottages and chase chipmunks all up and down the Three Lakes chain. When I returned this evening from a two day conference and picked him up, his response to returning “home” was to hightail it back through the woods to Mom and Dad’s place. I guess I deserve it.

(Whew, over halfway...let’s hope I don’t run out of steam.)

5. More on the dog: he officially cannot be left alone. As my father says, it’s hard to believe a dog with such a high I.Q. can be so dumb. He has learned to open drawers and has now discovered the location and the means of accessing my parents’ breadbox. He eats whole loaves of bread. When bread isn’t available, apparently he will settle for SOS scouring pads. At least he hasn’t learned to open the refrigerator or the oven (yet).

6. I’ve learned that there is a SS Nazi marching song called “Erika.” It’s rather unnerving to see a regiment of Nazi soldiers marching down the street while singing about their sweet blond farm girl named after the heather flower, my own name, “Erika.”

(What, only one more? Oh, dear, better make it good.)

7. Oh! At least according to Disney Family Fun, it’s official: I live in the “Single Best Town in America." Please note, this is very different from the “Best Town for Singles,” which I can sincerely attest, it is not. I’m guessing that isn’t going to change on, after, or due to August 3rd, either.