The Deep Valley Book Festival in Mankato, Minnesota, 2022

A Delicate Balancing Act by Kimber Fiebiger; downtown Mankato; made me think about the writer’s life

The Deep Valley Book Festival is set in Mankato, Minnesota, a charming town tucked in by rolling tree-covered hills and edged by the Minnesota and Blue Earth Rivers. This is the first book festival I’ve ever attended. My daughter-in-law and I drove down on Friday afternoon, a warm sunny day that premiered some stunning fall colors.

After we checked into the River Hills Hotel–a cozy and clean establishment with a friendly clerk–we headed to downtown Mankato for a walk then dinner. It was quiet for a Friday night, but I imagine if the Mankato Mavericks had been playing, the streets would’ve been skating with hockey fans. We had a good meal at the Pub 500. Our waitress was friendly and efficient. She carded my daughter-in-law, but she didn’t card me! Of course, that’s probably because I didn’t order a drink; otherwise, I’m sure she would have. I had a delicious fish taco.

We were back at the hotel by eight o’clock, doing what book festival attendees should be doing on Friday night–reading books. I read “The Victim,” a short story by P. D. James, recommended by my daughter-in-law. It was an engaging murder story. I handed my daughter-in-law a copy of the Wisconsin Writers Association Anthology 2022: Jade Ring and Youth Writing Contest and suggested she read the first-place fiction story “Notes to the New Facilitator of the Reminiscence Writing Group at Sunnyvale Retirement Community” (p. 22) by Nancy Jesse and the first-place nonfiction essay “Mormon Girl Hair and the Styrofoam Harem” (p. 6) by Adrianna McCollum. Both of these pieces of writing are top-notch, engaging, and excellently crafted, deserving of their first-place wins, and my daughter-in-law agreed.

After that we went to bed, each of us reading a book we had brought with us. I read Calling for a Blanket Dance by Oscar Hokeah, a wonderful novel that I’ve loved reading. You can listen to an interview with Oscar Hokeah on Minnesota Public Radio’s Talking Volumes.

On Saturday morning we arrived at the book festival just before nine o’clock, and we planned to stay until it ended at 4:30. We were motivated by the hourly drawings for books and the opportunity to hear author Curtis Sittenfeld talk about her writing.

We made sure we stopped at all the tables, sometimes briefly, other times lingering to listen to writers speak about their books, which included children and YA literature, fantasy, mystery, thriller, romance, historical fiction, memoir, nonfiction, and poetry.

A book festival is filled with writers, but they are there to sell their books. There are no writing classes. The local library had a table, and Content, a bookstore from Northfield, Minnesota, also had a table. I noticed two publishers who were selling books by authors they represented. I asked one publisher if they were a traditional publishing house–they weren’t. The representative of the company said they like an author to put up fifty percent of the cost of publishing his or her book. I didn’t ask the other publisher about their business model.

Authors work hard at a book festival. They sit or stand for hours and talk about their books to people who look, smile, and listen, but often leave without buying a book. I bought two children’s books, two novels, and a nonfiction book. My daughter-in-law bought some books too. We plan to exchange our books with each other.

We finished touring the festival around noon. We sat and each of us started reading a book we had purchased. I read Facets of Death by Michael Stanley, a fast-paced Detective Kubu story that captured my attention, a good thing because I won another Detective Kubu story, A Carrion Death in a drawing being held by the author. My daughter-in-law read Bingo Barge Murder by Jessie Chandler, which she enjoyed, saying it was humorous.

When reading made us hungry, we left to have lunch at Applebee’s, then went for a walk. But we soon returned to the book festival to check the small white board to see if we had won any books–we hadn’t.

The book festival was held at the WOW! Zone, an interesting place for a book festival. The WOW! Zone has a bowling alley, a game arcade, and food. It was noisy, but fortunately, most of the booksellers were tucked into the restaurant that had been converted into a makeshift venue, and so the noise wasn’t too bad. We wanted to read more because we had almost two hours to pass before Curtis Sittenfeld’s talk. Seating in the WOW! Zone was limited, so we ended up at a table in the bowling ally and read to the rumble of rolling bowling balls and clattering pins.

By three o’clock, I was tired and we had a four-hour drive home. But I had heard Curtis Sittenfeld speak on a Zoom talk and enjoyed listening to her, so I didn’t think about cutting out early. Sittenfeld began by saying that she has done hundreds of talks all over the country, but this was her first time giving a book talk in an arcade. The audience laughed with her because we understood. Most of us had spent the whole day or part of the day at a book festival held in an arcade. Sittenfeld was kind, charming, informative, and entertaining. The hour flew by.

With our bags of books, my daughter-in-law and I headed home. We have new reading material, and we are ready for the upcoming winter.

Books I bought:

Facets of Death by Michael Stanley because after reading a paragraph, I liked the writing, so I took a chance that the story would also be good.

Tuckerbean in the Kitchen by Jill Kalz because the book festival was the same day as my grandson’s birthday. He turned six, and I think a story about dogs cooking will appeal to him. Plus the illustrations by Benton Mahan are adorable.

Temple Times: Beauty Missing, Hair Hissing, Medusa Tells All by Rebecca Fjelland Davis because my granddaughter likes stories about strong girls and women. And because a friend recently told me that Medusa has received a bad rap, and this story helps set the record straight.

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld because she was there, and I wanted to have a book for her to sign. And because I’ve read American Wife by her and liked it, AND because Eligible is a modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice, which I love and have read three times. Plus I’ve seen three different movie versions of Austen’s enduring novel.

Not the Camilla We Knew: One Woman’s Path from Small-Town America to the Symbionese Army by Rachael Hanel because I’m interested in why a person joins a cause that is violent. And because I read Hanel’s memoir We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down: Memoir of a Gravedigger’s Daughter, and it was beautifully written. I had to pre-order Not the Camilla We Knew because the book won’t be released until December 2022.

The Dummy Never Showed Up

[This essay received an honorable mention in the Wisconsin Writers Association’s 2022 Jade Ring Contest. To read the works of other winners, see the links after the essay.]

Charlie broke my heart in 1971. Dressed in a top hat and tuxedo, and well-groomed with manicured nails and combed hair, he was debonair, even if his monocle made him look a bit stuffy. Always ready with a smart comeback, a smooth put-down, or a drop of wisdom, he was witty, candid, and self-assured. Charlie was a dummy, but I wanted him anyway.

The big problem—he was unavailable. Like all desirable men, he was taken. Women everywhere had lined up to have a chance with him. Seems like everyone wanted a wise-cracking fella who was perpetually dressed for the opera.

My mother broke the news to me. “Honey, I have to talk to you about your Christmas list.” I was twelve, so we had long ago stopped calling it “my letter to Santa.”

“I’ve looked everywhere.” Her voice shrunk as she spoke. “I can’t find a Charlie McCarthy doll.” She asked me to think of something else to add to my list. I did, but I don’t recall what it was. I could’ve asked for a hand puppet, but that would’ve been like having to settle for Eddie Haskell after hoping to date Donny Osmond. There was no substitute for Charlie.

I wanted to be a ventriloquist. I was going to be famous. I was going to be a star. And I couldn’t do it without Charlie. My daydream about becoming a celebrated ventriloquist was another chapter in my someday-I’ll-be-a-famous-singer-actor-or-dancer book of fantasies. I spent hours singing with Doris Day, Petula Clark, Dionne Warwick, and Barbara Streisand, pretending to be them. Sometimes I sang along with Johnny Cash, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., or Trini Lopez, pretending they had recognized me—a famous singer—in the audience and called me up on stage to sing with them. The exuberant audience, unable to contain their cheers and thunderous clapping, would rise to their feet moments before we had finished our duet.

Sometimes, I’d lay on the floral velour couch in the living room, the most elegant space in our farmhouse, and imagine myself a great actor giving spellbinding performances on stage or film. Or I would be Cyd Charisse, dancing, defying Newton’s laws of motion, giving men whiplash. When I wasn’t doing my famous talent stuff, I would travel to exotic places, win awards, and marry a leading man or a velvet-voiced crooner.

With Charlie I would’ve been more than a ventriloquist—I would’ve been funny! The see-saw, back-and-forth humorous banter between Charlie and Edgar Bergen captivated me. Bergen said things that came out of Charlie’s mouth. Through Charlie, Bergen insulted people and everyone laughed at Charlie. Through Charlie, Bergen flirted with women and everyone thought Charlie was adorable. Charlie sassed Edgar, his elder, and never got whapped alongside the head. My twelve-year-old mind found this setup very attractive. But reflecting on it now, I don’t think my mother would’ve whapped Charlie alongside his head.

After I learned Charlie wouldn’t be helping me on my way to ventriloquism fame, I crawled in the closet under the stairs. I sat with a box of hats, mittens, and scarves. I inhaled a mixture of musty wool and dust while tears rained down my cheeks. Charlie would never sit with me on the floral velour couch. I wouldn’t toss my voice into his throat. I wouldn’t watch our reflections in the mirrored wall as we practiced talking to each other. We might have sung along with Sinatra or Streisand, the three of us making harmony.

I was crushed. I was heartbroken. I was an overly-dramatic twelve-year-old. Oscar worthy, no doubt.

I’d like to say that I pined for Charlie and that Christmas Day was hollow without him and that I asked for him for my birthday in March. But I did none of that. I was over him before Christmas. I don’t remember what I got instead of Charlie, but it was the next best thing, and I’m sure I was happy with it. I ate my mom’s good cooking. I played board games with my sisters and cousins. And I read my new Nancy Drew mystery before I drifted off to sleep that night.

If Charlie hadn’t stood me up, truth is, I would’ve dumped him. Within a month or so, he would’ve been tucked away in my closet, along with my fantasies of winning an Oscar or a Grammy. I hope all the Charlies found better homes.

I never became a famous singer, dancer, or actor. I can’t carry a tune. I have no sense of rhythm. And in seventh grade, I learned I had terrible stage fright.

Funny, when I was twelve, I never imagined myself as a famous writer. I started writing after I retired, so I’m too old for silly fantasies now. But if I were twelve, I would win a Pulitzer Prize, I would make Oprah’s reading list every other year, and the New Yorker would call me and beg for one of my short stories.

[All the winners of the 2022 Jade Ring Contest can be read in the online Creative Wisconsin Magazine, along with other essays, poetry, and articles. If you wish to purchase a copy of the Wisconsin Writers Association Anthology 2022: Jade Ring and Youth Writing Contest, click here.]

Tree Guy Goes Mum

Speechless

Yesterday Tree Guy lost his mouth. I noticed his missing smile last night when I let the dogs outside. I leaned over the deck, Tree Guy’s mouth lay on the ground in pieces, most likely KO’d by a squirrel.

Squirrels have been scurrying up and down Tree Guy’s trunk, busying themselves for winter. The Farmer’s Almanac has predicted a harsh winter for our area, designating it a “Hibernation Zone.” Sounds quaint, doesn’t it? Just eat a lot of food, then curl up for a long nap in a cozy place.

Tree Guy’s mouth won’t be repaired again. It’s in pieces and the back hanger is gone. I could probably find the metal loop, and my husband could fix the mouth—again, but it wouldn’t last because the interior substance is dry rotted. The shiny paint job on Tree Guy’s mouth is like an iridescent-paint job on an old car, covering copious amounts of Bondo—pretty to look at but not a long-term solution.

Losing his mouth has changed Tree Guy’s expression. While trying to determine if he looks contemplative or stern or forlorn, I’ve decided he looks mostly confused.

My husband and I agreed that while Tree Guy’s mouth won’t be fixed, we’ll leave him with his eyes and nose. He’ll still watch over the deck and smell his flower-basket earrings, but he won’t talk. Anyone wanting to know what he thinks will have to look into his eyes, windows to his inner sap. Tree Guy’s been part of our lives for over a decade, we’d rather lose him in bits than all at once.

I’ve pulled the nail from the tree where Tree Guy’s mouth hung and tossed his broken lips into the trash.

[Other stories in the Tree Guy Saga: Tree Guy, Tree Guy Update, Tree Guy’s Nose Is Still Missing, Another Tree Guy Update, Excavating Tree Guy’s Nose, Tree Guy’s Nose Is Safe, Tree Guy Has It All Together Again]

Deck Block

Welcoming committee after my paddle around the island

Every other year I need to stain our deck, but this year I have Deck Block. It’s like Writer’s Block but worse because my deck won’t rot away if I don’t write.

Yesterday I procrastinated prepping the deck by writing, walking the dogs, reading, washing dishes, going to a medical appointment, napping, and eating an ice cream cone. At four o’clock, I decided to clean out the gunk between the deck boards. For the first twenty minutes, I resented the chore. I almost went to the hardware store for deck wash. To the feed store for sunflower seeds. To Walmart for white-out. But the more debris I cleaned out of the cracks, the better I felt, so I kept excavating. It reminded me of writing a rough draft—the more words I put on paper, the better I feel and the more I write.

This morning I knew I should keep prepping the deck, but I went paddleboarding. Blue skies, no wind, pleasant temps—perfect for paddling. (And working on the deck, but that’s not how Deck Block works.)

While skimming the water, which resembled an old piece of rippled window glass, I thought about ways to expand a flash essay into a narrative essay. But, my prewriting-paddleboard session did nothing for the deck.

After paddleboarding, I ate a hot dog with pickles and ketchup, comfort food to conquer Deck Block. Then I promised myself a trip to Dairy Queen—but only if I spent a couple of hours prepping the deck first. I’m so very disciplined.

During the mindless, boring task of prepping the deck, I let my mind wander, free association therapy. But I kept my head away from the railings, which were full of cobwebs. I didn’t want to show up at Dairy Queen, looking like Miss Havisham.

Tomorrow paddleboarding, then power washing. For sure.

Shetland Island Dreams versus Boxing Squirrels

Ziva Baby

The evening walk, once a sixteen-block jaunt with my dogs, has become a stroll around the block. That’s all fourteen-year-old Cabela can handle. Her hips and left rear leg slow her down; although, she occasionally dashes across the yard or gallops along the property line in moments that my father would’ve called, “Old enough to know better, but young enough to do it anyway.” My father lived by those words, with mixed results for the people around him.

For Ziva, our walks are too short. But she’s a go-along-to-get-along kind of dog. When she walks with her sister, she adopts Cabela’s slow pace, and like Cabela, she smells all the grass. The two of them have a favorite spot to sniff in the neighbor’s yard, a spot worthy of serious, laborious inspection each time we walk by it. The spot looks normal, but obviously it smells delightful and contains a message they are both hoping to decode. I understand because when lilacs are in bloom, I sometimes stop along other people’s yards and inhale their aroma. The scent of lilacs is my favorite flower smell. I muse about nature having assigned each flower its own perfume.

Some days, when Cabela is sound asleep and doesn’t hear us, Ziva and I sneak out of the house for a longer walk. I crook my finger at Ziva in a follow-me motion as I whisper, “Want to go for a walk?” She always does. Without Cabela, she poodle prances swiftly along the road, her butt sashaying like she’s a model in high heels striding down a runway. Sometimes I ask, “Ziva Baby, do you have a hamburger to go with that shake?” She ignores the question, and tells me to keep up. When we return, Cabela is usually sleeping in the same spot she was before we left and has no idea we’ve been gone. I’m thankful because I don’t want her to feel like a junior high dog whose friends ditched her.

A few nights ago, when we returned from our around-the-block walk, which turned into a twice-around-the-block walk to avoid some people with a dog, Cabela was tired. I let go of Ziva’s leash so she could trot up the stairs along side the house, and I walked with Cabela, letting her take her time.

Ziva reached the last landing and spotted three squirrels and a bunny in the back yard. She took off like a middling horse out of the starting gate. (Ziva might walk fast, but she’s a jogger not a sprinter.) She treed the squirrels and sent the bunny scurrying into the neighbor’s yard. She came within inches of one of the squirrels but made no attempt to grab it. She has come close to catching squirrels before, but she doesn’t want one. She enjoys harassing them. She stretched up along the tree trunk and gave a couple of quick barks.

If Ziva caught a squirrel, I picture it curling its front paw into a fist and pummeling her on the nose. She would cry and run to hide behind my legs. Ziva is a brave knight in the face of danger that she believes won’t come to pass. For all other occasions, she’s a damsel in distress hiding behind my skirts. If you invited Ziva to go bungy jumping, she’d tag along—but only to watch you jump. And I would be standing next to Ziva. Neither of us are too adventurous.

But next year I’m going to the Shetland Islands. This is an adventure for me. The Shetland Islands are so far north of Scotland that on most maps, the Islands are denoted with their name and an arrow pointing north—as in “Yeah, they’re up there somewhere.” I fell in love with their stark, stunning scenery while watching Shetland, a mystery series named after the Islands. My desire to visit the Islands became so strong that I thought about it every night before I drifted off to sleep and ever morning when I woke. Then COVID hit, and my dream drifted away. But the yearning is back, so I’m making concrete plans.

I’m nervous about going, about being so far away from home, about travel arrangements being garbled. But, when I start thinking this way, I’ll remind myself that being punched in the nose by squirrel can’t hurt worse than giving up on a dream.

The Yearly Teeth Cleaning: A Reflection on the Passing of Time

Cabela and Ziva stand by the door of the vet’s exam room. Tired, they sway on their feet like a couple of soldiers who’ve just returned from a lengthy skirmish at the front. Cabela has been through more, and she struggles to keep her butt in the air and her back paws planted on the smooth, slick floor. They look at me, their superior officer, and wait to be told, “At ease, girls, dismissed.” I look at the vet, this is her briefing, so my dogs and I wait.

They haven’t really come from a battle, but from having their teeth cleaned. They were anesthetized and x-rayed. Neither of them had to have teeth pulled.

Cabela in shorts

My dogs watch me watching the vet. We all seem to know the drill. Be quiet, listen, nod. The more efficiently we can do this, the quicker we can go home, Cabela and Ziva because they’re worn out, me because I want to cry. My dogs are 14 and 11½ years old. These days the sand trickles faster through the hourglass.

Cabela had a benign cyst, the size of a small rubber ball, removed from her left hindquarter. She has a two-and-a-half-inch incision and a dozen stitches. The vet says Cabela shouldn’t lick her incision. I head off any discussion of her having to wear a cone: “I have a pair of shorts she can wear.” Medical treatment with dignity.

I wonder if I’ll have Cabela, the oldest one, put under anesthesia for a nonemergency surgery again, or perhaps any surgery. The older she gets, the riskier surgical procedures become. Today I worried—more than in the past—that one of my dogs might not wake up. I chose the option to have the vet call after each dog’s teeth cleaning was done instead of waiting until they were both done.

The vet explains Ziva has bone loss in her jaw, but she still has enough bone to avoid having teeth pulled. This time. Cabela has bone loss too, but less than Ziva’s.

The vet relays all this to me and shows me x-rays from this year and last year.

I trust the vet—I don’t need to see the pictures. But I don’t say this. I stand at attention, and pull myself up as tall as I can, perhaps to make up for my dogs who sag under the lingering effects of anesthesia.

The vet clicks an icon, and ghostly black-and-white images of Ziva’s teeth parade across the computer screen. I feign deep interest, but I want to go home. My dogs’ noses are nearly touching the exam room door, willing it to open.

The vet wants to explain the medical stuff—like a fourth root on one of Ziva’s molars that she hadn’t seen before. She sent the x-rays to a veterinary dentist for a consultation. I tell her that’s fine. I knew her before she was a vet, and she’s been our vet for over twenty years. She’s doing her job, taking time with us, treating us with respect.

She asks if I have any other questions, and I don’t. She can’t tell me how long Cabela and Ziva will live. She can’t tell me how long I have before I sit in front of doctors who explain age-related medical stuff to me.

I watch my dogs and see my future.

We’re Cool Here in the Mornings Now

Cabela, standing; Ziva resting

This morning Cabela pranced around the yard. Perhaps she was inviting her sister, Ziva, to play. Perhaps she was inviting me to throw a ball. The midsummer morning felt like a beautiful autumn day—cool, breezy, and invigorating, but warm enough to avoid an extra layer of clothes. At fourteen years old, Cabela is headed into her winter, but this morning she was a lovely autumn day, enjoying a frolic before her winter arrives. Something in the cool, breezy weather tapped into her memory of younger days. I wonder how many frolics she has left.

Ziva didn’t want to play, and it’s too risky for Cabela to play fetch. If she didn’t have four legs, she would need a walker, so I took them for a stroll. Cabela meandered from one blade of grass to another. A couple of years ago, she stopped strutting in front of me on our walks and looking over her shoulder as if to ask, “What’s taking you so long?” Now she dawdles behind me and moves when she’s good and ready as if to say, “What’s your hurry?”

I’m headed into the autumn of my years. The cool, breezy weather made me feel like prancing too, so I wore my blue jeans with holes in the knees. Perhaps at sixty-three, I shouldn’t because young people wear ripped jeans. But I feel like a summer day from my youth when I wear them. Since my twenties I’ve always had a pair of jeans with torn knees. I’ve never bought them that way. My jeans had to earn their holes by hanging in there with me day after day, year after year.

I hope Cabela walks with me through another winter and into another fall. I hope, if I need to live in a nursing home one day, I’ll have a pair of holey jeans to take with me.

Insurrection-Denying Republican Congress Members, Check Your Shoes for Toilet Paper

I tried to go paddle boarding yesterday morning, but the wind was 16 mph. When I stepped past the shelter of the buildings near the dock, the winds caught my board and almost whirled me around like spinner from a child’s board game. I would’ve struggled to get on the dock and put my board in the water. I gave up and went for a bicycle ride.

I’d like to say that struggling to hang on to my board was embarrassing, but . . .

Five minutes before my failed launch, I used the porta potty. Not a fan, but at my age I like to go right before I get on the water. My youthful days of taking an eight-hour road trip and not having to pee are way down the highway.

The porta potty was clean, but a long strip of toilet paper was coiled on the floor under the dispenser. Better than some things I’ve seen on the floors of portable bathrooms, and there was hand sanitizer. So, I entered and went.

After exiting the bathroom, something tickled my leg. I turned to look. Stuck to my shoe, like a streamer was the toilet paper that had been coiled up on the floor. The wind tossed it about.

I looked around. Yep, my first concern was how many people might see me. Then, while cursing people who throw toilet paper on the floor, I gathered up the paper and returned it to the biffy. More hand sanitizer. Lots more.

I didn’t share my embarrassing moment with anyone–too embarrassing. I knew the paper was on the floor, still I hadn’t been careful.

Then I watched the January 6th hearings last night.

I listened to Republican Congress members who gave speeches right after the January 6th insurrection and coup attempt. Those Republicans, fresh from the experience of wondering if they were going to die, called out Trump and condemned what happened. They knew Trump was a piece of toilet paper clinging to their shoes.

But then something changed because Trump’s base didn’t see it that way.

So, many Republicans started calling the insurrection and coup attempt “a tour of the Capitol Building” or “an overblown description by the leftist media” or “unimportant when compared to inflation.” They chose to ignore the toilet paper clinging to their shoes.

It would go like this:

“Hey, Republican Congress persons, do you know you’ve got pieces of toilet paper trailing from your shoes?”

“Oh, that? It’s a loyal constituent who wants a tour of the Capitol Building,” says one Republican Congress member.

“Only the leftist media can see that,” says another Republican Congress member.

“Do you know how much toilet paper costs now?” says a third Republican Congress member.

These are the same Republicans who ran for their lives on January 6th, who called Trump and begged him to help them, who decided the stolen election narrative had to end.

Fortunately, there are Republicans who understand the difference between tourists and insurrectionists, who know some behaviors are beyond partisanship, who comprehend that a dictator would be a bigger threat than cyclical economic trends.

As for the Republican Congress members who are ignoring the toilet paper on their shoes, thanks for making my embarrassing moment yesterday pale in comparison to your embarrassing conduct.

Although, I’d give anything to still be too embarrassed to talk about my porta potty episode in exchange for a country where I’m not worried about what is going to happen in the next election cycle.

Paddle Boarding and Tree Guy

After the Fourth of July, I had promises to keep. So, Tree Guy got a pair of earrings on Wednesday, and I went paddle boarding on Saturday.

Tree Guy’s looking good, but Friday morning I discovered a squirrel had messed with one of his earrings. Every summer I forget about the hooligan squirrels until I find dirt and a section of flowers on the ground. Searching for an easy place to bury seeds for the next winter, squirrels dig in the flower baskets hanging from Tree Guy’s earlobes. Joke’s on the squirrels because I empty the baskets in the fall and return them to the farmers market so they can be reused. I stuck bamboo kabob skewers in the baskets and made plans to replace the damaged flowers. Yesterday morning I discovered one of the skewers on the ground, no doubt used as a javelin by one of the wayward squirrels.

After fortifying the hanging baskets, I went paddle boarding for the first time this summer. Last year I started paddling in June. But this year a long, cold spring latched onto the heels of a long, cold winter.

Mayflies on my screen this morning

I needed a reminder about how to attach my seat and ankle strap because once I connected them to my board last summer, they stayed put until I deflated the board in the fall. Heather, part owner of the paddle board shop, helped me. She talked about mayflies, and how late they hatched this year. I, too, had wondered where they had been. Heather described a recent moonlight paddle-boarding session where a flock of birds burst into the air, zooming and darting, feasting on newly hatched mayflies. She was excited to share her story, and I was happy she did.

Getting on my board and paddling away from the dock was like riding a bicycle after winter recedes—muscle memory kicked in. The water was smooth, the breeze a whisper, and the air hot. Even though I saw other paddle boarders, small fishing boats, and large pleasure craft gliding through the water, it was quiet. Perhaps because the heat and still air created a meditative atmosphere that compels people to lower their voices and move silently.

As I paddled around the northwest tip of the island, I watched billowing cloud formations compete for space to present shifting images.  A pair of clouds became two bear cubs standing on their hind legs, playfully boxing with each other. A moment later one cub morphed into a zaftig fertility goddess, and the other cub became a roaring lion with a flowing mane. Scanning the sky, I found a wolf, its snout tilted toward the heavens in a silent howl at a still sleeping moon. I spotted a laughing puppy and a resting dragon along the way.

A pair of paddle boarders put in from their home along the island, and on one of the boards, a yellow lab sat with its back toward their destination. Its owner said the dog was learning to stay on the board. Me too. On days when the water is rough or when a wake created by a motor boat rolls past me, I sit on my board and paddle kayak style.

I rounded the southeastern tip of the island and noticed tiny dead creatures floating on the water’s surface. I used my paddle to lift one of them out of the water for a closer look. They were exoskeletons. I wondered if they belonged to mayflies that shed their nymph skins then rest on the water’s surface to dry their wings before they can take flight. Later, I googled a picture of a mayfly’s nymph skin, and it seemed to match. Given Heather’s description of the recent mayfly hatch, it made sense.

Another paddler I met waved and said, “Summer’s finally here.”

“Yes,” I answered. And while I was out on the water, I forgot about the squirrels in my backyard preparing for winter.

[For more information about mayflies read my blog “Mayflies.”]

Update—Tree Guy Has It All Together Again

Tree Guy with his summer hairdo and refurbished nose

For those of you who may have missed the other Tree Guy posts, let me summarize: Tree Guy had a bit of a rough winter. In January he lost an eye during a snowstorm. When I found his eye and rehung it, I noticed his nose was gone. Through the rest of January, February, and March, I looked for Tree Guy’s nose, hoping to find it as the snow retreated, but fresh snow kept falling. Finally, at the end of March, my husband spotted the nose frozen in the snow. I tried to pick it up, but it was stuck in the snow’s frozen mantle. A few days later, with the precision of an archeologist, I dug it out. Good thing because it snowed the next day.

When I rescued Tree Guy’s nose, it needed a paint job. My husband took it to work, painted it gray, and rehung it in May. But the shade of gray blended in with the tree trunk. This bothered Tree Guy because he’s proud of his schnoz—he might lose it, but he never hides it. Of course, my husband understands Tree Guy because he’s the one who purchased Tree Guy and installed him on our maple tree. He has always watched over him. I’m the relative newcomer to the game of “How Is Tree Guy Doing Today?”

Tree Guy with the wrong paint job

I mentioned the too-dark-gray color to my husband, and he agreed. He already had plans to take the nose back to work and repaint it a lighter shade of gray. The second paint job is perfect, so there will be no fifty shades of gray noses.

It was a long, cold, snowy winter for Tree Guy. He worried about his eye then his nose. But he’s come through, and this spring he sported a new hairdo. He looks sassy with his asymmetrical patch of green, leafy hair. A tree expert told me that small shoots along a tree trunk, such as Tree Guy’s new hairdo, should be cut off. But I don’t have the heart. Tree Guy had a jittery winter. I get it. This winter I read about plagues, like tuberculosis, the Black Death, and syphilis. And I read Russian short stories, which are mostly bleak and fine companions to winter and stories about plagues. After reading the “The Nose” by Nikolai Gogol, I concocted a crazy theory that Kovalyov lost his nose because he had syphilis and that Gogol’s story was really about the syphilis epidemic before antibiotics, a time when some sufferers had their noses rot away. With each passing day of winter my crazy theory became more conceivable. I reread “The Nose” to see if I could make my theory work—I couldn’t. But I enjoyed the story even more the second time. I thought about researching my “The Nose”—syphilis theory online, but I didn’t want to get caught up in crazy nose-conspiracy theories.

Yes, Tree Guy has it all together again, and he’s sporting a new hairdo. And me, I ditched my theory about Gogol’s story “The Nose,” then I had two inches trimmed off my hair.

We’re enjoying summer while it’s here. After the Fourth, Tree Guy will get two flower-basket earrings, and I will go paddle boarding for the first time this season. (It was a cold, windy spring on the shores of Lake Superior.) Next winter Tree Guy will hope to keep his face intact, and I will read more Russian short stories.

[If you missed the earlier blogs: Tree GuyTree Guy UpdateTree Guy’s Nose Is Still MissingAnother Tree Guy Update, and Tree Guy’s Nose Is Safe.]