Friday, February 26, 2010

Taking stock and moving on. For now.

Again, a heartfelt thanks for all the kind words. While I'm not quite my usual chipper self, I recognize the fact that I've got to get back to writing.

I'm not quite ready to tackle the subject of losing Lewey, however, so I'm simply going to put it on a shelf and ignore it for a while. In a few days, maybe even a few weeks, I'll come back, see what it's matured into, maybe write something about it, or not, then close the book on it and go on.

The past week, however, I've discovered that in addition to the obvious shock and pain of losing a member of your family, the untimely death of a young gundog brings an extra little twist of guilt and misery because it forces you to think about the future at a time when all you really want to do is remember the past. I didn't realize this, because I've never before lost a young dog.

"What to do now? No way in hell I'll be ready for a new pup this year but Tess will be seven this fall. Middle age, and at the point where I've got to start thinking about a replacement. If I can find a nice litter of pups next winter or early spring, get started training..." 

And then white-hot guilt comes rushing back in to sweep away cold pragmatism.

"Good god, he's only been dead a week and you're already thinking about a new pup? What the fuck is wrong with you?"

And then there's the issue of my original pre-death plan to get a pointing dog pup this spring.

"What do do about that? Say to hell with it, wait another year and just write off next bird season? If I did, could I train a new chessie pup and a bird dog pup at the same time? How would that affect my hopes of someday running retriever field trials with Lewey's replacement (still can't believe I'm saying that...) Would it be better to get a bird dog pup now so I can focus on a chessie pup next year?

Good god, he's only been dead a week. What the fuck is wrong with you?"

And on and on and on it goes...a never-ending internal struggle to reconcile what was with what is and what might be. I guess that's why they call it coping.

Living with gun dogs will bring you treasures beyond price and joy beyond measure, but I will not lie: the experience is not free and not without the inevitability of great pain. It's a Faustian bargain, this one, but one I wouldn't think of not accepting.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Thank You

Just wanted to say thanks for all the comments left about Lewey's passing. I appreciated them all, even the one this sadly monolingual blogger can't read. I'm sure it was very kind.

The past few days have been rough for the family, especially me, but I'm slowly trying to get back in the swing of things.


Saturday, February 20, 2010

Dinah's Leapin' Lewey 2006-2010

I'm taking a hiatus from blogging for a while. Yesterday morning Lewey, my big, loveable, half-human goofball and our beloved family clown, died suddenly and unexpectedly. He had just turned four on January 20th. I can't seem to find much solace in writing.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Tinkering Around the Margins...

This blog has, admittedly, always been somewhat categorically and thematically challenged. What few readers it’s managed to attract thus far often suffer literary whiplash as I careen from one wholly unrelated topic to another. That’s what happens when you write for pleasure rather than pay. You just shamble along to whatever tune strikes your fancy.

I have, however, generally stuck with things like hunting, fishing, writing, gundogs, books, literature, wild places, travel and such because that’s generally who and what I am. So in that regard the blog will pretty much stay the winding, serpentine course it’s held since inception. I don’t see myself taking up golf or sports bars or whatever the hell it is that normal guys concern themselves with. But I do plan on adding a few more topics to explore: chronicles, basically, of a few pursuits I’m going to take up this year.

One, you’ll probably see a little more (maybe a lot more) of the focused literary essay-type stuff, more items written with a certain voice and with an eye toward a certain structure and style. I am, after all, a writer, and I didn’t become a writer to link to YouTube videos, bitch about the news or Tweet about what I’m doing for lunch. That’s not to say, however, I’m going all high-concept. Much of what I write will remain conversational in nature, exactly the same as what I’ve been doing. I’m just adding the occasional bit of maudlin pretentiousness, that’s all.

Second, I’m going to be chronicling my attempt to spend a year seriously flyfishing. I know I’ve previously panned much flyfishing literature, but I’ve always been intrigued with the act itself. Problem is, I’ve always been a casual fly angler at best and a not-terribly-good casual fly angler at that. I flyfish (or at least my interpretation of flyfishing) when I go to Montana, I use a three-weight outfit to throw hoppers to the little bass and channel cats in our local river, and that’s about it. But this is the year I put down my baitcasters and really have a go at it. If nothing else it should be amusing.

Third, I’m going to be writing a bit about introducing my oldest son to hunting. He’s nine now, and this upcoming season will be his first to really start hunting with me. It should be…interesting.

Fourth, more dogs. Can’t have too much dogs, or too many. I’m considering using the blog as a sort of training journal for the mutts. We’ve got a lot to work on and fix this spring and summer and maybe tracking my progress through the blog will keep me motivated. I might even steal my wife’s little pocket-cam to add some video.

Other than that, I’ll just continue doing what I’m doing and writing about whatever catches my eye, because who wants to read a tightly-focused single-subject blog, right? (cue crickets chirping…)

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Winter Clearance

It's the last half of February and I hear the click of the seasonal odometer rolling over once again. It's time to back the truck into the garage and sweep away the accumulated detritus of the past hunting season.

Dog hair. Candy wrappers. Spent hulls. Feathers. Mismatched gloves. Mud. Pens and notebooks to record sudden thoughts which seem profound at the moment but become markedly less so when leavened with a little time and reflection. Dog-eared copies of the hunting regs. Chewed-up bumpers. A chewed-up road atlas. Chewed-up water bottles. A bird-hunting vest with not nearly enough dried blood in the game bag. A forgotten duck call stuffed between the seats.

Just random garbage, but if you could somehow divine a measure of truth out of it all, some revelation about the owner of that garbage, it might say this: He's obviously neither rich nor very successful. He can't shoot very well and his dogs are dirty, misbehaved, slobber too much and apparently one of them yacked on the passenger seat. He eats too much junk food and his son isn't very good at putting the cap back on the BB container. It's obvious he didn't quite make it to where he wanted and sometimes struggles with where he did.

But sometimes, he's happy.  Because all those spent hulls and BBs rolling around the mud-caked floorboard say so. All those chewed-up bumpers and dog hair and candy wrappers shared with goofy dogs and young boys say so. This isn't garbage I'm sweeping out of the truck: it's six months of self-actualization.

Friday, February 12, 2010

The Terror of Open Space

"I don't know, man. Maybe if there was something out there, you know? Maybe some trees, or mountains or water. It's just so freakin' empty. The place spooks me."

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Twenty Out The Door...

As I walk through the front door of this grimy, glass-and concrete repository of heartbreak and crushing hopelessness, a man and a young boy are walking out. The man is tucking two five-dollar bills into his wallet. The young boy is craning his neck back toward the counter, watching the clerk carry a child-sized bicycle into the crowded back room where the physical manifestations of a thousand other hard-luck stories are stored, held hostage until the ransom is paid, with interest.

Most never are. A few months later the hostages - past history now erased -  will be taken out, dusted off, assigned a value and then set out to be recycled into someone else's dream, like a big wheel that just keeps going round and round and round...

That's why I'm here, poking in dusty corners and rummaging through the ruined dreams of others, hoping to scavenge something of value among the smoking ashes of their misfortune.

And that's when I see it, leaning against a big tangle of cheap rods, cheap reels and yellowing monofilament.

It's not a reel. It's a time machine, and I'm no longer a dyspeptic, slowly eroding 38-year-old man standing in a filthy pawn shop that reeks of piss and desperation. It's nineteen eighty-something and I'm a mullet-headed teenager standing on the cow-stomped red dirt bank of a windswept Oklahoma farm pond, reveling in the warmth of a mid-spring sun, the sirens of youth whispering their false promises in my ear as I cast that exact reel. The world is good. No rocks on the shoals of my future. Were there ever, back then?

It's morning. School is in, but we aren't, and a whole day of illicit possibility stretches out before us. The next pond, the next adventure beckons, so off we go, stowing our gear in the back of a '71 Nova that stinks of bass slime and Fish Formula. Where? Don't know. Just go. We'll find something. And we do, although none of us are to realize it at the time. We search for no grand, overarching truths, no deeper meanings. We just fish. Is there anything else?

I'm back in the pawn shop. I kneel and disentangle this artifact of memory, this someone else's dream from the snarled pile. The rod isn't the same. Mine was a Lew's. This is a Berkley. But everything else is identical: Medium-heavy action. Pistol grip. Five feet, six inches long. Stiff. Clunky. And at the time, perfect.

The reel, however, is mine. A Shimano Bantam, paid for with the minimum-wage sweat of countless paper bags filled with the groceries of bitchy housewives, lifeweary single welfare moms, alcoholic, rheumy-eyed bachelors, sweet, gray-haired widowers who'd sometimes tip me a quarter and batshit-crazy outpatients from the state mental hospital who'd yell at the sky and pray to gods only they knew as they took the bag from my hands and walked out the door and down the street, shuffling back to whatever world they temporarily stepped out of for bread and milk.

I hold the reel in my hands. It's cherry. History wiped clean. Memory erased. Whatever hard-luck story that led it to this pawn shop corner, forgotten. Ready for a new memories to overlay the old ones. Or in my case, have one set of old memories replace another.

Round and round and round...

I take the rod and reel up to the counter.

"What's your best price on it?"
"Twenty-five and tax."
"I'll give you twenty out the door."
"I can do that."

I give the clerk a twenty and walk out the door with my artifact, this totem of memory suddenly recollected. Ersatz, maybe. But at some point, isn't it all?

Monday, February 8, 2010

County Garbage Truck No. 2

If you ask anyone who knows me well, they’d tell you I am not – by natural inclination or studied choice - a terminally cheerful soul. In fact, they’d probably tell you I am in desperate need of some of the chemically-derived warm fuzzies modern pharmacology is so noted for.

But I have always resisted on philosophical grounds, falling back on my long-held belief that wrestling with personal demons is perhaps the defining characteristic of the human condition. It sure the hell isn’t contentment or bliss that pushes us, right?

So it was with a certain amount of interest that I recently read Harry Middleton’s memoir “The Bright Country.”

I had only a vague idea of who Middleton was, and I had never read any of his books due to my natural skepticism toward much of the genre of flyfishing literature. But I was intrigued with Middleton after learning that at the time of his death in 1993, he was working as a garbage collector in a small town in Alabama. This after publishing five (I believe) highly acclaimed books, working as a long-time editor at Southern Living magazine and writing freelance pieces for some of the biggest publications out there.

How do you go from that, to that? It’s a fascinating question. Artistic success is something I'm keenly interested in, and commercial failure is something I'm keenly familiar with, so I thought perhaps Middleton was a writer to check out. So I did. I bought a copy of “The Bright Country” as well as two other books of his.

“The Bright Country” is, in essence, a memoir about coping with depression. The cover says “A Fisherman’s Return to Trout, Wild Water, and Himself.” But “The Bright Country” has about as much to do with trout fishing as Robert Pirsig’s book has to do with tuning up your Honda. Fishing is simply the template upon which Middleton etches his story.

And that’s really what struck such a chord with me. When Middleton writes about fishing and wild water as his “ruinous addiction” and serving as ballast for a life that otherwise seems to be coming unhinged, he’s speaking a language I understand.

Now I have never liked the word depression, because I never thought it fit me. I prefer to call myself a melancholy pragmatist. And despite my demons, I have stayed largely sane in the face of a largely insane world through self-medication. Some have booze, others drugs, sex, gambling. Any port in a storm. Like many, I have temporarily dropped anchor in a few of them.

But very early on in life I found my primary solace in the solitary comforts of books, ponds, rivers, woods, fields and the company of dogs. I found something there I simply couldn’t find anywhere else. I knew it the first time I walked along a forgotten little trash-strewn suburban creek more drainage ditch than stream, casting for bluegills and finding such wonder and mystery in its tepid waters. I knew it the first time I sat huddled and freezing against the base of a tree as a buck - the first I’d ever seen not running like hell in the opposite direction – apparated before me like a passing drift of smoke. And I knew it the night I first heard the plaintive calls of a passing flock of Canada geese, somewhere far above me in the impossibly black night.

To a young boy recently fatherless through divorce, it was all so new and wondrously intoxicating. Fishing, hunting, tramping the woods with gun or rod, mostly alone or with whatever mutt we had at the time. It filled something inside me, some black hole that simply didn’t respond to anything else. I didn’t fish and hunt because my daddy did and that’s what was expected of me. I didn’t fish and hunt for social enjoyment or camaraderie. I didn’t fish and hunt simply because I liked to shoot things, or catch things. I didn’t fish and hunt because I needed to put food on the table. I fished and hunted because that’s what centered my soul at a time when it was in desperate need of it.

And it still does to this day. Even with a beautiful wife who loves and accepts me - flaws, moodiness and all - and two young boys who, when they’re not driving me nuts are a constant reminder of what really matters in life, fishing and hunting still fill that undefined, uneasy hole that plagues those of us with wandering, troubled spirits.

I’ve never been a particularly gregarious or social outdoorsman. And to be honest, that can be pretty damn lonely sometimes. But you are what you are, and for better or worse that’s who I am: a dweller, a brooder, a thinker, and so I have always been drawn to those writers and artists who share that vague, nebulous sense of discontent and restlessness. I’ve never quite trusted those preternaturally happy, eternally optimistic people who seemingly never worry, doubt or despair. And if you’re reading this and you are a preternaturally happy, eternally optimistic person who never worries, doubts or despairs, I apologize. No offense, really. We just occupy different worlds.

But Middleton is definitely of my world. His writing has a quality of bemused despair that reminds me much of Kurt Vonnegut. Indeed, Middleton mentions Vonnegut as an influence and that influence is obvious in the cadence and structure of his writing.

As much as I liked it, though, I did have some quibbling little issues with “The Bright Country.” One, it’s pretty obvious the book is at least semi-fictionalized. Middleton described it as “more real than imagined” but many, if not most of the characters, settings, events and dialogue were simply too perfect to the story to be real. Second, Middleton was an incredibly wordy writer. I’ve got a pretty good vocabulary, but some of his words were simply lost on me, to the point where they began distracting a bit from the story.

In return for enduring those minor annoyances, however, I was rewarded with some stunningly beautiful writing. Middleton was obviously a writer of enormous talents, but apparently even larger internal demons. What else could explain this blurb from the author’s bio on the dust jacket of “The Bright Country,” which incidentally wa published in 1993 (the year of his death) by Simon and Schuster, not exactly a small-time vanity press.

“…He lives near Jonah’s Ridge, on a mountaintop in Northern Alabama, where he continues to work on the crew of County Garbage Truck No. 2, write, and take things as they come, one day at a time.”

From Simon and Schuster to County Garbage Truck No. 2. Whether County Garbage Truck No. 2 is literal truth or a metaphor for something else, it’s an interesting journey to ponder nonetheless, isn’t it? A collection of Middleton’s unpublished writings will be published later this year. I’m looking forward to it.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Getting in and getting out...

I get the call from my wife as she's driving into town. "The snow's so beautiful this morning. Why don't you go take some pictures?"

A few short days of quail season left. Dogs whining. Birds on my mind. Why don't I go take pictures?

So I load up and sally forth. In hindsight - which I've never had -... big mistake.

The roads aren't bad. As long as they're paved and not mud covered with four inches of melting slush that had just been covered by an additional three or four inches of fresh snow. But I'm a MAN, by gawd, and I have four-wheel drive. I won't be denied.

I drive to the wildlife management area and turn on to the half-mile section of road that will make or break this trip. No tracks going in. Just soft, white snow. Unsullied. Easy driving. Piece of cake.

As long as it remains snow and doesn't melt, and as long as it doesn't get pounded to slushy gumbo by ranchers checking cattle. As long as.

I park and let the dogs out. Load up vest, gear, gun, though I don't hold out much hope for birds today. Late-season public-land quail are survivors, a match for the saltiest pointing dog, much less a pair of merely fair-to middlin' flushing chessies. But you never know. At least I never have.

So we walk along the river where a few weeks prior Lewey seemingly couldn't stay out of the coveys. Too bad we were duck hunting at the time.

This time we're not. We're here for a quail. Just one would do. The dogs run. Bust through cover. Jump in river. Burrow into thickets. Get birdy. Then, just as quickly, don't.

I admire the dogs as they run. Lewey's the athlete, a lithe, handsome fellow.

Or maybe not...

Tess is the plodder. She doesn't much care for the flushing game and she's not very good at it. She is what she is. If I kill it, she will do whatever it takes to bring it to me. Finding it, however, is best left to dogs with longer legs.

We walk. Walk some more. Down the river, then up steep, red-walled draws that for at least the past 12,000 years have stood in mute witness to Man's peregrinations in search of game.

Presently I find myself standing on the rim of the very draw that a few years hence was full of excited archaeologists sifting through the bones of a long-extinct bison species driven into, trapped and slaughtered here by a long-extinct tribe of paleo hunters. And once again I am awed that every step I take out here, literally every foot of ground I cover has been trodden, every observation and experience I take from this ground has been taken before me.

 Lucky bastards. All I'm taking away from this ground today is soaked pants and exhaustion. I've been walking for hours: stumbling, sliding, skidding, slipping, tumbling through snow quickly turning to slush, and we haven't flushed a bird, we haven't flushed a rabbit, we haven't jumped a deer. Nothing, as if life itself save us has taken a powder from the white orb that defines our world.

So we head back to the truck, defeated once again. This is not my year for quail. Or maybe it's just not my year, period. Who knows. As I walk I notice the snow is melting. Fast. Red dirt, water and icy slush amalgamated into something that's much worse than the sum of its parts. Two years and a half-inch of tire tread ago, I wouldn't have worried about it. Now, I rub the lucky dashboard Buddha and make sure the shovel's handy.

I slip and slide my way to the cattle guard at the entrance and look down the formerly white, unsullied dirt road.

Remember what you told yourself, Chad? As long as. Right...

If I were British, this is the point where I say "bloody hell." But I'm American, so I simply say "ah, shit" and rub the dashboard Buddha one more time. I need the luck. A long, fruitless day is about to get longer. And much, much muddier...

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Of Burrowing Ledes and Tunnel Rats

Being a reporter at a small to mid-market daily newspaper is probably the best way I know to learn the craft of writing. And to a point that's exactly what it is, a craft rather than an art.

When, if ever, does it become art? When does the act of storytelling transcend the inverted pyramid and ten-inch story limits? Who knows? But there are thousands, literally thousands of frustrated small-town beat reporters out there who try mightily to somehow make their copy more than the sum of its parts, regardless of how dull, boring or mundane the topic is.

I know, because I was one of them. I approached all my stories - every school board and city commission meeting, every court case, every house fire, every potluck fundraiser, every meeting of the Daughters of the American Revolution - with the same basic tactic: how the hell can I make this sound a little less boring than it truly is?

And if my convoluted attempts to jazz things up ended up hindering the story itself, so be it. I pledged to never let the story get in the way of a good lede.

How bad was I? I once used the word "titillating" in the lede of a story about a local woman arrested for taking her shirt off in front of the county jail so her tragically lovelorn and thoroughly incarcerated boyfriend could get a quick peek. Really, I did. And my editor ran it.

So in honor of Groundhog Day, here's a lede from a long-ago story I wrote for my city's "Groundhog Job Shadow Day" in which local students shadow an adult for a day, ostensibly to learn about future careers. Or as I like to think, giving the poor, naive little bastards a taste of what they're in for.

Of course, it takes the reader until the end of the second paragraph to discover what the hell the story's about. In true groundhog fashion I buried the lede. But I had fun doing it.

The second day of February marks the date of an annual and arcane ritual in which the world's attention is inexplicably directed toward the meteorological prognostications of a grossly overweight tunnel rat.
Groundhog Day. And while the debate continues to rage over whether we should rely on sophisticated computer models or a subterranean rodent for our weather forecasts, thousands of students across the nation are seeing a different kind of shadow today. 

Happy Groundhog Day. Or Prairie Dog Day. Or Gopher Day. Hell, they're all rodents. Any of them will do. Whatever your species, here's hoping he sees nothing but the promise of an early spring...