Renting happiness by the hour

Through this sultry September, a steady chantey lulls me.

Once more to the lake.

The words propel me to finish tasks so I can once more settle into a kayak and paddle toward peace.

It’s been a summer of rented happiness. I don’t own a kayak or any kind of vessel. But I’ve found my pleasure craft: rental single and tandem kayaks at lakes in the Twin Cities and Madison, as well as along the Mississippi River. I pay by the hour for my cheap and legal delight. I thought about calling this piece The Joy of Paddling, but figured that title could disappoint readers looking for something more salacious than a damp kayak.

Every outing on the water has been salvation. Before I started paddling, I’d been in the doldrums, adrift, a longtime runner no longer able to run. In a kayak, my balky knee relaxes while I skim through water and air, once more savoring the bliss of moving.

Once more to the lake.

Yesterday, I shoved off the sandy beach just half an hour before rentals closed. I paddled hard through the channel, intent on getting to my heron.

IMG_20170910_164842She stood, placid, in her usual island spot at Lake of the Isles, by a Wildlife Refuge sign. Less than two feet away, a young couple in a canoe fished by the island’s edge. I silently begged them to give her space, to let her be. They looked at me but didn’t budge. The heron spread her wings and glided to a nearby tree on the refuge. From a respectful distance, I contemplated her, soaking in every chance to see another slender gray-blue wading bird or a stylish white egret.

This summer of rented happiness has given me new vantage points to see the world. Not far from the heron’s island, I gaze up at a graceful curving sculpture in a hilltop yard overlooking the lake. The lofty artwork isn’t visible from Isle’s well-trod paths.

IMG_20170910_170020On Nokomis, I stop paddling to watch a gull dip into the murky lake and pop up with a fish, then take flight, winging by me, with silvery fish squirming in its beak. None of my many runs around Nokomis included that vision of lunch-to-go.

Balanced in my kayak, I coast mid-lake and observe the afternoon sun glistening on calm water, a sudden splash nearby as a fish jumps, and in a blink of my eye, slips underwater. Along the willow-lined shore, turtles bask on logs. I spot two, no, there’s three, or is it four, hard-shelled sun-worshippers.

I’m learning to see life on the water. A flock of geese squawk overhead, seeming to bicker over which way to head, until one settles the argument, taking a sharp turn north, then another follows and another and in a flash, all are in formation, flying in the familiar V, soon out of sight, their squawks lingering. Walking or running, I seldom stopped to see what was up. In a kayak, it’s natural to survey the scene, going with the flow of the current and the scattered thoughts and songs in my head.

I spy sailboats bobbing, stand-up paddle boarders chatting, laughing, striking a yoga pose.

IMG_20170829_182506 (1)I’ve study clouds, grabbing my phone to snap a multitude of airy scenes: puffs, billows, wisps, contrails, fluffy whites and menacing grays, skies blue, white, pink, peach, and violet.

Of course, kayaks offer more than reverie. My arms, shoulders and core are stronger from hours of dipping and pulling a paddle, making leeway through smooth or squally waters. By the time I navigate back to shore, I’ve had a workout as well as an escape.

Soon, though, my summer of buoyant happiness will cease. Rentals close for the season next month. Until then, I think of E.B. White’s “Once More to the Lake.” His 1941 essay, a melancholy reflection on returning with his young son to the camp where he had summered as a child. White sees his son and imagines himself as a both the child and the father, years and roles overlapping, I was a teenager when I first read White’s elegy. Now, four decades older, I recall his pensive prose on time and memory, the lulling title a siren’s song lapping over me.

Once more to the lake.

Wheel Fun Rentals

http://paddleshare.org/

http://www.brittinghamboats.com/

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A car-free year

Some people trade in their old cars for the latest model. Last year, I donated my 1993 Honda, swapping it for a new car-free way of life.

Fourteen months later, I’m happy to report that stepping out of the driver’s seat suits me.

The best part of being car-free? I see the Twin Cities as bigger and more diverse. Outside the metal and glass bubble of an automobile, I’m less insulated and more connected. I talk and ride with people from more races, ages and classes.

This summer, as I stopped at a red light on my bike, a young African-American skateboarder rode up and started chatting. We commiserated about the lack of a bike path, and the pros and cons of riding on sidewalk. That pleasant commuter conversation between a 20-something black man and a 56-year-old white woman wouldn’t happen if I was driving solo.

Sitting on an East Side bus bench, the woman next to me drinking a midday malt beverage chatted me up. “Baby Girl,” she said, “I like your hat.” We talked a bit and she patted my hand, then leaned in closer, to exchange an air kiss. When her friend arrived, she invited me to join them for a drink. I demurred, and they wandered off.

For years, I’ve dreamed of living in New York. I crave the big city. This year of car-less commuting shows me that the Twin Cities are more urban than I had appreciated.

I’ve ridden crosstown busses packed with people speaking Spanish, Somali, and languages I don’t recognize. I hear what’s on the minds of more Minnesotans, not just what’s on MPR.

Walt Whitman exalted, “I Hear America singing… the strong, melodious sounds.” I hear America on the bus: Other people’s music, singing, chatting, laughing, muttering and fighting. I hear an irate man yell at a young mother to get her stroller out of the bus aisle or he’ll report her. I hear small civilities—the chorus of riders calling in unison alerting the bus driver to stop so some frantic latecomer can board, the passenger who digs for change to pay another rider’s fare. I hear– and am part of– city life.
Continue reading “A car-free year”

Hearing the sirens

Talking about the weather, and race

Next Wednesday, July 5th, at noon, sirens will blare, piercing Minnesota skies with sharp warnings of impending danger, severe storms and all manner of natural and unnatural disasters, from toxic leaks to power plant failures.

Minnesotans know the drill, literally, about extreme weather. We can handle droughts, floods, straight-line winds, sub-zero and triple-digit temps. We’ve got basements for shelter from tornadoes, cold weather rules blocking utilities from shutting off heat and community cooling centers so people won’t overheat. Our phones beep updates about volatile storms.

We know what to do about weather.

We don’t know what to do about race.

Philando shrineNext Thursday, July 6th, marks one year since Philando Castile was killed. To many white people like me, the killing seemed shockingly out of the blue, a sudden squall that couldn’t be predicted. The jury’s verdict almost two weeks ago seemed nearly as stunning. The dash cam video shows Saint Anthony Park Police Officer Jeronimo Yanez shooting seven shots into a parked car with a 4-year-old in the backseat. Diamond Reynolds’ livestreamed Facebook video shows her boyfriend, Philando Castile, bleeding out. We watched a man dying in his car, and the man who shot him walked free.

Philando’s killing and the jury’s verdict weren’t fluke eruptions that came out of nowhere. Police killings and police not-guilty findings are as commonplace as summer rains. A day before Officer Jeronimo Yanez shot and killed Philando, two cops in Baton Rouge shot and killed Alton Sterling while they were holding him down. The day after a Minnesota jury found Officer Yanez not guilty in Philando’s killing, a Wisconsin jury found an ex-cop not guilty of killing Sylville Smith, a black man who was seen on video throwing his gun away, with his hands near his head.

How can we ignore the torrents of racism that have drenched our country? We knew about Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland and so many others. The casualties mount, still many people—white people– refuse to hear the alarms. People of color can’t ignore the warnings. They live buffeted by sometimes deadly cyclones of racism while whites carry on comfortably in our bubble, shielded by invisible umbrellas, an unacknowledged wall of whiteness between us and reality.

The fact is, we own racism just as surely as we own climate change. Humans have spread greenhouse gasses along with far more toxic waves of hate and fear. Yet many of us just duck our heads, ignoring the inconvenient truth of racism. Continue reading “Hearing the sirens”

Thank you, Mrs. Larzelere

A belated thank-you to teachers

In the shadow of downtown, as I walked toward an urban park, a Great Blue Heron flew past me. I stopped on the sidewalk overpass, mesmerized. Once again, I had seen a big gray bird, the talisman I’ve looked up to for most of my life.

I thank Mrs. Judy Larzelere for that. Every heron I see carries me back to junior high.

IMG_20170607_101249During a unit of regional New England writers, Mrs. Larzelere assigned our eighth grade American Studies class The Country of the Pointed Firs and Other Stories, by Sarah Orne Jewett. We read bigger names, including Thoreau, yet it’s Jewett’s modest characters that have stayed with me for decades. In “The White Heron,” a 10-page story, I met Sylvia, a shy girl who safeguards a heron’s nest, forgoing a bounty that would have benefited her poor family. Every heron reminds me of that lonely country child and the teacher who introduced us.

In this season of high school graduations, with Pomp and Circumstance wafting through the air, I figure it’s time to say a proper thank you to Mrs. Larzelere and the many the teachers whose lessons I carry.

Teachers teach and sometimes, students learn, yet neither teachers nor students can know which lessons will take hold, shaping lives. Sometimes, the lessons sink in long after the final grades are entered, the graduation robes returned.

It’s been forty-three years since I sat in Mrs. Larzelere’s Haverford Junior High class, reading regional New England writers, stories that seemed a world apart from my suburban Philadelphia life. Yet Mrs. Larzelere and Sylvia made me want to see the herons in this world. Continue reading “Thank you, Mrs. Larzelere”

Fireside story time, the secrets of the trees

Winter’s here, time to curl up by the fire and listen to a guy who spent his life looking up at trees.

tree-book-coverRobert Penn’s quirky and personal book, The Man Who Made Things out of Trees, tells the story of one ash tree, felled and turned into arrows, bowls, spoons, tent pegs, canoe paddles, catapults, dominoes, axe handles, a desk, and paneling. This isn’t a quaint catalogue of wooden goods. It’s a crackerjack story of the world, as seen through one kind of tree.

Penn’s life-long love affair with trees animates his stories, which are chockful of deft details, such as:

  • “Ash is pinkish white and disturbingly like human skin when freshly sawn.”
  • Irish mythology includes ash in a trilogy of sacred trees believed to have healing powers. During the Potato Famine, before setting sail for America, emigrants whittled chips from an ash tree in County Cork as protection against drowning.
  • Ash was known as the ‘sportsmen’s wood,’ and used for everything from cricket stumps, hockey and lacrosse sticks, tennis racquets, croquet mallets, baseball bats, skis, snowshoe frames and gymnastic parallel bars.

Penn introduces readers to craftspeople, broadening his saga, like the rings of a tree. Starting from his home in South Wales, he visits various English woods and woodshops, an Austrian Alps toboggan maker, then onward to Ireland to see an epic hurling game and a $2500 bicycle frame made of ash, and eventually to a Pennsylvania sawmill that’s produced more than 100 million baseball bats.

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Tom Mareschall checks one of his handcrafted arrows

Each chapter frames a new woodworker, from the lumberjack who fells Penn’s ash to a fourth-generation wheelwright, making wooden wheel rims just as his mother, father, grandfather and great grandfather did, to an eccentric fletcher, the traditional term for an arrow maker. Arrows, Penn writes, were known as the Devil’s Finger. Reading his crackling chronicles of medieval longbowmen and archery battles, I can hear arrows zinging.

Along the way, Penn sprinkles little asides, seeds that may take root in a reader’s imagination, like the mention of shinrin-yoku, what Japanese people call forest-bathing, going for a walk in ancient woods

Penn’s engaging anecdotes got me thinking about trees I’ve loved. From a neighbor’s walnut tree that Uncle John transformed into a wall of rich dark paneling in my childhood bedroom, to a pretty fringed paper birch that caught my eye the first time I saw my house in Saint Paul. Copper birch borers killed that tree, just as emerald ash borers are decimating tens of millions of ashes, like the weakened specimens shedding branches and limbs on my block.

img_20161129_130442Soon, my street, Ashland Avenue, will be ash free. In time, all the ash trees may be history. Seeds of new trees will spring up, spreading canopies that some child will gaze up at in wonder, daydreaming about the secrets of nature and our world.

Robert Penn grew up playing under an ash tree that he remembers as “the gatekeeper to my dreams.” His book has spurred me to look at trees and see more.

Find out more about Rob Penn