Monday, May 30, 2011

This happened.

Prologue: This is how I remember this past Saturday night; I was not the only person involved of course, and my memory is only mine. I understand that others likely experienced it a bit differently, and with just as much truth. But this did happen, and it struck me that until I share it with you, my friends, it won't feel like it DID happen. Only by asking you to witness it does it start to take a full, real shape in my past.

We're letting the fire die, because it's about midnight, and we've been up early - as we always are when we go camping. It was a beautiful day - lots of full sunshine, a surprise in this rainy May - and we've been marveling that we can see the stars even now. After Friday's night rainstorm, this day and night have been a joy and it seems like tempting fate to think tomorrow will be dry, too. It'll be cold tonight, though. And I wonder, is it clear in Portland, too? We're about 90 minutes away, in a pocket of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest in WA that has no cell service.

Our group has two campsites, #22 and #25, next to each other on Paradise Creek. The creek flows into the Wind River just a little way downstream, and it is a lovely, rushing water sound in the background dark. During the day, it's a calendar-worthy vista of water, flowing over rocks and logs, downed trees and moss, wild and scenic. Louder than we think too; those having a normal conversation at the parked cars couldn't be heard earlier today by those just 30 feet away, near the creek.

Last night was the partying night, in the loud rain; tonight was a mellow evening of fireside chatting. We're gathering up flashlights and folding up chairs, turning in for the night. I head into my tent; John went to bed an hour earlier. Me and K are the others to now turn in at site #22, where John's snoozing already; MC, ML, B, H and the Pup head back to walk to site #25.

I've taken off my shoes, and I've turned on the tent heater (after about 20 tries, and on my last one, it ignites!) just to take off the chill while I get into bed.

I've just taken off my gloves and folded back the sleeping bag when I hear B and H come back to our site. They're looking for the Pup; she is 17 years old (not an exaggeration; this ol' girl is a 17 year old dog - complete with some of the dulled senses you'd expect at that age).

H has had the Pup since she was a 7-year-old girl. At 23, the Pup is H's constant companion, and B is her partner and fellow 'mom' to the Pup. This is a fine old dog that's easy to love, even in her sore old age; one of those dogs who is either ready to come back next as a human, or who sacrificed well in her previous life and was rewarded this go-round.

I think, should I go help? Nah, they'll find her. They'll be fine. Then in tandem I hear H say, "Do you hear that?" as I do indeed hear it.

It: the sound of a howling, screaming dog in the distance. "It's her!" screams H.

H takes off, calling the Pup's name, and B is behind her. I keep my flashlight around my neck, step out of the tent, put my shoes on, and don't bother to wake John. I leave the tent heater on. I think, that damn dog has gotten her leg broken in the bracken and downed trees, the moss, ferns and tangled roots in this campground. And B and H are going to be too upset to handle it - I better get out there and offer a steady hand.

I am running after B. She is running after H. B is yelling, "If you can still hear her, it's ok, then she's still alive!" and "Wait for me! Stop! Stop! Just wait! H, let me get to you!"

H is silent. And fast - because I hear her bellow from well ahead of B and I: "I see her!"

I hear the Pup still howling. B and I arrive at a long, large log on the riverbank. It looks dry and wide. B turns to me, without a flashlight. She's been relying on my small light from behind her. She says, "You have a light, you go first."

I step onto the log, and I remember no more sounds. I know H is in the river, in front of me. But I don't hear her, the Pup, the rushing water, or anything else.

My left foot slips and drops into the water to my knee, and I would tell you it was cold but I didn't feel it. It was a shock, it was a slap, and what had been thoughts (if you can even call them thoughts) of, "I have to get to H and keep her from doing something stupid," became a sole fixation on the threat of hypothermia.

I pull my foot up onto the log, I say "fuck," and I drop to a crawl. I turn back to B and deeply threaten her, "You stay here. You fucking stay right here and I'm getting H."

I put the small flashlight in my teeth and crawl to the end of the log. I shine it, I see H up to her armpits in water, up against a second downed log. Flashlight: back into my mouth.

I hop into the water; it's moving fast, though only knee-deep. But each step takes me deeper. Sometime around when my waist slipped under the water line, I feel my shoe come off. My thoughts are ten times faster than it takes for you to read them, but they were: "Fuck, I have to reach down, I have to get that shoe. Wait, no, I don't! This is no joke. Shoe be damned."

I take the next step and the water gives me a jolt. I don't know if both feet come off the rocky riverbed; I think they do. My sweatpants and long underwear start getting pulled off; the rush of water gripping the cotton. I am facing the downed log and holding on, having dipped about to my armpits. My heart stopped with the jolt, the tug. It seems to get darker around me. I am against the log - this is the same log H is up against. I move my grip on it when the tug relents, to right myself. Which means my left side faces upriver, my right side is against the log, both feet are on the ground, and my face is now on H. I've forgotten about the lost shoe and I don't feel my clothing.

With the light still in my mouth, I grab H. (Her hand? Her arm? I don't remember.) She looks at me, and I don't know if she says anything. I think she does, but my brain, which had only been able to process two single things -- get to H, don't get hypothermia -- has now let go of the first, and is planning the next single action alongside the thought don't get hypothermia. It comes upon me; when it does, the sound around me comes rushing back too, like in a film's special effect. The next step was decided. I had to shout it because the sound of the water was now fully upon me, and it seemed unrealistically loud.

I shout at H: "We have to get up onto those rocks! Now! See them? We're going to get up on there! Go!" I turn her away from me, and up she goes; from chest deep water to a dry rock bed in the middle of the creek. Three small steps. I come behind her, and I use my hands like a child crawling up stairs. I use all four limbs to take those three steps. As soon as I don't feel water pulling around me, I do some pulling of my own - pulling drenched bottoms up over my bare ass, which is hanging out in the night air.

Standing together on the rocks, I have total clarity. I have no past beyond the last four minutes, and I have no future. I am the physical manifestation of every single lesson on hypothermia ever taught to me as a child growing up in Montana (and there were many). I continue to know only two things: don't get hypothermia, and now, get back across the river. I left the tent heater on. Ee need to get back there. We need to do it now.

I think H and I exchange verbally. Do we say hi? Does she say thank you? Something might be said and then she points to a black-wet, vicious root ball that is probably 3.5 feet wide with water rushing over part of it - a few wispy, tiny whitewater ruffles in the water.

"I saw her. I saw the Pup, right there." I look and I see nothing. The first thoughts come. I think, "I can't tear H away from here. She is going to want to look for that dog, and we're going to die if we don't get dry right fucking now."

So I say, "We can come back. We can come back and look all night. But we HAVE to get dry. We HAVE to get back to other side and we have to get out of these wet clothes. We'll come back." I am lying to her and I know it. I need to get her safe.

She stares at me, pale, in shock. She says, with no hysteria and with total confidence, "She drowned. She drowned." And I say, "She did." Then we hug. She is like a bird. She is like a little girl, with her narrow shoulders and slight frame; I must be entirely blocking her from B's view across the water, with her slim hips hidden by my bulk. She has no shoes on and bold, striped socks. I, at least, have one Champion sneaker left.

Just as before, now on the rocks and out of the water, the focus on the next step is absolute. We DO have to get back; we DO have to get dry. I feel an internal clock, counting down to our deaths, as if we'll fall down dead in 90, 89, 88, 87... This clock is ticking to instant death because I know it's wrong that I feel no cold, I am not shivering, my socked foot has no pain. The clock reminds me what's waiting down the line if I don't keep going.

H says, "I can't think." I say, "You don't have to. You just have to do what I say." (I may have said, "You don't have to do. You just have to follow me.")

I look back the way we came and it flashes: the tug. The water's control over me for the splittest of split seconds. The only moment of fear I've had so far in this was the tug of that water, against that log, in the blank and indifferent way only nature can tug at you. That was the moment I could have been in serious trouble, because nature has no heart and no awareness if she destroys you.

I know we can't risk that crossing. I look across the bank. I think I see B, but she didn't have a flashlight, did she? In my memory, though, she is a dim light across the bank. And further upstream, on the same, home side of the river, is a floodlight.

It looks like a floodlight but I realize it is the very bright headlamp of K, who went to bed at the same time as me, must have heard us take off, and came down to the bank.

I forget B; she has stayed where I told her to. I shout instead, "K, is that you?" I see the headlamp move. K shouts at me, and I can't hear. I yell, "I can't hear you!" She yells back. Nothing. I cup my hands around my mouth, "I can't hear you! I need you to tell me where it is shallow on that side!"

She yells, and it's a bit clearer, but I can't hear well over the water. I think K is telling me to come across where she is standing. I shout, "Is it shallow?" The tone of her voice is affirmative and reassuring; I can't hear the words but I follow that tone. It's shallow directly across from here, here, further up the rock outcropping. If it was deep water, her tone would have been negative, angry, a warning. The headlamp would be moving elsewhere.

So I grip H by the hand and we begin to walk. I feel wholly steady and sure; the water never reaches much past my knees in depth. Right at the bank, B and K are there. The bank, and their feet, are higher than my head; it's a mud-cut bank six feet high, but there's another large downed tree trunk here. I guide H in front of me, and say, "You guys have to pull her up." She is obedient and pliable; she tries once and falls back down. There is a large tree root one step up from us, and I shout at H to use it. K and B pull on her arms and I push hard with both hands on her rear, getting her up to the log and onto ground.

"You need to pull me up now!" I step on the same root, and now understand why H couldn't do it; it limply falls away from me. The arm pull fails in the same way my foot fails on the root. I reach up again, and K grabs my hand; I give a hop and throw my right leg up and around the downed tree. (I realize within the next ten or fifteen minutes that I do not have the core/ab strength to do this in a normal state; the memory of this allows me understand the power of adrenaline.)

Now I crawl off the log with K as a guide. Hard ground. The home side of the water.

H is sobbing in B's arms and I start a vicious round of yelling; I still see the clock counting down in my mind, and I don't have a sense of how far we are from the tent. It turns out we are quite close, even if it feels far. We arrive with a little more rushing, pushing and yelling from me. Outside the tent, I strip down to bare feet, underwear and a camisole. I tell K to help H get all her clothes off. I go into the tent and wake up John, giving him the barest description of events as I take off my undies and put on dry sweats and socks. I realize H still isn't in the tent and run out; she is in her underwear, camisole and socks. K is pulling off the third pair of socks (H likes layers), and I ask, "Where is B?"

K replies, "She went to look for the Pup more." I yell, "Jesus Christ!" and hustle H into the tent. "Off! Underwear off!" I hand her dry jeans. She is sobbing and shaking, and then I yell, "Take that camisole off!" I give her a big hoodie, I sit her down, and I put fuzzy socks on her feet, which I've saved for her, having taken the lesser socks. She shakes and I realize I'm still wearing a wet camisole.

I toss it out of the tent, put on a dry shirt, and my coat, and step outside with my other pair of shoes on (I almost brought only one pair on this trip). I say to K, "We have to go find B. But we need to find her fast, so we have to get MC and ML."

We clip down to site #25. K is worried about my toes and the cold, and I tell her it's good for me to keep moving, and I feel fine, I'm not cold. I wake MC up from outside his tent. I hear ML from her tent, totally awake, having heard B and H leave earlier for the Pup. "Em?"

I walk over, "Yes." She says, from inside, "Is the Pup OK?"

"No. She's gone."

"What? Oh my god, oh my god... we have to get her... we have to go..."

"No! She's dead. She drowned. She's gone. And I was in the water, and so was H, and now B is gone and you have to come help look for her."

The four of us take off, and start shouting for B. I remember the sound of the river as we looked, and shouting at ML: "Stop yelling! She can't hear anything! Just shine your flashlights!"

We shine our lights together in frenzied loops, and ML shouts, "There's a light by the river!"

We guide that little light up to us, and it's B. I want to scold her, but I think I send her into the tent to comfort H. The sound of their sobs far exceeds the sound of the whirring tent heater.

John joins those of us not directly bereaved around the fire coals - myself, K, ML and MC. We stir them up. We put a log on there. And we stand. Everyone together, in my earshot and eyesight, dry. No more mental countdown clocks blazing in my mind.

Epilogue: We stayed up, rebuilt the fire, and talked for the next couple hours or so, until nearly 3 AM. I experienced the downhill side of an adrenaline rush, nearly puked, cried some. I slept badly and woke up in a panic numerous times.

MC and ML and John and K allowed me to say the same things over and over, allowed me play out some of the things that didn't go wrong that could have, allowed me to be scared after the fact, let me cry, said it was OK if I puked, and didn't call me crazy for feeling awful about my actions.

H and B have just begun their grieving, and they sat on the riverbank to say goodbye the next morning. It was not a serene and meditative goodbye; it turned out to be a vicious and wrenching and gruesome goodbye. A single paw was visible from the backside of the dark-wet root ball in the river and John fought them over an attempt to retrieve the corpse of the Pup.

They relented on that plan, and instead sent her to doggie heaven from the bank with prayers and tears and communion, but with no physical closure. Instead of cremation, the water will slowly return the Pup to the earth throughout this high-water spring, as part of the fish, the bugs, the sandy riverbed beneath the rocks, as part of the water droplets that flow from Paradise Creek to the Wind River to the mighty Columbia River, and then under the great bridge at Astoria, and into the Pacific Ocean.

There is probably more to say, and I may say it here on the blog to some degree... but for now, thanks for reading this, and when we see each other, I won't have to tell the story from scratch. If you're interested in talking about it, we can and we will, but I am grateful this weekend to not have to tell it again by voice.

Please pardon any grammatical errors and/or cliched writing. Thank you.

Friday, May 27, 2011

And now, on a nice note.

I hope you have a wonderful three-day weekend (whether you get three days off your tasks or not), and instead of leaving this page with a rant for the long weekend, I leave it with a shout out for the book Little Bee by Chris Cleave. This description is all you need, and the recommendation of someone you trust. No doubt, this will get made into a really bad movie, but if you have time this weekend, pick it up! I read it in two days and you can, too. It has a number of things going for it:
  • A protagonist who isn't always perfect;
  • An antagonist who isn't always bad/mean;
  • Plot points that you probably won't predict and will surprise you;
  • A male author writing in the voice of two women, and doing so quite well;
  • A small child who is not inherently likable, but is a real seeming 4 year old boy.
Plus, it's a great title. Little Bee! It's British, it's about a refugee and a fancy magazine lady, and if the devastation, political upheaval, 1967 borders, flooding, pain and suffering in the news feel really giant right now, try out Little Bee to remind yourself that behind every single day are 6 billion 700 million or so people who have their own little story that's worth hearing.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

A simple test

You know prescription drugs? The pain killing kind? Maybe you had them when you had your wisdom teeth out, or when you broke a finger playing flag football? There's percocet, there's hydrocodone. You know what I'm talking about right, right?

Well, I have a simple test to find out if you're a fucking moron. (Yes, I'm angry.)

There's a common, brand-name drug in this family, and if you call it OxyCotton, instead of the proper name of OxyContin, then congratulations! You missed the letter N! You've annoyed me to a TEN on the 0-to-10 scale! You're a moron! I assume you can barely read, much less critically think, and you've failed my simple test! Woohoo!

*This message brought to you by the medical marijuana advocates and opponents on OPB's
"Think Out Loud" who BOTH mispronounced it.
And a hearty thank you to Emily Harris who pronounced it right,
marking a rarely-seen pro in her majorly tilted-toward-con column.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011


I love a list, and I keep lists of things short-term, long-term, undone, already-done, to buy for me, to buy for others, a bucket list, a work list (or three), and more. I even make a list of all of the above sometimes at night to purge the thoughts that threaten to keep me awake.

I also love to finish things that can stay finished; namely, finishing a book. The laundry, for example, is never finished. It starts piling up again immediately. Cooking dinner is never done, for another appetite is coming in a few hours. But with three days coming up away from internet and phones and civilization (and laundry!), I am forcing myself to make a list of the books I have started, but not finished, in the hopes that at least a few will be brought along, and a few will be crossed off that list:

Hawaii, by James Michener
The Forever War, by Dexter Filkins
Nothing to be Frightened Of, by Julian Barnes
Practicing Peace in Times of War, by Pema Chodron
Path Between the Seas, by David McCullough
Embracing Uncertainty, by Susan Jeffers
The Outermost House, by Henry Beston

Stay tuned for the results!

Thursday, May 19, 2011

An actually-real Thursday-evening quiz

I think everyone has an environmental albatross. There's this thing... this action, this item... that weighs on you. And yet, it's everywhere. Or a-lot-of-where.

I know someone, who shall remain nameless, whose albatross is toilet paper. Yup. They feel really, really guilty about toilet paper in the waste water system, about killing the trees, about the bleach used on those dead trees, about the metaphor of throwing our shit into our water, day after day, without thought.

I know someone, who shall also remain nameless, whose albatross might be closer to yours... plastic bags. They hate even having them in hand, because it's just a reminder of dead baby marine mammals and littered beaches.

Mine is wasted food. Any bit of tossed out food (with the exception of mushroom stems, say, or browned bits of lettuce leaf) equates with a stricken, internal panic over wasted food. Which equals wasted money. Which equals... well, you can guess. And so on, and so on.

But the moral of the story actually is this... my poor husband can be quite put-upon to help with the leftovers. I love leftovers. He does not. And yet, he recently ate seven-day-old quinoa because I felt too guilty to throw it out and also didn't really like the taste. And he paid for it, digestivesystemthankyouverymuch. So I try to prevent that from becoming a recurring event, and in the meantime... quiz time... what's your albatross?

Monday, May 16, 2011

A not-real Monday-morning quiz

Which is worse?

This article? (Including the fact that it is posted in Fashion and Style?)

Or that the little girl in the ice cream shop yesterday was named July?

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

A warning

John, the other night, to me, with a very grave face: "Baby, I have to warn you."

Me, thinking, oh shit. "What??"

"I think I may be developing into an Oxfordian."

Well, NOW WHAT?!

I kid, I kid. This is just a peek into the excitement of marriage. And heck, he would be in the company of such gentlemen and scholars as Keanu Reeves, John Paul Stevens, David McCullough, Jeremy Irons and good ol' Freud.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

More about why science is amazing.

At very high altitudes and very low temperatures, water sometimes is not frozen, nor is it rain or snow. It just hovers. HOVERS! And, then when it is run into by something solid... say, an airplane... it freezes upon that contact and clings to the object as ice.

If there is anything more awesome than that, I don't know what it is. (That we have been able to discover this, I mean.)

And it is from one of the finest pieces of journalism I've read in a long time, found here, and if there was a way I could block Meggie from reading the link I would. If you are afraid to fly: Don't Click!

Monday, May 2, 2011

Mind Games

First: science is awesome. I love articles about brain science and the discoveries scientists are making about our internal chemistry behind falling in love, worrying, depression, happiness, etc, etc.

Second: in your brain, gratitude and happiness are basically indistinguishable. Think about that! Being grateful for something is the same as being happy about something. That whole idea of listing 1 or 3 or 5 things a day you are grateful for? It's just a way of being happy for a minute or two. Awesome!

This has been floating around in my mind the past few months, and I have been doing it backwards, so to speak... that is, I find myself giving thanks for something, and then I think, "Ah-ha! This is also happiness. OK. Brain: I am happy in this moment."

And let's be clear: I am not usually being thankful for grand, epic things. It is far more likely that I sit at night and admire my cozy, clean house and think how lovely the rain is when you have a place to get OUT of it. Gratitude for a home = happy on a quiet evening. Or I get in my car after work and become aware how much easier my life is because I can drive whenever I want to, and sure, I can choose to walk, or take a bus, but none are the lone option. Having choice and flexibility makes me grateful = happy commutes home. Or I sit down to mushrooms fried in butter and some steamed curly kale and think, I am so thankful to have this healthy food available to buy - and grateful I was taught how to cook it! - which then = a happy heart over a meal.

It's not as easy for me to think of something I am grateful for and then "be happy". It's easier to let the thanks flow in, and then let my intellect step in and be bossy, and remind my whole self that this gratitude is real happiness. Intellect gets to be superior, but everybody wins.

So after enjoying this for a few months, I have a new mind game I'd like to share. I'm calling it reverse worrying.

I've been trying this for a couple weeks... start by picking a worry, any worry. My husband might leave me, I might get fired, there could be a terrible earthquake, we could lose our house, my car might explode, what if I developed a chronic or terminal illness, what if I became allergic to gluten or garlic or scallops, someone in my family could pass away unexpectedly, the debt ceiling could be failed to be raised and we could stop being an industrialized nation on July 2nd... you name it, and I am sure to worry about it.

So instead of focusing on the worry, I turn it around on itself and find the thing that I'm afraid of losing - health, love, home, family, stability, choice, economic growth - and put energy into being grateful for what I have now, and think lightly that yes, this could be the most health/money/stability/freedom I will ever have, so just enjoy it! Or remind my brain: better not to worry about losing it, because that wastes time.

If you're curious, this reverse worrying developed largely from working with refugees at my job. These are folks who often had middle- or upper-class lives in their home countries before [fillintheblank] happened. And they ended up fleeing, living in displacement, and eventually relocated by well-meaning governments to little Portland, Oregon. When I meet them, they are dealing with a labryinthine immigration system, not to mention learning English and a new culture. They may be trying to visit a relative in another country, but that takes ten steps when you still don't have citizenship and a US Passport. But are they happy to be alive? Are they trying to adjust and live, and thrive? You bet. So I can shelve my worries, at least for today. And if I become a refugee, I'll be OK, and if I don't, the time will have been better spent finding gratitude instead of nursing worries.