Category: Story Corner

Playing Pinochle with Pete


This post is going to get a little more personal than I usually get, so if you’re just here for the movie talk or whatever check back again later.

In the spring of 2007 my maternal grandmother died and left her husband a widower. They had 11 children and nearly 40 grandchildren and a whole mess of great-grandchildren. That’s a lot of people. Still, it was kind of easy to forget at that time that my grandfather, Pete, was a person. I was finishing up my freshman year of college and had by then figured out that engineering was not my major of destiny and I was pretty focused on my own issues. Grandpa Pete had always helped me whenever I needed to build something for a school project but our interactions beyond those fun building times were limited. He was more of an idea of a grandfather than a flesh and blood person. He had already had a multiple bypass heart surgery and cancer and was in the process of coming out the other side of that whole ordeal. His sadness at the loss of his wife was palpable but it was clear that he would last at least a few more years without her. The family rallied around him and continued a kind of meals-on-wheels service where the eleven children (or in-laws or respective grandchildren) would bring over a dinner or lunch every day on an 11-day rotation. I would often go along with my mom during that summer between freshman and sophomore year and it was nice to visit but it never something I really looked forward to. That is, until we started playing pinochle.

Pinochle was, aparently, a game he and his wife had often played with their friends. It’s a team game where four players pair off and are dealt a full deck of cards (two copies of the four suits but only from the nine through the face cards and the ace for 48 cards total). After the hands are dealt there is a bidding process which starts at 25 points and increases in five point increments until the highest bidder is decided. At that point the winner announces which of the four suits will be “trump” and is given four cards (hopefully in the “trump” suit!) from his partner’s hand. He then puts down his meld, which includes any run (all cards in the trump suit except the 9), any marriage (king and queen of any suit), any four of a kind in the face cards or aces, the nines of trump, and the pairing which gives the game its name, the jack of diamonds and the queen of spades. These are all worth varying amounts of points but the most points would come if you happened to get both of the pinochle duos available, both jacks of diamonds and queens of spades. That double pinochle combination is worth 40 points on its own and in a game which is played to 100 points it’s kind of the nuclear bomb of points. But that’s only half the game. The pair that didn’t get the bid also has the chance to get points from the cards in their hands in the meld phase and the winner of the bid must return four cards of his choosing to his partner so everybody ends up with the same number of cards as the tricks phase starts. In that phase the bid winner starts by laying down the highest card (9’s low, aces high) of trump they have and the person to their left (one of the other team’s players) puts down one of their cards, then it goes around the table until each player has put down one card. The highest card in the suit that started the trick (always trump in the first round, but it can be any suit later on) takes the four cards and lays down whatever card they want. The play continues with the winner of each trick starting the next one with the caveat that a card from the trump suit, uh, trumps any other suit and is an automatic winner. At the end of the tricks when all of the cards have been played the two piles are counted for points, but only aces, tens, and kings count as a point. The winner of the last hand also gets an extra bonus point for an nice 25 points available in every trick round. Since the minimum bid is 25 points it is possible to not have a single point in the meld and somehow run the table in the tricks round and win your bid. If you get the amount you bid or more, you get to keep the points you won. If you don’t reach your bid you’ll end up losing the amount you bid which can often send you into the negative point range. The first team to 100 points wins. Not too complicated, right?

Pete on a scooter

Well, it was to us. When Grandpa Pete first taught my mother and me how to play it we were absolutely horrible. Over- or under-confident on our initial hands, we’d also have to check our cheat sheets to see which combinations were worth what in the meld. And let’s not even begin to discuss our terrible choices for our partners when they won their bid and we had to send them four of our cards. It was a long and painful process, but we learned the ropes slowly and surely. Soon we were at least passable as players. Of course, pinochle is usually a four player game, so there was usually an extra aunt or two that would come in to make the numbers work. We quickly became a core group of me, my mother, my aunts Karen and Susan, and my grandfather. The three women would switch out among themselves on a game by game basis but I was always Grandpa’s partner. Always. His premier pinochle skills were intimidating at first and I was always afraid I was doing it wrong. He’d never say anything about it, though, other than in a sweetly funny aside if I later played a card in the tricks section that he could have used earlier in the meld. It was at this card table – nearly every Saturday for the last seven years, first in his house, then his old-folks home, and finally in the last year or so in the nursing home – that I learned how life really worked.

It’s now the time when I make the strained connections between a card game and life lessons. It’s sappy and cliched but I don’t really care. I believe it and it works. Let’s start with the basic setup. Unlike poker or most other card games, pinochle isn’t strictly adversarial. The team aspect is key and a bad partner will sink you just as fast as a good partner will keep you afloat. We quickly learned to just hold on to the nines of trump unless you had absolutely nothing else to give your partner when they won the bid. Those nines weren’t going to do much good and it was better to send an ace of another suit or the jack of diamonds/queen of spades in hopes that they’d have the others and maybe achieve that pinnacle of point prowess. Other people matter, pinochle says, and they’re not all out to get you or get theirs. We’re working towards a common goal and we can use a friend to help get there. The help continues in the meld as your partner should try to feed you as many points as they can while you keep your own trash cards for the other team. It’s something special to see a pinochle team work together for fifty or sixty points in a single hand.

Pinochle also tells us that perfection is something to strive for. If your team takes all of the tricks in that phase of the game you not only get all 25 points but you also get to steal the other team’s meld points for yourself. It doesn’t happen often and it takes a special hand with a special partner to help you along the way to get there, but it feels so good when you do. I think I was the first to achieve that perfection in our little group and actually had an adrenaline rush as I realized it was going to happen. The other team can’t even get angry about it because it’s so rare and impressive that they just have to laugh at the whole thing. In work, at play, on this blog, I strive to get that kind of feeling from whatever I do. Doing something really really well is one of life’s best pleasures, one which is often only possible through a dependence on family and friends for support.

Grandpa pete

Life isn’t always so accommodating, though, and we’re rarely dealt hands that might work out to be perfect. Probably the best lesson I learned from playing pinochle was to play the cards you’re given. Life is weird and things out of our control are the norm. Sometimes your score says you should bid but your cards don’t have any potential to be a winning hand. When that happens you can only hope your partner is one card away from a run (worth fifteen points, good for 3/5ths of the minimum bid) and that the queen of clubs that does nothing in your hand will be that card to complete his run. It’s ok to let others take the lead, and it’s ok to play out a hand that doesn’t have much real value to you because there’s always another hand to be dealt next time around. The cards don’t change but their arrangement does. With a pinochle deck there are 12,413,915,592,536,072,670,862,289,047,373,375,038,521,486,354,677,760,000,000,000 (62 decimal places!) possible orderings of the 48 cards. I’m pretty sure that we didn’t get to all of those in our 7 years of playing, but we probably put a sizable dent in it. Life is almost infinitely unpredictable, so you better be ready to play whatever hand you have.

If that’s the best lesson I learned the most important lesson is that my grandfather wasn’t just some abstract concept. He was a real person, a man of hidden cleverness with a 90+ year bank of stories to tell. He grew up in my home town so we took a drive by his old house one day. It’s fascinating to see how places have changed and it’s important to remember that the world didn’t start when we were born. I heard about his time in World War II as he was part of the force which went into concentration camps (Buchenwald, if memory serves). His experiences humanize the larger-than-life death tolls and stories from WWII in a way that even movies don’t often do. Grandpa Pete died last night, at around 7 ‘o’ clock. It was clear that he was going down hill in the last few months, but even with his flagging health we continued to play pinochle. We last played three weeks ago and although we didn’t win either game I will hold that memory for the rest of my life. Grandpa Pete was a special man because he was so human, so normal, so nice, so funny, so smart, so real. I am eternally grateful that pinochle introduced me not to my grandfather but to the man who lead my giant family and myself. It’s no coincidence that his progeny includes just around 100 people, that winning number in pinochle. Over the course of our card sessions I graduated college, floundered around without a job, and began to discover what I really want to do. Hopefully by this time next year I will be hearing from graduate schools where I’ll learn even more about how literature and life works. I’ve had a lot of good teachers over the years whose methods and ideas I will pull into my own teaching career, but none will be as important as Grandpa Pete because he didn’t just teach me how to play pinochle, he taught me how to live.


25 Christmas Things: Day 13 – NBA Games

It has become a bit of a tradition in my house to watch at least one of the 5 basketball games usually scheduled on Christmas Day. It all started in 2011 (two whole years ago!), just one year after my NBA fan-dom began. The players and owners couldn’t agree to a collective bargaining agreement and it delayed the start of the 11-12 season until Christmas day. It was a long time to wait for the gift of dunking and I was excited to watch my team, the Boston Celtics, take on the hated New York Knicks. I was also excited to see Chris Paul on the Clippers to marvel at his alley-oops to the young front line. The was Kobe vs. Derrick Rose (the previous season’s MVP) and a Finals rematch between the Miami Heat and the Dallas Mavericks. It was almost too good to be true. But it wasn’t. We watched an inordinate amount of basketball that day and it really pushed me over the edge into becoming a true NBA fan. Thanks, Santa, for all that basketball and gifts and things.

Story Corner: The Wood of Many Doors

This story is a little more straightfowrward. The character here is an actual person, not the idea of a forest, so there’s that. Also, I swear I wrote this before watching Fringe. Again, if you have feedback of any kind, please leave a comment at the bottom of the page!

All the Pretty Trees

The boy was just like you or me. He grew up in a house where his parents loved him and he hated them. He went to school and learned some things and forgot others. He hung out with friends and liked to spend time alone. He had a few girlfriends but none of them would be his wife. He had a dog that, like all dogs, lived only to make the boy’s life better. And he did a good job of it. The boy went to college and moved out of his parents’ house, as you do. He stayed up for hours on end to discuss religion and movies and girls. He had a few more girlfriends and some one night stands but, again, none of them would be his wife. He graduated and found an office job shortly afterwards. He performed admirably but would never set the business world ablaze. He dated a few more girls and finally began to see one for a longer time. The girl, too, was just like you or me.

The boy and the girl had been dating for a long time. They went to plays and read the same books. They hung out with friends and liked to spend time alone together. They had a dog who lived only to make their lives better. And he did a good job of it. They had moved in with each other, as you do. They went to bed at the same time and were content. They would get married soon and start a family. They grew older and grew together and became the man and the woman.

One day, the man took the dog for a walk. The woman liked to walk around the neighborhood and the boy liked to walk in the woods behind their small house. The man and his dog walked these woods often and they both felt like they knew all of its secrets. The rabbit warrens, the little streams that bubble into other streams that flow into others, the best places to stop and be still for a minute. It was a place they could both go to and think and explore and be with each other, separate from everybody else. This day, though, there was something new in the woods. A few minutes into their journey the dog sniffed at a bit of thread mostly hidden under some leaves. The man noticed the dog’s new interest and crouched down beside it to investigate with his friend. The bit of thread was red and frayed at one end. The other end disappeared among the leaves and seemed to go on for quite a ways. The man pulled on the rope and found a bit of give before it pulled taut and began to disturb the leaves that hid the rest of its length. He decided to follow it.

The man and his dog followed the string for a while and a while until they came to a strange stand of trees. The trees were arranged in a line instead of the random layout of the rest of the forest and each was about a yard away from the one before it. The string came to an end at the first tree, disappearing into the base of the tree where the roots met the ground like a woven umbilical. The man let the string drop and went to examine the tree closer. As he approached it he found that there was a door faintly carved into the wide trunk. The door had a curved top, though the groove that distinguished it from the rest of the tree was only a fraction of an inch deep, and in the middle, at eye level, there was a peephole. The man went to put his eye up to the peephole when his dog barked at him. He turned to the dog and asked him what was the matter. The dog whined and turned his head back towards the direction of their house. It was far away now and neither could see it through the surrounding forest. The man told the dog that they would just be here for a moment, they couldn’t leave now. Not when there was such a strange group of trees waiting to be investigated. The dog whined again but sat down dutifully, waiting.

The man approached the first tree again and looked into the peephole. It was the same kind of peephole you would see in most hotels, except the ring connecting it to the tree was made out of stone instead of metal and the glass seemed more like the clearest ice instead of glass. When the man looked through the hole he saw a living room just like the one in his small house. It had the same chair, the same sofa, the same TV. The same books on the shelves and the same lights. In the chair, the copy of his favorite reading chair, there was a man sitting and reading a book. It was the same book he was reading. This copy-man was wearing the same clothes as the man. But he wasn’t an exact copy. This copy-man had blond hair instead of the brown hair the man had. The man’s father had blond hair and his mother brown. He had wondered, once or twice, what he would look like had he inherited his father’s hair instead of his mother’s. This peephole in a door in a tree in the woods showed him. It was interesting but not drastic. As he continued to look a woman entered the view. She was a copy of the woman he was married to. The copy-woman didn’t have different color hair or different anything. She was wearing the same clothes and even the same lipstick that the man’s woman put on earlier that day. The copy-woman sat on the couch with her book and began reading. Between the couch and the chair a copy-dog looked up from its nap for a second to see what the copy-woman was doing, then put his head back down to sleep.

The man stepped back from the peephole, his head reeling from such a strange sight. Everything was the same, the exact same, except for the not-quite-copy man. This other-man had blond hair but was otherwise exactly the same as the man in the woods. The man crouched down next to his dog and asked it what it thought of the strange view through the door. The dog tilted its head, as dogs do, then whimpered and looked back towards their house again. The man patted its head and told him they’d go back soon, but they had to see what the next tree was like. Would it show the same scene again? Would it be something completely different? And what of all the other trees? The line stretched on forever, each tree equally spaced and equally made. The man walked up to the next tree and the dog followed. They saw that this tree had a door, the same door, carved into its sizeable trunk and a peephole, the same peephole, stuck in the middle of the door. The man stepped closer and peered into the cold, clear hole.

This peephole gave the man a shock. Everything was different, except the basic outline of the room it viewed. The room was still the same size but the decorations were completely different. The chair was not a chair but a beanbag and the couch a loveseat. They were in different positions, too. The walls held different decorations, rock band posters instead of pleasant but boring artwork. The lights held bright colored bulbs and the room felt much more alive. Reclined in the loveseat was a man. This man was skinnier than the man in the woods. His hair the same color but disheveled. He wore a ratty old concert-T instead of the plain T-shirt the man in the woods wore and holey jeans instead of khaki pants. The man in the woods did see some resemblance in this other-man, though. His facial features were similar, if more gaunt, and they seemed to be roughly the same height. When the other-woman came into the frame the man in the woods saw that she was not even remotely similar to his wife. This other-woman looked completely different and even walked differently. She walked up to the computer in the corner of the room and turned on music before plunking down in the beanbag chair. The man in the woods could hear the music as if the door in the tree was thick cardboard, it was muffled but barely. The music was nothing that the man in the woods had ever heard before but both the other-man and the other-woman were dancing in their seats. As the song went on they got more and more animated. The man in the woods, too, began to tap his toe. He cautiously stepped back to see if the sound would stop if he moved away from the peephole and he found that he could move about a foot away from the door before the music disappeared. When he stepped back in the music began again. He saw, too, that a large knot had appeared in the door right where a doorknob would be. He grabbed the knot and pushed the door moved a bit but stopped after less than an inch. He tried turning the knot and found it moved relatively easily. He pushed again and the door opened all the way. Neither the other-man nor the other-woman noticed him standing in the now open doorway.

He went to take a step into the room but as he put his foot down the room spun. The man closed his eyes so he wouldn’t throw up and when he felt the motion stop he opened his eyes again. He saw the ceiling of the same room, as if he’d fell into the loveseat the other-man was lying on. But that wasn’t possible. The other-man was nowhere in sight. The man looked around to find him when he noticed that he was wearing the same ratty concert-T that the other-man was wearing. His khaki’s had changed into ratty jeans. He noticed he could see long, stringy hair in his periphery. He realized what happened. He hadn’t landed on top of the other-man; he had become the other-man. Now that he was the other-man he realized that this other-man was actually him. He had the same parent, though they treated this other-man differently as a child. He went to the same school, though he was friends with different people. And he even married a person that the man from the woods knew from college, if only from seeing her around campus. This other version of himself had made a lot of different decisions and grew up in an entirely different way. Sure, some things remained the same, he and his other-wife bought the same house as the man from the woods did with his wife and they also had a dog but everything else had changed. The man was in shock. His other-wife looked at him and asked him if anything was wrong, since he had stopped dancing. The man said no, but his other-wife got up and turned off the music. She came over and hugged him and the man was confused. He knew that he didn’t have any connection with this woman but he also knew all the things that led up to this moment for his other-self. There was simultaneously nothing and everything between them. It was disconcerting.

He had to figure out a way to get back to the wood of many doors. He thought of the peephole, made a clear picture of it in his mind. He pulled his head back and was shocked again to find himself back in the quite woods. This was the first time that he noticed there were no birds or wind in that strange section of the forest. The only sound came from his stepping on the dead leaves, the new spring plants not yet showing through the coat of old sheddings from the previous fall. He looked around for his dog but couldn’t find it anywhere. He figured it went back to their house, which was fine because it gave him more time to investigate these woods. He looked back at the tree he just pulled himself out of and found that the door was gone. So was the peephole and the knot-knob. It was just a tree now. He went back to the first tree to see if that peephole was still there. It wasn’t. He went to the third tree in the line and that one did have a rock and ice peephole. He looked inside.

He saw nothing. Blackness. Blacker than that, even. It was a lack. He got a chill, even though there was no wind or movement of any kind in these woods. He pulled back again and wondered if he should move on or go back to his house. This tree had given him a scare and it wasn’t going to be easy to shake it. Maybe he should just come back later in the week. He could bring his wife and they could explore these strange trees together. Yes, that’s what he would do. Just after he looks in the next tree. Something to cleanse the palate after the oddly terrifying emptiness of the last tree.

He walked up to the fourth tree in the line. It was the same as all the others. He looked into the peephole and found another room. He let out a sigh of relief, not knowing that he had been holding his breath. He observed the room. It was empty. There were scuff marks on the hardwood from where things had been once and where things will be again. He heard a truck driving away and he, too, stepped away. While that door wasn’t as scary as the black emptiness of the previous tree it wasn’t a happy view. It filled him with melancholy and he reasoned that he couldn’t go back and tell his wife about such a sad place. He needed something bright and exciting to tell her. He needed something that would get her attention. So he moved on to the fifth tree.

When he looked in the fifth peephole he saw something quite disconcerting. It was another eye, staring right back at him. It was brown, like his eye, and when he looked to the left to see if there was anything else to see the other-eye looked that way, too. The eye seemed to mirror his movement, searching for something other than itself to see. As the man pulled away from the peephole he saw that the other-eye was doing the same. Before he got too far away he saw that there were tall, vertical things behind the other-man’s head but he couldn’t tell if it was just the reflection of his forest in the not-quite-glass of the peephole or the real view of the other side of the door. As always, once he moved away from the door the peephole disappeared and the line which separated the tree from the door melted back into the tree, making the door indistinguishable from the rest of the tree. He reasoned that this couldn’t be his last experience with this strange wood before he went back to his wife. It was just too weird and unsatisfying. He moved again to the next tree.

This tree’s peephole showed a scene familiar to the man. It was another version of his house. His wife was there, reading, and the other-man was not too different from the man in the woods. This other man was a little more in shape; his paunch was not fully formed as it was on the man in the woods. His other-wife, though, seemed to be a little heavier than the man in the wood’s wife. The man looked closer and saw that the other-woman wasn’t fat, she was pregnant! He immediately reached for the knot-knob in the tree and opened the doorway into this other-version of his life. When he stepped through the entryway he got that nauseous feeling again and when he opened his eyes he was looking through the other-man’s eyes. He searched his memory and found that his other-wife was 4 months pregnant. He remembered her belly starting to show, he remembered the day she told him the news, and he even remembered the night that the baby was conceived. This was a good place to be. He felt the love and happiness that this situation brought to him and his other-wife. This was a place he could stay for forever. Isn’t this what he and his wife were trying to get to? Hadn’t they been trying to have a baby for the last year? They had gone through so much, fertility drugs and treatments for him and her, and to no avail. Even this version of him seemed happier. The stress of repeated failures had not gotten to him, he felt like he had more energy than he’d had since college. Yes, this was something he could show his wife. He could only notice one other-thing about this world. Instead of a dog they had a cat, curled up in the sun shining through the window, as cats do. He figured he could get used to a cat.

He pulled away from his other-self and found himself back in the wood of many doors. When he looked around to find his dog so they could go get his wife he glanced back at the tree he had just exited. He remembered that the dog had already gone back to their house. He looked back at the tree and the peephole was gone. And the knot-knob. And any trace that there was ever a door to begin with. How could he have forgotten about the way these doors work? You only get one shot once you go in and when you leave you’re closed off forever. He panicked. He’d found the best of all possible worlds and in his haste he threw it away. The man looked down the long stretch of trees he had yet to explore. Maybe there was another great version of his life he could enter down there somewhere. Maybe the next tree had an ever better life in store for him. He could find a him that had his wife, pregnant and happy, unstressed and perfect. He could even get his dog instead of a cat. Yes, that was what he would do. But he couldn’t actually go through the door in that perfect tree. He would peek into each tree in succession, looking and looking until he found the perfect version, where everything worked out as it was supposed to. Then he would mark it and bring his wife back tomorrow. They would hold hands and enter together, becoming a part of their new lives and leaving this imperfect one behind.

He got started on his search. He moved to the next tree and looked in. He rejected it immediately; they had bad taste in music. The next tree showed just the man and his dog, both fat and passed out in the middle of the room. The next tree was one of those dark, empty trees. It gave him a chill, like the first day of fall. Then a scene of the other-man and his other-wife fighting. Then a prison cell. Then a dark emptiness. Then a reasonably happy family, but one without a big screen TV. Can’t have that. Then another eye starring back at him.

He went on for hours and minutes and days, weeks and years and months. He could never find a perfect version. If the tree didn’t show something horrible he could always pick something out which would invalidate the entire universe contained within. The light in the wood of many doors never changed. It stayed the constant amber glow of sunrise or sunset, there was no indication of time passing. It was perpetually the first day of fall. The row of trees never dwindled, either. Soon he could look each way and see a line of trees extending into forever. He continued his search, though, confident that he would find a perfect place to live. A place where every decision worked out as it should and everybody was happy. When you are handed the opportunity to choose your life you would be a fool to pass it over. He was constantly hopeful, sure that the next door would reveal the place he was looking for. It never did.

*          *          *

The woman was sitting at home, reading. She had sent her husband and the dog off for a walk in the woods behind their house. Sometimes she couldn’t stand being in the same room with him. Nothing was working out as she hoped it would. She thought they would have started a family by now and as much as she loved her husband and their dog she needed more. She knew some of her friends were happy with just their partner but she also knew that she was supposed to have kids. She agreed with her husband that they wouldn’t get tested to find out which of them was the problem. She didn’t want that between them any more than it already was.

When the dog returned half an hour later she wondered where her husband was. The dog was acting strangely, looking back towards the woods and then up at her, expectantly. She tried to bring the dog inside but it wouldn’t come. She asked the dog where her husband was but the dog only looked back the way it had come in response. It was late afternoon, the golden light doing little to lift the crispness of the fall air. She put on a jacket and took a flashlight. She walked into the forest and let the dog take the lead. It sniffed around until it found a red string. She picked up the string and pulled it out from under the dead leaves. It pulled taut and she followed it until she found a tree. The twine disappeared into the ground at the base of the tree. She looked up and saw a long line of trees. It seemed to stretch into the horizon, though she knew that the forest behind their house was only a few acres big. She looked at the tree where the string disappeared and saw that it had a few weird features. At eye level there was a round little bit of ice, and there was a groove in the tree that formed the outline of a door, curved at the top like in a kid’s book. She looked into the ice and smiled.

Story Corner: Growing

Here’s a little story I wrote a while ago. It is kind of a creation story, kind of a fable. Very much inspired by A.S. Byatt’s short story collection The Little Black Book of Stories and her take on Norse mythology Ragnarok: The End of the Gods. She describes nature really well in a very real yet heightened way. That’s kind of what I was going for here. All photography also by me. Any and all feedback is welcome.

The forest did not begin life as a forest. Nothing ever begins as it ends. The forest, like everything else, began as nothing. Then, after some period, everything was. It still wasn’t a forest yet but it was on its way. It was a bunch of tiny molecules flying through nothing until they ran into some other molecules and stuck together. Those molecules ran into others and others and others and then they formed a sphere because that is what molecules do. The forest was now a mass of swirling, broiling lava. Other molecules formed stars and gas giants and nebulae and everything else. Once some more molecules hit the mass of swirling, broiling lava they became an atmosphere and weather began. The weather was angry at that time, being a newly born child and acting like it, crying and carrying on. Air gave way to clouds which gave way to rain which cooled the lava into hard rock, at least on the outside. Inside it was still swirling and broiling because that’s what planets do.

The forest still wasn’t a forest yet. It was a place on this barren mass of rock; a location which held some promise. The weather continued to grow up but it was a particularly sad child. The only other thing it could play with was the lava, which was as angry as it had been, but the weather’s own actions had hidden the lava away and replaced it with boring rock. The weather cried and cried to see its friend go away and all of that crying covered the planet with salty water. Some of the water seeped down through small holes in the rock and sought out its old friend and some of it found the lava and they shared a brief yet explosive love until the water boiled away. Other parts of the water didn’t reach the lava but found a nice cozy place within the rock to hide and just exist.

The forest still wasn’t a forest yet. It was impossible to be a forest at this point since there was no land. There was only weather and air and water and rock and lava and a few stray molecules that hadn’t yet decided what they were going to be when they grew up. Their time will come in this story, just wait. Now is the time to throw in some action. Parts of the rock didn’t like other parts of the rock. They didn’t agree very much despite being fundamentally identical. One could theorize that being the only separation between the water and its old friend lava didn’t make for a healthy relationship with either element and whenever they could find cracks within the rocks being they would push and pull and tear at them until it broke apart into pieces. Rock is a strong thing and it didn’t break easily nor did it break into small chunks. No, the rock split magnificently and into massive plates. There was much turmoil as some of the newly separate pieces tried to return to each other while other pieces tried to get as far away as possible from its enemy neighbors. Being so big and so conflicted and still so near each other led to a lot of grinding and smashing and erupting. Sometimes the lava would sneak through a fissure created by this turmoil and rejoin the water and remember the good days. This, of course, didn’t last very long and in the end it just created more rock to move and shift and smash and crash. Some of the rock was pushed so hard against the other rock that they had nowhere to go but up, rising out of the water and meeting the air for the first time in a long time. After a while there was a good deal of rock above the water and the rock that made the journey just couldn’t hold itself together with the joy of meeting the air again. It fell apart and became dirt and there was a slightly new element to deal with.


The forest still wasn’t a forest yet. Its place hadn’t moved and it was lucky enough to be located in one of the spots that had risen above the water and become dirt. That was fortuitous for it. Another lucky break was the decision those other molecules made, the slow developers. They joined together and decided to be life. It started in some of the water that got trapped in the rock and dirt of the newly formed land. The molecules tried to be alive and move and they did. They formed cells which grew and formed into things with many cells. These creatures, if we can call them that, did not and could not have strong motivations. They lost that when they decided to be life. That final choice robbed them of will for centuries. In that time they only tried to be alive. It’s hard to do, and even moreso when there’s so little else around you that shares your predicament. What did they have to eat but each other? So they did, and they changed as they multiplied and they diversified. Some grew big and slow and strong while others grew to be quick but relatively weak and others just learned to stay out of the way and plant roots into the dirt around the edges of the pond. The dirt was full of nutrients from all of the turmoil which caused its creation and there was plenty of energy from it and the sun, which also caused all of this. Sometimes those growers would get eaten by other organisms but they were clever and knew that there was strength in numbers and continued to grow and grow and grow and spread and spread and spread. Soon the realized that they could exist off the water which fell from the sky and could venture beyond the pool of water in which they began. The tall, thin, green things spread and became fields. It was the first color on the world that wasn’t angry red or stoic brown or calm blue but vibrant green, a green so green you could tell it had to be alive. The other organisms in the pool continued to grow and diversify as well and some learned that there was food that grew out on the dirt that was the same as the food that grew in the pool and they went up to look at it. It was hard at first to breathe air and walk instead of swim but they did learn and they went wherever the grass went. The followed the green as far as it could go, which turned out to be very far indeed. It went all the way back to the big water which was everywhere that land wasn’t. Some of the walkers decided that they liked swimming better and returned to the sea, though that’s a bit of romanticizing since they had never been in this particular water before. In such a large place they too could spread out and become all different sorts of things. There were fish and sharks and little things that lived on the bottom of the ocean nearest the heat of the lava and little things that floated around the water just being alive. Life was changing on the land as well. Some of the walkers gained legs and others lost them and some changed their legs into hands and others changed their legs into wings. Some of the green stuff changed, too. Some grew shorter and attached themselves to the rocks strewn about the land while others grew taller and taller and reached high up into the air and weather and, since they had so much space, spread out up there. Now the forest was a forest.

It wasn’t done yet, though. There were a few trees and a few smaller shrubs but they couldn’t really be called a forest yet. It had to wait for hundreds of years until there were enough trees in a group to be considered a forest. There were oaks and maples and sycamores and birches and palms and yuccas and ashes and sycamores and hickories and willows and elms and beeches and trees that bore delicious fruits like apples and pears and dates to lure the animals to come and eat them so that they would spread the seeds even further. Soon the forest wasn’t just a forest but an entire wood. It was everything and everywhere and provided shelter to all the animals from rain and wind and anything else the weather could throw at them. It was strong and unmoving. The forest did not – could not – pick up and go elsewhere nor did it lean one way or another. It simply grew up and out and reached into the sky towards the stars. It saw that there was something else above it and, like the squirrels and birds that made their nests in the highest tops of the trees, the forest itself wanted to be up in that higher realm. It could do nothing but grow and grow it did, always yearning to be taller but never getting above a certain level. It was stuck. Even if it did reach up above the air towards the stars it would die. It couldn’t exist out of its own niche, as big a niche as it was. It was sad about this until it looked within itself and saw the things living inside it. There were other plants and small creatures that literally lived inside some of the trees. There were birds and bigger animals that lived on the branches of the trees and other animals that used some dead trees to make their own shelters. All of this life was possible because of the forest and that gave it a sense of completeness. Not full completeness, of course, since it still had things to do.

The forest was, now, but it wasn’t all it was going to be. The forest remained still and unmoving while everything else grew and changed. Some parts of the forest lived for hundreds of years while the animals living within it went through many generations and grew into terrible lizards and little mammals and blood sucking insects. They lived and ate each other and died. Then some of those molecules that had gone off to be something else at the beginning of time returned to the world and met it violently. They did not get along, and it caused great disruption as the seas boiled and the air turned to dust and all the large animals died – and most of the small ones, too. The forest burned and burned and it hurt but there was nothing that it could do. After the burning the world became cold. The forest had done its job, cleaning the air and trying to return the world to its former glory but it wasn’t just one forest anymore. It had split apart, the land relocated all over the world with great seas separating the forest from itself. Everywhere was covered with snow, and mammals adapted to live in it. They grew large and shaggy and some of them had learned to walk on two legs and live in caves. This was the first separation from the forest and it was sad to see them go. It felt every loss deeply. It dreamed that they would return some day to live among the trees again. They didn’t. After the caves they learned how to make fire for themselves and create tools made of stone and wood. The forest was glad to give a piece of itself to the upright animals. It could still feel connected to them and if they were putting it to good use it was happy. Soon the uprights learned to speak with each other and forgot their connection to the forest. They moved farther and farther away from it so that they could build farms and cities and towns. The forest was a place to visit for a picnic or a quick walk or even a weekend stay but even then they would bring pieces of their world into the forest and didn’t even try to reconnect. They had used the forest for building houses at first and the forest was more than happy to help them live in safety as it had when they were walking on four legs. The humans had learned how to make metal, though, and began to use that for its superior strength and cost. Now the wood from the forest was used for end tables and sides of station wagons and paper. The people took more of the forest than they should have and it was hard for it to replenish itself. It was still cleaning the air for the animals and people but it couldn’t keep up with the grime and gunk put in the air by the people trying to live in cities. The forest was overwhelmed and dying.

The people learned how to travel away from their own world. The forest watched in awe as they rocketed towards the stars it wanted so badly to be amongst. The people had left the forest and ruined the world and were now in the process of leaving it behind. They explored nearby worlds at first but quickly learned how to travel farther than they had ever hoped to go. They could visit distant planets and they discovered that they were not alone in the universe. Of course they weren’t, all those other molecules from the beginning had to go somewhere and be something. The people befriended the other beings and shared their triumphs and mistakes. They were invited to live among all sorts of other creatures on innumerable alien planets. By this time they had almost completely abandoned the forest and the world they had grown up in. It was hard for the forest to see the people go away, much harder than when they lived in the cities because they couldn’t even visit anymore. The forest could only look up at the stars and imagine how its old friends were faring on their journey to other planets. Days and months and years and decades and centuries passed and the world returned to its former vitality. Without the humans around to pollute the air and water and ground every remaining life could work together to restore the planet’s glory. The forest was content but at night it still dreamed of growing up to the stars.

One day the humans returned. They marveled at the state of their former home. The forest had reclaimed most of the land and the cities were suggestions of their former selves. Green was everywhere. The people walked around the forest and remembered what they used to be. They had been happy to explore the stars but they, too, always felt like something was missing. They didn’t feel connected to their past and they soon became as melancholy as the forest was in their absence. When they reunited they all wept with joy. The forest shook with excitement as the people climbed in its trees and played with the other animals that had never abandoned the woods. The humans decided to never leave the forest behind again and everybody was happy. Everybody but the forest. It heard the tales of the people’s travels and it was sad that it could never follow them and visit other planets. The people, too, grew less happy. They had tasted absolute freedom and they wanted to return to the stars. This time, though, they would take the forest with them so that they would never be apart again. They transported sections of the forest and all of the things living within it into huge domes and flew them into space to finally join the stars. There were some woods left on the Earth to care for the animals left behind but even they were not sad because they knew that the rest of the forest was up among the stars where it had always longed to be. The forest visited alien forests that grew in strange ways and alien creatures would visit the Earth forests and understand why the humans had to return to Earth and bring the forests with them. The forest continued to travel the universe and live among the stars and everything was as it was until it wasn’t anymore.

Two Experiences in Nature

1. To the Light Spot.

Salt I was in Portland, Maine on vacation recently. It was that time just between summer and fall when you would wake up and not know whether the 65 degree day would feel warm or cold. And that was doubly true on the coast of Maine. We went to the docks to see if there was a kind of tour boat that we could take a ride on to see the many small islands that dotted the near-sea. It was going to be the one part of the vacation where I could take pictures, the rest of the days being a mess of rain and stores which made for a fun time, if not a photogenic one. We found that there was a boat that went to five of the bigger islands and delivered mail twice a day. It seemed like a fun idea, joining this service for a few hours. The tour was supposed to last for three hours, and we made jokes about which of us was Gilligan. I think we decided I was.

It was a windy day and the sky was mostly clouded, but it didn’t seem particularly bad until we got out on the open water. A few of us started the trip at the front of the boat, on deck and waiting patiently in our seats for the boat to start moving. When it did we quickly left our posts for the closed in lower deck. The view wasn’t as good, but it was warm. The warmth was all that mattered after a few minutes of the wind biting at my face. It was pretty crowded in the lower deck, though there was enough room for all to sit. It got louder and louder as people began to talk over each other and the loud, constant hum of the engines powering us forward. At the first island stop I went above to see how the whole operation went down. It wasn’t very exciting. Just a few guys pushing a cart off the boat and then pulling on another cart. The transaction was easy and let the few townspeople (islandspeople?) talk to the young guys that did the loading for a few minutes. This clearly wasn’t a situation where time was the driving factor. We got moving again after a few minutes and those of us that went above to see the process happen quickly retreated below again. The next island couldn’t entice us out of our warmth.

It was on the way to the fourth island, about the middle of our voyage, that I dared to try the upper deck experience again. It was sunny now, not that gray chill but the light warmth of an early-October afternoon. It wasn’t exactly a perfect ride up there, the wind was still blowing but it seemed to be blocked a bit by the surrounding islands. The sun made it bearable and even pleasant, though. I resolved to stay up there until the next, penultimate stop on our ride. It was just me and the boat and the water. The boat propelled me, the water supported me. I was moving and immobile. I had no agency, no power, no way to change anything in this situation. I had only my resolve, my dedication to myself that I wouldn’t move until we got to the next island.
A Light Shines But it got really cold. The wind blew the clouds around in patterns I couldn’t figure out. One moment it was clear, the next cloudy. I looked up and saw that the clouds probably wouldn’t part for a long time. There was one small hole in the clouds. It was closing quickly, the spot on the water lit by the sun shrinking by the second. But we were headed right for it. The boat propelling me closer and closer towards the last moment of warmth that afternoon. The wind was picking up and I was getting colder and colder. It was now a battle of wills. I could barely keep my eyes open, they watered and I had to blink constantly just to keep a clear-ish view. I almost couldn’t tell if the sun spot was there anymore. I only sat there, fighting the wind just to stay in one spot. Using my hands to hold my camera and get a picture was out of the question. I was afraid that the wind would blow the camera over the edge of the boat even though it was strapped around my neck and I was sitting in the middle of the deck.

I was so focused on staying in one spot that I didn’t even notice we reached the sun spot until a second after we entered it. I looked up and saw the clouds closing in around the bright disk. The sun turned their edges silver for a moment until it disappeared behind their dark curtain. The last moment of warmth lingered for a second, long enough for me to feel it. The wind returned, or it never left, and now that the potential return of the sun was out of the question there was nothing left to keep me up there. I sat for a minute, getting colder and more miserable. The joy of my last moment in the sun fading quickly but never fully disappearing. That last spot, the thing that compelled me to stay would never return. But the memory of it, the waiting and those sweet seconds when it was more than just me and the boat and the sea, when the sun joined in our reverie, that would last.

2. After the Storm.

We had a hurricane recently. It came up the coast and drove straight through our state, rampaging and knocking over mailboxes like a car filled with high school kids drunk on beer and the freedom of their first drive. It was a big hurricane, the biggest storm in the history of the country in terms of how many people were affected by it. Our house suffered no damage and we had power throughout the storm. We stayed inside and watched movies, the flickering screen distracting us from the constant wind and rain. It started while we were sleeping and didn’t end until after dinner. Then, an hour after the storm ended, our power went out.
A Light in the Darkness The winds still blew and that’s what knocked down a branch into the power lines that supplied the power lines that supplied our house with that sweet juice. It wasn’t dark yet, being near the end of summer but still quite light until just before 8’o’clock. We went out in my car to see what happened around town. They all told us not to, those people on TV and the radio warned us that the roads might have downed power lines or big branches blocking the way, and that we should stay off of them for our safety and that of the power and emergency service people. We ignored those electronic enjoinders. We will not be told what to do! We are Americans! We can drive wherever we want!

Nothing happened. We saw a few downed branches and the river a few miles away from our house was quite high, but that’s all. It was a disappointing expedition. It was dark when we returned, and we lit candles to read by. Soon I was the only one still awake. My book was good, and there were no distractions. I looked up from my flickering page out to our street. It was strange a strange lack out there. A lack of light, of sound, of people coming and going. It was just calm, blue, air. I went out.
Totally Wet Upon exiting my house, I found that there was something more than the calm. There was a nice late-summer breeze. The storm hadn’t left us entirely, not yet. Now we had just the tail, the last dregs of the storm. Or, I had those dregs. There seemed to be nobody else. It was never exactly a busy street but if you went out at any semi-normal hour you would see a neighbor’s bedroom tv set casting that blue-white light on the window shades or a car returning from a late-night adventure. Or, at the very least, a cat prowling for crickets and birds. But that night there was just me. The wind had blown away the clouds that hid the beauty of the sky with their low hanging grayness for the past two days. There was no light leaking into the sky, either. You could see every star. The entire universe. Everything that ever existed and ever will exist. I felt small, a tiny piece in that bigger-that-big puzzle. What did I matter if there was so much other matter? And then that passed. My smallness excited me. It invigorated me. I was small, yes, but in that smallness I could be anything. I could do anything. I was out there, just me and possibility, potential. It was freeing. I stood out there for five minutes. Then I went back inside. I read some more. When I woke up the next morning we still didn’t have power, but I did.

NOTE: All of these pictures are by me. The pictures from the first story are actually from that trip on that boat. The pictures from the second story are not from that day. They just evoke a storm.