Self help

In the middle of the night
in Sweden, in the northern part
northish, anyway,
at midsummer
there are no stars
the light shimmers when you get up
and walk through the woods
to the outhouse
shimmers. it is not

what you are used to, shining from
like the sun through
the trees to your eyes.
it breaks and shimmers
in all directions.
at least i am pretty sure,
i didn’t have my glasses on.

we saw two moose
a big one one evening
a little one the next evening

i sat on the porch in a lawn chair
i looked at the lake
and at the trees
eventually i noticed i was not thinking
i was a little surprised

what am i doing when i am not thinking
i am living
so i lived on the porch
for a few days.

would i recommend this?
i don’t recommend anything
you’ll figure it out

The seven things successful people don’t want you to know!

  1. 3:50 AM give up, go take pee, look at clock, wonder if you’ll get back to sleep before alarm goes off
  2. 5:00 AM wife shakes you, says “your alarm” which would be unnecessary, since you’ve been awake since 3:50, except you can no longer hear the first couple higher-pitched cycles of the alarm so, ok. You turn it off and get up.
  3. Let in cats. Feed cats. Close 2 doors so sensitive cat is isolated from the less-sensitive cats and can eat in peace. Turn on coffee machine. Open windows to air out downstairs.
  4. Go check the trap line. It’s still dark. One dish of beer has a few slugs. On the way to the other 2 dishes over by the echinacea a slug somehow gets into your Birkenstock. You do the “A slug got into my Birkenstock” dance but he holds fast so you take off the sandal and flick him into one of the beer traps, kerplunk. A dozen or so of his buddies are in there too.
  5. That’s fewer than usual lately, maybe you’re making headway. Maybe they’re hunkered down waiting for the hot weather to pass. Maybe they’re on the tomatoes.
  6. You’ll never know cause you have to go eat breakfast (slice of rye bread, butter, ham, Greek yogurt with blueberries + honey)
  7. One cat wants out. No not that door the other door. Then another cat wants out, but not the door the first cat went out, the other door.
  8. You tiptoe around while you do all this so your wife can sleep.
  9. But she gets up to make sure you don’t forget to throw lettuce and blueberries out the window for the tortoise.
  10. Throughout all this you have the idea of distance in your head. Maybe you had a dream. Distance between galaxies is the same as distance inside atoms, between the nucleus and the electrons, it’s mostly empty space, you think. And yet we find each other.

Goofy’s Backyard Debacle

Disn3y scriptwriter 1: (Drains martini, lights a new cigarette from still-smoldering butt of last one, glances around lunchtime crowd at bar, returns script to scriptwriter 2) It’s not that I don’t like it. I love it. It’s hilarious.
Scriptwriter 2 (Snubs out his own cigarette in ashtray): But…
Scriptwriter 1: Go ahead and pitch it to Him if you want. But he’s not going to like it. Put a phony name on it and pitch it to Hanna-Barbera – I can totally see something like that happening to Tom, you know what I mean? You can pitch it to Him if you want, but if you do he’s gonna say…

(Cut to new scene, in W4lt Disn3y’s office)
W4lt: …it’s not realistic enough!
Scriptwriter 2: With all due respect, Mr. Disn3y…
W4lt (to blonde boy sitting on his desk): Give us some fire, Timmy. (Timmy light’s W4lt’s cigar with teapot-shaped lighter) Tell me, Timmy, do you like Collie dogs? (Turns back to Scriptwriter 2) Okay maybe I missed something. Walk me through it again. You have a minute (looks at watch).
Scriptwriter 2: It’s a Goofy cartoon, Mr. Disn3y! Realism is not in the nature of a talking dog!
W4lt (looks at watch): Fifty seconds.
Scriptwriter 2 (Holds hands up as if framing a shot): Goofy’s Backyard Debacle. Goofy is barbecuing. I dunno, like his wife has invited people over. Important people, of course, to raise the stakes.
Timmy: Ah! High-stake barbecue, I like it. Get it? Barbecued stakes? (The others ignore him)
Scriptwriter 2: Goofy’s nervous. His old grill didn’t get hot enough and so he got a new, bigger one that he’s still figuring out, reading instructions et cetera. Oh and BTW Goofy has long white hair and a bushy white beard.
W4lt: Why.
Scriptwriter 2: It’s necessary to the… dramaturgy. Maybe he’s a wizard or something. Anyway. He tries the new grill and it doesn’t get hot at first either because it’s using this new system with hot and cooler zones right, and for the life of him he can’t get it to go over 500F/260C, if that and his steaks just don’t cook right and he’s getting frantic so the big day comes…
W4lt: Wizard. Okay. I like it.
Timmy: I like it too!
Scriptwriter 2: …the big day comes and he goes for broke and like just fills the grill up with charcoal and lights it and it gets hot as hell. Like, he puts on the lid and the thermometer needle goes all the way around, past 600F/315C, all the way back to zero. So it’s hot. And Goofy is like, uhoh. And he cooks in this order: vegetables, sausages, ribs, steaks last. And it takes, like, a minute per vegetable. He just throws them on and basically they immediately turn black and he takes them back off. Same with the sausages. Black. And he’s desperately trying to find a cooler corner of the grill to move them to but the heat of the coals singes the hair off his arm whenever he tries to move them and he’s like getting frantic like Goofy does, right?
W4lt: I dunno… it’s not realistic.
Scriptwriter 2: And then he throws in some wood chips for fragrant smoke and puts in the ribs and closes the lid. And the smoke comes roiling out. He reads the directions on the rib packaging, they say 30 minutes on the grill and he’s like, no way. He wants to turn the ribs after a minute, or at least check them for blackness, but when he lifts the lid from the barbecue a huge cloud of smoke and steam roils out and envelopes his face and he pulls back and is like, Holy Shit and he smells a smell he hasn’t smelled since he played with fireworks as a kid: singed hair. And Goofy is like, oh shit.
W4lt (just shakes head): mmm.
Scriptwriter 2: He takes the blackened ribs back off the heat. He checks his eyebrows which just crumble. He goes into the bathroom and looks at himself in the mirror and his formerly white beard is brown and crumbles away when he touches it, from a long white beard to a short white beard. See, this is why we need Goofy to have long beard and long hair. Some of the long hair gets singed off too.
W4lt: Yeah, no. It’s not realistic.
Timmy: (sits silently, shaking head)
Scriptwriter 2: What’s not realistic about it? Why does everyone suddenly care about realism in connection with a fuck1ng Goofy cartoon? Goofy is a fuck1ng talking dog fuck1ng married to a human woman!
Timmy: What about Clarabelle the cow?
W4lt: That was old Goofy. Modern Goofy was updated.
Timmy: Why?
Scriptwriter 2: Who the h3LL cares, Timmy? It’s a hilarious script. Goofy. Social panic. Barbecue. Fire. Panic. Series of catastrophes. Hilarious.
W4lt (presses button under desk. Security drag away Scriptwriter 2. W4lt Disn3y shouts at him through the open door): It’s unrealistic! It’s impossible! It could never happen in reality! If that ever happens to someone in real life, cut off my head and freeze it under the Pirates of the Caribbean ride!
(Turns to Timmy). Scriptwriters. (Shakes head)
Timmy: Scriptwriters. (shakes head) Sure, I like Collies, Mr. Disn3y.


Turns out I was wrong about summer lasting only a week in Austria. Our garden has been exploding in the heat. The tomato plants are as tall as I am.

The heat has its nice aspects. I prefer less dramatic weather. A little cloudy, a little drizzle, like the Pacific Northwest where I grew up often is, but it’s nice to sit in the back yard naked  pitting cherries.

And the heat does keep the slugs at bay.

I was coming to terms with the heat when my wife asked me to take out the compostable garbage. I don’t know what the system is like where you live, but in my village we have three garbage cans, one for paper, one for biodegradeable garbage, and one for burnable, sundry garbage. Glass and tin cans you have to take to a central collection place. Oh, and we also get these large plastic bags into which we are to put plastic garbage, such as plastic bottles – they’re collecting those tomorrow, can’t forget to put out the yellow bag. My wife called me from Japan this morning to remind me.

Apparently it was the first time the compostable garbage bin had been opened since the hot weather started. Not only was the interior absolutely alive with maggots, it was also dense with flies. They can’t have been flies that somehow got into the bin, they must have been former bin maggots that had completely passed through that phase and grown wings and so on and were just milling around in there waiting for someone to come and open the lid so they could all swarm out in this Carlsbad Caverns-style swarm.

So there I was, engulfed in rambunctious flies.

I don’t know what you think about at a time like that. I instinctively clenched every orifice tightly shut and thought about imprinting – that phenomenon where a baby duck decides the first thing it sees is its mother.

Luckily, flies don’t imprint.

At least not these flies.

Needs more cowbell

A 4-day hike in the Austrian Alps

There are lots of cows in the Alps.

There are lots of cows in the Alps.

Things two friends said about the Alps over the years stuck with me.  One called hiking in Europe very civilized, because you hiked not from campground to campground, but from lodge (Hütte) to lodge, where food and beverages are served and you can, in a pinch, get a room for the night. The other said that the cowbells in the Swiss Alps sounded like an Indonesian gamelan.

So when my wife suggested a 75-km. hike in the Austrian Alps near Salzburg this summer I was all for it. Our luggage would be driven to the next hotel every day, meaning we could take lots of junk with us. Since we, too, would be hiking from lodge to lodge most days, all we had to carry was water, sunscreen, spare clothes, a camera, a sound recording device, unnecessary knives, and rice waffles we rarely ate.

One of those peaks is the Hochkoenig, I think.

One of those peaks is the Hochkoenig, I think.

75 km in 4 days of walking breaks down to 10-15 miles per day. It is something I’ve long dreamed of doing, a long hike like that. I haven’t done that since I was a kid and went backpacking on pre-eruption Mt. St. Helens with my uncle, unless you count a month of walking around Crete with my now-wife in 1981.

This hike was along trails between about 1800 and 2100 meters high in a valley in the province of Salzburg, with some fairly high peaks along one side including the Hochkoenig that fairly well dominate the scenery and can look pretty scary when a thunderstorm rolls in, which happened only once and then when we were safe in our hotel for the night.

Trail from our second day, I think.

Trail from our second day, I think.

When hiking in the mountains, altitude hiked is at least as important when calculating the difficulty of a hike as is distance. This was news to me but quickly made sense. Since our hotels were in the valley, each hike started and finished with an ascent or descent, which sort of takes the fun out of an otherwise fairly nice, flattish hike.

Luckily this valley – we parked our car in the town of Dienten and hiked in a circle via Muehlbach and Maria Alm and back to Dienten – is a ski area in the winter so there were lots of ski lifts and goldolas into the hills, which we took when available, without exception. No reason to start your hike all tired. We still counted the altitude covered when adding things up at the end of the day and calculating how proud we should be of ourselves, because we had paid for it.

Once or twice we took the Wanderbus, the hiking bus, which I guess is what hikers take when no lifts are available.

The elusiveness of a clean cowbell recording was Mig's main source of frustration during his hike.

The elusiveness of a clean cowbell recording was Mig's main source of frustration during his hike.

Recalling the friend’s remark about the interesting sound of Alpine cowbells, I brought a digital recording device that I originally bought to record frogs with an expecially melancholy croaking style in the woods by the Danube where I live but have so far been unable to record because I missed the croaking season this year and anyway they sense my presence and stop croaking as soon as I turn it on.

Unfortunately, the acoustics of the Alps were not conducive to getting a clean recording, plus I may have been setting the gain for the microphone wrong somehow. The first time I tried to record, the loudest sound in the meadow was not the cowbells, it was a motorcycle speeding along the serpentine mountain road 500 meters further down in the valley, which sounded most un-gamelan-like.

My dream vacation would be a week in an isolated log cabin like this, with a woodstove and no connection to the outside world and no neighbors and especially no cats.

Mig's dream vacation would be a week in an isolated log cabin like this, with a woodstove and no connection to the outside world and no neighbors and especially no cats.

The main food eaten at the lodges we encountered was bacon in various forms. I had a Bretteljause the first two days, which is kinds of bacon, and smoked sausages, and cheeses, and a pickled pepper and a tomato, and some bread and some butter, all on a board. Bretteljause means snack on a board. Board snack. I got sick of bacon after two board snacks. All I wanted was salad for lunch, and fruit for breakfast. At my bacon hunger nadir, the hotel we were staying in served only bacon and eggs for breakfast, no muesli/yogurt/fruit option, which is normally on the menu in Austrian hotels.

Otherwise our hotels were fine little 3-star hotels, with unfriendly people in Lederhosen and Dirndln running them. We did not notice this our first night, because we were taken care of by the unfriendly owner’s friendly daughter, or something. The second place we stayed at, the guy who checked us in gruffly told us to take off our hiking boots before going up to our room. Fair enough, but he was a dick about it. The third place, some woman running the dining room at breakfast barked at us and told us to sit at a different table (you are assigned tables for breakfast at these places). We gave her dirty looks and she backed down and let us sit at our assigned table. And then only bacon for breakfast! I thought about taking a picture of it, but you know what bacon looks like.

Alpine butterfly yadda yadda. I still haven't figured out how to use my camera's macro function correctly.

Alpine butterfly yadda yadda. I still haven't figured out how to use my camera's macro function correctly.

Flora and fauna of the Austrian Alps:

  • Lots of cows. These generally leave you alone, as long as you don’t make eye contact, wear red or wave a flag, according to my wife. I was carring a red pack with a shirt hooked to the back so it could dry, waving like a flag, but the cows still ignored me except a couple young bulls which did notice but couldn’t be arsed to actually stand up and give chase.
  • Butterflies. There were many different sorts of butterflies along the trail.
  • The lodge guy. Every lodge has a guy who hits on your wife by letting her look at marmots through his binoculars.
  • Marmots. Not as shy as I thought. Like to relax on rocks in the sun until you’re just about ready to take their picture, when they dive into their burrows.
  • Chamois. Called Gämse in German, these shy little critters like to run back and forth on fields of snow high up in the mountains, apparently.
  • Conspicuous by their absence: mosquitos. That was a nice detail.
Marmot diving into his burrow.

Marmot diving into his burrow.

Think about these cute little guys next time you wash your car.

Chamois. Think about these cute little guys next time you wash your car.

Atop the Hochkoenig, at an elevation of 2941 meters, is a lodge called the Matrashaus. It looks like an interesting place and I bet the view is great, but we didn’t visit it because the ascent takes 4-8 hours depending on who you ask, meaning you’d have to spend the night there and we didn’t have the time. I suspect that some of the supplies there are flown in by helicopter, or they were building something and concrete was being flown in, or something else along those lines, because every time I would take out my recorder to record some especially nice cowbells, one of three things would happen: a helicopter would fly overhead, a jet would fly overhead, a motorcycle would roar past in the valley below, or a body of rapidly-flowing water would appear and drown out the cowbells. Four things. We thought it was funny, at least my wife did.

I would post rare bits of some of the cowbell recordings I made, but it would take me too long to edit them and convert them to MP3s and this post would be long-forgotten by the time I actually put them up here so let me just describe them. The cowbells I heard were tinnier than I expected, and monotonous. If it were up to me, I’d not only bell more cows, I’d bell cows in each herd with bells tuned to the pentatonic scale so no matter what they did, it really would sound like a gamelan.

More trail.

More trail.

This particular area reminded me a lot of Washington State. Of the North Cascades, and Mt. St. Helens and environs. We spent a lot of time up above the tree line, but also crossing mushy moors and going through forests and picking huckleberries.

Part of a moor near the top of some mountain. Lots of huckleberries around here, too.

Part of a moor near the top of some mountain. Lots of huckleberries around here, too.

Some huckleberry bushes.

Some huckleberry bushes.

Actual huckleberries, in a person's hand.

Actual huckleberries, in a person's hand.

When we weren’t hiking, eating bacon, noticing interesting fauna or flora, telling each other proudly how many vertical meters we’d covered or how we were right and our hotel owners were jerks, my wife and I spent a lot of time in the cemeteries in the towns we stayed in.

The graveyards were different in each town. One had two walls full of crypts for urns, another didn’t. All had two things in common, however: the graves were crowded (and consequently small, close together and sometimes with multiple occupants) and they often held people who had died at a young age. Both of these similarities are a result of being in the mountains. Not much flat land for graves, and nothing to do but drink, go to war, ski, climb mountains or fuck up recordings of cowbells with your motorcycle.

Another similarity: nearly all the headstones had portraits of the occupants. Sometimes sandblasted into the stone, usually oval black and white photographic portraits done in some sort of enamel and glued on.

The hiking trails were well-marked. We only once got slightly lost and almost walked off a cliff, but turned around in time and eventually found our way after a little back-tracking.

The hiking trails were well-marked. We only once got slightly lost and almost walked off a cliff, but turned around in time and eventually found our way after a little back-tracking.

On our last day was the longest. The guide (i.e. brochure) said 8 hours of walking, twice as much as the other days. Also it was hotter. But the guide also said, “if you are tired when you finish, call your hotel owner and they will be happy to give you a lift back to the hotel.” It was a long and tiring hike, with plenty of vertical meters. We looked forward to two things the whole day: the lodge at the end of the trail, where we could buy a cold drink and sit in the shade while we waited for the second thing we looked forward to: our hotel owner happily giving us a lift back, instead of us having to hike along a boring road for 2 hours.

When we reached the end of the trail, though, the lodge was closed for emergency repairs. Also, it was supper time, a hotel owner’s busiest time of day. I sensed complications but figured someone would be able to give us a lift of some sort, as they had, after all, promised.

My wife called our hotel, and got yelled at. WTF, it’s dinner time, the cook has today off, forget it, impossible, she can’t pick us up. Um, but you promise to in the description, said my wife. The hotel owner didn’t care. My wife asked her if she could call us a taxi and what it would cost. Five euro, said the owner. Fine, my wife said.

The taxi arrived quickly. Charged us €18, not €5 but we didn’t care, we were exhausted.  The hotel person seemed irritated to see us, but there was no other staff on hand to check us in so she had to take a break from the kitchen to give us our key. We took that opportunity to point out that she might want to change the text in the guide so guests wouldn’t get their hopes up if they finished their hike at dinner time. It was bad timing, though, because she was all out of nerves and instead of apologizing or something along those lines, she criticized us for being slow hikers and said, when that garnered a quizzical look, “if you don’t like it, complain to the tourist board.”

I felt sorry for her. It was just bad timing. The landscape was great, the hotel was nice and clean and even had WIFI, and the food was okay. She and the staff worked real hard to make everything perfect and here she was, losing her nerves and fucking herself up. I suppose that’s what guests see in a hotel, the one wrong thing, not the 100 right things, and decided against going online and slandering the woman and her hotel.

Overall, we had a great time, it’s a beautiful region and I’d totally do it again, despite all the German and Belgian tourists. After all, they have to go somewhere on vacation too, and they’re no worse than American or Japanese tourists. I suppose we’re all irritating, wanting everything to be perfect.  Maybe even Dutch tourists are eventually irritating, precisely because they try so hard not to be irritating. Who knows.

Alpine flower.

Alpine flower.

In one of the cemeteries we visited, an inscription on the headstone of a man who died in his forties read, Das Leben ist ein kurzer Traum. Life is a short dream. I think that’s what it said. I don’t think it said, Das Leben ist nur ein kurzer Traum (Life is but a short dream). I prefer the simpler version without the “but”. A simple statement of fact.

Life is a dream of hiking along an endless trail, wondering when the fuck you’re going to get anywhere. Making a speech on something you know nothing about, while not wearing any pants, and your teeth fall out, and something is chasing you and you’re moving in slow motion and your feet stick to the earth. Or it’s dinnertime and your cook has the day off and you have to cook 50 dinners all at the same time and exhausted guests call and want a ride back to the hotel.

Right now, this very second, someone’s car alarm is going outside my office window. Has been for several minutes. Cowbells, even monotonous tinny ones with helicopters, are far nicer than that.

Sometimes life is a nightmare, sometimes it’s a wet dream. Sometimes it’s a wet nightmare, maybe, whatever that is; I bet it would be unforgettable.

And sometimes, we fly.