Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Into the Sunset

Trite but true: What a difference a week makes.

After our Campmor shopping trip last week, I thought we were all set:
Mosquito netting hat - check!
Rain suit- check.

Then came an interesting news story this week about the 7 teen NOLS hikers who were attacked by a grizzly bear mother in Talkeetna. Yes, folks, we'll pass by there. Talkeetna is about a third of the way to Denali from Anchorage. My bear anxiety level right now on a scale of 1-10 (low to high) is about 8+. Gary's is a 1. 

HIM: "Think of how many people are in the wilderness, how rare attacks are, blah, blah, blah...".
ME:  "Yeah, but what about the recent attack in Yellowstone, where the husband got killed?"
(I did read that when they saw the mother and cub they just kept hiking, instead of turning back. No way I'd do that.)

I don't even care now if the salmon run has ended early and the bears have already left Katmai. I think I'd be happier not seeing any bears, although seeing them from the comfort and security of the fenced off viewing platforms sounds nice. As for Denali, I don't know if I'll be getting off the bus. There is a ranger hike at one stop, so that might be ok. Do NPS rangers carry guns? Do they at least lead the hike, so they'd take the first hit?

You have to love the comments people have posted after the Talkeetna story online. Here are a few gems and my comments:

"Going to Alaska without a gun? That's crazy talk!" (thank you Sarah P.)
"I never leave home without my 350 magnum." (Is this Clint Eastwood?)
"Did the hikers have bear bells on?" (somehow I don't think it would make much difference to have little,tinkly bells warning a big, angry mother bear...A la Jaws...I think we're going to need a bigger bell....)

I'm still excited about the trip and the relaxation breathing seems to be helping, so I'm definitely going to get on the plane. (Getting off may be another story).I am wondering if we need to re-visit Campmor and stock up on bear spray, bear bells (big ones), guns, ammo, etc...

Highlights to come:
Driving past Wasilla (photo ops!)
Looking at the Katmai bears, from a very safe distance
Pictures of hiking and no bears!
Kayaking at Kenai Fjords
Eating fresh caught salmon (every day?!)
Circling Mt McKinley (in a plane that's too small!)
Being digitally free - no Internet or Email for 12 days
Hiking the Valley of 10,000 Smokes (while high?)
Staying up until it gets dark at midnight
Wearing my new rain suit (every day?!)
Surviving without a private bathroom
Gary buying coffee mugs and tee shirts wherever possible
Eric complaining about his parents' slow transition times
Scott frustratingly searching for a cell phone signal
Missing Beth, who can't come.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Summer of Eric Part II

Can you believe we're approaching the one year anniversary of the Summer of Eric cross country expedition that started all this crazy blogging? To celebrate we have Part II of the expedition. We ended in California last year, so this year we're going all the way up to the 49th state - Alaska! Not driving this time, but taking a quick 10 hour flight to Seattle and then Anchorage, our base city. From there, we have separate hops to three national parks: Katmai, Denali and Kenai Fjords and we're hoping we don't get stuck, if the ridiculous posturing in Washington DC shuts down the government and our parks on August 2.  If you don't hear from me by Labor Day, please send out the huskies.

I'm taking it easy today in anticipation of an exhausting but exhilarating shopping trip to Gary's favorite store, Campmor. It is fun to be such loyal customers that you're greeted by name, as you enter the hiker's paradise on Route 17. And who doesn't hear the words "brand new rain suit" and not feel chills running up and down their spine? Is it from imagining the 40-60 degree temps in the rain or fantasizing that you are a great explorer, conquering America's last great wilderness?  I already have my zip and go pants, two sets of long underwear, a heavy fleece, hat, gloves, low cut hiking boots, polypro tees and UV protected long sleeve shirts. Gary easily has twice as much gear and clothing as I do, but somehow I think he'll find some new essential items. The challenge of this trip is we're supposed to pack lightly to facilitate travel on small planes, even smaller float planes, Park Service buses and cozy accommodations in cabins and lodges. Eric, who comes home for the holidays with all essentials stuffed into a backpack, should have no problem, but Scott and I may struggle and Gary's already relying on the ingenious idea of using the rental car as extra closet space, packing a light travel bag and an overstuffed supply bag.

I've always felt the planning and anticipation of a trip adds as much fun and excitement as the actual event. Last year I distinctly remember saying that while all the summer travel was great, I'm a beach girl and prefer not to stray too far from the Jersey shore during July and August. The summer just flies by too quickly. I had stated my case, so I was surprised to see books on Alaska suddenly appearing on the coffee table last January: Frommer's and National Park Service guides, Histories of Alaska, Alaska-the Last Frontier, the Quiet World, the Road to Denali, etc. Gary's reply: "That's the only time of year you can go there."  He threw himself into the planning and arranged the entire trip. You didn't really think we would take the popular cruise on the Inside Passageway/Glacier Bay that everyone else raves about, did you? No, we are striking out on our own. I did check the itinerary and noted we seemed to have no accommodations one night, but that turned out to be an errant confirmation email that was temporarily lost in cyberspace. I want to be a little surprised, so I didn't delve too deeply, especially after some disturbing revelations. 

Me: "You mean we're riding in a small plane and then transferring to an even smaller float plane?"
Gary: "Well, yeah."
Me: "You mean we ride on a Park Service school bus over gravel roads for 90 miles and it takes 6 hours?"
Gary: "Well, yeah."
Me: "You mean we visit Katmai to see bears scooping salmon out of the river at the end of the salmon run? What if the bears leave early?"
Gary: "They won't."
Me: "You mean we won't have a bathroom in our cabin?"
Gary: "Well, yeah."

I only use the facilities 3 or 4 times a night, so trooping off to the nearby lodge (with bear bells ringing) shouldn't be a problem. "Just don't drink anything after 4 pm," a friend suggested. As for the Katmai bears leaving early, a friend who lives in West Milford confirms that NJ black bears are finely attuned to the garbage pickup schedule and very punctual about appearing on the correct night. So as long as global warming doesn't end the salmon run early this year, we should be ok.  Are you listening, bears? Wait for the K family to arrive.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

So you think you can write!

This brilliant idea for a new reality show hit me on my way back to the Path train last night, after attending a writer workshop at NYU.  Very positive lady named Jamie ran it, and her philosophy of writing was this:

Everyone has a book inside themselves. They just need to think about what they're really, really interested in, what their passion is, and voila, the book will practically write itself.

Who knew?  Here I've been struggling with character profiles, subplots, backstory, dialogue and alternating points of view. Does that mean I just haven't found the right book project yet?  The hard part, according to our NYU expert, is in marketing and selling the book. Make friends, write a blog, network, give books away, create your own speaking tour...or how about appear on the next big reality show hit: "So you think you can write!" First prize: publication of your book, including an all expense paid 10 city tour.

Unlike dancing or singing, which require some talent, everyone can and should write that book, according to Jamie, whose positivity and bubbliness created a festive air among the participants. (For one fleeting moment, I thought I was in a pink ribbon rally. Yay! I've got cancer!)

OK, one woman was a bit of a Debbie Downer, saying she had done all those things and still couldn't sell her self published book. "Time to write another one" chirped Jamie "and then while you're busy doing that, the first one will probably take off on its own."  Something to do with overmothering your book, I guess.

But now came the good stuff. It was our turn. We had five minutes to write a pitch for our book and Jamie would then ask for volunteers to read their intros. This is where Jamie excelled. She was a magician, pulling ideas from the air, embellishing the trite and common story ideas, urging writers to rush home and write some dialogue that very night. Yes, Jamie passed the "Be a Judge" interview without even realizing she'd applied. She's the perfect happy, positive-spin judge--the one who sincerely regrets sending you home and may even blink back a few wet ones because "isn't life unfair that I can't pick everyone?"

Our class could easily supply the first show contestants: of those chosen to read, there were 3 men and 3 women, young and old, fat and thin, ethnically diverse. Were these people planted? We started with the newly widowed Nancy, a well dressed, attractive 59 year old with bobbed hair and long, dangly earrings that Jamie noted immediately. "Let's see, let's hear from the woman with the sparkly earrings first." (probably an asset on the public appearance trail)

Lily followed, a 30-something Filipino woman with a trashy, drug-filled past and enough adventures to rival Keith Richards. Alas, she was not famous, but would cast her memoir/novel as suburban mom revealing her shady past to her unbelieving kids. It had potential, and Jamie loved Lily's voice. "Don't you just want to be friends with Lily? Everyone? Come on, can't you see yourself hopping into that taxi cab with her for a visit to her x-rated past?"  I'm not a hallelujah kind of person but i was caught up in the moment and joined in the wild applause. From meth addict to prestigious university student to well rounded Mom, I knew Lily would nail this story.

In any group of aspiring writers there has to be a children's book author and Zara was our candidate. She spoke in short, simple sentences about her story: a nine year old girl and her bike. The girl, orphaned at age 3, lived with her grandfather until he became ill and sent her to the orphanage at age 5. Before he died, he left a bike to be given to the girl as a present on her 9th birthday. (lot of emphasis on numbers here, so maybe could also be marketed as improving arithmetic skills) Lots of exciting episodes to follow.  The end. Jamie took this sow's ear and turned it into the proverbial silk purse. Zara looked a bit dazed as one idea after another tumbled from Jamie's mouth.  
"It's a magic bike, isn't it?" 
Slight, barely perceptible nod from Zara.
"I knew it! (fist pump!) And the grandfather will be her muse. You must go home tonight and write a scene with the girl and her grandfather-OK? You can't go to sleep, until you write it!" 
Zara blinked once for yes and slipped back into her chair, turning to her friend:
"It's just a bike. It's not magic.The grandfather's dead. He's not supposed to be in the story. D'uh."
Did I really hear that or did I imagine it? No matter.

Although the audience was predominately female, Jamie was fair and next chose 3 men to balance the 3 women. I knew right away Tyrrell would be reality show gold. Tall and young, with Rastafarian dread locks and a commanding, confident presence, Tyrrell enjoyed center stage. Unlike Lily who had jumped at the echo of the mike and dropped it like it was on fire, Tyrrell tapped the mike like a professional and grabbed the sides of the podium. Was he stabilizing himself for the roller coaster ride to come? He began by relating a conversation with his cousin that swirled and pulsed through the cosmos, colliding worlds and words, poetry and gibberish. 

Jamie's face was attentive and interested, but as Tyrrell chanted on, flipping pages, pointing a finger for emphasis, the audience shifted in their seats. I thought he may have bested Jamie. What could she possibly say that was good about this? And would she say it soon or let him ramble on forever?  Tyrrell paused and some back rowers started applauding, taking matters into their own hands. Jamie rose and smiled. Was that a look of uncertainty? An element of panic? Of course not, Jamie had already passed the judge's test, so why was i doubting her.  "Tyrrell, you are clearly a spoken word artist, a performance artist with a strong presence and you need to speak at every cafe and venue you can." Wow, masterfully played, Jamie. Tyrrell was pleased with the attention and the positive assessment and the audience was relieved it was over. 

Mr. Dread Locks would be the perfect character that all the other reality contestants hate. He'd be sure to last several rounds, not because he can write, but because of the back stage drama. I bet even nice Nancy would grumble about his nonsensical preaching of intersecting universes and parallax conversions.  He would pit the older contestants vs the young new agers. And, yes, maybe there would be some story synchronicity between Zara's bike girl and Tyrrell's cousin.
But the real back stage drama would come with the last two presenters who would obviously fight over Nancy. Frank, the widower, had been married for 29 years, when his wife died and left him with two children to raise. Before you get out the hankies, let me tell you that Frank is a resourceful guy, a doer not a thinker. Imagine the tension and desperation in this scene, as Frank struggles to pick up the pieces of his life and move on. He dials a number..then hangs up....redials, thinks of his wife...hangs up....redials, thinks of his kids....hangs up...redials and finally the call to the Singles Club goes through. It's been 30 days since his wife died. Hilarious adventures ensue. Jamie was laughing already at the potential story lines and I marvelled at the distillation of his grief into a mere 30 days. Maybe he should be re-writing the Elisabeth Kubler-Ross stages of grief.

I'm not sure if George was married or not, but he gave Nancy a nod as he started to read his memoir: NYC law enforcement for 40 years. Don't cops retire sooner than that? It turns out that George was with various, unidentified, law enforcement jobs, but not the NYPD . Hmm, could he have been a mafia enforcer or have a Russian gang connection? George looked pretty clean cut and benign, so a NYC park ranger or museum guard seemed more likely. Jamie suggested starting with a big, newsworthy crime story he was involved in: 9/11, Son of Sam, Serpico.  "No problem. I've got several," says George. He is the kind of contestant you may well underestimate and may just be the surprise winner.(of Nancy and/or the whole show).

The only details remaining for this reality show would be the additional judges. Jamie has a lock on the positive judge. I was thinking a Maureen Dowd or a Tina Fey for the lightly sarcastic, humorous perspective and then a Jonathan Frantzen type for the moody, dark, incisive comments that would leave a writer speechless, teary-eyed, dropping pens and papers all over the stage or should it be crashing an iPad to the ground? Jamie had already made a snide comment about Mr. Literary Fiction Man Frantzen and we know how judges sniping at each other always adds a nice touch. 

Stay tuned. If I can't find my inner muse soon, I'm shipping this reality show script off to Simon Cowell. He may be getting bored with auditioning singers and with that lovely British accent, he must read books, right? 

Friday, July 8, 2011

Attack of the Sea Salps

We had a glorious 4th of July--good beach time, excellent barbeque--complete with games run by the K brothers. For the record, we did not practice in advance or cheat, although it was curious that all prizes were won by the party host family!

Wiffle ball toss

Water balloon toss

Judges awarding the prizes

The beach surprised us once again with some interesting fauna: dolphins, a sea turtle and salps--lots of them! First the more familiar animals:

Eric spotted the dolphins about 50 yards off shore, moving southward and trailed by several boats. 

When I was growing up, we saw dolphins every year, although nostalgia may be coloring that memory. It was always exciting to spot them. They'd appear in August for a day when the water had warmed up. 

On the next day, a dead sea turtle about one foot long washed up on the waves--a big gash in its back, most likely from a propeller. A crowd quickly gathered and a few teenaged girls started to dig a hole to make a grave. A woman intervened and pointed out that the surf would wear away the grave, so she picked the turtle up and chucked him back into the waves. Didn't have time to get a picture and looking through some websites on Kemps Ridley turtles vs Green Sea turtles vs Atlantic Loggerheads, I realized my observational powers and my memory are pretty weak. Was the shell more round or heart shaped? What exactly was the coloring? Were there claws on the flippers? I have no idea--all I can say is I saw a turtle at the Jersey shore for the first time!

And the best for last: the invasion of the sea salps. The Record had featured a story about them covering Cape May beaches last Monday, a week before the holiday. (I'm sure that shore business owners were less than thrilled to read that front page headline: "Beaches invaded by slimy sea creatures") 

We've seen salps other years, but never knew what they were called. We thought the thumbnail sized bodies were part of the jelly fish family. Here's what they look like when they wash up on the shore: a sparkly necklace of jelly bean shapes.

They don't sting, but they are a bit slimy. You feel like you're swimming in tapioca pudding. They are actually tunicates, underwater saclike filter feeders. They process sea water through their bodies and feed on phytoplankton. They reproduce both asexually (cloning) and sexually, so that's how they're able to multiply so rapidly. We thought they might be more common in warm water, but the unusual 71 degree surf temps apparently had nothing to do with it. Salps occur in all temperatures of water from Antarctica to more temperate waters and chains or swarms of salps can cover miles of ocean surface.

They often follow the phytoplankton blooms in the ocean and some say they drift shoreward when they are looking for more food. The explanation I prefer, which seems more in keeping with the holiday, is that they overfeed and their tiny bodies get clogged with too much plankton. They sink and drift into the shore. Too much plankton is the salp equivalent of a weekend of too much pizza, sausage and peppers, hot dogs with sauerkraut, cheeseburgers, chips and ice cream. I hope the remaining salps learned the lesson of moderation and  communicated that to the rest of the swarm. "Abort, abort, too much food. Retreat to deeper waters." After all, summer's just begun and I'm planning on many more salp-free days at the shore.