Sunday, October 24, 2021

The Train to Metamora

The train to (and from) Metamora
About a month ago, we purchased four tickets for a train that runs from Connersville to Metamora, Indiana. 

Metamora, like Brown County's Nashville or Mackinac Island in Michigan, is one of those quaint tourist towns with a local economy built around fudge. When we bought the tickets, we imagined it would be a nice way to ring in the fall – we'd enjoy a slow train ride through the colorful Autumn leaves, buy a couple bricks of peanut butter fudge, then snooze our way home in a sugary daze as the train cars rocked to and fro.

So we bought the tickets and invited my in-laws, then spent the next month blissfully ignoring the fact that we live in Indiana. Because in Indiana, fall is a bastard.

I don't even think “fall” is the right name for the season that happens this time of year, although summer is long gone by now. What should we call these cold, gray, rainy weeks that grip the Midwest in October? “Spite” works, I think; so we found ourselves on the train to Metamora at the height of spite season.

It shouldn't be a surprise that the trees are all still very green during "spite." Of course they are, just to make a mockery of your pathetic attempt to enjoy the cool weather. That didn't stop us from spotting a few changing leaves. We just had to work a bit harder.

“There! That tree in the gulley, I think I see yellow!” one of us would shout, and the other three would crane our necks to look. Never mind that the tree was lying flat on the ground, and that the yellow leaves were fringed with dying brown curls. It was a seasonal color, dammit, and by God we were going to enjoy it.

The train cars were not heated, and the doors were kept open for air circulation. This seemed to be a nod toward COVID safety, but otherwise precautions were pretty relaxed. While signs encouraged us to wear masks in the station and on the train, only about one in five passengers did, which is about as good as it seems to get anymore.

After a ninety-minute journey, during which we saw eleven and a half yellow leaves, we arrived in Metamora. As the train slowed to a halt, the conductor recited the plan: We'd be given two hours to see the town and eat lunch. Five minutes before departure, the train would sound four long horn blasts; if we weren't back after that, we'd be on our own to get home.

No problem! Two hours seemed like plenty of time to get food, buy fudge, and maybe even feed the exotic ducks waddling along the canal. But we hit our first snag just moments after disembarking the train.

Before we'd arrived, my mother-in-law consulted the Visitor's Guide to Metamora and announced that she wanted us to all eat at The Smelly Gourmet. Concerned that she did not recognize a red flag when she saw one, I asked what, exactly, Smelly had on the menu.

“Eight kinds of grilled cheese!” she told us, handing over the brochure. My wife and I scanned it for detail. Besides the grilled cheeses there was also something called "Smelly chips," which were not described in much detail. But ah, what the hell. What's an adventure without questionable choices?

Unfortunately, despite the map in the visitor's guide, we couldn't find the place. My wife finally had to consult with a local to learn that Smelly himself had taken early retirement, and that The Smelly Gourmet was now closed.

After a little more wandering, it looked like Smelly wasn't alone. Shop after shop seemed to be closed, and buildings had gone up for sale. I suddenly felt kind of stupid: What was I expecting a tourist town to be like after two years of COVID? Just how bustling did I think it would be?

Not everything had closed, of course, but this seemed to make things harder on the surviving restaurants. Because there were fewer places to eat, there were fewer options for the tourists, and so each restaurant we visited had lines out the door while harried staff scrambled to get people served. Meanwhile the tourists were grumbling, all keenly aware of the same clock counting down that would end with four sharp whistles.

Eventually we did find a place with a few empty seats, Gold Diggers Family Diner, where we ate pizza, warmed up, and dried off. On our way out the cashier gave my wife a ticket for a "free gift" at a gem shop across the canal, which was irresistible even in the face of the five-minute whistle. My wife and in-laws went inside to claim the free gift while I got sidetracked by a bin labeled "BOOKS - $1." (The bin contained the copies of What Color is Your Parachute? and The Da Vinci Code that all dollar-book bins are legally required to have, but otherwise not much of note.) My wife emerged from the shop with a new necklace in hand, and we all headed back for the train.

The cold rain never relented. We rode back to Connersville, then decided to find some place for hot coffee to warm up before the drive home. Not far from the train station we found a place called Brian's Bistro, right across the street from a courthouse. We ordered coffees and hot chocolate and chai, and ogled the desserts by the register: there was pie and cookies, brownies and cake, all charmingly served from the Pyrex in which they'd been fresh baked that morning. Nothing cost more than a dollar. We couldn't resist the temptation.

And so we sat and we ate and we warmed ourselves up, expecting at any minute for crowds from the train to arrive. But no one else ever showed up. We had the small place to ourselves.

Sunday, October 17, 2021

Duck Tales

Adorable little idiots
Our neighbor left to go camping trip this week. Before she went, she persuaded us to look after her ducks. Her flock consists of six adults and two juveniles, the latter of which require a little extra love and care because of their small stature and status. If they aren't kept apart from the adults, they run the risk of being run the risk of being picked on or injured. 

This also means the juveniles can't share the same coop when it's time to tuck in for the night. To keep them safe, we brought them home to sleep over in a large plastic tub that was padded with pine chips.

Our dog was oblivious to the new arrivals. She sniffed the bin once, decided it wasn't food, and ignored the ducklings the rest of the week.

The cat was much more curious. She perched herself high on a bench seat where she could see into the tub and keep a careful eye on the ducklings. But even she eventually lost interest. Just like she'd done when we got our dog, the cat once again resigned herself to an intrusion she just had to live with.

Now, after a long week of careful observation in which I've studied both juvenile and adult ducks alike, I'm pleased to report I've learned a great deal about them. And if I had to summarize my findings – if I really had to distill the things I've discovered down to a single essence – I would say, without qualification, that ducks are the stupidest birds I've ever met.

Cute? Yes. Funny? Absolutely. But none of this means they're intelligent. When it comes to actual brain power, ducks might as well be aquarium gravel.

Here, here's an example: Between letting the ducks in and out of their coops, taking care of the ducklings, providing fresh food and water, we visited the ducks at least four times a day. We timed these visits to align with the same schedule our neighbor had already established, because we did not want to alarm the poor ducks. We just aren't those kinds of people, like the ones you see wearing hockey masks and hanging around by the pond. Yet despite our precautions, every time we showed up the ducks would fly into a panic.

You'd think they saw us disembowel a fowl with the way the whole flock reacted. Never mind that during each visit we refilled their food and freshened their water; never mind that we added clean bedding to make sure they could get nice and dry. None of this made any impression on the ducks we were there to serve. If anything, they regarded us with more suspicion at the end of the week than they had at the very beginning. It was like they were so sure we were going to kill them that with each passing day their dread only grew worse. These ducks refused reassurance.

The ducklings weren't any better, in spite of the fact that they required even more care and handling than the adults. If I picked up one duckling to put back in the pen, his brother would cheep and cheep and cheep like he was vowing unholy revenge for my crimes. It wasn't until I placed him in the pen, too, where he could see that his brother was fine, that the duckling would calm back down. 

In a way, it was sweet, these two little ducklings watching out for each other. But no matter how many times we went through this routine neither one ever got used to it. Even rewarding them with food made no notable difference. If Pavlov had done his experiments with ducks, he would have died completely unknown. 

Then, today the ducks surprised us. This morning we let them out of their coop to enjoy a day in the pen. When we peeked in a little bit later, the ducks had escaped to go waddling all over the yard. Somehow, they'd found their way free.

But how? We couldn't figure it out. We inspected the perimeter of the entire pen, looking for an obvious escape route. Could they have squeezed through this little gap? Could they have dug under here? Could they have hopped up to this ledge and run along on the fence line? Each possibility seemed less likely than the last, but obviously something had happened. We took down the fence and herded them back in the pen, then repaired and reinforced anything that looked slightly suspect.

Because this is the thing that I've learned about ducks: Individually, each one may be dumb, but as a flock they will figure things out. Like ants spreading every direction until one stumbles over a picnic, ducks will constantly poke and prod and test everything they possibly can. And as soon as one makes a discovery, the rest will hurry to join.

While I don't know exactly where the ducks got through, I can tell you how it must have happened: One duck, poking along the perimeter, found a way to wriggle on out. This one lucky duck then sent up a quack that attracted all of her fellows, each of which then followed her lead. Despite having the collective intelligence of a set of car keys, through enough trial and error they found their way to success.

What they did with that freedom was the same exact thing they did in their pen. They waddled around, poked at the grass, quacked at the breeze, and they squabbled. Until we went over to herd them back in the pen, at which point they panicked and scattered.

Fortunately, by then I knew how they thought – whatever direction they needed to go, I just had to stay on the opposite side. Maneuvering them now seemed very simple. After all, we'd been at it a week; by the time they got loose this morning, the ducks had us very well trained.

Sunday, October 10, 2021

The Hard Question

EDIT 10/13: 
The original version of this blog included a discussion of Robert Kolker's "Who is the Bad Art Friend?" As more information has come out, I've become less and less comfortable with Kolker's version of events, as well as the discussion around them.

Suffice to say, I've decided to excise that part of the post. My points about stubbornness and persistence can be made without referencing a situation I'm unqualified to comment on.

This week, I read and enjoyed this interview with Ted Flanagan. At one point, Flanagan talks about what it takes to be a long-haul writer, and he draws a comparison to his experiences in training to become a Marine:

No one would mistake me for Rambo.

But I was stubborn, and I mean STUBBORN, unafraid of exhaustion, drowning, heights, physical and mental pain, whatever you could throw at me, so deep was my desire to be in this unit. They could kick me out, but I’d never willingly quit.

I think this same kind of stubbornness should be in the toolbox of every indie writer. I am blessed to have a book coming out, but I’d still write no matter whether anyone read a word of mine or not.

At some point in their careers, every writer has to stop and ask themselves why they keep going. Because no matter how successful they've been, or how much they've been published, those highs are just the tip of the iceberg, obscuring a literal truckload of failure and rejection. It takes a particular kind of personality to keep writing each day, knowing your daily work might be literal garbage. (Whether that mindset is stubbornness or insanity probably depends on who's asking.)

At any rate, when Flanagan says he'd keep at it no matter if he had any readers, I believe him. That's the reality for most writers, most of the time. But living in that place of rejection, and trying to find purpose in work that nobody cares about, is no easy thing.

Instead, it becomes very tempting to focus on other accomplishments. I'm as guilty of that as anyone, holding up other parts of my life for praise because I was so sick of being alone at the keyboard. Can't finish a novel? Hey, that's okay – announce you applied for an MFA program instead! Can't sell those short stories? No worries, my dude – just adopt a new dog and post pics!

But none of that allows you to escape the same difficult question: "Why do I write?" It's something every writer I know wrestles with, sometimes for years. And hell, it's not hard to see why: How can anybody look at a thumb drive filled with unpublishable stories and think, “Yup, this is it! This is what life's all about!”

Instead, faced with a lifetime creating things that no one will see, a lot of people – maybe even most – will pack up and focus on the rest of their lives. They'll go back to school, or start a family, or throw themselves into a high-paying career; anything that leaves a visible trace to prove they haven't been wasting their lives. None of these pursuits are incompatible with being a writer, but for some they're a whole lot more satisfying.

For those that don't pack it in, the writers who choose instead to keep plugging away with little to show for the effort, the rewards are pretty abysmal. Those writers get to keep answering the same hard question over and over: Why am I still doing this?

That's when the temptation to seek outside approval feels most compelling. But when you do a thing not for itself, but instead for the validation of others, you award them power over your purpose. You're asking them the hard question because you're afraid of how you might answer when you're there at the keyboard alone. But – and truly this is the hell of it – you're the only person who can.

Sunday, October 3, 2021

Back, Better

A couple weeks ago, I fucked up my back.

It happened, as ever, while exercising. I was at the very end of my workout, doing my final few squats, when something went terribly wrong. A tired leg slipped, my back tried to compensate, and everything went all to hell.

I should say that this kind of thing is not new. Back injuries are one of those things that seems to happen to me every couple of years. In 2019 I was training for a marathon when I got that twinge in the middle of my run. You know the one. The this-is-going-to-suck flash of pain that signals it's too late to stop what's coming, even if it's not clear how bad it will get.

Twelve hours later, the spasms kicked in. For the rest of the day I cycled through waves of what felt like charlie horses rippling across my back, and there was no way to know when they'd stop. I'd start to get comfortable, and ask my wife something simple like “Could I have another aspirin?” But instead it would come out as “Could I haaAAAAGGGHHHHH” as my back muscles tried to wrench themselves free from my spine.

Luckily, the spasms only lasted a day. I didn't feel great after that, but I could at least walk around. This time, although the pain wasn't nearly as bad, it turned out to be a lot more debilitating. For instance, when I lay down on the floor to stretch out my back, I realized I couldn't pull myself up. The muscles just wouldn't cooperate. 

"So this is how it all ends," I thought, lying helpless as my dog licked the top of my head. Preparing, no doubt, to eat the meat from my corpse once I'd finally expired. Suddenly those Life Alert commercials didn't seem so funny. (And the price for their services? Very reasonable! These are the things you learn while you're stuck on your back like a turtle.)

Standing up was not the least of my problems. As it turns out, your back is actually quite useful. Without it in service I couldn't lift my own shoes, let alone pick up a weight or go for a run. I couldn't even walk without being tilted forward at a 45-degree angle, like I was perpetually on the verge of a somersault.

The sight of myself in the mirror was also disturbing. Suddenly my hips were no longer level, and my belly button had migrated three inches left. If I tried to straighten myself out, I found that I couldn't. If I tried even harder, a back spasm would underscore the point my body was trying to make clear – if I wanted to heal, I had to be patient.

This left me with some time on my hands. I'm not much of a Pollyanna, but if there is a silver lining to injury it's that your habits will change whether you like it or not. When this happens, it's not unusual to ask yourself: Did I even like what I was doing before, or is there something I might want to change?

So over the last couple weeks I've started to wonder if there might be a better use of my time. Exercise is good, sure, but what if I spent those hours weeding, or mulching, or rebuilding our deck? What if I painted the house, or repaired our old fence, or finally replaced the water-logged laminate on our dining room floor?

I began lifting weights in our basement because during COVID I couldn't go to the gym. And yeah, having my own space for that stuff was actually pretty great. I didn't have to wait on any machines, or share any equipment. I could put on Star Trek and finally watch every episode of the original series. (Do you have any idea how many "Earth-like planet" episodes there actually were? Kirk fought Nazis, the mob, Ancient Romans, and Communists way more often than Klingons.)

But as much as I've enjoyed it, it's gotten pretty routine. Even a bit stale. Which might be why I started riding my bike so much this last month, which put a small bit of strain on my legs; which is maybe why they couldn't get through that last set of squats, and how I got here to begin with.

These are the dangers of boredom, I guess, and all the more reason to change some things up. So that the next time I'm stuck lying prone on the floor, it'll at least be on top of fresh laminate.

Either/Or

Lately I've been in the bad habit of not quite finishing books. I get antsy toward the last twenty pages or so, distracted like a fickle...