“What ARE you?” 

I was young, maybe 20, hanging out at The Treasure Chest, a vile bar on South Beach in Miami. I was taking a break from ignoring assignments handed out in the course in English Literature at the University of Miami. I’m not sure how it happened that I was in Miami making up the credits I had vaporized in my junior year at Kenyon, but I think I was also “house sitting” and “caring” for the garden while my father and step-mother were in Finland. 

I’ll get back to the “what are you” in a bit, but I pause in reflecting on yet another shabby chapter in a portion of my life that is swampy and indistinct. Some of the artifacts from those years remain, and I can fill in some of the blanks, but sometime after leaving 4th grade in the tiny public school in New Preston, I wonder where I went.

So, some claque squatting at this wretched bar began guessing. Greek? Italian? Filipino? Turkish? Asian? Persian? 

My genetic soup is actually characterized as Anglo-Iberian, pretty much 50/50, although the Anglo features must be recessive as I have what my mother called an “olive” complexion. The olive, I have discovered, is a “drupe” or stone fruit, information that is of no use in characterizing my hue. I’ve researched the pigmentation, however, and find this description –

”Olive skin is a human skin color spectrum. It is often associated with pigmentation in the Type III to Type IV and Type V ranges of the Fitzpatrick scale.It generally refers to light or moderate tan skin, and it is often described as having yellow, green, or golden undertones … Type III pigmentation is frequent among populations from the Mediterranean (i.e. Southern Europe, Western Asia, and Northern Africa) as well as some parts of Latin America and Asia. It ranges from cream to darker olive skin tones. This skin type sometimes burns and tans gradually, but always tans.”

I was concerned at the outset, wondering if this Fitzpatrick had been one of the quasi-scientists the Nazis so admired, but it turn out he was a well meaning dermatologist trying to determine the ratio of burn-to-tan for people of various skin colors in his research on melanoma and UV exposure. Type I and II tan minimally and burn like crazy. I burn  but brown up quite nicely in the course of a sunny summer, so I’m squarely in the Type III cohort.

In an unlikely turn of events, I was born in Bogota, Colombia, a city racked with gunfire and explosion in the two years I spent there as an infant. Violent conflict in Colombia is apparently not uncommon as I have to specify which unrest raged around my crib. Mine was known as “La Violencia”, a battle between liberals and conservatives which resulted in the death of 300,000 Colombians and led to the military dictatorship of General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla, a dictatorship still in place when I was sent back to Colombia as a boy of 10. I remember nothing, of course, of the first years in Colombia, but the unaccompanied trip to Bogota and various Colombian attractions looms large in the series of “Who thought this was a good idea? ” events that shaped what passed as a childhood.

There are so many questions I did not think to ask my mother as I was put on a plane to Miami and from there to Jamaica and Barranquilla before landing in Bogota. In fact, this month-long excursion to a country in which I knew no one was just one in a series of off loadings appearing without warning or room for discussion. We took off, landed, took off, landed, took off, and landed in Baranquilla. I was to transfer then to a flight to Bogota, but unaccompanied as I was, and not speaking Spanish, I had some difficulty in negotiating the connection. I must have worked it out somehow as I did eventually end up in Bogota where I was greeted by someone. I spent some weeks in the home of an uncle and aunt, neither of whom spoke English, and with cousins (I think) who came and went wherever. The details of the home stay are blurred; I read anything I could find in English, a collection of Open Road for Boys magazines published during WWII and Mickey Mouse comic books. After dark, guard dogs were turned loose on the grounds of the very large house, virtually an entire city block in a section of the city known as Chapinero, today the hipster quadrant, but in the 1950’s very sleepy. This family had obligations of their own, of course, so during the week I walked some distance  from the mansion to a movie theater where I watched a western, Chief Crazy Horse, in Spanish. After the fourth of fifth visit to the theater I pretty much had the plot down and learned the word for traitor -“triador”.

Since my father had a profusion of brothers and sisters, the burden of entertaining me could be spread among the various unidentified branches of the family. I was taken to swim at the Country Club my father had designed, Los Lagartos, the alligators. Bogota is a cloud city, over 8000 feet over sea level, and July is a winter month. I was alone and chilled in the pool until my hosts moved me on to the next adventure. Those outings are muddled in my memory, but I know I walked in a salt mine 600 feet below the city and visited a country retreat, a finca, in the department known as Antiochia, the region from which grandparents I never knew had traveled before settling in Bogota. It was an unremarkable visit until they put me on a horse that bolted. I remember two elements of that disaster. The horse’s name was Caramello, and I was terrified. 

Two outings remain vivid in memory. 

One of the clan owned a tannery, where the hides of cows and horses were dehaired, degreased, desalted, then soaked in tannin. I will never get the smell of that tannery out of my nose. I tried to escape by running to the barns where living animals were kept. Barns also have a strong odor but I quite liked a genuine farm smell. I was safe until a child of about my age appeared with a bag of kittens. He spun them, one-by-one, and threw them at the barn’s roof. Before I ran away, I’d seen one slide down only to be spun and tossed again. 

No trip to Colombia was complete, I found, without at least one visit to the Santamaria Bullring. I had seen bullfighting before, of course, in cartoons, but had no idea how terrible the death of the bulls would be in reality. Terrible and often slow. I do not read Hemmingway’s celebration of bullfighting and bull fighters without revisiting the long afternoon hiding from the action taking place in the sand below the cheering crowd. 

Ok, we’ve settled the “What are you?” question; Anglo-Iberian is as close as I can come. The same query is often more delicately delivered as “Where are you from?”, presented with nothing like the same intention as “Where did you grow up?” I can count on one hand the number of people who have asked where I grew up, a question I often ask people I meet. I don’t grill new acquaintances, but I ask about their lives and remember their stories. I don’t remember ever delivering the “what are you?” conversation stopper, and I suspect fewer people do; in these combative times skins are thin and sensitivity to political affiliation is always the subtext of any early encounter.

As to the legitimate “where” question, I spent my school days in Connecticut and have returned to Connecticut in this later chapter, but my attachment to Kenyon is deep, I remain devoted to Michigan football, I long to return to Tuolumne Meadows and the trails in the Upper Yosemite, I treasure the years we spent in Carpinteria and at Cate, and I miss the pear trees and green mountains of Oregon.

Oh, if the question becomes, “What season are you?”, I’m a Winter; wrap me in anything pink, yellow, or orange and I look near death. Anything pastel is off limits. Black, blue, green, that’s me.

A grateful climate migrant’s confession

A grateful climate migrant’s confession

The frost is on the pumpkin, leaves are on the ground, and our flower beds remind me that beauty is ephemeral; the loveliest blooms droop in brown defeat. I’ve never been a lovely bloom, but gravity continues to have its way with me, and drooping seems to be the watchword this month. I could wallow in morbid reflection … or, I could look up to see the festival of colors romping through the woods that surround us. It’s almost too much; a less sensitive author suggested that the array of leaves in a New England autumn is garish. Well, you can never get enough of too much, this glutton suggests. After years in the sere landscape of southern Oregon, we’re gratefully soaking up these paintbrush days.

Feelings are mixed, however, when we remember the friends we left behind, and more jarringly when we recall climate devastation already changing the landscape in the Rogue Valley. We bought our small farm in 2005 and retired there in 2015. Anticipating our retirement, I kept pictures of the house and the pastures on my desktop from the start, looking forward to settling among orchards thick with pears and amid green hillsides of pine. Our part of the valley produced then the fat pears arriving in gift baskets during the holidays. The local Pear Blossom Festival in April celebrated the blanket of flowering trees at our doorstep. Roses decorated our yard throughout the year. In late July, an acre of blackberries ripened; our dogs learned to snag the ripest without injury. By the middle of August in our first years in Oregon, I had to collect fallen pears and plums on a daily basis before the dogs ate much, much more over-ripe fruit than they could successfully process. 

We knew there would be a scalding few weeks in mid-summer, but weeks turned into months in our final years. The pasture stayed green for a while. We pumped in water and sprayed twice a week, but as Oregon’s drought continued, there was little water for irrigation, and we let the field turn to cracked earth. The commercial pear trees survived as the orchards brought lumbering trucks of water in week after week. The local lakes slowly became bare dirt. Wells went dry. 

To live in the West is to live with fire. We had been aware of terrible devastation in California, largely confined to wild areas adjacent to forests when we first arrived  but increasingly impinging on populated areas by the time we left. The Thomas fire destroyed almost 300,000 acres of the county we had lived in, killing twenty-three people in the blaze and ensuing mudslide. What had seemed regular but isolated incidents of fire became increasingly dangerous. All but one of the ten most destructive fires took place after the year 2000; six of those ten took place in a single year, 2020. Two years earlier California’s deadliest fire, the Camp Fire, killed eighty-six people, fifty-eight of whom were unable to escape the town of Paradise in Butte County. Pictures of the skeletal remnants of the 18,000 buildings lost in the fire were horrifying. The President visited the ruins, wishing the people of “Pleasure” a speedy recovery. 

We had moved to Phoenix, Oregon, half-way between Ashland and Medford by that time, roughly two hundred and fifty miles north of Paradise. As yet in no danger from fire in 2018, the air we breathed brought its own hazards. There had been smoky summers in the past, annoying but generally swept away after a few weeks of negotiating air quality at the hazardous level. My guess is that people living outside the West do not check air quality daily, probably don’t even have a sense of how air quality is measured. The index runs from 0 to 500, divided into bands, each given a separate color. Green indicates ambient air from 0 to 50, – satisfactory, no risk. Yellow from 51 to a 100 is moderate, not great for folks unusually sensitive to air pollution. Orange runs up to 150 and is dangerous for people whose breathing might be compromised. The scale intensifies a bit with red, AQ from 151 to 200, is unhealthy, purple from 201 to 300 very unhealthy, and Maroon at 301 and higher is hazardous.

In the summer of 2018, our air quality was routinely above 150; in the summer of 2020 we lived in the purple zone, recording an AQ high above 350. That summer the Almeida Fire reached us. The town of Phoenix and neighboring town of Talent were destroyed, more than 3,000 buildings lost in a matter of hours. Only those who have seen the distinctive color of smoke from a fire tornado can understand how quickly the fire ate its way north. We saw the smoke, and when we heard propane gas tanks exploding to the south, we grabbed our “To Go Bag”, pushed the dogs into the car and drove to what we thought was safety some miles to the north. As is the case throughout the mountainous West, major roads run from south to north. There are two major roads heading north from Phoenix, one of which was closed as the fire roared. We’d planned for evacuation but hadn’t thought about the number of cars all heading in the same direction. We also had not yet learned that cars caught in a fire tornado are stalled death traps as the oxygen necessary to combustion is sucked from the air. We were able to find an open road, but when we landed at the home in which we would spend the evacuation, word reached us that another fire was heading our way from the north. 

We escaped. Our house was untouched. Ravaged properties within ¼ mile lay smoking. 

The Alameda fire was terrifying, but in addition to pandemic arriving at the same time, two continuing problems remained: Pears and tourists aren’t keen on heat and drought.

Even when not in fire’s path, smoke from fires throughout the region continue to make ordinary enterprises untenable. The highly regarded Oregon Shakespeare Festival had to move from the lovely open-aired Elizabethan Theater to the local high school’s auditorium; the hordes of tourists visiting southern Oregon stayed home. Pears were affected by the smoke; the holiday baskets that season contained a note apologizing for smaller pears of an unfamiliar color. A region depending on agriculture and tourism began to wither. Pear orchards were razed, replaced by fields of hemp.

Medford cooked at 115 degrees in June, and the region’s water source, Emigrant Lake, held roughly 2% of its full capacity. Our neighbors’ wells ran dry; Jackson County has wells exceeding 800 feet that do not yield water. Lakes in the west have so emptied that land is visible that has not been seen for 2000 years. Salmon are in danger of extinction in the Klamath basin; they are now on the Endangered Species List. 

We are climate migrants, abashed at having left behind people about whom we care, but surprised on a daily basis by the confused response we now get when we explain our flight to the Northeast. The New York Times had reporters and photographers on the ground when our small town burned; images of melted buildings were sent around the world. How had fire and drought not communcated crisis? We can’t forget walking in the southern end of our pasture seeing what remained of the Umpqua Bank, the steel vault standing alone in a landscape of ashes. 

I’m sitting in our dining room, facing more trees than I can count or identify. It rained this morning, and a mist lingers, softening the tangle of color we walked through yesterday. We are grateful; our views are lovely. Our days are sweet, and yet I no longer believe my grandchild will see the forest that stands before us today. The future was right before our eyes.

Be Bold, Be Bold …

Be Bold, Be Bold …

All Hallows’ Eve? Allhallowtide, beginning with All Saints’ Day and culminating in All Souls’ Day?  Inflatable Tigger Vampire? Animatronic skeleton at Home Depot? 

If you think the spirit of Christmas got lost somewhere after the world premiere of Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever, the celebration of the evening before All Hallows/All Saints Day, the recognition of all saints known and unknown who have made it to heaven, is as muddled as the conflation of the observation of the Roman sun God (Sol Invictus) and the Nativity.  All Hallows’ Eve had a significant history before the church folded it into its calendar. I suspect that had I not been teaching in California, my annual salute to the pagan holiday, Samhain, might have been cause for alarm. Guilty of conflation myself, I reminded my 9th grade class in Humanities that on the evening of October 31st, the fragile boundary between this world and the Otherworld was flimsy enough that all sorts of hijinx were likely to ensue. Did we dance? Yes we did, to Lord Intruder’s version of “Zombie Jamboree ”. Stories? Only the most chilling, usually an enactment of the folk story, “Mr. Fox”, itself a variant of “The Robber Bridegroom” and “Bluebeard”. Its refrain, “Be bold. Be bold. But not too bold. Lest your heart’s blood run cold” travels with every iteration as does the clarification of the murderous suitor’s lies. Shakespeare quoted them directly in Much Ado About Nothing when the confirmed bachelor, Benedict, suggests that, “…like the old tale, “It is not so, and t’was not so.”

My zombies and threatened brides are now people of substance in the adult world, probably not planning to celebrate Samhain, but likely outfitting their own children in the classic witch/ghost/skeleton/ outfit or the costume du jour this season. Those dishing out the treats have to stay au courant to appreciate the spectacles brought to their doors. In the first year of the pandemic, when Tiger King:Murder, Mayhem and Madness ruled Netflix, we saw Joe Exotic costumes, to be sure, but the overwhelming favorite referenced Carol Baskin, proprietor of Big Cat Rescue, featuring blonde wig, flower headdress, and flowing cat print patterned tunic. “Trick or Treat, all you cats and kittens!”. This year, the hot costumes include the bride and groom from a Valyrian wedding, the red off-the-shoulder dress and huge sunglasses worn by scamming Anna Delvey as portrayed in Inventing Anna, t-shirt and blue apron worn by Carmy Berzatto in The Bear, a Doctor Strange Multitudes of Madness cosplay costume and the orange faux fur worn by Mabel in Only Murders In The Building. Want to trick and treat as a couple? Almost too easy. Go to any Party Store and pluck the Soap and Loofah costumes right off the rack. Or, go as M & Ms, or Trolls, or Minions, or guys with 80’s hair ala Stranger Things

My inflatable Tigger Vampire finally expired just before we moved across the country; its replacement is too pricey, even on eBay, so I’m downsizing this year, adjusting to life at the end of an untraveled road, without juice for inflatables of any sort. I’ve put out some pumpkins, but expect our neighborhood bears will haul them away as autumnal snacks. I just bought a pathetic Halloween garden flag which I can stick in the piles of leaves near the mailbox. A dachshund wearing a witch’s pointed hat cavorts across the flag shouting, “Happy Halloweenie!” 

At least the bears won’t eat it.

Candy-fueled hoopla and goofy costumes aside, Halloween stands alone in the calendar of communally celebrated events, mostly fun, but just a shriek away from unsettling. The uncostumed, everyday world has monsters by the truckload, and life sucking demons, and creatures who are not what they appear to be. Halloween is like bowling with bumper lanes; yes, honey that is a ghoul, but it’s all make believe. We get a slight thrill of terror, unwrap another Snickers bar, and troop up to the next door, facing the unknown with a pillowcase full of Kit Kats, peanutbutter cups, and the occasional indigestible and unlabeled bargain Tootsie Roll knockoff. 

Our house will offer top-of-the-line chocolate confections, hand selected and taste-tested. Bags sit on a stool by the door awaiting the first ringing of the doorbell. I’m willing to bet we get fewer than two trick and treaters, but we’ll honor them with our largesse, admire their getups, wish them a Happy Halloweenie, and retreat to the TV cave to watch Muppets Haunted Mansion or SCTV’s Count Floyd’s House of Stewardesses – very scary!

Fat Bear Week in Alaska

Fat Bear Week in Alaska

OK, voters! 

It’s Katmai National Park’s Fat Bear Week again, and their gallery of fat bears is teeming with … fat bears. There’s also a junior bear competition, but, come on, let cubs be cubs! I’m still recovering from Toddlers and Tiaras and Dance Moms. You too?

Now, to be completely transparent, I’ve followed “professional” wrestling and personally measured Arnold Schwarzenegger’s neck. I spent a week as the replacement advisor to a cheerleading team attending Spirit Camp at Auburn University. If you have never seen teen-aged girls compete for the “Spirit Stick”, you have never seen the bare face of human desperation. I’ve been in the belly of the beast, people. 

Loyal readers already know that my wife and I encounter bears on a regular basis. We live among black bears in a manicured suburban town just north of Hartford, Connecticut. Our local facebook pages include one dedicated to bear antics in swimming pools, at birthday parties, and in garbage bins. The most recent estimate of bears in town numbered almost 100, including the cubs we first saw last spring. Close encounters of the bear kind? I’ve had two, mano a pata, close enough to understand that there is something more than I can understand behind those deep brown eyes. 

Is this just another beauty pageant for bears? There’s nothing remotely regrettable about this contest.

There may be pageant winners out there, aching to correct my superficial dismissal of beauty contests. I know. It’s all about the scholarships. And yet, I still recall the solemnity with which Miss Arizona 2009 responded to a question about universal health care:

“I hear your question and refuse to answer it or express an opinion because everyone has a right to an opinion…”

I’d rather interview a black bear rooting through a garbage bin.

Back to Fat Bear Week. 

The opportunity to endorse the bear of your choice is sponsored by the Katmai National Park, Brooks River, Alaska. There is a wonderland of bear related information and photographs on their competition website:, including several bear cams and a lot of information about the habits of bears in that park. For those of us not able to visit Katmai, the park offers this description of its treasures:

“Katmai’s brown bears are at their fattest in late summer and early fall. It is the end-product of their summer-long effort to satisfy their profound hunger and prepare for winter hibernation. During hibernation, bears do not eat or drink and can lose one-third of their body weight. Their winter survival depends on accumulating ample fat reserves before entering the den. 

To get fat, bears gorge on the richest and most easily obtainable foods they can find. In Katmai National Park, that most often means salmon. Dozens of bears gather at Brooks River to feast on salmon from late June until mid October. Perhaps no other river on Earth offers bears the chance to feed on salmon for so long.

Fat bears exemplify the richness of Katmai National Park and Bristol Bay, Alaska, a wild region that is home to more brown bears than people and the largest, healthiest runs of sockeye salmon left on the planet.”

Fat bears are not mocked; winter is coming. As the park puts it –

In the bear world, fat exemplifies success. It is the fuel that powers their ability to endure winter hibernation as well as the key to their reproductive success … Their road to greatness began months ago. After a summer-long effort, brown bears at Brooks River in Katmai National Park have reached peak fat. How did they do it and what challenges did they face along the way? Those are a couple of the questions we’ll answer as we reveal the contenders and the bracket for the 2022 Fat Bear Week tournament. Watch Fat Bear Week Contestants and Bracket Reveal: October 3 at 7 p.m. Eastern / 4 p.m. Pacific.”

I did check back to see what the brackets look like and found that only four hours ago, an avid voter added this poetic tribute to the bear of her choice:

I like the light brown Bear Holly

Although she doesn’t look jolly.

She’s feeling the stress

of being chosen the best.

She is looking somewhat melancholy.

A visit to Holly’s profile explains the poet’s ardor. Holly is described as resembling a lightly toasted marshmallow; she has blonde ears and tan-colored claws. I exhort you to make your own determination of bear girth, pick a favorite, and write an ode in appreciation of the massive ursine beauty you favor. Mine is a bear known only as 856. You’ll find his resume at the web address provided below:

It’s immeasurably easier to wax rhapsodic about a bear with an actual name, Holly, let’s say, than it is to promote my pal, 856, but here goes-

856, dark vision of plumpitude

Is a marvel of belly and rumpitude

His prowess in pre-winter feeding

Assures him of snoozing and breeding

While others must wander in chumpitude

Your bear is waiting to meet you. Feel the love, and as Al Capone is reputed to have said, “Vote early and vote often.”