The Silent Spinner Runner

A few years ago, I was working in an ancient and massive mill building. The rent was cheap, the land lords were good guys and it was an ideal place to set up a small scale manufacturing business. It was however, pretty rustic. No… rusty. It was pretty rusty. The roof leaked when it rained, the heat was come and go and though I never saw a rat, guessing by our proximity to a river and the shear number of ferrel cats who stalked the tall grass outside the castle walls, you had to assume that they were there. Actually, I quite liked the place. It was built of red brick and granite some time in the early eighteen hundreds and operated as a textile mill. The building is massive and imagining it packed full of clanking looms, twisting machines and chattering French Canadian girls is not hard to do. Though the galleries that saw all this life are now empty, the massive building remains and if you squint just right, you can see the ghosts of that time.

One think I learned early on was that if you were going to be a tenant there, you needed to put all foodstuffs in closable, air tight containers. Though I never saw a rat, there were mice. Plenty of mice. If you left anything tempting out over night, you could bet that by morning, some little fuzzball had helped them selves to your carelessly abandoned snack. I lost a lot of snacks that way. Setting traps would have been farcical. You might as well have decided to kill all the mosquitos in a swamp by standing there swatting them as they landed on you. You’d never EVER get them all, or even enough to make a dent, really. Besides, I’m a live and let live kind of guy and so long as they aren’t in my house, what did I care? I was a manufacturer! Mouse poop on one of my grease smeared, eight ton, hydraulic presses? Heavens! What ever will the neighbors say?

So, there were mice, but that was fine. Heck, they were here first after all. One day as I was working in a back room I thought I heard something. Usually the machinery was loud enough to drown out most other sounds but it was off at the moment and for some reason, so was the radio. I stopped and pricked up my ears. There it was again! I slowly walked around the room listening for the sound and tried to zero in. There! It was over there!

In a box that was half filled with foam packing peanuts was a small greyish-brown cotton ball with a tail. It wasn’t merely a mouse, but a baby mouse. To say that he was small was an understatement. About the size of a prize shooter marble, and with only one eye partially open, he was in a box and couldn’t get out. How he got there, I have no idea. Obviously he was too young to be out and about on his own, having only a little bit of one eye yet open. All I can guess is that his mother had moved him when her nest was threatened. Mice will do that if they think their brood is in peril. No other little brothers and sisters were to be seen, so I assumed that he had been abandoned.

He was too young to make it on his own and though I have set up and cleaned out mouse traps at home many times in the past, I also have a strong sense of empathy that gets the best of me rather often. He hadn’t been doing anything to bother me and now was in dire straights. He’d die if I let him go. What to do?

One empty bucket, some wood shavings and a bottle cap with some milk in it later, I had a pet mouse. Since he was so young, I was sure that he’d die over the next few days and tried not to enjoy him too much. A week went by, both of his eyes opened, he became accustomed to me and I started really having fun watching him in his little bucket-world. A few weeks later, I had picked up an inexpensive glass aquarium, a screen top for it, more shavings and a squeaky wheel for him to run in. That was quickly replaced with one called the “silent spinner”. It had a ball bering to keep if from squeaking like mad and setting my teeth on edge when he used it. I decided that I would call the mouse “Peanut”, not just because if his size but because of where I had found him. Peanut, he became.

Here’s one thing that blew my mind. Here’s this little, wild, white footed mouse that I had found. He had never seen a mouse wheel, but the second I had placed it in his cage, he was off and running. Immediately! How the heck do they know? That’s some seriously strange pre-programing that mice come with. I’m tempted to put a wheel out in a field some place with a camera watching it and see if they turn in into a little mousy-fitness center.

Mice aren’t very long lived. About a year is the norm and being wild, I didn’t expect Peanut to be long for this world. I kept him fed and watered, which wasn’t exactly a difficult chore. He escaped only once. I had carelessly left his cage top open over night and the next day came in to an empty cage. After twenty four hours, he had returned on his own volition to his cozy glass home. I guess he decided that a life of dried dates, rolled oats and clean shavings was better than a life running through the grimy halls of a dilapidated mill searching for dead bugs. I enjoyed his antics and liked watching him zip around his tiny home. A year and a half later, I moved him from my shop to my house. Short Stack was just old enough to notice Peanut and he also liked to watch the runner in his wheel and would ask to be lifted up so he could peer in and visit.

Last month I noticed that Peanut looked like he was slowing down a bit. I didn’t see his little brown and white shape zipping around his cage much any more and he wasn’t eating as much. He did still hang out in his wheel but mostly he just curled up there and watched the world walk by. Last night, I found that he had passed away, curled up in a bed of fluff and shavings. He was three years and three months old. I believe that’s about 286, in human years. Not bad at all for a mouse lost in a box in the back room of an old mill.

We’ll miss you, Peanut. You’re a good little mouse. Spin on, fuzzy runner.

Sayings

There is a saying that my mother is fond of. Right now, it sums things up nicely for me.

“Busier than a one armed paperhanger”

I will endeavor to get writing again this week. I’m just not sure how. Something later this week though. I swear!

In the mean time, here’s something to snicker at.

-Turkish Prawn

Back to School Shopping

The air is cool and heralds the end of summer. Trees are still green, but it’s the deep, dark color of overly mature leaves. Soon they will be sucked dry of life and thrill leaf-peeping visitors in lethargic motor homes as they back up traffic for miles on the winding New England roads.

I’m waiting for my first meeting that could possibly bring me back to a decision I made a long, long time ago. To teach. I had made up my mind that I wanted to teach back when I was in high school. Other than the fact that my mother was a teacher, I’m not sure why I thought it would be the right place for me to make my career. I had never been a stellar student and to be honest, always viewed school more like prisons with desks rather than a place of learning. I would rather have been doing my own thing than listening to someone else’s.

The funny thing is, my own thing often consisted of researching topics I was interested in, building projects that I thought were fun or drawing and painting. The idea of sitting on the other side of the big desk in the classroom and teaching the INTERESTING stuff appealed to me. When it was time to go off and get my bachelor’s degree, I had picked Art Education as my direction.

I had always been artistic and it was easily one of my favorite classes. The other possibility that tempted me had been history, however since my mother was a history teacher, going into that particular field felt… too obvious, some how. Also, I had watched the piles of homework she brought home and had to grind through on Sunday nights. Art’s workload looked better to me.

Four years later and degree in hand, I got to see the cold hard fact that my advisors had been warning me about for the last four years. The job market was hideous. Unless, that is, you were an art teacher. Then it was HORRIBLY hideous! Although I was able to teach grades Kindergarten through high school seniors, the jobs just didn’t exist in any real numbers. If you think about it, most schools have one, maybe two art teachers. They were hired twenty years ago and now that they had the job down cold and tenure, there was no way that they were leaving any time soon. Schools too, were rather caustic when it came to art programs. Though it is very difficult to actually let an art teacher go once they have established them selves, there was nothing to stop them from closing the position once they retired or moved on. Bottom line, art as a subject wasn’t being expanded then and isn’t now. It wasn’t looking good.

So, I did what all hopeful and unemployed teachers do. I subbed. When I say, “subbed”, what I mean is that I awoke to the phone at six in the morning with a call from the school secretary, telling me that there was a school that needed a punching bag in a half an hour. I would fish out a shirt and tie and bring them with me to hang up in the bathroom in the hope that the the steam from my shower would smooth out some of the wrinkles. In the blur of the early morning, I would arrive at an unfamiliar school, look for an unfamiliar class room and then try as hard as I could to both decipher the missing teacher’s lesson plan for the day and not get taken advantage of by the students. What ever happened, you can’t show fear. Forth graders can smell fear and if they do, well… I’d just prey for a swift and painless death.

To be honest, it wasn’t that bad. Close!… but not that bad. What I did learn was that I loved the little kids! I had always envisioned myself teaching art in a high school somewhere and had done my student teaching at that level. What I discovered was that I should have been a kindergarten teacher. To pass on dealing with sullen teenagers who know it all and are utterly unimpressed, if not out right dismissive of what you are trying to teach them, for the wide eyed enthusiasm of a five year old learning a new song was something I found out after I had assumed I was done with college. Unfortunately, I didn’t peruse the change to being a Kindergarten teacher. It would have meant going back to school again to get another degree and I was still twitching from my last round of finals a few years before. After years of mornings like this, I was getting crispy from the subbing and loosing interest and any hope of being an art teacher. Rather than going back for the second teaching degree, I looked away from education and moved into the world of business. It’s been ten years of that now… and I’m getting crispy again.

A few weeks ago, Action Girl and I took the kids to the local school playground for some fun. The new school year was due to start in just one week and as Short Stack played on the garishly colored plastic jungle gyms; I peeked through a window of the building. Hands cupped on the sides of my head and nose against the glass, I looked in on a first grade classroom ready for action. Desks neatly lined up, black board cleaned, bulletin boards decorated and everything needed for learning, neatly tucked into cubbies an baskets just waiting for little hands to fish them out. In the middle of my chest, I felt the pull again. I wanted to be behind the big desk. I wanted that to be my room!

So, I’ve made a decision. I’ve put my business up for sale and will be stepping away form that. It’s time for a change. As I wait for my appointment with the director of the education department, I’m watching the other young students walk down tiny paths on their way to another class. I remember being them and hope they are enjoying what they study. Life can be a long and strange road and you never know where it will take you. It might be away to unforeseen places. It may be leading you where you never expected to go and wouldn’t pick now if you did. Or, like the path might be for me, circular. Having shown me some amazing vistas and overlooks along the way, it could lead back to the place I started at so long ago. I’ll have to wait and see.

The thing is, to enjoy the walk.

Living Inside the Moat

The sun has come up on our little corner of Maine and as the chilly night air of autumn finds its way back into the dark corners and hollows, it makes room for warmer breezes and evaporating dew. This morning I find myself driving slowly around the neighborhood on a pleasant Saturday morning. The combination of encroaching cool weather and the start of the school year has sent most of the summer visitors back to their primary billing addresses and leaves the roads wonderfully navigable again. Things are quieter now and the folks who I see enjoying the fresh, new day tend to be folks whom I know well. I love this season.

At the moment, there are just two of us in the car. My daughter, Lulu Belle sits, wrapped in pink and flowers as she takes her early morning nap. The only visible movement being the miniscule bobbing of the pacifier as she does her best to suck the beejeebee’s out of it. Action Girl has left for work and Short Stack is no doubt still dreaming about locomotives, little white bunnies with scooters and possibly a dump truck or two at his Grandparent’s house. That is, for my folk’s sake, I hope he’s dreaming. A night with a two year old is always a crapshoot.

Friday nights for him are routinely spent at their house. It gives him something to look forward to during the week and to be honest, it give us something to look forward to as well. We love our son, but getting to deal with just one kid, for one day a week is a real treat. We’re all very lucky to have this opportunity, parents, grandparents and kiddos all.

I had driven to my parent’s house shortly after Action Girl had gone to work for the day but upon finding their house dark and locked, I decided that we should go for a drive and try to actually enjoy the place where we live. It’s really beautiful here but between kids, work and the pile of construction materials I like to call a “house”, I rarely get to go out and see this place for my self. Coffee in hand and Lulu Belle in tow, we headed out to see what there was to see. It would be a circular drive. They always are.

I’m going to tip my hand here and let you in on something that I’ve been keeping to my self. The reason that our locals are so “local” and our community so tight knit is that we really don’t have much of choice. The geography dictates it. This is because where we live is pretty cut off from the surrounding area. Very cut off, actually. By water… All the way around.

Action Girl, Short Stack, Lulu Belle and I live on an island off the coast of Maine and the Atlantic Ocean reminds us of that every day. I take a ferry every day to get to work. The only other option is to swim and that’s really not a lot of fun. If I’m very lucky, it’s Action Girl who’s piloting the ferry and I get to kiss the captain and deliver her some good coffee. It’s a definite life style choice to live where we do and it isn’t a good fit for everyone.

We have a local grocery store that does a very admirable job keeping us all fed. There are a few places where you can go and eat out and some really nice people who make living here a very enjoyable experience. There are however, no secrets out here and you have to be all right with that. If you have a skeleton in your closet, you can bet that everyone has talked with it and found out your deep dark secrets. If that bothers you, then this place isn’t for you.

It cuts both ways though. We have barely purchased any clothes for our young kids since they keep appearing by the bag on our front porch. During a particularly nasty storm last year that had us with out power, water or heat for several days, we lived with neighbors who were only too happy to share their home and wood stove. We lock our door when we go out for the day, but it’s really a formality since most folks know where the key is kept. I really like it here.

As our drive progressed, I took the rare opportunity to take some pictures of the things that I love about this place, both beautiful and foolish. Here are the products of my drive.


The apples are dropping now and the island geese are very happy about that. I don’t actually know if these are anyone’s geese in particular. They hang out on this end of the island and cruse the shallows down at the beach. You can find them year round either looking for handouts, hissing at random kids or more often, both.


The cottages and year round houses here tend to date from the early 1900’s. This neat little row, over shadowed by ancient oak trees looks down to the water. The 1950’s era lawn chairs are probably the real deal. It’s such a pain to get stuff out to the island so folks tend to hang on to things longer and take better care of them.


One of the last, old street signs. Its blue enameled face shows the creativity that went into naming the roads.


The view across the swamp of the old gun battery. During the Second World War, German u-boats were known to prowl these waters. The remains of military installations dot the islands of Maine. Ours in no exception.


The view from “back shore” is one of open ocean and other islands. Some are empty, some have towns of their own and others are owned completely by the rich and xenophobic. We can all see each other from our own little rocks in the water, but don’t visit much.


An excellent example of why I like it here so much. An islander’s car wound up in this little swamp at one point and had to be towed out. The road crew out here thought that the event deserved a marker. If you come to visit, remember; no parking in the middle of the swamp!


And back we come to our main street. A typical off season Saturday morning with empty roads and quiet lawns. When it’s time for the ferry to make its visit at our dock there will be a brief flurry of activity but once its gone, all will be quiet again.

So, that was our drive on a nice Saturday morning. Lulu Belle had slept through most of it and by the time I had come back around to my starting point, my folks and visiting son were up and enjoying the day. It’s not often that I get to take stock of my home. We spend so much time immersed in the work of life that we forget to pop our heads up from time to time and actually look around. It was a good morning for that. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a pile of lumber that needs to be cut, placed and nailed into the approximate shape of an addition on Lulu Belle’s room. I glad for the mornings respite.

Cool Down.

Fall in Maine does not approach calmly or with advance notice. On one day, it’s summer. The leaves are green, the air is warm, the flowers in bloom and the tourists cover the roads like lost frogs oblivious to the traffic bering down on them. Local drivers like to award point values.

This morning fall arrived. It is not an arguable point. The temperature out side, as well as in, is chilly, and the sad fact that the heat will need switching on after a long summer break is inescapable. If any doubt remained to the change of seasons, then the arrival of the cats last night, sleeping on our bed, removed any further argument. It’s time to button up and get ready for the cold.

The trick with Fall in the upper New England states (Here, I’m talking about Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont) is that there is no good way to dress for a day like today. When I got up, it was feeling quite raw. Socks and a flannel shirt was picked out for my own attire while miniature sweaters with a variety of entertaining themes were put on the kids. That, and the comfort of corduroy pants for Short Stack. It was that cold.

To quote my son, today was quickly turing into, “A fine, bright day”. Every day is a “fine, bright day” for him now. It’s a quote from one of his favorite Miffy episodes and he tells it to us often. Pretty much, if it’s not actually raining, he decrees it a “fine, bright day.”

Today however, he was correct. Bright, fine and nippy. After my first two cups of coffee were gone and the grisly remains of a shared english muffin sat next to me on my plate, we headed out on to our porch. The mid morning sun flooded over the various toys and strollers and Short Stack amused him self with some plastic trucks while Lulu Belle reclined in her bouncy seat and soaked up some vitamin D. I worked on cup number three. Within about ten minutes, I was shedding my flannel and stripping objecting children of their woolens. By the time it I had to get them to the baby sitter’s I was in shorts and sandals. Mother Nature in New England might not throw earthquakes, fire storms, or tornados at us too often, but she does try to confuse us to death.

The part that amazes me the most is our neighbor. She left for the season just yesterday and her timing this year is verging on the clairvoyant. She is a summer resident of our little corner of costal Maine and calls Florida her home most of the year. She’s single, in her seventies and appears in portrait in most dictionaries next to the definition of “Fire Cracker”. We love to see her arrive each summer and bring her boundless personality with her along with the official mark of “High Summer”. She adds a lot of life the place and lets nothing stop her, with one exception; the cold.

“Cold” is a relative term, really. I like to think I’m pretty tough when it comes to winter. Born and raised in New Hampshire, I’ve seen snow and freezing temperatures and they don’t scare me. I am however, a big wimp compared to a good friend of mine who is a native of North Dakota. If I’ve got maple syrup in my veins, then she’s got molasses. I may not gripe about the snow, but she goes out in it barefoot to get the mail from the end of the drive. Routinely. That, is tough.

If I’ve got maple syrup for blood and my friend has molasses, then our hot shot, summer neighbor has tap water. Action Girl and I have seen her in a full length down coat in June and come the first whisper of the possibility of a rumor of cold weather moving for the season, she locks up the house and returns to the stifling heat of central Florida. She probably doesn’t even switch on the AC when she gets there.

The amazing part for me is that she has been gone now for exactly 24 hours and fall has moved in like it’s been waiting for he flight to leave. From now on, the windows will be mostly closed around our house and I’ll start panicking about the outside jobs that I’ve been foolishly putting off all summer. I’ll test the generator out this weekend, just to make sure the gas is still good lest we discover it otherwise come a power outage in mid winter. I’m not going through THAT again!

There are some real good things to look forward to as well though and Fall is truly my favorite season. The leaves blaze up with the colors of a thousand sunsets. The tourist, bedecked in their fanny packs and out sized cameras start to thin out and the black fly and mosquito finally meet a deterrent mightier than Deep Woods Off. Frost! I’ll get to go to the range more often and do some shooting and with some luck, go turkey hunting with a friend once the leaves drop. It’s all worth the chill, so far as I’m concerned. In just a few weeks, I’ll be able to put on one set of clothes and leave them on for the whole day without broiling come noon or freezing once the sun goes down. Okay, the freezing part will probably happen, regardless. It’s a long, cold winter here, but I’m not complaining. It aint North Dakota!

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