Phantom Duck Syndrome

May 17, 2012 § Leave a comment

The Ducks (in the back) and Friends next door - complete with spy shadow

Perched on my porch, listening to distant quacking, my hand quivering on my phone. The neighbors are blaring some mean jazz.  The first day of sunlight in weeks and all I can focus on is my phantom duck syndrome.

The past two weekends I’ve been packed away in basement or theater, making or watching films. The intervening weekdays were spent plowing through all my work to expose time for said dark days.  Now it’s Monday, and I’m reveling in the reversal of relaxation.

I thought I was clever last year when I set my iphone ringtone to ducks.  If I forget to silence it and it goes off, in restaurants or auditoriums or midway through difficult conversations, I imagine that people are only mildly puzzled by the faint sound of ducks.  Somewhere nearby, ducks are just out of sight.  Their voices penetrate the most protected of places.  “Do you hear…quacking?”

Then there are real ducks, and I am unprepared.  Walking through parks, I jump, stutter, and quake.  “I’m sorry, I have to answer my…” and no one is calling.  Who’s that crazy, desperately holding their phone to their ear, hoping someone will be there?  Every drifting quack startles the deep-set part of me that responds to alarm clocks and texting alerts.  We’re trained to respond to it.  And it won’t stop.  And no one is calling.

Ducks moved in next door.  There’s a little turkey enclosure, and I walk past every time I leave my house, imitating their shrills squawking (to the joy of neighbors).  They run to the fence and we talk.  I have no idea what I say, but they’re into it, if mildly confused.  The chickens quietly do their own thing and ignore us.  Walking past a few months ago, I gave a shriek of surprise.  Everyone stopped and looked at me.

“Was that my phone?”

What’s-wrong-with-her looks were exchanged. There was silence. I excavated my bag in panic. No calls. The turkeys watched, puzzled.

“Were those…ducks?”

Someone sighed, half-laughing, and pointed.  Out from behind the turkeys clomped a mess of loud, dumbfounded birds.  Ducks.  And they didn’t know what was going on, but they wanted to be a part of it.  Quaaack quack quarguh quriiack quark quaaaaack!

I made for the opposite street, thoroughly embarrassed.

Now, when I visit the turkeys, I tread quietly.  Sometimes the ducks linger toward the back.  They can’t be bothered to look up.  Other times, they raise a ruckus.  As the turkeys waddle to the chickenwire and chat, the ducks stand firm in the middle, shouting for no particular reason.  Perhaps I am unfair on ducks.  I love encountering them in ponds and streams and lawns (when they are in adorable pairs, searching for places to raise ducklings).  But these are some insolent fowl.

When the ringing is real, I answer joyfully.  It’s a cheerful thing to hear ducks calling you!  I cry “Hey Ducks!” into the phone.  I imagine that ducks are conveying my messages through to another person, and I want to be polite.  It’s little things like this that sew extra happiness into the corners of life.

There has been a great deal written on phantom phone syndrome.  It’s a well-documented phenomenon that we constantly hear our phone go off when it doesn’t.  We feel vibrations, invent pings.  The world is more aggressive, somehow, when we feel like it sends us false information – information we invent ourselves.  We want our phone to ring.  Sometimes we fear it.  It holds power over us.  We hear it no matter where we are, no matter where we leave our communicators.  We can break them.  But they have broken us first, and we will hear ringing from their shattered frames.

So I hear ducks.  I hear ducks where there are no ducks, and I hunt behind bushes, trying to prove that I’m not inventing them.  Sometimes they are real ducks.  Sometimes my phone is ringing.  And often…there’s nothing there at all.  The phantom ducks follow me everywhere. My phone-call fears and hopes, ridiculed by distant, ghostly quacking.

I have phantom duck syndrome.


Tip: Read this post out loud, replacing the word ‘ducks’ with ‘dicks’


Fiction: “Outrunning a Crocodile”

May 7, 2012 § Leave a comment

I’m beginning to write for an hour a day.  Today was my first try using a writing prompt.  I’ve maintained writing prompts are lame to disguise my own fear of unmertited communication.  Away, fears!  The prompt?  “Something happened.”  As follows:

Something happened.  I don’t have legs anymore.

One day, I was gliding along – when I realized I was gliding.
Floating off the ground, I’d say a leg’s distance from it.  But it’s a
hard thing to measure without legs.

I can’t wear heels anymore.  My hips don’t sway.  Everyone knows that
heels make your butt curve back and forth voraciously, a swaying pile
of sex.  When I sway while I glide I look a man on the Discovery
Channel, trying to out zig-zag a crocodile.  Precarious.  Frightened.
No longer confident in life.  Heels are all about confidence.

The doctors say I’m lucky.  Something could have gone wrong with my
legs.  People come to them, pleading – “Please!  Remove these,” and
they can’t give them the gift of gliding.  Here I am, gliding along
all week, ungrateful.  They want to take samples of my legs, boil them
down, and synthesize them for science.  Except they can’t, as I
haven’t got any legs.  It’s a disappointment I’m learning to live with
in other people.

For the first few days I wore long, out-dated skirts, relics from the
back of my mother’s closet to cover my sudden dis-apparition.  When she
pointed out I was using the past to cover something that wasn’t there,
“Just like I used to do when I was your age,” I switched to mid-length
pleasantries, comfortable things in bright colors.  I tell people I
wear tights made from chameleons.  They’re very expensive.  People
respect me.

One day, I will get my legs back.  I trust we will find each other, like
lost loves.  I will discover them in a gutter only I would think to look
in, or the back of a closet, or that I left them in someone else’s car,
“didn’t I tell you?”  Then, I will remember what it is like to have legs.
I will drag tall socks above my knees and just jog in place, relishing the
soft scratching as they fall down too far, and bunch up, and look
unfinished.  I will refuse to clip my toenails until my lover throws me out
of bed. I will tell my stretch marks that growth is a good thing, and count
my leg hairs out, under the stars.  I won’t remember to exercise, but I’ll
enjoy it when it sneaks up on me.  Hills are everywhere.

But for now, I am gliding, gliding along.  And all I’ve really lost is
my love of escalators, and fear of puddles, and aversion to walking
too close to someone for fear of treading on their feet.  My dates
find it romantic.  Only our arms are in the way, as we walk pressed up
against each other in the dark.

The Dogs of Tanzania

May 1, 2012 § 1 Comment

I’d never heard dogs howl at night before Africa.

My brother tried to warn us.  He’d been living there for months, and we only spoke to him a few times, but he let us know we’d be upset at how dogs are treated in Tanzania.  He also told us not to bring anything with aloe in it, as apparently a few years prior a student on the same program had been ambushed in the night by wild bush pigs. The bush pigs had torn his tent apart and put a few scratches in him, intent on finding his aloe lotion.  He didn’t tell us to forgo clothing and pack our bags instead with toilet paper, which I kind of wish he had.  “Dogs aren’t pets, here.”  He said.  “It’s really sad.”  If you can, imagine that in my brother’s don’t-give-a-damn voice.

Our third night in Africa we moved from a small local hotel along the central city streets of Arusha to a touristy spot nestled (in a protective fence) in the more residential area.  I’m a reliable sleeper.  When our golden was a puppy, he used to spend the night in his kennel next to my bed.  I learned to sleep through his early-morning yip-yipping, forcing my parents to wake up and come down two floors to take him outside.  While this doesn’t reflect well on Past Me, it does show how damn resilient I am to even the most determinedly noisy of dogs.

That night in Tanzania, I could barely sleep for the barking.  The barking, and the howling, and the growling, the low urgent wuff-wuffs of warning and the desperate wiff-wiffs of pain.  In the morning, everyone in my family shared the same confusion.  How had there been so many dogs barking, all across the city?  How did they manage to bark all night long without rest? Why hadn’t we heard a single dog-related noise during the daytime?  A true Hound of the Baskervilles situation.  Yesterday I walked next door to borrow a copy, so perhaps dogs are on my mind.

We certainly saw plenty of them.  They were lying about in ditches and around the sides of houses.  They were small and a light dirty-brown, with uniform drooping ears and sad eyes.  We weren’t allowed to pet them, since so many of them were diseased and we didn’t want to be nipped. They were covered in all sorts of bugs and bare patches.  They shied away from people, which we learned is because people kick them or throw stones at them. We never saw a stray one.

Finally we asked our guide why the dogs bark at night.  He sounded surprised.  “Because they are nocturnal.  They are animals.  Like other animals, they are barking in the night.”  We laughed and told him dogs weren’t like other animals, and thus, they weren’t nocturnal.  He reiterated what he had said, accustomed to correcting tourists on the local wildlife.  “In the day, they are sleeping.  In the night they are barking and protecting of the home.  You hear they are saying to the other dogs, do not come to my home or I will be fighting you.”

Tanzania was wonderful, and people we met were very kind, and proud of being, as they never tired of telling us, “a peaceful country.  We don’t fight anyone.  Christian, Muslim, all is ok here.”  I post about dogs only because the notion of nocturnal dogs is so strikingly different.  A dog that barks all night was doing its job, not harassing your neighborhood’s sleep.  With so few resources and so much poverty, it’s sensible for dogs to be a defensive measure against wild animals or thieves. On the outskirts and in the boma, any number of predators might come prowling for your goats, and in the city, you need to make sure your home is protected at night.  People also viewed dogs as part of a disease problem, and were trying to minimize their risk.  I saw a taxi driver with the build of a rhinoceros hop up inside his car to avoid the small, rare, purebred corgi that a white hotel owner had brought out a few feet away.

While my boy was in Thailand, we talked of dogs.  There, soi dogs roam the streets, wild dogs with largely mild temperaments.  He tilted the computer camera out the windows of the café to prove how many, and within a half a second – there’s one, oh and another, and they’re followed by a third – and back to his tanned face. My boy was chased on his first day, by soi dogs, but after that badge of arrival they were friendly. The cities he went to weren’t as poor as the African ones, and there was enough trash for stray dogs to live off of.  Soi cats, too, dotted the Thai streets.  “Many Thais believe that only the Buddha can be perfect,” he told me, “and cats are perfect. People break or knot their tails so they’re not perfect anymore.”

The moment my family and I made it back to Vermont, we came as close to lavishing excess affection on our own dog as was probably possible.   He gets such a disproportionate amount of attention; it’s hard to measure.  As I fell asleep at night he’d climb up on the bed and shift all 70 pounds into whatever spot I was trying to sleep in, and I’d drift off with my arms tangled across his smelly warm fur.  We’re fortunate and we have plenty of food to feed him, and safety so we can raise him to be a slobbering friend, and we don’t fear disease or wild animals (except skunks).  I love dogs.  I was practically raised by one.  A more venerable, older dog who taught me as a child to cock my head to the side when I’m confused and that headscratches are affection.

I had a lot to learn when I hit highschool.

Geocaching: Muggles in a Land of Secrets

April 5, 2012 § 7 Comments

I walk past secrets everyday.

Usually this is vague – secret thoughts and plots, pirate gold, childhood memories, government initiatives, food not on the menu.  This week, the secrets were tangible. Physical, occasionally edible secrets, waiting everywhere!

The excitement came on quite suddenly. I was lazing about in my enormous leopard print bathrobe, trying to remember if I had eaten or if it really counted as afternoon yet.  My roommate and her boyfriend, properly responsible, were shuffling things on kitchen counters.

He looked up from the clatter.  “We’re going Geocaching.  Get some clothes on.”

I broke for my room, swung around, and remembered I had forgotten my boyfriend.  I called out to him: “Get dressed, now!  Geocaching!”

He gave me a bemused, I’m-halfway-out-the-door look, cigarette balanced on the edge of his smile, and finished stepping outside.  I abandoned him and tumbled up the stairs.

A few months ago H, my stop-motion animation and strange junk store buddy, had mentioned geocaching.  We were sitting around the dinner table late at night, new friends and he in a new city and all of us with nothing to do.  I was scratching out a list, noting the missing key ingredient for each rejected plan.  If I came across plywood, or concrete, or a videocamera later I’d remember we needed it.  “Geocaching?”

He grinned at us.  “It looks sweet.  You go out into the woods with a GPS and find boxes of stuff other people hid.  I looked the Portland area up online and it looks like there’s a lot out in the woods.”

I wrote down, daylight.

When months later my roommate mentioned her boyfriend was planning to take her out geocaching, I made it pretty clear that I was coming.  Still, I in no way expected it to be so sudden.  The selective joys of unemployment, right?  I tore through my drawers, looking for something woods-worthy and adventuresome.  Somehow I came out in red spandex tights and a green leather miniskirt, topped with a shirt with diamond decals in the shape of a leopard face with eyes lying uncomfortably close to the actual location of my nipples.  I dug around for a hat Bid left in my room that always reminded me of Swedish climbers.

I re-appeared, breathless and proud.  “Adventure time!”  (Sidenote: Go watch Adventure time.)

My roommate’s boyfriend glanced critically at our dramatic poses and bright colors.  “You’re not supposed to stick out.  You’re in disguise, from the Muggles, you’re like blending in so no-one even knows you’re there.”

“What’s a Muggle?” My roommate called from the kitchen, prompting a re-screening of every clueless thing she’s ever said about fantasy literature.  “Dumbledore…that’s one of the buildings, right?”  I called back.

“Geocachers call people who aren’t ‘in the know’ Muggles, like in Harry Potter,” he added.

We set out.  Meaning, we pranced down the front steps and milled about in the driveway, trying to pretend we knew where we were supposed to go.  Our guide pulled out his smartphone.

“All you need is a phone with GPS, and this app.  And you let it load your location, and” – he tapped it – “it tells you what’s nearby.”  Magic little dots appeared all over the screen.

“…Those are all nearby?”

“Yeah, let’s set it to, say, a mile.  Ok, so it rotates as you walk, like a compass.  Uhm….that way.”

And That Way it was.

There was a bounty of little dots all around us.  We chose from them at random.  The first directed us to an exciting patch of sidewalk.  The description read ‘micro’.  We peeked under bushes and roots and clumps of dirt.

“You’re never supposed to dig for them,” he said as we started to glare at the cache-less earth, and roll up our sleeves. “But the clue says, ‘Silver’.”

“I’ve got it!”  my boyfriend cried, hunched over next to the nearby building.  He was scrabbling at a plastic box-lid, buried in the ground.  It looked…municipal.  But he held up a small, shining metal image of the Virgin and Christ, lying nested in the dirt near it.  “Silver.”

The lid finally popped up.  Inside: a lot of mud, a valve, and some piping.  Whoops.  Anything of note would have long ago sunk into the muck.  We clapped it shut and tried to pretend we weren’t water-supply cutoff terrorists.  Which we aren’t.

It started to rain.  My roommate wanted to go home, where the rain could not follow, and at least pick up another hoodie.  We stood around on the sidewalk and shrugged our shoulders against the wet.  “Let’s—“

“Found it.” I hadn’t even realized our guide was still looking.  But in his hand lay a small capsule, the size of the top segment on my pinkie finger. We shielded it from the weather, uncapped it, and used an unbent paperclip to extract the tiny scroll wedged inside.  Along it ran what I could only assume was a list of others who had visited, tiny marks that might pass as initials and dates.  Our guide made another few scratches, and before I could see how they denoted us, was rolling the tiny paper back up and out of the rain.

Our guide found the goods for our next location up in a tree, on a little pulley.  The can was full of candy, mouldy erasers, and little trinkets – and other booklet to mark our passing.  I packed gifts I had brought into the can, and we hoisted it back heavier.

Sweet victory (photo belongs to L.A.)

Giddy with success, the sun back up in the sky, we pointed the phone in another direction.

Half a mile later we were up against a loose stone wall.  “There’s no size listed,” our guide said, “but it can’t be very big if it’s hidden here.  It says to watch out – lots of muggles – act casual.”

Acting casual involved crawling around on the sidewalk peering in the crevice between every stone, and occasionally removing top ones and looking under them.  The procurement of a flashlight didn’t help appearances.  Groups of nearby employees left work and walked past us, clearly wondering if they should report us.  “It’s a scavenger hunt,” I yearned to say, “there’s a clue on this wall.” Or are there perhaps geocachers here searching all the time, and neighbors are accustomed to the fact that hiding in plain daylight, on a open street, while doing an unusual activity was impossible?  Do they take photos from their windows of the daily contortionists? Can you bend over and peer into a wall while not drawing attention?  “I’m sorry, sir, my pet gecko has escaped, and I believe he has sought refuge in one of these crevices.”

I've lost my gecko, I usually keep it in this packpack.

What felt like half an hour passed me from excitement to frustration.  Not being able to find it didn’t make any sense.  It had to be right here, and nothing tricky to it – nothing but a wall with tiny caves between each stone.   The looks we were getting were increasingly worse, as we tightened our faces and glared, half-upside down, into every little nook.  A gentleman walked past, and for once, smiled.

“I’ve been looking for that one for about a year.  Never found it,” he reflected, without breaking stride – and was gone.

We stayed frozen, shocked, in our strange poses.  Finally, “Shit.  It’s not here.  It’s been stolen.  It’s not real.”  I kicked at the wall.

Our guide turned back to the phone.  “Yeah, well, we’ll know if anyone’s seen it…logs…Someone found it yesterday.”

I did the math.  The chances that it was stolen, of all days, yesterday, were low enough to double back around and put the chances we were just dumbfucks who couldn’t find it at 98%.

We never found it.

“Two out of three, that’s not bad, that’s not bad,” our guide soothed.  “Nearby, there’s one that you have to solve like a puzzle to find, the clues tell you the coordinates, but you need internet to look stuff up—“


We set off a different way.

Our final stop was outside a house on a pleasant residential street.  “Are you sure this is right?”

“It says the geocache is on someone’s property but accessible from the sidewalk.”

Someone had stashed a tupperware of poetry on the side of their own driveway.  The logbook was larger than the others, and stretched back years.  All sorts of papers had been left, alongside the odd trinkets.  One was a temporary tattoo in the shape of a heart, reading TRIMET: Born to Ride.  I grinned and swapped it for a photograph from the 1940’s, taken with others years ago from a pile of trash a landlord left out, with an impromptu poem about our day scrawled on the back.  A few houses down, a family was moving a few things back and forth into their house, and a middle-school girl was frozen on the steps, watching us with abandon.  Five minutes later, she was still ogling.

My boyfriend waved as we put the box back and set off.  “We’re geocaching – hunting for treasure!” he informed her.  She was too shy to wave back, but still fascinated, watched us leave.  Our guide scoffed.  “You can’t talk to Muggles.  They’ll disrupt the cache.”

How does anyone find out about geocaching, I had to wonder?

But everyone seems to.  The next day, when I told my Dad, he informed me it was a popular urban sport he’d enjoyed some with friends.  I talked to some women I was working on social media for, and they clapped their hands and said they had friends who had visited and taken them – friends who had geocached in every state, who made their own tokens to distribute to caches, and who had been in Oregon just to visit a geocaching conference, and hence taken them to temporary caches made just for the conference.  What!

We wandered home along flowering Portland streets, finally drawn by a giant wall mural reading DONUTS with an arrow to a just-closed donut shop, where a man with a painted portrait of himself as a saint on the wall behind him served us day-after specials with a unique Portland brand of nonchalance.  We soaked in the paintings of rubber chickens in various conundrums on the walls – “by Dingo and Olive, they’re sweet, remember, I pointed them out of their tall clown bikes yesterday?”  I’m trying to introduce my boyfriend to Portland, but Portland does a damn good job of it all by itself.

Now, as I walk everyday past the tender spot where I know little messages and trinkets are hid, I try not to look at them.  I want to press my fingers against the hiding places and remember they’re there, to experience hidden treasure every day.  I keep my fingers to myself.  The reminder is enough!

Look for the people bent over, contorted, poking their nose where there should be nothing but old cigarette butts and leaves.  Running their hands over worn surfaces, like children who’ve mislaid a secret latch or magic portal.  They look away from you, pretending to be ordinary, pretending you can’t see the box they’re pulling where there was nothing before.  They’re young, old, your neighbors, hoodlums, adventurers, joggers, seeing messages you’ve passed every day and never laid your eyes on.

So I’m telling you, Muggles  –

– It’s everywhere.

The Weather Machine

February 23, 2012 § 7 Comments

I was in the Pioneer Square Visitor’s Center when the trumpeting started.  Having just used the bathroom, the masses of Portland pamphlets had captured my attention.  The sound of loud, recorded fanfare startled me into looking up.

The woman behind the desk cried in jubilation, “It’s the Weather Machine!”

There was nothing in sight that might be described with such excitement.

“The Weather Machine!  Quickly, run outside!  You, now!  Run!  Out!  You can’t miss this.  Run and look to the left!  Now!”

I panicked and ran, out through the glass doors, and swung left to find the procession.  Instead, I found the Weather Machine.

A pole I had only dully noted previously I now saw had a line of lights running up it, which were flashing crazily in the daylight.  Gaudy fanfare was blaring from the somewhere along pillar.

It was raining, but only around the contraption. This seemed odd.

Then, whoushhh,  water shot from the pole and pattered over the brick plaza below.  The metal heron that graced the top sank from view into a giant silver ball, and as soon as it had vanished from sight, a beautiful metal dragon fought its way out and spread its wings.  Then the dragon, too, sank out of place, and the golden spikes of a fish adorned with rays of the sun broke through into the light.  The metal animals kept exchanging themselves, the water misted down, and the music continued to assault.  It was hard to make out the flashing lights in the mid-day sun.

I did not expect this.  When I regained my senses a minute later, I noticed other people, frozen in that moment of joyful confusion when statues come alive.  “What the fuck?”

I burst back through the doors.  The woman behind the desk smiled satisfactorily.  “Did you enjoy the Weather Machine?”

It’s hard to be infuriated and delighted at the same time, but confusion is a curious creature.  “How long has that been there?” I demanded.

“Oh, since 1988.”

“I’ve never seen it do that.  No one I know has seen it do that.”   My eyes narrowed in desperation.  Was I mad?  Had I missed a singing, moving, water-shooting statue all these years?  I felt a sense of betrayal.

She laughed.  “Well, it’s been broken for years.  We just had it fixed two months ago.”

Then, she recounted its secrets.  The Weather Machine tells the weather at exactly noon each day.  It does what I saw, for two minutes, as you watch in antiquation to see what animal will come to rest.  If the pole is topped by the golden image of the sun (and, it looked like to me, a fish), the day will be sunny.  The dark dragon indicates a stormy day, and the grey heron tells of an overcast one.  If you know how to read them, the bulbs on the side light up like a thermometer, reading out the temperature.  Whether this is the expected average for the day, or the temperature at that moment, I don’t know.

I tried to imagine standing in Pioneer Square in 1988, waiting to find out the forecast.  The future felt like the past felt like the future.

Now: tell your friends, your family, strangers on the bus:  Be in Pioneer Square at Noon.  See the Weather Machine for yourself!

As I walked outside, I looked up to a bright, metal sun.  I knew it was going to be a nice day.

There’s Something Fishy About Ohio

February 9, 2012 § Leave a comment

“Does the summer suck in Vermont?”  My roommate asked me this morning.

“What?  No.  Oh, no.  Summer in Vermont is wonderful!  The sun is out, and sometimes it rains but the thunder always warns you first.  And you can swim in the lake, and run around outside, and garden…”

She looked skeptical.  She also looked like she had just woken up.  “What about mosquitos.”

“We have them, but it’s fine.  You just go inside when the sun goes down if don’t want to get bitten.”

This idea was met with some resistance.  Ohio mosquitoes, unlike their northerly relatives, are out all the time.  I had to admit I wasn’t really sure what Vermont mosquitoes did while they gave humans time to enjoy daylight hours.  Did they sleep?  Was it a pact with God?  Were they Vampires?

“The worst part of Ohio is the spring.  I hate spring.  It’s the worst week in the world.”

This grinchly phrase struck at my tender heart, and snuck from there to my face.  But she was unstoppable –

“In a week the weather changes from winter to summer.  We call it our ‘Week of Spring’.  The fish can’t handle the temperature change so they die and wash up on the shore and rot.”

“…Fish aren’t supposed to do that.”

Our fish do.  Every year, they die in the spring.  Nothing is right with Lake Eerie.”

“…Fish really aren’t supposed to do that.”

“All summer, every time you stepped outside you’re met with the smell of rotting fish, and mosquitos biting you, and stickiness.  I grew up hating nature.  Then I grew up and moved away and learned: some places don’t smell like fish.”

What do you say to that?

A Triple-Part Tale of Mushroom Hunting

February 3, 2012 § 4 Comments

I discovered the beauty of mushrooms as a busy and mildly lazy college student.  They served as magical culinary currency.  It’s ugly to bribe your friends with cash.  Produce a handful of mushrooms, and you can get anyone to ditch their homework and hang out at your place.  A whole bag, or some actual shitakes, and they’ll use them to cook dinner for you.  I investigated cheaper ways to obtain these wonders. This currency can grow on trees, I rejoiced.

Still, mushroom hunting remained for the adventurous and experienced.  I had heard the whispered warnings – mushrooms were dangerous if you hadn’t been picking them your whole life, and only idiots and experts went after them.  I kept my ears pricked for years, waiting for someone to tell me they had fungal degrees and awards and would take me with them.  Take me with you!  In November, when a visiting friend said he was headed out to the park to look for mushrooms with a few friends, I couldn’t ask fast enough.  I think I flipped a few words around in haste.

My friend told me his friend was an experienced mushroom hunter, and that this fellow and his girlfriend were taking the kid they babysit out before math time.  We arrived at Forest Park, the largest park in the country within city limits, at a leisurely 10:30 am.  I had imagined European truffle hunts at 5am with a pack of dogs.   Instead, I was met by a friendly young couple and a baby that may have been able to walk, but certainly not far.  He’d been “a few times, I guess, but I have this book” and she’s been “hah, never.”  The baby had a pretty good grasp of the word “mushroom” and our cutoff time was for (I had misheard) his nap time.

We pointed to a spot on the map with a promising woody name, and strolled idly along among the trees and across the open grasses.  We lingered under pines and poked at their bases.  Here and there mushrooms revealed their wet brown caps.  It was a refresher course in childhood.  As a little thing I had lived with eyes locked to the ground, spying out treasures.  I chose the obligatory ski coat based on the number of pockets, which I diligently counted in alpine store waiting rooms.  I stuffed everything I discovered into those pockets – discarded chess pieces, broken bits of metal, colored plastic and bent wires – until I was a chubby round tomato-colored child.  The ski coats seemed, like my lifejackets, invariably red.  And here I was again, bribing the ground to give up something precious.  The old skills were sharp and there was fungi here, and there, and there.  I snatched them each up in my fingers. “Ah,” my companions said appreciatively, “LBMs.”  Is that good?  “Little Brown Mushrooms.  Practically unidentifiable, to us.”  The mushroom book stayed closed.

We admired each little find’s texture and color and held them out to the child where he was perched in the girlfriend’s arms.  “Mushroom.  You want to touch?”  She would say, and he would shake his head vigorously, or very occasionally, reach out a trembling finger and contact the strange object.  I had prematurely admired them as babysitters, that they would take a child on such an educational adventure.  I admired them all the more now that I knew they were bringing a child too young to even appreciate what was happening, although he was happy the entire time.  Finally, a spread of small red mushrooms got the treatment, and the book came out.  Pages and pages of mushrooms in every color and shape, waxy and slimy, tasty and treacherous, pictures of mushroom toast and mushroom hats and cookies and incredible discoveries.  They were’t edible, it said, but they were suitable as a dye.  My friend bundled them up in a plastic bag, and told his stained white canvas shoes that they were in for a new hue.

More mushrooms were examined and discarded – mid-sized white ones, difficult to pinpoint for sure, and inedible ones.  Mostly there was walking and chatting and idle glancing, not the frenzied expedition I had always imagined.  It was relaxing.  Then, under a patch of low brush reminiscent of ivy, a gleam of orange.  We bent, broke, and rubbed it until we were sure.  A false chanterelle often has a more brittle stem, hollow in the middle. A true chanterelle has a solid, rubbery stem and doesn’t bruise.  It was real.  Nearby, concealed under the same viney plants, were more hidden orange gems.  We cut off the soggy bits and stacked them in a paper grocery bag.  I could barely stand the excitement.  We drove to someone’s house, slit them into thin strips, and cooked them in butter the way my grandmother used to.  The rest we put away for the evening, and made a buffalo and chanterelle pie.  Well, someone brought a package of “buffalo”, and the paper wrapping read “yak”, but no-one there could distinguish the finer points of large beastly flavor.

I had only gone because I thought there was an expert, but I couldn’t help but think about how it had only been a couple inexperienced folks with a small guidebook, a random park, and a relaxing walk.  I had been told so many times that the first mushroom hunt is a disappointment and not to give up; but this was a victory!  A luxuriously flavored yellow-orange win.  I couldn’t wait to go again.  Four days later I flew home to the snows of Vermont and then to Africa.  All I had time to do was poke my head in at the shop where I worked and request a few mushroom guides as my christmas bonus.  Armed with these, I plucked LBMs at the Trimet bus-stop and spent the ride learning the frustrations of defeat.

When I returned to Portland it was January.  Winter rains had set in and out-of-season had no meaning to me so long as it was wet.  Water makes the Pacific Northwest a mushroomer’s paradise, the books told me.  They also told me to ignore our fungaphobic culture, and that there was no danger in eating a mushroom so long as you 100% positively ID’ed it.  Any doubt, and just leave it behind.  If you were sure it matched every descriptor, you could cook up a little, eat it, and then eat the rest later.  No questionables, no uncooked mushrooms, and you were perfectly safe.  A few friends and I headed out to Forest Park with the GPS and the books.  I was the only one who had ever been.

Where we ended up wasn’t the visitor’s center I was expecting, but a back road up the side of a hill that trailed off into a towering mossy forest.  There were other cars there, too, so we parked and set off on foot.  To one side the mud and vines twisted upwards; to the other, the road cut away and down below were the fuzzy green trunks of the trees whose fingers reached toward us, dripping, rows of ferns growing along their backs like spines.

Even off-season, winter life was everywhere.  We found the flat brown plates of turkey’s tails, chewed by the aborigines; a brain-like bright orange mass of goop known as witch’s butter; and dark mushrooms so woody we couldn’t break them off the trees they grew on.  Our reward was clean air and the sunlight through the mist and the vast, mysterious trees.  From the dark underside of a rotting log we plucked several clear white mushrooms.  They were soft and appeared to have been made by jelly poured into a mold – one solid, shaped mass of a uniform gelatinous substance.  They were wonderful to touch, and when we got them home, they turned out to be false hedgehog fungus (after the spike shapes under the cap), edible soaked in milk and honey or candied.  One giant artist’s conk we pried off a tree provided a hard white canvas for the scratchings of a friend.

Last week, I undertook my third little mushroomy enterprise.  Several enthusiastic freshman girls, one of whom had helped found a local mushroom club, hadn’t been out much either.  When I begged them to go with me after a short mycology talk some students had given, I was laughed at a little.  “It’s not mushroom season,” I was told, “What do you expect to find?”  Emboldened by my last adventure, I said it was good practice identifying non-edible ones…and who knows?  “Chanterelles go out of season after the fall, and morels won’t be in till the spring, so you certainly won’t find anything edible.”  I held out secret hopes.  I have never listened well to others on the topic of nature.  I teamed their car up with my books and we headed  to Forest Park.

The girl’s car was hot red with flames painted on the front and physics formulas for the energy and trajectory of it leaving the earth’s atmosphere on the back.  I brushed aside the piled CDs and fended off curious questions about my life.  Little bits of ribbon and hanging objects were stitched to the seat backs and roof.  My best friend is an artsy physics major, I sighed to myself, where do they all come from?

We sprung out of the car and into sunshine.  The sat few weeks have been as un-Portland-like as possible: warm, bright winter afternoons in the place of customary gray rains.  Wandering along among the trees, as I had done that first day, we paused now and again to admire the beauty of small, soft brown mushrooms, and for me to shake my head and refuse to draw out my book for LBMs.  Some small false chanterelles lurked about; we criticized their poor disguise.  We did identify some red-yellow mushrooms with a curiously waxy texture, and with that victory, couldn’t have asked for more.

Then, peeking out under the low viney brush, a large, flat plate of orange.  I peeled back the loose leaves and pulled up a magnificence the size of my open hand.  “That look like…a chanterelle,” one of the girls couldn’t help but observe.  “Nonsense.”  My heart pounded as I replied. “They’re out of season.”  The gills were perfect, long and slim.  The stem was thick and bent, unwilling to break.  I cut it with a knife.  It was solid.  The color was ideal, and the flesh refused to bruise.  It smelled of chanterelle.  Was it my memory, invading with delicious reminiscences?

We bagged it.  And then we bagged another, nearby, and dogged the area, searching for companions.  There were in the end maybe five of nearly equal size, and a few small ones, all preparing to go soggy but not yet ruined.  At home, I sliced off the slimy bits and washed off the dirt.  They were perfect.  Perfect chanterelles.  There was no question, no doubt for any of us.  We slit them into strips and piled them high.  We sauteed them in butter and onions and garlic and rosemary.  We cooked bacon, and cooked more mushrooms in the bacon fat.  One bread run later, we had chanterelles sandwiched between fresh white slices and bacon and cooked onions.  The sandwiches of a lifetime.

Stuffed, I sat and watched them try on my green eyeliner and blue lipstick and upturn my boxes of wigs.  They picked 3 each to borrow and tromped off, happy, full, with little saran-wrapped sandwiches we couldn’t finish and strangely colored hair.

Our victory was complete.  We had won chanterelles in winter.

A Final Note:   

The book we used most was All the Rain Promises, And More… by David Arora, a marvelous volume of fungal wit and wisdom.  The author has squeezed as many hilarious and helpful hints as fit into a proper pocket print.  I have a few others, but this is the #1 book I would recommend picking up if you are headed out into the wet woods of the Pacific Northwest.  If elsewhere, I recommend it anyway.  The author is also a master of alliteration, and I am properly awed and jealous.