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Thursday, January 3, 2019

Beach-Walking and Crab-Cooking

  An old friend once advised me to spend New Years Day doing the things I want to do for the rest of the year. Besides visiting  my long time friend, Laura, in the hospital, which I certainly hope won't happen again, I accomplished a couple of things Tuesday which I hope will foreshadow my new year. 
The weather was fine on with the temperature registering a comfortable 81º. So, in the middle of the afternoon, I donned a sleeveless linen dress and a pair of sandals and took Della to the beach. Once we were on the soft sand, I kicked off my sandals, and we walked to the edge of the ocean to dip our feet in the cool water. I wiggled some sand up between my toes, and we started our walk. You would have thought it was the middle of summer. A light breeze was blowing from the south, and the beach was crowded with colorful umbrellas, under which sat people of all stripes, from toddlers to old folks. There were stickball games, Frisbee exchanges and Happy New Year greetings etched in the sand. Small children in floppy hats splashed and squealed in the water as we passed. Three catamarans were parked in the surf, ready to skim across the water, and bright kites sailed above it all. Optimistic fishermen anchored their rods in PVC pipe pounded into the sand and waited for a bite. 
And there were dogs, lots of dogs, reminding me of all the times I read P. D. Eastman’s Big Dog, Little Dog to Parrish when he was a small child. Della was in heaven. Except for a cranky old woman who were afraid my 12-pound dog was going to somehow harm their large, coifed and bejeweled darling, Della was welcomed by all when she swooped in to see who wanted to play. Okay, okay. There is a leash law. And we routinely break it—but we’re not the only ones. Della is trained to return to my heel after venturing off and whenever she hears the command, “Here!” 
Yes, that’s a rationalization, but don’t forget what the character Michael said in The Big Chill: “I don't know anyone who could get through the day without two or three juicy rationalizations. They're more important than sex.” 
When we encountered a four-month-old black and white Boxer puppy it was a match, to unabashedly use a cliché, made in heaven. We humans stood around and watched as the pups took turns chasing one another, in circles, in and out of the water, their muzzles bearded with sea foam and sand. It was something to see. 
We walked for nearly an hour before we made it back to my Yukon. I even got a tiny blister on the bottom of my heel. After we rinsed off, Della jumped into the back of the truck and we came home. I was putting her towel in the laundry room when my phone rang.
  “Miss Claudia! I got some big blue crabs! I know you want some of these bad boys!” Crab Man pretty much speaks in exclamations, and yesterday was no exception.
  “I don’t know, Crab Man. It’s late in the day. I just got back from the beach and I’m not sure I want to fool with crabs.”
  “Now, Miss Claudia!”
  “All right, fine. I’ll be down to pick them up in about 15 minutes.”
  Crab Man saw me pull up in front of the Village Pier and came walking up the dock, swinging a ten gallon bucket teeming with some of the biggest blue crabs I have ever seen. He used my big tongs to transfer ten of them into my bucket. I usually don’t want to cook fewer than a dozen, but they were so large, I was afraid my pot wouldn’t hold them all.
  When I got home, I poured water and seasonings into the jumbo-sized aluminum pot I bought myself for Christmas and turned up the heat. My back was to the stove when I first heard the banging. No, the crabs weren’t in the water yet. I was waiting for it to boil. The “boiler” I bought didn’t have a flat bottom, and on my confounded ceramic cooktop, it was throbbing back and forth, more rapidly as the water got hotter. Rat-a-tat. Rat-a-tat. I tried to true it up, reposition it so it would sit flat, but nothing worked. Rat-a-tat. I finally decided the pot was not designed for the stove but instead was to be used with a propane-fueled fish cooker—outside. Great. Can’t really return it after boiling water in it laced with Tony Chacheres Creole Seasoning. So, I dragged out the big cast iron pot with a porcelain glaze I’ve been using for years but had decided to retire because of its weight. I transferred the seasoned water, brought the whole thing to a boil and poured in the crabs, which filled it to the brim. Twenty minutes later, they were done and cooling in the sink. 
  I snapped off the flippers and claws, then pulled off the backs, broke the bodies in two and cleaned out the innards and gills. Crabs are easier to pick if they’ve been in the fridge overnight, so I boxed them in a plastic tub with a tight fitting lid and stowed them to pick later. I'll be making crab and sweet corn soup this afternoon.
  Happy New Year, everyone. May you have many days of your version of beach-walking and crab-cooking in 2019.  

© 2019 cj Schlottman

Monday, February 19, 2018


These words are written on a magnet that clings to my refrigerator:

Lhasa Apso
regal loyal calm deliberate
mannerly tough strong-willed
bossy jealous keen watchdog
“When a Lhasa looks in a mirror
it sees a lion.”

During the night of January 17, Honey, my 14-1/2 year old best friend, a Lhasa Apso, was uncharacteristically restless. She wouldn’t stay in bed, kept walking to the edge and staring at the floor. I lifted her down, and she walked around the house randomly, listing to the right all the while. She eventually tired and I was able to put her back on the bed, where she slept, but for only for a while. After about an hour, she was up again and looking as though she might tilt over onto the floor. So, I helped her down again and she repeated her earlier behavior twice more during the night. 
I was in the throes of a severe case of bronchitis and not sleeping well anyway, so I was awake with her. Honey ate her breakfast of chicken and green beans and went outside to do her business. When she didn’t come right back, I went out and found her struggling to negotiate the two steps up to the deck. I helped her up, brought her inside and put her on her favorite sofa and her leopard throw. As soon as my vet’s office opened, I called and made an appointment for later in the day, after Gretchen got home from work. I really felt too bad to drive. Honey ate lunch, went outside and got herself back in the house unassisted. She slept most of the rest of the afternoon.
When we arrived at Dr. Brennan McGoldrick’s office, an older gentleman was retrieving his two large dogs from the groomer. Honey, in typical Lhasa Apso fashion, began growling and trying to climb out of my arms to protect me from them. (They were just sitting there smiling.) It was all I could do to keep her on the bench with me. As sick as she was, she displayed one of the cardinal attributes of her breed.
We saw his assistant first, then Dr. McGoldrick came in the room. Honey had been walking around in clockwise circles since his assistant put her on the floor when we arrived. Brennan McGoldrick is one of the most kind and understanding young men I know. In his quiet voice, he gently asked a few questions and immediately knew the problem. He explained to us that Honey’s behavior was characteristic of a brain tumor, probably in the frontal lobe. We had noticed her slowing down over the previous weeks but never thought it was due to anything other than her advanced age. 
What to do? More than anything in the world, I wanted her to be spared any unnecessary pain. She was confused, but as far as we knew, she hadn’t suffered a seizure, which would in all likelihood happen sooner or later. The thought of her suffering fell over me like a blanket of despair. I tearfully asked the inevitable question. What should I do? Dr. McGoldrick suggested a round of steroids, explaining that if she were going to get relief, it would happen quickly. In his sweetest of ways, he suggested if she weren’t better in a couple of days, it would be time for her to cross over to the other side.
And she rallied like the champions from whom she was descended. After only two doses of prednisone, her tail was once more up over her back and she was easily getting down from the deck and back up. Clever as she was, she began climbing up at the end of the deck, where a layer of brick make the first step easier. She stopped walking in circles, and we even took a brief walk. She ate three times a day and slept well, waking a couple of times every night to go outside. The steroids stimulated her appetite and her thirst, thus the nighttime trips outside. 
Honey wasn’t supposed to be my dog. In 2003, Clint’s knee replacement got infected and had to be taken out, which resulted in months of pain and a carpet-bombing of potent antibiotics followed by another operation to put in a new prosthesis. He was recovering slowly at our house on Dunbar Creek. He was listless and not interested in the things he usually enjoyed, and I decided a puppy would give him a focus outside himself, a reason to get out of bed and care for another living being. We already had one dog, an adult Boxer named Belle, but she wasn’t a one-person dog. She loved us all with equal abandon. Lhasa Apsos tend to be one-person dogs, and I hoped our new puppy would attach itself to Clint.
So, granddaughter Sarah and I told him we were going to Savannah for the night to see Addie, another granddaughter. Instead, with the Addie’s family in on the secret, we drove eight hours up Interstate 95 to Rocky Mount, North Carolina, where I had located a reputable Lhasa Apso breeder. In the early years of our marriage, Clint and I had two Lhasas, and I knew how much he loved the spunky little breed. Sarah and I spent the night in a less than grand hotel near the interstate and next morning drove out into the country to find the breeder. We did it the old fashioned way: with a map and by the seats of our pants. There was no GPS on our cell phones in 2003. Just as important, if there had been, there was no service in rural of North Carolina.
I don’t remember how many puppies there were on the sunken dining room floor of the breeder’s house. I do remember them milling around and falling over one another in that way puppies do. They were energetic and seemed healthy and strong. Sarah was determined I shouldn’t choose the puppy, insistent that if I did, it would bond with me instead of Poppy, Clint’s granddaddy name. So, she sat on the step and waited patiently until a honey-hued little girl nosed up to her, climbed into her lap and reached up to cover her face with kisses. In no time, we were on the way home.

Honey and Belle, 2003

We found Poppy propped up in bed with Belle at his side, reading and looking rested. After confessing we had been, not to Savannah, but to North Carolina, we presented him with the furry ball of love whose name would become Honey because of her color. She climbed all over him and Belle, too, who seemed a little taken aback but accepting of the attention. The smile on Clint’s face was confirmation to me we had done the right thing. He hadn’t looked so happy in months. 
In the days and weeks that followed, Honey proved herself to be plucky and smart and fearless, jumping off our high bed and negotiating the steep steps up to our front door. Twice, seeing something down in the back yard, she leapt between the pickets of the deck down the nearly ten foot drop to the grass. She held her own with Belle, who was, for the most part, very gentle with her. The two of them raced up and down the hall with one toy or another. Belle never outgrew playing with her toys, but Honey would abandon such frivolous behavior as she grew into adulthood. 
Clint began to feel stronger, more like himself, and was soon back on the golf course. I was elated that he was out and active, but that meant the care of both dogs fell to me and the inevitable happened. Honey bonded with me. As it happened, Belle and Clint got closer, and we took them both on daily walks around the neighborhood. 
It would be over a year before Honey reached her adult weight of 14 pounds, but from the very beginning, she was a Lhasa to her core, fiercely loyal to me and protective of our home. She quickly established herself as the alpha dog in the house and as my protector. I never went to the bathroom alone after she came into my life. Even at that young age, she steadfastly placed herself between Clint and me in the the bed. (When she was grown, she even treated him to a little growl if he turned over suddenly in the bed.) As she grew to adulthood, her honey-toned coat faded to white and she became a great beauty. Ever vigilant, she monitored the front windows and was a perfect partner for Belle, who would have greeted Satan at the door with kisses. Like most Lhasas, Honey had little use for other dogs except the one in her own pack. On walks, she thought she could take down a Great Dane, but when she occasionally had to go to day care, with me out of sight, she aloofly separated herself from the other dogs and slept alone all day.
Honey went just about everywhere with me. A good traveler, she frequently went with me Savannah to attend Rosemary Daniel’s monthly Zona Rosa writer’s workshops, and she became well known to the members of the group. I have lovely sketches Charlotte Harrell made of the two of us at some of those meetings.  
When Clint was in his last days, Belle stationed herself at his side most of the time, but Honey was with me every step of the day, following me from room to room, lying beside me when I joined Clint in the bed. After Clint passed away, it would be my dogs who comforted me in the way only they can dosilently, lovingly and without questions or demands. In the spring of 2013, when Belle got too tired to live, it was Honey who comforted me. 
Parrish and I relocated back to Saint Simons a few months later, and after a year on a rented flat, we found this sweet house with it’s safely fenced yard. Honey quickly established herself as the boss of Meadows Drive and monitored all activity on the street from her perch on the back of the sofa in the living room. When not on patrol there, she was on guard at the front door, eyes keen on the yard and street through the glass door. She announced, in typical Lhasa Apso fashion, every vehicle and pedestrian who passed our way. On walks, when we encountered my neighbor Tony Baker and his late pup, Mollie B, who was about the same size as Honey, the two of them practically ripped their leashes in two in an attempt to protect their people. I’m pretty sure Mollie had some Lhasa in her family tree.
After Parrish’s tragic death in January, 2015, Honey was my comfort, my unfailing companion and confidant. She never once asked me how I was doing, never asked if there were anything she could do. She didn’t bring me plants to remind me Parrish was dead. She was here, present with me in the middle of my pain. And as I emerged from it months later, she was waiting to welcome me back to the world. 
She was my bed buddy and my alarm clock, waking me with kisses on the nose when she was ready to go out and then come inside to eat breakfast. I cooked for her most of her life. She liked all kinds of ground meats, and she really loved peas and carrots and green beans. It’s hard to put my finger on when she began to slow down. It came on gradually. Her hearing had been failing for about a year, but she could see well enough to go to walk with confidence. Our walks gradually became slower, though, and eventually became shorter. She went with me to the November Zona Rosa meeting, but that was the last time we went on the road. 
Nearly three weeks to the day after our visit to Dr. McGoldrick, Honey noticeably got weaker during the day. The next morning, she wouldn’t eat or go outside. I tearfully called her doctor and told him it was her time. I spent the day with her as she slept. At one point, she napped on my lap, but for most of the day, she lay on her sofa and slept. In the middle of the afternoon, I gave her a sedative. Gretchen came home early from work. When Brennan arrived a little after 5:00, Honey was drowsy and didn’t seem to know he was here. He gave her an injection in her rump, and I stroked and loved her while she quietly became unconscious. Then he shaved her little foreleg and injected her with the medicine that helped her over The Rainbow Bridge. I didn’t know I could be so heartbroken. My heart was in a million pieces as Brennan and his assistant waited patiently for me to say my good-byes. Then he wrapped her in a little blanket and took her away. Honey was there for me through most of the major tragedies in my life and losing her made me feel so terribly, terribly alone. I won’t try to explain how I felt, how I still feel. If you’re a dog lover, you know. If you’re not, you will never understand. 
A week later I went to the office to retrieve Honey’s ashes, which were in a beautifully carved wooden box. And there was a plaster print of her paw in the canvas tote bag with the box. I sat in my car for what seemed like forever, trying to compose myself. I finally stopped crying and felt safe to drive. The first thing I did when I got home was place her paw print next to Belle’s in the den. That night I took the little brown box to bed with me, and it’s still there. It will be right where it is until I’m ready to move it. There are moments, like this one, when my heart feels as though it will shatter. I long for her to nudge me for a treat or remind me it’s mealtime. My bed is lonely and cold without her. 
Despite the pain of losing Honey, I will always have a dog; I can’t conceive of life without a furry best friend. So no one should be surprised I have located a reputable Brussels Griffon breeder and will be getting a girl puppy in the next couple of weeks. Knowing I could never replace Honey, I opted for another breed, and at my age, a pocketbook dog is just what I need. 

                             Honey, February 6, 2018

Thursday, November 9, 2017

So This is Where I've Been . . Part 2

I’m going to set aside Part 2 for a moment to say a little about how glorious life is here on The Island during this fall season. Despite a nor’easter that rattled the trees for days and whipped around to come out of the northwest, bringing with it cooler temperatures, the weather is splendid. Skies so bright they shine like blue mirrors fill up with sparkling stars at night. Sitting on my deck, which is something I spend a great deal of time doing this time of year, even writing out here, the backyard birds are a distraction. The smaller birdsCarolina Chickadees, Titmice, Carolina Wrens and House Finches, even Downy Woodpeckersflit around the seed feeder, diving in for a sunflower seed and taking it away to peck it open on a tree limb or the branch of a sturdy shrub. A Brown Thrasher, who has lately taken to perching on the suet cage for long periods, trying to claim it for himself, is regularly run off my Red-bellied Woodpeckers. It’s hard to concentrate on much else, and I am grateful anew I get to live here. This is the trade-off for sweltering hot summers and hoards of tourists during summer months. The occasional roar of the Sea Island Air Force slices into the quiet, but the birds don’t see to mind.

As for Part 2, in February I drove to Steinhatchee, Florida, population south of 1500, to visit with Kristy and her family and attend the annual Fiddler Crab Festival. We had Friday to ourselves and she drove me around to the beautiful beaches where the family goes out in kayaks and dives for scallops during season, which runs roughly for the months of July, August and September, bagging their limit every time they go out. That night, we were joined by Shannon and Joey and their two teenage sons, Noah and Jacob, and the twins, Abby and Drew, eight at the time. I hadn’t seen the entire crew since Hurricane Matthew ran Gretchen and me off The Island in October of last year and sent us scurrying to Kristy’s Pine Mountain house. The kids were in school as we waited to return home, and I didn’t have much time with them, so I was glad to have a weekend with the family.

 I had been warned Steinhatchee, which means “Dead Man’s River” or “Dead Man’s Bay,” is a little on the rustic side and right-leaning politically. I wasn’t disappointed. There are about 10 restaurants but no grocery store. One convenience store stocks staples like eggs and milk and a limited amount of produce, but if you want a real supermarket, you have to drive 38 miles north to Perry. There are three marinas, several restaurants and, of course, the ubiquitous Dollar General. The ACE Hardware sports a life-size cutout of Donald Trump just inside the entrance, and on our drive Friday afternoon, we encountered what I can only describe as a crude roadside sign with this message: “Jesus said: Be Fishers of Men. - Matt. 4:19 - YOU CATCH ‘EM AND HE WILL CLEAN ‘EM,” flanked on either side by a single red Christian cross. 

There’s a little glimpse of the Steinhatchee River from the Burkhalter house, which is situated half a block from the main drag, not surprisingly called Riverside Drive. A few food trucks were set up along the street, and at sundown we wandered down to find dinner. I was on the cusp of my decision to become a vegetarian and had already eschewed meat, but seafood abounded. Before the others arrived, the bandstand across the street came to life with some of the most awful rock music I can ever remember hearing. I made my ears hurt. Kristy and I sat on the deck, drinking cocktails and smoking cigarettes and tried to tune it out. Mercifully, it ended early. The weather was cool but not cold, and we were happy to be together.

The two day festival, which included a fiddler crab race, fishing tournament, car show and The Swamp Water Cook-off, among other events, was kicked off at ten o’clock Saturday morning by a parade. It consisted of a procession of mostly golf carts, four-wheelers and pickup trucks, many of which had shotguns hanging from racks in their rear windows. Some pulled what I suppose could pass for floats. Most were decorated with all things crab: the official flag of The Festival, crab baskets and traps, and plastic crabs tied to rope netting sprinkled with colorful buoys. Kids of all ages, some sporting crab costumes, others dressed as pirates, rode in the backs of the trucks and on the floats and threw gaudy Mardi Gras beads, purple and gold, silver and green and pink, to the spectators along the route. A golf cart draped with burlap “moss” was driven by a pirate complete with gold tooth, his female mate dressed all in black and standing on the rear bumper.
The light rain didn’t stop the kids from going down to catch their share of beads. The various vehicles sported huge American flags, the occasional disappointing Confederate battle flag, and of course, Fiddler Crab Festival flags. It was a raggedy little display but fun nonetheless. By the time the kids got back to the house, the rain was coming down in earnest, but at mid afternoon, the sun was out, and so were we.

Riverside Drive was lined with food trucks and stalls with names like Red Neck Seafood and Bubba’s Bar-B-Q. No festival is complete without kettle corn and funnel cakes, and the hard core fair lovers weren’t disappointed. We missed the Swamp Water Challenge, but Kristy more than made up for that when, that night, she had a fish fry for all of us. 

The street running parallel behind Riverside was where the real arts and crafts and just plain junk booths were located. We wandered about, checking out the wares and stopping in to see the work of local artists as well as that of those who had come from afar. I ended up buying a wind chime made from channel whelk shells that was made in Shellman Bluff, a fishing village about 40 miles north of my house. Who knew? We purchased handmade soaps and a few little things the twins were interested in, but all-in-all, it wasn’t a banner shopping experience. 

It wasn’t about the shopping. It was about Joey cooking on the grill and friends dropping by to visit. It was about sweet, gooey, sticky s’mores. It was about Shannon getting a haircut from one of her friends right there on the porch. It was about Abby and Drew growing right before my eyes, about Jacob and Noah, no longer boys but young men. It was about eight people sleeping in a two bedroom house with one bathroom without squabbling. It was about leaving the bathroom door cracked while in shower so others could use the toilet, number one only. It was about sleeping with Kristy on her bed, which is hard as a concrete slab, and not waking with a backache.
I’m looking forward to next year. 

© 2017 cj Schlottman

Thursday, October 26, 2017

So This is Where I've Been for Nearly a Year

Part 1

I may have reached the age when time rushes past one in a blur. I don’t know where the months have gone, just that they are behind me, and I haven’t shared a single thought with my readers since last November.
After the holidays, I was blindside when our lawyer called meless than two working weeks before the statute of limitations expired in our pending case against the State of Georgia for what we believe was Parrish’s unlawful deathand said he didn’t have a medical expert who would testify in court that Parrish wouldn’t have died anyway. I immediately found another attorney who was willing to take the case, but with only ten working days, he simply didn’t have time to get the material to another expert, have him study the documents and give an opinion. To say we were shocked at such a last-minute bailing out on the part our attorney is to state the obvious. I felt then, and still do, he had to have known well before January 2. I’ve never been a cynic, but I have to wonder if he was hesitant to take on the state. 
Although the case was never about money, if you’re interested, to the State of Georgia, a human life is worth two million dollars. The case was about exposing the negligent way Parrish was treated at Gateway Behavioral Health Care’s crisis stabilization unit in January, 2015, how he was over sedated and not monitored and allowed to fall into respiratory arrest. It was about how the medical examiner’s report stated P died from a multi drug overdose administered by Gateway. It was about there being no record of anyone checking his respirations or listening to his chest while he was so heavily sedated. It was about him being knocked out and being ignored to death. It was about getting the word out in this community that Gateway isn’t a safe place for your loved ones with severe mental disorders. 
I obtained the medical record from the facility and read it carefully several times. The only thing I could document from what was only the skeleton of a chart was that Parrish received massive doses of Librium in the staff’s attempt to sedate him, and that he had been assaulted by another patient, leaving his left eye purple and closed. There we no indication his vital signs were monitored closely because of the heavy sedation. When I was a working nurse, one cardinal rule of record keeping was “If you didn’t write it down, you didn’t do it.” In spite of his enormous medication load, nobody wrote down anything in that chart about checking on P frequently. I will never forget seeing his beautiful face so damaged when I walked into his cubicle at the ER. He lived only about ten more hours, deep in a coma, never having attempted to take even a single breath.
There was that to get through. I wrote volumes in my journal about my feelings and disappointment, but for some reason I didn’t share it here. Maybe I was afraid of sounding like a whiner. I don’t know. The whole thing is in the past now and easier to parcel out from this distance. And that’s all I can do, just this little bit. The loss of my only child, even though he several times attempted suicide, was the single worst event I ever endured. But as time goes on, it’s easier to sort out the good memories and feed on them, pushing those images of him on the ventilator, face bruised and misshapen, to the back of my brain. 
I’ll be back in a few days to continue catching up. I have no idea why anyone would be interested in following this self-indulgent recap, but I have a need to write it downhere.

© 2017 cj Schlottman

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Long Hot Summer

I’ve been absent for too long, but my absence doesn’t mean I haven’t been writing and doing some editing. My journals overflow with thoughts and memories, and I continue to feel grounded and very much where I should be, here on The Island.
In early June, about a month before Parrish’s 46th birthday, my grief, simmering under the surface of my thoughts, bubbled up in my heart and broke it again. So, I began the long process of healing all over. The empty darkness of my loss was at times overwhelming, and I was distracted and suffered under the blanket of heat that came with summer. At times, I thought I was in hell.
Through June and July, I busied myself with the Tybee Retreat and also attended a workshop in Clayton, but my heart wasn’t in the moment. The sadness weighed me down, and I wanted nothing more than sleep until the pain was gone. We all know grief doesn’t work that way. You can’t sleep through it. It will not be ignored. It will drag you down and put it's heavy boot on your neck until you face it head on and stare it down, even temporarily. 
In the midst of my personal angst, Hurricane Matthew ran us off The Island for five days. Gretchen and I drove across the state to Pine Mountain, where Kristy has an A-Frame. The trauma of evacuation, displacement and not knowing what we would find when we returned was exhausting. Through it all, I continued to struggle with reactivated grief, the feeling of being separated from the others by it, the hole in my heart still oozing pain and distraction.
When we returned, the dreams began—all involving Parrish and my impotence to bring some modicum of hope and happiness into his life during his last two years. Instead of vanishing as though a magician had touched them with his wand, which is usually what happens, they stayed with me during the day, dragging me down. I felt deep pain and helplessness and great confusion. I flashed back to times when he suffered and I could offer no relief. Every time I thought of him, my heart pulsed with pain.
And then, on the first of October, I fell and hit my head in the bathtub, hit it hard, producing a gash on my forehead that required stitches. My scalp was, and still is, sore and tender to the touch. But after that accident, I suppose because I was forced to rest for days, I was drawn to write poems about my only child. I began to see the first glimmer of light through the fog of my depression and profound sadness. The dreams continued, but I didn’t remember details. Some of the poems are complete and there are others percolating in my brain. 
Once again, I have begun the real healing, the hard part where I have to own my grief and not spend my valuable emotional energy on hiding from it. Writing, especially writing poems, is hard work, and it's healing for me. You can’t write a good poem if you don’t tell the truth in it. Nor can you write a good poem without cutting and condensing the words to their bare bones. The strength of a poem is in it’s marrow, where the pain is. Here's a link to one of them. 
All has not been suffering, though. Gretchen is still with me, which is a joy. Honey, at 13, is still my best friend. My human friends are always here for me, and I actually put together a little cook-out for a few of them last weekend. The squirrels, overcome with glee that acorns are falling like hail, have abandoned the bird feeder and are busy making nests. I don’t think it’s my imagination that the songbirds are in better voice without harassment from them.
And my 50th Glynn Academy class reunion is in full swing. Walking into Sea Palms last night and seeing familiar faces, so long absent, come into focus all over the room gave me a further sense of being grounded here on My Island. There will me more about that later.

© 2016 cj Schlottman

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Block Party

Dedicated to my dear friend, Shirley (The Squirrel) Martin

     The squirrels in our neighborhood had babies this spring - many babies. At first they were cute. Aren’t all babies cute? They’re also smarter than their parents, because it didn’t take them long to learn how to climb up the shepherd’s hook, position themselves on top of my squirrel-proof bird feeder, and hang upside down to help themselves to all the sunflower seeds they can stuff into their little squirrel mouths, without touching the perches. 
     A squirrel-proof feeder is cleverly designed with little doors that slam shut when anything heavier than a bird lands on its perches, thus cutting off access to the seeds. It’s a wonderful invention, and until this year, it worked like magic. Squirrels would climb up the pole and reach over, grab the perch, and wham! The door would close in their little squirrel faces. Score one for the birds.
     Not so this year. I tried putting out corn for them. They’re supposed to prefer it to seeds, but they just eat it all up and then hit the feeder. They also raid the suet cage but it's too much trouble for them. After all, they have an open banquet at the feeder. I constantly refill the water station. Like the rest of us, they are no doubt trying to stay hydrated in this heat. 
     The regulars in my backyard—cardinals, titmice, chickadees, finches and wrens—are naturally intimidated by the squirrels, so they only eat when the squirrels are taking a nap or whatever they do when they’re not feeding their faces. 
     Make no mistake, Honey has been doing her part, patrolling from her station on the deck and chasing the little rodents back up in the trees where they belong. It’s a new pastime for her, squirrel chasing. She took it up just after her 13th birthday, but even with her help, the squirrels have been running rampant.
     I imagine them having block parties, inviting all their little squirrel friends from around the neighborhood to my back yard, cavorting about in little squirrel party hats and drinking little squirrel cosmopolitans. I can see them lounging on the deck chairs, smoking little squirrel cigars and sipping from little squirrel brandy snifters. I picture them dealing little bridge hands with little squirrel cards, bidding grand slams and snacking from little squirrel nut dishes.
     I know what you’re thinking. I should have installed a baffle the minute I realized my squirrels were party animals. But I hesitated, not wanting the ruin the esthetic of my back yard. A baffle looks like a Coolie hat. It’s attached to the pole and designed to keep squirrels from climbing up to the feeder. The most effective ones are made of slick metal, which keeps the squirrels from getting any traction should they land on top of it. Some of them can jump eight feet straight off the ground. The idea of an ugly baffle just didn’t sit right. So, I spent way too much time shooing them off my feeder and calling them dirty words.
     The coup de grace came when, day before yesterday, I realized they were inviting their cousins over to the house. I looked out to see a gray rat, about six inches long with a tail twice that length, hanging from the seed window, bypassing the perch altogether and eating sunflower seeds by the handful.
     Oh, no, no no, no, no! A squirrel is one thing, a rat quite another. Not even I, who sometimes question my own sanity, would let a rat find a ready food source in my back yard. I was off to Ace Hardware, where laid down $31.09 for a big, ugly baffle made of slick black metal. I drove home and attached it to the pole. A screwdriver was all I needed to install it.
     I went back inside the house, positioned myself at the window and watched to see what would happen. The birds immediately returned. A trio of squirrels gathered around the base of the feeder, scavenging the seeds birds inevitably drop. They seemed to be getting plenty to eat. After only a few minutes, one of them wrapped his little squirrel paws around the pole and began climbing. When he was within about a foot of the baffle, he looked up, and seeing nothing but black, jumped down. 
     Victory! The same squirrel gave it two more tries before giving up. The others seemed to have, intuitively I guess, learned from him and didn’t even give it a go.

     Birds: 10
     Squirrels and rats: 0
     I’ll let you know when the little bastards figure out a way around it.

© 2016 cj Schlottman

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Positive Negativity

     Monday night, just after sundown and as the Strawberry Moon was rising, Gretchen and I made our way down the boardwalk at Massengale Beach. The high tide that coincided with the full moon and summer solstice was washing against the steps and sliding in to lick at the dunes. The moon’s reflection on the water showcased brilliant whitecaps, sparkling evidence of the power of the ocean. A couple and their two children wading in the shin-deep water were buffeted around by the oncoming waves.
     A cool onshore wind blew salt air into our faces as we settled onto the deck and organized our modest picnic of steamed shrimp and wine. Blanket and chair situated, I opened the wine and filled our glasses. We turned our faces to the moon and breathed in negative ions, the invisible, feel-good molecules so abundant in water environments, especially the ocean, where waves stir up the water, releasing the ions into the air. When we breathe them in, negative ions increase levels of serotonin in our brains, which in turn boosts mood and helps relieve stress. If you ever needed an excuse to go to the beach, now you have it.
     As the moon rose, its reflection on the water grew wide, and the night was bright with it. We soaked up the moonbeams, talking and snacking and, well, just being in the moment, fully present for the most part, while the experience washed over us and took with it most of our consciousness of anything else. We lingered late, and as the tide began to recede, I climbed down the stairs and stood in the surf and wiggled my toes. I don’t remember being any happier without Clint.
     The Creator gave us this incredible gift, this healing force of nature we call the seashore. I call it my church. It’s open 24/7 and absolutely free of charge. There are no restrictions of any kind for admission. You just have to go. It’s as simple as that. Whatever your belief system, your spirit will be fed. If you open your heart to it, you will come away rich in peace and loving kindness, or if you prefer, filled with The Holy Spirit. Others may describe being in touch with the essence of God within. It doesn’t matter what you call it. You don’t have to call it anything. Is simply is.
     Just don’t do what Gretchen and I did. We left our phones in the car, and when we finally packed up to leave, it was almost midnight. The park closes at 10. Whoops. I drove to the gate, knowing we would find it locked. But living on The Island is a lot like living in Mayberry. I simply called the non-emergency police number (which every woman, wherever she lives, should have programmed in her phone), and told the dispatcher we were locked in Massengale Park and needed to be let out. Within minutes a nice officer drove up, opened the gate, and without a word, waved us through. 
     It was those negative ions, I just know it.

© 2016 cj Schlottman

Author's note: If you linked here from Facebook or Twitter and have a thought about this post, please leave a comment here on the blog. I'm in Facebook timeout again, and I won't see your comments there.  


Monday, June 13, 2016

Hiding in Plain Sight

I don’t know what to say. Yesterday’s massacre in Orlando has me distracted and angry and sad. I didn’t turn on the TV yesterday until nearly 11 o’clock I was stupid enough to keep it on most of the day. I am saturated with the blood of it, the senselessness of it, the utter evil of it. I have stared at Omar Mateen’s face, trying to see the darkness that surely lived behind it, but he looks like a regular person, not a terrorist. That’s the thing. Evil doesn’t necessarily announce itself when it walks in the room. 
I turned on my computer and began searching for sites where I could learn the difference between Islam and Islamic extremism, and my eyes were opened. Why did I wait to long to educate myself? Have I really been slinging the word, sharia, around without actually understanding the meaning of it? 
During the aftermaths of the terror attacks in Paris, California, and other locations around the world and in the US, I was able to distance myself in a healthy way. I was aware of the dreadful circumstances but didn’t allow it to penetrate and overtake my unconscious. I felt pain and sorrow and anger but wasn’t overcome by it.
Is this because I have a gay friend who works for Disney and lives in Orlando? I immediately wondered and worried about him. Thankfully, he posted on FaceBook yesterday that he decided to stay in on Saturday night. He may be safe, but he lost friends and acquaintances in the attack. He may be alive, but he’s not okay. His heart is broken and mine is broken for him. 
I had trouble falling asleep last night. Every time I thought I was settled and ready to center myself for sleep, an unfamiliar restlessness came over me. I felt the need to move my body, turn over or reposition my legs. I finally sat up and started reading, but keeping my mind on the book was next to impossible. My grandmother would have described my state this way: I was as agitated as a worm in hot ashes. I finally resorted to a sleeping pill.
I oversaturated myself with negative energy. That’s what I did, and I don’t understand why I did it. Did I think things would get better if I just waited long enough? There must be a name for that kind of sick attraction to tragedy. I suppose that’s the next topic I should explore on the internet. 
So, when I got up this morning, I vowed not to turn on TV. Instead, I began nesting. I went out on the front porch and watered my maidenhair and foxtail ferns. I dragged the hose up on the porch and watered my ferns in hanging baskets and my Christmas cactuses. Then I went out back to the deck and watered all the plants out there. The hibiscus hasn’t a single flower today, not one. It’s clearly in mourning. I told the orchids everything would be okay, murmured reassurance to the asparagus fern and the pale pink pentas. I even went out in the yard to the shady spot where nothing will grow and spoke to the Irish Moss I planted there out of desperation. I cleaned the grill and stowed it in the store room. The heat index was in the upper 90s, and sweat was pouring off me.
I didn’t care. I came inside and started fooling around in the kitchen. I thought about sharpening my knives so they’ll be ready the next time I’m moved to chop up something, but Gretchen is nesting, too. She was in the middle of mixing up a batch of oatmeal chocolate chip cookies, so I got out of her way and sat down in the den to cool off. 
Have I really made this about me? I suppose I have. I bruised my soul yesterday, allowed myself to be bombarded with the worst of bad news, and today I just can’t do it. I can’t be part of it. I don’t even want to sign in to FaceBook because it’s too painful.
Doubtless, many bloggers are writing about this horrible thing that happened to all of us. The victims and their families in Orlando are not alone. Millions of people across the world are standing with them, trying to imagine their suffering and offering support and love.
I count myself among them, but for now, I’m offering my support and love from behind the curtain of my little world here on my little island. 
I’ll be out soon. 

Friday, June 3, 2016

The Zen of Cleaning Crabs

  Since I was a young girl growing up on Saint Simons Island, I’ve been catching and picking blue crabs, the tasty crustaceans with bright blue claws and olive green shells that are plentiful in these waters. Before I was old enough to cook and clean them, my mama taught my three brothers and me how to catch them using a stick and a line. For the uninitiated, you’ll need a “stick” about three feet long. It can be a broom handle sawed in half or a slender board—whatever you have on hand to which you can tie a length of heavy twine. You’ll also need some raw chicken necks or backs. It’s an old wives’ tale that you should let them sit in the sun until they’re smelly. Would YOU like to eat a crab that just ingested spoiled chicken? 
To finish out the equipment list, get ourself a five gallon bucket and a dip net. Tie a piece of chicken to the loose end of the line and, at low tide, find yourself a spot on the beach near a inlet where you can wade out knee deep and stick your pole in the sand. Throw the chicken out into the water—and wait. You may even want to walk back to your chair and pull a cold one out of the cooler. If the crabs are active, you won’t have to wait long. Gently pull the line toward you until you can see the chicken. It there are crabs greedily attacking it, continue to pull it until you can scoop them up in your net. Go slow and you won’t scare them away. They're greedy little monsters, and they'll follow that chicken practically to your feet. 
        There is no greater thrill than watching children catching crabs. Their squeals of feigned fear and pure delight will stay with you forever. Imagine your children or grandchildren, brown as berries from the sun, taking turns wielding the net, scooping up the crabs and running to shore with their catch. And yes, there were the arguments about just whose turn it was to hold the net and just who let a big one get away, but they were happy, so very happy. 
        We had a Boxer named Toma who would wade out, sit down in the water up to her chest, and watch over the kids. Once, when out of the innocent curiosity only a Boxer can have, she stuck her muzzle into a jelly fish and her whole face swelled up like a manatee. I had to take her home and dose her with Benadryl, but she was okay. We were all okay. We were all happy. 
        I got off on a little tangent there, didn't I? So, here's the story I intended to tell in the beginning.
  On Monday of this week, Crab Man called from The Village Pier, where he puts in traps nearly every day. (You can’t crab with a stick and a line at the pier.) He wanted to know if I were interested in buying his catch, and I thought about it for a moment and said I did. I refused a bucket about a week before because I didn’t have time to process them, and I’d had a taste for them ever since. It’s a lengthy operation, getting blue crabs from the ocean into a crab cake or some other delicacy, but nothing makes for better eating.
  I parked my truck and, flip-flops slapping at my heels, walked out onto the pier swinging a bright orange Home Depot bucket. I found Crab Man half way down the dock, and when I peered into his catch, I smiled. There, waving their claws and bubbling at their mouths, were 15 big blue beauties. I paid him ten dollars, we exchanged buckets, and I drove home with the air conditioner blowing full blast to keep the crabs cool and alive. I don’t cook dead crabs, and neither should you. 
  I stowed the bucket in a cool corner of the kitchen and hauled out my biggest boiler and set it on the stovetop. When the water was rolling, I sprinkled it liberally with Tony Chachere’s seafood seasoning. (There is no other.) And then I emptied the bucket of crabs into the pot and covered it with the lid. I know, I know. Where’s the Zen in that? It’s not the most pleasant part of the job. They struggle for a few seconds, but I rationalize away any guilt by telling myself death is almost instantaneous. And then there’s the end product—succulent, sweet deliciousness.
  Twenty minutes later, the crabs had turned bright orange and were floating in the water, a sure sign they were done. I dumped them in the sink to cool and cleaned up the splatters of crab water that inevitably spew out of the pot onto the ceramic cooktop. I hate that thing. It’s a pain in my ass every time I have to clean it, and the only reason I have one is that that there’s no gas line on our street, and I’m unwilling to have a tank buried in my back yard. Learning to live without a gas range is the biggest challenge I faced when I bought this wonderful house.
  When the crabs were cool enough to handle, I set about pulling off the claws and depositing them in a bowl. Then I tugged off the backs and broke the skeletons in half in order to clean out the innards. 
  This is when the Zen kicks in. While performing this chore, I can’t think of anything else. I am completely in the moment, concentrating only on removing the long fingerlike gills and rinsing out the spongy goo that is the stomach. I give them a final rinse with the kitchen sprayer and put them in the bowl with the claws. Some people experience a sense of fulfillment when ironing or mowing the grass or shelling a basket of butter beans. For me, there is great satisfaction in the sight of a bowl full of crabs, clean and ready to pick.
        Since the trash man wouldn't be coming for a week, I bagged up all the shells and body parts and stowed them in the freezer until Sunday night. You ain't lived until you've let crab sit in your garbage bin for a week in hot weather. If I were the trash guy, I wouldn't go near it.

  Traditionally in our family, picking crabs has been a joint effort. Everyone gathered around the old card table that Harry almost blew up with his chemistry set. We spread newspaper over it and, and using nut crackers and picks, we all worked together. When we were older, there was beer involved. After Clint and I married, his children and grandchildren became part of the process. Bowls filled with crabmeat quickly, and to a person, everybody in my family has fond memories of those times. No, we were not a family who ate as we picked, dipping the crab in melted butter. Hell, if we had done that, the slow pickers would have been out of luck.
  There’s an art to extracting the meat from a crab carcass, and not everyone is gifted in that way. When my brother John was alive, he sucked at it. Even after he was a grown man, someone always had to pick over his bowl for bits of shell. His wife Lisa, on the other hand, is one of the best pickers I’ve ever known. I’m pretty good at it, too. Once I picked out 36 crabs by myself because everyone else was out fishing with Clint. Then, as now, I didn’t mind and in fact enjoyed the solitude and the Zen of it all. 
  When the picking was over, Mama would make a big dish of crab au gratin or a pot of crab soup—whatever we had enough crab to make. Sometimes we had both.

  Back to Monday. I spread newspaper on the coffee table and gathered my equipment. Vodka was involved. Using the same nut crackers and picks Mama bought half a century ago to shell pecans, I got down to work. I picked out the bodies first, because they’re the hardest. The cartilage that separates the compartments of white lumps of meat is tricky to negotiate. Over time, I’ve developed a feel for them, which is a good thing because these 68 year old eyes ain’t so sharp any more. Some would call it tedious work, but as I’ve already explained, I get lost in it. It takes me completely outside myself.
  If you’re picking crabs by yourself, frequent breaks are necessary. Your fingers get shriveled and a little numb, which can result in sloppy work. Can’t have that. Coincidentally, breaks were necessary about the same time my drink needed a patch. Funny how that works.
  Bodies out of the way, I attacked the claws. Child’s play. Using a dish rag to protect my fingers, I pried them apart. In most cases, the cartilage that separates the big side into two hunks of dark meat came out in one piece. Yes! Then all I had to do was crack the hard shells and remove the contents. 
  Once I was finished and my fingers came back to life, I made two passes at the bowl of sweet goodness to check for shells. Hey, I never said I was perfect. It’s almost impossible to find every tiny piece of shell and cartilage, but it’s important to try, a matter of pride, really. Sloppy picking makes for less than appealing crab cakes.

  A dozen large crabs will render about a pound of meat. If you pack it into a two-cup measure, you can be certain it’s a pound. Good to know because many recipes call for crab by weight. I had a little over a pound, so there was enough to make crab cakes for dinner with enough left over for crab au gratin appetizers (recipe from Bennie’s Red Barn) for the next night. 
  I used a recipe for crab cakes I’d never tried, and to be honest, it wasn’t my best work. Next time I’ll fall back on the tried and true recipe that’s served me well over the years: a pound of crab, a finely chopped onion and a couple of sticks of minced celery, two eggs, a little chopped parsley and some Lea and Perrins (no substitute). After it’s all mixed together, form into small patties and sauté them in a little butter and olive oil over medium heat. Crab is rich, so don’t make them too big. Be patient and don’t try to cook them too fast or turn them too soon. The bottom needs to be brown, not burned, and holding together when you turn them, or you’ll have a mess on your hands. Besides, the onion and celery need time to cook. 

        I hope everyone who reads this post will have a chance to go crabbing the old fashioned way, then get the family together for cooking, cleaning and picking. You'll make wonderful and lasting memories. It makes me feel good in my feelings just thinking about it.

© 2016 cj Schlottman