Satisfied and tickled, too

Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, October 16, 2016 (last essay for this paper!)


The only fan letter I ever wrote was to the novelist, Tom Robbins. No eye rolling, please. It’s important to note that I happened to be working for his publisher in New York City at the time (1982), and I happened to be selling cover art rights to his many foreign publishers. In essence, I was really working for him. So. It was a fan letter to my awesome boss.

The job itself is not at all glamorous; in fact, when I leave the position, my day-to-day boss, a tough woman VP for whom I type letters, asks me if I want to know why I will never amount to anything in the business. It does not help that the friend I make in that department becomes such a close friend (and is, still) that our desks have to be moved apart. Meanwhile, I gobble up the Tom Robbins novels, and on several occasions see him in the elevator looking adventuresome, approachable, and out of place; combined, these are enough to loosen New York City’s monopoly on my spirit.

I have blocked out whatever I might have tried to pull off in that fan letter. It had some history, probably. Having grown up in Seattle, I had already dragged the parents on a “tulip viewing” pilgrimage to the little town of La Conner, Washington, where the legendary creator of Sissy Hankshaw is known to live (and still lives, at 84).

I do know this: at the time of typing the letter on my old Royal, in the fabulous walk-up railroad flat I rent for more than two-thirds of my take home pay, I am thinking if I land a comment in this author’s ear, at least I will have done something in life. I probably gush out of every pore, because I am still in recovery from Catholic girls’ high school PTSD, for which gushing is not just the antidote but also the cure.

I drop it in the mailbox, thinking “There. Done. Did it. Now, move on.”

A few weeks later, despite the miniscule odds, I receive a letter postmarked La Conner. On the back of the envelope is an image of a duck and man with their heads down and submerged in water, along with the caption, “Does a duck have a Buddha nature, master?” Inside, is a photocopied anatomical diagram of head and alimentary canal with word bubbles coming out of various mouths. “Dear Michelle,” it says, “I would be satisfied (and tickled, too) if yours was the only fan letter I ever received. Bless your heart for that. Love & Luck. Tom Robbins.”

Sometimes, we do smile big, gaping smiles with our hearts. That I have fired off a letter to a winsome, frolicking, woman-loving, psychedelic-seeing, longhand-writing genius and gotten it answered is almost more than I can bear. It makes me float for a while and then it makes me wonder, Well, what keeps us afloat, though? Does a duck have a Buddha nature, master?

When I finally do drop out in search of something else, something imaginative and at the end of the road, there is no shortage of Robbins bubbling in my brain and fueling my fire. I take my father’s bequeathed computer and start tapping away, for hundreds and hundreds of hours at my first attempt at novel writing, which is — of course — about a roadside attraction. My prose is a far cry from Tom Robbins,’ but I like to think my characters might feel right at home reading his novels.

Fast forward 30 years.

A friend is over and is reading the famed, framed letter, as others have done, with a little smile. A diehard blues lover, he tells me he most appreciates the “satisfied and tickled, too” reference to the Mississippi John Hurt song. I have no idea what he’s talking about. I have never been aware of any allusion at all, which somehow utterly charms him because of this new layer, a layer that brings him right into the story.

Some time later but not so long ago, this same friend and his wife tell me they have a surprise for me, which is a present, a book. They’ve just been to Tom Robbins’ reading and book signing in NYC — of the memoir he said he would never write. And though they’ve all been told by the author, whose handwriting and eyesight are bad, that he cannot write personal notes, Barry and Christina, committed, stand in a long line in order to squeeze out my story in 12 seconds flat — the story of the only fan letter a girl has ever written, and the response she unexpectedly gets.

Below the shaky inscription to me and above his signature, he finds it in his heart to add: “Satisfied and tickled, too.” Which is a nice enough mantra in life, when you actually think about it.



Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, July 24, 2016

A half pint of raspberries sits on the kitchen counter.

These are the tiny variety, handpicked by someone who cares a lot, maybe someone deep in blissful connection to nature as the midsummer sun beats down, a heat interrupted only by the occasional thunderhead lumbering across the sky, laying its blue shadow down.

The purchase price of this basket is far too little ($3) at a local farmer’s market. Rather than that berry-on-steroids look of today, this sampling has a soft, dusty appearance, as if modestly hiding the fullness of its color. Are these wild, actually? Who knows.

(Poured onto the counter for inspection, one particular berry rolls off to the left, toward the potted fern on the kitchen island, succeeding — almost! — in hiding itself under the shade of a frond. After coming to a complete stop, it moves another inch, on its own, and bumps ever so gently into a coffee mug.  A micro sigh is released.)

MCW (moving closer in, seeing one of the berry’s hairs move slightly): Hello?

(The raspberry, emitting a tiny blur of sounds, then rolls back the length of a single drupelet — the nodes that comprise the whole drupe.)

MCW (looking around for husband in vicinity): I realize this is the magical part of July, but seriously. Are you for real?

RB: I’m real. Geez. (The voice is a pipsqueak’s. Not a cartoon character’s, or even an animated anything’s, but a lovely, sweet, squeaky sort of drawling voice the loudness of, say, a baby bumblebee.) Flesh and juice. Oh, and 6 percent fiber by total weight. Which is very high.

MCW: By the grace of summer magic, I am speaking with a raspberry. My favorite fruit.

RB (waving all her hairs, acknowledging compliment): Well. Except for plums, though, right?

MCW (blushing deeply): I mean, I like plums so very much. But …

RB (interrupting): I admire their color, firmness and versatility, as well. (RB rolls a single drupelet again, toward the human in checked pajamas, who is scanning the counter for reading glasses.) But we are a bit more sensuous, you know? Plums hold it all in; you don’t get that feeling with us.

MCW: So much more sensuous! I mean plums are, when you bite into them. Anyway. Sorry I lied. I didn’t want to hurt your feelings. And now, seeing you like this, I mean you easily might be my favorite fruit of all time. Even given the little I know of your personality. Your voice alone …

RB: I’m a Leo. Most of us wild raspberries are, in this part of the world. Born in late July or August. So there’s a little ego and pride there, as well as a fixation with our “manes.” (RB makes her hairs stand up).

MCW: You are adorable. Can you do the hair trick again? And do all of you speak?

RB (waves hairs): Goodness, no. We’re born mute. Aside for the sounds we make when we grow, which are not audible to humans. And the sound we make when we either fall to the ground or into a container. Sounds made by mouths eating us don’t count. Me (she topples into a cavity-down headstand), I arrived with a passion for languages. English will probably be the only one I learn, though, since my ripespan is really only two to three weeks.

MCW: Your ripespan. (MCW nods slowly.) What a concept.

RB: Right?

MCW: What is it for humans, I wonder.

RB: Most of you would say youth. But youth is not ripeness, now, is it?

MCW: It’s just so obvious for fruit. You ripen, then fall.

RB: At the height of our glory. As sweet as we can get. (RB slowly rolls toward the human hand on the counter, then bumps into it, like the softest, gentlest raspberry breeze.) So sweet it makes even animals swoon.

MCW: Animals … swoon?

RB: In private they do. (RB presses her hairs into the human flesh.) And you can, too, emceedubs.

MCW: You know my name? And you want me to eat you, now? The first fruit friend I’ve ever had?

RB: You have given Rubus idaeus— raspberries are from the rose family —the first voice they’ve had since, oh, I don’t know. Findhorn? Camelot? Atlantis?

MCW: Wait. Are you saying …

RB (giggling a drupelet completely off): I’m playing with you. But, see, I’m falling apart in ripeness. Pick me up and lay me down on your tongue. It’s my time.

(On the human tongue, the raspberry becomes quiet and utterly submissive. The human bears down, feeling the drupelets give, bursting in flavor; and, for a moment — a brief transcendent moment — summer’s own ripeness, a mysterious mix of heat and sugar, implodes in glory.)

Here’s what you do

Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, September 6, 2015

Starting with my father, I have always had people around me who knew exactly what to do in any given situation. Without a split second’s worth of hesitation, he would go about fixing or fabricating or directing anything. These processes for him were self-evident and without alternative. If you did it his way, in short, you weren’t so much destined for success as not destined for ruin.

Yes, the head of our household was one of those who believed there was only one way to do things: the right way. “Properly,” I believe was the word he used, as if it were inextricably tied to the social order and probably an order even higher than that.  As if how-to’s were delivered by God — by ray of light — directly to these Messengers of Technique on Planet Earth. That’s what I’ll call them: MOT’s. People I’ve grown, especially recently, to appreciate a lot.

These are the people in your life who will take a needle out of your hands to show you how to really sew a button on. Who will tell you which single sandwich should be ordered at any deli in all the major U.S. cities. Who will hook up electronics for you, show you how to dice mangos, pull up a dandelion so that it won’t be back, build a doghouse, interpret a movie correctly and how to tell a friend they’ve crossed the line.

For the MOT’s — who are both thoughtful and somewhat authoritarian — the question seems to be: why would technique and knowledge exist if it could not be honed from good to better and from better to best? The rest of us? We don’t necessarily see the validity or delight of one way, given all the possibilities out there.

Recently, however, one of my MOT’s came in so handy, I’ll never doubt their value or place in my life again.

The situation: I am doing the normal thing with my phone, which is to check and make sure I know where it is, not because I would be lost without it, but because I might be slightly irritated for a time. Okay, maybe a little disoriented. Despite its turquoise color and lack of case, I misplace the toxic but useful device at least once a day.

Phone in hand, I put it in my raincoat and get on my bike to ride home. Half a mile in, I pull out my earphones for music, and then can’t locate it. Since I’m never entirely sure I’m positively right, I figure maybe I’ve left it at work, so I let it go and ride home. But then the next day — yawn if you’re bored — it’s not at work, either.

So I start to worry. About my insurance deductible and the fact that I’m not really sure if iCloud is really backing it up.  About the phone store people who, the last time, have unwittingly helped me lose hundreds of photos. About personal information floating around possibly in some kid’s tech-smart little hands, passcode aside.

I start emailing all the people who regularly text me and 24 hours later I’m writing the mass email telling everyone to forgive me, but I’ve lost my phone and to stay tuned. It feels stupid to make people care about this, but what if they are trying to reach me?

About six seconds after hitting send, I hear from an MOT friend, a techie who asks if I’ve used the Find My iPhone app yet. And I tell him even though I used it once, there’s no record of it on my computer. Just bear with me, he says. Here’s what you do:

And he tells me where to go and to sign in and click on the app button. He waits patiently. So: do you see your phone?

Miraculously, I see green dot on the map, right outside town, just past the roundabout, about four miles from my couch. It’s already dark and raining, but what choice do I have? I drive in, park, and start walking, leveling a borrowed phone’s flashlight down and into an endless stretch of ultra-long, wet grass. Really? Come on.

But I go through with the plan. Call home. Have my husband hit the button that is supposed to make my phone ping. I’m looking around in the dark telling him this is so pointless, what with the sound of the creek and the rain and all that grass everywhere. Then — I hear it. Something faint. I freeze. “Wait!” I say. And that’s when I see the phone, four feet off the path, flashing, pinging, surviving the rain. Wow. I hold it like the Holy Grail.

And thus am I reunited and saved a boatload of hassle. Because, luckily, someone is around in a time of needing a technique to utter four sweet words to me: “Here’s what you do.” And all … is well again.


Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, June 28, 2015

In a blue suit so bright a shard of sky might have fallen to earth and then bounced off the ground into flight, a bluebird, chasing a bicycle down a bikepath, swoops from fence post to fence post as a June day trumpets its particular glory.

Suddenly, the bicycle stops and the rider, a woman in a hat, faces the bird. Though it is just about to take flight, the featured creature, as if its feet were stuck to the post, reconsiders.

MCW: [speaking low] You know, I feel like you’ve been following me. For years, in fact. But. Maybe you do this with every bicycle.

BBird: [in a voice too cute for words, especially English ones] Nope. You’re the only one I follow. [trills]

MCW: I knew it! [dismounts] Since my mother died, right? In 2001? I always felt she’d slipped right into a bird body just to keep her eye on me.

BBird: Jeannine? [micro-sighs] She did watch over you after she died, but only briefly. Remember when that psychic told you she was hanging out in your clothes closet because of how confused she was about her place in the afterlife? Well, she actually was. You wore dresses back then and that sweet perfume: she was in the dresses.

MCW: Wow. [checks bikepath for onlookers] I loved that perfume. Acqua di Parma, Iris. She was in the dresses?

BBird: [ignoring her] And PS: bluebirds don’t live that long. You’ve got humans saying the oldest bluebird lived eight years but it was actually 10 and a half. Another simple little thrush hell bent on fulfilling the mission of monitoring some impossible person’s happiness. Even with all the hospice birds doing their best to lead him out, he just wouldn’t go. Heart kept beating 600 times a minute even with a cool piece of moss laid out on its —

MCW: Wait — bluebird hospice?

BBird: Little blue angels of mercy. Anyway. We all get assignments — missions is what they’re actually called. And I got you — whom your father used to call “the little black cloud” back when you were in high school. Remember?

MCW: A chip off the old big cloud. [putting kickstand down on bike] Nah, I was miserable in high school, it’s true. What kind of mission?

BBird: Are you serious? We’re bluebirds! Who else do you think monitors happiness, day by day, human by human.

MCW: I thought bluebirds brought the happiness.

BBird: No, we’re monitors. Correct taxonomy: “Bluebird of Happiness Monitoring,” but somewhere along the line it got shortened. Not that we’re not a joyful lot: it’s actually built right into our flight pattern and color. Divine genius, you know, building joy right into a bird.

MCW: So, like: you’d be the one to ask about how humans are doing. Right now, for instance, on the planet.

BBird: Where bluebirds reside. Other creatures monitor other places. And of course there are different schools of thought on what makes the happy life. Most bluebirds are Socratics. We believe wisdom, courage, moderation and justice create the capacity for happiness in humans. Personally, I’d throw in joy and the ability to groove to a tune, but otherwise, yeah.

MCW: Wisdom and justice? Yikes. Not sure I want an assessment. Hey, you know those animated bluebirds in the original Cinderella? The ones who —

BBird: Cheer her up and hang ribbons on her dress and such? They’re in Snow White, as well; but in Cinderella, they’re wearing ugly brown hobo shoes and headscarves. Like we’re from the old country or something. Frowsy. But what about them?

MCW: Oh forget it. I mean I’ve got the real thing, right here before my very eyes, speaking to me in an accent of undetermined origin. Sort of Boston meets British. Anyway, after my years of monitoring, what happens?

BBird: Well. [hops to handlebars]. I pass on. But not before having filed the report.

MCW: [horrified] The report? Like a permanent part of the record?

BBird: [laughing hysterically] You should see the look on your face! [shaking wings] Stop, it, Alexis!

MCW: I’m confused. Who is Alexis?

BBird: I’m Alexis. And I shouldn’t be poking fun. Against the rules. Anyway, you’ve got about three years to go on my watch. And I suggest —

MCW: That I take wisdom and justice more seriously?

BBird: Nope. Are you kidding me? I suggest you realize happiness is built into your wings as well. Your shoulder blades, actually. And that you get out there and jiggle them around.  [spreads wings, flies off, swooping] [tweeting over wing] And another thing —

MCW: [shielding eyes from brilliant blue] What???

BBird: Have a bluebird day!

The Bear, the Man, and Blueberry Manna (a fable)

Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, May 31, 2015

Part 2

(In part one, Alonzo, an unconscious and mean-spirited bear loses his already failing sight and finds himself an object of derision from the very woodland creatures he had relentlessly tortured. He is about to give up hope when a stranger, Florentine, appears, offering the starving bear kindness… and blueberries.)

Before he knew it, he was lying on something soft, so soft he had no idea what to make of it in his mind’s eye (which he had just become acquainted with). Too tired to question, he stayed on the soft palette for hours, simply remembering all of the things he’d seen in his life. The splendor. The sweet familiarity of the world. Then, with his past gifted back to him, he experienced a deep, deep sadness. Because along with all the wonders of nature revived in him, were also the many hours he’d wasted teasing his animal brothers and sisters. He not only remembered, but felt their pain. Their fears, their beating hearts, their confusion. Especially the anguish of father fox.

When Florentine arrived in the guest room to wake up Alonzo the next morning, he found the bear sitting slumped on the edge of the feather bed trying to gather himself together. The bear-sadness in the room was so large even Florentine’s other animals — the cat, the flock of sheep, the chickens — had stopped to listen with their hearts. In the unusual dawn hush, Florentine guided Alonzo to the living room where he presented the bear with a bowl of mush and berries and played music for him on the old Victrola.

Not familiar with something called chamber music or anything remotely like it, Alonzo sat quietly, unable conjure any images (per se) in his mind’s eye.  Eventually, he simply let the music course through him. Was it the food or the music that made him feel so good? He did not know. Every morning for weeks, Alonzo was fed mush, berries and music from the Victrola, and soothing words were spoken to him by his savior Florentine. Though Alonzo did not understand the reasons for the man’s kindness, he could not resist the simple pleasures and received them without question.

But, eventually, he did wonder: How long would he be permitted to stay before being returned to the forest? Why were they caring for him so? Had they been mean to bears once upon a time?

As the weeks passed and fall came with the first chill winds, all the animals stayed closer to the house. First, only the cat seemed to want to befriend Alonzo, rubbing up against him, purring. But soon enough the sheep felt comfortable milling around him, nudging him and finally the chickens started approaching, clucking and sometimes even flapping up onto his lap. One day, the cat curled up on Alonzo’s belly, which gave the bear a big, warm, fuzzy feeling. He had friends for the first time in his life, which seemed too good to be true.

So when Florentine sat on Alonzo’s bed one morning and told the bear he had something to say, it was very clear things were about to change. That this indeed had been too good to be true. Alonzo sat upright in his bed, peeled off the covers and swung his legs around. Bowed his head. Readied himself for he knew not what. He heard Florentine tell him winter was coming. That he was happy the bear had recovered his health. That he was a stronger bear than when he had arrived in Florentine’s life.

Seeing where this was headed, Alonzo stood up, as if to go. Pawed a couple times at the birch bark collar Florentine had made for him, the one that served as a handle for climbing onto the bear’s back, which he was sure Florentine would want back. Then he shook his fur as if he were wet, trying to look like a wild bear again, a bear who might survive being sent back into the forest where he would have to make restitution for all the wrongs he had done. And also do it blind. How would he manage this? He felt a lump in his throat but swallowed it, not wanting Florentine’s faith in him to waiver. He held the big bear tears back by squeezing his eyes tightly shut.

It was therefore a shock and a surprise when Alonzo heard Florentine laugh a big belly laugh. Florentine yanked the bear back down on the bed by the collar. Stroked his cheeks and neck and then put his arms around him as far as they could go.

“Silly bear,” he said as all the clocks in his house chimed the hour. “I don’t want you to go anywhere.” Florentine felt all the questions-mark muscles in the bear’s body relax a smidge. “Is that what you thought?” Alonzo sniffled. Turned his head toward his keeper and nurse and friend.

“No. Now that you’re strong I want to know if you’re willing to stay on with us. You see, every winter we are too cold here, much too cold. The snows are deep and the fireplace isn’t as efficient as it should be. It never has been. We never knew it but we’ve always needed good, warm, cozy bear energy in this cabin. To heat it up. So, though we know you’re desperate to return to your forest, we are asking you to stay. Will you stay?

It took a long moment for Alonzo to process this. Why should Florentine be so kind to him, when all Alonzo had done was allow himself to be healed? Only his bear body seemed to know what to do: He stood on his hind feet and nuzzled his licorice-y bear nose against Florentine’s white hair. He grunted. Sighed. Collapsed in gratitude on the floor so that Florentine could grab the collar and get on his back.

That winter and for all the winters thereafter, Florentine’s cabin and barn were warmed by the heat, peace and calm generated by the heart and soul of an evolved bear. The same bear who lead them, summer after summer after summer, to the sweetest and bluest blueberries in the woods. And every August, in the middle of the hottest month, they would take an entire pail of the choicest berries to the fox family, who, making a holiday of it, ate them until they were dizzy and then used the leftover juice to paint the walls of their den a deep blue, the color of the contentment.

One possible moral: In the heart of all diets is a food that is never truly tasted. May the blueberry juice of knowledge trickle down your throat and the throats of all you love.

The Bear, the Man, and Blueberry Manna (a fable)

Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, May 17, 2015


Once upon a time, in a forest just beyond the deepest of the deep lakes, lived an old man named Florentine and a black bear with cataracts in his eyes. This is the story of how Florentine came to save Alonzo the bear, save him from all the small woodland creatures who mercilessly tickled and teased him (even threw little rocks at his head) to the point of a nervous breakdown. Which most bears aren’t susceptible to, but when you factor in blindness, well, things go a little differently.


Alonzo had not ever been the kindest bear in the woods. No. He had taken pleasure scaring the other creatures – the squirrels, the partridges, and mainly the foxes – sometimes just for the simple satisfaction of watching tails get big and feathers ruffle. At home in his cave later on, he would giggle, remembering the surprised looks in their eyes, the way they rushed off, who knew where. He would sometimes even fall asleep with a smile pulling at the corners of his heavy black jowls.


Though one could not say with perfect certainty, the cataracts seemed to have come on suddenly — right after an incident whereby Alonzo had shoved a stump into a foxhole one lazy spring day, and then sat on it, picking at his claws and humming a tune he’d recently heard a local blackbird singing. He did not stop to consider the feelings of the fox family trapped in the dark — the little foxes shivering, the mother fox, whose panic sent waves of fox-fright vibrating through the forest floor. Eventually, it was a badger who dug them out, while Alonzo remained perched on the stump murdering a tune, unaware that father fox had suffered his first panic attack.


One morning, soon thereafter, Alonzo woke up and could not see. Being a bear, he rubbed his eyes, thinking the mantle of slumber had had a stronger hold on him than it usually did, that he was still in the dark dreamland of his kind, ursus Americanus. But as he started stretching and groping, he realized even with eyes open and dreams done, he could not make out the pads of his paws, which he was holding and waving two inches from his nose. He started grunting, and then hyper grunting, and got scared for the first time in his life.


At this point, to give credit even to so clueless a bear, it occurred to Alonzo that somehow, mysteriously, what he had done to the foxes had been done back to him. That a big monster, or one of those giants from the next valley, had rolled a stone in front of his lair’s opening, just for the simple pleasure of having a good laugh at Alonzo’s expense. Which would have been better than what actually happened, which is that Alonzo found his way outside, felt the gentle rain falling on his snout, and heard the morning birds singing as if nothing were wrong, as if no one in the forest had awakened without sight in their eyes. And being a visual sort of bear, Alonzo was utterly and completely lost.


It would be too heartbreaking to go into great detail regarding the weeks that followed. How the rodents and woodland birds followed him, jeering, telling bear jokes, pulling at his fur, even throwing pine cones and rocks at him from their higher perches. How every night he would fall asleep in a ball, shivering not from cold but alienation and growling hunger. After just a few shorts weeks, Alonzo could remember nothing of his former life as a carefree bear. Not how he lazily watched the river, or swatted at jumping fish. Or watched the moon come up. It was as if the veil over his eyes had also veiled his past.


Such was his state when Florentine, a blueberry picker and fixer of watches, found him: weaving from side to side, making his way timidly across a field of wild irises. Florentine approached the dehydrated and disoriented bear with gentle words. He scooped out a big handful of ripe berries from his tin picking-pail. He put them right in front of the Alonzo’s dry mouth and held very still, murmuring that it would be okay, that the berries would revive him.


Alonzo smelled the berries and then, famished to the point of swooning, ate them and all the other berries in Florentine’s pail. Despite the bear’s pitiable state (maybe because of it, actually), in a sudden flash he remembered – saw vividly — how very blue blueberries were. And how deep blue the sky was above them on a good picking day. With sweet blue juice running down his throat, he experienced inner vision for the first time, and, hypnotized by it and thinking of all the blues he had known, allowed himself to be led away by Florentine….

To be continued May 31.

Gum chain

Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, March 1, 2015

If you Google “guy who lived in the Alaskan wilderness for 30 years,” Dick Proenneke’s name and website will pop up and you’ll go, “That’s him!”

And then you’ll see the name of the video and you’ll go check it out again from the library and you’ll watch it and have the same incredulous look on your face you had the first time you followed the ultra-adventures of this retired diesel engine mechanic as he makes his way back to the wilderness he loves in order to live alone in a cabin that he first has to build by hand with spruce trees harvested by hand before the temperatures drop and winter sets in. At this point, he’s 51.

You’ll see him persevere on every level, using hand tools — including tools he’s made by hand — to do every single thing involved in constructing the 10×12 foot cabin, using gravel from the lake as base, notching the logs perfectly, making brilliant wood latches on the Dutch door, capping the thing with a sod roof, and doing all sorts of other finely tuned and mysterious things. The apex of this virtuosic display and proof of ultimate coziness and surety will be the wood kitchen ladle he hand carves, engineering a scoop that measures just the right pour for a perfectly sized flapjack. Genius! He is a model of self-reliance, far beyond what most of us dream of or even think about — until we see it.

And then, in your mind, you’ll go back to all the clever, self-sufficient, brave, handy people you’ve encountered, the likes of which you’ve never been, but the likes of which you’ve run across a number of important times in your life in fact, in fiction and in person.

You’ll think about “The Swiss Family Robinson” (the movie) and how the marooned family with the four strapping boys builds the tree house and engineers that fabulous water wheel contraption and other impressive gadgetry. Then you’ll think about having read “Robinson Crusoe” in college, and his taming of everything around him, quantifying, categorizing, accounting for and lording over. And then you’ll remember your encounter with Thoreau and Emerson and the Foxfire books. And how you read the “Little House on the Prairie” books to your daughter and how cabins were built and dresses sown; and flour and lard will take on new meaning. And then, of course, you’ll think on the several times you read “Tomboy Bride,” wondering each time how on earth they could haul it all up that road and live lives wearing those shoes they did.

After your brief survey of ingenuity and self-reliance and strength you’ll have to look around you and your world, and then at yourself and your motley group of skills and wonder, what is self-reliance, anyway? A set of skills? A mindset? Both?

You had a father who could fearlessly build or fix pretty much anything. He did house repairs, car repairs. He built an early hang glider, saw a cocktail dress he liked on a pack of cards and pulled out the sewing machine and recreated it for my mother. He baked a hard roll and called it the perfect food, based on the science of food combining at the time. He tarred the driveway cracks, hiked with a compass, and spent hours and hours at the library when something needed researching. What about you, though?

Well, sure, you started out strong. There’s that early training in knitting and sewing. In kindergarten in a foreign country, you make your first stitches (a mallard on burlap), then a cross-stitch sampler in first grade. In elementary school back in the States, you learn perhaps the most handy of all your skills, production level gum-chaining, using trashed gum wrappers that accumulate on the outside of the chain link fence on the school grounds. There is macramé as a 7th grader, a beautiful obsession with knots used for the purpose of hanging plants from the ceiling, and then a brief love affair with calligraphy, which your father indulges to the point of introducing you to a man who actually does it for a living. In college, you learn to saber fence. You knit sweaters for boyfriends. Later on, you learn to make gingerbread houses, put a bead on a wire and call it an earring, draw caricatures and make crepes.

It occurs to you that in the Alaskan wilderness — in any kind of wilderness — you would be toast. And the only thing you can come up with in answer to this dismal state of affairs is that at the very least you will have made the marmalade on this burnt, doomed and ruined piece of toast yourself.