Archive for October, 2012

To Lay or Not to Lay

Standing nervously before my college classmates I had tried my best to look cool.  I took in a deep breath before delivering the opening line of my speech. With half a dozen lovely females in the class, I could not stumble. I had to appear confident and suave. I wanted them to see that there was more to this shy Lutheran.

I glanced at the Speech class professor for the nod that showed he was ready.  It was important to have a moment of dramatic silence before speaking. That moment of muteness can be powerful in drawing attention.   Mustering my best Shakespearean voice, I broke the quiet with my pronouncement, “To lay, or not to lay. That is the question.”

Perhaps some clarity is needed at this point. In those years, it was not uncommon to hear braggadocio from the “cool guys” about their sexual conquests. These Don Juans would boast about “getting laid”, which implied that they had sexual intercourse. Or they would tout a particular girl as a “good lay.” As the reader will see in a matter of sentences, I was not one of these unfeeling, objectifying chauvinists.

After my opening sentence, I paused to see how my brilliant sexual innuendo had landed. Some classmates were smiling; I was almost ambushed by the sensual smile of a long blonde haired girl; the one who fit perfectly into a  cool pair of patched bell bottomed pants. Others, in the class, were leaning forward and a few touched pencils to their mouths waiting to hear more. And best of all, the professor tipped his head ever so slightly to the side and showed me a slight smile. He clearly wanted to hear more. The hook was set!

I suspect the class was eager for tales of ribald sexual adventures. Little did they know that in my case there no such stories. Why there weren’t even any misadventures to share. Unknown to all my family and friends was the fact that here I was living during the early 1970s, a curious and silent supporter of the recent sexual revolution and I was a flaming 20 year old virgin!

Instead, I followed the charge of the assignment and delivered a discourse that was supposed to objectively address opposing sides of a controversial subject. Fully aware of the need to grab the attention of an audience I was particularly pleased with my catchy opening line. From there I went on to present arguments for and against the building, or laying, of the proposed 800 mile Trans Alaska pipeline from the Arctic Ocean at Prudhoe Bay to Valdez, Alaska.

The reason to share this story is that I recently received an email from my on-line Writer’s Digest newsletter that included a writer’s tip on the proper usage of “lay” and “laid.”

Clearly I had correctly used the word “lay” on that memorable spring day when I delivered my pipeline speech. I had pirated and altered the famous line delivered in Shakespeare’s well-known tragedy, Hamlet. And certainly anyone labeled a bard would get it right.

But there have been many times since then that I have gnashed my teeth and grabbed fistfuls of my hair wondering if I should insert lie, lay, lain or layed, in a piece of creative writing.

When I was a naturalist, one of the volunteers, Dorothy, would gently correct me if I had used the wrong word during one of my class programs. Dorothy was a retired English teacher and she laid out the rules very clearly. “Lay is the past tense of lie in the present tense. Laid is the past tense of lay in the present tense.” And then, noting my blank expression and being  a good teacher, she would always give me the same example.

“You need to lie down today, yesterday you lay down, in the past you have lain down. Today you lay the hammer on the bench, yesterday you laid the hammer on the bench. In the past you have laid the hammer on the bench.

Confusing isn’t it? The only way to really get it right is to memorize it. But I find memorizing grammatical rules boring beyond boring. So beneath my computer screen I keep a little handwritten scrap of paper with scribbled rules that I often refer to.

And for you nosey, lecherous readers. . .my bold opening question delivered on that lovely spring day in my speech class did bag me a B+.  The rest of the class, particularly the bevy of lovely young ladies continued the polite relationship of smiles-only.


I Got Color!

Three summers ago, friend Charlie and his Lady Elaine stopped by our Yukon Outpost in late September. They had packed up their gear from their Anchorage, Alaska summer post and headed south down the Alaska Highway. Our Outpost is two good days of driving from Anchorage and they had stopped to rest and wait for us to get out stuff together and the Outpost zipped up so we could join in a two-vehicle caravan  down the Alaska Highway.

As I busied myself packing boxes and carrying them to the truck, Charlie dug into their packed Subaru until he came up with a pair of official tin pans to use for panning gold. He was aghast, that over the span of eighteen months of living in the Yukon, that I hadn’t even tried panning for gold from the rocky and gravel stretches of the river.

The Watson River passes less than 20 steps from our Outpost. While I had not put any effort into looking for gold, I had garnered other river riches. We pulled thousands of gallons of sweet tasting water from its waters. Some folks drive their trucks to the bridge upriver from us and pump water into holding tanks to take home. I remember approaching them and asking, “Why this water?” The reverent reply was a simple, “It’s magic.” I’ll go with that.  So I am twice blessed by drinking and bathing in this water as it saves me about $120 per delivery of water from Glacier Water out of Whitehorse. I might spend slightly more in changing my water filters more frequently but I’ve learned that I can pump the cleanest of water by simply putting the intake into a submerged five-gallon bucket.

Every day, during the ice-free seasons we basked in the constant lively music of the rapids. Some would argue that a third treasure we have secured is that our well-being has been mightily improved living in such close proximity to the floods of negative ions. I need to look into that claim.

These riches are unknown to my tax accountant.  Imagine the fiscal hassles that would arise if I started pulling gold from the river. Taxes are one thing, but I’m a non-resident, an alien living in Canada and I suspect I would have to hire a cadre of lawyers and accountants to deal with the ball and chain of found gold.

Nearly a century ago the Whitehorse newspaper carried a headline that read something like, “Gold Found on the Watson River!” Then back some thirty years ago, Mt.Skukum Mine started extracting gold from their mine about 35 miles down at the end of the dead end of the road, the Annie Lake Road, the same road we use to get to get to our place. Over the course of three decades of roller coasting gold prices, the mine has been in operation on an on-again, off-again pattern.

Charlie frowned and left me to my packing and he headed to the river’s edge with his gold pan. Fifteen minutes hadn’t passed and I heard an excited Charlie throw open the door and yell, “Tom! Tom!Hurry up! I’ve got color!” Now he was not talking about the Indian summer tan he was working on, no, he was using the old gold panning parlance that simply means that he has some shine in the bottom of his pan.

Charlie has been a working colleague and dear friend for over thirty years so I know him very well. And I know he has a keen propensity to embellish. But my packing was forgotten and I joined the mini-gold stampede. Actually we made our way across the river and set up panning in a sandy backwater where floodwaters swirl in a massive eddy. In the fall the eddy has long disappeared and the waters have dropped leaving a bench of deposited sand and gravel.  I felt fairly smug for having evaluated water hydrology and sediment deposition to stake our claim here. Our informal staking involved setting folding chairs over our panning spots. I brought a book just in case it got slow. Charlie was on fire. I admired his determination as he picked out tiny gold grains from the sand with a tweezers and placed them carefully in one of his old pill bottles.

Two hours passed.  Charlie made the call to pull stakes. I had nearly finished two chapters of my book. It was time to cross back across the river to the Outpost and fetch another more reliably secured Yukon product – a bottle of Yukon Brewery Lead Dog Ale. I peered into the bottom of Charlie’s pharmaceutical gold poke to check out his plunder. He sighed, “I might have enough to buy a Big Mac.” Like I said he embellishes.

In the last two weeks we decided to make one more mountain trek before we headed south for home in Minnesota. It took us nearly eight hours to ascend and descend Mt. Perkins. On the way up were in short sleeves walking beneath a gilded ceiling of aspen and willow. The glow around us made the climb easier as it distracted us from our increased rates of breathing and hearts beating.  Perkins has a deceptive manner in that it has a half dozen false summits. So as you climb, you think you are seeing the top and the goal of your hike. But, no, as you crest each rise you discover there are more summits above. By the time we got to the third summit from the top, we had put on additional layers and were wading through stretches of snow. Finally we got to the top and though the blasts of cold winds provoked me into tugging a pair of gloves on and hurried me to take photos and leave. Before leaving the top, I peered over the rocky edge and spied several flows of real gold. Far below me, a thin stream of golden willow leaves followed the track of an avalanche chute before spilling out at the base of the mountain in a bright run out of a golden fan.

When winter’s snows are loosened on a mountain they often spill down between rock ridges. By the time these snow trains reach the treeline, they easily whisk away trees and vegetation. In the spring these treeless areas catch sunlight and encourage new vegetation and these areas often attract wildlife like sheep, moose and grizzly bears, which like to feed on the vegetation.

Two days after that rigorous climb, we pulled away from the Outpost to begin the long drive home. Another summer passed without me wetting my gold panning receptacle. But on this trip we marveled at the gilded mountainsides.  We have made this fall migration three times now and while not statistically valid, I would vouch that if you want to hit spellbinding sunny autumn golden colors with washes of plum alpine groundcover, you need to pan on the last week of September. Or would that be “plan” on the last week of September?

There’s gold, it’s haunting and haunting;

It’s luring me on a of old;

Yet it isn’t the gold that I’m wanting

So much as just finding the gold.

It’s the great, big, borad land ‘way up yonder,

It’s the forests where silence has lease;

It’s the beauty that thrills me with wonder,

It’s the stillness that fills me with peace.

-from the Spell of the Yukon by Robert Service