Chapter 11 of Mountain High, Valley Low or My Life as a Wishbone: Tales of Valley Stream and Copake Falls, New York: “Proof of Ownership or ‘My, I’m Glad I Saw That!'”

It never ends on Duffy’s Creek. I will but it doesn’t. There’s always something going on around this little crossroads of Man and Nature. The tidal flow is always moving even when it seems still. Things are always changing. Nothing is static. So whether by way of a permanent relocation to Trisha’s Mountain or by way of my untimely death, I’m forced to accept the fact that The Creek will go on without me someday.  

I’ve seen lots of places and people go on without me before, so I know it’ll be fine. And if I make it out of Valley Stream alive and spend the rest of my days on Trisha’s Mountain, so will I. 

Still. It’s a bitter pill. 

None of us is terribly important to the place around us, but we’re all terribly important to the place around us. 

So even if it isn’t true, part of me truly believes this place will go to hell without me. 

Case in point, if I hadn’t gotten back from my last stretch of time up on Trisha’s Mountain when I did, and if I hadn’t been sitting on the couch near the window, and if I hadn’t jumped into action when I heard the commotion, a duck may well have been viciously murdered in cold blood in South Valley Stream. 

And it wouldn’t have been the first. 

Early in our almost twenty year run here, back before we replaced the rotting deck with the wobbly patio, I woke one morning to the grisly discovery of  a decapitated green mallard head under the steps of the deck.

It was clear that the neighborhood stray cats had formed their own La Cosa Nostra, and they were warning me to stay out of their business.

Our current resident freak ducks. Three Mile Island is the crazy looking bastard in the middle.

 But those ducks are my ducks, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to let some furry thugs attack them. Or other ducks, for that matter. Currently there is a feral domestic duck, a compatriot of the idiot whose feathery ass would have been cat food without my intervention, a freak of nature whom we refer to as “Three Mile Island”, who has run every good, law-abiding mallard off the creek, and I’ve put him on notice for his churlish insolence.

This aggression will not stand, Duck.

Because I’m personally responsible for every one of God’s creatures that lives in and over my creek; the ducks, the swans, the geese, the pipers, the plovers, the yellowlegs, the gulls, the terns, the kingfishers, the cormorants, the swallows, the herons, the egrets (I have a few), the hawks, the ospreys, even the turtles and the peeping frogs and the muskrats and the bats and the little killies we used to catch in milk bottles tied to strings and the weird fish that come here to commit suicide every May. 

Oh yeah, and the Bald Eagle. 

All of them. My creek, my responsibility.  

But wait, you say: Didn’t you and Mrs. Duffy buy a house and a couple of acres up in the country? Weren’t you the guy who was going on and on in the introduction to this book (it’s a book?) about the 2% ratio of unrepentant assholes to the general population of the region surrounding your creek? Getting all snarky about the crumbling quality of life on Long Island?  Rhapsodizing about how life got so much more pleasant north of the Red Rooster as you drove up Route 22? All giddy about the bluebirds on the rail trail and the rainbow crosswalks in Great Barrington? Aren’t you planning on making that drive north in Lou the Subaru one way someday, possibly with a confused old dog and three pissed off old cats? Isn’t the plan to leave Duffy’s Creek behind forever?  

Yeah, that was me. And, yeah, that’s still the plan. 

But not today. 

As much as we’re drawn to the pull of the Mountain, and upstate in general, the thought of giving up The Creek kills us. Trisha has said, more than once, “I wish we could just take this creek and the gardens with us and leave the rest of Valley Stream.” 

I like that she says things like that out loud. 

Mind you, it’s the noise and the trash and the traffic and the taxes that would ultimately push us out. But, in the ultimate irony, even though it’s people who create the problems, 98% of the folks that I encounter down in the Valley are delightfully entertaining, most of the time unintentionally. Trisha and I enjoy critiquing their various walking styles as we watch them on the public path along the Left Bank. 

There’s just too many. And as much room as we have on The Mountain, there’s just no place to put a creek. Besides, you’d have to take Jamaica Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, otherwise you’d have no water. 

The other problem is the creek doesn’t belong to us. We have a deed on a cornfield in Copake Falls, but we don’t own the creek. 

But then again, I sort of do.

And I know my wife and my son and my brothers and my sisters and my dead parents and my neighbors and even my dog wouldn’t mind me saying this: 

If it belongs to anyone, It belongs to me. 

To prove this assertion, it’s necessary for this narrative to become, as the most famous writer I ever bumped into on the street famously said, “unstuck in time.” 

I’m five years old, and I’ve discovered that you can walk behind twelve 60-foot-wide backyards and get to our backyard directly from behind the Sportsman’s Rendezvous Bar up on Mill Road. Blazing a little trail, pretending like I’m an Indian, innocently oblivious to the fact that the phrase “pretending like I’m an Indian” is highly offensive, I’m starting to notice the tides and the plants and the birds. Even my little pre-school mind’s eye can see that I live in a uniquely cool place compared to other neighborhoods around us. And my life here was born of dumb luck. My mother told my father that the only way she was moving from Astoria to Long Island was if they could buy a house on the water. I could have easily ended up on a canal in Freeport,  but a family by the name of Taylor that bought a brand-new house on a creek in South Valley Stream in 1950 suddenly decided it was too small in 1954, just as my parents were diving into the market.  

On my trail, I discover a sign, a road sign, except it’s on my creek, so it’s really a creek sign, a sign that years later I would regret not stealing. The sign is posted behind Mr. O’Neill’s backyard, warning boaters that exceeding 5 mph is a violation of a Nassau County Ordinance. A duplicate sign was attached to the footbridge over the creek, four backyards down from ours. 

Aerial photograph courtesy of Granard Associates / Frank Duffy

Way back then, you could still get under the bridge at Rosedale Road and get all the way out to the Jamaica Bay from our backyard, a fact that my father used as the launching point of a terrifying made-up bedtime story designed to keep us from taking the aluminum rowboat out for a spin when he wasn’t around.  Every once in a while people would cruise up the creek and pass by the backyard in motorboats, grinning and waving at us. To my little six-year-old boy perspective, they looked like they were having the time of their lives. 

I know my drunken high school friends were having the time of their lives when I said, “Sure! Go ahead! Take the boat out!” as I was hosting a giant party in the backyard during the summer between 11th and 12thgrade, as my poor parents relaxed obliviously up in the Adirondacks. My charming young peers decided to throw beer bottles into the backyard of a girl who lived down the creek on Brook Road, a sweetheart who never did anything to deserve either that or dying in the World Trade Center 31 Septembers later. My boating friends happily directed the responding policemen to the backyard party, where we all got off with a warning because we were all white kids, and it was the end of their shift. 

My father was a little put out when we gave the boat away.

When Jack and I take the kayaks out on the creek, people on the path and in the backyards have been known to whip out their phones and start filming us like we’re famous or like something important is happening. That’s how rare a boat on the creek is now. Being a teenager, this pisses him off no end. Being the old man who owns the creek, I’m delighted and amused. 

Unstuck again. I’m ten years old and the creek is frozen solid in wintertime, a condition that rarely happens anymore. When the tide goes in and out, it leaves sheets of ice along the banks, which are fun to jump up and down on and break like panes of glass. Ace the Fat Beagle and I go walking out on the ice, sliding our way down towards that pedestrian bridge, the spot that launched the dependency years of every stoner and alcoholic to emerge from Valley Stream South High School (the place that Trisha and I now refer to as  “Big Brick”). 

Years later, the bridge would be removed in the Mid-Aughts after a young would-be entrepreneur tried to charge kids a toll to get over it, which turned out to be not such a great business plan, as one of those kids stabbed him. After that, Big Brick and the Town of Hempstead closed the path at the end of the street and knocked the bridge down. 

But on that day in the Ice Age that was the 1970’s, it’s just an innocent boy and his fat dog with a whole frozen creek to themselves, happily walking on the ice. His parents, who probably should have discouraged this, have broken out the camera to preserve the moment forever, capturing a piece of their youngest child’s soul before he evolves from a cheerful little fellow into a snarly asshole teenager. 

I’m in 8th grade, 1977, a snarly asshole teenager amid a circle of straggly white kids surrounded in a cloud of smoke along the path to the bridge on a warm summer evening. A kid on the outside of the circle sees my parents coming, enjoying an evening walk around the creek with Ace the Fat Beagle, heading for the bridge.

He announces: “Duffy! I swear to God your parents are coming! And they’ve got the dog!” 

It’s bad enough they have to walk by a bunch of kids smoking weed, some of whom they surely recognize. I don’t have to be there. Not when I can vault over the fence behind the house of a neighbor who used to babysit me and take my Indian Trail behind four backyards back to temporary safety.

The danger having passed, I walk up the hill to the summer recreation program around the gym at Big Brick to find my scraggly peers. I thank the kid who tipped me off profusely, then I ask him with my best shit-eating grin what exactly he thought the dog was going to do to me. 

Meanwhile, you’d have thought I would have learned to stay out of that spot after that same neighbor had already ratted me for out smoking behind her backyard. It was never anything personal, of course. She was just doing her job as a neighbor. It’s what you’re supposed to do if you see your neighbor’s kid smoking behind your house. And bless her soul, she was my neighbor long enough to meet the baby I pushed in the stroller past the same spot 30 years later. When they removed the bridge and closed the path, she and the other neighbors who put up with the local punks all those years no doubt saw an exponential improvement in their quality of life. 

When Trisha and I bought the house, the guy who lived directly across the creek from us, who we’d often hear calling his dog Sam to “get over here!” and who thereby became known as “Sam’s Man”, was apparently either oblivious to or unconcerned by the fact that the humongous oak tree on the path next to his house was a popular meeting spot among the local kids, who made the mistake of getting too loud and picking a fight with a surviving veteran of Valley Stream delinquency. After my letter to the Hempstead Town Supervisor explaining the political risks of putting one’s name on a sign advertising one’s involvement in the “Mill Brook Park” that was choked with weeds and garbage and after-dark loiterers, the warning signs went up and the police patrols started. 

After Sam’s Man sold his house, the man who became known to us as “I’m Not Happy” (after I heard him utter those very words -plus one modifier for “happy”– while screaming at a cell phone) moved in with his big dogs and his deafening power tools and his big flood lights. And it only took the worst natural disaster in its history for the Town of Hempstead to turn the “Mill Brook Park” into a lovely and wildly popular little walking path, the virtues of which were extolled by a local hack in a guest Newsday column, a place where Trisha and I figure we have about a 10-15% chance of witnessing an intentional or unintentional crime someday from the comfort of our backyard while we’re critiquing the walkers.  

Unstuck again: I’m a 10th grade prisoner of Big Brick and its 9’o’clock on a school night. I’m staring into the bathroom mirror at one of the thousands of zits that has emerged on my face, maybe this time right square on the nose, maybe hanging off my bottom lip like sad clown makeup. The world will end before 4th period tomorrow because I have to walk around Big Brick looking like this. 

Out the open bathroom window in the cool spring darkness, this is what I hear:

“HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA!”

Yes, it’s a mallard somewhere out in the night laughing at me. I was mocked mercilessly by ducks all throughout my childhood. After a while, I had no choice but to laugh at myself, and we’ve been laughing together, the mallards and me, for a good, long time. 

Now I’m in my twenties, stumbling my way through college and every other damn thing, living mostly off the grace of my parents, who had long gotten rid of all their other children. They had a big dining room table next to the picture window looking out at the creek, where they’d sit in the bathrobes on Sunday mornings and spread the Sunday New York Times on every available surface. It’s winter, and my parents want to know once and for all who those little diving ducks with the spiky black and white heads are, and so do I, Chan the Houseboy, who was probably out at some Saturday Night Hellhole until 4 a.m. and is just rolling foggily out of bed at 10 or 11.   

Hooded Mergansers and Northern Shovelers, our winter vacationers.

We dig up a field guide and we learn all about hooded mergansers, who have come to our creek for the winter. Who knows? Maybe they flew here from Lake Kushaqua in the Adirondacks. It’s possible. Doesn’t matter. On that quiet Sunday morning, Francis and Joan and I have a common purpose: Finding out what duck that is. It’s a nice, quiet little moment between the three of us in the midst of way too many noisy moments, and I feel like we’re starting to become friends, and the hierarchy is disappearing. 

And if you’re wondering why my parents never noticed the hooded mergansers on their creek every winter until they were retired, you never raised five kids on civil service salaries. 

Unstuck again.  I’m in my thirties, and I’ve just recently met the woman I’m going to marry. A pretty bit of luck, that. It’s a Saturday afternoon in November, and we’re hanging out in my little bird’s nest apartment overlooking a six-lane highway in Lynbrook. I suggest heading over to Ancona Pizza on Rockaway Avenue in the Valley. Then, since I ended up meeting her parents on our second date (if one doesn’t count stalking her at the Island Park Train Station between the first two dates) I say, “let’s go over and meet my parents.” 

And we do. We have a delightful little visit, and everyone likes everyone else. Trisha and I go out into the backyard. It’s dark and you can’t see the creek, but you can sense its presence.  We both know three things at that moment: 1) These nice old people we just ate pizza with are selling this house and moving out east 2) We have fallen silly in love and will be together forever. 3) Even in the dark, this house and this yard look like they’ve seen better days. 

While things are working themselves out, we do a little house shopping around Valley Stream and Lynbrook. We tour a horrible old house where we had to debate whether to call social services after we left, and several nice houses with teeny-tiny little postage stamp backyards and the house in back on the next street staring down on them in a constant surveillance operation, just like all my friends had in their backyards while I had a creek. 

Two years and a month later, December 1, 2001, my parents have left the creek. Mom was not in fact dragged kicking and screaming as she declared she would be. She was making the best of it, not yet sick enough that she couldn’t hold court with new friends at the Jefferson’s Ferry Lifecare Community, where all the old stories could be rebooted. 

Trisha and I are raking. She starts putting the leaves and yard debris into garbage bags. I say, “you don’t have to do that! Just throw it all down by the creek!” She looks at me like I’m crazy, one of thousands of times. It occurs to me that we have purchased waterfront property and there’s so much crap piled up and growing wild behind it that one can’t really see the water. 

Our Waterfront Property when you couldn’t really see the water.

The following summer, I rent a dumpster with money we don’t have and pull 50 years of scrub and thug vines out of earth that we don’t actually own, on the strip of land between the backyard and the creek that actually belongs to Nassau County, like they give a shit. Howard the Rock and Roll Tree Guy comes around with mighty trucks and implements of destruction and cuts down all the dangerously dying trees that my dear parents ignored. Keeping one corner for what we rationalized would be a compost pile, but which has since just become a mountain of crap, I use the logs from the cut trees, wire fencing from the Home Depot and many, many cubic yards of dirt delivered from 1-800-TOP SOIL, carted via wheelbarrow from a giant pile in the driveway, to create a bulkhead, which I then separate at the property line with a retro post and rail fence so I can lean on it like a cowboy. I stock the bulkhead, which I dub “The Wetlands”, with native shrubs and the Famous Leaning Cedar Tree (which didn’t wash away in a hundred-year hurricane ten years later because my brother remembered all the boy scout knots I could never be bothered learning and he saved it by lashing it to the post and rail fence after it was half-uprooted). 

And thus began the Duffy’s Creek Bird Sanctuary, registered with the National Wildlife Federation in 2002 with the little metal signs and a certificate to prove it. And thus began twenty years and counting of being the warden, keeping it clean on my patch. 

Unstuck in time again. I’ve reached my forties, set free to celebrate my inner nerd like nobody’s watching by the love and understanding of a beautiful wife. I have way too many bird feeders with way too much bird seed set up around the yard, and my work as a bird influencer has attracted over a hundred mallard followers, and likely a few rats. Among the mallards are always a group of larger, feral domestic ducks, most often white but sometimes looking like mallards that had been swimming around Three Mile Island when it melted down, hence the name of our current Problem Duck. 

I had heard the white ones called farm geese or pekin ducks. In the awful, racist communities of South Shore Long Island, of which Valley Stream was most certainly one in the 60’s and 70’s but maybe a little less so now while others got worse, it was supposed by some, by way of a bad joke, that these farm geese or pekin ducks were on the menu at local Chinese Restaurants. Plus, the ducks were tamer than mallards, so along my creek, people let them wander around their backyards and fed them and gave them cute names.

People say and do all sorts of dumb shit, even relatively smart ones.

Two of my neighbors, one from Berkeley, California and the other from Hong Kong, were concerned because two of the farm geese or pekin ducks that they had grown attached to had moved across Mill Road to the Pond, and the spillway would prevent the ducks from getting back. So they decided to go rescue them. When relating the story to me, my neighbor from Hong Kong told me that he was well aware of the optics of a Chinese man running across Mill Road carrying a duck with a pillowcase over its head. 

By the way, I’m pretty sure those two Farm Geese or Pekin Ducks flew right back to the pond. Thinking like a duck in that situation, I imagine I know why. Because fuck you, that’s why. 

One day in that same era, a wood duck showed up for lunch with the mallards. Wood ducks are one of the most beautiful creatures in the whole wide world. @ me. This encounter leads me to purchase a wood duck house and a ten-foot wooden poll and install it at low tide because I’d seen little wood ducks diving out of nests in trees on PBS Nature and I thought I could get in on that. I never saw another wood duck, and it was probably a year later when I removed what had in essence become a squirrel house and piled it with the garbage on the side of the shed. 

Sadly, these are not my wood ducks.

I like to think all of us learn and grow from these experiences. The beginning of my forties also coincided with my becoming a father, which thankfully left less time to plan dumbass ideas like installing a wood duck house. 

It’s July, when they set teachers free. After a morning walk, I’ve parked my perfect  sleeping baby boy in his stroller in a shady corner of the yard and pulled up a camp chair to sit next to him. In front of us are the red-twig dogwood and rosa rugosa shrubs I planted just a few years before, now the best little café in town for a pair of catbirds, my favorite songbirds. In a cloudless blue sky are terns taking turns gliding up and down the creek, hovering above us before diving spectacularly straight down to pick off some fishy lunch. 

My son Jack has picked up some things from me besides cursing and surliness. He knows those birds now, too. All the cool ones. The kingfisher that rattles as he dives from branches over the creek. The little sandpipers and plovers that pick at the mud at low tide. The egrets and herons that seem to know just how cool they are. The day somebody dumped a domestic Toulouse Goose in our driveway, I suppose thinking that the poor thing would just make its way back to the creek and live happily ever after, Jack was instrumental in helping me to corral it into a pen until the two most cheerful people I’ve ever met in my life came to rescue it and send it to a farm in Pennsylvania. 

Through the efforts of folks like these, I’ve learned that these domestic ducks really should be removed and relocated if possible. After exchanging a few messages with cheerful wildlife rescue experts about our Problem Duck, I’m told that they are waiting for someplace to put he and his co-conspirators, and not to worry, “your ducks are on my list.” 

You’ve got a Hall and Oates song playing in your head right now, don’t you. It’s all good. 

Actually, several factors besides the psychotic radioactive outlaw duck have combined to drive the mallards to breed elsewhere. Chief among them is that the reconstructed “Mill Brook Park” actually took out a whole lot of nesting sites among the phragmites, which we know by the name my father gave them: Woozy-woozies. Woozy-woozies are invasive, and the new plants along the path are all native. But try telling that to the mallards. They seem to have all said screw this place and flown down to North Woodmere park to find a decent place to lay some eggs. If we get two mating pairs of mallards in a summer now, it’s a lot.

There used to be hundreds of mallards on the creek in the winter, now at most there are dozens. In the early spring, you could observe the mallard mating ritual almost every day. This is when the male circles the female repeatedly while bopping his head up and down ridiculously until he gets the OK to climb on top of her. I used to see this a lot at the clubs back in the 80’s, too. Usually Depeche Mode would be playing. 

Bird Influencer meets followers, circa 2002.

By early summer, there’d be lots of mallard babies. Of course, ducks have lots of ducklings because many ducklings become lunch for hawks and snapping turtles and don’t get to grow up to have ducklings of their own. Circle of Life and all that. But I always got too emotionally involved with the whole thing. Counting four of them on a Tuesday after counting six on Monday was always kind of a buzzkill. Still, there’s nothing goddamn cuter than a duckling. 

We still get the hooded mergansers every winter, and they always make me happy. If we ever needed a Duffy’s Creek logo, it would be a hooded merganser. Just ‘cause they’re so damn cool. But we used to get a lot more winter ducks before we screwed up the climate; common mergansers, northern pintails, redheads, common goldeneye, green-winged teal. In the first weeks 2004, while we were waiting for a baby to be born, the whole Northeast was locked in a bone-chilling, sub-zero cold. Trisha and I were at the picture window picking off new ducks every weekend. This past winter, we had a pair of buffleheads in for a few weeks. I couldn’t remember the last time I saw them, but it was sure great having them here. 

Then there’s the mysterious ruddy duck. I thought he had finally found himself a girlfriend last winter when I saw a pair for the first time. But then a second male showed up, making three ruddy ducks. I figure one would have to become the third wheel in mating season. I remember that shit. But my ruddy duck always seemed to be living his best life regardless, often spending the whole summer here by himself, living among the mallards like he was in some sort of duck witness protection program. 

I can tell you that the oldest ruddy duck on record was 13 years and seven months old and my ruddy duck has been hanging around here for at least ten years. He’s not here this summer either because he finally went under the Rainbow Bridge or because Three Mile Island ran him off. But that’s part of the wonder of the creek. I might look out the back window tomorrow morning and see my ruddy duck swimming and diving around like he never left. 

Besides the Hoodies, one other bunch of regulars still come around, the northern shovelers that look like mallards with big beaks. They don’t laugh like mallards. They have tiny little quacks, if they speak at all while they’re here. They hang out with the mallards and the freak feral ducks, but they don’t get involved in their drama. They always look like they’re consciously trying to mind their own business. They float and they dive around on my creek for the winter, then they fly back to Ontario and Quebec, and they don’t need to explain anything to anyone. 

Nor do Henry and Henrietta, who also have to take some of the blame for the missing mallards, but they clearly don’t give a fuck about ducks. Technically, they are the great-great-great grandchildren of Henry and Henrietta. Those are the names that my mom gave to the mute swan pair that showed up on her creek one spring. Watching swans gliding down a creek while you sit in an Adirondack chair in your backyard is one of those experiences that led my father to say that living on Duffy’s Creek “was like being on vacation every day.”

If Mom knew that mute swans were bullies that push other species out of habitat, it wouldn’t have mattered because Henry and Henrietta were beautiful. And so are their ancestors who still grace our creek. I give them credit for running off the Canada Geese that took over for a couple of years. They were terrible neighbors, almost as bad as the people from Suffolk County who used to live next door. The swans don’t chase every mallard off the creek like Three Mile Island has been doing, but they kept a lot of real estate for themselves when they were breeding.  

This year, the swans are just hanging out. No nest, no cygnets wearing trumpets and blackboards around the neck or otherwise. The State DEC has been at war with mute swans for years, so maybe they were sterilized somehow or had their eggs addled, although you can’t miss a swan’s nest and there isn’t one this year. So even though its clearly psychological projection, I think it’s more likely that they are past their breeding years and just enjoying the creek. 

Traveling unstuck through years of waking up at quarter to five and slogging west on the Belt Parkway,  Ol’ Man Creek, he just kept rolling along. Whenever I could, I’d sit there and watch him flow, no matter what got in the way and which way the wind did blow. He scared the hell out of us in Hurricane Sandy and he grosses us out when algae blooms and droughts make him look and sometimes smell like an open sewer, but mostly he’s been a benevolent neighbor and friend, rising and falling with the tide, reflecting I’m Not Happy’s klieg lights at night, forever wild as the rest Valley Stream groaned under the weight of civilization. 

Although I currently have a first world problem regarding kayaks and the current condition of the water. The algae and the various unidentified crap floating about has been particularly bad this spring, despite the hack who told you in Newsday last fall that the water was getting cleaner since the path was renovated. Not quite yet and maybe not in my time, although it just smells like the creek and nothing worse. But I generally don’t feel great about paddling a boat in any water I’m not theoretically prepared to fall into, longshot though that is. 

My father contracted polio in the late 1950’s. He was probably saved by Jonas Salk’s vaccine. He theorized that he might have contracted the disease from swimming in the creek when he first bought the house in 1955. A local fellow used to swim in the creek all the time when I was a kid in the 70’s. As far as I know he lived and thrived and took showers. One way or another, it’s not a particularly dazzling experience to paddle a sit-in kayak through dirty water, although as the creek winds its way through backyards southwest of Big Brick, it is sort of like paddling through the bayou, except with people pointing cell phones at you.

As good as the creek gets for paddling. This doesn’t happen very often.

Meanwhile up north, there’s at least five beautiful lakes and ponds within a half hour of Trisha’s Mountain, two of which are New York State Parks that have boat rentals, but our boats are much nicer than theirs. With the exception of Hempstead Lake, where one can enjoy a stunning view of road rage incidents on the Southern State Parkway, the best paddling spots on Long Island are all an hour or more away in Suffolk County. Yes, Nassau County is surrounded by water, and yes we have paddled the South Shore Bays without incident, but the currents and the wind can get a little wacky on the open water. And when we’re out there, I spend a lot of crucial brain cells wondering where the hell people got the money for these houses and dreading a Long Island encounter with an unrepentant asshole on a jet ski. 

I like mountain lakes.  Ponds, too. Preferably with no motors allowed.

So, you say, why don’t you just take the kayaks with you when you go upstate? Well, The last time the kayaks went north on the top of Lou the Subaru was when the transmission exploded on the Adirondack Northway. (You can scare Trisha just by saying “Queensbury!”).  And while I don’t believe that this will happen again, the day when I haul the boats up through the wind tunnel of Interstate 684 and up Route 22 to The Mountain will be the end of having kayaks on Duffy’s Creek, ‘cause once I get them up there, they ain’t coming back. Currently I’m on pace to spend about 82% of this calendar year on Long Island, which statistically means more days when all the stars line up with the wind and the tide and we can bring the boats somewhere. Meanwhile, people at the State Parks are very nice even if their boats are not so much.

The inferior boats waiting to be rented at Lake Taghkanic State Park in Ancram.
Photo stolen from Trip Advisor without permission.

Again, this is all a first world problem so embarrassingly pretentious that I have no choice but to laugh at myself, just like the mallards taught me. But still. It would be nice if I didn’t have to think twice about paddling on my own creek, and nicer still if Nassau County hadn’t blocked me from another couple of miles of paddling through Hook Creek towards the bay. 

Then again, I also have to drive my Labrador Retriever 118 miles to get in a decent swim, and in between trips, he sits and stares at water that may as well be molten lava for all the good it does him. 

Yes, Duffy’s Creek is truly a wonderland of flora and fauna. But for our purposes, it’s become mostly decorative. 

I’ve returned to the present tense. I’m pushing sixty. I’m in week four of a longer than usual six-week Creek stretch before my next ten days up on The Mountain. Despite my advancing age, I’ve spent lots of my bottomless pot of free time out in the hot sun whipping the gardens into shape, cleaning and polishing two expensive kayaks that haven’t touched a body of water yet this year, painting a bench blue because I felt like it, training the Mandevilla to crawl up the giant decorative metal sun that I bought on Amazon to replace the smaller one that got old and broken, proudly admiring my purchase of a wonderful bit of kitsch that can be seen from the path on the Left Bank, and possibly from space. 

I’m sitting on the patio with Trisha and It’s a nice night to be here. “It just could not be better,” as Bob Murphy would say of a good night for a ballgame at Shea. The ferocious, ozone-laden heat of the day is abating. We wouldn’t be able to escape it even if we were on The Mountain. My rectangle tells me that it’s just as hot if not hotter up there. And as my father pointed out to me, the Atlantic breezes reach South Valley Stream about 5 o’clock in the afternoon. They never reach Copake Falls. 

The sun is setting, and while The Show is limited by our sea-level elevation and all the houses in the way, the sky is turning all sorts of deep funky purples and oranges and reds. The crazy perennials in the patio garden haven’t reached six feet high yet, so we’re still watching our fellow Streamers on the path over in “Mill Brook Park”, keeping a running commentary on their gaits and their wardrobe choices.  

Just like that, a bald eagle glides low along the creek right in front of us. More than likely the same bald eagle that Jack caught a picture of when he visited us the day before the last Presidential Inauguration. He (or she) is an absolutely majestic creature, and even though we worry that a bald eagle might steal territory from our old and dear friends the ospreys, there’s no denying the jaw-dropping beauty of those huge prehistoric wings silhouetted black against the setting sun.

A Bald Eagle on Duffy’s Creek, 1/19/21. Photo by John Francis Duffy.

Yup. My father would have told you that living on The Creek is like being on vacation every day. That’s a good line, and tough to beat. But in that moment, as a bald eagle cruises by like he owns the place and we both realize what we’ve just seen, I say something to Trisha that we’ve said to each other hundreds of times since we first read it to our son in a book by the weird and wonderful Margaret Wise Brown (of Goodnight Moon fame) called Sneakers the Seaside Cat. The story is about a cat that gets to spend a day exploring at the beach. Every time Sneakers sees something cool, she thinks a thought that I’ve thought tens of thousands of times while looking out on the creek, MY creek, where things are always changing with or without me. 

And I say this thought out loud to Trisha right before she would have likely said it to me. It’s the same thought that will sustain us both on the day when we’re dragged away, not kicking and screaming, ‘cause we have somewhere really nice to go to.

And it’s even the same thought I had right smack today in the here and now, when Trisha called me out from the air conditioning this afternoon to see a flock of thirty terns circling overhead, no doubt the distant relatives of those terns I watched while our perfect baby boy slept in his stroller, as all thoughts and all moments exist simultaneously.

Sneakers the Seaside Cat thought to herself, “my, I’m glad I saw that!” 

Copyright 2021 by John Duffy

All Rights Reserved

Chapter 7 of Mountain High, Valley Low or My Life As a Wishbone: Tales of Valley Stream and Copake Falls, NY: “Christmas Zen and The Art of Mulching”

We knew we’d be going back to see The Dee’s again before Thanksgiving. We just weren’t sure if we’d be going back to see Joey or Tommy. 

We hadn’t been inside the gigantic, glass-walled store at Dee’s Nursery after the first frost since the last time we visited Santa Claus as part of our annual Christmas tree hunting and gathering tradition. The inside store is Joey’s domain, although his dad, Tom Sr., the Dee’s patriarch, still hangs out by the registers while we watch the damage we’ve done to ourselves in slow motion. Usually we won’t visit until April, when it’s time to load up Lou the Subaru with bags of tall fescue grass seed, with the topsoil and the peat moss to throw on top of it. Whether it’s Grass Seed Day, or a month later when we start loading up on annuals, veggies and compost, Trisha and I always get a hearty greeting from Joey. Long ago we maxed out on planting trees and shrubs and hybrid tea roses and perennials on our little 60 X 100 plot, so we usually don’t get out to the yard much anymore to see Joey’s older brother Tommy until the Christmas trees show up. But Tommy is always good for a hearty greeting, too. If you were Joey or Tommy, you’d be glad to see us, too. 

The Dee’s Nursery is a second-generation family business in Oceanside, Long Island, started in 1958. It was one of my mom’s favorite places to visit in the springtime. Our Christmas Tree hunting and gathering tradition when I was a kid was to go to Garden World in Franklin Square, where they had reindeer you could feed, which is horrible in retrospect, but I suppose my parents and everyone else involved meant well at the time. But Mom loved going to see The Dee’s in the springtime, and taught me to love it, too. For a local, independent business, they have a huge operation, and their selection, quality and service in all things gardening just can’t be beat. Tommy told us one year that he drives a crew up to the family’s own Christmas Tree farm in Franklin, Maine every November. He was very happy and very proud of that, as well as being proud of their annual donation of thousands of Christmas trees shipped to troops serving overseas. And we are always happy and proud to buying one of those trees from this family year after year, comin’ to us straight from Maine. 

Every business transaction should be as pleasant. 

Unfortunately, we’re in America, so while the The Dee’s are all about service, selection and quality, their prices can be beat quite easily in any season, specifically by the likes of the Home Depot, the presence of which in Rego Park, Queens convinced my late father-in-law to close down his own second-generation nursery business, McCloskey’s Florist, shortly after I joined his family. That was tough to watch. 

So we’re willing to pay The Dee’s a couple of extra bucks to support a local business and stay out of the Dante’s Inferno which is the Valley Stream Home Depot parking lot. And in addition to helping support The Dee Boys and their families, we have two other local guys:  Ray, whose dad started Alma’s Garden Center on Sunrise Highway in Lynbrook around the time I was born, and Dave, who owns Di Setta Nursery down in Woodmere. A conservative estimate of $50,000 big ones over the course of eighteen years have been split among these three businesses by two slightly touched people who consider growing flowers in the yard to be an unnegotiable necessity. 

In years when money was tight, we bought our flowers and our dirt on credit cards, which is quite stupid when considered objectively and I wouldn’t recommend it. But we had to have them. In our defense, we’ve never spent money on lavish vacations and fancy restaurants. So it goes that I may die without seeing Yosemite or the Grand Canyon, but damn you should have seen our gardens in June.  

I was away from the gardens a lot this year. More so than in any year since we began building them up from nothing in 2002. I spent about eight weeks of elapsed time in 2020 up in the Peaceful Roe Jan Valley, among the Taconic-Berkshire Mountains that nature built from nothing a couple of million years ago. There are lots of wildflowers and flowering shrubs around Trisha’s Mountain, but nothing we’ve planted, which I suppose could change in time, but as I pointed out in Chapter 5, it would take some intense negotiations with the deer and the bunnies and the groundhogs to get it off the ground. 

We never took it for granted for a second this year. It was our incredibly good fortune to have a property up in the country with lots of oxygen, especially in the midst of all the Pandemic misery this year – when just down the road there were people sitting on line in their cars for hours outside Taconic State Park waiting for a chance to just take a walk to Bash Bish Falls, and less fortunate people than those people were dying on hospital beds. We’re only a year into our second home owning adventure as I write this, so the novelty has not even come close to wearing off yet. We’re still just walking around feeling stupid lucky. Knock freaking wood.

So I wasn’t giving the gardens a lot of thought during those eight weeks when I wasn’t in them. They were being watered or rained on and the weeds would wait ‘till I got back. I suppose in my mind I was beginning to move on from them. But that’s how it happens, isn’t it. You think about something until something else comes along that requires bandwidth in your brain, and the thing you were thinking about starts getting crowded out. Sometimes when you look back, you realize that’s kind of a scary process. The more time I spent up n the country this year, getting to know our upstate home, the less I was thinking about the downstate one. Not only can you not be in two places at once, it’s hard to even think of two places at once. 

But after all these years, most of the landscaped space on Duffy’s Creek is on autopilot anyway. Most of the trial and error has been done. The losers don’t grow here anymore, and the winners come back stronger every year. 

The Big Plan is, of course, to phase out Duffy’s Creek and live full-time on Trisha’s Mountain. When that actually happens remains a question. Back in the Aughts, I noticed on a sign that Copake Town was founded in 1824, so I was thinking I could be up here full time by the time the Copake Bicentennial comes around, maybe even walk down Main Street on stilts dressed as Uncle Sam. I have big dreams. 

But that would mean only three more growing season’s on Duffy’s Creek. And that would also mean eventually selling the house, perhaps to someone who rips out all the gardens and replaces them with heavily fertilized grass, or worse, just lets them go to hell, which wouldn’t take long at all. 

Once I landed back on Long Island in mid-November of 2020, following my nineteenth trip up and down Route 22 for the year, this time to take delivery of a new industrial-grade humidifier for the basement, I decided to get off the road for a while. I’d been back and forth eight times in thirteen weeks, and the plan (in progress as I write this) was to stay on the creek for six weeks, through Thanksgiving and Christmas. Mookie in particular was exhausted from all the traveling. We needed a break. 

But unlike Mookie, I’m not good at doing nothing, no matter how hard or how often I try. I enjoy doing nothing, but after a while I have to do something. I admire people who can keep doing nothing going. I decided that not only was I going to clean up the gardens down to the last fallen leaf, but that this year, since I had the time, I was going to give them all a damn good mulching. And not only that, I was going to power wash the patio so it would already be clean in the spring. I have big dreams. 

And I love mulch. I love topsoil and compost, too: The look, the smell, the feel, everything. I suppose I could live without the weight. But still. There’s no more agreeable afternoon activity to me than getting down and dirty in the gardens. 

We have seven of them. They all have names. In the front are two semicircle raised beds built with river stone. One is my creation, which starts out as a well-mannered and proper bed of tulips and daffodils in the spring and devolves into an insane tangle of sunflowers and zinnias by July. I call that the Crazy Summer Garden. The opposite semicircle is Trisha’s statelier “Cottage Garden”, highlighted by a giant purple beautyberry bush, chiefly the domain of our resident mockingbird no matter how hard Lyle the Cat stares through the window at him. There’s mock orange and flowering quince around the front, coneflower and bee balm in the middle and creeping purple phlox cascading over the stones. Unlike my garden, somebody had a plan. 

On the side of the garage was the tomato and vegetable garden. This year I phased that out and threw in a couple of dahlias which I mostly neglected despite their beauty. I couldn’t keep the damn squirrels away from the tomatoes, and I didn’t want to grow lettuce and broccoli that I wasn’t home to eat or give away. But I still grew cucumbers in another little patch next to the shed this year, way more than I could use, which was good news for a neighbor on the creek who loves cucumber sandwiches. Meanwhile, my 2020 bread and butter pickles were another raging success. 

Between our backyard fence and the creek is my Wetland Garden. In one section, I’ve been naturalizing purple and pink native asters for ten years now, and let me tell you, come September, my aster is the most spectacular aster you’ve ever seen. In another section are shrubs that don’t mind drinking crappy brackish water; red twig dogwood, rosa rugosa and winterberry holly, plus a red cedar tree that my brother and I saved from being uprooted after Hurricane Sandy, which is now known as the Leaning Cedar. Most of these plants were, of course, bought from Tommy Dee, many on credit cards. The whole thing is held back from the creek with a bulkhead of logs, wire fencing and dirt that I carted in after ripping out forty years of thug brush eighteen years ago. I had the time of my life. 

Look at my aster! Look at it! It’s fabulous!

Along a wooden fence are Trisha’s hybrid tea roses. The roses also stretch into a spot between two houses that we call the Secret Garden. All the roses have cultivar names and stories which she’s told me lots of times because I asked, and she planted many of them in memory of people. Apparently, their preferred pronoun is “she”, as in, “she needs to be cut back.”  I can’t keep much of this straight, but I do try really hard. And Trisha works very hard at keeping the hybrid tea roses sprayed with the stuff that keeps them from getting eaten up by little parasites every year. You can get high off the aroma of Trisha’s rose garden in June, and often we do. But one season of neglect and they’d be nothing but angry, thorny green sticks. 

Out the back door is my Patio Garden. My parents had a deck when we bought the house. They had it built in the 1970’s, when you were required to build a deck in your suburban backyard under penalty of law. The deck had seen better days by the time we bought it, so we were already planning to rip it out and replace it with a patio when we visited the Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge, Mass. It was there that I encountered the Herb Associates, a group of volunteers that maintained an herb garden with a patio right outside a kitchen in one of the buildings on the grounds.

I have to admit, my biggest takeaway from this experience was the sheer joy of knowing that there was a group of old ladies from Stockbridge who called themselves the Herb Associates, but I also liked the idea. Eventually, the garden out the back door on Duffy’s Creek became a combination of herbs, perennials and annuals surrounding a loose-laid brick patio that looks like the mason who built it was actually an English teacher on summer vacation. 

Around the patio, I have planters where I put the same annuals every year because I know they’ll behave themselves and look great doing it: Geraniums and lantana, both in red, white mandevilla, some years white jasmine if I want to splurge, plus some basil and oregano that I didn’t get around to harvesting this year. Plus I have three highbush blueberries in planters on the patio and four more on the side of the garage, which I’ve used to make some sublime pies over the years, and which us make us very popular with robins.

Since we’ve done all the heavy planting (and transplanting), and the gardens are what they are, most of the work now is adding compost in spring and keeping everything weeded and watered. Invariably, since you only have to get dirty once, I’ll do all the weeding in one shot once every two or three weeks. I can tell which days were weeding days just by looking at my Fitbit history. Any days when I walked 25,000 steps and saw some serious cardio orange and red on my heartbeat chart, those were the days I was out playing in the dirt. 

After all these years of pulling weeds, I know every one of them personally, many by name. I can tell you, for instance, that every year I have to pull out deadly nightshade. And every year, deadly nightshade says, “Yeah, OK. Whatever, dude. I’ll be back.” Late in the season, I have to pull out white snakeroot, which can poison milk if cows eat it, and reportedly killed Abraham Lincoln’s mother. Weeding is serious business. 

The fall cleanup is actually the biggest job in the gardens now. First is deadheading all the perennials and pulling out the dried-up ghosts of hundreds of zinnias and marigolds and other annuals. Then comes raking out all the leaves and cultivating the soil, then chopping out the last of this year’s weeds. It takes hours and hours and hours. Which is great if, like me, you enjoy this sort of thing, and you happen to have hours and hours and hours. 

Any teacher who rides the rhythms of the school year knows that the fall semester is insanely busy. So for all the years I was on that ride, I’d check the Weather Channel app constantly to see what Saturdays and what Sundays would be suitably benign enough to get out and clean up the yard. And knowing how long each section took, I could plan out what I could get done in the time I had. My ultimate goal was to get a bed of cedar mulch down on every garden surface once all the leaves were raked up and the annuals were pulled out and the perennials were cut back and the deadly nightshade and the white snakeroot and all their outlaw buddies were on the brush pile. 

I very rarely got anywhere close to that goal. Some years were better than others. Some years I’d still be cleaning out last years’ dead stuff in April. But a couple of years, I got all the mulch down, and it somehow made going to work easier knowing that I did it. This year, with a stretch of freakishly warm weather and a freakish amount of time on my hands, I realized that the attaining the ultimate goal of a damn good full mulching, topped off by a power washing, would somehow make standing around inside the house and looking out the windows all winter a lot easier. I cleaned the gardens until they screamed for mercy and gave them a long overdue mulching. 

I usually go for the dyed red cedar mulch, but this year, Dave Di Setta, who keeps his mulch right at the front gate for easy access, only had fifteen bags of red left, and seeing as it takes thirty bags total (and three round trips for Lou the Subaru) I went half red and half plain brown this year. 

it’s a beautiful sight and a warm, fuzzy feeling for this OCD sufferer. Not only is it a nice warm blankie for all the plants and enrichment for the soil, it’s also much easier to track what plants are breaking the soil next spring, meaning it’s also harder for the weeds to hide. So in the words of Cosmo Kramer, you’ve got to mulch. You’ve got to. 

In the midst of this herculean effort, completed in three-or-four-hour blocks of time over the course of eight nice-weather days, I also put up the Christmas lights, which look delightful and which I absolutely hate doing, and which nobody will actually come to the house to see for themselves. I think I do it for my parents, most of all, and for the memories it conjures up. I have no control over whether any future owners of the property will celebrate Christmas. 

Which brings us to the tree. Last December, which was two-thousand years ago, was very exciting for us. We were closing on a house in Copake Falls, a dream we had dreamed for twenty years. The closing was set for the 20th of December, the day the boiler stopped working in the house on what was not yet Trisha’s Mountain, and the closing had to be postponed. Someone flipped the reset switch on the boiler the next day and it’s been working since (knock wood again), and the closing was finally a done deal a week later, on the 27th. We reserved one of our old cabins at Taconic State Park to stay over both times, to avoid nighttime winter driving, which can kill you. 

Fortunately, we had the World’s Most Responsible Teenager on the block to take care of the cats on both nights, but this time, she had the added pressure of watering the live Christmas tree next to the radiator in the living room. Leaving a live Christmas tree unattended, even overnight, gave us the willies. I guess I’ve seen one too many videos of blazing Christmas trees infernos. In practical terms, there was very little chance of the Christmas tree burning down the house. They don’t spontaneously combust like the drummers in Spinal Tap. As Bruce Springsteen sang in the worst song he ever wrote, you can’t start a fire without a spark. But if the tree had burned the house down, Lyle the Cat would surely have had something to do with it. 

So this year, knowing that we could get up to the Mountain between Christmas and New Year’s, we took a ride to Dee’s to see Joey’s artificial Christmas trees for ourselves inside the store. Our tradition is to put up our tree in the first weekend in December, then take it down the first weekend after New Year’s, by which time some of them over the years have grown a trifle crispy. But neither Trisha nor I, and by extension our offspring and animals, has ever experienced a Christmas without a real Christmas tree. As a kid, I felt pity for people with artificial trees, people who were happy to spend the season looking at a sad, scrawny green plastic scarecrow, usually with boring all-white lights, that looked as much like a tree as a White Castle looks like Versailles, or as a Taco Bell looks like a hacienda. I don’t care what you got for Christmas, or how much fun you had. That’s not really living. 

As with many things in my lifetime, though, artificial Christmas tree research and development has grown by leaps and bounds. The ones they make now look very much like trees. They’re pre-lit. You can find one in perfect symmetry to your available space and the initial investment pays for itself in three years of not buying a tree from Tommy’s yard. And you can leave them up as long as you like. John Prine left his up all year long, but he had a bigger house. And there would be no chance of fire by stupidity if we left the tree up on the Creek and drove up to the Mountain, despite Lyle the Cat. 

Joey Dee took us through a couple of handsome artificial trees that looked promising and told us he had plenty in stock and more coming in. Nobody was coming to our house over Christmas, so we’d be the only ones who would see it. We’d likely end up getting a fake tree when we move upstate permanently because you really couldn’t put a living tree anywhere near the fireplace, so why not just get used to having a fake tree now? There was only one overriding downside, only one good reason why we didn’t pull the trigger. 

We didn’t want to. 

I started reading about Zen Buddhism when I was in college. Alan Watts, D.T. Suzuki. Those guys.  I liked everything about it. In Zen philosophy, the past and the future are illusions. Any wisdom you’ve gained along your path is meant to applied to right now, not to some future day. What’s more, our house and gardens and creek and your house and all your stuff are events, not things, because everything is in a constant, slow-motion state of flux, and nothing is permanent. And since they’re events, not things, they should be celebrated like events, with as much enthusiasm as you work up, because they’re going to end, and we’re going to end, and since that will be the end of that, this right here and this right now are all we’ve got. 

But as hard as I’ve tried, I’ve just never been able master the art of living in the Here and Now. I don’t know what’s in anyone else’s brain beyond what they’ve told me, so maybe I’m better at it than I think I am. All I know is that even after years and years of piling up great memories, there are still stupid little moments that I wish I had handled differently rattling around in my head like loose change in a coffee can. And Lord knows I’ve scattered baskets of brain cells across my years worrying about things that theoretically might have happened but never did.  

And even when I’ve been as close as I could get to living fully and completely in the Here and Now, and there have been lots and lots of those times, I never went too long without checking my watch. It’s how I’m wired, and that’s just sad, but it’s no excuse. Very often, I enjoyed the hell out of the job I did for 25 years, but I could always tell you exactly how long I had to keep doing it until I didn’t have to. 

But if anything could get me to finally shake off all this mental illness, finding myself floating along through the days, collecting my monthly Cash For Life payments from the New York State Teacher’s Retirement System while waiting for a Pandemic to end (and a psychopath to go away) may have been the ticket. I’ve cut off a big chunk of my past and I have no more than a vague plan for the future. Whenever I check my watch, I’m right smack in the middle of the Here and Now. 

Self-awareness is one of the benefits of getting old, unless you’re hopeless. It becomes easier to catch yourself when you’re up to your same old lame tricks. Too often this year I’ve found myself sitting on my poorly constructed patio on the creek, thinking about what it would be like to leave Valley Stream and move up to Copake Falls permanently, how I’d feel about letting it all go. Then I’d be up on the Mountain thinking about what it would be like to be there with no back to go to. None of this is anything that I really had to think about at that moment, and any second I that I was, I knew I was only cheating myself out of good time.

And I’ve come to realize that the only reason I’m giving any unthinkworthy thoughts any space in my head at all, instead of enjoying the passage of time, which is of course the secret of life, is because I’m not thinking about my lesson plans for Monday morning, or what to do about that one kid. So all this extra room opens up in my brain, and something has to fill the vacuum. At times in 2020, to my credit, I happily feasted on whatever was in front of my eyes in the Here and Now. 

But sometimes I pigged out on boxes of worry cookies and bags of regret chips. 

We’re all works in progress. If you’re doing it right. 

A moment of personal enlightenment came as it often does, after cleaning. In this case, on the first Sunday of December, when the temperature on Long Island was a sickeningly sweet 70 degrees. I had finished all the mulching and power washed the patio bricks, which takes just as long as cleaning them on your hands and knees with a pencil eraser, then topped off the weekend by cleaning out the garage. The property on Duffy’s Creek looked as good as it ever had on the first Sunday in December. 

Mookie doesn’t need to read an y books about Zen Buddhism

I was sitting in the yard with my nine-year-old dog, enjoying the fruits of my labor and watching the walkers on the creek path. Looking at how beautiful and how happy he looked, my mind had to find a way to try and ruin it by wandering up an unpleasant stream, as it does too often, to the day when I’d have to let Mookie go. 

Then I remembered an excellent cartoon I came across called “Why Dogs Are Better Than People”. The artist drew a man and his dog walking. The man’s think bubble is crowded with dollar signs and buildings and cars and angry looking people and piles of paper. The dog’s think bubble is he and the man walking.  I told myself to just stop it already. We’re Here. It’s Now. Nothing matters until it does. 

And that was how the Christmas Tree Decision ultimately led us to the Fraiser Firs comin’ to ya straight from Maine via Tommy’s yard. Because we’re Here and it’s Now, and there’s no reason to get a fake tree this year just because we might get one in some distant future Christmas. We made one change in the tradition, and it I think it’ll work out just swell. Instead of waiting until the first weekend in December, we went to Dee’s on the day before Thanksgiving. There was only one other customer in the yard, and most of the trees hadn’t even been unwrapped, but we found this year’s winner within five minutes.

So we’re going to keep Christmas as well as we possible can, and we’re going to try to create a little joy in this miserable time. Then we’re going to take down that perfect Christmas tree the week after Christmas, and we’re going to head up to Copake Falls. Just for good measure when we get there, we’ll put up the little prelit tabletop Christmas tree that was in my father’s room at the nursing home when he woke up to his last Christmas. We’ll have a fire in the fireplace on New Year’s Eve and we won’t burn down either house. 

And as another New Year rolls in, I won’t have to see the pictures of people in Taconic State Park enjoying a bonfire after their First Day Hike to Bash Bish Falls and say boy that looks like fun I’d like to get in on that some year because I’ll be there, soaking it in, unconcerned about any other day, past or present.

And by that same logic, I’ll still be pulling deadly nightshade and white snakeroot out of the gardens at Duffy’s Creek until the day we hand somebody else the keys. And if that day happens to be in December, I may just treat them to a damn good mulching before I move on, and before the next event starts. 

Copyright 2020 by John Duffy

Chapter 5 of Mountain High, Valley Low or My Life As A Wishbone: Tales of Valley Stream and Copake Falls, New York: “Unsung Furry Heroes of Duffy’s Creek”

We’re not sure where we’re putting the litter box on Trisha’s Mountain. We’re also not sure when we’re going to leave Valley Stream for good, so where to eventually put the theoretical litter box on the Mountain is sort of a pointless thing to worry about. But that’s what I do. 

In addition to being fortunate enough to live in the divine presence of God’s Most Perfect Dog, we have three cats. The oldest, Sunny, is a silky black and white girl with eyes the color of a forest at twilight. She is God’s Most Perfect Cat. We consider her one of the adults here. The other two I’ll tell you about, brother and sister brown tabbies named Lyle and Allie, are excellent cats in their own right, but there can only be one God’s Most Perfect Cat. 

We’re also fortunate to have God’s Most Perfect 17-Year-Old Neighbor on Duffy’s Creek, who conscientiously looks after those cats, AND waters the gardens if necessary while we go traipsing off to sit on a mountain. Plus we have another neighbor who can provide backup when the first one’s not available. Really. How lucky are we? When I was a teenager, I occasionally took care of a neighbor’s dog named Pugsley, whom I never particularly bonded with, but I kept him alive for several weeks at a time, so I know it’s a relatively easy gig. But still, it helps that Maya really likes the cats and the cats really like Maya, and the other neighbor is a cat person, too. 

And yet, we still feel super guilty every time we ditch the cats and head north again. And you know that it’s just impossible to explain to them 1) exactly where we’re going 2) how long we’ll be gone this time and 3) why it’s in their best interests that they don’t come along with us until they absolutely have to. I’m sure even Mookie has to tried to explain it to them, and he couldn’t either. So they’re just as confused as hell. But all things considered, our cats have it pretty good. If they complain, which they occasionally do, we remind them of how they got here: “We rescued you.”

These cats are our second group of three cats. They came to live on Duffy’s Creek almost ten years ago, on Jack’s 7th birthday in February of 2011, five months before the heralded arrival of the Labrador Retriever puppy who would quickly grow into the great, lumbering beast that is Mookie Dog. 

Trisha had three cats when we met. Two of them were seven years old and the other was six. And apparently, I told my future wife on one of our first dates that I planned to have a dog someday and name him after Mookie Wilson (my all-time favorite New York Met) though I have no memory of actually saying this out loud. I guess that’s how you know you’ve met your soul mate. So seeing as I had every intention of keeping Trisha, I had every intention of adopting her three cats as my cats, too, even before I met them. It was all good as far as I was concerned. I’d always been a cat guy as well as a dog guy, and I could wait on the dog if I absolutely had to. Just not forever. 

Those cats, Jenny, Jezebel and Jasper, were with us for most of our first ten years together. Two of them got to meet the dog and neither was impressed.

Rewinding a little more: About six years before I met Trisha’s “girls”, at a point in time when I was taking refuge with my parents, they and I started feeding a couple of sweet stray cats that were hanging around the creek.  Naturally, this situation spiraled into my poor father having to chase kittens around the backyard to take them to a shelter several months later. But we managed to get the main mamma cat fixed. Mom gave her the unfortunate name “Runt” and she ended up living around 15 years. She moved out to the retirement home with the old folks when they left the creek. At the point when Runt was becoming domesticated, I also tried to save a friendly little black cat that hung around with Runt who I named Mose Allison, but he got hit by a car, and I had to scrape his body off the street for a proper burial. It’s a cat jungle out there. 

We had a big, tough cat named Herman when I was growing up. My oldest sister saved him when she happened across a guy who was drowning kittens in the creek by throwing them off the bridge. Yeah, I know. This was on May 2, 1965, which happened to be my second birthday. My sister, who was 12 at the time, insisted that the guy give her one of the kittens, before he cruelly murdered the others, and Herman (named after Herman’s Hermits) lived with us for 18 years. He was an indoor / outdoor cat, and every once in a while he’d come home bloodied and battle-scarred from popping off to the wrong cat in the middle of the night, but knowing Herman, we knew the other cat likely got it worse. 

Still, it didn’t take too much convincing for Trisha to make me see that letting a cat come and go outside as he or she pleases was in general a pretty bad idea for everyone involved. After meeting Jenny, Jasper and Jezebel, none of whom had a speck of outside dust on them, I tried to preach this gospel to my parents, advising them that if they were going to keep Runt as a pet, they were better off keeping her inside, and pretty soon she’d give up trying to fight them on it. She had already had her tail bitten off as a kitten (I found her and a few of her cat friends playing cat hockey with it on the deck one morning) and I knew they had a lot of emotional investment tied up in this little mottled tabby. 

Well, they always called me a know-it-all, but I came by that honestly, so Runt the Cat had an acre or two of woods to patrol out at the Jefferson’s Ferry Lifecare Community. But being an indoor / outdoor cat, she’d occasionally go on special assignment and disappear for a few days, thus scaring the crap out of my parents. She ultimately died right in my father’s lap when she was about 16 years old. And you know what? My parents’ health and well-being went straight downhill after that, not so much out of grief of losing the cat, but more out of not having anyone else to take care of anymore. I think that thought a lot. 

Meanwhile, I had embarked on the journey of being a stepfather to Jenny, Jezebel and Jasper for the back nine of their lives. Jenny and Jezebel were both part Maine Coon, and since my recent frame of reference had been a cat that could fit inside a Costco coffee can, they seemed monstrously gigantic in comparison the first time I saw them. Jasper was a little black female cat with a long, long tail and seemingly hidden opposable thumbs that could open any door or drawer, who Trisha had named already when she found out she was actually female and not male, so she decided it was actually short for Jasperella and left it at that. 

Before Trisha and I moved in together, I didn’t see too much of Jenny, Jezebel and Jasper. She and the cats were living at her parents’ house in Point Lookout, and even though her parents weren’t actually there, there would be no boys at the sleepover and that was that. So we spent lots of time at my little apartment on the highway in Lynbrook and the cats spent a lot of time waiting for Trisha to come home. If they had made that connection, they probably would have been less friendly to me than they were when I occasionally did see them, which wasn’t friendly at all. 

So you could imagine how pissed they must have been to find themselves scooped up from a big airy house by the ocean in Point Lookout and transported to a third-floor apartment in a tenement in downtown Valley Stream. And what was worse, I was there. 

Over the years we’ve tried, unsuccessfully, to block out most of the year and a half that we spent in that third-floor apartment, especially any part that isn’t funny in retrospect. All told, it wasn’t a particularly pleasant place to live. But they allowed cats. And smokers. So you get what you get and you don’t get upset. And once they established that I was home earlier in the day and more often, and that I had the requisite thumbs needed to open cans and clean litter boxes, Jenny, Jezebel and Jasper started coming around. 

Jenny and I bonded through our shared love of naps. Being part Maine Coon, she had a fur coat like the ones Sinatra and the Brat Pack probably bought for their girlfriends, and a purr like the sound of an outboard motor on a mountain lake. Trisha told me early on that Jenny was actually a doctor, and I’ll tell you what: You show me the best treatment or medication that science has developed to lower human blood pressure, and for ten years I could’ve countered with Jenny Cat. After we finished the move to the creek over Christmas Vacation in 2001, Jenny and I took a three-and-a-half-hour nap one cold and cloudy Sunday afternoon in January that I have never replicated. 

Jezebel, whose name morphed into “Bella” was the original “Heat-Seeking Kitty”. That’s Trisha’s line. She’s been cracking me up for the entire 21st Century with stuff like that. As soon as Bella saw me sitting down in my comfy chair she’d be on it immediately. Furthermore, it became an especially vital mission to secure the lap if a blanket were tossed over it. Then she could sink her claws in and enjoy whatever was on TV, Mets Baseball and Sir David Attenborough documentaries being her favorites. Of course, being a cat, if you walked up to Bella when she was trying to sleep on a pile of towels and tried to pet her, she’d likely claw your hand up before you knew what happened. 

Bella and I also bonded over butter. In fact, her other nickname was “Butter Cat”, which wasn’t a Pearl Jam song. One morning in the tenement, she was at my feet staring at me as I ate an English muffin. As you probably know, nobody can stare at you like a cat can stare at you. And while she was staring at me, she was telepathically instructing me to scoop a little butter off the English muffin with my index finger and hold it where she could get to it, a message which I telepathically received and responded to in kind. And thus was born a morning ritual that would last ten years. 

Jasper’s favorite ritual, besides hunting for crinkly paper, was making one of us follow her around. She wasn’t too crazy about sharing naps or laps. She liked attention on her terms, and she knew she couldn’t compete with two Maine Coons. Nobody could. So once or twice a day one of us had to follow her around through the house until she decided on a good place for rubbies and scratchies, and if we didn’t follow as instructed, she would yell at us. For almost ten years, the last thing I did before leaving for work in the morning was to pet a little black cat with a long, long tail at the top of the stairs.

We all have snapshots in our heads of the most perfect moments of our lives, and if you’re like me, you don’t call them up on the screen behind your eyes as often as you should, because you spend too much time staring at the physical screen in front of your eyes and getting pissed off, or worse, dredging up all the bad stuff for no good reason. I’m working on all that. But I digress. One of my all-time favorite mental snapshots is the picture of my three step-cats at sunrise on Christmas Morning of 2001, the day after we fought a violent and bloody battle to get them into crates and move them out of the tenement and into their new house on Duffy’s Creek. We set up one of the sheet-metal radiator covers we had to buy for the tenement in front of the picture window looking out on the backyard and the creek as a “Cat TV” perch, and there they were at dawn, lined up at the window whisker to whisker, awestruck by the birds fluttering around the feeders.

I knew they could all grow old here and they’d never have to leave. I couldn’t necessarily say the same for myself, and still can’t, but for that moment I was content because they were content. Animals make your house a home, for sure. 

So we all settled in and made ourselves at home in the House on Duffy’s Creek, and Jenny and I took naps, and Bella and I ate butter and watched The Mets and PBS, and Jasper and I walked around the house together, and we all enjoyed the occasional game of string and Trisha had a baby. I have lots of favorite mental snapshots from that experience. One of them is when we brought said baby home from the hospital on a sunny winter’s morning and laid him down on the bed to take him out of his warm flannelly yellow baby traveling clothes. 

Jenny Cat immediately jumped up on the bed to see what we had there. And we both had two immediate thoughts in split-second progression: “Get the fuck away from my baby,” followed by, “chill. She knows what she’s doing.”

So we checked ourselves and let Jenny come in for a sniff, through a permanent scar across our only child’s face would’ve been hard to explain. And Jenny sniffed the baby and the baby gave Jenny a wide-eyed baby look and Jenny decided as we already had that nothing smells better than a new baby, and she was now Jack’s cat, too. Bella and Jasper liked him well enough, but he moved too unpredictably, and besides, Jenny found him first. 

So we can at least say that our only child has never been without an animal brother or sister. As the baby started standing and toddling, he enjoyed going on trips around the house in pursuit of “Bap-per” and watching Bella hunt string and lick butter off Dad’s finger, but Jenny was always available for a warm, furry purr. 

Babies grow up. Pets grow old. Take lots of pictures. 

I’m an admirer of Teddy Roosevelt, despite our respective political affiliations and despite all the dead animals hanging in his living room in Oyster Bay, Long Island, which I’ve visited several times. He only lived 60 and a half years, which would give me only three more, though I reckon I’ve eaten less read meat, and probably smoked less, so I’m hopeful. The man lived like a man on fire. He was passionate about learning and exploring and was always looking for ways to change things for the better, and I’m sure he would’ve stuck to digital photography if he were taking those African safaris today. I tell you all this because I carry one of Teddy’s best pieces of practical wisdom as a personal mantra, every day: 

“Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”

That’s a good one, huh? 

We can’t stop the babies from growing up. We can’t stop the animals, or ourselves for that matter, from growing old and dying. We can’t hold on to the good times, but we can keep trying to conjure up new good times until all our time is up. Maybe not the same, but just as good in their own right. Where we are, with what we have. 

Jenny went first, on the last day of September, 2010. She had found a spot next to the piano, and she stayed there most of the time for months, waiting to die. At this point, Trisha had acquiesced to getting a family dog, and we had first dibs on a Labrador puppy to be born at a breeder’s house in Saugerties the following spring. Bella and “Bap-per” were holding on, but we knew they were both nearing the end of their run. 

Jack was never going to get a brother or sister, but he was never going to experience a family without animals either, so that was something.

But I did feel a little guilty about getting a purebred dog through a breeder when there were dogs who needed to be rescued. Among my selfish reasons were that Trisha had never lived with a dog and we needed a relatively calm dog who could provide some therapy, because that’s what we all that’s needed. 

But since we were where we were, and had what we had, I felt like we needed to keep the good times rolling, before the calm dog was even born, so I decided we needed to go rescue a cat. 

I found God’s Most Perfect Cat the same way I found God’s Most Perfect Wife. On the Internet. Albeit at a different website. I saw Trisha’s picture on match.com in 1999 and said, “gosh, she’s sure pretty!” and the rest is history. I saw Sunny Cat’s picture on petfinders.com in 2010 and showed it to Trisha and she said, “gosh! She’s sure pretty!” And we rescued her. 

Sunny was scared out of her mind after the rescue, but she never, never scratched me.

On the day of his birthday, we dropped our seven-year old boy at his aunt and uncle’s house and said we had to take care of something, but it was a surprise, which we surprisingly got away with. We drove to an animal shelter in Glen Cove, still planning to meet the pretty black and white cat.  

I wanted to get new cats before the new dog showed up, because I thought that cats should have the territory well-established before the dog moved in and started hassling them. They would need to train the dog. And notice I said “cats”. Ideally, I wanted to adopt more than one cat, but I have no good reason why. Keep in mind that we still had two elderly cats, who at this point were keeping mostly to themselves. We knew they wouldn’t put up any sort of fight no matter what sort of animals we brought on to their turf. 

But a call ahead to the folks at the shelter suggested that Sunny Cat might not work out. She was almost two and she had been at the shelter since being brought in with her siblings from a golf course as a kitten. Somehow, all her siblings had been adopted and no one had fallen for her, and she was well into a career as a shelter cat. They didn’t think she’d do so great sharing space with a young child, never mind old cats and a dog. She lived in a cage, but she was allowed to wander around and make conversation with various dogs and cats in the shelter. We met her briefly, already having sort of talked ourselves out of her, pretty as she was, and they let her out of the cage to go make the rounds.

In the cage next door were two three-month-old brown tabbies that had not been listed on petfinder.com yet, stalking each other and play fighting and having a grand old time of it all. I’ve always liked brown tabbies. They’re cool-looking cats. And what seven-year-old boy wouldn’t love two kittens to play with?

Lyle and Allie, who as kittens were Chaos and Mayhem.

But there was a rub. One of the kittens was male, and Trisha didn’t want a male cat because they tend to destroy everything in their path and make pests of themselves. On the other hand, we didn’t want to separate them, as they seemed to be having so much damn fun together. 

So we took a walk around the shelter, including a room where they kept the older “lifers”, which was sort of like the Island of Misfit Cats. We found ten or fifteen we were ready to take home before we pulled each other the hell out of there. Trisha decided we could adopt the two brown tabbies, and she couldn’t have been more right about the male cat, but we’ll come to that later. 

We walked back up front where the people behind the desk and the brown tabby kittens in the cage were. (They had really stupid names which we’ve both since forgotten. The kittens, not the people). At the moment we were telling the kittens that they were going home with us, Sunny Cat came bounding up to us, onto a box where she could meet us at eye level, looked us both straight in the eye and said, resolutely, “Meee-owwww!!!”, which was cat for, “you came here to rescue me!!!” 

We had no choice. The animal shelter folks told us they would waive the adoption fee on Sunny (so named because she liked sleeping in sunny spots, and still very much does) if we took all three cats. We dumped the two kittens in one of the two crates we brought with us, and a young fellow at the shelter put on thick leather gloves to grab Sunny and throw her in the other one. 

We looked at each other as if we were completely insane. Trisha said, out loud so she could hear herself say it, “this gives us five cats.” One of the rescue people said, “I have twelve!”. We loaded the crates in the back of Dan the Van and headed home. 

Trisha and I have a favorite movie. We’ve watched it more than 50 times and quote lines from it 20 times a day. That movie is David Lynch’s “The Strait Story,” starring Richard Farnsworth and Sissy Spacek. It’s based on the true story of a 73-year-old man who drove a riding mower from Iowa to Wisconsin to see his ailing brother. Farnsworth plays the old man, Alvin Strait, and Harry Dean Stanton is his brother Lyle. We had just watched the movie for the 35th time the night before. We’re also big fans of Lyle Lovett. The brown tabbies who had terrible and forgettable names became Lyle Cat and Allie Cat by the time we reached the Long Island Expressway. In retrospect, Chaos and Mayhem would have worked as well.

We tried kicking around some new names for Sunny Cat, which at first we thought was kind of a silly name. We tried being clever with names related to pianos and other black and white things. But we realized that she was already a year and a half old and she deserved to keep her name, so by the time we reached the Southern State Parkway, we were ready introduce Jack to his new furry siblings, Lyle, Allie and Sunny.

The old girls, Bella and Jasper, were with us for the first six months or so of the madness that followed. They did what they could to pass on their wisdom to the young’uns. We made sure they were getting their share of the cat food and the attention until they didn’t want it anymore. 

It was tough to see them go, which is one of the reasons that my sensible wife did not want to adopt new cats and go through the pain all over again someday. I could definitely see her point, but we all know that the joy that animals bring to our lives is worth the pieces that they gorge out of our hearts when they die. 

We had planned and executed this daring cat rescue for the beginning of the week in February when Jack and I were on school vacation, which we would give me some time to acclimate everyone. We all have great mental snapshots of that week, starting with this one: There are two rooms upstairs at Duffy’s Creek. One of those rooms, Jack’s bedroom, has a separate door. The other room is accessed through the door at the top of the stairs. We let Sunny have that room and took the kittens behind the door into Jack’s bedroom to let them out of the crate. 

Immediately upon being freed, they both crawled under the approximately two-inch space under Jack’s dresser because that’s what cats do, particularly scared ones. I don’t know why we couldn’t have foreseen that.

I reached my arm as far as I could and managed to grab hold of a kitten, but I didn’t know which one. Trisha reached way back and pulled out the other one. The one I pulled out turned out to be Lyle, and from that moment, Lyle imprinted on me and decided I was his mother, and he was my dog. 

Lyle is actually several animals. As well as being a cat with freakishly long back legs and a Machiavellian complex, he is also, at the very least, a small dog, a meercat, a sloth, a vulture, a howler monkey and a cockroach. I’m pretty certain that Lyle was the runt of his litter, as he is expert at making his presence known and at manipulating me, his mother. 

It started with coming to nurse every night when I went to sleep. I missed Jenny coming in to put me to sleep every night, so I was glad to have a new cat napping partner. But Lyle has to circle around and stalk back and forth for several minutes before finding the right spot to do a full-body flop as close to me as he can get. Then he’s got to dig his claws into me (which Trisha calls, “making’ biscuits.”) and purr ridiculously while he pretends to nurse. He usually sticks around for about fifteen minutes then goes off to stare intently at the spot under the stove where he has caught several mice, then comes back and settles in on my legs.  

And once he realized that the potential existed for me to wake up in the middle of the night to pee, forget it. He trained me to put out plates of cat food for everybody at 2 am while the dog waited in the crate. If I didn’t wake up, he’d crawl on top of me and try to pry my eyelids open by scratching at them. And Lyle has the most deranged, intense stare of any cat I’ve known, so throwing him off the bed like some demonic sentient pillow only works so many times. He just pops back and stares at me vulture-like, ready to give my eyelids a fresh scratch if that’s what it takes. He’s at this moment working on his masterpiece of scratching, the ottoman in front of the couch. Lyle does nothing halfway He’s a sick bastard. 

And yet he’s a sweet, essentially well-meaning little guy who walks around me and in front of me, like the cockroach in WALLE, always managing to just avoid being stepped on and/or kicked. Mookie has come to associate the words “idiot” and “asshole” with Lyle getting in the way or causing trouble. Right now, the large dog is lying on the floor, slightly jealous that the small cat dog is sharing the chair and a half with me, upside down with his back paws attached to me arm as I type. All I would have to do is say, “IDIOT!”, as I do when Lyle gets in the way, and they would immediately begin arguing, using sharp words like “grrrrrr!” and “hisssss!”. Fun as it is, I’ll let them be. 

Mookie is much more patient with Lyle’s rotund and shy sister, Allie Cat. First of all, having struggled with a life-long battle to maintain his figure, he can relate to Allie Cat, whose short, stocky over-furry physique makes Lyle look like a Tabby Cowboy. Allie’s legs are as freakishly short as Lyle’s are long, so when she runs she has to double the amount of steps, which makes her look like a cartoon cat. But I wouldn’t tell her that because she’s very sensitive and suffers from low self-esteem. Allie went upstairs when Mookie came home and stayed up there most of the time for around three years. She only came back down and rejoined the family after Sunny assured her that he had the dog completely trained.

Little Allie Cat

While Mookie, Sunny and Lyle shadow me pretty much all the time, more so as we get closer to the times when the cans open, Allie stays in a little cat bed behind the loveseat until lunch, then goes back for a quick four-hour nap, at this time of year under the Christmas Tree skirt, whereupon she joins me up on the couch for “Jeopardy” after dinner, making sure she gets her daily minimum requirement of pets and scratchies. Mookie defers to her and doesn’t try to get in between us, and if Lyle tries to move in, Mookie tells him to stop being a needy little pain in the neck all the time by stomping his front paws back and forth and saying “grrrr.”

Allie imprinted on Jack the most as a kitten. He’s good friends with everyone on four legs here, but you can tell when he gives Allie some attention that it means a lot to her. It’s hard to get that attention when your dog brother is enormous, you cat brother is batshit crazy and everybody thinks that your older cat sister is perfect. 

Sunny, God’s Most Perfect Cat, is at this moment sitting inside a cardboard box – in a sunny spot on the floor- because it’s there. And no doubt thinking deep thoughts which she will never share. But her default location is wherever Trisha is. While I’ve pointed out to Sunny many times that I was the one who had the idea to rescue her, and that Trisha didn’t want any more cats at first, and that I was the one who sat with her upstairs more often for the first couple of weeks so we could bond, Sunny wisely figured out from the start that one of the three humans in this house was softer, calmer, more nurturing and better smelling than the other two, and that’s the wagon to which she hitched her star. If Trisha is in a comfy chair, Sunny is often curled up next to her. 

Which is not to say that Sunny and I don’t get in some quality time together, because we do. (As far as me and Trisha, God knows we try). Sunny enjoys the fact that I’ll be the last person on Earth who gets a physical, printed newspaper delivered to his house. There’s a guy I’ve never met who has been dropping an expertly wrapped addition of Long Island’s Newsday in the same spot on my front lawn at around 4 a.m. every morning for 18 years, and he did it for my parents for years before that. Insanely expensive as it’s gotten, I’m still not ready to give it up. So every non-working morning (which right now is all of them) begins with twenty minutes of sitting on the couch scratching the dog and flipping through the Newsday. 

This twenty-minute block often stretches into a half hour when Sunny decides to come up and visit, first rubbing her head on Mookie’s ear, then walking back and forth across the newspaper on my lap while I pet her, for as long a time as she deems appropriate or necessary. If she decides to sit down on the newspaper, I am to wait until she gets up before I continue reading, and that is that. After a couple of months of this I figured out that she liked newspaper because that was the floor of her cage for 21 months. I’m a little slow sometimes. But Sunny is an excellent human trainer as well as an excellent dog trainer.

She’s a beautiful cat. Jet, silky black with deep-set eyes that only open as much as they have to (giving her a bit of a stoned cat look), white whiskers and a white patch that starts under her chin and stretches down her chest, with another patch of white on her belly and back legs and front paws that look as though they were dipped in white paint. 

I don’t know if it helped that she was good looking, but Sunny was the cat who trained Mookie to appreciate and respect cats. In his puppy year, he spent the majority of his time in one room in the back of the house, which we separated from the kitchen with a gate. When our five cats came into the kitchen to eat, you could imagine the excitement and frustration of a Labrador puppy who can only stick his head through the cat door of the gate and watch as other carnivores devoured a meat like substance, and who has been instructed by God not to bark. It was Sunny who first came over and gave him a little sniff, to which he gave her a large sloppy sniff, which she seemed to enjoy. She would always stay back and they’d gaze into each other’s eyes, like Bowie’s heroes at the Brandenburg Gate.

Once the old girls had left us and gone over the Rainbow Bridge and Mookie got the run of the first floor, we moved the Brandenburg Gate up to the top of the stairs, with the cat door open so they could have a place to escape when they had to, in spite of the fact that they tell you not to install those gates at the top of the stairs because somebody could get killed. Lyle had already perfected the art of finding places higher than Mookie could get to, and of giving him a good whack in the snout if he stuck said snout where it didn’t belong. But then Mookie can scare Lyle by just reminding him of how tremendously big he is, and how tremendously small Lyle is in comparison. 

Being an idiot, Lyle has been drinking out of the dog’s bowl his entire life, trying to grow big and strong like Mookie, but it hasn’t worked. They’ve had a nine and a half year codependency, gargantuan size vs. claws, speed and attitude, with each one vying to be the alpha dog, but both acutely aware that this ongoing battle gives them something else to do when they’re not watching me eat chicken. 

But Sunny didn’t need her claws to train Mookie. One day (I was there when it happened) she left East Berlin and met him at the bottom of the stairs, and before he could start bouncing up and down and doing his big, floppy Labrador routine, she looked him dead in the eye and declared, “Yoooouuuuu Staaayyyy!!!” And he did as he was told. She understands positive dog training, because she routinely tells him, in her cat language (which, like English, he understands but does not speak), “that’s my good doooogggg!” After a while, she let Allie know the coast was clear and they both left the attic for good. Allie finally had a dog friend, and God’s Most Perfect Dog was able to add “very well-behaved around cats” to his already impressive resume. 

As I wrap up this chapter, we’re well into the ninth month of Pandemic of 2020, soon to be the Pandemic of 2020-2021, as all indications point towards things getting worse before they get better. My current responsibilities include driving up and down New York State Route 22 when necessary and staying out of the way of my wife and son as they do real work remotely when I’m here on the Creek. By virtue of first working remotely for four months and then not working at all for five and counting, I’ve spent more time in the house I grew up in than I have since before kindergarten, and at the same time I’ve been off Long Island more than in any year of my life. I’m on the Creek or on the Mountain, and that’s pretty much it.

In normal times, I’d be in heaven with all this time on my hands, as both Long Island and the Berkshires always have something interesting going on somewhere, if you don’t mind traffic and people. In these times, I leave to walk the dog along the creek or on the rail trail, I go out for groceries and other essentials, I come back to whichever home I’m in and I wait for this misery to end, always being aware that I could get sick and suffocate to death in a hospital no matter how careful I am so I don’t dare complain. Under these circumstances, It’s nice to be able to pet a cat when you can. 

There are a couple of silver linings in all this, as painful as it is to admit. As a result of our rebooted lifestyle, which include long morning walks for the dog and bigger lunches for me, I’ve gained ten pounds, and Mookie has lost ten pounds. Really. As anyone who knows either one of us could tell you, these are both epic accomplishments. I also get more than enough sleep, which I also haven’t done since before kindergarten. Lyle still tortures me at 2 am when he can get to me, but Sunny has in turn tortured Lyle by taking over the bed during the day, available for a good purr if I can work a cat nap into my busy schedule. 

I’ve seen some “funny cat stuff” in my rectangle scrolling these past nine months about cats being pissed off about their routines suddenly being disrupted by virtue of their people being home all day, every day. Not our cats. We like them, and they like us. Their goofiness entertains us, and their affection comforts us. And while they may not like being left alone when the Song of The Mountain calls, they don’t hold grudges when we come back to the Creek. But you can be damn sure they insist on extra rubbies and scratchies for the first few days. Especially Lyle. 

And it’s funny, as comfortable as we’ve made the House on Trisha’s Mountain, the absence of our furry furniture keeps it from truly feeling like home. It’s the thing that’s missing. Of course, given the opportunity, they’d no doubt scratch the beautiful new furniture and they’d trail cat litter all over the house no matter where we put the box, but they’d love the view. And they’d continue to love us, and we’d love their company. 

Meanwhile, for as long as this thing goes on, nobody in our family is going out to the movies. But at least if there’s a movie playing on TV on Duffy’s Creek, everybody gets a cat to curl up with. Even Mookie. 

Sunny will be 12 years old next year. Lyle and Allie will be 11. I don’t know if we can make the same promise that we made to the old girls when they moved here at the dawn of this Century and we told them they’d never have to move again. I can tell you that if these three cats have to move, they won’t like it one damn bit, and I’m sorry in advance for a day that comes when we have to put them through it. I’ve seen what it’s like to be an old cat, and it ain’t for sissies. I suppose we compensate for the guilt by spoiling the hell out of them now. 

But you what? They deserve it. Yeah, they lie around and sleep most of the day. But they appreciate us, and we appreciate them. They count on us to take care of their physical needs and we count on them to help us out with our psychological needs, which sometimes means having something else to think about besides how screwed up everything is. Hey, look! Allie’s getting high on catnip again! Lyle and Mookie are having a staring contest! Sunny is keeping her svelte figure in shape by doing zooms back and forth through the house! While it’s important to stay on top of current events, watching your cats living their best lives is ultimately a much better use of brain space than wondering about who may have just tweeted a bunch of dangerous lies, or how many people were packed into wedding in Brooklyn, or why going bowling might kill you.   

The day is going to come when we can start crawling out from under this weight on top of us, when the world will be open and safe again. But for now we’re in survival mode. And with a little help from our feline friends, our unsung furry heroes of Duffy’s Creek, we’re doing what we can where we are with what we have.

Copyright 2020 By John Duffy

Chapter 2 of Mountain High, Valley Low or My Life As a Wishbone: Tales of Copake Falls and Valley Stream, New York – “One Runs The Risk of Weeping a Little”

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(With acknowledgement to Antoine de St. Exupery for the help). 

My father was a Covid-19 statistic. He died at the age of 90 on April 26th, 2020, at the height of the Pandemic in New York. He suffered from advanced dementia, and the fight left in his body was no match for the virus. As he was living in a skilled nursing facility, none of his children or grandchildren (or great-grandchildren) could be with him to say goodbye. The last time I saw him was on February 16th and I could see even before he was stricken that he had taken a general turn for the worse. Of course, if you tell me that his contacting coronavirus was a blessing in disguise I’m gonna come over there and kick your ass.

Neither he nor my mother, who died in 2012, ever saw Copake Falls. If they had been just a couple of years younger and healthier back in the Early Aughts, maybe they could have come up and stayed at a local B & B and hung out with us at Taconic State Park for a day or two. I sure would’ve liked that. As a matter of fact, it’s a recurring dream that I have every once in a while, and I even like the distorted dream version of them visiting.

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My parents at a house they rented on Rainbow Lake in the late 1970’s.

 

They were the ones who first took me upstate after all, and they would have loved the Peaceful Roe Jan Valley. They actually kicked the tires on a house way up in Rainbow Lake in the Adirondacks when they retired, but they decided that it was way too much of a hassle to have two houses hundreds of miles apart. They were practical people.

I had a conversation with my father once about moving upstate. We were standing in the backyard on the creek in Valley Stream, the one that used to be theirs and became ours. He had grown up in an apartment in Astoria, Queens, so the 60 x 100 plot was all the room he’d ever hoped to have. He was a city guy.

Of course, since he started me out on the 60 X 100 plot, naturally I wanted something bigger someday. So we were talking in the backyard on the creek that day about how Trisha and I were very happy with buying the house in Valley Stream, but that we always followed the upstate real estate market around the place where we went on vacation every year.

This is how that conversation went:

Me: “… So we keep an eye on the properties for sale. I mean, this is great, but for what you pay on Long Island, you could have a couple of acres of land upstate, and that might be nice someday.”

Dad: (Genuinely perplexed) “What would you do with a couple of acres of land?”

Me: (Slight pause, unprepared for the question) “Stare at it! Walk around on it!”

At which point he responded with his hearty laugh and his million-dollar smile and we moved on.

Around this same time, I started teaching in a school in Ozone Park, Queens where I’d work for the next 16 years. I parked my car outside one morning in September right near where my new assistant principal (who would later become principal) had just gotten out of his parked car. I noticed that he had Vermont license plates. I thought to myself, “well, heck, there’s some pleasant small talk for the walk inside. This guy has a house in Vermont and I’ve been to Vermont. In fact, Copake Falls, where I go every summer, is only about 60 miles from the Vermont border. I’ll ask him about Vermont. Maybe he drives up Route 22 to get there.”

This is how that conversation went:

Me: “Vermont, huh? Beautiful up there. We go to a place near the Berkshires every summer. Copake Falls, New York. Ever hear of it?”

Him (distractedly): “Maybe. I think so… What do you DO there? Do you ski?”

(Narrator: “The Catamount Ski Mountain is one of the big tourist attractions nearby”).

Me: (Again unprepared for the question, and at a complete loss for what to say next) “Not much… Uhhh…We hang out. We watch the birds.”

Him: (long pause). “Hmmm.”

And then we went to work. But (sorry, boss) after I reported this disastrous attempt at friendly conversation to Trisha, it became an inside joke between us. We’d be sitting staring at a campfire or watching the trees swaying in the wind from the front porch of the cabin, and one of us would say to the other, loudly, “What do you DO there?”

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What we did there. On the front lawn of Cabin GH 7 in Taconic Star Park.

 

Well, now we have a place of our own in Copake Falls. With 1.9 acres of land. And to be honest, when we’re there, we don’t do a damn thing, really. In the words of the great Robert Earl Keen, “I kinda like just doin’ nothin’. It’s somethin’ that I do.”

You might see me taking Mookie Dog for a swim in the brook and a walk on the rail trail in the morning. You might see me and Jack on that same rail trail later on riding the bikes I bought from a guy on Craigslist who I met in the parking lot of the Pittsfield Walmart. You might even see us doing a little tree trimming and minor brush clearing around the yard. You might see me and Trisha watching birds from the front porch. We have campfires. We make dinner. We play ping-pong, pool and darts in the basement. We read and watch stuff. We drive on country roads to re-stock or to look around, then we drive back to the Mountain. Then we stare at it and we walk around on it.

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Mookie on the Harlem Valley Rail Trail.

 

And when weather conditions are favorable, and the Earth’s orbit is aligned correctly, we watch The Show.

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The Show, also known as the Trisha’s Mountain Driveway Sunset Festival, is made possible by four elements: The Earth’s rotation around the sun, the topography of the Roe Jan Valley and the surrounding mountains and hills, a road that rises to 800 feet up the side of a 1200-foot rise, and the Shagbark Tree Farm.

It was in 2002 when Trisha and I first stayed in Copake Falls for a full week together. One of my hobbies that week was to learn every road in the area, and how those roads connected to each other. It was so long ago that I did my research with a paper Hagstrom Map of Columbia County that I bought at the AmeriStore gas station. (Today, of course, you could look up our Valley Stream address on Google Earth and see Trisha getting out of her car in the driveway).

Early in this grand pursuit, I found North Mountain Road. The south end of North Mountain starts in the hamlet of Copake Falls off Route 344 and raises you up steadily. The north end takes you for a big twisty up and down ride past some very expensive houses set back on lawns with the square footage of the Pittsfield Walmart. Right in front of these fabulous properties is a small cemetery where the first St. Bridget’s Catholic Church was located. (Upstate New York: Home of the Incongruent Cemetery). The road then twists you sharply downhill and quickly back uphill several times for a roller coaster ride around a dairy farm where they raise Brown Swiss cows (imagine that) before it finally plunges you straight downhill and it spits you out on Route 22 close to the Hillsdale Town Line.

In the middle, when you’re up about as high as you’ll get, there’s a leveling off, and to your west about three or four miles away are hills that are just about equal in elevation to the one you’re on. Between you and those hills is the Roe Jan Valley, which we always refer to as the Peaceful Roe Jan Valley, because in 2002 we saw a guy who called himself the Singing Dentist perform a really campy song by that name in the auditorium of Taconic Hills High School and we laughed and we laughed. “I will spend my days / singin’ songs of praise / in the Peaceful Roe Jan Valley”. It’s catchy, isn’t it?

The Peaceful Roe Jan Valley is dissected by the meandering Roe Jan Kill, which is short for Roeliff Jansen Kill, which was named for a guy who led a party from New Amsterdam that got stuck in the ice on the Hudson River one chilly day in the 1630’s and stumbled across a tributary that runs 56.2 miles through Dutchess and Columbia Counties. And when the sun hits the valley just right, you can see the reflection of the Roe Jan Kill from North Mountain. It looks like silver mercury in a giant crooked thermometer. I already have a favorite creek, but the Roe Jan is my favorite kill.

Meanwhile, back in the Summers of the Early Aughts, Trisha got used to me taking the better part of an hour to come back from a ride to the IGA in Hillsdale five miles from Taconic State Park because I’d always have to check out another road that I found on the map. North Mountain was a no-brainer, as it led directly off 22 and planted me right in Copake Falls, so it was one of my first detours, if not the first.

I was flat-out flabbergasted by my first glimpse of the million-dollar view I’m going to try to describe here in words, and I should point out that among the mental pictures I took on my first journey was that of a yellow house that looked like an oversized mobile home, but had a little piece of that million-dollar view. How much less than a million dollars for that?

At the point where the hills level off along the top ridge of North Mountain, if you’re traveling south from Hillsdale, you pass a couple of gorgeous properties with ponds on the west side of the road. Past there, and continuing for about three-quarters of a mile, the entire long slope in front of you is part of the 800-acre Shagbark Tree Farm, on land that used to be a dairy farm called Orphan Farm. Here you’ll see seemingly infinite rows of happy little Aspens and Birches and Colorado Blue Spruces patiently awaiting their adulthood in backyards and bank parking lots.  And if you look into the distance beyond that slope, where the Peaceful Roe Jan Valley below levels off, you’ll see another piece of the tree farm that runs along Farm Road west of Route 22. As the hills on the other side rise up, the biggest piece of the tree farm looks straight back at you from Overlook Road. Behind that is more hill and behind that in the afternoon is the sun.

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And to make it even more fabulous, if you turn around and look north or south, the Peaceful Roe Jan Valley ends right below Copake and right above Hillsdale, so it’s nothing but mountain peaks stretching out to the horizon. Squint your eyes and you can see the faint outlines of Catskill Mountains on the other side of the Hudson.

All of this adds up to some motherf#%&ing beautiful sunsets.

I was a big fan of Bill Geist on CBS Sunday Morning. His thing was reporting little offbeat stories, mostly from small-town America. One of his best was about Sundown Days in Hanlontown, Iowa (now called the Sundown Hoedown), where they tried to promote the town with a festival built around the fact that right around the time of the Summer Solstice, the sun sets directly in the middle of the abandoned Union Pacific railroad tracks that run through town. I was totally charmed by the idea, as I am by every goofy idea (as is Bill Geist, God bless him), and luckily, there was a beautiful sunset that in fact lit up the railroad tracks for the CBS cameras.

The people in Hanlontown admitted they came up with this idea because there wasn’t much else to do. But if you’re watching the sunset, you’re doing something, even if it looks like doing nothing.

Our asphalt driveway on North Mountain Road is not quite straight like a railroad track. It is, however, directly in front of the southern boundary of Orphan Farm. Going south down the road from there towards downtown Copake Falls it’s all private property, with lots of big trees that block a full view of the sunset from the road. But from early spring to early fall we have a front row seat to the sun setting behind the hills to the west, above thousands and thousands of happy little baby trees. And for week or two after the sun lights up the rails in Hanlontown, Iowa, it lights up our driveway in Copake Falls.

Being apparently desperate for attention, I’ve shared a lot of pictures of those sunsets on Facebook. I’ve even apologized for it and flat out admitted that I was just showing off. People keep telling me they like the sunset pictures and they don’t mind seeing them at all. But as I turn The Show into more and more a ritual, because I have obsessive-compulsive disorder and it’s what I do, I’m trying to turn it into more of a meditative thing, like a Japanese Tea Ceremony. And if you want to meditate successfully, it’s always a good idea to unplug yourself from that stupid phone and walk away from it.

From the website kcbinternational.com:

In ancient times, Buddhist monks designed the tea ceremony to directly work to affect all five senses, to wake up the person both physically and spiritually. The double nature of the ritual works in such a way that it brings a deep inner peace and tranquility by bringing the mind and body together.

Of course, sometimes I’ll bring the camp chair down to the driveway and the sunset will be so gorgeous I will not be able to fight off the impulse to run back up to the house and get the stupid phone and take a bunch of pictures. I’ve done videos, time-lapse, panorama, crazy photo edits, and portrait mode. I’m weak of will.

In my mind, Buddhist monks shake their heads and softly say to me, “you’re freaking hopeless, dude.”

But I’m trying.

And though I know you’re not supposed to think about anything but the Here and the Now when you’re trying to achieve enlightenment, down on the driveway watching the sunset, I’ve gained a little self-knowledge (and not-self-knowledge) from thinking about the little prince.

The 2019-2020 school year was already going to be my last as a middle school English teacher. Knowing that I was eligible for a full pension at the end of 25 years, I pretty much decided in September of 2019, while staring forlornly at the long line of red break lights stretching in front of me and Lou the Subaru on the Belt Parkway at 6:08 am, that I was done.

Oh, and by the way: When people tell you about teachers spending all those hours of their own time doing prep work, communicating with parents and grading papers, when they tell you how much of their own money teachers spend on supplies, when they tell you how many obstacles are thrown in the way of doing the job effectively, they’re telling you the truth.

And all that stuff about it being a rewarding career? That’s all true, too. I met more great people and saw more of the good in humanity close-up in 25 years than many people ever will. You’ll have to trust me on that one. That was my reward for a workday that was like being hit in the head repeatedly with a two-by-four. But I got to live deeply as heck for 25 years. It was exhausting, but I don’t regret it, and I’m glad I took over the family business from my Mom. I might start tutoring at some point, but as for juggling 90 eighth graders for 185 days a year, twenty-five trips around the sun was plenty.

My last day in a school with kids in it was supposed to be June 26th, 2020. Instead it was March 13th. For many of those 106 days, it was my job to keep the kids going with “virtual lessons” on Google Classroom. However, acknowledging that many teachers had to keep their own kids going through remote learning, the periods were shortened from 42 to 25 minutes. There’s really not a whole lot you can accomplish as a teacher in 25 minutes. That’s where pdf’s come in.

We finished the novel we had been reading in class before Trump broke the country, The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt, which I loved teaching because through of a funny and charming coming-of-age story set on Long Island, the kids got to learn what a mess everything was in 1968, and why it’s still a mess. That took about three weeks. Then what? Well, for my next trick, I was planning on breaking out Steinbeck’s The Pearl to teach the young ones to avoid greediness and how to spot unrepentant assholes, and lo and behold, there it was in public domain on pdf’s all over the place. Mission accomplished. However, my ingenious plan, breaking the book down into 15-minute bites with questions meant to promote critical thinking, ‘cause that’s how I rolled, gave me three more weeks to fill up after Memorial Day.

What to do, what to do. It was totally on me. And even if it weren’t, who was going to stop me from doing whatever I wanted? It had to be something relatively short and simple, that was old enough to be ripe for stealing from a pdf. file. Ideally, something good. The kids had suffered for the incompetence of their leaders. Some of them never saw the light of day for the three and a half months that I was in contact with them online.

One of them lost his father just like I did, except his father was younger than me, probably a lot younger, and he also lost 45 years with his father that I got with mine, so it wasn’t like I did at all. I was communicating electronically every workday with 13-year-olds in the epicenter of a Pandemic. Just writing that sentence feels surreal. There was misery and anger and confusion and sadness all over the place, and I know Duffy’s Google Classroom was a bright spot for many of them. There was something there to think about, and somebody thanked them for thinking. I had to go out with a bang, even if I was sitting on my couch with a laptop computer. I needed a book that could help them think about sadness and loss, about love and friendship, about hypocrisy and human folly, about seeing with your heart.

There’s only one book in the world like that. And I’m happy to report that it was a smash hit on Google Classroom.

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Here’s The Little Prince by Antoine de St. Exupery in short with  too much left out:

A pilot has crashed his plane and is stranded in the desert. He meets a tiny little prince from the Asteroid B-612, who has come to Earth after a long journey through the universe, a journey he took because the love he felt for a single flower was too much for him to bear. The little prince recounts his journey through different planets to the pilot, telling of his conversations with, among others, a king, a man who has nothing but believes he is rich, a drunken fool, a lamplighter, a cartographer, and a train switchman. They each allow him insight into some paradox of human behavior. On Earth, he meets a fox, who teaches him true wisdom, which he then imparts to the pilot. When the little prince leaves the pilot (I’m not telling you how) he promises that pilot will be able to see him in the night sky.

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And if you’ve read The Little Prince, you’ve already figured out what this all has to do with sunsets. This is from chapter 6:

Oh, little prince! Bit by bit I came to understand the secrets of your sad little life… For a long time you had found your only entertainment in the quiet pleasure of looking at the sunset. I learned that new detail on the morning of the fourth day, when you said to me:

“I am very fond of sunsets. Come, let us go look at a sunset now.” “But we must wait,” I said.
“Wait? For what?”
“For the sunset. We must wait until it is time.”

At first you seemed to be very much surprised. And then you laughed to yourself. You said to me:

“I am always thinking that I am at home!”

Just so. Everybody knows that when it is noon in the United States the sun is setting over France.

If you could fly to France in one minute, you could go straight into the sunset, right from noon. Unfortunately, France is too far away for that. But on your tiny planet, my little prince, all you need do is move your chair a few steps. You can see the day end and the twilight falling whenever you like…

“One day,” you said to me, “I saw the sunset forty−four times!”
And a little later you added:
“You know−− one loves the sunset, when one is so sad…”
“Were you so sad, then?” I asked, “on the day of the forty−four sunsets?” But the little prince made no reply.

In Chapter 10, on the first stop of his journey, the little prince meets a king who lives alone on a planet with no subjects. The king tells the prince that he has absolute authority over everything. The little prince is intrigued by this notion, and so asks the king if he can command a sunset, since he is feeling homesick and hasn’t seen one since he left Asteroid B-612.

Such power was a thing for the little prince to marvel at. If he had been master of such complete authority, he would have been able to watch the sunset, not forty−four times in one day, but seventy−two, or even a hundred, or even two hundred times, without ever having to move his chair. And because he felt a bit sad as he remembered his little planet which he had forsaken, he plucked up his courage to ask the king a favor:

“I should like to see a sunset… do me that kindness… Order the sun to set…”

“If I ordered a general to fly from one flower to another like a butterfly, or to write a tragic drama, or to change himself into a sea bird, and if the general did not carry out the order that he had received, which one of us would be in the wrong?” the king demanded. “The general, or myself?”

“You,” said the little prince firmly.

“Exactly. One much require from each one the duty which each one can perform,” the king went on. “Accepted authority rests first of all on reason. If you ordered your people to go and throw themselves into the sea, they would rise up in revolution. I have the right to require obedience because my orders are reasonable.”

“Then my sunset?” the little prince reminded him: for he never forgot a question once he had asked it.

“You shall have your sunset. I shall command it. But, according to my science of government, I shall wait until conditions are favorable.”

“When will that be?” inquired the little prince.

“Hum! Hum!” replied the king; and before saying anything else he consulted a bulky almanac. “Hum! Hum! That will be about−− about−− that will be this evening about twenty minutes to eight. And you will see how well I am obeyed.”

Just as the king commands, twenty minutes to eight is about what time The Show starts in Copake Falls, during the weeks when the Trisha’s Mountain Driveway Sunset Festival is in full swing. It’s completely reasonable. We carry the camp chairs down to the end of the driveway and we sit there, like we’re at the Village Green Bandshell in Valley Stream and The Nassau Pops are coming out to perform. Sometimes we shoot the breeze while we watch the show, and sometimes we start getting silly and laughing ‘cause we do that. Sometimes we point phones at it. But other times we sit there and stare, and we think our own thoughts.

And as all sunset fans know, it’s different every time. Sometimes fluffy cumulous clouds glow like they’re being heated on a stove when the sun sets beneath them. Sometimes there’s a little break in a blanket of cloud cover so that the sun suddenly appears right before it sets behind the mountains and throws a ribbon of orange and red straight across the ridge. Sometimes cirrus clouds splash streaks of peach and mustard and cherry red against the darkening blue like brushstrokes from an abstract painter, and sometimes giant stratocumulus dragons and bunnies change colors as they float by. You never know what you’ll see, so it’s always worth watching.

So shortly after the day of my final sign-off on Google Classroom, I was up on The Mountain, sitting in a camp chair next to Trisha in an illuminated asphalt driveway as the clouds and the sun and the tree farm and the hills performed another new, never-seen-before version of The Show and I was thinking about the little prince.

“You know, one loves the sunset – when one is so sad…”

There’s something intrinsically sad about a sunset. It’s the end of another day of one’s life. It’s the last gasp of light before total darkness sets in. So even if one is sitting happy as a clam watching a spectacular sunset, one is bound to feel a little bit of melancholy. I suspect it has something to do with the fact that we’ll all be dead someday.

But besides feeling sad for the state of the world right now, and sad about all the grief in the collective consciousness, and all the unnecessary suffering that has been inflicted by greed and stupidity, and of course sad about the death of my father in the middle of all this, I realized I was also feeling a little sad watching the sunset that evening because there are flowers back on the creek that have tamed us, and Trisha and I are responsible for them.

Our backyard in Valley Stream faces west, and the sunsets there are no slouches. If they were the sunsets we watched for the rest of our lives, we’d die lucky. But nothing compares to the big sky over Copake Falls. It almost feels like we’re cheating on our house. But we’ve allowed ourselves to be tamed by this 1.9-acre plot of land on a hill overlooking a tree farm, and since the day we first stepped foot on it, nothing has been the same. And sometimes it feels like the future is coming at me too quickly.

The little prince loved a rose that grew on Asteroid B-612. Being the only rose there, he thought she was unique in all the world. But his rose was very vain and very demanding, and she was breaking his heart, which is why he decided to tidy up his volcanoes, pull up the weeds to stop the baobab trees from taking over and go out into the universe to find wisdom. Later, while exploring Earth, he comes across a garden of roses, and realizes that his rose is not unique, which makes him cry.

He next meets the fox, who wants the little prince to tame him, but the Little Prince doesn’t understand the concept, so the fox explains:

“It is an act too often neglected,” said the fox,” It means to establish ties.”

“‘To establish ties’?”

“Just that,” said the fox. “To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you, on your part, have no need of me. To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world…”

The fox goes on to explain the process of taming:

It will be as if the sun came to shine on my life. I shall know the sound of a step that will be different from all the others. Other steps send me hurrying back underneath the ground. Yours will call me, like music, out of my burrow. And then look: you see the grain−fields down yonder? I do not eat bread. Wheat is of no use to me. The wheat fields have nothing to say to me. And that is sad. But you have hair that is the colour of gold. Think how wonderful that will be when you have tamed me! The grain, which is also golden, will bring me back to the thought of you. And I shall love to listen to the wind in the wheat…”

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So at the fox’s insistence, the little prince tames him. Part of the process is to establish rites. The little prince has to show up at the same hour as he did the day before so the fox can look forward to that hour. Soon, the fox has been tamed. But the little prince, who never wanted to tame the fox in the first place, feels like he has to move on.

“But now you are going to cry!” said the little prince.

“Yes, that is so,” said the fox.

“Then it has done you no good at all!”

“It has done me good,” said the fox, “because of the color of the wheat fields.”

“Go and look again at the roses. You will understand now that yours is unique in all the world. Then come back to say goodbye to me, and I will make you a present of a secret.”

The little prince comes to realize that the rose he left behind on Asteroid B-612 is unique from the other roses because it has tamed him. And he tells the other roses just that:

“But in herself alone she is more important than all the hundreds of you other roses: because it is she that I have watered; because it is she that I have put under the glass globe; because it is she that I have sheltered behind the screen; because it is for her that I have killed the caterpillars (except the two or three that we saved to become butterflies); because it is she that I have listened to, when she grumbled, or boasted, or even sometimes when she said nothing. Because she is my rose.

And he went back to meet the fox.

“Goodbye,” he said.

“Goodbye,” said the fox. “And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

“What is essential is invisible to the eye,” the little prince repeated, so that he would be sure to remember.

“It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.”

“It is the time I have wasted for my rose−−” said the little prince, so that he would be sure to remember.

“Men have forgotten this truth,” said the fox. “But you must not forget it. You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed. You are responsible for your rose…”

“I am responsible for my rose,” the little prince repeated, so that he would be sure to remember.

The House on the Creek tamed me as a little boy, then it tamed me all over again when our son was a little boy. I know every single flower and weed that grows on that 60 x 100 plot of land. I have spent thousands and thousands of hours taking care of it.

There’s a wisteria bush that grows in the corner of the yard next to a large and beautifully crooked maple tree that leans out towards the creek. Both of these plants were there before my parents were. If not for our regular intervention, the wisteria vines would have swallowed up the maple tree long ago. Someday we’re not going to be there and there will be nothing we can do about it, but on some level, we’ll still feel responsible for it.

Over almost twenty years on the Creek, Trisha and I have planted over a hundred perennials, roses shrubs and trees. We’ve grown thousands of flowers and fallen in love with every single one of them. We made a place surrounded by too much ugly into something uniquely beautiful. We tamed it and it tamed us. Though the siren call of Copake Falls was always calling, we made a little paradise in Valley Stream.

But the first time we drove up that asphalt driveway on North Mountain Road, we both knew we were going to be tamed all over again. The sweep of grass that slopes upwards to a trail through the woods in the backyard, the solitary mountain standing watch over the cornfield next door, the way the house itself nestles into the hill like a giant stick of butter on a plate, the big old trees that needed a little help from the vines trying to eat them, the leaves of the tall cottonwoods dancing in the breeze along the driveway, and those sunsets over the Peaceful Roe Jan Valley.

The little prince points out that on Earth “Men set out on their way in express trains, but they do not know what they are looking for. Then they rush about, and get excited, and turn round and round...” And not only that, they “raise five thousand roses in the same garden−− and they do not find in it what they are looking for.”

That’s us all right. All the years we spent building a little Eden in Valley Stream surrounded by crowds and noise and litter, we kept looking for our place in Copake Falls, and just like when the little prince and the pilot go in search of a well in the desert, we just kept going until it found us. And when we did, it was as if it had been waiting to be found, waiting to be tamed, and waiting to tame us.

The first time we walked up the hill in the backyard, I said to Trisha that this was a canvas that we could paint something brand new on, something that started with us. She was always more than cool about making a home and a family in a place where I had already been part of one, instead of us building from the ground up together. Now this was her turn. Trisha’s Mountain. But after twenty years and a thousand roses, she’s just as tamed by the creek as I am. To let go of it completely is, to quote one of her favorite expressions, something I can’t get my head around right now.

Monsieur St. Exupery said it best: “One runs the risk of weeping a little, if one lets himself be tamed…”

When it comes time to say goodbye to Valley Stream, to say goodbye to the place where I was a little boy and where we raised a little boy, time to say goodbye to that physical connection to my parents, it just ain’t gonna be easy.

But the fox reminds the little prince that, “it is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

So when I’m doing nothing on Trisha’s Mountain, sitting and staring or walking around, I may not be able to meditate like a Buddhist Monk, but I’m trying like hell to stay in the here and the now, to see with my heart, everything essential that happens to be right in front of me, and everything essential that I love that can’t be right in front of me. It’s all there if I see rightly.

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When it’s time for little prince to leave the pilot, on the one-year anniversary of his descent to Earth, he comforts the pilot by telling him to look up at the stars.

“And at night you will look up at the stars. Where I live everything is so small that I cannot show you where my star is to be found. It is better, like that. My star will just be one of the stars, for you. And so you will love to watch all the stars in the heavens… they will all be your friends. And, besides, I am going to make you a present…”

He laughed again.
“Ah, little prince, dear little prince! I love to hear that laughter!”
“That is my present. Just that. It will be as it was when we drank the water…”

“What are you trying to say?”

“All men have the stars,” he answered, “but they are not the same things for different people. For some, who are travelers, the stars are guides. For others they are no more than little lights in the sky. For others, who are scholars, they are problems. For my businessman they were wealth. But all these stars are silent. You−− you alone−− will have the stars as no one else has them−−”

“What are you trying to say?”

“In one of the stars I shall be living. In one of them I shall be laughing. And so it will be as if all the stars were laughing, when you look at the sky at night… you−− only you−− will have stars that can laugh!”

And he laughed again.

“And when your sorrow is comforted (time soothes all sorrows) you will be content that you have known me. You will always be my friend. You will want to laugh with me. And you will sometimes open your window, so, for that pleasure… and your friends will be properly astonished to see you laughing as you look up at the sky! Then you will say to them, ‘Yes, the stars always make me laugh!’ And they will think you are crazy. It will be a very shabby trick that I shall have played on you…”

And he laughed again.

“It will be as if, in place of the stars, I had given you a great number of little bells that knew how to laugh…”

There isn’t much room for the stars in our neighborhood on light-polluted Long Island. There’s no limit to the stars on our hill in Copake Falls. After The Show fades to dark red and then to black, you can move the camp chair to the wide-open hill in the backyard and take them all in. And of course, the longer you look, the more stars you see.

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The little prince is up there. You know that. But then there’s all the people whose time in my life has passed like another day’s sunset. Some of those little stars up there are all the thousands of kids and thousands of grown-ups I met in 25 years as Mr. Duffy the Schoolteacher. Some of them are people I met before those 25 years even started, people from my neighborhood, people from school, people I met while working at the supermarket, driving a cab, working at a magazine and a newspaper, going to college, going out to bars and clubs, going on an Outward Bound expedition when I was 16, going to Camp Lavigerie in the Adirondacks every summer and every other thing I ever did.

Some of those stars are friends and family who I haven’t seen in too long because of this Pandemic, and I hope every one of them of them can come here and sit down on this hill someday. But in the meantime, they’re out there. So I’ll think of them and hope they’re doing well and I’ll pick each one out a star for the time being.

But the brightest stars up there, some of whom are planets following the path of the sun?

Those are my parents, and Trisha’s parents, finally getting to visit, and to share in all this beauty that has tamed us. Those are the stars that guide our way into the future.

Because someday, when we cross the Whitestone Bridge with nothing left to go back to on the other side, the sun will go on rising and setting, and we’ll have a front row seat to a beautiful sunset every night there is one. Over time our sorrows about leaving Long Island will start to be soothed. And some of those stars on that hill at night will be all the flowers we grew on a little 60 X 100 plot of land along a creek in Valley Stream.

And we can say it’s what we did there. And we can say it was something.

 

Copyright 2020 by John Duffy

Fair use (hopefully) of excerpts and illustrations from The Little Prince, which was written in 1943 but renewed in 1971, copyrighted by the widow of Antoine de St. Exupery. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Introduction to Mountain High, Valley Low or My Life as a Wishbone: Tales of Valley Stream and Copake Falls, New York: “From The Gateway To Suburbia to The Land of Rural Charm”

Here’s where it starts: At the very end of 2019, the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, the week when nobody does much of anything, my wife Trisha and I did something complicated, extravagant and totally unnecessary. We bought a house.

Everyone with whom we shared this news was ecstatically happy for us. Nobody called us stupid. Not to our faces.

I suppose if somebody had a problem with us buying this particular house, the problem would be that we already own a house, and the majority of people on Earth don’t own a house, and many don’t have a home, and now we have two. From that perspective, of course it’s clear that we didn’t have any damn business buying another house.

But we bought it anyway. We had our reasons. We think some of them are almost valid, but I’ll leave that to you. If you’re a capitalist, maybe you’ll say we’re smart people and we know what we’re doing and it’s not a problem at all so go ahead and enjoy it. If you’re a Marxist, you’ll likely call us out for the selfish pigs that we are. Fortunately for us, there are way more capitalists than there are Marxists, at least in our circle.

Trisha and I bought my parents’ house eighteen years ago in Valley Stream, Long Island, New York. It’s a little 1,300 square-foot cape cod-style house on a 60 x 100 plot of land. It’s cute. You’d like it. We grow a lot of flowers. The backyard overlooks a pretty little winding creek, the official name of which is actually “Valley Stream”, but people who don’t know me usually either call it Hook Creek or Mill Brook.

People who do know me call it Duffy’s Creek. Some, anyway. Because I asked them to. My parents bought the house in 1955, and I grew up there, the “baby” in a family of five kids. I never went very far, never changed my mailing address. I got married, came back, entered into a real estate transaction, had a son of my own, and began growing old right on that creek. The tide comes in and out from Jamaica Bay, and by the grace of God, I go right on living. It’s a nice story so far, isn’t it?

But here’s the thing: Three weeks after Trisha and I met on the boardwalk by the ocean in Long Beach, Long Island in 1999, we spent a perfect early-November weekend staying in a cabin in Taconic State Park at Copake Falls, in Columbia County, New York, a place we had both discovered independently, she from going to the annual Falcon Ridge Folk Festival in nearby Hillsdale, me from years when I would periodically get in my car and drive long distances because I didn’t have anybody to go to the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival with. We lit a campfire on a crackling cold and clear Friday night full of stars, and on Saturday morning we hiked to Bash Bish Falls under Indian summer skies full of crazy blue jays hopping through orange and yellow trees yelling, “Stay! Stay! Live Here!” We fell in love with each other and we fell in love with the place. And for the ensuing twenty years, we returned there every summer and a couple of falls, probably logging about six months of elapsed time. Our son Jack has never known a year that didn’t include at least one week in Copake Falls.

“It’s like our second home,” we’d say.

But that wasn’t true. It just sounded nice.

So our home away from home stayed up there on the map and up there in our minds year after year as we continued to grind it out on Long Island. The sound of the blue jays and the turns in the country roads stood behind us, tapping on our shoulders to remind us what we were missing; the ancient mountains, the cleaner air, the bigger trees, the wide open roads, the farm stores and the church barbecues, the people who wave when they drive by, the absence of malls and chain stores (except for the Stewart Shop up in Hillsdale, which is perfect and cannot be criticized). I wasted hours and hours of my precious time here on Earth scrolling though Zillow listings.

Copake Falls was an alternative reality. And as Valley Stream continued to get louder and louder year after year, summer after summer Copake Falls stayed mellow.

Valley Stream is a lot of things. Many of them are good. But “mellow” is not one of those things. A quick check for “antonyms of mellow” on Merriam Webster reveals “discordant, dissonant, grating, harsh, inharmonious, jarring, strident, unmelodious and unmusical.” I guess it would be harsh, maybe even unmelodious, to describe my hometown in these terms. But still, it sure as hell is not mellow, except in our backyard, and then only when our surrounding neighbors aren’t shooting fireworks or holding dance competitions. And if you want to see jarring and strident, live near a mall on Long Island during those seasons when people get in their cars every half hour to go buy more stuff. If grating and harsh is more what you’re after, listen to a Long Islander who has been inconvenienced.

Robert Frost came up with the line, “I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.” It was such a good line that he requested it as the epitaph on his gravestone. As you might guess, Jean-Paul Sartre doesn’t have an epitaph on his gravestone (cool issues and all), but he sure could have gone with one of his best lines: “Hell is other people.”

People are what make a place more than anything. Or break it. There are rural parts of America and suburban parts of Long Island where I’m not too arrogant to say I wouldn’t be caught dead. People who are proud of where they live, wherever they might be, like to come up with slogans to promote their hometowns as places that other people might like to see, possibly even live in, because people spend money, and that’s what keeps places alive. Valley Stream once sold itself as “The Gateway to Suburbia”. Kind of a Dante’s Inferno thing really, but I suppose it was meant as a compliment at the time. The Town of Copake sells itself to this day as “The Land of Rural Charm.” That’s a good one, huh? I hope whoever thought of that at a meeting got the praise and recognition that they earned. But I could show you lots of uncharming rural places around town if I had to. And tell you about some less than charming rural people.

So In fairness to my fellow Long Islanders (and – whether they like it or not – my now-fellow Copakeans), let’s start with the premise that the vast majority of people everywhere, in every place with a name, are really all right. I truly do believe this. But sadly, as you know, while most people are wonderful, some people just suck. So it follows that if there are more people, more people will just suck. That being established, here are what I believe are the four basic groups of problem humans:

1. The Slightly to Extremely Dangerous: Those who have had hard lives or some sort of trauma and have decided than instead of nobility or faith, they will instead make it a point to project their hurt and anger on convenient targets they find around them. While this group of people have to be treated like walking landmines, as a child of God, one can’t judge them if one is not one of them and hopes not to be. I just try to stay out of their way and not to make things any worse for them.

2. The Insufferably Annoying: Those who have been sadly brainwashed by too much TV into thinking they are the star of their own little reality show, and thereby have developed a need to create drama and tension where none should exist in order to compensate for an otherwise tedious existence. Long Island is saturated with people like this, possibly because of its wealth. If your main problems are not the procurement of food, clothing and shelter, you really have no problems, so if you want some, you have to invent them. Ideally, it would help every one of them to be slapped silly, but violence is never an option.

3. The Head-Scratchingly Frustrating: Those who, for a variety of reasons, from deeply neurological to not getting hugged enough as babies, just can’t grasp the simple rules of getting along. They’re not particularly dangerous or overly dramatic. They just flat out boggle the mind. Ask anyone who’s ever worked in retail. But, as my father would have said, you can’t make their problem your problem. You can suffer fools gladly or ungladly. You’re still going to suffer fools.

Now, If you give people in these three categories the benefit of the doubt, and assume that in their essence they really just can’t help themselves, and they probably have many good qualities as well, that leaves us to grapple with the problems perpetuated and the damage done by Group #4, The Unrepentant Assholes: Those who live to purposefully and gleefully gain negative attention from the rest of us by being as unpleasant, uncooperative and self-centered as they can possibly be.

My personal sampling of the several hundred-thousand people I’ve interacted with in 57 years suggests that groups 1, 2 and 3 represent between 7% and 10% of the overall population. Maybe as much as 15% in higher-end neighborhoods. The Unrepentant Assholes in Group 4 are actually a very, very small percentage of the human population. I asked Trisha, and she said 2%. I was thinking three, but I’ll go with her answer.

There are 284.7 square miles of land in Nassau County, New York, and approximately 1,359,700 people call it home, making for a population density of 4,787 people per square mile, with all the people noise and chaos they generate. Bear in mind that there are large swatches of Nassau County where billionaires have reserved lots of land for themselves and their horses and their golf courses, leaving the rest of us to fight over what’s left. The population density of South Valley Stream is 7,583 people per square mile.

Traveling from Nassau County to Columbia County, you’ll pass Co-Op City in the Bronx, which has a population density of 47,000 per square mile. So really, I should just shut up. I’m very much aware of this. But we’re born where we’re born, for reasons that are seemingly random and certainly not fair, and we know what we know. I would like to build a little house with a garden for every family in Co-Op City on all the land currently being used for golf courses. I have no beef with horse farms.

Meanwhile, In Columbia County, there are 635 square miles of land, which is home to 59,461 people, which is 93 people per square mile. This includes Hudson, the county seat, which is two square miles and has 6,144 people, 1238 of whom sell antiques. Extrapolate that funky little metropolis, and now we’re down to 84 people per square mile, and 2% of 84 is 1.68.

This all means that in every square mile of land in Nassau County, you will find 94 Unrepentant Assholes (150 in South Valley Stream, most of them driving). Whereas in Columbia County you might find two. Plus you can factor in the variable that being known as having manners and not being a big fat pain in the ass is much more important in Columbia County, because you don’t want everyone else to agree that you’re that one person in their square mile, whereas in Nassau County, every asshole is competing for attention against 93 other assholes within one square mile, and it’s hard to keep track of them all.

There is no cure for any of this. Not in this life, man. More people create more stress. As the Pandemic of 2020 set in, I started seeing clickbait on my rectangle about how people would start moving from the city up into the Hudson Valley “in droves”. Since it’s an issue that affects my life, I was interested to know how many a drove is and how many droves you could multiply that by, but I try not to fall for clickbait. And the proliferation of people in Groups 1, 2 and 3 will only get worse as cell phones get better. And more Group 4’s means more chances of something unpleasant happening to you or around you every time you leave the house.

So the choice for us seems to have become one of either standing in the Gateway to Suburbia as the Barbarians continue to storm through, or goin’ to the country and buildin’ us a home in The Land of Rural Charm, hoping that agricultural zoning regulations will keep the droves at bay for a while.

And that’s why at the end of the twenty-first year of complaining about the miseries that follow the overpopulation of Long Island, and of idealizing the alternative existence of Columbia County, Trisha and I bought a second home two and a half hours away from our first one, a mellow-yellow ranch house on 1.9 acres of land bordering the very state park where we had once walked around all gooey in love under the autumn sun with the blue jays and everything so many years before. Since I had named the creek in back of our house in Valley Stream after myself, because who could stop me, and since the funds that made this real estate transaction possible were bequeathed through my wife’s family, I insisted that we call our new second home, perched on a ridge 840 feet above sea level, “Trisha’s Mountain”.

We had a dream. We had the money. We jumped off the cliff. And then the whole country broke. And then I quit my job.

Not really, but sort of. I actually retired from 25 years as a middle school English teacher. It’s an important job, and somebody has to do it, but it is no longer me. However, the pension I earned is a lot less than if I had stuck around and made more money for a couple of more years, thereby assuring that eventually, if I wanted to live in the style to which I’ve become accustomed, house in the country and all that, I’d have to suck it up and find a part-time job. So, I gave myself four months to decompress, while the Covid-19 Pandemic and the complete collapse of American Society that will likely precede or follow the Presidential Election of 2020 play themselves out.

In the meantime, in between traveling up and down State Route 22, I thought I’d write a book. But I didn’t know what to write about. I had some ideas, but I don’t like it when people are angry at me, so I had to keep thinking of other ones.

The whole “we left the crowd in the city and moved to the country but we didn’t know the cows next door would smell so bad and why are there bees and snakes” thing has been done to death. That’s not what I’m after here. There isn’t a whole lot of Upstate / Downstate culture shock for me to write about because I pretended that I had a house in the country for twenty years before I actually had one. And nobody up there has to explain to us how not to be “citiots.” We get along just fine with everyone. Not much material there. Of course, In order to be considered a local in Copake, your family has to have lived there for two-hundred years, so we know we’ll always be outsiders. We try to counter that by being polite.

So ultimately I decided to write a book of stories and word pictures, twenty of which are set in Columbia County, the other twenty in Nassau County.

My only claim to originality is that I write from the perspective of one whose heart truly lives in two places at the same time, and who knows his time in the one place, the place that created him, is likely winding down.

A Little Side Note: Right now, if you’re reading this book in its competed form, and not in installments on duffyscreek.com, you’ve established that 20 plus 20 equals 40 and not 41. Very astute. Chapter 1, the longest one in the book, is mostly about New York Route 22, the road in between (and how I found it). As we’re making this several years long transition, the road from here to there and back has become sort of my third home.

Valley Stream and Copake Falls, while they are almost united by a common language, and while you can drive from one to the other in two and a half hours, and while by virtue of boundaries drawn up 400 years ago are both in New York State, could not be less alike. But this book is not about comparing and contrasting them. It’s about things that define these places for me. They are both home now. When I’m in one place, I feel the other one trying to pull me back. Neither of them seems to understand that I can’t be in two places at once.

I have become a human wishbone.

I grew up in Valley Stream (and by extension, Long Island) in days when it wasn’t quite as strident and jarring. As another one of my heroes, Mose Allison, said of Tippo, Mississippi, “I am of that place, and the stamp is upon me.” But the little hamlet of Copake Falls has been yanking at the sleeve of my soul for most of my adult life, and now our plan is to go there for good someday.

But not today.

I guess you could say we have a plan. But we don’t, really. Our right-now-16-year-old son has two more years of high school and likes it upstate just as much as we do. So he would be more or less on board if we actually had a plan. Trisha is very successful at her mommy-takes-the-train-to-the-city job, so she’s not in a hurry to leave (as we’d be broke, and she’s in charge of the money) but I know Long Island’s obnoxiousness gets to her even more than it gets to me. And as I write this in the summer of 2020, you can’t even go sit on the beach unless you want to risk getting horribly sick (or getting somebody else horribly sick), and Long Island is pretty much pointless without the beach and the ocean. It seems predetermined which way the wishbone will eventually snap, and I guess if there is a plan, that’s the plan.

Abraham Lincoln said that the best thing about the future is that it happens one day at a time. I’ve outlived him by a year, so I’m happy to be here at all.

And as people suffer all over the world, my main purpose in life in August of 2020 is waiting for people to call me to schedule delivery of some comfy furniture.

I never thought it would come to this.

Of course, If we decided to put our house in Valley Stream on the market tomorrow morning, it would take the better part of two years to shovel out of it anyway. So for the foreseeable future, part of me is watching the tide come and go on the creek and part of me is watching the light dance across the mountains. I am a stupidly lucky son of a gun and I have not a thing in this world to complain about, but if you’re nice enough to read on anyway, I’ll try not to be boring.

When a friend at work would complain to me, he’d often say, indignantly, “this is not what I signed up for!” Well, this is exactly what I signed up for that mellow December day last year in the lawyer’s office in Millerton.

I am a human wishbone. I am Gumby, damn it. With one arm and one leg stretched north, the other arm and leg stretched south.

Which would put my center somewhere around the Red Rooster.

Copyright 2020 by John Duffy

All Rights Reserved

Taking a Walk: An Abridged 10,000-Year History of South Valley Stream

 

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There have been Duffy’s on Duffy’s Creek since March 9, 1955. There have been people on Duffy’s Creek since about 4600 B.C. So the existence of people has a long and colorful history here, though the existence of too damn many people is a relatively recent phenomenon, out of which I was born in 1963, the youngest of five children, an unwitting part of the problem.

On summer nights, Trisha and I sit out in the backyard, and we talk some, while alternately staring at our little light-up magic rectangles and staring through the flowers towards the sunset over the creek. I like to imagine a Rockaway Indian couple sitting right in this spot in summer twilight a thousand years ago, without the stupid iphones and kindles, maybe listening to the “crawwwk!” of night herons, or watching swallows and bats circling the orange sky, or just watching the flow of the creek, the same tide and the same current, and maybe some of the same water molecules as we look at today, but maybe without so much spam in them.

But I don’t have to imagine being a little kid a hundred years ago, before the sprawl, walking into a deep, majestic forest at the end of Westwood Road in Woodmere, walking less than three miles to emerge from that forest into a farm field that overlooked this creek. I don’t have to imagine it at all because about ten years ago I discovered a book titled The Lord’s Woods: The Passing of an American Woodland written in 1971 by a noted birder and naturalist named Robert Arbib. And Mr. Arbib told me all about it; what this place was like for thousands of years before cape cods and split levels ate it alive. And we’ve become friends, though he died twenty years ago, because I love learning about the history of places, and I’ve spent a whole lot of time hanging around this one. And so did he. I like him and I think he would’ve liked me. md10207462402

A little disclaimer before I go on: I know a lot of people who are passionate about digging up the history of Valley Stream and the surrounding area, and some of them will read this post and want to point out possible discrepancies. (Gleefully). Please just relax. This is but a jumble of the stuff I know from reading Mr. Arbib’s book and a whole lot of other stuff, including stuff from the Hewlett-Woodmere Library website and the Valley Stream Historical Society Facebook page , called “Valley Stream of Yesteryear.” (You’re all wonderful people, and thank you for uncredited pictures, but you didn’t credit them either). I also know some history from my mother, who wrote the Valley Stream Historical Society newsletter for ten years or so, and my father-in-law, Jack McCloskey, who visited this neighborhood in the 1930’s for watercress and garden lime. But this is definitely not meant to be the definitive history of anything. (And by the way, it would be much easier to refer to Robert Arbib as “Bob” from here on in. “Mr. Arbib” sounds like I’m trying to be the New York Times, and I happen to know that his friends called him Bob. Anyway). What I am trying to do here is to put words and context to the pictures that I can I see in my mind sometimes when Mookie and I go walking.

Everybody knows us, Mookie and me. We’re local characters, and we’re proud of that. One sunny day in the middle of last winter, a woman called out to me from a car on Wood Lane as Mookie was reading his pee mail. She said, “you two really get around, don’t you! I see you everywhere!” I said, “Yes, yes we do.” And Mookie looked up and wagged his tail.

I knew at that moment that I had achieved my ultimate purpose in life: Being a local character. I’m the slightly crazy looking thin man with the very large happy yellow lab who you see walking around South Valley Stream all the time. But Mookie, of course, is superior to me in so many ways, particularly in his full-minded commitment to The Here And The Now. He’s living in the present when we’re out walking because he’s a dog, and that’s what dogs do, which is why they’re so much better than us. I try to stay in The Here And The Now, but I’m just not Mookie and I never will be. Often I’m living in the future as we’re walking, figuring out what things I can turn into things I’ve already done in the hours and the days ahead. But sometimes I’m living in the past, imagining what this place was like before the cars and the trucks and the poles and the lights and the wires and the fences and the signs and the asphalt and the whole rest of it. And it makes me wistful for a place I never knew, even though I’m walking through the middle of where it was; a place that, had it not been altered forever in the decades before I was born, actually would have made me as I know me impossible.

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Robert Arbib

Bob’s story starts in 1920, as a nine year old boy exploring the woods that actually stretched from Lawrence to South Valley Stream, which he learned were called The Lord’s Woods after the very rich, successful lawyer who had owned the land at one time. (There’s a Lord Avenue way down in Lawrence in the area behind Rock Hall, where nobody ever goes unless you’ve got business there or you’re lost. It’s quite a beautiful area). The woods that Bob and his friend begin to explore stretched from about three miles southwest of here just about to my backyard. The entire Lord Estate stretched back through Cedarhurst and Lawrence all the way to Far Rockaway. My son is twelve and we can’t yet in good conscience let him cross the four lane road (Mill Road) that separates us from the rest of the world. Once upon a time, Mill Road was where the woods thinned out and the farms started. Bob and his friend walked through the woods, teeming with hundreds of different bird species and happy little animals. They discovered cool stuff like an Indian marker tree that was bent on purpose to indicate a trail, and a rope swing along a brook in the middle of nowhere. They crossed streams and marshland and followed along a dirt road until the realized they were following a gigantic water pipe, half-buried in the ground. The pipe led them to the “waterworks”, the Long Island Water Property, where the last little postage stamp of woods remain to this day.

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A picture I took of the current “waterworks” building at the end of Starfire Court, before that camera picked me up and people started chasing me. Not really.

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The waterworks that Bob found in the middle of The Lords’ Woods in the 1920’s.

They realized that the Water Company actually owned all the land that they were walking on. and that the land was kept undeveloped because they needed to pump water from under it. (One of the main reasons they ultimately sold it off to development and bulldozed it was that the technology was developed to dig deeper wells, thereby needing less land to protect the aquifers). But people had been trespassing on and enjoying these woods forever, and Bob and his friend soon found like-minded young nerdy fellows who liked identifying birds.

I like identifying birds. When Trisha and I first took over at Duffy’s Creek, we started keeping track of how many different bird species we could attract, including the waterfowl, who just hung around with us because we have a creek. Over the course of three or four years of keeping neat little notebooks (before we became parents and chaos ensued), I counted somewhere around 105 different species. Many of them just showed up once or twice, inexplicably, like a Brown Thrasher or a Tri-Colored Heron. But in The Lord’s Woods, apparently all these birds were as common as pigeons. And this is how Bob became a famous orthinologist, and how I helped get Andrew Cuomo to promise South Valley Stream $3 million dollars to help rehabilitate the Left Bank of Duffy’s Creek, money which he may or may not be still holding on to, because they haven’t spent it yet. I suppose because he’s not up for re-election. But that’s a story for another post.

In the first half of The Lord’s Woods, Bob tells the story of his youth through his seasons exploring own local primitive wilderness. As a guy who likes birds and plants and stuff, I just ate it up. There’s also a particularly gut-wrenching storyline about showing his first girlfriend all the secrets of The Lord’s Woods, then losing her to a car accident several years later when she was away at college, which was absolutely heart-breaking to read. Nonetheless, It’s all beautifully written, and topped off by a really cool map (pictured below) that helped me follow exactly where he was (and what is there now) as he describes his discoveries. I live along what is called Mott’s Creek or Foster’s Brook on the map. When I was growing up, my father told me it was called Watt’s Creek. On USGS maps (United States Geological Survey) it’s called “Valley Stream”. About fifteen years ago, when I had some time on my hands, I wrote to the USGS and tried to get it changed to Duffy’s Creek. The nice man from the USGS patiently explained to me that: 1) The don’t use apostrophes, which was a total buzzkill, and 2) I would have to die.  I know that Foster, Mott and Watt were also local characters who just started calling the creek by their own names, so until I die and someone does the paperwork, that’s my plan.

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In the middle of the book, as Bob is still grieving for his lost love, first the Hurricane of 1938 and then a giant fire decimate the woods. (I’ve seen more than once what a big hurricane can do to big trees). And the omens begin to rise around this same time: Giant electrical transmission towers go up, and surveyor marks plot out Peninsula Boulevard (which you can see on Bob’s map cuts right through the heart of what he called The Big Woods).

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Looking north on Peninsula Boulevard.

A wilderness would eventually recover over time from a natural disaster, but it didn’t stand a chance against the the post-WWII boom, and it is this point in the story where the book rises from beautiful to powerful and unforgettable. In the chapter entitled “Boom”, Bob begins:

“It was not fire that destroyed the Lord’s Woods. Fire and storm, blizzard and drought, even hurricane and flood were all natural events in the woods’ long history, often experienced and somehow survived, their wounds slowly self-healing and finally obliterated in forgiving beauty. Before the final act could be staged and the curtain rung down on the last of the drama that had been unfolding here for thousands of years, there had to appear on stage the villian of the piece – modern man – and there had to be a motive. It was not fire or storm that came to destroy our woods. It was greed and duplicity, avarice and ignorance and apathy.”

The “Boom” chapter, and the following chapter, called “The Threat” take you through a truly American story: How people saw what was happening to the woods and tried to stop it, and other people laughed and said “Fuck you. We’re doing it anyway.” As more and more of the woods were being bulldozed for development, people began to realize that “what remained was the only remnant of wet woodland left” in Southwest Nassau County, “the only place where one cold lose himself from the frenetic world and be an Indian brave or a Thoreau, a Daniel Boone or a John James Audubon, or just oneself, a child learning about the world around him.” 

Here’s the short version: In 1955, the year my parents bought a house on a creek in a five-year old development of cape cods, the Lord’s Woods had been reduced to a box bordered approximately by, from what I can tell, Gibson Boulevard, Peninsula Boulevard, Woodmere Middle School, Hungry Harbor Road, Rosedale Road and Duffy’s Creek. The entire neighborhood of North Woodmere came after West Sunbury, so the ancient woods probably met the Hoeffner Farm all the way down Rosedale Road and went along Doxy Brook and blended into marshland as it got closer to Jamaica Bay. And in the other direction, I know for sure that there was a scout camp on the land where Peninsula Shopping Center sits now. You would need a lot of trees for a proper scout camp, so that was likely part of the woods as well. The neighborhood of North Woodmere on the opposite side of Rosedale Road from ours has bigger trees, because it was a woods and this was a farm. (I figured this one out all on my own).

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At the corner of Mill Road and Peninsula Boulevard, where a scout camp in the woods was up until the 1950’s.

The community got wind of a deal between the water company and a developer to buy up and bulldoze what was left of the Lord’s Woods. Bob tells of a woman named Helen Bergh and a man named Ben Berliner who were the leading forces in trying to save the woods, working with the Audubon Society to develop ways that the area could be used as a sanctuary and interpretive nature center.  As the last acres of what was by that time called the Woodmere Woods were being eaten up, Helen Bergh (what a great name) led the Woodmere Woods Conservation Committee. They tried everything. New York didn’t want it for a state park. Nassau County didn’t want it. Officials from the Town of Hempstead suggested they would consider a park if Bergh, Berliner and their committee could show a public consensus for saving the last virgin woodlands in Southwestern Nassau County. But as Bob points out, “to prove that all people, everywhere wanted an esoteric amenity like a public wildlife preserve in 1956 was no easy task.” Some people wanted a park with lots of ballfields and tennis courts and swimming pools, which they eventually did get in North Woodmere Park. Other people, newer arrivals to the area, “would let the developers proceed; homes and gardens were more desirable neighbors than thickets of poison ivy and rat-infested woodlands where rapists can hide.” There wasn’t much you could do to convince people who had such disregard for the concept of open space that it would be in their interest to have a large undeveloped area around them. They’d no doubt never go in it anyway. Mosquitoes. Rapists. Very unsafe. Best to stay in the air conditioning.

By 1957, Helen Bergh had joined forces with a neighbor and friend who had also grown up enjoying the woods. His name was Edward S. Bentley. Together, they wrote a bill to present to the New York State legislature giving the Town of Hempstead authority to create a park district out of the Woodmere Woods. Before they could find sponsorship for the bill, the Water Company sold the land. Bob describes a race between the bulldozers, chain saws and graders, moving “like an invading army into the Lords’ Woods. One by one, the century-old oaks, maples, tulips, hickories, ashes and sweet gums crashed to the frozen ground.” 

Sudddenly, as the woods came crashing down, people started paying attention to the destruction of the woods. Newsday was an up and coming newspaper at that time, according to Bob, and they took up the cause, but “while the editorial pages endorsed the principles of conservation and preservation, the business section, real estate section and its general news rang with announcement after proud announcement of the latest shopping center, housing development, industrial park, power station, highway expansion, population growth, property values and prosperity…No one was talking about the intangible cost of smog and summer heat, and the deprivation of natural beauty and an oasis of solitude and silence. Quality of life was of little concern to most people in 1957.” I’m sure if my parents knew about this story, and I’m sure they did, they were too busy to even think about joining a fight to save some woods.

Needless to say, the park proposal was shot down. Bob points out several bad guys in the tale, including lawyers and elected officials who were working both sides of the fence, pretending to help Mrs. Bergh’s cause for the public support it would bring them and working with the developers to destroy the woods at the same time. By the end of 1958, five years before I was born, the Lord’s Woods were completely gone. There is a little postage stamp of woodland around the waterworks, and some land that creeps up behind backyards up Doxy Brook to the reservoir on Hungry Harbor Road. When I was a kid, we’d sneak into those woods sometimes. My older brother and his friends used to catch turtles, bring them back to the house, paint their initials on the shells and set them free again. Today, most of it has barbed wire around it. And apparently, If I see something, I should say something. I assume it would be about what I saw, but I can only see though the fence, and there’s not much to see.

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What’s left of Doxy Brook at Rosedale Road

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Through the fence into the woods

 

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A picture of a path through the woods that Mookie and I are not allowed on, and neither are you, taken through the fence on Brookfield / Rosedale Road. If I see you there, I have to say something.

When I was younger than my son is now, I would go off in the summertime on my bike searching for rabbits in the parkland built behind the backyards in the Green Acres neighborhood, which is across Duffy’s Creek from our own neighborhood, which was called West Sunbury when Mr. William Gibson’s company built it in 1950. When I was a little older, I would take the aluminum rowboat from our backyard and row it down to Rosedale Road, pretending I was an Indian paddling along the creek. You could “park” the boat and climb the bulkhead into Brook Road Park in Green Acres. About twenty years ago, maybe more, they changed the name of the neighborhood to Mill Brook, because the residents did not want to be associated with the gargantuan shopping mall that sits right next to it (The same developer, Channan Corporation, built the houses and the shopping mall on land that once once divided between the Hoeffner Farm and Curtis Field, a famous airfield in the 1920’s that was visited by Ameliah Earheart and Charles Lindbergh. There’s a plaque in the middle of the Home Depot parking lot you could go look at if you don’t believe me). 10414459_10152187517227983_633736653996581073_nThe shopping mall is still called Green Acres, and it’s about thirty times the size it was when I was a kid. I may be exaggerating there a little bit. All I can tell you is that there aren’t any kids looking for rabbits or pretending to be Indians around here anymore. Lately they’ve been looking for Pokemon.

hub00031Mr Gibson built our house. Thirty years before, he bought up a wooded area north of the farms and south of Sunrise Highway (which apparently was a hunting ground up until that time, though I don’t know who was hunting what) and built a planned neighborhood south of Sunrise Highway and north of the Lord’s Woods. Some of the houses were brick capes, but most of the houses were called “Gibson Colonials”. I’ve been in lots of Gibson Colonials12510280_10153935905123060_3823137400778803684_n, and they’re great houses. Before the 1920’s were over, 12345517_10200991102777741_2972661268509285498_nGibson started building bigger, pointy colonials on Munroe Boulevard and the surrounding streets. They’re great houses, too. In the middle of it all, he built his own Long Island Railroad Station in 1929.

300px-Gibson_LIRR_StationAfter World War II, Gibson bought up some more farmland and built hundreds of cookie-cutter capes and rickety ranches. Not as big as the colonials, but darn comfy, and with slightly less claustrophobic backyards. My parents bought a cape  from an original owner who left after five years (for a bigger house). Gibson cranked out South Valley Stream in the course of thirty years. Our house was built in 1950 on what was the a small patch of woods at the edge of potato fields belonging to Reising Farm, which was divided between the Gibson development called “West Sunbury”, Harbor Road Elementary School (later renamed Robert W. Carbonaro School) and Valley Stream South High School.

Three houses still exist on Hungry Harbor Road right around the corner from here that predate Mr. Gibson’s West Sunbury neighborhood and the North Woodmere neighborhood that begins just south of it. (The name Hungry Harbor goes back to the 17th Century, and referred to squatters who lived on the land). One of the houses (the red one below) is condemned, but there may or may not be a guy still living in it. And don’t think I don’t now his name, because I do, because you learn things when you hang around a place for 53 years. I’m just not telling you about him because I feel sorry for him. You can see “the farmhouse” from our front yard. Close enough that you could holler across the potato field from the back step and tell Pa supper was ready if he were standing in our backyard. It must have been beautiful. There was actually a buffer of woods between the field and the creek, which is tidal and would probably eat your potatoes if you planted them too close. You could probably take a quick swim in the creek and not smell like the back of a garbage truck when you came out.

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This was the original Reising farmhouse, across Hungry Harbor Road from the 1920 house. I can’t find the date it was built, but I imagine it starts with an 18. Notice that the house has been boarded up but there’s an air conditioner in the window. There’s somebody in there, and he’s a Mets fan.

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The Reising Farmhouse, built in 1920, where Jack McCloskey’s father bought lime for his nursery in the 1930’s.

My late father-in-law, the great Jack McCloskey, was a nursery man. His father started McCloskey’s Florist and Nursery in Rego Park Queens in the 1920’s. When Jack visited our house for the first time, I thought he would enjoy knowing that you could see the  farmhouse from our front yard. The farmhouse has a large outbuilding. Not really a barn but more like a  series of attached garages. Thanks to Jack McCloskey, I now know that in the 1930’s, he would ride out to Valley Stream with his parents, where his Dad would buy the garden lime the Reisings sold wholesale out of that building and he would pick watercress along the creek with his mom. We were standing in my driveway when he told me what he remembered. We would have been in the trees at the end of the potato field.

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A very cool aerial map, courtesy of my friends at The VS Historical Society.

At the end of the chapter of The Lord’s Woods when Bob recounts how the last of the woods were lost, he interrupts the narrative and takes you back all the way to the glaciers to drive home the point of what was lost when those chain saws and bulldozers attacked the Lord’s Woods. He includes the ancient history of the place to illustrate just how disgusting the systematic destruction of this land for tract housing really was, how parts of the area surrounding me were literally untouched from before the birth of Christ until just after the arrival of Francis and Joan Duffy.  He describes the arrival of the Rockaway Indians, a great bunch of people with a really cool name who showed up here around 1000 b.c. “For centuries untold, these people lived on these lands and waters making no destructive impact on the environment…They belonged to the woods and were as much a part of it as the turkey, the bear and the wolf.” 

Of course, once the English Settlers showed up in the 1600’s and created Ye Olde Town of Hempstead, the jig was up for the Rockaway Indians. Within about two hundred years, in 1818, the last of the Rockaways, an old man named Culluloo Telewana, died in his little house in Woodmere. 70 years later, a local man named Abraham Hewlett, who “was enthralled with his stories as a boy” erected a monument to Cullulo Telewana. As Bob points out in The Lord’s Woods, “It is the only memorial to a 7,000 year history to be found anywhere.” And here it is:jedziegler6a-1

And so Mookie and I go for a walk a hundred years ago, in 1916, before Gibson, before Curtiss Airfield. It’s very, very quiet here. We start at the creek and walk through a small patch of woods until we’re walking along farm fields towards Mill Road. We cross the dirt road and stroll beside the mill on Watt’s Pond. Mookie jumps in for a quick swim while I watch the ducks fly off. We walk back along the dirt road, maybe seeing people out working in the fields. The land is completely flat, so you can see the farmhouse all the way from the pond. Mill Road disappears into the woods. We walk through a cathedral of trees along an old Indian path. Maybe it’s the end of October, and the leaves are on fire as they rain softly from the giant trees, and the autumn sunshine streams down, bringing the whole scene into sharp focus and preposterous color, like an old Kodachrome print. We walk about as far as Peninsula Boulevard then we turn around and head back to the 21st Century, our footsteps and birds singing around us the only sounds we hear. Yes, folks, there could have been a beautiful, majestic nature preserve right in my backyard, an ancient woodland preserved for the benefit of my son, his son, his grandson and all our dogs. But as Bob Arbib writes at the end of the final chapter of The Lord’s Woods, “greed and apathy, deceit and arrogance, ignorance and blindness to future needs had finally done their dirty work.”  

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Mill Pond at the turn of the 20th Century.

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A lithograph from 1878 of Mill Pond by an artist named Charles Henry Miller.

One of my favorite passages from The Lord’s Woods appears on page 175, when Bob is explicitly expressing his opinion of  my neighborhood, the place my parents fell in love with, the place my son loves. This is how he saw it:

North of the woods along the Old Grey Road (Rosedale Road was its official name) the farms were disappearing fast…Grids of roads were slashed across them and the houses went up blocks at a time, more densly crowded, more monotonously uniform than anywhere around…I looked upon them as rural, ready-made slums, quickly and badly thrown together…they were sold and occupied as fast as they were built. This was a sorry wasteland, now, with no single inhabitant of any of those tacky boxes who could remember what had once been here: The corn, the rows of lettuce, the potatoes, the bluestem grass. No one could remember a horse and buggy shooting up banners of yellow dust as it raced along, one summer’s morning years ago.”

I can remember it, Bob. I can remember what it looked like, even though I wasn’t there, and I’m part of the reason it’s gone.  I see it sometimes when I’m out walking my dog. It’s beautiful here.

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The List of Things I’ve Already Done

DSCN6275 Once upon a time, in the year 2002, during the my first summer as a married grown-up paying a mortgage to live in the house I grew up in on Duffy’s Creek, a small child went missing from the family next door because he was watching me scrub the green shit off the siding on the side of our little house, which is one of the many small joys of living on brackish water. Sort of like being Born on The Bayou, but not quite as cool. But I can still hear my old hound dog barking, chasin’ down a who do there. Chasin’ down a who do there.

I knew the small child. I guess he was about four years old. He’s the oldest son of one of the daughters of the people who used to live next door. I grew up with them. So I knew him and he knew me. And I knew his parents. And his grandparents, his uncles, his aunt, his great uncles and great aunts, and his great-grandparents for that matter. They’re all really nice people.

But being two years away from becoming a father myself, I didn’t realize how bugfuck you could get, and how quickly you could get bugfuck, if your kid disappeared. I thought the people next door knew that the four year-old boy was standing watching me scrub the green shit off the side of the house. I had no idea they were looking for him. And while they were looking for him, he and I were engaged in a fascinating and wonderful conversation, a line from which has become one of my all-time favorites. Here’s approximately how it went:

“What are you doing?”

“I’m cleaning this green stuff off the side of the house.”

“Why?”

“To make the house look nice. I had some time this afternoon, and it was bugging me. It’s been on my list of things to do for a long time now.”

“You have a list of things to do?”

“Like you wouldn’t believe.”

“Do you have a list of things you’ve already done?”

(I stop dead in my tracks). “You know what?  I don’t. But I should.”

“You should.”

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

At this point, the young boy’s mother came running around the corner of the house frantically looking for him, and got pretty annoyed at me when she found him. And rightly so, as the first thing I should done when he wandered over was call over to their yard and tell them he was here. Again, I thought they know. No matter, as far as I know he’s about college age now, and doing well I’m sure. And he left me with a gem of a line that day:

A List of Things I’ve Already Done.

If you’re among the landed gentry, and you’re the co-CEO one of those little business called two jobs, a kid in school, a house, two cars, four animals and a garden, It’s a great stress beater that you can fall back on when you’re immediate List Of Things To Do becomes overwhelming. It makes you feel less whelmed. You take a step back and you consider what you HAVE accomplished already, and you think, “well, at least I did that. That’s on The List Of Things I’ve Already Done.”

There are things that are only on the list temporarily, of course. The kitty litter tracks and Mookie hair have to be vacuumed out of the carpet on a regular basis. I have to go hunting and gathering at the King Kullen pretty much every Friday night. And the school year is a ten-month ferris wheel. (I think I just admitted what I do for a living).

Then there are the annual things, especially in the springtime. Spreading seed, cleaning out the garden beds, cultivatin’, throwing down cow and/or chicken shit. Sunday April 23rd was the annual Early Spring Power Washing of the brick patios. It’s a beast of a job, especially since the handle of the power washer leaks now and I was completely soaked to the bone after an elapsed five hours of cleaning every brick with a 1400 pound per square inch stream of water about the width of a pencil eraser, but it makes the patio look brand new, and that makes me really, really happy, and it makes Trisha really, really happy because the patio is our happy, happy place. So I do it. Every Spring. And it was bubbling up on my List Of Things To Do since about the middle of March. But it was a really cold Spring up ’till about two weeks ago, which was OK by me ’cause I got in a couple of good naps.

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Our new roof and siding being installed in January.

And besides, the Annual Power Washing was especially sweet this year because we had the roof and siding replaced on the house, amazingly enough during the last week of January. If you’re on Long Island and you’re roof is falling down, call The Dude’s good friend John Roth at Responsible Remodeling. They are the single best company we’ve ever done business with, and the house looks brand new, at least the outside of it. The roof and siding were a gigantic elephant stepping on the head of The List of Things To Do. But because Trisha works really hard and is really good and successful at what she does, which of course I still don’t understand after sixteen and a half years, we were able to move it to the List Of Things We’ve Already Done, which makes up both happy every time we think of it. The house looks beautiful, a pretty little white Cape Cod with black shutters and no tiles missing from the roof and no water leaking into the laundry room, and it would sell a lot faster and for a lot more if we ever decide we have to get the hell out of here and buy that house on Main Street in Copake Falls. You sleep better at night knowing that. And there’s no green shit growing on the white vinyl siding anymore, so for the moment, that never even has to go on The List Of Things To Do, and I spend less time with the power washer, which at this point I’m perfectly fine with.

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13 Main Street Copake Falls, NY. On an acre of land for $209,000. I play Powerball weekly.

But once the weather gets nice, there’s a gigantic List of Things To Do. Some are amazingly complicated. Some you look at for months until you finally find the ten minutes that it actually takes to do them.

Sometime in the 1980’s, my mother had a white dogwood tree planted in the front yard. It was a tribute to her Aunt Nanny, who either had a white dogwood tree or really liked white dogwood trees. I really have no idea. Longtime readers know she talked a lot. Nonetheless, it was a beautiful tree, but when we fenced off the side yard in 2002 (and created “the Secret Garden”), the gate (which has needed replacement for four years, and sits stubbornly on the List Of Things To Do) opened right into the lower branches of the tree, so I raised it and turned into into a kind of big white dogwood umbrella with no lower branches, which is not a very nice thing to do to a white dogwood tree.

Then we put in the stone walled gardens when the great Valley Stream stone artist Alex Hoerlin built us a new driveway, front path and stoop in 2006, which buried the dogwood in six inches of topsoil. Then Hurricane Sandy swamped it and everything else in two feet of creek water in 2012. None of this, of course, was what the white dogwood signed up for thirty years ago, so as we embarked on 2016, it was a complete goner. Meanwhile, two small Wichita Blue junipers that I planted along the edge of the property line had become mostly Wichita Brown junipers. They had five years or so and they weren’t going anywhere except the brush pile. So I decided to pull them out, cut the dead tree down to the stump and plant a new white dogwood where the junipers were. Plus I needed something for the empty space in the backyard where we took out the Bradford Pear that wanted to kill us in the Hurricane, and I figured Dave (you don’t know Dave, but I do, and that’s all that matters) might give me a deal on two white dogwoods, and I’d have one for the backyard, too. ‘Cause they really are beautiful trees, and of course I carry a certain amount of guilt for killing my mother’s white dogwood tree. (The bradford pear was hers, too, but I couldn’t give a damn about that).

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Trisha and The 5 Year-Old Dude under the white dogwood tree, circa 2009. This was the first photo I ever posted on facebook. I’m thinking it’s being used to sell grass seed in Slovokia. Or something.

So around the first week of April, The Dude and I started sawing away at the dead white dogwood tree. The Dude enjoys work that involves physical pressure and force. It’s one of those sensory things with ASD and Asperger’s Syndrome. He’s in charge of peeling carrots and potatoes. He enjoys vacuuming and washing cars. And off course anything that involves using sharp grown up tools is an added bonus. As you’ll notice in the picture at the top of this post, he has a little way to go to get that last bit of stump off. Then I’m going to let him drill a giant hole in the middle of it and stick a post in it to hang a flower basket. This is something that can sit calmly for awhile on The List Of Things To Do.

Digging up the Mostly Dead Wichita Blue (Brown) Junipers jumped quickly from being on The List Of Things To Do to The List Of Things I’ve Already Done this past Monday morning, the beginning of a work week where I didn’t have to go to work. (School vacations were not my idea, so if you’re jealous I can’t help you. Do what I do). It all happened in less than half an hour. They are now part of the bulkhead the keeps the Creek at bay. Ha ha ha.

From there, with the help of my trustee sidekick, who was mostly very helpful for helping me get things done (and at one point was very helpful for taking a three hour nap on the couch so I could get things done) the List Of Things I’ve Already Done grew rapidly over the course of the week. I’m picturing a long scroll of paper being read by a guy from the Middle Ages, but you’ll have to settle for a middle aged guy on a MacBook Air to tell you about them. After I dug up the junipers, we went over to see Dave, but he didn’t have any white dogwood trees. Dave being Dave, he was willing to order them for me, but despite his eye rolling, we decided instead to take a ride down to Dee’s Nursery in Oceanside, which is a phenomenal place, and phenomenally expensive. But as Dave points out about Nurseries, “they don’t sell you ice in the winter.” And sure enough there were two little four-foot high white dogwoods, in bloom, waiting right there for me. Tommy Dee was happy to see me. Why on earth wouldn’t he be? I’m a guy who has 18 trees growing on a 60 x 105 plot of land and he’s seen plenty of that action. I’m a guy who’ll pay $129 each for two little trees, which I’m sure Tommy makes a nice profit on, but God bless him. He’s a good guy, and he knew I’d be coming for the white dogwoods.

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New white dogwood in the front yard, with the trunk of the old one looking on sadly. In the background you can see my neighbors house where there’s a beware of dog sign that was posted by the previous owner. The current dog is a miniature greyhound. That sign is the staring point of a very long blog post that won’t be on The List Of Things I’ve Already Done until August or so.

After we found the camera that The Dude put down in the shed he wasn’t supposed to go into, Duffy’s Creek’s two new white dogwood trees slid right into the back of Lou The Blue Subaru Outback, along with a bag of Plant Tone for the blueberries, who had a terrible year last year. On the way home, we stopped at Modell’s and got The Dude a pair of sneakers. His first pair of Adidas as a matter of fact, which I’ve been wearing exclusively for 25 years because I thought Mose Allison looked cool in them. We had Nathan’s hot dogs and french fries for lunch at the new “Little Nathan’s” that replaced the legendary Nathan’s on Long Beach Road. (They did a nice job adapting. I’m impressed). We went home and planted two new trees, which perhaps he will cut down with his own son someday.

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If you say you wouldn’t touch something with a ten-foot pole, you can envision this pole, which is ten feet off the ground and supports the Duffy’s Creek Acu Rite Weather Station. The Dude had the brilliant idea of marrying two six-foot long 4×4’s together. They’re sunk two feet into the ground with quickrete and gravel. I don’t know if it’s hurricane proof and I sure don’t want to find out.

Over the course of the rest of the week, we went back to Dee’s and bought $300 of organic garden soil (Bumper Crop, ask for it by name). I got the last of those bags of Bumper Crop down in the Rose Garden at 5:30 Saturday afternooon and I don’t want to see another bag of dirt until next April. We also went to Five Star Lumber and Hardware and bought two six foot poles, which The Dude married together using eight metal brackets, 32 screws and his trustee Black and Decker cordless drill. We mounted the Acu Rite Weather Station to the top of the pole and sunk it into two feet of gravel and Quickrete. Why? Because it was mounted on the railing of the garage roof and the wind gauge was being blocked by the house next door, which I couldn’t move. So moving it to a pole in the backyard went on The List Of Things To Do for four months, until Wednesday, when it officially joined The List Of Things I’ve Already Done. Of course, the wind hasn’t blown more than ten miles an hour since I moved it, so I’m not sure if it works any better yet.

While we were at Five Star, we also bought the supplies to paint the railing on the garage roof, which has been on The List Of Things To Do for at least seven years, but moved up a few notches once we had the roof and siding replaced and realized how crappy the railing looked unpainted. Weather permitting, that should be on The List Of Things I’ve Already Done by the end of May. We also have to replace the cellar door, which also now stands out like a bad actor now that the siding is new. There’s a company on Long Island called Man Products, which cracks me up, and which sells metal cellar doors. I insisted on a wood cellar door last time because I thought the rain on the metal cellar door right outside my bedroom window would interrupt my sleep. When the wooden door fell apart after five years, I decided to be less fussy, but I realized upon inspection that I would have to first fix the big crack in the foundation under the cellar door before I actually contact Man Products about replacing the door itself. It will stay on The List Of Things To Do for awhile longer, and just as well, ’cause I’m a little intimidated by Man Products.

Rounding out the list of Things I’ve Already Done that I did this week: The Dude wanted his own vegetable garden, so while he took a three hour nap on the couch Thursday afternoon after staying up all night the night before, I made him one. With broccoli, romaine lettuce, carrots and sugar snap peas ready to climb the trellis. Here it is:

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The Dude’s new vegetable garden and the new backyard white dogwood. (Note sign. I love that child) The antique fence from the Reising Farmhouse is going in the mess behind the dogwood.

I’m also proud that I set up two nice outdoor fountains this week including a little display on the patio with white jasmine and white petunias that Trisha has already dubbed, “The Zen Garden”. And of course I went back to see my friend Dave and bought a bunch of marigolds and petunias and two new Bluecrop blueberry bushes, so I can walk around in the yard in the summer smoking cigarettes and picking blueberries, thus getting my carcinogens and antioxidants at the same time. Plus I bought some lantana at Dee’s to put in planters on the patio, ’cause God knows we don’t have enough flowers. And I walked about 15 miles with Mookie over the course of the week. (We’re at 128.9 miles for the year. We’re shooting for 500. So we can sing the song).

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Mookie enjoying the gentle flowing water sounds in the newly-created Zen Garden @ Duffy’s Creek

On Wednesday afternoon, after we installed the ten-foot poll, we visited the nice guy who lives in the former Reising Farmhouse over on Hungry Harbor Road regarding a ten-foot panel of black cast iron fence with fleur-de-li finials that’s been sitting in his backyard next to Robert W. Carbonaro School for quite possibly my entire lifetime. The guy’s in-laws owned the house before him, which was built in 1920 and surrounded by a potato farm before the Reising’s sold the land to build Carbonaro School (formerly Harbor Road, until I was in 2nd grade and a guy named Carbonaro died) and Valley Stream South High School, which never did me any good and now I have to send my son there. My father-in-law, the great Jack McCloskey, was the second generation of a nursery business in Queens, and he remembered buying lime in the 1930’s or 40’s out of the big barn in the backyard of the Reising Farmhouse, which is still there. The rest of the land was sold to one Mr. Gibson, who built a whole lot of little Cape Cods here in 1950, one of which my parents bought.

I had my eye on the fence for about three or four years because I had just the place for it, where the bradford pear tree took down a piece of our fence during Hurricane Sandy. I’m pretty sure the fence used to be around the farmhouse property when I was a little feller, so as well as looking cool in the space I envisioned it, I’d have a little bit of the history of South Valley Stream right here in our backyard. You gotta like that. It was on the List Of Things To Do to see if the guy who lived in the house would either give me the fence or sell it to me. About six months ago, while out rambling with Mookie, I saw the guy outside, introduced myself, and found out that he had bought the house from his in-laws, who still own an antique store on Rockaway Avenue, and most of the stuff in the barn was antiques. When I finally got around to seeing him again this week, he told me that he wanted $150 for the fence. I got him down to $125. I tried to get him to $100 by saying the fence was just going to sit there until I bought it. He patiently explained to me that this was the whole point of antiques. They get older. So I’m going to accept his offer, but only if he lets us peak inside the barn.

The only problem is, the fence is very, very heavy. But yet again, the solution is that The Dude is a genius and saves things because he might need them later. Last year, he scavenged a sliding closet door from his friends two doors away who are renovating their house. When I threw out a desk before Christmas, he scavenged the casters. I’ve been meaning to throw both of these things out when he wasn’t looking, but I’m glad I didn’t, as we now have the materials for making a giant rolling pallet, which we can use to roll the fence from the Reising farmhouse to the Duffy’s Creek Tenant Farm. It’s on The List Of Things To Do right now. God willing, it will be on The List Of Things I’ve Already Done by this time next week.

Tomorrow, I turn 53 years old. The List Of Things I’ve Already Done is enough to get me right to sleep most nights. Of course, if Trisha hadn’t been nice enough to marry me, I would have been an abject failure. But she did, and we’ve built a nice little life for ourselves. We have a nice long List Of Things We’ve Already Done. Then again, we’ve never been to the Grand Canyon or Yosemite. We’d both like to see San Francisco. We’d also like the Dude to see Ireland and love it like we did, which he will. Trisha wants nothing to do with the fact that I’d like to buy a kayak or a canoe and annoy the idiots that run Hempstead Town and Nassau County into opening up the flood gate that holds Duffy’s Creek back from the waterways that lead out to Jamaica Bay and building a boat launch along the public path on the Left Bank. I think that would be cool. All that taken into consideration, I also want to spend as much time with Mookie Dog as possible, because he’s going to be five this week, and dogs are designed to break your heart someday. And he doesn’t like boats. Trisha doesn’t like both either and I want to spend as much time as possible with her, too.

In the next ten years or so, maybe twenty, we both have to  work like hell to help a brilliant but delicate young psyche find his way from 12 years old to adulthood, complete with all the disappointments and heartbreak, triumphs and perseverance that it will surely involve. I think if I can make it to retirement, I might have a book or two in me, but If I don’t quit smoking at some point I’m plain fucked, and right now it ain’t looking good. That’s the subject for yet another blog post.

Speaking of which, It’s been four months since I’ve published a blog post. I have three that are sitting in draft stage. One is about my history  as a passionate follower of the New York Mets. One is about the evolution of my relationship with food. Another is about my musical heroes. And since The Mets, food and music account for about 55 to 60% of my available brain space, there’s a lot to write. And I have to get up and go to work in seven hours. So those creative writing endeavors will have to sit around in the waiting room flipping through magazines while they are on the List Of Things To Do. This one? This one is now officially on The List Of Things I’ve Already Done.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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