Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Big Nature

About 20 miles into Sequoia National Park you get to the actual giant trees—the park contains many other marvels of nature—and here things get strange: Trees 90 and 100 feet around, nearly 300 feet high, begin to fill in around you. And then more. And around the corner, more. A forest of giants, primeval titans, and you are a bug.

For a while you take it calmly. But finally it escapes you, that feeling of immensity and wonder that can only find expression in really bad language. “Will you look at the size of these goshdarn trees,” you say, only with a much stronger adjective.

We came to Sequioa when a voyage got cancelled. Captain Mike suggested the trip. After exhausting ourselves with sailing for several weeks, a chance to exhaust ourselves with hiking sounded like a nice change. And so we went: Captain Mike, Laura, A.J., Deon, Brett and me, in two cars and a motorcycle, with about 60 pounds of LAMI food.

Once inside the park, five hours later, we began to climb, leaving the tamped down sole of valley behind, the devil’s footprint that makes a hell of sun on the flatland below. The mountains stand up to you like a wall, and once emplaced among them, the faces of rock become steeper and fiercer, and though you don’t always notice the climb, yet at each turn of your highway the chasm is more frowning and somber.

At every overlook the eyes behold what the mind does not comprehend, a vast canyon of space with the rock faces purpled by distance, and the tiny road by which you have come threading into the unseen recesses below, and emerging again from beneath the rocky outcrops, the connifers in sentinel ranks along the ridges, in the higher places on a groundnote of snowy white.

We did a lot of standing and staring and evaluating the abyss thoughtfully. Several times we resembled an album cover for one of the bands that A.J. is forever making up. The road twisted up and up, and you could look out for miles and see not a single billboard. Which is a shame, really. Just a few apartment subdivisions and luxury condos in this canyon would put thousands of upscale eyeballs in view of unmeasurable messaging opportunity.

And even more so at Moro Rock. God knows what the ancient inhabitants made of this great granite dome rising more than 7000 feet off the valley floor, to brood titanically at the ceiling of heaven. One takes not a single step here without getting the double sense that 1. every inch of this ground is somehow sacred—even the stairway is on the National Register--and 2. perhaps you shouldn’t have eaten the extra pancakes this morning.

Our party tripped happily from its caravan toward the foot of the climb and found themselves not much later tripping awkwardly up the incline. And then trudging up. And then crawling up. Way stations with lookouts and benches strewed the way, and upon these sat the upward bound, lapsed now into attitudes of concern and self-searching. The downward bound didn’t stop. They wore faces of relief.

The top, though, is the paramountcy that meets every expectation of the hard climb: a rocky balcony looming Olympian over the insignificant haunts of men, and even the ravens and falcons gliding below in their humbler sphere.

We teetered out along the fenced-in walkway at the top, out to the end of the rectangular space where a bit of hurricane fence stands between you and a thousand foot drop. And once out there, at one with the blue empyeran, at home in the wild blue yonder, you really want to try to spit or drop a water balloon or something.

We made it back down, dazzled, confused, snow-blinded. And then came the trees.

Until recently, say 1 or 2 million years ago, trees like the Sierra Redwood occupied a vast range across what is now North America. But its range is now a micro-environment, an area of only a few hundred square miles on the western side of the Sierra Nevada mountains. There remain something over 70 groves of them, most under state or federal protection. Nothing seems to hurt these trees but the potential for toppling—and of course the lumber industry.

Possibly they still exist only because their wood, though strong and long-lived, is brittle. Measured by the volume of their boughs, they are the largest trees in the world.

Possibly they also exist because it’s a kick , when one of them falls over, to drive your car along it, or through it, as visitors to the park sometimes do.

This particular grove contains several trees now famous, including the largest tree in the world, the General Sherman. General Sherman measures 101.5 feet around its base, is 272.4 feet tall, and weighs somewhere around 6,167 tons. But the numbers don’t capture it. What almost captures it is what comes out of you mouth when you see it: Will you look at the size of that goshdarn tree.

We rested that night in Grants Grove, one of the subaltern centers of park life, containing a general store and lodge, and surrounded by campgrounds. We passed most of the time eating, throwing a light-up Frisbee in the darkness, and trying various ways to set up Captain Mike’s tent. Expired PFD chemical lights helped us locate each other in the gloom.

If there is a more vital dose of life than camping in chilled air among primordial magnificence I have yet to hear about it. Camping anywhere is probably a good thing. But camping amid the solemness and majesty and mystery of thousand-year-old trees must take the prize. The sun falls on a skyline burning with the orange glow of prehistoric wonder, the ranks and ranks of trees stretching away into the distance, and the slowly gathering night of jewelled stars and velvet sky, the smells of pine and cypress mingling with the campfire tang, and far off the calling of strange woodland birds.

To enter into this wilderness is to step back to an age that well antedates American, that fully precedes Europe, that came long before the modern form of human being, indeed, some one or two million years. One gets a picture of slow moving development in this corner of the world, as if, whether it raged elsewhere in violence or not, whether it really ever did favor the fiercest in other theaters of its operation, here at least the triumph belonged to the slowest and most enduring.

Next morning we piled into the automobiles again and began the long climb to the top of King’s Canyon, leaving behind all things mortal and ground-dwelling.

In King’s Canyon, as in Sequoia, time spent itself in geologic increments--millions of years, rather than the miniscule thousands by which humans measure their achievements. The automobiles climbed, climbed, nearly 9,000 feet. While climbing we sailors—water creatures, you know—had the satisfaction of seeing a mighty river next to us and not being on it.

There are numbered categories of rapids that river kayakers use to rate the “technicality” of their chosen river—in other words the likelihood of their being capsized while paddling, and thrust against rocks and split open, and drowned in whirlpools, and other such entertainments. But there was no category to describe the Godless and Rock Shivering Sluice of Death raging beside our highway.

For miles we watched to see a place where the violence of the water abated, and watched in vain. We saw not one 50-foot stretch in those many miles that did not roar and surge with several different varieties of watery obliteration: boulders, whirlpools, waterfalls, foaming surges, cliffs. If you can imagine three different category-five rapids all fed together and then angled 20 degrees higher, you will have something like it. The many torrents were remarkable in having almost no bearing on the general direction of the river, but all sped different ways at once—some of them seemed to go backward--and the steep walls of rock contained the disagreement.

Naturally we stopped along this donnybrook to brood and be thoughtful. I got out and looked at it, Laura got out and looked at it. A.J., Brett, Deon, Captain Mike, we all stood looking at it. And in every mind there was the same thought: Possibly I could use an inflatable kayak.

Then soon enough we were at the top and then over into the other side, into King’s Canyon. At a certain point in the progress of the highway there, you reach a ranger station called Road’s End, and there is an excellent reason for this name. Whatever march that human progress has made up and into this valley is stopped dead at this point. What progress continues must be undertaken on foot, preferably foot shod in boot.

We exited the autos, checked our water, consulted maps, and then off through the valley of light walked the six sailors. The way led along a piney sand floor among cedars and pole oaks, with sheer rock cliffs of immense altitude added on either side of us to complete the geography. Some two miles out we reached a footbridge crossing this selfsame cataract of water and there we stood for a while, with some of us wanting to press further (you can probably guess who) and some of us remembering important tasks left undone back at the campsite.

I turned around to head back and Captain Mike soon overtook my retreat. Then Deon joined us. Then Brett. And finally Laura and A.J., the last to surrender the march, who bestrode that narrow wilderness like colossuses—colossae?—and scored the furthest progress of our quest.

That night, quiet rest. Next day, a group of French speaking people gathered behind Laura’s car to photograph her license plate (New York). Then, back to the water.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009


We sailed with little wind, but Captain Mike was determined to find something to look at. I was with a crowd of climbers on the foretop when he announced a large shoal of dolphins off the bow.

Two hundred yards before us we saw a patch of boiling water in the tranquil sea, the dorsal fins of a hundred dolphins running all directions at once. The space of 30 feet was sufficient to contain dozens of fins. I have seen dolphins cruising languid as yachtsmen up the channel in San Pedro, but today they had found something exciting. There were no bait fish in the area, nothing to drive them to a frenzy like this. There were probably more than 1000 dolphins in the shoal.

They seemed to notice us approaching and now in front of the boil they came leaping towards us in twos and threes, sometimes in larger groups, and in no time we had 20, 30, 40 swarming at the bowsprit, flying in wing formation 60 feet on each side of the martingale and crossing before the cutwater.

From the top we had an all-around view of the surface down 30 or 40 feet to where the sunlight dampened away and the indigo void began. This space was filled with dolphins.

We could see them breathing out with the quick expulsion of air just before they popped above the surface, and then diving again to the depths. For a long time there was no sound but the startled gasps of hundreds of dolphins taking air. In the depths sometimes they would roll to one side and then the other turning their white bellies almost upright to the sunlight. Though the traffic around us was high-velocity mayhem in three dimensions, I saw not one accident. They touched each other often when swimming alongside, and once or twice I saw a quick course correction and brush-by of dolphin bodies going contrary directions. But this too seemed like part of a game.

I should not have been surprised by the speed of their maneuvers below, for you hear about these things. Captain Mike in fact is an encyclopedia of marine biology. But from my perch on the mast I could finally see it, and it went beyond anything I could have pictured. Even such a modest little soul as the harbor seal, one of which we saw as we circled outside the dolphin shoal, had a life beneath the surface you’d never guess when watching their plump little persons lolling on the harbor rocks.

This little fellow popped up about 100 yards behind us, and the crew sang out about him. He went down again and surfaced 25 yards closer and off to port, and the crew sang out again, happy at his steady approach.

What they didn’t see was that as soon as he went below, he rocketed at a 45 degree slant down to 35 feet, cast about for a fish or something he saw there, rocketed another 20 yards to the left, and then flew back to the surface, where he paused for a moment to notice our pitiful speed, and then dipped under again and flew off east out of my sight.

The dolphins showed exactly this character under water, with their loops and rolls and twists. I could see them all, suspended in mid air as it appeared, and easily moving at six knots with the slightest movement of their tails. They would idle along at twice our boat speed without any apparent movement at all. Never was the shape of a creature more congenial to its element. Every so often one or two would—in a transport of happiness, for I could see no other reason--put on speed below and leap clear of the water to go sailing over their friends, in a way more graceful for being completely thoughtless.

I had thought this was a kind of reconnaissance, a way to scan the sea for approaching threats. Now I think it’s just a way to impress the hell out of people.

We stayed with them until the captain, getting a tip from another boat, sped off west in search of some finback whales, which indeed we found 15 minutes later.

Unlike the dolphins, these two seemed wary of company, as every time they rose they came up far from the scrutinized patch of sea. They were no doubt having an important discussion and needed privacy, so we left them alone.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Danger on the High Seas

Irving got out first, with a big headstart.

But, owing to their neglecting to set the topgallant sail, we made good time on them.

Davy readied the cannon.

While waiting to reach them, First-Mate Laura posed for publicity photos.

Not long afterward, Irving came about and fled downwind in a cowardly fashion, cunningly waiting until we'd shot off our single round after we'd grown impatient with the chase.

Next time, we'll have more cannon shot AND water balloons.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

We sailed yesterday with 21 kids from one of our favorite schools, and though we had no wind we had the happy notion to motor eight miles and look for whales, which we found off Point Vincente, a couple of grays. On the way back we saw some much larger finbacks, and several large groups of dolphins. The kids were happy. After hauling halyards and sheets for three hours, several of them went aloft to furl sails and one left the foretop only with great reluctance. A good day’s work.

Along with the kids came a group of USC students doing research on how we teach kids. These were college students, I say, and the natural impermeable confidence of their age was greatly augmented by the confidence conferred by their choice of study. That is, leadership. It turns out there is indeed a scholarship of the art of leading--though perhaps it’s not scholarship so much as an attempt to ennoble all that daffy business literature now crowding airport bookstores. We had aboard some of its scholars, pursuing their business degrees even into hardscrabble San Pedro, and they brought a video camera.

If you happen to take a leadership class at USC somewhere down the line, you might see a video briefly showing a baked-looking man in a floppy hat, explaining how not to fall off the shrouds when climbing. That will be me. The young leaderlings gave me the names of several books on the topic of leadership, several of which—prepare for a surprise!—were written by their professors. Reading them I might learn the various styles and strategies of leadership, and something of the lives of great leaders, who have of course occupied all the ages. For indeed, we will profitably study not only the lives of great modern leaders, such as the men who run our proud corporations; we can also study great leaders of the past, such as Julius Caesar, Machiavelli and Sun Tzu.

The leaderlings were unfortunately no less prone to sea sickness than the non-leaders aboard, and for long periods the progress of their training had to be halted so they could lean over the rail.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Another Brief Pleasure Trip

“On the schedule this is a training voyage,” John said, “and we’ll do some drills and take the small boat out.” He considered a moment. “But really I see this as a reward for a kind of a dull winter.” He looked up, raised his arms to the California sunshine. “Winter!” The crew laughed. “A dull winter sitting at the dock with not a lot of sailing. So with any luck we’ll have some fun.”

The robotic voice of the weather radio used the term “pulses”—“the first pulse of the front will approach the area…” as if it were some kind of nuclear event.

We unfurled the sails and ran out the lines, topped up the water, even brought the plastic kayak aboard and tied it to the cabin top, the regular crew working quickly and the guests—they were told of a pleasant two-day sojourn to Catalina Island—pushing the tasks forward where they could.

A flat ocean heading out of San Pedro, with Catalina on the horizon, that rocky brown island of roaming buffalo and dirt roads and several thousand mooring balls. Heading up the mast to do something important, I forget what, Captain John said to watch for the whale reported to be near, and 10 seconds later the animal breached 200 feet away.

That was the excitement for the trip out, until we finally got some wind near the island and spent the rest of the afternoon enacting the golden picture contained in the phrase Sailing to Catalina. We came to anchor at a place called Isthmus Cove.

I took my anchor watch at 1 a.m. that night and felt some trepidation at the snapping of the flag in the breeze, and the deep gray obscuring everything around.

But the sun came up bright and those who wanted went ashore to scavenge the tiny village for something to eat or purchase. I paddled among the caves at the water’s edge. At noon the clouds began to pile in.

By 1 p.m. it was blowing at 25 knots with gusts to 35. By this time we were well under way, the crew drilling, along with the startled guests, in fire response, collision response, and abandon ship procedure. By 2 p.m. we were canting at 25 degrees, and had stationed people to let the mainsail out if we leaned further. We practiced tacking with just one person per station, in case we ever lost half the crew.

I stood watching the foremast flex and wriggle in its mess of wires, with three of the four square sails set and the main sail reefed to the first line. The leech of the main and the flag cracked like pistol shots with the boat bounding along, bounding along, pitching over the swells. It was a laughable proposition, to be riding such a contraption in this tempest. Laundry on lent sticks. A contrivance of ropes and pulleys and spars. I had the feeling of a tight-built wooden drum coming slowly unglued in the water, and sticking out here and there a butt or plank as the center dissolved.

But not a thing dissolved. The masts flexed and on we went. The swells came over the bow and the poor unready visitors shivered in their cotton clothes and on we went. And at last it looked like John had had enough, and just at sunset we finally let go the anchor at our spot of the previous evening, and this time no one stayed up to sing with the guitar or puzzle out the words to old songs. This night everyone went to bed after dinner dishes were washed and wet clothes hung in the engine room. It proved a wise choice. For at 2 a.m. we were up again: The GPS and every available instrument showed us 100 feet closer to Bird Rock and getting closer, pushed by the even stronger wind funneling through the two land masses of the island.

The still-soaked guests didn’t even appear on deck for this operation. The engine came on, the windlass turned, the anchor came up with 300 feet of chain. Out of the lee of the island the wind began to howl at a near gale. But in this direction we had only to ride it back to San Pedro, not take it in the teeth. For a quarter of an hour, four dolphins ran with us in our bow wave, flitting back and forth beneath the cutwater like ghosts, matching our seven knots with ease, and popping above water for air faster than a fingersnap. They looked not like solid bodies at all but outlines of pale light connected somehow with the vessel, a trick of light or a reflection. They stayed with us for several miles and peeled off in tight little curves, one by one, as if to salute us for the sport.

The rolling calmed a little inside Angels Gate, a place that even at this hour, in this weather, was humming with activity. No sooner had we slid past Los Angeles Light than one of the modern omnidirectional tugboats came bowing and curveting up to within 100 feet of our side, driven, in fact, by a former captain of our sailboat.

“John,” said the boat, “stay well to the left of the channel, stay to the green side of the channel. We’re bringing in the Ever Dainty and she’s going to need lots of room.” Back at the wheel one of the crew asked the captain, “Did that tugboat just address you by name?”

The Ever Dainty, I need hardly say, was a stupefying spectacle of a container ship. She had filled the eastern horizon as we approached the gate, waiting for us to get in, and for the tugs that would slow her down in the harbor. We stayed to the left as advised.

At the dock we got the mooring lines secured quickly, for it had begun to rain again. The captain drove home to his wife, and everyone else went back to bed. And not a human voice was heard again on deck for three hours.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Maureen, 1932

Maureen, when a young woman, fresh home from business school, got a job at the local paper. At her interview the editor said, “Your fah-thah says that you can do anything.”

“My father is fond of exaggeration, Mr. Beal.”

“Can you fix that typewriter?”

She looked at the typewriter. “Yes I can,” she said, for this was one of the things they taught at business school. And she fixed it. And Mr. Beal was sore amazed.

Several weeks went by, Maureen working hard, and there came a letter in the mail--a letter, by god, in the mail--from her own boss. He said she was the best secretary he ever had. She was making $4 a week.

Word got round about the able young secretary and soon W.G. Slocum came looking. Slocum was a newspaperman well known through the south, and increasingly through the north, the H. L. Mencken of the Albemarle. Slocum ran his own little daily called The Independent which was a good name, considering there was no one he wouldn’t enrage in the exercise of his first amendment rights. Slocum had recently lost his secretary and offered Maureen more than double her current wage. She went. And soon she found enough to justify her increase in pay, for when Slocum wasn’t excoriating rivals in print, and making it risky just to walk down the street if you worked for him, he was thundering at her. He was a big man, bald with a monkish fringe of red, and liquid with sweat in the warmer months. Starting in May he set two electric fans in his office, on stands, and kept them trained rigorously at his person until October. For the correction of his employees he allowed nothing to moderate his impulse to scream; he had only one volume. The mind accustomed to hacking his opponents to shreds and burning their carcasses in vast funeral beacons to his own sagacity was not well suited to the subtle correction of error.

Maureen learned this on the very first day, when Slocum happened to use the word matrices in dictation and she typed mattresses in the letter. There ensued a storm unlike any Maureen had seen raging over the Pasquotank River. A few days and a few storms later, under tutelage not calculated to increase her self esteem, Maureen was thinking fondly of retirement. When after an especially trying session of dictation he rose to his feet and boomed, “I wish Mary Byrd were back here with me now,”—this being his former secretary, gone away to school--Maureen said, “Mr. Slocum I wish she was back here too.”

Whereupon the great man quieted, peered at her closely, enclosed her in his great arm and, walking the length of the office, consoled her in her distress. She need not be upset, he said; it was only his way, and they would get along fine if she only knew that.

If she didn’t know it then, she had more opportunity to learn it, for the storms did not abate, but came regularly, and if not always on the best of causes then sometimes just for practice. But neither did they last. Slocum could be counted on to rage over the slightest fault, but the man who made his living flinging spears at councilmen, senators, governors, businessmen and other journalists had little to spare for his own employees. It was efficient allocation of resources, you see. You can’t eviscerate all the people all the time. Maureen managed to bear up.

What was yet harder to bear were the occasional bullets that came spanking in through the window to form intriguing patterns on the wall. Bullets were not the sort of disputants you could argue with, or conciliate with a tear. Fortunately for Maureen, though, Slocum was mostly shot at on the street, or on his front porch, or in public restaurants.

Yet there came troubles to that monkish head that not even he could lambast out of existence, from places least to be expected.

There happened to be attached to this fiery journalist two fair daughters, the princesses of the town, pretty, poised and sweet, the beloved coquettes of the village. Or they would have been coquettes if the favors which they pretended they might bestow they did not actually bestow. But, indeed, bestow them they did, with simple and blithesome abundance, bestow them throughout the town on all who appeared to be in want.

This, for the crusader, the bearer of the righteous cross, came to be seen as something of a liability. One day having received some especially startling revelations of his daughters’ activities, Slocum arrived at his office in a wrath that looked like a black column of ire, a thunderstorm he carried with him, an anvil-shaped darkness shedding fury and brimstone upon his head, and when he went to his office it followed him in.

For an hour he rained blows upon his typewriter, then emerged from his office in a cloud of volcanic ash and gave his compositor the editorial for the next day. Mr. Haskel read it, and blanched.

“Mr. Slocum,” he said, “I can’t….”

But Slocum was already gone.

Catching him on the sidewalk, Haskel pleaded. “Mr. Slocum, you can’t say these things about your own family. You can’t say them about anyone’s family.”

“Set it up,” bellowed the editor, striding along, “and let fall what will.”

“There’s got to be some other language,” Mr. Haskel said, “some mild path of implication.”

“A shoat is a shoat is a shoat,” thundered the editor. “We want no milder pathway here. Set it up!”

It was useless, but Haskel strode along with him, speaking reason, speaking forbearance, pleading for a second thought, and that was how Maureen saw them pass: the fatter man red and fiery, the taller man leaning toward him, hustling to keep up despite his greater stature, wearing a look that spoke of hope not just for his job, but hope for the ultimate ascendancy of sense.

The two men reached the corner, Maureen following at some distance on the chance she might be of use in this apparent crisis, whatever it was, when a slight twanging sound arrested their attention. It was a small sound but it seemed to occupy a large space behind the men and on the sidewalk near their feet. Such is the way of animal response they were already running before they understood they were being shot at. They didn’t know by who or from where—a blank billboard across the street would make an excellent cover—but it seemed impolitic to stop just then and inquire into the matter. And, anyway, they had gotten up some very good speed and it seemed a shame to waste it. Maureen left just as quickly in the other direction.

She met them back at the office, heated and shaken, their eyes very bright. By this time Slocum had built up an entirely new rage. He approached his typewriter with his fingers outstretched, itching for the justice only they could bring. He had no proof concerning any suspect, numerous as they were, but had already gone through indictment and trial of someone, apparently, and was burning for execution.

Mr. Haskel whispered the story to Maureen while they stood in the outer office hearing tomorrow’s new editorial being beaten into life. He did not at this point have the old editorial with him, and did not mention what had become of it.

It was this story Maureen told her mother that night when things had finally quieted. Her mother listened to all of it, and to Maureen’s surprise seemed annoyed.

The mother of those girls, she said, Miss Columbia Slocum: was she not the very scamp of the town herself even before there were automobiles to ride in? Did she not sit on this very porch in 1903, with her hem deliberately pulled over her knee, to show a pretty garter to Maureen’s handsome uncle?

“It’s no wonder those girls can’t be controlled,” she said. “Look who they had for a teacher.”

This was life in their small town.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

A Sort-Of Love Story

Once upon a time there was a little brown-haired princess who loved to skate and cook and to say what she loved. She lived in an expensive condo with a guard out front who opened the doors and accepted the packages that came for the princess. She liked to live in the expensive condo and have the man standing out front at all times, and she liked to receive packages.

One day the brown-haired princess was out skating, and skating, and having a marvelous time telling those around her about the number of BMWs in her condo's garage, when she met a toad skating in the same direction.

"Hi," she piped. "I own an expensive condo."

"You're cute," said the toad. "Let's have coffee."

Over coffee the toad learned that the cute princess also liked to snow ski. She also liked to water ski. She also liked to jet ski. She was also learning how to golf. She sold loupes and everybody loved them and she sold a lot. Also she leased a Jeep Cherokee. Also she loved to swing dance, and even took lessons in it.

"What's a loupe?" the toad wanted to know. The toad was rumpled and unshaven but fancied that he held a full set of cards in the brains department and, because he liked the Princess very much, wanted to listen carefully.

"A loupe is a pair of glasses that dentists use," said the princess.

"Oh," said the toad.

They sat and drank their coffee and the princess smiled a smile of blue hyacinth and chirped away and the toad was enchanted. An enchanted toad, he was. And after meeting for coffee he climbed into his 10–year-old car and went home and sewed the missing buttons back on his shirts.

By and by the princess and the toad came to skate together often, and one day were out skating when the princess encountered one of her friends, the big friendly bear. The big friendly bear rolled up to them with his great belly forward and laughed a deep laugh that accompanied absolutely everything he said, and the princess hugged the bear and they talked about their swing-dancing adventures. For the big friendly bear was the animal that had gotten the princess interested in swing dancing.

"The big friendly bear is a great swing dancer," the princess said. When she smiled, her eyes became little painted daubs of mirth.

Swing dancing, they called it, though persons of a certain age—the princess's mother's age, for example—had only called it dancing, for they had known no other kind.

The princess and the toad and the big friendly bear skated awhile along the river pathway. And the big friendly bear kept them entertained with his big friendly laugh, a laugh that started out pungent and diminished quickly—"HENH henh henh henh," was usually how it went. But what it lacked in endurance it made up in frequency, and the princess and toad were never long away from its hearing.

"We could skate around the river twice or just pretend to be tired and stop after one," said the big friendly bear. "HENH henh henh henh."

"I need a snow cone," the bear said soon after. "It's been an hour and I haven't eaten anything. HENH henh henh henh."

Things went on. The princess often found herself skating first with the big friendly bear and then with the toad, sometimes both together, and often with numerous other animals. Nothing so delighted the princess' heart as stopping by an inn on a summer's eve, and entering therein, and hoisting a merry bumper or two, or three or four, in company with her animal friends, and moving herself into the very eye of the company, where she could be petted and admired, and touched and adored. Any time a question arose about boyfriends in her life, she would say, "It's not easy being easy." Sometimes she said this four times in the same night. "It's not easy being easy." That usually put the question to rest--though not to permanent rest. For if the animals had pondered it, they would have understood they had received no answer at all. But this contributed all the more to the mystery of the princess.

One such night she sat in a pub and sang with the animals, and the singing went on and the singing went on, withthe princess at the center as usual, and talking about how she had purchased her own house, and was impressed by it, and had correctly estimated the cost of fixing her roof, impressing the roofers, and was impressed by it, and that her condo project had a great many Mercedeses and Cadillacs in its parking garage, and wasn’t that the most impressive thing of all.

“HENH henh henh henh,” said the bear, looking at her, as the toad was. And she was sweet and dimpled and demure and the greatest little egomaniac the toad had ever seen. Not a great talker, certainly, but marvelously skilled in the language of the flesh. She could work up a kind of grand oratory of the physical, and shape and modulate it with the skill of a rally speaker.

And the toad realized: First, they seemed to be an official couple, he and the princess, yet had never attended any function as such—certainly the mark of an official relationship, and maybe they should talk about it.

Of course this never worked with the princess, and that was the second thing he realized: You just couldn’t pin the princess down on anything. And there were all these other animals. The squirrel and the ferret, the emu and the sloth, and all adoring her like their mother or something else. The toad wandered home to think about this, leaving the princess singing in the inn.

And a few days later, when she called before boarding a flight and asked him to pick her up at the airport—she was selling loupes in a faraway land--and he got into his car in the 90 degree heat, and drove round and round the airport waiting for her to say she’d arrived, getting chased out of hiding spots by airport security, his dog panting in the back seat—only to be called an hour later and told she’d made other arrangements and got a ride from someone else, he decided, yes, she was too great for one toad alone. Her fame was too exalted. She belonged to the forest. It was perhaps selfish of the toad to have ever thought otherwise.

And so he let her sing at the inn with the other animals and stayed home himself. And she lived happily ever after, and he lived happily ever after, and went skating as often as he could and allowed some of his buttons to come off his shirts.