PunxsutawnEmeritus

The alarm blared in the middle of the night, and the blind woodchuck groaned and batted at the screen until it stopped shrieking. It was very dark and cozy in the burrow and she dreaded the thought of rousing herself enough to even roll over. Waking up early from hibernation was a bitch. 

She shivered a bit at the cloud of cold air that was hovering just above her DIY down quilt— a bunch of ducks had molted right outside the entrance to her burrow, and she had gathered all the loose feathers into a plastic bag that had been blowing around the meadow. The tote of downy discarded plumage had kept her toasty for the past few months and made getting up all that more difficult. The bag had a weird smiley face on the side that kind of creeped her out, but she tried to ignore it. Sometimes it felt like the eyes followed her.

She pushed the blanket aside to finally get up when a sudden realization struck her: this was February 2, her busiest workday of the year, but now she remembered that something had changed. She flopped back in the dirt and a huge smile, bigger than the one on the plastic bag quilt, crossed her face. She had set the alarm out of habit but now she could ignore it. She had retired!

No more waking up at dark o’clock to get to Punxsutawney in time for the big reveal, especially during an ice storm; no more being groped by clueless mayors with freezing cold hands as they tried to hoist her into the air or feeling guilty about the bag of Snickers she had consumed that made the hoisting more difficult. And best of all, since it was almost impossible to tell woodchucks apart, she would still get the snaps for doing a great job! 

When she had made the decision to leave the Official Groundhog Predictor position, she had been uncertain if it was the right choice. (It had actually not been her choice at all, since she had overslept, missed last year’s ceremony and been replaced by her cousin Kevin; but she was very good at bending the story to flatter herself and had come to believe her version was the truth. She could even visualize the fantasy retirement party the town had thrown her, although they had been too cheap to get her a gold watch; she got a stick instead.)

She snuggled deeper into her maniacally grinning sleeping bag and thought about all the things she would do now that the unencumbered time stretched endlessly before her. Maybe she would write a screenplay; a blockbuster film that would replace that other movie about groundhogs that had become synonymous with doing the same thing over and over again. She hated that people assumed her days were an endless loop of sleeping and eating and then sleeping, although she had to admit it had been an apt metaphor for watching the House repeatedly not voting for Kevin McCarthy for five days in a row.

Maybe she would write a biopic about what it was like to carry the responsibility of predicting spring on her shoulders all these years, how the world had counted on her to use her shadowy skills to let them know when it would be warm enough to wear a tube top. She was exactly the right rodent to write this film. Maybe they could even get Bill Murray to be in it again, although this time he would be the one with the mayor’s hand up his ass! She chortled to herself and thought she would get right on that, just as soon as she slept for another three months.

The Blind Woodchuck is correct; February is the best month to sleep through.

The Covid Craft Chronicles

(The woodchuck is in hibernation. Here is another random chapter of The Ripple Effect)

Last week, sneezing with what I assumed was my typical snotty grandson cold, I tested positive. This was a bit of a shock, as I had convinced myself that I was one of those people who were immune to the virus, having never gotten it before. It was a very mild case—many of the Felix colds have been far worse—but I was back in lockdown two weeks before Christmas. Why couldn’t I get sick when I had nothing to do?

Somewhere around the fifth night of isolation, I was visited by a spirit. It hovered above my bed and tossed handmade Christmas gift tags at my face until I sat up with a start. I screamed when I saw the apparition, and through a swirly cloud of vanilla bean and bergamot scents, realized that I was being visited by the Ghost of Christmas Present: Martha Stewart.

“Martha, did you die so you could show me the error of my ways and guide me through past crafting errors?” I moaned. 

“I’m not dead, you idiot,” she snapped at me. “This is a dream and the Paxlovid has apparently made you hallucinate me. What do you want? I have to get over to Snoop’s to shape the buffet table napkins into the Twelve days of Christmas.”

“Why have you come to visit me? Will there be other spirits coming tonight as well?”

“The only spirit I want to see is an Aperol spritz, so let’s get this over with. Why are you using all this free time feeling sorry for yourself? You’re barely sick. You are wasting precious crafting minutes lying on the couch watching stupid Netflix Christmas movies. Get up and make a damn wreath out of pinecones.”

“But I don’t have the correct supplies!” I wailed. “And I can’t go to Michael’s because I’m in quarantine!”

“Oh, for heaven’s sake—have you learned nothing from my magazine? Use what’s around the house. For example, look at all those take out containers piled up. Did you even turn on your stove this year? It looks like all you did was order Indian food.”

Prison had made Martha mean, but she had a point.

So in the spirit of being environmentally correct and getting Martha out of my bedroom, I gathered up my recyclables, a two year old bag of cranberries I found in the freezer and some fir branches I cut off my sister’s tree. And voila! I made luminaria out of garbage!

Don’t despair if you get sick this holiday season—there are plenty of ways to keep yourself entertained while you sit alone and everyone else is having a good time. And if you arrange rosemary and sage sticks into a pentagram and slide it under your bed, you may be able to keep a certain perfectionist bitch out of your dreams. 

It’s a good thing.

Electile dysfunction

The woodchuck looked at the queuing menagerie and contemplated screaming. How hard was it to dip your paw in ink and blot it next to a picture of who you thought should run the forest? Every single animal had a question or couldn’t remember what precinct their burrow was in or had a conspiracy theory they wanted to argue about; she had no idea voting was going to be so loud.

When her cousin Shirley had asked her if she wanted to be an election judge, she hadn’t been listening closely (which was always the best way to have a conversation with Shirley). Hearing the word “judge”, she had somehow taken that to mean that she was going to be on Judge Judy’s show; she relished the idea of testifying against all the animals she felt had wronged her. Unfortunately, now she was surrounded by all those same crazed creatures trying to “make their voices heard”. She was trying to stay impartial, but honestly, did anyone really want to hear what the possums had to say?

She looked around, bewildered, at the various pieces of technology as someone shouted at her that there was a mealy worm gumming up the ballot scanner and she needed to stick her paw in there to dislodge it. She couldn’t get the printer to work in her own burrow—why had anyone trusted her with this stuff?

The woodchuck hadn’t planned on voting in this election. She had decided to go into early hibernation and hoped to sleep through the whole thing. But the meadow and the forest had strange vibes about them lately, with the Foxes whispering stories about how the election was fixed before it even took place. They had brought in animals from other places to watch the polecats who were trying to keep order; there was a chameleon outside the voting area changing from camouflage to hot pink and then back again, which she guessed was supposed to be intimidating but just made her giggle. You could tell they weren’t from around here because the temperature had dropped last night and all the lizards sleeping in trees had frozen and fallen to the ground. They had thawed out by morning and gone back to the line to stick their tongues out at the waiting voters.

The big Muskrat who owned the river had stirred up all the birds and now the chattering about how they communicated with each other had become deafening, threatening to drown out what was actually at stake. The woodchuck wasn’t completely sure what Democracy was, but if it meant that she would never again have to listen to that semiaquatic water rodent try to ratsplain electric vehicles to her, she would be happy to vote for it.

Shirley had tried to explain to the woodchuck how important the issues were, but the roaring in her ears drowned out her cousin’s voice. Everything felt like it was on the verge of collapse. It was confusing and scary and she had to keep resisting the urge to go to sleep—she had never met an ostrich, but she envied their ability to stick their heads in the sand. Around the meadow, she was still known as the blind woodchuck, after her faux paw of staring directly into the sun during an eclipse; but also for her habit of willfully denying what was happening around her. She knew now, on this November 8th, that she had to reject that nickname and take off her sunglasses.

She gulped down a few stinkbugs for the caffeine hit, and handed out another ballot.

The Blind Woodchuck may have a brain the size of a pea, but even she understands how important it is to vote!

Vacation, all I ever needed

Shirley poked her head deep in the woodchuck’s burrow and shouted “Hey, cuz! Are you home?”

Home-home-home echoed off the dirt walls, and then silence filled the deep hole as dust floated through a rogue sunbeam that was trying to infiltrate the darkness. Shirley sighed and waddled off to find another woodchuck to gossip with, but she was worried; she hadn’t seen her cousin in weeks.

Far beneath the meadow, in a side tunnel that had been dug specifically for this purpose, the woodchuck chuckled to herself and ate another Snickers bar. A few months ago, she had planted a sign at the top of the burrow that said Gone Fishin!, a little hint she hoped the other groundhogs would understand meant that she wanted to be left alone. Instead, animals kept dropping by to put in orders for scallops or tilapia. 

We live in the dirt, miles from water thought the woodchuck. Did they really think she was going to bring them back scallops?

This time, she had told Shirley that she bought a jet ski and was planning a real vacation to try it out. It had been like posting a notice on Groundhog Twitter; the news had spread faster than monkey pox, or as she called it, the chimp bumps. The woodchuck hated chipmunks intensely and used every opportunity she could find to mock them. The little beasts had been by several times before asking where their tilapia was.

But the jet ski story seemed to have done the trick, and she had been left alone in her cozy burrow for some time now. The silence had been wonderful, the lack of information regularly stuffed into her head by Shirley about her cousins and other woodland animals freeing up space for her to think deep thoughts and to watch that Harry Styles spitting video many times over. She didn’t think he would really do that to Chris Pine, but she would have to watch it a few hundred more times to be sure. 

The problem with watching cutting edge crime scene videos while scrolling for other angles was that it was hard to ignore the rest of the internet. The place with all the sunflowers kept popping up, and she found herself worrying about the grain that was going to waste that could have fed so many. The wildfires everywhere seem to be spreading, and sometimes she thought she could smell smoke even deep in her burrow. That ice shelf that was about to collapse was keeping her up at nights, and she knew once it went, she really was going to be able to get tilapia for everyone because they would be swimming in her burrow.

The worse thing was that the Weasel was still everywhere, despite having been driven out of the forest. Why was everyone still talking about him instead focusing on more important things, like how few monarch butterflies there were this summer, and democracy?

The woodchuck was slowly coming to the realization that it wasn’t her cousins and friends she needed the vacation from—it was the constant stream of fear and bad news that churned through her mind both night and day. It didn’t seem fair that she should have to worry about this stuff; her brain was the size of a walnut and it’s not like she could fix any of it. Besides, she really wanted to discuss the Harry Styles Spitting Video with Shirley. She just had to figure out how to let everyone know that she was back from vacation without letting any of them ride on her jet ski.

GET OUT THE VOLE!

As the morning light filtered into the tunnel, the blind woodchuck moaned and sat up. Torn candy wrappers littered the dirt around her like fallen leaves, and the crunchy sound they made when she rolled over them gave the burrow a festive autumn feel. Something was poking her left haunch, and she batted at it until she realized it was a melted Snickers bar that was stuck in her fur. Barely able to reach over her swollen belly, she licked at the hairy chocolate lump until it completely dissolved in her mouth. What a delightful way to take a bath, she thought.

Getting up the day after a foggy Halloween was always difficult. She had found that bad visibility was a friend to the rodents who scavenged for a living, as it tripped up little trick-or-treaters who scattered their candy as they fell. She knew she should save some of her stash for the long winter ahead, but common sense did not always prevail when a mound of Mounds bars presented themselves to her. There was another pile of things she had collected from broken treat bags, and she sorted through the non-edibles in case she had missed something. She spit out a spider that appeared to have been petrified, wondering how old that thing was. There was a long skinny wooden stick with a rubbery end and a sharp point that could be useful as weapon, so she set that aside. There was also a piece of paper that had a lot of writing on it, but it was wet and smudged. The only part she could make out said, “GET OUT THE VOLE!” in large letters.

The woodchuck was alarmed. She had heard rumours of some kind of caravan of these mice that was coming from another field, and she worried that they were almost here. Although the woodchuck and the vole were both rodents, she felt no camaraderie with the smaller animals. She disliked it when they came to her field uninvited, even though she knew they were trying to escape predators. They were voracious consumers of her favorite nuts, and she often worried that there wouldn’t be enough daffodil bulbs left to help her double her weight for hibernation. It did not occur to her that the calories she had consumed last night would put her well past her goal.

There had also been chatter that the voles and the moles had been working together, which was an odd thing since they traditionally had little in common. The moles liked to hang out in gangs, so if in fact they were all coming to her field, the confrontation was going to be at West Side Story levels. She picked up the sharpened pencil and hummed a few bars of “Tonight.”

“Phil? Are you up?!” Her cousin’s head poked upside down inside the burrow. “Phil!”

“You know I hate to be called that,” she hissed. Her cousin scampered down the tunnel and looked disapprovingly at the piles of wrappers. “What a mess. Your mother would be heartbroken to see what a hoarder you’ve become.”

“I’m not a hoarder! This is all from last night. Shirley, did you see this flyer? The voles are coming! They’re the ones that carry the hantavirus. Or maybe it’s the plague? One of those diseases that’s really bad, I can’t remember! What are we going to do?!”

“First of all, Phil, you’re going to calm down. This stuff about the caravan is nonsense. It’s not herds of mice – it’s a group of our species who need some help. The weasels are attacking them and their food supplies are running low, yet you’re acting like they are invading our field.”

“But the fox said . .  .”

“Stop listening to that Ichabod Crane wannabe with the pumpkin head! You’re getting all worked up over nothing.”

“Look at this warning flyer I found.” The woodchuck thrust the paper with the smudgy words “GET OUT THE VOLE” at her cousin. “Read what they said!”

“Philomena, take off those stupid sunglasses. You’re in a dark burrow and you’re not blind anymore! It doesn’t say GET OUT THE VOLE, you idiot. Look at it again.”

The not-really-blind woodchuck removed her sunglasses and took a long look at the headline. In large black letters it said GET OUT THE VOTE!

“Oh. It’s not . . . vole.”

“Look, Phil, I know the eclipse messed you up, but you can see again and you have to start questioning things. Those glasses are like blinders. You simply can’t believe everything the Fox tells you. He does not have your best interests at heart; or any of us other animals, either. So let’s go do what the flyer says. Are you ready?

“Yes, I’m ready. Let’s go! Um, Shirley?

“What now, Phil?”

“You have a Snickers bar stuck to your butt.”

 

Unfortunately, woodchucks are not allowed to vote. But you are! Do it for all the marsupials who have no say at the ballot box.

Burn, Baby, Burn

catsin3D

Countless articles are warning that you will need special glasses if you plan on looking at the eclipse. Make sure you get the right kind —shameless grifters are apparently repurposing old 3D glasses and trying to pass them off as NASA approved, so be suspicious if yours have a Captain America logo on the side. I found a pair at a local hardware store for under two bucks and was surprised at how flimsy they are. For all the worry about blind woodchucks, I was expecting something a bit more substantial.

Some procedural questions for those of us who already wear glasses: do you duct tape the cardboard ones over your existing specs or shove them underneath? What if you have bifocals? Can I get these in my prescription? Are the disposables biodegradable or will they still be in landfills by the time we go through this again in 2024? Can I get the eclipse pair in those really thick, dark frames that all the hipsters are wearing?

Not peeking may be the safest option, but you can’t hear all the hype about this event and then elect to just stare at your shoes while it is happening. Looking at your feet should at least remind you to make the classic Pinhole Shoebox experiment. This diagram shows how to construct this project. It works exactly as described but should come with a warning— opinions may vary on its effectiveness.

Pinhole Shoebox

The last eclipse that was visible from the midwest area of the U.S. was in 1994. Chicago wasn’t anywhere near the path of totality so there wasn’t quite the amount of coverage there is now, but it was still in the news. I had been talking it up to my kids (who were nine and four at the time) and perhaps raising expectations for this great event in the sky just a tad more than I should have. Since I was all about Safety First and crafty as hell to boot, we constructed the Pinhole Shoebox as a family project. It was very low-tech but I assured them it was going to work perfectly. They seemed doubtful.

The afternoon of the eclipse found us out on the playground of the elementary school with kids milling about waiting for something momentous to happen. As the time approached, the light started to vaguely dim but it wasn’t as if total darkness fell. It just seemed cloudy. I had the shoebox positioned correctly to catch the light and as the moon moved in front of the sun, a perfect crescent shadow slowly advanced over the white circle that was the sun projected at the back of the box. It looked exactly as Carl Sagan had promised!

The problem with this whole experiment is that it happens inside of a shoebox and the image is about the size of a pencil eraser. You could call it anticlimactic. Others might use the words profoundly underwhelming.

Excitedly I called the kids over to show them that it had worked and they looked baffled. They had imagined something like the stream of light hitting the crystal staff and sending a laser beam through the darkness of the pyramid tomb in Raiders of the Lost Ark. What they got was their mother with her head in a shoebox acting like she had discovered something about the sun that Galileo might have missed. As I handed the box to my daughter so that she, too, could marvel at this astronomical event, I caught the look on her face. It was the dawning realization that this was to be the first of many moments when her up-to-that-point cool mom was actual going to turn out to be the embarrassment of her life. She’d heard about this in the girl’s bathroom but hadn’t expected it to happen this soon. And why was the waist of her jeans so high?!?

Shortly after this, she refused to be picked up from school in the battered old Chevy Chevette I was driving at the time. My advice is don’t try the shoebox experiment with anyone over the age of eight. You’re setting yourself up for humiliation. It’s going to happen eventually, but why add fuel to the fire? And for God’s sake, stop wearing those mom jeans.

Fun fact: Galileo was completely blind by the age of 74. Coincidence? I think not. 

How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck stared directly into a solar eclipse?

woodchuck_eclipsebehind it

I think the answer is obvious. The first rule about watching the solar eclipse is don’t watch the solar eclipse. Foolish woodchucks who don’t wear their special glasses during this event will find themselves scorned and mocked by the other rodents. They can be very mean.

I hope the rest of the woodchucks have already ordered their glasses from NASA, because on August 21, 2017, North America will be able to experience its first solar eclipse in almost a century. For a total of 2 minutes and 41 seconds, the moon will move in front of the sun, blocking the light and warmth of the star we depend upon for our very survival. It’s a preview of what life will be like if Donald Trump stays in office much longer.

A total eclipse is said to be an awe-inspiring moment.  The light dims and goes flat, the temperature suddenly chills, birds and animals go silent (except for my cats, who will assume it’s time to eat since it will be dark). Woodchucks will make bad choices.

Most of the U.S. will be able to see at least a partial eclipse (or as Congress calls it, “a skinny eclipse”), but to get the whole experience of Black is the New Orange, you will need to be in the Path of Totality. The Path is not some flower-laden trail of dirt that little girls skip along; it is a wide arc of the sightline that swoops across the country, suddenly throwing tiny little midwestern towns into the spotlight simply because of where they are geographically located.

One of these towns is Hopkinsville, KY, population 31,000. That’s for today. On August 21, it is expected to be more like 150,000; or rather, 150,011, as my entire family and I will be there, too.

The Blind Woodchuck, besides being a cautionary tale, is also your guide to All Things Eclipse. Check back frequently for a first person narrative of how to prepare for this great event, and moment to moment observations about whether thousands of people standing together in a field staring up at the sun will simultaneously burn their retinas to a crisp. We can all learn from the woodchuck.