Saturday, February 6, 2016

Inch One Hundred and Three: Small Moments

This has been a week of small moments of great reward. Here are two of them.

One of the jobs I do at court is help facilitate a class for juveniles called "Victims Awareness." The class is a five week long program to help young offenders learn skills in making better choices, accepting responsibility for their actions, and developing empathy for others.

Earlier this week was the fifth and final class of the current group of youth. I made brownies and brought a plate of them to the class. One of our students, a young man who has had a rougher way to go than many, lit up.

"Brownies? For us?"

It was a very small class. Everyone, including the adults, took a brownie or two. The plate ended back up by the young man.

"May I have another?"


A few minutes later:

"May I have another?"


By the end of the class, checking with everyone else to make sure no one else wanted any, he had emptied the plate. He grinned and said, "Those were great!" before bolting out the door.

It was just a plate of brownies, and made from a box to boot. But judging by his reaction, you'd have thought that plate had held the world.

The second small moment was the kind of moment you have in small, tightly knit, downtown communities. Margo and I were sitting in a coffee shop, talking fast in the very limited time we had, when the young woman who works there came up to us.

"Does this belong to one of you?"

She held up a caramel colored knit scarf, fringed, with a decorative button.

I lit up.

"My scarf! Thank you!"

The scarf was a present from Warren two Christmases ago. A few weeks ago, on a bitterly cold day, I had worn it to my office, then wore it when I left the building for a mediation at a middle school. It wasn't until later that night that I realized I no longer had the scarf. I could remember wearing it to the school, but not after that.

The next day, after checking my office, I emailed the principal with whom I had met, asking her if I had left behind a scarf.

No, she responded. She said she'd keep an eye out for it in the lost and found.

Great. The lost and found piles at middle schools are massive monuments to the inability of young pubescent minds to keep track of their personal belongings. And knowing I would be back at that particular school in a few weeks, I resigned myself to pawing through mountains of abandoned and neglected items.

Instead, here was Gina, holding out my scarf, remembering us from that same day, and asking us if it belonged to one of us. "When I saw you two there, I remembered seeing this scarf with you."

She could have handed me the world and I would not have been more pleased. When I left, I stopped at the counter.

"You have no idea how happy you made me," I said. "You just made my day!"

Gina beamed. I beamed. My scarf was back and all was right.

I felt just like our juvenile earlier with the brownies.

Thank you! Thank you!

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Inch One Hundred and Two: Last Night's Meal

Last night's meal was salad, a small loaf of bread I'd bought on the markdown rack at the grocery and stored in the freezer, and homemade Great Northern beans and ham soup—the ham from the bone which had graced my brother Mark's Christmas spread and then made its way to our soup pot.

Estimated total cost? Maybe $2.50. Possibly less, but maybe not. There were, after all, five olives (on my salad only) from the olive bar at the grocery, and that's an indulgence.

The point is, it was cheap. Wonderfully filling and delicious, but cheap.

I am headed back to Rochester, Minnesota in under two weeks. I'll have a day of testing at the Mayo Clinic, then labs and my oncology appointment the next day. I am reacting to this upcoming visit the way I normally react to my Mayo visits: by hunkering down financially. For me, that means scaling back on our already intentionally lean grocery spending. In a typical month, we spend around $200 on groceries and household items; this month we are closer to $100. It also means reading or rereading books about frugality (think The Tightwad Gazette) or memoirs about hard economic times. My book this weekend is Made For You and Me, Caitlin Shetterly's account of her husband and her losing their financial way in the Great Recession of 2008.

And if I am feeling really anxious, I'll pull The Long Winter off the shelf and read the chapter where Laura braces herself and asks Ma if they are going to starve.

I'm not exactly sure why going to Mayo makes me feel the wolf is at our door, trying to thrust his great shaggy head into our home. I have excellent medical insurance which covers Mayo. We can afford the gas to get there and back and the lodging and meals while there. Our car is reliable. My bank account, while not plump, is stable. Compared to many of the people I come into contact with through my job and the Legal Clinic, I am financially secure.

So why the wolf? Why the stress?

I think the wolf appears because I don't want to think of who more appropriately is hanging around the front door. That would be Death, who I have come to personalize in my poetry. Death has a persona when I write about him, somewhat of a callous trickster, a Coyote without the grin. Unlike the wolf at the door, which I can shoo away by throwing rocks at, Death is inviting himself in for tea.

So, I am off to Mayo and feeling frugal. But don't worry: we're eating well. And yesterday afternoon, I tried out a new lemon bar recipe with a thick, rich curd calling for not only butter but also olive oil. We had the aforementioned delicious meal, an evening of plumbing work (Warren) and writing letters (me), and then sat down with the inaugural slices of the dessert.

We savored every sweet, tangy bite. And the wolf slunk off, gnashing his teeth.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Inch One Hundred and One: Purging

Warren has been redoing the storage setup in the basement, dismantling the old, rusted metal shelving units and installing new coated wire shelves instead. As part of the overhaul, he has pulled off every item that was on the shelves and set them out on the basement floor. The two of us have been going through the piles, deciding what stays and what goes.

There are a lot of "goes."

It is always amazing to me what we—the universal "we"—hold onto for that elusive "someday." The basement overhaul has been a classic example of the human inclination to stash away stuff. Just stuff. I'm as guilty of it as anyone.

One of the big ticket items (in terms of bulk, not price) on the shelf was the old canner, a behemoth that my mother bought at a yard sale probably in the 1970s and that I took over several years ago. The thing is heavy and massive. Along with it was a plastic tub full of canning miscellany: two sets of tongs, a canning funnel, assorted rings and lids. 

And about six dozen canning jars, most of which were the pint jar size.

"What about this?" 

I looked at Warren. I looked at the canner. I looked at all those jars.


Warren was concerned. Was I sure? Was I just getting rid of it because I knew he wanted to cut down on the items that would go back on the shelves? Should we hold onto it a little longer?

No. My decision was firm and final. 

The canner has served my family long and faithfully. My mother's canning days are long over. The truth is that mine are too. Canning takes an enormous amount of physical energy. I have enjoyed it in the past, but at this stage of my life it is life energy I do not have in quantity and what I do have I would rather spend in other pursuits than canning.

I said out loud, "I'm never canning again."

Warren did not protest, did not offer reasons why I might can again. He just nodded and said "well, we freeze a lot of the garden stuff."

So the canner and the tongs and the funnel went into the Goodwill pile. (The canning jars are headed to coworkers at Court for special projects.) They were joined by other items—some odd baking pans, a tortilla press, an old plastic model that never got made, an old yogurt maker. Some of this and some of that. And then box by box, sack by sack, we carried the items upstairs and out to my car so I could make a Goodwill run. 

I had sorted through and purged the Christmas boxes, primarily the ornaments, a few days earlier. Some of those I set aside to send to Portland later in the year, closer to the holiday. The rest joined the exodus to Goodwill.

Earlier in the fall, I had pushed my sons to give me some clue as to what paintings by their grandfather they would like to have. Ben took it to mean I was focusing on dying and said he would rather enjoy the time with me and focus on making memories. So when I pulled the Christmas ornaments, I cautioned him and his brother Sam that this was not an indication of my eventual demise, but rather an indication that I have too much stuff.  I warned them that one day they too would be 60 (which I will be shortly) and realize that they had too much stuff. 

On Monday of this week I drove to Goodwill and pulled up at the donation station. "Everything in the back seat of my car," I said to the worker, and helped him unload it all.  

I still have too much stuff. But let me tell you, I felt 100 pounds lighter when the last item came out of my car. The Goodwill employee started to thank me for my donation. 

I waved him off. "No, no," I cried. "Thank you!" And I drove off, leaving behind all the sacks and the boxes.

And one very heavy, very old, and very used canner.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Inch One Hundred: The Ring

I thought I'd lost my wedding ring for good earlier this week. I pulled off my gloves in the produce department of the grocery and realized my ring finger was bare.

I quickly checked the glove, praying it had slid off in the glove finger. Empty. I had not felt it fall off, but I looked about around the onion display.  I checked the pockets of my jeans, hoping for a miracle.


My heart sank. I had been in another grocery story just prior to this one, gloveless in that store. Had my ring come off when I picking out an avocado? Had it slipped into the sack when I was bagging my groceries? Or, horrors, had it somehow fallen off when I was was walking across the frozen, iced parking lot?

I was heartsick. And because I had come from chemo and needed to get home, I told myself to go home, unpack the groceries, then call the store to see if anyone had turned in my ring.

As I drove home, this loop kept playing in my head: you knew your ring was loose, you should get a ring guard, maybe it's in with the groceries, you knew your ring was loose...

Once home, I carried in the groceries in stages, the last stage being getting my briefcase and shoe bag out of the passenger side footwell. And there, underneath my briefcase and on top of the windshield cover, was my ring.

Just waiting for me. All but asking "What took you so long?"

This is the second time my ring has left me. The first time was earlier this summer, when it slipped off my finger into the grass as I hung laundry on the line. That time it was gone for some 45 minutes and only a slow retracing of my day brought it back to me.

And even before that, there was the time my ring took a running dive into the lint trap of the dryer and Warren had to rescue it.

It's tricksy, this ring.

Perhaps because I just finished rereading The Lord of the Rings, I am imbuing my ring with the power to make its own choices. The Ring (THE Ring) in the book had a mind of its own and chose when and how to leave its current ring bearer and pick a new one. Perhaps my ring got the idea from Tolkein.

The real reason for my ring's disappearing act is loss of muscle mass in my hands, courtesy of cancer. My body continues to change as the disease progresses. As Atul Gawande so brilliantly summed it up, even when I am doing relatively well, the night brigade is always out on the perimeter taking down the defenses.

Warren and I have not talked about what I want done with my wedding ring when I die. I don't know myself. Our rings were custom made and have elements meaningful to us and our story. Do I pass my ring on to my granddaughter? Do I leave it to Warren? Do I have it buried with my ashes? Or ask my sons to fling in into the Pacific Ocean so the sea can take it?

I don't know. I don't have to know right now. For now, the ring is back where it belongs, on my finger. I am hoping it chooses to stay there for awhile. Maybe it has had enough adventure and will behave. Or maybe it is already planning its next escape.

It's tricksy, this ring.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Inch Ninety-Nine: New Year

I have not yet grown used to the idea that it is a new year. Oh, I am getting the date right on checks and letters, but another year? Already?

The first nine days of January have been a hodgepodge. Some days off, some truancy mediations (already), some sunny cold days, some warmer but rainy days. We continue to have no snow. This morning, Warren and I took a walk in weather more like mid-April than early January. Portland got some snow and ice at the beginning of the week; the video of Ramona playing in it showed more snow clinging to her mitten than we have had all season.

Our tree—the one that dropped needles before it was even in its stand—is still with us. The press of time on Warren and my personal lack of energy have guaranteed that the holidays will linger yet a bit longer in this house.

To say I have been reading a lot these last several days would be an understatement. I just finished rereading The Lord of the Rings, not for the first time. Before that, I inhaled Roger Angell's This Old Man, a collection of his short pieces, most of which appeared in The New Yorker, a magazine which he and his mother and stepfather before him have been associated with almost since its inception. Angell's stepfather was E.B. White and by some magical, non-biological process, he inherited a goodly portion of White's writing skill. Angell's mother, Katherine S. White, was a formidable editor and no slouch at writing herself, but she was not E.B. White. She may have taught her son a sense of structure, but the effortless sentences that Angell turns out could have come straight from White's pen. As my good friend Margo noted, reading Angell is so easy, "like floating."

During my chemo sessions, which are twice a week, I am reading for the first time War and Peace. It's a lengthy tome, but there are lots of chemo sessions in the future. While sitting in the waiting room waiting for chemo, I read an essay in a cancer magazine on the nearest table. The essayist talked about her changed priorities since receiving her diagnosis. She no longer spent time on things that did not interest her, such as "boring" books that "were supposed to be good" for her. On the strength of that conviction, she chucked War and Peace.

War and Peace boring? Boring? Lengthy, yes. Freighted with complicated names and lineages and story lines, absolutely. But boring? Never. I put down the essay in disgust.

For my home reading, I am rereading Blue Highways by William Least Heat Moon. In the dark of winter, in the start of the new year, it is good to read and dream of road trips down the blue highways of our own choosing.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Inch Ninety-Eight: 2015 By The Numbers

As we all prepare to wrap up the year, I have whiled away the hours thinking of things I could count for 2015. It turned out to be a fun exercise.

This is what 2015 looked like for me:

Number of blood draws/IV sticks (successful or not): 30 (probably low)

Number of times my new port has already been used to great personal acclaim: 4

Number of trips to Portland, Oregon: 2

Number of trips to Rochester, Minnesota: 2

Number of times I walked through the grounds of the Alamo: 3

Number of states I was in or drove through, not counting Ohio and not counting flyovers: 12 (I had originally posted 11, but Warren reminded me of Iowa)

Number of days old Ben was as of December 16, when he turned 30: 10,958

Number of  days old Sam was of as June 28 when he turned 25: 9132 

Number of days old Ramona will be as of today, December 31: 1217

Number of presidential debates watched this year, either party: 0

Number of bowls of oatmeal eaten for breakfast: 260 (more or less)

Number of batches of biscotti baked for the holidays: 10

Number of pieces of biscotti 10 batches make: Over 800

Number of batches of peanut brittle Warren made for the holidays with his son's help: 3 (plus 1 burned batch)

Number of Preservation Parks out of 9 we have walked in: 3

Number of concerts Warren played in this year (not counting rehearsals): 16

Number of concerts Warren played in that I attended: 13

Number of church services Warren played: 5

Number of church services Warren played that I attended:  4

Number of books I read: Ha! You think I keep track of that?

Number of Legal Clinics held: 12

Number of Legal Clinics at which I volunteered: 11

Number of clients served for the year: 228 (not counting the phone consultations) 

Number of poems written into final draft: 59

Number of poems written still in rough draft: 8

Number of 1000 piece jigsaw puzzles completed: 2

Number of hugs given and received: too many to count

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Inch Ninety-Seven: O Tannenbaum

Thank heavens for good friends. It was my good friend Margo, commenting on live Christmas trees, who said that she and her husband had learned over the years that rather than agonize over which tree looked the prettiest or had the best shape, just pick one and take it home. Once decorated, the tree would look just fine.

I took her comments to heart this year. By last Sunday night, I was able to report to Margo that our tree was up. We had picked it out in record time ("How does this one look?" "Looks good.") and moved it into the house Sunday morning. By nightfall, Christmas had arrived. 

The deed was accomplished by two exhausted, weary, one of them sore and limited in activity (I had a port put in last Friday), aging (sometimes rapidly) adults who realized after a long weekend of concerts and rehearsals (mostly Warren, of course, but I accompanied him to a Sunday performance in Mansfield, Ohio, an hour away) that if we didn't do anything Sunday night we would not get the tree decorated at all. AT ALL.

The tree is shedding needles voraciously. If you walk by it, it sheds. If you twitch while sitting in the same room, it sheds. That's okay. While it shed, I spent an hour opening ornament containers (i.e. large plastic tubs full of stuff) and pulling out a handful of things—let's do this one, not this one this year. There were lots of ornaments in the second group. We hung them up (Warren taking the bulk of the hanging duties, as I was culling ornaments) until Warren suddenly said "I am exhausted and can't hang any more ornaments." At that point, we had just three stray ones left on the couch, and I put those on. Lids went back on the containers and 
we were done.

And you know what? The tree looks just fine. Especially with the tree lights lit and the room lights dim in the evening. (Did I mention that one string of lights bit the dust when only half the string lit? And that we made do with the remaining strings we had?) So thank you, Margo, for the "just pick a tree and it will be fine" advice. Because in the end, it is just fine.

And the front door wreath this year? 
The raffia wreath on our front do

We bought some roping when we were out buying our shedding Christmas tree. We have a wreath frame made of a coat hanger and Warren lashed some of greenery to it. (The rest of the greenery was tied to a former timpani head that broke last year and is now repurposed into a most excellent outdoor wall wreath.) A good friend sent us a gift basket that was tied with raffia. We eased the tie off and it was headed to the trash when I realized that with one snip it would make a folksy bow with streamers. Warren made it the next day or so and it too looks just fine.

So here we are, the day before Christmas, decorated with bits and pieces of our daily life.

And you know what? It looks fine. Just fine. 

The wreath made from a former timpani head