Friday, March 27, 2015

Inch Fifty-Five: Cousins

My sons' cousin Eric, who on the paternal side of their family tree is the closest in age to them, has been in Portland with his wife and little daughter for a few days this week. Frida is about nine or ten months younger than Ramona and the two of them have had a lot of time together judging by what I see on Facebook.

Eric is about 18 months older than Ben, and they had their cousin moments when they were little. It warms my heart to see their daughters now starting down the path of cousin bonding. I made copies of the Facebook photos and sent them to my dear friend Coco (Eric's mother) with a note about how thrilled I was to see our grandchildren coming together.

Like fathers...

On my mom's side of the family, there were 27 or 28 first cousins, my brothers and I being among the youngest of the brood. (In fact, my two younger brothers and I are the youngest, and have cousins whose children are closer in age to us.) On my dad's side, there are no first cousins (his sole sibling had no children) but dad had a generous handful of cousins whose ages ranged from older than him to about my age, and children of those cousins who were my age and younger.


I was awash in cousins. At reunions and other gatherings of all kinds, we cousins would come together in clumps, the younger ones playing together outdoors or at the creek or climbing trees or just running in circles making up wild games. The older ones who were not yet adults would stand around swilling pop (soda to all you others out there), cracking jokes and avoiding the elders. There were good times and rich memories.

Cousins are the ornamentation—the braided trim, the novelty buttons—on the family fabric. Cousins are Sandra Kay recounting 50 years later that my brother Mark spit up all over her the first time she held him as a baby. Cousins are Brent telling me about the dead silence in the room when my parents came home after eloping and making their announcement to my Mom's father.

When my boys were little, they too were immersed in cousins at the Sanchez gatherings and I got to see a lot of their own cousin moments. Cousins are Eric and Ben poring over an electronic game. Cousins are Ben (not yet four then) dancing at his cousin Coquis's wedding. Cousins are Sam being dared by George to eat a Tommy's pepper as a Los Angeles rite of male passage and receiving a glass of milk and a hearty slap on the back for downing the fiery thing. daughters. 

Frida and Ramona will not likely remember their early days other than seeing a picture someday in the future. But they are already adding trimmings and notions—a sparkly button here, an embroidered patch there—to the vast family fabric.


Saturday, March 21, 2015

Inch Fifty-Four: Leaving the Woods

Naturalist and essayist Henry Thoreau famously left his home in Concord, Massachusetts, in the summer of 1845, built a small cottage on the banks of Walden Pond, which was a little more than a mile away from the village, and lived there for the next two years. He went to the woods as an experiment, because he "wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life. and see if [he] could not learn what it had to teach." Thoreau did not want to reach the end of his life and discover he "had not lived." His book Walden details his experiment.

Thoreau did not stay exclusively at the pond, but often walked the short distance back to Concord to visit family and friends. Finally, he left the woods permanently in 1847 and moved back to town. He writes of his decision eloquently: "I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one."

I always had a strong fondness for Thoreau, although I was well into adulthood before I read Walden cover to cover. (For a long time, I liked the idea of reading Walden better than actually reading it.) Once I made it through the book, it became one of those I returned to and reread every few years, well, at least up until I lent my copy to someone and never saw it again.

Walden is on my mind because I just came out of the woods myself.

Nine and a half years ago, I placed my Ohio license to practice law on inactive status. I'd just undergone a tandem stem cell transplant and I was in no condition to return to my office, let alone advise anyone. By moving my license to inactive status, I gave up the right to practice law, but left the door open should I change my mind.

I have never regretted that decision. While I generally enjoyed practicing law in those town, leaving all of that behind was easy. I was done being a lawyer.

So why did I recently reactivate my license?

A couple of reasons, the primary one being that I am working on another special court project for my good friend and former employer, Judge David Sunderman of the Delaware Municipal Court. (This is in addition to my position as a mediator with our county Juvenile Court, at which I recently passed my fourth anniversary as a staff member.) I am creating a new treatment court, and as I draft the foundational documents of the court, I felt that I was practicing law, especially once I started working closely on procedural matters with the new court coordinator. Practicing law was a luxury denied me with an inactive license and the Ohio Supremes tend to frown on that.

A murkier reason for reactivating my license is that we have changed administrations at our Juvenile Court. We have a newly elected judge, a generation plus younger than the previous one. (Ohio has mandatory retirement for judges: they may not run for reelection after they turn 70.) There is the dazzling potential for transforming the court in new and positive ways. Some court staffers, Machiavellian to the core, have been trying to position themselves in the new era, working harder than any small town political boss ever did. My license is both a sword and a shield to keep me out of the internal politics.

I am not returning ever to the practice of law. (For those local friends reading this, read that sentence again. I am not practicing law again, period.) I love working at Juvenile Court, especially the aspects of my job that allow me to work with juveniles, and my only unmet goals at Court involve creating new programs that may never see the light of day, let alone come to fruition.

But I have left the woods for the same reason Thoreau gave 168 years ago. I could not spare any more time to keep the license shelved, and it seemed to me that I still have several more lives to live.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Inch Fifty-Three: Back

It is raining as I pen these words late Friday afternoon. It has been raining since early afternoon and the day is gray and wet. The tree branches are dripping, puddles are spreading across the sidewalk.

After bemoaning our horrific winter and doubting that spring would ever come, I was cautiously optimistic when the vicious cold suddenly broke earlier this week. Sun and rain and temperatures in the 50s have filled the creeks and rivers and melted much of the snow. The large bulldozed piles in parking lots and the smaller shoveled piles lining driveways still remain, but yards and fields are emerging everywhere.

I hung suet blocks in the dogwood tree out back earlier this winter, but until this week, the blocks were untouched, frozen solid. I don't know how the birds survived this winter. Many days were still and silent without any indication that there was a bird left alive in the bleak landscape. Now when I step outside in the morning, I hear a flurry of birds calling and singing. Today's rain has quieted some of that chorus, but there is no doubt the birds are out there.

As I sit here writing, I see a downy woodpecker working over the suet cake. Downies are small birds, mostly black and white. I like to watch them after they finish eating, as they often jump or fly to the tree trunk and then hop their way to the top before flying away.

The dogwood tree is right outside the kitchen. Washing dishes yesterday, I looked up to see a downy finish its meal and hop up the tree, only to be replaced at the suet feeder by a red-bellied woodpecker. I watched them, all thoughts of dishes temporarily set aside, until the downy had hopped up out of sight and the other had flown away.

There is something timeless about standing at a sink with your hands in the dishpan, watching spring return to the backyard.

Later last evening, I met up with a friend and took a walk, my first local walk of 2015 that was more than just hurrying from the car to a building or back again. We were deep in conversation when I suddenly stopped listening to my friend's voice and listened to the sky. A skein of geese was veeing to the north and the faraway sound of honking caught my ear and my attention.

The birds are back.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Inch Fifty-Two: A Year of Posts

Ramona's pinwheel buried in the garden snow
Back on March 15, 2014, I made a commitment to write a blog post a week, figuring I was good for at least that much. I took my cue from writer Anne Lamott, who urged wannabe writers to tell themselves that they only had to write enough to fill a one inch square.

I am writing my 52nd inch since that post.

When I wrote last year, I wrote of a brutal winter both outside and inside. This winter's temperatures have made a mockery of last year's cold, and although the sun has clearly moved into its spring position, there are still inches of snow and ice to melt. There is no brown lawn, no kitchen garden waiting to be tilled. There is only a bleak landscape that is not ready yet to yield to spring.

At this time last year I was also a month into a different treatment regimen for the incurable myeloma that resides in my marrow. I am just about to complete my 12th cycle of Revlimid, an oral chemotherapy, so I have gone a whole year with that too. It is a mixed success. My oncologist is very pleased with the results. Yeah, it's nice that the myeloma has stopped progressing. But the price for that achievement is high and relentless. As I told another friend with myeloma who wanted my opinion of Revlimid, I'm not dying all in one fell swoop but instead losing ground inch by inch. Many of us with myeloma do not die of the disease itself but of the treatment and the long-term impact on our bodies and health of the disease and the treatment. Like Beth, I am aware that the tide is going out.

All the same, despite the cold, despite the cancer, here I am a year later, with 52 weeks of posts.

So what have I learned and where do I go from here?

I have learned, once and for all after paying years of lip service to the idea, that writing is a discipline like anything else. Yes, schedules and other outside pressures impact where and when I write,  but the actual act of writing, of making myself sit down and write, is all about me and my priorities. As I noted a year ago, it is about respecting and honoring my commitment to writing.

I have discovered that the act of writing on a regular schedule has lead to my evaluating and reprioritizing my daily life, my weekly life, my where-am-I-and-what-am-I-doing-here? life. Last year I wrote that my recent experiences in Cancerland showed me I need to live more deliberately, and the experience of writing weekly helps me slow down and focus on what I want to do, what I need to do, what I can wait to do, and what I can let go of entirely. I hope I have gotten better at respecting my needs and my time, whether it be for writing or for catching my breath. (Friends reading this who have been trying to plan time with me may be shaking their heads skeptically. I know, I know, but this is the heart of truancy season and my work schedule has gone off the rails.)

I plan to continue my one square inch focus, my one post a week goal. Writing is more holistically beneficial than anything else I do for myself and is a close runner-up to the benefits I reap when I do for others. It is portable, it is flexible, and it is all mine.

Here's to another year of one inch posts.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Inch Fifty-One: Nostalgic Reading Revisited.

Two weeks ago I wrote that I was waiting for two books from my past to arrive in the mail.

Well, they arrived and I read them. 

I was pleasantly surprised at how well one has held up over the decades and absolutely aghast at the tone, content, and context of the other, and even more aghast at my fourteen-year-old self for being so oblivious at the time.

But the quotes first, the quotes that were still lingering in my brain after 45 years. I was close on both. The lines from An Empty Spoon were "Eliot was wrong. It's January that's the cruelest month. No vacations in sight, dark mornings and cold days. It was an endless month." (Note: this memoir is set in 1966-1968—pre-Martin Luther King Day.)

And I was only off by 120 miles on the end line of Dave's Song. Kate runs out the door rejoicing that Dave has come for her with his stereo in the back of the truck blasting "Suzanne," rejoicing that her "world has turned...and Cleveland was suddenly just another dot on the map." 

So which one stood my test of time and which one didn't?

The novel held up. Dave's Song is 45 years old and still reads sweetly and humorously and pointedly. (The author Robert McKay had a major sub-story going on about respecting the natural world and supporting local agriculture which I had forgotten.) At age 59, I know now that Kates are legion—not planning on going to college, planning for what was then called secretarial work—and while Lone Wolf Daves are less plentiful, they are out there too.

I found myself wanting a sequel to Dave's Song as I reread it so many years later. I want to know what became of Kate and Dave. Did he win the scholarship to Ohio State? Did Kate wait for him to come back? Did he come back or did he move on? Kate and Dave would now be in their 60s and I want to know whether their high school romance made it 40 some years down the road. Did they still consider "Suzanne" their song and play it on YouTube every year on their anniversary? 

That is my test of good fiction: I care about the characters enough to wonder what becomes of them. And Dave's Song met that test easily.

The memoir, An Empty Spoon, is what failed so spectacularly. I finished it the same evening it arrived and Warren asked me about it.

I exploded. "The author is privileged and elitist and entitled and racist! And she is so proud of her shallow liberal leanings as she trashes her fellow teachers that she can't see that she's as bigoted as they are, only they're more open about it! And she's a lousy teacher to boot and even admits she doesn't care!"

 In Dave's Song, Kate's mother makes the comment that she likes Dave, and Kate responds that he is unpredictable. "When he pulls his hand out of his pocket you never know whether he's going to show you a baby chicken or a fist full of knuckles." Warren has to feel the same way: he never knows what he's going to get when he asks my opinion of a book.

If Sunny Decker, the memoirist, had not spent every other page preening about how cool and with it and enlightened she was, I might not be so harsh on her. But she was so smug about how great she was (even when she was putting herself down for her lack of interest in teaching, presumably so the reader could protest "no, you're great!") and how she and she alone "got" the racial divide (the kids didn't, her fellow teachers didn't) that I just wanted to smack her. Even for the times, Decker is insufferable. For example, she had a long labored explanation of why it upset and offended her when the students wanted to be called "black" instead of "Negro." (She herself used the phrases "colored" and "Negro" almost interchangeably, although she tended to use "colored" when she was being more personal.) She was upset because she knew their desired name was only a reaction to what she insisted was the shallow and unsustainable black movement of the late 60s. It was not because she was racist, oh no, no, no, just far wiser and more mature than those high school kids. Decker denigrates afros, Malcolm X, every kid who can't read (blaming that on "cutesy elementary school teachers), and every kid who doesn't worship her, which is pretty much most of them. 

So what was I thinking that this book held such a powerful sway over me?

I think it was the overlay of young teacher teaching in difficult circumstances. I never felt drawn to the inner city but I was drawn to Appalachia, and knew my destiny was somewhere in a remote holler where, like Decker, I'd bring great literature and empathy to a group of poor, deserving students just waiting to be enlightened. Surely that was why I read Catherine Marshall's Christy some hundred plus times and a fair portion of Jesse Stuart's works during those same years.  

I hope, had I stayed the course, I would have been a far more competent and far less arrogant teacher than Decker. (And that any memoir I wrote would have been far better reading.)

I admit I wonder what ever became of Sunny Decker, not because I care about her but because I hope at some point in her life she realized just how terrible her book was and how shallow and immature and egotistical she was. Did Decker ever gain enough insight to smack her forehead and exclaim "my god, what an arrogant, elitist, little jerk I was!" and atone for her ways? Or does she to this day (she would be in her early 70s by now) pull out her little book and caress its cover, working mention of it into every conversation she can? 

Did she vote for Obama?

You go back to your past and delve into that book again that you once read numerous times but had not opened in years—a lifetime ago, a different person ago. That's different from rereading books that you never abandoned along the way. I have read and reread Little Women for the last half century, and when I reread it, I read in the present, not as the 10 year old or the teen or the young adult I once was. I've never had a disconnect from that book. Rereading An Empty Spoon and Dave's Song, I didn't feel 14 again, but it was more of a look backwards than I had thought possible. As I had speculated in my earlier post, these books gave me a glimpse into that long ago April I was, and that was enough. 

Friday, February 20, 2015

Inch Fifty: The Ninth Circle of Hell Has Nothing on Us

In the 1300s, the Italian poet Dante Alighieri wrote a three-part epic poem entitled The Divine Comedy. I have not read the entire work, but I have read the first part, Inferno, more than once. The Inferno describes Dante's trip through hell, with the Greek poet Virgil as his guide. I have not read it in recent decades, but some things stick with you, and that work is one of them in my case.

Dante divides Hell into nine descending circles, with the sins and punishments growing more severe the lower one descends. The ninth circle is the very bottom of Hell, the lowest of the lowest, where Satan resides with the traitors, the most evil of sinners.

The ninth circle is not full of fire and brimstone. It is not a searing, scorched wasteland. You couldn't toast a marshmallow, let alone warm your hands in the ninth circle.

No, as Dante wrote it, the ninth circle is a frozen Hell. Satan is encased to his waist in ice and flaps his wings ceaselessly, producing the icy winds that keep everything frozen. It is without light, it is without warmth, it is without comfort.

I don't live in the ninth circle of Hell. I live in Ohio, which right now far exceeds the ninth circle. We are in the midst of a cold winter, the cold this week exacerbated by an occurrence of a Siberian Express. A Siberian Express is a  name dreamed up by some bored meteorologist to describe a sustained, frigid, often sub-zero weather mass, often originating in Siberia. The resulting temperatures take no prisoners.

There is a reason that the Soviet regime located its gulags in Siberia.

Yesterday all schools were canceled because the temperature was 3 or 5 or something like that, with a windchill of sub-zero temperatures. Today schools were canceled again because the temperature at 7 a.m. locally ranged from -3 to -12 before the windchill.

Minus twelve. Really?

Because of my job and a major community commitment, I was out of the house both days before 8 a.m. I don't care how much one bundles up (and trust me, I do), there is nothing, absolutely nothing, that will guard every part of the body against that kind of cold.

It is cold, cold, cold. It is Dante cold. It is the Keats cold of the Eve of St. Agnes. It is way past any cold Robert Frost every penned.

When Dante and Virgil leave the ninth circle, they reemerge on the earth just before dawn on Easter Sunday. E quindi uscimmo a riveder le stelle.

"And then we emerged to see the stars."

I am hoping the spring emerges at some point from the wasteland of winter. After all, the major league pitchers and catchers reported to spring training this week.

I wish I could paraphrase Shelley:

Be through my lips to unawaken'd earth
The trumpet of the prophecy! O Wind,
If the pitchers report, can Spring be far behind?

But right now, the Wind is the Siberian Wind, and there is no joy in Mudville.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Inch Forty-Nine: Nostalgic Reading

I am awaiting the arrival in the mail of two books from my past. These are titles that have teased my memory for years and I finally succumbed to the lure of Amazon and bought cheap copies of each.

The first book is An Empty Spoon by Sunny Decker. Decker was a young, white, idealistic, well-off college graduate who wanted to change the world in the late 1960s. Spoon is her memoir of her year of teaching inner city black youth in Philadelphia, capturing her triumphs and her failures, her shock at institutional racism, and the death of her naiveté in thinking she could change the lives of her students, let alone the world, in one short school year.

The other book winging its way to me is Dave's Song by Robert McKay. McKay was an Ohio author who wrote several short young adult novels. I believe most if not all set in Ohio. Dave's Song was the Ohioana winner for Juvenile Literature in 1969, which is probably why my classmates and I were reading it three years later in Arlene Gregory's sophomore literature class. It is a soft, safe romance between Nice Girl Kate and Lone Wolf Dave. Part of its appeal was Kate's desire to flee the stifling little Ohio town she was living in (a desire I recognized immediately and one that she abandoned in the very last sentence of the book, to my deep disappointment). (For the record, I would note that I did not want to date a Lone Wolf like the title character, I wanted to be a Lone Wolf like the title character.) The other lure of the book was McKay's weaving the lyrics and music of Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne" throughout the narrative. I had a 45 (yes, a 45) of Noel Harrison singing that song that I played repeatedly for several years until it wore out, it being the only remotely "pop" song I listened to in high school. (Take my word for it: my musical tastes in high school were as out of sync with those of my peers as were my intellectual interests.)

Both books were slim paperbacks. Both lingered in my life and were read occasionally for two decades or so, which means I carted them to Chicago, back to Ohio, to Oregon, to Ohio, to California, and back to Ohio once again during the years I owned them. Each eventually disappeared during one of several Book Purges that dotted my adult years.

I am looking forward to seeing the books again. I have been trying to pull a line from Spoon out of my memory, something about T. S. Eliot being wrong about April being the cruelest month. Decker said it was February, for reasons I cannot remember, but as I check this morning's temperature (5 degrees at 4:30 a.m.), I am convinced that she was on to something. And I just want to know if my memory serves me correctly and that the last words of Song are "and Columbus was just another dot on the map."

There is the risk in looking back across a gulf of four and half decades to books so continuously read at the time. That girl I used to be is long gone and the woman I am now has a hard time recalling her passions and ideals (other than my burning desire to get out of this town). These books may be insipid, they may disappoint, I may read them with 59 year old eyes and wonder what I was thinking at the time.

It's a roll of the dice.

When she was a few years older than I am now, Anne Morrow Lindbergh published the first of her several volumes of diaries and letters. I read Save Me A Unicorn, which covered her college years and post-college romance with Charles Lindbergh, in the same general high school years as Dave's Song and An Empty Spoon. (Unlike those two books,  AML is still on my bookshelf.) In looking back at her adolescent self, Anne wrote that she had a "certain respect" for the youngster who was "so many lives removed" from the older adult. "I can laugh at her and am often embarrassed by her, but I do not want to betray her. Let her speak for herself."

Thankfully, I no longer have my high school or college diaries, but my book choices are a form of diary keeping. I am eagerly waiting to see what two of those choices reveal. I am waiting for those choices to speak for that long ago me.