Saturday, May 28, 2016

Inch One Hundred Nineteen: Queen of the Lists

I am not referring to myself. While I will often make short "to do" lists on a busy day to make sure I cover my bases, I am not the Queen of the Lists.

No, that honor belongs to my friend Cindy.

Cindy and I have been friends since before we knew how to be friends. Her grandparents and my grandparents knew one another, her mother and my mother grew up together, and Cindy was no doubt introduced to me when she was 13 months old and I was a new baby. Fortunately, the introduction took. We grew up together, we have shared our lives for 40+ years, and she and I exchange emails daily through the work week. We have shared sibling issues, aging parents issues, health issues (our own), pet and animal issues (hers), children issues (mine), money issues, relationship issues, and everything else one can imagine sharing.

And Cindy holds solid to the conviction that one day, somehow, she will convert me to being a dedicated and avid list maker. She believes that so fervently that for Christmas she gave me the gift of organization: paper, pens, pencils, and two memo notepads, each capable of being stuck to the refrigerator.

This is how dedicated Cindy is. If I mention that I am taking a trip in, say, two to three months, her first question is "do you have your lists yet?" An even better example is her own planning: she already has her suitcase and makeup case out and her lists started for a late July trip she is making.

I am heading out of town right after Memorial Day, flying west to attend a conference in Seattle and then south to spend time in the greater Portland area with my family. (Warren, alas, will be tending the home fires while I am away.) I told Cindy I was making "little" lists and she praised me like one praises a small child who put her toys away for the first time.

I do have little lists: things that I absolutely have to get done before I leave, many of which I knocked off this morning. The biggest item on the list is get the garden planted: my hope is to put it in this evening when the sun is far in the west or tomorrow early before the heat comes up.

But if I were being totally honest with Cindy, I would admit that my packing list is vague at best. I am still wanting to pack minimally, a feat I can get away with because I will have a washer and dryer to use when I am with family. I am curious with how little I can get away with packing for a 13 day trip. Will my clothes all fit in the small bag Warren packs his bongos in? If they do, then I can use my "purse" (using the word very loosely) to carry conference papers, travel papers, and personal items (my wallet, my phone, and so on). I have to think of how each item I want to take will be used and whether I really need it. As a result, when I sit down to make a packing list, I pen a few items and then think "too much."

When Charles Lindbergh flew solo across the Atlantic in 1927 (the 89th anniversary of that flight was seven days ago), he carried no radio to save weight and increase the fuel efficiency of The Spirit of St. Louis. In Wild, Cheryl Strayed writes of tearing out and discarding pages of books after she had read them to reduce the weight of her backpack while she walked the Pacific Crest trail.

Me? I'm just trying to get from Ohio to Washington and back again without having to schlep baggage. Yeah, yeah, I know: I can check it through. But I don't want to. I don't want to lug a bag, even a moderate sized bag, one single step. I certainly don't want to have to lift something BIG (anything that is not small) into an overhead bin. No, no, no.

So minimalist packing. That means minimalist lists. (Of course, that may be the secret to minimalist packing: making a list so spare and honed down that only the bare necessities go.) Who knows? (Cindy would, of course. )

For now, though, I stare at the little lists. They are lists. And Cindy would be so proud of me.

After all, that is what friends are for.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Inch One Hundred Eighteen: Last Year's Garden, This Year's Garden

Last year's vegetable garden was pretty much a bust. Some of it was due to heavy rains early on and lack of heat later on: the basil never really came up, the pepper plants stayed small. The tomatoes, such as they were, were spindly and few in number.
Warren is turning over the garden one shovelful at a time. 

Some of it was due to my mediocre health. I was struggling with a relapse, struggling with a treatment change, just struggling, period.

And some of it was due to a lack of interest and attention.

This year's garden will be different. At least that's the plan.

We still haven't moved out the daylilies and coneflowers we planted in the fall of 2014 to winter over. We haven't started the new flower bed for them. I told Warren I don't care if they continue to occupy the vegetable garden: I like the colors. I can plant around them.

This year I am buying plants. I already bought some at the hardware store the other day. They are all waiting to go into the ground. I will buy a few more: some herbs, some another pepper or two. The days of seedlings in the percussion room, huddling under a lamp for heat, are over. I don't have the mental or the physical energy for it anymore. My interests are elsewhere.
Waiting to be planted 

My goal—and this is a drop dead date—is to have everything in the ground by Memorial Day. Warren is slowly spading the garden, turning it over one shovelful at a time. I have cleared out the perimeter, where I plant marigolds to deter pests. I'm putting the seeds right into the "pots" (the two hollow spaces in a concrete block laid on its side) because I learned a long ago that marigold are hardy and seem to sprout within minutes of being planted.

That's what's on my list for next weekend.

Why the rush? I have places to go and people to see, starting on May 31. Warren will remain behind, guarding the home front.

And the garden.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Inch One Hundred Seventeen: Windings

I have the day off and have spent the morning running some errands and doing some chores. I needed to stop at my Aunt Ginger's apartment, a block away, to get her signature on various documents for an upcoming medical appointment. While there, I asked her if she wanted to come out with me while I went to the bank, and then take a drive.

Ginger jumped at the chance. As she ages, her world becomes smaller and smaller. A car ride is a great opportunity to see some sights.

After a stop at the drive-through bank, I told her we were heading to the East Side, the side of town where we both grew up, the side of town where Ginger lived more than half her life. She would like that. So I headed across the river, turned on Milo, and turned up Flax Street.

The house—the one her father built, the one she lived in for almost 50 years, the one I grew up in—still stands. It has been clad in vinyl siding, replacing the old, soft white asbestos singles that used to cover it. I had to point it out to Ginger: between her fading memory and the different appearance of the house, she wasn't sure which one it was. We turned up Carlisle to Delta, passing the house that Mrs. Willis lived in throughout both our childhoods, turning past the house that was always Aunt Jane's house and, before that, my great-grandfather's house. She commented on all the new houses in what used to be large lots; Habitat For Humanity has transformed the neighborhood. We drove past the old junkyard, long decommissioned and now empty. We turned back down Flax and I commented that whoever owned the Flax Street House had fenced off a small part of the backyard and let the rest to the north go to trees and brush. It gives the backyard a wild, enticing air.

I then drove Ginger out of town, first to the cemetery where her parents and her paternal grandparents are buried. Three of her infant brothers are out there, as well as Uncle Arthur, who died in combat in World War I. We walked slowly back to the graves, Ginger holding firmly onto my arm. From there we went to the Kilbourne cemetery where my brother, my dad's parents, and my infant sister are buried, and where my parents and Aunt Ginger will eventually be. Then we turned and headed back to Delaware.

At 86 and several months, Ginger is unsteady on her feet. Her body is slowly winding down: the bones ache, the arthritis flares, the gait is shaky and uncertain. She always takes an arm when it is offered.

Her mind has been winding down for the last few years as well. There are more and more gaps in her short-term memory, and I have taken over most of her responsibilities for appointments and financial matters. She may ask the same question several times; today's question was whether she had a headstone yet. But Ginger's sense of humor is intact, and her memories of long ago, even though repeated more than once in a conversation, are still strong. Today the talk was of an adult neighbor up Flax Street who had dirty feet (Ginger knew this because the woman went barefoot and often propped her feet up on the porch rail) and the proprietor at the little corner store who ran a numbers racket on the side back in the 1930s. We shared memories of Aunt Jane, her older sister, and laughed together.

At 60, I am aware of my own winding down. Some of it is just being reflective of my age, as in both "I never though I would make 60" and "so this is what 60 is like." More of it is my awareness that the myeloma is wearing me down. In my most recent Myeloma Beacon column, to run later this month,  I compare myself to Tik-Tok of Oz, Baum's mechanical man who was tireless as long as he was wound tight, but who came to an abrupt halt when he wound down.

At this stage of the myeloma, I too am starting to wind down.

We had a beautiful morning, my aunt and I. We laughed, we talked, we wound our way around the county from town to rural cemetery to rural cemetery and back again. By the time I walked Ginger into her apartment, she was glad to be home so she could rest. She is winding down. By the time I drove the block to our house pulled in, I was glad to be home as well and for much the same reason.

I am discouraged somewhat by my winding down, but not surprised and, so far at least, not overwhelmed by it. For some months, I have been coming to the realization that I am having to learn how to say goodbye to the world. Even so, there are still those moments, so many moments, of incredible joy and delight and wonder. I would say even at the lowest points, joy and delight and wonder still light my path.

One of today's joys was being out with Aunt Ginger, just two aging women who are winding down, winding through the county and through our memories.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Inch One Hundred Sixteen: The Reading List

I just tossed out the reading list.

Well, "list" is perhaps too tame a description of what I just tossed. My list was a small, spiral-bound notebook in which I had listed title after title, some crossed out if I had read the book. Stuffed into the loose leaves of the notebook were 50 or more pieces of paper with more titles on them, pages ripped from the Daedalus Books catalogue with titles circled, and even a line or two of notebook paper torn from a friend's letter.

It was too much. I was drowning in good intentions, good recommendations, good reviews.


Even if I live to be 100, which I most assuredly will not, I will never ever read all the books I hear of, read of, learn of, am told about. For every one I read, three more titles will sprout in its place.

Even a benevolent Hydra is still a Hydra. And I am not Hercules.

Finally realizing that is what lead me to my bold decision to take the notebook, pull out every note stuffed into it, rip out every page I had written on (100 titles? 500 titles?), and chuck it all in the recycling bin.

Recycling pickup is on Tuesday.

Like Jacob Marley, I have been dragging a heavy coil wrapped tight around my waist. Only instead of of "cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds and heavy purses wrought in steel," my chain is one of unread books.

It is a ponderous chain!

Rest assured, this is not a renunciation of reading. I cannot live without my books. Friends will continue to thrust volumes into my hands and I will continue to view the library as my personal smorgasbord. I will happily read on into oblivion. Rather, this is a renunciation of collecting titles, of squirreling away each and every bright possibility with the best of intentions and then putting each and every successive possibility on top until I had a stratum that would rival any geologic layers.

So I've let it go. I have opened my hands, literally and figuratively. I have loosened my grip. Accompanied by a soft clank of covers and the faint scent of best intentions, I have stepped free of the coil I had forged myself, link by link.

I'm as light as a feather.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Inch One Hundred Fifteen: The Newbery Surprise

Back in 2011, I made a point to read every Newbery Medal book from the first in 1922 through 2011. The Newbery Medal is given annually by the American Library Association to the "most distinctive contribution to American children's literature" for the prior year. You can read about my Newbery adventures here and here

Even since then, I have made a point of reading the Newbery Medal book for each year, in part to follow the trends in children's literature and in part because I am geeky enough to take pride in the fact that I have read every Newbery Medal book. 

In 2014, the Newbery committee chose a Kate DiCamillo work, Flora and Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventure, the first time a semi-graphic novel had been awarded the Newbery Medal. Why I give points to the committee for recognizing that graphic novels are literature too, I was heartily disappointed in the novel itself. I never bought into the premise of a squirrel with super powers. The committee redeemed itself last year with Crossover, but I was watching and waiting for the 2016 announcement. 

When I saw a description of this year's choice—an easy reader picture book—I groaned. A picture book? Really? Out of all of the possibilities, a picture book won the Newbery? What on earth was the Newbery committee thinking? 

What was the Newbery committee thinking? Quite a bit, it turns out. 

I just read the 2016 Newbery medal book: Last Stop on Market Street, words by Matt de la Peña, pictures by Christian Robinson, who picked up a Caldecott Honor award for his illustrations. (The Caldecott is awarded to the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children.) It is the first time a picture book has won the Newbery; the first time a Hispanic author has won the Newbery.

Yes, it is a picture book. Yes, it is only 28 pages long.

But, man, does it pack a wallop.

CJ is a little boy taking a bus ride with his nana (his grandmother). The author does not say, but I suspect Nana is raising CJ, a pattern every family court in this country recognizes. CJ is a fountain of questions. Why don't we have a car? Why is the neighborhood at the last stop so run down and dirty? Nana answers him simply and clearly each time, pointing out all the good in the world that he benefits from, seeing the rainbow in the poor neighborhood.

The destination is a soup kitchen at which CJ and Nana volunteer. The diners are all ages and all colors, some disabled. Kudos to the author and artist for showing us that our poor, like our country, are a diverse population. Further accolades to Robinson and de la Peña for making Nana and CJ African-American. In the vast seas of mostly white children's literature, here are real characters of color.

The premise of the story is a bus ride, but the story is about kindness and generosity. It is about seeing from the heart. It is about being grateful for the world. 

I absolutely loved it.

Congratulations, Newbery committee. You got it right. 

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Inch One Hundred Fourteen: That Shakespeare

Google would remind us today that it is the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death. It may or may not also be his birthday; we are uncertain of what day in April Shakespeare was born, knowing only that he was baptized on April 26 and that in his era baptisms closely followed births given the high infant mortality rate.

In any event, I did not need Google to remind me. As I have often stated before in this forum, I am an ardent admirer of the Bard.

April is National Poetry Month and I have been celebrating it by posting a poem a day on my Facebook page. I did this last year as well. It gives me pleasure to come up with 30 poems and throw them out there in the vast social media world. Today's Facebook post was easy. Who else but Shakespeare? I posted my all-time favorite soliloquy, the one from Macbeth (my all-time favorite work by Shakespeare) when Macbeth learns that the queen, his wife, is dead:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

There are many interpretations of this soliloquy, which comes late in the play. Macbeth's kingdom, gained through murder and intrigue, is collapsing around him. His wife, the queen, has gone mad from her participation in the bloodshed. While Macbeth is fighting to remain king, the queen kills herself offstage. Macbeth asks "Wherefore was that cry?"and is told the queen is dead.

Here are two very different interpretations by two great Shakespearean actors. The first is a 1979 production with Ian McKellen. His Macbeth is numb, exhausted, and beyond caring:

And here is Patrick Stewart, giving an equally powerful performance, as a Macbeth grieving the loss of his beloved queen while realizing the futility of life:

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Inch One Hundred Thirteen: Spring Walk

I walked to work today, a feat worth mentioning because I have been buried deep in Truancy Season, that time of year when some of my colleagues and I are in the schools for days on end, holding attendance mediations. Given that we cover all four districts in our county, Truancy Season requires having a car and the means to get to schools. Chemo two days a week and three weeks in a row also requires me to drive to work more than I want, so I can get to my treatment.

There's a lot of car time, and I am not a car person.

We are not yet out of Truancy Season, but Ohio forces school districts to administer standardized tests in April. We cannot pull staff or students for mediations during the testing weeks. As a result, there has been a brief respite, and after finishing chemo earlier this week, I was able to walk today.

The morning walk to the office was cold; despite warmer weather earlier in March, much of April has been chill. Warren and I each scraped windshields more than once this week to be able to drive to our respective offices. I noticed as I walked along today that violets were crumpled up in protective positions against the cold and that tulips refused to lift their heads.

Turning onto Lincoln Avenue, I heard a woodpecker high above me. Where is the woodpecker?Whose woodpecker is it? It took me a few minutes to locate it high in a leafless tree, silhouetted against the morning sun. I stood and listened before walking on.

Those sound like odd questions and perhaps they are, out of context. But what flashed through my mind when I heard the distinctive tap was the final chess match scene from the 1993 movie Searching For Bobby Fischer, which is not about Bobby Fischer so much as it about a young chess prodigy, Josh Waitzkin. At a crucial point in the championship match, Josh's opponent misplays his pieces. Josh's coach, watching on closed-circuit television, says out loud "that was a mistake." Josh's father asks "What was a mistake? Who made the mistake?" (The comment comes around 4:36 in the clip below.)

Whatever geeky thread connected that scene to the woodpecker in my mind, I do not know. But once made, the connection stayed. Where is the woodpecker?Whose woodpecker is it? 

Today was a long day; the Thursday after chemo always is, due not only to the chemo but also to the fact that Thursday afternoon is when I co-facilitate a juvenile class that runs until 5:30. The class was long but good. When I finally exited the courthouse, I was exhausted but not so much that I couldn't appreciate the warm temperature and the bright sun of late afternoon.

There were no woodpeckers out when I walked back home, but the violets had opened up. There were tulips at the house just before Fountain Street, yellow ones streaked with red, all standing straight and true in the warmth. The day had done a 180 on me.

I will be back in my car tomorrow, not because Truancy Season is kicking back in (that will be at the end of next week), but because I have more errands to run tomorrow than I wish to contemplate. More and more, I feel like Bilbo Baggins in The Lord of the Rings, scraped thin.

With the change in weather and the upcoming conclusion of the 2015-2016 Truancy Season, I am hoping for a little more energy, a little less scraped feeling. I am probably dreaming. I know it is unlikely that I will ever regain lost ground. So I may as well make the best of it, savor the spring violets defying the cold, listen for the woodpecker high in the tree.

Where is the woodpecker?Whose woodpecker is it?