Thursday, December 31, 2009

New Year's Eve

Among my favorite childhood days was New Year's Eve.

When I was growing up, my parents were tight friends with two other couples - Jim and Mary Lou, and Denny and Marlene. The three women had grown up together and graduated from high school together. Dad, Jim, and Denny had known each other since they were teens. For all of my childhood, well into high school, these three couples rotated hosting New Year's Eve.

For the grownups, the night was spent playing cards, eating, and talking. There was some light imbibing; "7 and 7" was the most elaborate drink in any of the households. There was always a coffee pot going and it was not unusual for more than one pot to be brewed in the course of the evening, as all six adults drank coffee morning, noon, and night. Euchre was the game, although I remember a lot of canasta and an occasional game of pinochle.

For us kids, the night was spent eating, playing, and generally behaving like hooligans. Depending on your youth, pajamas were required evening wear. (That was so that as we passed out, we could be scooped up and put on someone's bed while the adults played on.) Slippers were optional. My best friend Cindy was Jim and Mary Lou's daughter, so New Year's Eve meant four or more hours of uninterrupted happiness for us both.

New Year's Eve meant snacks. No one called them "hors d'oeuvres" in our circle. Even "appetizers" was a stretch. These were snacks. Chips and dip, pretzels, M & M's, Christmas cookies, gherkin pickles, cheese balls, Spanish olives, celery sticks filled with cream cheese or peanut butter. Usually there would be a crock full of chili or sloppy joes, but as a kid, I don't ever remember any of us being interested in the "grownup" food. No, we were perfectly happy filling up on the exotica gracing the card table set up for the sole purpose of holding the food. If my mother was the hostess and wanted to really make a statement, she would make her ribbon salad, which was a multicolored Jello concoction with a layer of cream cheese mixed with pineapple. For me, ribbon salad was the height of gourmet dining.

At some point in the evening, someone would turn on the television so the kids could watch Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians usher in the New Year. Nothing interrupted the grownups from their card game.

All of us who were still on our feet would start shouting the countdown as it flashed on the screen. At the magic moment, we would run around screaming "Happy New Year! Happy New Year!" We might mock kiss one another, laughing manically. At the table, everyone would lay down their hands, husbands and wives would kiss, and then the game would resume.

Midnight though was the signal to start winding down the evening. By then, the snacks were pretty picked over; the olives and gherkins were long gone. Children not stopped completely in their tracks by then moved in slow motion. The coffee pot was nearing empty; cups were topped off one last time. The last hands of cards would be played and the last tricks taken. There would be much crowing and jeering over the results. Sleepy children were collected; coats reappeared from the bed on which they had been piled.

A new year was officially launched and the magic was over for another year.

I don't know the last time the three families gathered to ring in the new year; I think the joint dates petered out sometime during my high school years. Things changed; life changed. We kids grew older and made our own plans. The adult circles changed as well; I remember my parents started celebrating New Year's Eve with other friends. The circles grew smaller. Kids grew up and moved out. Denny and Marlene are now both buried in the county cemetery not too far from the plot my parents own. Jim and Mary Lou and my folks still get together from time to time, but the legendary card games are pretty much a thing of the past.

No one is going out this New Year's Eve. Like I said, things changed.

I still think of those long ago celebrations, now some four decades in the past. Nothing else came close to what passed for glamour in our lives during those years. The New Year's Eve picture above was taken December 31, 1967, at the house on Flax Street, my childhood home. I can tell by the clock on the wall and the stove in the background. The little boy in the snazzy leopard print pajamas is my baby brother Mark, not quite five. His best friend, Bobby, is next to him in the white print top and blue bottoms. The girl with the short hair and glasses in the front left is me.

The girl front right with the curl on her cheek? That's Cindy. We're still best friends.

Some things never change.

Happy New Year One and All!

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Looking Backwards and Forward

We are down to the dregs of 2009 and I am in that contemplative state that befalls many of us this time of year. I find myself sifting through the last twelve months - What did I accomplish? What took place? - as well as contemplating the next twelve - What will I accomplish? What will happen?

It is appropriate that the first month of our calendar is named after the Roman god Janus. Janus was always represented as having two faces looking in opposite directions. To the Romans, he was the god of gates and doors, doorways, beginnings and endings, and transitions. To me, he is a reminder of the bittersweet nature of my thoughts at this time of year.

2009 brought much good to my life. It was the year of my great garden adventures, of both of my sons making some sweeping lifestyle changes (I believe for the better), of greatly satisfying accomplishments both professionally and as a volunteer, of a rich and full life with Warren, of one amazing Symphony season ended (the 30th) and another one begun that will reach fruition in 2010 (the 31st). It has been an incredible year full of warmth and support and love and friendship and joy, so much so that I would stitch its memories into a quilt if they had tangible form.

And yet…

And yet I have to temper my assessment of 2009 with the reality of the Great Recession and its impact on family, friends, and community. Holiday cards arrived bearing news of difficult times. Both of my sons are looking for work, having spent much of 2009 unemployed. We saw 168 clients at our community's free Legal Clinic this year, a 83% increase over 2008. Our local United Way last spring had fewer dollars for more needs as job losses took away from the former and increased the latter. (As I write those words, I am already gearing up for the allocation discussions to come this spring.)

So many of us - institutions and individuals alike - did more and more with less and less in 2009.

I expect 2010 to follow suit. I believe the Great Recession will hang on longer at the grassroots level than the pundits and politicians realize or admit. It will change us as a people, as a community, and as individuals, just like the Great Depression did 80 years ago.

And yet…

And yet I am not soured on this year now ending or the one to come. Scrooge sneeringly denounced the Christmas season as "a time for finding yourself a year older, and not an hour richer." I am no Pollyanna - these times are hard and many of us are not only not an hour richer, but many hours poorer to boot - but I am no Scrooge either. I see the year now ending as one which gave me many gifts and responsibilities in these hard times; I see the year about to begin as being endless in opportunities.

I am not one to make New Year's resolutions. If I could not make life changes during the course of the year, why should I think there is any magic to making one now? So I will make no pronouncements here or anywhere as to how much weight I hope to lose or how much I intend to exercise or how many blog posts I hope to write in the year to come.

Instead, I have a sense in my heart of which projects will rise to the top of my list for 2010 and of what I plan on planting in my gardens - literal and figurative - in the months to come. Some of them will undoubtedly make their way to this blog. Time will tell.

Two centuries ago, the sage Hillel said "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am for myself only, then what am I? And if not now, when?" Decades ago, I posted that saying on my wall above my desk. I have had it committed to memory for almost as long. I take it out now and hold it up against this time of year, against endings and beginnings, against old and new.

It has served me well all this time. It will guide me again in the year to come.

As I finish these words, it is early Sunday evening. A thick snow, the thickest yet of this winter, is silently scrolling down out of the dark, blanketing the lawn, kissing the outdoor holiday lights. By morning, our neighborhood will be a white slate upon which to write the day.

2010 - a long, clean slate upon which to write the year - is waiting.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmases Past

"I am the Ghost of Christmas Past."
"Long past?" inquired Scrooge…
"No. Your past."

I had intended this post to be a series of photos only, from Christmases past, but the popcorn balls intervened, so indulge me while I talk about popcorn balls.

My grandmother Skatzes, my beloved Grandma Skatzes, loved Christmas. It was her favorite holiday. She always announced loudly that Christmas was for children, not for adults, and she meant that. I think though that Grandma always carried a child's delight in life in her heart, and she reveled in the Christmas season.

Christmas in that household meant popcorn balls and Grandma was the sole possessor of the recipe and the sole maker of the balls. Until I was 13, we lived in the same house - my family upstairs from my grandparents - and I loved to come downstairs on popcorn ball day to be with her. When I was very young, she would give me a handful of popcorn or a few caramelized pieces and shoo me out of her kitchen and out of her way. But as we both grew older, she slowly started letting me help - first bagging the balls, then shaping them, then working alongside her cooking the syrup. Even after we moved out of the house, I would come back on popcorn ball day. On one of those days, she finally decided it was time to pass along the recipe to me.

I still have it.

Grandma Skatzes was all but blind, and so cooked the syrup by feel and not by a candy thermometer. Under her tutelage, I learned to judge its consistency with my fingers as it passed from soft to hard stage. (It occurs to me as I type these words that her extremely limited vision was yet another reason she did not want a rambunctious little kid hanging at her elbow while she handled the hot syrup.) She taught me to dip my hands in cold water before shaping the balls to minimize burns. (I quickly learned that burns were part of making popcorn balls.)

Everyone in her large family watched and waited for Grandma's popcorn balls. It was the one flavor that Christmas needed to be complete. Grandma made them in massive quantities; I remember bagging over 300 one day. She made them for the families of her children and any adult grandchildren who were known to be coming into town for the holidays. By the end of popcorn ball day, there would be paper grocery bags filled to the brim on all of the kitchen chairs.

What I never knew was when and how this tradition got started. Was it something Grandma began in the depths of the Great Depression, trying to make Christmas a little more festive? Did it date back to her childhood? All I know is that we all looked forward to the sack of popcorn balls arriving each December, and how everyone - young and old alike - regretted when there was only one left, because that meant the end of the popcorn balls until the next Christmas.

Grandma died in early 1978; she had stopped making popcorn balls some years before that. When she made her last batch, she gave me two pans - a large roaster pan and a very heavy pot - which were the critical pieces of popcorn ball making equipment. I have carried those pans from here to Chicago, to Oregon, to California, and back again to my hometown for the last 30 some years.

Over those years, I have made popcorn balls sporadically, but never in the volume Grandma did. My life was complicated and there were other demands. My children have only had them a few times at the holidays.

This year, I am making popcorn balls.

I popped the popcorn this morning - four pounds of it - dumping it into grocery bags to cool just like Grandma always did. I have already burned a finger on the heavy pot - the one in which I will make syrup later today - because I forgot that somewhere in its past the wooden handle came off and my grandfather's repair included a large threaded nut that gets as hot as the pan. It will scorch your fingers if you forget and touch it while cleaning up.

Laura Ingalls Wilder mentioned popcorn balls more than once in her Little House books - they were on the church Christmas tree in Plum Creek and they appear again at a Christmas in De Smet when Almanzo surprises Laura by coming home early from a trip east. They appear in Robert P. Tristam Coffin's Christmas memoir, "Christmas in Maine," where they were "big as muskmelons." My guess is that popcorn balls are woven into the fabric of our country's past and probably make more literary appearances than even I could imagine.

They are certainly woven into the fabric of my past.

It is that fabric that will be swaddling my heart later today when I make them. I cannot wait for the smell of the syrup, for the crunch as I shape them, and even for the small scorches which are part and parcel of the making. They will bring me memories of Grandma Skatzes, memories of my childhood, and memories of Christmas past.

Merry Christmas, one and all!

Christmas, 1957

Christmas, 1962

Christmas, 1986

Christmas, 1991



Saturday, December 19, 2009

Christmas Spirit

I am sitting at a rehearsal writing this in pen. This is the last weekend of concerts for Warren in a month full of them.

It is the Friday night before Christmas.

While the musicians and chorus were taking their places on stage, I plumped my jacket up on the seat back next to me and tucked myself into the briefest of naps.

I am that tired.

The performances this weekend are in Mansfield, about an hour north of us. With the short days, it was already deep dusk by the time we left the house tonight. Much of the drive is through rural areas. The crops are all in; the bare field stretch away into the dark. In the cold evening gloom, the Christmas lights here and there stood out sharply.

The county immediately north of us is one of the state's poorest outside of Appalachian Ohio. There was a sign in the town square of the county seat that there would be a food drive, right there, tomorrow morning.

Just a small reminder of how hard the times are.

Despite the times, even the shabbiest houses have a string of lights on the door or a tree in a window. This reminded me of a scene from the short story, "Star Across the Tracks:"

Then Ernie signaled and the little procession swung down out of High View and circled into the part of town where the blocks were prosaically rectangular and everything became smaller; yards, houses, Christmas trees.

"Look!" mamma said happily. "Ain't it nice? There ain't no patent on it. Everyone can make merry. Every little house can have its own fun and tree, just the same as the big ones."

"Star Across the Tracks" was written by Bess Streeter Aldrich, a Nebraska writer in the first half of the twentieth century. Aldrich, whose legacy is a whole handful of novels, also wrote a number of stories mostly set in Depression-era Nebraska. A number of them, all about Christmas, can be found in her collection, Journey Into Christmas.

Aldrich wrote about what she saw and experienced firsthand in Nebraska during the 1930s. She wrote of the shock of losing the family business or the hard-earned savings of a lifetime. She wrote of everyday men and women struggling to stay afloat during a holiday time and feeling only a dullness as the holidays approached.

I like Aldrich's Christmas stories because while they often end on a quiet, positive note, she keeps them grounded in the reality of the era. Jobs are not miraculously restored; savings are not replenished. Her characters have to dig deep inside themselves to resolve the conflict in their hearts between the promise of the Christmas season and the reality of their daily lives. They invariably do so (it is fiction, after all), but not without considerable effort and thoughtfulness on their parts.

I have written recently that I have not found my Christmas spirit yet this season. If by "Christmas spirit" I mean the holly, jolly, jingle bells, deck the halls kind, I can safely say I probably won't be finding it this year.

But if by that phrase I mean the quiet, thoughtful kind of spirit, then maybe just maybe I am already halfway there. It was in the faces of the church school children caroling the other morning in the downtown coffee shop where I happened to be with Margo. It was in Warren's voice as we drove to rehearsal when he suggested we get a tree Saturday morning. It will be in Mt. Gilead's city parking lot tomorrow morning during the food drive.

And maybe, if I look deep inside myself, it might just be inside me too.

Postscript: We woke this morning to the first real snow of that season, both of us catching our breaths at the transformation of outdoors. That was enough to get us out the door early; we even bought a Christmas tree.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Ben's Birthday

My son Ben is (gulp) 24 years old today.

24? How did he get to be 24? Wasn't he just 16 last week? Or 7?

Didn't I bring him home from the hospital just the other day?

A kaleidoscope of images dance in my head. Ben laughing the first time, learning to walk, learning to swim, learning to read, starting school, discovering music. Destination Imagination, marching band, In the Know. Books everywhere. I remember his coming back from a weekend visit to Reed and announcing he had found the college he wanted to attend; I remember him joyfully showing me the email announcement when he was accepted.

Ben headed to college in 2004 and, after the summer of 2005, never returned to my home again except as a visitor. He set up his own apartment and life elsewhere. He's been way far away all of that time. Until a few weeks ago, he lived in Portland, Oregon. He and Alise, my almost daughter-in-law, recently moved to Helena, Montana (her hometown), which brought him 700 miles closer to my front door, but it's still a long ways from here to there.

When Ben arrived at college, he was instantly home in ways he could not be elsewhere. He found acceptance and friendship and respect and Alise, all at the same place. From afar, I got to watch him assemble his life with the concentration he once brought to his building blocks. And while all the blocks aren't in place yet, I stand back and look at his life with the same amazement that I had when he was four.

The bond that Ben and I have shared from his birth forward is books. I read to Ben before he was two days old. His first night home from the hospital, I propped him in my arms, opened Are You My Mother, and began.

"A mother bird sat on her egg."

Every night of that first year - through colic, through croup, through teething - I read. Almost every night after that for the next 14 years, I read. I loved books and this child of mine also loved books. Once he learned to read, Ben took off on his own literary adventures, but we continued to share an hour at bedtime most nights, my reading aloud to him or sometimes the two of us taking turns. Then someone interfered and demanded that it stop. That broke off our time together reading, but it never broke that bond.

Books and more books. When Ben was in 4th grade, he had two desks, side by side. One was for him, the other was for his books. When he went off to college, he had to leave his books behind, but quickly began acquiring more books. When Warren and I moved into this house, I boxed up Ben's books and put them in the attic. There are nine or ten boxes up there. Maybe more. (And I didn't even box the children's books.) After Ben and Alise moved to Montana, Alise emailed me about the move being seamless, "only a little stressful trying to fit all of our beloved books into the small space in the car." I can only imagine.

I don't know what the future holds for Ben. I am quite sure it will continue to hold books. Like Thomas Jefferson, Ben cannot live without them. I hope and trust it will continue to hold Alise - funny, bright, engaging, loving, caring, theatrical, passionate, book-devouring Alise, who has brought joy and light to Ben's life.

Whatever it holds for you, Ben, know that I am there too, championing you.

I look back at all the books that flowed through our hands, from Redwall to Mordor, from dinosaurs to Feynman, from Seuss to Sutcliff. Whether we were down the rabbit hole with Alice or on the road with Stuart Little, Ben and I journeyed together, sharing a love of the story, a love of the books, a love of one another.

Happy 24th, Ben.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

December Oncology Report


Such a fragile word. Such a powerful word.

I saw my oncologist today. My oncologist, the wonderful and skilled and thoughtful Timothy Moore, and not his colleague, Dr. Bully.

My appointment was for 10:30, and all morning before leaving, I paced and rehashed (briefly, briefly) the disastrous July appointment. I was in tears from time to time and wondered if I could keep my voice from breaking at my appointment.

By the time Warren picked me up, I was tense and edgy. Thinking I was masking it well, I immediately said, "I'm not happy. I'm tense and edgy."

Warren did not roll his eyes, which he would have been more than entitled to do. Instead, he squeezed my hand and said "I know."

On the hospital elevator to fourth floor, I felt the tears coming dangerously close to the surface. "I'm nervous. I'm scared." "I know you are, it's okay." "I'm scared Dr. Bully is going to show up."

As I checked in, just short of hyperventilating by then, Warren pointed to a large sign that said "Dr. Moore." Okay, so my doc was in. Whew. Then as we sat in the waiting area, I heard Tim's voice down the hallway.

Warren nudged me. "That sounds like Tim."

I nodded. My breathing started to return to normal.

I don't think I quite believed I was seeing my doctor until he blew through the door of the examining room with his trademark grin and hearty handshake. We briefly discussed what happened in July. Tim offered neither excuses nor apologies for his colleague's bad behavior, but said, firmly, "you will only see me from now on."

And then we moved on to my myeloma. My myeloma, which has gone unexamined and without thoughtful review for months now. My myeloma, which I have now known and lived with intimately for five years and one month. (But who's counting?)

Last week I had a kappa free light chain assay - the new gold standard for monitoring myeloma - done for the first time.

And the results?

I am still floating in Cancerland. My numbers show the same low-level myeloma activity that has gone on for the last three years. Because this was my first light chain done, I had no baseline for self-comparison, but Tim pointed to one number and said "see that 5? It should be below 2 in a person with no myeloma. My patients with full-blown myeloma? That number is in the hundreds."

Floating, floating, floating. My spirits started to soar.

Tim and I talked about myeloma treatments (none of which I need yet), about my swimming and walking, about my energy levels, about our respective children. We talked about my lack of medical insurance, about this country's failure to solve the healthcare issue, about my potential lack of options (because of cost) should my myeloma reactivate. We talked about all the amazing treatments today that did not exist five years ago when Tim and I first met. He decided which lab tests in which sequences he would order so as not to bankrupt me, then said "I'll see you in March. Have a great holidays, you two!," flashed his grin, and was gone.

The weight of the stress I had been carrying since July was off my shoulders. I all but danced out the room with Warren trailing behind. My cancer is still floating! It's there, we all know it's there, but it is behaving itself! The KGB hasn't moved in yet!

When I got home, I had a voicemail from my friend Doug, who is in the middle of a battle with stomach cancer that makes my experiences look like a cakewalk. I caught him by phone before he left his office, and we caught up, first on work, and then on cancer. Doug is going through increasingly stronger chemotherapy, with the goal being surgery in January. Despite the nausea, the energy loss, the uncertainty, Doug's first words were "I am so blessed." Blessed because he appears to be responding to treatment, blessed because his family and friends and colleagues are all standing shoulder to shoulder to help him through this trial, blessed because he is still alive. I shared with Doug my own Cancerland news and could feel his genuine joy through the phone lines.

Talking with Doug was the unexpected icing on the already substantial cake I'd been given earlier this morning.

I then emailed my friend Cindy the news and she responded gleefully. She thought maybe now I could feel some Christmas spirit.

Maybe I will. We'll see.

I do know what I feel right now though. Grateful. Blessed.

And full of hope.

The Book Bunch

Tomorrow is my son Ben's birthday and I am finishing the post for his birthday. It is also the birthday of my friends Ada, Margo, and Scott.

These four birthday celebrants are among the most avid readers I know. I have some other friends who are also Big Readers, but these four take the cake. All but Ben live here in Delaware and the two most common sentences I exchange with them are "so what are you reading?" and "have you read [fill in the blank]?"

Is that merely coincidence?

There is a Talmudic passage that states that every unborn baby has a lit candle by its head so that it can see both into the past and into the future. The unborn baby is all-knowing. At birth, an angel taps it on the lips and the baby forgets everything it learned in the womb, so that it may enter the world in innocence and purity.

When I look at the December 16th bunch, I wonder whether that same angel nonetheless gave them each a little nudge and whispered "try reading."

Happy birthday, my bookish friends!

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Clementine

Sunday morning was gray and cold. We were loading the timpani in the rain, in the dark, as Warren had an early morning rehearsal for a church service he was playing. I started laughing as we grew soggy; life really is never, ever dull around Warren.

We were both quiet on the 30 minute drive to Columbus. Warren admitted he was thinking of music - of the service that morning, of the Symphony's holiday concerts that afternoon. My mind was on…everything. Sam, work, baking, the legal clinic this Tuesday, the medical bills still lingering from Dr. Bully running roughshod over my medical care and my budget last July, this Tuesday's appointment at long last with my oncologist, Ben's birthday midweek, Montana, our not having any Christmas decorations out let alone up, the concerts later that day.


The church Warren was playing at was Maple Grove Methodist, where he always plays for the Easter services. I have written about Maple Grove before. I like the minister there. I like the feel of the church. It is very oriented to service - not just within its congregation but also within its community.

I like that. I always come away from a Maple Grover church service feeling cared for and uplifted.

Yesterday was no exception. A line in one of the offered prayers caught my ear: "Help us remember you do not ask us to heal everything, but rather simply find a way in which we may lighten someone's burden."

I liked that line. I wrote it down on a Mini-Methodist Doodle Pad with a pencil, both of which I borrowed from the children's corner.

Reverend Croy's sermon that morning was on living the repentant life. He spoke about John the Baptist's message to early followers. "Share. That's what he first told them to do. If you have, give. The repentant life is as simple as sharing a coat or a meal."

I carried those words out of church and back to Delaware and through two holiday concerts (really wonderful, excellent, superb holiday concerts) and through two more hours of breaking down the stage and hauling instruments back to our house. I thought about them this morning as I started my day.

They were still on my mind when, walking back home after my Monday morning walk with my friend Patricia, I heard someone shout my name. It was Ruth, who is Cora's mother, Cora being a friend of Ben's for the last 16 years and a young woman whom I have had the extreme pleasure and honor to know and watch grow up over those years.

I have known Ruth for 16 years as well and always enjoy talking with her, even though our lives don't often intersect. Today we talked (me standing in the street, Ruth with her car window rolled down) for 15 minutes about Cora, about Ben, about ourselves, about Life. We laughed, we sighed, we shared ourselves.

Reaching for a notepad to write the title of this blog down, Ruth pulled a small orange sphere out of her purse instead. "Here," she said, handing it to me through her car window as she continued to scrabble for the notepad, "have a clementine." We were talking about sharing, about how so many women write blogs because we like to share.

Ruth sharing her fruit was automatic and effortless. I laughed and told her I would blog about the clementine.

We went our separate ways and I walked the remaining two blogs to the house. I thought back to the sermon yesterday.

Share. If you have, give.

Ruth did that for me this morning. She shared, she gave. Not just a clementine, but her thoughts, her friendship, her warmth.

I came away uplifted.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Losing the Lip

Somewhere, in some short story I read in some age long past, there was a colloquy between a little girl and the household cook in which the cook, commenting on the girl's pronounced pout, said something about her lip being stuck out so far that someone (get the idea I can't quite pull the quote out of the garbage bin in my mind?) could hitch a ride on it.

In my mind, if not in person, my lip feels that far stuck out. Someone, or something, could hitch a ride on it.

Oh, I'm not in a bad mood. Not at all.

I'm just in one of those I-can't-turn-around-without-stepping-on-myself moods that hit from time to time. I spent much of yesterday baking. A chunk of today will be spent that way as well. I enjoy baking, but I am about "baked out."

Last night was spent with Symphony board and volunteers decorating Gray Chapel for the holiday concerts. I drew the "program stuffing" detail, which meant first refolding almost 1000 inserts "right side out" and then stuffing it and two other pieces into 1000 programs for tomorrow's two concerts. There were five of us on this task, one a professor of ornithology who told us stories about all the places he has been - all over the world, including Antarctica - and the things he has done in pursuit of his subjects in such a droll way that I laughed my way through the folding and stuffing. Still, it was A LOT of folding and stuffing. Following on the heels of my baking all day, it finished off my energy and my hands, putting the final chapped layer on top of skin already battered from a day spent drenched either in or hot soapy water as I washed dishes.

If I rub my fingers together, there is the faint sound of very fine sandpaper.

And the Christmas cactus, which has not had a good year, just dropped the lone bud it managed to produce.

Sharon at Musings of a Midlife Mom recently posted about having no Christmas spirit yet. I commented "I am having trouble finding my own "Christmas spirit" this year - so much so that I keep trying to write a blog post about it and can't even get that out! I don't know if I feel like saying "Bah Humbug!" - mine is more the "let me sit quietly over here and not think about it."

I still feel that way. I am not in the Bah Humbug camp and hope I never am. If I were ever a character in A Christmas Carol (one of my favorite books), I might echo Scrooge's nephew Fred, who defends Christmas to his uncle in an oratory burst that ends with these stirring words: "And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!"

But the Christmas spirit per se? It hasn't kicked in yet, despite the radio being turned to the station that plays Christmas songs continually and despite the greeting cards that are starting to appear in our mailbox and despite the smells of baking that permeate this house.

But I don't think I am pouting about my lack of Christmas spirit. Oh, it will come, but it might be a little later and a lot more pensive this year. That is not what is making me pout.

No, I am pouting because in a (I hope rare) fit of self-indulgence, I am feeling put out, put upon, put to work, and put to the test, all in one breath! I am worrying too much and counting my blessings too little. I am dwelling on the small moments of irritation and not the small moments of great reward. I am thinking too much of all the things as of yet undone, and not enough of what truly is meaningful and necessary to turn my hand to and complete.

In the movie "White Christmas," Bing sings "Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep" to Rosemary Clooney. It is an annoyingly cloying song, but the point is well made. Only my version would be "Count Your Blessings Instead of All Your Annoyances," which would be not at all alliterative and difficult to rhyme to boot.

It is early morning here. The sun is bright despite the thermometer reading of 17. Warren headed out to Gray Chapel just after sunrise to set up the percussion section and do last minute office work before rehearsal. He just now zoomed in and back out again to grab a conga drum. (Life is never, ever dull around here.) I have butter coming to room temperature on the counter and a bag of sliced apples and one of grated zucchini thawing in the sink. I told Warren I would come over to rehearsal later this morning and take some pictures for him, so need to gear up for that shortly.

I plan on walking, knowing that the brisk, cold hike will do me good. I am counting on it to give me time to lose the lip, shake off my mood, and turn my heart to the gifts of the day and maybe, just maybe, the gifts of the season.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Tree Cutter

"We're really hurting for work."

The speaker was a young man, maybe all of thirty, but maybe younger than that. He was part of a small crew taking down a tree next door. He saw me watching the operation from the back patio door and a minute or two later was at our front door, offering to make an estimate on some tree work in our own yard. In his opinion, the pine in the front needed elevated; a couple of small trees in the back should come down.

He looked at me and said "if you let us do any of it right now today while we're here, I'll give you an even better price."

I didn't have the heart to tell him that the likelihood of our hiring him or anyone else to take down the trees was slim at best. Warren does a lot of that work himself and our dollars are pretty much earmarked for other projects. I let him do the estimate and then stood outside in the cold while he did so out of sympathy for someone looking so young and so worn down.

His name was Daren and he talked his way through the estimate as he wrote it out. He had enough of a hills accent in his speech to be noticeable, so I surmised he may have grown up in southeastern Ohio.

Daren's hands were calloused and work-hardened, but his handwriting was tiny and delicate. The only place where his dialect slipped into his writing was when he wrote that the price was negotiable "a lil bit."

Daren talked about the company while he estimated the job. They had come over from Springfield, about an hour from here. They weren't getting much work in that area, so they were taking jobs farther away.

Daren said that he had a bigger truck with a chipper attachment, but that a flywheel had gone out and it would cost $1600 to fix. "I don't have that kind of money right now," he said, explaining why instead the crew was driving a pickup truck with a small trailer for hauling. He said by the time they paid for gas and for a dump to take the debris, they barely broke even on most jobs.

I told him about a local company that will take yard waste at no charge because after composting and mulching it, they sell the results back to landscapers and gardeners in the community. I volunteered to look up the number for him, telling him maybe he could dump the tree branches there on the way out of town. Daren gave me a piece of paper and asked me to write it down for him, thanking me when I brought the paper back out.

I wish I had just taken a pie or a tray of cookies from the oven and could have offered it to Daren and his crew. I wish I had a pot of coffee that I could have carried out to them. Not to play Lady Bountiful, but to let them know I knew that they were doing cold, hard work and that these are cold, hard times. But I didn't have any cookies or coffee and I couldn't think of any gesture, short of hiring them, that would have been meaningful.

Eventually they brought the tree down. The four young men sawed the trunk up, which they stacked neatly for our neighbor's fireplace, and carried the branches to the trailer. I heard rather than saw them drive off, imagining the drive back to Springfield and how much, if anything, they cleared on this job. I hoped they called the company I mentioned so they could lighten their load and save a few dollars.

I know I won't see Daren again. It was one of those small encounters that we all have - a stranger in the checkout line, the person riding the elevator at the hospital, the couple also waiting to be seated at the restaurant. All the same, I find myself wishing fiercely for better times for this young man who is trying so hard just to stay even, let alone get ahead.

I don't know what Christmas holds for Daren but I doubt it is a new flywheel. I hope at the very least it holds a year to come for him - for all of the Darens out there - that is less hurtful and more secure than the one that is just ending.

We could all use a year like that.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Thanksgiving Pie

"I didn't know you could," Carrie breathed, looking wide-eyed at the pie.

I don't know yet," said Ma. She slipped the pie into the oven and shut the door on it. "But the only way to find out is to try. By dinnertime we'll know."

from The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilders

Longtime fans of the Little House books will recognize the above lines from the time Ma made a green pumpkin pie as a surprise for Pa. Upon tasting the pie, he pronounced it a success: "Ma always could beat the nation cooking."

Ma was on my mind this weekend as I took stock of the remaining Thanksgiving leftovers. Most of what has not been consumed went into the freezer, but there was still a small bowl of homemade cranberry sauce sitting in the refrigerator. What to do, what to do?

When in doubt, bake.

Over the years, I have seen several recipes for cranberry/apple pies. I never made one, but remembered they took fresh cranberries, not cranberry sauce. My sauce was fresh cranberries stewed with sugar and nothing else. If I drained the sauce off and mixed it with the apples, then I wouldn't need anything more than spices to make my pie complete.

So that is what I did this morning. The result is cooling on the table as I type. They say the proof is in the pudding, but in this case the proof is in the pie. We are off to a waffle supper at Margo and Gerald's this evening and we will cut it then. Margo and I frequently talk about Laura Ingalls Wilder and the Little House books, so Ma's quote nudging me this morning fits just right.

The other quote that went through my mind as I crimped the crust today was my favorite from World War II: "Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without."

Another era, another book, another time.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Hunger Knows No Season

Note: When I first posted this yesterday, I wrote that "one in eight" is food insecure. I did my math wrong: it is one in SIX of us! I corrected the post below.

Just ten days before Thanksgiving this year, the USDA released its annual report on food insecurity in this nation. "Food insecurity" is the measurement of the degree to which one's access to "enough food" (enough to meet basic nutritional needs) is limited by a lack of money and other resources.

The news was not good.

Here are some of the grim facts, compiled by Feeding America in its review of the report:

  • In 2008, 49.1 million (16.4%) Americans lived in food insecure households compared to 36.2 million (12.2%) in 2007.
  • In 2008, 17.2 million (14.6%) American households are food insecure compared to 13 million (11.1%) in 2007.
  • In 2008, 8.3 million (21%) households with children are living in food insecure households compared to 6.2 million (15.8%) in 2007.
  • In 2008, 16.7 million (22.5%) children are living in food insecure households compared to 12.4 million (16.9%) in 2007.
  • In 2008, 2.3 million (8.1%) households with seniors were living in food insecure households compared to 1.8 million (6.5%) in 2007.
  • The number of individuals who are food insecure increased 36% over 2007 and the number of children increased 35% over 2007.
The short version is this: one in six of us is food insecure, unless you are talking about children. One in four of our children is food insecure.

Just this past weekend, the New York Times ran an article about food stamps. Guess what? Food stamp programs nationwide are seeing a huge influx of applicants. About 20,000 people per day are added to the program. In some parts of the country, the rolls have more than doubled in two years.

In the Times article, an undersecretary of the Department of Agriculture, which administers the food stamp program, is quoted as saying, "[t]his is the most urgent time for our feeding programs in our lifetime, with the exception of the Depression. It's time for us to face up to the fact that in this country of plenty, there are hungry people (emphasis added)."

We are all growing hungrier and hungrier - some of us literally, some of us figuratively. Some of us do without or skimp on meals so there is more for others at the table. Some of us have family members and friends who struggle to get enough food. Some of us prepare food wondering who in our hometowns is going hungry tonight?

One in six of us is.

Many of us just celebrated a holiday dedicated to eating. Coming up next is a season of multiple holidays in which foods play an important role.

Locally, People in Need (P.I.N.) is gearing up for its annual Holiday Clearing House, which distributes food, toys, and necessities for the holiday season to needy families. Last year, P.I.N.'s holiday efforts helped 491 families and 168 seniors/disabled households. This year the numbers are even greater; P.I.N. had over 500 families registered more than two months ago.

And that's just for the holidays. In 2008, P.I.N, which runs our emergency food pantry, provided 51,650 meals to 1845 households. In those households were 3246 adults and 2554 children. That was a 10% increase over 2007. 2009 will see even greater numbers.

As the staff and volunteers that run P.I.N. know, hunger is more than just a seasonal affliction. We know that in our household - the Symphony's Board of Trustees has already given Warren the go-ahead for another benefit concert in 2010 to help fill the shelves of P.I.N.'s food warehouse.

I have written about hunger before and I will in all likelihood write about it again. To me, hunger is the face of the Great Recession. I see hungry clients at our monthly legal clinic. I see hungry individuals at court when they sign in at the bailiff's table. And sometimes I see a hungry family member at our own table, which makes me quietly pack a bag of groceries, grateful that I have something to share, even if it is just peanut butter and crackers, pasta and homemade tomato sauce.

In this holiday season, while we are planning our holidays meals, let us not forget those of us whose cupboards and refrigerators are bare. Find a food bank or a meals program. Donate dollars, donate food, donate time, not just for this season, but for all seasons.

Friday, November 27, 2009

First Snow!

The first fall of snow is not only an event, it is a magical event. You go to bed in one kind of a world and wake up in another quite different, and if this is not enchantment then where is it to be found? J. B. Priestley

When I no longer thrill to the first snow of the season, I'll know I'm growing old.
Lady Bird Johnson

We woke to our first snow this morning. Not a lot and it is late in coming this year, yet it is still magical and I am still thrilled to see it.

Thursday, November 26, 2009


Sam (Indian) and friend Sam (Pilgrim), 1st grade Thanksgiving feast, November 1996

So here we are at Thanksgiving. I baked the pies yesterday afternoon. Two pumpkins first, then an apple (spices only, no sugar so my dad, who is diabetic, can eat it). I found the "all Christmas music all the time already" channel on the radio and put it on while the house filled up with the smells of cinnamon and cloves.

After supper, while Warren practiced for a weekend performance, I peeled potatoes and made the cranberry sauce. If you stepped outside and then came back in, the fragrance of good food would greet you at the door.

This morning I'll tackle cleaning the living room, where we will set up the table for later today. Warren's son David is joining us for breakfast shortly, having driven down from Akron yesterday. My nephew Matthew is marching in the Macy's Day parade as part of the Macy's Great American Marching Band, so at some point we will flip on the television (a rarity!) and see if we can catch a glimpse of him in the mellophone section.

Late afternoon today, family will gather here for an evening meal. Warren and I are undertaking the bulk of the food and preparations - the turkey, the mashed potatoes, all the desserts, the cranberry sauce (already done), the stuffing. My parents, my older brother, my aunt Ginger, and Sam will join us at the table. I have no question that Warren's parents, Ellen and Art, are already present one way or another.

Sam is struggling to be thankful for anything as his job search goes on and on. I'm hoping the Thanksgiving meal will bring a smile to his face; Grandma is making the marshmallow sweet potato concoction and a plate of deviled eggs at his request. Sam is making pumpkin mousse (his idea) when he arrives, serving it in the parfait glasses that caught his eye last week when he came over. (They belonged to Warren's mother or grandmother and Sam thought it would be cool to use them.)

I am awash in memories of Thanksgiving past, way past. When I was a kid, Thanksgiving and Christmas were divided between my grandparents' households. Thanksgiving was always spent with my Grandma Skatzes, who lived one floor below us. Christmas was always spent with my grandparents Nelson, on their farm some 12 miles away.

Looking back many decades later, I now scratch my head over that particular division. I loved Grandma Skatzes dearly, but cooking was not her strong suit. On the other hand, Grandma Nelson, who was not a storybook Christmas grandmother, was an excellent cook. So I am unsure to this day why the holidays got split such that we spent the one holiday devoted to food with Grandma Skatzes.

Even though Grandma Skatzes was not known for her cooking, I don't remember ever having a bad Thanksgiving dinner. Maybe my aunt Ginger, who lived with her parents until their deaths, took on the bulk of the cooking. Maybe my mother was down in that kitchen as well, adding her talents to the mix. As a little kid, I didn't pay much attention to the food preparation. I just remember the food tasted good.

Food preparation didn't interest me because I was camped out with my brothers in front of the color television watching the parades: Macy's in New York, Gimbels in Philadelphia. (Note: Color television was a BIG deal back in the early 1960s.) We were all enthralled with the giant balloons and would squeal and shriek when a favorite (Underdog! Bullwinkle!) would float into view.

There was limited space at Grandma's table (a 1950s red top, chrome trimmed classic that I miss to this day) and we four would be relegated to TV trays in the living room. Unheard of luxury! Turkey, a TV tray, and a color television all in one fell swoop!

Thanksgiving was bliss.

For the most part, the menu at Grandma's Thanksgiving was pretty standard from year to year. Turkey, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, green beans, stuffing, sweet potatoes. "Brown-n-serve rolls," exotic simply because they came from a store. Pumpkin pies on a folding table in Ginger's "sitting room." Two dishes made Thanksgiving distinct: my grandmother's vinegar coleslaw and a pan of homemade oyster stuffing (which was always called "dressing"). Those were the flavors of my childhood Thanksgiving: that tart slaw and that moist dressing. As a adult, I finally tracked down a close facsimile of the slaw, but I have not tasted that oyster dressing in over 35 years.

While I type these words, Warren is at his instruments. Soft conga sounds drifted down from upstairs at first; he is now two rooms away on the timpani. Our Thanksgiving is being heralded in with a chorus of kettle drums.

Parades! Pies! Turkey! Family! Drums! My cornucopia of blessings is full to the brim.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009


It's that time of year again.

You know what I mean. It is the time of year when being thankful rises to the top of our consciousness and we actually stop and count our blessings, instead of merely rushing past them on the way to something or somewhere else.

I have many Thanksgiving thoughts and memories, and some of them may (may, I say) make their way into a post on the Day itself. But I just experienced something - not for the first time, I might add - that always makes me thankful beyond words.

The experience? Two and a half hours with my stepdaughter, Elizabeth. She just left with her dad to go to Scouts.

Elizabeth is well on her way to being 16, a sophomore in high school. She was 13 and in seventh grade when her parents separated, almost 15 and in ninth grade before she saw her father on a regular (i.e., an established and adhered to schedule) basis again. (Comment: someone - not Warren - behaved very, very badly during the lengthy divorce process when it came to the children.) There were many times during that whole time when what little contact or information Warren had about Elizabeth was along the lines of "I hate you" or "I don't want to see you." After it was over and we were married, she was not hostile or ugly towards me, but she made it very, very clear without ever opening her mouth that she would prefer if I did not exist.

What a long ways we have come.

Elizabeth spent much of this evening before supper talking with me - sharing her day, reviewing her knowledge of Ohio driving law (a learner's permit is in the offing), talking about tap dance (Elizabeth loves to dance), exclaiming over Scouting requirements (she is in Venturing, the co-ed program of the Boy Scouts), and just giggling and laughing. She spent a huge portion of it sprawled out on the couch, furrowing her brow over traffic signs, looking at her Scouting requirements, and sharing bits of information with me.

She is a great young lady.

I am thankful that Elizabeth is in my life and that she made the decision to let me be in hers. The turning point came last December when after a particularly chilly and stressful evening, I told Warren he could take his kids home in the truck while I walked home from the nearby party because I was too tired of trying to be pleasant with Elizabeth. I don't think Warren said a lot to her on the way home, other than "April is my wife and in this home, you will be nice to her. You don't have to like her, but you will be nice."

Bless her heart, Elizabeth went way beyond that. The next day, while Warren was running errands and I was busy in the family room trying to stay out of her way, she sought me out, sat down, and started talking - first about dance, then about how ballet slippers are made (taking an old pair apart to show me), then about school, then about something else, and then something else, and then something else.

I remember sitting there holding my breath, afraid the moment would evaporate. It didn't and neither did Elizabeth.

She has not closed me out since then. Sometimes I get the same brusque teenage treatment that Warren gets, but we get it together when she is feeling her age. I have never again felt singled out (or ignored entirely) because I married her dad.

I am thankful for lots of things - not just during this season, but (I hope) most days. Warren and my boys are on the top of that list, as are Alise, my almost daughter-in-law, and David, my stepson. My friends are close behind.

Elizabeth, though, occupies a special place on that list. I never had a daughter. I don't pretend that I am her mother; I'm not. But I am thrilled and delighted and, above all, thankful to have this amazing, wonderful, funny, engaging stepdaughter who somewhere, somehow, made the decision to dance into my life.

Friday, November 20, 2009


My morning started with rotting pumpkins on the mantel. They were the last of the pie pumpkins out of my pumpkin patch, and the ones that rotted were the very last of the last to be picked.

Warren discovered them. Three of the four were at the moldy, soft stage; the fourth was at the really yucky leaking stage. So while the oatmeal got cold out in the kitchen, we cleaned up pumpkins.

This was a full morning. I had to get to a meeting in Columbus. Cleaning up rotting pumpkins was not on my schedule. By the time I left the house, I was frustrated with the pumpkins, stressed over time, and wondering if I had everything I needed. The car windows were covered with condensation, so I had to go back in the house to get towels to wipe them. I had no money for parking in downtown Columbus, so had to factor in a quick stop at the grocery where I needed to pick up one item anyway. All these things tumbled through my mind while I grew tense about the ticking clock in my mind.

Poor Warren. He looked at me with love and concern while I brushed off his offers for help. "I can do it!," I said through gritted teeth. "Just let me take care of it." All he wanted to do was make things easier for me this morning, but I was in such a state of mind that I couldn't let my walls down to let him take care of me. (When I got to Columbus, I called him and left a voicemail that I had arrived, I had stopped hyperventilating, and I loved him.)

En route to Columbus, my mind started looping on Dr. Bully and what I would say to my oncologist in mid-December in response to the question I suspect is coming. ("What happened?") When I wasn't looping on Dr. Bully, I was worrying over a list of "to dos" (or, more honestly, "not dones").

To break the loop, I put on a radio station loudly. Between the morning show and the music, I managed to shut the internal loop off in my head. I arrived in Columbus with no loop, but not much peace of mind either. My thoughts raced in all directions while I walked to the meeting.

The meeting started out slowly and my attention wandered far and wide. I found myself making notes and lists to myself, trying to shake out my tangled thoughts. They're all in a clutter.

Everything is cluttered right now.

My life is cluttered right now. My desk is cluttered, the coffee table is cluttered, the kitchen table is cluttered. Grocery receipts, store ads, the program booklet from yesterday's conference, a card from Warren's sister, letters I need to answer.

Clutter, clutter, clutter.

My mind is cluttered right now. Sam's situation is nagging at me. (It turns out the ex told Sam before he moved back to Ohio that I would pay his rent. Not just one month but all months until Sam gets a job. Did the ex ask me? No.) Court matters are on my mind. Emails I need to answer are tugging at my brain cells.

Clutter, clutter, clutter.

My time is cluttered right now. We have had many, many nights out (evening meetings) for the last several weeks. December 2009 is almost filled in on my calendar and I am already starting to mark up January 2010. While I sat there today, I noted all the repeating dates I have yet to pen in on 2010: United Way board meetings (4th Monday every other month), legal clinic (3rd Tuesday of the month), mediation (Thursday afternoons), coffee with Nancy (1st Thursday of the month).

Clutter, clutter, clutter.

I ended up jotting down a list of what I "want." My list read like this:
  • less clutter
  • more control over schedule
  • more disciplined with my time
  • cleaner house* - dusty floors, shower needs cleaned, what is that in the fridge?
  • personal time: read, write, Warren, projects, friends

[*Note: I am not what you would call a neat-as-a-pin homemaker. I have a high tolerance for dust. I have a high tolerance for things in the house, including shop equipment, ongoing projects, and six timpani. I can tolerate all of that. But right now we are way past my breakpoint on surface level clutter.]

When I attended a "Bridges Out of Poverty" workshop this summer, the speaker said people with middle class values like to make lists and check things off as they accomplish them. This is so engrained as a value that if they have accomplished something not on their list, they will often write it in and then cross it off as a sign of accomplishment.

I thought of that statement as I looked at my list. I'm not sure my wants lend themselves to being crossed off.

The meeting picked up midway through the morning and I set my notes aside. At lunch, the five of us (it was a small meeting) told personal stories about where we came from and how we got into this field (mediation). Small, intimate notes were exchanged. Martha used to keep a herd of Jersey cows and was an accomplished cheese maker. Kathy was a county commissioner at one time. Mac was in the Army and did three tours of duty during Desert Storm.

While sharing his story, Mac said he tries to find the good in each day, adding, "I'm just skipping along in God's grace." He rapped a rhythm with his knuckles against the tabletop while he said that.

Skipping is a lighthearted act. Skipping is the unfettered and unburdened gait of a happy child.

I am looking at my list again, now that I am home and typing these words. It is interesting that time or time management is three of the five points. Time seems to be my continual stumbling block. Sometimes what I perceive as clutter - mental and physical - is more my banging my head against the clock and the calendar than anything else.

I can go on wrestling with time and its accompanying clutter, getting frustrated with its unmanageability, or I can consciously step back and let it flow by.

I can choose to let it go.

I can skip along in the grace of the moment.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Changing the Channel

So here's where I'm at.

It is fast approaching Thanksgiving, Christmas is right around the corner, and I am looking at my oh-so-slender account balance and taking a deep breath.

Make that several deep breaths. Thanks to that one disastrous medical appointment in mid-July, I am still paying off the resulting damage from the doctor who ordered his "favorite" tests over my and my pocketbook's protests, reminding me that he was the one with 14 years of medical training and also insisting that if I were just "firm," the hospital would knock those bills down to nothing.

Add to that the recent email from my ex in which he asked me if I could cover Sam's December rent because he was "very tight" on money this month. (This is the same ex who at the time when I was recovering from my second stem cell transplant and had been unemployed for months, insisted he could not scrape up the money to pay one ( just one!) monthly orthodontia payment.) The ex had promised Sam he would cover his living expenses until Sam finds work. But wait, there's more! After I wrote back yesterday and said it would be hard but Sam and I would make it work for December, the selfsame ex (who is fully employed with benefits) emailed last night to ask me if I could take over Sam's monthly expenses until Sam finds a job.

I was momentarily staggered by his presumptuousness, but then remembered that this is but one of the many reasons we are no longer married.

All the same, it made my chest hurt.

Maybe I need to take a million deep breaths. My thoughts are looping on my grievances against Dr. Bully (now four months in the past) and my grievances against my ex spouse (too far in the past to count).

Several years ago when I was clawing my way out of the wreckage of my marriage, I had a great therapist who helped me put the pieces of my life back together. One of the things I learned from him was how to turn off the loop when it gets started.

You turn off the loop by walking away from it. Which in this case means I need to let go and focus on the present.

The present is this: I have income (freelance) coming in, I have a roof over my head, and there is food on the table. (And thanks to the gardens, in the freezer as well.) I have a wonderful husband who is always, always there for me and is honest and straightforward in our relationship. (And who loves me and never fails to show it. Wow!) I have much of my health. I have my younger son back in town and striving hard to get back on his feet again. I have my older son who is about to move with his amazing fiancé to a new town in the next step of their life adventure. I have family close at hand. I live in a community I love and in which I have invested my time and my heart. I have good friends - here in town, here and there throughout the country, and here in Blogville.

I have all of this in my life.

When I look at it this way - the only way to look at it - I am rich beyond measure.

We - Warren and I - will figure out something with Sam, something that disengages me from my ex and gets Sam on his feet. The hospital bills will get paid. My life will go on with richness and warmth and fullness, regardless of the balance in my bankbook.

And Christmas will come. Christmas will come with tinsel and bells and even a present or two, although in looking back at the riches I have listed, I'm can't imagine needing anything. (Well, maybe new oven mitts.)

My wonderful therapist from long ago often likened my painful memories and hurtful thoughts to a radio that played nonstop. He would say, "you may not ever be able to get rid of the radio, April, but you can learn ways to turn the volume way down so you don't have to listen to it all the time. You can even learn to change the channel."

I'm changing the channel right now. It's time for some holiday music.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Percussion Universe

I just got back from a long weekend with Warren in Indianapolis. We were there for the Percussive Arts Society International Convention (PASIC). After all, I do live in the percussion section.

This was not my first time at PASIC. I attended the 2007 convention in Columbus, Ohio, so I was not a total neophyte at this. All the same, I was once again just blown away by what it means to immerse yourself in a world of percussion.

A world of percussion? Try something bigger, much bigger. A galaxy? A universe? Yeah, that's more like it. It is a Percussion Universe out there and I just spent two and a half days in the center of it.

There are some things you should know in case you ever are in Percussion Universe:
  • Lots of performers in Percussion Universe wear black. Despite this, Percussion Universe is not a somber or grim place. All the same, if it were up to me, I'd throw some color into the mix. What about a little fuchsia or turquoise every now and then?
  • Five gallon buckets (empty) dipped into water and then emptied out are percussion instruments.
  • It is not unusual in Percussion Universe to see the denizens walk by carrying a drum cradled in their arms as gently as you would carry a child. On a return trip, they might be guiding a marimba in the same manner one would coax a balky horse.
  • You may come upon a group of older men standing outside talking, carrying what look like from a distance to be purses of various colors and styles. Only when you are closer do you realize they are holding tambourine bags.
In Percussion Universe, the drumming never stops. You cannot go anywhere without tripping over someone drumming, hearing someone drumming, or seeing someone carrying something that could be drummed upon. At any time day or night, you find percussionists, regardless of age, gender, or nationality, tapping out rhythms with their fingers, their feet, their hands, the mallets or sticks in their back pocket, or any other object that can strike a surface, be it a wall, a tabletop, a floor, or a leg - theirs or that of a buddy.

I arrived in Percussion Universe tired and out of sorts. We'd been up way too late the night before and had left early Thursday morning to get there. I was disoriented in the large convention center.

But that mood didn't last long. The joy of Percussion Universe is infectious. There are too many notes, too many beats, too many rhythms, too many shiny things, and too many goofy things to see and do to stay grumpy for long.

To enter the Exhibit Hall at PASIC was to plunge into the heart of Percussion Universe. In the front of the hall were publishers and schools and makers of the quieter instruments like marimbas. The back area contained the drum sets, the timpani, the cymbals, and everything else that was loud. In between the two was a buffer zone, curtained off, that contained dead space.

You need a buffer zone in Percussion Universe because percussionists need buffered. Think of the buffer zone as a DMZ between loud and LOUD.

In Percussion Universe, all that glitters is not gold. The hottest colors and metals are brass, bronze, and copper. Everywhere I turned, there was another stack of shiny cymbals or triangles to run my fingers over. Everywhere were percussionists touching, drumming, tapping a bar, a marimba, a triangle, a cymbal, just for the sound of it.

It is glittery eye candy. It is stunning ear candy.

The big question in Percussion Universe is "what does it sound like?" And that question is answerable in infinite ways ranging from tone to rhythm. I know, because I walked more than once through the Exhibit Hall with Warren, who did a fair amount of tapping, rapping, and drumming himself. The PASIC staff kept making announcements to hold any playing to a mezzo forte level and no louder for no more than 20 seconds. For the most part, people did that. But with 100 or 200 percussionists all playing different instruments at the same time, the phrase "mezzo forte" didn't mean a thing.

I saw some amazing performances that I am still carrying in my head and ears. One was a gamelan ensemble from University of Illinois. A gamelan is an assemblage of Balinese percussion instruments that are treated as one instrument for playing purposes, being built and tuned to stay together as one unit. Some of the pieces are mounted metal bars (like a xylophone) which the players strike with metal hammers. The musical effect is wonderfully like a merry-go-round band organ. One of the players, a young Balinese woman who had danced the first piece with three others, wore her elaborate golden headdress while she played. She looked like the Queen of Percussion Universe as she concentrated on her striking.

There were so many groups that just floored me (and everyone else listening to them). Ju Percussion from Taipei performed pounding rhythms, classical Chinese opera complete with two singers in traditional operatic costume (elaborately brocaded) and makeup, and incredible keyboard work that brought us all to our feet for a lengthy standing ovation. There was the high school quartet, Badaboum, which won an audition to be a showcased ensemble and came all the way from France to play at PASIC. Saturday night, the amazing Tommy Igoe and his jazz band performed. They were joined by Rolando Morales-Matos, who has the fastest hands I have ever seen and who just happens to be a brother of our Symphony's conductor. Again, we - all of us in Percussion Universe - were on our feet at the end.

My favorite group was the Louisville Leopards Percussionists, a group of about 65 children ages 7 to 12, who learn the happiness of making music through learning to play jazz percussion. We heard two different ensembles: the beginners (who had started just three months ago) and the older students, who have been in the group for anywhere from a year to several years. Never mind how cute the group was (how can you not melt watching a little boy play bongos when his eyes barely clear the level of the drums?), these kids were musicians. As they played, they filled the room with joy and rhythm.

Soon after the performance, the youngest Leopards exited single file. Adults lined up on either side and applauded and cheered them down the hall. Later on, I saw many of them in the Exhibit Hall, all wearing their telltale orange shirts, weaving in and out of exhibits, playing different instruments. A couple of the Leopards had purchased drum sticks and were doing what any other percussionist would do - drum on the table, the backs of chairs, their legs, or a nearby buddy's back - just to see what it sounded like.

By the end of PASIC, Percussion Universe had infused entire city blocks in downtown Indianapolis. Everywhere you went were people walking around with sticks in hand, tapping, or their fingers drumming on a sign pole while waiting for the light to change. At Rhythm Discovery Center, the soon to open percussion museum of the Percussive Arts Society, I heard someone taking a masterful turn on a cajon drum, which is very much like a large box you sit on and thump with your hands. Turning the corner, I found one of the museum guards just getting up from it, grinning. And in what was surely the epitome of PASIC and a badge of being a true citizen of Percussion Universe, one of the college age attendees set up shop on a street corner with his steel pan drum, an open case in front of him, busking for fun and a few bucks.

We have been home for a couple of days now. Our living room still contains the detritus of our trip. There are brochures and cymbal mounts and programs on one chair. There is a large tuned cowbell on the couch. As I type these words, I hear again the sounds of tambourines and bongos, and see again the faces of the Louisville Leopards as they showed a whole room of adults what it was all about. It was all about the rhythms, all about the beat, and all about the sheer energy and joy of making music.

It was all about being in Percussion Universe.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


When I was growing up, there were two sepia photographs of soldiers in my grandmother's bookcase. One was a photograph of her husband, my grandfather. The other was a photograph of a wistful looking young man who was always referred to as "Uncle Art."

Uncle Art was my grandfather's younger brother. Both were in the army during World War I.

My grandfather was mustered out quickly as he was blind in one eye from a carpentry accident. Uncle Art, however, served from 1917 until 1918, when he was killed in France.

The family story was that Uncle Art "got his head blown off" in battle. He was buried in a small country cemetery a little ways outside of town here, next to his parents.

Growing up, that was about all I ever knew about Uncle Art. Neither of my grandparents ever mentioned him.

Even without his being mentioned, it always seemed to me that World War I had a profound impact on my grandmother. Although all four of her sons served in World War II, World War I seemed the more immediate and more personal war in the household. There were the photos of the young soldiers, of course. And in the living room was a framed copy of the quintessential poem of that war, McCrae's "In Flanders Field:"

In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

My grandmother would often recite that poem, especially on November 11th. It was one of the earliest poems I committed to memory as a result. To the end of her days, she always referred to November 11 as "Armistice Day," and made sure the flag flew from sunrise to sundown. Sometimes she would intone "on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month" in referring to the significance of the day.

In recent years, I did a little bit of research and discovered a little bit more about Uncle Art. He entered the Army in 1917, a member of Company K, 166th Infantry, which was a part of the 42nd Division, known as the Rainbow Division. In all likelihood Uncle Art trained at Camp Mills, located on Long Island.

After training, Uncle Art shipped to France. I don't know whether he came back to Delaware before shipping out or went straight on by troopship to Europe. He made the rank of corporal.

The 42nd Division saw a great deal of action during World War I. Its first engagement was the Champagne-Marne offensive, which was the last great thrust of the German Army. The Germans were unsuccessful, in large part due to the influx of American troops to bolster the French army.

2058 soldiers of the 42nd Division died in that battle, which only lasted three days. Uncle Art fell on July 15, 1918, the first day of the engagement. There was a small death announcement in the local newspaper.

Uncle Art was buried in France initially. His body did not come home until three years later, when a number of bodies of American soldiers were exhumed and returned by ship to the United States for reburial.

Uncle Art came home on the SS Cantigny. The Cantigny, a troopship that wasn't built until after the end of World War I, primarily saw duty repatriating the doughboys after the war ended. After transporting the ones who survived, the Cantigny apparently repatriated those who did not. Its active military use ended in September, 1921, which was the same month that Uncle Art returned. He may have been on the last military voyage of that ship.

Uncle Art was buried in a small country cemetery about two miles outside of town. Looking at the little cemetery, I cannot fathom why his father picked a cemetery that at time would have been a fair drive from town. It was not a "new" cemetery even then, and my grandparents had no affiliation with the little church that operated it.

I went out there two days ago to visit the graves. There is Uncle Art alongside his mother and father. My grandfather, who was his brother, and my grandmother are close by. It is a quiet, mossy cemetery, ankle deep in leaves in the fall.

The War to End All Wars ended 91 year ago today on the "eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month." Uncle Art came home three years later. Alice, my great-grandmother, died a year after that. I have wondered whether her son's homecoming was the strain that killed her or the relief that released her?

No one is left to answer that question. No one is left who knew my great-grandmother. No one is left who can tell what her reaction was when her doughboy came home from France at long last.