Friday, May 29, 2009

Warren's Adventure

My husband Warren is building a shed in the backyard, back in the corner where it juts a little further north. The shed is 12 x 14 feet, big enough to store a ton of rosewood or 12' lengths of steel bar in it. (Warren makes and refinishes custom percussion instruments, a line of work that requires woodworking and metalworking skills, along with occasionally atypical materials.)

Warren has probably done about 85% of the work on the building himself, from cutting the joists to screwing the corrugated metal roof in place. My dad has provided another 14% of the effort. I have contributed the remainder, with most of my contribution being in the category of unloading materials or helping carry tools.

Although I love architecture and know how to hammer a nail straight, I have never understood how a building, even a simple one, goes together. So I am not great on a building site. Warren, on the other hand, can not only visualize a structure, but then turn around and build it.

One of Warren's favorite books as a little boy was Jack's Adventure, a Little Golden Book. Jack was a little boy who "wanted a hideout." In his search for a hideout, he ended up at an appliance store, where he received two wooden crates, which he then turned into a fine hideout (with a remarkable bit of hand carpentry for a little boy).

It is a fun story, and one that I remembered from my childhood as soon as I saw the book, which Warren still owns. As we were talking over his plans for the new shed, he said he was tempted to make it look a little like Jack's hideout. So with Jack in mind, Warren designed the shed that is now going up in the back corner of the yard.

This is not Warren's first design or his first building experience. Back in 1989, he and his now ex-wife bought some undeveloped property out in the country. Their dream was to build a shop for Warren's business, as well as a Prairie-style home for themselves. Warren designed both the shop and the house. The two-story shop got built first, board by board, entirely by Warren, and he moved his business into it. The site for the house got cleared, but Life intervened in the myriad of ways it tends to and the plans for the house got first moved to the back burner and then shelved permanently.

There is a picture of Warren, taken 20 years ago, sitting on a wall beam while he takes a break from building the shop. He is a little too far away to read his expression accurately, but he looks satisfied and happy. Underneath the photo, his mother wrote "Underway! A dream coming true."

Dreams change. Big plans for a business don't always come to fruition. Marriages that start out full of hope and shared expectations unravel or wither or both. Eventually, the shop became a refuge to which Warren would retreat in his sadness and loneliness. After he got locked out of it in the bitterness and rancor of a protracted divorce, the shop became a symbol of abandoned dreams and broken hopes. In the end, when the divorce was over, Warren walked away from it.

The shop equipment is now in the garage. The shed will be used for storing materials and for the yard tools, including the lawnmower, so that Warren will have maximum shop space in the garage. He is rebuilding his business on the ashes of the old.

Over the last many months, we have talked at length about Warren's starting over with his business, his building, and his life. Like the builder he is, he appreciates the necessity of a solid foundation, whether it is for a shed or a new relationship. Both of us came out of lengthy marriages, terminally troubled in their own ways, and both of us had to establish new routines and new customs as a result. Our falling in love precipitated yet more changes as my life on my own was established while Warren was just starting to reclaim his. For both of us, it has been a time of discovery and joy, all built on the foundation of a lengthy and solid friendship.

Jack's Adventure ends with the little boy sitting on the roof of his hideout, imagining sheriffs, Indians, and bandits all coming to visit.

Warren's adventures, and ours together, are just beginning.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Feeding My Soul

I grew up in a household in which the magazine du jour was Reader's Digest. Being even then an avid reader - the kind who will read the backs of cereal boxes if need be - I read them every month. Having the type of mind I do - the garbage can kind that holds all kinds of small bits and pieces of useless information thrown into it over the years - I still remember a few articles from way back when.

One of them was written by a wife describing her husband's purchase of a lavender Cadillac, despite their financial insecurity at the time, and how she overcame her concerns about paying the rent and feeding the kids to enjoy the joyous inauguration ride. The author cited a Hindu proverb: "If you have two loafs of bread, give one to the poor and sell the other to buy hyacinths to feed your soul."

Many years later, the proverb still resonates with me. (The story still sticks with me too, but for different reasons. Did they pay their rent or were they evicted? What did the kids eat? Did she eventually grow tired of the lavender Cadillac and his irresponsible ways? Did they stay married?)

I always liked the image of feeding one's soul with flowers. I always liked the realization that sometimes you need more than bread, or need something other than bread, to keep going.

That quote has been on my mind a lot in recent weeks. It has shadowed me all day today. It swam alongside me this morning at the Y; it accompanied me as I walked to and from a midday downtown coffee date. I kept turning the quote over in my mind, and before I got home, I figured out I'd better be finding some hyacinths.

Lately, I have been dealing with a touch of depression. Not so black and suffocating that I cannot draw a breath that is not raggedy, not so omnipresent that I cannot do anything other than stare out the window, but depression all the same.

Depression and I are old friends. I have been fortunate not to suffer heavily from it; we have a respectful relationship at this point in my life. Generally I have found my bouts with it to be times of self-reflection, albeit times when my world has the sound turned off and the color missing.

Right now the colors are merely muted and the sounds turned down.

It has been a busy spring - too busy in some ways, and too tiring in others. Between work and the Symphony and our respective children and Life in general, both Warren and I have had overfull plates for weeks on end. As of late, Warren has been building a shed - 12 x 14 - and that has dominated our free time. I am helping on the periphery of the project, not as much as I would like but as much as I am capable, and that along with gardening and other homefront tasks has hit me hard in the exhaustion and overdoing it departments.

Exhaustion and overdoing it are depression triggers for me.

Another trigger is Sam, who has now been out in Oregon for about 7 weeks. We talked today and he is struggling a little at his end: looking for work, worrying about putting food on the table. I am so proud of him for making the leap. All the same, I miss him tremendously and worry about him as he moves into adulthood.

Warren does a wonderful job taking care of me. He is concerned about my mood and trying hard not to hover too much. I have explained to him that for this type of sadness, I have to work through it on my own at times, as it keeps its own schedule and its own company.

And working through it brings me back to the opening quote about buying hyacinths to feed one's soul. I recently learned that there is a very similar quote in the Koran:

If of all your worldly goods you are bereft,
and two loaves of bread alone to you are left;
sell one, and with the dole,
buy hyacinths to feed your soul.

I like the Hindu version better. Giving one loaf to the poor fits more with my own beliefs. Still, I appreciate that two world religions found caring for one's inner needs to be of such importance that it triumphs over food.

It's not hyacinth season in Ohio. The days are turning hotter and more humid; the stores are selling flats of summer annuals. While driving out of the Westfield parking lot yesterday, I glanced over at the Kroger seasonal garden center. The petunias were in tiers of colors: pink, red, white, blue, purple, lavender. The colors were so crisp that they sliced through my muted mood sharply and quickly, so much so that I wheeled back into the lot and jumped out of the car.

There are now three flats of petunias on the rear deck. In a moment, I will pick up a trowel and head outside. There are flower containers to fill.

And my soul to feed. Petunias will do so just fine.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Decoration Day

Monday is Memorial Day and Warren and I, like many others around here, will observe it in part by visiting area cemeteries in which his and my family members are buried.

Memorial Day grew out of Decoration Day, a direct result of the Civil War. That war touched every town in every state east of the Mississippi River (and some beyond). Small wonder: almost 10% of the nation served in the respective armies of the North and South. Some 20% of the soldiers serving, 2% of the nation's population, died in that war. Decoration Day began officially in 1868 to commemorate the war dead, and it still officially honors all those who died in wartime in service to this country.

In this part of the country, central Ohio, many families still observe Memorial Day, although we tend to treat it as a family holiday rather than a military remembrance. It is a time to head to the cemeteries, clean the graves, talk about the family buried there, and put out bunches of flowers. Boy scouts and veterans groups will beat many of us there to make sure fresh flags are in the war markers of the veterans.(Local history being what it is, local markers go all the way back to the Revolutionary War.)

We will arrive bearing flowers and trowels and, in some cases, statuary or balloons for the graves. In some ways, Memorial Day is as close as we, mainstream white Ohioans that we are, come to observing Dia de los Muertos. We do not feast at the cemetery, but we celebrate our deceased family members by remembering them at this time of year.

Decorating the family graves is a tradition my mother, father, and I observe together and one in which Warren has joined. One of the cemeteries we will visit is a large, open cemetery a ways from town, where my sister and my dad's parents are buried, and where someday my parents will be too.

At that cemetery, my parents and I have lots of friends, both dead and alive. Although that cemetery dates back to the late 1800s, a large section of it has been opened and used since 1950. My parents bought a plot there in 1955, when they had to bury their baby daughter, and bought their own plots at the same time. My dad's parents bought the plots next to them.

Over the years you get to know who's there in a cemetery and who their family is. Nearby is John Link, a close friend of my dad's, who died of cancer in his early 20s. My friend Laurie's dad is buried in the next section over; Laurie and her mother have probably already been out there this weekend. Denny and Marlene Schultz, whose friendship with my parents started back in high school, are just around the corner. Denny died a number of years ago; Marlene just a month ago. There is a little feeling of Our Town in that cemetery sometimes and I wonder how Marlene, who had a wonderful, bubbling, giggling laugh, would do in the setting that Thornton Wilder imagined.

We visited this cemetery a lot as I was growing up; it was on the route to or from my grandparents' farm out on Hogback Road. Although I didn't realize it then, I can appreciate now how much my mother must have missed her baby, who had died suddenly at three months. While my parents took the time to clean the headstone or just stand silently, arms around each other, we kids would use the time as opportunities to explore the nearby graves. Visiting the cemetery was not a macabre experience but a natural part of the rhythm of my childhood.

One of my favorite grave markers of all time is in that cemetery. I must have read it a hundred times as a kid and still always stop and read it every time I am out there. I will read it Monday, in fact. It is the stone for Alfred Livingston, who died in 1911 at the age of 70. Alfred Livingston was a sergeant with Company D, 121st regiment of the Ohio Volunteer Infantry, and his stone proudly notes that he fought at Chickamauga, marched with Sherman to the sea, and marched in the Grand Review of the Armies in D.C. at war's end. The 121st was organized in Delaware, so I suspect that he was a local farm boy who went away to war.

I have often wondered what stories Alfred must have had to tell when he returned at the war's end. I wonder whether he participated in any of the veterans reunions, and whose memories he marked every year on Decoration Day. I like that his marker notes what must have been the greatest adventure of his life.

This weekend, the cemeteries all around here are full of family members pulling weeds and planting flowers. Some of the small towns in the area will hold Memorial Day parades and observances in the local cemetery. All of those ceremonies will include a recitation of the Gettysburg Address, because that is what you do on Memorial Day around here.

Monday, Warren and I will visit his parents' grave and make sure the flags are in good order. They both served in World War II: Art in the Army and Ellen in the Red Cross. Later in the day, I will clip Ellen's peonies, which are in full bloom right now, and we will join my parents, with their own bunches of peonies, and decorate the family graves in other cemeteries.

Decoration Day has taken on some different meanings since its official start in 1868, but here we are, 141 years later, still carrying our flowers and our memories to the cemetery on Memorial Day, and still looking after our dead. I think Alfred Livingston would approve.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Abundance Theory

Last Tuesday night was our monthly free legal clinic, at which I do intake. I cannot shake the look on the face of the middle aged, clearly middle class client who had just been served foreclosure papers.

One of the blogs I read regularly wrote about the "abundance theory" the very next day. To quote, "abundance theory is all about trusting that you'll find what you need, because there's plenty of everything available...[M]aking the mental shift of focusing on the abundance in your environment will cause your life to improve in all kinds of areas that may seem unrelated."

I think anyone capable of writing that sentence has not done intake in a free legal clinic lately.

Someone who has enough income, enough food, and enough support, material or otherwise, can believe in the abundance theory. Abundance theory is a logical extension of the principles of frugality - by lessening one's reliance on and devotion to the material world, one enjoys and savors life more. Simplify your life, appreciate and use what you have, and life becomes more meaningful and richer.

My belief in small moments of great reward is probably a mini-version of the abundance theory.

But as I noted at the beginning of this post, last Tuesday night was our monthly free legal clinic. Our client numbers are growing. I bake more cookies and bring home fewer leftovers each time.

The pleasant, neatly dressed man sat very erect as I took down contact information. He had an anxious smile and haunted eyes as he answered my questions.

"What brought you to our clinic tonight?"

He and his wife had just been served with foreclosure papers. In a million years, he never expected to be in foreclosure.

He never came right out and said that last sentence, but he didn't have to. There was panic in his eyes, despite his attempt to project calm and self-assurance.

He is losing his home.

This story, or a variation of it, is repeated monthly at our local free legal clinic. This story, or a variation of it, is repeated weekly at our local free medical clinic. This story, or a variation of it, is repeated daily at our local emergency food pantry, where former volunteers are now on the receiving end for the first time in their lives.

There is a Zen saying, "enough is a feast." Zen thought often puzzles me; this one I have turned over in my head for some 30 years. Some days I understand it: my small moments of great reward are a feast by any standard. But when I am working at the legal clinic or reading about the abundance theory in the midst of the Great Recession, I disagree. Enough is not a feast; enough is merely enough.

In these troubled economic times, there are too many who don't have enough, let alone a feast. The foreclosure papers are on the door, the bank account is empty, and all the cookies in the world - or at least all the cookies I tote to clinic each month - cannot fill the gap. If there is an abundance anywhere, it is an abundance of not enough in more than enough of our homes.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Late May Farm Report

It is late May, the days are getting hot, and I am getting ready to dig the second garden bed, the one for the seeds.

Back in April, I moved the transplants outside and into the first garden bed, the one next to the garage. I have only had one frost scare-just this week in fact, after the "last frost" date for this zone. Otherwise, everything is out there and more or less on its own. I spent last night thinning tomatoes and peppers. I tossed a few of the culls away, but if I pulled a tomato out with an intact root system, I dug another hole and put the plant back in the ground in another spot. I did the same thing with the peppers, which are much smaller and more easily transplanted.

What all this rearranging means is that I no have no idea what is what in my garden.

When I planted the seedlings, I did a rough (very rough) plot of the bed. I more or less knew where the Purple Beauty peppers and the Red Zebra tomatoes were. Now I am not sure. I am not sure even of the original plantings, what with all the additions. When the plants mature a bit more, and certainly, I hope, when they start to bear, I may be able to tell again what is what, but now they are "just" peppers and "just" tomatoes.

The rearranging also means that if even "just" half of these plants mature and produce, I will be awash in peppers and tomatoes for weeks. I had a hearty number before I thinned and replanted; now the number of tomatoes and pepper plants is staggering.

I have planted the herbs outside around the rim of the garden, transplanting indoor chives and oregano, seeding all the rest. I probably should have started the herbs inside on the heels of the vegetable seedlings, but I was seeded out by the time April rolled around. I could not look at one more seed pot or watch one more sprout. If they grow, great; if not, our local Farmers Market opens this Saturday and will be open until October. My friend Donna grows great basil and I can buy it from her when I am at her stand buying sweet corn this summer.

I am eager to get the last bed dug and readied. I want the last seeds in the ground, I want the last load of compost with its intoxicating aroma spaded in, I want the last rites of spring performed. This is a long weekend and I have a feeling I will spend a lot of it with a shovel in hand.

Robert Frost wrote a poem, "Build Soil," in which he admonishes the reader to

Build soil. Turn the farm in upon itself
Until it can contain itself no more,
But sweating-full, drips wine and oil a little.

I am ready to build soil and turn my little farm in upon itself. No wine and no oil, but how about some tomato juice?

Friday, May 15, 2009

Happy Birthday, Mark!

May 17 is my brother Mark's 46th birthday.

Mark is the baby of the family. I was in first grade when he was born, old enough to appreciate having a new baby in the house. I still remember my pride when my first grade teacher, Margaret Chriswell, put her hand on my head on the playground and announced to another teacher, "April has a new brother."

Mark was my baby. He was cute: big blue eyes, blond hair, dimples. He was the little brother I walked up and down the big hill, first in his stroller, then holding his hand while he toddled. He's the one I taught to ride a bike without the training wheels. (There is a brother, Michel, in between me and Mark. Michel wrecked my position as "cute youngest child" when he was born, so he did not get wheeled around by me very much.)

I read to Mark, incessantly. One Fish Two Fish, Sam and the Firefly, Go Dog Go. I read The Hobbit to him early on, probably after I'd been introduced to it in fifth grade. In fact, I read to him so much that to this day he only somewhat jokingly blames me for his slow reading. "I never had to read," he'll say with a grin.

I left for college right after Mark finished grade school. Except for intermittent trips back, I was pretty much gone all through his junior high and high school years. So I missed out on seeing him in marching band (he was a drummer), seeing him run track (he was a distance runner), and seeing him take his girlfriend Jackie (now his wife) to the prom.

I was in on Mark getting his learner's permit, though. I was back in Delaware for a few weeks, Mark had just turned 16, and I'm the one who drove him out to BMV to take the test. When he came out grinning with the piece of paper in his hands, I tossed him the keys and let him drive back to our parents' house.

Heck, it was their car, not mine.

Mark has worn many hats over his lifetime. Brother, son, husband, father, friend, runner, Army sergeant, church member, volunteer, rock band drummer, fundraiser, percussion pit parent, Good Guy. Mark's attitude pretty much is "if the hat fits, wear it." He's worn them all well. Mark believes in God, Family, and Country, and is not ashamed to show it.

Mark is the brother you want at the family dinner table for the holidays and celebrations. He will keep up a running patter of wisecracks and funny observations about everyone at the table, including himself. Right after I was diagnosed with bone marrow cancer, we had a family Thanksgiving where everyone talked in hushed voices with tears in their eyes. Mark was the one who walked me out to my car (along with our older brother) and stood telling jokes about my being dead until we were all gasping for breath from laughing.

It sounds morbid, I know. Trust me, it wasn't. Mark was funny. I needed to laugh.

Mark was there for me 1000% when I was really sick and going through treatment. Mark knew the cancer world better than I did, having participated in various Team In Training events for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. He immediately got back into training, this time on a bike, named me his hero, and raised more money than anyone else did in central Ohio for the Lake Tahoe Century Ride that year. Physical problems, later diagnosed as a chronic liver disease, kept him from riding the whole route, but he rode the last 25 miles and called me from the finish line to tell me he had completed the ride. As his teammates came across the finish line, they too got on the phone. I had tears in my eyes listening to the cheers and whoops as they finished.

Mark was my hero when I was ill, and not because he raised money or rode a bike in my honor. No, Mark moved to the top of my Lifetime Hero List because he willingly ran interference for me with Mom, who in her anxiety over my illness would have me stressed out and crying two sentences into any conversation. Mark is the one who gently but firmly laid down the law with her. Mom, no more phone calls about other people's treatments. Or how so-and-so reacted to chemotherapy. And when April says she is tired and has to hang up or go home right that minute, she means it.

It didn't cure Mom, but it did slow her down considerably. Did I ever tell him "thank you" enough for that?

Last month, I got to see another side of my brother. He plays drums in his son's band, November Rain, and the band was in the local Battle of the Bands. Watching my brother transform himself from "just Mark" into a veritable Lord of the Drum Set was pretty amazing. Maybe it was the sunglasses. More likely it was the sheer concentration and enjoyment on his face as he whaled away with verve. Afterwards, I ran into our older brother, who said "that boy's got some talent. Who'd have known?"

For many years, Mark and I have kidded each other about getting old. Although I have seven years on him, he is the one who has taken aging harder. His 40th birthday just about did him in. Our respective chronic diseases have helped him put aging in perspective, even causing him to adopt my slogan: "It beats the alternative." I'm looking forward to his 50th birthday as cause for celebration for us both.

Despite the new attitude, we nonetheless continue to exchange cards harping on aging. Mine are way funnier than his. Sometimes he calls me after he opens them, laughing so hard he can hardly speak.

This year, though, no cards with dinosaur jokes on them ("Hi there, remember us? We sat behind you in homeroom!") or other cracks about his age. No gifts of fossils or dirt (as in "older than…"). All I sent him was a plain piece of paper, directing him to this blog so I could give a heartfelt shout out to my brother.

I have three brothers and one of them is having a birthday today. You know which one.
The one who's getting OLD.

(Love you, Mark! Happy birthday from your chronologically older but otherwise always way younger sister and her wonderful husband!)

Emotional Frugality? I Don't Think So!

There is a poem by Alice Walker that begins:

Expect nothing.
Live frugally on surprise.

I came across it last week in a list of quotes titled "Simple Inspirations." I looked up the poem the quote had been lifted from, to see if it were somehow taken out of context. After reading the poem, which left me sad, I emailed my friend Margo: I am troubled by the statement. It would seem to me that if you expected nothing, then the surprise of something would be even greater.

Needless to say, I did not find the quote inspiring.

Margo emailed back soon afterwards: I'd have to study that statement for a while to decide how I felt. The "live frugally on surprise" troubles me. I'd rather live richly, even if it's only on my own imagination.

Margo is 100% correct.

Don't get me wrong. I love frugality. Fiscal frugality, that is. I practice it as much as possible for lots of reasons, both philosophical (because I believe in it) and practical (my finances have been really tight for a long time). Conspicuous consumption makes me break out in hives.

I think I learned frugality in my cradle from my grandmothers, both of whom raised families during the Great Depression, and whose frugal living styles I saw demonstrated over and over throughout my childhood and adolescence. I am fortunate beyond words that my husband, Warren, is like minded. We were both married for a long time to other individuals who wreaked a lot of financial harm in our respective lives, so we really, really appreciate each other's frugality.

But I don't carry my frugality into my emotional life. Especially not into my emotional life.

One of the rewards of a frugal lifestyle is that it gives me the time and presence of mind to savor Life. Because I am not at the mall looking for a new pair of shoes to lift my spirits or suggesting "oh, let's just eat out!" to give me an emotional boost, I have the energy, both physically and mentally, to focus on the immediate task at hand, be it having coffee with a friend or weeding the garden or taking a walk with Warren.

There is another reason I shun emotional frugality and that is, of course, my one way ticket to Cancerland, handed to me in November, 2004. Getting a diagnosis of cancer, especially an incurable kind, is an automatic, instantaneous, life-changing moment. I learned in a heartbeat that Life - sweet, sad, painful, crazy, uplifting, exasperating, joyous Life - trumped shoes, cars, or meals out any day, anytime, anywhere.

That Life Lesson has never left me. And because I have learned irrevocably that Life is so wonderful, I could never ever live frugally on surprise, expecting nothing.

My riches are counted not in objects or in coins, but in the building blocks of my life: my marriage, my family, my friends, my writing, my volunteer activities, my everyday activities. I am frugal when it comes to spending money, but not when it comes to spending time doing the things that matter to me most, with or for the people who count the most. I am fully in agreement with Zadie Smith: "Time is how you spend your love." Whether I am spending it writing a letter to Katrina, seeing Warren's face light up in a smile, baking for the Legal Clinic, or just sitting on the deck listening to the cardinals, these are my small moments of great reward, not doled out stingily, but filling my heart and my hands, spilling through my fingers - rewards anew each day.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Great Telephone Operators Strike of 1947

In April, 1947, the telephone operators of this country went on strike. Some 350,000 telephone operators, almost all of them women, walked off theirs jobs around the nation. For almost a month, there was no voice on the other end of the line asking "Number, please" to connect calls.

In the days before dial phones and dial tones, every number had to be spoken into the receiver and a human being - almost always female - connected your phone to the number you asked for. The strike brought telephone communications to a standstill. As the strikers vowed, "the voice with a smile" was indeed "gone for awhile."

The strike was short, lasting about a month. In retrospect, the strike, which was organized by the National Federation of Telephone Workers (NFTW) is remembered as ill-planned and without sufficient strength or money to keep the workers going. A.T. & T also caught the union off guard with its ability to restart and keep the phone systems operating despite the strike. The one great achievement was that it organized telephone workers to the point that they pressed for a reorganization of the NFTW, which was a collection of autonomous units, into a national union of telephone workers, the Communication Workers of America, that exists to this day.

I had never heard of this strike until a few months ago. I learned about it only then through a most unconventional source: a cartoon that my late father-in-law drew at the height of the strike.

In the spring of 1947, Arthur Hyer was living in Chicago and attending optometry school. He was also head over heels in love with Ellen Wilson, a young woman he had met two years earlier at Camp Story in Virginia while she was serving in the Red Cross and he was convalescing at a base hospital. The war-weary sergeant recovering from battle fatigue was smitten with the young, idealistic Ellen, who was about to ship out to England and had dreams of changing the world.

Before the war, Arthur had also had dreams, in his case of becoming an artist. Following the war, he returned to Ohio, his home state. Feeling he was too old to resume his art studies and knowing Ellen was from Evanston, Illinois, Arthur used the GI Bill to fund optometry school at the Northern Illinois College of Optometry. After carefully ascertaining that Ellen was not involved with anyone else, he began a cautious courtship of his wife-to-be while pursuing a degree in optometry.

When the telephone strike hit, it slowed but did not extinguish Arthur's wooing of Ellen. Despite his optometry studies, his hands and his heart had not forgotten how to express his feelings in an economy of line. Sometime during that month of limited telephone service, a cartoon made its way from 4170 Drexel on the south side of Chicago to 825 Reba Place in Evanston, lamenting the loss of phone service.

After the strike ended, Arthur continued his studies and his wooing, and in May of 1948, a year later, he married his Ellen in Evanston.

My late mother-in-law was a voracious saver. My husband, the oldest child in the family, tells me that her packrat proclivities drove his father to despair and, finally, resignation. Among her voluminous papers at her death in 2004, 5 weeks to the day after her husband of almost 56 years died, were photos, postcards, newspaper clippings (often multiples copies of the same one), menus from restaurants, old Christmas cards, and, folded carefully, a cartoon from her then future husband, drawn during the great telephone operators strike of 1947.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Feeding Our Children

Children are hungry in Ohio.

Not in Africa. Not in South America. Not in some out of the way pocket of the world where I will never ever travel in my life. But right here in Ohio.

Feeding America, a hunger-relief charity that has established a nationwide network of food banks, including the Mid-Ohio Food Bank in central Ohio, just released a report, "Child Food Insecurity in the United States: 2005-2007." "Food insecurity" is defined as "what we consider hunger or risk of hunger."

For children under the age of 5, Ohio ranks third in the county for the most children who are food insecure. 23.8% of the children here, or almost a quarter of our very young, fall into the "insecure" column.

When I read the results of this report, I felt like I did in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when the federal government stood by idly while people went hungry and thirsty and without shelter. I am embarrassed that we are so high on the list. (We're not much better on the overall list (youth 0-18); Ohio is 16th.)

It's not that I wish the hunger were elsewhere in this country so that Ohio would have a more "respectable" ranking. I don't want the hunger elsewhere; I want it gone. Learning that we almost lead the nation though in the under 5 category brings the issue into my hometown and right to my doorstep.

Nationally, 1 in 8 Americans are hungry or at risk to be without food on a regular basis. In Ohio, that rate rises to almost 1 in 4 for out our youngest and most vulnerable citizens.

Locally, we have an agency that works to help keep hunger at bay. People in Need (P.I.N.) runs our county's emergency food pantry. Last week, P.I.N. just launched a capital campaign so it could move into new, larger quarters that would expand its food bank capacity.

Some may question a capital campaign in the middle of the Great Recession. But it is exactly for that reason that P.I.N. needs to expand.

Presently, a family seeking emergency food help can only visit the P.I.N. food pantry 5 times a year. You read that right. 5 times a year. That is because the present headquarters, an old residence, lacks the storage space or loading areas for a larger food pantry. Because of these limitations, P.I.N. is limited in what it can purchase from Mid-Ohio Food Bank. The new facilities will allow P.I.N. to enlarge its capacity and serve more people more frequently. A family will be able to visit 12 times a year, or once a month, in the new facilities.

Hunger is very much on my mind because of my husband. Warren is the executive director of the Central Ohio Symphony, our local symphony. A little less than a month ago, the Symphony put on a benefit concert for P.I.N. as part of the "Orchestras Feeding America" campaign by the League of American Orchestras. I wrote about that concert in my April 20 post, "Last Night We Fed Ourselves." I didn't know it at the time I blogged, but the amount raised locally, 2160 pounds of food and other items, appears to have set a national record for the most food donated at a single concert as part of the national campaign, beating out larger symphonies in bigger cities. That night will long stand as a shining example of our community coming together to take care of its own. What the new report on childhood hunger reminds us is that we need to continue to come together to take care of our own.

We have all heard that it takes a village to raise a child. It takes a village to feed a child as well. In these difficult economic times, they are all our children.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Happy Mother's Day, Ben and Sam!

Thank you, Mary Jane, for putting the link to Tucker and Brad's Mother's Day YouTube clip on your Facebook page. I watched it and laughed so hard that I had tears running down my face. I watched it again and had the same response. I showed it to Warren and he laughed so hard he had tears running down his face. I showed it to my coworker Ed and he laughed so hard he had tears running down his face. (Type in "Mother's Day baratsandbereta" at YouTube to see it.)

It is one funny clip. For those of us who have only sons, it is Life.

It's Mother's Day this weekend and my thoughts turn to my sons, Ben and Sam, who are the reasons I get to claim this holiday as my own. So in honor of the upcoming day, I thought I'd write about the experience of being their mother.

Ben is the older of the two. He is the firstborn, he is the one whose every word, step, gesture, and milestone was duly noted and celebrated. Like many firstborn children, he was more often in the company of adults than other children and his vocabulary and play habits reflected it.

Ben was almost four when I became pregnant a second time, and four and a half when Sam was born. Oh, how we anticipated and planned for the arrival of the new baby! Ben and I read books about new babies and books about being a big brother. We talked at length about babies and their needs. We bought toys for the new baby. We painted watercolor after watercolor of the baby inside me. For a time, Ben walked around with his little belly jutted way out in front of him just like mom did. There were special presents set aside for the day Ben became a big brother.

We Were Ready.

Sam arrived two weeks late on what would be an impossibly hot day anywhere but in Stockton, California. Ben came to the hospital with Grandma to see his new brother and help bring him home. There are pictures of Ben holding Sam for the first time, his face glowing with pride. When asked about Sam, Ben would say "that's my brother," with a heavy emphasis on the my.

In short, Ben was the ideal big brother and had made the transition from only child to older child remarkably smoothly. Well, right up until about the two weeks mark, when Ben leaned against my knee and calmly asked "mommy, would you be sad if the baby died?"

As Ben and Sam grew, they went through a long, sustained period of alliances, warfare, and truces. International politics had nothing on the dealings of my sons. Ben, a stickler for rules, was outraged when, in the middle of a croquet game, Sam (then about 2) would calmly pick up his ball and realign it for a cleaner angle through the nearest wicket. Likewise, Sam would be infuriated when Ben would pull rank and eject Sam from his room and the action in front of Ben's friends. Sometimes Sam would get so angry that he would erupt into a whirlwind of shouts and fists, pummeling Ben and then running away (Sam could always outrun Ben). It was a love/hate relationship at its best for a long time.

But time marches on and boys grow older, and my two as they grew up found a new level of friendship and closeness. Several events pulled them together: their parents' disintegrating marriage and eventual separation and divorce, my illness. Just the sheer passage of time pulled them together, for they discovered they had a lot of common interests after all. When Ben went away to college, Sam was bereft. When Sam recently decided to move out to Oregon, Ben was jubilant.

I have had my moments with both of them: shining moments, heartbreaking moments, funny moments, upsetting moments. For almost 23½ years, they have made me what I am: Mom.

A deliberately childless friend more than once questioned me as to the "worth" of having children: they took up time, they were expensive, they got into trouble. All true. My boys have been expensive and time-consuming. Musical instruments add up, as do bicycles and books. Practices of all sorts eat up hours. They have gotten into trouble, sometimes serious, they have wrecked cars (well, Sam has, as Ben does not drive), they have caused me to break down and cry on more than one occasion. They have also made me laugh, made me swell with pride, and made me grateful to be Mom to them time and time again. The summer I was sickest, they took care of the house and one another while I underwent treatment in Cleveland, and then took care of me when I returned.

I would not trade away one minute of it for any price.

Happy Mother's Day, Ben and Sam.

Later added note: When I first posted this on the Friday before Mother's Day, I had predicted that I would not hear from my sons on the day itself. I wrote: My sons are unlikely to even remember the day, let alone call (they both live in Oregon now). Forget a card. Ben and Sam are great guys, but holiday communications outside of Christmas (both) and my birthday (Sam only) rank low on their respective priority lists. I am pleased to note that, as has been the case more than once with my boys, I was wrong. Sam called and we talked; Ben called my cell phone and left a message. (Use the land line next time, big guy.) Thank you, guys!

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

One for the Books

There was a countywide library levy on yesterday's ballot and I am delighted to record that it passed. "Squeaked by" would be more accurate; the unofficial results say it won by 202 votes. But a win is a win and I am thrilled that Delaware County voters supported the measure despite the Great Recession, despite the job losses, and despite the economic uncertainties that color everything these days.

Libraries are among my favorite places in the world and ours is no exception. Libraries have served as safe havens for me throughout my life. My earliest journeys by myself outside of my immediate neighborhood were to the Delaware library, which then was across the river and up the Central Avenue hill. At that time, the library was housed in a magnificent Neoclassical structure, built in 1906 as one of the 2500 Carnegie libraries that dotted this nation. I did not know the name of the architectural style when I was little, but I appreciated the mood the imposing fa├žade set. The goal of a Neoclassical building is to impress upon the citizens the importance of the civic realm and to encourage them to participate as a matter of right and responsibility. Our library did that in spades.

To enter the library, you walked up the outsides steps, past two massive columns topped by capitals featuring the acanthus leaves of the Corinthian order. The columns were echoed in the brick pilasters, also topped by Corinthian capitals, that formed the outer edge of the portico. Within the portico were the main doors; beyond them a small flight of marble stairs leading to the atrium. Entering the library was like entering a temple.

I had a troubled childhood in too many ways and the library was a place of refuge. I was always safe at the library, both in person and in spirit. I was fortunate in that the head librarian, Mrs. Judd, sensed that the library was really special to me. On summer days, if I showed up before the 10:00 a.m. opening time, she would allow me to come in early. Sometimes she directed me to books, more often she just wanted to know what I was reading. Back then, there was a rule that you could not leave the children's side of the library until you had completed 4th grade. One of Mrs. Judd's many kind acts to me was to give me permission to slip into the adult stacks a year early.

I didn't recognize it then, but going to the library and reading brought an order and peace to a world that didn't always make sense to me. Books soothed me, instructed me, enlightened me, and healed me. I am now old enough to realize that books do that, and more, for so many of us out there.

There is a beautiful moment in the movie "The Shadowlands" when C. S. Lewis questions a student as to why he reads. The student responds, "we read to know we are not alone." As a child, as a young adult, and even today, I still read to know I am not alone.

I am who I am today in large part because of the libraries in my life, starting with the one here in Delaware. That is one reason I am so happy the levy passed yesterday. Although we are mired in an economic mess and all of us are counting our pennies, sometimes twice, enough voters felt books and access to them are important enough to a community to pay a little extra for them.

Thomas Jefferson said "I cannot live without my books." Apparently, neither can we.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Coquo, Ergo Sum*

*I bake, therefore I am.

There are many arts at which I am deplorably mediocre or worse. Among them are anything involving needles or fibers, including knitting, sewing, weaving, spinning, embroidering, and quilting, anything involving home decor, ranging from picking a color scheme to putting out a vase of flowers, and anything involving a pencil, pen, or paintbrush. I don't play an instrument and I can't dance. I don't garden, as in flowerbeds and landscaping. I used to have some luck with a camera, but my "eye" (a faintly decent one) has diminished over the years. I write some, but not as much as I once did or thought I always would.

There are many days I feel like the apocryphal evaluation of Fred Astaire's screen test: "Can't act. Can't sing. Balding. Can dance a little."

Like Fred, I have something I can do a little. I bake. And although baking is not generally placed in the pantheon of creative arts, I find myself turning to it time and time again for some of the same reasons that Fred danced.

Because I am moved to.

I bake for friends and family. I bake for birthdays: a Lady Baltimore cake for my husband's recent 55th, a cheesecake for my stepdaughter Elizabeth's 15th a few months before that. In the past, I baked to supplement my income. I bake for meetings and retreats. I bake for fundraisers.

Apple pies are a specialty of mine. In the last seven years, I estimate that I have baked over 100 apple pies. There have been other pies along the way, but apple pie dominates. I bake them because rolling out a piecrust (yes, I make my own) and peeling and slicing apples and then putting it all together satisfy me in ways few other activities do. I have been known to show up at school levy fundraisers with 8 apple pies in hand and certain locals right on my heels so they can buy one of my pies before they are all gone. (Yes, I am boasting a bit.)

One of my favorite books on (what else?) pies is Humble Pie by Anne Dimock. She sees some of us out there as Pie Makers, predestined to turn out pies in times of sorrow and celebration, in times of need and plenty . Dimock believes that each Pie Maker is "called" to a pie. She writes that being called to a pie "is a deeper, more profound relationship than one's favorite pie or one's specialty. It is closer to destiny or fate."

Dimock is right. My favorite pies are cherry and coconut cream, but I am called to apple. Apple pie makes sense to me in ways no other pie does, and if my apples are already peeled and sliced, I can get from basic ingredients to a pie in the oven in under 10 minutes. As I am writing this, there is an apple pie in the oven, just finishing baking. It will go tonight to the last symphony concert of the season as a thank you to Jaime, our conductor, for a spectacular season. When we come back home tonight after the concert, the house will still smell of apples and cinnamon and friendship.

As of late, I have been baking for the clients at our local free legal clinic. Cookies, not pies, as no one apparently feels comfortable taking a slice of pie (I tried apple pies one month). I started baking to ease the palpable stress of the clients, a tension that has been mounting as the Great Recession deepens and the number of clients rises.

The religious writer Frederick Buechner wrote that "our calling is where our deepest gladness and the world's hunger meets." Watching troubled men and women sit in the waiting area and eat my cookies while they wait gives me great joy. I think of the client who waved one of my oatmeal cookies and said "Hot coffee and fresh cookies! This is the nicest thing that has happened to me all day." He went away happy with his legal advice and happy to find the world a little warmer and brighter than when he had arrived. I know I am not feeding the literal hunger some of them may feel, but I hope I am feeding them in other small ways.

Dimock wrote "if Pie Makers made totem poles, the pies they are called to would be the one they place on the top." I can see my totem now in the Tribe of the Baker: cookies, lemon tart, a cake, pumpkin bread, and, on the top, balancing like Raven, an Apple Pie.