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.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Rhapsody of Small Moments

I had been looking forward to today, knowing I would see my oncologist after many months and after the bad experience with one of his colleagues in July. So imagine my shock and dismay when I checked my voicemail yesterday and heard confirmation of an appointment with…

Dr. Bully. Again.

I didn't rant or rave, I didn't call the hospital back claiming this was an outrage. I didn't fire off an angry letter or even post on this blog.

I just started crying.

I am not normally the crying type, at least not for such a small thing as a doctor's appointment. There is a time and place for tears - happy occasions, sad movies, private moments, life milestones. But I have rarely cried over medical matters. My attitude is they are what they are: deal with them and move forward.

But yesterday that attitude was conspicuously absent as I cried and cried. I called Warren and cried on his voicemail. I cried some more when Warren called me back to talk me gently through my options. He would talk, I would respond, and then I would cry again.

I hung up the phone and cried some more.

After about an hour of this, my tears subsided and I started to put together a plan of action. I called Central Scheduling and explained the problem, and got rescheduled to yet another date. The clerk at CS was reassuring and very supportive. I left a couple of phone messages asking for some guidance in navigating the minefield of doctor assignments. I then drove to the hospital to pick up a copy of my last labs, done three weeks ago, so I could see for myself what the key blood marker was doing.

This all took time and energy. Not so much physical energy but emotional energy. It is stunning how draining something like this can be. I spent two hours Sunday turning over my kitchen garden with a shovel and that was nothing compared to how tired I felt by the time I pulled into the parking lot of the hospital.

I was soggy (from the last of the tears), sad, and depleted. I felt bruised and roughed up all over again from July. Yes, I was taking control and yes, I was moving forward, but all the same I felt I was at the bottom of a deep swale.

Then I realized that the music coming out of the radio was George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue."

I love "Rhapsody in Blue." It is a piece that holds many memories for me, including long ago ones with Warren. "Rhapsody" never fails to lift my spirits.

I sat in my car for several minutes, just listening. The music washed over me, soothing the sorest spots in my heart. It uplifted me and gave me enough energy to get out of the car, walk to Medical Records, and pick up my lab results.

[Note for those who are wondering about the Russians in my blood: the marker number rose again, but this time very slightly, which is considered a "float." That's good news.]

Gershwin on the radio was a small moment of great reward in a moment when I needed one most of all.

As my afternoon rolled to an end and evening came on, a whole series of small moments were mine for the savoring. First the Gershwin, then the lab results. Warren coming home and holding me close for a long, quiet moment. A good dinner talking quietly. A phone call from my personal physician, the incredible and wonderful Dr. Pat, which buoyed my spirits and pointed the way to bridging the medical gap between now and when I see my oncologist again. A quick trip to the college library in the warm evening - the buzz of the students on the social floor, the hush on the quiet floor. The pleasure of finding the book I was looking for and more, the more being the young adult novel, Up A Road Slowly.

Up A Road Slowly is a coming-of-age novel about a young girl sent to live with an elderly aunt after her mother's death. It was the Newberry Award Book for 1967, which is when Jean Blakeslee, my 5th grade teacher, put a copy in my hands and said "I think you will enjoy this book, April." She was right.

She still is, 42 years later. I have not read Up A Road Slowly in many years, but I checked it out last night and am halfway through it already. The book has stood the test of time well.

By the time I fell asleep last night, I was tired but no longer drained, reflective but no longer sad. Many small moments had given me great reward throughout the evening and I felt centered again.

The idea of small moments of great reward comes from a note that Warren sent me many months ago about his hopes for our life together. He wrote, in part: I have been through many low points…I believe by now, you well know, I always try to make even the smallest moment of great reward. I have faith in myself and you have shown me the same in you.

Recognizing those small moments when they occur is an act of simple gratitude. It is appreciating that the random music spilling from the radio is "Rhapsody in Blue." It is sharing a laugh with my personal physician, who is also a personal friend, and valuing that she took part of her evening to call and reassure me. It is breathing a quiet "thank you" to a wise teacher of years past (one of many in my life) for placing a good book in my hands. It is savoring the taste of the zucchini bread we had late last night. It is cherishing Warren's smiling face as we sit down for breakfast every day.

I recently had one of my not infrequent conversations with myself, conducted out loud as I drove somewhere. Thinking about the concept of luck, I said, in the stillness of the car, "I don't need to be lucky, I need to be grateful."

The day awaits. I am grateful.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Dull November?

Dull November brings the blast;
Then the leaves are whirling fast.

That couplet kept going through my mind earlier today as I worked outside. It is midafternoon of the second Sunday in November and it is 68 out as I type these lines.

Warren has been working outside all weekend, rebuilding a trailer in which to haul his timpani. The balmy weather has made for great opportunity to paint pieces outside in the fresh air and not in the garage. As for me, I spent a couple of hours this morning spading up the kitchen garden, turning under the top layer. Next spring I'll dump a load of compost on it and till it all again before planting.

The above lines are from the poem Months by Sara Coleridge, an English poet who lived in the early nineteenth century and who is now largely forgotten. Largely forgotten except for this poem, which crops up in many anthologies of children's poems. Sara, who is often relegated to poetry rosters (when she appears at all) as a "minor" poet, was the daughter of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who penned The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Kubla Khan. Samuel, a founder of the Romantic movement in England, is still very much a "major" poet, even in our increasingly poetry-starved high school curricula.

I have read Rime more than once, avoid albatrosses at all costs, and in high school memorized portions of Kubla Khan. Yet I knew Sara's work long before I knew she had a more famous father. That pleases me. I like that, despite her small and faded fame, Sara's verses about the months continue to be read to and sometimes chanted by small children.

Dull November will come soon enough. For today, though, I am celebrating the warmth, the sun, and the poet's daughter who gave us the calendar in couplets.

Months by Sara Coleridge

January brings the snow,
Makes our feet and fingers glow

February brings the rain,
Thaws the frozen lake again

March brings breezes, loud and shrill,
To stir the dancing daffodil

April brings the primrose sweet,
Scatters daisies at our feet

May brings flocks of pretty lambs
Skipping by their fleecy dams.

June brings tulips, lilies, roses,
Fills the children's hands with posies.

Hot July brings cooling showers,
Apricots, and Gillyflowers.

August brings the sheaves of corn;
Then the harvest home is borne.

Warm September brings the fruit;
Sportsmen then begin to shoot.

Fresh October brings the pheasant;
Then to gather nuts is pleasant.

Dull November brings the blast;
Then the leaves are whirling fast.

Chill December brings the sleet,
Blazing fire, and Christmas treat.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Life in the Percussion Section

One of the jokes I make about my life is that when I married Warren, I married the Symphony. As Executive Director of a small regional symphony with a staff consisting of only himself, his duties range widely from administration to janitorial, with anything else in between those two extremes. Since Warren lives so much of his life with and for the Symphony, I live a lot of my life with and for the Symphony too.

What I have recently been reminded of is that not only am I married to the Symphony, but I also now live in the percussion section.

Warren is a percussionist. Until we became involved with one another, I had no idea what that truly meant.

I played in concert band all through school - first the flute and then the tuba, the latter being my true love instrumentally. There were always plenty of students - Warren among them - in the back of the band, playing the plethora of instruments that make up the percussion section.

In my naivety, I assumed that adult percussionists plied their trade just like high school percussionists. I figured when they played for an orchestra, all of the instruments were there on stage waiting for them. All they had to do was show up with some sticks or mallets and start playing.

My first intimation that this might not be so was when Warren offered to lend me some traps (what some of us novices might call "noisemakers") for a spelling bee. It turns out he owned lots of them. Lots of them? How about cases of them? Cowbells and ratchets and slide whistles and finger cymbals and gongs and gourds and slapsticks and things that I didn't even know were played, much less had a name.

As we saw more and more of each other, Warren started to talk about instruments that he had built or hoped to build or needed to rebuild - marimbas and xylophones and vibes and bass drum stands and tom toms. He would mention having to pull this or that instrument for a concert, and at the point that the instrument in question was a bass drum, I finally asked him just what all did he own? After Warren ran down a pretty extensive list, I asked what in retrospect was the end of my innocence about percussionists.

"Doesn't the orchestra own these things?"

No, as it turns out, the orchestra did not. In fact, most orchestras do not own many percussion instruments. Percussionists own most if not all of their own instruments. In fact, as Warren explained, not only do they own their instruments, but many of them make their own as well. (Have I ever mentioned the machine shop Warren has?)

He then looked at me. "Are you okay with this?"

I think Warren was afraid that once I learned just how much stuff - how many gongs and bells and drums and sticks and things that I didn't even know existed - he had, I would run away screaming and never come back.

He then added, "It's a lot of stuff."

It is a lot of stuff. And events of this week reminded me anew of just how much stuff a lot of stuff can be when you live in the percussion section.

Earlier this year, Warren replaced the door between the house and the garage with a custom made door that has a 38" opening. Why such a wide door? So he could get his timpani in the house. This Wednesday, with the help of Sam and Sam's friend Dylan, the timpani came home. They are in what used to be called the family room, along with a bass drum and a xylophone Warren just rebuilt. Oh, the two old timpani from another set are in the room too. I call it the percussion room.

The marimba is in the basement - the other percussion room - right now. Good thing because otherwise it would be really crowded in the room formerly known as the family room.

Warren practiced on his timpani last night for an upcoming performance next weekend. I was two rooms away, reading. He was concerned the sound would disturb me.

Not in the least. Timpani are sonorous instruments and the notes hang in the air long after the playing has stopped.

Next week we are heading to the Percussive Arts Society International Convention (PASIC), which will be in Indianapolis. A couple thousand percussionists from all over the world will descend upon the Hoosier State for four days of playing and talking and teaching and sharing. I don't understand 90% of what goes on at PASIC (I've attended before), but I am looking forward to it all the same.

After all, I live in the percussion section these days. I live with six timpani, two bass drums, a marimba, a xylophone, snare drums, tom toms, a drum set, congas, bongos, roto-toms, numerous cymbals, more gongs than I can count (from small to big), bells, chimes, tambourines, a whole bunch of traps, and enough steel, wood, resonators, and bars to make more xylophones and marimbas. Who knows? We may even bring more home from PASIC. Truth is, I'd love to have a spiral trash cymbal.

Back when Warren was pulling together traps for the spelling bee, he emailed me: "Doesn't everyone have a Chinese gong in their house? Seems perfectly normal to me."

After we decided to get married, I didn't get a ring. I got a small gong, hung on an oak stand that Warren had made.

Doesn't everyone get an engagement gong?

Seems perfectly normal to me.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Tiptoeing Through the Medical Bills

Today's mail held two medical bills, the continuing fallout from July's horrific oncology visit with Dr. Bully. After a long meditative moment spent pressing my forehead against a handily nearby doorframe, I picked up the phone to talk with two different billing reps and a financial assistance counselor at Ohio Health. In each case, the folks I dealt with today were far better listeners and far more pleasant than Dr. Bully had been back during our disastrous blind date.

For the record, Dr. Bully's arrogance and refusal to listen to the patient, i.e., me, cost me over $1000 after a hefty discount by the hospital. Had he listened, the bill would have been only a little over $400.

Another way of doing that math is had Dr. Bully not been so determined to shatter my self-confidence, I would have had enough presence of mind to cancel the unnecessary tests and my bills would have come out to only a little over $400. My shortcoming was falling apart when he bullied me throughout the entire appointment, thus costing myself over $1000.

I had coffee with a friend yesterday and we talked briefly about my situation - both my cancer and my lack of insurance. She said, both bluntly and warmly, "I can't imagine what you must go through to deal with cancer and the medical bills."

I appreciated her words tremendously, because often I can't imagine what I go through.

Money and medical care have been on my mind a lot lately. I don't like owing bills. I don't make lots of money either, so I have to pay them off in increments. Recently I have read in several different sources that America is the only industrialized nation where citizens routinely go bankrupt from their medical bills or die unnecessarily from not receiving medical treatment because they cannot afford it.

I've already done the former in recent years. I'm not looking forward to the latter. As it is, I have cut my oncology supervision to the bare bones minimum short of suspending it all together. On a day like today, when my mailbox is abloom with medical bills, I nonetheless wonder whether we can shave that supervision down even a little bit more.

I was supposed to see my oncologist in late October. I rescheduled that appointment to next week, but not because of concern over money. No, I am pleased to the point of smugness to report I rescheduled as a one-woman stand against the medical establishment.

The day before my late October appointment, I got a call confirming my appointment with…Dr. Bully. I almost dropped the phone. I thought I had heard wrong and so asked, "who?" "Dr. Bully." My regular oncologist would not be there and Dr. B. was again filling in for him.

Without even missing a beat, I said, "Oh, no, I won't see him. I refuse to see him. I had a terrible appointment with him and he makes me cry."

The poor woman on the other end of the line quietly said "Oh dear, I'm sorry. Would you like to reschedule?"

That was a no-brainer. I figured I could live with temporary uncertainty over my test results better than a bruised psyche.

Until today, I had shared this story with only four people. All four, starting with Warren, were heartily supportive of my decision. Margo emailed me: Good for you! Exactly the right thing, and I'm glad you didn't decide to straighten your shoulders and be a quote cooperative girl unquote. Many times the thing to do is to not be a cooperative girl.

I see my oncologist next Tuesday. I will be a quote cooperative girl unquote (thank you for that great phrase, Margo!) with Tim because I trust him. He knows my bone marrow, my pocketbook, and, most importantly, my character and my attitude. To top it off, he is an excellent listener. We will talk about my numbers, about what if any options we need to examine within my financial constraints, and about how long until I check in again with him. He will do so without threats, or badgering, or humiliation.

Having a thoughtful and compassionate doctor does not pay my medical bills. But it does allow me to come out of my appointment with my mind and my spirit intact, so that I may better spend my energy taking care of myself and my responsibilities.

I don't know where the national debate over health care will come out. I have stopped following it closely because it is too personal and too upsetting. Instead, I continue to do what so many of us out there do: stay as healthy as possible in as many ways as possible. I also regularly admonish my bone marrow to behave, although I have learned it doesn't take orders well.

And I continue to savor and celebrate each day and the myriad of small moments of great reward that fill my lap. As I finish typing these words, I can smell the homemade chili heating up on the stove. Sam is helping Warren move timpani in a little bit and may stay for supper. Afterwards, Warren and I will share our respective days and our thoughts and our love.

My lap is full to overflowing.