Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Sweet Time

I've been walking around with that clenched feeling in my chest. You know what I'm talking about - the "worrying about this, trying to plan for that, when does this need to be done?" clench.

I know many of the sources of my clench. We have the usual 4th of July concerts, complicated this year by the production manager being out of commission. (Busy? I'll say. Last night, Warren went back to his office for another three hours, while I stayed here and mowed the lawn.) We are squeezing our budget so that Montana happens in under 5 weeks. There was an email from my ex asking about my contribution to Sam's college expenses for next year, and even though he wrote "don't get bent into a pretzel over this," just seeing, let alone reading, an email about money from him causes my chest to contract. I am seeing my oncologist later today - just a "touching base" visit. (No labs this time because until I get the labs from last fall and this spring paid off, I don't want to add to my balance. I'm kind of rolling the dice there because lab tests are one of the best (and almost only) ways to monitor myeloma, but I just this month paid off the last of the economic havoc that Dr. Bully wreaked last July.)

So I've got plenty of reasons to be clenched, let alone over-busy and stretched (again).

Being clenched, though, besides not feeling good, makes for a distracted kind of existence. I have been so busy running through my list of triggers - money, health, schedules, Montana, college, concerts - that I haven't been paying attention to anything going on around me.

I hate being disconnected.

This morning I drove Sam to work, as I do most mornings. He is usually tired in the morning, not his most conversant, and today was no exception. That was a good thing, because had he been chattering away, I don't know if I would have interacted with him beyond a perfunctory "uh huh."

I was that far gone.

After dropping Sam off, I turned the radio on, something I don't often do. I'm glad I did. By sheer serendipity, Tim McGraw's "Live Like You Are Dying" came up on an easy listening station.

That song came out just about the time I was diagnosed with cancer. I listened to it repeatedly that long winter. When I threw a party to announce my illness, it was the "Live Like You Are Dying" party. Even today it resonates with me deeply.

…I was in my early forties, with a lot of life before me
And one moment came that stopped me on a dime
I spent most of the next days, looking at the x-rays

Talking 'bout the options and talking 'bout sweet time.

Sweet time.

When you are clenched, you forget how sweet time is. When you are constantly running through checklists in your head, you forget how sweet time is.

Even in the last handful of days, the moments of sweet time are thick and bountiful. Watching Buster Keaton movies with Warren at the Ohio last Friday night. Making homemade ice cream for a Saturday supper with Margo and Gerald, then talking late into the night around the fire ring. Anything with Warren, even just going to the hardware store together.

Sweet time.

As I finish this post, it is mid- evening. Sam came over after work and had a late birthday dinner with my parents, Warren, and me. Warren is working on 4th of July preparations, this time at the house.

When I saw Tim this afternoon, he asked me how long it has been since my stem cell transplants. It was five years ago this summer. He closed his eyes and shook his head softly, repeating "five years, five years." He then opened his eyes, gave one of his blinding grins, and said "Wow!"

Five years. Now that is sweet time.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Cave Dwellers

A milestone in civilization was when our ancestors began to build structures to shelter themselves from the elements. As they developed building skills, Homo sapiens moved from cave to house. Last night, I think I undid several millennia of progress.

We went the entire summer last year without once turning on the air conditioning. I'm not opposed to air conditioning; I just didn't want to pay the resulting electric bills. Flush with success, Warren and I agreed to repeat the experiment again this summer.

I almost threw in the towel yesterday.

Yesterday was classic Ohio summer weather, meaning it was intolerably hot, humid, and oppressive. By late afternoon, the wall thermostat registered 90° on the first floor. The upstairs was as hot or hotter.

The house was hot and miserable. I was hot and miserable. We ate supper outside on the deck, which was tolerably hot and miserable only because it was in the shade of the house and so was marginally cooler than inside.

A long, hot, miserable evening stretched ahead of us. As we did the supper dishes, I reminded Warren for probably the hundredth time that I really hate the heat.

"The basement is cool," he commented.

That is when Warren and I started popping off projects that could keep us in the basement for a few hours. Laundry, taping music, fixing a broken snare, reading.

I all but dashed up the stairs to get the dirty clothes.

Shortly thereafter, the first of two loads of wash was churning away. I plopped down on a chair and dove back into Coop by Michael Perry. Subtitled A Year of Poultry, Pigs, and Parenting, it is a thoughtful, funny, heartbreaking, goofy read.

Warren taped copied music (you tape copies so the pages are in the right order and easily turned). He fixed the broken snare.

I read and hung up shirts. I read some more and matched socks.

Warren moved on to playing the now repaired snare. "What's that?" "Scheherarzade."

One summer when I was a child, maybe nine, I developed what our GP diagnosed as "sun allergy." The prescribed treatment was to spend the better part of the day inside and out of the sun. I remember heaps of library books (admittedly, there were always heaps of library books, allergy or no) and long days spent in the first floor hallway, playing jacks on the cool, smooth stretch of linoleum. Sitting the basement last night, reading the evening away, I felt that long ago summer tug at the corner of my memories.

By the time we ascended into the heat some two hours later, the laundry was done and the house heat had slacked off a few degrees. We spent another hour talking and putting the day to bed before putting ourselves to bed. With the help of cold showers and a floor fan, we soon drifted off. During the night a cold front moved in and today's temperatures were cooler. The house stayed in the low 80s, and as I type this, a light breeze is puffing in the window over my left shoulder. I am comfortable if not cool.

We're not yet out of June and I am predicting a whole lot of basement time in our future. There's always laundry. There's always music to practice; along with a wide assortment of drums, Warren's marimba is also in the basement. There's always reorganization; the basement still holds the detritus of several generations of Warren's family as well as the remaining loose ends from blending our two households when we married and moved here. There's always something to read. In short, there's always something to justify descending into the basement for an evening.

I know, I know. We don't have to go without the air conditioning all summer. Warren pointed out that we even possess a small window unit, so we wouldn't have to turn on the central system if we just wanted to cool our bedroom. We'll see. I'm game to try to best the electric company again this summer. And if that means we become basement people in the evenings, so be it.

I wonder, as humans moved into shelters that they built themselves, if they ever missed the caves?

I would have.

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Little Picture

I am big. It's the pictures that got small.
Norma Desmond, Sunset Boulevard

Norma Desmond missed the point when she railed against the pictures getting small. Sometimes it's the small picture, the little picture, that we need to keep our eyes on.

A couple of weeks ago, I was talking with my friend Tracy, whose youngest son had missed most of the last three weeks of school due to an undiagnosed sinus infection. She was talking about the travails of juggling work schedules (both her and her husband's) to make sure someone was home with their boy; she expressed frustration at the missed diagnoses that kept him sidelined longer than he would have been had he been treated for a sinus infection right off the bat.

Tracy then said she shouldn't be complaining. A little boy had died over the weekend from injuries from a car accident a few weeks earlier. Her son had only missed school.

"I keep telling myself to look at the big picture," Tracy said, with the exhaustion of her own vigil etched on her face. "You know what I mean, April? In the big picture, what we have gone through with our son is nothing."

I thought a moment, then said, "I know, Tracy, but don't forget we live life in the little picture."

We do. No matter what the Big Picture is, and I am not underestimating the Big Picture in the least, we all live in the little picture.

Death, the Great Recession, the BP Oil Spill - those are all Big Picture events. Our lives may be brutally or even permanently impacted by the Big Picture at times, but we still live in the little picture. We are sad about the child killed in the auto accident, but we agonize over our child's fever. We sigh for those millions struggling to find work, but we lose sleep over the bills sitting on our kitchen table.

We live life in the little picture - our little picture.

E. B. White captured the little picture in a 1939 essay, "Camp Meeting," in which he wrote about a meeting during the years that Dr. Townsend was busy spreading the gospel of his plan to beat the Great Depression. After writing about Townsend's message, White then noted the scene after Townsend departed and the people who had traveled to hear him went on with their day:

And from a score of rusty stovepipes in the woods rose the first thick coils of smoke from the kitchen fires, where America's housewives, never quite giving up, were laboriously preparing one more meal in the long, long procession. The vision of milk and honey, it comes and goes. But the odor of cooking goes on forever.

E. B. White was a master at the little picture, which is why his essays and his children's novels (yes, that E. B. White) continue to resonate with us decades later. He rarely lost sight that it is the little picture in which we live, no matter how Big the Big Picture may be.

We always have a lot on our plates in this household - and summer is no exception. From the garden to the 4th of July concerts, it is always something. Throw in the trip to North Carolina and the upcoming wedding in Montana, and this summer promises to be a doozy. Sometimes it feels as if our personal little picture (albeit with big events in it) is blown up on a drive-in movie screen. Sometimes the opening credits start spooling just as I am falling off to sleep.

Now Playing! Bigger than Life!

That's usually when I remind myself that whatever is bothering me is not the Big Picture. I tell myself it is time to unplug the film projector, turn off the popcorn machine, and go to sleep.

We all live life in the little picture. There are always bills to pay, a sore throat to soothe, two meetings to jam up against three other things to do. There is always the odor of cooking in the little picture.

Sometimes there is even the smell of popcorn.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Observations on a Short Journey South

We took a short road trip this week, running down (literally) to Boone, North Carolina, to pick up some percussion instruments that Warren had bought from a longtime friend and mentor.

It was the first time since our January New York trip that we just "got away," and unlike the New York trip, which for Warren revolved around the League midwinter meetings, this one revolved around nothing. Yes, we were picking up those instruments and seeing those friends, but we were going as much for the break as anything.

The easiest, quickest way to get from central Ohio to northwestern North Caroline is to drive the interstates. I'm not looking at a road atlas as I type, but I know there are solid blue lines from here to there that would have carried us efficiently and swiftly to our destination, which is why we of course junked any notion of taking them. Warren and I long ago separately discovered that the journey and not the destination is often the point of a trip, and we are in total agreement that the best journeys happen when you get off those routes marked with an I.

When you are off the interstate, there is always something to observe if you just open your eyes, your mind, or both:

1. Decoration Day is high art in rural Kentucky.
Decoration Day is a far bigger deal in Kentucky than in Ohio. Around here, I worry that the custom of visiting and tending to our family graves is dying out. Kentuckians have raised the tradition to high art. We passed cemetery after cemetery awash in color. In all fairness to those of us up north, the decorations were artificial flowers, which are not allowed in most cemeteries around here from April to October. All the same, I had a sense that there was a deep cultural commitment to the custom. I saw one cemetery on a hillside in which every headstone was decorated, looking like a rainbow that became earthbound and swirled up and over the hill.

2. If it is a rural church, it has a steeple.
Small churches are everywhere in the rural South. Baptists predominate, but there is a rich mix of smaller, homegrown congregations sprinkled liberally throughout the countryside. I saw church buildings of every building material - brick clad, clapboard, corrugated metal, vinyl siding - and all had one unifying feature. Every single one, no matter how meager, had a steeple, which was always white despite the color and finish on the building beneath. I imagine that it provides a visual marker of faith: We are here. Come join us.

3. Small businesses are everywhere, but the greatest of these are manufactured housing sales, used car lots, and flea markets.
As we left the Ohio River corridor and its heavy industry behind, heading south on US 23, the commercial landscape changed. Major industry, except for an occasional gravel pit or small coalmine, receded. As we drove deeper and deeper into Kentucky, and then into Virginia, we noticed a pattern to the businesses lining the highway: manufactured housing sales lot, used car lot, flea market grounds (think "weekend community yard sales").

Manufactured housing (trailers) are widely used for housing in the rural areas through which we were traveling. There's a number of reasons for that: it is affordable, it is easily installed, and where one's land often consists of a lot of hill and very little flatland, sometimes it is all that fits without considerable greater expense in preparing the site. (Older homes in the area tend to be very small by "our" standards for the same reason of topography.) While there is considerable cultural and government bias against manufactured housing in central Ohio, the widespread acceptance of it in rural areas seems a more reasonable approach to diversifying housing opportunities for all.

4. Almost everyone has a garden in the country.
As we sailed past the small homes (manufactured or otherwise), I found myself picking out gardens. There are lots of gardens in the rural south. They tended to be large; they were all immaculately weeded. I wondered how much of the produce is passed out among family and friends, how much is canned or frozen for the winter, and how much make its way to a farmers market or flea market for sale.

5. The Blue Ridge Parkway may be the most undervalued, underrated park in the US National Park System.
The Blue Ridge Parkway is part of the National Park Service, running 469 miles from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the south to the Shenandoah National Park in the north. We drove the Blue Ridge Parkway about 160 miles from Boone to Roanoke, Virginia. The Blue Ridge, which is 75 years old this year, is a two lane road that runs up, down, and along the crests of the Appalachian Mountains. Commercial traffic is banned; the speed limit on the Parkway is 45 miles an hour. There are frequent turnouts for the view; there are a limited number of sites on the Parkway as well, including Flat Top Manor, the 19th century summer mansion of the Cone family, who made its fortune in the invention of denim. Warren and I spent several hours on the Parkway on our way back to Ohio, marveling at the views and at the pace.

We also marveled at the emptiness of the road, noting that most of the other travelers on it were our age or older. Warren postulated that the Blue Ridge may not appeal to many because of its slower pace and lack of "attractions." He reflected that for a family with young children, driving in a vehicle with in-car entertainment systems, the notion of traveling along the Parkway where the whole point is to look may be anathema, especially when coupled with the slower pace.

While I agree, the thought makes me sad. Here is this truly beautiful roadway, carved out of the hills during the bleak years of the Depression, and fewer and fewer of us know about it or travel on it.

6. A road trip is more of a stretch at my age than 30 years ago (or, I'm not in my 20s anymore)
When I was in my 20s, living in Portland, Oregon, but with all my family back here, I more than once drove nonstop cross-country. With two other drivers, it was 48 hours door to door. I remember those barnstorming trips with nostalgic fondness. With our planning a major trip this summer out to the Montana wedding, I looked at this week's excursion as an opportunity to test my roadworthiness.

Well, I'm not 25 anymore. Bones get stiff, muscles start to ache. My bladder is less forgiving; my stomach is more particular. The neuropathy in my feet moves into high gear. I have less tolerance for heavy traffic. While I can still lock into a Zen-like "zone" and drive for long stretches, I pay the price when I pull over and switch seats with Warren.

As the day (and evening, and night) unfolded as we drove home Friday, I told Warren that this trip showed me I needed to reexamine and rethink our Montana itinerary. Our shortest day then will be 300 miles; I don't want to think (yet) about the days where the mileage tops 600.

7. Small moments abound - always.
A road trip is always a chance to see or hear or do new things. In Virginia, on the way south, we pulled over at Natural Tunnel State Park and discovered you could take a chairlift to the tunnel viewing area. We hesitated until Warren said "when are we ever going to be here again to do this?" I'm glad we did, even if I winced a bit at the chairlift's slow trek down and then up the mountainside.

On Thursday, exploring a little bit of the Blue Ridge with our friends, we drove to see the Linn Cove Viaduct, stopping at the Cone mansion on the way. On the walkway to the base of the viaduct, I heard a trickle of water and saw the smallest of rills running down the hillside. While I marveled over the tiny trickles, another woman on the path pointed out the Gray's lilies (endangered) and the fringed gentian wild orchid (rare now in the wild).

In Sweet Springs, West Virginia, we pulled over to gaze at the Old Sweet Springs hotel (long closed as a hotel and possibly slated to be renovated sometime in the future), reputedly designed by Thomas Jefferson.

And as we crossed from Virginia into West Virginia on one of several mountains crests along Route 311, we came across a young black bear at the state line turnout. It crashed into the underbrush just as Warren shouted "A bear!" and I gasped in surprise. When I got home and emailed my friend Cindy about seeing the bear, she replied "WOW! A BEAR!!!! I forgot there are places in the US you can run into bear!!!"

Cindy's right and her comment resonated with me as I started to write about our trip. If we don't turn off the road occasionally, we may not ride the chairlift to see the tunnel. If we don't slow down from time to time, we may not see the lilies.

And if we are not careful of how we spend our days, we may forget that there are bears.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Secret is Out

All families have secrets. Some are deliberately kept out of embarrassment or shame. Some are kept because someone somewhere along the way decided to hoard the information because it gives them power over other family members still in the dark.

And some, like the one I'm about to divulge, are kept because the knowledge was assumed to be so widespread that there was no need to continue to tell the story.

My older brother Dale has hosted a Memorial Day cookout for the last several years. Our families - mom and dad, aunt Ginger, my other brothers and their spouses, me and Warren, miscellaneous children and grandchildren from very young to mid-20s - make up the core party. Friends - his, mine, ours - are added from year to year.

This year was no exception. I invited a colleague from the courts and his girlfriend to join us. She is from Kentucky, which is where my dad is from, so some time was spent with the two of them determining where each of them hailed from (not too far from one another, as it turns out). In a discussion about the water sources in the various hollers, the guest told how her family hired a dowser who found a natural spring 50 feet down when they moved to the farm.

"It was the best water," she said, and you told tell from her smile and the way her eyes lit up that she was remembering the sweet taste as she spoke.

The discussion turned briefly to dowsing and the art of it. Dowsing is one of those folklore items that I always attributed to the hills culture and had never seen demonstrated. No one has ever come up with any explanations of how and why it apparently works. Small wonder it is called "water witching" in some parts - there is a mystical, magical air to it.

So you can imagine my response when my mom, sitting in front of me, turned around and said "well, you know your dad can dowse for water."

If my mother had announced that she had a full-sized head of Elvis tattooed on her backside, I could have not been more stunned.

"Oh, didn't you know that?"

No, mom, I didn't know that.

I looked across the table at my brother Mark, who was sitting there with his mouth agape.

"Mark, did you know that?"

Mark shook his head. Nope, never heard it.

Mom prattled on. Dad dowsed with straightened coat hangers. If we had a pair, she'd have him demonstrate.

"Oh, and by the way, Dale also dowses."

Now Mark was looking as if mom had said she had Elvis in a rhinestone suit tattooed on her backside and was taking off her shirt to show everyone. He and I both had the "so who was the keeper of this information all these years?" look on our faces.

About that time, my brother Dale walked back in the house from an ice run that he and Warren had just made. We accosted him the moment he entered the kitchen.

"What do you mean, you know how to dowse for water? What's this all about?"

Dale, my most easygoing brother, laughed heartily. It was nothing to him, just something he could do. In short order, he had a pair of wire cutters and was cutting two coat hangers open to make them into dowsing rods (imagine two very tall Ls). Five minutes later, all of us were in the back yard.

Dad lead the demonstration. Hold the rods by the short base (with the long parts on top) in front of you, perpendicular to the ground and parallel to each other. Use an easy grip and don't put your thumbs over the tops of the rods.

He then proceeded to walk into the yard. Four or five steps and the rods started to move towards each other, then crossed. Dad stopped and Dale spoke up.

"Drainage ditch under the ground there."

Dale took the rods and walked in another direction. The rods soon crossed. Another underground drainage line ran near the property line.

Who wanted to try?

My nephew Matt took the rods and started walking towards one of the known sites. Sure enough, the rods starting crossing one another as he neared the unseen ditch. He laughed - a short "HA!" Matt was so delighted he walked away and started again in the same direction with the same result.


Several of us tried the rods. As it turned out, those of us who were related by blood - all the Nelsons - had the touch. My mom didn't. Neither did the guest who brought up dowsing in the first place.

Matt took the rods back and started towards the picnic tables. As he came up to the cooler, holding iced down sodas and beers, the rods started to swing and cross again.


When Sam arrived an hour later, we had him try it, without telling him what to expect or where the ditches were. When the rods started to swing towards one another and cross as he neared one, he reacted just like his cousin Matt did.


The afternoon eventually moved on to the stuff of cookouts - food, storytelling, long conversations, laughter. We flowed from house to yard and back again. Someone kept taking my chair in the ring in the yard, so I sat inside and caught up with another nephew. The mountain of deviled eggs disappeared one by one, as did the hamburgers. My colleague endeared himself to my mother by praising (and consuming) her brownies. My niece Lizzie played with her cousin's two children, ages three and five. Matt secured the dowsing rods in his family's car; we teased him about taking them to college this fall and using them as a pickup line with the coeds.

In short, it was a Memorial Day cookout a lot like any other Memorial Day cookout.

Except for the family secret that is now out in the open.

We're all a bunch of water witches.