Thursday, January 28, 2010

Celebration! (An Update)

Back in October, I wrote about a friend and colleague, Doug, who'd just been diagnosed with stomach cancer. Throughout the late fall, he underwent intensive chemo to try to beat the tumor into submission before surgery this month. I saw him in December and we talked about his chemo and the uncertainty of his status. Doug had lost weight and looked tired, but his smile and words were genuine when he said "I am so blessed."

Yesterday Doug went into surgery. A few weeks ago, his wife Susan blogged about what could happen:

Doug has officially finished his first nine weeks of chemotherapy. We were busy today meeting with the surgical and fusion oncologist reviewing the interim test reports, scheduling more tests and . Doug's tumor has decreased in size from 7.6 x 6.1 cm to 5.0 x 3.4 cm. Upper abdominal lymph nodes have also reduced in size. The lesions in the liver will remain suspect until surgery, however they remain unchanged. This is very good news!

He is scheduled for another endoscopy on the 21st of January and surgery on the 27th of January. During surgery on the 27th Doug will undergo a laproscopy to get a visual of his liver, if the suspected area does not present with cancer, Dr. Nichols will proceed with a smaller 4" incision in order to gain physical access to the afflicted area. If his liver still does not present with cancer, they will proceed with the surgery.


Now this is where things get dicey, so we need
prayer warriors! If the liver presents at any time with cancer, the doctors will not proceed with surgery or further chemo treatments. This is a little known fact we have known from the beginning but have chosen not to share until now. The fact that the lesions have remained unchanged gives rise to celebration. Understandably, the doctors will not commit to anything until they have a "hands-on visual" of the liver. Hmmm, a familiar term in educational circles. Of course, Doug and I are proceeding with the attitude of total healing here on earth.


Then Tuesday night this email arrived from one of Doug's coworkers:

Doug's surgery is scheduled for tomorrow (Wednesday) morning at 7:30 a.m. I'll send out an update as soon as I know something. I saw him yesterday and spoke with him earlier this evening. He is in really good spirits and is in good physical shape. He has been working out and getting pumped up for this so his body can recover from this sooner.

Surgery started at 7:23. It makes for a long morning when someone you know and care about is undergoing surgery. I thought about Doug, I thought about Susan and Rachel, their daughter. I found myself thinking the same prayer, over and over: "Give them strength."

We all saw this note at noon:

I just received a call from Susan. Doug is out of surgery and cancer free!!! The doctor said that they took out what they needed to take out and the spots on the liver are not cancer. He will be in the hospital for probably 7-8 days but would like for visitors to hold off for a few days. Susan will call when they are ready for visits. Doug, Susan and Rachel extend their sincere thank you for all of your continued prayer and support. When he recovers from the surgery he will undergo another 9 week round of chemo to ensure that every other little cell that may even think of causing a problem is zapped for good.

Joy, relief, gratitude! There were a lot of smiles and cheers all around this county yesterday.

This morning the sun came up in a blaze of glory. I don't know if Doug could see it from his hospital bed, but I doubt he needed to today.

The joy and the glory were already there.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

On the Road

We are about to head out of town for five days.

Five days are forever in our schedules. A lot of planning goes into being gone for five days. Right now I am watching my week run out faster than my "has to get done" list is getting done.

Friday morning we will get up very, very, very early, shower, get dressed, and get out the door. It will be cold as we will have the furnace turned down for the duration and I am already shivering slightly just thinking about it. We will drive four hours to Pittsburgh to catch Amtrak to New York.

I know, Cleveland is closer by two hours, but the arrival times on the return trip are so markedly different even with the four hour drive that we opted for Pittsburgh.

Warren has Symphony business in New York. The League of American Orchestras is holding its Midwinter Managers meeting Sunday and Monday. This is Warren's chance to meet and discuss orchestra issues with his colleagues from around the nation. The Central Ohio Symphony has been garnering League attention for its innovative community engagement work and that makes this meeting even more exciting.

For me, it's a chance to spend time with three close friends.

We are staying with one of them, my friend Katrina (and her husband), who I have now known for 35 years. She and I are a casebook study of someone in Admissions (a close friend of Katrina's mother, as it turned out) looking at two incoming freshman folders, saying "they will be perfect together," and getting it absolutely right. We are not similar in many surface ways, including politics, lifestyle, and looks (Katrina is beautiful), but we are so close beneath the surface that I often know what the next line in a letter from her will be before I read it. We are able to talk about anything and we have shared everything over the three and a half decades of our friendship. I can't wait to see her again.

The second friend is Bethany, who reappeared in my life shortly before Christmas after a decade long absence. Bethany was in 5th grade when I first met her; she is now 30. She lived next door when I moved back to Delaware; she showed up within 24 hours of our moving in. My boys loved her; I loved her. I still do. Bethany moved away just before she started high school, but we managed to stay in touch until she was about 20. I have since learned some of what happened during the missing years, and I am even more grateful that she is back in my life. She now lives in New Jersey. Bethany and I are meeting at Grand Central Station (what a great space!) Sunday afternoon. It is amazing to type those words, let along think about what they mean. Bethany! In New York City!

The third close friend? Warren, of course. Five days away, even interspersed with the Midwinter meeting, are a luxury. We both guard against being so busy that we are merely passing each other in a rush, but sometimes that happens. This year has started off at a gallop. The Symphony has some major events this spring that will take a lot of time and planning and management on Warren's part. I am about to disappear down the United Way allocations tunnel until the end of April.

We truly have to be vigilant not to lose sight of each other in 2010.

So I am looking forward to five days with Warren. The beauty of taking the train to and from New York is nine hours plus each way of "just us" time - to talk, to watch the landscape roll by, to dream, to pay some attention to our relationship and our life together. It is time away from the computers and the emails and the endless lists. It is time to polish and buff our marriage and our love for one another.

We'll get back home late Tuesday night. Both of us already have appointments scheduled for the rest of the week. Life goes on. But for five days, and two train trips, I get to be with my very best friend.

All aboard!

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

That Gauguin Moment

Paul Gauguin - Nave, Nave Moe (Miraculous Source) 1894
Yesterday, I received an email from a person explaining why he would not be attending a meeting of a group we are both in:

And are you ready for this bombshell? I'm moving. To Australia! I'll be leaving very quickly, more than likely by this weekend. It's a long story. Once I get there I'll be applying for permanent residency. Yes, there is a woman involved, and yes it's a crazy but wonderful story. Hopefully you'll be able to read about it soon in my book, and then you and everyone else will understand. But I have the opportunity to go and concentrate on nothing but writing so I can get this project completed…this is a once in a lifetime thing, and I refuse to miss my chance!

Clearly my correspondent is having his Gauguin moment.

Gauguin was the French Post-Impressionist painter who famously abandoned his family, France, and "civilization" to pursue his art. He eventually pursued it all the way to Tahiti, trying to find a culture unspoiled by the modern world. Although Gauguin never succeeded in finding that pure, unspoiled world, he left behind a rich collection of paintings and other works capturing his vision.

A Gauguin moment is when someone gives up all their known ties and relationships and moves away because of…well, because of what? Because they think they are stifled in their present surroundings? Because they think that if only they were somewhere else - somewhere more remote, more unspoiled, more pure - the painting would get painted, the music would get composed, the poem would get written?

I thought about the "bombshell" as I drove home later in the day. I wish the Australian-bound fellow well. I hope he finds inspiration and love and a publisher in his new setting. But what occurred to me, accurately or not, is that about the only people I know or have heard of who ever act on their Gauguin moments, with or without families, are men.

I have a good friend who along with her four children was uprooted and moved to Ecuador for a year while her husband reveled in living far, far away from their (far from) conventional American life. By the time they returned to the United States, the family and the marriage had suffered major emotional damage. Then there was an area businessman who liquidated everything to move to northwest Montana. His girlfriend moved alongside him, happily relinquishing custody of her children on the strength of his visions of the new life they would lead in the remote West. Last I heard, he was still out west, but no longer in Montana. Like Gauguin, perhaps he moved on in search of purer settings. The girlfriend moved back here a year later to try to pick up the pieces of her relationship with her children.

I've not had a single woman friend act on a Gauguin moment. I've had many, including myself, think about it at various points in our lives, certainly. But act on it? Not one. We may walk out of relationships, including marriages, but we rarely sever every connection in our life to go to the ultima, ultima Thule.

I have no explanation for the gender gap. Maybe, as women, we are just less swayed by visions of a new and pristine life somewhere "out there." Regardless of where we live, there are always dishes to do and towels to fold, whether we share the household tasks or not. The children will whine or squabble whether it is Ohio or Tahiti. There's always supper to make.

Maybe women don't act on Gauguin moment impulses because we know that wherever we go, there we are.

Two sixteenth century poets, Christopher Marlowe and Sir Walter Raleigh, captured this gender gap in a pair of poems. Marlowe wrote "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love," in which the shepherd implores a nymph to "come live with me and be my love." The shepherd rhapsodizes for 24 lines about all of the riches the nymph will have - "beds of roses," "a cap of flowers," "a belt of straw and ivy buds," - if she only consents to join him. With Marlowe's references to birds singing madrigals and shepherd swains dancing and singing for the nymph's delight, clearly the shepherd, viewing the hills and valleys of his world, is having his Gauguin moment.

Raleigh replied in "The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd." The nymph wastes no time in squashing the shepherd's dreams, retorting that neither the world nor love are young, and that not all shepherds speak the truth. She then rejects the shepherd's offerings one by one, reminding him that "rocks grow cold," "flowers do fade," the bed of roses and pretty offerings "soon break, soon wither, soon forgotten." The nymph finishes off her rejection succinctly: "In folly ripe, in reason rotten."

I am married to someone who does not appear to nurse a Gauguin moment in his heart. That's not to say Warren doesn't have dreams and visions beyond where we are now, but to my knowledge, those dreams and visions are anchored on our marriage and our life together. And while I have dreams myself, I don't need to move or sever every tie I have to see them come to fruition.

I hope to write about my dreams and wishes sometime soon. In the meantime, there are breakfast dishes to wash.

Saturday, January 23, 2010


"Now! Now!" cried the Queen. "Faster! Faster!" And they went so fast that at last they seemed to skim through the air, hardly touching the ground with their feet, till suddenly, just as Alice was getting quite exhausted, they stopped, and she found herself sitting on the ground, breathless and giddy.

The Queen propped her up against a tree, and said kindly, "You may rest a little now."

Alice looked round her in great surprise. "Why, I do believe we've been under this tree the whole time! Everything's just as it was!"

"Of course it is," said the Queen, "what would you have it?"

"Well, in our country," said Alice, still panting a little, "you'd generally get to somewhere else - if you ran very fast for a long time, as we've been doing."

"A slow sort of country!" said the Queen. "Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place."

"If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!"


This has been a Red Queen week for me (Warren too, but I'm not speculating as to his thoughts about it). Looking at my calendar tells the tale: rehearsals and performances of all kinds all last weekend ending midway through Sunday evening, evening meeting Monday, United Way agency training all Tuesday morning (it's almost that time of year again), Legal Clinic that night (22 clients plus family and friends, 6 attorneys, 3+ hours of intake and counseling, 2 pre-law students from OWU doing intake, 2 plates of fresh bakes goodies, 1 attorney coordinator, 1 coffee pot, 1 pot of hot water, 1 jack of all trades(i.e., me) - do the math), small claims mediation all afternoon Thursday, Chamber dinner that night (our United Way received the Quality of Life award!), and then a long, long day yesterday that took us to Columbiana County in far eastern Ohio and back again, albeit the return trip was via Akron so we could have dinner with Warren's son, David.

That just brings us up to last night. And doesn't count the smaller moments - all the meals, laundry, swimming, walking, catching up with friends over a cup of coffee. (Along with Warren, my friends are the glue that helps hold me together when my calendar is running faster than the Red Queen.)

Today has been a catching up kind of day - finally finishing the bean soup that was started Wednesday night, baking two apple pies (just out of the oven) for our evening plans, washing the towels, working on court projects, working on Symphony projects (I often write for the Symphony). Warren is working on house projects, working on Symphony projects, and practicing. Our day today is a series of deftly woven events, interlaced with the rich smell of bean soup cooking and apple pies baking. Tomorrow holds a rehearsal and performance in Mansfield, and then the week turns over again. It is already full and ends with us heading to New York for the Midwinter Managers meeting of the League of American Orchestras and not returning until Tuesday night.

Despite the crowded schedule (and all of January has been like this), I don't feel the mind numbing rush that dogged my steps in December. That's not to say I am not exhausted at times; last night I was so worn out physically by the time we made it home that I stumbled over my thoughts and my feet more than once before finally dropping into bed.

But my spirit is not rushed and that has made all the difference.

Last night the three of us talked and laughed over huge servings of Barberton chicken at one of the local chicken house. David is funny and loquacious and so reminds me of his dad at about that same age. It was a space carved out of three busy schedules and filled with sharing and family. Tonight we'll share a meal and pie with friends and talk and laugh some more.

Alice had to run with the Red Queen in order to reach the first square of the giant chessboard that comprised Looking Glass land. She was eager to begin the game and reach the eighth square so she too could become a queen. After all, as the Red Queen promised, "in the Eighth Square we shall be Queens together, and it's all feasting and fun!"

I don't know about being a Queen, unless I am a Queen of Pies, but I do know about feasting and fun. And about friends and family.

And about making sure I don't find myself running in place so fast that I miss out on them.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Winter Garden

And we are, all of us, waiting…for next year's garden.
From This Year's Garden by Cynthia Rylant

This Year's Garden was an often read book when my boys were little. Written by Cynthia Rylant, it takes the reader through a family garden from seeds to harvest, beginning and ending with the bare garden waiting to be worked again.

I know just how the narrator feels.

It is January and right now my gardens are empty, emerging from under the tattered remnants of the last snow. The only gardening being done in this house is being done in my mind. I have studied the Seed Savers Exchange catalog (the house favorite) from front to back. Although I still have a lot of seeds from last spring that I saved for this year, I am tempted all the same by the luxurious colors and descriptions.

Not surprisingly, tomatoes top my list.

We are eating the frozen and canned vegetables from last year's garden. For those of you who were marveling about my recent revelations about our food budget, last year's harvest is a huge part of those numbers. In August, tomatoes, peppers, and zucchini filled our kitchen. These days, they fill our freezer. I look at what we put up and think "we'll never eat all that," then look at the calendar and realize we are probably still six months from the first tomato.

Right now the garden is quiet. The herbs that didn't get cut are bowed down.

This is a dangerous time of year to look at seed catalogs and dream of this year's garden. I am sorely tempted by the potatoes Seed Savers Exchange offers, even though I am not much of a potato grower (judging by last year's experiment). I know I am better off watching our farmers market and hoping someone grows some of the more unusual varieties, but I still look at the potato pages and sigh.

My garden grows larger and more lush with every page I turn.

Then I reel myself back in. I still have a sod garden that will be in only its second year of production. It will need tilled again to start the spring; tilling was a bear last year. The smaller garden is in better shape, but I learned its limitations last summer, along with my own.

And where are the broccoli going?

In today's New York Times, there was an article about the increasing awareness of urban areas without access to affordable and nutritious foods, including fresh produce. To change these "food deserts," as they are known, into healthier, sounder neighborhoods, many grass root organizations have sprung up to help urban residents build and plant gardens. The Times article focuses on one program, La Mesa Verde (The Green Table) in a Latino neighborhood of San Jose, and the changes even a small program can bring to a family and a block. It is a moving piece at many levels, including the personal. One newly initiated gardener speaks for me as I wait for this year's garden.

"If you have vegetables, then you can come get them. To see them growing is a blessing."

May all of our tables be so blessed this year.

Friday, January 15, 2010

My Obi-Wan Kenobi Experience

Luke Skywalker: He claims to be the property of an Obi-Wan Kenobi. Is he a relative of yours? Do you know what he's talking about?

Obi-Wan: Obi-Wan Kenobi. Obi-Wan... Now, that's a name I've not heard in a long time. A long time.

When you live in a small community and it happens to be your hometown, you constantly bump up against your past. You run into former classmates at the grocery store, your kids go to school in some of the same buildings you did, and there are few places where someone doesn't walk up to you and say "oh, aren't you April? I remember you when you were a little girl."

You walk around in the present, but the past is always just right over there. Sometimes, a ghost memory will trip you up (figuratively speaking, that is) in the nicest of ways. That's what happened to me the other evening in the Buehler's parking lot. (The very same day, in fact, on which I had my moment of realization that supporting local and regional businesses meant more than just shopping the downtown stores for the holidays.)

I was headed into the store and a woman I know somewhat better than an acquaintance and not yet quite as well as a friend was headed to her car. As we started to pass, both of us smiling and nodding to one another, Lisa flagged me over to talk.

Lisa and my lives rarely intersect. Our children are of different ages, so we never crossed paths in the school system. Lisa used to sell baked goods at the Farmers Market, as well as her fiber goods, so sometimes I would see her there. She is the troop leader of the Girl Scout troop to which Liz still belongs. Running through the list of why Lisa wanted to talk to me, I concluded it had to do with Girl Scouts and I was needed to relay a message to Warren.

Lisa, grinning broadly, said "I was cleaning out my basement last night and came across something that involves you!"

This was not quite what I was expecting her to say. It was clear from the suppressed mirth in her face that whatever she knew, I would also enjoy knowing.

"Well, what?"

"National Council of Teachers of English."

"Year?"

"1974."

"Where were you then?"

"Connecticut."

We both started laughing.

Lisa then told me she had discovered the directory of all high school seniors who received the NCTE Achievement Award in Writing for the class year 1974. She was one of them. On a whim, Lisa thought she would look at all the Ohio winners to see if any names sounded familiar.

Her first surprise was that there was someone from Delaware. Her second surprise was she knew the student.

It was me.

Telling me all this, Lisa had this huge smile on her face. So did I, remembering that long ago girl I was.

I was still smiling as I walked away.

That was my Obi-Wan experience and a powerful one it was. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, I was a high school student who wrote her way into a national honor. No one had tracked me by following that path for a long time.

Lately I have thought a lot about writing and about being a writer. It is grist for another post another day.

In the meantime, I think I will go dust off my light saber.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Great Food Discussion

Blame my friend Sharon, who blogs at Musings of a Midlife Mom, for starting this whole discussion.

Lately Sharon has been examining her family's budget with a magnifying glass, looking for ways to stop the pennies from falling through the cracks. One of her recent discoveries was that her family spent a whopping huge amount of money on food last year. ("Food" covering everything from groceries to eating out to a cup of coffee at the coffee shop). Sharon immediately vowed to cut her family's food budget in half for 2010 and followed that post with one in which she laid out her approach to curbing her food budget.

About the same time Sharon was writing her post about ways to cut her food budget, I was writing about buying my groceries at the small regional market rather than the behemoth chains that serve our community. In it, I mentioned our own food habits. "Given that we spend less than $200 a month on groceries most months, we're talking a very small pebble tossed into a very large body of water in terms of impact."

Sharon jumped on that in a heartbeat: " Given that we spend less than $200 a month on groceries most months" stopped me right in my tracks. You only spend $200 a month on food? Wow. Okay, April, you are holding out on me...that is a very frugal amount...what do you cook to keep your costs so low?

I replied:

Hmmn. What do I cook? We don't eat a lot of meat - red, chicken, or otherwise. Probably less than once a week. So there is a big $$ saver right there. I cook a lot with pasta. I make a lot of soups (bean soups, split pea) and chili, freezing most of it. This winter we are eating the vegetables I canned and froze last summer. We don't buy a lot of processed foods or "convenience" foods; we don't drink coffee; we don't drink alcohol. (All huge budget drains.)We rarely buy soda (I don't care much for it). I bake almost everything from scratch, especially desserts. Warren brownbags lunch; the rare days when I am not at home I often do too. We don't eat out a lot because our schedule is often so full that there is no time for that; when we do, we often split an entree. We also don't hesitate to buy marked down food when it is something we like and can use or freeze; tonight we bought two huge boxes (banana packing boxes) of culled apples for $7 total which we will peel, cut, freeze and I will use to make apple pies. I rarely use coupons, mostly because they tend to be for processed food items that we don't eat! This month I am tracking our food expenses: grocery, eat out, etc. So far, almost halfway through the month, we have spent $57.87.

I tacked on an addendum:

One clarification and further note. Warren read my comment and said we probably eat meat a few more times a week and as I think about it, he is right. I probably cook meat less than once a week but we may use anything I cook in several different dishes. The other thing Warren pointed out, that is important is note, is that we don't "work" to eat this way nor are we vegetarians; this is just how we happen to eat.

Or, as Warren would say, this is "just us."

This morning, my friend Patricia and I went walking and I brought up the great food discussion. When I got to the "less than $200 a month" part, Patricia stopped short and said "You spend less than $200 a month?"

Uh huh.

Now she is going to track her family's food spending for a few weeks to get a feel for what they are doing in that department.

I have loved the comments about my homemaking/homesteading skills. They crack me up for lots of reasons, not the least of which is having to reconcile my personal beliefs and activities with society's view of homemaking-type women. But as I have said before, just because I bake the best apple pie you will ever taste and then choose to write about it does not mean that I have parked my intellect at the door. Or that my life is trivial.

Sharon has paid me the supreme compliment of featuring me on her blog today and "hinted" she would like my apple pie recipe. Sharon, I love you! Apron up!

April's Apple Pie
Preheat your oven to 425 degrees.

Dough for a two crust, 9 inch pie:
2 cups flour
4 teaspoons ice water
2/3 cup mayonnaise

Yes, you read that right. Mayonnaise. Stick with me.

Put the flour in a large bowl and set aside.

Measure the mayo into a smaller bowl. (Important Note: it has to be mayonnaise, not salad dressing, not fat-free or light, but the real stuff. The others will not work and you'll ruin your crust.) Measure the ice water into the mayo and whisk together until you have a white creamy liquid. It should be consistently smooth with no lumps.

Pour the liquid into the flour and stir with a fork to bind it. I usually put the fork aside after a few seconds and use my fingers. That way I can feel the dough's texture. If done correctly, the dough will come together in a fairly smooth mass. If it seems too dry, add a little more ice water a few drops at a time. If it seems greasy or super slippery, you can try adding flour a little at a time.

If it doesn't feel right at all, sometimes it is faster to dump it out and start over.

Note: A mayo crust is unusual, but once you get the hang of it, it is super easy. I have been making mayo crust pies for almost 30 years. If the apples are already sliced, I can get a pie made and in the oven in less than 10 minutes.

Apple Pie Spices
I usually stir together some sugar, cinnamon (lots), cloves, ginger, and nutmeg (a light touch). I have this set aside in a small bowl. If I am making a pie for my dad, who is diabetic, I omit the sugar and just use spices. No set amounts on any of this, but probably less than a quarter cup of sugar.

Putting Together The Pie
You should have your apples already peeled and sliced ready to go. I never use fillings or canned apples. The key to great apple pies is buy apples with good baking reputation. McIntosh, Granny Smith, Galas, Empires, for example. You can mix and match apples easily. Never ever make an apple pie with Red Delicious apples. Golden Delicious will work if mixed with other apples. I have made apple pies for so many years that I don't know how many apples a pie takes-4 or 5 big ones, maybe. If you are working with frozen apples, because you got a great buy on apples, thaw them first and add a little bit of flour - a teaspoon or so - to the apple pie spice mixture to help absorb the liquid.

Lightly flour your rolling surface. I use a rolling mat. Divide the pie dough in half and roll out the first crust and put it in your pie pan. (I love pie pans. I have a lot of them - ceramic, metal, glass. They are all wonderful.) Put the apples in. At the half-full point, I sprinkle about half the spices over the apples. I then put in the remaining apples, add the remaining spices, roll out my second crust and top the pie. Occasionally I will dot the apples with butter before I put on the crust, but that is really gilding the lily.

Note about rolling the mayo crust: it will break on you in places as you roll it and as you put it in and on the pie pan. Don't be discourage. Just patch the breaks.

Often I will glaze the pie with a sugar/water glaze, "painted on" with a pastry brush. I then sprinkle it with cinnamon. That is truly gilding the lily.

Baking the Pie
Slide into the oven on the middle rack. Back at 425 for 15 minutes, then turn down to 350 and bake another 30 minutes or so. Your pie is done when the apples are bubbling; juices may be bubbling out onto the floor of the oven. The crust should be a golden brown. (I have always wanted to write that phrase.)

Remove pie and cool. An apple pie hot out of the oven is a dangerous thing; it will burn you! My pies usually need to cool a couple of hours before they can be cut.

Serve to great acclaim.

Questions, comments, joys, concerns?

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Putting My Money Where My Mouth Is

I'm a huge believer in localism. I talk about it, I write about it, I think I live it.

Well, I try to at least. I really try to live in ways that are consistent with my beliefs.

Sometimes, though, I run smack into the wall dividing good intentions from how I actually live my life at times. When that happens, I ruefully rub my forehead and conscience and try to do better.

Today was one of those days. Today was the day I realized it was time to connect my beliefs in localism with my checkbook a little more closely when it comes to groceries.

Delaware is served by three grocery chains: Kroger, Meijer, and Buehler's. (A fourth chain, ALDI, is coming to town this spring.) Meijer is a Midwest chain with 180 stores in five states. ALDI has a larger range, with over 1000 stores in 29 states (and has a large international presence as well). Kroger is the national behemoth, owning a number of store chains (Ralphs, Fred Meyer, Fry's, to name a few) and doing over $76 billion dollars in sales annually.

Buehler's? Buehler's is a regional chain of 13 stores, all but ours located in northeast Ohio. (For the record, Delaware is squarely in the middle of the state.)

I stopped at Buehler's this afternoon to grab some soy milk as Liz was over tonight and she doesn't drink cow's milk. It was after 5 p.m., when grocery stores around here are starting to hum with folks heading home after work and stopping for bread or cheese or soap or something.

Buehler's was very quiet. And while there are a number of reasons to shrug that quietness off, including the cold and snow, I've heard enough through local grapevines to know that Buehler's is concerned about their Delaware numbers.

I picked up my two items, I checked out quickly, and as I drove home, I thought about the quiet store. And about what a commitment to localism means. Or looks like. Or costs.

I don't often shop at Buehler's because the food items I tend to buy - mostly staples - seem a little higher there. I say "seem" because I have never compared across store lines the prices of the 10 or 15 most common items we buy. I haven't thought about the other side of the equation, which is spending my dollars in large, out of the area corporations. True, Buehler's is not a locally owned grocery, but it is as close as it comes to one in this town.

As Warren and I ate supper, I commented on the emptiness of the store and then said, slowly, "I felt like I ought to be giving them more of my business." Warren nodded immediately. He said "and they buy a lot of their produce locally."

I don't kid myself that we will shop solely at Buehler's from here on out, although I can safely say we will try to do most of our shopping there. I don't kid myself that shopping there will be the ideal solution or that Buehler's is free from the evils of the corporate food structure. And I don't kid myself that our shopping at Buehler's will have anything more than a small effect on the store's profit margin. Given that we spend less than $200 a month on groceries most months, we're talking a very small pebble tossed into a very large body of water in terms of impact. But it is a pebble that I feel I need to toss.

As a kid, I grew up a block away from the Olentangy river, which cuts through Delaware from north to south. It was a great playground for me and my brothers and cousins. One of the more popular pastimes was seeing how many times you could skip a small piece of shale or other flat rock across the slow moving surface. One or two skips marked you as a rank amateur; five or more skips marked you as a serious contender.

I hoping for five or more on this one.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Gifts

We had a big snow here. "Big" meaning several inches of white powder falling over the last 24 hours, starting yesterday morning. As I was leaving the courthouse late yesterday afternoon, after first looking out the window at my snow blanketed car, a colleague walking by commented that he bet I was going to go home and write, predicting I would take photos and then post something about the snow.

I'm not going to photograph or write about the snow. Lots of writers write about snow better than I do. My last several notes on Facebook have all been about snow, starting with "Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast…" (Robert Frost). John Keats captured frigid cold better than anyone: "St. Agnes' Eve - Ah, bitter chill it was!"

Numb were the Beadsman's fingers, while he told
His rosary, and while his frosted breath,
Like pious incense from a censer old,
Seem'd taking flight for heaven…

Sylvia Plath, writing about what turned out to be her final winter in London, described the downside of the season:

It was an unspeakable winter, the worst, they said, in one hundred and fifty years. The snow began just after Christmas and would not let up. The trains froze on the tracks…Water pipes froze solid…The gas failed…The lights failed and candles, of course, were unobtainable. Nerves failed…Finally, the heart itself failed. It seemed the cold would never end. Nag, nag, nag.


And Dylan Thomas was lyrical in "A Child's Christmas in Wales:"

Our snow was not only shaken from white wash buckets down the sky, it came shawling out of the ground and swam and drifted out of the arms and hands and bodies of the trees; snow grew overnight on the roofs of the houses like a pure and grandfather moss, minutely-ivied the walls and settled on the postman, opening the gate, like a dumb, numb thunderstorm of white, torn Christmas cards.

That's enough snow talk for now.

Gifts, not snow, are on my mind. We have just left the holidays and gift giving behind. Warren and I agreed that we didn't want to go overboard for the holidays and I am pleased to say we didn't. I got the two Christmas presents I most desired: new oven mitts and two 8" cake pans (found nowhere but the dollar store). My old mitts were worn out and needed to be pitched. My cake pans were 9" and many cake recipes call for the smaller pan size. If I use the larger pan, the cakes taste fine but look rather puny. (Apparently we supersized our boxed cake mixes somewhere along the way; I only noticed this volume discrepancy when I stopped using box mixes.)

But I'm not writing about the cake pans or the oven mitts, thrilled as I was to receive them. I'm writing about gifts that leave me so rich that I rival Croesus.

These are but a handful of them:
  • My friends in Blogville, who I hear from and who hear from me throughout the week. You are a big part of my community. Ellen, Sharon, Christine, Jennifer (both of you), Sarah, Working Poor, everyone else! Thank you for being an unexpected and totally welcome gift this year. You have supported me, encouraged me, and laughed with me. I hope I have done the same for you. How I look forward to seeing what is going on in your part of the world and letting you in on mine!
  • My friends here with whom I share coffee and books and laughter and hugs and stories and community. I'm not even going to try to name names. You know who you are (those of you who read this blog). I couldn't do it - whatever "it" encompasses - without you. (And that includes those of you who don't live here, but are part of my life - by letter, by email, by phone - all the same.)
  • The wonderful note accompanying the hi-bounce ball with the floating confetti from Becky, who volunteers for the Symphony and who reads this blog. What a thoughtful note! The ball sits on my desk now and I shake it from time to time the same way one would shake a snow globe.
  • Sam, for saying on Christmas Day as we cooked side by side, "why don't we try that together?" when we talked about wanting to make cheese.
  • Bethany, for reappearing and reaching out after many long years. There is a long story here, and it may get told later, but the short version is six days before Christmas, she commented on my blog. We are meeting up in New York at the end of this month and just writing that sentence brings tears to my eyes.
  • My haircut last Monday. Well, not the haircut per se but how it came to be. Margo was just arriving at the shop for hers when I called to make an appointment. Later that day, when Janine finished and I got out my wallet to pay, she said "it's all taken care of." Thinking "well, of course, it's all taken care of, you just finished," I said "I know." Janine gave me a funny look and asked me how I found out. I returned the strange look and asked "find out what? What do I owe you?" At which point Janine repeated, speaking slowly because of my clearly impaired intelligence, "your. haircut. is. all. taken. care. of." I started to ask "by who?" then exclaimed "Margo did it, didn't she?!" And indeed she did! Margo, you are a gift in my life for lots of reasons, including reminding me that great gifts, like great books, often show up where and when you least expect them!
  • Any day, hour, minute spent with Warren anywhere, anytime. (Happy 2010, dear!)
This weekend Warren and I are taking down the lights, packing away the ornaments, and boxing up Christmas for another year. Our tree is so desiccated that all of its needles will be on the carpet before it ever reaches the front door, let alone the curb. Some of the presents are still under it - the cake pans among them - and will migrate to their new homes. I'm already using the mitts.

The gifts above? The friendship, the community, the love?

They are already lodged in my heart.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

On the Job Trail

My son Sam is looking for work. He has worked a bit - odd jobs, really - since moving back to Ohio in November and has brought in a few dollars, but he needs something fulltime so he can support himself and get back on his feet financially. He is "getting by," with the help of family and friends. He just qualified for food stamps, making him part of the 36 million Americans who receive them.

Sam had two job interviews today, one at a local McDonalds and the other at a call center in the southwestern corner of Columbus. Sam doesn't have a car, so must rely on friends and family to get him where he needs to go. Today, I drove the shuttle. That not only gave me time with Sam but also, in the case of the call center interview, gave me a ringside seat to what it is like to be unemployed in these times.

Sam was told to wear "business casual" to the call center interview. In his case, that meant asking me to wash his only slacks and only button-style shirt while he interviewed at McDonalds in the morning. (The dryer at Sam's apartment has been broken since Thanksgiving, so his laundry has been migrating to our house.) He somehow got a ride from the first interview back to his apartment. I met him there, waited while he changed into his business casual outfit, and then we drove south.

On the way, he told me about his first interview. The manager made him wait 45 minutes without explanation before talking to him for five. Sam said this angered him, but he held his tongue and his temper. He thinks his chances of getting hired are "pretty good," because he is immediately available for any shift, including third. It would start at $7 plus an hour.

The call center job was more attractive, because it started at $11 an hour. I told Sam he would have a hefty commute, and if you figured the commute time into his week, his hourly rate dropped. He nodded, half listening.

We found the place, buried near the outerbelt in an area that if I were still practicing zoning law I would predict is zoned for "light manufacturing." If you had a job in this area, you could not walk to it as there are no apartments or houses anywhere nearby. There may be bus service; I couldn't tell.

I parked and prepared to read while I waited. It was cold, about 17 degrees, but I figured I would stay warm enough in the car. Sam peeled off his outer layers of shirts that pass for a coat, checked his hair one more time, and got out of the car. As I watched him walk away, I resisted rolling down the window and calling out "mom comments" - "Tuck your shirt in. Shouldn't you wear a sweater with that?"

For the next hour, while I read, I also watched applicants walk in and out of the hiring center. "Business casual" meant lots of things, from khaki or black slacks to well washed jeans. A few applicants were dressed in clean but well worn clothing; a few came "as they were." One young woman wore a skirt despite the cold weather; everyone else was in pants. The applicants were predominantly but not universally young, appearing to be in their 20s. There were older faces, however, wearing a look I know only all too well from volunteering at our local legal clinic.

A young man in jeans and a white shirt came out with a toddler asleep in his arms. He carefully tucked the child into a car seat and drove off. A half hour later, I saw another applicant exit with a baby in his arms also.

Being unemployed in these times means you bring your baby to an interview because whatever babysitting arrangements you made fell through and the interview is too important to skip. Being unemployed in these times means you have a friend or your mom drive you to this remote location because you don't have a car, and the interview is too important to miss. Being unemployed in these times means you do anything you can to find work, knowing full well that there are thousands of others like you out there also doing whatever they can to find work. I counted over 30 hopeful applicants streaming in and out of the doors in the first 40 minutes I was there.

While I waited, I began reading Strength in What Remains, Tracy Kidder's newest book. By sheer serendipity, I had received the "on hold" notice from our library just yesterday and picked it up today knowing I would be waiting around while Sam interviewed.

I love reading Tracy Kidder. I have read most of his books; I have heard him speak. Kidder is considered one of the best writers of "non-fiction narrative." I like him because not only does he write cleanly and clearly, but also because he is inherently decent and thoughtful in his observations. As I read and watched applicants, I found myself wishing Kidder would turn his attention to the Great Recession and tell the story of one of these applicants.

He could write about Sam. For me, Sam is the face of the Great Recession.

As I mentioned, Sam is getting by. He has shelter, and food, and a support system, which puts him ahead of many. When on rare occasion he shops for clothes, it is usually at Goodwill. (As I finished folding his laundry this evening, I saw "new" clothes that I am pretty sure came from there.) I help him with his rent; his grandparents made sure he got money for Christmas. Now that he has food stamps, even if only for a month or two assuming he finds a job, he is eating regularly again.

Sam is a hard worker, given the chance. He wants that chance. He also is fiercely independent and doesn't like a handout, be it from the state or from his mother. At times this fall, it was easier for him to go hungry than to ask for help. Being unemployed for almost a year now has been a hard lesson.

But not always a grim one, apparently. After almost an hour inside, Sam reappeared, laughing. He jumped into the car, saying "well, I think they didn't like me very much," then told me how he started laughing during the psychological questions part of the interview. He stopped mid-response, laughing hard, and told the interviewer that he just couldn't answer "such bullshit questions" seriously. The interviewer looked at him, startled, then started laughing herself, before getting serious and completing the interview.

There is dignity in work, or at least there used to be. I'm not so sure this is a country in which we honor labor anymore. I give Sam credit for being willing to do almost anything, other than answer apparently ridiculous questions.

As parents, we spend so much of our time trying to make things easier for our children. We pick them up when they fall down, we bandage their scrapes, we soothe their bruised feelings. It's easy when they're five, harder when they are grown. It is harder still in this Great Recession. At times I feel helpless as I watch my sons struggle to find work.

I'm glad Sam came out of the bombed interview laughing. It told me he is resilient and that is a great trait to have in these times.

We laughed together as we headed towards home.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

New Year, New Moments

Higgledy piggledy. That's how 2010 has started.

An error in my check registry (against me) which I just stumbled across today (better now than after an inadvertent overdraft). Crossed wires with the entity that has taken over financial counseling at the hospital; it's been a painfully slow transition and someone misplaced my papers. (Okay, accidents happen and clearly you guys goofed somewhere, but did you have to send the computer generated letter threatening me that if I didn't comply and turn in the missing documents (for the second time, but who's counting?), you would close the file and report me as uncooperative?) Too many stacks to attend to ranging from dirty towels to unread books. The boxes of Christmas cards - the Christmas just past - sitting on the coffee table - no signatures, no addresses, no stamps, nothing.

That was not how I anticipated 2010 starting. Oh, I knew we would get to that level soon enough; entropy alone would guarantee that - but not so soon. Not by January 2.

I spent 20 minutes of the last afternoon of the last day of 2009 just walking up and down the driveway leading to the top of the Delaware Dam. It was late enough in the afternoon that the daylight was dying right along with the year.

I was walking because the three of us - Warren, Liz (his daughter formerly known as Elizabeth), and I - had gone out on a futile run to Mom Wilson's, a local sausage mart, and Liz wanted to spend New Year's Eve with her mother. Although this is Warren's week with his daughter, he agreed to let her go for the evening. For reasons I don't need to post, I do not ever go along when Warren picks up or drops off his daughter at her mother's house. On the other hand, it seemed silly to drive all the way back into town, drop me off, then take Liz out to her mom's, which is close to the dam. So I suggested I get out at the Delaware Dam and walk while Warren ran the shuttle. He wasn't happy about my solution, but insofar as I was driving at the time, he had no choice.

I had about 20 minutes at the dam, which I spent walking up and down the sloped driveway to the top of the dam. (This is not a steep climb, but a gentle grade.) Up and down, up and down.

As it always does when I am walking, my mind started its running commentary. It sounded something like this: Sam job bills to pay new glasses Warren projects Montana taxes quarterly grant report laundry supper plans Christmas tree still up January rehearsals boots United Way too many holiday snacks New York Sam job bills to pay new glasses Warren projects Montana taxes quarterly grant report laundry supper plans Christmas tree still up January rehearsals boots United Way too many holiday snacks New York

Nothing like walking to a chorus. Still, it felt good to be tramping up and down, up and down, in the failing light. And as often happens when I walk, I felt I could slot the various concerns and issues into my mental filing cabinet and face 2010 boldly and in control.

"Boldly and in control." Ha.

A mere two days, a couple of my plans are already cockeyed, thanks to my math error. On the upside, a few are temporarily allayed, thanks to updated information. And the rest just roll alongside me into 2010, rumbling quietly every now and then to remind me they are still present.

If I were really, really organized and on top of my game, I would leap into action right now. I would tackle the running list (well, to the extent I could), tame the piles, even address those Christmas cards. I would get the towels washed, along with the dishes from the late afternoon snack break we all took. I would stop munching on the last of the holiday goodies while I am at it. But this is starting to sound suspiciously close to making resolutions, and I have already declared I don't do resolutions.

I do, however, savor small moments of great reward, and that is what I plan on doing as soon as I post this. Am doing already, in fact. We made cinnamon rolls for New Year's day, and so far the first two days of 2010 have started with their warm sweetness. So will tomorrow. Right now Liz is in the basement dancing, Warren is busy researching heaters, and our household is warm and together. There are leftovers for supper and a Christmas tree that has not yet outworn its welcome.

Higgledy piggledy or not, it's 2010. I can't wait to see what the remaining 363 days hold.