Friday, August 31, 2012


Before leaving the house this morning, I slipped my cell phone into my rear pocket and strapped on my watch. This was not me over-managing my time: the watch was to keep me on track (I had an appointment) and the phone has become a constant while we wait for The Call (you know, the "Mom, Alise and I are on our way to the hospital" call). If not for that imminent event, I would have left the phone home and traveled disconnected.

The watch is one that Ben handed down to me. It is a Camp Fitch watch, given to those campers who attended five years in a row. It is analog, which means it has hands and I have to read it, rather than glance quickly at a digital screen. Its current band is red; I choose my watchbands for color and do not worry about picking one that will go with everything.

I often do not wear a watch and, with the exception of recent weeks and the possibility of a grandbaby arriving, I rarely turn on my cell phone. As a result, I often float through the day unmoored from time. I prefer it that way. Unless I have a scheduled event at work or an appointment in the wider world, I like slipping off the horological constraints. I am in agreement with Thoreau, who wrote, "there were times when I could not afford to sacrifice the bloom of the present moment to any work... I love a broad margin to my life."

I am not anti-time. I am punctual for appointments, for meeting up with friends, for starting a mediation. I just prefer to be less than connected in these too intense, too loud, too turbulent times. Author Lauren Groff captured my feelings exactly in her recent novel, Arcadia (a wonderful book, incidentally). A college professor assigns his students to spend a week disconnected from the modern electronic world, including email, texting, cell phones, and the Internet. One student discovers "how alive people must have felt before you could reach anyone at any time... Back then, the past was more subjective, she imagines, because things weren't immediately logged online for everyone to see; the future was more distant because it had to be scrupulously planned. That meant that the present would have been a more intense experience."

Our house has a number of clocks, from the stovetop to the computers to the ones scattered on different shelves. A few are stopped, but most are current. Even on a day when I am not fettered to time, I still glance occasionally at one of them to check where I am in the day. But so much of what I do, especially when I am at home, is free of that constraint. The walk home today (after the appointment), the pace at which the laundry is drying on the line in the heat—these things have nothing to do with the number of minutes in an hour. And later today I will pen a letter to a dear friend, not by the clock, but by the heart.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Late Summer Garden Report

The bees are in the basil, the basil which went to flower when I didn't pick it.

I planted basil in this year's garden, some started inside in the spring, the rest sown carelessly in early June. It all came up. I have a hearty stand of basil.

I never picked it. Not a single leaf. Oh, I thought about it, thought about making pesto and other aromatic dishes, but other than to give some away, I didn't touch it. The first time it flowered, Warren and I dutifully lopped the buds off. We cut it one or two more times after  that, then stopped. It has flowered all summer.

I've enjoyed having the basil patch even without picking a single stalk for my own use. When weeding,  I would occasionally run my hands through the basil to release its fragrance. When the summer heat broke and we could finally sit out on our back deck in the evening, I would sometimes put down the book I was reading and sniff the still air faintly laced with basil. I've enjoyed the basil patch so much that I will plant another next year just for the scent.

I'm not the only one who is enchanted with the basil.

The bees are in the basil. They showed up a few weeks ago—great hulking bees (carpenter bees, perhaps), smaller honeybees—and they have been working the basil patch furiously since then. They are so intent on their mining that I can stand close and take photos. There are so many of them that the basil patch hums if you listen.

My garden this summer has been mostly tomatoes and peppers, with zucchini grown in pots on the deck. The tomatoes are abundant; the peppers are adequate. The zucchini plants were prolific until they died suddenly one weekend in July. I've planted some more but I doubt we'll get a bloom before the sun turns too shallow for the plants to produce. It has been a good garden, despite the heat and the drought. I have been canning—tomatoes and salsa—and there are bags of zucchini slices in the freezer.

But the basil, and the bees in the basil! They have been the surprise package of the summer.

I will leave the basil standing until the killing frost. I will dream of the bees this winter, murmuring in their close quarters, the dark redolent of basil and the summer sun.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

This Space

The purple bannister (an inside joke) leading from the half landing to the front door of the apartment was gone, ripped from its sturdy wall mooring. One of the mounting brackets lolled upside down, almost torn out of the plaster. The landing walls were fingered up with dirty smears.

After Roger found the keys and unlocked the front door, we stepped into the apartment hallway, the long, slender hallway that runs some 100 plus feet from front to back. We walked to the front room, the large room with its three single light windows that look down on our core downtown.

"Oh," I said. Then I repeated it. "Oh."

Every direction, it was "oh." The nails pounded into the walls, the holes in the walls, a broken lower glass pane on the French doors leading into what was once a study, the hole in the glass about the size of a boot.

Th dirt. The squalor.

"This is nothing. You should have seen it before we carted out the garbage."

We moved through the apartment, room by room. More items nailed into walls. More holes in the walls. Broken wood panels in several of the original four panel interior doors. The antique blue glass fixture in the kitchen broken and hanging askew.

I felt a lump in my throat. This was the first time I had been back in this space since March 2005. And here it was, dirty. Forlorn. Abused.

"This space" is a third floor apartment the building owners had rehabbed ten years ago after it had sat empty and locked for a quarter of a century. "This space" is a 2000 square foot apartment atop a late nineteenth century commercial Italianate building in the heart of the downtown. "This space" in 2002 was a gleaming restoration and updating of the 1920s era apartment.

"This space" was where I lived for three years, first with Ben, then with Ben and Sam, then with Sam, from the time I began the long, slow, hard unwinding of my marriage to the time I began the long, slow, hard trek through my cancer treatment.

Roger, my longtime friend and part owner of the building, stood quietly beside me as I took in the damage. We had just come from lunch together, during which he told me of the current conditions of the apartment. I asked him if he had the keys with him and when he said he did, I impulsively said, "let's go see it."

And here I was, seeing it.

The front room, which had hosted Ben's graduation party and many a DI practice. My study, where I wrote and put my life back together. Sam's bedroom, which sat empty for the first year until his longing for his big brother overcame his anger and sadness towards me. Ben's room, where he found refuge for the last two years before college. The kitchen, which had seen numerous D & D tournaments and my parents' 50th wedding anniversary dinner. My "Live Like You Are Dying" party, which saw 100 plus people pack the kitchen, the front room, the study, and the long hallway full.

I moved out of the apartment when I fell too far behind on the rent and my advancing cancer made ever catching up rent and climbing daily the 44 or so stairs to reach home impossible. On the day I moved, a whole army of friends and family showed up to do the work. There was one quiet moment, when almost everyone was in transit between the two places and I just stood in an almost empty room and cried. My friend Linda found me and hugged me, then gave me a squeeze and said "I know it hurts. But the next step is a good step and you will get better." The next day, a second wave of friends descended upon the empty apartment and cleaned it to a gleam. And then I left it behind, handing the keys to Roger two days later after one final walk-through with him.

Until now.

After Roger and I closed the door and went our separate ways, I walked to the Symphony office to see Warren. I told him about going back to the apartment. Warren said he'd like to see the space as he never made it there when it was my home. (The "Live Like You Are Dying" party? He was playing percussion in "The Nutcracker" 60 miles away that night.) "I'd like to see it to place you there in my mind," he said.

Next time, I said. And when I got home, I emailed Roger and told him the same. Next time.

Next time I will be ready to show Warren the apace. Next time, I will be able to say "this is where I lived. This is where this part of my life played out." Next time I will be able to say, "here is where Sam and I watched the World Series late into the night when Boston won, here is where Caitie kept her drum set for two years, here is where I would sit and watch the snow come down." Next time I will be able to say all those things.

This time, though, I needed to see it without that overlay of explanations. This time I needed to let the memories rush past me up the stairs and swiftly down the hall, just beyond my fingertips.

And this time I needed to say "oh." And "oh" again. And nothing more.

Friday, August 24, 2012

The Book(s) of Quotes

Decades ago, I had a scrapbook/photo album on which I wrote what was my mantra at the time. "If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away." While I had memorized poems and other lines prior to writing that (in blue marker), I think this was the first time I actually wrote down someone else's words and thus captured them.

A confession: I had not yet read Walden when I wrote out that quote, although I did know who Thoreau was and what he had written. After all, I had read The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail. The real appeal of the quote was that I was pining away for a percussionist in our high school band and inscribing the quote on the back cover of my scrapbook was a brilliant way to show my unrequited love while appearing aloofly intellectual. The object of my adoration never knew of the inscription because the scrapbook never left my bedroom, but I knew what it stood for and thought of him every time I saw it.

In the years that followed, I would hear and read many more passages worth keeping, but rarely did I hold onto them. It wasn't until the late 1980s that I finally began writing down and saving quotes that spoke to me.

My collection is now into Volume 3. In recent months, I have begun dating additions to help me place them in time. It is interesting to flip through the notebooks and see what caught my ear. Certain themes recur regularly: writing, community, dying, spirituality, love, baking.

I have more than once offered my notebooks to Warren. "Read these," I'll say, "and you'll get a pretty good idea of where I have been and what has touched me over the last 25 years." He has always declined, a reaction that I used to take personally ("What? You're not interested?") until I realized Warren thought these were more like journals and therefore too personal to intrude upon even with my permission. I think I cleared up that misconception. He still hasn't opened one, but I think they are less imposing now. I hope so.

Just a week ago I was penning in an excerpt from Anne Tyler's latest novel, The Beginner's Goodbye. The last several fiction entries have been about coming to terms with death, with the loss of a loved one. As I started to copy out this particular passage, I stopped and put down my pen, finally seeing what I was doing.

I am looking out for Warren for when I am not here. I am layering a patchwork of quotes for him the same as I would tuck a quilt across his shoulders if he were chilled and tired.

I hope and trust that I have several years yet with which to share life and love and marriage with Warren. I am conscious all the same of wanting to reach into the future for when I am not here and care for him then as well.

I will go on collecting quotes. After all, it was Robert Frost who wrote:

People keep saying it's not good
To learn things by heart,
But pretty things well said—
It's nice to have them in your head.

Or in a notebook. Or in several.

I hope someday that Warren picks up one of my notebooks and finds comfort there, especially after I am no longer here to provide it. I hope my sons pick up those same notebooks after I am gone and think about what moved me to save this or that passage.

If Warren does ever read through them, he will find the different drummer quote early in Volume I, along with several others from Walden. Turns out that when I finally got around to reading the book, long after high school, I was captured by Thoreau's thoughts. I hope Warren finds it. After all, he never saw my scrapbook back in his high school years, back when he was a percussionist in the high school band.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Saturday Afternoon

"That's almost two quarts of green tomato pickle. Even if it's only our first garden on the sod and nothing could grow well, these pickles will be a treat with baked beans in the winter," Ma gloated. (The Long Winter, Laura Ingalls Wilder)

Well, it was salsa and it was ten pints (five quarts), but I know just what Ma Ingalls meant.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Read, Write, Repeat

I recently read On Writing by Stephen King. It is part memoir, part "here are my thoughts about the craft of writing." I am not a reader of King or his genre, so I entered the book with some trepidation.

It was excellent.

One of King's basic observations is that writers (a) read a lot of books, always, and (b) write a lot, preferably every day. He himself writes daily ("365 days a year") and advises would-be writers to set aside time daily (preferably the same time) and just write until you at least reach a set quota of words.

Well, I am one for two, which in baseball means I am batting .500. In writing, I am a weak hitter at best.

I read all the time. Just last night, I "power read" the last four books of the Little House series because I was out of fresh (unread) books and wanted to read something. As I pen these words, I am waiting for Warren to come home. I am eager not only because I always look forward to seeing Warren but also because I stopped at the library this morning and then dumped an armload of books in the car (conveniently parked nearby) rather than lug them along to coffee and lunch.

But writing every day? Setting aside time in which to write and then holding that time sacred?

I have no excuse but a lame "haven't done it."

I know someone who has committed to getting up and going to her study every single day to work on a novella. She doesn't know if she "has" something yet, but every day she sits down in front of her computer and starts typing. After two hours, she emerges for breakfast with her husband and then goes off to her day job.

And I had coffee with morning with a friend, a young woman who also works at the craft of writing. Today we talked about what, how, and why she does it.

I admire both women for recognizing that writing is work and deserves the same focus as any other job.

I shared with my friend this morning that I kept getting stuck on the time issue. It is a hurdle on the track which I  come up to and then stop short of throwing a leg over to clear it. She was very sweet in saying that it was okay to have writing as a hobby and not to beat myself up over what I am not doing.

Writing as a hobby? I can see Stephen King lobbing a brick at me to catch my attention. "Hey, you. Yeah, you. Stop sitting on the fence."

I don't know what I am afraid of. I don't know what is holding me back. Not being any good? Not having anything to say? Do I think that spending time writing is a selfish pursuit? Not enough time? Too many other commitments? They are all sham excuses. The real question is why do I not value my time enough to set a portion of it aside every day to pursue something I love so deeply?

My friend spent some of the past summer in  Turkey, her husband's homeland, staying at a family cottage near the coast. "I wrote a lot," she said, and we both smiled.

I would love to have a writing vacation at a coastal cottage. Heck, I would settle for a small shed or tent by a lake. Just try me.

But that is not why I am not writing and I know it.

We also talked about writing "at home" versus writing "somewhere else." She does her work primarily somewhere else, as she finds her home calls to her when she is there. The laundry, the dishes, the cats, what to cook for supper—they all tug at her concentration. So she uses home to outline and do research, then heads to an out of town coffee shop to burrow into her words.

As I write this post, sitting at our kitchen table, I wonder if the towels on the line are dry yet. And then get up to check them, fold them, and bring them inside.

But the towels are not why I am not writing and I know that too.

I have written before about the writer Bess Streeter Aldrich, who gave an interview in which she spoke on writing with one hand and ironing with the other. She also commented that people managed to find time for the things they loved, and if you claimed you wanted to write but couldn't find time, then maybe you didn't really want to write.

I need to teach myself the skill of writing with one hand and ironing with the other. I move closer to it; I have learned to always have a pen and notebook with me and sometimes even remember to use it. I have learned not to make excuses of "I'm just writing" when Warren (busy with his own projects) walks through the kitchen on his way to the workshop.

I need to face the hurdle on the track. Even if I am not yet able to leap it smoothly and fluidly, I can still walk up to it and straddle it, one leg on each side, until I get the courage to bring the other leg over too.

And then do it again, a little smoother. And again, a little smoother yet.

And then trust my feet (and my pen) to leap it and keep going.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Pinning My Hopes to the Sky

I am penning these words outside, sitting at our deck table. It is mid-evening and a bank of blue-gray clouds are silently filling the sky. The cicadas are chattering; it is still too early in the evening for the crickets and katydids to take over. The pungent scent of basil drifts over from the garden.

It has hit me hard, now the the extreme heat of earlier summer has broken, just how little time I have spent outside this season. It is only in the last two weeks, when the days have stayed in the 80s and the nights have dropped low, that I have ventured back out voluntarily.

I have missed it.

I have missed the calm that wraps around me when I sit out on the deck. Just sitting. Just watching. I have missed the outside noises: the distant hum of a lawnmower, the chittering of the birds. I have missed watching the sun and the moon rise and set.

A few days ago I came out a little later in the evening than tonight. All but the last rays on sunlight had faded, but one lingering shaft lit up a small piece of the sky. I stood in silence for several minutes, watching the light fade out.

When I came inside, I wrote "I walk out and pin my hopes to the patch of light in the cloud covered sky."

As I sit here now, watching the bees work over the rudbeckia, looking at the garden tomatoes spilling onto the patio, listening to the birds wind down their day, I relax. I breathe deeply. And I pin my hopes to the sky.

Monday, August 13, 2012

The Wasp and The Nose

Both Darla and Linda wanted to know about the wasp that was chiseled off of John D. Rockefeller's nose.

As I recently wrote, the columns flanking the front and rear entrances to Yerkes Observatory are ornately carved with repeating motifs. One such motif is a caricature of John D. Rockefeller, whose substantial donations allowed William Rainey Harper to establish the University of Chicago as a world-class institution right from the start. When the University opened in October, 1892, five of the campus's main buildings were already standing, with another five to follow in 1893. The architect, Henry Ives Cobb,would turn his attention to the observatory in Wisconsin shortly.

The observatory and the main Chicago campus are designed in entirely different architectural styles. The campus is hidden behind looming Gothic buildings that shield the intellectual community from the outside world. In sharp contrast, the observatory is set on a sweeping, open lawn. Cobb adorned both sites with ornate carvings and gargoyles. And herein lies the tale of the wasp and the nose.

Yerkes Observatory was dedicated in 1897, five years after the University of Chicago opened its doors. When unveiled, the columns contained the caricature of Rockefeller, sporting a vastly exaggerated nose, with a large wasp poised on the end. The wasp's face was supposedly a caricature of William Rainey Harper. I say supposedly because I have never seen a photograph of the original carvings. I have read that the wasp was Harper, I have heard that the wasp was a trustee. Regardless of who the wasp was, the nose was carved out of proportion, indicated Rockefeller had been stung severely.

The official version of the defacement is that George Ellery Hale, the first astronomer of Yerkes and the Chicago faculty, found the caricature of Rockefeller and the wasp inappropriate and embarrassing. The word "grotesque" pops up in more than one commentary on the carvings. It was certainly not something Hale wanted on his world class observatory.

Hale ordered the wasps chiseled off. I heard he wanted Rockefeller removed as well, but others convinced Hale that removing the entire offending carving would mar the columns and draw attention to the issue.

It has been suggested that the wasp was "stinging" Rockefeller for more money for the University, which would lead me to believe that it was Harper's face on the wasp. Stories of the relationship between Rockefeller and Harper, built upon the tension between Harper's vision of a world class institution and Rockefeller's reluctance to part with the millions necessary to create it, still reverberate around the Gothic quads at Chicago. 

Hale had his way: the wasps came off. The stories remain. As do the chisel marks.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Of Dawgs and Domes

Warren and I got out of town for a few days a few weeks ago, spending most of the time in Madison, Wisconsin, with family.We were long overdue for a few days away not related to the Symphony and this was our best opportunity.

You can't get to Madison without going through Chicago. Well, maybe you can, but we can't. Especially when we were on the trail of a hot dog. Not just any hot dog, mind you, but a Superdawg.

You know it is a Superdawg because of the statues on the top of the drive-in.

Warren and I are hot dog aficionados and have been known to plan our travel just to make sure certain hot dog stands are part of the route. Superdawg, long on our list, was why we chose the path we did in heading to Wisconsin. Other routes would have been more direct and a lot more efficient, but they would not included Superdawg.

Yes, that is traditional Chicago "green relish" on the Superdawg. 
We were not disappointed. In fact, I can easily say that the Superdawg is the best hotdog I have ever eaten (and I have eaten a lot of hotdogs in my life). In fact, Superdawgs are so good that they are permanently on my "gotta eat this when I am Chicago" list, right alongside Harold's Chicken.

Although I probably could have stayed and eaten at Superdawg for the remainder of the weekend, we were headed to Wisconsin. Warren and I continued north under the delusion that the roads leading to Wisconsin would not be clogged on a bright, sunny Saturday and that Lake Geneva, a resort town in Wisconsin, would somehow be anything other than bumper-to-bumper crawling traffic on a bright, sunny Saturday.

Let's just say our delusions were soon smashed.Warren had memories of being at Lake Geneva as a child, and I think harbored some faint hope that he might even be able to find the vacation house his grandmother had rented that long ago summer. We quickly realized that the only sensible response to Geneva Lake was to get out of it as soon as possible, and the fastest way to do that was to turn along the lake (cleverly named Geneva Lake) and head towards Williams Bay, with the thought of picking up a blue highway leading to Madison from there.

As we drove towards Williams Bay, I reminded Warren that it was the home of Yerkes Observatory, the University of Chicago's architectural and astronomical gem. Warren said in response, "there it is."

And he was right. There was the main dome of the Yerkes Observatory, looming up over trees on the horizon.

We debated whether to stop. Warren had never seen the building (we were too late for any tours that day); I had not seen it in over 35 years. I thought it was out of our way and we should keep driving. Warren thought otherwise. "How many times are we ever going to be this close to it again?"

He was right.

We flashed through Williams Bay, coming upon the observatory quickly. I had forgotten it was set so close to town and the road, but had not forgotten the long, sweeping drive leading up to it.

And then there it was.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away... Or something like that. A very, very long time ago, in my first year of college, I was in an ill-advised (and blessedly, in retrospect, ill-fated) relationship with someone pursuing a PhD in astronomy. The sole good thing that came out of this was I spent more than one weekend at Yerkes Observatory and got to know it in a way that only graduate students in astronomy would.

And here I was, almost 40 years later, seeing it again.

Warren had to attend to some urgent Symphony business by phone, so I was on my own to wander around the grounds. For the longest time, I just stood there and let it sink in. I stared up at the main dome, the one that houses the 40 inch refracting telescope through which I once looked at a double star in a far away galaxy. I looked at the shutters on the dome and distantly recalled the sound of them opening.

I admired the building, seeing it architecturally in ways I did not know so many years ago. Yerkes Observatory remains one of the great architectural accomplishments of Henry Ives Cobb, who was the principal architect for the University of Chicago. While the campus is a collection of Gothic Revival architecture, Cobb designed Yerkes in a classical mode with strong Romanesque features.

Roman arches march around the domes, frame the long sweeps of windows, and mark the identical front and rear entrances.

In keeping with the gargoyles and other grotesqueries with which Cobb marked the Chicago campus, Yerkes is also adorned with strong, ornate carvings. They run up the columns,

they adorn windows,

and they are tucked under, above or around the various portals.

As I looked at the carvings, I sought out the most famous of them: the portrayal of John D. Rockefeller, the founding benefactor of the University of Chicago, whom Cobb had caricatured in a repeating motif at Yerkes. Originally there was also a large wasp with the face of William Rainey Harper, the founding president of the University, perched on the end of John D.'s nose, but the wasps were ordered chiseled off when the building was opened. The chisel marks still remain.

Many years ago, I had written a poetic monologue featuring George Ellery Hale, the great astronomer who founded Yerkes Observatory and, later, the Mount Wilson and Palomar Observatories. (He is the "Hale" of the Hale Telescope at Palomar Observatory.) The poem did not survive the Great Poetry Massacre of the late 90s, but as is the case with a number of those never to be read works, pieces of it have remained in my mind. In the poem, Hale talked of going west in part because the Wisconsin nights were often too misty for astronomers to get good work done. The skies of California were crisp and dry, and presented no such problems. Hale, already an established, highly respected scientist when he made the move, became even more prominent in his field after he left Yerkes. I have never read that he regretted leaving behind Yerkes. But my poem ended with him musing about what he had left behind, "back in [his] youth," his little observatory, his "little Yerkes."

While I felt the faint whiff of the past—my past, the observatory's past—when standing there once again, I felt more the strong pull of the present. The day was growing later and family was waiting. Warren finished his phone calls and I quickly pointed out a few features, including the Rockefeller carvings. I marveled aloud that I was sharing Yerkes with him. We gave each other a hug, then climbed into the car, drove out of the grounds and on down the road.