Wednesday, January 30, 2013

And in other news...

I just debuted as a columnist for The Myeloma Beacon, an online news source for the myeloma community. Inquiring about becoming a columnist was a huge step for me. As much as I love to write, I often second guess myself as to my skills and commitment.

My introductory column ran yesterday. After this, I will be found at the Beacon on the third Tuesday of each month. I was pleased when they assigned me that slot: the third Tuesday of the month is Legal Clinic, and it is an easy date to remember.

"New occasions teach new duties" is engraved upon the facade of our 5th/6th middle school (our former high school) downtown. This is certainly a new occasion. It is oddly familiar to be working with an editor again (the first time I have done so in almost nine years) and it is strange to be working on deadline again.

It feels great. It feels a little scary. It feels like I just jumped off the high dive.

The water is fine.

Monday, January 28, 2013

A Chicago Story

I spent Saturday in Chicago, holed up in the downtown library writing and reading. At lunch, I went across the street and had a bagel at the corner Dunkin' Donuts. I sat in the storefront at a window counter, eating and watching the constantly changing street scene.

There was a young man across the street who was clearly asking passersby for change. I watched him try to engage people as they walked by, spinning around and trying another when the first one did not respond. He was big, with an engaging smile. Everyone appeared to walk by without handing him any money, but the smile never left his face.

The young man walked across the street and entered Dunkin' Donuts. He was known there; one of the sales clerks called him by name and asked him if he would like a hot chocolate. He was polite and thanked them carefully for the warm drink. Then he began to ask the patrons of the store, scattered at little tables throughout, if they had any change.

Admission: I am acutely uncomfortable when people on the street ask me for money. I don't care about their age, their story, their cleanliness, or whether they are mentally ill, chronically unemployed, or disabled. I tense up, feeling trapped between acknowledging their humanity and avoiding the whole uncomfortable encounter.

I was tucked away in a corner of the doughnut shop. I hoped Mr. Panhandler would overlook me.

He didn't, of course. He came right up to me and asked, "Excuse me, but can you help me out with some money to eat?"

I could have said no and he'd have left me alone, gone on out the door. I could have called his bluff, if he had one to call, and said, "No, but I will buy you a meal right here." I certainly did not have to turn and look him in the face while he asked me. But I did, and he looked right back at me.

He was a kid, really. In recounting the story to Warren, I said, "I'd be stunned if he was as old as Sam." And when we looked at one another, straight on, I felt a seismic shift.

I don't know who was more surprised—the kid or me—when I responded, "Yes, I can." Shock and amazement registered on his face.


I nodded and reached for my bag. I'd just stuffed my change, four dollars, into it. Now I took the bills out and handed them to him, saying, "it's hard to be hungry. Go get something."

"It sure is," he said. "God bless you."

With that benediction, the young man moved on. I watched him go. At the door, he turned back and looked my way, then smiled and waved when he saw I was watching him. I gave him a thumbs up.

I watched the young man walk south on State Street after he left the shop. He did not ask people for money as he walked along. He looked like he was walking a little lighter and a little taller.

Maybe he was just another panhandler.  Maybe he was a drug user or an alcoholic. Maybe he walked away laughing his head off at the middle-aged white lady that he just conned out of four dollars.

And maybe he was just a kid with a somewhat empty stomach and less than adequate skills at filling it.

"There is nothing in the world more beautiful and more wonderful in all its evolved forms than two souls who look at each other straight on," wrote Gary Schmidt in his Newbery Honor novel, Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy.

It was only four dollars. It was all I had on me and Lord knows, I could have used it too. But not after looking him in the face and seeing the person. Not then.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

My Kind of Town

We were in Chicago briefly this weekend: a quick trip up Friday afternoon and then back home Saturday evening. Warren sits on the board of KV 265 and had an all-day board retreat to attend. I tagged along, making a beeline for the public library when the retreat started.

I had not looked forward to this trip. I am struggling with the treatment regimen for my myeloma, and all I could see was a large energy drain. As I confessed to Warren, admitting I was not eagerly anticipating a trip to Chicago was the closest thing I could think of to blasphemy. When have I ever not enjoyed, loved, and embraced Chicago?

We left behind a snow-blown Ohio and soon found ourselves on dry roads as we sliced across Indiana. Small glimpses along the road stick in my mind: the half dozen horses, Belgians by the looks of them, standing heads down, tails to the blowing snow; twenty or so deer pawing at a snow-laced field.

It has been years—decades—since I have come into Chicago at night, let alone in the winter. The Skyway loomed up in the dark, its fairy lights strung out in the dusk. We dropped down onto Stony Island, flashed past the Museum of Science and Industry, and were suddenly on Lake Shore Drive with the city opening up before us.

My heart lifted. How could it not? I spent two of my college years in this city, I made one of the most important friendships of my life here when Katrina and I were assigned to one another as roommates. That other self from that other time is also threaded through me.

It was Chicago and I was back.

We stayed in the downtown in the condo of another board member 34 floors above the city. I spent Friday evening drifting from one view through the wraparound windows to the next to watch the play of lights against the night. In the morning, I got out of bed early to watch the sun rise over an icy Lake Michigan.

I slipped away just as the retreat started and headed to the library. Down Randolph, through Millennium Park, past the Bean, down Michigan Avenue, and left on Jackson to the library.

Chicago is a wonderfully walkable city. It has great street fabric, it is full of superb architecture, and there are little details everywhere that catch the eye. Many of those details are architectural: a frieze two-thirds of the way up a facade, ornate terra cotta detailing topping a building.

Some of the details are human: the young teenage girl turning first one and then another pirouette in unselfconscious delight at the Bean, the young cellists rehearsing in the front room of the New Music School, oblivious to passersby on Michigan Avenue. There were skaters at Millennium Park, below the Bean; there were two Chicago police on bike patrol, despite the chill temperatures.

The El rumbled by in the Loop, adding to the sounds of the city.

I have a good friend, one with whom I have shared many design and architectural adventures over the years. He has often spoken with disdain for large cities. "Why would I want to go to one?" he will say, incredulous when he announces a vacation and I innocently ask, "oh, are you going to [name the city] when you're there?" My friend gives every indication that he would rather ingest shards of glass than visit a city. Other than a brief visit to Oak Park to see the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, I do not believe he has ever set foot in Chicago.

I don't try to persuade my friend or his wife (who will also raise her voice at least two octaves at the mention of a city) otherwise. But what one gives up by avoiding all cities, especially a city like Chicago! Yes, it is noisy and crowded. It can be expensive or dangerous if you are not paying attention. But it is rich in detail and exciting at every turn. Here is a medallion detail on rusticated stone, here are skaters in the heart of downtown, here is a girl turning pirouettes in the sunshine of a winter day.

Monday, January 21, 2013

This Other Time, This Other Self

Cindy and April, 1968
First Glimpse

My lifelong friend Cindy recently asked me if I had any photos of us together as children.

There aren't many that I know of and I made copies of the ones I had. When I gave them to her, I said, "I know there is one of us sharing a chair, but I can't find it."

And then in the manner of lost things, it turned up when I was looking for something else. "LOOK WHAT I FOUND!," my email read.

We are sitting in the kitchen of the house I grew up in, the top floor of a two-story house my maternal grandfather had built by himself in the early nineteen-teens. I say "house," but it was really a homemade apartment building: three units (one upstairs, one downstairs, and one split—we lived in the split unit) when I was a young child, two units (one upstairs, our" house, one downstairs, where my grandparents and aunt lived) when I was older. Because it was all family (even the third set of tenants had a family tie), we had the run of the whole house, which made it seem less like an apartment building. It was certainly an atypical style of housing for our small town, even with family on both floors.

It is clearly a birthday celebration of some sort, noting the stack of plates and forks on the table. It is probably my birthday, as I would have wanted a chocolate cake, not the vanilla cake someone (most likely my mom) is ready to slice.

In looking at my childhood, I can see now that my parents back then would have struggling up the socioeconomic ladder from working class poor to blue collar middle class. Home ownership was still a few years away for them, and when they did buy, it was a ramshackle fixer-upper that they worked on night and day for three months before we could move in. The apartment, indeed the whole house, lacked central heating; the only full bathroom was on the first floor. We had a toilet in a closet-sized room upstairs. Dad shaved at the kitchen sink; my mom and I were adept at washing our hair under the sink faucet. None of that struck me as strange then, and does not strike me as strange now looking back.

When I found the photo for Cindy, I looked at it long and hard. I want to enter and explore that kitchen again, a kitchen I last ate supper in in early 1970. I want to walk again in that long ago, long lost space, put my hand there, see it with the eyes of an adult far older now than my parents were then. I want to see how they cobbled together, with pennies and string and aspirations, the family life they gave us all.

Second Glimpse

My bookshelf, 2013 
My intense reading rampage continues. I have at any given time several titles in the queue at the library. Sometimes they are new books and I am on the wait list, sometimes they are arriving from other libraries.

The other day, returning two and knowing no queued books were waiting for me, I took a look at the New Nonfiction shelf. I grabbed one called Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America One Step At a Time. The book was a romp through the dynamics of downtown revitalization and urban planning. "Streetscape," "street fabric," "scale," "edge," and other planning terms were served up in a breezy, sometimes snarky tone. It was a lingo and a world (and an attitude) I used to know well and this book dropped me back into that world temporarily.

A decade ago I was in the thick of those ideas and discussions here in Delaware. I lived in a rehabbed downtown apartment, I sat on our city's Historic Preservation Commission (Delaware has a historic overlay downtown), I spent a lot of time reading, talking, and writing about downtown development. My bookshelves are still laden with works on planning, urban design, and architecture. There is Jane Jacobs, there is Witold Rybczynski, there is the ferociously irreverent James Howard Kuntsler. I have A Field Guide to Sprawl and A Visual Dictionary of Architecture.

There was a night, after a design hearing of some sort, when lots of downtown-oriented friends gathered in my apartment for an impromptu debriefing and celebration. While I did not share a chair with anyone that night, there was that same giddiness. I remember having my feet on the rungs of someone else's chair, the heightened discussion, a lot of laughter, and the rush of knowing all of us in the room shared a common goal.

I left that world behind starting in 2004. First the local newspaper sold and I stopped writing my architectural column. Then the myeloma appeared and my life narrowed into a tunnel of treatment When I reemerged, time had moved on and so had I. Marriage to Warren moved me even further into the Symphony world and Percussion Universe. I can still talk "urban development," but I am no longer fluent and my knowledge is no longer current.

I am no more the 40-something who celebrated that hearing victory than I am the twelve-year old who celebrated that birthday alongside her best friend. Yet flecks of them both are threaded through the person I am today, glimmering on the surface when something stirs those other times, those other selves.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Lake

E. B. White wrote an evocative, haunting essay, "Once More To the Lake," about taking his young son to the same lake White had vacationed at with his family as a child. It is a moving commentary on time, generations, and mortality.

This past September, Warren and I made a trek to a lake, although, unlike White, this was not one I had frolicked in as a child. In fact, it was a lake I had never seen before. On my very short list of things I want to accomplish in my lifetime is standing, wading, or swimming in all five Great Lakes. I'd knocked off Erie, Ontario, and Michigan decades ago, but never managed to get to Huron or Superior. Early September found us on our way north, to the Upper Peninsula, to finish the cycle.

It was a great trip, no surprise there. It was full of good food (most of it local), great sights (a giant Paul Bunyan!), and lots of time for me and Warren to be away from our daily lives and focus just on one another. By weekend's end, I'd stood in both lakes and fulfilled a long-held goal.

What I did not count on was being so totally captivated and mesmerized by Lake Superior. Almost five months later, I can close my eyes and still feel its pull.

Lake Superior is the largest and deepest and fiercest of the Great Lakes. It has a deep booming voice that one hears long before catching a glimpse of it. Depending on the shoreline, the waves are gentle lappers, firm, steady rollers, or powerful whitecaps all on the same sunny day and sometimes within less than a quarter mile of each other. I can only imagine what it must look and sound like at the height of a winter storm.

When we drove to Lake Superior, Ramona was only a week old and my thoughts were often on her out in Oregon. All of the land surrounding Lake Superior was once Anishinaabe land; the Anishinaabe these days are the Ojibwe or Chippewa tribes. The tribal presence is greatly reduced in this modern era, but I could not walk the sandy paths to the lake without feeling a strong, spiritual presence permeating the air. I found myself thinking of an older Ramona, a little girl, and wanting to bring her to Lake Superior and show her this, this magnificent expanse of sky and water that her people once came from.

Along with the whitefish and the local doughnuts, I tasted briefly a strong dose of regret that I had never been to Lake Superior with my own sons when they were boys. Don't misunderstand me: they had some great vacations when they were little, including days spent at Lake Erie. But something about the Upper Peninsula, about Lake Superior, about the weekend, made me wish for just one swift moment of being a young mother again and showing my two young sons the vast lake and exploring its rock strewn beaches.

We carried some rocks home from Lake Superior. Warren picked up his rocks in memory of his mother, Ellen, who had an affinity for picking up rocks on her travels. I searched for a small rock for Ramona, and then picked up a few small ones—more pebbles than anything—for myself. Ramona's rock recently went off to Portland; mine sit on my desk.

Lake Superior rocks are smooth and round from the constant churning of the waves. I sometimes rub one of them between my fingers, feeling the velvety contours, then closing my eyes and listening once more to the lake.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Flood Tide

Bone tired.

Now there's a phrase for someone with myeloma. Shouldn't it bone marrow tired? (I'm sorry. Myeloma-specific jokes are so few and far between in the cancer world.) 

Now through two cycles of chemo, I am starting (with little baby steps) to get the feel of my new digs in Cancerland. I liken it to being moved from the quiet country cottage out in the country to a dingy downtown apartment right over the main drag, with cars and trucks rumbling by at all hours of the day and night and an annoying neon sign flashing in the cigar store across the street.

Although I am adjusting, I haven't yet deciphered the new pattern of my energy levels. I am still overdoing it more often than not, running on vapors long after the gas tank has emptied. More often then not, I am bone tired. So in an effort to self-correct and restore some balance (and not fall flat on my face), I have been spending every evening and huge chunks of my weekends reading. 

Lots and lots and lots and lots of reading.

I mean lots.

A partial list from mid-December to now: The Round House, Flight Behavior, The Last Book Club of Your Life, Feasting the Heart, Sylvia & Ted, Dearly Beloved (one of only two novels Anne Morrow Lindbergh ever wrote, for good reason), Appointment in Samarra (John O'Hara's debut novel), Drop Dead Healthy, American Band, Buster Keaton: Cut to the Chase, the Shaara Civil War trilogy (Gods and Generals, The Killer Angels, To the Last Full Measure), The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, All Gone, Cottage for Sale, Must Be Moved, A Christmas Carol, Surviving the Island of Grace, Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm (the new Phillip Pullman edition), Against Wind and Tide (Anne Morrow Lindbergh's letters and diaries, where she truly shines), Made For You and Me. I also tried, not for the first time, to read L. Frank Baum's Mother Goose in Prose, and sanchezed it yet again. Baum would hit his stride and change children's literature with The Wonderful Wizard of Oz three years later, but try though I might, I do not see even hints of that promise shining through the Mother Goose.

My dear husband Warren tends to work long days and late evenings, if not on Symphony matters, then on his own projects, including practicing. Compared to him, I feel like a slug, albeit a very well-read one. He helps me keep things in perspective by reminding me he's not the one in chemo, he's not the one who has to rest. From time to time, he checks on me, usually finding me ensconced on the couch under a blanket, the latest read in my hands.

Thoreau wrote, "Time is but a stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains. I would drink deeper; fish in the sky whose bottom is pebbly with stars." Will Schwalbe, who wrote The End of Your Life Book Club, wrote, "Reading isn't the opposite of doing; it's the opposite of dying. I will never be able to read my mother's favorite books without thinking of her."

I think those two statements are intertwined. Being immersed in reading feels as if I am lying down on the edge of a fast-flowing stream, the words rushing by. From time to time, I thrust my hands deep into that stream and pull out a quote or two. But I am just as pleased to feel the rush of the language run through my palms as I look at the stream bottom, pebbly with stars.