Saturday, January 30, 2016

Inch One Hundred Two: Last Night's Meal

Last night's meal was salad, a small loaf of bread I'd bought on the markdown rack at the grocery and stored in the freezer, and homemade Great Northern beans and ham soup—the ham from the bone which had graced my brother Mark's Christmas spread and then made its way to our soup pot.

Estimated total cost? Maybe $2.50. Possibly less, but maybe not. There were, after all, five olives (on my salad only) from the olive bar at the grocery, and that's an indulgence.

The point is, it was cheap. Wonderfully filling and delicious, but cheap.

I am headed back to Rochester, Minnesota in under two weeks. I'll have a day of testing at the Mayo Clinic, then labs and my oncology appointment the next day. I am reacting to this upcoming visit the way I normally react to my Mayo visits: by hunkering down financially. For me, that means scaling back on our already intentionally lean grocery spending. In a typical month, we spend around $200 on groceries and household items; this month we are closer to $100. It also means reading or rereading books about frugality (think The Tightwad Gazette) or memoirs about hard economic times. My book this weekend is Made For You and Me, Caitlin Shetterly's account of her husband and her losing their financial way in the Great Recession of 2008.

And if I am feeling really anxious, I'll pull The Long Winter off the shelf and read the chapter where Laura braces herself and asks Ma if they are going to starve.

I'm not exactly sure why going to Mayo makes me feel the wolf is at our door, trying to thrust his great shaggy head into our home. I have excellent medical insurance which covers Mayo. We can afford the gas to get there and back and the lodging and meals while there. Our car is reliable. My bank account, while not plump, is stable. Compared to many of the people I come into contact with through my job and the Legal Clinic, I am financially secure.

So why the wolf? Why the stress?

I think the wolf appears because I don't want to think of who more appropriately is hanging around the front door. That would be Death, who I have come to personalize in my poetry. Death has a persona when I write about him, somewhat of a callous trickster, a Coyote without the grin. Unlike the wolf at the door, which I can shoo away by throwing rocks at, Death is inviting himself in for tea.

So, I am off to Mayo and feeling frugal. But don't worry: we're eating well. And yesterday afternoon, I tried out a new lemon bar recipe with a thick, rich curd calling for not only butter but also olive oil. We had the aforementioned delicious meal, an evening of plumbing work (Warren) and writing letters (me), and then sat down with the inaugural slices of the dessert.

We savored every sweet, tangy bite. And the wolf slunk off, gnashing his teeth.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Inch One Hundred One: Purging

Warren has been redoing the storage setup in the basement, dismantling the old, rusted metal shelving units and installing new coated wire shelves instead. As part of the overhaul, he has pulled off every item that was on the shelves and set them out on the basement floor. The two of us have been going through the piles, deciding what stays and what goes.

There are a lot of "goes."

It is always amazing to me what we—the universal "we"—hold onto for that elusive "someday." The basement overhaul has been a classic example of the human inclination to stash away stuff. Just stuff. I'm as guilty of it as anyone.

One of the big ticket items (in terms of bulk, not price) on the shelf was the old canner, a behemoth that my mother bought at a yard sale probably in the 1970s and that I took over several years ago. The thing is heavy and massive. Along with it was a plastic tub full of canning miscellany: two sets of tongs, a canning funnel, assorted rings and lids. 

And about six dozen canning jars, most of which were the pint jar size.

"What about this?" 

I looked at Warren. I looked at the canner. I looked at all those jars.


Warren was concerned. Was I sure? Was I just getting rid of it because I knew he wanted to cut down on the items that would go back on the shelves? Should we hold onto it a little longer?

No. My decision was firm and final. 

The canner has served my family long and faithfully. My mother's canning days are long over. The truth is that mine are too. Canning takes an enormous amount of physical energy. I have enjoyed it in the past, but at this stage of my life it is life energy I do not have in quantity and what I do have I would rather spend in other pursuits than canning.

I said out loud, "I'm never canning again."

Warren did not protest, did not offer reasons why I might can again. He just nodded and said "well, we freeze a lot of the garden stuff."

So the canner and the tongs and the funnel went into the Goodwill pile. (The canning jars are headed to coworkers at Court for special projects.) They were joined by other items—some odd baking pans, a tortilla press, an old plastic model that never got made, an old yogurt maker. Some of this and some of that. And then box by box, sack by sack, we carried the items upstairs and out to my car so I could make a Goodwill run. 

I had sorted through and purged the Christmas boxes, primarily the ornaments, a few days earlier. Some of those I set aside to send to Portland later in the year, closer to the holiday. The rest joined the exodus to Goodwill.

Earlier in the fall, I had pushed my sons to give me some clue as to what paintings by their grandfather they would like to have. Ben took it to mean I was focusing on dying and said he would rather enjoy the time with me and focus on making memories. So when I pulled the Christmas ornaments, I cautioned him and his brother Sam that this was not an indication of my eventual demise, but rather an indication that I have too much stuff.  I warned them that one day they too would be 60 (which I will be shortly) and realize that they had too much stuff. 

On Monday of this week I drove to Goodwill and pulled up at the donation station. "Everything in the back seat of my car," I said to the worker, and helped him unload it all.  

I still have too much stuff. But let me tell you, I felt 100 pounds lighter when the last item came out of my car. The Goodwill employee started to thank me for my donation. 

I waved him off. "No, no," I cried. "Thank you!" And I drove off, leaving behind all the sacks and the boxes.

And one very heavy, very old, and very used canner.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Inch One Hundred: The Ring

I thought I'd lost my wedding ring for good earlier this week. I pulled off my gloves in the produce department of the grocery and realized my ring finger was bare.

I quickly checked the glove, praying it had slid off in the glove finger. Empty. I had not felt it fall off, but I looked about around the onion display.  I checked the pockets of my jeans, hoping for a miracle.


My heart sank. I had been in another grocery story just prior to this one, gloveless in that store. Had my ring come off when I picking out an avocado? Had it slipped into the sack when I was bagging my groceries? Or, horrors, had it somehow fallen off when I was was walking across the frozen, iced parking lot?

I was heartsick. And because I had come from chemo and needed to get home, I told myself to go home, unpack the groceries, then call the store to see if anyone had turned in my ring.

As I drove home, this loop kept playing in my head: you knew your ring was loose, you should get a ring guard, maybe it's in with the groceries, you knew your ring was loose...

Once home, I carried in the groceries in stages, the last stage being getting my briefcase and shoe bag out of the passenger side footwell. And there, underneath my briefcase and on top of the windshield cover, was my ring.

Just waiting for me. All but asking "What took you so long?"

This is the second time recently my ring has left me. The first time was earlier this summer, when it slipped off my finger into the grass as I hung laundry on the line. That time it was gone for some 45 minutes and only a slow retracing of my day brought it back to me.

And even before that, there was the time my ring took a running dive into the lint trap of the dryer and Warren had to rescue it.

It's tricksy, this ring.

Perhaps because I just finished rereading The Lord of the Rings, I am imbuing my ring with the power to make its own choices. The Ring (THE Ring) in the book had a mind of its own and chose when and how to leave its current ring bearer and pick a new one. Perhaps my ring got the idea from Tolkein.

The real reason for my ring's disappearing act is loss of muscle mass in my hands, courtesy of cancer. My body continues to change as the disease progresses. As Atul Gawande so brilliantly summed it up, even when I am doing relatively well, the night brigade is always out on the perimeter taking down the defenses.

Warren and I have not talked about what I want done with my wedding ring when I die. I don't know myself. Our rings were custom made and have elements meaningful to us and our story. Do I pass my ring on to my granddaughter? Do I leave it to Warren? Do I have it buried with my ashes? Or ask my sons to fling in into the Pacific Ocean so the sea can take it?

I don't know. I don't have to know right now. For now, the ring is back where it belongs, on my finger. I am hoping it chooses to stay there for awhile. Maybe it has had enough adventure and will behave. Or maybe it is already planning its next escape.

It's tricksy, this ring.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Inch Ninety-Nine: New Year

I have not yet grown used to the idea that it is a new year. Oh, I am getting the date right on checks and letters, but another year? Already?

The first nine days of January have been a hodgepodge. Some days off, some truancy mediations (already), some sunny cold days, some warmer but rainy days. We continue to have no snow. This morning, Warren and I took a walk in weather more like mid-April than early January. Portland got some snow and ice at the beginning of the week; the video of Ramona playing in it showed more snow clinging to her mitten than we have had all season.

Our tree—the one that dropped needles before it was even in its stand—is still with us. The press of time on Warren and my personal lack of energy have guaranteed that the holidays will linger yet a bit longer in this house.

To say I have been reading a lot these last several days would be an understatement. I just finished rereading The Lord of the Rings, not for the first time. Before that, I inhaled Roger Angell's This Old Man, a collection of his short pieces, most of which appeared in The New Yorker, a magazine which he and his mother and stepfather before him have been associated with almost since its inception. Angell's stepfather was E.B. White and by some magical, non-biological process, he inherited a goodly portion of White's writing skill. Angell's mother, Katherine S. White, was a formidable editor and no slouch at writing herself, but she was not E.B. White. She may have taught her son a sense of structure, but the effortless sentences that Angell turns out could have come straight from White's pen. As my good friend Margo noted, reading Angell is so easy, "like floating."

During my chemo sessions, which are twice a week, I am reading for the first time War and Peace. It's a lengthy tome, but there are lots of chemo sessions in the future. While sitting in the waiting room waiting for chemo, I read an essay in a cancer magazine on the nearest table. The essayist talked about her changed priorities since receiving her diagnosis. She no longer spent time on things that did not interest her, such as "boring" books that "were supposed to be good" for her. On the strength of that conviction, she chucked War and Peace.

War and Peace boring? Boring? Lengthy, yes. Freighted with complicated names and lineages and story lines, absolutely. But boring? Never. I put down the essay in disgust.

For my home reading, I am rereading Blue Highways by William Least Heat Moon. In the dark of winter, in the start of the new year, it is good to read and dream of road trips down the blue highways of our own choosing.