Friday, October 5, 2012

Queen for a Day My beautiful cousin Nancy and I were talking the other day, having a nice canter down memory lane as we so often do, and we remembered the 1950s television show, “Queen for a Day.” We both watched this tear-jerker show, which some have called a forerunner to today’s reality shows. The idea was that a few women would be interviewed by host Jack Bailey, and the one who told the story that got the loudest applause as measured on the “Applause-o-meter” was crowned Queen for a day, crowned with a glittering tiara, wrapped in a sable-trimmed velvet robe, seated on a grand throne and given a dozen long-stemmed roses, as well as given many prizes, starting with whatever she had specifically requested – such as a new wheelchair for her disabled child. Yes, the stories were sob stories, and the winner was the one who made the studio audience of women cry the most and applaud the hardest. The other contestants were also given prizes for being on the show, so none of them went away empty-handed, which makes me feel better about the show all these years later. I suppose many people would now and did then consider the show maudlin and manipulative in the extreme, which it was, exploiting the grief and misery of women in order to sell advertising. But that is a grown up retrospective on my part. As children, Nancy and I both watched the show in wide-eyed wonder. Nancy watched it with her mom, Chick, who was my father’s baby sister. Chick had multiple sclerosis and by the time we were small children it had progressed to the point that she was in a wheelchair full time. Nancy had only part of a normal childhood. She had to be home after school and in the summer to take care of her mom and help her make dinner. Chick died when Nancy and I were 16. Multiple sclerosis, or MS, is a sneaky disease, and it goes at different rates for different people. Some people live with it for decades without much discernible effect. Some, like Chick, are quickly disabled and die within 15 or 20 years after diagnosis, when the nervous system finally fails to function enough to support life. What is it? Now we say it is an autoimmune disease, where the body’s immune system attacks the nervous system, and damages the myelin sheath which covers nerves, causing nerve impulses to slow down or stop. I have heard it compared to the fraying of the covering of an electrical cord, a metaphor that was more accessible back when electrical cords were covered with woven fabric. No one knows what causes it, although there are a lot of theories. There is no cure, although I’ve been hearing people talking about searching for a cure since I was a small child looking at my aunt in a wheelchair. People are doing research, looking for a cure, constantly. Nancy told me that she and her mother would sometimes play Queen for a Day. “It was probably on summer days. We’d do our work in the morning, and then we’d play.” Nancy would make a tiara out of cardboard and cover it with aluminum foil, and use a wooden kitchen spoon for her microphone. “Mom would roll up close to me in her wheelchair, and I’d ask her questions, and she’d make up stories. It was different every time. She’d maybe say, ‘We can’t afford to buy food for the kids,’ and say she had ten kids. She’d pour on the sob story. Then we’d do a drum roll and announce that Mom was Queen for a Day.” Nancy would crown her with the foil crown, wrap a blanket around her mom as her royal robe, and hand her the wooden spoon as a scepter instead of the dozen roses. Nancy would hand Chick a piece of paper upon which Nancy had written the prizes being awarded. “Then when we were done, we’d say, okay, let’s play cards now, or maybe it would be time to make dinner. “The last couple of years of Mom’s life, when she was bedridden, we reversed the roles. She’d be in bed and I’d roll in in the wheelchair. In those days I’d come lie on the bed next to her, and we’d talk, and nap together. Those were great bonding times.” So this week we’ve been telling each other, “You are Queen for a Day!” and we laugh. We live our own hard stories, as all the rest of you do, and we tell those stories to each other, and we applaud each other’s courage in the face of life’s random insults. We agree to meet for lunch, to go to Ivar’s for chowder, or to Gale’s in Capitola for Marion berry pie. And we laugh some more. Ah, it’s good to be the queen.
Chick, Nancy's mom, with Sam and Charlie the cats ca. 1960
Anger and Ultimatums One of my favorite ways of blowing off steam or working off a case of mad is to pull weeds. Several times a week I go out in the yard, put on my gloves, grab a trowel and a pair of pruning shears, and go to town on the buttercups, Stinking Robert, blackberries, and dandelions. Pulling weeds make me feel better, and it makes the garden look better. Doing chores in the house can have the same effect. News of someone’s death, for example, has sent me into the bathroom to clean the tub and tub surround to within an inch of its life. The activity vents the energy released by the shock, and it is not an activity that requires a completely present and with-it brain, and I end up with a clean bath tub. Unfortunately, physical activity can have an opposite effect. Instead of letting the steam escape, it can remind me of old, unvented steam. I can be putting the bed back together, neatly arranging the piles of blankets, sheets, and pillows that are our bedding, and will start thinking of something that bugs me. Today it was exercise, or more accurately, people who push exercise. People sometimes have encouraged me to exercise. They mean well. I do not have any argument with people who are active. I admire and respect them, and wish I was more like them, truly. But. When somebody tells me I should get out and walk in order to lose weight and take some pressure off my bad knee, all I can think is, if you haven’t walked a mile on a knee with no cartilage left, and lived through the pain for several days afterward, you don’t know what you’re talking about, so shut up. See, this is the problem with doing some physical chore. Rather than calming emotions, activity can rev them up, and you might end up saying or doing something rash. When I turned 18 I came home from college to visit my parents, and my beautiful cousin Nancy was there to visit. One night during that fateful weekend Nancy and I took my father’s pickup for a drive. We went out to a movie. My parents were not at home. It was the first and only time I took a car without permission, but I figured it would be okay. It would have been all right, too, if that Jeep Gladiator (I want to give credit where credit is due) hadn’t opened up a hole in its engine and dropped all its oil on Highway 1 somewhere between Soquel and the Freedom Boulevard turnoff. That might not have been a total disaster if I’d known enough to turn the engine off as soon as the oil light came on, but I was young and ignorant and instead thought, oh, I’d better get home right away. The engine kept going almost a mile before it ground to an oil-free halt, with all its now hot and oil-free parts wedged tightly together. Yep. I learned a lot about the working of the internal combustion engine that night. A couple of weeks later when I was back at college and expecting to stay there for summer school, my father was working around the ranch. He got to thinking about how I’d ruined his truck – he was a farmer and I had ruined his truck! A few days later I got a call at college from my mother saying I was coming home and getting a job and learning the value of money. She told me my dad had been out working one day and got mad as hell – and who could blame him? See, he’d been doing some physical job and it served to focus and stoke his anger at me, and it came out as an ultimatum to me. I came home from college all right. My parents came and picked me up, and on the three-hour drive home we got into an argument – I think it was over whether students should get letter grades or pass-fail ratings, not that the subject matters. We were a little north of San Ardo on 101 when the fireworks started, and our relationship was all downhill after that. Within a couple of weeks I had moved into a one-bedroom apartment in Alameda with my beautiful cousin Nancy. I got a job in San Francisco, met some kids who went to dances at places called the Avalon Ballroom and the Fillmore, started dressing in striped pants and smoking dope, and before you know it I was renting a room made out of a stairwell in an apartment building on the Panhandle, doing temp work in the financial district for money, going to those dances, and hanging out with the other hippies on Haight Street, and laughing at people’s ignorance when they called us beatniks. All because the truck broke and I didn’t know what to do, and my father lost his temper and handed me an ultimatum. Changed my whole life, and I couldn’t tell you even now if it was for better or worse. So watch out for those temper tantrums. Think real hard before you deliver an ultimatum. You never know what you’re unleashing, although it is nice if it turns out that you end up with a clean bathtub. That’s something. Note: That night my father came and towed the truck home, and he didn’t say a word, but when we got back to the house my mother greeted us and escorted us down to the hall to my room where she quietly let loose with the laughter she’d been holding in. It turns out that once back in the 30s my dad was changing the oil on the truck he had then, and he left the truck sitting with the oil drain plug out and went to do something else. Nancy's mother, Chick, needed to give a visiting boyfriend a ride home, and decided to drive him in my dad’s truck. So they hopped in and drove off, and within a very short time the engine ground to a halt. So I did to my father’s truck the same thing Nancy’s mother had done about twenty years before. My mother thought that was rich. It’s nice to remember now that my mom had some appreciation of life’s little ironies
Sweet Autumn This morning I sat on the kitchen porch and stared at the trees. It was a perfect day - cloudless, sun shining, a slight breeze. A small airplane grumbled by overhead, followed by a jet lumbering in to land at SeaTac or Boeing Field. The song birds were chirping incessantly over in the blackberries, and a couple of blue jays were wrack-wracking at each other up the hill in what I think of as TK’s bird sanctuary. TK is our neighbor. He and his wife Marcy have turned the lot uphill from us into a spiritual garden that teems with birds, and hopeful cats. Occasionally a little yellow alder leaf broke loose from the trees and came tumbling and twirling down into the yard. Why does autumn feel like such a sweet season? It is, after all, the time when nature begins to put life to bed, resting so that it can break forth in glorious springtime profusion six months from now. This respite from growth comes just in time. I notice the morning glory has crawled up the fence and leapt up to grab hold of the lowest hanging fuchsia tendril. Dang. There’s a connection I’d better break before they get too entwined. So what is it about autumn? The sun is shining more from the south every day, in a golden slanting light that makes the color of everything more intense. The work that calls to me from the yard is slowing down, a little. I’m already deep in plans for how I’m going to re-arrange and expand the flower beds over the winter. I am contemplating the next steps in the ethnic cleansing of my yard, a cleansing which has as its object the removal of buttercups, stinking Robert, morning glory, and blackberries. I know I won’t obliterate them, but I can thin them out and push them back enough that they don’t smother the plants I do want to thrive. This program of weed control would be easier to implement if I didn’t enjoy the lacy leaves and pink blossoms of Stinking Robert, the cheerful yellow buttercup blossoms, the pale beauty of the morning glory flowers, and of course, blackberry pie. Soft-heartedness is a besetting sin for a gardener. With plants you have to set and keep firm boundaries, literally. Weeds are like house guests who move in and never leave, eating your food, dirtying the dishes and never washing up, grabbing the newspaper before you’ve had a chance to read it in the morning and leaving the sections scattered around the house inside-out and folded all which-ways. That’s a weed of a houseguest, and that is the presumptuous behavior of a weed in the garden. They suck up the hospitality you’ve provided for the plants you invited. I wonder if this winter will be warm enough that some of the annuals winter over, or if we’ll get an Arctic Blast that freezes the ground and turns the less hardy plants into something that looks like boiled spinach. The up side of such a freeze is that it knocks back the slug population. Yay. The apple tree is covered with fruit this year. I wonder if it heard me thinking I might cut it down and is striving to look busy. Soon Rick and I will have the enjoyment of watching squirrels running up the tree and picking apples, taking a few crunchy bites, and then chomping into the apple and carrying it down the trunk and staggering across the yard, carrying it to where ever they stash their apples in the woods. These are not large apples, and they don’t taste good to me, so I don’t begrudge the squirrels their fruit, and it is so much fun to watch them. I really have been thinking of taking that tree down because the fruit is not tasty, but, as Rick says, then we couldn’t watch the squirrels. It still feels like summer in some ways, but I can’t kid myself. Time to start making plans for Thanksgiving and Christmas. You get into your 60s and it seems like you hardly have time to inhale in between winter holidays, the time is ripping by so quickly. For now it is enough to stay in the moment, in the gentle sunny autumn days, listening to the birds chirping and carping at each other – don’t those birds ever shut up? – and thinking how much I like autumn, and I don’t know why. There’s something sweet about autumn.