Sunday, September 15, 2013

Little Boxes: a Brief Visit to Mid-20th Century America

The Grateful Dead in Daly City, May 1, 1967. © 1967 Bob Seidemann. Used by permission. “Little boxes on the hillside, little boxes made of ticky tacky Little boxes on the hillside and they all look just the same…” © 1962 Schroder Music, words and music by Malvina Reynolds One day in 1962 Malvina Reynolds and her husband, Bud, were driving from Berkeley, where they lived, down to the Santa Cruz Mountains, where she was to perform at a Quaker retreat. Their route took them by Daly City, where new housing tracts were being built. Malvina saw those houses and told Bud that he needed to drive because she had to write a song, and she did – “Little Boxes.” Pete Seeger soon recorded “Little Boxes,” and, miraculously, it became a radio hit in 1963. Miraculously because Pete Seeger had been blacklisted during the McCarthy era. A couple of weeks ago I ran into a young man who said, “I don’t like that song. I don’t think it’s right to judge someone for the house they live in. Maybe that’s the only house they can afford.” I applaud this young man’s sensibilities, standing up for the common man and abhorring unjust judgments. However, his judgment of the song is based on a misunderstanding. Context is everything, and he is unaware of the context of the song, probably because it was written before he was born. To begin with, Malvina Reynolds was raised a socialist, and she stayed a socialist until the day she died. She was part of the Old Left, as it was known in the 1960s. After the intense focus of World War II we needed a new evil to fear, and the designated villain was Communism. Our former ally, Joseph Stalin, the dictator in the USSR, was now our enemy, but also we were told to fear the Enemy Within, Communists in our society. During the Depression many people who were crushed by the hard times were introduced to Communism, and Communism sounded pretty good. “From each according to his ability; to each according to his need.” That sounds pretty sweet when you’re homeless, hungry, and unemployed, or when you’re an idealistic person of any class or age. It might even sound like The Answer. A lot of people became socialists or Communists, or sympathized with them. After the war, when Joe McCarthy fired up his Commie hunting apparatus and made Commie hunting a blood sport, many lives and careers were ruined by everything from social ostracism and job loss to imprisonment and exile for those pre-war associations and activities. Immediately after the war, the women who had done men’s jobs during the war were told to quit their jobs, get married, and raise a family. A woman’s highest calling was marriage, family, and putting her husband first in all things. There was a rebound effect to those beliefs later, but that’s another essay. One effect of the mass re-domestication of women was the Baby Boom, the huge number of children born between 1946 and 1964. With the Baby Boom came a Housing Boom, and tract housing flourished. To an America that cherished individualism, those rows of identical houses were appalling, the outward and visible sign of middle class conformity. We wanted to be recognized as our precious unique selves, but in the early 1960s social critics decried the rot of conformity: computers, automation, and our cookie cutter houses were turning us into clones and drones. Still, the houses were snapped up by people who were building their own American Dream: a house, a family, a lawn, a garage, an indoor bathroom, a golden Cocker Spaniel, a college education for the kids, the belief that every generation was meant to do better than the generation before. “And the people in the boxes all went to the university Where they were put in boxes and they came out all the same…” From the socialist point of view, the universities were, like everything else, controlled by the big money people – you know, the evil rich. Professors were employees and puppets of the fat cats, turning out workers and cannon fodder to keep the rich getting richer, the poor getting poorer, and the middle class well under control. Over in my (Republican) end of society, by the way, my parents saw those same professors as Communist shills duping naïve students into becoming evil Commies. That was fifty years ago. What do you think? Did conformity win? Are we clones, and drones? Or did we all become (gasp) Commies? Or is the truth something else? If you google “Little Boxes” you’ll find an awful lot of socio-political commentary in which the song figures. It seems a great burden to place on a little song. I suspect that in Malvina’s mind, it was meant to be “funny, with a needle in it.” That’s how she described another of her songs, “We Don’t Need the Men,” which she felt was taken ‘way too seriously. Malvina once said to me, “You can’t say anything so clearly that someone won’t misunderstand it.” From this end of life I have to say she was right.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Bethel Saloon

My friend Sonya is visiting this week and my friend Becky called up one day and said, “Let’s go have lunch at the Bethel Saloon!” The Bethel Saloon is a biker bar on Bethel Road in Port Orchard. It’s a funky old building, almost like something out of an Old West movie. It’s an interesting leftover from a time before Walmarts and other manifestations of suburban blight. My friends and I have been driving by this place for years and saying, “Cool building.” It has a skeleton riding a motorcycle on the roof over the entrance. First thing you notice as you walk in is that the parking places in front are all for motorcycles. It was Wednesday and there was a sign saying, “Taco Wednesday! Two for $3.00! Come in on a Harley or a rod and get two free!” We went in and found ourselves in a classic old school American bar. The bar itself was on the left, and to the right were two rooms with one pool table each. We went to the bar and ordered lunch from the nice lady who worked there. Sonya and I had the two tacos, and Becky had the pulled pork sandwich. The food was good, and sitting on the tall stools at the bar we looked around at the décor and watched the people playing pool. The place reminded me of bars from the fifties and sixties with the dark wood interior, the neon beer signs, and the old school (i.e., politically incorrect) male humor. There were pictures featuring underdressed women and customized motorcycles, Seahawks memorabilia, and a few bumper stickers. My favorite bumper sticker was, “I swear to drunk I am not God.” I liked it for the humor as well as the theology. We got to talking with the lady barkeep after she made our lunches. When she found out we were from Vashon she asked if the story about the bicycle in the tree – that some World War I soldier had stuck it there before he went off to war – was true. I was pleased to be able to tell her, no, it most certainly is not true, and then told her the story of the Puz family’s misfortune and how it led to Don Puz’s bicycle being stuck in the tree, only to be discovered years later. We had a pleasant time and finished our lunch, and Sonya went off to use the restroom. When she came back I said I’d like to do that, too, and she pointed across the room and said, “Straight across that way. It’s the door on the left, if you have any trouble figuring it out.” I started to walk across the room and saw the two rest room doors. Over the door on the right, in black letters eight to ten inches tall on a white background, was a sign that said, “Dicks.” Over the door on the left was a similar sign that said, “No dicks.” So I didn’t have any trouble figuring it out. All you young’ns don’t realize that this sort of humor was once commonplace in America. You don’t see it so much anymore. Some people would be offended. If you are one of those people, I recommend you not go to the Bethel Saloon. But if you’re not one of those people, the Bethel Saloon is a great place to have lunch and a beer. The place has soul, a sense of humor, and pretty good food. We settled our tab and went outside, stopping an arriving biker named Pete and asking him to take our picture with my phone, which he did. Thanks, Pete. As we waited at Southworth to catch the 5:05 ferry, we saw many motorcyclists coming off the ferry and figured some of them were heading for the Bethel Saloon, maybe to get their two free tacos.
Now I have written a favorable review of a bar in Port Orchard. Any of you restaurants on Vashon who want a review, put up a sign saying, “Free lunch if you arrive in a Honda Civic.” I’ll be right over.

Thoughts of an Old Convert

Almost thirty years ago I experienced my adult conversion to Christianity. I grew up in the Baptist Church and always felt I was a Christian at heart, but in my late 30s I felt the call to be a Christian inside and out. Telling my women’s support group that I was giving my life to God was one of the scariest things I’ve ever done in my life. I was afraid, you see, that I’d become that person standing on a street corner forcing Bible tracts on passersby, stopping strangers to ask, “Do you know Jesus?” I was afraid that by giving my life to God I might end up being one of them. It was a relief to realize sometime later that God called me to be myself, and I did not have to hand out tracts. My renewed faith was at home in the Episcopal Church. I especially loved the Book of Common Prayer. I suppose it makes sense that a writer would join a church because its prayer book was well written. For years I began my day by reading the morning daily devotions in the Book of Common Prayer, and praying. It centered me at the start of my hectic day. I’ve returned to that practice recently. I did not evangelize my kids with a lot of specific teaching. I had this idea that who I was in my interactions with them (or anyone) was my evangelizing. If the way I lived was bogus, I figured nothing I said would make much difference. I didn’t realize that hypocrisy is part of being a parent. You can’t help it. Live and learn. I did tell the boys some things. I told them that the word “God” was a tiny little box which we used as a symbol when we were talking about something that was much too big and complex for a human to comprehend. I told them that every human being has a spirit, and that it is as much a part of you and integral to your being as your beating heart. You may not have a religion, but you definitely have a spirit. I told them that God is reality. God is the point where truth, light, life, death, mystery, enlightenment, etc.(!) all come together. I was thinking about those things this morning as I was sitting out on the ravine porch with my Book of Common Prayer, listening to the creek and praying for the people on my prayer list. It’s a long list. You might be on it. I was thinking how those things I thought and said years ago have proven to be true, and the longer you live in faith, the deeper you go into the layers of reality. Faith allows you to live in some kind of peace in this crazy, broken, world. God doesn’t fix everything for us, but does weep with us, hold us through all trials, and rejoice with us. Going beyond that, there are things in heaven and earth that we do not understand, and for which there is no empirical evidence. I cannot give you a rational explanation that would make miracles and visions comfortable for you. I’m not telling you to become an Episcopalian, or any other brand of religion. I am telling you that if you hear your call to be yourself, and you answer that call, that life will be hard, but if you don’t answer that call, life will be harder, and you’ll have missed the mark. I’m glad I answered that call years ago. Have I become me? In my halting, sporadic, human fashion, I’ve done the best I could. I believe that faith has served to make me better than I would have been otherwise, and looking back at all the times I screwed up, I know that I was usually following one of my own bright ideas and things got better when I let God steer me. It’s God for me, but for you who object to the nomenclature “God,” fine. You think about what you want to call your tiny little box that symbolizes everything that is real and true and incomprehensible, and nurtures and enlivens your spirit, and makes your life better than it might be if you do things “your way.” The walk of faith is so worth it. Good luck, pilgrims.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Icebugs of Grylloblattaria, and Other Critters

This has been the most beautiful summer I remember in years. Day after sunny day dawns, and we put on our shorts and tank tops and sandals, those of us not restricted by bothersome things like jobs (“Bwa-ha-ha-ha,” says my retired husband), and go out to meet the delirious, delicious summer day. We water our gardens, we admire the blooms of our flowers, we revel in the sweet juiciness of our homegrown fruits and vegetables. I myself have five tomatoes on my single tomato plant, and if the weather holds, they may have time to turn red. Meanwhile I love to touch the leaves and smell the tart muskiness of tomato plant, a scent that says, “summer” to me. The sun discourages, but does not stop, the slugs. I got some of that “safe” slug bait and while it may kill slugs, and I’m not saying I have any proof of that, it is apparently a tasty treat for mice. Our son said that every time he went out on the kitchen porch, he heard the scurrying of little feet and saw mice bailing out of the slug bait container and running away. I never saw these mice, but a quick check of the slug bait stash revealed a liberal sprinkling of mouse turds among the few remaining pellets. Rather than trying to trap and kill the mice, I figured that when the slug bait was gone, the mice would forage elsewhere. Let the problem resolve itself, I thought. NOTE: this method may work with mice, but I have been informed it does not work with raising children. Little tip for you young parents, although nothing you do or do not do will forestall the day 10 or 20 years from now when your adult children will tell you the mistakes you made as a parent. Be of good heart – being blamed for our mistakes is a little service that parents provide for their adult children. Another feature of this long hot summer is that the spiders are spinning early. Usually I don’t run into spider webs until August, but this morning I had to clear a web before I could walk out the kitchen door. I can only imagine the size and extent of the webs we’ll have in September. The mosquitoes have been numerous and hungry this year. Eh, that’s usual here on the edge of the woods. We had one branch of tent caterpillars in the apple tree, and my non-identical twin Becky happened to drop by and cut the branch off so I could dispose of the caterpillars. An hour or so later we looked out in the yard and there was a large deer eating the leaves off the non-caterpillar part of the branch. We chased the deer away, but it came back later and finished the job, plus stripping my rose bushes of leaves and roses. Lastly I mention earwigs. Earwigs comprise the insect order Dermaptera, according to Wikipedia, which also says, “Many orders of insect have been theorized to be closely related to earwigs, though the icebugs of Grylloblattaria are most likely.” The icebugs of Grylloblattaria!* Isn’t that glorious? Doesn’t that sound like a science fiction novel? But I digress. Earwigs like to inhabit crevices. We all know this from experience. Quite often earwigs will inhabit crevices in flowers I bring in from the garden and a few hours or days later I find earwigs crawling across the kitchen table, or the kitchen counter, or the living room rug. I have an irrational dislike of earwigs, and will usually crush them without hesitation or compunction. They give me the creeps. So it was extremely creepy when I opened up my bedside CPAP machine the other night and found an earwig inside. Ugh. I walked it into the bathroom and sent it for a quick swim in the bathroom sink. Beats me how or why it got into my machine. The darn thing simply showed up. I guess that’s why I don’t like them – they’re always sneaking up on me. Give me the oogly-wooglies. Even the most wonderful summer is bound to have some down sides, but all these critters aren’t stopping me from enjoying this summer. Hope you are enjoying your summer, critters and all. *”Grylloblattidae is a family of extremophile and wingless insects that live in the cold on top of mountains.” – Wikipedia. Now you know.

Forty Years of Festivals

Yours truly singing at Festival, 1976 or '77 In July of 1973 I joined my hippie friends one Saturday morning to go up to town and see the Festival Parade, my first. We had to park a couple of blocks out of town and walk in with other festival goers. That part hasn’t changed in 40 years. The crowds have become bigger and the walks are longer now, going down Beall Road on the east and out Cove and Bank Roads on the west, as well as up and down the main highway. There were a few marching bands, and cars with a parade marshal, and various pretty girls waving to the crowds, but what most impressed me was the Bacchus Lumber truck. It had a pile of drain field pipe on the back. I knew I wasn’t in California anymore. In 1974, I sang at the Festival for the first time, by myself, in the patio behind what was then the library and is now the Senior Center. By 1975 festival music was being staged in Ober Park in the little area on the south side of the building, which is still used as a concert stage. The music was all volunteer, and as far as I know all the musicians were local. Some of the ones I remember are Mike Dumovich, Sr., playing raucous slide guitar blues; Mindy Manley playing the banjo and singing old time songs; Steve Fearey and Thea (Teddi) Leyva (now Westcott) performing as Bodacious; Bob Haworth in whatever configuration he had going at the time – perhaps his one-man band; Ron Hook and his Sub Pop group; and Chris Howie, Rick Tuel, and yours truly performing as Kanout Manufacturing. At the end of Saturday afternoon, Zumi and his marimba band played and most of us got up and danced. Many islanders played in the marimba band, swinging and sweating. The marimba is a fitness instrument. There were many other musicians playing, and I apologize if I have not mentioned you by name. I simply can’t remember everyone. In the evening there was the traditional street dance. Probably the band was the Doily Brothers. Now, here is an Island Legend. It happened before I arrived, so call it a fact-related rumor. In 1971, so the story goes, the Festival street dance was rocking on Saturday night, and everyone was having a good time. Midnight came and the county sheriff who was present told the band the dance was over and it was time to shut down and go home. There was resistance to this suggestion, so the sheriff pulled the plug on the band, and voila, the dance was over. People were not happy, but they dispersed. Everyone went home except for a couple of souls who came back up to town and firebombed the court house. I made a request on the Facebook page, “Old Vashon Pictures and Stories,” for stories about that incident. People have responded kindly and generously, so you can go to that page to read the stories. My deepest thanks to all who have contributed. Turns out to be a story of redemption for at least one of the people involved. People are still writing, and contacting me outside of Facebook with information, and I may write about that night and its fallout in a future column. As the years went by the Festival and its music grew. The Portage Fill began doing a different kind of street dance, so we had choices on Saturday evening. The parade started to include Bob Haworth’s kazoo band, and other local groups started doing their own original parade entries. Islewilde brought giant puppets. The Seafair Pirates, who terrified little children, eventually stopped coming. I think. In the 1980s I would perform at the Festival with the trio Women, Women & Song. We had fun and people came to hear us in droves, which was quite gratifying. Since then my participation in the Festival, and Festival music, has dwindled. Rick was part of the color guard at the beginning of the parade for a few years, but he can’t do that anymore, so he usually stays home during festival and enjoys the quiet in the neighborhood. Most Festival weekends the last few years I’ve gone up for the Kiwanis pancake breakfast and watched the parade with my friend Becky, and then come home and hung out with Rick. I take our granddaughter up to do the rides sometimes and walk around the booths and admire the crafts people’s wares and see people I haven’t seen for ages. Festival: an island tradition, the highlight of our summer, and quite a blast before August, when we frantically summer it up before school starts and autumn moves in. Looking out my window I see that there are already some leaves turning yellow on the maple trees. I mentioned this to someone who said, “Don’t look out that window.” Good advice. Happy Festival, Happy Summer, to all.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

The Other End of Love

“…to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until we are parted by death. This is my solemn vow.” – Marriage vow from the 1979 Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, page 427 Phil, one of my husband’s best friends from high school, recently remarried, to a lovely woman named Barbara. They have bought a house and combined their households, and are starting married life in their mid-60s with all the hope and enthusiasm of any newlyweds. We have wished them all the best and are happy for them. You have to tip your hat to people who marry at this time of life. The cynical side of me says it’s the triumph of hope over experience. Marriage, after all, is what a lot of us want, but it ain’t easy, even in the best of circumstances and all the love and good will in the world, because life happens. A lot of fuss is made about new love and beginnings – how many love songs are there? Who does not know that feeling of joy when the heart is fairly bursting with feelings of love? How many of us have been dizzy with the knowledge of love returned? There are probably even more songs about love gone wrong. There is not much deeper disappointment than when you’ve made yourself completely vulnerable and been betrayed, and who among us has not been there, and sung those songs? It is part of life to love and not be loved back. It sucks eggs, but we all have to live through the discovery that we are not everyone’s cup of tea. There, two metaphors in one sentence. Think I’ll make some tea and boil an egg. But I digress. Then there is what I am starting to call the other end of love, when you have lived together for longer than you lived apart, raised your family, done your jobs, been through the years and blows, and are looking at your life’s end game. Not so many songs about that. Jacques Brel wrote “La Chanson des vieux amants” (“The Song of Old Lovers”) and it’s a good song, but it’s not the song I’m talking about. Brel speaks of stormy times, of leaving each other, of taking other lovers, but always coming back to each other. One line says, “…we had to have a good deal of talent to be this old without being grown-ups.” (©Jacques Brel, but I don’t know what year) This is not the end of life – this is middle age celebrating youthful behavior that persists. That’s all very Gallic (or Belgian) of Brel, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about those of us who did not have the talent to keep ourselves from growing up, those of us who showed up for life every day and hung on, those of us who understand that, “…until we are parted by death” is about as solemn a solemn vow as you can make in this life. Where are our love songs? I’ve been thinking lately that I should write such a love song. I haven’t written a song for years, but this idea is turning slowly ‘round in my brain, and I’m thinking it would be good to have such a song to sing now, a song about a lifetime of fidelity and friendship, of laughter and music, of shared hard times and joyful times, of the sadness of knowing that life does end, and you never know when or how or to whom the ending will come first. That’s the trouble with loving someone forever – for human beings, forever has an expiration date. Then I shake myself and say to hell with all this morbidity. As long as we’re alive, we’re alive, and we shall live life to the fullest, fight the good fight, and continue to laugh and cry and eat chocolate and feed the birds, and perhaps sing one of those old love songs, maybe this one, © 1962 Bob Dylan: “If today was not a crooked highway; if tonight was not a crooked trail; if tomorrow wasn’t such a long time; then lonesome would mean nothing to you at all.” Yep. Tomorrow is a long time. That’s why it’s amazing that tomorrow arrives so fast. Congratulations and best wishes to Barbara & Phil. I’ll only add that Bob Dylan said early in his career that every song he wrote was a love song. If you’re a songwriter you understand that. But that’s another essay.

Casino, Tornado, Coprolite, Dinosaur

Went on a road trip the other week. Ever since my cousin Nancy moved back to California from Washington we’ve talked about meeting in the middle, and finally Nancy suggested we meet someplace on Interstate 5, which would be a straight shot for both of us. She knew just the place: the Seven Feathers Casino and Lodge in Canyonville, Oregon. I may have mentioned before that my cousin Nancy loves to gamble. She occasionally wins, and has the self-control to stop playing when she’s losing. This makes her a happy gambler. When she was moving from Washington to California she stopped at Seven Feathers and hit a largish jackpot, so she is prejudiced in favor of the place. She made the reservations. The day finally came, and we both set out, she heading north and me heading south. The radio the first day was full of news of Edward Snowden and discussion of his heroism or treason. I put in a book on CD and happily drove on. The first night I stopped in Vancouver to visit my friend Sonya; Nancy stopped at the Rolling Hills casino in Corning, California, and won another largish jackpot. She called me to say I could order whatever I wanted for dinner the next night. This is the difference between my travels and Nancy’s travels: she often comes out ahead on the trip. The next day, after listening to a profoundly depressing lecture by Noam Chomsky on Oregon Public Broadcasting (Portland has the greatest selection of radio stations! Chomsky says we’re undoing the Magna Carta!), I once more headed south. I stopped to visit my friend Pennie and her husband Tom in their new home in a small town in the Oregon mountains. They showed me a lot of the sun stones they had found the last couple of years in their searching up in the eastern Oregon desert, then handed me a petrified dinosaur egg. Yes, friends, I held a petrified dinosaur egg in the palm of my hand. On one side was the smooth petrified shell. On the other side, the shell was gone, and you could see tiny feathers and the hints of the limbs of the creature that coiled up inside the shell all those thousands – millions? – of years ago. It never hatched, but it lives on in stone and it is a marvel to hold in your hand.
Clockwise, left to right: dinosaur egg, coprolite, sun stones Tom also trotted out a coprolite, or lump of fossilized dung. Funny, but thousands of years later and with its organic matter replaced by minerals, it still looks exactly like what it is. I googled “coprolite” and soon was looking at a poster of a dinosaur taking a poop with the legend, “Coprolite happens.” Moving on to Seven Feathers, I met up with Nancy and we proceeded to do what we do so well together: nothing. By nothing I mean we talked about everybody and everything, which Nancy calls “solving the world.” So we solved the world, and we had meals in the casino restaurant, and we gambled, and we went swimming, and we slept late, for two glorious days. No large jackpots, no big losses. At the end of our two days, we sadly said good-bye and headed for home. I drove up the Willamette Valley in torrential rains and wondered if I might see a tornado and if I’d watched too many of those storm chaser shows. Apparently, though, there was an EF1 tornado that day in McMinnville. Don’t you hate it when reality bears out your paranoia?
Arrived home tired and ready to rest up from my break, but learned that when I went south, so did a lot of things around the house, so now I’m in the middle of dealing with all that. It’ll be a long time before I leave home again, but it was wonderful seeing my cousin and my friends, and holding a dinosaur in my hand. I never expected to do that.

But Who Wants to Be Institutionalized?

Mary Martin, the Socialist Workers Party candidate for mayor of Seattle, was interviewed by the Seattle Times the other week. She spoke of how she would fight for the working class as mayor. She said, “No other candidates except those from the Socialist Workers Party advocate the goal of working people taking political power out of the hands of the capitalist class.”* Ah, you go, girl. I love it when you talk dirty. I don’t kid myself – I think that any political party which is organized enough to call itself a political party has become an institution and you know what institutions do, don’t you? Come on, you in the back of the room. I get tired of seeing the same hands all the time. Institutions support and nurture institutions. This is a problem with most organized human groups. They start out with the best of intentions – social and economic reform, production, employment, salvation, housing, food, and shelter, for example – but turn into organizations that have to meet their overhead. People who love to have power are drawn to leadership positions, and pretty soon the institution is more about making sure the president can have a nice hand-woven carpet in the Oval Office, or the Bishop has a nice new Jaguar S-type sedan to drive (full disclosure: the car that ran into my car a few weeks ago was a Jaguar S-type sedan). When I worked for King County a few decades ago, one year during the week between Christmas and New Year’s the employees of an entire large county department were given the week off so that their offices could have new carpeting. Did the offices need new carpeting? Not so much. The point was, they had some money left over in their annual budget, and if they didn’t spend all that money, they would not get as much money in the next year’s budget. So they got new carpet. Oh, look, the financial people could then say – they spent their entire budget this year. We must give them at least that much money, and probably a little more, for next year. This is how institutions work. In other craziness, I had a prescription I’ve been taking for years renewed this month, for the first time getting it with my Medicare prescription coverage. A couple of weeks later I got a letter from my insurance company informing me that they had let me get my prescription “temporarily,” but this drug is not in their formulary. Now that I have insurance, I have to go back to the drug that costs $100 more per month because the cheaper tablet is not covered, and that’s how that institution works. This is the sort of cultural/economic insanity that makes me tic and twitch and mutter to myself. Our human brains are always trying to find patterns and make sense out of what we perceive. The only sense I can make out of the upside-down, inside-out, bass-ackwards way our country and economy are presently run is to frame it all within the paradigm of supporting the institutions which have the money and power. Will the working class rise and cast off their chains? Perhaps. Then they will evolve, over time, into the forgers of new chains. It’s a human thing. Meanwhile, Mary Martin will not be taken seriously as a mayoral candidate, because she is a Socialist and because she is a woman. She will get a small percentage of the vote, but no more. It’s too bad. Socialists have some pretty sensible ideas, as do women. It is profoundly sad and infuriating to me that we live in a time and place when the sensible and down-to-earth are not taken seriously, but are either patronized or vilified. I do not care for politics and I do love people, mostly. You can’t have one without the other, so I’m still working on how to live with both. I’ll get back to you on that. *©2013 The Seattle Times

Cherry Eyes and a Big Surprise

Our dog, Marley, had a condition called cherry eye, a genetic defect in which the “cherries” are actually membranes which are supposed to be under the eyelid, but instead are squeezing out next to it. It can be fixed so that the dog’s eyes are normal, but the fix is a surgery. VIPP (bless them!) graciously offered to pay for the surgery because we adopted Marley through them. One of the VIPP volunteers called around looking for the best deal, and it turned out the best deal was in Mt. Vernon. Which is how Marley and I ended up catching the 4:10 ferry off the island the other day. This little stunt made me feel my age. There I was, heading out on a three-hour drive, on only one and a half hours’ sleep. I’m not 18 anymore, which is the correct age for this sort of foolishness. I have to admit that the sun coming up over Everett is a beautiful sight, as were all the May blooms. We made it to Mt. Vernon two hours before our scheduled arrival time. I dropped Marley off, and went to have breakfast and contact a couple of friends who live in that area so I could arrange visits with them. The first one was Sherry Moe, an island resident for many years. She’s living happily in Mt. Vernon now. She has lately taken up painting mandalas. She said that at first she was only painting mandalas, but she felt they were a little too dry, and she wanted to add human interest. So now she finds complex mandala patterns and clip art online to use as guides, and combines mandalas and pictures to make moving and beautiful art. She let me choose one to bring home. It’s titled “Piano Lady.”
Here is a picture of that, and you can see many more of Sherry’s mandalas at: She hopes to come down to the Vashon Saturday Market one Saturday a month this summer, so keep an eye peeled for Sherry and her art. After leaving Sherry’s I went to visit Dorothy, an old family friend. Apropos of that, we mostly talked about our families. No, I’m not going to share. Retired to my motel room for an early night. Got up nice and late the next day, picked up Marley at the vet’s, and beat feet for Seattle. There was a plan to this day: I was to go back to Seattle, pick Rick up at the ferry dock, and take him to his nephrologist appointment. I got to Seattle early, so went to Costco to pick up my new glasses – amazing how wonderful the world looks when you can actually see it – then headed for the ferry to pick up Rick. I was stopped at the intersection of Michigan Avenue and East Marginal Way, waiting for the light to change, when a woman in a Jaguar sedan came speeding down the off-ramp from the 1st Avenue South Bridge, and for some reason tried to zoom through the intersection even though the light had changed and traffic was already moving on East Marginal Way. I heard a honk, turned, and saw the Jaguar get hit by a truck abaft of midship. The Jaguar spun around and slid backwards on a diagonal from its original path, right toward…well, my car. “It might miss,” I thought. It didn’t. It hit and dislodged my rear bumper and broke the covers off of my tail lights. The good news: no one was hurt. My car and the truck (a Ford 350, not a good vehicle with which to get into an argument) were both drivable. A nice policeman helped me get my rear bumper into the back seat of my car. He actually folded it up a little so it would fit. I didn’t know bumpers could be folded, but you learn something new every day. Rick and I decided I could not get him to the doctor’s appointment on time, so he cancelled that, and I drove my bumper-less car home. We’d all had enough excitement for one day. So that was our road trip. Marley and I are at home, resting comfortably. Hope you are, too. There’s no place like home.

May and Medicare

It is May, and I have medical insurance. I won’t call it health insurance, because it isn’t something you use when you’re healthy. The insurance I now have is Medicare. I turn 65 this month, and I am officially signed up. It was not until I was in the process of signing up that I found out that Medicare begins on the first day of the month you turn 65, not on the day you turn 65. I remarked to my husband that this was an uncharacteristically rational policy for our government to have. How much simpler to roll over the paperwork once a month, instead of every day. It’s downright sensible. I wonder how it happened. But I’m not spending a lot of time wondering about that. Mostly I’m thinking about how weird it is to have insurance again. It’s been three years since I lost my coverage, back when my husband went on Medicare himself and we were out of money to pay for insurance for me. In this uninsured hiatus, I have had three significant surgeries and a few less significant procedures. I’ve become pretty good at applying for charity from hospitals. Last year we declared bankruptcy. Listen, you do what you gotta do. Now when I go for a medical appointment and they ask for my insurance, I can whip out my two Medicare cards instead of hanging my head and mumbling, “I don’t have any insurance.” Except for the thousands of dollars we couldn’t afford to pay and those humiliating moments when I had to fess up to my uninsured state, there was a lot I liked about not having medical insurance. I paid for office calls at the time of the appointment, which meant no bills in the mail later, so less paper and paperwork. Simple. I had no drug coverage, either, so I paid for all my prescriptions out of pocket. Both times that I drove to California last year and needed to get my prescriptions a little early there was no insurance company telling me it was too soon to buy my drugs and refusing to allow the prescriptions to be filled. That happened to me at least once when I had coverage. I didn’t go to the doctor if I could help it during this three years. This is the two-edged sword of not being insured – you’re less likely to be over-tested or over-medicated, but there is always the chance that you’ll not get treatment you really need. I had two surgeries to remove pre-cancerous cells during this three years, and of course my gall bladder imploded at the end of March and was removed in early April. I was really hoping that gall bladder could wait for five more lousy weeks, but no, so there are a few medical people waiting with their hands out now. Sigh. Fortunately, I am now a freelance editor. What does a freelance editor do? In my definition: proofread for punctuation and grammar while respecting and maintaining the writer’s voice. Format writing so that a piece is consistent within itself. Listen to and encourage the writer while being honest and having a heart. Make suggestions that seem like good ideas and having no attachment to whether the writer uses the suggestions. Editing is a bit like polishing a song – you want the text to sing, and make sense, and touch the heart of the reader, and not have punctuation and grammar errors breaking up the flow. So that’s what I’m doing, or trying to do, and I enjoy it and I get paid. Like they say, the perfect job is when you get paid for something you’d do anyway, and I don’t have to leave the house, so that’s even more perfect. It’s May, I have Medicare and a little gainful employment. Everything’s looking pretty peachy, except, you know, for that mortality thing, which looms larger as you age. One thing at a time – editing and Medicare now, death when it comes. That’s my plan. For now I’m looking forward to when the nasturtiums bloom. I love nasturtiums.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Another Internal Organ Bites the Dust

My gall bladder recently decided to pre-decease the rest of me. This is not uncommon. I am amazed by the number of people who have advised me to get rid of that sucker, because I’d feel a lot better without it. As I write I am 24 hours out from its removal. Just got home from the hospital, and am waiting for the feeling a lot better to begin. My need to have my gallbladder removed became apparent the Saturday night before Palm Sunday. I had a gallstone attack that landed me in the ER with intense pain, throwing up, taking the Lord’s name in vain, going through my entire repertoire of swear words, practicing labor and meditation breathing, reciting the Jesus prayer, and singing hymns. The technical name for what I experienced: biliary colic. Technical names do seem to sanitize what they’re talking about. The doc at the ER gave me a drug called dilaudid for the pain. It was given to me in an IV and when it took effect I felt like I’d fallen off a cliff and hit the ground, then been run over by a steamroller. It did make the pain of the gallstones retreat to somewhere far, far away, and after that I was like a drunk at a bizarre medical costume party. My abdomen was ultrasounded to a fare-thee-well and in the fullness of time a Dr. Shirk – I am not making that up – came in to tell me that I did indeed have gallstones, and needed to have my gallbladder removed, here was a surgical referral, now go home. Sadly, I had nothing to put on but the clothes I had worn in, and during one of the convulsive throwing up episodes on the way in, I had lost control of my other bladder (most mothers can relate to this), so my jeans now smelled like an outhouse. I rinsed them out as best I could, and dried them also as best I could with some towels in the bathroom, then put them on, damp and smelly. So picture me then: reeking, stoned, long gray hair sticking up in an even more disheveled way than usual, being released from the ER after midnight without a cent to my name because my purse had been left at home when the EMTs carried me out. At this point a tall, beautiful young brunette woman named Amy arrived, a social worker. I gave her my friend Becky’s name and number, and Amy went to call her. When she came back, she told me that Becky and her husband Roy were coming to get me. She handed me a slip of paper with Becky’s cell phone number on it, gingerly holding it with her thumb and forefinger as if afraid she might get cooties if she got any closer to me. In that moment I realized that I had become the Other: a smelly, stoned, fat old lady with wild, crazy, gray hair. A while ago I was a patient who was being treated. Now I was someone they hoped would leave as soon as possible, because I was, you know, icky. The transition from being wife, mother, grandmother, smart aleck writer and singer, person with home and family and friends and church and a Facebook account, to modern day leper – stinky, drug-addled street person – was as stunning as it was swift. Becky and Roy did come, bless them. This is friendship above and beyond the call of duty. They brought me clean clothes and my purse and the reassurance of my human connections. We caught the first ferry home. A friend remarked to me later that some people will do anything to get out of attending the Palm Sunday liturgy. So that was my Saturday night doing drugs with the stones. My gall bladder is history now. The surgeon said it was “gnarly.” Not a technical term. I’m on the mend and I hope not to be hauled to the ER for any reason in the near future, and I will never look at stinky, drug-addled street people the same, especially old ladies with wild, crazy, gray hair. My deepest gratitude and thanks to my family, friends (especially to Roy and Becky for coming out in the middle of the night to collect me), all the doctors and nurses, everyone who prayed, sent good wishes, and remembered me kindly. Blessings on you, every one.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Welcome to Type 1 Diabetes

Allysan shows us her diabetic ID dog tag. ~ Our granddaughter was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes a few weeks ago. The diagnosis blindsided us. She was wasting away before our eyes, becoming more listless and tired, but it happened so gradually. Her father, JD, was the one who sounded the alarm, and I give him credit for saving her life. We took her to Fulton Family Medicine one Saturday morning to have her checked out. Thanks and a tip of the hat to Sarah Hebert, who examined Allysan, took blood, and called us the next day. Sarah told us to go to the Emergency Room immediately because Allysan had Type 1 diabetes and was in diabetic ketoacidosis, a condition which can be life-threatening. We said yes, ma’am, and took Allysan in to Children’s Hospital, where she began her new life. How could this happen? How could a child be so ill, and appear so ill, and we did not pick up on it until she was dangerously ill? I’ll tell you how it happens. It sneaks up on you. Diabetes is called “the sneaky disease” for a reason. I have heard the warning signs of diabetes more than once – drinking a lot of water, peeing a lot, eating a lot but losing weight. I had noticed that toilet paper was going fast on the weekends. I thought, boy, little girls sure use a lot of toilet paper. News flash: they don’t use that much. These things were right in front of us, but we didn’t see them. She wears long sleeved shirts and jeans. It wasn’t until she put on shorts and a tank top one night that we saw it. How did she get so thin? How could our granddaughter, our slip of a girl who is thin naturally, get diabetes? Don’t you have to be fat? No. Diabetes strikes where it will. It can be genetic. The closest relatives Allysan has with type 1 diabetes are two of my brother’s grandchildren, one of whom was diagnosed as an infant of 20 months. This might indicate that there is a diabetes gene hiding in my family DNA, but we know of no other relatives that have it or had it in the past. As with most terrible things that happen, you don’t have time to sit around asking why and how. You hit the ground running and learn how to count carbohydrate grams and give insulin injections, among other things. Allysan is on the mend now – gaining weight and more her kid self. I admit I’m still in shock. I’m in awe of her parents, JD and Nycol, who have stepped up to the plate and are taking care of their girl, working as a team. They are truly rising to this demanding occasion. And I am grateful. I am so grateful that Allysan’s diabetes has been diagnosed and is being treated, grateful for the prayers and good wishes people sent our way. She has begun to gain a little weight, and is much more lively again. A couple of people have asked me if she’ll outgrow it. No. This is for life. I am writing about it here because even though Type 1 diabetes is rare, it happens, and it sneaks up on you gradually. I’m telling Allysan’s story so you can look at your child or grandchild or even an older person who might have Type 2, adult onset, diabetes. Or how about yourself? Do you or someone you know, drink tons of water and go to the bathroom constantly? Is this person always hungry, eating constantly, and losing weight? Take a new look and ask yourself what you haven’t been seeing because you didn’t think there was any need to look. If you read this and it leads to even one person getting diagnosed and beginning treatment for this killer disease, then hurrah. If you or someone you love gets checked out and is healthy, double hurrah. Diabetes is sneaky, it is deadly, and you need to get on top of it. Pay attention. So that’s my public service announcement for this week. May you and your children and grandchildren all be healthy and live long.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

A Wartime Romance

Mark & Dawn Tuel, December 1943.~ My husband, Rick, has time to write now that he has retired, and he recently wrote up this recounting of how his parents met during World War II. He writes: My dad, Mark Tuel, was born in Lehigh, Iowa, in 1921, the elder of two brothers. Two years later Mom was born on Sugar Creek Road in Dover, Ohio, the younger of two sisters. Dad was raised in Lehigh and Ford Dodge, Iowa. He was a small town boy who grew up swimming and fishing in the Des Moines River. His dad was a tailor and sign painter. After graduation from high school he and three of his buddies pooled their money and bought a well-used Ford Model A flivver which they named “Penelope.” Together the four of them drove to Los Angeles and back in a month, sleeping on the seats and running boards and following U.S. Route 66, when they weren’t patching flat tires. My mom, Dawn Kennedy, grew up on her parents’ farm on Sugar Creek Road, essentially being raised by her older sister Doris. In those Depression years the farm couldn’t support itself and like most farmers in the area her dad worked at the Reeves Steel Mill to help make ends meet. The tradition in rural Ohio farming communities was for the children to grow up and take their places within the social fabric of their forebears, preserving and strengthening it for the succeeding generation. When Mom completed the 12th grade, her parents asked her what she wanted for a graduation present and were shocked to the roots of the family tree when she instantly answered, “Luggage.” They complied reluctantly and in July of 1943 she shook the dust of Sugar Creek Road from her feet and boarded a train for Los Angeles. It was not a random decision. Some months earlier two of Mom’s acquaintances from Dover High School made a break for it and landed in Los Angeles. Gladys and Hilda found jobs there and a nice house close to the beach and apparently the Great Depression was finally ending as the wartime economy began to rev up. It was freedom, excitement, and a whole new life out on the West Coast. The early years of World War II shook an entire generation of kids out of their nests, some to return, some not. One of the first casualties of the war was tradition itself as the new generation took wing, leaving its parents wondering what the world was coming to. By that time Dad had literally taken wing. He had enlisted in the Army in April of 1942 and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Army Air Corps. He was deep into flight training starting with the Stearman Biplane, a forgiving aircraft that allowed the cadets to learn the basic skills of flight control, takeoffs and landings. It was like flying a box kite with a 12-cylinder radial engine. The next step up the ladder was the BT-13-A, a fixed single wing trainer that the cadets called “the Vultee Vibrator.” A day in the trainer was the equivalent of taking a laxative. Dad was in training throughout the war, advancing to pursuit fighter aircraft and light bombers. As his skills increased he was shifted through a variety of duties from towing airborne targets for aerial gunnery training to flight controller duty on the ground. Here the miraculous begins to unfold. While working the Flight Control Center in L.A. he met Gladdy and Hilda. Off duty Gladdy and Hilda would go out night-clubbing with the flyboys and would invite homesick young men to their house for meals and socializing. At about this point, another train filled with Midwest-American refugees pulled into Union Station and in the fullness of time, Hilda invited Mark to come over to the house. There was someone staying with her and Gladdy who she wanted him to meet. And so Mom and Dad’s separate paths finally crossed and their meeting was…tepid. “Mom didn’t like me much at first,” Dad said years later. “She thought I was too cocky.” Likewise, years later, Mom added her own thoughts. “I had only been on my own for a few months,” she said. “I wanted more of that.” But there was a war on; there was no time for more of that. Dad didn’t know when he’d be shipped out and didn’t want her to be “the girl I left behind” to be snapped up by some other guy. When he received orders for further flight training in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, he popped the big question right away. Mom went back to Ohio to think it over while Dad changed duty stations. Mom’s family tree got its roots shaken once again when she abruptly flew the coop and caught a train for Dalhart, Texas. Fears of shame and scandal back in Dover finally were put to rest when Dad and mom were united in marriage on Christmas Day, 1943.

Monday, February 25, 2013

You Never Know, Does One?

A sunny day at the KVI beach It is the season of Lent in the Christian church, a time of reflection, penitence, and self-denial, one object of these practices being humility. I have mentioned before that my definition of humility is to have a clear, true perception of yourself, which does not mean self-bashing or delusions of grandeur, but rather an objective view of who you are. I think it’s impossible to be objective about yourself when you’re looking from inside your own head, but where else can you stand? It’s worth the effort to try. If you’re lying to yourself about who you are, whether you’re lying about being more than you are or less than you are, you’re lying. Living a lie makes nonsense of your life, so clear your head as well as you can, and see what you can see. One good way to clear your head is to take a walk. Yesterday was sunny, one of those early false spring days, and Marley the dog and I went down to the KVI beach for a walk. The sun was hot on my back and the wind was cold in my face as we went. Marley ecstatically sniffed practically every blade of grass, and left her own mite of communication in a spot which I now think of as Poop Central for dogs on KVI beach. When I walk on the beach I am looking for where I would run in the event of a large earthquake and tsunami. If this makes me neurotic and paranoid, so be it. This paranoia is based on my knowledge that these things have happened here in the past, and could happen again. I took the Vashon 101 class a few years ago in which one of the lecturers took glee in telling us that when the Seattle Fault lets go, we will have about four minutes before the tsunami hits Vashon. So now when I walk on the beach, hobbling along on my arthritic joints and assisted by my walking stick (thank you, Becky), I am calculating: how far could I go in four minutes? Is that a trail up the bluff there in the salal? Would my worn-out knees allow me to get up to safety in a hurry? Should I stand there and kiss the world good-bye and watch the wave come to take me? Then I tell myself that while there will be an earthquake, the likelihood of it happening right this minute is slim. I’ve been walking on these beaches for over 40 years now. So far so good. I go back to limping along, picking up rocks that catch my eye, as well as things people have left behind. Yesterday’s haul: twenty white pebbles for my garden cairn, one pair of plaid sleep pants (size XL), and a pink plastic clothes pin. In 1966 I lived in Alameda (another island) and commuted to San Francisco on the AC Transit. Every day on the way home as we crossed the Bay Bridge, I would worry. What if there was an earthquake? What if the bridge collapsed? Mind you, I’d lived near the San Andreas Fault all my life, and had experienced many quakes, though no really large ones at that time. The large earthquake came later, in February, 1971, in Los Angeles. It gave me respect for earthquakes and what they can do. I moved up here in 1973, thinking that I was getting away from earthquakes. That’s how ignorant I was at the time. But getting back to my story… On October 17, 1989, at 5:04 p.m., the Loma Prieta earthquake struck. The San Andreas Fault shifted in the Santa Cruz Mountains, and guess what? A section of the Bay Bridge collapsed. One woman died when her car plummeted into the gap. All other vehicles were turned around and sent back to San Francisco. Meanwhile, in Oakland, the double-decker Cyprus freeway, which had been part of my daily commute in 1966, collapsed on itself, and 42 people died. I had never worried about that freeway collapsing, only the Bay Bridge. In retrospect, I’d say my paranoia was at least partially not paranoia, but the worst that happened when the earthquake hit was not something I had foreseen, or worried about. That’s the thing about worry and paranoia – you are preparing to defend yourself from what you imagine, and you might have it all, or partially, wrong. You never know. There was no earthquake while I was at the beach yesterday. The dog and I made it back to the car fine. I took some snapshots of the sunny scene so I could look at them on days like today, when the overcast is high and white and unbroken. Is my head clearer for yesterday’s walk? I find that head clearing needs to be done every day for best results. The dog likes to clear her head, too, so we’ll go out walking again today. I wish you a blessed Lent, if Christianity is your spiritual practice, and a clear head regardless of your spiritual practice.

After a Mammogram

There is a joke that if the genders took turns having babies – if the woman had the first, the man had the second, and the woman had the third, there would never be any fourth babies. I thought about that this morning as I drove home from having a mammogram. If men had to put their secondary sexual characteristics between a couple of flat plates and have them squeezed flat while being told that compression is necessary for a good reading, they’d get busy and invent a better way to take a look at the inner man. As it is, men don’t get compressed in this fashion and women are encouraged to get a mammogram every year or two. I encourage any women inventors and researchers to get busy on inventing a better way to look at the inner woman. Getting machine-mangled while the technician calls me “honey” and “dear” and pushes me this way and that, telling me to turn my feet this way and my arm that way and my chin a third way, is not my idea of a great way to spend the morning, but I went and did it out of a sense of duty, and oh yeah, because I had a lumpectomy a couple of years ago and it’s good to keep an eye on these things. I was told I’d hear from my doctor in ten days or so, and I can wait. When I was younger I would panic at the thought of having cancer, and rightly so – I was too young to die. Now – well, let me tell you a story. I was online one night when an ad from Swedish Hospital popped up encouraging me to take a quiz to see what my greatest health threat might be. I figured I knew already – I’m fat. I’ve been told to lose weight and get my cholesterol down for years. So I took their quiz, and according to Swedish – and they claim they know – my biggest health risk is my age. It’s not the fat, the cholesterol, the angina, the lurking type II diabetes, the lingering effects of injuries, the lung congestion, the fatigue, all the conditions I worry about which I wonder, “Which one is the bullet with my name on it?” No, my greatest threat now is that I’m old. That’s the bullet. We used to say that people died of old age, and no one thought much about it. Now the cause of death is detected and people die of pneumonia or its effects, or myocardial infarction, or renal failure, or complications of cancer or its treatment, or whatever. There’s usually a name for what finally gets you. Saying that we lived it up until we were used up is not a medical label. Too bad. We used to have a sense that a person went when it was their time. Now it’s that one medical condition that could not be cured and took you down like a cheetah leaping on a wheezing gazelle. We’ve lost the big picture. Ah, well. It’s easy to think about such things when coming home from a diagnostic test. I was told I’d hear from my doctor in ten days or so. Until then I live in the limbo of unknowing – didja find anything? Or not? I want to hear what the result has usually been over time: I’m fine, and I can go on my yippy-skippy way and not think about it for another year or two. Unfortunately, the last time I had this test, three years ago, there was something found, and that led to surgery and a recovery that seemed to take a long, long time. It was tedious, friends. A person gets tired of waiting rooms and magazines full of helpful advice on how to be healthy, all left lying around for perusal by people who wouldn’t be there if they were healthy. I think it’s the smiling models in these magazines that annoy me the most. Have you noticed how the people in drug ads are always grinning like they won the lottery? “I have cancer/heart disease/erectile dysfunction/bipolar disorder but I couldn’t be any barking happier because I am using this drug!” Aah, that’s enough out of me for one day. I have ten days to live in ignorance, and I plan to enjoy those ten days. If the results are negative, hallelujah. If they’re not, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. Either way I’m going to keep sitting out on the kitchen porch in the morning, drinking my coffee and listening to the birds sing. And that’s the truth. Post Script: I have been called and asked to come in for further images, on the side which had surgery three years ago. So I'll be going in for that this week. Stay tuned, but I'm really hoping that will be the end of it.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Dogs, Dialysis, and Deep Valleys

A dog with dense molecules About 4:30 this morning my husband and I were lying there petting the dog and talking about our random sleep schedules. He is hooked up to his dialysis machine at night, and it makes various beeps and boops, with accompanying blinking lights, so he tends to be awake often during the night. I read in bed, and sometimes am awake until after two, depending on how gripping the narrative is, or how insomniac I am. I hear him waking, fiddling with the dialysis machine, and drifting back to sleep. Sometimes the machine wakes me up, too, and we have these early morning conversations. We were discussing whether our sleep has become so off and on because of our age, our medications, his machine, the dog, or, our best guess, all of these things. Rick and I have one of those foam mattresses that are all the thing these days. I bought it at the discount store a few years ago. It is probably the most comfortable mattress we’ve ever had. No hard pressure points for arthritic limbs and joints, and it practically hugs you and says, “There, there, baby, you get your rest,” when you lie down on it. Ah, we sigh, and snuggle in, and the dog snuggles in next to us. There are downsides to this cuddly mattress. The dog tends to slide in my direction during the night. Some nights I wake up clinging to the edge of the mattress. Garrison Keillor used to do ads for the “Deep Valley” bed, an old mattress with a sag in the middle that rolled the occupants of the bed toward each other. The foam mattress does not have a deep valley, but it does dip where you and the dog lie on it. Nature abhors a vacuum, and a dog abhors leaving you any space in bed. I know the truth of this when I wake up in the wee hours being pushed over the edge by the impressive bulk of our affectionate pit bull. She looked so small the day we met her. After living with an 85-pound Doberman-Pit Bull and a 60-pound Collabrador, Marley looked downright petite. We soon learned that she has what my husband calls “dense molecules.” Marley may not look very big, but she is a chunk of muscle, and when she hops up on the bed and lies down it’s a lot like sharing the space with a sack of wet cement. There is another problem with a soft mattress. After a while your back protests at the lack of support and you can develop muscle cramps and spasms. So sometimes I nap on the floor. A few hours on a flat hard surface and my back is much happier. I think the reason for this is that the human body slept on the ground or the floor, without much padding, for centuries. We’re not designed for soft and comfy. We’re designed for hard and unyielding. When I lie on the floor, I note in passing, the dog does not join me. She stays up on the nice soft couch. I think of the mattress ads I’ve seen, with a body, usually an attractive, height-weight proportional female silhouette, lying on a mattress. The illustration points out how the mattress shapes itself to the contours of the human body, going up at the waist and down at the hip and shoulder, a perfect fit for every physical idiosyncrasy. There is never a dog in these ads.
Listen up: we are not made for beds that shape themselves to us. We are made to sleep on the floor or the ground, with the dogs cuddled up next to us so we supply each other body heat, perhaps next to a fire that stays lit all night if we’re lucky. That’s my theory. I heard when I was young, “Old people don’t need as much sleep.” Well, phooey. I think we need as much sleep, but we don’t get it, at least in one stretch. When my mom was in her later years, she was always dozing off in her chair while watching TV. I understand that now. If you get eight hours of sleep in a row, do not have medical machines keeping you alive, and don’t have a dog pushing you off the bed, you have none of these complaints. Congratulations. I’m happy for you. But I don’t want to hear about it.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

For Better, For Worse, For Lunch

Sometime in the last couple of years I saw a young standup comic, a guy, riffing on relationships, which is a pretty reliable comic vein to mine. He said that no one he knew looked at people who had been together for 30 years and thought, “Man, I gotta get me some of that.” That is the perspective of a young person, for whom sexy appearance is all. Yep, when we’re young we all want to have the zip and appeal of a 1958 Porsche Speedster, although in fact most of us could be more aptly compared to a 1958 Nash Metropolitan. By the time you’ve been married for over 30 years you’re more like a 1959 Cadillac – you’re wide, you have tail fins, your mileage is pretty high and your miles per gallon are pretty low, and the repairs and maintenance are murder. You know what else you are after thirty years? A really comfortable ride. Rick and I have been married for going on thirty-four years now, and I have to say I’m pretty happy I’ve got me some of that. It’s after thirty years, when attrition has set in to your physical being and you have to do what my spiritual director calls the “spiritual heavy lifting of later life,” that you are glad if you are fortunate enough to have your one true friend by your side. We are currently in that period of adjustment that takes place whenever one of us goes through a major change. In this case, he is now retired and is at home full time. That’s a pretty big change. For most of our married life, he was gone at work. There is an old joke that goes like this: the wife of a retired man says, “I married him for better or for worse, not for lunch.” This joke dates from the days when the traditional roles were more defined and adhered to. The man went to work and the woman stayed home. When he retired he came home and started sticking his nose into what had been her well-oiled and organized life. Resentment ensued. It’s no mystery why retired guys get part-time jobs, or play a lot of golf, or spend a lot of time out in the shop, or are otherwise processed out of the house. Their marriages depend on them getting out from underfoot. I am not criticizing this paradigm. We all make our bargains with life, and live with the consequences. I am glad that Rick and I don’t have that situation. We were friends for years before we became romantically involved, and that bedrock friendship has been a saving grace over the years. It was always there, no matter what happened. The friendship and the smart ass remarks – that’s what we’ve always had. It may not be Paris, but it’s worked for us. So now that he’s home, it turns out we still enjoy each other’s company, and we’re returning to the comedy that was our friendship back at the beginning. For example, when I get out of bed to go down the hall and return to find that the dog has slithered into my warm spot, Rick suggests we should have named her “401K,” because I have to roll her over. Rick and I are blessed in each other, we think. Still, it is weird having him at home all the time, probably more for him than for me. Our friend John once explained to me that this is how it is, especially for men. The job is your identity, it’s what you do and it’s who you are, and your whole life is centered on it. I started laughing as John explained this, and told him that I have never, not once in my life, felt that way about a job. For me a job was a way to pay bills so I could go on singing and writing, and buy some shoes for the kids. I abhorred workplace politics. I wanted to do my job and go home, where my real life is. Now real life is at home for both of us. It’s a change. Last night I called a friend whom I was going to visit today. I asked if her husband would be home, because if he was, I’d bring Rick along so the two of them could meet. I know that Rick and my friend’s husband have some things in common, starting with growing up as military brats. As I waited on the phone while my friend talked to her husband about my bringing Rick to visit, I suddenly had this thought: I feel like I am arranging a play date for my husband. When I told him that, he laughed. I’m going to have to watch that tendency to arrange things for him, though. I know we’ll both be happier if I mind my own business and let him mind his. That’s the kind of thing you realize after the first thirty years together, and if you’re fortunate, you’ll get yourself some of that.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Our Own Personal Fiscal Cliff (with a Segue into Chicken Heart Stew)

This year, on top of the holiday stress, we are looking at my husband’s being laid off from his job. He plans to make the best of the cards he has been dealt by calling himself retired. The man is 67, after all, and on dialysis. People have retired with less justification. Over the years I’ve heard many people talk about how they wished they could live and work on the island. This is the dream – not to have to commute, but to live here in paradise all day, every day, and only leave when absolutely necessary. Rick and I have lived that dream. The only fly in the “live and work on the island” ointment is that most jobs pay lower wages than you’d get on the mainland for the same work, and most jobs do not have benefits or pension plans. You accept those conditions because you’re so gosh darned lucky to have a job on the island, and most island businesses can’t afford benefits and pensions, anyway. Like some others who have lived the dream, we will now have an income from Social Security and nothing else. I keep crunching the numbers and it looks like we’ll be fine, except for not having any money in the budget for food. I’m not sure how we’re going to roll with this. I am thinking lentils, peas, and beans. This is okay. Lots of people become unintentional vegetarians after they become unintentionally retired. We’re okay. We have a home, and good friends and family, and it turns out that all those platitudes about friends, family, and love being the things that really count are true. The one about having your health is true, too, but that ship has sailed for us, so, eh. The non-vegetarian recipe I’ll be making a lot is chicken heart stew. In November of 1977 I did a folk concert tour in the interior of British Columbia. While I was there winter set in. I learned the joy of using an outhouse at -20 Celsius, which in Fahrenheit terms is, “really really cold.” I arrived for my last concert in Prince George, B.C. and took a taxi to the house where I was being put up. When I got there, I found a note from my absent hostess welcoming me, saying she’d be back later and to help myself to some chicken heart stew that was simmering on the wood stove. It was the first time I’d ever heard of chicken heart stew. I was a little worried. There was an “eeyew” factor. I dipped up a bowl and ate it and liked it a lot. When I got home to the island I tried to re-create it, and it became a family staple over the years. Even the kids liked it. It’s a great warm cheap stew for a January night. Here it is: Chicken Heart Stew, a la Casa Tuel Take a package of chicken hearts and rinse the hearts in cold water, then throw them in a pot of water and bring it to a boil. Simmer them on medium for 45 minutes or so, skimming any foamy sludge that forms on the top and throwing it away, unless you’re one of those creative people who has a good use for boiling chicken heart sludge. While the hearts boil, chop up: One green pepper, seeds and membrane removed One onion One large carrot Two stalks of celery Add them to the stew after that first 45 minutes. Let the stew simmer for a further 15 minutes. Drain the vegetables and hearts, reserving the stock. While they’re draining, make gravy.
Here's a picture of my gravy whisk. My mom had one. By the end of her life, the metal on the bottom was worn thin from decades of whisking. Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a medium skillet, add 2 tablespoons of flour, and let the flour cook in the butter until it turns light brown, stirring constantly, 3 or 4 minutes of so. Mix in one cup of the stock you reserved, and you can throw in a little white wine if you’d like, to make your gravy. Add the drained hearts and vegetables to the gravy and season to taste. We eat it with a savory blend – Italian seasoning for example. If it’s not wet enough to suit you, or if you need to stretch the recipe to go around to more bowls, add as much of the stock as you wish. You can eat it on its own, or add toast, corn bread, and/or a salad if you like, same as any other stew or soup. So there you go, a good cheap winter meal if you’re not quite committed to that vegetarian diet, which I’m not. Enjoy.