Thursday, October 13, 2016

"Them and Us"

When I was twenty and a new father, I drove trucks and cut hay for Western Alfalfa in Berthoud, Colorado.  Western Alfalfa made feed pellets out of the hay cut, hauled away, and processed from local farms and ranches stretching from the foot of the Rockies to Kansas and Nebraska.  It was the best paying job I could find at the time and I started to work the day after my last final at Regis.  The job paid a buck sixty an hour, but time and a half for overtime, and since I had to put in eighty-four hours a week, that added up to more cash than I had ever made before.

I worked in two week rotations throughout the harvesting season.  Monday through Saturday I would work from 5:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.  On Sunday, I'd come in at 5:30, work until 11:30, go home, try to sleep a little, come back at 5:30 p. m. and work around the clock until 5:30 the next morning, thus changing from the day to the graveyard shift.

Mostly, I picked up hay in a dump truck and drove it back to the mill where it would be processed into little green feed pellets, put into sacks, and carted off to feed stores across the country.  If you forget about the hours, there was a lot about the job I liked.  I liked driving by myself on country roads with the windows open.  I liked, and continue to like, the smell of cut alfalfa.  I liked the challenge of getting my truck into a field that defied entrance.

There were special times when the mill in Kersey, for instance, broke down and we would have to help them with their alfalfa.  That meant thirty and forty minute drives to and from the fields and life was good and easy.  And, of course, there were always rain delays.  Sometimes I got stuck out in the field with Ronny, the main cutter, and we would sit in my cab, or in a nearby barn, or under a tree, smoke, and hope that it would rain long enough to call it quits.  The best rain times were when I was at the mill waiting for the feeder lift to empty its load and the showers would come.  Standing in the mill with the rest of the crew was more interesting and a lot more comfortable than out in the field with Ronny.

Every  once in a while, when the field wasn't difficult to cut, or when they were short handed, I would get a chance to get up in a tractor and cut the field.  It was just like mowing a lawn only with more things that could go wrong.  Mostly, it was fun and I could see how you could spend a life cutting fields and hauling hay.

I was the only college type there and the rest of the guys took a certain delight in that.  It was vindicating for them to point out simple--for them--things I couldn't do, thereby proving that all that money spent at Regis had gone to waste.  But it was alway good-natured and, let me assure you, I gave as good as I got.

We all became pretty good friends, a friendship nothing like the ones I had back at Regis, or even the ones I had in high school.  In high school, I'm ashamed to admit, I used to make jokes about Future Farmers of America.  I mean I was in a group at Loveland High School that made it a point to wear wing-tips to school.  I had three pair:  cordovan, black, orange--yes--orange.  The FFA types wore baseball caps before it was fashionable to wear baseball caps.  They  wore cowboy boots before it was fashionable to wear cowboy boots.  They wore too tight nylon jackets, snap button shirts, and the outlines of chewing tobacco tins in their back pockets.

It was amazing.  All those guys I looked down my adolescent nose at in high school had turned into the crew at Western Alfalfa.  Ronny the mill operator, as opposed to Ronny the cutter, was my favorite, probably because we ended up hanging out together during rain outs.  The inside of the mill, right up next to the machinery, was one place you didn't want to be if you didn't  have to and Ronny had to.  As the hay fed through the grinders and compressors and god knows what on its way to becoming a pellet, a green mist of alfalfa dust gave the whole place an eery glow, Ronny beside a gear or a door wielding a pipe wrench or hammer.  He would emerge from the mist to say hello or bum a cigarette, but the mist would stay with him. His hair--after two summers I never could determine whether he was a blonde or brunette, not even in local bars after work--was always coated with green dust and, always the most affable of men, when he smiled, even his green teeth couldn't keep you from being happy to see him.

Lou was the field boss.  He was in his thirties and drove from field to field in a yellow Ford pick-up with a tool box in the back.  Teddy was the other field boss.  He was older than Lou, not nearly as fat and a great story teller.  He was the keeper of the history at Western Alfalfa.  There was Tom, a veteran cutter, who always looked like he was about to keel over from the heat, or the damp, or the booze.  You name it, he suffered from it or because of it.

All those guys were married and had children, just like me.  They cared about their job.  I don't mean they cared about keeping their jobs, or worried about their "benefits".  They cared about the craft of their job.  They liked talking about what gears you could use to cut certain fields.  They liked talking about fields that were tricky to cut.  They knew a little of the history of the farms and the fields of the area.  I ended up feeling the same way, discussing with great interest every aspect of the alfalfa industry in northern Colorado.  I can still drive down I-25 past Loveland and toward Fort Collins and point out the fields we cut, what gears we had to use.  I can also tell you that the number 503 truck had no guts and the tranny was about to go, while 505 hauled ass and 519 was new, shiny, and comfortable.

Their wives came by the plant with kids wrapped up in their arms to talk about  dinner plans.  They all were happy and waved and seemed like they were looking forward to spending time with the family that night and to more days like the one they just had.

About once a week, we'd go over to The Wayside Inn and have a beer or two, rehash the day, and talk a little bit about our families.  They would ask me why I majored in something boring and stupid like English and I would just laugh and agree that it might have been a dumb move.  Mostly, we complained about work, about the weather, about the price of whatever, and then we all went home to get a little sleep until the next shift.

I like thinking about those days.  I would like to think that I could sit down at that same bar and have a beer with Ronny and Lou and we would all have a good time.

I know that on a lot of things those guys see a different world than I see.  It is more urgent, more concrete, maybe more practical.  But I bet we would all say the same things about our families.  I bet we all want the same things.  I just refuse to believe that when you get right down to it, Ronny and I are that polarized.  I wish we could stop thinking the way the media has trained us to think, in black and white, absolutes, "Them and Us."

Katherine and I always stop at Johnson's Corner for breakfast when we travel to Jenny Lake Lodge.  We've been doing this for many years and we can't help but notice that the line-up of old workers at the coffee bar is always the same.  They all have their ball caps on.  Most of them have tape measures in holsters on their belts.  They tell each other stories, laugh, agree, shake their heads.  Ronny might be one of those guys, although none of them has a green tint.  There might be one of those FFA types I used to ridicule.  From where Kathie and I sit in our booth, they all seem genuinely nice and friendly.  Of course, I have tinnitus, so I can't really hear what they're saying.

I don't like living in parallel universes with people like Ronny and Lou.  On the other hand, I like the universe I've chosen.  I hope they like theirs as well.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016


I've never liked birthdays, mine in particular.  I never thought being born was much of an accomplishment.

And it has nothing to do with growing older.  Well, it has a little to do with growing older.  I think I just don't like people paying attention to me for no apparent reason.  I prefer to remain under cover if you know what I mean.

When we went to Mizuna Saturday night, there was a festive-as-hell card on the table with "Happy Birthday" written in felt-tipped pen with lots of stars and bubbles drawn in to complete the scene.  It was thoughtful and all that, but the table would have looked more elegant without the note.

Getting old is embarrassing.  It isn't embarrassing because of all those well-intentioned people paying attention, sending you cards with lame jokes about how you're not getting older, you're getting better, posting on Facebook, inviting you to lunch, inviting you to brunch, sending you stuff.

It is embarrassing because as you age you find yourself not gliding through life as smoothly as before.  You have to ask "What?" a lot more.  You are more apt to choke on something during dinner. You cough more in the morning.  You can still get down on the floor with your (grand)kids and play and get silly; you just can't get up without making a minor scene.  Your attention span isn't what it used to be.  You tend to despair whenever your computer opens up a new indecipherable dialogue box.  You begin to see that inevitable moment when younger shoppers will move to a new checkout line so they won't be stuck behind an old person with coupons.

The thing about all these little changes is not so much that they inconvenience you, the aging person, but that they inconvenience others.  It is irritating to  have to say everything twice to some doddering old codger with tinnitus.  I don't know about you, but when I'm in a restaurant and some old guy at the next table chokes on his fois gras, I feel uncomfortable.  I also found myself running for cover at the Y whenever (Name withheld) would try to get his 85 year old body into the hot tub.  He passed out once and I felt sure I would have to start pounding on the guy's chest.  He snapped out of it just in time.  But that's what I mean.  Pounding on some old guy's chest at the Y is an inconvenience.  Worse yet, people would notice.

Notice, I am not complaining, or whining, or in any other way, being negative.  I'm desperately fighting off negativity by trying to be clever.  But here's the thing.  I would like to do a little whining and complaining.  I'm sixty-eight fucking years old!  I have a right.

That's the hardest thing about this birthday.  I can't complain.  All the people I love won't let me.  Moans and groans are met with rolling eyes.  Any reference to age is immediately dismissed.  I suppose all of that is to make me feel good about being so well-preserved for my age.  When I told Jacqueline Bonnano my age the other night at Mizuna, she appeared taken aback and I'm not sure if that was good or bad.

I do, in fact, feel good about how I am soldiering through this whole age thing.  I think my grey beard makes me look either distinguished or like a homeless person, depending on what I am wearing.  I still weigh about the same as I did when I retired.  I can still wear the same things I was wearing when I was teaching, which is testimony to either the great shape I'm in, or the fact that I can't afford to buy anything new.

I've thought about this a lot lately.  After all, at age 68 it is a sobering thought to think I only have 30 or so more good years ahead of me.  But I have reached one conclusion.  I'd rather be twenty years younger.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Back From Jenny

Marriage Is An Agreement Between Two People To Watch Each Other.

In addition to hiking a little over fifty miles (less than usual, but we had lots of bad weather), playing in our kayak, and hanging out with great friends, I was able to finish three books over the two weeks we spent in Jackson Hole.  Our morning ritual, fine tuned after twenty years of going up there, lends itself to that.  We get up around six.  I shower, dress in hiking or kayaking clothes, grab Kathie's tea cup and go over to the lodge to fill it with hot water.  I bring it back, grab whatever book I'm working on and head back to the lodge to sit in front of a fire and read until someone--David, Joe, Terry, or the wine couple from Napa--shows up.  Then I close my book and we chat until Kathie arrives and we go in for breakfast.  I manage to get almost an hour of reading in every morning and a little more in the afternoon when we are resting up on Bluebell's front "porch" after that day's activities.

The first book was Zero K by Don DeLillo.  It is, for a DeLillo novel, a disappointing story told by a man whose father and step mother are in the process of arranging for their bodies to be "frozen" until some time in the future when the world is more hospitable.  Of course, this is a DeLillo novel, so the story is mostly a vehicle for the author to make random comments, some quite thrilling, about the ephemeral nature of everything.  I thought it was mediocre (if you know DeLillo, you of course appreciate the monumental arrogance of that statement), so that is all I'm going to say on that topic.

I finished The Insides by Jeremy P. Bushnell with two days to spare.  It tells the bizarre story of two ladies who possess magical qualities and are on a collision course over the broken off tip of an Excalibur kind of sword that when made whole will be able to cut through time and space and alter history.  It was a fun read, but the ending left me cold.  Too clever.  That's all I want to say about that.

The book I would like to talk about is The Throwback Special by Chris Bachelder.  It is about 22 aging men who have been getting together every year at a Ramada Inn kind of place where they meet in a kind of mini-convention and reenact the play on Monday Night Football where Lawrence Taylor breaks Joe Theisman's leg.  Anyone who has seen that play knows instantly what I'm talking about.

It is a wonderful idea for a novel that really focuses on the increasing worries of aging men and all the insecurity that brings.  It is hilarious and wise.  I will cite one example of that wisdom and let that speak for the rest.

One of the guys, Jeff, had a theory about marriage.  "All it is, he said, and he said he learned this too late, but all it is, is watching someone and having someone watching you."

I love that idea.  At first glance, it sounds like Jeff is trivializing the institution, but the more he talks about his theory the more beautiful it becomes.  Kids are watched all the time, at least we can hope so.  Parents watch their kids fill up their diapers, eventually sit on potty chairs, cut molars, make messes when they try to feed themselves, go to soccer games, get humiliated, get hurt, become elated.  They watch their kids go through school, figure out how to be friends, grow up.

But people stop watching when a kid grows up.  Sure, parents--good parents--never stop watching, but it isn't as immediate, at least not to the grown up kid being watched.  Marriage is basically an agreement that fulfills that watching void.  But it isn't the big stuff that we watch.  Everybody sees the big stuff.  It is the little stuff.  I watch Kathie come home frustrated after another meaningless meeting at Metro, or after a bad haircut.  I watch her dig weeds in the garden, make green chili, or marinara sauce, brush her teeth, redo her nails.  The thing is that none of that stuff is particularly interesting to watch, but that's okay because she's watching me do the same boring shit.  And her watching and my watching gives each of us validation, makes each of us appreciate our significance just like when we were children.

If, in addition to all this shared watching, there is love and/or great intercourse, intellectual and sexual, well, that's a bonus.  But it's the watching that matters.

"You're not in a movie, Jeff said.  He said that over and over.  Nobody sees you, he said.  He said that's why people pretend they're in movies.  People say they want privacy, but they would actually like a camera put out in their cold backyard at midnight, pointed through the kitchen window while they make a school lunch for their kids.  They want someone to just notice, Jeff said.  He said that's what marriage is for.  Otherwise, he said, honest to God, we're all just like penguins at the North Pole doing it all for no real reason."

I love the idea of this.  I love the idea that Kathie and I have spent 40 years together pointing our cameras at each other.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Giving Till It Hurts

I had to come down to the office to write this before I forgot.  There are dishes in the sink to be washed.  A newspaper to be read.  Packing for the Tetons to finish and a brunch at Lou's Foodbar to go to, but this is more pressing.

We have a new acronym (at least it is new to me) in the financial industry.  It isn't the kind of thing which is likely to bring about another great recession, but it does confirm my suspicions that there is no ethical or moral limit to greed on Wall Street.

DAF.  Has a nice ring to it, kind of like WMD, but not the thing Republicans will use to fuel our fears and lead us into another protracted war in the mideast.  Donor Assisted Funds are financial gimmicks created by giant financial institutions to profit from charitable contributions.  If you are one of the multi-millionaires profiting from a DAF, you would likely say that they are strokes of genius.  If you are someone in need of charity and waiting for the United Way to give you a little hand, you would say that they are reprehensible.

A financial institution like Fidelity creates something called Fidelity Charitable.  Fidelity Charitable offers a convenient way for the wealthy to give to those in need without actually giving to those in need.  Fidelity Charitable happily collects charitable donations and invests them until the giver directs Fidelity to send the donation(s) to a charity of the giver's choice.  The giver gets a tax deduction from the get go and the tax deduction is based on the accrued wealth of the "charitable" account.  If one gave, say, $100,000 and that, thanks to shrewd investing, grew to $2,000,000, you get to claim all two mill as your donation.  The tax advantage is huge.  The thing is that the DAF doesn't really have to abide by the directions of the givers.  If the giver says to give a hundred grand to AIDS research, the DAF looks at that as a suggestion and legally can continue to invest the money rather than give it away.

"In one case, a DAF sponsor went bankrupt and the donated funds were seized to pay its creditors.  In another case, the DAF sponsor used donated funds to pay its employees large salaries, hold a celebrity golf tournament, and reimburse the cost of litigation when a dissatisfied donor sued.  In both cases, courts ruled against the donors and upheld the rights of the fund sponsor to exert full legal control over DAF funds." (Cullman, Lewis and Madoff, Ray. "The Undermining of American Charity". The New York Review of Books, July 14, 2016.)

On the surface it sounds like a convenient service designed to act as a middle man between the wealthy and those who are in need.  In reality it is yet another scam to pad the wealth of the one per cent at the expense of the rest of us.  For instance, if I, a poor and humble retired school  teacher, gave a hundred bucks to a charity, I would receive a deduction commensurate with my tax bracket.  I don't know what my bracket is, but let us say that my income gets taxed at fifteen per cent.  That means I would get a fifteen dollar deduction for my hundred.  If a one per center gave that same hundred, he would get a forty dollar deduction commensurate with his bracket of 39.6.  And that goes up to 60 dollars if the donor gives property (read: stocks).  And, of course, once that hundred dollar donation goes to a DAF, the wealthy donor can wash his hand of the whole thing and watch his donation grow in value while across the country charitable giving that actually gets to the place where it can do some good, is declining precipitously.

I could get even more detailed, but that would require way too much scholarship for this early in the morning.  I often get puzzled about all the anger out there, but something like this goes a long way toward explaining it.  But, hey, no problem.  All we have to do is get Congress to leap into action and do something about this deplorable situation.  They're going to deal with it as soon as they address assault weapons and background checks.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Cousin Love

Today it is Katherine writing.   

My cousin Margaret gave Franny and I the pillow in the photo at a lovely gathering Franny hosted to honor Mom after Mom died earlier this month.  That cutie with the Shirley Temple locks is me and the jump-suited kiddo is my little brother Chuck.  Mom is proudly and happily showing us off to somebody.  Margaret found the photo (a bit of a miracle in that) and made two pillows like this in just days.  Margaret loves me.  I love Margaret.  Sometimes I think it borders on worship.  Both ways.  I was one of those lucky people who found lots of cousin love in my life. 

Margaret Ellen takes center stage in the number of wonderful cousin relationships I've had.  Mom's sister lived in Independence Missouri and Aunt Bonnie and her family vacationed at our house or nearby each summer until they eventually moved out here.  Margaret Ellen had about 4 years on me.  I still don't know or care about the exact difference in our age.  I do know that her birthday is the day after the 4th of July and I never forget that, but I rarely get her contacted on time.  She never forgets me.

When Margaret Ellen and her two big brothers visited each year my world turned upside down and all around.  Though I was a constant part of a neighborhood tribe of kids who went to my school, Margaret Ellen and her big brothers were more adult, funnier, and sarcastic.  They made me laugh in ways I didn't know were possible.  I laughed over things they said like I laughed when I read certain books or overheard certain adult conversations.  They were teaching me satire (bless their hearts) and teaching me how to deal with all the slings and arrows growing up was going to hand me.

They taught me practical things as well.  Rog taught me the power of a smirk.  He also taught me that the easiest money in the world for a kid was babysitting if you just liked the kids a little bit and paid attention a little bit.  He was, to this day, one of the best babysitters I ever knew.  Franny was better, but she even lesson-planned and helped one girl improve her reading skills.  

Margaret Ellen was the champ though.  She taught me how to be a teenage girl and how to deal with troubles.  My mom wanted me to grow up looking and acting like June Allison in the movies at that time.  Annette Funicello was my goal.  Margaret Ellen was Sandra Dee and so full of laughter and joy and love that she would take time after school to hang out with me in her garage and teach me several of the most practical things I've ever learned.

Margaret knew that cards and playing solitaire were ways to occupy lonely times and keep bad thoughts away by simply looking at cards rather than thoughts.  She was almost explicit about this.  She told me I would need to know about cards and solitaire and the sooner the better.  She started with shuffling.  I still shuffle cards the way she taught me.  I still play the games of solitaire she taught me when I actually play solitaire.  I can''t imagine playing solitaire on a machine.   Without detailing the instances,  there have been small and large disillusionments for me that shuffling cards and simply playing solitaire have helped heal.  Distraction is a good thing sometimes.

Margaret knew that there are hair and nail things I would need to learn.  If she had worn lots of make-up, she would have helped me there too.  She didn't wear much make-up that I remember.  My memory of her in this late-50's and early 60's is a sense of Sandra Dee laughter and innocence mixed with something really sultry and sexy that I certainly couldn't identify back then.  I thought she might have been sneaky.  Looking back, I'm pretty sure it was sexy and isn't that a little bit sneaky anyway?

I learned how to roll my hair in curlers.  I learned what happened to your hair if you used these weird pink things called "Spoolies" and what happened if you used rollers the size of orange juice cans.  I learned how many darn coats of nail polish it took to make your nails look decent and that mine would never look decent if I kept biting my nails.  I stopped biting my nails.  I learned that I wished I could pick my own clothes and shoes like Margaret Ellen did.  I learned to be a bit of a rebel.  A closet rebel, but a rebel still.

I learned how to dance.  She and I danced and danced in her garage.  It was the only exposure in my life to music other than Frank Sinatra or Steve and Edie or Mom's classical piano practicing (believe me it was great, but I was a kid and Chopin's etudes were way beyond my piano skills in playing ability or appreciation at that time).  Margaret Ellen's music danced by itself.  I would later be a star in Martha Graham's Ballroom Dance Class.  I credit Margaret Ellen.

I am sure there were more lessons then, but those I remember.  When I headed to college, Margaret Ellen became Maggie and a new life with a Rock and Roll manager would take over a life that didn't work out as hoped with a first husband.  Maggie was still my beloved cousin though and when I started living in Denver after my four years in Fort Collins, we became friends.  We went out drinking and I learned about taking risks and being silly as a grown-up.  I have never been able to be quite as silly as I can with Margaret or in front of classroom full of students.  Strangely I am not that silly in real life, but give me a room full of sophomores and I can tap dance or melt like the witch in The Wizard of Oz.  I would do it for my cousin too.  

After a goodly round of risk-taking lessons and lessons about dealing with the hazards of life you cannot control, you find me now.  I have watched and loved Maggie become Margaret now with a happy life that shows in the comfort in her soul.  Margaret has faced more difficulties than anyone I know and she has never wallowed in anything.  She deals with things.  She practices mercy more than anyone I know.  She laughs.  She moves on.  It is rare to find someone with these abilities.  

The last years watching Mom become somebody she was not and not really knowing what to do with this, I let Margaret be my inner guide.  You just keep trying.  You laugh.  You have mercy.  Mercy always.  Margaret is a church-goer and has been off and on her whole life.  She embodies the kind of Christianity I believe in when I do believe.  Mostly I believe in people rather than any particular religious dogma.  I believe people are good and that they laugh at you and with you and love you more often than not.  

Margaret is a huge part in my belief that almost all disillusionment can be conquered with a deck of cards, some perfect nail polish,  and some dancing.  With laughter and mercy, too, I can always move on.  

Cousins are a treasure and I have been blessed.  Justin Mitchell was and is another guide to my life.  The Mitchell cousins I played with in Aunt June's big and scary house full of secret passages and everything Victorian still fill me with joyful memories that have lasted throughout my life.  Stormy, Connie, Kathleen--they were teachers too.  I have a new cousin Jan on the Mitchell side too.  How I wish I had known her long ago.  

I feel badly for Franny.   Her brothers were older and had packs of cousins their own ages.   Franny grew up when her cousins were too young or too old or too far away.  She tried to play the loving cousin to my brother's kids, but her joyful lessons about wearing sweatshirts untucked and the fun of going down alpine slides at WinterPark didn't ever quite play out as planned.  Franny knew she was missing something.  One of the joys of my life is that our grandkids have cousins and plenty of them.

Last week we watched Chris's kids at his house.  We met Franny and the girls at the Wildlife Experience near Parker.  We were walking to the entry and Willa started running towards us with her arms wide open towards us.  It reminded me of Breck shampoo commercials in the 60's--I mean this was perfect.  Here was our grand girl running as fast as she could towards us with her arms open for us to catch her.  She went right by us.  It was Brooklyn she was happy to see.  Cousin love.  Happy.  

Sunday, May 8, 2016

It's All Horse Piss And Rotted Straw

It is a long standing tradition in Katherine's extended family to have a Derby Day Party when the Kentucky Derby runs.  We all show up at Jennifer and Joe's house, place our bets on the race, and drink a lot of beer.  After the race, we adjourn to a makeshift race track marked off in blue painter's tape where the younger ones are given impressive wooden horses and little dickeys with the number of the horse to wear over their torsos.  Then we place bets in twenty-five cent increments.  Then the race proctors, I guess you'd call them, roll three dice and call out the results.  "Number One move forward.  A double Three moves up two."  At the end of the race, the proctors figure out the results and pay off the winners.  Those races take up the rest of the afternoon.

This has never been one of my favorite get-togethers.  There is always the chance that not enough kids will be in attendance and I might have to grab a horse and a dickey.  Not something I want to do at this stage in my life.  The dice horse race is something Kathie's parents discovered on a cruise one year and we have been racing for quarters ever since.  I guess those are the kinds of things folks do to entertain themselves on a cruise.  Right there is yet another in a long list of reasons why I would rather die than go on one.

Even though Derby Day has never been something I looked forward to, Franny used to love it.  She loved "riding" the horses and cousin Roger would somehow always see to it that Franny went home with lots of cash.  She would regularly score fifty bucks or more.  She used to take her friends to Derby Day as well.  They also went home big winners.

Well, now it is Willa's turn to look forward to Derby Day.  Last year was her first and her mount won the first race.  She has been chomping at the bit, so to speak, to get back up in the saddle ever since.

I picked Willa up at school last Friday and we were talking about the upcoming weekend.  "Tomorrow's Derby Day!" she called out through a huge smile.  It was clear to her, if last year was any indication, that she was going to ride her horse to one victory after another and it was a joy to see the anticipation on her face.

Yesterday was the big day.  Usually, all the ladies in the family wear elaborate hats for the occasion in the spirit of Churchill Downs, so this year Willa walked through the door in a straw hat with a flower attached and a lovely summer dress.  The smile that started in my car the day before had not gotten any smaller.  Even better, there was a little girl there Willa's age and they spent all the time during the Derby and leading up to the cruise ship races chasing each other around Joe's big back yard.

It wasn't too long before the little ones were given their horses and their dickeys (how do you spell that?).  Willa was riding the number four horse.  She proudly came over and showed us her mount and fairly shivered at the thought of lining up for the first race.  Her face was so full of excitement that I cried a little.

The race FINALLY came.  Number One jumped out to a big lead.  Number Two was close behind followed by Three and Six.  By the time the race was drawing to a close, there were five kids in dickeys holding five wooden horses gathered around the finish line.  Number Four, Willa's horse, was still at the starting gate (I could have told her that four is a rotten number in a dice game).  Her smile was still bravely plastered on her face, but it was clear that it wouldn't take much for her to break into tears.  All that anticipation, all that joy, shot down in flames.

"Remember what we talked about yesterday," I told her.  "When you lose, just snap your fingers and say 'You can't win 'em all."  Her smile got a little wider, but her eyes were glistening.  All in all, it was a beautiful moment, one I won't soon forget.

James Joyce's "Araby" is my favorite short story.  To my way of thinking, it ranks with the first act of THE TEMPEST as the most perfect piece of writing I know.  It is about a boy who spends every waking moment day dreaming about the big fair--Araby--that he is going to attend that evening.  He imagines all the things he will see, the prizes he will win, the girl he'll see there.  When it comes time to go, there always seems to be something that postpones his departure.  A new chore needs to be done.  Dinner lasts forever.  There's always something.

When he finally makes it to Araby, the stalls are clearing out, the midway is almost deserted, there are no prizes to be won, no girl to meet.  Everything that had been building up in the poor little kid for that entire day had been pulled out from under him.

Disgusted with the situation, but more disgusted with his stupid dreams, he bitterly sees the fair and his anticipation for what they were.

"It's all horse piss and rotted straw."

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

With Reverence and Love: My Mom Just Died--Gonna Eat Some Toast

THIS IS KATHERINE.  Mom had a stroke during breakfast on April 23rd and died yesterday afternoon.  Franny and I were with her.  The journey that Franny and I have traveled for the last ten days has taught us both so much.  With reverence and love for Mom, I want to talk about all we have learned during this passage and try to explain how the title of this post came to be.  Wait for it.

Mom had Alzheimer's and my journey to this place really began almost three years ago when it was clear Mom had lost time and paranoid worries about thieves entering her apartment had become a part of my life on a regular basis.  Mom couldn't tell what day it was or read any kind of clock although it took me far too much time to figure this out.  I began to figure out her calendar of appointments and would call her to get ready for bridge or her hair-do or outings with her friend George.

At the same time I was being Mom's social secretary, I also became the middle man between Mom and the police department.  Mom's jewelry and money and even worse, her Nelson Eddy DVD collection were vanishing and she would call the police.  Once I discovered she was hiding things and then forgetting where she hid them, I convinced her to call me instead of the cops.  I learned her hiding places and teased her constantly about our game and that I was on to her--I knew her best hiding places.  In the daytime, she would laugh and we began hunting together.  Things must have been a nightmare of confusion for her at night.

I remember when Chuck and I had to confront her about all this.  I took her car keys and even though it was a family decision, she aimed her wrath at me--if you knew Mom then you knew her belief in cars and driving dominated her thinking even when her mind was, well, her mind.  Chuck and I started taking her to doctors.  The worst was the first where I was alone with Mom for the appointment and she had to complete a cognitive test.  When she couldn't draw the face of clock from memory and then could not even copy one right in front of her, I knew my mom was really gone.

I have been losing Mom for three years and a new and different Mom emerged over and over again.  The latest version was a happy lady.  She had a huge romantic fantasy that controlled her life.  Mom believed in love and marriage even more than she believed in cars and driving.  Her life was informed by the movies she watched and dreamt about when she was a little girl.  For Mom, being in love and being a wife, was the meaning of it all.  With Dad gone, and then her realistic mind retreating daily, Mom created George, fell in love with him, planned an inordinate number of weddings with him, and stalked him at her assisted living place.

George is connected to reality though and my weekly visits with Mom made me and the Sunrise staff where she lived about the only folks who knew what kept driving her on and keeping her, well, focused.  There are two real human Georges and a series of movies that Mom's fantasy were based upon.  I came to love the blend of the three Mom was so enamored of--I could understand why he curled her toes the way he did.

The first George lived at the same apartment complex Mom did when she was still on her own and they were good, good friends.  They went to dinner together everyday and most breakfasts.  They went to movies and concerts and Mom just loved hanging out with him.  He was smart and funny and he thought Mom was a looker.

The second George lives at Sunrise where Mom did.  I think Jay Gatsby would look like him if he had survived until his late 80's.  This George is tall and slim and Mom thought he was the best looking man in the place.  She was right.  This George, however, had a mind like Mom's.  He had one phrase he repeated over and over again--"And what are you up to today?"  I can't tell you how many times during any one visit he would ask me that.  I can understand why Mom planted a new personality on him.

The last piece of Mom's mythical George was Nelson Eddy from the old movies.  Mom loved Nelson Eddy as a kid and collected his DVD's to watch and then watched them over and over again.  She made me watch them too.  You have to be pretty old to know about Nelson Eddy.  He was the guy who played the Canadian Mountie in the movies and sang "Sweet Mystery of Life at Last I've Found You."

The George I came to know had the mind of the first George, the body of the second George, and the talents and traveling needs of Nelson Eddy.  When Mom couldn't find George, she let me know he had a fine singing voice and was busy doing concerts around the country.   When Mom could see the real George at her place, she ate meals with him and would wait in various spots at Sunrise (her place) in case he might walk by.  This George likes to walk around the outside of the building several times a day and the path went beneath Mom's window.  She sat there often waiting for George to walk by.  There was a point when I asked Mom's caretaker if Mom was bothering George with her stalking and Maryann laughed--George pretty much was meeting Mom for the first time every time he saw her.  This was a pretty big relief for me.

Since all Mom's thoughts of love always led to marriage, it didn't take long before I would get calls about finding her wedding dress or her telling me I needed to pull the weeds in our backyard because she wanted to have the wedding there.  I learned that there is no talking someone with Alzheimer's out of their thoughts so I would tell her the dress was at my house and the weeds were pulled and she would relax and go back to her wedding planning.

The staff at Sunrise learned Mom's fantasy and chipped in.  Mom assigned Lindsey, the activities director and self-proclaimed non-musical person, the job of playing the guitar and singing at the ceremony.  Janet, her daily dresser, was going to be her flower girl.  The wedding grew in size.  Venues changed.  My jobs increased and decreased with her moods.  Her love of George and her upcoming marriage to George was the light that guided her the last years of her life.  She never lost Dad, but finding romance was what she wanted in the end.

Yesterday, the staff at Sunrise visited Mom off and on throughout the day.  They loved Mom.  Mom would sing "Tea for Two" and "Strike Up the Band" as she walked down the halls.  She never got mean as some Alzheimer's patients do.  She just fell crazy in love with mythical George.  Staff members cried and hugged her and said good-bye and Franny and I cried each and every time to see how much they loved her.

The most moving moment was when Lindsay brought in her motorcycle speaker and played "The Wedding March" for Mom only hours before she died.  Lindsey played "Tea for Two" for her as well.  It was as real a wedding as I have ever seen.

Mom's actual passing was profound and cosmic and will stay with Franny and I forever.  Teena (my sister-in-law), Franny and I spent hours and hours and hours with Mom the last days.  At this time, it was just Franny and I.  Mom had lingered far longer than our hospice nurse felt possible.  We had all given her permission to go and said our good-byes.  All the physical signs that hospice warned us of had happened and she was still here.  She was working so hard to breathe.

Franny and I had returned to see Mom after a long morning with her.  Teena had been with us, but she needed to take care of some things.  Franny and I somehow knew we needed to go back.  We did and Franny began reading another one of Mom's travel journals to her.  On a whim and with a pure understanding of Mom's need to ALWAYS BE ON TIME, Franny looked at Mom and told her that she shouldn't be late.  Folks were waiting for her.  It was 3:00 then and Franny told Mom she needed to leave at 3:30.

Franny read about a trip Mom and Dad were taking to Tahoe and with Mom's penchant for detail we had heard about various important bathroom stops and lots of chicken fried steak.  We would stop and laugh or talk about some detail and then remind Mom how much time she had before she would be late.  I remember telling her she had to leave in six minutes.  I noticed her still-working right eye was crying.

Just before 3:30, the hospice nurse (God bless Leslie) arrived and we childishly told her that we had given Mom a deadline and I asked about Mom crying.  Leslie told us she was probably saying good-bye and Franny and I grabbed our purses and started planning a time for our next visit.  Franny decided to go check Mom's tears and kiss her good-bye one more time and Mom gasped and that was the last real breath.  Franny and I dropped our purses by the bathroom door and hugged each other as we walked back to Mom.  We watched her pass.  It was profound, involved physical changes that can't really be put into words, and made us cry even more when we both thought we had couldn't cry any more than we already had.

As Mom traveled this journey she saw "the light," "church doors," and "the face of god."  She reached for and saw Dad, her nephew Rog, and her father.  She drove a wonderful new car she hadn't ever seen before.  Franny and I were changed and will change more from having lived this passage with Mom.  We will be forever grateful.

When I was a young teacher, we had spring end-of-the-year picnics where there was copious celebrating.  There was one such party when we all started talking about funny country western song titles.  The winning title was provided by Ken Weaver who taught Special Ed and coached our tennis team.  He knew about "My Dog Just Died--Gonna Eat Some Toast" and even brought in the record to play the next fall.  It's a title I made a lot of fun of during my teaching career.  I always imagined this country yokel whose dog had died and then the jerk just went and had toast.  I was wrong.  It was a great title and I wish I could find the words to the whole song in case the rest is just as profound.

Franny and I have lived the last ten days outside the world of normalcy.  No meal has been normal.  No sleep has been normal.  Our jobs have not been normal because we have not been normal.  Franny's relationship with her husband and girls and my relationship with Jim have not been normal.    I can't think of any truly normal thing I have done during this time.

This morning I rose, picked up my drawings (I do wee meditative drawings each morning) and made a pot of tea.  I found some bread and made some toast.  I drew my pictures, drank my tea, and ate my toast with reverence and love for Mom and for normalcy.  That old country western song wasn't making fun of a jerk.  That song was showing the huge love and reverence involved in the shift from death to a return to a normal world.  My mom just died--gonna eat some toast.