Thursday, February 2, 2023

Water


            The doctor told me that as people get older (he said “over 55,” which to my mind does not count as “older”), the part of the brain that tells us we are thirsty doesn’t work very well. I quietly added it to my “doesn’t work very well” list.

 

            He told me this because of my sore leg. I’d been experiencing pain in my right calf for over a month, and it had recently gotten worse, sometimes spreading to my right shin, and sometimes making my whole right leg feel a bit weak. When I say “pain” I mean something Kim might call “discomfort,” in comparison to what she goes through. But I digress . . ..

 

            When I told Genne’ about it, she used her physical therapy skills to try to treat me over the phone, giving me a couple of different massage techniques, along with heat and then ice, to try to break up whatever was going on with my muscles. This helped bring short term relief but did not cure my intermittent discomfort, which only bothered me after going down a flight of stairs or walking more than 50 yards. I skipped the ice.

 

            Then we heard from a friend about her cousin who had died from a blood clot – and he was only 52. This drove me to google, where I learned that circulation problems might cause my kind of leg pain, and that I should see a doctor. I got an appointment the next day.

 

            Dr. Kroll asked me a lot of questions, felt around a bit (of course, no pain while I was in his office), ruled out blood clots, and concluded that it might be “an electrolyte problem.” He asked how much water I drank each day. I said I drank a full glass of water with every breakfast. He paused for me to continue. I asked him if coffee counted. He said it did not. He told me I should drink 40-64 fluid ounces per day, and he wrote that on the back of his card so I could not use my senior memory as an excuse. He also suggested 350-400 mg. of magnesium oxide, taken before bedtime.

 

            When Kim asked me what the doctor said, I told her that she would be shocked to learn that I don’t drink enough water. She smiled and shook her head, as she’s been telling me that for years. I have not yet told Genne’, who has been advising Kim and me to drink much more water, and she may have assumed that we were following her expert advice. Nope.

 

            Kim wisely suggested that one way to increase my uptake is to drink a glass whenever I am waiting for the microwave to reheat my coffee. This, in addition to the obvious 8 ounces with every meal – not just breakfast. I’m not going to be one of those people who carries a water bottle around, hooked to my belt, but I am trying to drink a glass every time I walk past a faucet.

 

            And now, about a week after my doctor upped my water intake, my leg feels somewhat better. I am not expecting a quick cure. After all, I am making up for about 50 years of dehydration, which means I need to consume about 5000 gallons to make up the deficit. If you have any questions about how that is going, you know where to find me.

Thursday, January 26, 2023

Stringer’s Thrasher

Sometimes my blog posts present a modest suggestion, or perhaps even a nugget of wisdom, about how to live one’s life, especially as we age. Well, this entry clearly does nothing like that. I wrote it about ten years ago, and it was published in Bird Watcher’s Digest.

 

 

Stringer’s Thrasher

 

            Sometimes your fifteen minutes of fame just flies up to you, lands, and waits for you to take its picture. And sometimes you are only famous for about fifty people. But still . . ..

 

            We drove from Gainesville up to St. George Island in Florida’s Panhandle, a four-hour trip that we turned into eight by stopping at four state parks along the way. The parks were mostly deserted – it was November – and most of our stops were brief. But we were excited to discover an altogether new species of bird at Ochlockonee River State Park: a woodpecker that appeared to be a cross between a Red-headed and a Cockaded. As we were leaving the park Kim and I discussed how we would like it named. Perhaps the Stringer Woodpecker?

 

            We showed our photograph to the ranger. She copied our photo with her phone and promised to show it to the park naturalist, an avid birder whom we had met when we arrived. We left our phone number for confirmation.

 

            He called a few hours later to tell us it was, in fact, an immature Red-headed Woodpecker – commonly seen in the area. This was a bit of a downer, but we were still cheered by knowing we had been famous for about two hours, if only to three people: ourselves and the ranger.

 

            But this was just a prelude.

 

            By late afternoon we had explored much of St. George Island State Park, where we had not seen many birds, though we did make contact with a large population of sand fleas. Kim’s bite totals might have qualified her for the Guinness Book of Records, but I neglected to count them.

 

            As the sun was setting we parked in the lot that was as far in as we could drive. After our sand flea experience we were not up for a hike through the brush and trees. Kim spotted a bird that looked to me like our common Northern Mockingbird, though a bit smaller. In retrospect, the colors and markings were entirely different. Not surprising that I did not notice. I’m the kind of birder to whom all sparrows look pretty much alike. We followed our usual practice: take a photograph that we – that is, Kim - checks against our birding Bibles that fill a shelf near her computer.

 

            My guess was an immature Mockingbird. (One thing I’ve learned about bird identification is that, when confused, preface your guess with the word “immature.” The guess is always wrong, but at least people know that you have the word in your vocabulary.)

 

            Kim is not as lazy as I am. She actually looked it up, and she found it – a Sage Thrasher. One problem: according to the books, the Sage Thrasher isn’t found in Florida. So, I privately dismissed the possibility, but Kim, who for some reason tends to believe what she sees with her own eyes over what she is told in a book, said we should contact Rex, our local birding guru who often helps us with bird identification.

 

            I sent him an email with our photo of the Stringer Woodpecker and our St. George Island bird. I suggested the latter might be a Sage Thrasher but also, to cover my bet, mentioning my Immature Northern Mockingbird theory.




            Rex confirmed the Red-headed Woodpecker but was excited (“That’s a major find!”) by the Sage Thrasher. A series of emails made us more and more specific about where we saw it. Which parking lot? What side of the parking lot? On which railing? What day and what time? He mentioned how rare this bird was in Florida, and he offered to post it on one of the Florida birding listservers that birdgeeks follow closely.

 

            Then Rex sent us a warning: The word “stringer” has a clear meaning in British birding jargon. The link to a website put it this way: “Stringer: A birder who has built up a reputation in birding circles for identifying birds incorrectly, in particular with regard to claims of rarities. Twitchers [serious British birders] think twice before chasing rarities that have been recorded by a suspected stringer. A stringer often has a large lifelist which is considered with scepticism by other birders. Difficult to prove that a person is a stringer, and thus birders are sometimes unfairly branded as such.”

 

            How amusing! We looked up Rex’s posting, which mentioned Kim Stringer’s name, and we started to enjoy our fame. Then we read the following posting: “Rex - do you really expect us to believe this Sage Thrasher report (not a record until confirmed by someone else...)? Most stringers do not wish to insinuate they are lying to us, and make every attempt to sound legitimate, such as DF, Sir Harry, and a few others that will go un-named in case some bimbo decides to pass on this email. But Kim Stringer?? Posted on Hogwash Flickr account?? Are you serious??”

 

            Fortunately, our sighting was rare enough that birders flocked [sorry] to St. George Island, and one of them, a non-stringer, took a photo of our bird.

 

            At Rex’s suggestion we contacted an official Florida birding sight to record details of our find. And we signed up at three different birding listservers, so now we get twenty or more notices of sightings in Florida, some of them rare and some not so rare. Our moment of fame has passed in the blizzard of digital communications.

 

            Though our moment in the spotlight has faded, it has had at least one lasting benefit. The ancient Greeks taught us an important lesson: Know Thyself. And now I know that my name means “bullshitter.”


 

Thursday, January 19, 2023

Shark


            Kim and I have decided to move. Well, perhaps “decided” is too strong a word. We are planning how to move away from this home that we love. Some may feel that this is not a great idea for 80-year-olds with ongoing cancer treatments, pain and fatigue as a result of those treatments, a bit of knee surgery, toe surgery, arthritis, etc. We are “planning” because planning is an act of the mind and imagination. We have talked with a few realtors, but we have yet to put stuff in boxes or make a deposit of the well-named “earnest money.”

 

            Why would we leave here? Several reasons lead us to think about it and make some plans.

·      Depressing. This has been a gray and uncomfortable winter, except for the beautiful and exciting snowfalls we had, both of which quickly melted. It’s hard to go for walks in the ice, mud and wind. Maybe Florida in the winter?

·      Isolated. Our neighbors have fled to warmer temperatures. Visits from family are difficult, partly because of distance (Florida, Georgia, Colorado) and partly because of some family friction. And some of our neighbors here have some sort of grudge against us (hard to believe, right?), which makes neighborhood summer gatherings difficult. We have more friends in Florida, and we would not be in a remote location. The nearest traffic light to our home here is 15 miles away.

·      Overworked. Maintaining a home takes a lot of work, when you consider yard, garden and beach on top of routine maintenance (filters, smoke alarms, doorbell battery, painting touchups, etc.) on top of routine cleaning, laundry, cooking, dishes, etc., almost all of which Kim does for us. And then there is the occasional blizzard and power failure to deal with. Did I mention that we are on the verge of being old?

 

            At this point we are considering a number of Snowbird options. We saw a beautiful house for sale in Gainesville in our old neighborhood overlooking the wildlife of Paynes Prairie. Two problems: 1) The house is expensive and would really stretch our budget, and 2) there is an offer pending on the property. (The second problem probably cancels out the first.) If, somehow, we got the house, we could sell our Bark House here (recently got a good appraisal from a realtor) and move, for six months or so, to a more modest condo nearer to family and friends in the Ann Arbor area.

 

            Another possibility is to keep this house and find a more modest – but still cool – house in or near Gainesville. We have seen one online, but it’s hard to tell how much work it needs, and the laundry equipment is in the kitchen, next to the refrigerator and blocking a window. We have friends looking. We could do 6 months / 6 months, as we did for ten years.

 

            Before we had our eyes on a return to Florida, we were considering a simple move to a condo in a community just outside of Ann Arbor. We could live there part of the year, or, when our Bark House becomes too much for us, full time. The problem is that no units are for sale in that community, though we do have a realtor looking. So, we are looking at two separate moves to places over 1000 miles apart. We could do both.

 

            Or, we can just stay here. We can pay for a lot of help for what a house would cost.

 

            Part of my brain imagines the process of moving, and at my age, it’s not all fun. In addition to all the packing and hauling boxes, there are all those decisions about what to keep, what to sell, what goes where, and how to find movers we can trust. I remember learning in Lamaze class that transition is the hardest part of labor (not for the guy . . .), and the transition would be a hard part of moving. I’m still learning how our Bark House works – the maintenance (smoke alarm batteries, furnace filters, water softener salt, garage door lubrication, etc.) – and I’d have to learn another one. Kim, despite her pain and fatigue, is less daunted by this than I am. And after all, we have moved nine times in the 30+ years we have been married. Moving in and out of homes is a bit like breathing, in contrast to holding your breath, or not breathing.

 

            All of this planning has been very energizing, even if it amounts to nothing. And all the planning, combined with searching on realtor.com and Zillow, has turned on our creative juices, especially Kim’s, as she is looking forward to organizing and decorating a new place – or several new places. At breakfast one morning she explained where various pieces of furniture and artwork would go in a house we later learned is not for sale – ideas she had in the middle of the night. It’s also turned on another part of our brains as we try to figure out how to best pay for whatever we end up doing – also creative, but in a different way.

 

            Or: Forget buying a second house and just travel to B&Bs whenever we feel like it. Keep moving.

 

            The decision to move is as much about our relationship as it is about housing. Woody Allen said, famously, “A relationship, I think, is like a shark, you know? It has to constantly move forward or it dies. And I think what we got on our hands is a dead shark.” Kim reassures me, “Don’t worry – we’ll be happy wherever we are.” With that attitude, we will keep our shark alive.

 

Thursday, January 12, 2023

Good News

 

            “Good news,” the doctor said. “You have cancer.”

 

            No, that’s not exactly what she said, but that’s how it felt to me. As a “survivor” (more on that later) of a melanoma on my cheek two years ago, I was understandably nervous when my dermatologist mentioned the possibility of a return of the disease in two moles on my face – each less than two inches from my scar.

 

            She carved out some cells for the biopsies as I tried to make confident jokes using my Cary Grant voice from a late-night North by Northwest a few weeks back: “All this cutting is taking the fun out of coming here.” I was told to come back in a week to get the stitches removed and the results of the biopsy.

 

            And quite a week it was. I’m naturally an optimistic person, but Cary Grant quickly faded into wherever old movie voices go. So I lapsed briefly into self-pity – you know: “It’s really OK if I die now anyway. I won’t be missed that much.” Unfortunately, when I mentioned at work the possibly grim biopsy results, people expressed only mild interest before moving on to other topics. Apparently there was a lot going on in their lives that was much more interesting than my imminent death. A subtle shift of direction took me to Garrison Keillor’s mockery of the stoic inhabitants of Lake Wobegone: “That’s OK. I’ll be fine. It’s nothing, really. You go on ahead without me.” I found myself comfortable, for a few days, with self-ridicule. Much more comfortable for me than experiencing true emotions.

 

            Then, after seeing Julie and Julia with Kim, I decided to take the stoicism a step further, accepting as my mantra a line used by Julia Childs after receiving some bad news: “Oh, well. Boo-hoo. Now, what?” This seemed more constructive than self-pity, even ironic self-pity. While I was not totally comfortable speaking through Meryl Streep – I prefer Cary Grant – the Meryl/Julia package did the job for me. I even practiced receiving bad news from the doctor – right after saying a clench-jawed Hemingway-esque “Shit.” Saying “merde,” I thought, would sound too literary.

 

            I was now developing a portfolio of voices, and Kim helped me expand and refine my repertoire. She gave me just the right amount of caring when she turned tearfully to me on the couch during a commercial and told me that she had been looking at some pictures of me and realized how much she would miss me. This pretty much destroyed the “I won’t be missed that much” self-indulgence, but it left me with the chilling prospect of a naked emotional response.

 

            I was saved by a creative move on her part, bringing together two themes of our recent marital conversations: How to improve our marriage (I think her word was “save”), and what to include on our croak list – a term we used before The Bucket List came out. Turns out that many of the same items appear on both lists! I found myself, of course, not being Jack Nicholson but rather Morgan Freeman – reluctant to break out of his shell and do anything daring, or even different. Besides, I cannot imitate Jack Nicholson. Neither can Kim, but she does fine just being herself. I had to internalize my Morgan Freeman voice, mainly because Kim had seen the movie with me and would figure out what I was doing.

 

            So we started planning adventures. Trips to Nova Scotia. To the park across the street. Maybe to Key West. To Columbus, Ohio. To the movies. I know – none of these is the top of the Great Pyramid or Mount Everest, but it’s a step up from checking the scores on espn.com and watching The Bachelorette.

 

            I refuse, by the way, to see myself as a cancer survivor. My wife and daughter have filled that role rather well, both as breast cancer survivors, though neither one lists “survivor” at the top of her resume’. Besides, I don’t think anyone can count himself or herself as a cancer survivor until he or she dies of something else. I’ve survived being a cancer survivor: Oh, well. Boo-hoo. Now, what? So as much as I enjoy Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,” that’s not my song. If you’ve ever heard me sing, you are glad of this.

 

            So why was the appearance of cancer on my face “good news”? Well, it was the “right” kind of cancer: basal cell carcinoma, not melanoma. Curable. Not particularly disfiguring – though my career as a pre-mask ice hockey goal tender, plus my melanoma, pretty much removed modeling from my croak list. I’ve mentioned to people at work that “I have cancer” – without adding that it’s the good kind – with no discernible impact on their lives.

 

            Still on my croak list is giving a naked emotional response. To be more precise – it’s giving one when I’m not actually naked. If I can do that it will be really good news. I’m searching movies, starting tonight, to find someone to show me how.

Thursday, January 5, 2023

Resolution


            Several summers ago we discovered a bat flying around our basement as we attempted to watch television. It probably came down the chimney. I tried several techniques to get it out the door at the top of the stairs, but it would not fly to the porch light. After about an hour I gave up, shut the basement door, and went to bed. I would deal with the bat tomorrow.

 

            The next morning when I went down to the basement I heard a faint metallic sound, and I soon saw that the bat had trapped itself in a metal wastebasket – how and why, I am not sure. But it was easy to carry the wastebasket up the stairs and out the door, where I could release it.

 

            That, I thought, is how problems should be solved. Do nothing, and by the next morning, it fixed itself. This sometimes works with my computer, where turning it off, and then on, fixes a problem. I’ve also learned to “reboot the modem,” a term that impresses people until they see that it means to unplug it, wait for half a minute, and then plug it in again. Problem solved.

 

            I’ve applied the same technique to my New Year’s Resolutions. I’ve joked in the past that it’s easy for me to come up with my New Year’s Resolutions, for all I need to do is say, “Same as last year.” Ha-ha. But this year, as Kim and I discussed resolutions, she came up with, “Be yourself.” Easy, right? Who else am I going to be? Just wake up in the morning and my modem will be rebooted and the bat that’s been flying around inside my head will be in a wastebasket.

 

            A little discussion, however, made it clear that being oneself is not always so easy. We spend a lot of time trying to live up to other people’s expectations for us, even if those other people are our dead parents. And we feel bad when we don’t measure up. Being yourself can lapse into being someone else’s version of you. I’m guilty of that, having been labeled clumsy as a child because I occasionally dropped things. Dishes, for example.

 

            Being yourself is also not so simple if you are living with a life-partner, where some compromise is inevitably an ingredient of a successful partnership. My way around that potential problem is to realize that part of my self-identity is “good partner.” The trick, though, is not to overdo that, so the partnership does not veer into martyrdom and victimhood. Kim made it very clear, in a context that I don’t want to go into here, that she is rejecting the victim role, and along with it, any unwelcome role that others may attempt to assign, and I should, too. Clear enough. One solution is to minimize dealings with those who attempt to impose unwelcome roles on you. Be yourself, yourself. Define yourself, and become that person.

 

            A related problem with “be yourself” is that we, of course, have more than one self, depending on the context we find ourselves in. (I don’t think I need examples to illustrate this.) Is one of our selves more authentic than the others? I remember an old Bill Cosby bit (back when he was a good guy) where someone told him that smoking pot would help him become his real self. Cosby’s response: “But what if your real self is an asshole?”

 

            So, maybe, the wisdom behind “be yourself” is simply to be the best version of yourself that you can, under the circumstances. In other words, don’t be a martyr or some other kind of asshole. Unplug your modem, and plug it in again, making a fresh start. Let the bat go.

Thursday, December 29, 2022

Blizzard

 

            We found ourselves trapped in a blizzard in the days leading up to Christmas. Genne’, who is here with her son, Ben, says it’s like being in a snow globe. Fortunately, no one is shaking it – at least, not yet. Genne’ is from Florida and Ben from Georgia, so all the snow was very appealing to them. Kim and I felt the appeal, too, though we will be dealing with snow for a long winter.

 

            We’ve been outside a couple of times. Not to drive, of course – that’s out of the question for a few days – but to shovel the path from the house to the garage, in case we are able to drive somewhere. Each time I shoveled it was about 6 inches deep, and I’ve learned that it’s better to do light loads several times rather than doing the heavy lifting. Our guy has plowed the road once so far (it was Friday afternoon when I wrote this), with one or two more in the next few days. I’m going to ask him to swing into our driveway next time, as that kind of work, with over a foot of snow so far – is a bit much for my 80-year-old heart.

 

            Meanwhile, we are enjoying the swirling snow, especially as it blows off the trees. We notice the wind patterns on the surface of the as yet unfrozen lake. This morning I caught a glimpse of our fox going by the house, and we’ve seen his tracks, sometimes following a rabbit. Snow is piling up on window sills, increasing the cozy factor, and Kim served us a little wine with the lunch she prepared for the four of us.

 

            Kim had her arthroscopic knee surgery on the Solstice. It was successful, though a bit more complicated that we anticipated. She is now walking, icing, resting, and elevating, and she has resumed taking care of me, though Genne’ cooked an excellent dinner, and Ben will be doing Saturday night. Christmas day will be a team effort. I am especially grateful to Genne’ for her generosity and medical expertise in taking care of her mother. The blizzard has sealed us in together, and that has warmed my appreciation.

 

            Also adding to the coziness factor was the loss of power on Christmas Eve. It was around dinner time, but Ben’s cooking was underway, and he finished by flashlight. We enjoyed a candle-light dinner and a nice fire in the fireplace. Power came on in time for us to wash the dishes.

 

            The blizzard was not all cozy. Genne’ and I decided, for some reason, that it was a good idea to go out in the car, even though our little dirt road had not been plowed recently and the sheriff told us to stay off the roads. We did well for about 50 yards, and then we found ourselves lying down to shovel snow out from in front of the tires and under the body of the stranded car. Finally, with Genne’ pushing and me driving, we worked the car free and were on our way to the store, which was, of course, closed. Genne’ said the whole adventure was “fun.” She and Ben also took several long walks in the snow and wind, over to the shore of Lake Michigan several miles away – also, I suppose, fun. My contribution to the fun was to make sure that fresh coffee was ready for their return. 

 

            The snow and wind continued for several days. Part of our “snow-globe” experience was the exclusion of the world outside of our bubble. Yes, wars and politics were still taking place, along with some lingering family issues, inflation and the destruction this storm was creating around the country, but we were transfixed by the blowing snow outside our windows. I was reminded of Samuel Johnson’s definition of wonder as “the effect of novelty on ignorance.”  We experienced wonder, and were happy to be ignorant.

 

Thursday, December 22, 2022

Winter Themes


            I received a number of responses to my “Winter Survey,” too many for me to process into a post for my blog. Most of them have been shared on our Amherst listserv, so there is little point in repeating them here, and some were not written to be shared. I hope people found value in going through the process of taking the survey, whether it led to a written response or not.

 

            Two themes emerged from the responses to strike a chord with me: Solstice and Generosity.

 

            Winter Solstice is important as the shortest day of the year, and thus the darkest, and thus the time when light will begin to return. We need that now, certainly on a global level, where we seem to be stumbling through the dark, but also, for many, on a personal level, as people are struggling with anxiety and depression. I know it will take more than the wobble of Earth’s rotation to help these situations, but it may give hope, which can help. Several of you wrote of old solstice traditions involving fires, candles and lights as ways to encourage the return of daylight. Some find that dancing and celebrating does the trick to nudge the darkness away. One thing Kim and I are doing, with the help of Genne’, is Solstice Surgery on Kim’s knee. We hope it will bring a return of mobility and some release from pain.

 

            A number of the responses to the Winter Survey mentioned some form of generosity as an important part of the spirit of the season. It’s a time for gifts – to individuals or to organizations where valuable work is being done. Generosity can also mean a gift of your time – to call, to visit, to create a card, to write a note.

 

            Generosity also refers to an attitude or spirit of open-heartedness as well as open-handedness. We can be open-hearted with strangers as well as friends and family. Acceptance, or even forgiveness comes to mind. When you are experiencing the longest night, especially here in Northern Michigan, it’s difficult to maintain an attitude of closed-hearted self-righteousness. I know that when you forgive someone you are declaring your moral superiority to the person you are forgiving, but let’s try to be more generous of spirit than that.