Thursday, January 21, 2021

Waiting

             One of my favorite plays is Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, in which two tramps kill time waiting for this obviously important figure to show up, possibly to give meaning and direction to their lives. At the end of each of the two acts, a boy arrives to tell them that Godot is not going to make it, but he might be there tomorrow. Each time the two tramps, Vladimir and Estragon, say they are leaving, but they don’t.

 

            There has been a lot of critical discussion about the meaning of the play, and you will be pleased to know that I will not be joining that discussion.

 

            No, I just want to write about the experience of waiting.

 

            Now, in the middle of January, we are waiting for our first serious snowfall, with not much in the forecast. This is waiting with eager anticipation – the beauty, the mystery, the recreation of the world. But as I write this, it’s gray and drizzling.

 

            And we are waiting for the Inauguration, and the frightening events that might lead up to and overwhelm the Inauguration. This is waiting with feelings of hopeless dread, and a heavy sadness that somehow our country has come to this. Kim asked me to get the pepper spray out of the drawer and onto the top of our bedside table – just in case.

 

            And we are waiting for the first hundred days of the new administration. The challenges are overwhelming, but we feel that they will be addressed with compassion, decency and honor, in a spirit of collaboration toward common goals. This is hopeful waiting, but that hope is shadowed by realism about the difficulties ahead.

 

            And we are waiting for our vaccinations. As geezers we are somewhere near the front of the line, and we have successfully “pre-registered” with our county health department and are in contact with Munson Hospital in Traverse City, which has just reduced its age requirement from 86 to 82. So we are waiting for a phone call, text or email. We can be patient, as we probably won’t be emerging from our semi-quarantine in the near future, with or without the vaccination.

 

            And we are waiting for two coffee mugs we ordered from Germany to match ones we broke. It’s been about six weeks. I’ve learned that there’s this operation called “customs” that stuff from overseas has to go through, and that our coffee mugs are, apparently, not a priority. One advantage of being old is forgetfulness, so when they finally arrive it will be a surprise. Forgetfulness can be a good substitute for waiting.

 

            And, of course, we are waiting for the pandemic to be over, whatever “over” might mean. In just this one instance President Trump may have been mistaken – it may never be fully over. So, we are waiting with a combination of resignation and creativity as we create our own version of the new normal.

 

            What else does it feel like to wait? I heard a saying, I think it was Israeli: “I can be patient, but not for very long.” What I try not to do, not always successfully, is sit around paying full attention to the experience of waiting patiently, which reminds me a bit of the insomniac’s lying there waiting to go to sleep. Not a good place to be. Some folks can wait patiently for a long time. Not me.

 

            A better response – one that Kim demonstrates daily – to make yourself busy. Kim rarely experiences waiting because she is too busy cleaning the kitchen cabinets, or labeling her photographs on the computer, or finishing up the Christmas scrapbook, or doing laundry, or phoning a friend. She does not experience this as a mode of waiting. It’s just how she lives her life. And when she pauses to rest, she is not waiting – she is resting.

 

            Meanwhile, what are Beckett’s tramps waiting for? I doubt they know. Something.

Thursday, January 14, 2021

WTF?


            What do we do with what happened in Washington last Wednesday? Kim and I spent much of the day watching CNN, with an occasional flip over to Fox. We saw most of Trump’s speech. Then on Thursday we watched a lot of the comments made on those two networks, and we, like many Americans, wondered what would come next. And this while the pandemic was becoming more and more deadly, and the planet continues to warm.

 

            I imagine several possible ways to respond.

 

Analysis. Many of my classmates and the talking heads on CNN are doing this. How did this happen – “this” meaning the cultural divide that created a President Trump who spurred the coup attempt? As long as I can come up with an analysis, I don’t feel like the situation is totally out of my control.

 

Pangloss. Despite the virus and the riots, Voltaire’s philosopher was correct: This is the best of all possible worlds. Somehow. Maybe it’s nature’s way of dealing with overpopulation (I can say this because I’m near the front of the mortality line) and the best way to expose and drain the swamp in Washington – the bandage was just ripped off (to mix metaphors).

 

Denial. Didn’t really happen. CNN made it up for the ratings. Fake news.

 

Bargaining. Just make the rioting end, arrest the obvious thugs, and let the Trump go play golf. It makes a kind of sense to trade justice for peace. (Besides, New York is going to nail him in the near future anyway.)

 

Small Ball (A). Look at the birds. Get a jump on spring cleaning. Learn to make a new salad. Meditate. Stretch. Hug your partner. Pat your dog. Give a kind word to a stranger (from a safe distance). Don’t say more than one sentence about what’s going on in Washington. Stay home.

 

Small Ball (B). Imagine that you wrote to Joe Biden, or to your own Senator or Representative, asking, “What can I do now?” How might they respond? Do it. Maybe write to your representative in Washington.

 

Pray. I’m not sure that this would change an objective situation, but people say it helps them feel comfort as part of The Big Picture. Worth a try, even as an experiment. It may also help you feel part of a community of folks who are praying.

 

Acceptance. Sorry, but this does not feel very constructive. Someone asked Robert Frost if poets have more love than other people. His answer was that he loved what’s lovable and hates what’s hatable. Some things are not acceptable.

 

Television. Movies provide some escape, but it’s too easy to flip over to CNN to see what new ugliness is being discussed.

 

Shock. Stunned Bewilderment. Staying with this approach means you don’t actually have to do anything. The downside: You don’t actually do anything.

 

Alcohol. Yes, there’s always that. I know some people who enjoy a drink at the end of the day, just to help the WTF turn into something more mellow. I have difficulty disapproving of people who do this.

 

Photoshop. Create an edited version of reality, one that aligns with your needs.

 

Bonding by Phone. “Have you been watching CNN? Do you believe it? We’ve been watching all day. How did we get where we are? What do you think they should do? etc., etc.” As long as I’m talking with you I don’t feel so overwhelmingly alone.

 

Exercise. As long as I’m in top physical shape, I can get through this thing. And while I’m counting push-ups (or whatever), I’m not thinking about WTF is happening in the world.

 

Time Travel. Go back in time a few months, or a few years if you can. Work harder and smarter on the elections. Come up with better ways to communicate about the Coronavirus. And think what might have happened if Pfizer had announced its vaccine numbers two weeks before the election. Don’t worry if you do not have the ability to time travel, for there are future (and present) pandemics, as well as political and environmental crises, to apply what you might well have done in the recent past.

 

Humor. Too soon for humor.

 

            I wrote the above on January 7, so it’s been a week. Nothing has changed in terms of my response options. We watched impeachment coverage on CNN, and we don’t know what will happen in the weeks ahead, except probably some snow, and I’ll see my son Phee’s published e-book, and we will continue spring cleaning and alternating between streaming movies and CNN.

 

 

Thursday, January 7, 2021

Scott


            My stepson, Scott, lived with us for a couple of months after graduating from college, before moving off to get his life started. It was a good experience because Scott is a good guy and he helped around the house. But it was also good to have him in the house for another reason. When we’d see some dirt tracked in, or a door left unlocked at night, or something put away in the wrong drawer, I’d say, “That must have been Scott.” It probably wasn’t Scott, and I’d never say it when he was present, but it was still good to have Scott in the picture.

 

            Scott has now moved on to run a successful business, and he’s happily married. And I have now become Scott. No, I do not have his considerable engineering and construction skills, nor his sense of bold adventure in business and recreation. I don’t hunt. But when the wooden trivet is put away on the bookshelf next to the cookbooks, or a chip appears in the tile or coffee stains on the sink and counters, it’s just assumed that I did it. Towel left on the floor? Dark socks with the white wash? Outdoor lights left on? The fact that I probably did do it is beside the point. I miss having Scott around to blame. He only comes up here about once a month, and that’s not often enough to do me any good in this department.

 

            When I was growing up, my younger sister, Candy, had an imaginary friend. I believe her name was Bibby. I don’t recall any details, but I do recall that Bibby frequently misbehaved, as Candy explained to Mom. I’m not sure what Mom did with that information, and I don’t know how long Bibby was Candy’s roommate, but it had to be convenient to have Bibby around. Like Scott was for me.

 

            This is not to say that I’m left totally empty-handed. No, I always have Trump to blame, just as others have Michigan’s governor or the elitist liberal media. Can’t blame the neighbors anymore because they are all gone, but there’s always the Chinese. Or the Russians. Certainly not me, or people like me. And there are always those assholes who are polarizing our country with identity politics. Them.

 

            I think Walt Kelly’s Pogo had it right: “We have met the enemy and he is us.” It’s time to make peace.

 

            Anyone’s identity is a construct – even our own. Especially our own. Knowing this gives us a certain creative control over how we construct an identity. We piece together fragments, wishes, needs, and fears in ways that somehow, we feel, serves us. My sister created Bibby, and I created a version of Scott (though Kim always knew what I was doing). And you, my readers, may be playing, for someone else, the role of Scott, or Bibby, or Trump. You may be part of “Them.” You may be someone’s imaginary friend or scapegoat.

 

            I recall from my experience pledging to a fraternity at Amherst that I vowed “to place the best construction on the words and deeds of my brothers,” and this was one of the most valuable things I learned there. We have enough real villains without our needing to construct any more. And it works the other way as well. In my writing I have created a version of me, a persona, that serves my obscure-even-from-myself needs, a persona that is better than “the real me,” if there is such a thing. It’s useful to place the best construction on my own words and deeds, even if may be a bit delusional. I become a character my life’s story. We can do that.

 

            Just ask Scott . . ..

  

Thursday, December 31, 2020

Snow and Renewal


            The 2020 holiday season is unlike any other. Christmas, yes, celebrates the birth of Jesus, but for many people it has more to do with family and gifts. But in 2020 the pandemic has meant adjustment and compromise.

            Families struggle to “get together.” We are warned not to travel to family gatherings, and we watch with disapproval the tv news images of crowded airports. We have tried to get together using Facetime, but our slowed internet speeds have made that impossible, so instead we hear voices on our phones’ speaker setting, and we watch a blur of text messages. Scott and Shariee drove up to celebrate with us the week before Christmas, and their gifts were generous and creative, but we miss the company of kids and grandkids. We have each other, and we have embraced frequently the last few days. On Christmas Eve we shared champagne and cookies in the afternoon, and in the evening we watched “Moonstruck” on Showtime, not a Christmas movie, and went to bed.

            Gifts? Kim outdid herself in making gifts for kids and grandkids, but we were denied the pleasure of watching them open them. She also gifted people with her Christmas cards, but we only got a dozen in return – including those from our insurance agent and a financial advisor. We gave cookies to the UPS and FedEx guys when they delivered packages – we have a lot of cookies in the house, as Kim baked all of our favorites. We took some cookies, peanut brittle and a casserole to two sets of neighbors in the adjoining subdivision, despite the Trump flag, and they returned the gesture with some gourmet Chex Mix. We made a small donation to the laid-off workers at the Torch Lake Cafe.

            We did not put up a tree this year, but we did find modest ways to mark the holiday. Kim made a wall sculpture depicting a stylized woods, and she put small red glass balls in it, at least for a few weeks. She created a holiday centerpiece for the dining room table and another for the outdoor table on the porch. I put lights on a tree in the yard. Alexa played Christmas music for us.

            This year our Christmas celebration seems focused on snow. Our December landscape had looked fairly barren for weeks, but on Christmas Eve it started to snow, and it’s been snowing off and on for the last several days. Snow means shoveling, which I enjoy for the exercise and for making our home approachable, even welcoming, despite our isolation. (In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus tells us that the effort of pushing the boulder up the hill, over and over, becomes the reward.) But to us in December, snow also means renewal. What’s better than turning off the indoor lights, turning on the outdoor lights, and watching the slow fall of snow? Or watching the birds feeding in the snow? The world feels new.








Downy Woodpecker


Pileated Woodpecker


Bird Feeder


Red Squirrel Enjoying Snow

Mourning Dove Contemplating Snowflake


Red Squirrel Enjoying Spilled Birdseed


The Same Red Squirrel, Still Eating

Brown Creeper - hard to find and photograph

 

           Renewal is why we like to have the winter solstice included in the Holiday Season. As the sunrise begins to inch north, we inch toward renewal in the new year, confident that, despite the dire pandemic forecast for the next few months, 2021 will be better than 2020. But on the other hand, we had a great 2020. The horrors on the news, political and medical, only served to sharpen our appreciation of what we have close at hand: birds, cookies, a furnace that works, coffee, Amazon Prime, and each other.


Kim Getting Stoned

 

            At our age, we never know whether this will be our last Christmas. There’s the coronavirus, and Kim meets her oncologist today to learn what the scans and X-rays revealed. Pay attention to what you love. We already have what we need. Except for maybe a new coffee pot. And more babies in the family . . ..



Thursday, December 24, 2020

Tech Support When You Are Old


            It started when Kim needed a new iPhone. Her old one had a small crack in the glass, an aging battery (we know what that feels like) and would occasionally act up and refuse to do things. She didn’t think she needed one, but I wanted to demonstrate my tech-mastery, so I insisted.

            We went to the Spectrum (our carrier) store, found the cheapest one they had for sale, and then asked the guy to transfer the data from her old phone to her new one. No problem, because I had thoughtfully brought in a list of all-important passwords, user id, passcodes, etc. Problem: Some of these were obviously wrong, so he said we would have to visit the local Mac store for the transfer.

            We drove home successfully because it did not require the use of any passwords.

            I phoned the store when we got home, and they told me I would have to call Apple Support. I did, and Samantha, a very patient lady walked me through the process – it took almost an hour because she had to tell me where to find stuff on my phone, and at one point she took over my screen to point stuff out. As I was doing this I had my phone on my knee (on Speaker), Kim’s old phone on the left on the table and her new one, which she had put in her old case to protect it, on the right. As we were finishing up, Samantha walked me through the process of erasing data from Kim’s old phone. I followed these simple instructions, not realizing that I had somehow switched phones, so I erased everything on the phone on which I had been talking, thereby ending the conversation. Also, my phone no longer worked.

            The next five minutes involved a lot of swearing and banging of furniture. To her credit, Kim did not do a video – which, of course, she couldn’t do because I had all the phones tied up and dysfunctional. To tell the truth, it felt pretty good to explode, for I don’t do it very often.

            So I called Apple again, this time on Kim’s new phone, and the patient lady there helped me complete the process of setting up Kim’s new phone and restoring the data on my phone, thanks to Cloud Backups that I didn’t know I was somehow making. Except for about a dozen settings.

            To celebrate the successful operation, I called to order a pizza for dinner. The call did not go through. Instead, I got a message about my Verizon account – a service I’d not had for about three years. I tried calling on Kim’s phone – same result. I called Kim on my phone, and somehow it went through!

            So, my next call was to Spectrum tech support. He walked me through a brief process involving resetting my network connections, with the result being that my call to tech support was dropped but I still could not order the pizza. I went through this process four times. Then I reached a very patient lady on Spectrum tech support, and after about 20 minutes of fiddling around, she tried calling the pizza place – no luck! We both looked up the pizza place on the internet and learned that we had been dialing the wrong number from my list of contacts. I thanked her, and she assured me she would be amusing her colleagues with the story of my stupidity. I said that was OK, as long as she did it behind my back.

            I told her this reminded me of another non-tech problem and solution, when my furnace would occasionally shut itself off. I thought the problem was with the thermostat, so I called Honeywell, and they walked me though a number of computerized buttons to test and reset things, to no avail. So, I called the guy who installed the furnace, and he did similar tests and then checked out some of the electronic devices on the panel next to the furnace. Nope. Then we opened up the doors (not the right term) on the furnace and saw that a mouse had built a nest in one of the vents, blocking the air flow. I cleaned it out, Kim put some netting where the vent exited our house, and it’s been working fine ever since.

            Meanwhile, Kim, who had given up on getting pizza, heated up some soup for our dinner.

            I decided to cap off my day by upgrading my cable account to include HBO Max so we could watch a new Meryl Streep movie. Kim begged me not to try anything having to do with phones or computers, but I was undeterred. An hour or so and three calls to tech support  later, I decided to try again tomorrow. It might be easier just to get Meryl Streep to come to our house.

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Stolen Moments

is the name of one of my favorite jazz pieces. It’s perfect, joining the ranks of Bill Evans’ “Waltz for Debby” and Miles Davis’ Kinda Blue. Give a listen to the Oliver Nelson version. But this week I’m more interested in the title, “Stolen Moments.”

When I was teaching I was able to create time. I’ve written before about how elastic time can be, and I found a way to extend my 24-hour days. First, I would get up early, maybe at 5:30, to give myself some David Time before going to work. I would read and write, even though I always had a stack of papers to grade. (In a masochistic moment I once calculated how many hours I spent grading student essays over my career: over 17,000.) Then I would eat breakfast and shift into the structure of work time, dominated by the school’s bell schedule. Then, some days, on the way home from school I would stop at a coffee shop for a transitional cup while I would get started on what would be an evening of class preparation and paper grading, with some yardwork and household chores mixed in. Even then, I would create some stolen moments by molesting Kim while she was washing dishes that I was supposed to dry. Life is good.

 

In order to create stolen moments, you need to have a routine to steal them from. I like my routines, as Kim has pointed out to me more than once. I check the news on my computer while sipping warmed-up leftover coffee, a drink routine that puzzles Kim but which I see as a transitional ritual to begin my day. I feed the birds every morning, no matter the weather, as much from the tug of routine as from kindness to our birds. I sweep snow off the decks. I make the bed. I brush and floss. I deal with the garbage and recycled stuff. I vacuum crumbs, sand and detritus brought in from outside. Check and respond to email. Dishes. And then there’s the news at night, followed by a movie, interrupted by a cocktail that I choose to see as a welcome transitional ritual rather than a sign of alcoholism. Like my morning coffee, my cocktail is more an event than an drink.

 

The pandemic has made it a little more difficult to maintain some elements of my retirement routine, for I no longer go to the post office daily to get the mail and then check it on the kitchen counter, no longer go grocery shopping with Kim about every ten days, no longer dine out about once a week, no longer get my haircut where I used to or dental check-ups when I used to. Stolen moments used to be drop-ins at local art galleries or antique shops, or dinners with friends. Gone.

 

So, how do we still get stolen moments? Yes, I can still molest Kim while she is doing dishes, and her trimming my hair and beard count as an intimate stolen moment. And yes, that second leisurely cup of coffee on the porch while watching birds instead of going to work still counts as a stolen moment, even though we’ve been doing it for years and it’s more like a routine. In this autumn that reached into December, we stole a couple of half-days to walk the beach to look for interesting stones. Afternoon naps, with the television droning earnestly in the background, are novel enough to count as stolen moments, though they may soon slide into routines – nothing wrong with that. This morning we created stolen moments by getting up at 5 a.m. to do our grocery shopping early and alone, and the other night we stole an hour to stay up late to watch the last episode of “The Forest.” And sometimes I simply pause to look out the window.

 

Kim says her stolen moments usually involve sitting under a tree, noticing what’s there. She will sometimes leap up from the breakfast table to photograph a sunrise sky that may only last a minute. She says that many of her moments count as stolen moments because of the way she pays appreciative attention to what is around her. And Kim may count it as a stolen moment if she stops all her housework, baking, and artistic creation to sit and read a book.

 

I don’t think that it’s important what you count as a stolen moment, as long as you appreciate that you are having one. Any moment can feel stolen moment pleasure if you pay proper attention to it. As an old guy, I have an option of seeing my life as a routine as I trudge through and to mortality. But I also have the option of stealing moments, as many as I want, to savor. Speaking of which, Kim is baking cookies . . .. And I’ll put on some music while doing the dishes.

 

 

Thursday, December 10, 2020

Solitude


“We’re not in the middle of nowhere, but we can see it from here.” from "Thelma and Louise"

 

            Now we are pretty much alone up here in Northern Michigan. Our neighbors to the south, the leaves safely removed from their lawn, have fled to Virginia. Our neighbors to the north did not return from California this summer for medical reasons. Our one year-round neighbor from last year, Joe, died. It’s dark starting in late afternoon, with no signs of human life. So, what are we to do for companionship?

            Kim and I have each other, of course. We are partners. But still, the solitude presses in.

            With no signs of human life, we find companionship in non-human life. Feed the birds. Speak to the crows to entice them to stay, eat, and become friends. (This has not worked so far.) Pay attention to the raccoons and possum that come in at night to clean up spilled birdseed that the squirrels missed, and the occasional meat scraps we leave out for them. Look for deer.

            How about a pet? That works for some people, but Kim says she is already taking care of me, and that’s enough. I’m almost house-trained.

            Make human connections when opportunity presents. When I go to the post office to get our mail, I make a little small talk with Misty, who is there every day. Thank the UPS guy when he’s dropping something off. Go down the road to help Connie Lu clean out Joe’s house. It turns out that he was a great collector of vitamins and supplements – so far, we have taken five garbage bags full to the police, with more to go. Visit with Marshall, outdoors and wearing masks, when we stop by to pick up eggs. These are scraps of live human contact, no substitute for hugging family and friends, but we do what we can.

            If we look carefully, we can see the glow of a television from a nearby subdivision. That means people live there, right? And Don, a neighbor in his 90s who for health reasons did not return from Florida, has a light on a timer that turns on every night. That’s not the same as seeing Don and Nancy, but it’s something. The few lights we can see on the distant shore across the lake are far away.

            There’s always the telephone. Kim is great about making and sustaining phone conversations with friends and family. I am less than great, preferring the more insulated medium of the written word, though I do sometimes phone people when Kim suggests I do so. Perhaps I prefer solitude.

            Though I do miss tangible friendships, I also enjoy being an imaginary friend. Perhaps “friend” is not the best word here. When I read fiction, which pandemic isolation gives me time to do, I befriend these characters shared by my and the author’s imaginations. The same is true for the movies Kim and I watch on tv, where the people are not wearing masks. The regulars on The Great British Baking Show are my friends now, as is Kya in Where the Crawdads Sing. These friends, however, do not appear to be curious about my life.

            A little less imaginary are the friends and family I hope to see and touch in the future: Jerry and Fleda, Rick and Sandy, Don and Nancy, Randy and Linda, Miguel and Megan, Peter and Kerry, and our kids and grandkids, among others. For now, though, I imagine and remember our being together, which will have to do: friendships of the mind and heart.

            And the lake is itself a companion, and like the middle of nowhere, we can see it from here: reliably here every day, always different, speaking to us through the sound of its waves, touching us with its breezes, giving us gifts of rocks and beach glass. The word “us” in the previous sentence keeps the darkness at bay.