Thursday, March 21, 2019

Spring in the North

            The approach of spring has a different feel in Northern Michigan. When the temperature hit 33, a convertible was seen – top down – on U.S. 31, and guys are wearing t-shirts – outdoors! I saw some folks in shorts stepping through snow drifts to cross a street in Traverse City. And with the temperature at 35 as I write this, Kim and I are wondering if the sunshine makes our three-season porch “too warm.”

            I have not been out of the house without snow boots since November, and I may have another month of boot-time in my future. But I have toughened up since spending winters in Florida. Occasionally I will go out to feed the birds without wearing socks under my boots. 

            Perhaps photos are the best way to show the near-arrival of spring.

The coming of spring means the trees will soon bear leaves and blossoms. In Northern Michigan, it means hoarfrost.

And spring means that flowers will soon be decorating our yard. For now, hoarfrost does the job.

Even in March the snow is beautiful.

Spring means activity on the lakes.

And Kim and I scraped a small skating rink on our lake – in anticipation of spring.


First time on skates in 50 years . . ..

And meanwhile, the fire pit that Kim and I built for toasting marshmallows or hotdogs, lies buried in a snow drift.

Thursday, March 14, 2019


            I found spring last week. No, not that spring.

            We were driving home from Traverse City when I felt something in my glove. Cookie crumb? Salt from the road? A pebble? I peeled off my glove, and while still driving carefully, shook my glove until a small object fell into my lap. Fortunately, we had stopped at a red light.

            It was a small steel spring, the kind you may find inside a retractable ball point pen. How did it get there?

            My first thought was that Kim is right, that I am from another planet. Perhaps it’s one that is working hard on robotics, and I am some sort of prototype, one that had not been programmed to dress properly or clean a shower. I decided that when I got home I would check my hand carefully to see where the spring might have worked its way loose.

            Where else could it have come from? My car was working well, and even if hadn’t, what part of a Toyota includes a retractable ball point pen spring, and how would the spring make its way into my glove? I made a mental note to ask the mechanic next time I’m in for an oil change.

            We had just been at the hospital so Kim could get some X-rays (all OK) and meet with some doctors (ditto). Perhaps it was part of a complex and expensive piece of robotic surgical equipment that I had been using to save a patient’s life while Kim was with the docs and thought I was reading.

            Or perhaps the universe was sending me a message. Sometimes, when you are feeling depressed, the universe offers up a spectacular sunrise to tell you to hang in there, that better times are ahead. Our you are looking for cool rocks on the beach and find one that’s shaped like a heart – not a real heart, but the kind you see on Valentines. The message has something to do with love, but the fact that the heart is made of stone is a bit troubling. And sometimes, puzzled about your future, you look into your bowl of alphabet soup and the letters spell out “MARRY HER.” But if the discovery inside my glove is a message from the universe, what would that message be? A retractable ball point pen spring? What? Is the universe suggesting that I get out a pen and write? That I should write with a pen and not a computer? That I walk with more spring in my step?

            Here’s another possibility. A week or so ago I mentioned to Kim that I did not have any pens on my desk, suggesting, perhaps, that they had drifted to her desk or purse. Since then she has been handing me pens. Yesterday she gave me four that she’d lifted from various doctors’ offices she had visited. I may have stuffed one in my coat pocket – the same pocket where I stuff my gloves. Not sure how the spring got out of the pen on its own, but this is better than the robotic surgical equipment explanation.

            Or maybe I just found it somewhere and put it in my pocket to put somewhere in case I ever could use a retractable ball point pen spring when in a situation that I needed to MacGyver my way out of, if I only had his brain.  Then I forgot I had it until my glove found it.

            THIS JUST IN: I found a secondretractable ball point pen spring, this one on my coat pocket. (No, it’s not the same one, found again. Both now sit in my desk drawer, side by side.) So, something is apparently leaking retractable ball point pen springs. WTF?

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Snow Birds

For about 15 years Kim and I were "snowbirds," spending half the year in Michigan and half in Florida. We missed seeing the snow. Now that we are living full-time in Northern Michigan, the snow birds come to us.

Our Brown Creeper is now a regular.

See the red head? This is a Red-bellied Woodpecker.

Downy Woodpecker

Pileated Woodpecker. The photo does not do justice to his size.

Hairy Woodpecker. See the hair? Didn't think so . . ..

Blue Jay - so familiar we sometimes don't notice how beautiful it is.

White-breasted Nuthatch - often seen walking down a tree trunk.

Red-breasted Nuthatch

White-throated Sparrow - left behind at migration, so hung out with the Juncos in the winter.

Common Redpoll - we only saw him twice.

European Starling - an invasive species. Usually seen as a pest, they are nevertheless pretty cool looking. They invaded America when an Englishman sought to upgrade our cultural position by bringing us every bird mentioned by Shakespeare. Thanks.

Mr. and Mrs., perhaps sensing that spring is coming. Will it ever . . ..

We put a suet mix called Bark Butter on one of our trees. This guy appears to be thoroughly enjoying it.

Tufted Titmouse  Quiz: What is the plural: Titmice? Titsmice? Titmouses?

Black-capped Chickadee

Can't have a piece on snowbirds without a Snowy Owl.

Mourning Dove - perhaps mourning the cold snowy day.

Feeding our birds of course brings in squirrels. This black squirrel is actually morph of an Eastern Gray Squirrel. He tunnels so deep in the snow looking for seeds that he almost disappears.

Deer occasionally come to feed on spilled bird seed.

Sometimes we get lots of deer. This was part of a group (herd?) of eleven.

We found evidence of an unidentified snowbird in our yard.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Balancing Act

            Living now with a feeling that something is out of balance. Though Kim’s latest check-up shows no sign of her cancer’s return, she has lately been experiencing increasing pain and fatigue. It may be the long winter’s making us housebound with inadequate exercise. It may be a consequence of the medication she is taking to “manage” her cancer. Or it may be that her cancer is doing its dirty work behind the scenes, and her body’s effort to fight it off leaves her tired and sore. How sore? Kim is tough, and she hates to complain or even talk about her health, but it’s hard to ignore her sudden cries of pain. She has pain pills, but she does not want to take them unless it’s really bad, so a pill mainly help her sleep at night. How tired? She naps (though not today – she’s too busy), and sometimes these naps last over an hour.

            Stress does not help. We are currently in a dispute with our builder, who wants to be paid in full beforehe completes our house, and he is threatening to take us to court if we don’t pay up. Preparing our argument consumes mental energy, and Kim is paying a physical price: pain and fatigue.

            A complicating factor is her not wanting to act like a sick person. She does not want to relinquish the skills and activities that have given her life, and mine, its richness and meaning. She struggles to get her large 500mm lens mounted on the tripod we have set up on our 3-season porch, part of which has become a blind for photographing birds, squirrels and deer. She struggles to lift some of the heavier frying pans. She still climbs up on a step-stool to reach things on the high shelves, even though a fall would be disastrous. She does not want to be dependent on me. She refuses to let me see myself as her “caretaker,” and she correctly points out that she takes more care of me than I of her. (I’ve thought of wearing a t-shirt that says, “higher maintenance than I appear.”) In frustration, she asks me for help opening lids that she used to do easily. Recently, she “let me” move laundry from the washer to the dryer, and then to the proper drawers, and making the bed is my job, especially when it involves lifting the heavy mattress to tuck in newly washed sheets. She prepares all of our meals except when I fix Cheerios for breakfast, or when we venture out to the Torch Lake CafĂ© for an early dinner. About a year ago she said, “When I’m feeling shitty, I can either sit in a chair feeling sorry for myself for feeling shitty or go out and take pictures while feeling shitty.”

            For me, there’s a balancing act. I want to be helpful. I like being helpful. I have always taken meaning out of being useful. But if I push it too hard, it sends a message to Kim that she is sick, weak, helpless, etc., and she understandably does not want to hear that message. And when I hover over her ready to help when she doesn’t need or want help, I just get in the way, which is understandably annoying. I also know that her turning down my “help” is in part a result of her realizing that my quality standards are not up to hers. I don’t know how to clean a sink, dry a plate, or iron a shirt.  During the last month or so she has been patiently instructing me in various cooking and cleaning chores – making julienne strips, wiping grease out of a frying pan, washing my shower, folding a towel, or using the right kind of rag for specific wiping tasks – so I will be able to function when she is gone. Towel-folding will not be high on my list of concerns when that happens . . ..

            Here’s another factor: I enjoy having someone take care of me. I’m spoiled. Kim has spoiled me, and she continues to do so. Shitty as she is feeling, she baked me scones this morning. It’s too easy for me to fall back into the same old dependency. Yes, I know, our dependency is mutual – we are a team – but if the health balance has changed, I need to change with it. Put down that book, get my ass out of the chair, and fix a salad.

            Despite the balancing act, we continue to make plans for our future – a summer trip to Seney Wildlife Preserve in the Upper Peninsula, landscaping work as soon as spring arrives, our massive garage sale, moving our kayak down by the lake, taking photos for the Land Conservancy. We looked at a lighter camera and lens that Kim can use for her bird photography. We checked out Amtrak to see if there is a direct way to get from here to Florida. Nope, but we could travel by rail to Colorado or New Mexico . . ..

            Today she’s having a good day, with diminished level of pain (“a 5, where Sunday was a 9”), and she put away six bags of groceries while I stayed out of the way, napping in my reading chair. We are, as we have been for several years, balancing our drive to enjoy our lives against the cancer lurking in Kim’s body.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Secret Places

            This is a poem that I apparently wrote several years ago. I had forgotten about it and did not save a copy. Kim found one and put it in the Valentine card she made for me. One of the advantages of getting old is the possibility of a surprise like this. “Secret Places” was, apparently, in some secret place.

Secret Places

The kitchen junk drawer
Glove compartment under the manual next to the tire gauge.
Bottom of your purse.
Briefcase compartment designed for calculator.
Crotch of backyard maple tree.
Under loose patio flagstone.
Tucked inside the old dictionary.
In a cigar box that once held cigars.
Trunk of the car.
Wherever we keep old extension cords.
Basket full of magazines we haven’t gotten around to.
Belly button.
“Miscellaneous” file.
“Etc.” file.
Top of bedroom door trim.
Journal stashed behind 1980 tax returns.
Next to reusable grocery bags.
In the old first aid kit.
Repainted Altoid tins.
Salvaged robin’s nest.
Behind the furnace.
Inside a shirt.

            This is an example of what I call a “list poem,” a genre I probably did not invent. I remember writing a list poem consisting of the titles of movies, all of which began with “The Big.” It was a long poem, very American, and fun to read aloud. I have since lost the poem.

            Do you have any secret places you would like to share?

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Five Senses

            Our friend Beth East, a high school Spanish teacher, describes an exercise she does with her students: Identify your favorite:

·     touch
·     taste
·     sound
·     smell
·     sight

This strikes me as a great exercise, even if you are not improving your responses by doing them in Spanish. The process will help us live in the present, something that many believe is good for our mental health, unless you are having a really shitty present. (Of course, all of these sense memories are from the past, but who cares? The Greek philosopher Epicurus taught that contemplation of pleasure is preferable to the experience of pleasure because you have more control over your mind than over externals. So contemplate away . . ..)

            Kim and I will get you started with our lists:

·     touch – Kim’s hair on my cheek
·     taste – chocolate mousse (a Valentine’s tradition)
·     sound – rain on the roof
·     smell – Kim’s perfume (but with my failing sense of smell, I have to get very close to smell it)
·     sight – Torch Lake, as seen from our dining room window. This is not just one “sight,” because what I love is the variety of sights, day to day, hour to hour, moment to moment.

·     touch – my favorite pajamas when I put them on at night (might be one of David’s favorites, too) (Kim tells me she didn’t really say this, that I made it up.)
·     taste – a cup of good coffee with toasted French bread from Bay Bread in Traverse City or Zingerman’s Rustic Italian from Ann Arbor, toasted dark and served with a generous swath of Irish butter and a good cup of coffee: today’s breakfast
·     sound -  my grandfather’s laugh and the song “Wind Beneath My Wings” played for me at my daughter’s wedding
·     smell – cedars when you rub the needles between your palms and then raise your hands to your nose
·     sight – the use of color in nature, or painting, or the walls of a home – especially earth colors. The color palette of my friend and fellow artist Laurie Hitzig’s is just about perfect.

NOTE: I’m supposed to be the writer, Kim the artist, but her list is better than mine!

            O.K., now it’s your turn. Let us know your choices, which may be published next week. If you want your name left off, can do.


Thursday, February 7, 2019

To Book, or Not to Book

            Lately I’ve been pondering whether to turn these blog entries into a book. My friend Jeff, who I’ve known since high school but have not seen for 50+ years, has been encouraging me. He is a writer who is heavily involved in the publishing world, and he is convinced that together we can make a book that is of the highest quality, which pertains to the quality of paper, printing and binding, one that will be successful both artistically and commercially.

            The book Jeff has in mind will feature Kim’s photographs, especially the birds but also the parts of America where we have gone in pursuit of adventures that typically include birds. Her photos would be framed by our story: Kim’s cancer, her refusal to give in to it, and our teamwork, all leading to the construction of our Bark House – not the kind of project that folks in their mid-70s with stage 4 cancer typically undertake. Jeff suggested that I minimize the self-deprecating humor that characterizes many of the blog entries, as it takes away from the story.      

            I am, so far, reluctant:

Writing a book is a lot of work. I thoroughly enjoy writing my blog, whether I’m doing my own little spin or writing to frame Kim’s photos. Editing and rewriting are not as much fun as dashing off a short post. Think of the difference between going for an afternoon walk in the woods and hiking the Appalachian Trail. The latter is a greater achievement, to be sure, but it requires a certain level of commitment, of energy, that I’m not sure I can summon. If I do commit to the book project, what would I stop doing because of the time commitment?
·     going on photo-walks with Kim
·     doing my share of household chores, including yardwork and snow shoveling
·     reading
·     writing the blog
·     sleeping
·     feeding birds
·     enjoying second cup of coffee while watching birds from the porch
·     enjoying a touch more wine while watching birds and deer from the porch
·     running errands in Traverse City, including medical stuff
·     photographing wildlife for the local Land Conservancy
·     watching stupid television (e.g., sports, The Bachelor, political discussions)
·     watching quality television (national news, nature documentaries, sports)
·     streaming quality movies
·     streaming stupid movies that we thought would be quality ones
·     checking the weather
·     playing Words With Friends
·     cultivating new friendships
·     having old friends visit (yes, we mean you)
·     looking for two keys we lost during our moves
·     eating, including snacks
·     checking my email
·     driving to the post office to get my junk mail
·     sitting in front of my computer

            On the other hand, Jeff said he would do a lot of the editorial and publisher-related work. And while there would be a large (how large?) initial cost, Jeff assures me we would make it back, and more, once the book is out and selling. He suggests that once Kim and I are interviewed a few times on national television, sales will really take off. (Kim is very shy about public speaking, so we would have to work on this.) He says the book will leave Kim’s artistic and my literary mark on the world.

            Do I really care about leaving my mark? Once I am dead, I won’t be there to appreciate it. My small blog-mark seems sufficient, and maybe I will follow Emily Dickinson’s path to fame by having my work discovered long after I am gone.

            I can’t really speak for Kim, but I doubt that winning fame is one of her priorities. She is leaving her mark on the world through the cards she makes, the photos she shares through the blog, through the homes she has designed and built (3 plus a major remodel), and through her children, who have learned her values. She also does not think her photos are sharp enough to put into a book, partly because of inevitable problems with the printing process, and partly because she has very high standards of quality, and her own work, the feels, falls short. Jeff says he can talk her out of that.

            After speaking about the issue with Kim, we agreed that what it really comes down to is this: Do I want to spend my remaining time playing outside (hiking, gardening, shoveling snow, collecting Petoskey stones, kayaking, feeding birds) or sitting in front of my computer?

            What do you think? To book, or not to book?