Thursday, July 20, 2017

How I Write


            A lot of people have asked me how I write my blog. Actually, that’s an alternative fact – nobody has ever asked. But it’s my blog, so . . ..

            My approach to writing can be summarized thus: Ready, Fire, Aim. I never know where I am going to end up, let alone how I will get there.

Ready

            “Ready” for me involves a cup of coffee, my laptop, and some form of solitude. Some mornings I get up ahead of Kim, and when that happens, I write. I’ll write (like now) when she is napping. I would write when sitting on the toilet, but that would cut into my reading time.

            Part of my getting ready is knowing how many days I have before Thursday, my self-imposed and totally arbitrary deadline. The pressure to meet that deadline starts early – I’m drafting this on a Friday, just after publication. Now that I am retired, with no job to go to, I need the discipline. Besides, knowing when Thursday will come gives my week a structure, much the way weekends used to do when I was working.

Fire

            “Fire” means just start writing. In the one creative writing course I ever took, the professor, Steve Dunning, had us do what he called “fast-writes,” where the only rule was that you had to write non-stop, even if it meant writing the same word over and over. It’s a lot like free-association, and I recommend it.

            I wish I’d understand the value of “Fire” when I was in college, especially during English 1-2, where my carefully crafted papers earned comments ranging from derision to abuse, starting with “Bullshit” in September and culminating in, “When, oh when, will you write something I can praise?” I finally backed into praise on the final exam, where I hadn’t a clue what the prompt was asking me to do, so I just wrote about a movie that I’d seen the night before. Bingo! He liked it! And, being lost, I just wrote with no sense of direction.

            Much of my blog writing is an act of exploration, for I don’t know what I am saying until I work my way through. I recall that one of my English 1-2 professors said that good writing is, most of all, a performance. So I start with a detail or a phrase – something I heard or saw that stuck – and then I let the caffeine do the work. If I ever start to feel blocked, I just lower my standards and keep going. I don’t worry about having an “ending” to my piece, and I often throw away the opening. In fact, my frequent writing advice to my high school seniors was to dump their opening paragraph and just jump in. I know that some kinds of writing have formulas that don’t allow for that, but I am not much interested in them. It helps that I don’t have a point to make.

Aim

            “Aim” comes last. That’s where I revise, moving paragraphs around, dumping stuff that’s boring, fixing awkward phrases, working especially hard on the opening and closing of paragraphs – the transitions. I’m usually better at editing other people’s work than my own, so when I’m pretty happy with what I wrote I give Kim a go at it. She’s a good reader and unfailingly honest in her comments, so I usually take her advice. She is especially good at helping me end my pieces.

            She had a few general rules back when I was doing poetry readings – certain body parts that I was not to mention publically. For my blog she has different advice: be more open about my feelings, more vulnerable. She likes the humor but sees it as, at times, a sort of evasion. Guilty! Like many men, especially in my generation, I’m not comfortable talking directly about my feelings – a fact Kim will confirm. When you ask a man how he feels about this or that, and he says, “Fine,” what he means is, “I don’t understand the question.” My writing “performance” takes the place of direct statements about my feelings.



UPDATE: Kim is gradually getting better. She now does almost all of the cooking, though I do help by peeling carrots, potatoes and apples, and by reaching things on high or low shelves. I was in charge of cooking when Kim was feeling serious nausea from her radiation. I could always tell that my meal was a success if it did not make Kim throw up. (I set the bar pretty low.)

Thursday, July 13, 2017

“But You Look Great!”?

            “But you look great!”

            A nice compliment to Kim, I suppose, even considering the tone of surprise. She’s gone through 10 surgeries and 3 courses of radiation, and she’s taking a variety of pills, shots and infusions. She feels shitty much of the time. But she looks great.

            Kim gets a variation of this when talking on the phone: “But you sound great!”

            “How am I supposed to sound?”

            I suppose that people have an idea in mind about how people are supposed to sound when being treated for stage 4 cancer, and Kim’s voice and appearance don’t fit that image. If you feel shitty, you should look and sound shitty. Otherwise, people are confused. This doesn’t happen so often when Kim is using her walker while wearing her back brace, but it still happens.

            One of my tasks as Kim’s advocate is to look for signs of her pain and fatigue and announce to our guests, “OK, it’s nap time – thanks for stopping by.” She has taken maybe a dozen naps in the 27 years that we’ve been married, but now she takes one or two a day while the healing takes place. The fact that most people our age take daily naps doesn’t matter. Kim does not want to be a napper – there’s too much that needs to be done!  She needs encouragement to nap, and I provide it – just another song in my nursing repertoire.

            It’s Kim’s fault that people are confused. Self-pity is simply not part of her vocabulary – or if it is, she keeps it private. She is stoic. We both grew up in families and times where seeking sympathy was frowned upon. I still hear my father’s voice: “You’re crying? Well, I’ll give you something to cry about . . ..” That usually dried up my tears. Showing pain was a sign of weak character.

            I suppose I could train Kim to look and sound as pained, fatigued, and sometimes discouraged as she occasionally feels: more moaning, grimaces, sudden shouts of pain. She’s working, with suggestions from Genne’, on strengthening her back and straightening her posture, but perhaps she should also practice a defeated slumped-over look, at least around company.

            But no, because what Kim enjoys most is the joyful connection with friends and family – in person, or by phone, text, email or card. When she is connected that way, she rises to the occasion, summoning energy and cheer from her deep but finite reserves, and she looks and sounds great. It’s contagious. She brings out the best in all of us.

P.S.  Kim says people are probably tired reading about her – I should write about something else. I say that it’s my blog and I’ll write whatever the fuck I want.



           


            

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Three Poems

            Girl

We are sitting at our booth
in the nook. I’m on the phone
with Andy. I laugh at something
and you crack a joke I don’t hear
or understand – I’m not sure which.
You think it’s plenty funny – or
maybe it’s the confused look
on my face – but whatever it is
collapses you, your head cradled,
shaking in your arms on the table,
laugh-noises rising from you
to me. And probably to Andy.
Your chestnut hair shimmers over
your pale arms, mirroring your mirth.

You have these girl-moments – singing
those silly kid songs to the grandkids
or to me, or breaking into a skip
on our walks along Henry Street, or
telling a joke that sounds like your dad.

Even though you have moved into
Medicare, and I’m following close behind,
and our backs hurt, etc., etc., etc.,
and though you love being Grandma Kim
and Grandma Pooh, the girl still giggles
within you, rising to bless the world
like your hair we all want to touch
and the spirit we all love to love.




            Baggy Pants

Gimme them    baggy pants
hangin loose all over mlegs
Yeah them    baggy pants
they smooth    theys mfavorite rags

with room in mpockets
for mhans an mkeys
an ahm there hidin inside
no they cant see me hidin
jus mpants baggy pants
cut saggy an flappy an wide

Gimme them    baggy pants
hangin loose all over mlegs
Yeah them    baggy pants
they smooth    theys mfavorite rags

Yo tight pants is nice
fo doin yo-yo moves
letm see whatcha got when ydance
but fo me makem loose
set me free jus to be
in mblow-ina-breeze baggy pants

Gimme them    baggy pants
hangin loose all over mlegs
Yeah them    baggy pants
they smooth    theys mfavorite rags



Chasing Butterflies

My wife is into butterflies.
Saturdays when I visit Starbucks
and the barista asks, “How’s Kim?”

I answer, “Oh, she’s out
chasing butterflies with a friend.”
She brings home cocoons

and chrysalises attached to twigs -
dried pods, wrinkled pouches,
each with an exotic name.

She hangs some out on our porch
waiting for transformation.
Kim tells me that soon

after they emerge,
pheromones will draw
eager mates to the screens.

When Kim comes home she shows
me her treasures,
downloads her photos,

then after a quick dinner
she heads for the bathtub,
sheds her jeans and turtleneck

and firmly closes the door
to wash off mud and DEET,
check for ticks and chiggers,

and soak her tired muscles.
She emerges pink and new,
often with a touch of perfume.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Kobayashi Maru


            Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in her 1969 book On Death and Dying, lists five emotional stages commonly experienced by terminal patients prior to death, or people who have lost a loved one. I lifted the description below from Wikipedia:

1.     Denial – The first reaction is denial. In this stage individuals believe the diagnosis is somehow mistaken, and cling to a false, preferable reality.
2.     Anger – When the individual recognizes that denial cannot continue, they become frustrated, especially at proximate individuals. Certain psychological responses of a person undergoing this phase would be: "Why me? It's not fair!"; "How can this happen to me?"; "Who is to blame?"; "Why would this happen?".
3.     Bargaining – The third stage involves the hope that the individual can avoid a cause of grief. Usually, the negotiation for an extended life is made in exchange for a reformed lifestyle. People facing less serious trauma can bargain or seek compromise. For instance: "I'd give anything to have him back." Or: "If only he'd come back to life, I'd promise to be a better person!"
4.     Depression – "I'm so sad, why bother with anything?"; "I'm going to die soon, so what's the point?"; "I miss my loved one, why go on?" During the fourth stage, the individual despairs at the recognition of their mortality. In this state, the individual may become silent, refuse visitors and spend much of the time mournful and sullen.
5.     Acceptance – "It's going to be okay."; "I can't fight it; I may as well prepare for it." In this last stage, individuals embrace mortality or inevitable future, or that of a loved one, or other tragic event. People dying may precede the survivors in this state, which typically comes with a calm, retrospective view for the individual, and a stable condition of emotions.

            For the Caregiver for a loved one who is no more terminal than everyone else on the planet, the list is somewhat different. We are not grieving. We are fighting back as best we can, and we are finding ways to enjoy our days while planning for our uncertain future – together.

            And while Kubler-Ross has people moving through the stages in order, I find myself moving fairly quickly back and forth among the stages. “Stages” may not be the best term. Maybe “modalities.”

·      Battling – This is what we are doing. Radiation is over, medication is about to begin, and Tuesday Kim felt like she turned a corner, especially because her appetite returned after two months, with nausea tossed in for the last two weeks. We are studying ways to improve our diet, committing ourselves to regular exercise, drinking more water than we could have imagined several years ago.
·      Denial – This is my default modality. Always has been. I remember when our canoe capsized in Canada and we came very close to drowning, my clear thought as I hit the water was, “This doesn’t happen to me – it happens to other people.” In our current situation, it’s not that I believe or wish that “the diagnosis is somehow mistaken.” It’s just that I refuse to accept the fact that the life I love with Kim will change so radically. “This was not the plan,” I say, “and I’m sticking with the plan.” So we are going to go ahead and build that cottage on Torch Lake.
·      Blame – Find somebody to sue. As if that will make a difference.
·      Denial
·      Touch – For some reason I now feel a need to touch Kim, maybe on her shoulder, her butt, her hair. (Come to think of it, this is not at all new.) I’m more aware of my need now because Kim is in pain, plus her radiation-related nausea, so getting touched by me is not high on her list of priorities. But we are talking about my needs here . . .. We both enjoy, on a good evening, a Lubriderm foot massage. Touching is good.
·      Oblivion – Not complete oblivion, of course – plenty of time for that later. Kim sleeps a lot, which helps. I used to find a degree of oblivion through my evening bourbon, but I’ve cut way back because Kim can’t drink with the painkillers she is on, and I feel bad drinking alone.
·      Self-Reproach – It is natural for me to blame myself when something goes wrong – such as Kim’s cancer – because I am in the habit of giving myself credit when things go well. I have several possibilities swimming in my reservoir of guilt, but I choose not to share them here.
·      Denial
·      Distraction – You know those drug ads on television where they are required to read all the horrible potential side effects? At the same time as they are doing that, the visuals show people enjoying life with no side-effects whatsoever. They make the visuals as appealing as possible to distract you from the frightening language. Well, our oncologist gave us some frightening language about the side effects of the medications he is prescribing. (I did not find any warnings about erections lasting more than four hours.) Immediately after reading that I feel an urge to find a good movie on Netflix.
·      Split-Screen – Speaking of Netflix, I have two movies running in my head. Maybe three. One features images associated with the above side-effects, plus what I see when I google “stage 4 cancer,” both of which Genne’ has wisely told me to stop imagining. On another screen I see us, the battle won, living at our cottage on Torch Lake, visited by family and friends, grandkids and their kids, or just enjoying breakfast as we watch the birds at sunrise. A third screen is looking back with simple appreciation to the good times we have shared.
·      Kobayashi Maru – In one of the Star Trek movies cadets who are training on a simulator are presented with a no-win situation: In order to rescue a ship, Kobayashi Maru, and its crew that is calling for help, they would have to enter enemy space, provoking interstellar war. The cadets do so and their ship is destroyed, along with the one they were going to rescue. When the cadet training on the simulator complains that the situation is impossible, she is told that one cadet, James Kirk, found a solution: reprogram the simulator. This has taught me a valuable life-lesson: When life presents you with a set of unsatisfactory options, redefine the problem in a way that gives you more options.

Thanks in large part to Genne’, whose positive attitude is based as much on her medical knowledge as it is on her love for her mom, we are working on our Kobayashi Maru solution, which Kim defines as “fuck it.” Kim is eating without nausea, and she is starting an exercise regimen that involves climbing stairs instead of using the elevator. She had a pedicure, and her red toenails match her soon-to-be-discarded walker. Tomorrow we buy life jackets for the kayak Scott bought her for her Mother’s Day.


Thursday, June 22, 2017

Everything We Need

The Flying Dream

At breakfast you tell me your dream:
You are swimming in the ocean.
It is warm and calm. You move
effortlessly, like a ray.

the way I fly in my dreams

Soft water glides along
your skin in a caress.
You shimmer. Kelp touches
you like a lover’s fingers.

it’s becoming my dream

You have no need to breathe.
Amazing fish, coral, sponges,
anemone all welcome you.
The undersea joins you in dance.

like the music in my dreams

But when you surface you see
only water and sky. No waves
point the way to an invisible
shore. Nobody comes to

where am I?

your rescue. Nobody hears
the calls you don’t make. In
the giant ocean you find yourself
lost, alone, complete, serene.



At the Movies

You walk into the movie late.
You are not sure why the tattooed guy
is so angry at the old guy
who might be his father,
and why he winked at the girl
on the elevator.

Not sure who are ex-lovers,
who the tattooed guy is whispering to
on his cell phone,
why the cute blonde is mocking him,
or what anyone does for a living.

Everyone seems upset about something.

At night they all meet at a restaurant.
“You can’t get away with that,”
the old guy says.
The others seem to agree.
His apparent wife nods, drains her glass,
and heads for the bathroom.

They all leave. It’s raining. They go off separately.

You feel you should be taking sides
and check the lighting and music
for a clue about how to feel.

This happens to me every day.




            Everything We Need

The deer snorts and I turn, in my hand
a just-sprouting-legs tadpole moments ago
raked from the pond while I scooped

string algae, and as I glance from tadpole
to deer’s antler nubs, reddish coat,
flanks thin from a cold spring, and he

stares back at me, bends to nibble
tiny buckthorn I should pull from the woods,
and he grazes past the poison ivy I sprayed,

ferns moved up from the fen to behind
the hickory tree, and I say, “Stay, but
don’t eat the flowers,” the cat emerges

from behind the woodpile, creeps
closer to the buck, who looks from me
to the leaves to the approaching cat

and then back to the leaves he snatched
from the redbud we were hoping to save,
and his jaw moves narrow and loose

as he stares, chews, stares, looks back
at the stalking cat, lowers his nose to her,
a tawny white calico blending with

the reddish tan deer, both enclosed
in deep green shadows, dark brown
path and woodpile, vertical rainbow

of gray, brown and green trunks,
diagonal sunlight slicing the air
of our woods, and I balance

our whole life in this one moment
then drop the tadpole into the pond,
and the buck carefully walks away,

lifting his feet high, and the cat
follows him, until all that remains
is everything we need.


Thursday, June 15, 2017

Prognosis


            Kim and I are underway in the long process of healing from her back surgery, and this week we started to treat this latest attack from cancer: first radiation, and then whatever medicine the oncologist suggests.

            We have asked our doctors about the prognosis. The word is derived from Greek words meaning “before” and “know.” This origin is misleading. Our future with cancer, wherever or however it might pop up next, is not at all known, or even knowable. The definition of “prognosis” includes words like “probable” and “likely,” and our doctors use words like “might,” “may,” “possibly,” “as long as” and “several years.” These words are a long way from “know” in the root of the word.

            The word “gnosis,” interestingly, means “knowledge of spiritual mysteries,” which appears oxymoronic because aren’t mysteries mysteries because they are unknown?

            But still, that word “know” lingers as a troubling reminder of how far from really knowing we are. We are living with uncertainties. Of course, we have always been living that way, but now we are more aware of it. There was always the possibility that we would get hit by a bus, or that a refrigerator would fall out of an airplane to crush us while we were going for a walk. But this uncertainty is different, largely, in my case, because the course of our lives had seemed pretty secure, even including the certainty that we would grow old and die. And then cancer jolted us off the rails.

            There are some near-future uncertainties:

·      How will Kim respond to radiation? So far, nausea and fatigue, which she is fighting through.
·      Will the upcoming PET-scan show more cancer in Kim’s body?
·      How quickly will the pain subside?
·      When will we be able to remove the rented hospital bed from our living room?
·      How long will Trump stay in office?
·      When will the idiots get dumped from The Bachelorette?

            But there are larger uncertainties, too:

            Two of our docs said that with metastasized cancer, we can never say that we are “cancer free,” or that we are “cured.” One said that the situation is more like “managing a chronic illness.” Think diabetes, fibromyalgia or arthritis, two of which Kim has been “managing” for many years. “Managing” sounds like a good thing, and Kim is a good manager. But “cured” sounds a whole lot better. What will it be like to manage her illness? We were given descriptions of possible medications in our future, each with about two pages of side effects. The description said the side effects would end when the treatment ended – which in our case would be never. Genne’ suggested that we research the probabilities of each side effect for each medication, stated as percentages, but that information is very hard to find. Instead we find words like “common” or “rare.”

            There is also uncertainty about where will we live, and how will we live there? We are going ahead with our plans to build a home on Torch Lake – that’s one of Kim’s passions – but what will it be like to live there if Kim’s recovery is not complete – and how can it be complete with stage 4 cancer? At the same time, we are looking at houses with Alice because it's a lot easier to buy a house than to build one. And if recovery is complete - her disease "managed" - then there is a good chance that we will become old. It happens. Then what?

            Perhaps the quantum physicists are right. In Schrodinger’s famous thought experiment, a cat is trapped in a box with a vial of poison that is released when a radioactive atom randomly decays. You cannot tell if the cat is alive or dead without opening the box. Schrodinger argued that until you open the box and look inside, the cat is neither alive nor dead but in “an indeterminate state.” We are the cat in the box. Always have been, but we are just now realizing it.

            Kim said the other night, with a wisdom that is typical of her, “Whatever happens, I want to do it with grace.” If anyone can, she can. “Grace” is one of my favorite words.

            Coming home from a session of radiation therapy I picked up the mail. It included an ad from a local funeral home. I said, “Fuck you!” and gracefully tossed it in the trash.


Comments welcome at dstring@ix.netcom.com.




Thursday, June 8, 2017

Passion


            The word “passion,” I recall from my teaching career in a previous life, is derived from a Latin word meaning “suffer.” That should have warned me.

            Experts on aging advise how important it is to have a passion in your life. I’m not sure it’s as important as regular exercise or flossing, but it’s close. These experts are experts in staying young. Their passion is giving advice.

            My wife has a passion for photography. I encouraged her in this passion – I believe the correct term for me is “enabler” – by buying her an inexpensive digital camera. She began indulging her passion by snapping pictures of my face as I was undergoing plastic surgery following melanoma surgery. She soon moved up to grandkids, high school kids in saggy costumes, the moon, manhole covers, and construction workers.

            Passions really become dangerous when they merge with other passions. You know – like drinking and gambling. Kim’s passions really started heating when her newfound zeal for digital photography merged with her longstanding zeal for birds. This soon led to a need for an improved camera, one designated “SLR,” which I believe stands for “shoot, look, reject.” Then there was a bigger telephoto lens, then a better SLR camera, and currently being shipped, an even bigger telephoto lens. So it goes. We have some great photographs of birds, and Kim recently won a prize. It’s a photograph of a horse, but we were looking for birds when she took it.

            You know how addicts frequently try to hook others onto their addiction? So they can say, “See – I’m not the only one whose life is consumed by this. So, shut up.” The logic here is a little sketchy, but you see my point. Well, Kim is trying very hard to get me hooked on photography.

            So far she has had limited success – limited because she underestimates my technophobia. She is dedicated to learning how to use all the dials, buttons and “menus” on her camera. Now, I know what a menu us, and I can usually deal with it unless it’s in French. But no matter how patiently she explains this stuff to me, after about six words it just slides off my brain, out my ear and onto the floor. Of course, it does me absolutely no good to realize that Kim experienced the same frustration but managed to push through it one step at a time through trial and error, asking her birdphoto-buddies, and finally, reading the manual. None of these approaches really appeals to me. I’d rather point and shoot with her first simple camera and hope luck brings a nice image onto my sensor. As I said, photography is her passion. She reads photo magazines and camera manuals in the bathroom; I read fiction.

            But Kim is difficult to discourage. She praises my pictures whenever she can, saying that I have “a good eye.” I realize that my eye is not the problem – it’s the camera/brain interface. She also has designated her pre-upgrade SLR camera as “your camera” and is exploring the best tripod for me to purchase. She’s already bought me a couple of shirts that are great for bird photography, and soon I’ll have an “outfit.” She’s convinced that if I really try photography, seriously, I’ll get one great shot, realize what all the excitement is about, and be hooked. Other people had the same theory about why I would take to golf, but I never hit that great shot. I do have an OK one of bugs on a “No Swimming” sign, but that’s a long way from bird photography. Kind of like miniature golf and golf.

            I enjoy using my binoculars, a wonderfully low-tech device. What I don’t enjoy is lowering my binoculars to grab the camera also hanging from my neck (along with my bag with spare batteries and “cards,” along with water and a candy bar), remembering to turn it on, check the ISO and aperture, remembering to remove the lens cap, see if the image stabilizer is on, decide if I want manual focus or auto-focus, and perhaps also check the white balance and maybe set it up for bracketing if the lighting is weird. By the time I do all this, the bird has migrated to northern Canada, and I’m left with a clear shot of an empty sky or perhaps some smudgy bushes. Still, I’m content with my plodding progress with “my camera.” Low expectations help.

            But don’t get me wrong – I do enjoy photography. Just not my own. I have to be reminded to download my images onto the computer. I occasionally enjoy taking photographs, because a camera, like binoculars, helps me pay attention. But I lack the passion. I love the slide shows Kim presents on the computer after she has narrowed down the day’s 300 shots to a manageable 25. And I love being out in the woods or on the prairie with Kim, enjoying her enjoyment. I love being her spotter. While she is looking at something through her viewfinder (if that’s the right term), I’ll see a small brown movement in the bushes or a distant flapping speck and shout “Bird!” and point. Come to think of it, that’s not very different from what a bird dog does.

            Does Kim’s passion for bird photography help to keep her young? I believe that it does, especially when she awakens me at five in the morning with the news that there might be birds waiting for us out by the bridge, and the coffee is made. Or when we’ve been out on the prairie for a few hours – she hauling her camera with mega-lens and the attached tripod, me dragging behind with my binoculars and candy bar – and she says, “Oh! Let’s try this side path! We might see a Purple Gallinule, and the light is perfect. It won’t take long! Are you getting tired?” That’s the sound of passion.


If you have any passions you'd like to share, write me at dstring@ix.netcom.com.

From Jerry Shimp:
Dave, my passion has been flying since 1958. On Tuesday I got to fly a P-51 (WWII Mustang), something I have dreamed about for 50 years. One of the great moments of my life.