Thursday, December 6, 2018

Festivus


            It’s that time of year again, a time when many of us give and receive gifts. Of course, I’m talking about the month of the Winter Solstice. With that in mind, I am offering up a brief questionnaire to help you through the month. I’d love to hear your responses, and I hope to put them together in next week’s blog. No need to respond to all the questions. No need, in fact, to respond to any of them – but what’s the fun in that?

·     What is the best gift you have ever received?

·     What is the best gift you have ever given?

·     Have you ever given or received a partridge in a pear tree?

·     Which would you rather receive as a gift, a thing or an event?

·     How do you feel about cash as a gift?

·     Do you have a favorite Christmas movie?

·     What Christmas song to you hope never to hear again?

·     What, if anything, makes you sad this time of year?

·     How has the Christmas season changed since you were a kid?

·     What are you planning to do to make this holiday season different this year?

·     Do you or your family have any unusual or amusing holiday traditions?

·     Who would you like to come down your chimney?

·     If you are not a Christian, what does Christmas mean to you? 

·     If you are a Christian, is your faith an important part of how you celebrate Christmas? In what way?


That’s it. Please email your responses to me at dstring@ix.netcom.com.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Burp Audibly


            The event had sit-com potential. Fourteen people would be gathering at our Bark House for Thanksgiving. The group, descendants from Kim’s ex-husband and their various affiliates, included a new girlfriend, a girlfriend who we thought was going to be an ex-, a girlfriend back in relationship following a breakup, a typically outspoken half-brother, a migraine headache, a granddaughter undergoing an anxiety crisis – and this is only what we knew about. Throw in an upcoming memorial service of Kim’s ex’s sister, sleeping on blow-up beds and couches, Kim’s ongoing pain and fatigue as she hosted the event, and a large active dog – you see the potential. If a blizzard hits, I thought, we might have a murder mystery on our hands.

            To my disappointment as a writer but pleasure as a family member, none of this explosive potential came to pass. We had a terrific time (despite some behind-the-scenes drama not acted out in public). Everyone cooperated (not quite everyone) on meal preparation, and the adults who did not pitch in brought alcohol. We seated everyone (except the dog) at two tables, one of which I designated for “the cool kids,” but this did not provoke any entertaining jealousy. Instead, we were entertained by a series of games. Apparently there’s a version of Family Feud that you can play with the aid of a smart phone, and even though we spent more time clarifying the rules than we did playing the game, it got everything started. We played Trivia, also using a phone, and I surprised myself by knowing which is the world’s smallest nation. The game involved a choice between shots and dares – such as, “Sing and dance to ‘I’m a Little Teapot,’” or “Burp audibly.” We played another game where we went around the room responding to various questions or directives, such as, “What is the secret phobia of each person in the room?” or “What did you not understand about sex when you were younger?” (Glad I did not get that one.)

            So – a short entry today. No comical stories to tell. No profound insights. I suppose I should be grateful for Kim deceased ex- for spawning this crew.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Those Winter Sundays

            One of my favorite poems is “Those Winter Sundays” by Robert Hayden. Take a look:

Those Winter Sundays

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?

            I’ll skip the analysis of why this poem works so well. It’s a guy poem – a son’s growing to appreciate his father. I can relate – to the father, of course. I know, I know – my hands are not “cracked” and the cold is not “blueback,” at least not indoors. And I don’t build a morning fire or shine Kim’s shoes. What I do in fulfilling “love’s austere and lonely offices” (brilliant choice of words, Robert!) is go out and feed the birds. They do appreciate it, and so does Kim, as she told me more than once. I am and have been well thanked. Come to think of it, I can’t think of why I identify with the father in the poem.

            I need my routines, my discipline. Getting this blog out on Thursdays in a self-imposed discipline that for some reason I take very seriously. Feeding the birds every morning is also a joyful discipline – getting out the various bags of seeds, putting on coat and boots, sweeping snow off the porch and steps, then filling feeders and sprinkling seeds on rocks. I’ve only been doing it for a couple of weeks now, but it adds a welcome structure to my life. Someone, it might have been Tolstoy (help me, readers!) defined freedom as being “at ease in harness,” and I like that. I feel free when I choose to feed the birds, and for some reason, the colder and windier the better. The chickadees and nuthatches now greet me, landing inches from my face. The woodpeckers and blue jays are still shy.

            One of the many striking features of Hayden’s poem is the connection in the last line between “love” and “lonely.” Really? Isn’t love supposed to be the opposite of lonely? But I get it. Most guys, me included, usually don’t express their love by saying it. We do stuff, sometimes alone.

            I have other routines as well to give my life structure and discipline now that retirement has removed the discipline of my job. I make the bed. I make our coffee. I take out the trash. I dry the dishes. I drive the car. I vacuum the center area of several rooms. That’s about it. Kim does the rest. I thought about designing a t-shirt for myself that reads, “higher maintenance than I appear.”

            Kim, of course, performs her “austere and lonely offices” all the time, but nobody writes poems about that – not yet, anyway. But when a guy lights a fire and shines his kid’s shoes, it’s a big deal. But it is a big deal. All of it. It’s what you do when you are alive.

            Thank you.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Bark House







            Kim was recovering from her cancer surgery – her seventh in the last three years and by far the most serious because her breast cancer had metastasized to her spine. Paralysis, or even death, were possibilities. And in the best case she would survive the 7-hour surgery to live with stage 4 cancer. This is not a situation where most people would say, “Hey, let’s build a house!” We are not most people.



            Kim had been through a lot – double mastectomy, radiation, uterine cancer surgery with more radiation. We thought, after finishing her uterine radiation, that we were pretty much in the clear. We had finally sold our snowbird homes in North Florida and Southeast Michigan and decided to move to Traverse City. We found a piece of land that reminded Kim of where she spent summers in the Upper Peninsula, bought it in October of 2016, and decided to build. We met with a couple of architects and builders before fully launching into the project.

            In March of 2017 we drove to visit Genne’ in Florida and pick up a sculpture that we did not trust with the movers. On the drive down Kim experienced severe back pain. At this point we were unaware that the cancer had metasticized. Genne’ showed her mom some stretches that might help, and she encouraged an X-Ray, which did not reveal any problem to the person reading it. Meanwhile, Kim took a bad fall in a dark bedroom, landing hard on the floor. Miraculously, there was no permanent damage.

            The pain continued so we decided to head north early. It was unrelenting. We went to our doc when we got home, Kim had a CT-Scan, and her radiologist called and told her not to move or do ANYTHING, that he was scheduling her for surgery as soon as possible. On May 9, 2017, she had cancer removed from her spine. As it turned out, the cancer had eaten her vertebrae and was, in fact, what was supporting her spinal cord. The surgeon constructed a cage out of titanium, bone, and whatever else he could find. A few weeks later she started a month of almost daily radiation, followed by chemo. Sounds like a great time to build a house, right?

            We debated, back and forth, whether to go ahead with the project. The reasons not to do so were obvious: the stress, the financial and physical demands, the remoteness (an hour from the hospital), the possibility of being snowed in, and the challenges of living in and taking care of a home in the woods, especially when compared to condo living. 

            It was Scott who finally convinced us to go ahead with our building. “You’ve always wanted to live on a lake. It’s your dream. Do it.” He gave her a kayak for Mother’s Day, shortly after she returned home to the condo from the rehab facility.

            Anyone who has built a home knows how the process usually goes – the delays, the errors and corrections, the expense. But despite all of that, it was a creative experience. Kim is an artist, and our home is her continuing work of art.



            This is our bark house. The exterior siding is made from the bark of tulip poplars from a company in North Carolina where we had stopped on one of our snowbird drives. The birds and squirrels think our home is a large tree, and they may be right. Kim and I have always been tree-huggers, and now our tree is hugging us.

            One of our favorite songs is “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” with the words, “And dreams that you dare to dream / Really do come true.” The dream was to sit on our porch in the evening, sipping our bourbon, watching the snow fall, noticing the deer in the yard.

            And here we are. The cancer is still stage 4, we have more scans and tests coming up next weeks.

            But meanwhile . . ..
                  

Thursday, November 8, 2018

AM/FM


            We are living on two frequencies these days, AM and FM. Each one is generating its own information and music. The question is, Which frequencies are we tuning into?

            Most of our time and energy is devoted to what I call AM. Launching a new home is a young person’s game. It requires energy, fueled by hope, visions of our future, and sufficient water and caffeine. We are pretty much moved into our house, and certainly our hearts are here. We are feeding the birds, gradually putting our stuff pretty much where it belongs, though a major shift will occur in a week or so when the garage is finished so we can move our junk precious belongings out for a future garage sale. We are also planning a major wall of bookshelves and kitchen island with lots of drawers. Once we put everything away, we hope to find some missing items: the power cord for the printer and Kim’s backup hard drive, for two examples. I’m missing some shoes that I suspect I threw away, and I hope I never find some old neckties. We pause from time to time to look at Our View – you saw some photos last week. This is home. Another reason I know our house is our home is that I turned off the cable at the condo, making it virtually uninhabitable.

            At the same time, however, there is another frequency in our lives. I’ll call it FM, for no particular reason. We just learned about a family member, the sister of Kim’s ex, who is dying of cancer. Without going into the details, it’s been a long, slow, painful process for her, one that may be over by the time you read this. Nobody should suffer that way. And it’s hard not to imagine, when we think about her suffering, what may lie in Kim’s future. Yes, we are all going to die – I have reluctantly come to acknowledge this – but can’t there be better ways? Especially for us? Yes, we may sympathize with the sick and dying, but sympathy, as I understand it, involves looking at someone who is less well off, understanding how they feel, perhaps dispensing kindness, support, connection. But it's something more than sympathy when you actually see  and feel yourself in the unfortunate sufferer. It’s more like empathy, where you actually experience the emotions of another. (My online Merriam Webster Dictionary, by the way, gets the sympathy/empathy distinction totally wrong, IMNHP.) Empathy comes with a convenient barrier – it ain’t really happening to me. In our case, there is another clause: but it will. Perhaps soon. Whatever the next level above empathy is called, that’s what we sometimes tune into. Maybe the best term is “fear.”

            Sometimes, when we are happily working our butts off (I’m currently down 12 pounds) in AM, Kim experiences some intense pain. Months ago, this was easy to explain – she was lifting rocks and pulling weeds. And now she is unpacking boxes, lifting stuff onto shelves, cleaning sticky and dusty floors left from construction. But still – what if that pain in her hip, gut or back is not muscle strain or dehydration, but instead a sign of cancer’s return? A sudden pain can quickly shift you from tired-but-happy AM into what-if? FM. And if the pain means Kim can’t sleep, the FM may be heard all night - though her last bout of insomnia focused on where to put her collection of nests to decorative advantage.

            My FM thoughts this morning are interrupted by Nate, who has arrived to install our range hood and vent, and if time allows, the sink in the guest bedroom. And our builder may be here, blessedly, to hang some lights and maybe install a bannister down the stairs I’ve been climbing, according to my iPhone, about 40 times a day for the last month. Good news! And when the workers leave in the evening we will sit on the sun porch (in the dark), turn on the Jotul stove, sip a bit of rye whiskey from our local Mammoth Distillery, and contemplate the large hornet's nest we hung on the wall across from the bird nest that Kim built. The AM  world has a lot going for it.

            And here’s more from our AM receiver: what Kim photographed from the back porch:


Goldfinch in winter colors


Tufted Titmouse


Downy Woodpecker and Tufted Titmouse


Gray Squirrel - black version seen here in northern Michigan

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Summons



            It was a Kim moment. I looked out the window over the lake and saw that the moon’s reflection on the water was startlingly beautiful. I called Kim up from the basement, where she was unpacking, to see it. She did more than see it – she grabbed her camera and hurried out the back door. What made this a Kim moment was her being in her pajamas, normally a sign that it’s Netflix time. She was also wearing her socks, one of which was packed with ice because she had slammed her toe into a dresser in our realigned bedroom. Nevertheless – out the door, down the steps to the shore, where we struggled to get the right shutter speed and exposure for bright moon and dark clouds and water. 



            I spent about an hour, while Kim was unpacking, looking for a poem I wrote years ago, one that captured the essence of this experience. I finally found the poem, but it urns out that I didn’t write it at all – Robert Francis wrote it. (I could have written it if he hadn’t written it first.)


Summons

Keep me from going to sleep too soon
Or if I go to sleep too soon
Come wake me up. Come any hour
Of night. Come whistling up the road
Stomp on the porch. Bang on the door.
Make me get out of bed and come
And let you in and light a light.
Tell me the northern lights are on
And make me look. Or tell me the clouds
Are doing something to the moon
They never did before, and show me.
See that I see. Talk to me ‘till
I’m half as wide awake as you
And start to dress wondering why
I ever went to bed at all.
Tell me the walking is superb.
Not only tell me but persuade me.
You know I’m not too hard persuaded.

                                                --Robert Francis

            Actually, it’s usually Kim who first spots the moment of beauty and summons me to look, much as my  the poem describes. I’ll take credit where I can -- I saw the moon-lake first. We photographed it for several nights, though not in pajamas.








           
            It was Kim who summoned me to see how you can enjoy a sunset when looking east.




            And a sunrise:




In the afternoon Kim summoned me to walk down the road where we now live,


and back again. That's our home in the distance.




            And it was Kim’s son, Scott, who started this whole thing by calling her in the middle of the night, insisting that she get out of bed and go outside to see the northern lights. She did, and she got me to go with her. My life has not been the same since then. I’ve been summoned.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Coffa Cuppee


            People reading the four coffee-themed poems below might think they are dealing with an addict. They would be right. But just because I’m an addict does not mean that I have a problem.

            These poems are about ten years old. Kim was making an artistic book about coffee while I was a Starbucks barista, and she needed some verbal content to go with all that she was doing visually. (There’s only one copy of the book, so I can’t share it with you here.)

            As I read these over now, fueled by coffee for the unpacking part of our move, I notice that I have plagiarized from myself a couple of times. So, what?


Coffa Cuppee

When I drink my coffa cuppee
sleep awakens, down is uppee.

Cowboy coffee leaves some grit
to tongue long after drinking it.

Irish coffee – there’s a drink
to liberate creative think.

Even de-caf when the doc
wants to slow my tick and tock.

Zapped, identified as “pseudu,”
still works arabica voodoo.

Black, espresso, cappuccino,
drip or percolated – we know

Coffa cuppee – make it two!
Down is uppee – magic brew!



Coffee Breaks

Sometimes java jazz
makes synapses crackle
and brain cells dance
until I can do anything

and everything    pages
flash through my brain
love is quick and stylish
or young and languid

your hair the brown
of fresh coffee the way
god made it    warm
fragrant     bittersweet

Sometimes we share
Sumatra in silence
or idle chatter across
the expanse of our table

and it’s here we are
again you and me
and the coffee in jadeite
or white ceramic    the two

of us plus birds beyond
the window     words
about our families     these
and the shared flavor

And sometimes it’s Starbucks
or Sweetwaters     a pause
on our errands to infuse
ambiance and a mug

surrounded by earthy
colors and artwork
inviting us to linger
where a guy leans over

his laptop or two young women
shake their heads at the folly
and this middle-aged couple
shares coffee and their day



Relax Attacks

Havva cuppa     tall or grande
cappuccino     latte    hand me
coffee     black or room for cow
couldn’t really care less how
mug or to-go     demi-    maxi-
caf or de-     relax attacks me
off the lid to waft aroma
synapses crackle     I’m at home a-
way from any where I sip
or gulp or idly get a grip
by car     or sofa    buzzing fast
or slow     prolong my coffee blast
where black is brown and white is tan
baristas percolate élan
I roast my beans     French or Italian
then dance Sumatran     Guatamalan
Kona     Java    Costa Rica
jungle jingles     magnifique
espresso single double cap
fuels this caffeinated rap



House Blend

We pause, a middle-aged
couple, to share coffee
and perhaps a mid-
afternoon treat.
                             You
emerge from your art
room, I from my study,
and we re-heat what’s
left from the morning
pot.
          We face eath other.
We read the mail. Talk
about kids and grandkids.
Sip. Plan tomorrow.
                                    Then
rinse our cups and return
to whatever we were doing.