Thursday, June 17, 2021

Veer

            I like the word “veer.” It means, simply, to change the direction of movement, and the suggestion, to me, anyway, is that it happens without noticeable change in velocity. And it’s not a reversal of direction, like a bouncing ball, but rather a going off at an angle. Think of a car’s changing lanes on the expressway, or of a sailboat’s shift to adjust to the wind.

            But I’m not talking about physics.

 

            You can veer in the direction of your life – something I have not done often or easily, teaching English at the same high school for 32 years. I probably would have stayed in my first marriage had my wife not seen that it was time to end it. And I probably would not have thrown out my old blue jeans without Kim’s encouragement. I am reminded of something that my friend Mark said about attitudes toward change when I worked with him to implement some changes at Pfizer’s Ann Arbor facility: “I’m in favor of change, as long as I don’t have to do anything differently.” Amen.

 

            In fact, Kim is responsible for much of the veering in my life, mainly because her restless creativity has led us to move nine times since we’ve been married – unless I’m missing a move or two. The moves have been to different situations – house in the woods, apartment in the city, downtown in a small town, condo in an old mental institution, etc. – and each situation meant a veering into a new role. Now, in the woods we are enhancing on the shore of a lake, I have become yard-man, dealing with mulch and weeds, raking the beach, watering our new trees, bushes and flowers. I’m still far from a gardener – that change would require more than a simple veering – but I sense the difference. It’s like using new muscles, which I also am doing. Kim is also helping me veer into a world where I actually notice things outside my head. I, in turn, are helping her veer into a world where it is OK to fart.

 

            “Veering” usually connotes an element of risk, as in the familiar phrase, “veering off course.” This, of course, conveniently ignores the risk of staying on course, as with the Titanic or, perhaps, my first marriage. On the more mundane level, the risk is going stale. My solution is to marry Kim, who keeps me off-balance.

 

            In other words, when Kim says, “I have an idea,” I say, “I’d better sit down to hear it.”

 

            Veering can be deliberate, or not. People decide to quit a job, sell a business, end a marriage, smoke pot, go on a “health kick” through diet and exercise, marry a friend, take a class, or move to a place where you’ve always wanted to live. Your life veers off in a new direction. You have veered off course. I recall a student who was, with encouragement from his father, on course for law school. He veered off that course when he realized that he really wanted to be a writer, a career which has become a great success for him.

 

            Veering can also play a part in writing. When I was teaching, many of my students came to me having learned to write following the formula of “The Five-Paragraph Theme.” You know, introduction and conclusion with three paragraphs of development sandwiched in between. As my college English professor wrote on several of my efforts, “Ho-hum.” I tried to teach my students to veer, to include some surprises that somehow fit. Readers of this blog may notice that I practice this veering from time to time.

 

            But sometimes the veering is forced upon you, as with a diagnosis of cancer. A friend recently veered away from his planned retirement trip out west in a camper with his dog when he received the diagnosis. And as I write this, Kim and I are awaiting Friday’s appointment with the oncologist to discuss the results of last week’s CT scan, bone scan, and blood tests. More veering ahead?

 

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Longer Life?


    David Brooks recently wrote (June 3 NY Times) about the possibility that, if current research pans out, we will be able to live much longer lives. No, this is not about finding a cure for heart disease or a vaccination for cancer. Without going into the details Brooks summarizes, it’s about intervening to dramatically slow the aging process itself. He quotes a researcher who says, “. . . We are on the verge of a breakthrough.” We may soon be able to live longer, healthier lives – at least, if we live long enough for the research to be completed, approvals made, etc. It’s more likely that our kids and grandkids will be the beneficiaries.

    What interests me the most is not the research, but rather the question of whether this intervention is a good idea. Do we want it to happen? 

    The obvious answer is, “Yes, of course! Who would not want to live a longer, healthier life?” That question is rhetorical – or maybe not.

 

    Let’s begin by considering possible objections – a process called “critical thinking” that I learned about in college.

    We are clearly heading into a horror show, so let’s avoid what we can’t prevent. Climate change is causing damaging weather, disrupted farming resulting in food shortages and massive migration, rising sea levels, etc., etc. Wouldn’t it be easier to avoid all this – by dying? We do what we can on our way out the back door – recycle, eat less meat, drive an electric car (if we are still able to drive) – but mainly, wish the youngsters good luck, and leave as gracefully as possible. 

    At the same time, political acrimony is increasing, nationally and internationally. People are getting bombed or shot, and folks are predicting the end of American democracy. Fifteen percent of Americans think our government is controlled by Satanists who kidnap children and drink their blood. What will replace democracy? Do you really want to stick around and find out, even if you have the energy to go for a bike ride after dinner with a possible blood-drinker?

    Furthermore, dramatically longer lifespans most likely mean an increase in population, which would worsen global warming. And even if our birth rate is shrinking, our aging population would mean we are surrounded by old people. It will be like living in The Villages in Florida, but without enough young people to serve us in restaurants, fix our plumbing, or pay into our Social Security.

    And besides, being freed from normal aging does not mean we would be free from diseases, including Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. Few people want to extend life with dementia, in yourself or a loved one. Freeing oneself from diseases might mean giving up certain pleasures – think of smokers who know the risks, or people like me who enjoy our bourbon nightcap. Better, perhaps, to succumb?

    Kim describes the natural arc or curve of life, featuring the awkward teen years, screwing around (for many but not me), career and family building, menopause (male and female), career peak, kids gone, retirement, and death. The period between retirement and death usually means less sex – less screwing, perhaps, but more hugging and affectionate touching and whatever that may or may not lead to. 

    Finally, doesn’t the prospect of death sharpen our appreciation of life? Why delay that appreciation? Do you want to be that geezer sitting on the beach muttering, “Another goddamn sunrise!”?

 

    How do I answer these objections? After some serious thought, I applied critical thinking to my critical thinking, and I decided that I want the new treatment, and soon, please. We can use the extra time for more affectionate touching. And the life-affirming prospect of death will still be with us, and it would be best to be alive to enjoy it.

 

I can send you the Brooks piece, upon request.

dstring@ix.netcom.com

 

  

Thursday, June 3, 2021

Black Teeth


            “Ha! I’ve never seen anything like that!” This is not what you ever want to hear your dentist say.

 

            It started when Kim suggested that I get my eyebrows dyed. Apparently, they somehow have become so gray that they disappear, no longer framing my face. Since Kim has to look at my face and its invisible eyebrows much more often than I do, and since she can use words like “framing,” I agreed to have Trever do it at my next haircut. He’d done it about a year ago – no problem.

 

            Well, this time there was a problem. I lay back in the chair and closed my eyes as he smeared some kind of wet paste over my eyebrows. It felt thick to me, but I had confidence that Trever knew what he was doing. Maybe a minute went by as he snipped at a few strays and then worked around my mask to trim my beard. My eyebrows were starting to itch uncomfortably, but there was nothing I could do about it. He wiped the stuff off of my eyebrows, blew off the gray trimmings, removed my gown, and I got up, thanked him, paid the person at the desk, and left.

 

            Out at my car, my eyebrows were still itching a bit, so I rubbed them gently with my fingers before eating a small chocolate Kind bar as a snack. Big mistake! When I picked Kim up from her medical appointment, she asked, “What did you eat?” I told her, and she just shook her head and looked worried. So, at our first stop I found the nearest men’s room and checked the mirror. My eyebrows looked a bit smudged. And then I checked my mouth and saw that my teeth were black. The bottom row was the worst – a medium gray with black between each of the teeth, and black gums. Sloshing a handful of water, or course, did not help.

 

            We had dinner with Fleda and Jerry, and they either did not notice anything or were too gracious to say, even when Kim asked, “Do you notice anything different about David?” They mentioned that my hair looked shorter.

 

            When I got home, I started to work on the problem. Kim suggested I work on my teeth with hydrogen peroxide, which I did – brushing my teeth with it, then dabbing and poking the cracks with dripping Q-tips. Minimal improvements, possibly caused by my brain fog. I dipped my dental floss in the hydrogen peroxide and gave that a try. Nope. I tried sloshing my teeth with it. No improvement. Kim suggested I stop with the hydrogen peroxide, as it might be causing some damage. I also returned the Clorox to the laundry room. She suggested I call my dentist, and she reassured me, “I love you anyway.” Not all that reassuring. I figured that I could continue wearing my Covid mask for a few more years – full time, even in bed.

 

            As luck would have it, I had a dental appointment in two days, a check-up on the bone graft where I’d had a tooth extracted, prior to an implant in a few months. I figured that with my missing tooth and my blackened smile, I might have to move to Kentucky. On the other hand, Hallowe’en is only a few months away . . ..




            The dentist made pretty quick work of it using a scraper and then the machine that the dental hygienist uses. “Some of it,” he said, “is in the plaque,” making me happy that my own dental hygiene technique leaves behind a useful supply of plaque. He did not charge me, perhaps out of sympathy, perhaps because he was amused by what happened to me. I asked him if he could use that hygienist machine on my blurred eyebrows, but he declined. I think I’m about 60% better – though they may not have been all that white before Trever’s dye.

 

            I realize that, in the scale of human misery (the pandemic, racism, cancer, shootings, climate change), my blackened teeth rank pretty low. Except for one thing: this one happened to me.

  

Thursday, May 27, 2021

To-Do List


            I am a big fan to the to-do list, both as a means to plan my time and, perhaps more importantly, as a way to measure my achievements. I’ve been known to put items on my list that I’ve already done, just so I can experience the satisfaction of crossing them out. Once I put “make to-do list” on my list.

 

            In any case, here’s a current list. These are all real.

 

·      Cut fallen branches now in a pile into fireplace size pieces.

·      Move small stones from the beach to skirt around house.

·      Rake beach (daily).

·      Sweep or blow off porches and decks (daily – did not realize this until reminded).

·      Move newly planted birch tree to where it will get more sun.

·      Water all the trees, flowers and bushes we have planted this spring. Kim now does almost all the watering as I do not do it properly.

·      Spray stuff on bat house that is supposed to attract bats.

 

·      Reorganize bird feeders for summer mode.

·      Clean feeders we will be putting away in garage.

·      Install shelving in garage.

·      Decorate garage. Really.

·      Update Facebook and Craigslist ads for bed and desk, so we can get them out of the garage, so we can organize and decorate garage.

 

·      Send Declarations Pages of our old State Farm policy to our new insurance company. (Every time I see a commercial for an insurance company, I think, “My premium paid for that.”)

·      Get witness to our signing forms telling our State Farm good-bye.

·      Update list of items to be insured, in case fire means we need to replace them.

·      Photograph interior rooms of the house.

·      Take photos and inventory to safe deposit box.

·      Find safe deposit box key, which keeps moving around.

 

·      Close checking account that I have not used for three years.

·      Decide where to put that $5,000.

·      Open “Payments Due” file on computer to see what’s coming, when.

·      Get money from our granddaughter’s college account – she’s going soon.

·      Explain to my granddaughter what a “check” is. (May help to spell it “cheque.”)

 

·      Reorganize closets for summer.

·      Decide clothes to donate. Donate them.

·      Set up garage sale (hoping our neighbor doesn’t again steal our signs).

·      Shine shoes (annually).

·      Find shoe polish (probably petrified).

 

·      Call guy (again) who is supposed to build boardwalk over our unsafe sea wall.

·      Call guy (again) who was supposed to trim trees months ago.

·      Meet guy who will repair woodpecker holes in our bark siding.

·      Meet with architect.

·      Make decisions about how to fix our porches that are not up to code.

 

·      Dust and wipe all baseboards.

·      Clean shower so Kim doesn’t do it, making me feel guilty.

·      Check dryer vent for lint.

 

·      Critique Ron’s poems.

·      Edit Phee’s novellas.

 

·      Exercise.

 

·      Write blog.

 

            I confess that I have completed some of these tasks since my first draft of this list, but I chose to leave them on the list. (Yes, surprisingly, I sometimes write more than a single draft.)

 

            Now, if you have read this far, you know more about my life than you care to know. Now, think of the inspirational people you know, if only by reputation. Do you think they had lists like mine? If not, why not?

 

            Kim is too busy to spend time making a to-do list, but if she had one, it would be longer than mine.

Thursday, May 20, 2021

Spring Beauties


            Getting old in springtime means time is moving backwards. I am moving from autumn to winter in ways that I do not need to detail here. But outside, spring is starting to happen and the world gets younger.

            Spring comes slowly here in Northern Michigan - one morning last week it was 30 degrees (and that's Fahrenheit) with a little snow in the air. For the last few weeks Kim and I have ventured into the woods to document spring’s arrival, mainly in the form of flowers and butterflies. We work as a team: I say, "There's a flower!" or “Butterfly behind you!” and Kim photographs it after adjusting camera settings, then identifies it, catalogues it on her computer, and does the occasional cropping and other Adobe magic. It’s about 50 -50 between us, as I drove the car to the woods.

 

            Enough talk – let’s get to the pictures.


Spring Beauty - thus my title


Trilium

Trilia

Squirrel Corn - don't ask me why

Dutchman's Breeches. Gotta be fun coming up with these names.

Closetfull of Dutchman's Breeches



Canada White Violet


Eh?

Jack-in-the-pulpit. Must be a story behind this name.


Imagine these two Jacks having a conversation.



Trout Lily, aka Adder's Tongue

Bellwort

Celadon Poppy

Sharp-lobed Hepatica, with visitor


Elderberry Tree

Hoary Elfin - about the size of your pinky fingernail.


Chryxus Arctic. Try pronouncing that.

Chryxus Arctic - flip side


Compton Tortoiseshell

Mourning Cloak - usually the first spring arrival. They overwinter as adults, as do I.

Spring beauty, indeed!


Thursday, May 13, 2021

Have a Nice Day

             A poem by Stephen Dunn begins:

 

And so you call your best friend

who’s away, just to hear his voice,

but forget his recording concludes

with “Have a nice day.”

 

“Thank you, but I have other plans,”

you’re always tempted to respond,

as an old lady once did, the clerk

in the liquor store unable to laugh.

 

This, of course, is an invitation to come up with other probably smart-ass responses.

 

            Here in Northern Michigan the likely response would be, “Don’t tell me what to do.” In fact, for many of our neighbors this is pretty much their response to anything, from face masks to vaccines, from speed limits (those are supposed to be upper limits, not lower limits) to environmental protection. “Don’t Tell Me What To Do” could be our state motto. It might be better than our current motto: “If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look about you.”

 

            In fact, I get rather tired of all those imperatives bombarding us in the form of advice about how to live better, more virtuous and therefore happier lives. You know, sayings like, “In a world where you can be anything, be kind.” Or, “Find joy in the journey.” How about, “When you can’t find the sunshine, be the sunshine.” Nothing wrong with these, really, but when I’m bombarded with them in garden shops, gift shops, faux antique shops – it starts to feel oppressive. That guy in the insurance ad who is teaching young people how not to be like their parents gets it right: throw those signs away. Or maybe it’s just me . . ..

 

            Another problem with “Have a nice day” is the word “nice.” How often do we really want a “nice” day? Polite? Socially acceptable? Polite? Excessively precise or delicate? Fastidious? I can see pleasing or agreeable as worthwhile blessings to offer, but that seems to be setting the bar rather low, especially since it doesn’t really cost you anything to utter this blessing-gift. How about, “Have an amazing day,” though I admit that many of us do not want to be amazed. (I recall Samuel Johnson’s definition of “wonder” as “the effect of novelty on ignorance.” Maybe my life is wonderful because I supply the ignorance and Kim supplies the novelty.)

 

            So, the challenges now are two:

 

1.     Come up with an alternative generic parting comment. Something better than, “Have a nice day.” A fellow Starbucks barista would tell customers, “Have a great day,” which I chose to hear as “Have a gray day,” which I thought an interesting parting wish. My Starbucks manager would say, “Have a nice day, darlin’.” She explained that when she said “darlin,” she meant, “you asshole.” (I think it’s a southern thing.)

 

2.     Come up with a good response when someone tells you what kind of day to have. Something to put a smile on the face of the clerk in the liquor store.

 

            Have a next day.

 

 

 

Thursday, May 6, 2021

Mortal

             I woke up thinking what a pain in the ass it would be for other people if I were to die. So, I decided not to. Kim told me that people don’t think that way. O.K. 

            So far in my competition with Death I am undefeated, though Death has a much longer winning streak. 

 

            The conversation, along with stories I’ve been reading and hearing about deaths in India and Brazil, led me to remember a poem I wrote about fifty years ago, back when I was more immortal. Bill Whitney was a friend about the age of my father. About my age now.

 

 

            Bill in Bed

 

Bill tells me he is having a crisis of faith.

Tears slide into his beard.

 

He lives in a hospital bed on the glassed in

porch of his home. His dog

 

dozes at the foot of his bed. The tv sends

lively ghosts from the corner.

 

He tells me he is afraid he is never going

to get well again. I decide

 

not to cry. I see creases in the skin

of his bald head propped

 

on the pillow. I wonder if the radiation

caused them. I remember

 

my father’s death, a death I missed. 
Bill tells me

 

late last night a friend said it is

all right to lose faith

 

but not all of it. I decide not to cry.

I picture the tumor locked

 

into Bill’s brain, tentacles inching into

the wet folds, squeezing,

 

with pitiless eyes and a beak. Bill says

he envies my trips out west.

 

I decide not to cry now.

 

As we talk I stroke Bill’s unparalyzed hand.

I rub his foot, but

 

I’m uncertain about touching his left hand,

still indented where his rings

 

were removed. The nurse arrives, takes

Bill’s blood pressure, gives

 

him a shot, checks his skin and the response

of his pupils. Sue

 

joins us, kisses Bill’s forehead. Tells

the nurse and me she sleeps

 

here with him, likes to cuddle in bed,

jokes that they make out

 

heavily when people aren’t around. I rise

to leave. Sue asks

 

the nurse to make room in the bed for her when

she turns Bill over.  Sure.

 

I say it’s OK they are married. Sue and the nurse

lift, using some leverage tricks,

 

relocating the tube leading to the urine bag hooked

on the frame of the bed.

 

I try to stay out of the way. I’m uncertain

about touching. I’m having a crisis

 

of faith. Sue leans down

 

to arrange Bill’s head on a pillow. His good arm

reaches to circle her neck, holding

 

her in a fierce headlock of an embrace. I

can not see her face or Bill’s.

 

I am jealous of this broken dying man. I see

now the death I missed.