Happy New Year! Our Pipes Burst! (essay)

I was cleaning the first floor of a little rental house we own, getting it ready for occupancy. It felt good to dust the flies and cobwebs off the walls and counters. I thought about Annie Dillard’s quote: “The way we spend our days is the way we spend our lives”–and though I didn’t relish the thought of spending my days cleaning, there’s something about tidying up a living space, making it sparkle and be beautiful, that is so soul-satisfying. So many problems I deal with each day are in my head and nonphysical, like paying bills or negotiating relationships. Turning a dirty window clean by simply washing it with a rag and some vinegar water is so doable, so refreshingly easy. In fact, I’ve read that some mental health professionals tell their depressed clients it can be therapeutic to make their beds first thing in the morning. Apparently, just the act of ordering the environment can make us feel better. It’s one small way we can exert control in our lives and be successful.

While I was dusting the rental house, control though, suddenly became a big problem. I heard a loud thud upstairs followed by my husband barreling down the stair steps. As he ran past me and out the back door I yelled, “What’s wrong?” –but my words were literally drowned out by a torrent of water pouring through the ceiling and on my head like a cloudburst. He’d been working on the plumbing and a brittle pipe had burst so he’d ran to turn off the pump. I quickly grabbed a broom and tried to sweep the raining water now flooding the laminate floor out the back door he’d flung open. By the time the ceiling stopped raining, I was soaked and completely disheartened. A quarter of the main floor of the house was a damp mess. If only the fun I’d had cleaning this morning had just went down a drain instead of settling on the floor, a floor that now needed to be moped up.

A couple of hours and a lot of sore muscles later, our little rental house was finally drying out and looking considerably better. Before the flood, I’d washed the dust off a drip coffee-maker I’d found in the cupboard next to some filters and a can of sealed coffee grounds. I decided my husband and I deserved a cup of coffee after all we’d went through. As we sipped hot coffee we watched the oscillating fan move back and forth, blowing air across the floor, both of us too exhausted to talk. Annie Dillard was right: the way we spend our days is the way we spend our lives, each one full of ups and downs, joys and challenges. It’s a good thing to remember at the start of a new year. The days to come in 2019 probably won’t be smooth or effortless, but in the end we can still be okay. Floors dry out and life goes on.

Hot Flash in the Age of Global Warming

The starlings are swarming in the trees over the Snake River this December, and I’m wondering why they haven’t migrated. More importantly, where’s our snow? We did get maybe an inch or two last night, but the weatherman on TV was very non-committal about a white Christmas for south central Idaho this year. For some, this is great news. With no or little snow, driving is less hazardous, you don’t have to shovel the sidewalk, and moving anywhere outdoors is easier with flip flops than snow boots. Our ski resorts though, need snow and I for one, find the white, wispy stuff almost comforting. It feels as if weather-wise, all is as it should be.

Sometimes I’ve wondered, if in a hundred years, we’d call this time period we’re living in—the early 2000’s—the in-between time of climate change, when winters in Idaho were mild, but snow still happened most of the time. The full effects of a warming planet had not yet hit us. I think about this every time I read that NASA has issued another warning about our average global temperatures climbing.

But wet snow, the kind it seems we’re more likely to get this winter, is great for snowman-building. I found this out a few weeks ago when we had that 4-6 inch snowfall, enough for the grand-kids to play in. Then I bent over, hamstrings screaming, and tried rolling a syrupy little snowman ball along the ground. It was no easy task. The ball kept breaking apart because the snow was almost too wet.

“We’re making a snowman, huh Gan-ma?” my granddaughter Cora asked as she watched me push my snowball around the backyard leaving a ribbon of frozen green grass in its wake.

“Yep.” I said, breathing hard and thinking, the things we do for our grand-kids.

When my snowball was finally big enough for a respectable snowman belly, I took mitten handfuls of snow and tried to round out the torso. And Cora, despite being hobbled by her thick snowsuit, managed to kneel down and grab her own clump of snow to pat on Mr. Snowman’s tummy. Then we put some rocks on his lumpy face for eyes and a carrot became his nose. The finishing touch was a ratty old farm cap for the top of his head and a checkered scarf around his neck. Cora’s eyes shone when she saw the big snowball suddenly transformed into a man. The world for her was a magical place.

Later, I stood in the kitchen with a hot cup of coffee in my hands and watched out the window as Cora and her brother ran around and around our drippy snowman. They were laughing and throwing globs of snow at each other. Looking at this scene made me thankful we still had a world full of natural beauty that included, sometimes, a white winter. It may not always be like this. Wise men know. They watch the sky.

What I’m reading . . .

Becoming
by Michelle Obama

The title of Michelle Obama’s book is Becoming, so I was interested to find out how she became all that she became. Despite humble beginnings, Obama became a Harvard Law graduate, a corporate lawyer, a university administrator, and the wife of the president of the United States.

Incredibly, Michelle Obama and I started out in life in similar ways. We both grew up in the Chicagoland area. In fact, my husband and I drove into Chicago after we first married to honeymoon in a motel on Euclid Avenue, probably not far from where young Michelle was skipping Double Dutch on the sidewalk. We both had blue collar, working class parents. Her father was a water pump operator for the city of Chicago and my dad was a truck driver. She lived in a rented 900 square foot apartment, and my parents mortgaged their 900 square feet. I had the advantage of being born white in racist America, but maybe this wasn’t such an advantage. As Obama chronicles it, race and humble beginnings, along with the love and expectations of her parents, were part of the engine that motivated her many accomplishments. She says: “The idea was we (she and her brother Craig) were to transcend, to get ourselves further.”

Obama defines “becoming” as reaching continuously “for a better self,” which was certainly the case in her life. She worked hard, payed attention to detail and always arrived early. She marveled in her book how she could fall in love with such a “breezy,” laid-back kind-of guy as Barack Obama. But appearances can be deceptive, and she soon realized his relaxed manner belied a keen intellect and deep personal ethic. Michelle Obama’s love for her husband is everywhere evident in this autobiography. However, their marriage was not without challenges. She tells about struggles to become pregnant, going to marriage counseling during a rough patch, and the resistance she launched against Barack Obama’s political ambitions. Like any loving wife, she didn’t want to have to share her husband with the world—but I, for one, am so glad she did.

Obama writes her book well. It’s honest, yet optimistic, interesting and wise. And, like any good autobiography, Obama reveals several little known facts about her life. I was surprised to read she had to be schooled in how to speak publicly during her husband’s political campaigns. I’ve always enjoyed listening to her speak on television, but apparently when she first began to advocate for her husband at political rallies, her advisers told her she came across as too strident and harsh. She needed to sound more friendly and open. I also never realized during the 2016 campaign the personal impact of Donald Trump’s race-baiting on the Obama family. The number of death threats increased alarmingly, and Michelle worried for her husband and children’s safety.

Becoming has the distinction of being the best-selling book of the year, and I think I know why. It’s not just the fascinating story of a young woman’s rise, but the story of a better time in our country’s history, a time when we had a strong leader, someone guided by a true moral compass.

What I’m writing . . .

A Winter’s Tale, essay

I’ve taken several road trips through the West since airplane travel is not my favorite form of terror. The upside of a flying phobia is that on road trips you get to experience every mile you travel. That’s the downside too. Road-tripping can make you very travel weary. So, absent campers, motel accommodations are important. I watched an old I Love Lucy episode on cable not long ago, where Lucy and her friends took a road trip across 1950’s America. One night they found themselves looking for a motel, hoping for a juicy steak and a nice, soft bed. They ended up instead, in a little cabin somewhere near Donner Pass (not a good sign) eating cheese sandwiches and sleeping on lumpy mattresses.

Like Lucy, we were dreaming of good food and shelter when we drove down the exit ramp to Milford, Utah. Milford is not a destination town. That needs to be said right away. However, it is on the freeway heading toward St. George, and if that doesn’t rock you, Las Vegas some miles further. This was a winter trip, so the landscape as we drove into Milford was bleak with blizzard and snow. I thought of that lovely poem by Robert Frost, Desert Places, googled it, and began to recite it aloud to my husband: “Snow falling fast, oh fast . . .” After six hours on the road I thought Robert Frost was a better choice than twenty-nine bottles of beer on the wall.

I’d located our accommodations on a TripAdviser app. They gave the Best Western Paradise motel of Milford, Utah several stars. I knew about Best Western motels. We’re talking about quality here. In another life I changed sheets and emptied waste baskets at a Best Western motel in Chambers, Arizona. Mrs. Young, the proprietor of the Chieftain motel filled me in on the Best Western brand: “That’s why they call it ‘best.’ If your Best Western, you’re the best—so get down on your knees and scrub around those toilets!”

As we drove into Milford, I thought about other winter wanderers, stumbling into an inn looking for rest.  A certain Joseph and Mary came to mind. I wasn’t riding a donkey, but I looked like I’d been “on something,” when I walked into the motel lobby. The back of my hair stood straight up from leaning against the headrest all day. I glanced around and when I saw the lobby furniture was a little old and worn, I began to doubt TripAdvisor’s stars—and those two vaunted words: Best Western. Would we have to find another motel? Out the lobby windows the snow was swirling. We could get lost in a Great Basin blizzard (cue music for Dr. Zhivago) looking for another motel.

The motel clerk though, an older woman with pink lipstick, seemed genuinely friendly and made sure we knew the voucher tickets that came with our room, were good for a full, made-to-order, complimentary breakfast. And the price? This king bedroom was so cheap you could have sold it at Walmart. The price was so far under a hundred dollar bill, I steeled myself for bed bugs, cigarette smells, and a toilet with floaters. But this winter’s tale has a happy ending. When we opened our room door we were greeted by fresh smells and downy white bed sheets. And the best part was still to come: pancakes and eggs for breakfast—no cheese sandwiches here.

What I’m Writing

Wes is Dying

My father-in-law Wes, is 97 year old and dying. It’s time and maybe, past time. He was born in November of 1921, three years after WWI ended (when everyone was in the mood to celebrate), and two years after Prohibition began (when it became illegal to celebrate—at least with alcohol). But none of that mattered much to Wes and his family because they were abstainers, pacifist Mennonites, and farmers.

I wonder what Wes remembers about his early life now that he’s 97? I once read a short story, The Jilting of Granny Weatherall, about an old woman on her death bed floating in and out of consciousness, remembering events and people in her life, most notably George, who had jilted her at the wedding altar decades before. One of my earliest memories is holding my mother’s hand, walking across busy Lusher Avenue to the store to buy a Reese Cup and a bottle of Pepsi.  I was worried I might get run over by all the fast cars.  Will this be a significant memory at my death bed?

Listening to Wes talk recently, it’s clear he’s rapidly losing most of his memories. It seems like in an attempt to fill this void in his mind, his imagination has taken over and began creating all manner of fiction.  With the head of his mechanical hospital bed moved so he could sit up, he told me over and over again some wild tale about how his nurse had gone missing. She was supposed to come back and take care of him—but she didn’t. Wes thought she must have been in a car accident.

Wes’s doctors tell us his dementia is a many-faceted phenomenon that can cause certain unintended consequences, like losing the ability to track your thirst. In fact, Wes could die of dehydration. Which seems so curable in comparison to all the life-threatening cancers floating around us. It could be that when you’re as old as Wes and have fought as hard as he has to survive, your immune system is well girded for the big diseases. It’s the small, innocuous thieves, like a lack of thirst, which can steal your life away.

Wes has asked to come home to the farm to die. It’s important to him. Farming may be the only occupation I know that attaches itself so deeply to the psyche that you can’t live or die without being in some fashion immersed in it. Accountants don’t want to go to the office to die, nor truck drivers to their trucks. Farming though is more than work, it’s a way of life, and for Wes, also a way of death.

This talk about where Wes wants to die has caused me to consider where I’d like to die. I’ve always loved the rich, sensual experience of being outdoors, feeling the sun on my face or smelling the rain. I imagine myself near death, laying in a bed that’s been wheeled onto my back patio.  Looking up at the deep, blue skies above me, I breathe my last breath into the atmosphere. Such a fanciful, romantic notion. Much of the time, people aren’t very clear-headed at the time of their death. They’re either too sick or too drugged to care about the best location to slip these earthly bonds.

Our greatest hope is that Wes can die peacefully, without anxiety. It’s an event that by its very nature is momentous—yet ironically pedestrian also. I hope death comes for Wes easily, as if that long-lost nurse he thought was in a car accident, finally shows up. She’s kind and soothing, like nurses can be. Then she helps him climb out of his hospital bed and gently leads him out of his room—and out of his life.

What I’m reading . . .

Holiday Books by Favorite Authors to Gift (or not)

                                                                                                 

All three of these authors are great genre, mystery writers and of course, during the holidays publishers pay big to have them produce a yearly offering of suspense for their waiting readers. I’m one of those readers and was happy to buy their latest tales of intrigue this Christmas season. Sadly though, I only thoroughly read and enjoyed one of them. The other two books I either skimmed through portions of, or in the case of one, I completely stopped reading it somewhere in the middle. How could such solid writers go so wrong?

First let’s talk about The Witch Elm. I fully confess that I’m a Tana French groupie. I’ve read every one of her books. In The Witch Elm French introduces us to Toby, a man with a family and a past. Toby comes home from a night of drinking and is mugged in his apartment for unclear reasons. His wounds are slow to heal so he decides to go live with his Uncle Hugo who’s dying of cancer. Then a human skull is found in the trunk of an old elm tree on Uncle Hugo’s property, the Ivy House. The authorities are called and the suspense builds—except it doesn’t really. And that’s a problem.

French, as usual, is viscerally descriptive in The Witch Elm, dressing down a scene or a character like no other: “ . . . stark and runic as black twigs on snow . . .long, buttery streaks of light on dark wood . . . A girl in a floppy red velvet hat . . . Eastern European accent, wrists bending like a dancer’s.” Sometimes with authors like French it’s just a joy to read the way they put words together. But at 528 pages those words need to go somewhere. They have to do something—something big. This was my first French book to put aside without finishing it. I hope it’s my last.

The Reckoning by John Grisham has a fascinating premise. It’s the 1940’s in Clanton, Mississippi when Pete Banning, cotton farmer and war hero, decides he has to kill someone. There’s no way around it. He makes sure his institutionalized wife and his two grown children are well taken of as he fully expects to either die in the electric chair or be sent to prison for life. At first we don’t know who he’ll kill, and when we find out it’s the popular, local Methodist minister that Pete murders, we don’t know why.

We don’t know why Pete decided to kill the minister until the last few chapters. Which is okay. As a reader, I’m willing to enjoy Grisham’s breezy prose and skillful story telling as long as he sticks to one tale. But apparently in an attempt to fully explore the character of Banning and his motives, Grisham digresses mightily from his main story line. For almost a third of the book we find ourselves in the Philippine islands with Banning suffering through the infamous Bataan Death March. I like military history some, but not placed in the middle of a southern Gothic mystery with only a thin thread linking the two. So, I began to skim read. At least I finished the book and found the ending interesting. Why didn’t Grisham use some of his Philippine pages to flesh out his ending more? It would have been such a better read.

I did finish Michael Connelly’s latest book, Dark Sacred Night. Connelly is another wildly popular author of police procedurals, of which I’ve read nearly every one. What usually hooks me on Connelly’s writing is how methodical he is, detailing the crime, the suspects, the scene, and the investigation as performed by his crusty protagonist, Harry Bosch. In this latest novel, Bosch, along with a new Connelly detective, part-time surfer girl Renee Ballard, are attempting to find the murderer in a cold, unsolved case involving a young prostitute who was killed several years ago. Complicating the investigation is that Bosch houses the murder victim’s mother, a drug addict, in order to help her stay clean. Both Bosch and Ballard operate near the fringe of appropriate conduct for police professionals. It’s a slow boiling mystery, but I eventually found myself turning pages faster and faster to see how it all ends. That’s the sign of an enjoyable read.

What I’m writing . . .

The Cost of Messin’ with Texas

My left eye’s twitching because I’m looking at the bright screen of my cell phone too much. Massaging that eyelid with my thumb helps a little, but then the fluttering returns. I just can’t stop checking my iphone. Its election week and I’ve been tracking the news like a baby tracks its mommy. Some mother—the news cycle. President Trump calls it a “mother f—!” Election news has hooked me like Diet Coke, and all I have to show for my interest, besides emotional instability, is dry, jittery eyes.

This morning I woke to the sad news that Beto O’Rourke lost his senate race to Ted Cruz in Texas. I rapidly scrolled down my iphone screen.  Too bad. He’s such a nice-looking, Robert Kennedy kind of guy. And so much youth and charisma. Like most Americans though, I don’t know much about his politics. When the bumper sticker said: “Don’t Mess With Texas,” I happily obliged. I’ve got my hands full messin’ with Idaho.

The good news on Mr. O’Rourke is that now he’s free to consider a presidential bid. I saw that on my Politico news feed. I had to pause in my reading when my nervous eye became so agitated I thought of stabbing it with a pencil. Instead, I stood up, stretched, and walked over to the window to watch a murder of crows circling in the air. Google said to give eyes a rest by looking away from digital screens every twenty minutes or so. Google also suggested blinking your eyes ten times—all of which I did. This attention to my errant eye helped enough that I felt completely justified in sitting back down in my chair and checking my Washington Post news feed on my phone.

OMG. In a matter of just a few minutes my world was collapsing again. The royal RGB, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was hospitalized. The supreme Supreme. Were her wounds mortal, I wondered? I needed more info so I swept my index finger across the screen of my phone to get the scoop from NBC news. A source claimed RGB had broken ribs from a fall. I’m so sorry, and at 85-years-old she’s certainly allowed to take a spill—but Ruth Bader! Please heal! Rest and wrap yourself. Start praying like I am for your ribs to mend (closing my eyes feels so refreshing).

Sometime during my prayer it occurred to me that Ruth Bader’s health was not the only one being jeopardized. I really needed to take a break from digital news feeds. There were dishes to wash and leaves to sweep, all manner of physical activity to be done. The world would not stop if I quit monitoring it. And, I needed to charge my iphone anyways.

With a lot of determination, I walked over to the charger sitting on my desk and plugged my phone in. Looking up out the window, I saw the crows had quit circling and finally settled in some trees. My eyes were already feeling more relaxed. Then I wandered over to the couch, hit the remote, and settled in for some televised news. Maybe RGB had miraculously recovered.