Archive for the ‘observations’ Category

If you’re here from Counting Chickens, welcome (or welcome back) and know that these posts are more about death and dying than life and love. Or maybe it’s both.

I’m the one who cleaned out your hospice room. I took down each photo carefully, saying names aloud like a litany. Your two brothers, both silver haired and older than you are. Your best friend, clad in denim and plaid, standing next to you against a desert cliff. You were smiling at me, watching me aim your old 36 millimeter, getting the focus just right. Your youngest and her family; her husband, their white-blond three year old, and brand new infant. I know you remember the day this one was taken, you with your arm slung over mom’s shoulders, settled deep into a couch in the 1980s. She looks happy here, dad. Like she hasn’t been in awhile. This one’s of me. I miss you dad, so so much. And here is my other sister, sunglasses and a hat at your old house in Wyoming. Your grandkids, here and here, and here. And RR, of course, she loves you so much. I take them down one at a time, fold up the ones in frames, tuck them into a canvas bag to take home.

Moving to your few possessions, I name the things I touch. Mom won’t want this blanket for a few days, I’ll put it in my bag. We ate almost all those jellybeans, didn’t we? I’ll leave your comb here and put your toothbrush with your phone and slippers. These are pretty flowers, dad, but you wouldn’t have liked their scent. I unstick my daughter’s drawings, folding her artwork into the trash, along with the hospice literature that helpfully told us what to expect while you died in front of our eyes.

I’m keeping my back to you and I feel ashamed for doing it. I’m a coward for not looking into your face again, taking your hand, and telling you I love you. In my defense, I don’t believe you are here, but that doesn’t stop me from talking to you. My hands are deliberate and steady even though I’m quivering inside and out. I tell you how I’m feeling, and I notice that my voice is higher, but quiet, with a definite shake, words strung end to end. I’m going to miss you dad. It’s too soon but I’m so glad you’re done. It was time to stop fighting.

I’ll just put the rest of your things here. And, well, dad, it looks like that’s everything. Not much was there? But so much.




Avoid Media on 9/11

Posted: 8 September 2011 in observations

Americans have a “where were you” moment.  Oh, your sister says, I was folding laundry in front of the TV.  Your neighbor was trying to get through traffic to work (and then home again – no easy feat).  Buying flowers.  In a meeting.  On an airplane.  That doesn’t begin to cover the other half (and you know who I mean).  I can’t speak for them.  I wouldn’t.  I’m not eloquent enough.

I speak for myself.  If you want to listen, I can tell you where I was (at my desk in a warehouse in Africa) and how I found out (the phone rang; the Embassy called an emergency meeting) and what I did then.
Lost my temper.
Slammed my hand down on my desk.
Looked out the window at the crisp blue sky.
Cried.  So angry.

And then I just stopped remembering.

Missing: the reaction of my coworkers, the meeting at the Embassy, the drive home, sharing the news with my partner.  I assume the guards at my house had words of sympathy.  I gather I got more information as the evening wore on.  Probably I didn’t eat dinner, or sleep well.  And here’s something I wish was missing: watching my friends drink bottled and bottles of wine and the same one minute clip of a plane flying and then crashing over and over on the only three news stations we got – one in French, two in Arabic.

I think I had it easy.  I know I did.

As hard as it was to cope with the shock in a small community far from the States, doing it in the context of a small community far from the States might have been a blessing.  We grieved together and leaned heavily toward one another both then and in the anthrax scare following (and the death of two of our friends, two marines, after that).  We had the same limited collection of images and the same French and Arabic news.  The internet in Africa in 2001 was not the internet of today.  My wife, in Virginia that day, tells a very different story.  Videos, pictures, audio, personal interviews, different angles, repetition, misinformation, chaos.

I will tune out on Sunday (probably Monday, too).  I won’t look at the internet or watch the news.  It isn’t the memorial and the recognition of the victims, it’s the replaying of the day.  It’s the news station that will – you know one of them will – rebroadcast events in real time.  The newspapers that will publish images I haven’t seen.  It’s the graphic blitzkrieg that I was protected from that day (and the days that followed).

Today over lunch, I saw a picture of people running down a street covered in dust and I thought, “why are those evacuees from flooded areas so dusty?”  It wasn’t current flood footage, obviously, but I haven’t ever seen pictures like that from that day.  I don’t want to.  My heart hurts enough without it.


Posted: 7 July 2011 in observations

You guys, we are doing so great.  According to every stress score/therapist/person with common sense everywhere, my wife and I should have crumpled under the weight of our own lives lately. No, not even crumpled, steamrolled by our life.  But you want to know if you’re also doing exceedingly well, right?  Well here you go: Misters Holmes and Rahe have a scale that will tell you just how dangerously you’ve been living.  I know, just look at that*.

Here’s how it works, you get a point for every major life event you encounter and as your points rise you are considered at greater risk for stress-induced illness.  I am in fine health for a person who has racked up 358 points – well into the highest bracket – for the year. And, since I’m a person who has 453 points for the last two years ( the time which some interpreters of the scale allot) I’m doing fucking awesome.  Let’s break it down:

I’ve earned points for:
Death of a close family member (Well, two but I only gave myself points for one.  I was being generous.)
Personal injury or illness (I suppose cancer and subsequent surgery gets full points here)
Change in health of family member (Check.  My mother’s mental illness has spiraled out of control but I didn’t count my sister’s regular calls as she copes with infertility, the arthritis suddenly crippling my father’s hands, my wife’s root canal and other dental work and my mother-in-law’s stroke and heart attack.  Don’t worry – I included that in “trouble with in-laws”)
Sexual difficulties (Let’s be honest, having a kid cramps your style but what they don’t tell you is how difficult it’s going to be to get back on the same page)
Change in financial state (All of our savings?  Funeral trips and major home repairs)
Trouble with in-laws (Mother-in-law’s health, sister-in-law’s criminal behavior both actually and in her relationship with my wife)
Change in social activities (Yep, having a baby makes this automatic)
Change in sleeping habits (See above)
Change in number of family reunions (See death, illness, dying, and so forth)
Change in eating habits (See baby)
Vacation (One week from day.  You wouldn’t think this causes stress, but believe me)
Christmas (Well, yes.)

Here are the things that didn’t get me points, just for the record (THANK GOODNESS) –Death of a spouse, Divorce, Marital separation, Imprisonment, Marriage, Dismissal from work, Marital reconciliation, Retirement, Business readjustment, Change to different line of work, Change in frequency of arguments, Foreclosure of mortgage or loan, Change in responsibilities at work, Child leaving home, Outstanding personal achievement, Spouse starts or stops work, Begin or end school, Change in living conditions, Trouble with boss, Change in working hours or conditions, Change in schools, Change in recreation, Change in church activities, Minor violation of law.

And I think we can get a hallelujah for all that.

And if we take in the last two years like some folks do, I “get” to claim these extras –Pregnancy (wife’s, check), Gain a new family member (RR, check), Death of a close friend (in the past year, two folks that have had a significant impact on my life), Major mortgage (gorgeous, if rotting, house), and Change in residence (see gorgeous and rotting house).

Amazingly, this doesn’t mean there haven’t been 500 points of average, non-stress causing happiness and success.  In fact, I’m pretty damn lucky.  However, at this point I’m wondering if I need to be a little LESS lucky.

*Frankly, I’m disappointed by the lack of a Foreign Service-modified scale, since every single last one of you is living hard and fast in the scale, but we’ll just assume you get extra points just for staying alive.

A Real Page-turner

Posted: 10 May 2011 in observations
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I love love love this post by someone who does the same things I do.  Just yesterday, in fact, I walked home two and a half miles reading the whole way.  Although sometimes I have a proper book with pages and all, I find that the glare of the sun on the pages and the heft of the book make it so that reading while walking longer distances isn’t as comfortable.  A block?  No problem.  Any further makes my head hurt.  So yesterday, as I do often, I walked-read on a Kindle and angels sang a chorus the whole way home.

Walking while reading provides a certain amount of danger.  Negotiating curbs, rogue bicycles, malicious bees, traffic.  If you enjoy a little spice to your day, I suggest you try reading while walking from a flat area up a barely noticeable incline. A page-turner walk is even more fraught with peril than walking with a Kindle. Turning the page requires extra attention to the pavement and surroundings and a physical effort that could set you off kilter.  Any veering I’ve done while reading has been at the prodding of a paper page turned too quickly.

That said, reading while walking (in any format) means I’m missing out on what’s going on in the world around me.  Since I love seeing unusual cars (or people) pass, looking at balcony gardens or watching the bridge construction progress, I don’t read every day.  Walking is as much a meditation as it is time away from my child, my work, my life that I can devote to a few chapters of a particularly good read. Like Deborah Bryan says, it has to be a really good book to claim the cracks in my schedule.

Garden Bad

Posted: 29 April 2011 in observations

The dog spent a good part of the morning digging up my garden bed.  I’d string him up by his toenails if they weren’t so caked with dirt he’d slip right off.  D rescued the unearthed bean sprouts and put them back to bed.  Now, to see if that special little earthquake affected growing.  Bad dog!

Garden bed is successfully built – though not without some struggle.  The 4 x 4s couldn’t be found untreated (eventually found out of town), the friend with the plans wasn’t free (eventually bending time to be available), I was out of town (eventually coming home exhausted), the drill and saw weren’t strong enough (eventually convinced to function by brute strength), the rebar didn’t fit the hole (eventually tossed aside) and the daylight was fading (nothing we could do about that).  The dirt was delivered early and is more than we needed – much more.  It has been slowly sending rivulets of rich composted earth into our neighbor’s yard and our azaleas, neither of whom probably appreciate it.  The baby has an internal clock and despite our refusal to adhere to it, food is required and, after a time period long enough to  fidget but not long enough to accomplish anything, bedtime.

Even after the bed was built and stopped looking so awesome that I couldn’t bear to put the dirt into it, it mellowed until I had time for planting.  And here in Virginia, spring is ticking.  Seeds need to get into the ground, tomatoes need to get their legs.  It’s time.  Yet another week passed and we finally obtained plants and supplies.  ANOTHER week passed and we put them into the soil, once again tempting the tender boundaries of daylight and the baby’s patience.  But they’re in!  That bed is beautiful.

Marzano and Champion tomatoes, bells red and green and hot peppers, carrots, pole beans, cucumbers, shallots and zucchini.  If my gardening skills have matured sufficiently, we’re in for a bounty come July.  If they haven’t, well, I can manage a mean herb garden.  Speaking of herbs, we practically have an apothecary’s cabinet full.  It’s no doubt wrong to be this proud of anything that depends on sunshine and a rain barrel, but if you’ve got a headache, a rash, a cut or some intestinal distress we can handle it.

I say all that to say this, I think I’ve finally touched on my calling.  It wasn’t diplomacy, though I had a knack.  And it isn’t librarianship, though it’s excellent and enjoyable work.  It’s victory gardens and herbal medicine.  It’s feeding the family.   In some decades, it’s nourishing the land and the people on it, in others it’s cursing the neighbor’s cow.  My mother would tell you that she has always known this.  In fact, she often attributes her cautious distance from me to an other-worldness.  I don’t buy that, but sometimes I catch a glimmer of what she’s talking about.  Let’s face it, when’s the last time your colleague asked you if you were a witch?  And when’s the last time you needed to explain Wicca in order to distinguish it from yourself?  Bringing it back from the limits of what you’re willing to put up with, when’s the last time you looked at yourself and found you are entirely new?

Points for everyone.


Posted: 8 April 2011 in observations

Spring always gets me.  I get so excited – planning new beds for the garden, buying plants, mulch, dirt.  It’s a far more expensive and time consuming hobby than you’d imagine in the Fall (and by you here, I mean me).  In the off-season, it’s a bit of raking here, another bag of leaves there.  An occasional cover up for a particularly sensitive plant.  But as I practice both tough love and negligence, you could say my off-season attention to the garden falls to practically nil.

Here is the view from my office:

How can you not want to leave work instantly and sink your fingers into the nearest available patch of land?  Never mind that it’s raining today.  Or that the price of gas has left the construction of the vegetable bed in a state of uncertainty.  Just fling yourself out the door and find a fragrant branch to sniff, a petal to run between fingers, a spicy herb to brush your hands through.

Instead you’re trapped here with me and all I want to do is investigate tomato plants and consider peppers.  Vegetables are a touchy thing for me – I’m a perennial person – I like things that are established in Virginia, that come up every year, that spread as expected and persevere even in the heat of summer.  I go to great lengths to trap and provide water but there’s a minimum level of performance I’m expecting and frankly, annuals just don’t have it.  Unfortunately for me, most perennials don’t produce vegetables and some of the herbs I’m most interested in medicinally either don’t make it through the winter or don’t come back.  Chamomile, I’m looking at you.

After several summers of steadfastly planting nothing that wouldn’t provide scent, long-lived color and springtime resurrection, I’m stepping back into annuals.  Vegetables will pay for themselves, provided they grow (and I have no reason to suspect they wouldn’t).  And the herbs are part of an expanding bank of supplies and knowledge I’m gathering.  In addition to last years sage, mint, lavender, coneflower, passionflower, oregano, chives and rosemary, I’m adding calendula, feverfew, and chamomile.  We also planted a few berry bushes and are going to, eventually, get in some vegetables.  Peppers and tomatoes, yes.  But also cucumbers, beans and squash.  There’s room for something else too, which is exciting in and of itself.

So far, the plans have progressed but not the garden itself but did you see outside my window?  The time is now!