Number Forty One: Pea Brained

So I was standing in line at the Trader Joe’s on Woodward on Saturday afternoon, which seemed like a poor choice given the Mother’s Day-inspired rush. I was gazing around at the checkout mayhem when I noticed a notice posted next to the cash register I was hoping to arrive at later that day. I was still too far away to read it properly. The woman immediately in front of me in the checkout line passed the time by asking me questions about why I was buying this or that. Her cart was brimming with bouquets for what must have been a dozen mothers. She had a lot on her mind, including flower selection, and I was just doing time with basic provisions. After she finished inspecting my cart she devoted herself to deciding if she really wanted to buy this flower or that flower, a process that continued when she reached the fabled checkout. There she fell into a long conversation with the clerk about the beauty of her boo-kays and the wonders of the day so far, a requirement at Trader Joe’s, which I believe is a happy-go-lucky wing of the Scientology retail division.

While they chatted I studied the recent bulletin from the home office announcing a recall for a variety of frozen veggies sold at TJ’s from 2014 to 2016, including the petite peas I regularly eat in often mass quantities and in particular had devoured that week, including for dinner on Friday night, where I mixed them with a carrot, which seemed naked without the addition of the peas. I admire the peas for their size and elegance. But now it seems they might be tainted with listeria bacteria. Frozen food from the factory that produced the peas had caused a bit of an outbreak across the nation over the last several months, at least. This alarmed me. Why had it taken Trader Joe’s two years to catch up with the bad peas (and broccoli and corn)? For the last two weeks I’d been fighting what I thought was a cold and eating plenty of peas, because I had a cold and peas are easy. Earlier in the week I had the famed tuna casserole with noodles, which consists of a can of tuna, noodles of some sort, and plenty of petite peas. It takes about five minutes to make and even less time to eat. Boil the peas and noodles, open the can, mix. Presto, dinner. To dress the meal up properly, I usually insist on toast and a dry white milk.

Since September, I had been feeling not all that great. I thought it might be the onset of early old age, a phenomenon I’d been exploring for at least a couple of decades. Could it be that I was regularly dosing myself with poison peas, having consumed, just since February, three bags? The notice indicated that the suspect pea bags had a “BF” code. If not BF, the notice cheerfully stated, you the innocent TJ shopper have nothing to worry about. The upside of a listeria outbreak is maybe you have good peas or corn or broccoli. Trader Joe’s seemed very proud that they had eventually, after many months, pulled the toxic vegetables, rather than continue to sell them to chumps like me. Not every chain run by a secretive religious sect would. While I was shopping and before I knew about the bad peas I’d actually looked in the freezer section for more frozen peas. Apparently I had to feed the bacteria that were already running amuck in my system. No packages of peas were to be found, courtesy of the recall.

I finally reached the checkout lady, who of course asked me how my day was going. Fine, I said, although at the moment I’m wondering if I have Trader Joe-induced listeria. Hope not, she said, smiling. Arriving back home I checked the code on the empty bag of peas I had finished Friday night. Yup, officially tainted peas. Just to be sure, I called the Grosse Pointe Trader Joe’s, where I had bought the bad peas, and asked the exuberant man on the phone. He said yes, sir, sounds like you’re a winner! Have a great day, and see your health practitioner if you have any complications!

Under good circumstances I list toward the hypochondrial, which I hope is a word, much less on those occasions where I actually have something to worry about, like the Attack of the Killer Peas. Plus, my left ear and shoulder ached, I was sore under my jaw, and I had mild pain on the left side of my lower abdomen, in addition to a perpetually runny nose, a tubercular cough, and a penchant for long naps. All potentially symptoms of pea poisoning, which can also include convulsions, confusion, and sensitivity to bright lights. Given my choice, I’d go with light aversion. Convulsions can be messy, and with confusion, that was a tough tell. That was a tough tell, confusion. Did I mention confusion? I mean, what? Even worse, the bacteria are sneaky little bastards that can lie dormant inside your system for up to 70 days after ingestion, biding their time before eventually forming conga dance lines that snake toward the spinal column and cause complications like meningitis and bathroom sprints. It’s at this point in your research that you realize Google is not your friend.

I called my doctor this morning, but can’t get in until next week, since her partner is out on maternity leave and patients are piling up on the appointment docket like packages at the post office. I’m not sure I expressed my concerns adequately to the front-desk person on the phone, who at least didn’t break out laughing. Part of the problem was explaining the rogue pea situation to someone who hadn’t been thinking of frozen vegetables as terrorists all weekend. She suggested that if necessary I could go to an urgent care or emergency room somewhere, but an exam is likely to cost hundreds of bucks, and I’m not flush with anything at the moment but potential pea fever. My current condition is not so much acute as it is a slow dissolve. All in all, I’d rather take a nap. So I wait, and hope not to be done in by petite peas. I’ve always feared dying stupidly, because I’ve always had this talent for clobbering myself in new and novel ways. But please don’t let it be the tiny peas.

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Number Forty: Serendipity

Earlier in the week, on Tuesday, I enlisted Neighbor Dave to help me remove a couple of vagrant trees growing too close to the house, potentially unsettling the foundation. Armed with a chainsaw, Dave becomes a force of nature. Once he starts cutting things down, he hates to stop. He chopped down the poplar and maple at the side of the house and then threw in, as a bonus, a telephone pole mulberry and some sort of thorny carnivore in the back that grabbed my foot and tried to suck me into the undergrowth. Then he went over to his own yard and trimmed a magnolia and clipped a couple branches from a white pine.

Always threatening to return to its primal arboreal roots, the yard is dotted with assorted weed trees. Adolescent dogwoods and other stubborn invaders have put down roots along the fence line, often crippling the more legitimate plants. A variety of seedlings dropped by birds or spread by the wind continually sprout into saplings that turn into major trees in no time at all, growing where they ought not to unless you pluck them out of the earth on a regular basis. If you don’t pull them when they’re twigs, better call Dave. On Tuesday my job was to collect the severed limbs and torsos and haul them to the curb. The city’s waste management company, by prior appointment and mutual agreement, would stop by Thursday between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. and pulverize the branches and pieces with their industrial-strength woodchipper.

The mulberry fell quickly, but the tall skinny maple and spreading poplar took a lot more cutting before they slowly tipped and then toppled, brushing roof gutters on their way down. I felt sadness for the trees, particularly the maple, though it had a bad case of black spot. But I was glad to spare the foundation unnecessary upheaval. The house is as old as I am, and I’m leery of accumulating additional structural damage that can be avoided.

On the phone today (Sunday) I was checking in with my very pregnant daughter, Jane, who is about to have her third child. I told her about the tree removal, updated her about Grandma, and mentioned that I had watched one of her favorite movies, Serendipity, on Saturday night. I currently have a cold that by last night had entered the advanced boring stage, and I was desperate for decent cable potato fare to pass the time. Usually I don’t have the attention span to watch an entire movie on TV, unless it’s late at night or I’m under the weather, when my standards slip and external distractions are more limited. Saturday night I had already endured a western with old Ernest Borgnine fending off bad guys and a poor script while protecting his land and acting reputation. As a gesture toward period authenticity, the bad guys all had bad teeth. After Serendipity I watched Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, a movie I’ve seen several times but had largely forgotten. The older I get the less I remember, of course, as synapses decay and brain cells slither off into the abyss. On the plus side, the condition instills a certain immediacy and freshness to everyday encounters while often imparting a vague sense of déjà vu.

“That’s weird,” said Jane. “I watched that last night too, from Netflix.” We were both sort of astonished at the coincidence, given the movie’s theme about the element of chance and meaningful outcomes. “Definitely strange,” I said. “What do you think the odds are?”

Jane has had a longtime crush on John Cusack, starting somewhere around Say Anything. I was pretty sure we saw Serendipity together 14 years ago at the theater during one of our annual movie pilgrimages.  They don’t make romantic comedies like they used to, and a movie like Serendipity wouldn’t be taken seriously in the age of Facebook and Google, since everyone knows everything about everybody, and vice versa.

But I enjoyed the movie, probably just as much as I did 14 years ago. I understand the appeal of the improbable romantic quest. We’re capable of searching, sometimes for decades, for a mysterious someone who can’t quite be defined or identified. Life might seem a series of mind-boggling or soul-deadening random events leading nowhere in particular, but I like to think of it as a collection of potential storylines that require sorting and contemplation. Hidden amid the many narrative branches is perhaps the pathway to the one, or maybe the two or the three. If we look hard enough in the right places, clues to the why and wherefore of our own behavior and destiny abound. The answer to our most important question is out there waiting somewhere, maybe. Brains and hearts are seriocomic devices requiring a proper connection to fully decode their operating instructions. Otherwise, the software may become corrupted, with system failure a possibility.

The last time Jane and I saw a movie together at the theater was on the evening of New Year’s Day, 2012, an unusually mild winter day. Joined by my friend Christa, which by itself was a novelty, we watched The Descendents at a new theater with big cushy seats and deluxe drink holders at a new local mall. Set in Hawaii, the Alexander Payne film stars George Clooney, who after his wife has a boating accident and falls into an irreversible coma, discovers that she was having an affair. With his grief complicated by circumstances he can’t change, he learns, with the support of his sometimes wayward daughters, about the most important things in life. Though not exactly lighthearted fare, it was a warm and often funny movie, and we enjoyed the evening of the first day of the new year.  

Jane and I joked on the way home that maybe this year, given our early start, we might have the opportunity to catch two movies. Because it was a holiday and the first day of the year, we felt we had permission to dream of the cinematic possibilities in lieu of the usual pointless resolutions. Neither of us had an appetite for making annual promises about self improvement that we were sure to break. I was less interested in becoming better and more concerned about slowing the decline, a sharp slippery slope built for high-speed toboggans. Most of my youthful delusions had long since departed for greener pastures, lured by better offers that included free dental and lifetime cafeteria privileges. How do you compete with that? Somehow on that trip home we wandered onto the subject of happiness, an area usually off limits given our genetically dark Irish outlook and long history of avoiding the topic. Things seemed to be changing, we agreed. Certainly that baby of hers, Rhiannon, had something to do with our newfound sense of guarded optimism. But maybe it was something else too.

“I know I’ll regret saying this,” I said as Jane got out of the car to go inside her house, “but I don’t feel that bad at the moment.”

A few hours later, early on the morning of the 2nd, my sister, who was 56, had a brain aneurysm, collapsing on the floor of her bathroom. In the hospital emergency room she awoke briefly as the medical team fought to save her life. Just before she lost consciousness, she uttered her last words, “Oh, my head.” That was a succinct appraisal of the situation.

For three weeks she lingered in a coma on life support while various members of her family built temporary shelters inside the ICU waiting room. I recall one of the highlights being the daily cup or two or three of free McDonald’s coffee, part of a timely promotion by the restaurant chain. There’s nothing like a bit of liquid amphetamine to make the hospital vigil more exciting for yourself and the people sitting around you. Normally I lack what most people would define as social skills or much of a personality. But sometimes if I drink enough coffee, I become almost gleefully, manically extroverted and loquacious, which can be an interesting development when camping for days in a small hospital waiting room. Of course, what goes up must come down, so drinking more free coffee seemed a reasonable way to restore the roar. At night I’d lay in bed, my legs kicking and twitching.

So we gorged on fast food and sugar, drank coffee to excess, sometimes smoked cigarettes, drove back and forth to the hospital, held court with visitors in the waiting room, looked in upon the sleeping Nancy, and grew increasingly frustrated with each other. Everyone held out hope for a miracle, but eventually we were forced to make the difficult decision to let her go. In her final days Nancy was beautiful in repose in the ICU, looking ethereally healthy, her cheeks rosy and complexion clear, as the medical gear wheezed, rattled, and beeped around her. Shortly after she died, a priest arrived unbidden at her bedside at two in the morning, providing last rites and warm words. He said he had been returning from an engagement elsewhere and happened to be passing the hospital when he decided to stop and check to see if anyone needed assistance.

Parallel to the world of things coming together is the much larger universe of things falling apart, where inevitably we all take up residence. In the wake of her death, Nancy’s family collapsed, increasing the dramatic intensity. It seemed like we were living in a Russian novel where everyone was named Dmitri, Mikhail, and Anna and suffered deeply while consuming vast amounts of bleu cheese and rubbing alcohol and engaging in increasingly desperate philosophic discussions about the meaning of livestock. With steady self medication and long hours of late-night television, I tried to maintain a level of equanimity, hoping to avoid a more disabling and deeper blues. My cat died, the refrigerator failed, and the roof began to leak. I bought a cell phone and spent a lot of time reading tiny newspaper articles. I played with my granddaughter, who created joy effortlessly.

Fortunately, we didn’t have that much time to dwell on my sister’s death before it was time for the next disaster. My parents, already teetering on their last legs, were staggered, and my old dad, who had wrestled with Alzheimer’s for at least 12 years, soon began his final descent, passing away almost a year to the day. My sister had been his primary caregiver, somehow managing to keep him focused on the slim hold on life he still maintained.

The reason I had a cold this weekend was because I think I caught it at the hospital on Thursday. The reason I was at the hospital is because my mother had fallen and broken her hip outside the restaurant we had gone to for lunch. We were at the restaurant so that Mary Lou, a resident of a local assisted-living facility, could visit with her brother and his wife. They hadn’t seen each other since my father’s funeral, though they live just 40 miles apart. Mary Lou doesn’t get out much anymore, save for the occasional medical appointment. Mostly, she sits and often sleeps in her recliner in the living room of her small apartment, the television blasting away. Just 20 when I was born, she’s been on an almost continual cycle of falling apart and coming back together ever since.

We, the respective executive committees for the care of my mother and her brother, thought it would do them both some good to see each other again. We had tried to pull off the rendezvous a week earlier, but Jerry was recovering from a bout with bronchitis. We did not tell Mary Lou that she was going out to lunch until Thursday morning, when my niece Tasha broke the news to her, in order to spare my mom some confusion and anxiety. I arrived at the American House just after noon and explained where we were going and why. “That’s a nice surprise,” said my mom, as I helped her into her wheelchair. I was looking forward to seeing everyone.

Since she had last seen her brother, much had happened. My uncle Jerry, my godfather, having been so appointed to the position when he was just a teenager, had recovered from a stroke and celebrated his 80th birthday with a surprise party at the pub where my brother worked. My mother, legally blind and hard of hearing, with a bad case of Parkinson’s and a host of other ailments she’d been entertaining for years, occasionally late into the evening, turned 83 in early September. Since losing my dad she’s been in and out of hospitals and rehab facilities. Every health crisis knocks her down a peg, sometimes two, reducing her reserve and increasing her confusion, so that even “Dancing with the Stars” doesn’t hold her attention much anymore, a sign that the end may be near.

Although she’s had lousy health for decades now and survived several near-death experiences, somehow she always manages a late-inning rally. Fragile as fine china, battered and worn, missing parts and leaking oil, she’s displayed remarkable resiliency while remaining metaphorically confused, at least up to this point. The usual family joke is that she’ll outlive all of us. If I don’t kill her first.

At the restaurant I parked the car, retrieved the walker from the trunk, and helped my mother out of the car, positioning her for a successful launch on the walker. None of this did I do casually. Trying to get my mother from point A to point B is more or less a military maneuver, thought out in advance and often diagrammed on maps. Mary Lou has been falling while walking on flat surfaces for more than 50 years. Most of the time she blackens an eye, bloodies a nose, cracks a rib, skins a knee, twists an ankle, sprains a wrist, or bruises an elbow. Now, however, in spite of her tumbling expertise, a fall is a potentially life-threatening event. We started walking slowly, and somehow I lost track of the entrance to the restaurant. Mind you, I had parked in the handicap space next to the door, and three weeks earlier I had been at the same restaurant with my daughter and the grandkids. Jane later said I had become confused then too, which was both comforting and distressing, knowing that there was a consistency to my befuddlement, and I forget what the other thing was.

Why did I lose sight of the door? In order to find the door, you had to walk through a corridor of black canvas that was apparently put up not as a Halloween decoration but to protect customers from the elements, which on any given day during the nine months that are not summer in Michigan can range from imposing glaciers sliding down the icy streets to battering wind and pounding rain, and vice versa.  We have a surplus of weather, much of it bad or at least distressing. On this particular day, however, it was 75 degrees and a beautiful early autumn afternoon, with nothing but blue skies overhead.

Instead of escorting my mother into the tunnel, which was just to our right, and through the door and down the aisle to the table in the middle of the restaurant where we would have lunch and conversation with her long lost brother and his wife and my cousin and my brother, a perfect idea if executed properly, I steered her around the canvas corridor of doom and out onto the brightly lit sidewalk in front of the restaurant. From there, I stepped slightly in front of my mom to survey our progress and look for the door, like Lewis or Clark on their mostly forgotten Gratiot Avenue Expedition.

It was then that my mother began to tip. One of the legs of her walker apparently caught on the uneven pavement. She fell sideways across the walker to the sidewalk toward the road, landing heavy on her side. I caught her upper body with my leg, preventing her head from hitting the pavement.

Jerry and his wife, Maureen, along with my cousin, Colleen, and Tom, were already in the restaurant. After my mother crashed, I took a stunned seat on the sidewalk next to her, trying to assess the damage. Several concerned people soon came running over to help, including a tattooed medical professional of some sort who happened to be driving by, and three burly electricians from the utility company truck parked down the block. Tom and Colleen rushed out of the restaurant. They asked a waitress to call for an ambulance. Onlookers came and went. The sun was warm on my face and shoulders. I held a faint hope that my mother might get up and dust herself off, as she often has. But one of the young ambulance attendants said he didn’t like the way her right leg was rotated, and that sounded fairly ominous. Tires are rotated, but legs, not so much. Jerry and Maureen came outside to offer support. It was not how they envisioned visiting with my mother.

At the hospital ER, traumas of all sorts filled the many examining rooms and lined the hallways and spilled over into the lobby, where people held ice packs to their heads and talked on cellphones. It was a busy day. The medical staff seemed in high spirits as they jogged from patient to patient, dispensing just enough treatment to maintain a relative sense of calm. With the help of a little morphine, my mother waited patiently for several hours for a medical professional to provide definite news about her condition. When she finally was rolled away for x-rays, the attendant said it might be a while before she returned, since they were stacking up outside Radiology. We waved goodbye and wished her the best. Time passes oddly in emergency rooms. We were in room number 24, which my brother noted was the same room we had been in on an earlier trip to the ER. The 24th was my father’s birthday. Eventually, my mother came rolling back to us, looking more fatigued. “The things they do to you down there,” she said, shuddering.

Soon, by hospital standards, an orthopedic doctor appeared in our room wielding something like medical authority. She closed the curtain and quickly examined my mother’s leg. She didn’t like the way the right leg was rotated, she said. I was learning the lingo. I surmised that the leg should not have been pointed in that particular direction. Pending an examination of the x-rays, the doctor was pretty sure the right hip was broken. Surgery would be necessary, the sooner the better. Even a delay of a day could have serious health consequences. Broken hips, the surgeon later explained, are a primary killer of little old ladies. It might take weeks or months and a blood clot or two or a bout of pneumonia, but that ancient hip is often the travel agent sending the elderly on to their eternal reward.

My mother was scheduled for surgery that evening. The surgeon, in a suit and holding a physician’s bag, which I imagined carried the tools of his trade or part of his dinner, came to my mother’s bed in surgery prep shortly before 8:30. Self confident and direct, he explained where the femur was broken and how he was going to put a pin in the bone to hold it together. He said that afterward my mother would be in a lot less pain but that recovery was not guaranteed, given her age and condition.

At that point my mother’s dementia was getting a little out of control, since she had missed her afternoon and evening meds, was high on morphine, and hadn’t had anything to eat for hours. Normally she’s on a laundry list of pharmaceuticals dispensed three times a day, and it’s not pretty when they’re interrupted. Tasha tried to comfort her by redirecting my mother’s increasingly negative remarks. My mother ignored Tasha and started getting a little snippy with the medical team, insisting that her hip was fine, she had no idea why she was in the hospital, and that they just wanted her money. She was going home, right now. At full paranoiac throttle, my mother can still conjure up visions of Linda Blair in The Exorcist, but time and present circumstances had mellowed her. She was still protesting as they wheeled her away.

An hour later, the surgeon came out to the waiting room and, making a slight joke, said “It’s a boy.” We laughed awkwardly. It had been a long day. He said the operation had gone well. “That was a good strong bone,” he said. “It must have been quite a fall.” He said it was essential that the therapists get her up and moving as soon as possible. He rated her chances for more or less a full recovery at 70 percent, minus the almost certain general decline that the injury, surgery, and the stay in the hospital and nursing home would cost her. That sounded fairly positive.

By midnight, my mother was resting comfortably in her hospital room, and we were attempting to sort through the encyclopedic list of pharmaceuticals with the concerned and accommodating nurse. They always screw with her meds at the hospital, complicating her recovery. We finally consolidated the old list from a previous stay with the most recent list and felt somewhat confident about our crisis control.

When I returned home from the hospital late that night, I discovered that the environmental sanitation company had not wood chipped like a good woodchipper would. In the front yard I still had a mass of branches and tree trunk chunks arrayed like a medieval barricade. So although I could slow invading neighborhood hoards, I had no defense, as it turned out, from the city blight inspector, Clouseau. I called the company Friday morning to complain, and the representative promised that the branches would be dealt with later that day. Neighbor Dave’s wife, Relentless Sandy, who demands satisfaction until the exhausted opposition capitulates, also called, explaining why it would be in everyone’s best interests to remove the trees as soon as possible

By mid-afternoon the branches were still there, and I had received a warning citation from Clouseau, stuck to my front door. Get rid of the mess within 24 hours, it read, or the city’s DPW will remove it at my expense. Thank you very much, I thought. I gave the notice to Sandy, who contacted whatever city office was responsible in order to give them a piece of her mind. Properly warmed up, she then called the company again. The representative quickly apologized, and said the truck was just one street over, searching for my house. She explained that they had just updated their city maps on the computer system and that my street had been accidentally eliminated. Sandy verified that our street still existed, clarified my address, demanded action, promised retribution, and within five minutes, the truck pulling the woodchipper arrived in front of the house, ready to grind. Soon, just a layer of sawdust remained on the lawn.

Posted in Love and death, Movie movie, The meaning of life, Ties that bind | Leave a comment

Number Thirty Nine: Blood Red Moon

I missed that rare super moon lunar eclipse last night. Maybe next time, in 2033, I’ll be better prepared. By then I’ll be a sprightly 80, with the great grandchildren by my side propping up my head up so I can witness the moon above, super eclipsing. Hopefully I’ll still have enough of my eyesight and mind remaining to appreciate the spectacle. Perhaps I should put a reminder in my cell phone calendar now. Last I looked, I had no plans for 2033. Actually, my schedule’s mostly open between now and then, though who knows what the future holds. A lot can happen in 18 years, and it’s always better to be safer than sorrier. A Boy Scout is always prepared. The Lord helps those who help themselves. And so on.

My brother, Tom, who lives a mile away and was gazing at the same moon, even sent a text to alert me of the special occasion, something he rarely does, since he has a mostly antagonistic relationship with his phone and digital technology in general. “Lunar eclipse going on!” I read that five hours later, after I turned my phone back on and the sun, moon, and earth had gone their separate ways. For some reason my cell phone had died during the eclipse. I later discovered that the battery charge had declined to some marginal percentage state of single-digit existence, even though I had not used the phone much that day and it was almost fully charged when I checked for messages earlier in the evening. Faced with battery meltdown, the phone decided to turn itself off. Many of us would have done the same thing in a similar situation. It’s a shame I missed the big moon show due to a cell phone malfunction, because I enjoy a rare lunar event as much as the next guy. Not that I am a dedicated follower of the moon, because who has the time these days, but some nights I shrug off the nocturnal dangers posed by riding in the dark with poor eyesight and a cheap bike light in order to pedal several miles over to the lake just to watch the moon hover poetically above the water, waxing and waning. We really have some of the best moons around here.

The moon, of course, exerts its influence upon the earth and its residents in myriad ways. Werewolves, for instance, need a full moon to realize their lupine potential. Directed by the interaction of lunar and solar gravity and the earth’s rotation, tides roll in and tides roll out, effecting the behavior of all the fish in the sea. Hospital emergency rooms and jails tend to swell with strange characters during full moons. Wars have been started or delayed due to the brightness of the moonlight. Migrating birds and senior citizens are known to use the moon to navigate. The phases of the moon help determine a woman’s reproductive cycle, and I’m sure that certain lunar events trigger sexual activity in the animal kingdom and the state of Wisconsin, something that I mention only in passing, usually when I’m driving to Minneapolis. For centuries the moon has inspired lovers and consoled the lonely. We are all moonstruck to some degree, more so on nights of rare lunar events. And where would songwriters and astronauts be without the moon?

Actually, at the time of the eclipse, which from what I hear was like the most awesome event in the night sky ever (according to my brother), I was trudging through the paragraph that begins the next episode (Serendipity) in a spontaneous (by my standards) effort to update and restart the blog, which has gotten dusty from neglect. It’s been a bit over three years since I last wrote anything bloggish, and for reasons unknown, I decided that tonight’s the night, though it was last night. At the time I began, the Detroit Lions were losing on the television in the other room, a place I like to think of as the kitchen. The team’s effort seemed in no way influenced by the extraordinary moondance, but had more to do with the Bobby Layne curse levied almost 60 years ago. When the legendary quarterback was traded to Pittsburgh in 1958, he said the Lions would not win for another 50 years. In 2008, the team’s management extended the curse for another 10 years. Lion fans have to be some of the world’s most masochistic sports enthusiasts. But I digress.

I had been meaning to add a story or two to the blog. But given that I am a successful veteran procrastinator armed with a clever array of delaying tactics, I never quite got around to it. Writing always seems like a lark at first, and then it turns into real work. If I don’t write, however, I forget what it is that just happened. And the forgetting seems to make me sad.

Later, in the early morning, I watched the predawn newscasts, something I like to do before I finally go to bed. I find it difficult to sleep unless I stay up all night, thereby avoiding insomnia. The shows were full of lunar wrap-ups and stunning snapshots. Boy, I thought, I really should have taken a peek at that bloody moon. And I could have, if I had just stepped outside and looked up. The moon and the pope were both big news. Before returning to Rome on Papal Air One, Francis had pontificated that evening before a gazillion people in Philly.

We need the moral leadership of a guy like Francis, but the Catholic God seems more like a super spiritual accountant, keeping tabs on the faithful, counting sins, measuring good deeds, and answering prayers, except for those concerning a certain sports team. At the end, the ledger is examined by the bureaucrats upstairs. Those individuals with a positive moral balance are sent to heaven, a place that seems like a crowded and boring retirement village where nothing ever happens. Those poor souls with paperwork found wanting are directed to other, less desirable afterlife destinations. God is highly stressed and mighty busy running the show. God Inc. has multiple management tiers and a ton of overhead, not to mention recurrent public-relations nightmares (the Spanish Inquisition, sexual molestation, bingo skimming). There has to be a better, more cost-efficient way to judge humanity and render just desserts, including the Baked Alaska. But whatever the ultimate reality of our situation, I’m in favor of anyone trying to do some good in a world that is always in need of urgent repair and much more kindness. Life can be a tough gig, evil exists, death sucks, and if a little faith quiets the fear and brings some peace, than by all means have a little faith.

Posted in Black holes and other oddities (I want to be a spaceman), The meaning of life, Whatever | Leave a comment

Number Thirty Eight: Etiquette 101

“What is this shit?” is not always the best way to start a conversation.

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Number Thirty Seven: Disorder in the House (Aftermath)

The house is filled with funeral flowers. An arrangement from the Moores sits atop the stove. A wreath with mostly purple flowers, centered with a matching purple bow, the ribbon tails emblazoned with gold lettering and the words “Beloved Daughter,” hangs on a tall green wire stand near the still thriving Christmas tree. At least I think it’s thriving. Another unusually eloquent lavender wreath adorned with a “Dearest Sister” ribbon occupies the table near the television set. A big bright bouquet from Uncle Nick’s Towing rests on the table in the family room. My nephew Dan just bought over an interesting basket of plants from Mary Beth and Ed. Dan had grabbed it on his way out of the funeral home. In the basket amid the greenery and flowers lurks a mysterious round brown pockmarked mushroom-like plant. This afternoon we examined it under lamplight but were unable to declare exactly what it was. Looked sort of alien to me. All the new house flowers are beautiful and mostly nameless, orange and red and white and pink and purple and yellow and blue roses and mums and carnations and daisies and daffodils and delphiniums among them, but they do conspire to smell like a funeral home. Intended for another purpose, I’m sure they’d have an altogether different and lovely bouquet, more hopeful and romantic. But right now, they can’t help but reek of death and love and loss, though with a certain direct elegance. Recklessly delinquent with messy splendor, the house displays unmistakable signs of recent domestic disaster or chronic poor maintenance. Abandoned clothes, shoes, CDs, empty grocery bags, paperwork, newspapers, magazines, opened and unopened mail accumulate in various nooks and crannies and on the floor. Archeological piles and obstacle courses abound. I step carefully. I’ll have to clean up soon. The kitchen counters are cluttered with bottles and miscellaneous counter life. Apparently I haven’t put anything away for weeks. Empty bottles of Jameson and wine need to go into the recyclables and out on the curb tonight. My recyclables runneth over. The CD player more or less died Saturday night, while I was trying to make a mix for the service. The recording drive still works with some coaxing, and now Lucinda sings. My sister would have enjoyed the ceremony. Other than that part about being dead. Though with us I’m sure she was. We tried to step up for her. Nothing’s ever perfect in this world, including the passage out. Birth, death, all the things in between are complicated and confused. We do the best we can. We stumble, we fall, we catch ourselves. In the end you’re left with an astonishing amount of love and grief. Lost in a terrible moment, you discover that people will do the nicest things for you. Everything is everything and so very real, but still a dream. I fade in, I fade out. Whiskey makes me cry. Time moves in an altered rhythm. It speeds up, it slows down. What day of the week it is becomes something of a mystery. I sit and drink for hours and listen to the same song over and over. I take some comfort in the generosity of my sadness. There’s a lyrical essence to it that comes and goes. We’ve traveled to a land ordered by a strange sense of darkness and light. You participate and wonder and wander. I look to the sky. My sister always loved the snow. Early Friday morning she died. Friday night was thick with white stuff. After midnight with my cousin Jerry I stood behind the pub in the bitter cold and swirling snow beneath the round Guinness sign swinging over the alley, smoking slowly and thinking how much Nancy would have appreciated the change in the weather. No snow all winter. Now this.

Posted in Love and death, The meaning of life, Ties that bind | 2 Comments

Number Thirty Six: Sloppy House Christmas

1. Psst. C’mon in. Christmas morning. The assembled family’s arriving in a matter of hours. The place is a mess. I don’t know how I’m gonna pull this off. In terms of prioritizing, I shouldn’t be writing. Usually I clean the house to avoid writing; today, writing to avoid cleaning up the house. The irony. Who’d of thunk it? But I’m going to write and post the rough draft of the first part of my Christmas adventure now, and then later, after the party ends and everyone’s gone home and I have had presumably too much to drink, I will sit down. Then someday soon after that, I will revise the first part and add the second part. And so on. It’ll be my holiday arts and craft project.

2. It is Rhiannon’s first Christmas, and the wee lass has a busy social schedule. I imagine she’ll be pretty flipped out by the time she gets here with her mom and dad. I saw her last night over at Aunt Michelle’s. R was a little winded from an afternoon party in the Pointes, but recovered enough to receive a bounty of gifts, all of which she immediately tried to chew. She wore a charming little tartan plaid outfit that Chris’s mom, who resembles Mrs. Claus and is quite the sewing machine genius, made for her, and her little Santa hat. Mrs. Claus also bakes Christmas cookies and cakes, among other goodies. R’s other grandpa, Paul, looks just like Santa and builds wooden toys in his workshop. Large Paul Jr. appears to be an apprentice St. Nick. Hmmm. From Jane and Chris I received a beautiful portrait and some snapshots of r in her holiday outfit. As my nephew Tommy noted, she looks like a little Amish glow worm. I gave Rhiannon a Bert hand puppet. Apparently she’s a big Bert and Ernie fan. Now I probably need to acquire Ernie too, so we can pretend to make television programs for kids, including very small kids. I can do a pretty good Kermit imitation without stretching, and I have several Kermy puppets, since young Jane thought I bore a likeness, so Muppet casting may be less of a problem. It would be nice to have a Miss Piggy puppet. And Elmo. Rhiannon enjoyed meeting Bert and also her horse puppet. At six months, r probably sees them as animated creatures, like one of the family cats she finds so intriguing. For a baby, the world is a vast magical place, surprising, delighting, and terrifying from one moment to the next. Where do we lose that level of enchantment and imagination and awe? Childhood is the art of the impossible becoming possible. Of course, in her current state of magical thinking, she’ll have difficulty finding work outside the entertainment industry (rimshot). Rhiannon liked all her stuff, particularly the doll in the crinkle dress, which she gnawed on like an old friend. Most of the evening she was a little trooper, smiling and singing to the Christmas songs on the radio, caught up in the excitement in the room. She emits a  high-pitched squeal like a baby dolphin or raptor, on her own, in the midst of conversation, and looks quite pleased with herself. She’s a pixie extrovert, that baby. Six months old, and still no self-esteem issues. Everywhere she goes, people can’t wait to pick her up and carry her around. It’s an interesting perspective, a bold leap of faith, tiny human trusting big strange arms. 

3. Checked in with with my nephew Patrick, Michelle’s son, at the party. He lives in Chicago now and is working toward his Masters in creative writing at Columbia University. He’s a poet, with two poems to be published in the annual edition of the Columbia Poetry Review. That’s pretty darn cool. I’m glad to see him take a chance on behalf of poetry. Poetry needs young inspired writers like Patrick. Talked to my brother Jim in Minneapolis an hour ago; with Sharon he’s headed to Iowa in the afternoon, to spend Christmas on the river with his friends. Jeff just called from Atlanta, where he said it was an unseasonable 70 degrees. He just wrapped a film with Denzel late last night. Might head into town in January. Yesterday I spoke with my brother Mike in Pasadena. He was looking forward to Christmas with his four-year-old grandkid, the beautiful Miranda. Mike says he can stand out in front of his apartment building and see the often snowcapped San Gabriel Mountains. Though there isn’t any snow on top of the mountains at the moment, after several warm days. Mike later wrote that he spent the holiday at Big Bear Lake, where there was plenty of snow, with Miranda, who went sledding. So my brother in California frolicked in the snow, while here in Michigan not only is there no snow, but the snap dragons and even some of the petunias persist in hanging on in the garden. The snow level in Alpena on the eastern tip of the mitten is at an 88-year low. Winter tourism is down significantly across the state, sunny skies and warm temps threatening the $4 billion industry. Ski resorts are idle without adequate snow, with temperatures at many locations not even cold enough to produce the artificial white stuff. Unusual weather for this time of year, wouldn’t you say?

4. Two weeks ago we had the 11th annual Christmas party at the pub. Time doth fly. And birds of a feather flock together. Jane and Rhiannon came with me. High on my list of things I really enjoy: watching my friends hang out with each other. Something special happens when they gather together. It’s inspiring. They should do it more often.  R had her usual good time at the pub, hoisted on shoulders and held on laps, mingling. The next night I went to the Wilco concert at the State/fake Fillmore. Two consecutive nights of Judy, Mary Beth, and Terri plus Mark and Jan was a very cool holiday treat. We had dinner at the Traffic Jam, which was packed to the gills due to various events downtown, including Wicked at the Opera House and something called the Trans-Suburban Orchestra at the Fox. Our absent-minded absent waiter would forget about us for a half an hour or so and then return, looking sweaty and disorganized, apologizing for his disappearance and seeming incompetence. I admired the way he managed his own personal chaos. Sitting next to Mary Beth, I discovered she was a southpaw. After she said, “You’re not around left-handed people much, are you?” I was at first perplexed, my initial thought being “Or right-handed people, why do you ask?,” and then realized I was encroaching upon her space, like Gordie Howe. Dueling elbows. I’ve had a lot of meals with Mary Beth, and I’m not sure how I missed that she was a lefty. Other than I am often oblivious. Or I was listening so intently to what she was saying I never noticed where her fork was. Solo Nick Lowe opened the show, charming the mostly younger crowd with songs that included (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding? Then he joined Wilco onstage for the last tune of the night during the third encore, Cruel to Be Kind. The guy standing behind me kept yelling between encores, “Bring back the cool old gray-haired guy with glasses!” I guess that was an enthusiastic and specific endorsement. Wilco delivered a stunning sonic masterpiece, led by Nels Cline on guitar. That boy sure can play. Gary was over by the bar, writing his review. We were standing by the stage, watching the Tweedy gang attack their set with precision and booming orchestral glee. It was the best, even with the tape-delayed coat check retrieval.  Over the next two days, Jane, Terri, Mary Beth, and Judy came down with the 37-and-¾-hour stomach flu, now referred to as the pub flu. Symptoms included headache, chills, nausea, and the sudden ability to recite certain passages of Proust in the native French (rimshot).

5. It’s been the Wages of Sin Christmas. I got stuck on that Springsteen song sometime in November. I play it in the car. I play it at home. Not the most uplifting tune, with its “running down that broken path with the devil snapping at my heels” lyrics, but I’m locked on it. My brain has a mind of its own. I’m just here to facilitate. This year I’ve avoided actual Christmas songs. And Christmas movies. Most of the time I’d avoid Christmas entirely, if I could. Lately I’ve been drinking a bit of whiskey now and then in order to survive the wicked holiday pace, particularly in the morning and at night. In the morning, it takes the edge off the coffee and makes me more agreeable, especially around the cats. When dealing with temporary retail sales associates, I believe it is helpful to have a slight buzz. At night, I’ve been making Irish cappuccinos, with Baileys and whiskey, hoping to motivate myself to clean the fucking house. But I discovered that an Irish cappuccino leads inevitably to a glass of French or American wine and then more Wages of Sin. I’m not getting anywhere.

6. For those who can afford it, Christmas is of course a highly romanticized season reeking of redemption or disappointment or transcendence or transfiguration or some other fairly extreme emotional condition that changes the status quo and inspires quasi-strange behavior. Look what happened to Bill Murray. I admit my status and its quo have been seriously altered. They’re all fucked up. I’m not sure why. Well, that’s not entirely true. Something happened. Actually a series of occurrences. It was a regular conspiracy of events.

7. Feels like 50 degrees outside at the moment. Sun’s out. Sky is blue. I squeezed in 40 miles on my bike this week, riding up and down scenic and expensive Lake Shore Drive to the lake. Many of the huge lakeside houses are lit up like mini homages to Vegas. The vast front yard of the Art Van Furniture mansion in the Shores, just around the bend from the more humbly lit majestic joint of the dead Edsel Fords, is a spectacle, with thousands of yellow-white lights strung on the dozens of trees surrounding the elegant estate and a life-size manger scene employing live goats and sheep. Apparently there’s money to be made in the sofa business, apart from the loose change often found behind the cushions. I’ve never pedaled regularly to the lake this late in the season. Checking out the Christmas decorations on a bike was a first. Solitude and steamy vapor breath, quiet dark blue water stretching to the horizon, rush-hour headlights casting rapid twin yellow columns on the surface, channel markers alert with rhythmic red blinking signals, beaming low-flying commercial airliners gliding overhead on the flight path into Metro, multicolored lights strung on trees and bushes and houses, the yacht club illuminated like a stately cathedral, streaky dark blue and dusky pink winter sky collapsing into black, street lamps swathed in evergreen, darkness and mercury falling, merry Christmas sings the sidewalk, happy Santa in the windows, holy shit on the bike.

8. Wednesday afternoon in the rain and fog: my date with Toys “R” Us. It had been 20 years since I last stumbled into the store in the middle of the night, hoping to score Christmas booty for Jane. Back then, before the age of the Internet or Amazon or any alternative to the so-called brick and mortar outlets, the only way to obtain a hot toy, like a Cabbage Patch Doll, was to take desperate measures, including employee bribes, overnight line standing, and free-for-all wrestling matches with your fellow toy store customers. While wandering the store late-night when the crowds were thinner, you could romance the memory of your own childhood holidays, visiting the toys of long ago.  Lincoln Logs, Tinker Toys, board games, Matchbox cars, and Li’l Baby Kiss My Grits were still of interest to kids back then. I guess Lego and Barbie remain popular with children today. I always liked inspecting the toys I asked Santa for but didn’t receive. Years later, I was still harboring a grudge. Open 24 hours a day during Christmas week, the current Toys “B” Us is a pale imitation of those competition-free glory years. War torn and inventory depleted, the store was a lot less fun than I expected, a garbled, messy third-world toy enterprise. I grabbed a book about winter and the snowman who melted away and became a bucket of sand, figuring there’s no time like the present for that baby to start learning about mortality, plus a Learn to Love and Play or Pray Puppy, an animated little guy that sings and recites the alphabet and has illuminated buttons that light up when he is pleased. Much like grandpa (rimshot). The family in front of me in the checkout line had hundreds of dollars worth of stuff and seemed to be shuffling through its credit card collection for the benefit of the bored clerk. So that took some time. Those electronic games alone will run you a pretty penny. I thanked my lucky stars that my wee girl was still under the age of mass consumerism. But there was no joy in Mudville. Toy shopping oughta be more fun.

9. Following the disappointment at Toys “R” Us, I hit the Village Food Market on Mack. I’ve been going there once or twice a year for 30 years, often during the holidays. Usually I snag a turkey or a box of oatmeal or a bottle of something. Wednesday I bought a fifth of Tullamore Dew for 20 bucks. Established in 1938, the market is old fashioned and quaint, a small store with narrow aisles jam-packed with stuff, good stuff, and featuring a nice selection of wine and a very fine meat counter. The staff is exceptionally courteous. Almost courtly. It wouldn’t be the holidays without a visit there.  Plus they carry the Tullamore. We all have our traditions. While unloading the car at home I stuck a bottle of pinot that I bought for my semi-son-in-law the fledgling connoisseur into the bag with the toys and I heard a “Yay!” Talking/Singing Laugh and Learn Puppy ages 6 to 36 mos approved of my purchase. I called Jane and discovered that Rhiannon already had that puppy. Darn it, I thought, now I’ll have to fight my way to the Toys R customer service desk, which had been under assault by a mob clutching receipts when last I looked. “People!” I wanted to say. “What do you think this is, Walmart?” Something about Roseville, and it might be the wilderness survival ethic or the sheer drudgery of driving around town, makes me realize that evolution is a highly uneven process and that the apocalyptic Mayans may be on to something. Toy shopping was becoming a more complicated task than I anticipated. Though I recalled that the baby’s favorite toy at the moment is a white throw pillow that resembles one of the cats. Her little eyes light up when she spots the pillow, nestled feline-like on the couch. She likes to chew on it, of course. So I conceded that I might be overthinking the problem. Inspiration would come, if I remained patient.

10. Thursday afternoon I went to the bank before I bought the ham at Butcher Boy and gathered the firewood at Soulliere’s and visited Mr. Solitro, the happy-go-lucky Greek or Italian guy who operates the Christmas tree stand down on the corner. He’s always in a good mood, a burst of uncomplicated joy. “Hello my friend,” he said, approaching with his arm outstretched. “How are you this holiday season?”

“Alright,” I said, shaking his hand. “Merry Christmas.” 

“Merry Christmas to you my friend.”

“How are things going this year?” I said.

“Like last year,” Mr. Solitro said. “All the rain.”  

“What kind of tree can I get for $40?” I asked.

“Oh, I have the perfect tree for you. A beautiful balsam. It smells like tangerine,” he said, stepping into the squadron of trees lined up in rows. “Right here,” he said, pointing at a classically shaped tree that appeared to be about seven or eight feet tall with soft pine needles and well, beautiful. Apparently I’m drawn to a tall, statuesque tree. Often I seem to misjudge the size of trees on the lot. A tree that scrapes the ceiling and spreads three or four feet in every direction can be quite a distraction in a living room not accustomed to hosting a starter forest. “Usually $65, but it’s late and I want it to have a good home.”

“I’ll take it,” I said. “Can you cut a little bit off the bottom?”

“Sure, sure, but not too much. It’s perfect as it is.”

The highly cooperative Mr. Solitro sawed an inch off of the bottom. And stuffed the tree carefully into the trunk. And shook my hand again and wished me a happy new year. I drove home with several feet of tree hanging out the back, navigating down Harper carefully. Once home I pulled the tree from the trunk and dragged it up the front porch and through the front door and managed to set it up in the tree stand in less than two hours. It smelled of pine and citrus.

11. As darkness gathered on the shortest day of the year, I jumped on the bike and flew to the lake. Night fell like nobody’s business. Then I rode back home and it being a good night for jumping, walked into the garage and jumped into the car and turned the key and backed down the driveway and drove down the street and made a left turn followed by a right turn and a left turn and then some other turns before arriving at the American House for the resident Christmas Party, the social event of the geriatric year. We sat at our assigned table next to the dance floor where a middle-aged Dean Martin with a karaoke machine sang popular songs from the fifties plus the odd Jimmy Buffet number while wobbling old people turned slowly in an approximation of the hustle or the Charleston and little kids, the three-foot tall wild and undisciplined kind dressed in holiday sweaters, tumbled and jumped around freestyle, creating dance floor hazards for the teetering ancients. The music was so loud that we couldn’t hold a conversation, but neither my mom nor my dad is much up to small talk these days, anyway. My mom sat in her wheelchair and gummed a pizza slice for half an hour and my dad sat in his wheelchair and really enjoyed his chocolate chip cookie, while two of my nieces indulged themselves with the alcoholic punch and my sister and her fellow went outside to smoke. Popular opinion has it that this may be my father’s last Christmas, due to prevailing health concerns. He still surprises, having exceeded his own expectations long ago. True, he’s just a so-called shadow of the man he once was, but a mere shadow is so much more than no man at all. I looked at various residents sitting with their families, walkers parked nearby, nearly everyone smiling and laughing and eating and drinking. Multiple generations celebrating a grand old age and another Christmas. They seemed to be having a good time. And why not? The American House is like a preserve for the still somewhat young at heart, the old hopeful. High school for seniors. The financially independent survivors. The lucky ones.

12. I drove home in the cold rain and drank another Irish cappuccino and started decorating the tangerine balsam, which I found tilting in the living room at a dangerous angle. More tree wrestling ensued. I have a lot of ornaments dating from the seventies, which might now be considered antiques. And old light strings with 25% of the lights burned out. Interesting artistic statement. My tree will not be fully lighted this year as a protest against multinational corporate bloodsucking. Take that, Fortune 500. I turned on Wages of Sin and smoked a cigarette and grew dark, like the winter evening. I smoke a cigarette a day to ward off Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s or some other possessive disease with a proper name. I’ll die of a heart attack or cancer instead. Life is all about the choices we do or don’t make and the responsibilities we fulfill or escape. Wait. Maybe that’s just my life. Though our full measure cannot be the sum of our decisions. What about that right now part, this thing that is happening, which as I see it, could qualify as the most important moment of my life? Boy, that tires me out when I think like that. Had a glass of wine and then another. Even more moody, though still goal oriented. Several hours later, in the wee hours of the morning, the tree was nearly finished. I opted for a sparer, more minimalistic tree decorating scheme this year. Some lights, some ornaments. It looks quite nice. I showered and went to bed.

13. Woke up, drank more whiskey and coffee, worked around the house, went to Costco again, this time for wine, the 2009 Beaujolais Village at $6.98 the bottle, a giant bag of rolls, and those little triangular spinach pies for hors d’oeuvres. Then I pedaled quickly to the lake, followed by a drive to the boutique toy store in the Village as night fell. I had been to Costco earlier in the week in an effort to reduce the usual flurry of last-minute shopping, but I forgot half the things I was supposed to buy. I believe I become dazed and confused in stores. Mesmerized. Maybe it’s the bright lights overhead and all the merchandise spilling off the shelves and the other zombie people shuffling around with their overloaded carts. I’ve had nightmares lately where there’s not enough food in the house to feed the entire family and they turn on each other with more than the usual aggressiveness. I’ve been to Nino’s, the local vegetable and fruit market, at least three times this week.  If nothing else, we’ll have plenty of broccoli. At the toy store I collected Bert and his friend the horse puppet and some other cool stuff, including an assortment of furry chew toys and cute little books, one with big holes in it. Only a few other customers, so I was the sole concern of a young woman working the counter. I was pleased and did not panic. Tested the toys, including the hand puppets. It’s important to test the hand puppets prior to purchase. Then I went across the street to Trader Joe’s and bought peanut butter and tuna fish and tomato soup and crackers and beer. And a chocolate bar. Everyone in TJ’s seemed to be smiling. Sometimes I suspect the employees belong to a cult, like retail gourmet Scientology. Toward the front of the store a bell rung, indicating that a clerk needed assistance or an angel just got its wings. One of the managers was making pirate hats out of newsprint for the kids. I carried my bags across the street and put the groceries in the car trunk. I would have liked to have visited Borders on the other corner, but oh. Bookstores are an endangered species. Instead, I walked around town. Just two blocks. Not many people out and about or in the other stores. Though the restaurants seemed crowded. Stepped into the paradise of Village Ace Hardware and was overcome with the need to fix chronically broken things I own. I have quite a collection. I drove home down Lake Shore and observed the Christmas light show, including the home ablaze on the corner of Moross that I’m sure can be spotted from outer space. The electric bill must be colossal. Though if you live in an enormous house on Lake Shore and the corner of Moross, chances are you’ll be able to cover it.    

14. Friday night I watched the Letterman Christmas show, one of my favorite moments of the holiday season. Darlene Love blasted “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” supported by a choir that included Springsteen back-up singers Cindy Mizella and Curtis King, with CBS Orchestra regular Bruce Kapler taking the traditional surprise sax solo up in the balcony. Jay Thomas retold the classic story of being stoned and driving the Lone Ranger around in his car, this time with a reenactment featuring Dave as the Lone Ranger. Darlene Love is a force of nature at 73 years old and seems like she has a number of years left in her, but good old Dave is maybe getting older faster. Our Baby Pleases may soon become a limited edition. Get ‘em now while you can.

15. For most of my adult life I’ve been going to see Jane and her mom’s family on Christmas Eve and coming back home later in the evening. Usually I leave for home sometime before midnight. For a long time it’s been like the worst late night of the year, that period from midnight to 4 a.m. or whenever I fall to sleep. I’m a free agent wide awake in the middle of the night when all the ghosts of Christmases Past and the occasional wandering spirit from the future stage their attack. “Thanks for dropping by fellas. Nice to see you again,” I’d like to say under better circumstances. That post Christmas Eve time slot has been like the worst late night of the year forever unless I can find a good movie on television or fall into a music groove. Usually there’s nothing much on TV, but every once in a while you get lucky. Last night I caught Melinda and Melinda on HBO at 1 a.m. It’s lesser Woody Allen, but still much more interesting than the onslaught of religious programming, which can seem like indeterminable purgatory. Late night Christmas Eve is indeterminable purgatory in a nutshell, however difficult it is to pronounce, though in theory the hours pass in the usual order. Christmas morning very early in the dead of night demands a more novel form or higher level of entertainment as a distraction, since the ghosts can be quite bossy and insistent. After a few drinks, everyone wants to tell you exactly what they think. The part of the movie with Melinda and Will Ferrell as Woody is funny and the part with Melinda but no Will Ferrell as Woody is not funny and sort of tedious. I think Woody was trying to illustrate the difference between comedy and tragedy and their equal validity, and how a single story might go either way with just a little tweaking. Comedy is often tragedy with laughs, while tragedy is often not funny at all (rimshot). But then, so what. I think laughter is probably a higher value, in and of itself. Life does sort of suck much of the time. It’s enlightening to have some understanding of the cosmic punchlines. They’re out there, waiting to be discovered. Whatever benevolent force helps guide us through our mystery tour is momentarily revealed with a good laugh. It’s a moment of lighthearted grace, a small blessing from the universe, a peek behind the curtain. On the other hand, King Lear, an overwhelming tragedy I think we’d all agree, since the old king is driven mad with grief and important people die or have their eyes plucked out and various members of the royal family betray each other and voice laments or damnations while occasionally brandishing small weapons in a threatening manner, is my favorite play, always moving me to tears, and there’s few things I love more than a great sad song. Crying in my beer is like exercise for the soul, which can always use the workout. My baby’s gone, probably running some errands, and now I am so blue. The older I become the more I appreciate the spiritually frustrated, romantically challenged, existential pilgrim with a hint of transcendence genre. I’m starting to see what Woody was saying. But my point is we are all one at the end, or at most two and a half, part of a grand unity of consciousness and purpose, and I find laughter and its more ambitious cousin love to be the essential glue that binds us together into that big ball of string called life. I’m not sure you need glue for a ball of string, but no matter. So I read a magazine during the boring parts without Will Ferrell, and that seemed to strike the right balance. Plus I drank more whiskey and listened again to Wages of Sin. As Christmas Eves go, it was a pretty good night. Before I fell asleep, I thought I heard reindeer on the roof, harness bells tinkling. “Santa,” I said, “Is that you?”   

16. Back when Jane was a child and I was a young adult and the world was less complicated, we often, well always, went to breakfast with Santa every December at the Hudson’s Department Store at the Eastland Mall. Jane was a gorgeous sight in her prettiest dress and I’d put on a coat and tie and we’d dine in the restaurant on the third floor. It was a very special event. You had to buy tickets. After the breakfast Santa made a grand appearance, the kids roaring their rock-star approval.  Santa worked the lively room of well-dressed uninhibited children and their amused supervisory adults with a hardy ho! ho! ho! and some shaking of the seasonal bells before settling into his plush Santa chair. Assisted by Santa’s sometimes sexy helpers, the kids went one at a time to sit on Santa’s lap and present their demands. Jane’s list was usually quite long and detailed. She would start working on the list on December 26th of the previous year and sometimes had a memo folder to give to Santa. Little girls often change their mind on what they truly want, and Jane was no exception, so there would be gift suggestions lined out and others added and the list would be organized from most important and must have to most important and must have. Jane was reluctant to draw arbitrary lines. They were all critically required. Jane had given this significant thought. She climbed on Santa’s lap with wide-eyed anticipation, clutching her notes. Santa would ask her what her name was and listen carefully and read and smile and make a few inquiries and suggestions before warmly chuckling and wishing her a personal merry Christmas, signaling the end of the interview. Jane would reluctantly conclude her presentation, though pleased to have had an audience with the most important fella in the world. Blessed with excellent instructions, Santa always came through on Christmas day. I was sure that our Santa was the same Santa that was the grand marshall of the Thanksgiving Parade downtown, aka, The Real Santa. It gave me piece of mind to know that I had met The Real Santa. I wondered what had become of him. Santa’s with that kind of charisma just don’t disappear. There are Santas, and then there are Santas. Turns out he’s alive and well and known as Bernie among those in the Santa trade.  Bernie’s a reverend who lives at a church in Livonia and was just inducted into the Santa Claus Hall of Fame and for some reason is not that much older than me. Interesting. Anyway, here’s his story.

17. This Christmas morning right now I am tired. I plan on drinking a pot of coffee immediately. That first cup of coffee is always sacred. I’ll pour some whiskey into the cup and pray that busy Baby Jesus on his birthday can find the time to help with the considerable last-minute housework. C’mon Baby Jesus, work a minor miracle and clean this house! Maybe I should light a candle. As a devotional. The gods like it when you light candles in their honor. They tend to be quite medieval in their appreciations. I’ve been putting things away one at a time for a week, washing windows, reorganizing. It doesn’t seem to have made much difference. Christ, you know it ain’t easy. I’m sure Baby J must be listening. Then I think to myself, which is normally how I do all my thinking, unless I’m outsourcing: Baby Jesus is all grown up now and does not exist, per se. At birth the little tyke was already inhabited by Big Jesus and part of Daddy-O I am the One and Only Singular God’s dynamic trinity that nobody understands, with three distinct personalities and a host of related issues, including who picks up the check at restaurants (rimshot). God became human, born a little tiny baby to a poor struggling couple on food stamps, all for the sake of mankind, who would soon require a long winter holiday featuring out-of-control shopping at the mall (ditto). And for womankind too, who are definitely more deserving, though many have personal appearance issues and a cultural sense of inadequacy. Plus animalkind, who need saving from mankind. Takes all kind. Big Jesus and Little Jesus began fighting for humanity, like a superhero team, separating blood into water and feeding wine to geese and turning bread into fishes, so that the blind could eat and cripples could fly. Big Jesus and his pal Little Jesus partied with prostitutes and criminals, mostly your petty lower-end kind, and didn’t much care for rich people above the fray, like Mr. Art Van Furniture. Funny how that philosophical position worked out. In addition to being omniscient and all powerful, God apparently inhabits the same highly ironic universe that we do and is often thwarted. I sense a contradiction looming. I hope he has a sense of humor. 

18. Coffee first, then spring I will into panic mode. Spring I shall. Like a whirlwind. Like the wind. Like a whirl. Like the. I’ll move through the house like a harbinger or hurricane of cleanliness. A portent. Like a hurricane. I’ll be like something extremely breezy that’s about to happen in the near future. A large gust of highly anxious potential orderliness. I’ll blow through this place, soon. Things will get organized. Tables will be polished. Floors will be cleaned. Stuff, yards and yards of stuff, will be put away. Somewhere. Soon. As I finish the pot of coffee. Maybe smoke a cigarette too. For Baby Jesus. That’ll help quell the anxiety. Then some cereal, to keep the blood sugar from plunging. Though I kinda like that buzz. Need to eat, clean, shower, and look reasonably composed or at least dressed when everyone shows up at the door, demanding comfort and joy and ham and potatoes.  

19. Three hours to go until the family invades. Twenty of them, including mom and dad and at least five precocious kids armed with new toys and spiked on a Christmas high.  “Yikes” would be the word that comes to mind.

20. To my regular reader: season’s greetings. And thanks.

21. So this is how Christmas ended: diehards holding on around the table, serenaded by If I Should Fall from the Grace of God and Fairy Tale of New York, after Jane insisted. That little Irish baby likes to dance to the Pogues with her grandpa. Tom wobbly. Chris tired. Sarah spunky. Julie smiling. Jane rowdy.  “Rhiannon’s going to grow up to be exactly who she wants to be,” Jane said. And I said, “Much like her mother.” We drank all the beer, had too much wine, drained the eggnog, carved the frozen cheesecake, ignored the broccoli, devoured the ham, ransacked the potatoes. House a wreck. Cats in hiding. Merry, that.

Posted in Groundhog Day and other holidays, The meaning of life, Ties that bind | Leave a comment

Number Thirty Five: Excerpts from a Christmas Newsletter

Season’s Greetings from the Big Mitten!

Here’s hoping you had a swell 2011 and will soon experience the full effect of the high holidays upon your overwhelmed and collapsing nervous systems, as we are here at Camp Whackawhacka! Lots of shakin’ and bakin’ going on! So many things have happened and will continue to occur! 

…Our Christmas reparations have not been without their complications and challenges, but the season is all about overcoming substantial odds to celebrate the birth of the manger baby in the stable among the farm implements where his dad the carpenter builds Amish bookcases for furniture stores at the mall and his mom is named Mary and sells Avon products door to door while the three wise men and the Nutcracker sing hosannas from on high near the top of a tall tree in the middle of the Las Vegas desert with the camels and chickens and goats plus the occasional Shetland pony roaming free-range and fully organic in the back, searching for the meaning of life and a nice bed of straw amid the stars twinkling overhead like LED sparklers.

It’s all so apt and profound!

There is, of course, no room at the local Daze Inn for the baby and his entourage, since it is the holidays and a peak busy period for the booming travel industry, which, thank God (if you know what I mean!) is a lucky break for the Christmas figurine business, then in its infancy. It warms my heart cockles, that immortal story of a holy baby being born so long ago in time for the winter festival of your choice! But as I was saying, we recently discovered that living in a pup tent on the front lawn in December has some drawbacks, including a decided lack of space and a persistent chill at night. On the plus side, a friendly though illegal campfire seems to invite total strangers into the yard!

…When the house burned down after Fluffy overturned the devotional candle to Guru Runni Runrun, the man we selected to be in charge of our spiritual development and stock portfolio and one of the few legitimate guides to enlightenment employed by a major financial firm with branches nationwide, well, you could have knocked us over with a straw or a feather or certainly a full boa, especially after we learned that our insurance has some definite limitations, in part because we fell several months behind in our house payments to the Mafia bosses who operate the mortgage bank. It would be flattery to call those people criminals!

…The trouble started after Yogi Bear Shri Runrun recommended that we invest in Greek superbonds underwritten by Spanish sub-municipals supported by a mysterious multinational consortium of wealthy bank tellers partial to wearing tall black hats. The market is poised to move, said his most definite broker seer. Where? I asked. Wisconsin? I crack myself up! But it did sound so exciting!  Greeks bearing gifts! Poised markets! After much wining and dining and considerable foreplay the market did indeed move though in a direction contrary to Reverend Swami’s confident predictions and soon we discovered that our money had Euro vanished! You win some, you lose some, and next you know you’re part of a living Christmas tableau out on the lawn! With generous donations from the fall bowling league adding up to almost a pocketful of loose change plus an interesting collection of bottle caps and with the advent of spring just months and months away, we find our confidence growing like a tumor, believing that everything will work out for the best or in some other manner, including the size of the much-delayed, much-discussed insurance settlement, which our lawyer Stan the Sunshine Man (1-888-KALSTAN) continues to optimistically estimate as nothing short of “insubstantial.” He has such a way with expensive words by the hour!

…Master Runni who ran us into bankruptcy reminds that this is a test of our external readiness to become more acceptable to our inner beautiful self, Fluffy included. I confess that I sometimes feel a light radiating from my forehead, making it easier to read magazines and boil water. Love the one you may be stuck with, counsels Dr. Runrun, more so if space is limited! We feel so blessed, in spite of ourselves…

…Quick kitchen tip: careful when mixing vodka and Valium, particularly before noon!

…Though the long wintry nights can be dark and cold and forlorn, posing significant problems for the Vitamin D deficient and tent dwellers on the tundra, the last two months have been unusually mild for a northern state often caught in the deadly clinch or throes or grip of lashing winds or mauling snow or competitive figure ice skating! For instance, the grandchildren just returned from an afternoon of water skiing, courtesy of one of the less-judgmental though aquatic-minded neighbors taking advantage of the frigid yet flowing lake dotted with cold ducks and refrigerated geese. The kids are so cute, dripping sun block, trailing algae, cramping the tent with their little near-frozen bodies, the youngest still wobbling on his soaked crutches!

…Climate change is certainly a welcomed relief from the usual winter drudgery! The pond hockey tournament on the lake planned for late January may require scuba gear this year! Maybe a little more CO2 in the atmosphere could be a good thing! Compared to dirty mounds of stale snow, winter palm trees swaying in the wafting warm breeze would be a pleasant change of scenery! How I’d love a double on the rocks under the palms! Along with a good exclamation point! I kid! Slightly of course, as a lifelong aimless Democrat leaning toward strong Independent with possible poetic yearnings who has seen President Albert Gore’s docudrama on icebergs Up North or Down South melting, evaporating like the Wicked Witch of the West into the confused cold water huddling like brave new immigrants below, puzzling the poor polar bears and penguins left behind with no place to go, except perhaps to swim with alarmed synchronicity to the mainland crouched just offshore where they volunteer for zoo duty, the topic of that new movie with Matt Damon and Scarlett Jonavinison…

…Speaking of the children, the twins were recently work-released from a secret prison for plus-size gypsies at an undisclosed location in the Middle East, where they had been mistakenly incarcerated for several weeks after being wrongly convicted of exciting a conversation among unrelated livestock and attending a rally supporting a woman’s right to chose her cable provider. Those boys! Prodding cattle!

Along with that unexpected surprise (which, if I may for a moment jump on my mini-soapbox, is the best kind of surprise, being not expected, and therefore a total surprise!) we learned that little Manny has finally leaped or leapt into his career as an apprentice circus acrobat, earning a spot on the lower trapeze with responsibilities for catching the amazing flying Zelda, after falling just short of passing the clown exam for the third time! He was up late the night before desperately cramming, and at the crucial moment during the orals his comic grimace completely deserted him. Darling Cindy Lou (Who? I kid!) continues to work as a bisexual waitress at the Chinese House of Dust and Egg Rolls and is closing in on her degree in social atmospherics, with a minor in left-handed cryptic text messaging. You just never know what those kids will do next! Their postcards are always so novel and lacking in detail! We’re so proud, and at the same time, nervous and cautious…

…Quick kitchen tip number two: red wine makes a fine glaze, the more the merrier!

…Lately you may have heard that our neighbor across the western pond, Wisconsin, is calling itself the Mitten State. That’s so ridiculous!

Steal our mitten, now will ya!

Imagine a state with mitten envy. Now imagine a place like Wisconsin, which has always been the Stinky Cheese State! Where on earth do they worship dairy products and football more reverently and pointlessly? Mittenhood is our distinctly Michigan thing, along with the Great Lakes and pasties, but not the kind the strippers wear! The Lower Peninsula, which I know sounds like an intestinal location, is the right hand of the mitten, if you are looking at a map or flying overhead or just trying to show someone where you live. Hold up the right hand, point with the left! I’m sure almost any resident with some college education could possibly do this even in the dark, which is frequently the case at this time of year. Alas! As Shakespeare cried to Ham Omelet, who would later trade his kingdom, his kingdom, for a wife, no one is sure what happened to the left-hand mitten! “Well, it’s definitely not Wisconsin!” said the Motley Fool, thus known due to his repertoire of funny moth-eaten hats and lopsided grin in need of full dental repair. Possibly it escaped to the outside world via the dryer vent, like so many of our more wayward socks!

…No one would argue that we don’t have our problems in this state, with reality-resistant Republicans in charge and everyone out of work who could use a job and criminals lying and cheating and robbing and killing and the schools half-filled with armed students chasing terrified though possibly unqualified teachers through the blood-stained halls while many of our cities are foreclosed or forgotten, but we still have our pride and retain our unique mittenness in the face of total sucking adversity and the shenanigans of a low-life border state like Wisconsin! 

….!!!! (etc.)…

…With the temperature so unseasonal, many are speculating it’s another sure sign that the world will end next December 21, according to the Mayans and their clever little calendar (what kind of people schedule the end of the world a thousand years in advance? Very smart ancient Mexican people with time on their hands, says Sandy Next Door, who is something of an authority on anthropology and the related horoscopian sciences. She warns that Pisces rises slowly out of bed at this time of year and Leo is sorely crossed and stranded at the Western Motel and that everyone should stay clear of their new moons and avoid the color chartreuse or its derivatives. I’d be lost without Sandy ND!). Needless to say, this will probably be our last year of making any resolutions, which is something of a relief! Of course the 2012 newsletter will be sent a few weeks in advance of the apocalypse, because I am almost certain the downsized Post Office will be struggling to keep up with the last-minute surge in final correspondence and appropriate greeting cards! Best of luck in the next life! In the meantime, keep in mind the fitting words of Charles Dickerson’s Tiny Tom: “Merry Xmas, every one of us!”

Posted in Groundhog Day and other holidays, Lose yourself, Michigan, my Michigan, Milo and Otis, including that darn cat and Scooby Doo, My little town, Shakespeare | Leave a comment