Fever Thoughts From A Time Lapse

Credit – Reuters

The day after the Moderna booster was approved by the FDA and the CDC, I rolled up my sleeve to be finished with vaccinations for this year. I wanted to know that I’d done what I could do to protect myself and anyone around me. What happens next? Who knows? In an unprecedented time, you use your best judgement after assessing the data available. No one can predict what may happen, even a few months from now. But at that moment, I was finished. I had no reaction to the vaccine late that afternoon or evening or even the next morning. I was busy going through routine chores. While in the kitchen I noticed some bananas just this side of going rotten and decided I’d turn them into a banana bread. But I was short one banana. I called my son-in-law to see if he could spare one and when he confirmed that he did, I was grateful that my daughter and her family having chosen to live right across the street. I made a quick trip to get their spare, had a brief chat, and returned home. Within minutes I felt my temperature rise, developed a pounding headache and a withering fatigue which slammed me into my recliner. I spent the next twelve miserable hours there. I wasn’t really surprised. I’d had similar reactions to my two previous injections. Although I have no evidence to support my theory, I’m all but certain I had Covid in February, 2020. After a wretched week of a head-throbbing fevered state, painful rib-wracking cough and body aches, I’d noted in my journal that I’d lost my sense of taste and smell. No testing was available at the time I put all the pieces together. So I’ll never know if I had antibodies built up after that infection, perhaps making multiple vaccinations redundant. In the long run, it doesn’t much matter. But oh the places I go when my brain is boiling.

Violet

I’ve been without a pet since January when I had to euthanize my elderly rescue dog Violet. Violet wasn’t the dog I was looking for, just a few months after Michael died. She was at a shelter which primarily houses the smaller collie version, the shetland sheep dog, which I thought was a better match for someone in my age group. But there was poor Violet, a former show dog, aged 8 and 1/2, who’d been kicked to the curb after winning as many blue ribbons as she ever would. An animal who’d been debarked, lived most of her life crated and made no eye contact with humans, she was the perfect reclamation project for me, the caregiver with no one in my care at that point. We spent three and a half years together and by then, she’d become as close to a real pet as she was able. You actually can teach an old dog new tricks. Then she was gone. Since I was 17 years old, except for a few months, I’ve always had a dog. So this recent time with no patter of four paws has definitely been a big change for me. I’ve been thinking about what to do about it.

Bandit

Look at this adorable dog. Last week, I randomly glanced through the available pups at my local shelter and this face, that of a bright, beautiful border collie was staring at me. You don’t often see them in shelters. The next day I drove over to the facility to be the first person to see him. He was pretty loud which is fairly typical for the breed. I had a border collie for 15 years. She was smart, a herder, a dog who stared into your eyes, trying to anticipate what you wanted, what you needed and what was the next assignment. I adored her.

Ribeye

Ribeye was loyal, loving and busy. I knew what I could expect from this breed. Bandit was three years old. The owners who’d relinquished him to the shelter had purchased him as one year old from someone on Craig’s List. After two years with him, they’d given him up. When I sat with him in a room to see what he was like, I noticed his alertness to all the action he heard going on just the other side of the door.

He responded to his name and to the “sit” command but he wasn’t able to focus. In addition, he was bald from his withers or shoulder area all the way back to his tail. When I inquired about the cause of this hairlessness, I was told that his previous owners said they’d been treating a non-specific skin flare without veterinary intervention. They also said he’d started nipping at them and their grandchildren. The shelter said they’d put him on an antibiotic for his skin and attributed his nipping to his herding instincts. Ribeye never nipped anyone in her life, even when she exhibited herding behavior. I suspected that Bandit had been crated for long hours and perhaps had started chewing at his body out of boredom and lack of exercise. I also thought he’d missed the early training these highly intelligent dogs pick up fast when they’re taught from puppyhood. I went by myself to look at Bandit. My family has been encouraging me to get a pet. I wanted the only voice in my head while weighing this choice to be mine. I filled out the application for adoption and was told I’d be contacted within two days about the shelter’s decision. Then I went home to think.

I’ve found it strange that ten months have gone by with me making only feeble attempts to find a dog. Ordinarily I’d be on a mission with no roadblocks that could possibly deter me from my goal. A part of me has been uncomfortable rattling around in my too-big house. My son has been here intermittently but I’ve been mostly alone now for almost four and a half years. After living with a strapping 6’4” man since I was twenty, I’ve felt a vulnerability that’s new for me. We live in a culture where violence against women is more common than not. Having a sizable animal would help allay some of my safety concerns. Yet, aside from those, I’m definitely aware of the freedom I now have. I can leave my house without worrying about anyone. I can stay out as long as I want to without thinking of when the dog has to go out or when it needs to be fed. I can take trips without making arrangements for anyone but me. I’m saving money on all the food bills, vet bills and grooming bills that are part of responsible dog ownership. Whose reasonable considerations are these? When Michael died and our little cocker spaniel right after him, I was all dogged up within weeks. And working hard on reshaping Violet. Where is that me?

My kids were betting I was bringing Bandit home as soon as I was approved. As it happened, both of them were leaving town just as all this decision-making was swirling in my head. I got the approval call two days after meeting Bandit. I slept on the matter one more night and then called to let the shelter know I wouldn’t be adopting him. I had some regret. He was such a lovely dog. But undoing someone else’s issues is no longer on my to-do list. If I get a pet I need to start from scratch. My fixer behavior has gone missing. I think I’m done with that part of my life after decades of caregiving and throwing myself at problems. I wish I could know when that transition happened to me. In the midst of my miserable vaccination reaction, I started fantasizing about ways to be conscious of the subtle steps that turn a person from one set of behaviors to another. In the midst of that fever-y delirium I had some ideas.

The banana bread

As I blearily assembled the ingredients for my banana bread, I was remembering an interesting conversation I’d recently had with my eleven year old grandson who seems to get taller every few days. We were discussing how cool it would be to have a time-lapse camera in his room at night to see if the obvious growth results we’re witnessing could be caught incrementally on a camera, the way a plant’s evolution from seed to bloom has been so many times. With advances in technology, could we literally see him elongate? Could we see his features morph slightly every night? Could we see his hair grow or a freckle appear where there was once nothing? I find these ideas fascinating.

As I lay back in my chair waiting for my bread to bake, I was thinking how I wished I could’ve had some as yet uncreated time lapse camera installed in my mind which could’ve slowly tracked my transition from being the person who needed Violet to the person who didn’t need Bandit. The subtle changes in me, like my grandson’s new inches seemed to suddenly just be “there,” but I know that’s not really true. As he is, I’m continuing to evolve. I am still myself but with tweaks and alterations. My whole life’s journey has led me to this moment. Will I be the me that’s lived with a dog for 52 of my 70 years? The one that snuck one into my dormitory when I was just seventeen and having a pet was totally illegal? The one that welcomed my life partner with his dog so that for decades, we always had two who traveled with us everywhere we went and were our kids before we made human ones? I know I’m not going to have a cat, even though I’ve had three, because they don’t seem to have much to do with who I am. I could see myself with a bird again because I’ve spent decades with cockatiels and some parakeets flying through my house.

If I had my internal time-lapse camera which recorded the waves and ripples of my mind as I continue to adapt to the life conditions I didn’t choose, perhaps I’d be able to foresee what I’m going to land on as my next phase of deciding whether I’ll have an animal companion again. I know they’re supposed to be a healthy choice for older people. But right now, despite a lot of isolation, I don’t feel unhealthy. My guess is that the many emotional demands of the previous decade took a bigger toll on me that I had no time to consider in their moments. Maybe my morphed self of now has been redefined, and that more impulsive me, who always had a dog, is a me of the past. I really don’t know what to expect. If that internal time-lapse device which I imagined during my fever really existed I’m certain that I could see the solid core of Michael and me that is still a surprising source of comfort and strength that has grown despite his absence. Someone should really look into developing a device that stays current with these sea changes life demands as we wend our way through its twisty path. Maybe in a distant time, long after I cease to exist, someone will invent one. Meanwhile, I still have no pet and I make a mean banana bread, whether I feel terrible or not.

Magic Sky and Magic Dirt

I have a curious love/hate relationship with words. My favorite tools, they also wear me out. My mind is rarely void of language. Phrases, sentences, sometimes single words only, tumble around in there until I just want them all to go away. Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve found relief when I immersed myself in the natural world. I love the sky, particularly when clouds of all sizes and shapes, cumulus, cirrus, cumulonimbus and whatever others exist, drift overhead. I don’t care whether the sky is blue or gray, pink or yellow. I find its magnitude soothing and a great help in achieving perspective, the lack of which disturbs me with its imbalance.

I also love mucking around in the dirt. I played in it a lot while I was a child, braiding necklaces of clover and dandelions, fiddling with caterpillars, beetles and grasshoppers, and observing the cooperative ant societies which were always hubs of constant movement and intricate patterns. During high school and college, I got out to the countryside when I could, feeling my brain relax in the wide expanse of fields and among the animals, domestic and wandering.

These days, I find the need to escape from all the twisty verbiage in my head more often than usual. The world is fraught with problems so complicated, so enormous and so frustratingly bogged down in effectual bureaucracies, that I’m driven crazy by my thinking. I spew the words out in my blog, in letters to my dead husband and too often, to people I sense would prefer that I zip my mouth closed. That’s when I know it’s time to head outside to look up, to look around and to look down. My garden provides months of pleasure, even in its fall and winter iterations. The sky is an ever-changing mystical delight. Loving what just silently exists has turned out to be one of my most effective coping skills. Tonight I’m sharing the beauty I’ve been lucky enough to capture just by paying attention to this free form of relief and the lovely thought-dissipating visual effects. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do. For me, they’re the deep cleansing breaths that restore the weary brain.

Aah. A brief respite from the news of the day. All of that will be still be there tomorrow. For this moment, I feel quiet. And grateful. And relieved.

Life on Broadway – Chapter 6 – 1985 – Life Shift

Campaign literature photo

Looking back, it’s easy to spot a small event, a key moment that at the time, seems like no big deal but ultimately, is the seminal instant that causes a shift in a life’s trajectory. The year 1981 was big because Michael and I had welcomed our first child in late August. While all that was a big change, another less obvious game-changer had been instigated by me and my neighbor who lived across the street. When we bought our house in 1978 we thought we were in a “starter home,” a place where we’d live for a few years before moving to the next place. Our ancient home, built in 1893 and broken into three apartments since the 1930’s, closely resembled a place featured in the film “The Money Pit,” a gaping monster that would endlessly gulp down massive amounts of cash. During the next couple of years, housing costs steadily began climbing and we quickly realized we could never afford to replace the square footage of our house and its big double lot. After poking around we discovered that our little neighborhood was zoned as multi-family housing which meant that at any time, a property developer could demolish an old house and replace it with an apartment building. As we were planning on having children we knew that being surrounded by apartments would increase traffic, get noisy and be undesirable for family living. I got together with the owner of the house across the street to begin the process of appealing to our city council to downzone our neighborhood to buildings no larger than two units. Existing structures could stay as they were. We visited all our neighbors until we’d gathered the required number of signatures to make an appeal. When we appeared before the council, our own alderman, a not-toobright good old boy announced his opposition to the plan, stating that he owned a four-unit apartment building right down our block which he intended to eventually expand. Rarely had we seen a more blatant explanation of self-interest from an elected representative. He was outvoted by the rest of the council so ultimately we were saved from overdevelopment. After a short time, we were awarded the Environmental Heritage Award from our local Preservation and Conservation Association.

Michael was furious with our alderman for putting his unabashed self-interest ahead of the desires of constituents. He decided he was going run against him in the municipal election in the spring of 1985. In one sense, the idea of Michael becoming an insider in organized politics seemed unlikely after his years as a classic outside agitator. But I was already a public official, hired by an elected one in 1978. I felt comfortable in that we were cleaning up years of sloppiness and corruption which had been long time policies in our community. Michael wanted to do the same thing. His father had been mayor and a plan commission chairperson in their hometown. The truth was that despite their political differences, public service as demonstrated by his dad almost felt like genetics rather than simply tradition.

Michael and his dad – 1984

So because we were a team, albeit one with absolutely no idea about running a political campaign, Michael became a candidate for alderman with me as his manager, squaring off with the selfish hack in the April 2nd municipal election, 1985. We talked with everyone we knew who’d had political experience, and with a dedicated crew of supporters who wanted a representative interested in their needs, instead of his/her own, headed down a new road in our lives. A new road was literally the case as every subsequent day, Michael began knocking on the door of each person who resided in our ward. He’d come home after work, pick up a stack of his newly minted campaign literature and head out for a few hours to talk to his potential constituents. On weekends he often took our daughter along so he’d have time with her. Our lives were turned over to this effort which was exciting, exhausting, sometimes irritating and often frustrating.

In California with my family

In February, my daughter and I slipped away for a long weekend with my family to celebrate my niece’s Bat Mitzvah in California. I’d grown up vaguely practicing my religion with little formality but plenty of social customs, largely centered around major holidays and food. I didn’t expect to play any role in the actual event but was surprised by my sister who was missing a person to read a Torah portion as part of the proceedings. I was uncomfortable but I couldn’t disappoint her. I found myself singing at the dais in front of a congregation. Luckily, a facility with language and a good memory for what I’d heard many times at the events of my peers, allowed me to pull off my tuneful performance. You never know what life might throw in your path and truthfully, getting kicked out of your comfort zone and passing muster is good for building confidence. After that excursion, we went back home to resume life on the campaign trail.

Michael continued to march through the city daily, while I became a precinct committee person, organized our volunteers and counted committed voters who’d promised to vote for Michael. His slogan was “Energy and Commitment.” As his opponent was 25 years older and appeared dissipated by a lifetime of excessive alcohol consumption, we were pretty confident of a win. I still can visualize the precinct voting lists, which after a time, were seared into my brain. I knew who lived where and whether or not they said they were voting for Michael. On April 2, 1985, we woke up confident. We had printed door hangers with a reminder to vote that were hung by our crew of loyal friends, family and campaign workers. A close friend was enlisted to babysit that night so we could celebrate victory. When the polls closed, I went to the courthouse to check on the returns as soon as they were tabulated, precinct by precinct. I was in a room with the other 6 candidates for city council, along with the mayoral hopeful and a few other citywide officials. Our ward had five precincts. The results came in within a few hours. As I looked at the summaries of the last area to report, I quickly realized that Michael had lost by just two votes. Only two. I announced the result to the others in the room who were sympathetic but still engaged in the rest of the numbers. With no cell phones at that time, I gathered my papers and went flying home to tell Michael what had happened before he heard the news from anyone else. When I walked in the door our friend Linda had just gotten done putting our daughter to bed. Michael was in the shower getting ready to party. I sent her home and knocked on the bathroom door. He poked his head out, smiling, until I told him the results. Fastest disappearing smile ever.

Michael – 440 votes

I hated having to tell him that terrible number. He got dressed and we huddled together, trying to figure out how we’d miscalculated. We called our families to tell them what had happened and then didn’t speak to anyone else that night. The next day several dozen people called to apologize for not having voted. I remember telling several that if they wanted absolution they should get it at church because they certainly weren’t going to get it from me. We learned the hard lesson that what was so important to us was far less important to others, even if the ultimate outcome impacted their lives. Always considering ourselves outsiders, we had nonetheless, never disenfranchised ourselves as soon as we were old enough to vote. By the end of that day, Michael was already talking about running again in four years and all the things we’d do to drag voters to the polls. Lesson learned.

Meanwhile life went on. Michael’s parents flew us down to Florida and we took our daughter to Disney World for the first time. Although they weren’t my favorite companions, Michael really wanted to keep trying to stay connected to his parents and we all appreciated life on the beautiful Gulf Coast.

Back home, we resumed our regular lives. That spring and summer we worked on painting our big old house and developing our yard and garden. We visited my family in Chicago and they came to visit us.

Our daughter had her fourth birthday. She was quite a character. She loved My Little Ponies and She-Ra, The Princess of Power, sister of the superhero He-Man. Her musical tastes had expanded and included Culture Club. We took her to their concert which unfortunately included a smoke machine as part of their stage show. As soon as she saw the smoke, she insisted that we leave the theater as she’d had fire avoidance training at her day care center. At the first sign of smoke, one had to stop, drop and roll. Or better yet, leave the premises. We brought her to speak with a police officer at the venue but even that official presence wasn’t good enough to convince her to stay.

Culture Club

We bought her a She-Ra costume for her birthday which she wore frequently. When a traveling troupe featuring She-Ra and He-Man came to perform on roller skates, we bought second row seats, almost on the floor near the performers. The villain of the ensemble, Skeletor, threatened to steal all the children from the earth. Our fully costumed child, sword in her hand raised over head, stood up on her chair, and shouted, “I will never surrender.” We could see the smiling performers while we were doubled over with laughter. Her character was already fairly well-formed at this early age.

We had a good summer. There were play dates and parties for our little one, special events for us with an ultimately terrific show in September, the first Farm Aid Concert which took place at the football stadium in our town. We took turns attending the non-stop music, trading tickets to Michael’s employees for blocks of babysitting time so we could attend both together and separately. We’d seen lots of bands before but no festival this big had happened right down the street before. Quite a wonderful time.

In October, Michael and I left our girl with my parents and headed to the Indiana Dunes. My brother was having lots of emotional problems at the time and was leaning heavily on me. We were also trying to get pregnant again and hoped that a change of scenery would help with both situations. We stayed at an inn near the beach which had an amazing cosmopolitan restaurant. I remember that was the first place where I’d ordered and loved a new-to-me and most delicious dish, ossobuco. We climbed the Dunes and relaxed. We were so lucky to have my willing parents allow us the time to rejuvenate our relationship.

The end of October brought another Halloween and another costume, a princess one this time. My meager sewing skills were getting a workout.

At Thanksgiving dinner that year, my parents announced their desire to move from Chicago and take up residence in our community as they’d finally realized that neither my younger sister nor I were ever moving back to the city. My older sister was established in California and my brother, who still lived in a suburb nearby, had been recently divorced and was leading a chaotic existence. We thought their move was a great plan as they were getting older and especially loved the idea of having our daughter be close to her grandparents. As the year drew to its end, I was occupied with locating a place where they would be comfortable. I was certain that upcoming 1986 would be a busy year.

The Impact – For the Monarchs

Michael in his herb and vegetable garden – 2015

Back in 2015 when Michael was bending under the weight of his insidious cancer, spring arrived anyway, as we desperately cast around for any kind of new treatment. In the midst of that struggle his eyes were still on the future. What he wanted more than anything was to get his annual herbs and vegetables in the ground, a life-affirming act if there ever was one. I took the photo above as he sat in his dirt, directing our son,who was home and doing the physical labor at that time, telling him where he wanted all the new plants to go. He was too weak to do it himself. That year’s miracle was finding a targeted therapy which bought him another year in which he could do what he’d loved for decades. He planted his garden and like the food-lover he was, canned tomato sauce and salsa, made pesto which he froze in ice cube trays which he’d pop out, two cubes at a time, for pasta and pizza. Who knew how many recipes existed for cucumbers and peppers?

We both loved working in our yard. While Michael did the vegetables, herbs, berries and lawn mowing, I was busy with flowers, shrubs and trees. I don’t know what the magic is in this big old house and its big old lot, both of which had been neglected for decades before we bought it. But reclaiming it was our shared labor of love, wresting from us a boatload of sweat equity. Both of us are in this ground in some indescribable way.

The conversion of the vegetable garden.

In January, 2017, Michael’s years’ long tangle with cancer took the turn we’d been dreading. Despite his unwillingness to accept the inevitable, in my despair I supported his efforts to stave off death while casting about for ways to grapple with my grief at what I knew was his impending death. Always the more realistic one in our partnership, I was looking around, trying to imagine life without him, on every possible level. While he slept more and more, I needed to work. For my whole life, when I was sad, angry, frustrated or confused, I wanted to do physical labor, to get out of my head and exhaust my body. I started thinking of how enormous our house and garden were, way too much for one aging woman. I’d never been motivated to can anything in my life so Michael’s oversized vegetable patch was a daunting prospect staring me in the face. As soon as the weather allowed, I decided to get outside to attack that ground. I wanted to convert that space from food for humans to food for pollinators. I was always paying attention to the reports of habitat loss and the decline of so many species of bees, butterflies, moths and birds. I thought that I could make a small contribution to our weary planet by creating a haven in my tiny corner of the world. So into the yard I went, digging my brains out, feeling Michael’s essence rising up in me while I cried mine into the ground. I saved his perennial herbs, his berries and his raised beds for honorary tomatoes, peppers and annual herbs. As for the rest of his garden, I planted what I thought would benefit the most insects and birds, adding what I could afford, a few more plants and seeds every year. Michael died in May, 2017. I continued to salve my aching soul out there, listening to music as I dug, weeded and planned this life-affirming sanctuary.

Summer – 2017
Spring – 2018
Summer – 2018
Summer – 2019

Unless you’re wealthy enough to hire a gardener who arrives with truckloads of established plants which will cascade from season to season, gardening requires patience. As I worked my way through my PTSD from the years of dealing with cancer and fear, while I coped with the misery of Michael’s absence, I found that I had more patience for my plants than people. That garden brought solace. I gave in to the mystery of Michael’s otherworldly, constant presence and enjoyed the flying visitors who started showing up after the first year of swapping out vegetables for flowers. I felt like I still had something left to contribute to this troubled world and the energy I drew from that was positive.

I’ve lost track of how many hours I spent out there. I felt mightily rewarded by the wide variety of visitors who were showing up. I got to watch fledglings make their clumsy way into the world under the watchful eyes of their parents. I found a monarch caterpillar which I brought inside so I could watch it evolve into its chrysalis and new life. I starting keeping lists of every bird, butterfly and moth species that made its way into my yard, also enjoying the bees, beetles, mantises and countless other surprise guests.

Overall, I’ve felt pretty comfortable with the evolution of this garden. I’ve derived peace from this place. When I’m out there I often feel like I’m inhaling Michael’s spirit which is odd, restorative and unexpected. I had no idea how I would feel or how I would manage my life after such an egregious loss. Apparently he’ll never be lost to me and somehow our shared 45 years live on and empower me moving forward. Generally an even-dispositioned person, not someone who experiences emotional extremes often, I mostly feel okay. I no longer expect joy – I think Michael was the steady font for joy in my universe. But being okay is fine. However, life has a way of abruptly delivering abrupt curves. That’s what’s been happening to me for the past three days. My surprise has been an unexpected bit of joy.

October, 2021

I don’t know about everyone else but having passed age 70, I’ve been giving lots of thought to what my life has meant on many levels. As a woman, a life partner, a daughter, sister, mother and grandmother, a friend, a coworker and a professional, have I accomplished my goals? Am I a good person? Have I made a contribution to my society? Have I made a contribution to the world? I think about this stuff regularly. While my engine is still humming, I know that ultimately I’m on the short end of my life. Feeling that I will leave something of value to mark the time I’ve spent on this planet is definitely a thing for me. So imagine how I felt when somehow, in this fourth year after I started my pollinators’ garden to do my bit for the beleaguered earth, my spot got in the pathway of the valiant monarchs on their challenging journey to Mexico. In the company of more bees than I can fathom, hundreds and hundreds of monarchs have descended on my little dirt patch for the past three days.

A small peek into monarch madness

I think the word “awesomeis over-used and abused but truly, I think it’s the most appropriate one to describe what it’s like to stand in the midst of so many butterflies, whose delicate wings flapping in synchronicity make a whirring sound loud enough to hear. I never thought I’d experience anything like that in my own backyard. The only camera I have is in my telephone and I’m far from a professional videographer. As I twirled in circles, trying to document the rapid movements of so many fliers, I realized that my jerky movements were more likely to nauseate people rather than inspire them. So I settled for a few videos and way too many still photos to share. I also made sure to just stand still in the midst of this wonder, to soak it into myself and feel the experience instead of just recording it. There’s a world of difference between those two approaches. I think what is the biggest takeaway from these magic few days is that I was able to feel that spark of utter happiness that I thought was lost to me forever. I created the opportunity for magic and it unfolded right in front of me. All this way into my life, I made an impact on something of value to me. The natural world. A gift in and of itself. Enjoy a little look.

What’s next?

Risk – The Journey Home

Stone suitcases at the Salt Lake City train station.

Friday morning I boarded the packed shuttle bus for an 8 hour trip back from Yellowstone to Salt Lake City, where I was scheduled to catch my train east at the miserable departure time of 3:30 a.m. I don’t know whose idea that was, but in truth, I guess it was mine because that dreadful hour was the only one available. I arrived in downtown Salt Lake where I was deposited at a street corner, from where a Lyft driver picked me up and drove me to my hotel for a brief sojourn before boarding the California Zephyr which would get me to Chicago. I was actually looking forward to getting back on a mode of transportation where people enforced the mask mandates that were ignored on all the others, me in the tiny minority of people wearing one. Hanging around with strangers in close quarters, with no clue who might have what virus, was pretty stressful. I was glad to leave all that behind me.

Hotel patio dining area
Vegetables!

I made a beeline for the outdoor section of the hotel restaurant and settled in for a slow-food nutritious meal after eating on the fly for the previous few days. Fresh vegetables, fish and potatoes were a comforting alternative to trail mix and peanut butter. I retired to my room, wrote awhile and slept a few fitful hours, nervous that I wouldn’t wake up at the right time to catch a ride to the train station by 2:45 a.m., enough lead time in case the train was early. The station was in a marginally unsafe area but there were plenty of passengers around. By 3:50 I was boarded, ensconced in my little sleeper roomette and passing out from a combination of utter fatigue and relief at feeling relatively safe from Covid. Sleep came fast but was unfortunately interrupted at 6 a.m. when the call for breakfast in the dining car was announced. You don’t skip your meals on the train which are included in your ticket purchase price. So I got up to eat, resigning myself to being tired and having hours ahead to stare out the window at the topography zipping by, so different from my midwestern home views.

I was deep in thought on my ride east. The power of what I saw in Yellowstone elicited the same ideas and sensations I’ve experienced at every natural wonder I’ve been lucky enough to visit. I think the most dominant theme in my mind is the essential perspective shift from the self and its incumbent center-of-the-universe focus we all share, to the bigger picture, impossible to ignore when standing in the shadows of ancient mountains and old forests. We are so small, so transient relative to the soaring peaks and tumbling waterfalls in these marvelous conformations. The striations of color in the layered and jagged rocks are silent witnesses to thousands of years of variation and change. Before them I am a tiny speck and that is a good way to feel after being caught up in the drama of my daily life. The energy and power of majestic places which have stood through the comings and goings of an impossible conglomeration of living creatures is a reminder that human life is just a brief passage through a physical universe much bigger than our minds can absorb. These are places of wonder, antidotes for our bruised psyches caught up in the minutiae of life. Cosmic thoughts, I suppose, but a relief from the daily grind. I kept my face and my phone camera pointed out the window as the train passed through tunnels and followed the Colorado river north of the tracks. I crossed over and under the Continental Divide, the place where rivers change the direction in which they flow. People fished, rode the rapids in their rafts and paddled their water boards as I passed by. They live in the shadows of the mountains, along with their families, their cattle and horses, and even their alpacas. They waved at the train as we zipped along. Trees and wildflowers, seeded by birds and wind and maybe climbing animals, poked out from slivers in the rocks that stretched high into the sky. Dreamscapes and back country. Following are my photos from Utah through Colorado, Nebraska and Iowa into Illinois.

After the last mountain, the Mississippi River appeared and the terrain flattened. I am back on my familiar Midwestern turf.

Big sky of the midwest

The big risk trip draws to a close as I look out the window at the familiar Chicago skyline of my youth. I am exhausted with a few more hours of travel ahead before I will collapse into my own bed. I am healthy. I’m a bit more than I was when I started this journey. I don’t know what’s next but I’m already thinking about it.

Life on Broadway – Chapter 5 – 1983-1984

Looking back almost four decades is rather like peering through a spyglass, the small end pressed to your eye, the broad end exposing a suddenly wide field of memories, visual, visceral, intellectual and emotional. A time travel machine would be the most ideal mechanism for these journeys but as those remain a fantasy, I rely on my memory and my photos. I suppose it wasn’t a surprise that our toddler had early on developed a strong interest in music, as from birth we’d placed her little portable bed right beneath our stereo speakers, hoping to ensure that we’d be able to continue keeping up the volume which was part of daily life for the previous decade before she showed up. She started with one-hit wonders, particularly those that had catchy hooks like Mickey by Toni Basil, Come On Eileen by Dexys Midnight Runners, Whirly Girl by Oxo and My Sharona by The Knack. I think Michael made her first Greatest Hits cassette when she was just a little thing. More sophisticated tastes would evolve over time.

We’d heard all about the terrible two’s when the adorable little baby whose every move was precious suddenly turned into a contrarian, a toddling dictator who challenged authority from morning until night. Certainly our girl tested the boundaries of acceptable and unacceptable behavior, but for the most part, as older parents, we were rarely undone by her flexing her burgeoning skills and powers. She was attending a new day care center closer to home, a comfortable facility whose policies reflected our childrearing philosophy. Even at this early age, certain character traits which would remain consistent as she grew, began to manifest themselves in this setting. Her teachers told us that though she appeared to be happy, she often seemed separate from her classmates, frequently an observer rather than a participant. She was generous but also a bit remote. She was an irrepressible flirt who alternated between adoring her three favorite boys, Ira, Cody and Jason. She was an early talker who was verbally challenging, loaded with questions and very curious. Michael and I found her company endlessly entertaining. Her frequent ear infections caused high fevers which rarely made her grumpy, instead stimulating endless delirious chatter as she sat burning on our bed.

She liked reading and was physically active. Generally we felt she was an easy little kid. She could entertain herself and was quite specific about what she liked to do. Her favorite toys were little plastic Fisher Price people who had holes in their centers, perfect places for small fingers. She’d slide them onto every one but her thumbs which we’d then arrange for her. She’d walk through the house, clacking them all together until she decided to line them in neat rows on the window sills. When she built towers they were always taller than she was, straight up with few levels involved. Kind of like her orderly, straightforward practical approach to life.

We took her with us everywhere. We went to Chicago to visit my family and to Florida to visit Michael’s parents. An unfussy traveler in cars or on airplanes, we were comfortable hauling her around to petting zoos, pumpkin farms and swimming pools. She was under two years old when she took her first train trip with my sister and me. Her two year birthday took place in her room in her day care center. By three, we were hosting all her classmates at home. I still remember using two old doors as outdoor tables so the kids could sit on the grass while they ate. I also remember doubling the recipe for a giant chocolate sheet cake which I dropped on the kitchen floor where it immediately cracked in half. I picked it up and piled layers of frosting on the seam to hold it together, adding an M&M border around the edges and the middle to disguise the break. Miraculously no one got sick after eating their slices.

The dropped chocolate cake

Perhaps almost as interesting as E’s personal growth was ours, both as people and as parents. Those first few years with our baby had drawn Michael and me all in as dad and mom. We still made sure that we had regular date nights together so we could nurture us. The ability to do that was mostly thanks to the young employees from his music store, who were eager to be in a house instead of a student apartment in addition to making some extra cash. But we wanted to spend plenty of time with our kid since we were apart from her during the work week. We also wanted her to be surrounded by family and friends. My younger sister and her husband lived in our community which was a wonderful gift. Our friends embraced our daughter which provided the bonus of having interested adults who read to her, played with her and poured affection on her.

But as we built our family unit, our relationships with our families of origin shifted. For the most part, my parents were wonderful to all of us. They were generous with both their time and with helping us if we had hard times financially. The primary issue I had with them was their overarching fearful approach to life. They were nervous and superstitious, traits that had powerfully affected me as I grew up. I was constantly waging an internal battle against their admonitions, trying to overcome their warnings about the perceived dangers lurking around every corner. Always a person who thought carefully about my choices, in their eyes I seemed reckless, simply for doing what so many people would deem normal. I was determined to not infect my kid with these irrational ideas. So I often found myself pushing back on their opinions in a more assertive way than I’d done prior to being a parent. I still remember my mom saying, “what happened to you – you used to be so sweet?” I wanted my daughter to be free of all those mental and emotional fetters. As for Michael, he got along well with my parents, sharing genuine affection for them and they with him. The good news was that we were in agreement about most of life’s big questions.

Despite those residual reservations about “the fear factor,” when I finally decided I could stand to be away from our little girl overnight when she was just over three years old, we left her with my parents in Chicago while we took off for a long weekend in the quaint historic town of Galena, Illinois. When I anxiously checked in to see how she was doing she was too busy enjoying herself to speak with me. I felt lucky to have people I trusted watch our kid while we took a break.

The relationship between us and Michael’s parents was far more complicated. Frankly, I have no idea how he emerged from his household. He diverged from them in virtually every way, emotionally, intellectually and politically. He was a mystery to them, a person who defied their expectations of who their son should be. His analysis was that they were so busy trying to mold his older sister into their image of her that by the time they turned their attention toward him, he was already beyond their reach. When we met early on in Michael’s and my relationship, I knew immediately that we had virtually nothing in common but him. I also learned about the complexities of the parent/child dynamic. As much as they annoyed and disappointed Michael, he couldn’t fathom abandoning his efforts to be family with them. As the years passed before we had our own child, I was able to let their irritating behavior and social attitudes roll off my back. But when we had our daughter all that changed. From the beginning, what was clear was their desire to mold her in the same way they’d tried and failed to mold their own children. I loved Michael and was willing to try making things work but not at the expense of my principles and certainly not at the expense of my child. And so began a delicate balancing act of coping with these deeply irritating people. I distinctly remember the first shots over the psychological bow when my mother-in-law insisted that our girl needed a Cabbage Patch doll because they were the rage and all little girls had one. We requested that they not buy it but they showed up with one anyway. A small thing, to be sure, but one which foreshadowed future conflicts and an ultimate breach in the family. But that’s a later story.

The heinous Cabbage Patch doll

In the meantime, aside from those issues we were leading a happy life. Michael and I put our kid to bed and spent evenings at home with friends, playing cards with friends at our dining room table.

We enjoyed our summers, spending time in our yard and at local parks.

We took E and her buddy Ira to the county fair in the summer where they rode kiddie cars and ate cotton candy.

I became a Halloween costume maker, a butterfly one for age two and a ballerina one for age three. Those were fun things to do which went a long way in comforting me during those times when I felt sad at being away at work so often. Time moved so quickly.

Michael was an attentive, engaged dad, not always 50/50, but a good 40/60. The whole growing a family thing was settling in well with all of us.

The year 1984 ended with the annual holiday party at E’s day care center. She and her oldest friend whom she’d met when she was eight months and he was ten months old, played the parts of Mrs. and Mr. Claus in the staged performance by all the kids. Next up – 1985 and age four.

Risk – Worth It

The next morning I rose early, ate a protein-packed breakfast and was the first person on the shuttle headed toward the southern loop in Yellowstone. I knew the park was too big to see everything but this route was going to take me to the well-known geothermal features like Old Faithful, the geyser which erupts about 20 times per day since people began keeping records back in 1872. To date, more than one million eruptions have been noted.

Old Faithful eruption

I think the only other geographical location in which I’ve ever felt I was on another planet in this country is The Badlands which have a feel like another planet. The sulphur smells, the boiling ground, the steam, the rivulets of colored water, the popping mud in craters in Yellowstone is truly astonishing. I found myself pondering what time means over and over. The scale of the geology, its duration, its changes and its incredible beauty is hard to assimilate in just a day. Each feature is more amazing than the last. I felt smaller than an atom in this remarkable landscape. I think that everyone can do with a perspective that reduces our issues to virtually nothing every once in a while. I’m lucky enough to have seen the Grand Canyon. But the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is magnificent in its own right. Some years ago, as I dove into a study of artists, I came across a painter named Thomas Moran who became enamored of the park when he visited in the 1870’s. His 7’ by 12’ painting entitled Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is a marvelous depiction of the site’s grandeur.

Thomas Moran’s Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
My photo of The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
Selfie in front of the marvel

Despite my extensive vocabulary and a tendency toward excess verbiage, the fact is, that in this moment of searching for the right words to define what I saw, I fail. When I attempt to select an appropriate description, I feel inadequate and phony. I think that nature speaks better than anything I can string together. So I’m going to share my photos and videos in the hope that they convey at least part of the awe I experienced on my somewhat nerve-wracking, definitely exhausting, breakneck excursion through this natural wonder. We humans have to find the way to protect this planet which has already been so damaged by our thoughtless ways. I wish everyone could make this journey and step away more conscious that we need to nurture our home.

Lake Yellowstone
Lake Yellowstone Hotel – the oldest hotel in Yellowstone on the shore of Lake Yellowstone – on the Register of Historic Places.
Kepler Cascades
California Tortoiseshell Butterfly
Old Faithful
Celestine Pool

Farewell glorious Yellowstone. I’m glad I saw you before I leave this earth. I hope you readers enjoyed a small slice of this fascinating place. May you get there some day. Now what’s left to me is the long haul toward home.

Risk – Ante Up For the Ultimate Reward

My train rolled into Salt Lake City close to midnight on Sunday. I was pretty exhausted after a restless night’s sleep in my jouncing roomette. Fortunately, a taxi was readily available. I got to my hotel quickly and fell into bed fast, knowing I had an early wake-up and a long bus ride ahead. My ultimate destination? Yellowstone National Park. My route west was circuitous and tiring but at this point in time, I felt like I’d made the right choice, traveling in uncertain times. I needed to wake up early in the morning, grab some breakfast and call some driving service to get me to my truly odd pickup spot – the street corner in front of the Church of Latter Day Saints in downtown Salt Lake. I snapped a photo of the flowers outside my hotel before heading out early Monday.

The morning air was chilly, somewhat brisk, but the cold water feeling that washed over me happened when the shuttle bus driver climbed out of his vehicle, maskless. After loading suitcases, he urged us aboard and announced that despite federal mask mandates, he was only going to inform us of them as they were unenforceable. Wearing them was optional and he chose not to wear his. So there I was, one of a few people masked, goggled and settled in for a full day with a lot of people in close quarters who paid no heed to the concept of pandemic, Delta variant or anything Covid-related. I’d been worried about traveling but supposed that some attempt at following rules on public transportation would be followed. I was wrong. I had to rely on my waning vaccinations, my positive antibody test and good luck to get me through this longed-for trip to a dream destination.

On that seemingly endless road trip which made multiple stops, I spent a lot of time counting every cough and sneeze I heard as we rolled through Utah, Idaho and Montana. Despite my best efforts, I couldn’t stop thinking about the current status of each state regarding vaccinations, masks and hospitals loaded with unvaccinated Covid patients. Try as I may, I’ll never understand the people whose personal choices have caused so much death. And I know they’ll never understand me. I made some verbal protests to the driver but I’m willing to admit I was nervous that someone might become physically violent toward me. Lots of miserable stories like that have been going around since mandates were instituted. To distract myself from my anxiety, I photographed the scenery through the bus window while rolling through Utah, Idaho and Montana, eventually observing the snowy peaks of the Grand Tetons coming into view.

After an 8 and a half hour drive, which included a swap from a full sized city bus to a smaller van, I arrived at West Yellowstone, Montana, a small town at the west gateway into Yellowstone just across the state line from Wyoming. I was drained and eager to check into my hotel, eat a quick dinner and collapse into my bed to rest before a 9 hour day focused on the north loop of the park. I dumped my suitcase and my backpack into my comfortable room and headed to the restaurant attached to the hotel. As it was packed with unmasked diners, I wasn’t thrilled to eat there but desperate fatigue propelled me to the bar for a fast meal. I ate quickly, with an excellent old school music playlist in the background which provided a small level of comfort, as I tried to stop imagining those little spiky Covid molecules floating through the air. After dinner I headed to bed to prepare myself for the long days ahead. I intended to hit the highlights of this miraculous park which had been on my wish list for so long. The next morning, I hopped on a shuttle for the journey through the north side of Yellowstone which included Mammoth Springs – magnificent travertine terraces, Roaring Mountain, the Lamar Valley, Canary Hot Springs, Obsidian Mountain and old Fort Yellowstone. I saw countless fumaroles, or steam vents, reminders of how living on earth is basically like riding a fireball, along with notable and impressive waterfalls and rivers. Getting accustomed to bison, elk, coyotes, pronghorns and black bears wandering freely never happened as each animal or herd sighted was always a thrill. I loved all the lodge pole pines, soaring straight up to the sky, periodically punctuated by aspens going golden in the last September chill. I hope you enjoy the photos of my first day in this priceless treasure.

Risk – Day 2 – Through the Train Window – Colorado Rockies

This trip is my third train ride since Michael died. Somehow I’ve turned our dream of taking a long rail trip together into my favorite way to travel. I still love road trips but I can’t quite fathom driving thousands of miles on my own. Too many potentially unpleasant possibilities to consider. What’s most surprising about these trips is that I thought I’d get a lot of reading and writing accomplished as I rattled along. Instead, my head is turned to the window, looking outside until it’s too dark to see anything. You simply don’t get exposed to the same slices of life from the car as you do from the train. Just over 40 years ago, Michael and I did a long road trip to Colorado which combined camping, national parks and rustic towns. I remember virtually everything about that shared experience. In the fall of 2016, we flew to Denver, rented a car and drove through the state to get to Utah, with the goal of seeing all five of its remarkable national parks. We saw some incredible scenery. That was the last of our lengthy excursions together. I treasure them. These adventures on my own are different. I delve into myself in a way that’s quite different from the sharing type of vacation. I’m thinking all the time. On the train you slice through huge swaths of the hidden parts of this vast country. Wealth and squalor. Sprawling empty spaces where you see nothing but cattle and horses. No hotels or chain restaurants. I wonder why so many people are squished together in the urban areas when there’s all this beautiful land out here. I’m not naive. I understand the principles of capitalism, private property and ownership. Understanding doesn’t mean you have to like it. The vast chasms in wealth are reflected in what I’m rolling past. If I was in charge of everything, I’d fix this. But unfortunately I don’t have any power.

Sliding by the remarkable mountains is a whole other issue. There are points on this route when you could literally touch the dazzling geological formations if you could get your hand out the window. I stopped counting the number of tunnels carved out of the towering peaks on either side of the train tracks. Some places are strung with metal supports to allay what are certainly potential rock slides that could happen at any moment. I am continually amazed at the colorful striations ribboning their way through the jagged walls. I think about glaciers and earthquakes and storms that formed what surrounds me. I think about all the people who died as they worked to build these convenient rails that are somewhat bedraggled, in need of the money which could or could not be freed up by the infrastructure bill oozing through Congress. And of course I think about all the indigenous people and the indigenous animals slaughtered along the way to what is now. As I mentioned, while I’m appreciating what I see, my mind is consumed by what’s already happened in this part of the country. I try not to go too far forward in my imagining because frankly, I fear the future. Always mindful of dry ground, low waterways, skinny animals. I have to remind myself that I’m supposed to be on vacation. I’m not terrific at turning off those information and processing spigots in my head.

The Moffat Tunnel goes under the Continental Divide. The train is in darkness for 6.2 miles or 9 minutes 41 seconds. At its highest elevation the tunnel is 9239 feet above sea level. More than 25 workers were killed during its construction.

Bear in mind that this lengthy part of my trip had the lowest risk. Masks were required and dining was socially distanced. My little room was a safe zone. Now I will share some of the photos I took through the train window as we traversed the state of Colorado.

Opportunistic plants and trees extrude from crags and slivers of dirt. Of course there are my adored rocks which I wanted to pile into my suitcase.

Not sure which dam this is…
Rich people live here.
Methane machines. Or cows.
These guys made me laugh. Where’s our hay?
The waving man made of wood.

So there you have it. A sampling of my photos of the Colorado Rockies, up close and personal from the train. The next piece of my trip is the part in which my risk gets elevated as I step off the train, into the states that are among the ten worst in the country for vaccines and mask wearing. A stunning difference between my regular world and elsewhere. My ultimate destination takes me through four of them. Stay tuned…

The fall equinox and harvest moon through the train window.

Risk – Day One – Through A Train Window

Back in March, I had what turned out to be a false sense of optimism about this country getting ready to turn the corner on the pandemic. I was fully vaccinated. Cases were dropping. I felt that with caution, I could get back to at least part of the life I was leading before COVID arrived. Alas. While a certain percentage of the population decided to make a stand for their own personal ideas about freedom, government and their woefully inadequate ideas about both our Constitution and science, the coronavirus did what viruses have always done: mutated and spread. And so, we’ve had the Delta variant and Mu and who knows how many others, which have made herd immunity a far away and perhaps never achievable goal. What a tragic summer. So much death. So much confusion. So much rancor. I don’t think I’ll ever understand such selfishness, lack of empathy and compassion and mostly, lack of responsibility to community, to public health. But here we are. With me, having paid for a late September trip when things would be better, or so I’d thought. I’m not convinced that I’ve ever vacillated so much about something in my life. I usually reflect and then get decisive quickly. Quick is my normal pace. But not this time. I’m not reckless. I try to be thoughtful and considerate. I have vulnerable grandchildren. Should I go somewhere and risk not merely my own health, but possibly theirs? And others? Risk versus reward. That’s what life is often about, whether we’re aware of the choices or not. After thinking things through, having my antibodies checked and talking with my family, I decided to go on my trip. My life has been remarkably stagnant, along with so many people’s lives. But I’m seventy. I live alone. I’ve spent a third of the time since Michael’s death dealing with COVID. Staying home, doing not much, has been getting harder for me. I had goals for my “golden years” which I’ve set aside. I needed to move. So I decided to take a risk and proceed with a challenging adventure, knowing that anything can happen and coping with the ambivalence of everything. Last Sunday, donning double masks, goggles and with fingers crossed, I boarded a train in Chicago and headed for parts west, to knock a few more states off my list and to visit one of my dream destinations. Here are some views from my train window on day one.

Union Station, Chicago

Masks are required on the train because of federal mandates. Mostly there was compliance. Some people were kicked off because of belligerent defiance and of course there are those who simply can’t manage to cover their noses and mouths at the same time. But mostly, I felt pretty safe. I was in a berth which meant I could be maskless in my own space. I settled back to enjoy the views through Illinois and Iowa. I always love clouds, countryside and crossing the mighty Mississippi.

Burlington, Iowa

The sun finally set. I cozied up in my roomette and read, watched a little Netflix on my phone and listened to music. I saw tiny bits of Nebraska zipping by in the darkness before trying to settle myself on the stiff hard pallet made from the two folded down seats which make a bed on a train. As we rattled and creaked along the tracks, I tossed around, trying to find a comfortable position, glad I’d remembered to bring one of those round neck pillows people often take on planes. I admit that passing out easily doesn’t work for me these days. Chalk it up to the little aches and pains that come with aging and to missing the comfort of my own bed and all the maneuvering I’ve grown accustomed to since being on my own. Sometimes I think back with longing to those times I’d just say goodnight, roll over and sleep until morning. I think that was way before kids entered my life. In any case, I knew I would wake to Colorado at sunrise. The train would bring me closer to the majesty I’d experienced before in that beautiful state, but much closer to parts off the paths taken by hikers.

Sunrise
City birds
Front of my train, heading out of Denver

Next up, day two – into the Rocky Mountains.