The Living Places – Part 9 – To Mattis Avenue and Park Street – 1975 – 1977- Becoming Grown-Ups – Part 2

At the end of 1976, we packed up and headed for Florida. We left our dogs at home in the care of a friend to whom I loaned my beloved Chevy Malibu, the one whose trunk was tied down by a rope. I was never as much into cars as Michael – having my own clunker was good enough for me. We were nervous about going because his sister and a friend of hers, brought along as a kind of bodyguard, were going too, in an effort to bring the family together.

Michael’s sister

Having learned that time with Michael’s parents generally required that I would be moderating battles, I was somewhat apprehensive. The beauty of the white beaches on Florida’s Gulf Coast was irresistible though, so the psychological demands seemed worth it in the cost-benefit analysis. We spent Christmas and New Year’s with the family, getting away for a side trip on our own to Disney World.

Back on Longboat Key there was a boat in the mix which provided for picnic opportunities on small islands, water-skiing for Michael, dolphins schooling along in the water, and arriving at restaurants by tying off at a dock. Heady stuff for a young woman like me, definitely cast in the “wrong side of the tracks” social milieu. I was embarrassed by the wealth – Michael looked and acted like he’d come from the same place as me, much to his mother’s dismay.

The trip was a blend of great times and hassles. I wasn’t yet used to the idea that being present in your moment was an important life lesson. Still, in a sense, that concept was subtly beginning to creep into my consciousness. First I recognized that despite the fact that both Michael and I had lots of issues to resolve in our relationship, outside adversity clearly brought us closer together to face those tough times down. The months of friendship we shared before we became lovers surged up when difficulties arose. Having a solid safe zone which perhaps at certain points sometimes felt unsteady, was now more frequently becoming stable. That went a long way in helping me cope with fear of abandonment that was my key struggle. I was learning to lean into that space. In addition, back then, when you were away from home you really had more distance from the harsh realities that might be lurking after your vacation was over. No cell phones or internet to intrude on your away time. I learned what a great thing that was after this trip.

My Chevy Malibu

We returned home in January to a miserable disaster. Our house had an old-fashioned oil furnace. The friend who was watching our house hadn’t realized that the oil had run out of the furnace in the midst of brutally cold weather. The inside temperature was frigid. There was a crack in the bathtub and more frozen pipes. Our dogs had to be boarded in a kennel during which time, my Ribeye had contracted some dreadful respiratory infection. She was hospitalized for two weeks while I lived in terror that she’d die. I think one of my saddest moments was staring at an incredible philodendron that we’d had for years, which had vined up the living room walls and curled over the big picture window that overlooked the front yard. It was brown, brittle and crumbling. Welcome home.

We had a lot to manage. Fortunately our landlord agreed to make repairs without making us pay for everything that was broken and who said we could move back in when things were back to normal. I realized that the patriarch of my employers was wintering in Naples, Florida until late spring. Throwing myself on his mercy, he agreed to let us stay in his fancy home. He was a plant lover who had an indoor under-the-carpeting sprinkler system so we could maintain his interior garden and keep an eye on the house. We were grateful, albeit nervous and uncomfortable. Our lifestyle wasn’t exactly comparable to these people’s who lived more like Michael’s parents. But we went ahead and moved in to the house on Greencroft.

Winter was brutal that year. We snuggled in with our dogs after work and kept faucets dripping to preempt frozen pipes. I was trying to quit smoking, a bad habit I picked up from my first boyfriend. Trudging out in the snow to buy cigarettes felt awful and ridiculous. Michael was still getting his new business venture together while I continued managing the apartments. Eventually, we got back into our house with the promise that I’d continue to look after what we called “the manse.”Unfortunately, soon after we left, disaster struck. On a particularly cold snowy night, the under carpet sprinkler system burst. Arriving at the manse for the promised check, I found myself walking through the house, sinking into a spongy, sodden, smelly rug. I rented huge fans for all the rooms in an attempt to dry everything, rented a shop vac and found someone to repair the leak. That was incredibly stressful. I was in contact with the boss, explaining everything that I was doing. He approved, and eventually I felt like things were under control and moved on. He and his wife, whose name was Birdie, so ridiculous that I always remember it, returned from Florida in early May. Within hours of arriving, he contacted me in a rage. He hadn’t realized we had dogs. When he went to use his vacuum cleaner, it wasn’t working well so he decided to change the bag. There weren’t any bagless vacuums in those days. When he saw the dog hair, he went ballistic. Both he and his two eldest sons were heavy drinkers. They showed up at the office to berate me. I was humiliated, scared and angry. I was guilty about the dogs but I thought after how long I’d worked for them, they might’ve gleaned from our conversations that we had pets. They departed together, leaving a heavy ominous atmosphere in their wake. All my radar was jangling-I knew this wasn’t going to end well. Miraculously, a close friend of mine had recently been elected assessor of the more liberal town where we’d always lived. She was taking office in January, 1978 and as she had no experience with commercial property, she offered me a job as her deputy, specializing in those kinds of assessments. I eagerly accepted. That weekend, I went into work and cleaned up every loose end that needed to be completed. I just knew I was going to be fired. When I was done, I wrote myself my last paycheck and left a note with my resignation on my desk. When the bank drive-through opened early Monday morning, I was first in line to cash my check. I found out later from the other office workers, that the whole family had come in to fire me. They were too late. During my time with them they made me fire their head maintenance man who was old enough to be my dad. They also failed to complete apartments by the fall for which they’d already collected rent, leaving me to face furious parents and bewildered students who had no place to live at the beginning of their school year. I was glad to be rid of them. So on May 31st, 1977, I was unemployed which would last until January 1st, 1978, when my friend took her office. That would be my last real block of free time until I retired and the longest time I’d had no employment in the previous 10 years.

The first few months of my unemployment felt very strange. Laziness and lolling around felt fun for a short time but that didn’t last long. I tried getting more serious about my writing, swapping journaling for a number of attempts at both short and long fiction and even poetry. I headed to the Student Union on campus where I’d often studied and written in the past but I felt old and out of place, finding the lack of familiar faces odd and somehow unsettling. Meanwhile, Michael was getting ready for opening day at his new store in DeKalb. When the day finally arrived he drove north to meet his partner for a soft opening to gear up before the grand one. When he arrived and put his key in the lock, he couldn’t get the door open. Utterly bewildered, he tried tracking down his partner who seemed to have totally vanished. After a few days, he realized that with no capital investment in the store other than his labor and organizational skills, he’d been totally duped by this sleazy guy who’d locked him out of the business. He was crushed. What a brutal lesson in the unreliability of people, coupled with a sense of utter failure in his own judgment. That was a dreadful time. For a few weeks he laid on the couch, silent and staring into space. After a time, I convinced him to swallow his pride and return to the Record Service where at least there were people who were friends and most certainly not crooks.

After navigating our dual work traumas, that August our landlord came over to tell us that he wanted to sell our house and that unless we wanted to buy it, we needed to move. We’d hoped that our next move would be into a house that we’d own but we weren’t quite ready for that. We had to hustle to find a place at that time of year and wound up moving into a one and a half story house on Park Street, still in the wrong town for us. We weren’t thrilled but sometimes you just do what you have to do.

We were still learning to deal with each other’s differences while under a significant amount of external stressors. Madly in love but so opposite in styles, the Park house saw its share of tempestuous conflicts. I continued to be relentlessly confrontational, wanting to resolve every issue on the spot. Michael continued to attempt eluding me, often getting so angry that he’d storm around the house, packing a bag, saying he was leaving, with me in hot pursuit, trying to force him to stay put and work things out. I hated how I felt, chasing him around, my abandonment fears jangling while also furious at myself for being so pathetic. One day I packed a duffel for him, put it near the front door and told him that next time, he should just pick it up and leave because I was done with that miserable repetitive drama. If I’d known that would end the threatened departures, I’d have done it months earlier. Michael admitted that my attempts to solve our problems all sounded like the same criticism his parents had spent dumping on him for years. He felt insecure and inadequate, afraid I was going to leave him so he thought he’d leave first. An exhausting but ultimately positive exercise for us both. Growing up and staying together was hard.

I remember a lot about living in that house. Lying in bed upstairs reading The Shining in absolute terror, holding on to my dog and jumping in terror when Michael’s feet made the stairs creak. Michael getting between his dog and another and having his thumb bitten so badly that it and his nail were warped for the rest of his life. He built beautiful oak cases for our vinyl records and the stereo as well as a our first real platform bed which he broke in half during one of his titanic and visceral fits of temper. I still can’t believe he had the strength to lift and crack the frame. He fixed it and I am still sleeping on it, 44 years later. His father and grandfather had similar explosive moments. Yet in all our years together, I was never afraid that he would strike me or our children. That would have been a dealbreaker for me. But it was never in his realm. Pity the inanimate objects that were trashed. The mix of that volatility with such a soft gentle soul remains one of life’s great mysteries.

The worst trauma that happened while living on Park was that my younger sister was diagnosed with an ovarian growth. At the time, my parents were on an extended visit with my sister’s family in California. My mother wanted her to see a specialist in Chicago. My job was to get her up there to meet with the doctor to get a second opinion. I felt the weight of responsibility which was inappropriate for a sibling. But off we went. I had to borrow her boyfriend’s car for the trip as my car wasn’t roadworthy. He drove a small Volkswagon Karmann Ghia.

Michael had taught me to drive a stick shift on his Chevy Blazer. But the difference in size between the gear boxes was huge and it took me ages just to pull away from the curb. The highway drive was okay but my inexperience on a rush hour expressway in Chicago and in the Loop, during which I kept killing the engine while shifting, and caused traffic jams while irate people honked at me was traumatic. And that was before meeting with the doctor. My sister needed surgery. My parents finally came home and I wasn’t alone for that intense experience.

A few months later in winter, Michael and I had an argument. I don’t remember the subject but all the pent-up emotions of a challenging year caught up with me and for a change it was me who walked out the front door into a snowy night in a bathrobe, barefoot. Michael came after me, stunned, and brought me back inside where I proceeded to cry and essentially disintegrate while curled up on the bathroom floor in a ball. He was standing over me and I could literally hear him trying to decide if I needed professional help. I looked up at him and said, “don’t call anyone-this will be over soon,” and then went back to allowing all my pain from a crummy year to come out of me. Sometimes a huge catharsis is the only way to go.

And so 1977 came to a close. An incredible year. We’d start 1978 on Park Street with me beginning my new job on the first of the year. Michael was settled back into the Record Service. If anyone had told me that job was going to be my last until retirement, I wouldn’t have believed it. I was 26 years old. Ahead was the settling of our lives.

One Day

I took advantage of a beautiful spring day to stroll through my garden. I am keenly aware of the fact that my yard, which over the course of 43 years has become my sanctuary, is going to be too big for me to manage, if it isn’t already, as I age. I’ve hired someone to mow for me but the joy I get from tending to the garden isn’t something I’m ready to give up, even when I’m exhausted. At least not yet. I’ve taken on the jobs that were Michael’s, the herbs and vegetables and the incessant weed management. I’ve been working on ways to reduce maintenance by filling space with perennials that can manage themselves naturally, for the most part. I feel lucky that so many plants are cooperating. When each one returns, I make sure to send it some love and encouragement, hopeful that somehow the intangible stuff gets into this rich earth to bring it back again next year. I live in a big old family-sized house and the yard is family-sized too. Since my daughter and her family moved across the street from me, I’m not likely to move unless I can’t continue to figure out ways to manage this place which makes little sense for a single aging person. One day, I may have to stare down that issue and move on. But not today. Here’s the state of my adored dirt in May.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the beauty of the sky overhead.

The Living Places – Part 9 – To Mattis Avenue and Park Street – 1975 – 1977- Becoming Grown-Ups – Part 1

Unlike our previous pattern of moving every twelve months, we stayed in our house on Oregon until the end of 1975. Despite having lived together for over three years, we were straddled somewhere between being kids and adults. After our fall trip to the Ozarks, we still separated for Thanksgiving by going home to our parents’ family events. These were much more pleasurable for me than Michael, whose parents were frequently a cause of his deep dives into the internal rabbit holes he’d created to survive their neglect when he was a kid. The dissonance between my constant probing interest in his every thought and their surfacey interactions was jarring for him. Consequently, we didn’t stay apart for more than a day or two. Even though he wished I wasn’t always poking around in his psyche, being with me was preferable to the sad state of his relationship with them.

Back in those days, we frequently visited Chicago, which was close enough to where we lived, that spontaneous jaunts to our favorite pizza place, the original Uno’s, were a nice change from daily life. We’d get buzzed and drive to O’Hare to watch planes take off, dreaming of trips we’d take some day. We were also big fans of the city’s zoos and museums. I always felt weird being in the city and not seeing my family. That was the beginning of moving into true adulthood. I’d feel torn. I remember positing situations like what I’d do if my mom and Michael were both drowning. Who would I save? Michael told me to save my mother – he said he’d save himself. Shifting loyalties were interesting for me as loyalty is pretty central to my core values.

Twin cities. This little boxy house on Mattis was in the “other” town which is divided from where we’d always lived by a single street. Previously we lived in the “liberated territory” city, close to the university, and which despite being separated by only a few yards of pavement, was more politically liberal than its twin where we’d recently settled. When we lived in this place, it had a carport and looked exactly like every other house on the block. Maybe it was our transitional living space as we moved through our early raucous years to those which ultimately grew less turbulent. I was pretty done with 1975 when we moved. Michael and I had navigated some rough times as we got more familiar with ourselves individually and as a couple. We were still both insecure. Michael had realized that I was the first real love of his life although he’d had significantly more experience with women than I’d had with men. I, on the other hand, had limited numbers of men in my life but had previously fallen in love with a person whose toxic effects on me were going to take awhile to recover from, a fact which made Michael nervous. As we stumbled forward, our inner struggles were punctuated by glorious times and real life struggles.

In 1972, our first year together, Fleetwood Mac released their album “Bare Trees,” which we’d spent long romantic hours listening to in that amazing discovery time of new love. Also high on our music passion list was CTA which became the group Chicago. We’d been lucky enough to see both those bands perform locally in the previous year or so, plus a Little Feat concert as well. We got tickets through the Record Service but prices were also cheaper back then. Lots of local music venues supported a thriving band scene. Music was a big part of our life together.

Dad and Mom

The new year, 1976, started off with me in a new job, initially working as an assistant manager at a family firm that owned multiple housing units around campus. In a short time, I was promoted, managing about 350 apartments. The business was owned by a patriarch and his three sons. They weren’t my type of people in most ways, but the money was decent and I’d decided that working with troubled young people wasn’t going to be a healthy option for me and my relationship. So I settled in and decided to try to be a positive influence on the greedy landlords who employed me. Meanwhile, Michael began exploring opening up his own record store with a somewhat sleazy sales representative from an album distributing company. They decided to locate their business in DeKalb, Illinois, home to Northern University. He continued working at Record Service, while putting in long hours doing everything from building racks to developing a catalogue for the new store. He was aiming to have things up and running by the beginning of the next year. I was leery about this move as the guy who’d recruited him inspired as much confidence as your basic used car salesman. Oh well. On we went. We were both working hard. But in January, 1976, at the age of 53, my dad had a heart attack. His father had died of heart disease at 39. That was a stunning wake-up call for me. My mom, who continued to be in and out of hospitals as she’d always been, was pretty much a disaster at this point. I spent a lot of time running up and back to Chicago, trying to help out and thinking that at age 24, my childhood was basically done.

I was in what had become my customary mode of deeply analyzing every thought, every feeling, even the most fleeting glimmer of what I was supposed to be doing in the very near future and beyond. I wanted to be a writer but I lacked discipline and focus. My journals are filled with complaints about aimlessness and dissatisfaction with what felt like repetitive habits and unfulfilling relationships. Suddenly I was aware that life had an endpoint and I didn’t like the direction mine felt it was going. During the times that Michael was gone trying to get his business going, I felt like my only comfortable safe place was empty. I slept on the couch, and only sporadically. I realized that despite a lot of wrinkles to iron out between us, I had found my life partner. The good totally outweighed the bad. Spring showed up. I decided I wanted to get married. To step off the old path and onto a new one. I took all, or so I thought, almost all my old love letters and burned them in our Weber barbecue grill. I didn’t want Michael to harbor any worry that I might go back to my old love. When he returned home, I pitched the wedding idea to him, the guy who thought all institutions were inherently bad and was afraid I might break his heart. Unabashedly manipulative, I pointed out to him that my father could die at any time and that his knowing I was in a solid place might be good for his health. I also mentioned that if we kept the wedding small, we might get enough money to buy Michael a coveted Chevy Blazer to replace his beaten up old pick-up truck. Keeping track of how many vehicles we had in our first years together would be a story of its own. He already owned a 1967 GTO convertible, a robust hotrod. No wonder we were always broke.

Ever the convincing type, I got Michael to agree. We chose May 1st as our wedding date, liking the symbolic choice of International Workers Day as a showing of our political solidarity with working people versus corporations.

Wedding shower

I think our unusually practical approach to our wedding was probably more annoying than a health boon for my dad. He wanted us to be married by a rabbi in the classic Jewish tradition. But Michael and I were at best cultural Jews and didn’t subscribe to the traditions which would be part of our ceremony. I had major problems with the sexism in the traditional ceremony and we both saw no reason to have the state of Israel mentioned at all. After interviewing a few dozen rabbis, we gave up. Someone found a Jewish judge who would have to suffice. Poor dad. On April 10th, my snobby, irritating mother-in-law-to-be threw me a wedding shower in a fancy suburban restaurant where I felt utterly out of place. An imposter. I remember hunting for dresses to wear to the event which simply weren’t part of my wardrobe. About three weeks later, we were off to a rehearsal dinner at Michael’s parents country club.

Rehearsal dinner
My brother trying to cheer Michael

That was a miserable night. Michael’s older sister who was single and seething with jealousy, was cutting and rude to Michael whenever he opened his mouth. The food was terrible. I was upset because I’d overheard his parents discussing the fact that I’d gained a few pounds since they’d last seen me. We were supposed to stay apart that night but changed our minds and opted to get a hotel room to remember that we were still us and to block out his family.

On Saturday, May 1st, we managed to make it through the wedding. We’d just passed four years of living together. The solidity of our friendship helped us through the surreal moments of that day as we dealt with rude relatives, the strangeness of formalizing our life together, and other emotionally miserable moments. For more details see the blog I wrote years ago about the wedding.

https://reneerocks.blog/2019/05/01/the-wedding/

We went back home and were thrown a fabulous and much more homey celebration by our friends which went down in our local lore as one of the great parties of all time. I can’t remember everything we imbibed that night but we had a magical time that resonated as a more substantive step-off point to what seriously felt like a deeper, more serious shift in our relationship. I was glad. And we got enough money in wedding gifts to buy Michael’s Blazer.

We had a good summer. We met for lunch at our local park district pool and swam in a lovely facility, ensconced in nature. Our wedding had added an air of legitimacy to our life together and for the first time in over 4 years, my family came to visit us. Michael’s parents had moved from their house to a condominium as they were preparing to relocate permanently to Florida. They gave us their old redwood lawn furniture. I remember feeling so mature as I carried a tray of drinks outside to my family. Just as I got close to them, a bird flying overhead defecated on my breast. An appropriate reminder that life doesn’t get all good because of one change.

The backyard of that house had a cherry tree. We had lots of visitors who loved picking the cherries but the truth is, I was the one who did most of the picking and pitting to make cherry pies. In those days, Michael was playing lots of softball on weekends and in the evenings. I used to go to watch him play all the time, but I found that I wasn’t much interested in the girlfriends or few wives of the other players. I preferred staying home to read and do my own stuff rather than just being a spectator. That year when his team had their end of the season party, he got two awards. He was nicknamed “Stick” because he always managed to get a hit and be on base. He also got the “Man About Town Reward” as he passed on the beer parties to come home and be with me. How lovely. To get through the hot summer days, we put a big kiddie pool between the carport and garage. We were enjoying each other. For the most part, all was going well.

One night, Michael was off playing in what seemed to be an interminable double header. I was home puttering around the kitchen. I was glad he enjoyed playing but it seemed that when he was gone a crisis which could’ve used both of us always came up.

I’d let the dogs out in the backyard for awhile. When I called them back in, it was dark and I heard a curious sloshing sound. When they entered the kitchen, Harpo, Michael’s Irish setter, had an enormous bloated abdomen – the sloshing sound was coming from his belly. In those days of no cellphones, I had no way to reach Michael. I called the emergency vet who told me to bring him in as quickly as possible. Terrified, I got him in the car and careened across town at 70 miles an hour. When I arrived, the doctor immediately pronounced a diagnosis of gastric torsion, a common occurrence in deep-chested animals whose stomachs get twisted causing bloat and potential death. He had me sign a waiver and said he would attempt to invert the belly and staple it into a position where it would be impossible to fill up again. I felt so scared and terrible that this had happened on my watch. In the end, he survived. My little border collie was an easier pet.

Fall came. My dog Ribeye got pregnant and had nine puppies. Suddenly we had to deal with their care and find homes for them. No automatic neutering back in those days. We were glad to stay put in our little crackerbox house instead of moving again. We were leading a pretty traditional life, hoping to get ourselves together enough to put a downpayment on a house as our next move. We planned a trip to Florida for two weeks in December to visit Michael’s parents who’d moved to the Gulf Coast. Emotionally this was never ideal but they flew us down there, provided lodging and we appreciated the break. Michael kept trying to have his family despite all the hard times that had gone down in the past. We’d ring in 1977 there, before coming back to winter. To be continued…

Drugs – Vaccines and Otherwise

Protesters call for an end to COVID-19-based restrictions in Sacramento, California.Credit: Stanton Sharpe/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty

I’ll start off by saying that absolutely no one has asked me to write anything about the current state of Covid protocols, vaccines or anything else pertinent to this continuing pandemic. But that’s never stopped me before. I can’t speak to conditions all over the world which vary greatly from country to country. I’m talking about what’s going on in my country, the United States. What I need to say is based on the sad fact that millions of people who have access to vaccines are refusing them. The best way to stop the virus is through herd immunity which can only be achieved by having at least 70% of the population get vaccinated. The government has the vaccines. But it doesn’t matter. The fact that the virus is cruising through this country, mutating at will, which is what viruses do, also doesn’t matter. The fact that new variants are causing the bulk of new infections, also doesn’t matter. The fact that the majority of new infections are now emerging in people between the ages of 30-50, also doesn’t matter. Perish the thought of getting vaccinated as part of a personal responsibility to one’s fellow citizens because that, also doesn’t matter. Some think it’s a question of personal choice. Their government doesn’t have the right to tell them what to put in their bodies. They are free. Or they think the virus is a hoax. Or they think that ultimately it will just become a “regular” flu. Or that they are so fit and healthy that even if they get it, it won’t be any big deal. Or that they don’t trust the vaccines because they haven’t been studied long enough. I have to say that I had misgivings about the vaccines for two reasons. First, when they were being developed under Trump’s auspices I was terrified. I don’t trust a single thing that happened with him at the helm. Secondly, I have an anaphylactic allergy. Some people who received the vaccines early on had a few anaphylactic responses. Choking to death or at least beginning to is terrifying. In the end, I brought my epipen to my vaccination appointments, informed the EMT’s who were observing about my issue, and was lucky. I’m now fully vaccinated and mindfully going about my business with the proverbial abundance of caution because of the many unvaccinated and their potential for spreading breakthrough variants.

Tonight as I was trying to make sense of the nonsensical, a lot of thoughts were running through my mind. Doesn’t every medication have adverse effects for some people? I pulled a bottle of ibuprofen out of my purse and took a photo of the very abbreviated health warnings.

From my ibuprofen bottle

Then I unfolded the warning sheet from a prescription bottle I picked up today. I only show part of its warnings below.

Prescription warning

The truth is, there’s nothing that can guarantee a 100% safety response in the pharmaceutical realm. Never has been and never will be. For some, an aspirin means death. So what else? Next, I looked up the religions that prohibited vaccinations. I found this article to be quite thorough, pre-dating Covid and having fewer prescribed limitations than I suspected,or at least had been led to believe.

Why Is There a Religious Exemption for Vaccinations?Almost no religions object to them. Slate. https://slate.com/technology/2015/02/religious-exemption-for-vaccines-christian-scientists-catholics-and-dutch-reform-church.html

My smallpox vaccination mark

I don’t know how old I was when I got my smallpox vaccination. Certainly too young to have been asked my opinion about it. Given everything I’ve read about the millions of grisly deaths from that dreaded disease, I’m so grateful for its eradication due to vaccinations. I remember getting my polio vaccine and boosters. For a needle hater from birth, I was glad that at least the booster was a liquid-infused sugar cube. We were lined up in school to get those. My cousin Dennis got polio. He was the same age as my brother. He wore braces on his legs and used crutches and canes to get around. I wasn’t old enough to understand all the particulars of his life. I know he fell in love and was married but eventually his young wife had an affair with a “whole” man. He shot himself in the head when he was twenty-five years old.

My life predated today’s childhood vaccines. I had measles, chickenpox, mumps and rubella. I missed a lot of school and felt terrible. I was so glad my kids could be vaccinated and avoid those hazardous diseases and many more. Sometimes people are unlucky and have a dreadful response to vaccines. But those numbers are minuscule compared to the vast illness prevention benefits of vaccination.

Michael in the cancer infusion suite

But let’s talk about something else. Every single day, people ingest food, beverages, health supplements, vitamins, alcohol and illegal drugs of every kind, without having the vaguest notion where they come from, how they’re made or how safe they are. Lettuce can give you deadly E coli. Botulism and norovirus emerged on cruise ships multiple times. And how about talking about cancer drugs which are well-known as toxins? People trying to stay alive and survive their cancers willingly ingest chemicals that make their hair fall out, make them nauseous and unable to eat, make them emaciated and weak. I know, up close and personal. For five years, my husband was inundated with toxic cocktails causing potential side effects as long as the proverbial arm. Some people were lucky and escaped with minimal issues. We counted the days until the drugs were flushed from his system so we didn’t have to worry about splashback coming from the toilet that might contaminate me. So we could kiss and make love with each other without fear of an accidental exchange of his poison into my body. We lived through this time in fear, but also willingly, to get more life together. Here are a few links below to some of these drugs with enough warnings to set your hair on fire.

https://www.keytruda.com/side-effects/

https://www.rxlist.com/carboplatin-side-effects-drug-center.htm#consumermultum

http://chemocare.com/chemotherapy/drug-info/Tarceva.aspx

I can imagine what Michael would say about those people who are opting out of a vaccine that could save lives. He would be appalled and furious. Over 570,000 lost in this country and well over 3 million worldwide. With an inequitable distribution of vaccines, nation by nation, in this country we are closing vaccination sites due to denial or mistrust or just blind ignorance. Foreign nationals are flying to this country to scoop up vaccines that would otherwise be wasted. What is wrong with people? I will never understand how the myths, lies and phony conspiracy theories have interfered with what should be an easy decision. Whatever normal people wish to return to will never be possible until this virus is stopped cold in its tracks. And that can’t happen without vaccination. There are those who will refuse cancer treatment when their turn comes. But most will try to stay alive, at least a little longer. What’s the problem, people? Go and get your shots before Covid is our life forever. When will it be enough? Ok. I’m done venting. I’m so tired.

The Long Fuse and the Perpetual Burn

Forty-nine years ago today, I moved in with Michael. What a very long time ago and yet, I still remember what it felt like to show up on his doorstep with my suitcase, announcing that I was moving into his apartment. He asked me where I wanted to sleep and I said, “in your bed.” During our 8 month friendship, 3 of which we’d spent thousands of miles apart, we’d wound up passing out late at night, usually in my bed, after hours of conversation, smoking cigarettes and listening to music. Except for some snuggling, which admittedly, started feeling like more, at least to me, about two months in, we’d never shared a single kiss. And yet, there I was, ready to cross that sexual rubicon from which we could never return. Things worked out. But here’s the backstory.

Passport photo-December 1971

I don’t think smiles are allowed in passport photos any more. But in 1971 when I was twenty, that’s how I looked when I set off on my European tour, ditching school, my personal confusion and all that was weighing on my mind, driving me crazy, making me unrecognizable to myself. I let it all go for a few months except for one thing. Michael. My new friend, the guy who was friends with my friends, the guy with whom I’d made an instantaneous connection one hot August night at a raucous wedding. I remember wearing my royal blue slinky dress with a red cummerbund, the only dress I had at the time which was suitable for that event, in addition to my court case which preceded the wedding. That case was for obstructing the operation of an institution, otherwise known as a sit-in blocking the Marine recruiting station in our student union. Up to this point, I’d been in love with a man who was too young to bear the weight of my powerful commitment. We’d pretty much trashed each other and I was in a sorry state. I’ve never been able to adequately describe the intense connection that happened between Michael and me the night of that wedding. But within a few days, we were spending absurd amounts of time together while each of us was romantically involved with someone else. By October of that year, I knew something that was on a whole other level was happening, at least in me and I suspected in him. We were too afraid to rock the boat. But I was leaving in January and wasn’t sure what to do other than stick to the departure plan. In my journal entry from October 20th, 1971, I was waxing eloquent about the incredible level of our friendship, quoting Tintern Abbey by Wordsworth, having reached a level of communion with Michael which certainly seemed commensurate with anything old William had found in his “joy of elevated thoughts” in nature. “We are not lovers except in our minds. I don’t know if we’ll ever share ourselves in that lovely physical passion, but how irrelevant, suddenly.” Sort of. I ended that entry with an “I love you, Michael,” which he never saw in the light of day.

I moved home to Chicago at the end of December, 1971. I left my dog in Michael’s care. I was spending time with my family before my departure for Europe. I was so confused about breaking off my toxic relationship with my boyfriend of almost three years and really afraid that my feelings for Michael were some sort of fantasy. He showed up in Chicago, unannounced, to let me see my dog one more time before I left. Such a sweet thing to do. While doing dishes together a few weeks earlier, he leaned down to give me a lobsided kiss on my cheek which landed on the corner of my mouth. I can still feel the shock of it igniting what would become a long fuse and ultimately, a perpetual burn. But that was months away. We said goodbye and shortly after, my two friends and I took off for the drive to New York where we’d depart for Europe. I thought hard during that road trip and mustered up the courage to call Michael from Philadelphia to tell him I loved him, a relatively safe option as I fled reality. He said, “far out.” And off I went.

We traveled without a camera back then, with no cell phones to track all the sights we stuffed into our multi-country excursion. But I kept my journal and wrote dozens of letters to Michael and my family. As we hitched our way from country to country, I could feel myself gaining insight and clarity. I was still afraid and certainly damaged from the rollercoaster relationship that changed me from a relative innocent into a wiser but scarred person. I didn’t know then that for me, the single most important role in my life was to be a partner. Not a parent, not a careerist but a person sharing a life with someone. But all my behavior pointed in that direction.

When I came home, I sorted out the unfinished business of my emotional connections and wound up on Michael’s doorstep, ready to go all in to see if I’d found my person. We were never apart after that. Two youngsters, 20 and 22, we had a lot of things to learn about each other and life. But despite many bumps in our road, once that fire started it stayed lit, sometimes a high flame, other times almost embers. It never went out. Now, almost 4 years after his death, I’m still here with the same burn I felt for forty-five years. I had no expectations for what life would hold for me after he was gone. Before he died, he would ask me what I would do and said all those things you hear about spouses giving you permission and blessings to move on, to find partnership and happiness because you deserved that. We had been in his health crisis for so long. For years, I needed to use my intellect to transcend my emotions so I could be his best advocate, his clear thinker. At the time, I had a distant awareness that I was already suffering from PTSD. But in trying to live every moment with him and to extend his life as long as possible, how I actually was didn’t become clear to me for awhile. After the stunning shock of initial grief following his death, I slowly began to reorient myself, to reintegrate those parts of me that by necessity, were disparate during the intensity of that time. And in one of life’s great ironies, the perpetual burn from our very long fuse has come roaring back, in the space that’s been vacated by fear and anxiety and the relentless need to provide care. The Michael I now feel with me all the time is free from illness. Age-wise, I feel like we’re in our fifties, not in the first tempestuous years of our shared existence, but in the place we arrived after working through so many normal hurdles. In my dreams, we are talking about daily life or working on regular chores. Lots of times we’re in our garden where we both spent so much time and from which we derived so much pleasure. In the quiet of evening when the house makes its noises, I absentmindedly think he’s in another room or about to come in the door. Though his physical presence never arrives, I feel blanketed by his essence, particularly when I’m worried about our kids or just worried about the world. With the wealth of language that is my gift, I still can’t describe this internal cushion that is still us, any more than I can describe the power of what pulled us together in the first place. I was surprised in 1971 and I’m surprised today.

For years, Michael assembled favorite songs, his, mine and our kids’ that he put on our House Favorites CD collection. I think I have 38 of them. He introduced me to Aztec Camera who had a single in 1984 called Still On Fire. Maybe that’s the most apt description of how I’m still feeling now, coming up on May, which holds our wedding anniversary, the birthday of my friend Fern who died in 1988, Mother’s Day, my birthday and finally, the anniversary of his death, four days after my birthday and a scant week before his. I remember sending him silent messages, begging him not to die on my birthday. Maybe he got them as he did so many of my unuttered thoughts through the years, when he’d send me a note while we were both at work, telling me I was making so much noise in his head that he couldn’t concentrate. Peculiar as it sounds and astonishing as it is to me, I think our channels are still open and connected. Don’t ask me to explain – there isn’t a single rational thing I can say about that. As he would say, “it is what it is.”

And May is Coming

So Ive clawed my way through this 49th anniversary of our beginning. Next month, the hits will come, one right after the other. I’ve done this before so I’ll do it again with the personal commitment to accept whatever happens as I move through each one. What a mystifying and unexpected road. But the burning and still on fire part? Better this than to feel nothing. Maybe there really is forever. Still on fire.

Poking, Peeling and Excavating

From the basement excavation
Citrate of Magnesia bottle

When I started writing this blog in January, 2018, I had three primary goals. One was to write the story of how Michael and I navigated his diagnosis of, treatments for and ultimately, his death from an orphan cancer. I was hoping sharing our experience would help some other hapless people who found their world upended by one single phone call. I suppose I was also looking for a way to cope with the PTSD I was contending with following the years of ups and downs, the hopes raised and crushed, the savoring of the peak moments squeezed between troughs of an existential agony which became part of my most essential self. I’ve fulfilled that first goal. Next I wanted to tell the stories Michael had left behind which he so wanted to share in an autobiography. His desire morphed into a third goal, telling both our stories, creating a vibrant record of each of our lives, as separate individuals and through our forty-five years together. Sometimes I just have a random memory that needs to be expressed as a stand-alone tale. Generally speaking, though, I created some structure by weaving our tales by geographical location, starting from our first homes apart to the first apartment we shared and moving forward. I’ve gotten through our early childhoods and am now in the mid-1970’s. I’m having a hard time finding an approach that feels right for that critical time when it became clear we were transitioning from our initial passionate romance into a committed adult life together. I’m using my memories, photos and my journals to help evoke what I want my family to have as our legacy. The problem is those journals. Metaphorically, they are like an elevator ride in a high-rise. In my case, I’m on the top floor headed down, down, all the way to the sub-basement where I am utterly alone. The daily recording of every thought or feeling, caught in a flash of time from back then, is proving to be a distraction. I can look at a photo from a specific date, then head to my journal, to that same day and find a powerful dissonance between what is reflected as an image versus what I was contemplating in the privacy of my deepest thoughts. Initially, I found these conflicts disturbing. After having placed them in the context of the multiple layers of what it means to be me, I’m feeling more comfortable and able to integrate these disparate, jarring incidents. The truth is, I’ve always operated internally on different levels. I think everyone does. I just happen to have documentary evidence about mine. At least for the levels I can access consciously. Because there’s so much going on inside of us that’s unconscious, subconscious, part of our autonomic nervous system that’s always humming away, taking care of the business of running us on a constant basis. I like poking around, trying to understand that stuff. I like peeling myself and everyone else, like the proverbial onion. I like excavating artifacts like those old bottles in the photos above, that I found in the bowels of my basement built in 1893.

Today is Earth Day. Thinking about the layers of what’s below our feet feels appropriate. Tectonic plates are shifting, causing earthquakes. Recently lava has spewed up across the globe, from Iceland, where the boiling red-black fire has attracted people who stand nearby admiring the view, whereas in the Caribbean island of St. Vincent, so much volcanic ash covered everything that idle cruise ships were sent to evacuate thousands of people. Permafrost is melting, creating the potential for ancient microbes to revive and exist in real time, eons after they were encased in ice. Our little beings are in keeping with our complicated churning planet. All kinds of layers inside us come poking up at unexpected times, bringing unexpected action from the depths of who we are. How utterly fascinating.

The Badlands

I remember taking this photo in The Badlands. I learned that each different colorful layer in this mountain represented an entire epoch. Squished into those striations are oceans and forests, rivers and mountains, countless species of animal life, mineral deposits and who knows what else. I stared at that place for a long time. The symbolism of its time mysteries was not lost on me, in my relative minuteness, in my tiny existence. A little mote in the overall scope of this world.

For years I’ve collected shells and striated rocks. I like to look at the shells and imagine the lives of the animals who once occupied them. Did they live close to where I found them, washed up on the shore? Or did the currents carry them over miles of ocean until at last, for whatever reason, all that was left of them was the hard cover that for a time housed them and protected their fragile existence? And those rocks. Why are they multi-colored or striped? Are there fossilized little creatures in their centers? How many people touched them and threw them into water to smooth their rough edges? I collect them, feeling a silent connection from these offerings of the earth, split away from their natural environs by unknown acts, organic or otherwise. Aren’t I just like them, except with a higher level of consciousness acquired by me, because of the species to which I belong?

Museum of Science and Industry – Chicago – Photo credit – Chicago Tribune

When I was growing up in Chicago, I frequently visited the Museum of Science and Industry. Sometimes I went on a field trip from school. Other times it was a family event and later, I went with friends, and ultimately Michael and our children. I didn’t know when I was young that the building was originally the Palace of Fine Arts, a structure left from the Columbian Exposition of 1893 which 40 years later became what I knew it to be. I loved watching the chicks struggle from their eggs in the hatchery, to descend into the coal mine, to wander through centuries in Old Town and wend my way through the real U505 submarine. Like the natural world with its complexity and mystery, that museum kindled my inherent urges to know and know and know. For as long as I can remember I could be engaged in whatever was happening around me and seemingly, be totally present, but inside, my mind was constantly whirring along, analyzing, pondering and operating on a wholly different plane than where I appeared to be.

My kids, not to mention Michael, have consistently told me over the years that they would appreciate my attempts to stop trying to bore into their heads to see what was happening in there. Michael used to say that after spending a lifetime together I was going to be very disappointed to find out that there really wasn’t anything going on inside his when I was busy probing around. When I ask what someone is thinking and they reply, “nothing,” I am always astonished. How can that be? I’m generally running several channels simultaneously and often feeling as though a few traffic signals in my brain might provide significant benefits. When I was younger I simply assumed that everyone was just like me. Over time I’ve figured out that my complicated thought processes aren’t everyone’s modus operandi. I try to think of what I looked like when I got that pushback from my family. These photos are how I imagine myself when I turn on the laser beams, mostly unknowingly, sometimes with intent.

Who knows? I’m not looking at myself, at least externally. But I’m tracking myself in real time and have since I was a kid. I don’t think I had a detachment disorder. I was always present in my moments. However, a part of me was observing my behavior, for no other reason than the intrinsic value I place on self-awareness. The journal writing was a way of analyzing myself, criticizing myself, trying to figure out ways to improve the parts of me that I didn’t like. Often I felt like I had a little reporter in my head, taking notes on my daily life. Here’s a classic example.

My sister’s wedding.

This photograph was taken on August 1st, 1980, my sister’s wedding day and my dad’s birthday. Michael and I look pretty happy. Parts of us were. But I remember being jealous and irritated because one of the wait staff members at the reception, who was actually dating one of our mutual friends, was being excessively flirtatious with Michael who when I mentioned it, was totally oblivious and dismissive to me. We’d been together over eight years back then but still had our difficult moments. When I recently read my journal entry from that day, I was expressing lots of frustration and discontent and sounding more than a little miserable. You’d never have guessed any of that from our observable behavior or any of the day’s pictures. But I was analyzing away, dissecting myself, Michael, and life in general. A moment in time, but a moment nonetheless. Life’s layers, contradictions and surprises. For me, nothing is ever as simple as it looks. I’m not sure I’m thrilled with all of the artifacts I yank out of myself but I have to acknowledge their existence. I do better digging around than papering things over. I’m not sure how I wound up this way but it’s how I roll. Not to everyone’s taste, to be sure, but best for me. I want to get back to my chronology of our lives but those complex memories, photos and my running journal commentary had to be brought out of me before I could go forward.

I guess I could say that looks are deceiving or that you can’t judge a book by its cover. But that’s a simplistic approach. We really were most often, the beaming couple in this photo, from the same day as the picture above. Not for every second, though and not without my poking, peeling and excavating. Michael would say that everything would be perfect if I’d just stop talking about all life’s nuances all the time. Maybe I should’ve been an archaeologist because of all my digging instincts. That ship has sailed. The good part of having the extra intellectual analysis layer is that it keeps me pretty even-keeled during crises and emotional situations. That’s been helpful as much as it’s been challenging. So, now, I’ve addressed what’s been giving me a bout of writer’s block. On to the next event.

If I Could…

I read this book back in 1998 when it was first published. An obsessive Civil War addict, I’d read countless books about the conflict, from the most serious scholars to the writers of period fiction. I’ve traveled to innumerable battlefields, trying to make sense of how four bloody, grueling years consumed this country, something I’ve never been able to fully absorb. Ultimately I concluded that despite all the theories about states’ rights and economics, slavery was always the issue. Slavery and white power. Recently, my book club, which has been on hiatus since the beginning of the pandemic, met for the first time. We all discussed the books we’d read in the past thirteen months. Group consensus for this month’s choice settled on this book which was fine with me – I felt it would be worth revisiting one more time. When I read this book over twenty years ago, my heart must have been much lighter than it is now. The book is insightful and humorous and hard to believe. As someone whose life has encompassed all the fraught civil rights history in this country from the ‘60’s to now, l realize that ever-widening political divisions have hardened me. After the last administration peeled back the veneer of civilization which is so, so slim, unleashing a torrent of blatant racism, violence and murder, I am finding this book darker and more threatening than I did back then. I haven’t been naive. I’ve been oppressively aware of the power of irrational hatred some people bear toward anyone “other,” especially when it comes to skin color. During these last four years, which have enabled what’s always been here to get louder, uglier, more divisive and more randomly violent, I’ve become more grim, more strident and angrier in opposition to this poisonous reality.

I have been watching the case against the police officer who killed George Floyd. I could never have served on this jury because I can’t understand how there can be any doubt that this was murder. I understand how this justice system works. I’ve been on multiple juries. I’m also the parent of a federal public defender. I know that all it takes is one person to have a doubt, hang a jury and force a mistrial. The idea that such a possibility exists horrifies me. So many black men have been murdered by police officers. The blatant inequity between the way black and white men are treated by law enforcement is now recorded, seemingly every day. I feel the rage and anxiety of those people who are done with having a target on their backs because of their skin color. I wish I could stop watching but I can’t. Looking away from history and its ugly truths is not for me. So I’m afraid. If this jury excuses this crime, I fear for whatever is coming next.

Gettysburg, 1995

If I could, I’d leave this moment behind and be elsewhere. Maybe I’d be savoring the best meal I ever ate in my life. When we visited Michael’s parents in Longboat Key, Florida, they took us out to dinner at a French bistro called L’Auberge de Bon Vivant. Two French couples ran it – the women were the maitre d’s while the men were the chefs. Trying to decide between the beef filet and the salmon was always hard, but in the end, I usually wound up with the filet. Not a huge meat eater, this piece of beef was more like a savory dessert. Wrapped in a delicate pastry, a winey mushroom sauce called forestiere covered the meat which literally melted like butter in your mouth. Served over a bed of tangy wilted spinach and a side of garlic mashed potatoes, it’s a dish I’ve never forgotten. For years, Michael tried to recreate that sauce. Yes. If I could, I’d be there.

If I could, I’d be hanging out with Flash, my dog who felt like a person. When he wasn’t doing his dog job, barking loudly at invisible flocks of sheep or trying to be included in the human conversation, he’d be right next to me, staring soulfully into my eyes. I always felt like he was trying to figure out exactly what I needed and was always ready to provide it. He was smart and he was beautiful. For almost eleven years, every time I looked at him, I was stunned by how gorgeous he was and in love with his perpetual sweetness. I somewhat abashedly called him “sweetie-baby-puppy-boy,” even when he weighed in at 75 pounds. If I could, I’d be right next to him.

If I could, I’d find a way to have my friend Fern be alive. We would have our heads together, talking in our secret code that we’d developed over thirty years. We’d be sharing our “in” jokes and skewering everyone and everything that we felt should be taken down a peg. Or two or three. We’d be harmonizing to Beatles tunes while we walked to the beach or even better, tooled down Lake Shore Drive in her brother’s convertible, sharing a bag of White Castle sliders and fries. If I could.

If I could, I’d be in the family car in Sioux City, Iowa, bumping along the country roads, all six of us plus King, the dog, entertaining ourselves just by going for a ride which was the cheapest fun for everyone. We sang all the time, with the windows down, looking at corn or birds overhead, waving at others we drove by while they waved back at us. When we stopped for gas, a real attendant would come to the car and dad would say, “fill ‘er up with ethyl.” The best rides would end with a stop at the Dairy Queen. Everyone would lick their cones as fast as we could before the ice cream melted all over us. King got his own Dilly Bar. If I could, I’d relive one of those afternoons in real time.

If I could, I’d be right next to Michael at the Fox Theater in St. Louis in October, 1972. A beautiful converted old movie theater, that might have been my favorite venue for seeing the Grateful Dead out of all the times I was lucky enough to see them live. An intimate, connected audience, fabulous music and the two of us flushed with the passion of our young relationship, started as friends in the summer of 1971, living together beginning in April of 1972. One of those shared experiences which can still evoke the swaying of a a whole crowd in a common bliss and rhythm. If I could. Oh I would.

Gulf of Mexico

If I could, I’d be standing by the Gulf, the place where I could be mesmerized by the waves and the colors and the creatures of the water and the sky. Michael would be next to me and we’d be silent, often just staring ahead, keeping our thoughts to ourselves while we were simultaneously exchanging quiet information. Sometimes we’d read or frolic in the water, me closer to the shore, with an eye out for him, as he always went too far and I worried about whether I could rescue him. As if the lifeguard and fine swimmer would need me for that. Still…if I could.

If I could. But I can’t, except for a brief revery to distract myself from what may or may not happen at any moment during the next days or weeks or who knows? The world has felt heavy for a long time. Thinking that the decision of twelve people can move such weighty issues seems almost impossible. But I’ve found myself thinking of the line, “one person can make a difference.” That former president certainly did, some of the worst and most consequential differences in my lifetime. Derek Chauvin made a hideous difference. George Floyd accidentally made a huge difference. If I could, I’d make one, a difference for the better, I would hope. I think I’ve made a few small ones. What’s next remains to be seen. If I could, I’d make sure justice was served. The anxious waiting continues while I wander through the comfort of memories.

Normal?

Lately it seems that every other article or news blurb has something to do with when life will get back to normal. Will it be by mid-summer? Perhaps by the fall? When will life return to what it was pre-pandemic? I am perplexed. Just exactly what was going on before the pandemic that felt like “normal” to people? Is normal a condition that means exactly the same to everyone? Is normal universal? Can it simply be that all “abnormal” is merely about masks and social distancing? Or about whether or not one is able to be in crowds, in restaurants and bars? Or traveling wherever you choose, whenever you choose? Absent these cautionary recommendations by the CDC, can we assume that life was once normal before the advent of the coronavirus? I guess that depends on personal perspective. I chose the furled tulip as my introductory photo to this reflection. On a cold, windy spring day, a tulip organically and quite reflexively furls itself, to shield its most sensitive parts from the elements. They have a better chance of surviving in that defensive posture. Metaphorically, during this pandemic, I too feel furled, although still capable of awareness of the outside world while still in my protected position. And for the life of me, I can’t figure out what normal life was, or is supposed to be, and who gets to make that decision for millions of people.

Tents of homeless people line a street in Washington, D.C., in April.
Yasin Ozturk/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Homelessness has been a major problem for thousands of people, both at home and abroad for years. The pandemic has added a layer of further insecurity to those individuals scrambling to survive and has assuredly increased their numbers. So what’s normal for them? Are they running to Florida beaches, having mask-burning events in their state capitals and talking about how their rights have been abrogated by the government? What does their return to normal entail? More homelessness, hunger and lack of services?

The Guardian

The antivaxxer movement existed long before COVID. Refusing to be vaccinated for this virus is as normal as their refusal to allow any vaccine to be accepted by themselves or their children. I don’t know that they think measles, whooping cough or other diseases are hoaxes, as many believe the coronavirus to be. However, their unwillingness to take their shots clearly is an impediment to achieving herd immunity which is the only way to stop the spread of the virus. As of today, I read that 38 states are reporting rises in new COVID cases. What kind of normal can be achieved with that level of opposition to the only way out of the ever-increasing variants? So what’s their version of normal? Aren’t they still in the same one they’ve always had?

Getty/The Boston Globe/David L. Ryan

As with so much in our society, the perception of normal is defined from the vantage point of economics. For the marginalized poor, going to restaurants, movie theaters, bars, concerts, and on vacations, isn’t the critical issue. For low-income workers, normal is scraping by. Their new normal is unemployment. Will the economic stimulus package be enough to get them employed and above the poverty line? That would be a new normal for them, quite unlike the normal which some financially secure people hunger for, like the return to pleasure travel abroad. The huge gap that separates the wealthiest from the most deprived is only part of the problem. Frustrated, financially comfortable people are pining for their privileges that were part of pre-pandemic life. That’s one version of normal. For others, being hungrier than they were before this silent destroyer showed up is about another normal altogether.

As I ponder from my coiled state, locked inside with my own particular survival skills, I worry about “normal” from emotional and psychological standpoints in addition to economic ones. The isolation and loneliness of this past year will have long-range effects on different people. Some will have a greater ability to withstand deprivation than others. I can’t imagine that most won’t have at least some repercussions from this experience, which I think will go on for a longer time than many would like to believe. How they choose to deal with those repercussions will be driven by individual traits too numerous to specify. And that’s the problem with these endless conversations about returning to “normal.” Nobody knows anything about what that will actually look like – it’s all educated guesses and conjecture.

As for myself, I was still trying to figure out what normal was well before COVID. I was trying to build a life on my own after having been a partner for 45 years. I think it’s a safe bet that if people who know me well were surveyed, they’d all say I never had a normal moment in my life. I can pass for someone who fits into some societally acceptable parameters but I’ve always felt like I wasn’t quite in step with the universe, except for Michael. While I was carving out some reasonable existence after his death, the virus came along and wiped out my little routines that kept me within a passably full life, emptied of what was the center of my world. Those previous years of trying to figure out how to adapt have been somewhat helpful. I’ve survived this unexpected blow pretty well. Recently, after vaccinations, I’ve cautiously crept back into the outside world of other humans although I expect to wear a mask for a long time except in the safest of environments.

Mostly though, my normal is pretty weird. I sleep more like a kid than an adult. I piece together an evening nap with a wee hours of the morning longer stretch. That may be the coincidence of old people sleep habits bumping into my essentially unscheduled life. Having only myself to think about is so odd that I’ve just let certain habits slide away. Like a reasonable bedtime. So far I’m surviving. I eat at no particular time either. It’s pretty liberating although it will be less so if I ever have a more complicated social life. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of my “normal” life is that although I’m certainly present in the current world, like those coiled tulips, I’m curled away from the exterior threats and partially dwelling deep in my interior. Maybe my profound love for the magic realism literature genre has finally become part of the real me. I continue to watch mental reels of my memories which remain detailed and vivid. I’m unearthing new ones frequently which I note in my journals and my continuing correspondence with my dead husband. I wish I could adequately describe the ethereal presence of his essence which feels somewhat like the gossamer webs of tiny spiders. But not in a creepy way. He’s just always here. When I work outside, I love using his favorite tools. I also am delighted by the skills he taught me which give me a sense of competence and wellbeing as I fix and repair my way through the tasks of daily living. As his life was nearing its end, he’d ask me what I was going to do without him. I would reply that I had absolutely no idea. I wouldn’t have dreamed that someone as practical and grounded as I am would wind up having both an internal and external extended relationship with someone I can see only in photos or those movies in my head. All my senses work in those which is especially delightful, even if I’m dreaming an argument. All oddly substantive for a mental creation.

So that’s my current normal which I know with certainty is uniquely my own, as I believe most normals are. The other good news is that mine is flexible, malleable, a living thing as mutable as COVID. Adaptability is a survival skill. The people who have a nimble way of going with the current flow are the lucky ones. The others who are more rigid and locked into their patterns are the ones who have big problems when fielding the tough curveballs that life tosses. So much for a general term that describes who everyone is and what they expect and need. Roll your own if you can. Trying to fit the mold is a thankless task. There is no normal.

The Arboretum – A Case of Extravagant Beauty

I live in the same university community where I arrived as a seventeen year old freshman in the fall of 1968. I never dreamed I’d still be here fifty-three years later. I’d always thought I’d return to Chicago, live near my family, make my own, find a job and settle into urban life, snuggled against the shore of Lake Michigan, my ancestral waters. Life is unpredictable. In 1971 I met my future husband, a transplanted suburbanite from Chicago’s north side. We moved in together in April, 1972, both of us trying to finish up school which we’d left by the wayside as politics, protest and an alternative community became the center of our lives. I still wanted to leave here and move home. We got married in Chicago in 1976 but didn’t stay there, returning to this town. Somehow or other, we both settled into each other and into jobs. By that time, my younger sister had moved here,too. In 1978, we bought a house. We had our first kid in 1981. My parents moved here in 1986. I always missed Lake Michigan and still do. We solved that problem by vacationing there for at least a weekend every year. I am in my hometown now and will end my life here, as Michael already has. And I’m good with that.

Living in a university community has lots of advantages, especially when it’s located fairly close to three major metropolitan areas. What isn’t here isn’t too far away. By drawing students from those big cities, in addition to having a large foreign student population among the 50,000 attendees, lots of sophisticated amenities have sprung up here over the years. A world class performing arts center, a Silicon Valley type research consortium with cutting edge science coupled with the university research community, and a progressive atmosphere make this place a pretty great spot to call home. During the past unprecedented year, Covid testing and vaccines rolled out so smoothly, I felt guilty every time I read, saw or heard about the chaos in so many places throughout this country. At one point, testing here accounted for 10% of all given nationwide. Nothing is perfect but this a place where people can feel fortunate to have landed. And then there’s the subject of this missive. I live in a place that values green space and where many people believe in climate change. I’m so glad. We have great parks. But we also have the arboretum and Japan House which sprawl across about 57 acres right on the edge of campus. A place for research, teaching, public programs and opportunities for sharing Japanese traditions, it is also is the home to the spring cherry blossom extravaganza that can be seen locally rather than abroad or in Washington, DC. Yesterday on a mild windy day, I walked through it, soaking in all the natural beauty and the creations which enhance its peaceful ambience. I’d like to share that walk with you, just as I took it, through my photos. The repetition is part of the walk – sometimes you think one picture is enough. But it really isn’t. Enjoy.

The Doctor’s Appointment: Time Hurtling Ahead

Today I went to see my primary care doctor. I’ve only seen her once before, last October. That was a fast pandemic visit in which we had no physical contact. She asked me a bunch of questions, renewed a few prescriptions and sent me on my way fast. She was just transitioning from the pandemic’s virtual visits back to in-person ones. That was fine for me. I am always eager to get out of medical appointments. The doctor I’d been seeing for years had swapped out her clinical practice in favor of teaching residents at the hospital connected with our clinic, right before the lockdown. As a mom of two toddlers, I think she opted for a more favorable work schedule. Good for her, bad for me. I’ve always hated going to doctors, at least for myself. I’m all in as a patient advocate for someone else. But since I was a little kid, I’ve been averse to all things medical. I can’t determine the cause of this negative attitude but historically, anyone still alive in my family will vouch for my notoriously bad patient behavior. I was only five when I conned my mother into leaving the room so I could swallow my baby aspirin in private when I was actually dumping them into the heating vent behind the couch. I resisted every injection and had to be held down to get a shot in me. I can still see my dad chasing me around with a teaspoon full of yucky cough syrup, trying not to spill it, only to finally catch me, get it in my mouth and watch me spit it out immediately all over white bedsheets. He swore a lot at me on those days. I’d climb up shelves in our apartment’s pantry, anything to get away. Over time, I’ve improved somewhat but I have to be in dire condition before I offer myself up voluntarily for a doctor visit. Years ago, I managed to pass a kidney stone and survive a gallbladder attack, both remarkably painful experiences, without going in for a visit until they’d both subsided. I hate it all, getting weighed, having blood drawn from my inherited minuscule veins and having my blood pressure taken. I view being sick as a betrayal of my body which I know is irrational. Everything about being physically impaired makes me mad. I was always grouchy and sullen at home when I was sick and am a challenging patient with doctors, asserting my own opinions and assuming an equal footing which works for some of them and doesn’t for others. I think that my knee jerk responses are clearly tied to all the years of my mom’s multiple and constant illnesses. But as I’ve moved through my adult life I think there’s a different issue at work that’s more to do with the inexorable march toward becoming diminished and losing control over this vulnerable corporeal sack that houses my brain. During this most recent appointment which was a full on physical exam, I was keenly aware that I’ve passed into that age group which is on the clock, whether I want to be or not. There were definite old people elements in my exam, questions about hearing, all the elimination functions, little tests for neuropathy in my feet along with reflex responses. I saw these practiced with my mom on countless occasions. Now they’re about me as I begin my eighth decade on this earth.

The living room of my first rental home with Michael and friends – 1972 As vivid as yesterday.

I walked out of that appointment thinking the word “ephemeral” to myself, over and over. For the moment, I am definitely in pretty good condition, all blood values perfectly normal, an unremarkable physical exam and essentially, tolerable, small niggling aches and pains that for the most part, are easily ignored. But that’s just for right now. Although luckily resilient and generally robust, I am no longer what I once was, except for when I assert my mind over my matter. I can still do a lot, but I’m slower. Tasks take longer and feel bigger. My idea of myself still reflects what I once was physically while the dissonance of what actually is, butts up against that image. I am in that group of those who can still access scores of vivid memories. With each day that passes, they move further into what will ultimately be the minuscule void where I once occupied space. All that experience which was so big and important will have left a tiny ripple in the vastness of time.

I’m thinking of all the events which have been crammed into what has not even yet been a full seven day week. Last Friday, my daughter suffered a grievous unexpected loss of a beloved colleague who died too fast and too young. The day after that I attended a Zoom memorial for a thirty eight year old young man. He was part of a glorious bunch of summers at what was essentially a family camp we attended at a dingy resort in Michigan for just under ten years, with a group of college friends and their families. He died of an overdose. There were 125 people at that virtual event. I didn’t know a bunch of them but some of my oldest friends and their kids were there. An emotionally exhausting experience packed with so many memories that were part of those days when I was a young mother, and Michael was surging with strength, with no inkling of what lay in his genes that would attack him years later. But of course. What we don’t foresee is a gift. The next day I was off to O’Hare airport to drop my son off for another one of his trips to a faraway place, which during this pandemic, creates anxiety for me. He’s traveled the world as a biologist for years but I still can’t just relax and not worry, especially since he’s had some scary experiences. I guess that will always be part of the parental role which I retain, perhaps more than some people, because mothering my own mom for decades was anathema for me and definitely is not what I wish to confer on my own children. Then it was back home and dealing with a leaky roof, only a few years old, which led to insurance adjusters and contractor appointments. I swam a lot, overdoing it of course, because I was so glad to return to the pool, ultimately giving myself such a stiff upper back that I was screeching in pain and moving like a stiff scarab beetle.

My brother as a happy teenager.

I spent time with my grandson. I worked my way through the sixth anniversary of my brother’s death. I got my hair cut, reverting to a style I used to have when I was in my twenties. We’ll see how long that lasts. The only physical aspect of me from that time which is within my reach is the hairstyle.

Earthworks

A continued probe through my endless photo project unearthed a 50 year old contact sheet with a picture of the building that was the focal point of alternative campus life during the early 1970’s. I managed to get a decent enough image to post to my social media. Among other responses, I heard from a young history teacher who works at the high school my kids attended. Serendipitously, he’s assigned his class a project which takes place virtually, at that very site, which he’d never seen. That precipitated a meeting between us so I could share some background with him. I have evolved into a primary source, just like microfilm in a library archive. Ironically, that evening, I attended a meeting of my city’s historic preservation commission as I am a board member. Apparently hanging with the relics is a significant and apropos part of my current life. Today, I decided to cut myself a little slack. Instead of swimming, I went for a stroll through a lovely park on campus. The dorms where I lived during my freshman and sophomore years were within two blocks of my walk. In fact, most of my rental houses from years ago, along with my house that’s been home since 1978, are all within about a two mile circumference from the path I was walking today.

My son with his ever-present bug net
Michael in 2015 after receiving a life-saving targeted therapy for his cancer.

I’ve spent time at this beautiful arboretum in the past. When my son was a junior in high school he was enrolled in a life-changing field biology class. He spent countless hours wandering around with his net, catching insects to ensure that he had the best collection possible. One day he dragged us over to the pond feature in the park so we could watch him snatch dragonflies in mid-flight with his bare hands. It was quite dazzling and unforgettable, seeing fingers move that quickly. I couldn’t have done that at any age. On a far different occasion, years later, when Michael had been pulled back from death by an experimental drug, we drove there to be out in a beautiful natural setting, close enough to home so that we could get him back to bed if the fresh air was too much. Little snatches of life that exist in my memory and perhaps my son’s regarding the dragonflies, which will vanish after we’re gone except for those I write down which may or may not be read by some family member I don’t even know now. Like I said, ephemeral. For the most part, the majority of people occupy a small footprint in life, like an impression in sand which is washed away with the tide. I don’t expect the world will remember me a hundred years after I’m gone.

Blooms on my plum tree

I went home to my garden after my walk and worked for a time in the lovely April air. I’m not in the least disturbed by these thoughts about aging or vanishing. Perhaps my beloved garden will be my legacy along with whatever happens through my children. Maybe one day, someone will be scrolling through this blog, decades from now. Mostly I want to make good use of my time, the time I have at this instant. Should I only read new books or should I go back to old ones that deserve one more look? I think the same thing about movies and television shows. Music, as well. What’s the right balance between staying current and allowing a little self-indulgent wallow in the past? The only thing I never question is the mysterious interior presence of Michael in me although his physical being is conspicuously absent. That sustenance simply is. Some days I change as quickly as those foot impressions in the sand overwhelmed by the latest tide. I could be around for a day or years to come. No one knows anything even though they try. Me neither. Although I’ll continue to try as well.