Pre-Surgery Thoughts

Looking for Dad

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This picture of my dad, taken when he was just under 30, captures his quintessential self – he liked to be on the couch, preferably prone. Don’t get me wrong. He worked really hard in his life. He lifted himself from the west side streets of Chicago, his father lost to early heart disease, an 8 year old who never graduated from high school, to becoming an assistant vice-president of the First National Bank of Chicago. That bank was absorbed so many times that I think it’s part of JP Morgan Chase now, just a piece of an international conglomerate. But he managed to arrive at his prestigious place, far from selling apples from a wagon after his father died,  and helping his mother take care of his brother and sister.74D869E5-42DF-42E8-BC17-614AC63ADE82
He met my mom at 19, married before they were 20 and became a parent soon after that. Dad had a loud bark, but not much bite. Looking back, I realize that he was a very smart but also really scared kid his whole life. He was good at sizing people up but too insecure to assert himself too much. Compared to my mom, he seemed the stronger parent, but I learned long ago that wasn’t true. My timid little mom had a tough core and she was a survivor. She’d complain about dad. She’d say it drove her crazy when he said stuff like, “if you’ve seen one tree, you’ve seen them all.” She wanted to go out and see and do everything, but he wanted her by his side, sitting on that couch and she wanted to be with him more than anything else. So he’d bluster about things and was a terrible teaser and she’d tell him that he could change and do things differently. But he didn’t change much. In the end, he dominated her, as had her mother before him.
77A5640E-10E8-45E2-A51F-3853DE372F77However he didn’t dominate me and truly, he didn’t try very much. He recognized me for who I was, and to his credit, he encouraged me. He told me to be strong and to never take any crap from anyone. Yes, in just those words. He could see that I was a prober, always looking for an angle. He nicknamed me “weasel” which was fair. I never thought that what was in front of me was the way it had to be. I always tried to go over, around, through anything that blocked my path. I’m glad for that. Recently my grandson was watching Jurassic something or other and I realized that perhaps my real spirit animal isn’t the wise and generous dolphin, but instead the velociraptor, hunting for an edge.

That’s what I’ve always tried to do. The problem is that sometimes there is just simply no way to deal with an obstacle. I’ve always had trouble accepting that. I thought if I worked hard enough, thought hard enough, tried one option after another,  I could conquer anything. Not true and hard for me to accept. In that way, I’m so like my mother. She batted her head against immovable objects her whole life. She wasn’t as aggressive as me but she’d keep going back for more tries until she was absolutely out of ideas. Dad lay still. Mom bustled. I’m a bustler too. I have long lists of chores and I bustle around every day.

But I’m ridiculous. I can’t possibly get done with the tasks I set for myself. I know that but I try anyway. I race against time. Ever since Michael died all I can think about is how short life truly is – this is not some newly discovered revelation. But it seems that reason fails me. I continue to churn away at a ridiculous clip. There is no way I could clear a weedy garden that takes up a great chunk of my 10752 square foot lot, especially after having been out of town for 21 out of the last 28 days. I actually went to Acadia and Glacier National Parks in under a month.

There will be weeds. There will be weeds. Not the end of the world. There’s only one of me to do the work two of us once managed. And I’m older. I get tired faster. And my damnable left knee is bone on bone and it’s been incredibly painful for too many years.

There’s all the rest of life to do as well. House stuff, bill stuff, family stuff, friend stuff. Expanding your intellect stuff. Political stuff. Being creative stuff and lots of thinking stuff. I need to be like dad. Dad, where’s that piece of me that can be like you on the couch and think it’s just fine? It’s misplaced. When Michael was alive, he was more laid back than me too. Being next to him was sedating. I loved it. I spiraled through all my energy at this incredibly rapid pace and then I’d just deflate like a balloon. And I could melt into him and take a break from myself. It’s relentless in here.75B416D3-657D-4584-A084-BCD4ECCA67F4
This nasty left knee has got to go. I remember the first time I’ve heard it creak. I was climbing down an old wooden ladder that I still have and I remember thinking, “wow, this ladder is really getting dangerous,” until I realized the sound was coming from inside my body. Long overdue.
Missing MichaelE28D3C87-4B5A-4842-B8B8-FED419878B50
I’m going to really miss Michael again tomorrow. That’s nothing new but it’s particularly hard on days like these when I’m going to have a procedure. I haven’t had many in my life which makes me very lucky. But I’ve spent more hours than I count sitting at other people’s bedsides, translating doctor stuff, offering ice chips, recognizing that nausea or pain was coming. I sat at Michael’s bedside many times.D10BED9F-9B6E-4782-AAA7-BC6B65C59C0A
As we talked our way through the years of his illness, I remember telling him that I feared I would never have the comfort of him holding my hand after I’d been through a surgery or procedure. He told me that was the saddest thing I’d ever said to him. I’m sad about it too. I would give anything to have that small comfort tomorrow morning. But I can’t. I’m angry and frustrated and I fully expect to wake up crying in post-op. That’s what happened with knee surgery number one. Stripped away defenses will leave me vulnerable. Not my favorite place to be.
Trusty Roger
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Tomorrow morning as I lie on a table with my bone being sawed and then a very expensive piece of titanium being placed where that joint once was, my go-to distraction, Roger Federer, will be playing in the quarterfinals at Wimbledon. When I read back through my journals, I’ll find remembrances of tough times and in their midst will be the line, “but Roger won today” and that helped me. So utterly strange that this faraway individual brings me these moments of delight. I’m actually wondering whether my being unconscious might have a negative effect on his game. But then I reel myself back in and recognize that I’m going a little over the top. I am recording the match on my DVR and the first thing I do when, hopefully, I wake up, will be to watch Roger do impossibly balletic things on a grass court while some machine squeezes my leg to prevent blood clots. In the end, I guess it’s always the little things. Hopefully, I’ll be writing from the other side of knife. C2C1963F-2617-4E5F-A896-D5B948C78D12

Overdrive

10B595FD-7954-4EE4-9D25-9AE674A5B5FFOne of the things I remember Michael saying to me on many occasions was that he thought I was the most singularly unchanged person that he ever knew. I was forever trying to decide if I should take that as a compliment or not. Since I was only 20 when we met, I figured that in the 46 years we knew each other he probably had a fair view of my behavior. In the end, I agreed with him and viewed “unchanged” not in a pejorative manner, but in a positive one. I’m consistent. My belief system has been in place for a very long time. Of course, I’ve grown, developed, evolved. But my core, my fundamental self is pretty much the same as it was when I was teenager. For people who know me well, that means I’m predictable. And complicated.A68B9921-3D9D-4096-B4CD-6B5E2414A558
My brain speeds along at a rapid clip. I’m always processing. As yet, my motherboard hasn’t failed me. Which means nothing is ever just simple for me. I remember when I saw the movie, The Last Samurai. At a moment when the Tom Cruise character was getting his rear end kicked over and over during sparring practice, a friendly warrior came up to him, tapped him on the forehead and said, “too many mind.” I can relate. I’ve been working on slowing down and adopting practices that to help me
when my start spinning too fast.2813888F-C597-4CB0-852C-8ADD714AFEF7

I learned how to do revitalizing meditations to help me stay calm and cerebral when Michael was sick and needed my help. I have the Calm app on my phone and I use it regularly. I’m pretty zen when I swim. Still, a lot of my time is spent thinking, analyzing and considering, often about multiple topics simultaneously. It’s just how I roll. I think all this began when I was really young because I remember these same feelings and thoughts from my childhood.

 

 

And so it was on my long-desired trip to Glacier National Park, which in its essence was everything I dreamed of and more. I’ve been to a good number of national parks, Acadia just last month. Certain ones had more impact than others. I’ll never forget Bryce Canyon, Zion and Arches. I got to experience those with Michael which enhanced their majesty and spiritual power for me. Being on my own in Glacier, it was all about me, with my forever bond with Michael, tucked into my most interior self, like an extra vital organ. But I saw and felt Glacier through the lens I bring to everything, the one when I am simultaneously in my moment while my mind is zipping along, connecting that moment to how I perceive the world.

 

 

I went to Glacier by train which is a great way to travel and really see parts of the country that are off the main road and certainly hidden when flying. I spent almost all my waking hours staring out the window. I don’t want to miss anything. I’ve never tired of seeing cattle and horses, not since I was a little kid traveling up and back between Iowa and Chicago. On an overnight rail trip, there is so much more as you travel from state to state. I saw buffaloes and donkeys.

 

 

Numerous white tailed deer grazing and springing through the fields right next to the domestic animals. I saw a swift fox. I saw American white pelicans, great blue herons, American kestrels, a ring necked pheasant and lots of red winged blackbirds, mallard ducks and rabbits.

 

 

I saw fields planted with beans and wheat and other crops I can’t identify by sight.

 

 

The vistas are endless and impressive.

 

 

But I also saw small towns that looked economically ravished. Aging buildings and others that have already fallen. There’d be this gorgeous green landscape and suddenly piles of junked cars and garbage would appear.

 

 

The shabbiness was a stark contrast to the surrounding lush earth. And then came big sky. Endless miles of beautiful land, absolutely empty. In my mind I was envisioning herds of buffalo and tipis and the native people who made their lives here for countless years before being decimated by the relentless move west by settlers and power brokers. I’m sure that much of the land I saw was owned by big ranching concerns. But it felt so wrong. All the beauty tarnished for me. I can appreciate it but not without thinking of the cost to the people who lived here. Then the reservation appears.EF2BDA0B-4EAE-4BB6-9DAC-6E89B51CAFAE

The Blackfeet  reservation is actually a conglomeration of tribes whose general name is Niitsitapi which means “the real people.” I saw buildings with the words “no meth” painter boldly across the walls. The very idea of reservations appalls me. Would you like to live with your people in a designated area? Me neither.

 

 

The Blackfeet tribe has rights to parts of Glacier National Park which include their most spiritual locations such as Two Medicine. Ceremonies are still performed there such as sun dances, while sweat lodges are built for the transitions and rituals of native life. I took a boat ride on Two Medicine Lake and went through their valley. You can feel a powerful spiritual presence there. I opened myself up to let it blend in with me and Michael and my own belief system. Certainly not the same as theirs but nonetheless connected if by nothing other than the surrounding natural majesty. The natives call some of the mountains the backbone of the earth. It’s not hard to understand why.

 

 

I stayed in East Glacier Lodge which is a beautiful old building with no televisions and sketchy internet. It lends itself well to getting in touch with what this place is supposed to mean to human beings. Their staff all seem to share a common attitude of preserving the nature of the park and its mystical energy. There are tributes to the natives throughout the lodge and the park although for me, it wasn’t enough. Keeping a piece of your ancestral land rings hollow to me. I saw a tall Native American man tending flowers at another lodge. He resembled Will Sampson who played the chief in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. He seemed to enjoy what he was doing and had positive interactions with a few people working with him. Maybe his life is happy. Maybe I’m the one with the problem.

 

 

Let me stop and say that I felt everything I hoped to feel at Glacier. As I stood before mountains that are estimated to be between 1600 and 800 million years old, I felt my smallness and the tiny place that I know I occupy, even when things feel huge. I felt the fabric of connection that still binds me to Michael and my love for the earth and its marvels. But then the guide told us that the remaining 20-odd glaciers are expected to be gone by 2030. Unimaginable. Was this destined to happen over a long period of time or isn’t it part of the upheaval we’re seeing all over the world. Climate change. I’ve heard all the arguments from people who say it’s been hot before, we’ve had hurricanes before, we’ve had fires before. Blah-blah-blah. Our planet is threatened. I have no doubt. Blazing hot temperatures in Alaska. Water supplies in India drying up. Europe sweltering. The hottest June on record. Ever. I’m not capable of simply enjoying my good fortune without thinking about all these frightening things. I’ll be dead before the worst stuff happens. But what about all the children and grandchildren? I have hope that brilliant people will find ways to turn some of this around. That we’ll stop burning fossil fuels. That we’ll get rid of plastic in the oceans. That a place like Glacier will still have snowy peaks in the summer. But to ignore it for my own mental well-being? No can do. I had the privilege of seeing so much wildlife in the park. I saw a black bear, a moose, long horned sheep, elk and mountain goats. They’re just doing their thing. But a lot can threaten the ecosystem that supports them and I worry.

 

 

Through the train window I saw the amount of flooding that occurred when the Mississippi overflowed its banks, not to mention the smaller rivers nearby. The wooded area and retaining ponds along the tracks are filled with mile after mile of algae bloom. That can’t be a good thing. As I watched animals drinking from this green pea soup I wondered about the chemical runoff from farms into the water table. Not to mention what can happen to people’s drinking water. Still thinking of Flint over here.

 

 

So yes, I am thrilled that I got to see this incredible wonder for what is likely the only time in my life. I think that inner city kids from everywhere should be brought on field trips to experience this magnificent place or others like it so they can make an early commitment to trying to rescue the earth and each other. I can’t go back and undo the genocide that happened long before I arrived. But I think it should be remembered and never ignored. Another thing Michael said to me frequently was this: “ Great. So as long as you know that somewhere someone might be having a problem or that there are systemic issues, you’re going to be bummed out. Living with you will sure be fun.” Well, we did have fun. But there’s more to life than that.AE3448B9-98D4-430E-AB32-4271169FAE8D

Thoughts from a Train

8507EE2A-3825-42EE-BFA2-8B06D2F30573Sometimes the light’s all shinin’ on me,
Other times I can barely see.
Lately it occurs to me what a long, strange trip it’s been. – The Grateful Dead 

Yes. That’s exactly what the last two years and change have felt like for me. A mixture of light and darkness, often a blurry palette, although I’ve come to know that my most essential self is primarily sunny.

I can’t account for how much life is determined by genetics versus environment but my mother told me I was a cheery baby from the start and my older brother said that when I came along he felt truly happy. I’m alone on an Amtrak train, headed out of Chicago, my hometown. I still feel that, despite having lived almost 50 years in my other hometown, the place where I went to get an education, found my partner, my community and raised my children. Two homes. That seems right.

I’m headed north and then west to Glacier National Park in Montana. I’ve been trying to get there since 2017, when the wild effects of climate change caused the park to burst into flames, not just that year, but also the one following. I finally figured out that my wanting to avoid the crowds was putting me into the dry season so this trip will be chilly and perhaps a bit snowbound at the higher elevations. I don’t care. I need to get there. I know that this natural majesty and sheer size will help me stay oriented to my actual place in this universe. I actually took a photo of Michael in Arches National Park to illustrate this concept. 669E0B1E-A4C6-4B30-BBBA-65385FA54267

I am a speck, maybe even less than that. The world and the people around me can easily skew that perception. I yearn for smallness. I felt too important and too needed for a long time. And my tasks were always truly out of my control although I fought furiously to empower myself and wrest some measure of power from invisible forces. In the end I gave everything I could muster from myself. Since Michael’s death, I’ve been grappling with how I ultimately had to surrender the person I most loved and find a way to live without what are for me, the most essential parts of life.

The repository for my trust. The confidante for whom nothing needed to be held  back. The warm body to lean on, sometimes in the day and through all the nights. The person who shared the exact same feelings about our children. Oh my, how I have empathized with those courageous single parents out there. Passionate kisses and passionate sex. Lucky me, lucky me to have had so much to lose forever. Because nothing could possibly compare to any of that.

So I am silent in my little berth. I have Michael’s miraculous old iPod with its 2500 songs. I have his water bottle and my walking sticks to help me experience this glorious nature while protecting what’s left of my battered knee, soon to be replaced when this trip ends.6B4C9958-A5C4-43BA-A450-E21D58DEBA9A

I’m looking out my window at all the views you can’t see from the car unless you travel the backroads. The train has Wi-Fi. I can watch Netflix if I choose that. Maybe when it’s dark. For now, I’m writing down the names of the birds I see and looking at trees and clouds like I do when I’m home. We’re passing through Milwaukee where the temperature sign reads twenty degrees cooler than it was when I headed out early this morning.E9324111-292C-4E01-B43B-98B9C74A90F9

I looked at Facebook a while ago and saw the memories generated by whatever their crazy AI technology is and sure enough, there photos of a trip Michael and I had taken to the Outer Banks in North Carolina on this date in 2014. He was a couple of months out from his mega-chemo cocktail and had one clean scan under his belt following that treatment. The next one would be in August where three cancerous spots would again reappear on his bones. But that June, we were traveling as we’d decided to do between scans. We were going to have a retirement come hell or high water. Michael hated having his picture taken, so I was surreptitiously getting unconscious photo bombs from him while he innocently read his book.

Those photos are a perfect metaphor for right now. I feel him near me just like that, a bit off to the side, doing his thing, but close. As he always said, he was going to be with me forever. I’ll take what I can get.2F6CEED9-DBB2-4BDA-B790-6E566C411CC1

Closets and Boxes

A502B380-0412-4F04-B944-EFD1097BC309Today I was swimming along in my favorite pool, trying to shake off the long hours of driving from my two week long road trip. I did get exercise as I traveled, but my normal regimen was definitely disrupted as I often chose between sleep and workouts.  The older body and screaming left knee make different demands than the body of my youth. I am rushing to get back to optimum strength as my knee replacement surgery looms ahead in the beginning of July. Most people who’ve had both of their knees replaced tell me that their second one didn’t go as well as the first.

If that’s the way it goes for me, I’ll want to know I did everything I could to prevent anything less than success. Kind of my life operating principle. As a genuine control freak, I like to take out as many of the sabotage factors that I can before undertaking anything, while simultaneously knowing there’s only so much you can do. I’ve learned one thing from this year’s outdoor pool experiences. Prior to my first knee surgery I had to use the handicapped ramp to enter the water. This year, I can use the ladder with my one bionic right leg. The one with the titanium is also good for digging holes in the garden. It doesn’t feel like my body but it doesn’t hurt. Who knows? Maybe if all goes well, I’ll be using the high dive next summer. But looking back over my life, I haven’t done that since I was a kid in a healthy pre-acrophobic state. I don’t know how I acquired the fear of heights.  I’ve also been claustrophobic for as long as I can remember and don’t know why that happened either. I think about stuff like this as I swim my laps, up and back, up and back.7706B7A1-28B6-44B4-9AE5-458A41B8564F Sometimes I just find myself looking at Michael’s face as I cruise along. It kind of bobs in front of me, sort of like the head of the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland. But his smile is more crooked and a bit sardonic. I see his eyes and the way his hair would part as he emerged from below me, as he could swim a couple of lengths underwater, holding his breath for a long time. We spent a lot of time together in water, in pools, in lakes and in oceans.36534841-BBB3-4170-93ED-F7E4F9F05B61
Without fail, that apparition appears to me when I’m submerged and I feel happy and relaxed which is quite odd as he is definitely dead. I have no explanation for it. I appreciate the mystery for what it is, no more, no less. When I write stuff like this, I know that some people find it strange and uncomfortable. Others let me know that they have similar feelings, but they feel guilty about them, as if they haven’t done their grief due diligence, haven’t moved on enough, haven’t found new companionship. They think they’ve failed. When I think of them and how I am, I find myself thinking about boxes and closets.

Seems to me that too many people spend time feeling boxed in or closeted. I don’t like this. Why do people feel the need to organize others into understandable, identifiable places? So they don’t feel confused or out of order in some way?  This kind of categorizing has bothered me since I was quite young. There were the cool kids, the nice kids, the bad kids, the nerdy kids, the athletes and on and on. The weird people, the smart people, the phonies and posers, the outcasts and the in crowd. I hate all that. Now I spend time worrying about closeted celebrities who I read about and can’t understand why people can’t be who they are without fear. Why does anyone care about what anyone else does as long as it doesn’t put someone else in danger or at risk? So many inexplicable rules.1DBDAAE7-B934-4F8E-99A4-0EE67DC83D33

I try to understand what threatens people and I’m hard put to land on any reasonable explanations. I worked with a woman for many years, a woman who had a completely irrational hatred of lesbians. I would try to reason with her. She felt like every gay woman she met was interested in her. I asked her if she thought every straight man she met wanted her. When she said no, I tried to get her to see that there was no more reason to feel threatened by a lesbian than a man. But I’d get nowhere.76C152BA-E097-475F-9CBC-19F92A299D67
“Other” seems to be a problem for a lot of people. I spend hours trying to find anything that resembles logic in that alienation from anything other than sameness. But I always find that no matter how hard I try, there’s just nothing rational about the urge to be with “like.” I felt those compulsions when I was young because there was a time when fitting in felt critical to me,  as I think it does to most people for at least a certain part of their lives. When I left high school, I bolted away from the group mentality I ostensibly shared as a teenager and moved fast to establish my independence. I didn’t have to stretch very much to get there. The truth was I felt like I could “pass,” in the group scenarios but I always felt “other.” I didn’t want what my youthful friends wanted. I didn’t want to move in a pack. I always had trouble with the expectations of the crowd. Too much judgment, too many rules and my flight responses kicked into high gear. Being what other people expected of me was the last thing on my mind. I wanted to be what I expected of me and that was and is a lifelong occupation.066DA4D2-D6BE-42A0-A426-561044B59196
At this stage I certainly have a solid center and a coherent belief system. But I don’t want to be done. I don’t want to stay only in a comfortable zone for whatever time I have left. I want to see what else I’ve got. And I wish everyone could be in that same frame of mind. It’s easy to get pegged. Let’s see. I’m now the widow. I’m aging. Those two factors alone shove me into a pretty marginalized space. Except I don’t want to be in there. I know I have certain limitations.9AFBA9D8-9DFF-46ED-B5B8-F5207D159FD5

But in the immortal words of Patrick Swayze in Dirty Dancing, “nobody puts baby in the corner.” I always want out. I don’t want to be predictable. My parents lived in Chicago for most of their adult lives and I think they ate at five restaurants. They astonished me. They lived small. I always wanted to live bigger. And it doesn’t have to be expensive or wildly adventurous. It just had to be outside the boxes that people seem to find themselves in without knowing exactly how they got there. Recently my son pointed out that he thought my behavior was unusual.

I’ve been getting tickets to see live rock and roll music, some shows out of town. We went to a Pete Yorn show and wound up spending the night with old friends of his from his teen years. Me and the kids. I got the best spare room and he had to sleep on the couch but it was really fine. I think they were ok with things and I was too. I surprised myself a bit, being willing to crash with the kids, but I couldn’t think of a reason to not do it other than it wasn’t typical. I suppose a hotel room would have been more the norm but the truth is, being around young people is energizing and interesting. I’d like everyone to step outside their closets and their boxes.AB09602D-F692-40B9-9C43-B62CE547C1B8
I know that some people only stay in them because of fear and anxiety. That makes me sad. I imagine what it could feel like if I just did the aging widow thing. To me, it’s not an attractive vision. Being alone is hard enough when it sometimes feels like everyone is either paired up, or trying to get that way. I think I’d become a genuine closet case if I lived in those narrow parameters.

So instead I’m hopping a train this Sunday for my solo trip to Glacier. I think this trip is going to work, unlike the previous two times I tried when the park burst into flames. I changed the travel season this time. Precisely my point. If the time frame isn’t working, better try a new one. Isn’t the definition of insanity to do the same useless thing over and over again? I’m trying to stay flexible, to adapt and to squeeze as much as I can get out of this life as I can. I’ve already had my future change when Michael died. Now I have to change it by myself. During the late sixties and seventies, one of my favorite slogans was “out of the closets and into the streets.” I think I’m going to stick with that one. I hope I can convince a few folks out there to bust out and pick a new way. With the boundaries you select instead of the ones thrust at you by someone else. Off I go. Surgery soon after. 42E09ABE-3723-4F7D-8322-C1425EB83635

Going Down the Road

099BB3FD-3A02-44EC-A4DD-7EE0F85AD66DChoosing the beginning lyrics of a Grateful Dead song feels entirely appropriate in trying to communicate about my recent road trip. The second part of that song phrase is “feeling bad,” which I am not. The Dead were Michael’s favorite group and as most of the road trips in my life were with him, I’m not surprised that their music twitched around in my head as I proceeded with this one.36DF425A-D886-4A62-A873-E4EFC5F543BD

My son and I have left our 11th state in 12 days, heading for the 12th and last new one for each of us tomorrow morning. We will have  managed to see almost one-fourth of the continental United States in 15 days. About a year and a half ago, my kid offered me a trip of my choice for my birthday, an adventure we could share. After Michael’s death, all in my family are keenly aware of how fleeting time is and how daily life can swiftly be jerked from its moorings. Initially, he talked about going to Europe. I’ve never been to Greece and have been dreaming of a trip there since I avidly read Edith Hamilton’s Mythology many years ago as a teenager.194B6DE2-477B-4F09-8B5F-C0BE61FC4728

When I was in Europe at the tender age of 20, I didn’t have the vision to recognize that Giverny, home to Claude Monet and his beautiful gardens, was just an hour from Paris. I made the trip to Versailles but passed on the place that is the stuff of my lifelong dreams. Those two offers were on the table. But I’ve got a thing for road trips.A077E44D-FCBF-49BF-A7FF-ABA97ED41264

When I was 12, my family took the one real vacation of my childhood. My parents, my younger sister and I piled into the car and made our way north through Michigan to Mackinac Island. I remember everything about that trip. The inexpensive motels which felt exotic to me, and being served breakfast toast that was already buttered and so deliciously melty when you added a little jam. Then there were the fruit stands on the side of the road where you could buy giant juicy bing cherries that stained your fingers and everything else in the way of the gush when you bit them.

Being on an island where you couldn’t drive and where horse drawn buggies hauled you around to see the sights was pretty cool too. But what stuck with me was the road trip mindset. Getting into your rolling container and moving along for a few hours, getting out somewhere entirely new and absorbing all the things you’d never known or seen is my idea of a good time. I’ve taken a lot of those trips, most with Michael, but also a fun fishing excursion with friends to Minnesota and another, with my generous work partner, who went to visit Civil War sites with me after a disastrous attempt to do that with my mother and kids the previous year. So, despite the temptation of Europe, I opted for another one, with a certain degree of trepidation as I’ve never traveled with anyone for 15 days except Michael.

I always thought that traveling together provided a critical insight into whether a relationship could be sustained over a long time. Being with anyone round the clock is a challenge and if you wind up enjoying it, I figured you’d have a good life. Michael and I developed an easy rhythm from our earliest vacations forward. I wondered how my son and I would do, but for the most part, we managed well. A little bickering here and there, mostly about driving and navigation which was the worst of it. But everything else was good and a relief. I wanted to travel to the East Coast. I’d passed through a few states on my way to New York for a flight to Europe many years ago but I’d never been to New England. Michael had lived some early years in the east and never wanted to go back there. So I was aiming to knock a few more states off my goal of making it to all 50 before I check out of this planet.113742AE-8B68-4A46-8FED-E819095F1400

My son was busy working before we left so the destinations and routes were left up to me. I pored over maps and tried to choose places that were both historically meaningful and alive with nature’s beauty. There are some cities I’d like to see but truly, after growing up in a large metropolitan area like Chicago and then leaving it behind, I knew I’d feel claustrophobic if we focused on places like Boston and NYC. My biologist son truly dislikes urban areas. So we passed through those or picked close sites where we could get a bit of their feel without the attendant hassles.

This from the intrepid planner who routed us through New York on a rainy afternoon, when all we saw were exit signs for Yankee Stadium and Palisades Park, the stuff of lore and old songs. This  ambitious journey, which round trip covered just under 3500 miles,  had three main destinations. The first was the home of an author whose books about collies were my childhood companions. For most of my life, I thought they were fiction but about 15 years ago, I learned that the man was a breeder who lived in New Jersey on Sunnybank Farm. All the dogs of my dreams were real and buried on what is now Terhune Memorial Park in Wayne, New Jersey.

I’ve been aching to stand on that land and to see the graves of those animals who influenced my pet owning decisions throughout my life. I was so moved, I wept as my mind rolled back to childhood years and then moved back forward to the memories of my beloved pets who all my life were versions of my book favorite, Lad. My son told me that at this point in his life,  he can’t think of places where he’d have such powerful feelings other than home. Let’s face it – Hogwarts is a fantasy, all theme parks to the contrary. I feel lucky to have the impact of books and my imagination still play a role in my internal life. 

Next, we spent a few days at Cape May on the Jersey shore. One of my oldest friends who grew up in Philadelphia always talked about going “down the shore,” and I wanted to do it. Any time spent oceanside works for me and as I gathered my shells and rocks, I was filled with the sense of well-being I get when contemplating the water and its magnitude and mystery. We were ahead of high season so we weren’t overwhelmed by crowds. Shore birds flew by and the waves rolled in. Perfect.

We stuffed in a few side trips to Philadelphia and Quincy, Massachusetts for some history. I loved Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, along with John Adams Memorial Park and Homesteads. But mostly I was thinking of other things. I drive an older model car that doesn’t have the technology the new ones do. I always rent one for long trips to extend the life of mine. I didn’t know that CD players no longer exist in the new vehicles. I’d brought 10 books on CD that I thought we’d listen to along the way but that idea went the way of archaic things. From 8 tracks to cassettes to CD’s to internet everything. I’m fossilizing.

Fortunately, I’d decided to unearth Michael’s ancient iPod with its 2500 songs. I hadn’t touched it since 2016. Since we were limited to whatever podcasts we had on our phones, I plugged in the iPod and the car immediately “discovered” it. So there was Michael, the undercurrent of our trip, his musical choices eliciting all kinds of feelings from both of us. There were old favorites which we could sing along with in harmonies we’d developed over the years. Some songs were forgotten treasures and others were new to us. When he was teaching, Michael’s students got to share their favorites in class and he chose his new favorites from theirs which made their way onto the iPod. So we were getting an enhanced music education. Comedians and their best shticks are on it along with TV show themes and classic movie dialogues. My favorite is from Cheech and Chong’s Up in Smoke, followed by Abbott and Costello’s Who’s on First? Having Michael’s eclectic choices along for the ride felt just perfect. We barely made it through half of what’s on that old thing. Considering the short life of recent tech toys it was amazing.

As we inched our way along the eastern seaboard, I found myself entranced by bridges, architectural styles of the past and old cemeteries full of history and secret lives. Having fun and being reflective aren’t mutually exclusive. Travel expands our world-views and I was thinking about the need to repair infrastructure and the decline of small towns which had beautiful buildings and then the ones falling apart. As we avoided the interstate and drove the two lane highways, we passed a lot of those small towns. Most had churches, the most well-kept buildings, right at the edge of Main Street. So many churches in these little places. How much religious diversity there is off the beaten path is amazing.

And there’s so much empty, beautiful country. How do you protect that and yet have a functioning economy that prevents decay and breathes life into the places that aren’t major metropolitan areas? Big questions. We did find a Cabot Creamery in a small town. When we had dinner that night I ordered a cheese tray which had four different Cabot varieties. They were so fresh and subtle, a far cry from the Cabot white cheddar I can get locally. The Holsteins along the road into that place are doing a great job. When we rolled into Maine and Acadia National Park, the beauty was instantly striking. While soaking it all in, I was simultaneously worrying about climate change and environmental laws. I also was thinking about how unfair it is that to see these wonders, you have to be a person of certain means. Why can’t there be mandatory trips that take inner city people out to these places so they can experience nature at its most magnificent?

As a city kid who grew up in apartments with no green space, I well remember getting out into the country and seeing all this seemingly endless room out there. I find myself feeling guilty that I didn’t haul a bunch of underprivileged kids with me so their minds can stretch and consider unimaginable possibilities. Those experiences can be life-changing. We spent three great days in Acadia and Bar Harbor, Maine. We passed through three capital cities. We really packed a lot into a short time. 

On the way back home, we made a side trip to Niagara Falls which was a first for my son. Michael and I hit Niagara when we took a bucket list trip for him to Cooperstown and the Baseball Hall of Fame and Hyde Park, home of FDR. The majesty and power of the Falls is spiritual. Although the area is by necessity somewhat touristy, when you stand at the edge and watch the water, mesmerized, it’s really magic. So we did it. We made this long imagined trip and will treasure the memories that abound in any special shared experience. I’m thinking ahead to what’s around the next bend for me and how many more bends I may be lucky enough to have. I’ll be bringing Michael’s iPod on every one. B4F5F940-17D0-47C6-A602-51F090B7F206

The Books of Your Life

364F4EE4-AD23-4B88-9B04-945E26EAF583I am presently on a lengthy road trip with my son. Our itinerary is ambitious – by the time we return home in sixteen days, we’ll have driven over 4000 miles. I’ve always loved being on the road. So much to see and experience. I feel like I’ve really challenged myself with this one. I’ve had one knee replacement surgery but the other one is ahead of me so hiking is a bit of a stretch. But I don’t want to squander my general good health at this age, and most certainly, not my mental fortitude which fires me to keep ticking items off my to do list. During this trip, we’re covering history and nature. My son has committed himself to making good memories with me which is a perfectly understandable plan after going through the unexpected loss of his dad two years ago. The two of us are well-suited to traveling together as we share similar musical taste and are both eager to learn as we roll along. In our typically dorky fashion, we’re listening to some Great Courses he selected, one on the greatest geological sites in the world and the other on mythology. We’re self-actualizing together. It’s pretty entertaining.

Yet on Day 4, we diverged from new shared experiences to one that I most especially planned into this trip. It all began with a book. When I was growing up, if I wasn’t outside playing and exploring, I almost always had a book in my hands. I was an indiscriminate reader – there was virtually nothing I wouldn’t read from long tomes to cereal boxes. At home, the big joke was that I read all the books on our one measly book shelf and when I was finished, I went back to the top shelf and started over. I had a tendency to pick a topic and read everything about it. I read about the presidents. I read biographies about athletes. I would find an author I liked and then read every book that person wrote. I started reading about the Civil War when I was about eleven and haven’t stopped since. When my son and I drove within the proverbial stone’s throw from Gettysburg, I found it hard to pass by. I’ve been there before. Whatever a religious experience is supposed to be, I think I had one on that battlefield. Images that I inferred from reading dozens of books about those days in July of 1863 seemed as real to me as if I’d been there at the time. That visit evoked some of the most powerful emotions I think you can get from just being in a place. I 71A2EB3C-2DAA-4D09-A8D5-E93DDC3EC382

When I was about 11, I came upon a book by Albert Payson  Terhune called Lad: A Dog. We’d had a collie mix when I was a few years younger but we gave him up when we moved from Iowa to Chicago and an apartment. No dogs allowed. So reading about Lad’s life and adventures struck a chord in me. Terhune wrote other books about Bruce and Treve and Gray Dawn, but Lad and his extended family always were my favorite. I must have read that book a hundred times. I still have a copy on the shelf by my bed. One day, maybe a dozen years ago I was at work, tired of my current task and in need of a break. Lad’s imaginary home was called Sunnybank and I just decided to type the name into my computer to see what came up. I was totally floored to discover that the Lad and other collie books were not fiction. Terhune was a collie breeder who lived on a big swath of land in Wayne, New Jersey. A graduate of Columbia University, he was also a journalist and novelist. He started writing during the late 1800’s and continued for decades.

As I scrolled incredulously through the website, I found myself looking at photos of Lad and the other collies, their home, their lake, their special places. And the dogs were buried on the grounds of Terhune’s property. I was dumbfounded at first but that quickly turned into obsession. I needed to be at that place. I just couldn’t figure out a trip to New Jersey at that point in my life when I had so many responsibilities and so many other places to knock off my list. This trip was the right time for finally realizing my dream. Today, on the way to Cape May, my dream came true.

Terhune Memorial Park is a beautiful, serene place located on Lake Pompton in Wayne, New Jersey. The grounds are well-tended and the mature trees are alive with birds, chipmunks and squirrels. The house succumbed to fire some years ago but there is a museum in town which has artifacts from it and the dogs’ careers. I was interested in the graves. As we entered the park, my kid, a biologist and bird specialist pointed out several lifers, first time bird spotting for me. I quickly selected a favorite tree, a purple European beech with beautiful leaves and a gorgeous trunk.

While he pointed his binoculars at the sky, I walked from grave to grave, from stone bench to stone bench, recalling all the stories of the dogs’ lives, especially Lad’s. I surprised myself by dissolving in tears as I found myself racing back almost 60 years in time to those days when I began gobbling up those books. As I then reversed direction, moving back to the present, I realized how the books shaped the choices in my life. The majority of my dogs were collie mixes, most of whom looked exactly like pure collies.

My beloved Flash, my dog who I suspect was the dog of my life, looked just like Lad. My current dog Violet is a rescued purebred, my first one with papers and championships which mean nothing to me as I think she was abused. In the two years that I’ve had her she’s turned from a vacant alienated creature to a real dog. You can actually teach old ones new tricks. I think of Michael constantly teasing me about my “intellectual, psychological dogs,” who were always looking me in the eyes and trying to figure out what I needed. He was right. I wanted my dogs to be just like Lad whose gravestone reads: A Thoroughbred in Body and Soul. I wove those books into the fabric of me where they remained an influence in my life’s choices. I hope books can still do that for children, letting them build life visions from the inside out. Today was another religious experience for me. I’m glad that what came from reading can still stir such powerful feelings. And that a park by a lake can fill your soul, at least for awhile. I’m grateful to be that person.D673EB7B-83FB-4292-870F-C2D1D9575B6E

Regrets and Pinnacles

0388F91A-01F7-4DEC-BB7F-1160E082BC02A while ago, my son asked me if I had any regrets about my life. After Michael died, our whole family has spent time thinking and evaluating, pondering the big questions of life. I was actually surprised by my spontaneous answer. I was transported back to 1989, my year from hell. Michael was running for alderman that year after losing an election against the same opponent four years earlier by only two votes. I was his campaign manager both times and we were devastated at that first outcome and determined to not let it happen again. Shortly after his victory he developed a severely herniated disk which put him flat on his back for months. Almost immediately after that, both my parents were diagnosed with cancer within five weeks of each other. My mother had a radical mastectomy and my father was being treated for bladder cancer. Eventually, Michael’s back was so bad he required surgery. By this time, my mother was recovering as my father failed.E65E3411-0F17-4851-9C87-B6889E236AE9.jpeg

In the meantime, I had a full time job and two young children. I was doing my best Edith Bunker imitation, flying from one person to one place and then on to the next one. We were having our roof done that summer and were having classic contractor difficulties. A job that was supposed to take one week took six and left our house and yard disasterized. One day, a strong electrical storm came through town and an old oak tree on our parkway was struck and fell on the new roof. The symbolism of the sky falling wasn’t lost on me. Eventually Michael had the back surgery. A brief month later my father died.403070de-927d-4590-9ce3-f1abd6d7e537.jpeg

At this point in time Michael was a partner in a music store business which had a few locations and was doing well. This was before the big box stores showed up, selling CD’s as loss leaders and undercutting the independent record businesses. The Record Service also predated the days of downloading music from the internet. That fall there was a big party to celebrate its 20th anniversary in business. The store never made us much personal money, but it came with a lot of perks. The record companies owned box seats at Wrigley Field, Comiskey Park and the Chicago Stadium. We saw lots of terrific games during the fabulous days of the Chicago Bulls of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen fame. We had preferred parking passes and were living like royalty. In addition to those privileges, we got free concert tickets to every group imaginable. The tickets often came with backstage passes.

 

Can you imagine the fun of hanging out and chatting with people like Tina Turner, The Commodores, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Ben Harper and Billy Joel? There were many more. My love for music had started early.8C136DD3-93B5-4A2D-9ACE-6B0BF16AEF5E.jpeg

When I was eleven I had a pen pal from Liverpool, knew all about the Beatles and saw them at the Chicago Amphitheater when I was thirteen years old. At 10 o’clock every evening, I lay in bed with my little transistor radio to hear Dick Biondi, a DJ on WLS radio, who would announce the top three songs according to call-in listeners. That was just the beginning.

 

I saw the Supremes, the Temptations and James Brown. I saw The Rolling Stones multiple times along with The Beach Boys. When Michael and I got together, the list grew longer. Before he died, he compiled the names of every band we saw and met, and were stunned to realize we’d seen over 300 groups. I never got around to buying him the t-shirt which said, “we might not have any money but we’ve seen all the best bands.” We had an absolutely wonderful time.D4ED8E89-08BC-4D8A-BEF4-C629F4A72DAC 

So right around the Record Service’s 20th anniversary bash, the rep from Capitol Records gave Michael two tickets to see Paul McCartney who was touring and would be playing in Chicago. Paul was my favorite Beatle. I admired John’s intellect, George’s sweetness and Ringo’s humble style, but Paul was my lifetime crush. At that time however, I really didn’t feel comfortable about going to attend a rock concert. My dad had just died and I felt a moral responsibility to stay close to my mother. So I declined and Michael stayed home with me. I didn’t know then what I know now, that life is uncertain every day and that you should always take advantage of wonderful opportunities while you have the chance. When we were dealing with Michael’s cancer we got better and better at doing that and managed to squeeze some fabulous times in between the hard ones. I’ve been practicing that skill since Michael died. I’ve traveled to long desired destinations on my own and seen so much beauty. I took a dream train ride across the country and am getting ready to do it again to another pined for place.

I finally got to see Roger Federer in the flesh after watching him on television for 20 years. Every time I tick a dream off my list I feel like I’m honoring Michael who left this life with so many wishes on his to-do list. So when my kid asked me about regrets the first thing out of my mouth was that I wished I’d seen Paul McCartney in 1989 when I had the chance. My staying home didn’t really change anything for anyone. I just missed a good time and a memorable experience. Shortly after that conversation, I received an email with two tickets to his latest concert tour in Ft. Wayne, Indiana. My kids decided to correct that regret. 20F54E02-E028-4127-B911-85D5C48C344D

I was stunned and excited although I thought Ft. Wayne might be a strange venue. The concert was taking place at the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum which sounded odd. But it turned out to be a lovely building, clean and new with a 13,000 person capacity which meant there really wasn’t a bad seat in the house. The professionalism of Paul’s team was impressive. There were lights, lasers and fireworks. Paul’s image was projected onto huge screens so everyone could feel close to him. There was a movie screen in the center of the stage which scrolled images appropriate for every song.

And the music selection was fabulous from the early Beatles catalogue to Paul’s early solo albums to Wings and his most recent music release, Egypt Station. The crowd was electric with excitement and was demographically diverse, from race to age. It’s not every day that you get to see a genuine icon in the flesh. Which brings me to the more substantive feelings evoked by watching this soon-to-be 77 year old man handle a challenging 3 hour performance. First, I recognized that this person does not need to be doing this. He’s already reached the pinnacles so many people could never imagine. He’s wealthy, successful, world-renowned and well-loved. He’s performing because he wants to and maybe needs to, as his passion seems undiminished and joyous. Paul presents as a grownup. He’s comfortable talking to a huge crowd and doesn’t pretend he’s a kid. His banter with the audience touches on his early life as  a young performer. But what left the strongest impression on me was that he was clearly using his platform to share painful acquired life lessons in an unembarrassed, open way that was powerfully moving.

 

First, he spoke reflectively about a key life lesson which was that if you want to tell someone how you feel, you should do it now. He spoke about his relationship with John and how males of their age rarely expressed love for each other. When John was killed, he was haunted by never having said aloud what had been true for their entire lives. He played a song he wrote about it, which was a somewhat sheepish confession of his emotions that he felt might get a teasing response from his old friend. It was truly simple on an acoustic guitar and one that brought many tears to the audience.

Then the screen switched over to George images, who he sweetly referred to as Georgie. He brought out a mandolin that George had given him as a gift and said that the best way to honor his memory was by singing one of his best songs, Something.  Just Paul with this little instrument, doing his touching rendition of a George classic.

He played a lovely song for his current wife Nancy. When he went back to his Band on the Run tunes, the screen was filled of images of him with his babies, taken by his wife Linda, the photographer he met and married in his 20’s. Their thirty year marriage ended with her too early death from breast cancer and as the pictures of he and his kids went by, they faded to pictures of the band in which they played together, her body leaning into his as they posed for a photo shoot which eventually cut away and faded.06663248-96F5-412B-89BF-55734CDAEFDA

And finally he talked about how civil rights unrest and the tragedy of racism in this country inspired him to write Blackbird, a song known by millions of people around the world. Hearing a reflective person share so freely truly resonated with me. Both my son and I felt it was a transcendent experience. I’ve been thinking about it for days and I’m hard put, even after all the live music I’ve been so lucky to witness, to think of any concert that was better than this one. So much more than songs. That regret I felt for having opted out of that show 30 years ago is erased. More importantly, I actually am thinking it turned out to be a really great thing in the long run. Regrets can become pinnacles as life moves along in its random ways. I still love Paul.5BAD9C0F-DB96-4EB1-AC99-96B8168A0493