Two weeks ago I underwent a procedure most people call cataract surgery, which I have unilaterally nicknamed “extreme Lasik.”
It has left me unsettled, crabby and neurologically unhappy.
I know cataract surgery is different than Lasik. With Lasik, a medical professional reshapes your cornea using a laser. Cataract removal is when your cloudy lens gets broken up, suctioned out and replaced with a new, custom-made clear one.
The results are the same in that (worst-case scenarios excepted) you end up with clearer vision. That’s the good news.
The bad news – for me, at this moment – is that in the US, cataract surgery is done one eye at a time with a minumum of four weeks between procedures.
Which means that I have another two weeks of walking around like this, “this” meaning that at the moment, one eye doing is one thing while the other is doing something else completely.
For the first time since I was eight, I have nearly perfect distance vision my left eye. I remain wildly nearsighted in the right. If I put my glasses on (with the lens removed from the “fixed” eye), I have clear vision in both. But because glasses distort an image slightly, everything is two different sizes and my brain – to use a scientific term – spazzes out.
Glasses are no longer a viable option.
So, at the moment, I am not wearing glasses. Visually, it’s like being being stuck in that point in “Stranger Things” right before everything goes horribly sideways.
Evidently, I’m legally able to drive with one eye, so I am, but just during the day. When thngs get too weird, I just put my hand over my right eye and look out the left for awhile. Some people suggested wearing a patch, but I will only do that if I can accessorize with a parrot and a bottle of rum. Which are definitely not part of the library’s acceptable dress code, so…no. I have settled for whining a lot, which is making me excellent company (NOT!) for everyone lucky enough to be in my orbit.
Meanwhile, the world goes on. I am reading “The Lemon Tree” by Sandy Tolan and absorbing information about the founding of the State of Israel that diverges wildly from what I was fed as a kid. Integrating what that means moving forward is going to be a sad and important job.
Omarosa figured out that she was better off throwing President Trump under Air Force One instead of trying to reboard it. One grandkid is learning to swim and the other one is working toward getting up to eight pounds.
And as of yesterday, the world is a sadder and more silent planet with the passing of Aretha Franklin. Sweetheart and I were lucky enough to see her perform four years ago at the Wisconsin State Fair, a peak moment because she is – as is the case for so many people – part of the soundtrack of my life. Unlike a lot of performers I’ve seen at “smaller” venues, she very much did not phone it in. Her three-hour set included all of the big hits, lots of new material and plenty of solos by members of her 20-plus piece band.
At one point, between songs, she said she had an old friend in Milwaukee and asked if that woman was in the crowd. She was. They had a conversation right there – the friend from her seat and Aretha from the stage. They did a little catching up. Aretha asked about her children and grandchildren (some of whom were there) and made arrangements for her to come backstage after the show. Then, she continued on, dazzling us with her voice, piano styling and her very talented nephew, who was part of the band.
Before I was a librarian (by which I mean from the time I was about 3), I read a lot. As a baby journalist in the early 1990s, I started reviewing books and discovered the fun and wonder of sometimes getting paid to read. Which didn’t stop me from continuing to do it for free.
Since becoming a librarian, I have discovered that what I read has now taken on the weird addition of having some sort of Mystical Librarian Stamp of Approval.
I have noticed this both in and outside the library.
Confession: I like it.
So, without further ado, I thought I’d share some of what I’ve been reading lately.
“The Wonderling” by Mira Bartok
I just finished this and wish I hadn’t, because I didn’t want it to end. I’m probably going to read it again. Soon. Evidently there’s a movie deal in the works, and it’s easy to see why. Bartok’s imagination pantry is a well-stocked place, and she’s a great cook.
Because we tend to like our comparisons, I’m just going to say that this book is what you might get if you tossed Frances Hodgson Burnett, Charles Dickens, Phillip Pullman, Garth Nix, JK Rowling, Charles deLint and an afternoon soap opera into a blender. Perfect for the tween set and anyone who loves getting lost in a good yarn. (My nephew is totally getting this for Christmas.)
“What this story needs is a Vroom and a Zoom” (A Pig in a Wig book) by Emma J. Virjan
The Grandkid (aka my favorite small person) was over last night and I read this aloud to him. That was after reading it aloud to Sweetheart. Grandkid was riveted, which is pretty impressive given that he’s 19 months old. Not so surprising, though, because the story is about a race and like Sweetheart, he’s a big motorized things fan. Good for car enthusiasts. Also wee people and the people who love reading to them.
“Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of my Hasidic Roots” by Deborah Feldman
This one is a library weed my sister told me to read years ago. (There are plenty of copies available in other branches). Feldman describes growing up curious in a religious sect that frowns on imagination and constrains its adherents to the narrowest of options. I have a particular bias for these types of books, partly because I’m in the process of work on a book-like object in a similar genre and partly because someone in our own family a generation back made a similar break, although from a far less (though still plenty) restrictive sect.
Being raised by her grandparents after her mother broke away when she was small, leaving her behind, and a father who was part of the community but incapable of caring for her meant she was slightly different and suspect from the start. Growing up, she knew to hide her love of reading and keep trips to the public library secret. As an adult, watching the community protect ideals over exploited and injured community members pushed Halpern to pick a side. In the war between her love for the grandparents who raised her and the chance for her child to grow up whole, she chose her son.
“Miriam’s Secret” by Debby Waldman
Yeah, she’s my sister and yeah, the book is set in on a fictional farm that draws heavily from our family’s farm. But this Depression-era story of a kid from New York City who spends a few months with her grandparents provides a kids-eye view of life in tough times without a bunch of moralizing and commentary. Same goes for Jewish ritual and practice. It’s all very matter-of-fact and organically woven in to the story, mostly told through the relationships between Miriam, her grandparents and the hired men who help run the farm. Also, anyone who is my cousins will laugh themselves silly at the grandmother in this story. To say ours was never that tender is a major understatement.
“Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson
I’m only on page 23, which is okay because Book Group isn’t until next week. But already I’m looking forward to bedtime so I can read more of this story by a lawyer who has made addressing inequities around mass incarceration and the death penalty his life’s work. And I’m very grateful to Sally for choosing it for us to read. It’s been on my list for awhile, and this is the push I needed to get off my tush and read it.
“Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun” by Sarah Ladipo Manyika
It’s very short, only 118 pages, but so very good. Another book club pick, this one thanks to Cynthia, who hosted last month. I’ve never met a protagonist like Morayo, maybe because most of the fictional 75-year-olds are supporting characters who are usually supported. By a cane or a wheelchair or some other old-person marker. Morayo is single, childless, a retired academic who drives a Porsche and is and living the good life in San Francisco. Well, that is, until she falls and breaks her hip. Maybe it’s because I have a mom in a nursing home. Maybe because I’m getting older and have a slew of friends who are single and childless. But this book really resonated. Also, anyone who arranges their books by how well their characters would get along, as Morayo does – real or not – is my kind of person.
I should probably spend less time reading these, but there is this one group to which I belong that is feeding my brain-growing side a lot. I can’t talk about it, because it’s a secret group. But it’s very good for my soul. And it’s good for my soul to keep up with the people I value in 3D, given our sometimes way-too-busy lives.
My Twitter Feed
Not as much here, but it’s interesting to see what people think and to get information on breaking news stories – bearing in mind, of course that it’s always best to verify.
Twitter is also a good place to remember how little you matter if you are not a brand or a celebrity. Most of my posts are met with radio silence. I might as well be posting on my bathroom wall. But it’s okay. In 100 years, no one will care anymore about most of what’s happening now anyway, and so in at least one sense, my tweets are on the leading edge of a curve!
Because I drive. And sometimes ride my bike.
“Jonah” by Some old Middle Eastern Storytellers (Translation by the Jewish Publication Society)
Yesterday, in Mom’s room. As part of my alternative Yom Kippur observance.
“Believe Me: A Memoir of Love, Death and Jazz Chickens” by Eddie Izzard
See above about “Unorthodox” and book-like objects. I am a big Eddie Izzard fan, so when I saw this on our “New” shelf, I was all over it. I read it at work and wrote a review for a future issue of the library newsletter. It’s pretty humble stuff for a celebrity memoir, mostly him describing what it was like before and after his mom died when he was six, his decision to live as openly transgender in 1985 and the process that led him to be able to carry that to his onstage persona, which, for years he stuck to what he describes as “boy mode,” and generally his operating philosophy, which is to act as if you’re capable of more than you are. It’s actually a very Jewish concept (not that Eddie said that) – the “engage in action and intent and belief will follow.”
Sweetheart and I have tickets to see him here this coming weekend, and I’m looking forward to it.
“Liner Notes: On Parents & Children, Exes & Excess, Death & Decay & A Few of My Other Favorite Things” by Loudon Wainwright III
I just started this one, too, at work. What I said about “Unorthodox” and “Believe Me.” It’s interesting to read in narrative form about some of what he’s written and sung. You get a bigger picture and context, and it’s fun to be a fly on the wall for his encounters with Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Judd Apatow and other household name-type people. Because I’m also a big fan of the work of his singing family members and friends (Lucy, Martha, Rufus, Sloan, Chaim Tannenbaum, Suzzy Roche and the McGarrigle Sisters), reading about them is kind of like getting to hang out with people you know but not so well and learning more about them.
On a separate but related note, I will always have a tender spot for LWIII, who gave me what remains one of the nicest compliments anyone ever has about my writing. I profiled him 12 years ago for a piece in our local alternative paper. When he showed up for the gig, I asked him to sign the story. He said “I read it over dinner, and it didn’t even give me indigestion.” When I told this story to Suzzy & Lucy a couple of years ago, Lucy’s comment was “That sounds like him.”
“Toad on the Road: A Cautionary Tale” by Stephen Shashkan
What I most like about this picture book is that you can sing it as your own improvised blues tune. It probably works in other genres, too – punk, jazz, plainsong, recitative, rockabilly. It’s adorable, funny, charming and features a female tow-truck driving working mother. Which is pretty much everything.
When The New York Times recently ran a front page story about China’s effort to combat “gray rhinos” –large and obvious problems that are often ignored until they become crisis– I was beyond excited to see one of my dearest friends getting some well-deserved props.
The closest the reporter got was this phrase, “an eponymous business book that has become somewhat popular this year in China,” 11 words of a 22-word sentence.
Subsequent stories further twisted the meaning into something that restricted the term to a specific kind of Chinese company. Every time I read one, I wanted to hurl herds of foam rhinos at my monitor, which was problematic because I don’t own any foam rhinos. (On the upside, CNN Money. Bloomberg. South China Morning Post mentioned the book and even spelled her first name – one “l,” not two – right.)
I remember when Michele first started talking about the book, and I remember when she was writing it. I forget a lot of stuff, but I’m pretty sure would have remembered Chinese banking crises if they’d been in mix for inclusion. Greek defaults and the Argentinian financial debacle were. China, not so much. (It would have qualified, but it hadn’t happened yet.)
So, a brief review:
So what’s a gray rhino? In disaster avoidance parlance, to paraphrase the book’s subtitle, a gray rhino is an impending and avoidable threat to which you can respond. They do not have to be big international banking crises. A gray rhino can as simple as walking through your kitchen and noticing that the sugar canister is down to less than a tablespoon.
I was dealing with one when Michele was working on her book.
‘Woman with with weird resume seeking soft landing’
Ten years ago, something happened at my grant-funded job that made it pretty clear its days were numbered. Ironically, a large component of my job involved helping other people address the fallout from their up-ended lives. I helped them figure out what their best next moves were, then did what I could to see them through those moves. Given that, it would have been pretty hypocritical to pretend I didn’t need to start casting about for my own best chance at a soft landing, which turned out to be enrolling in a library and information science graduate program.
I got laid off the year after I walked across a stage to pick up my master’s degree, spent the following 11 months of non-day-job work applying for day jobs, editing dissertations, writing freelance newspaper and web-based stories and indexing a book. Then, one of those applications panned out and, to my great delight, I landed a job as a public librarian.
Michele loves that story. She keeps asking me to blog about it. But I want to blog about a different gray rhino.
Mom has been in a nursing home for almost four years. Before she actually ended up in one, ending up in one was her biggest fear.
Rhino avoided….for awhile
I have vivid memories of nursing home visits to elderly relatives with 50-something Mom. That woman was vibrant. She ran from morning ‘til night. She worked, volunteered, played bridge, was active in her synagogue, a regular at book group and still found time to travel the world with her sisters and host friends at her house on Cape Cod.
We’d walk into a facility and the smell – a melange of stale, damp and vague decay – would hit us. Then, there’d be the sights en route to our destination, usually someone’s room. Near-comatose old people with wispy hair and rheumy eyes sitting in wheelchairs in the halls, or arranged in rows in common rooms in front of a TV. Some would stare at nothing, some were aware of us. Some babbled weird things that were unintelligible or if intelligible, more closely resembled random word strings than coherent thoughts.
We’d find our person and have our visit. On our walk back to the car, Mom would utter a variation of the same declaration.
“If I’m ever like that, shoot me or give me pills.”
I’m pretty sure that 50-year-old Mom would shoot 89-year-old Mom.
Eighty-nine-year-old Mom, however, is not nearly as upset about her current situation.
There are, I think, several reasons for this, many of which involve a veritable herd of Michele-style Gray Rhinos. If Parkinson’s disease had not derailed her well-laid out plans, she’d be living quite contentedly on Cape Cod, using her yearly required withdrawal from her 401K to travel. She’d still be living off her pension and social security checks for daily expenses. Parkinson’s disease was the gray rhino that led us, ultimately, to what Mom – and the rest of us – didn’t think existed.
A good nursing home experience.
After nearly four years, it dawned on me recently that my family is having one. In a very real sense, we were damned lucky to bumble into it. But we also did – and have continued to do – things to maximize the “good” ness of our situation.
How to have a ‘good’ nursing home experience
I could write for days about this, but no one wants to read that much for that long. So I’ll do my best to keep it simple. Here are four tips, two of which I have never seen in any book about nursing homes.
Their casa is your casa
Before I elaborate, though, a disclaimer. A lot of what went down in the decade or so preceding Mom’s decision (and it was her decision) to move to a nursing home had reassured her that as far as my sister and I were concerned, she was still in charge. Losing mobility and stamina did not mean losing the right to have her wishes honored while she was still intact enough to make those decisions herself. That still stands now that I am in charge of making decisions on her behalf.
So, without further ado, this, based on our experience, is how to have a great nursing home experience.
If possible, try to build some buzz around your person’s arrival. Think “PR rollout.” We didn’t plan or intend that, but it turned out to be a lucky and very happy accident.
Mom, having made the decision that the nursing home was where she needed to be, opted to blow town and visit her sisters, leaving me to divest of what wouldn’t fit in her new room and choose what would and should. She flew off to California to spend three weeks with her older sisters. (My daughter was headed out there for a conference, so she stopped and picked up Granny on the way; my sister flew from Canada to California, then brought Mom home to her new room.)
I spent the next three weeks cleaning out her apartment, the latter two of them moving things over to her new place, which was in an adjoining building. In the process I got to know the people on her unit. I found out that many of the CNAs had been there for years, a very good sign. They exclaimed over her artwork and listened to my stories about Mom. There was something exotic about her being in California, and the idea that she’d be arriving on a night in the future, like some movie star on tour.
I hadn’t intended the three weeks she was gone to be a buzz-building campaign, but that’s how it worked out. By the time she arrived, everyone was really excited to meet her. Note: I also decorated her room somewhat strategically, placing her United Way ‘Self Above Service’ award and other recognitions she’d received over the course of her life for teaching and synagogue involvement in view of the entrance to her room.
I had the luxury of working a mile-and-a-half from Mom for the first two years she was at the Home. But if you can’t be the person who pops in between four and five times weekly (more often even), try to get someone else to do it for you. These don’t have to be extended visits. Sometimes the trip there and back took more time than the quick hello, hug and kiss for Mom and a ‘Hi!’ to other residents and staff people.
Now that I work on the other side of town at a much less flexible job, I’m only there a couple of times a week. But everyone knows why. My sister arranged for her to have a companion two nights a week, so even though I’m not there as often, Mom still gets outside attention.
One of my proudest moments some two years into Mom’s being there occurred when she, more lucid then, reported that on a bathroom run in the middle of the night, the attendants were talking past her (which happens, sadly). One said to the other, “We have to take care of her right away, otherwise she’ll call her daughter.” If you can’t win ‘em over with kindness, making them afraid of you is the next best thing.
By the way, about the staff people: Learn their names. And if you are that kind of person, learn their stories. My sister and I have both worked as reporters. Reporters are curious people who are genuinely interested in other people and their stories. If you’re not built that way, find other ways to be kind to the CNAs and caregivers. Figure out what’s in your comfort zone and show them you appreciate what they’re doing for your person.
Debby and I have ended up making some lovely friends. We also have gotten unofficial calls from staff who’ve let us know when Mom has needed something specific and/or something has happened of which they think we should be aware. To say that we’re grateful doesn’t begin to express our feelings of appreciation and respect for these amazing people.
Don’t treat it like an institution.
You may have to sign in and out and your house probably didn’t have elevators, CNAs and nurses (unless the latter two were your parents and/or siblings) but don’t be shy about treating the place like home. There was the time a new nurse-practitioner was looking for ice and asked a busy staffer. I knew where it was and got it for him. My attitude? Yeah, it’s a nursing home. But my mother lives here. So it’s my mom’s house. That goes whether I’m rummaging in the kitchen for cups, straws and tops during an ice water run, fetching a towel or a wheelchair from the storage closets or helping out when dinner’s being served.
Even though I thought I knew this, I didn’t. I do now because of something I said earlier: “Get to know the staff people.”
I have promised Mom a beautiful, easy death. Which is why, last month, I signed papers with hospice care. Mom gets to stay where she is, and a bunch of new people now come in to see her (social worker, nurse, personal care workers, music therapist).
She’s not at the point where anyone needs to swoop in as what my dear friend Julie (who spent a month in hospice before heading off to the Great Mysterious Beyond Place) referred to as “the pharmaceutical death factory.” But when it does, the hospice people are going to be right there to catch her.
What I didn’t know was that if those papers and that plan isn’t in place and your loved one in a nursing home takes a sudden turn for the worse, the lag time between contacting doctors and pharmacies might well mean that your loved one suffers and dies in pain.
That’s what happened recently to someone on Mom’s unit. The family hadn’t made any arrangements; their loved one did not have the easy death that would otherwise have happened. It tore at the hearts of the staff to watch someone they had come to love and care for suffer when that didn’t have to be the case.
The best seven months of my work life so far are the ones I’ve spent as a public librarian. Here are a few of my favorite moments librarying and some pictures of the reason I now describe myself as my library’s “Display Queen.” (Yes, I did use “library” as a verb. Thank you for noticing.)
Putting a John Coltrane CD into the hands of an 11-year-old saxophone student. I don’t remember how we struck up our conversation. I asked what was in the instrument case, and when he told me I asked if he’d heard of Coltrane. He hadn’t. I fixed it.
Sending two aspiring rappers home with a visual dictionary and a copy of “Hamilton: The Revolution” in addition to the thesaurus they came in looking for. As I walked them over to where it was, I asked if they wanted it for something specific. That was when they told me they were rappers looking to increase their vocabularies. And that it was their first time in the library. It was my first time meeting two aspiring rappers, so we engaged in a beverage-free toast to firsts all around. (They were strikingly good looking – tall and slender with beautiful smiles and great hair.) I suggested the visual dictionary, which they thought was a good idea when they saw it. Then I remembered that we’d just gotten “Hamilton: The Revolution,” a book that includes the lyrics to the musical and also talks about how its evolution from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s brain to the stage. THEY HAD NEVER HEARD OF HAMILTON! We don’t have the Broadway soundtrack recording in our collection, but I had my i-pod and a pair of headphones, so played them a few seconds of “Alexander Hamilton” and “Cabinet Battle 1.” Definitely a “Go, me!” moment.
Something I did not know happens at libraries until I started working at one is that banning is a thing. A sad thing, but a necessary one. Upwards of 99 percent of the people who walk into a library bring their best (or at least second-best) selves. But the 1 percent who don’t? They really don’t. Some bans are short-lived; others can last a lifetime with the ability to appeal at annual intervals. My first experience with a banned patron was one who’d gotten the ban letter and wanted to know what was wrong with his card. When I told him, he left quietly. My second experience started the same way – the patron wanted to know why his card wasn’t working. But this time when the ban notice came up, the banning period was over. So I smiled, because his ban had ended and I was happy I got to welcome him back. He smiled, too.
In October, our main branch put together the most incredible Halloween extravaganza, including opening up a “haunted” and usually closed-to-the-public floor. It was my job to lead people coming off the elevator from the third floor up to the haunted fourth floor. But one little girl was terrified, and her family wanted to see the haunted floor. So we stayed on the third floor together and joined a group heading out to our green roof, where two telescopes had been set up, one for viewing Mars and the other Saturn. I’d never seen either as clearly and neither had she. We talked about school (hers) and planets (ours) and then I showed her some of the pictures I’d taken of the fourth floor earlier in the week before she rejoined her family.
In December, Millie, our library educator (and an amazing librarian), hosted a gingerbread house construction project with a roomful of kids. One, the sweetest nine-ish year-old girl you can picture, wanted a couple of books. It took some doing, but we managed to track down and put them on hold for her. She turned to her mom and told her she wanted to give me her gingerbread house. Her mom said, “I thought you were going to give it to (name).” “But she was really helpful,” the little girl said. It turned out the named recipient was her little brother. So I told her I knew of a way she could give it to me and still take it home to her brother. I’m not posting the picture her mom took of the two of us holding the house because I didn’t ask permission to make it public. It makes me smile every time I look at (or even think about) it.
Just before Christmas, a woman about my age came in to print out some papers related to a job for which she was in the process of interviewing. I called on some of my former “helping other people get jobs” skills from my past and gave her a few tips. Two days later, she came in with an acceptance letter!
One of the scary things about being a librarian is seeing how vulnerable people can be. A recently laid-off man building his profile in the state’s unemployment system (the only way to apply for benefits) turned out to not only not have computer skills, he also didn’t have an e-mail address. My 11 months in my own version of his shoes before getting this job became an instant asset as a result of a counselor named Jeff Armstrong, who’d been affirming and supportive when I’d gone to see him. In another stroke of great good fortune, Jeff answered his phone and the two of them had a conversation in which they arranged a face-to-face meeting.
The Syrian refugee who came in looking for ESL classes for his wife. A couple of months after she arrived, they came in together and got library cards.
The patron who came in to pick up a book that had been on hold for his mother, only to find that somehow the book had gone wandering. After we re-ordered it, she called. She told me about a couple of other books she was planning to read and I found and put them on hold for her. When her son came in to retrieve the found book, he was able to bring her the others, too.
On New Year’s Eve, the library was closed. At the grocery store, three medium-sized kids were gawking in front of the lobster tank. I asked the guy behind the counter if he was okay with me doing something unconventional, and with his approval I was able to resurrect my long-unused lobster-wrangling skills. Three round-eyed kids stared as I reached into the tank and pulled out a lobster. I did the two-minute version of “Lobster 101” for them (sea cockroach, underside of tail how they swim, if not banded in the tank there’d be fights to the death, claws grow back, can only live in salt water, can grow to be upwards of 20 pounds, encouraged them as they gently touched it).
“Do you work here?” asked one.
“No, I said. “I’m a librarian. Come see me at my library!”
It wasn’t until my niece and nephew were 10 and 8 that my life was in a logistical and financial place to take a week off and fly from Milwaukee to Edmonton to visit them.
My brother-in-law, who travels a lot, was going to be gone even more often that month and my mother had mentioned that Debby was not looking forward to a longer-than-usual stint of being the only adult at home. Mom was still living on Cape Cod then, her life a whirlwind of book groups, synagogue activities, shopping, entertaining and traveling to exotic locales with her sisters and nieces.
“I have some time off coming,” I told Mom. “I’ll go up and help her.”
I called Debby as soon as I hung up.
“But Dave is gone that week and it’s their last week of school!” wailed my sister. “We won’t be able to do anything!”
“That’s why I’m coming,” I said. “I don’t want to do anything. I want to see your life and theirs and hang out and be helpful.”
Which didn’t happen exactly, since I got sick as soon as I arrived there.
Even so, it remains one of my very favorite trips. Elizabeth and Noah were exactly the right ages for what I really wanted. Which was to visit their house and spend some real time with them while they were:
a) young enough for a visit to become part of their childhood memories
b) old enough to remember it clearly.
The kids went to a primary school down the street that only went up to sixth grade. They took music lessons. Elizabeth played in a quasi-elite soccer club. Debby wrote while they were at school, and took them wherever they needed to go after. Even when Dave was in town, he was at work a lot and not around much.
As kids, Debby and I went to an elementary school up the street that went up to sixth grade. We took music lessons. We took swimming lessons. Our mother worked, but her teaching schedule meant that we weren’t home by ourselves for very long before she got there. Dad worked nights and weekends, and wasn’t around as much.
It was about the third day, walking to – or maybe from – school with Debby and Noah, when it occurred to me that my sister had recreated an idealized version of our childhood for her own offspring. My next thought was that recreating any version of my childhood was the last thing I would want to do to someone I loved.
To this minute, my flesh crawls just thinking about it. But it was fascinating to see it in action. I had no idea Debby had been so pleased with Management.
Perhaps if I’d had a different relationship with my mother – one more like Debby’s – I might have felt differently. For me, life at home meant existing in a state of constant low-level terror. Mom had a volatile temper. It took nothing to set her off. I hated being screamed at even more than I hated being hit. When she wasn’t angry, she was dismissive.
At school, the terror was delivered through a different mechanism – my classmates. Having undiagnosed, untreated AD/HD was no picnic in a small school. I sometimes joke that everything in my life has been easier than elementary school and the marriage part of my first marriage. But I’m not entirely joking. It’s no fun spending the formative years of your K-12 education as a social pariah and teacher’s nightmare.
Books were my refuge. I learned to parent from the way the mothers and fathers in my favorite books treated their children – by conveniently dying (“The Boxcar Children”), staying the hell out of their children’s way (“Harriet the Spy”), or listening to them and treating them with respect (“Honey Bunch,” “The Bobbsey Twins,” “Nancy Drew,” “Trixie Belden,””Stuart Little”).
I don’t know what Debby’s influences were. I do know that she and my brother-in-law have raised a pair of lovely human beings. It’s lucky to end up with relatives you like and enjoy spending time with. It’s even better when they’re people you met before you knew whether that would happen.
So, here’s to my sister for finally giving me someone to enjoy clothes shopping with. Elizabeth was worth the wait. The same goes for Noah, who is kind, practical, reassuring and treats me like a person, not an auntly obligation.
Last summer, I gave myself a gift. My friend Judy was offering a four-week writing workshop. I went on-line and registered. She’s one of the Writer’s lunch writers, owner of Redbird Writing Studio and the author of “Shut Up & Write.”
It was everything I hoped for and then some. You can draw a straight line between those four weeks and this blog – my way of establishing a regular writing routine that isn’t dependent on anyone else’s editorial agenda or timeline.
Then, in January, Judy sent me an e-mail. Here’s a condensed version:
“A small group of my students are getting together for a weekend in Waupaca, April 18-20. There will be 7 or 8 of us. All have made friends with one or more of the others in class. The point isn’t writing prowess or number of publications, it’s that they want to write and are good company.
Think you’d like to join us? You get to hang out with the group when you want to, or hide in your room to write when you want to. We’ll probably have one feedback session. No classes.
Let me know if you like the idea.”
Let’s see….a chance to spend a weekend at a bed & breakfast where all I have to do is write and hang out – or not hang out – with like-minded people?
I’d never done a writing retreat before, but it’s something that anyone with any sort of creative aspirations dreams about, I think. The chance to shed nagging day-to-day responsibilities and find out whether the void that creates opens you up to producing work you’ve sworn you would, if only you had the time and space, is true. If it turns out to be just a lie you’ve been feeding yourself for decades, it’s probably best to find out in a low-stakes setting. Judy’s invitation seemed like the perfect chance for a test run.
So, despite almost forgetting that this was the weekend – and remembering in the nick of time, on Thursday night as Sweetheart and I were walking Tuki and Judy’s name came up – I left work early on Friday, packed the car, took the dog for a short walk, hit up the Public Market for some food, dropped by the nursing home to hug Mom, then headed up to the Crystal River Inn, the Bed & Breakfast where seven of the eight writers were gathered. (Barbara lives in Waupaca already, so she didn’t need a place to stay.)
Friday night we went in to town, where Judy was formally introduced, along with several other writers. She’d presented a workshop as part of the Waupaca Book Festival, and we hung about at the coffee shop and bookstore for awhile. I am proud to report that I only bought one book for myself. (I got two others, both holiday gifts.)
Saturday and Sunday both started with a walk and breakfast. On Saturday I went to the cemetery. Then, later, I went back with my camera to take a few pictures of some interesting tombstones.
This morning, I saw a Sandhill crane. It was strolling in the grass along Highway 22, elegant as you please, occasionally bending down for something to eat. I watched from a respectful distance until it safely crossed the highway and headed into a back yard, then continued on my way. (I’d opted to leave the camera behind and just take mental pictures, so no photo.)
A couple of the other authors were staying at the B&B, and yesterday, I decided that one of them – Mike Mullin – needs to come and read at Boswell Books, and do presententations at my friend Marqurite’s high school and at Large Midwestern Technical College. Also, he needs to go to my friend Mollie’s library. She’s a children’s and YA librarian who doesn’t live far from him, so I’ll be doing my Yenta the Matchmaker thing sometime this week.
After Saturday breakfast, our writing pack arranged a time and parameters for a roundtable session (three pages at 3:30). Then Judy and most of the other writers went in to town, with plans for a short hike around a nearby lake between town and roundtable. I stayed back to write.
I decided to tear apart something that had started as a blog post and ended up as something else. I’d gotten feedback on its problems from two people I trust. This seemed a good opportunity to take a stab at addressing some of them.
Several hours and three paragraphs later, I realized a couple of things:
I was really hungry.
No one was back from town.
There were tasty leftovers in my room thanks to my Public Market run.
So, I had myself a picnic on the front steps of the B&B. Then, I took another walk, snapped a few pictures of the wedding party that had shown up to take some post-ceremony pictures and went up to my room to play guitar for a bit.
When the others came back, four of us headed off to Hartman Creek State Park, where we hiked around the lake and I got to indulge my inner 11-year-old. After our round-table session, we went Culver’s for dinner, then home to bed.
This morning, I shared, via e-mail, the group picture we’d drafted a Culver’s staffer to shoot, along with a helping of gratitude.
I’ll end with a condensed version of the e-mail that accompanied our photo.
Thank you all – and especially Judy – for an incredible weekend. Even though I probably only wrote three original paragraphs, they were seismic in terms of what I’m striving to achieve with my word-pile.
I’ve grown pretty accustomed over the years I’ve been mulling the story I wanted to tell and have achieved a comfort level with many of the details of my father’s story and its fallout.
Realizing how important Debbie is as a character in this story is a recent and unsettling development, in no small part because she is (was) a public figure. I feel like the owner of a very small house and now I have to build on an extra room for the elephant. (Sigh.)”
Anyway, extreme gratitude to all of you and I look forward to Judy getting us all together again.”
It’s official. As of last night, I am a beekeeper.
It feels very strange to write those words. My mental image of a beekeeper used to be some sort of slightly feral sage, an interesting sort of semi-holy person standing quietly in the midst of a raging storm of flying, buzzing, stinging creatures.
In other words, someone who is not me. Feral is a good description of me as a housekeeper, or a writer. But the closest I get to sage is Thanksgiving dinner, when I’m making the stuffing.
But that’s irrelevant now.
When I got home from work yesterday, Sweetheart had the bike out and ready. I was just walking toward him when Tammy, Dan and her son Larry showed up. I met Tammy at Large Midwestern Technical College not long ago, and we quickly discovered that Larry goes to the school down the block from me and one of his teachers is a friend. So, we invited them to hang out with us for a bit while I carried the newly-painted hive box, bottom board and top out to the back yard and placed them on the stand.
I replaced two of the wax-only frames with honey frames, so my bees would have something to eat until there is enough flowering plant life to sustain them. Kind of like a bee SNAP program (that would be food assistance, for all you non-US readers) that works the way it’s intended to work – a handup, not a handout. If all goes well, they’ll be making their food soon enough.
I love this woman’s outlook on bees and beekeeping. Also her nose for research and her companionable writing style.
Here’s an example, from a passage she wrote about having to buy a new queen for a hive that had not (as is customary when a queen dies) replaced their queen:
“They seemed so lost. At least, they sounded that way. Rather than offering the unified, major-chord buzz I was used to hearing, individual bees were humming quietly to themselves, out of phase, the result of a weird discombobulation. Without their queen, the workers didn’t know quite what to do with themselves, and obviously, they wouldn’t survive without new bees being made. To fix the problem, I rush ordered a new mated, Italian queen from a honeybee supplier in the South. Just days later, she arrived, caged along with several of her attendants, in a large, puffy envelope.”
Brackney goes on to describe the hazards of introducing a new queen into an existing hive, and does what Sweetheart and I did last night with our queen (who I have named Latifah, in case you were wondering).
The queen cage is a small wood block, about 1.5 inches long and hollowed out in the middle. There’s a layer of mesh stapled around the hollowed out side with a hole on one end. The hole is plugged up with a small bit of cork. After making sure you’ve got your finger close to the cork, you pry it off with a small knife and plug the hole with your hand so she doesn’t fly away. Then, you jam a miniature marshmallow into the hole. Take your marshmallow-cage queen, and turn the block so the mesh side is facing down into the hive. Place the block between two honey frames. The time it takes for the queen to eat through the marshmallow on one side, with bees on the other side helping her, gives everyone a chance to get used to each other.
The queen drops down into the hive, starts laying eggs, and everyone lives happily ever after.
Anyway, Brackney decided to throw caution to the winds and skip the slow introduction process.
“I carefully pried out the cork and summarily dumped the queen and her attendants onto the frames in the top of the hive.What happened next astonished me, but I guess it shouldn’t have. I’d read that queens sometimes ‘toot’ or ‘pipe’ loudly to their subjects, but I never expected to have a chance to hear it firsthand. It was a startlingly loud and clear ‘Whooooo-Whoooo-Who-Who-Who-Who!’ As she piped, the queen pressed her midsection against the wooden tops of the honeycomb frame, serving to amplify her high-pitched, staccato calls. It sounded a bit like a kazoo being played by a teakettle.”
Any writer who can come up with a phrase like “a kazoo being played like a teakettle” is my kind of writer. She’s actually anyone’s kind of writer if you’re interested in bees and like your facts wrapped up in engaging prose.
Enlisting Susan Brackney as a beekeeping resource was as easy as plucking her book off a sale rack. But my real beekeeping knight in shining armor (okay, so his shining armor is a flannel shirt, but who’s counting?) is Andy Hemken.
Then, when the Mann Lake order wasn’t here but the bees were going to be, Andy told me not to worry. We drove out to his place over the weekend with every bee thing we had, and he looked it all over. He suggested we paint the box, and gave me a new bottom board and a top (Jeff was using a slab of something that wasn’t a beehive top). When we asked how much we owed him, he said $10. It seemed like way too little, especially given how reassuring it was to have someone treat as pretty much routine that we’d be fine making a go at this beekeeping thing.
Then, yesterday, we picked up our bees. Andy had said anyone who wanted to could put some of the package bees into one of his hives (“I have 500 packages to install. Every one someone else does is one I have to put in.”). It was one of those rare “something in it for everybody” situations – Andy wins because he has a few less packages to install, and we baby beekeepers really win because we get to practice installing bees into a hive under the guidance and tutelage of an expert.
I had my vintage bee veil and a pair of spa gloves. Andy’s wife Cheryl handed Sweetheart a bee veil, and the three of us headed out to the bee yard with a five packages. I was pretty nervous trying to remember the proper sequence for what I was supposed to do when, but by the third package, I pretty much had it down. Here’s a 12-step program for Bee Package Installations:
Take top off hive, put it on the side of the hive.
Take out three middle frames, put them in front of the hive.
Using hive tool, pry can up from inside bee package. Quickly cover hole from can with square of wood so bees do not fly out.
Take hold of small metal piece protruding from top of bee package. Lift piece and slide it toward the covered hole. Uncover hole with hand not holding metal piece, shake it as you remove the tiny wooden block to which it is attached, because it will be crawling with bees who need to stay in the can.
Turn wooden block over and peer in at the queen. Make sure she’s alive. She’ll be pacing back and forth in her mesh-covered cage.
Pick up a mini marshmallow and a small knife.
When the queen is pacing away from the tiny wooden stopper at one end, use the knife to remove the stopper. Quickly plug the hole with your finger. Put down the knife and plug the hole with the marshmallow.
Now, if you don’t have stray bees clinging to the queen cage, you can put her in your pocket to keep her warm. I had stray bees every time. So I just put her nearby where she was safe.
Pick up the can, quickly remove the wooden top and turn it upside down. Tip the box from side to side, tapping on the side that’s angled down so that the bees fall into the hive. When most of them are out, set it down.
Gently replace the frames, making sure you’re not crushing your new colleagues.
Now, using a hive tool (if you have one, which we did not), make a space between two of the newly-replaced frames. Place the queen cage there, mesh side down. Hook the metal perpendicular to the cage, so it doesn’t fall in.
Close up the hive, and make sure the opening in the box with the remaining bees is facing the hive so the stragglers can find their way to their new home.
We came in from the bee yard. I picked out a package from the hundreds there – the sound of all that buzzing was something to hear. Sweetheart wrapped the package up in my jacket and put it in the top case of the motorcycle. We got home as the sun was setting.
We had just enough light to install our package. I had my bee veil on, but couldn’t shake the feeling that I had a bee down the back of my pants. (I didn’t.)
It turned out when we got inside, though, that Sweetheart had picked up a hitchhiker. He was standing in front of the open refrigerator when it happened. He slammed the door shut and shook like a dog that had just been sprung from a bathtub.
We couldn’t find the bee. Then, a few minutes later, Sweetheart opened the fridge again. She was sitting there, shivering. He picked her up and took her outside so she could find her way to her 8,000 sisters, a few brothers and Latifah, her queen.
George Lakoff has retired as Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley. He is now Director of the Center for the Neural Mind & Society (cnms.berkeley.edu).