The Anniversary That Wasn’t Quite

On an unbelievably beautiful day after an unrelentingly rainy summer, Bill and I got married by the side of a lake in the midst of the Catskills fall foliage. The wedding was also a large and wonderful party for about a hundred of our friends and family members that began the evening before and ended the following day.

Since our wedding was Saturday, October 14, 2000, on the Saturday nearest October 14 in 2010, we had another huge party in a rented tent in the field outside our Woodstock house. The foliage was again beautiful, but the weather was quite cold, so we sprang for side covers and gas heaters inside the tent, and then filled it with plants, catered and pot-luck foods, many different things to drink, giant balls and other toys for kids, blankets to wrap up in and a home-made platform for musicians to play on. About 40 people came from all over and it was almost as fun a party as the wedding itself had been.

So well over a year before October 14, 2020 rolled around, we started thinking about how to celebrate the hard-to-believe fact that we have been married for 20 years. We were together for five years before we got married, so all told, we’ve clocked a quarter-century as a couple.

My first–admittedly ambitious–idea was Ireland. Specifically, I had a notion to go there with Bill and his children and grandchildren, and their various significant others. A big endeavor, yes, but not altogether unprecedented. We’d managed a smaller version before, for Bill’s 50th birthday in 2002, with his son and daughter and their spouses, which turned out to be a fun and memorable trip. Driving an outsized, red, right-hand drive van that took up most of what were supposed to be two-way roads, getting awakened in the middle of the night by a hotel fire alarm, and holing up for hours with the female members of our party in a friendly County Cavan pub drinking stout with Bill’s farmer cousin while waiting for the male members of our party who’d gotten hopelessly lost after retrieving a forgotten item in Dublin–all that just added to the overall charm.

When I floated the idea of a family Ireland trip at a big family dinner in May 2019 I was pleasantly surprised that everyone, Bill’s son and daughter, their spouses, and their kids all seemed to want to go. I said at the time that it might be a pipe dream, and it turned that it was. By winter, I knew we couldn’t afford it, at least not in 2020. We’d discovered a years-long slow leak in Bill’s bathroom that necessitated redoing the whole thing and replacing not only the floor but much of the structure underneath. I reluctantly abandoned that plan, at least for 2020. As it worked out, of course, the coronavirus was coming, so we’d have had to cancel in any case.

Now we had a new dilemma. How do you celebrate a big occasion in the middle of a pandemic? His birthday was in March and mine–a big one–was in April. We’d had Zoom parties which were fun enough. But in the months since the pandemic began, Zoom had come to dominate nearly all my social and business interactions and the fun of it had largely worn off. “Of course we’ll have a Zoom party,” Bill said, and we did. But I had an additional idea: Invite people, two or three at a time, to sit on our patio where we now have an outdoor wood stove. I can’t begin to explain how much I love this outdoor stove, which cost all of $235, or how much of a difference it’s made to our lives. Like any other wood stove, it throws a ton of heat and has a chimney that reaches up beyond the patio roof, which means there’s no smoke down below where we sit with our friends, drinking cups of mulled wine and snacking on cheese and crackers, Bill’s signature roasted zucchini with parmesan, and other items. We’ve done this three times now, once in the middle of a rainstorm, and each time we’ve been warm and dry enough and so glad to spend time with friends that neither we nor they noticed the hours slipping away.

It felt almost normal. And in 2020, that’s the best anniversary present we could imagine.

Image L-R: Bill, his son-in-law John, daughter Alyssa, former daughter-in-law Bryony, son Steve, and me outside cousin Charlie’s house in Ireland.

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Meanwhile, in my Backyard…

Nothing in this whole world is as it should be, except in my little backyard where the biggest challenges are things like the rust fungus on my Oregon grape bush and how to stop birds and slugs from eating our newly planted lettuce and bean plants. So, both out of love and because I can’t go anywhere else, I spend a lot of my free time in my backyard, even though I’m still falling woefully behind on jobs that need doing both indoors and out.

Sometimes, I take my laptop and sit on the patio and spend an hour or two working out there, which makes a change from working in my office. I was doing that the other day when I noticed something odd, two finches on two perches of our bird feeder, their beaks interlocked, doing…something.

My first guess was that it was some form of battle, only because the finch battles at our bird feeder are pretty much non-stop. Often, they try to peck at each other from adjacent perches. We fill the feeder with sunflower seeds, so the chickadees and other birds pluck out a seed and take it a short distance away so they can work on opening it. But finches are grosbeaks, a category of bird that has powerful beaks, and they can just park on the feeder’s perches all day, grabbing a seed, chomping it in their super-beaks, and then consuming it while the shell falls to the ground. There are four perches on the bird feeder and a lot more than four finches in the neighborhood, so they are constantly fighting–and occasionally even ramming–each other, competing for those four spots.

But this was something else because these finches clearly weren’t fighting. In fact, it looked like the one on the upper perch was feeding the one on the lower perch. Then the pair moved to the top of the fence nearby and did it some more.

I looked it up. Apparently male finches feed female ones during courtship and incubation. So either he was trying to win her as his mate or else he had already won her, she was now tending a nestful of their eggs, and he was feeding her out of gratitude and affection. Either way, the feeding was clearly ceremonial and not needed for her nourishment since he’d been putting seeds in her beak while she was actually sitting at the bird feeder with her own supply of seeds right in front of her. Maybe something like a man buying you dinner when you make a good living and could easily buy your own dinner. I always had mixed feelings about letting men pay for my dinner back when I was dating, which was a very long time ago. But seeing the finches do this was very sweet.

And in the Oregon grape…

I mentioned that my Oregon grape had rust fungus. It’s a near-native plant so I usually pay it little mind, but it was looking decidedly unhappy and I figured I’d better do something to help it. Because it has spiky leaves, which discourage many larger animals (including humans), the Oregon grape is a favorite hangout for a lot of our backyard birds. As I approached it with my gloves and clippers, a Bewick’s wren departed in a huff. “I’m sorry to disturb you, but you love this plant and it needs my help,” I tried to explain.

There was a lot of rust on the plant, so I had to chop off quite a few branches and then rake them up. Also, there’s a blackberry plant growing up inside it that I have to keep cutting down. So all in all, I was rooting around in there for a while, thoroughly disturbing the plant. All of a sudden, an American robin–which is a fairly large bird–came bursting out of the bush, vigorously flapping its wings and squawking loudly. I jumped, startled for a moment, but it flew off and I went back to what I was doing. Looking deep into the bush in search of the blackberry plant, I spotted a second bird huddled inside. I could tell it was a juvenile robin because it was slightly smaller than the other bird and had a light gray breast with black spots that would turn solid red later when it got older. That bird was holding absolutely still. And then I understood: The older bird’s noisy exit had been intended to draw my attention away from the bush and the younger bird, a parent seeking to protect its young.

That’s using your head!

Birds can be sweet and noble, but they can also be awfully dumb. That was made clear in a recent incident which I only heard about after the fact because, to my infinite regret, I was taking a bath when it happened. Bill, who’s become as much of a birdwatcher as I am, was observing our bird feeder and noticed something odd. A black-capped chickadee had put its head through one of the openings in the feeder to get some seeds…but it didn’t pull its head back out again. Instead it stayed there, occasionally fluttering its wings in an ineffective manner. It was stuck, he realized. The bird couldn’t pull its head back out of the feeder.

So Bill did the only logical thing: He carefully grasped the bird, and gave a gentle tug. That was all that was needed for the head to pop out of the feeder–apparently the bird just didn’t have the right leverage to pull itself out on its own. Bill opened his hand and the bird flew off and landed on a nearby branch, looking back at Bill with obvious bewilderment. It seemed none the worse for the experience.

Birds are wonderful. I love having them around and I spend hours watching them. But every now and then you get a reminder: There’s a reason for the term “bird brain.”

Image: Pussreboots via Creative Commons

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It only took three weeks for the whole world to transform itself into something completely different.

I remember, like it was long-ago occurrence, sitting in a wine bar with Bill and several friends, everyone so jammed in together at the tables you couldn’t walk across the room. Even more people were standing in a space in the back, having not been able to find a place at the tables. Onstage, women were singing. In duos and small groups, or solo, professional singers and rank amateurs, one after another, allotted three songs each. I was one of them, singing with a guitar player I’d been practicing with every week, back before the pandemic.

One after another, we used the same microphone. We sat practically in each other’s laps. There was a big platter of cheeses and salami and olives sitting on the bar and all of us snagged a few bites as we waited for our wine. Looking back, it seemed like a recipe for contagion, and it was. Fortunately, the worst thing going around that night was a stomach flu that I caught and then gave to Bill, which was mild and soon forgotten. That was February 15.

We were so innocent, and so lucky. It was three  weeks after the very first Covid-19 case in the U.S. was diagnosed at a hospital less than two miles from where we were singing that night. Researchers later determined that the virus had been loose in our state for many weeks before that. If one of the dozens of performers or one of the hundred or more audience members had already been infected, this would have been a very different story.

Maybe a story like that of the Life Care Center in Kirkland, 22 miles south of here. Nursing homes all over the country have had devastating encounters with the coronavirus, but Life Care Center is the one most people know about because it was unlucky enough to have been the first.

The coronavirus economy finally came for my income last week when I found out I was having my pay (but not my workload) reduced by almost half by my biggest client. That’s caused a fair amount of panic and worry for me and Bill. But really, if we think about it, we’re very lucky. Stuck at home but in a home we enjoy, together instead of alone, surrounded by the beautiful springtime weather. We have a garden and (in my case) a book to work on. We can give live performances on Facebook (in Bill’s case) any time we want. And there are people delivering food and anything else we need–even toilet paper–to our door.

Luckiest of all, we gathered in a large crowded group in Snohomish County in mid-February. We shared microphones and food and nobody got sick with anything worse than a stomach flu!

We’ve had several friends and one family member who caught Covid-19. We worried hard about them until they got better. And I still worry about what would happen to Bill or me if one or both of us caught it. Our future, like everyone else’s, is filled with uncertainty and I’ve never been good at dealing with that. Maybe reminding myself how incredibly lucky we’ve been so far is the place to start.

Image: Singing with guitarist Greg Dilley.

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Till We Meet Again

Cowboy in barn

I spend a lot of time trying to be more confident. So I really hate it when my confidence gets rattled. But that’s what happened on February 3. I was riding a horse in a gymnastics class, going over a set of poles laid out on the ground. As I rode toward them, the horse I was riding, a very sweet and very fit 24-year-old gelding named Cowboy either stumbled or hesitated, I’m not sure which. I drove him forward toward the poles and he recovered and started trotting over them, but his hesitation or whatever it was startled a younger horse that was being ridden nearby. She spooked, and her spook caused Cowboy to spook sideways, and I lost my balance and fell off, the first fall off a horse I’ve had in the three years since I started riding again.

On the way down, I was partly thinking: “Oh good. I’ve been so scared of falling off, I’m glad to get it over with. Now I won’t be so scared of it.”

Then I was sitting on the ground, catching my breath, and realizing that something around my shoulder blade hurt. I didn’t seem incapacitated, though, so as one always should, I got back on. I tried trotting again but that hurt, so I walked Cowboy around the arena for about half an hour, which he usually needs to cool down from a lesson. Dismounting hurt too.

Back home, I took a hot bath and rested for the evening but the next day was just as bad. The day after that, at the suggestion of my chiropractor and insistence of my husband, I went for some x-rays. I was sure I’d just pulled a muscle, but no. I had three cracked ribs that would take six to eight weeks to heal. The doctor also volunteered a prescription for powerful pain meds. Have I mentioned that cracked or broken ribs are supposed to be among the most painful injuries you can have? For the first few days, lying down, rolling over, or getting up out of bed were all things I had to work myself up to. So much for being less afraid of falling off.

For a little while, those first few days, I thought about giving up riding. I’m going to be 60 in a few weeks. I don’t usually think of myself as too old for stuff but I started wondering if I was too old for riding, or anyhow if I should stop now so I don’t get hurt this badly again, or worse. To my surprise, Bill, who is usually overprotective, pushed me to not quit. He even suggested I get back on before the six weeks were up, once I started feeling well enough to go back to most of my usual activities.

And then the coronavirus happened. I decided I was too nervous to go to a medical facility for my follow-up check, especially since I knew I was just about completely healed. Around the same time they decided to do almost all their visits by phone. So I had a phone call with a doctor and we agreed I should wait till eight weeks were up just to be sure and then I could ride so long as it didn’t hurt.

OK! I thought. I started visualizing stepping onto the mounting block, putting my left foot in the stirrup and swinging myself up and over into the saddle like I’ve done hundreds of times. How scared would I be? As a friend pointed out, this is a rare case where the phrase “getting back on the horse” can be used both literally and figuratively. Based on past experience, my guess is that I’ll be frightened up until the point that I’m actually in the saddle, and then I’ll be a lot better.

But it may be a while before I find out. Because the governor just issued a statewide stay-at-home order, telling non-essential businesses to close and it’s pretty tough to argue that a horseback riding stable is an essential business.

A week and a half ago, I went to the barn to visit Cowboy and feed him an apple and see my riding teacher who is also a good friend. I’m glad I went because I couldn’t go there now. Cowboy hadn’t seen me in more than a month, but he still came to me when I called to him across his paddock. After the apple, I scratched him on the tummy which is his special spot. When I stopped, he started leaning his body into me to try and get me to do it some more. That’s an annoying habit in a 1,500-pound animal so I didn’t indulge his request.

When it was time to go, he stuck out his tongue at me, an equine way of saying that he likes me and wished I would stay. “I’ll be back,” I told him. And I will, just as soon as I can.

Image: Cowboy and me in healthier days. Photo by Michelle McVey.

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It happens every year.

I’ve been intimately involved with the American Society of Journalists and Authors, for more than 20 years. I was president for two of those years, vice president for three, and on the board of directors for sixteen years, finally rotating off the board in 2018.

So when ASJA has its annual conference, I just have to be there. And it’s always in New York, and always sometime around the beginning of May. Which means the same thing always happens every year: We leave town just as the rain is abating, the sun is coming out, the days are getting long, and every plant in Washington State goes on overdrive, growing for all it’s worth. We leave a yard and come home to a jungle.

Every year it’s a problem. This year it turned into something much worse. Faced with an overgrown yard and a fair amount of spousal nagging, Bill made a common-sense suggestion. “I need help,” he said. My attempts over the years to find someone reliable and affordable who could work on our yard have all ended in frustration so–since it was his suggestion–I decided to make it his problem.

“I don’t think you’re going to be able to find anyone we can afford who’ll be trustworthy,” I said. “If you can, go ahead and hire them.”

“But–” I said, and it was a very important “but” indeed–“You have to supervise them.”

I had good reason for this emphatic caveat. The first year we came back to a lawn that looked like the Pacific Temperate Rainforest, I asked around and hired some guys who came recommended to mow the lawn and cut back the blackberries. The following year the beautiful, old Concord grape next to the deck started dying. I’d made jam from it our first autumn in our house but that second summer it was looking decidedly sickly. That was an unusually hot, dry summer so I figured that was the problem, did some research, and bought one of those donut-shaped watering rings to do drip irrigation around its base. I ran water into it for an hour every other night but to no avail. The following year, it looked completely dead. Looks can be deceiving, so I gave it another year to make sure, but nope, it was never coming back.

It took me a long time and a lot of asking around to figure out what had killed it. The previous owner of the house, with whom we’ve stayed friends, finally provided the answer: It had gotten weed whacked. I took a look around the garden: There was also damage to the green grape plant near the patio, although it seemed to be holding its own. One of our large old rose bushes also showed weed whacker damage from last summer and I held my breath through the winter as it kind of limped along, but with care it burst into bloom this summer. I’d learned an important lesson about the harm hired yard help can inflict.

Bill agreed to supervise, and he hired someone I’ll call the Mad Mower. The Mad Mower charged a fairly reasonable hourly rate, and when Bill set him to mowing, he was impressed with the Mad Mower’s efficiency. The guy had serious equipment and he rapidly chopped down the overgrown grass in the front yard, collecting it and piling it high on top of my compost heap.

On the Mad Mower’s next visit, Bill set him to weed whacking, and that’s where everything went to hell. That evening I found that the lavender plant by the entrance to our driveway had been cut most of the way to the ground. It was a very old plant with several thick trunks. The house was built in 1965 and I suspect that lavender might have been planted then. It was one of the many old, beautiful plants that made me want this house so much when we first saw it. 

Lavenders don’t need much care, but every year I carefully pulled the morning glories off it, and lugged gallon jugs of water to it during the hot, dry part of the summer since it was well beyond the reach of my garden hose. Every year I admired its tall stalks and made mental plans to harvest the lavender buds on the ends of them. Now it lay almost flat in its little stone bed, with only a few remaining stalks of lavender blooms doing their best to make up for the big gorgeous plant that was no more. Not only that, but several of our rhododendrons–as old as the lavender and grown into thick-trunked small trees–had bark stripped off them at weed whacker height.

For a little while there, I went out of my mind. I raged. I banged the table. I yelled at Bill, who already felt terrible and couldn’t bear hearing me say, over and over, how upset I was. I walked around in a blinding state of fury and sorrow. I couldn’t bear the thought of watching another one of the old, beautiful plants that had made me fall in love with this place slowly fade out and die.

Eventually, I calmed down. I wasn’t really angry at Bill. As for the Mower, he had asked Bill if there was anything in particular to avoid when he weed whacked the strip of grass next to the lavender. Bill said no. I’d have been angry at him for this answer, except that I’d have probably said no too. It didn’t occurred to Bill, and it likely wouldn’t have to me, to warn someone that a lavender plant the size of a card table, with thick, well-established trunks, a profusion of purple blooms, and surrounded by painted stones, was not a weed. But, since he did ask the question, I couldn’t really be angry at the Mad Mower either.

It took a long time, but eventually I calmed down and set about doing everything I could to save our injured garden. The consensus in the plant community is that putting cutting paste or any other such product on a weed-whacked tree trunk ultimately does more harm than good; better to let the plant heal on its own. So I did what I could: I weeded around the rhododendrons and other injured bushes, and put down mulch and food. From what I’ve read and been told, they have a good chance of survival.

The lavender is more worrisome. They’re hardy plants but apparently you should never cut one back by more than a third. The fact that it’s very old and well established might help it survive, according to a garden expert I called at a local nursery. I did what I could there too. I cut the ragged ends of branches off so there would be neat edges that might have a better chance of healing. I fed it. Most days I stop on my way into or out of the driveway and take a close look at it. If spending a long time staring at a plant had healing properties, it would get better for sure.

For the moment, it looks OK. There are a few proud stalks standing tall, and a few new shoots among the bare remains of branches. It seems to be doing its level best to survive. But we won’t really know until it’s been through the winter whether it’s going to make it or not.

Meantime, Bill and I agreed: Never again. We can’t really blame the Mad Mower, but he’s not welcome back here either. And the next time anyone wields a weed whacker on this property, it will be one of us.

Old Soldiers

My favorite local movie theater is Landmark Crest, south of us in a neighborhood called Ridgecrest which is part of a town called Shoreline, all of which is in fact part of Seattle, having been absorbed some years ago. It’s an old-style movie theater of the sort that’s mostly disappeared, in a quiet neighborhood a couple of blocks from the low-rent bustle of Aurora Avenue. Just a bit up the street from the Crest is the Ridgecrest Public House  which I’d only been to once, but instantly fell in love with. It has a huge selection of craft beers, comfortable seating, and a real sense of the community–there’s even a Sunday night knitters group.

As always, when I discover something I love, I want to show it to Bill, so we went to a movie at the Crest recently, Peter Jackson’s extraordinary documentary They Shall Not Grow Old. Jackson, you may remember, is the New Zealander who directed the Lord of the Rings/Hobbit films. The BBC offered him the chance to work with 100-year-old archival World War I footage for the centennial of the Great War. He decided to transform that film to modern standards, adjusting and smoothing out the speed (cameras were hand-cranked back then), colorizing it beautifully, and using historical information and lip-readers to add sound and dialogue. All of this brought old, crackly, distant-seeming footage brightly to life for modern viewers.

When I first learned about this move, I knew I wanted to see it. But would Bill? It was a complicated question. Twenty-three years ago, as I stood waiting in his living room to leave on our second date, someone on a TV show made a comment about how 20-year-olds always think they have life all figured out. Bill’s son Steve, who was 20 at the time was sitting there so I asked him if he thought he had life all figured out (he didn’t). It made me think back on my own 20-year-old self, nearing graduation from college, unsure I’d find a job that I liked in the dubious economy of the early 1980s. “Where was I when I was 20?” Bill mused to himself. And then he remembered: He was in the Navy.

He had spent years blocking that part of his life out of his mind. He’d enlisted in the Naval Reserve in 1970 as a better alternative to being sent as infantry into the jungle, a certainty, given his low lottery number. It’s a time he rarely talks about.

In the last several years, Bill’s gotten older and the U.S. has gotten  wrapped up in lengthy Middle Eastern conflicts and he’s become a lot more vocal about hating war. Veterans from Vietnam are aging out. At 67, Bill’s near the young end of the age range for a Vietnam-era vet, and that war is receding from the collective memory. “It’s like I’d been in the Hundred Years’ War,” he said once back when we first got together in the mid-90s and of course 23 years later that’s only more true.

As our nation is gradually forgetting Vietnam, Bill has gradually become more vocal about it, especially about hating war scenes in movies, and war movies in general, which he now usually avoids. But, yes, he very much wanted to see They Shall Not Grow Old.

And so we went. To a 3D showing which made me happy because I’m a lover of the use of 3D in documentaries. It was a wonderful, wonderful film. Jackson made a number of wise choices, the best of which was to have zero modern narration. Instead, he found archival audio of WWI vets interviewed by the BBC in the 1960s, describing their experiences. He let those recordings of old soldiers, now long dead, tell the audience what they were seeing on the screen.

He also worked hard to faithfully recreate the sounds of a World War I battlefield. And that’s the part that got to Bill. Not the explosions, which certainly made me flinch a few times, or the whistling sounds of shells, but the softer sound of bullets whizzing by, almost a whispered swish as he describes it. “You probably didn’t even notice it,” he told me afterward, and indeed, I didn’t. But the sound took him right back there. It’s a sound, he said, that you only hear as a bullet flies by you. If it hits you, you don’t hear it at all.

I didn’t learn this until later, when we were in the pub, decompressing from the movie over pints of beer and cider. All I knew then was that he was sitting next to me in the front row, with his arms wrapped tight around his body, sobbing, and shaking. All I could think to do was pry my hand between his arm and his torso, holding on to whatever part of him I could.

World War I was a brutally deadly war, and as Jackson notes in a video about the making of the movie, the young soldiers we see smiling and waving at the camera right before battle are often in the last half hour of their lives. But those who lived for many years after and told their stories to the BBC said what I also knew, sitting next to my stricken husband: war damages people forever. Wounded or not, it leaves scars on those who fight it, and no matter how many years go by, the scars never go away.

Image: A WWI cemetery in Germany. Credit: OliBac, via Flickr

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When the Rains Come

Bill’s cousin and her boyfriend who live in New Jersey came through the area in October during a long driving vacation through the West. We couldn’t really plan for their visit and, as it turned out, during their one day in Seattle, I had arranged a horseback riding lesson. I couldn’t change it, I explained, “because in a few days it’s going to start raining for the next four months.”

“Why do people around here keep saying that?” the boyfriend asked.

“It’s kind of like the way you know sometime in December it’s going to snow,” I told him. For years, we planned around that in Woodstock. “I have to do [X] before it snows,” was a common sort of statement around November and early December back there. In my case, I usually wanted to get all the leaves up, get the gutters cleaned, and move any lawn furniture into the garage. Also, sometime around Christmas I would bury the outdoor bonsai in my fenced-in vegetable garden. One year the snow piled up early and I couldn’t get inside the vegetable garden so I buried the bonsai in the front yard instead where they were mercilessly chewed on by deer. Back there, the snow would fall, the ground would freeze, and it would be game over for a lot of gardening and yard work activities until March or April.

Here, it’s the same idea of having to time your maintenance work to the seasons, but the seasons themselves are very different. It doesn’t snow in winter, at least not much near sea level, although snow is never too far away. An hour or so drive from here is Ice Caves, a hike to view some caves made of snow that form every year when the snow falls off the mountainside, freezes solid, and then melts from the inside out in the warmer weather. We have friends who wake up early and drive a couple of hours toward Stevens Pass to go skiing every winter and I keep thinking that someday I’ll wake up early and go with them.

But in our house and yard, winter is another matter. There’s the gloom and the rain, my only real concerns about moving here before we did it. I know I need daylight to function well so in the gloomy months, I make a point of sitting in the living room next to two big picture windows every day, absorbing whatever light there is. Those big windows made me especially eager to buy this house.

Outdoors, things get muddier and muddier. Last year, I had to stop parking my car in the carport after a couple of months because I couldn’t get to it–the lawn had turned to slippery mud. On the other hand, the softer earth makes weeding easier again. And blackberry mitigation, one of the constant challenges of Pacific Northwest life. I’ve waited till wetter weather to tackle the thorny things because now it’s possible to dig them out by the roots. That doesn’t prevent them from coming back but it does slow them down a bit.

This morning, Bill, who likes drowsing in his gigantic leather chair, especially when he has a big gig coming as he does this weekend, said that he always liked gloomy, rainy days. “You can have them,” I said. On the other hand, when my world-traveling cousins visited this summer and we hiked the woods of nearby British Columbia, they said they had never seen thick vegetation like here outside of the tropics. “What this region has in common with the tropics is a dry season and a rainy season,” I told them.

So perhaps it’s true that the lush forests and the soft moss everywhere and the towering conifers and the way everything is so green, as well as the endlessly beautiful summers when it never rains and so the mosquitoes all die and go away–all that is bought and paid for by the winter months of gloom and rain. And you know? If that’s true, I think it’s a pretty good trade.

Image: Robe Canyon Trail in summer. Maybe if it didn’t rain through the winter it wouldn’t look like this around here.

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Hazy, With a Chance of Lung Irritation

August, 2018

I don’t want to think about the smoke.

I started this post a couple of weeks ago, when we were–literally–in the thick of it. Then, the smoke cleared, miraculously, just in time for a long-planned trip with my cousins to Vancouver Island in British Columbia and then by ourselves around the Olympic Peninsula. The smoke would’ve put a real crimp on all of that, but thankfully it blew out to sea.

Now fall has arrived. To my mind, it’s not supposed to rain in September around here, but the weather pattern has other ideas and the rains are starting early. Time to stop worrying about watering my garden or outdoor plants. Time to take advantage of the softer earth for planting tulip bulbs and yanking out blackberry plants. Time to start worrying about the things we need to get done, such as putting down gravel where I park my electric car, before the world around us turns to mud.

And just like that, I’m thinking about rain and winter. Now that it’s over, I really, really don’t want to think about the smoke and the week or so I spent hardly leaving the house, with windows closed and Bill’s home-made air filter (actually an air filter for a heating system taped to a box fan) slowly turning brown as it pulled particles out of our indoor air.

Last year, the smoke forced me to cancel a planned backpacking trip, and a trip to a voice workshop in the Oregon woods. This year the timing worked out better but the smoke, while it happened, was just as bad. What’s frightening is: This is the new normal. Just like the harder rainfalls in winter where constant but light drizzle used to be the norm. This is watching climate change happen, as I did back in Woodstock, where winters got less snowy until we barely needed to plow, and summers got more rainy until the complex watering system we’d put in place for my vegetable garden went unused season after season. I thought the Pacific Northwest would be a great place to sit through climate change–plenty of water, mild winters, mild summers. And it is. But I didn’t plan for the smoke.

Things could be much worse for us of course. Our friends and family members in Southern California keep posting pictures of outdoor thermometers reaching well past 110 degrees. Back in the East, Hurricane Florence is slamming into North Carolina–two of Bill’s nieces who live there have fled home to New York. Compared to that, it seems churlish to complain about a week or two of smoke, upsetting as it is.

But it does make you wonder. What happens next?

Image: The view from our deck. The world beyond our backyard has pretty much vanished.

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The Fat Cat

In October, while Bill and I were in Paris, our wonderful, broken-tailed Sphynx cat Laird died. A few days before our trip, he’d been diagnosed with cardiomyopathy, a serious disease that had an outside chance of being curable, so we did everything the vets could come up with to try to cure him.

We couldn’t reschedule because it involved a huge family gathering. Organizing things is one of my skills but even I outdid myself this time. In 48 hours, I put in place a three-person team to give Laird his medicines and test his breathing rate every day while we were away. Laird was very hard to medicate, so I got some meat-flavored medicines specially made up and picked them up the morning of our departure before driving to the airport. 

But the text messages we got in France from the “Laird Care Team” were increasingly distressing and when he became lethargic and hardly responsive, I asked one of his caregivers to take him to the nearest animal hospital. There they kept him on oxygen for several days as his medical bill mounted and his condition worsened. Until finally in the middle of the night Paris time while the rest of the household slept and all hope was gone, we called one of our friends and asked if she’d go to the hospital and hold him while they put him to sleep, so he wouldn’t have to die surrounded by only strangers. I have to admit that I have no idea whether having someone he knew holding him while he died made a difference to Laird in that advanced state of illness, weakness, and suffering. But I asked anyway, because it made a difference to us.

One is the loneliest number.

We came home to a house with only one cat, Hamlin, a very lonely cat indeed. Hamlin is highly social and loves other cats and it seemed unkind to make him live without feline companionship. And Taffy needed a new place to live.

Taffy spent her last several years in a household with two rambunctious and energetic dogs who completely terrified her. She spent a lot of her time cowering in a closet. Knowing that wasn’t the right life for her, her humans had been looking for a while to find her a different forever home. With one lonely cat in our house, we decided to take her in. Come to find out, she was both declawed (no wonder she was so terrified) and obese. But also incredibly affectionate and sweet.

The first few days were frustrating though. Released into Bill’s office she immediately found a tight spot on a shelf on top of a cardboard box, hid in there, and refused to come out. When we locked Hamlin in the bedroom and brought her out to explore the rest of the house, she flattened herself beneath a credenza and wouldn’t come out from there either, even when poked forcefully with a broom handle. When we finally had to get her out, Bill lifted the heavy piece of furniture and I shoved her from underneath it by brute force.

Three months in, she hasn’t yet made friends with Hamlin, who keeps pushing the limits of her desire to socialize. Things are slowly getting better but the other night we suddenly heard Taffy let out an inistent yowl. It seemed Hamlin had her cornered in the bathroom. No doubt he just wanted to play and chase her around but it still frightened and upset her.

While I tried to figure out where she was (she’d run off to hide) Bill chased Hamlin around the house, giving him a taste of his own bad behavior. At one point Hamlin hopped up on the living room sofa and Bill caught his foot underneath it, lost his balance, and came crashing down onto his right knee. His head crashed into the cast-iron door of our useless wood stove insert. The remainder of the evening involved a lot of ice.

I’m sure Taffy will be a well-adjusted and happy member of our household someday. I just wish I knew when.

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Image: This is Taffy. The picture does not do justice to her girth.

Sunday to Saturday

Of all the things that were difficult about Bill’s heart attack the one that, oddly, seemed hardest  was buying the weekly pill box for him.

The logic was inescapable. There I was in the hospital pharmacy, picking up the five medicines his cardiologists said he needed to stay alive, plus one more for stomach acid that turned out to be superfluous. He was supposed to take some of them once a day, others twice. We needed that plastic box with the fourteen chambers and the little doors. They were pink for morning (when the sky is blue) and blue for evening (when it sometimes turns pink). They had the days of the week written on them, AM and PM, Sunday to Saturday. But they might as well have said this: “Old age,” “weakness,” “illness,” “mortality.”

They were something my mother had, during her years of Alzheimer’s and expanding crowd of medications. Something Bill’s mother had to hold medications for diabetes, transplant anti-rejection, and then liver disease that finally overcame her. You have these boxes when you’re really old, on your way to death, that’s how it seemed to me. That wasn’t us, was it?

Well no, it isn’t us, at least not necessarily. Lots of people have heart attacks and go on to lead long lives. A friend told me the other day that her 98-year-old father had one many years ago.  The fact that Bill seems to feel fine and in many ways seems more alert and more active than he has been in a long time gives me hope. So does the fact that he’s now walking on a regular basis. The only symptoms he has appear to be side effects of the medication he’s taking. They’re creating a lot of motivation for him to make the lifestyle changes that will get him off those meds more quickly. That gives me hope as well.

Bill did something that often makes heart damage much worse–he didn’t call 911 right away when the symptoms first appeared. Even so, he seems to have been very lucky. The quick care he received minimized damage to his heart muscle. So even though, according to a recent study, a heart attack lowers life expectancy by an average of just over five years for white men (and a good bit more for African-Americans and women), there’s every chance that statistic does not apply to him. At least that’s what I think, or what I’ve decided to think.

Seems it’s what he thinks, too. He’s completely focused on improving his own health as quickly as he can so as to get off the medications which are making him itch and bleed a little more easily, and also giving him leg cramps when he walks. And everything about him these days seems lighter, more optimistic, more alert, more awake.

Without ever thinking about, I realize I had a certainty and confidence in the future before the heart attack and I’m missing that now. But there’s every reason to work hard and hope. And, really, that’s all anybody can ever do.

Image: Kate Russel via Creative Commons

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