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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Writing this post is slow going because I have to keep stopping and responding to Facebook Messenger messages from Bill. It’s just noon here, but he’s sitting at an outdoor table having a light dinner because he’s in Ireland, where it’s 8 pm. Why Bill is in Ireland without me is something I’ll explain in some future post. What’s interesting about this trip is how not-away he seems to be. People ask me if I miss him, and I do. But not as much as you  might think, since we’ve spent an hour video chatting every afternoon (my time, bedtime his time) since he left. Plus text chatting throughout the day, or at least the part of the day that we’re both awake. Plus a running supply of photos and videos. I’ve seen the table where he’s having dinner, the gorgeous view from the table in two directions and the dinner itself.

For a long time, I’d been slightly jealous of the Big Bang Theory characters for the way they use video chat like a normal part of everyday life. I’d tried it a few times but usually found it too glitchy, low-quality, and difficult to use to be really useful. Even when I was in Costa Rica on a yoga retreat and had to talk to Bill by internet chat, I used audio chat because it seemed to work better. And holding my phone to my ear made it seem more intimate.

But time, and bandwidth, marched on. These days, a meaningful portion of the “conference call” invitations I get are carried out over Skype or Zoom or some other venue that allows both audio and video chat. I haven’t fully figured out the etiquette of one versus the other. Once, when I was interviewing an expert in The Netherlands over Skype–I thought just to save on long-distance–he complained when he couldn’t see me. I explained that he’d have to watch me typing, taking notes–I wouldn’t be able to make much eye contact–but he insisted so I switched to video chat. Another time, an Inc.com colleague asked for a meeting with me and suggested Zoom so she could record it. This time I clicked on video chat from the start, and found myself face to face with an elegantly dressed and made-up woman wearing a nice necklace whereas I was wearing a hoodie.

Back to Bill. He’ll be home soon after two weeks “away,” but the quality of that away-ness is different from past times apart because I see him and hear him and talk things out with him every day. Young people these days don’t seem to care that much where their friends and even their girlfriends or boyfriends physically are. They maintain friendships and romantic relationships over great geographical distances, and I’m beginning to see how that just might be possible. On the other hand, I still need him here to snuggle up with and bring me coffee and make distracting noise while I’m trying to work, and to have dinner with while debating the Hugh Hefner documentary we’ve been watching. All the things, large and small, that make up being married and that you just can’t get from video chat.

At one point while he was away, Bill sent me a chat message that said he wished they’d perfected transporter technology so that I could magically appear by his side for just one night of pub-crawling and live music. (Not to mention avoid the many, many hours in planes and airports it would take for him to get home.) Meantime, he did the next best thing and held his phone up so I could see the musicians and hear the music.  It wasn’t anything like being there. But it was still a lot of fun.

Image: Bill’s dinner in Ireland

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Jai Hanuman!


One thing Bill and I love to do together is kirtan. Kirtan, if you’ve never encountered it, is a little hard to describe, but it’s essentially a musical version of yoga. Not the bendy, strengthening part of yoga, but the meditative, mentally calming, spiritual part. A chant leader sings a line in Sanskrit, and the participants sing it back. It’s an incredibly relaxing, invigorating form of singing meditation.

It’s also music, and often beautiful music. Like many things Hindu, it was brought back to America in the 60s by people like Ram Dass and like many things World Music, became fused with American rock and pop over the decades. Krishna Das, a former rock musician, studied in India and brought kirtan home to America. He became the closest thing we have here to a kirtan rock star, performing at the Grammies a few years back.

So anyhow, that’s kirtan and it was very much a thing in Woodstock. Our next door neighbor whose Hindu name is Sruti Ram led kirtan for years first in his living room, then at various venues around town. Bill first got drawn into it by another local kirtan leader. When a guitarist who was supposed to accompany her cancelled, she asked Bill to fill in. He started learning about kirtan. He was hooked and soon turned into a kirtan wallah in his own right.

Here in Snohomish, he’s led kirtan at a couple of local yoga studios, as well as in an inflatable dome on Whidbey Island. Most of the time I serve as his backup singer. In kirtan, a backup singer is barely heard above the crowd, but it’s your job to lead everyone else along.

One recent evening eating a late dinner out after a kirtan session, Bill gave me some notes about having jumped in and started singing without waiting for his signal to do so. He was right, of course–backup singers shouldn’t take the initiative, at least not in kirtan, where everyone has to carefully follow the leader. Still, I was feeling petulant.

“Sometimes it seems that you want everyone in the world to have a voice except me,” I pouted.

“I’ve been thinking maybe you should lead a chant of your own,” he said.

That was a surprise. Over the past year or so I’ve been slowly coming out of my shell as a singer, jumping in informally on harmonies at the Hungry Pelican and at parties, although I only once actually “got on the mic”–because I was pushed. But I’ve been getting closer to doing it on purpose. From that to leading a kirtan chant would be a big jump.

Except for two things. First, we’d been leading kirtan at our friend Monika’s yoga studio which is a relatively small space and hasn’t had huge crowds for our kirtans, or any crowd sometimes, so the whole idea was less intimidating than it would be in a bigger venue.

The other thing was was Baba Hanuman. It’s a beautiful chant by Krishna Das, written for his guru Neem Karoli Baba, whom he loved beyond measure. Whatever the reason, hearing that chant almost always makes me cry. I’ve always wanted Bill to do it but he never has shown any interest so when he suggested I might lead a chant, I answered without even thinking about it: “Yes! I would like to lead Baba Hanuman.”

And then I backtracked, wondering if I’d inadvertently hurt his feelings. “That is…unless you want me to do one of your chants?” But no, he said, he might write a new chant for me but he didn’t expect me to do any of his.

Over the next few weeks, I first learned the words to Baba Hanuman (which has quite a bit of Sanskrit in it), then began nagging Bill to learn it on the guitar. We agreed it made no sense for me to lug my electronic keyboard (a present from Bill from years ago which is languishing in a closet at the moment for lack of space) to the yoga studio for a single chant. Only one problem: When he got around to learning the chant, by ear, as he does everything, I was convinced he had one of the chords wrong. And it’s the chords in Baba Hanuman that drive the emotional power of the chant, or so it seems to me.

We were debating the question one day, and I decided the only way I could really determine if his idea of the chords for Baba Hanuman were right was to try playing them myself. I could, I suppose, have dragged my keyboard out of its place in the closet in my office but instead I decided to see if there was a tablet app that simulated a piano. And of course there was. So I tried playing his idea of the chords on it and, yup, they sounded wrong.

Bill looked up the right chords online (they were there!) but also suggested that I try to find an app that sounded more like a harmonium, since that’s the instrument Krishna Das plays, and that’s the sound that powers that chant. If you’ve never encountered one, a harmonium is an Indian keyboard air-pumped instrument that is usually played while sitting on the floor, with one hand on the keyboard and the other hand pumping the bellows in the back. It looks kind of like a larger, more ornate, musically simpler version of an accordian. Bill has always assumed it was originally created from worn-out or broken accordians discarded by the British when they ruled India, but no. They were once (in a larger form) a popular instrument in the United States, very useful for accompanying at-home hymn singing before they were swept away by the invention of the electric organ in the 1930s. They were taken up in India, though, where electricity is often undependable or unavailable. There too, they seemed to lend themselves best to devotional singing, which in India is kirtan.

Turns out there’s one harmonium app for Android. It’s a bit undependable and clunky, but it does sound just like a harmonium. I turned my tablet as loud as it could go and practiced and practiced on the little images of keys in the harmonium app and pretty soon I could get through the chant just fine, unless the app crashed as it sometimes did. I had never led a chant before but we went over to the yoga studio with my app ready to go. Then we got to chatting about it and I found out that Monika who owns the studio had a harmonium there that she’d gotten as a birthday present but not yet learned to play.

I’d never played one before either, but I knew the keys, I knew the chords, and hers is a fine instrument that is very easy to pump. So I launched right in. Unlike most of what we sing in kirtan, that chant is in a very comfortable key for my voice. I was also leading the chant, and trying to make myelf heard over a harmonium, which is an instrument that pretty much can’t be played at low volume. And Baba Hanuman always gets me. So I threw my heart into it and sang for all I was worth.

Bill and I have a longstanding tradition of exchanging gifts a week or more after Christmas. It began years ago when we lived in Woodstock and the grandchildren were small, and we used to race around to their various homes delivering stacks of presents and home-made goodies to everyone. We tended to give each other stacks of presents as well and it was all a lot of pressure and rush and at some point it dawned on us that we could reduce the pressure by giving each other some extra time for our own gift exchange. I later realized we could also take advantage of day-after-Christmas prices and unwanted gifts sold on eBay this way. In any case, the tradition stuck.

And so, a couple of weeks after Christmas, my present arrived, in  large box, surrounded by a ridiculous amount of packing tape and styrofoam that shed little balls all over the living room carpet. It was a harmonium of my own.

Image: Bill’s picture of me playing my new harmonium, not yet quite awake.

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(Here’s a brief clip of me doing Baba Hanuman on Monika’s harmonium with Bill on guitar.)





Whistling While I Work


There’s a tuneless whistle coming through my office door, even though it’s closed. Not so much tuneless as resolution-less, a meandering melody that wanders up and down, sometimes with triplets or trills or the occasional vibrato. It would be pleasant enough, except the tune never pauses or ends. It’s Bill whistling, of which he’s completely unconscious.

In big box stores with tall shelves, it functions as a homing device. I may not be able to see him in a neighboring aisle, but I can hear him if he’s nearby. Bill is a sufficiently accomplished whistler that he could be hired to perform the whistling parts of television jingles and such like whereas I can barely whistle a single note, and that only by awkwardly inhaling rather than exhaling. So I admire this talent of his and I like his whistling. Most of the time.

Some of the time, like when I’m having trouble working, it distracts and annoys me. Bill has no silent setting. He’s gregarious and always wants to share what he’s thinking or reading or seeing so he tends to talk quite a lot. Sometimes when I want to read, I need to either tell him to cut it out (he does, but I always feel mean saying it) or else move out of the room that he’s in. But all the time, I’d a hundred times rather have a spouse who talks too much than one who doesn’t talk enough and leaves me wondering what he’s thinking.

When he’s asleep, he’s usually snoring. When he’s awake and not talking, he’s most often whistling. I can’t help thinking about the “I Love Lucy” episode where Rock Hudson gets Lucy and Ethel to stop minding Ricky and Fred’s annoying habits with this pathetic story about whistling.

About ten years ago, Bill’s cousin Teddy (a nickname for the unlikely first name of Thaddeus) died of lung cancer. By the time it was discovered it had spread to his brain, so from when he told us about it to when we were standing beside his grave was only about three months, and they were pretty bad months. Bill’s whole family grew up in about a two-block area of Middletown, New York, with Teddy and his family just a few houses away. Bill was the eldest of four and Teddy was a few years older than him, making him Bill’s de facto big brother. Teddy taught Bill to drive and to smoke and took him into a bar for his first drink.

On top of that, Teddy was the first (and so far only) member of Bill’s generation in the family to die, so losing him rattled Bill badly in all kinds of ways. He raged and mourned, gave a eulogy, and along with his cousins took a rotation staying in Teddy’s house so his elderly mother who lived upstairs wouldn’t be there alone. Months passed. Life went on. And Bill, I observed, had stopped whistling.

I realized that Bill whistles when he’s happy, when he’s engaged in his work, when things are humming along nicely. That never-resolving meandering tune is Bill’s way of saying, “All is right in my world.” For months after Teddy’s death, it wasn’t.

Then one day he started whistling again. It was the best sound I’d ever heard.

Image: Rock whistling for Lucy and Ethel. (My husband looks just like this.)

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