It’s not dark yet

“There’s not even room enough to be anywhere

Not dark yet,

But it’s gettin’ there…

Well my sense of humanity is going down the drain,

Behind every beautiful thing, there’s been some kind of pain…”  —-Bob Dylan

God, I love that song.  Don’t look up Bob’s version, either.  Look up “Not Dark Yet,” on Youtube, with Alison Moorer and her sister Shelby Lynn.  They are INCREDIBLE.

So, warning: this post is probably not a feel-good one, but if you follow along with me you may recognize many of my blog entries are not always mood-lifters.  I process through my writing, and this is what’s in my hot-flash-addled brain these days.  By the way, menopause and masks are not a good combo, in case you were wondering.

Good morning, friends. Today’s post is brought to you not by beer but by coffee.  It’s happened before, believe it or not.  Although I am now reminded of a bottle of coffee porter our friends dropped off the other day that I won’t hesitate to break open.  I never in my wildest dreams would have thought beer and coffee flavors would go together…but trust me, they do.  Porters are roasty and so is good coffee.  Enough said.  There’s also a dark chocolate bar those same friends gave me that would compliment this menu.  A breakfast of champions, right?  Let me just roll my over-caloried  and alcohol soaked self right out of April, where it’s been Groundhog day every day.  Here’s what I’ve become: Get up.  Coffee and toast.  Maybe shower, maybe not.  Maybe change clothes, maybe not.  Check email, Facebook, and current rants about corona. Deal with animals and check for evidence of poop, puke, and pee throughout the house.  Decide what will be for dinner.  Maybe write.   Think about doing zoom yoga and decide not to.  Walk.  Clean, then bake and eat hordes of butter-laden items.  Walk dog.  Check for pee again.  Make dinner and take pictures of dinner.  Dishes.  Drink.  Watch latest shelter-in-place- show, in between checking social media rants again.  Go to bed.

Sound familiar? Many of you are homeschooling and working, in addition to all of this. It’s hard, and so is the relentless monotony.  Also, I’m not joking about the animal excretions part.  Having two geriatric pets guarantees this clean-up is part of my routine now; as is nature’s miracle, Skout’s honor laundry additive, smelly kidney-helpful cat food, homeopathic drops, an extra litter box, pee pads, and arthritis meds.  Scarily,  this is possibly my future, too.  The other day I looked at the dog’s gray hair and bowlegged gait, and I announced to my husband, “Everyone’s old in this house!”  He didn’t disagree.

Most of you have seen those posts, “Take advantage of this new time!  Be at one with your spouse and your cadre of ever-growing children! Play board games and cook eight course meals! Re-evaluate your life, your inner glow, your neglected goals! Be grateful for family!”  I try, I really do.  I’ll bet you’re trying, too.  And I’m already over it, sorry to say.

Having an “empath” personality, which I do, sounds like hippy guru type stuff.  Very in touch with the universe and all that. Which I guess might be true, but it also means it’s extremely difficult to turn the thoughts off:  “I hate what this virus is doing to divide our country even more”, “I hate not seeing my family and friends, and my live music,” “I hate what’s happening to our small businesses,” “I hate that people are in nursing homes all alone,” “I hate that everyone is paralyzed with fear at the idea of touching another person,””I hate that kids are glued to computers more than ever, can’t see their friends, and might be cooped up with maniacal family members…” It goes on and on in a loop.

Sorry.  I did warn you.

It occurred to me that part of the virus-fueled fear I mentioned above, is closely related to our relationship with death. Maybe that sounds too obvious, but what isn’t obvious to many is how unskilled we are at grasping the reality of death happening.  Everything in our culture is geared toward how to stall and prevent it.  I believe the majority of us get a big fat zero at “being comfortable” at the inevitability.  Of course, with good reason.  We’re wired to fight for survival.  The older you get, though, (theoretically), the more at peace with the afterlife one becomes.

I learned so much about death when I took a hospice volunteer training years ago.  This was before I began losing family members in what felt like a three year plague.  When that plague hit I remembered what Hospice taught about dying.  I remembered that it’s natural, that we should take control of the process as much as we can, to see that it happens peacefully and with minimal suffering.  For ourselves, and our loved ones.  I think that’s what’s so terrifying for the world at this point.  A disease like Covid-19 attacks our choices, our say in how to carry on, and how we might die.  My preferred method sure as hell isn’t laying with a ventilator behind a partition, petrified that I might be infecting the nurses taking care of me.  My personal mini-pandemic a few years back resulted in me clarifying what I DIDN’T want for myself when that time came, and to make sure others were aware too.  So when I think about my end I’m not really afraid, unless it’s that above hospital scenario.  If I knew tomorrow would be my last day on earth, there are two things I would regret: missing out on grandparent-hood, and not finishing my #@$damned book.  No pressure on the kiddos, but I hereby put my writer friend Kris in charge of finishing the manuscript if I don’t.  She’d make a fine author.  I might have to will her a lifetime of coffee porters to see it to the finish.

Here’s the eternal, painful, predicament: the deeper the connection, the harder the loss.  But what else would we do?  Not have the experience?  It’s certainly tempting to take a pass after a pet dies.  Who can stand the thought of going through that over and over?  My son and daughter-in-law are in this anguish as I speak.  Yesterday, their kitty of seven years named Beatrice passed away quite traumatically.  Black and white, docile, chubby, and agreeable Bea, with her rotund belly and disproportionately tiny head.  She enjoyed sitting in boxes too small and lounging on the windowsill, but most of all she liked laps with blankets.  Unlike most cats, she was decidedly ungraceful, making us all laugh with her failed attempts to land jumps.  But also unlike a lot of finicky felines, she was cuddly and loving as could be.  As fate would cruelly have it, one minute she was there, the next she was not, and we are all heartbroken.  I can’t stop crying as I think of her, and my daughter-in-law trying to help her.  Although it’s on another level, this kind of jarring loss is comparable to that of a violent crash.  The unexpected shock, vs. the long, downward decline everyone dreads.  And always, always, the question that haunts: was there something else that could’ve been done?  The answer for people who wonder this is almost always no, but asking it means you loved, and you cared.

It hurts.  Living hurts, I guess, if you do it right.

It all stings deeply, whether its the old, young, animal, human, and if the demise is fast or slow.  I feel the effect is magnified during a time when we’re forbidden from having contact except through a screen.  I’m sad in a myriad of ways due to the last couple of months, and although I may want to drink through it, I won’t make the mistake of clamping down or denying it, and you shouldn’t either.  Why are the tears we shed from an onion chemically different than ones shed from grief?  There’s a reason why God made us in this fashion.  Not to be overly dramatic, but this limbo we are in is like a mourning, and we should treat it as such.  It’s when we wallow endlessly and obsess in our despair that we need a change to take place.

Ready for my one paragraph of positive prose?  I think I detect a pattern in my blog writing.

There is light coming, like shards of sun peeking through the blinds.  Logically, we know this.  Spring is here, and so are the blooms that give us joy.  Babies will be born, kittens and puppies will frolic and be adopted and help heal aching holes, and there are bluebirds nesting in my twenty-something year old box.  Orioles will come to feast on the fruit and grape jelly, dazzling in their orange and black glory.  I have to tell you how much I cherish those birds.  In elementary school, my son Danny brought home a mother’s day card with the word mother in an acronym. The other words for the letters were typical adjectives describing me, clearly suggested by a teacher.  With one exception.  For the E in mother, he wrote, “E is for eager to see oreal birds.”  I was so glad his teacher never corrected his spelling, making it that much dearer.  And never have I been more eager to hear their lovely warbling than I am right now.

Along with nature, in the coming months some shops and pubs will emerge unscathed, while delicious beer will be made, and concerts will be held again.  We will get to kiss and hug without personal protection equipment, and even if so and so says we shouldn’t yet, I will do it anyway.

I’ll be okay.  I’m even going camping this weekend, where 6 feet away friends and a campfire await.  It’s not dark yet.  And that was more than one paragraph of good news.

Cheers, friends. Until we can meet in person, send a little love or good vibes toward the famed rainbow bridge that just welcomed another furbaby, and the two humans who loved her the most.  Rest in peace, sweet Bea.







The End Times have arrived

Wow, ya’ll.  (I can say ya’ll legitimately, because my son and daughter in law live in Nashville, and so will I.  Sooner rather than later).  It’s been a long time since my last post, so let it be a warning I’ve got something important to say.  Just kidding.  I don’t, not really, but I wanted to pontificate longer than a facebook forum would allow me.  I should be working on my novel, but lately I can’t seem to string more than a paragraph together in one sitting.  So, here we are.

Tonight’s consumption is fueled by local brewery Haymarket: an IPA named Aleister.  Crisp, with just a hint of hops.  Not too grape-fruity, which is the standard by which I rate all but black IPA’s. And a couple days ago I made hubby go out and buy it, because they were featuring a six pack for six dollar special. That, my friend, is cheap in the craft beer world, but like every single brewery and restaurant in the United States right this minute, they are scrambling.  Scrambling to figure out what in the hell they need to do to balance the bills, their employees’ needs, and the safety of the public.  And still make the good stuff in there somewhere.  All in the meager and unforgiving timespan of a week.  The Michigan beer industry generates MILLIONS of dollars into our state.  Am I selfishly wishing to preserve it?  Yes, but not just for me.  There’s all the infrastructure affected, of course, from the suppliers, to the brewers, servers, kids to feed, mortgages..I could go on and on.  It’s the same story all over.  I’m aware we need healthy people to drink the beer.  We also need an economy in which to live.  Can’t have one without the other.

What is causing this unprecedented state of affairs?  Well, unless you just woke up from a coma or crawled out from under a rock, the world is in the grip of a pandemic caused by a dangerous disease called coronavirus. What we don’t know about it far outweights what we do, which is that it’s highly infectious, kills old people, people with deficient lungs, people with underlying and immune-compromised conditions, and…then there’s this.  We are also told it doesn’t kill most people, but that it will cause utter chaos in hospitals.  And you could carry it unbeknownst to you, and kill your grandma and grandpa or somebody else’s, because there’s a horrifically long incubation period.  There.  That’s my thumbnail sketch, if I ever look back.  Kindly do not message me with whatever aspect I left out.  I’m already aware my memory is precarious, and within twelve-ish days, everyone is already on operation covid overload.

Basically everywhere on the developed planet, schools and colleges are closed, businesses shuttered, people are to avoid contact with anyone not in their household, and nobody is to go anywhere unless they have to.  All in an attempt to slow the progression and not overwhelm medical facilities.  This makes sense to me in theory.  It doesn’t mean I like the new rules, but then again, only the weirdos claiming they’ve waited all their lives for this moment do.  Make no mistake, they’re out there.  I’ve seen their memes and posts celebrating “permission” to hibernate.

Here’s some of what I hate about the current situation.  I might add there’s nothing particularly unique about my rantings, nor is it a comprehensive list.

Then, later, if I’m feeling charitable, I might give a plug for the positives.

I’ve bitched before about kids and teens being chained to their phones and technology.  They substitute and over-use media platforms instead of face-to-face contact, and have been doing so long before this outbreak.  Now, it’s all they’ve got.  God knows how much sexting is happening now, how many genital pictures exchanged.  At least, I think to myself, they can’t get pregnant.  There is a chance, however minute, that after this nightmare is over they will be so lonely for a friend’s physical presence, that the almighty screens could diminish in appeal.  Phone sex has to be a poor substitute.  I’m guessing.

How about the complete disappearance of all live music?  I feel like in this house, we’ve been cut off at the knees.  This isn’t an exaggeration.  For a myriad of reasons live music is our lifeblood, and after awhile you-tube gets old.  So with all concerts and gigs cancelled, musicians are trying to keep their livelihood going with livestream appearances.  For a minute there seemed to be a glimmer of hope.  Alas, it was quickly snuffed out, as our experiences thus far have been fraught with technical difficulties.  Due to all the buffering it was like watching those Asian Godzilla b-movies, when the actor’s mouth wasn’t moving the same time as the dialogue. Whose mouth WAS moving was my husband’s, bellowing profanity at the computer and tv screens.  Not only that, but the performers looked and acted disappointingly like…us.  Wearing pajamas, un-showered, no make-up, half drunk in their messy living areas or bedrooms.  One female singer literally smoked a joint in between songs and sat cross legged and made no sense from that point on.  Another guy I am fairly sure was recording from his mom’s badly lit basement.  It wasn’t pretty.

I will say, the one upside to the gigs playing to an unseen audience, is that you don’t have the annoying side-talkers there, ruining the show.  Oh, and I could watch in MY sweats.  So, I guess that’s two upsides.  I joined Patreon to help support one particularly favorite musician, but it’s a mere raindrop compared to the hordes left out to dry.  As if hoofing around the country trying to make a buck with your guitar and heartfelt lyrics wasn’t hard enough in the first place.  Not to mention, trying to get young people off the couch and out of their bubbles. They’ll be so neck deep in their snapchat and Instagram after this I wonder if they’ll ever resurface.  They did make it to Florida for spring break, though, which I found mildly amusing, as well as feeling a tinge of envy.  People clucked and fussed, but are we that surprised?  People in their twenties think they’re invincible and as a general rule, aren’t exactly known for their selflessness.  And, they want to party.  Hell, I want to party.  Now apparently some of them have tested covid positive.  Possibly a lesson was learned.  Possibly not.

The we have the politics.  Before and during this unsettling time, Pete Buttigieg and Tulsi Gabbard were thrown under the bus, (the only two Dems I would’ve voted for), and this was a bummer.  Meanwhile, Trump is digging his own grave every time he opens his mouth (which you may or may not be rooting for), and Senators have been outed for insider trading as the rest of us watch our own stocks wither and die.  Is it any wonder Americans have been so frustrated with those in office?  Accusations as to how the virus coulda shoulda been or be handled fly faster than an intern trying to get away from Joe Biden’s massaging fingers.  Don’t even get me started on him.  It’s sad, actually, to see the clips of him looking confused and inept.  I don’t get it.  Is his family really on board with him as President?

If we thought party lines might be softened now in an effort to achieve solidarity, we are sorely mistaken.  With these new restrictions in place our freak flags are flying.  There’s the extreme ends of the spectrum, of course.  Marky Marxist is screaming about sheeple caving to a Communist regime, Socialist know-it-all Sally is shouting at shoppers to staythefuckhome, and Militant a-holes Mac and Morgan are stocking up and decimating store shelves of water, Gatorade, instant rice, and you-know-what.  Then there are the moderates (like me), in the middle somewhere, complaining about salons closing, trying to feed everyone and deliver toilet paper like an underground railroad.

When it comes down to it, most of us are probably a mix of all of these components.  We’re attempting to do the right thing in scary, unknown territory.  And stumbling.  I joined a couple of Facebook help/aid groups specific to our area. Unfortunately…even THAT turns into a shitshow of opinions.  The good soul moderators have a fulltime job just closing threads off to the mudslinging.  One of the sites showcases which restaurants are still offering curbside service, etcetera.  More than a few chimed in on this “Buy/support Local” group with wagging fingers at the ready.  “All these drive-through, take-out options don’t sound like social distancing to me.  All those hands touching the food!”  (As if being at the store is that different).  When an EMT driver commented he’d have a hard time if drive thru-s closed, he was told he should “make his own lunch.” Jesus, Mary and Joseph.  This is the kind of nitpicking nonsense we do not need right now.

Like many states, Michigan has the “essential businesses and services only” order in effect.  It took less than a day for the arguing and debating to begin about what/who is deemed “essential.”  One area laundromat posted they were open and following appropriate sanitation and protocols, and Joe Schmo had to skewer them to the wall.

“There should be ONE laundromat for our whole area!  This is why this virus is spreading!”

Says the guy as he loads his lovely, operable Whirlpool unit in his home, blissfully unaware that with 1,600 square miles in Berrien County to encase (yes, some of it is water, but still), one laundromat would be a mob scene.  And a throbbing petri-dish.  Let’s not forget to ask, who would decide WHICH lucky laundromat gets the grand prize?  It’s enough to un-join the groups, and I don’t want to do that, because I want to help.  I want to help as I read the posts of the frantic parents thrown into homeschooling with about one hour’s notice, where these situations carry the same ends of the behavior spectrum.  You’ve got over-the-top mom Annie, spending every free minute making color-coded schedule posters that would put Sherwin Williams’ paint chart to shame. There was a father I could only assume was near tears on one site.  He said, “I’ve organized everything I can think of.  I’ve asked my kids how they want to learn, what subjects they always wanted to know more about, and they just stare at me dead-eyed!”  A long-time homeschooling mom gently referred to this period as “unschooling,” where kids used to having every minute regimented are at a loss.  It takes time, she assured him.  Someone hand that well-meaning mama and dad some weed.  Soon.

Passed out at the other end is loosey-goosey Lori, chugging a bottle of wine while throwing pinterest-generated worksheets at her brood of house-destroying monsters.  She’s given up after a week and a half.  It’s enough for me to want to dive into my old Parents-as-Teachers bins, which are loaded with activities, and offer to come by and have fun again.  But, there’s that damned six feet mandate.  Don’t tell me to take to the internet with it, either.  Some things cannot be translated to the screen.

There are those parents in the middle, too, shuffling along and waiting for April 13th in vain.  All joking aside, though, it’s the ones dealing with true addiction, food scarcity and other dysfunctional lifestyles that are worrisome.  Trust me, I saw this firsthand.  It’s bad when the world is spinning as it should.  When it’s in turmoil, I can’t even think about what those kids’ lives might be like.  There were times when I knew my coming to visit a family was the only thing they looked forward to that week.  This isn’t a humblebrag.  I know it because they openly told me.  I’m sure it’s the same for the elderly, mentally ill, or fragile folks who might have certain services suspended now.  These are the populations who are desperate risk due to enforced isolation.

So, let’s get to the good, before I get too snarly or end up crying in my beer for real.

Isn’t it wonderful how we’re checking on our friends and neighbors?  And the fact there’s going to be a baby boom in November and December?  We’re also re-discovering nature, going to parks and preserves we didn’t make or have time for before.  We’ve created networks providing vital connections regarding unemployment and area resources, ones I believe will flourish long after corona has departed.  We are appreciating teachers, healthcare professionals, and our families more.  We’ve cast a grateful eye on convenience store clerks, janitors, child care workers, maintenance crews, fast-food workers.  Maybe you won’t dismiss the employee working in a grocery store so casually after this.  Or a truck driver, or a construction worker.  Where would Nashville and surrounding areas be without them right now, as many of their facilities lay in ruin?  Every sector I mentioned is truly the backbone of our country, and I wish to God this would be reflected permanently.  Not just in pay, but in status and lasting respect.  It’s sad it takes national hysteria to unearth the hidden gems right under our eyes.  We need to pay attention to those “essentials” every day.

It could be that this craziness will result in a major mind-shift not only in our nation, but in the world.  On many fronts.  We can only hope.

Be well, friends.  There’s gonna be so much celebrating when this is over.  Until then, check on your middle-aged female pals.  We are not coping well with our shaggy gray roots, our unkempt nails, and rapidly expanding waistlines.









All suffering is not created equal

Friends, my beer of choice for today’s musings is Anger, by Greenbush Brewing.   I may or may not have published a few posts under its influence before, as I may or may not have bordered on ranting with some of my previous writings.  I will try not to vent, but I make no promises. This beverage is undoubtedly in my top five picks: hoppy as hell, yet rich and dark. Then there’s the intoxicatingly high ABV.  Which, I’m not gonna lie, helps to numb a few things, like the persistent hip and foot pain that is currently nipping at me with my every move.  Having two sisters with two hips replaced, it’s almost a foregone conclusion I’m up next on Dr. Frankenstein’s butcher block.  Is it any wonder I get ‘pent-up attitude,” like the label says?  The beautiful thing about being almost fifty- two, though, is that I don’t keep a whole lot “pent up” anymore, and God bless Greenbush for aiding its release.

Some of you know what’s been going on for me in the last month.  An incredible wedding of son and daughter-in-law, and on the heels of that, the wrenching loss of a much-too-young-to-die man: my other son’s best friend and roommate, Mathew.  I turn to my writing for ways to cope with life’s curves, but this event is so all consuming in its vast impact, it’s hard for me to even describe. Mat wasn’t just a buddy to my son.  He was like a brother to him, in every sense except physical.  I’ve posted other writings about Danny here, and obstacles he’s faced; nothing unusual there.  We all have them.  But when it’s your baby that gets knocked down, when you feel like you’ve spent half your life watching it happen, the hurt takes on a whole new level.  Especially when the hatchling has literally just left the nest, his tentative wings spreading the tiniest bit, only to fold and crash onto some pretty hard ground.  Or as one observant friend noted:  “It’s like the proverbial rug just got yanked out beneath his feet.”

Yes.  And I don’t know who is crying more these days, him or me.

Okay, it’s probably me.

I know there’s a silver lining here, somewhere, to be seen when the blinders of grief fade, and I also know in my gut Danny is going to be fine, eventually.  More than fine.

Until that moment, I am kind of…touchy.  And it just so happened that before all this occurred, I’d promised to help my Chicago-homeowner-neighbor pack and move.  Now, this lady is a perfectly nice person, and so is her husband. We have co-existed summerly for at least ten years, extending various courtesies that humans perform to make society tolerable of one another, but that’s as far as the relationship went.  Over the years, we have been happy to help keep an eye on their house or anything else asked of us.

But the timing of this favor from me could not have been worse.  I told her what happened, of course, and she was full of concern.  For about five minutes, anyway.  As perfectly nice as she is, she has this grating, helpless, damsel-in- distress component to her personality.  Maybe it’s from being a lifelong city-dweller; I don’t know.  A couple of years ago, she was forced to learn how to drive (she’s in her fifties) in order to take her husband to doctor appointments, and I swear, you would’ve thought it was the most novel and daunting accomplishment since women got the right to vote.  I couldn’t and didn’t understand her pampered and posh world, nor did I want to.  Most encounters with her usually ended up with me choking back, “Suck it up, buttercup!”

This time it was no different; in fact, it was worse, because of my raw mood.

The packing day commenced with much hand-wringing on her end.  There was the calamity of whether/how-to pack or dispose of the dishware from Italy, the pewter candlesticks from the place in Boulder, the giant picture from friends in the Hamptons, the Cuisinart blenders and coffeemakers…you get the idea.  I swear, I am not making this up or exaggerating.  And let me assure you, if it sounds like I was envious of her jet-setting acquisitions, you are misled.  I’m in a place in my life where envy is not allowed, and I want more stuff like I want a third eye.

“Oh, Ellen, this is such a mess, and I’m a wreck! I can’t decide what to keep, what to get rid of!  It’s awful! I just want to cry!” she wailed after a couple of hours of bubble wrapping crystal.

She was indeed looking like she might do exactly that, and I hoped fervently for both our sakes she wouldn’t. Because if she had, I would’ve conked her over the head with the second or fourth glass cake stand I was holding that day. Because, you know, those can’t go to Goodwill, seeing as how they are so decorative and versatile!  Yes, aren’t they, I agreed nicely, when what I wanted to snarl was that she was not the first being on the face of the earth to ever MOVE, or pack crap not needed into storage, where in all likelihood the damned chopsticks or linen napkins would never see the light of day again.  This was all racing around my mind without a drop of Anger ale in my bloodstream, but she kept going on about what I perceived as nonexistent predicaments.

“Choosing which condo to buy and what to do with your house in Arizona and which consignment shop to take your shit to, and whether you should donate your designer purse, are not problems!” my inner snarling continued, as I dumped more of that same shit into containers.  I mean, I guess they are.  But at that moment, amidst the crystal conundrums, I am thinking about Mat’s family and their Gofund me efforts to raise money for his cremation, I am thinking about his heartbroken aunt, a hardscrabble woman who raised him and has known more than her share of hardship, and it’s all fueling my sadness and irritation.

Thankfully she managed to stave off her tears, and I gritted both my teeth and my imagined scolding into obscurity. I finished helping her, because I’d said I would.  Truly, on any other normal day, I would’ve just laughed it off later and not given it a second thought.  To be fair, she’s not been immune to her share of burdens; she and her husband have faced grave health challenges, and it’s partly why we are quick to assist them in any way we can.  It’s that the “woe is me” act hit the wrong nerve at the wrong time.

The clichéd truth is this: with loss, and the threat of it looming, you should gain perspective and clarity about what matters.  You would think that death or disease would be a “great equalizer,” as it’s purported to be.  I don’t know about that.  Money and status can’t keep illness, tragedy or death at bay, but it can’t be denied that having it in abundance makes all of those things a whole lot easier to bear.  I feel like, in many cases, the insulation wealth brings can dull one’s senses to what authentic suffering really is.  Of course, a debate could be made about who defines “authentic,” but I won’t go there.  It’s my blog, and I define it, and I say giving up a Gucci bag ain’t it.  As ruler of the world here, I  also don’t mean to dismiss or minimize what someone may be going through, or to engage in denial, or to yell that my owie is bigger than yours.  It’s reasonable to expect room for improvement in our government, our lives, and have a (little) pity party once in awhile.  But my patience for artifice and drama, while NEVER sizable, is thinning as fast as my hair these days, I’m sorry to say.  One more neighbor example and I will shut up.  Maybe.

It was something like 8:30 at night when she knocked at our door a couple days ago.

“I am so sorry to bother you,” she said.  She is inevitably polite, and ever grateful, if I haven’t said.

“You’re not,” I said, and it was the truth. We were just laying around watching tv.  “What’s up?”

“It’s my arm.” She pitched both arms up at me. “I kind of knocked this one into the wall, and I want your opinion. Do you think it’s broken, or looks swollen, compared to the other?”

It didn’t, and I said so, but she was visibly upset.  “It just hurts so bad!”

She was bending it effortlessly, and I said although I was no medical expert, I was pretty sure if it was broken or fractured, she wouldn’t be able to do that without unbearable pain.

Again, the intense helplessness: “Oh, I don’t know what to do! I can get in tomorrow in the city, but what if it’s broken?”

“I don’t think it’s broken.”

“But Ellen, feel this bump on this arm, the one I hit.  Please.”

“Okay.”  I obediently touch the spot.  It feels like regular cartilage to me, but how the hell would I know?

“Now, feel my good arm.”

I acquiesce once more, feeling foolish, and I make a snuffling sound.

“It’s not funny!” She actually whines. And I know it’s not funny in any way, because she’s told me before she has severe osteoporosis. But here I am groping her arms, and it’s beyond weird, and I am beyond done.

“Listen, I’m not a nurse,” I say, possibly not very kindly. “Go to the ER if you’re that worried.”

She responds with protests about how they’d never be able to find it, (Fuck me. Really? Who doesn’t have Google Maps?), and how would that work with follow-ups, and blah, blah,blah, and all I can think about then is my other neighbor, my beloved friend of many years who has just been told his cancer is closing in, and I bluntly said: “Well, good luck,” and its all I can do to not shut the door in her face.

“Okay, pray for me, please.  Pray,” she intones as she leaves the steps.

No, pray for me, I think, feeling peevish all over again.

I know, this sounds bad.  I am normally quite a compassionate person. But as I inferred before, life hasn’t been normal lately, whatever that even means.  People are viciously battling over Confederate statues, and reeling from hurricanes and wildfires, with children and animals terrified and lost, and every single second, death is stealing the future’s promises. So, pardon me if I don’t brim with sympathy right now.  Pardon me if  I don’t care about an arm that will most likely be just fine in the care of the best insurance and medical care money can buy at the University of Chicago or Rush or wherever the fuck she goes. (And, guess what? I was right about the damned thing.  She texted me the next day to tell me).

Their move is done, and they are gone, and I can honestly say I probably won’t hear from her again unless I can fulfill a request from one of them. Believe it or not, I do wish them well. Tomorrow, maybe, when the Anger has worn off..

Friends, I wish you all well too, with or without my ale coursing through my veins.  And in these precarious, worrisome times, I paraphrase Zac Brown:  I hope this finds you with everything you need and nothing that you don’t.  (Of course, an amply supply of Michigan craft beer is in the “need” category…but other than THAT, the rest is a lot less than you might think…)
















Look for the helpers

The last couple of weeks have been a real roller coaster for this craft beer lover, folks. And I’m not just talking about the heady decisions of whether to drink blueberry cider or blueberry ale, both delish and in ample supply at Greenbush this time of year.  No, I’m talking about going from participating in wedding bliss, to the blast of hurt that tragedy imparts, all in the space of days.  That is called life, I tell my limping self, and then today I got some good news, and a little light crept into the dark.  You may have heard of Mr. Rogers famous and sage advice his mother would offer up to him whenever bad things happened: “Look for the helpers.” And she was right; they are there, if we look.  I think my story tells about one of them.

So the good news is that I placed in a national writing contest with said story, and I will share it here in its entirety.  Be sure to read the postscript notes for more commentary.  Without further adieu, here is “Saving James.”

The shovel’s sharp edges dug into the snowy sidewalks of Brookside Elementary, echoing a dull thud into the winter morning air.  Walter Nowicki, or as the kids called him, Mr. Walt, wheezed with each deposit into the side yard and cursed his defunct twenty-five year smoking habit.  He bent over for another shovelful when an unpleasant nipping sensation gripped him, like tiny razorblade puppy teeth gnawing at his chest.  He leaned on the plastic handle and watched his breath curl up and dissipate. Well, was this how he’d go? Like any sensible person would want, to collapse into a snowbank and call it good?  He sure as hell heard about it happening often enough.  And he sure as hell knew better than anyone there were worse ways to die.

He was ready.  Had been, for a long time.

He put the shovel aside and with a gloved hand dug into a bucket of ice melt. He was sprinkling the salt by the entrance, when Brookside’s principal Debra came up beside him.

“Good morning, Walt,” she said cheerily, stopping.

He straightened his back and the puppy teeth needling eased. Maybe he’d see sixty-seven after all.

“Morning,” he said, more growly than he’d intended.

“We got quite a few inches, didn’t we?”

“That we did.”

He opened the door for her, signaling the end of the conversation.  He wasn’t much for chit chat. When Lorraine was alive she used to scold him, said his brusque bordered on rude.  He’d laugh and whisper in her ear she didn’t marry him for his small talk skills, did she, and she’d giggle and whisper back it didn’t hurt she’d married Clint Eastwood’s twin, either.

Debra smiled and went through the doorway.  “Thank you.”


Her perfume lingered in the cold, the flowery smell halting his salt sprinkle.  The scent wasn’t like Lorraine’s, not that it mattered.  Anything womanlike held the power.  Three years since her passing and the femininity factor still threatened to sideline him with its enormity and randomness.  Could be the pattern of a purse, or the curve of a smiling cheek, or the way someone put reading glasses on to peer at a soup can label. Months would go by, and then a simple reminder hit him like a land mine.  Once it was earrings, dangly hoops like she used to wear, in the ears of a young mother pushing a toddler in a grocery cart.  He did a double take, probably creeping the poor girl out, and in a rush exited the aisle.  He hid in the restroom stall and hoped desperately the urinal remained empty for the five minutes it took him to stem the sobs thumping through his chest.

He took a deep breath and looked at his watch.  Time to head into the gym; the children would be lining up for breakfast soon. He didn’t have much to do there, only load the milk cooler and restock the cereal and juice cart.  Miss Betty logged the kids’ names in on the computer as they filled their trays.

“Keep an eagle eye on that James Carter,” Betty instructed Walt on his first day.  “He always tries to take two milks.”

“Maybe he’s thirsty,” Walt replied without thinking. Sounded like a natural response to him, but Betty’s neck, with its deep creases that reminded Walt of an unbound slinky toy, jiggled as she snapped her clipboard on top of the cooler.

“Then he can have water.  His account’s already past due.”

Walt considered offering up extra funds to be taken out of his pay to cover the balance, not because he was particularly generous, but because it was something Lorraine would have done.  Was he delusional enough to believe that doing good deeds could make up for all the times he’d failed her?

No chance of that.

He stayed silent about his offer.  He figured Betty wasn’t the person to take it to anyway, and it was then that a mutual dislike between them was established.

The kids were filing in now by grade level, and he tried to keep a pleasant expression and say hello if they made eye contact.  Another challenge, the smiling, but he thought the first faces a student saw in the morning shouldn’t be scowling.  Walt made it a point to greet fifth grader James Carter whenever he came down the line, and he decided long ago if the boy ever took an extra milk he’d deny it ever happened.

“Hi, Mr. Walt,”  James said, plucking a juice carton off the cart.  His brown hair had matted clumps in spots, like an old neighborhood tomcat, and he had ashen circles under his eyes.

“Howya doin’?  Hey, wait a sec.  Those ones in the front are still frozen.  Take one of these.”  Walt handed him a fully thawed orange juice, and James smiled.


“You bet.  Have a good day.”

Cynthia Haig, the class’ teacher, herded them forward.  “Let’s go!  You guys are moving slow this morning.”

Walt frowned as he shook the cartons to see which were still frozen.  He knew most of the staff as caring folks, but Cynthia Haig and Betty were a different breed.  Sour-faced and often ill-tempered, the two reminded Walt of the apple throwing trees from the Wizard of Oz.

“No more than one scoop!”  Betty barked at the kids crowding around the salad bar every day.

No, no, no. Everything was no, like a talking sign at a public park.

“No saving seats!”

“No sharing!”

“No seconds!”

“Stop talking and eat!”

Walt knew there were logical reasons for school rules, and yet these shrillish commands baffled him.  Wasn’t it common knowledge kids suppressed their energy all morning long for the golden freedoms known as lunch and recess?  Where they unleashed torrents of words to their friends?  When Walt stood in the middle of the cafeteria manning the garbage cans, he caught all kinds of excited chatter.

“I gotta go the bathroom.  Wait for me!”

“Lyssa, are you going to the swings at recess?”

“Noah, do you want my peanut butter bar?”

“Yeah, but shhh!  You know we’re not s’posed to!”

Sure, the echo from the pent-up conversations could be deafening, but Walt didn’t see much difference between that and when someone came out of the staff break room at noon.  A smaller scale, was all.

Walt was also puzzled by the obsession with lines.  The hallway couldn’t have been more than a hundred feet long, so whenever a class went as a unit, they arrived to their destination in less than a few minutes.

Any casual observer would think they were going on a mile long army hike, minus the water.

“No touching the walls!  Or each other!”

“No talking!”

“Straight line and hands folded!”

“No drinks!”

And there was Cynthia Haig, her eyes bulging like a bullfrog and bellowing much the same as one:

“Inside voices!”

Walt well understood discipline and order, and the need for building it in young people.  God knew the nuns at St. John’s had slapped that into him.  But he’d venture to guess even cranky old Mother Agnes and his ex drill sergeant Phil Hudson had liked him more than Cynthia Haig liked her charges.  Sometimes, even the sound of her voice made him flinch, made him remember Phil and events he’d rather forget about.

Jesus, he’d think.  If she has that effect one me, what must it be like for the kids in her wake?

Sometimes it was better not to think.

The last of the fifth graders getting breakfast were gone, and Walt checked the milk supply for lunch.  As he filled the cooler, he held a carton and read the label.  Eight ounces.  He shook his head and returned it to the wire shelf.  Why, eight ounces was only a cup of milk.  Back in the day if it’d been him or one of his brothers drinking out of these puny containers, they would’ve taken an extra one when nobody was looking too.


When lunch was over, Walt got notice that the boy’s restroom needed towels.  He took a brown packet from the supply closet and headed down the hall. A flurry of chittering children marched out to the playground, cutting in front of him, oblivious to his presence.  He didn’t mind. Be unobtrusive, wasn’t that the idea? As he walked past piles of scattered shoes and the lost and found box, Mrs. Haig was there with James Carter.  She had him sitting at an ancient desk, one with a slanted wooden top embedded with scratches of graffiti.  James cradled his chin with his palm.

“You know what to do.  Get started.”  She turned and headed toward the teacher’s lounge.

James let out a big sigh and picked up a pencil, while Walt picked up a loose scarf.

“Hey, James.”

James turned and his face brightened, making the grey circles under his eyes a little less grey.

Walt’s aversion to chatting disappeared.  “Doesn’t your class have recess now?”

He put the packet of towels on top of the lockers in the hall.

“Yeah.  But I got sentences to do.”

“Oh?  About what?”

His voice was small.  “About how I will finish my homework.”

Walt nodded. “Ah.  Seems like that shouldn’t take you too long, and you can go out.”

“Pfft.  I wish.  I haven’t been out, like, all year.”

Walt stared at the back of James’ neck, where the matted knots of hair appeared to be permanent.  The child had to be exaggerating.  It was February, for God’s sake.

“All year?  That sounds like an awfully long time to miss recess.”

James put his pencil to the paper and said matter-of-factly, “Yeah.  Not since September.  I used to have to stay in the room, but Mrs. Haig said I got too distracted, so now I’m out here.”

Walt was beyond nosiness now, but he couldn’t stop himself.

“Let me get this straight.  You didn’t do your homework, so you have to write sentences that keep you from recess for six months?”

“Yup.  I’m way behind.  Every time I don’t finish, which is almost every day, I get more.  See?”  He held up his notebook for Walt, flipping through pages of writing.

“That’s a lot of words,” Walt commented, because he could think of nothing else to say.

He’d overheard the term “learning strategy” bandied about in meetings after school, when he’d be cleaning sinks or sweeping.  Walt looked at the sketches on James’ notebook and thought the only thing James had learned here was how to draw some impressive looking zoo animals.  He pointed to a tiger with elaborate stripes and details.

“You’re quite the artist.”

James searched Walt’s face, skeptical.  “You really think?”

“I do.  These pictures are someth–”  Walt stopped as Tammy, one of the school aides, pulled up a chair next to James.

“Hi, Walt.”

“Hello,”  Walt mumbled, feeling like he should explain his lingering in the hallway.  “James was just telling me he has a lot of writing to do.”

“Mmm-hmm.  That’s why I’m here, to supervise.”  She crossed her legs and whipped out a nail file.  “Ya know, make sure he’s not goofing around or nothin’.”

Walt stiffened and remembered the packet of towels.  “Well.  Guess there’s a restroom that needs tending to,”  he said in his brusque bordering on rude voice, and walked away.


The next couple of weeks Walt made it a point to straighten the hall during lunch recess, gathering up the cornucopia of shoes and lining them up against the wall.  And every day James was there at the old wooden desk, his neck suspended over the tattered notebook while he scrawled away.  Walt snuck glances at James with a mixture of anger and pity, and then churning doubt.

You don’t know anything about kids.

It was true.  He and Lorraine hadn’t had children; repeated miscarriages due to what Walt suspected was his agent orange exposure had seen to that.  The closest he came to fatherhood was handing out candy at Halloween, for God’s sake, and all that did was make him glad he never had to deal with squalling toddlers.

One Friday afternoon recess Walt tidied the hall, as was his routine.  He opened a spare locker and straightened the Kleenex boxes and hand sanitizer bottles, and out of the corner of his eye he spotted James taking up his usual seat.

“Miss Tammy is out with the flu,”  Mrs. Haig informed James.

Cynthia’s thin hair was pulled back, as it was every day, with wispy bangs that fell across glasses too big for her face.  She pulled a crinkled wad out of the pocket of her denim jumper and honked noisily.

“Everyone’s getting sick, but our day goes on as scheduled. That means you need to stay on task. No doodling and daydreaming.”  She gestured in Walt’s direction.  “And don’t bother Mr. Walt.  He has work to do.”

Walt turned.  “He’s no bother to me,” he said, with a not-inside voice.

She looked startled, as if surprised the invisible help could talk. “Well.  Glad to hear it.”

She pecked a finger like an angry bird on James’ notebook, her words punctuated with every jab.  “Now, get going.  If you’d apply some effort, you’d be done by now.”

Sniffing haughtily, she put her arms on her waist, and Walt pictured the apple throwing trees from Oz again.

“Or maybe you don’t mind sitting out here for the rest of the year?”

James shook his head but didn’t speak.

“All right, then, ” she said, and mercifully strode back to her room.

James stared at the eggshell blue wall in front of him, his body swaying, and after a few minutes he laid his head down on the paper and closed his eyes.  Walt’s gaze darted from the boy to the door of the classroom, which was plastered with mocking red hearts.

There’s no love here, shmuck.  It’s all for show…

Walt looked back at James’ motionless face.  His stomach flipped with the kind of nervous dread he’d long forgotten, the kind that told him he’d get a whipping from his father when the old man got home from work.

God help the kid if she came out and found him sleeping.

He closed the locker door gently and slid past James, and with every step down the hall his anger increased.  He hoped the needles in his chest wouldn’t start clawing again, and just as quickly shuttered the hope away.  If today was the day, so be it, but he wasn’t going down without saying his piece.

The boy should be looking at a blue sky, not a blue wall.

Brookside’s secretary Peggy Hart was typing at her desk when Walt walked into the office.  Whenever he came in here, he felt awkward.  The space looked to him like what a massage parlor might, with candles all over and soft music playing.  And there he was, sticking out like a rusty oilcan in his stained Dickies work clothes and cap.  Peggy looked up over her reading glasses.

“Hi, Walt.  What can I do for you?”  She spoke in a low, breathy voice he had trouble hearing.  Word had it she was trying to keep a calm aura about the office atmosphere, to better assist distressed kids and parents, but all Walt could picture was Marilyn Monroe whenever she talked. Walt swallowed.

“Umm..I’d like to speak with Debra, if I could.”

Peggy nodded.  “Let me buzz her.”  She pressed a button and whispered, then motioned for him to proceed.

He opened Debra’s door, affixed with a silly looking Cupid decoration, and walked in.

“Walt.”  Debra smiled.  “This is a nice surprise.”

Walt took his ballcap off and held it in front of him.  “Hello.”

“Please, sit down, ” Debra said, gesturing to the corner chair.

He did so, looking around at her various plaques and diplomas.

“What brings you to my messy abode?” she laughed, clearing off a pile of papers.

He forced a tight smile. “Sorry to interrupt.  It’s just, I wanted to talk to you about some things I’ve seen happening …”   He trailed off and shame rose like an uncoiling cobra in his throat.  How not to sound like a gossipy snitch?  Was it even possible?

“You haven’t interrupted anything.  Go on.”

“Listen, this isn’t like me, I hope you know.”  He shifted in the chair.  “I keep my nose down and try to mind my own business.”

“I do know.  In fact, I believe this is the longest conversation I’ve had with you in the three years since you began here.”

She smiled again, and it occurred to Walt she was quite an attractive woman. She and Lorraine had been casual friends, and Debra called him after Lorraine died to ask if he’d be interested in the janitor gig.  He accepted, thinking it might be better than blubbering in his beer all day.

“Walt, please.  I want to hear what you have to say.”

“Okay.”  He coughed. “Well, I guess I’ll start with Mrs. Haig and Miss Betty.  To be blunt, I don’t think they like the children.  At all.”

Debra rubbed her temple, and Walt continued. “Especially James Carter. ”  He met her sad gaze.  “I’m sorry, I’m rambling.”

“I assure you, you’re not.”  She exhaled.  “Can you give me specific examples?”

He shrugged a bit, then went on to recite a few of the choice phrases he’d heard over and over again.  She kept nodding, as if it were all old news.

He hesitated. “I didn’t come here to get anyone in trouble, or tattle, as the kids say.”

She stretched across the desk and clasped her hand on his wrist, her touch sending a surprising sparkle of pleasure through him.

“I know what kind of man you are, Walt.  Don’t you think Lorraine ever talked about you?”

He reddened.  No.

She leaned back, releasing her hand.  “I’m aware and have tried to address what youre referring to, but finding people for jobs like Betty’s is difficult.  Once you have a warm body that shows up every day, you kind of say a prayer and don’t look back.  And as for Cynthia…she’s experiencing personal circumstances affecting her job right now.  I cant disclose the nature, of course.”

He was silent.  Three years of a personal issue?

“Look, I know it sounds as if I’m making excuses.  Maybe I am–”

“There’s more,”  Walt broke in.  “This might seem, I dunno, unimportant, but did you know that James Carter hasn’t been out for any recess since school started?  That he’s so tired he fell asleep at his desk in the hall today?”

By her expression, he knew she didn’t know, and that it wasn’t unimportant.

“Excuse me?”

He scrunched his cap with a death grip.

“I guess I wouldn’t of noticed either, until he got moved to the hallway.  Now he’s there every day, and he showed me this…this notebook, full of sentences he’s had to write.  All because he got behind on his homework?”  He lifted the twisted cap in the air. “Now, I admit, I’m no expert about this stuff.  I got a high school diploma and there’s where my book smarts end.”  He shrugged, and found his not inside voice again. “But does it matter? Something’s dead wrong when a kid can’t go out in the sunshine and play around with his buddies.  For months. You’ll pardon me if this sounds like a threat, but if this is some kinda new school policy, then my work here is done.  I cant watch him sitting there anymore.”

She sat up ramrod straight at this, then faced her window.  “What you’ve described is not school policy.  James also has personal circumstances.  Again, I’m not at liberty to discuss, but suffice it to say his family life is dysfunctional at best.”

“Is that some kind of explanation for this?”

“No,” she said sharply, looking back at him.  “If anything, his living conditions make this scenario even worse.  I’m merely explaining…” She faced her desk, palms down.  “Never mind.  Walt, thank you.  I can promise you, this will be resolved, and your name will never be mentioned.  What you’ve told me is inexcusable, and I’m ashamed it happened under my watch.”  Her voice wavered.  “Truthfully, any other parent would have stormed this office, demanding to know what was going on a long time ago.  James doesn’t have anybody to advocate for him.  Outside school, or in, apparently.”

Her face softened looking at him, and she sat down.  “Until now, maybe.”

He stared at her and half-stifled a nervous chuckle.  “What? Me? Aw…hell, no.”  He ran a hand through his thick hair.

She didn’t reply, the softness combining with another emotion now.  Admiration?  Desire?   Would he even recognize that one anymore?

“Sorry,”  he said, his cheeks flushing under her scrutiny.  “No disrespect intended.”

“None taken.”

“I dunno what you’re thinking, but let me tell you.”  He leaned forward.  “I’m nobody’s savior.  Far from it.”

“Oh, I beg to differ.  I happen to know you were that and more for one very sick lady.”
Her words hung in the air, and Walt, who’d given up praying long ago, prayed for composure.

“She…she would’ve done the same for me.”

Debra squeezed his shoulder this time, and stood up.  “Then you were both lucky,” she said, her eyes shining.  “Now, if you’ll excuse me. I have some people I need to talk to.”  She turned around, her face still soft. ” You know, Lorraine wasn’t the only one lucky enough to have you around, Walter Nowicki.”

He lowered his eyes at this, embarrassed, and she wished him a good evening and closed the door behind her.

Walt exhaled in sheer relief.  He was still alive, with no chest needles in sight. He slapped his knees, willing them to move, when he eyed a picture of a dog on Debra’s desk.  He sat back. The frame’s pawprint design was identical to the bumper sticker Lorraine bought after they’d adopted their beagle, Scooter.  He’d resisted getting a dog for a long time.  Too long.

“Who rescued who?” the sticker had asked, and Lorraine beamed as he scowled.  “You’ll see who,”  she’d laughed, kissing him on the cheek.

He checked his watch.  Time for round two of work soon.  He entered Peggy’s office, where the unmistakable aroma of fresh coffee wafted from the staff table.  Unusual, at three-fifteen.

Walt yawned.  “I think you read my mind, Peggy,” he said, filling a rose-painted mug to the brim.

“It’s been a long day,”  Peggy sighed.

“Yup.”  He walked out to the hall, sipping as he scanned the happy clutter of strewn backpacks and hair ties and paper bits swept into corners.

The business of saving people made for a long day, indeed.


Post script:  Thanks for reading what is probably my longest blog post ever!! I wanted to say just a few things about the story, and one of them is that although James is a fictional character, he is based on a real child. As are all characters in fiction.  That’s what makes it so fun to write, after all.  And what happened to James happened to the real child, too, about ten years ago, and that was very not-fun. He was a friend of my son Danny, who casually mentioned to me one day how bad he felt for “James”, and he spilled the details.  I was appalled, of course, and went to the principal, who promptly told me in not so many words to mind my own business.  I am sorry now I didn’t raise holy hell, but as you could probably tell from my incessant sharing on FB about the importance of recess, (among other school issues), it still bugs me. Nevertheless, it’s important to acknowledge the people that do come through for kids, time and again, to “look for the helpers.”  And I know some, and I want to be one, like my character Walt. Cheers, friends.  May you be the Walter Nowicki in someone’s life, whether you know it or not.

























The leader of the band

“…The leader of the band is tired and his eyes are growing old, but his blood runs through my instrument, and his song is in my soul…”       —Dan Fogelberg

Friends, it’s that time of year again, and I’m going to need a beer to mellow me out before I get started.  For the first paragraph anyway…but you know I might need more than one, just to make sure it’s decent.  I choose “Good Humans,” by Short’s Brewing Company, because the subject of this post is literally about a person with the last name of  Goodman.  And, he is exactly that, as you will see.

The beer is a hoppy brown, and it’s delish.  Those fellas and gals got it goin’ on in Bellaire, a sweet little sleepy town in Michigan.

So what it’s time for are those end of school year celebrations, and “graduations” that make me scratch my head as to why there is a need for an accompanying ceremony.  There are graduations from preschool, kindergarten, and anywhere from 4th through 8th, to the only one that truly matters, from 12th.  The shindigs for the kindy crowd are what really irritate me though.  As long as there are cupcakes and party favors, four year olds are all in, but they don’t understand what’s going on, and I hate it when adults impose their ideas on impressionable children.  It’s almost as if we are telling kids, okay, this wasn’t really “school,” because you didn’t learn anything of substance (total BS, but people believe it), so we are celebrating your departure to the real deal, kindergarten.  And then the next year its the same thing: okay, you did do more work in here than preschool, but we’re having another party and a fake diploma because you have no clue how much you’re going to wish you were back in here for the next eleven years, playing house and building weapons with Legos.  (Although those activities are sadly becoming extinct, too, but that’s another post).  So.  Not my favorite cultural phenom.

Not surprisingly, I also cast a sullen eye upon school award night soirees and the bling associated with them, for various reasons that I’ve spelled out in other writings.  But the truth is, I don’t begrudge the handing out of such items, IF they are meaningful.  And I’m going to tell you about the one and only time I got one, and who gave it to me.  More than that, I want to tell you about the man behind the award.

It was 1978, eighth grade, and I was caught in that weird place of not being able to play with Barbies anymore and yet having the conviction my parents were the stupidest creatures on earth. I literally did nothing but daydream through every class, to the point I’m surprised I didn’t flunk out.  Nothing held my interest, except English with Mr. Greene, and one other class.  A class in which I flourished without even really trying. 

If you guessed band, you’d be correct.

 We started in fifth grade.  In the beginning I actually wasn’t all that interested in it, except that my friends joined.  And I think I picked clarinet because of course, that’s what my friends chose.  So dumb, I think now.  We had a tough but respectful teacher, too, by the name of Ms. Jackson.  I couldn’t tell you an algebraic formula if my child’s life depended on it, but thanks to Ms. Jackson I will go to my grave knowing the proper “embouchure” (successful mouth placement) for the clarinet.  I remember being lectured by my mom about the cost of an instrument, even though mine was used, and that I’d better “stick with it.” At the time, the hour of band meant one less hour I had to deal with boring lectures and one more hour to socialize, so I continued.  And I practiced.  A lot.

Everybody hated practicing, but there was no getting out of it because you had to turn in signed slips verifying you did it. And no way was Mama Marlene signing her name to anything she hadn’t witnessed as truth, so there you go. A half hour every day I puffed on a reed in all my squeaky-mouse glory while Mom and Dad watched the news in the next room.

Blowing on that horn was the only homework that ever wasn’t a complete chore, as much as I probably complained.  Amazingly, my fat, short little fingers popped up and down on those keys with relative ease.  I also seemed to intuitively read music, to feel it, and nobody was more surprised than me.  My absolute favorite activity was playing the songs of the band “Bread,” in my room, and the required half hour bloomed into hours.  Remember Bread?  I had bought their piano sheet music with my own money, and though some of the translation was difficult I honked out “It don’t matter to me,” and “If,” over and over.  (Why such a talented group named themselves Bread is still a mystery to me, but hey, it was the seventies.  Enough said).

By now we had a new band teacher.  His name was Paul Goodman, and he was tall, thin, with lots of curly black hair and a bushy moustache.  He was (and still is) a quiet, humble, unassuming man, with kind of a bumbling professor aura about him.  But one of the things I remember most about Mr. G was his patience.  He rarely lost his temper, and I think even my immature twelve year old self marveled at that.  The bumbling aura didn’t fool me, either.  I was pretty sure the guy was a genius, so in awe was I that he knew enough about every instrument to be able to teach kids how to play them.  In particular, kids whose main musical goal in life thus far was to see who could produce the loudest burp or fart.

I don’t know how he corralled the squirrely bunch of us, but he did.  How does one manage to not strangle a big group of stinky, too talkative, completely unskilled seventh and eighth graders?  There were times even I became annoyed if the kids didn’t take his direction seriously, or if they just outright lacked a sense of rhythm.  When you’re seated right next to someone who is forever off beat, it messes with your tempo, so consequently you must squash the urge to stab them with your music stand.  At least, that’s what I wanted to do.  Thankfully he handled all of us with grace, as he would with all the kids that came after.  I went on practicing.

One day Mr. G sent home a flier about tutoring, and I dutifully took it home and didn’t give it another thought.  However my mother, the one least-likely-to-be-involved-in their-kids’- daily life, read it and promptly signed me up.  The next thing I knew I was having private lessons with Ms. Peterek, and she challenged me in all the ways I needed.  I don’t remember how long the lessons went on, but I remember the day Mr. G made an example out of me because of them.  He said, more than vaguely irritated with the whole class, “If you all took this tutoring like Ellen is doing, you’d improve. See how much it’s helped her, how good she is?”  OH MY GOD.  Let me disappear under the tubas right this second, is what I remember feeling, but there was something else too.  Did he just say, how good she is?  Does he mean ME, the kid who couldn’t read an analog clock until a few years ago?

Yes, yes he did, and I can’t describe the perfect storm of embarrassment and pride that filled up in me, but I do know I have never forgotten it.

Later on, Mr. Goodman asked all the band kids to cast a vote, and it was to nominate one of us as “Most outstanding band member of the year.”  We filled out slips of paper, all a-twitter as to who would bring this honor home, and one afternoon he said he had an announcement.  He had tallied the votes.  “I’m not surprised at your decision.  The winner is Ellen.”  Of course everyone clapped, because that’s what we are taught to do, and again I wanted to dive headfirst somewhere, because this was an imposter he was talking about.  The girl I knew didn’t get awards, except one for Presidential fitness, and even that one was questionable.  I suppose the fact it was a peer-given accolade made it seem more authentic, but I knew they voted for me because of him, because he had genuinely praised my ability time and again.

It’s not an exaggeration to say it was the first and last time it would ever happen in school, and that, too, I have never forgotten.

The certificate did get framed with a few track ribbons, and I hate to report that with all the paraphernalia of childhood it got misplaced somewhere along the line. Along with the feeling I was misplaced.  The following year, ninth grade, Mr. Goodman was gone, and with him my enthusiasm for band.  At this time students “auditioned” and were separated into two categories: concert or symphonic band.  I didn’t understand what this meant, until I found myself as one, if not the only one, of the freshman in the symphonic section.  All of my clarinet friends were placed in the concert band with a different teacher and in another room.  And this was so not fun.  Not to mention, I had no connection with the new instructor.  Mr. Maynard yelled, and unlike his predecessor he did have a temper, waving his arms maniacally and appearing permanently red-faced.

The dealbreaker for me was the fateful day he gave out random “playing tests” to the clarinets in my row.  We were now sitting according to ability; first row, first seat meant you were the head honcho, but anyone could be unseated by these tests.  Now, I don’t know if they still make students do this, but it can be a humiliating experience.  If you screw up, everyone is a witness to your incompetence, and that’s hard enough.  But add in the fact if you have your chair publicly taken over by someone who has outperformed you, AND they are a useless freshman, well…suffice it to say life in band deteriorated rapidly for me from that moment on.  I  was moved up a whole row that day.  I still remember my face engulfed in flames as I passed chair after chair, and the looks thrown my way.  So instead of being glad I was mortified.  I didn’t even feel the changes were due to my superior skills; I simply put myself in “the zone”, didn’t get nervous, and remembered what a special teacher had taught me.  Little did I know not everyone could pull this off so effortlessly.

I began to dread 6th hour after that; the whispering and gossip due to my new stature got the better of me.  My friends quit, and that year (to my parents’ great disappointment), so did I.  I dropped out of band because I wasn’t strong enough to face the petty jealousy of others, I loathed standing out, and it pains me to think about the what ifs.  What if Mr. G had never left?  With his support would I have found the fortitude to suck it up and go on to be a music therapist, something I’ve dreamed about?  Truly, I think the same scenario still could’ve occurred, of course, as the power of peers trumped all else at that time.  I’ll never know, and I don’t blame him for anything at all.  I just missed him.  I missed having someone who believed in me.

Fast forward much later to my own boys, enrolled in the same high school I’d been in.  At some point Mr. Goodman had come back to the district, this time as a guidance counselor, and I was delighted.  He worked his magic there, too, enrolling our older son into advanced placement classes and turning him onto an obscure college that specialized in music (in my son’s case, guitar).  He went to bat for our younger one over and over to make sure he got what he needed to graduate, a Herculean feat in itself.

What I’ve shared here is only a fraction of the many lives Paul has impacted.  In his guidance counselor role, he went way above and beyond scheduling ACT sessions.  For thirty plus years, he was a man who made sure pregnant teens could do work from home and take tests; who appeared at truant teens’ homes, banging on the door to get them to school, who knew about their life challenges and cared enough to see kids through them, who logged the extra mile and then some.  He even donated the money he made playing in a local orchestra to kids’ scholarship funds.  He showed up and showed faith, over and over, whether you were a failing drugged- out mess or the class valedictorian, and that’s what has made him so beloved.  It’s why every student invites him to their graduation parties, why every student speech includes gratefulness to him, and why he’s never forgotten by any of them.

When I heard that Paul was retiring this year, I thought about all the ripples of his service, the generations of families who experienced his kind and encouraging help.  For truly, that’s what I see him as: a servant to the needs of students, doing the work of God.  It’s what I aspired to when I was working, as well.  And what I try to do in my writing now.

So I wanted to tell my story, tiny among hundreds, for a couple of reasons.  One is that I feel we all need to call attention to goodness, wherever it is, but especially in regard to educators.  Looking back there was probably very good reasons we went through 3 band teachers in the time I recall.  (Mr. Maynard left, too).  Working well with children is a gift, and I was so happy to discover Paul hadn’t left permanently.  Whether it was molding budding musicians or securing student scholarships, he is the epitome of what caring, heart-full teaching is all about.  And the other reason I wanted to write this, was to say thank you to him.  Thank you for seeing a spark of talent in an insecure young girl all those years ago.  I know I speak for many when I say thank you for devoting your life to kids, and for all the things you did, unseen and unacknowledged.  May you know the world is a better place because of you.

Paul, you will be missed, but since I’ve seen you at Greenbush we know where to find each other.  Here’s to a new, well-deserved chapter in your life!  And friends who are reading this, may you or your family be blessed with a “leader of the band” like Paul Goodman.  Cheers to you all!










What twenty five years of marriage really looks like

I break with tradition today, as I write this not with beer in hand, but cinnamon tea. Yes, tea, because I am trying to cut back on beer consumption. Why, why, why would one want to reduce the drinking of silky smooth, roasty stouts and black ales, you ask?  Well, most of you reading this already know why.  I am trying to reduce the bloat that also accompanies the hoppy deliciousness of said concoctions, because of a certain son’s wedding to take place in August.  I know, I know, it’s not about me, but it’s also a good reason to shed unwanted pounds.  Also, it’s Lent.  I should be practicing self-denial of some sort.

So far it’s a dismal fail.

I’m doing aerobics, but I think I’m making up what I’m not drinking by eating more.  I’ve pretty much given up my main fat burner, soccer, because my creaky joints are ready to blow out any minute.  And my feet hurt like hell, despite good shoes and inserts, so that’s not helping my activity level nor my sloth-like metabolism.  We shall see how many more excuses I can drum up while I continue this painful beer withdrawal façade.  This may be the most short-lived diet ever.

So all the talk and anticipation of the upcoming marriage has made me ponder my own journey there, twenty five years ago this July.  There are some things that haven’t changed much, like bachelor parties and gift registries, and some things that are new, like wedding websites.  (Who knew?)  But back then I didn’t joyfully pore over colors, flowers, and invitations. I didn’t get misty eyed over picking out a dress, though maybe my mom did.  I think I spent most of the time preparing for the wedding wondering if we were making a mistake.

Yeah.  Not a very auspicious beginning, and to say our road was a rocky one is putting it mildly.  We ‘d dated for a year and landed head over heels in love, but then we were off and on through my going to MSU and his going to Purdue.  At last I graduated, and he was set to do the same the next spring.  I was ecstatic at having graduated, but not because I could storm the work force.  I was ecstatic because I could finally follow him and we could be together all the time!  And I did, and we were, and guess what happens when couples are together all the time!  Yep.  I found out I was pregnant that fall before, with the boy that is to be married this year.

What followed were some stressful months and panic.  How was this possibly gonna work?  No nest egg, no house, no job, (for me), etcetera. We were both scared, and it made what should’ve been a happy time, not so much.  But even amidst the considerable tumult, I willed myself to be calm, for the sake of my developing baby.  Something told me to hang in, to trust that it would be okay eventually.  Without sounding too floo-floo, I think this voice reassuring me was the Holy Spirit.

And I listened.

Here I go again, sounding floo-floo, but when Sean arrived it was as though a magic wand appeared.  Every worry and fear for the future, every tearful argument and niggling doubt, was eviscerated in one baby powder poof.  I’m not exaggerating.  It really was that instant and that powerful.  Here was this tiny, gorgeous, red-haired perfect miracle, spreading healing joy to us and everyone around us.  I wouldn’t trade what happened for a second; the minute I held him was absolute heaven.  I’d have to remember that feeling for the many sleepless nights to come, but that’s how God works.  He also made us circle our wagons and put on our big kid pants.  We’d become a family.  We would make it work.

So for two years we toiled, built a house, loved on our little toddler, and somewhere in there got a wedding going.  And I’m not gonna lie, that process wasn’t very romantic either.  The “proposal” was us looking at each other and saying it was probably time to start checking out rings.  Which I know sounds laughably lame compared to where the guy gets the ballpark to pop the question on the scoreboard, but I really didn’t care.  I just wanted our still fragile roots to dig in deep and get strong.

In the meantime, we participated in the required pre-wedding counseling, and I knew I would convert to Catholicism.  This was no sacrifice for me.  Religion hadn’t been a part of my life, though I’d always wanted it to be.  I immediately felt at home with the rituals, the devotion to Mary, and the sacred Trinity.  There was never any pressure from anyone to take this on; I wanted to, because I thought it would be one more step to solidifying us and providing stability for our child.  I was right about this to a degree.

Our wedding day came, and we were both nervous wrecks.  I wasn’t one of those blissful bawling brides sashaying down the aisle, searching out the gaze of my soul mate.  I was actually trying not to throw up.  My heart threatened to beat itself out of my chest.  I thought maybe I was having a panic attack.   My dad took my arm and patted it, but all I could think of was, “I don’t know if this is right. I don’t have a fucking clue about whether this is right..”  And someone said later that John’s foot wagged frantically back and forth when we kneeled at the altar, to the point they were laughing.  I remember during the ceremony bending down to a statue of Mary and desperately praying:  “Please, please, help.  Help me, and help us to make it.”

We were both deer in the headlights taking a blind leap of faith, and we were hardly the first couple to feel that way.

Fast forward twenty five years later.  We didn’t crash into the windshield, but we took some hits, and have emerged together relatively unscathed.  Understanding how we managed this feat is truly a complicated endeavor.  People (and I include myself) can’t get enough of finding secret formulas to making relationships succeed (Do these five things for a hot marital life!), but much of it is bullshit.  So if that’s the case, what wisdom can I pass along?  Well, it may not work for you, but that’s okay.  I think it kind of boils down to this:  Pray a lot, have sex a lot, and don’t be an asshole more than you can help it.  I know, it’s inspiring enough to bring tears to your eyes.  But seriously, you can agree on religion and money and kids and in-laws, and still end up not together, or worse, trapped in an empty shell.  Making marriage work is a mysterious mixture of faith, luck, and not throwing in the towel when you want to snap him or her in the face with the thing; preferably wet, so it stings.  It’s acceptance for who the other is, and being okay with what that is.  In the beginning, I found John to be rigid and demanding, and carped at him endlessly for being so judgmental.  He in turn found me to be financially careless and questioned my commitment to make the long haul without bolting (no doubt magnified by my proclivity for fleeing during disagreements).  We were living out our birth order roles of the bossy oldest and the irresponsible baby, but throwing in the towel was never an option.  Some days that may have been the only thing we did agree on.

I think it helps if partners have a longer memory for all the shining moments, and a shorter one for the dark times.   Practice having amnesia then.  It works, trust me, unless you reverse the two.

Here’s another reality.  There is no such thing as giving “50/50” in a relationship.  It’s more like 60/40, or even 80/20, and I’m not talking about just for a day.  The scales can be unbalanced for a looong time, and in our narcissistic culture that’s a hard concept to wrap selfish heads around.  The key is knowing, having faith, the burden will be shifted in the other direction at some point.  And if it doesn’t, there’s a choice to be made.  Have you noticed how often I’ve used the word faith here?  I’ve no doubt God has been with us all along, and will be to the end.  There can be no other explanation for overcoming some of the hurdles we encountered over the years, because we’re sure as hell not superheroes.  We are imperfect and vulnerable to the same frailties as everyone else.  And sometimes, for a host of ouchy reasons we already know, a person has to pull the plug and walk away because they must.  And that sucks.  And it’s hard. I would say to this, the same mantra about writing I have mocked in the past yet still know of its’ truth:

No love is ever wasted.

The proof is there, whether through beautiful children or painful lessons. I hope you believe this, and aren’t throwing a shoe at your computer.  Well, go ahead and throw the shoe if you need to, but steer clear of your valuables and the dog and the cat.

I am so excited for my son and future daughter-in-law and their new life together.  Weddings truly bestow hope on all who attend, and as they say, if you’re lucky enough to be part of an Irish one, you’re lucky enough.  You may be wondering if we’ll be doing any celebrating of our own in July.  The answer is yes.  Exactly what, I’m  not sure of yet, but we’ve talked in the past about renewing our vows.  Something quiet and simple.  It’d be nice to walk down even a makeshift aisle as a more fully developed person, a person who declares, “I choose you.  Again. With humble gratitude and not gnawing fear.”

Cheers and God’s peace to all you lovebirds.  May you enjoy a long and prosperous life together, and if you do make the walk down the proverbial aisle, may you not be afflicted with nausea.  Now how’s that for an Irish toast?












The cure for when life sucks

Hello, friends! Tonight I am digging in the back of our beer fridge, and what do I find but a Great Lakes Christmas Ale. Why it’s still there is a mystery, but it won’t be for long.  I am sipping it now, with the rim coated in cinnamon sugar. I know some of you just can’t get your head around beer mixed with sugar, and beer consumed alongside items such as cupcakes, and I tell you once again, IT WORKS. Especially when life sucks, and it kind of does, right now.
Yeah, sorry to report this won’t be a cheery post, so don’t say you weren’t forewarned. You should be cracking your own brew open now anyway, since if you’ve been following my posts, you know they’re not exactly sunshine-y.
You may need a refresher, though, as it’s been months since I’ve visited my abandoned blog, due to that pesky project called writing a novel.  Well, guess what?  Right now, that two and a half year project sucks.  I just want to listen to sad folksinger songs that nobody has ever heard of, drink stouts, and then get mad all over again because nobody knows who the songwriter is.  What the hell is wrong with people, I rail.  They make talentless, lip-synching fucks famous, and people with REAL PROMISE go unnoticed.  Like me, maybe?  So suggests a little voice.

Anyway.  At this particular juncture, my work sucks, because I’ve recently gotten feedback telling me it has no real direction, there doesn’t seem to be a point, and I should do X, Y , and Z.  Breathe deeply, I tell myself. No writing is wasted, I try to remember, and I want to wring the wrinkled neck of whoever thought of that son- of-a-bitching useless mantra.  Another deep breath.

The truth is, every good writer requires and uses constructive critique to improve their work. We in the writer’s world are told at every turn about its’ essentialness, and I believe  it to my core.  That being said, does it still sting like the wasp that attacked my son years ago, landing on every knuckle with vicious delight?  Absolutely.  Part of it is, of course, you become so immersed and attached to your story, the characters are like your babies. You envision yourself, instead of smiling politely, responding to your very well-meaning and most likely correct critic by shouting at them: What do you mean, you don’t UNDERSTAND why X, Y, or Z, would do THAT?  I’ve spent hundreds of fucking hours making it clear why. Apparently, as clear as mud.  What the fuck is wrong with you?  Let me guess, what are you, twenty five?  You don’t know SHIT!

So.  To preserve my thinning perseverance, I am stepping away, for a bit.  After I’ve received some more commentary from various valued comrades, I shall return.  And like a bulldog, I won’t let go until it’s right.  I guess that will be an accomplishment in itself, because do you know how unlike a bulldog I am?  It’s true.  I’m more like a dopey boxer-mix who chases their own tail because they don’t know any better, who forgets where they buried the damned bone.  I’m fighting against the tide here.

Aside from my pity party about the above, there’s other stuff making life suck.  There’s the ever present grey skies and rain, which is like living in Ireland, without the awesome pubs and people.  It is so utterly depressing, and to complain results in…nothing.  My husband hates whiners, and actually I do too, but I want my Michigan snow back. Where the hell did it go, anyway?  The grey is similar to the cement block that is weighing on us from another ongoing situation that, if not resolved soon, I fear will literally kill my partner.  My love, my children’s father, and I am powerless to stop its’ poison. This is how long- term stress works; it eats away like a parasite taking over the host. In the meantime, we just try to take it day by day, hoping it will soon be an unpleasant memory.

Have you cracked open that craft beer yet?

The key to dissolving the said pity party is perspective.  We all know this; it’s only in a thousand different Facebook memes. Remember?  The self-righteous ones that tell you to be grateful for overflowing laundry, because it means you have clothes?  Yeah, yeah, whatever, those are the ones I share when I’m in a good mood.  Which I am not, even though I know their truths. So here are my sobering face-slaps.

There’s my dear friend and neighbor, who is slowly dying from a rare type of lymphoma, and if there is anyone who deserves to live it’s this man. He is the closest thing to a saint on the planet, and he lives alone, and I wake up in a sweat worrying whether today is the day God is taking him, and nobody will know. So I call him and bring him cupcakes because he just turned sixty six, and by the grey in his face that matches our current sky, I don’t think he will see another birthday.

There is my sister, who must think about which nursing home to possibly place her husband, who suffers from Parkinson’s.  And if and when she does this, how to pay for it. An attorney has suggested a divorce, “on paper,” because if you have any assets at all, Medicare won’t pay for long term care.  How’s that for a choice?

Are you wondering about my cure for when life sucks?  Well, it may not work for you.  In fact, you might even break out into hives at the thought.  If that’s the case, it’s your problem, and I’m sorry for you.  But my balm right now, my sustenance, is this:  Avoid adults.  I’m dead serious.  I’ve decided I prefer the company of children anymore, and maybe I always have. They are incapable of bullshit, they don’t know or understand politics, and maybe most importantly, they make me laugh or cry, depending on the circumstance.

The last couple of weekends have been spent in the presence of four different young girls, each of them as unique and beautiful as the snowflakes I wish would reappear.  And I couldn’t get enough of them; of their sweet, innocent conversations and overwhelming politeness, their clear, youthful faces and most of all, their honesty.  In one instance, the girls are daughters of our friends, and we were skiing.  Afterward, I colored with them (YES! How I miss coloring!), and played tic-tac-toe, and Hangman, and there were belly laughs all around.  Oh, how I need this now, I thought.

And then there was a dinner this past weekend, which included people my husband works with.  Some of them brought their kids, two girls  who sat at the end of the table.  I asked John to switch seats with me so I could talk to them, because I always feel bad for the kids who get dragged to adult/parent events. I didn’t regret it either, because sure enough one of the spouses began bitching about their job (with kids!) and another was on about the joy (not) of working in a high school lunchroom, which included the power of granting detention.

Jesus Christ, I think.  Don’t. Get. Me. Started. On this subject, of Nazi-like adults loving to wield power over helpless kids.  This is where I check out, turn my chair, and start actively engaging the girls in conversation, and it was wonderful.  I pay more attention to eleven year old Ashley, because she doesn’t have an electronic device, and she is answers all my nosy questions with eagerness.  She tells me art is her favorite class, (big surprise), and her current task is drawing her “dream bedroom.”  I ask what that would entail, but she says it’s a brand new assignment and she still has to think about it.  I tell her I’m a writer, which is something I don’t openly admit, because to my ears it still sounds imposter-ish, but I know I will be safe in revealing it to her.  And I am right.  Her face brightens at this, and she tells me of a ‘personal narrative” she had recently completed.  We chat some more, and she notices her mother is not at her chair.  Her dad tells her that mom is outside to get some fresh air, that she’s not feeling well, and because she is eleven and a girl, she’s worried and asks to go see her.  She is clearly relieved when her mom is okay, and my throat closes up watching her.

Children are our hope, and our future.  We know this, logically, but we don’t give them the credit or the respect they deserve.  They are also central to the book I’m writing, and for this reason alone I will keep plugging through. I know that my strongest passages involve characters that are children, so it may mean I have to expand on this strength. Wish me luck, friends, that I can do them justice on the printed page.

And may the things that suck right now for you, every day be a little less sucky. Sometimes, life has to be measured by those kind of increments.