Jury Duty Did Not Make Me A Better Human

Tonight’s brew is Snow Roller by Magic Hat, a seemingly apt choice as we finally have snow on the ground. The bottle describes it as a hoppy brown ale, but it’s more like watery, not-much-hop brown ale. No matter. We had, ahem, QUITE the beer selection from Christmas, and this was one of the leftovers. So drink I must; you know, to make room in the beer fridge for the good stuff. Though I sniff my nose at the brew now, I probably would’ve gulped it like gatorade yesterday and the day before. In the morning, yet. No, I wasn’t at Chuck E. Cheese’s, or an equally annoying electronic- filled establishment that requires mind numbing beverages in order to function. I was in our local courthouse, having been summoned for jury duty.

I made the usual harrumphs about interruptions in time, and how is it this is my third time when others have never done it, but on the whole, I didn’t mind. Of course, that was before I woke up to the worst weather of the year and navigated treacherous roadways in whiteouts for forty five minutes. You could say I minded then. Of course I wasn’t alone in the hardship, as eighty other disgruntled citizens were also called and led to a room to wait. To wait and watch two short videos which I already have zero recall as to their content, other than jurors should dress appropriately. We were told to be at the courthouse by 7:45, and eighty people without cell phones sat in the room until 930. I guess the good thing about the rule is people were almost forced to talk to their neighbor, if their neighbor wasn’t too annoyed by not having a phone.

Within minutes my neighbor Karen made no bones about the fact she wasn’t comfortable being a juror. “Who am I to judge?” she said to me.

I nodded. “I know what you mean.”

“People judge unfairly all the time. They judge that I have two unmarried daughters with children, one who lives with us, but what they don’t know is I had another daughter who died in a car accident and a few years ago our house burned down. And I was a victim of verbal abuse by my boss for years, until I walked away. She was a horrible, horrible person. Always criticizing, judging. I feel like we’ve been here for hours, what time is it? Oh, I hate not having my phone.”

I swear to God I am not making this up. People tell me stuff and ramble in a way I’m certain would go unsaid to other, maybe brighter looking people. So at first I wasn’t sure if she was being truthful, but after sitting there for an hour and a half, I think she was. I kind of stopped talking to her after she was going on to another neighbor about buying two ipads for her four year old granddaughters and how all the hundreds of apps had made them “sooooo smart.” Yet in the next breath she complained how at night one of them is up every two hours and she doesn’t know why she has so much trouble sleeping. Ugh.

At 9:30 Karen and I were called to the courtroom, along with forty others. The rest were meant to sit in that original room, and watch the procedures on video. They wouldn’t be released until fourteen jurors were selected, but the clerk assured them they were the lucky ones because she had coffee and they could chew gum. She was right. Because after three hours on a rock hard bench in the courtroom I was chewing gum, and I didn’t care who saw me, and I wanted her coffee.

Let me say I love my country and I have respect for our judicial system. I think most of the time, it works. But the “voir dire” (jury selection) ordeal is enough to make a sane person want to drink watery, not hoppy beer at ten thirty in the morning. It is the most eye-rollingly repetitive experience I’ve had in forever, and I’m not sure how I forgot that fact the first two times. Part of it was because this go around there were two defendants, each with their own lawyer. So the prosecuting attorney along with the other two asked the SAME questions over and over and over of every prospective juror.

“How would you rate our justice system?” 

“Do you have problems with race?” 

“Can you put bias aside easily?”

“Ever been a victim of a violent crime or someone close to you been a victim?”

And from the judge: “Do you have the ability to understand possession? For example, you have a pen. If you put your pen in the car, and you go back inside, do you understand that the pen is still in your possession, and that you have a right to assert control over that pen?” Although nobody admitted it because nobody wanted to hear him repeat the example for the umpteenth time, the “right to assert control” phrase tripped up everyone. (How do I control it if it’s in my car?) So this went on and on, with the worst part the judge repeating the same damned questions the attorneys had already asked individually, back to them as a group. “Is there ANYONE who sees themselves as being unable to render decisions based on facts?” As if we are all four years old and can’t quite grasp the meaning the first eighteen times around.

Naturally there were some who answered in a way they knew would get them booted. After about a half hour my new friend Karen was called. When asked if there was any reason she would not be able to be a juror, she said:

“Well, actually I know I would tell my husband about it. I tell him everything.”

Judge: (peeved) “Do you mean to say you could not keep the trial’s proceedings to yourself, knowing you could talk away the minute it’s over?”

“I’m sorry, I’m just being honest. I know I would talk to him.”

She was thanked and excused. So was another guy, clearly irate, who was called after me. When asked how he rated the system he said: “Well, if you would’ve asked me at eight o’clock, I would have said a seven, but now that it’s 1:30 I’m giving it a three.” He shook his head. “I get it, man. Everyone wants someone sympathetic to their client, but this is ridiculous.” Out he went. I had to hand it to him; he only said what everyone was thinking. We were all starving and getting crankier by the minute. And I get it too. I get the attempt to weed out the bigots, the wild cards and the dim bulbs as necessary. I just wish it wasn’t so excruciating to arrive there. In the end though, I guess it all worked, because our panel really was a good cross section of society. Our group consisted of a college student, security guard, farmer, mechanic, dietician, two business owners, two pastors, a male nurse, a waitress, a Whirlpool executive, one guy whose job I didn’t catch, and me. Three women, eleven men, one black and the rest white, and here’s the kicker: nobody managed to grate on my impatient self. Usually there’s one clown or blowhard making everyone cringe, but not in this crew. And it was a good thing, because there were loads of down time in which to become better acquainted.

THAT is what grated more than anything: the inefficiency with time was astounding. The incessant lecturing about no discussing the trial and reminders about protocol drove me nuts. I wasn’t alone with this, either. The male nurse whose name was Jeremiah had a second calling as a performer, because he could imitate all the players in the courtroom dead-on. “Is there ANYONE who doesn’t understand that if you have a pen and you leave it in your car…” He made us laugh, in particular one time as we were shuffled back to the room again for at least forty minutes. The bailiff had to come in and tell us to be quiet, and one of the pastors was repentant. “We apologize, sir,” he said solemnly. And I thought, well, I’m not sorry. What else do you expect us to do, forbidden as we were to not discuss anything? I was also less than thrilled with all the formality and stuffiness and the way the bailiff jumped like a command dog at every breath the judge took. I don’t know what it is about this that bugged me so, because again I do understand the need for order. I guess I just have an inherent distaste for situations in which it must be made abundantly clear who is in power, and who is not, and being reminded every two seconds since most of us don’t have a bajillion years of law instruction, as such we need to be schooled.

So back to the bailiff, who did manage to slightly irritate me. He was friendly and did his best to meet our needs, providing water and coffee at regular intervals and answered our questions. No qualms there. I decided his job was to basically herd us like cats and be a courtroom servant  in any capacity, and he did this well. But when I came back from a lunch break the first day, as he was escorting me to through all the locked doors he kept turning around.

“I know you.” ( Not, do I know you?) “I’ve seen you somewhere. I used to referee high school wrestling, is that it?”

“Hmm. No, don’t think so.”

He went on to list a bunch of other possibilities, all denied, and he persisted until we got to the room. By this time I wanted to shout, “I DON’T KNOW YOU, and you have all the mannerisms of a tight ass ex-military and ex -cop that you’ve said you were, that would make me not WANT to particularly know you.”

The interrogation went on to the next day even, again as were on the escort trail, and this was the source of my ire. I felt like a freaking suspect whom he was sure was lying somehow.

“I was trying to think last night of how I know you.”

Really, dude? Please let that just be conversation. I shook my head and repeated I wasn’t from the area.

“Huh.”

He unlocked the door to the dungeon and went to herd more cats. 

On the second day of the trial, closing statements were made around five o’clock and the  judge informed us sandwiches would be delivered as we deliberated. Although everyone was tired, nobody wanted to leave while the evidence was still fresh in our minds.

And we could finally talk, and do what we were there for. 

While the cases were fairly open and shut, I think we did an excellent job pulling it apart and analyzing the facts. Exhausted, everyone still understood our decisions would essentially decide the direction of others’ lives, thus deserving of careful examination. We got hung up on one charge (possession!) and had to send the judge a note for clarification, and at ten p.m we were ready with five guilty verdicts and one not guilty. 

Our nurse Jeremiah read the counts out loud, and afterward we were ready to pounce at the exit door. The judge however, was not so eager. He pontificated about the merits of jury duty and produced a battered newspaper column.

“Whenever trials end, I always reflect upon the words of Anna Quindlan, who wrote a wonderful article on how jury duty made her a better human.”

Now, I’m an admirer of Quindlan, but at this point I am screaming at him in my head:

“It is ten fifteen. I am NOT a better human because right now I want to throw darts at you because you are still talking and we want to go home. DO not read that column in its entirety or I’ll be the one in the jail cell. Simply THANK US and send us on our way. “

He paraphrased, thanks be to God. The bailiff led us to the parking lot for one last time, probably still scratching his head about how he knew me, and we bid each other goodbye. We expressed thankfulness for the chance to get to know one another, and this was genuine. We’d overlooked the inconvenience, fought fatigue and horrendous weather, the pettiness of certain processes, spouses and kids and animals at home and jobs that needed our attention, to zero in on the importance of the task at hand. 

So maybe I was a LITTLE bit more human after all. 

Cheers, friends. And if you get called for jury duty, may you be blessed with a circle of good humans who will make you forget about craving watery, not hoppy beer at ten thirty in the morning. 

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My brother’s keeper

If I can stop one heart from breaking, I shall not live in vain

If I can ease one life the aching 

Or cool one’s pain

Or help one fainting robin

Unto his nest again

I shall not live in vain

-Emily Dickinson

Today’s post is accompanied by Short’s autumn ale and this is my last one out of a six pack. (And no, I didn’t buy it yesterday). However it is only two in the afternoon…which could be worrisome under normal circumstances. Suffice it to say what’s happening now isn’t normal, if death ever is. And over my pint I’m wondering if I failed to live out the directives of one of my favorite poems, the one listed above.  I’m feeling that I failed to not only stop a heart from breaking, but by my lack of action a heart stopped beating altogether. 

That being said, I really don’t want this post to be about poor me. Let me tell you about my brother David.

He was born David Lindsey Hasenfang on September 2nd, and had just turned fifty six when he shot himself in the head at his home. His story is sad from beginning to end, but I guess I think if it’s written down it will somehow matter more and be less tragic.

He was a chubby, blonde haired and blue eyed toddler when his father was killed in a train accident; and my sister wonders often how their lives might have turned out had this never happened. Hard to know, of course. I picture him, probably not even out of diapers and already adrift in a sea of depression he’d never fully pull out from, and I think.

I think, did you ever even stand a chance? 

His every whim was indulged from the get-go. No doubt, due to a mixture of my mother’s distracted depression and two adoring sets of grandparents eager to fill the gap of a missing father. Then my mother met my father, whom he probably did become attached to, and who promptly left after fleecing everyone in his wake. By the time he had a second stepfather he was nearing adolescence, and the brew of emerging hormones and lifelong defiance with authority became the perfect storm. Our German stepdad at age thirty-something knew zilch about child raising, but what he did know was that this smart-mouth upstart was going to show him respect. And once my parents discovered marijuana pots in his room, there were knock down, drag out fistfights that drove me to my room to hide. 

When he turned twenty one David received a sum of money set aside from his deceased father, and sometime after that he bought a truck and a dog. He was California bound. He worked for a landscaping company out there and had a genuine flair for it, and I wasn’t surprised. When he was in eighth grade the only bright spot in his troubled academic history cast this light: an art teacher told him he had talent and he should direct his career in that route. He didn’t finish high school, let alone pursue art in college, but I think his gifts came through when he worked with his plants and flowers.

He loved it in Cali, though the free wheeling drug culture was not a good scene for him. He admitted this to me much later.  He became mired in one incident after another, calling my sisters and then my mom for money. At some point my mom flew out there and I don’t even know what happened, but she was a wreck upon coming home. The “incidents”  were never his fault, naturally. In between countless brushes with the law was the ever present threat of doing himself in, which distressed everyone to no end. At some point he came home to Michigan and lived with my parents for quite awhile, obtaining factory work mostly.

When I had my firstborn, he was very excited. I think part of it was due to the fact that at barely twenty, he had become involved with a somewhat older woman. She was separated and had two kids and in no time was pregnant with his. She didn’t want him or the baby and opted for adoption. I remember this being a very painful decision, as he weighed how to raise a baby when he himself was unstable in almost every conceivable way. Many tears were shed by him and my mother, and I know he waited the rest of his life for a knock on the door that never came. 

So with the arrival of a nephew I was hopeful. Hopeful he could at last establish a bond and receive the unconditional love only children and pets can give. And for awhile he did, until he couldn’t. When Sean was a toddler I suggested they go fishing, which my brother loved. And when he dropped Sean off he was livid. “Why did you ever think I could do this? He wouldn’t shut up and sit still, and drove me nuts. I hate kids!” He was shaking with the effort to control himself and stalked off in a rage. 

That was when I knew I couldn’t trust him not to become unhinged around my children. And I had to put them first, had to protect them. It was probably around this time for various reasons, he became less and less stable. He was fired from a care taking job at an estate, and that was one of the last legitimate positions he had. Somehow, probably with my parent’s help, he bought a house and settled not far from them or me. He also met a sweet young woman and got married, and we thought, “Oh…this is it! This is the turning pont.” Nice as she was, she was also very ill with kidney disease, which was there before the marriage. In between doting on her he’d explode, and she was understandably too fragile to withstand his unpredictable outbursts. They divorced, and this was probably the earliest beginning of the end. At some stage he began growing pot again as a soure of income, and we would only see each other sporadically. He hated holidays and special occasions and refused to participate in family functions, and this hurt. Later I understood it was because he was embarrassed to be surrounded by “successful” people with growing families, but at the time it simply annoyed me. 

After my mom died, it seemed as though he was determined to reverse the pain he’d caused them over the years by helping my dad. And help him he did, from mowing, weeding, raking, shoveling snow, to taking him for groceries, to just being company. They became friends, and I was so grateful for both of them. 

Then my dad passed.

His downward spiral continued but the pattern was in fits and starts. He received a good chunk of inheritance money and my sister intoned, “spend it wisely.” But we should’ve known better. How could a decent amount of cash combined with his erratic, bipolar behavior, not be a disaster waiting to happen? He refused to apply for Obamacare because he was certain the Feds would come after him for years of not paying taxes, so he paid God only knows how much out of pocket for his dozens of meds. So the money trickled away, taking with it what little reasoning and hope he had.

I met with him a few weeks before he died and we went for a nice walk with his dog Rocky, a big and beautiful lab-pit mix. His animals were the one constant throughout his life, for all the usual reasons: their devotion, companionship, unending love, and unwavering acceptance. David hid from his family and most of society because in his moments of clarity he was ashamed of  who and what he was. But really. What was that, other than a flawed human like any one of us? For every side of him that was selfish, hurtful, volatile, irresponsible, reckless and law breaking, there was another side that was caring, loyal, artistic, ferociously funny, sentimental, and occasionally considerate. It’s just that, like Darth Vader, the dark side took over much of the time. And that scared and frustrated me, so I’d back off. Maintaining any relationship with him meant risking your own mental health, and that’s a pretty high price to pay. 

And yet. The predictable should and could-haves circle my brain like the bees hovering over the hummingbird feeder on my deck. Sucking the life out of me with the accusation that I didn’t do enough. I say this because when on that hike, he hinted in a very roundabout way he should’ve received more of the estate for his care of our dad. And I know enough to know that he targeted me, not only because he felt closer to me but because he knew I was the one more likely to cave. To say, “Oh, you’re right. What do you need?”

Only this time, I didn’t. I offered help, but it wasn’t what the kind he wanted. I was determined to break the cycle of enabling, not understanding this wasn’t possible with a man as sick as he was. He was desperate, and though logic dictates if he didn’t follow through last Monday it would have been a different day, it’s a very hollow assurance right now. I must work through the voices that mock me now, who call me a fake and a hypocrite. What kind of person prides herself on being compassionate, and writes blogs about being a brother’s keeper to a homeless man, is oblivious to her own brother’s  agony? What kind of person appoints herself the judge and jury of her brother’s mistakes (spending thousands on a steel walled garage)? I will tell you: a newly humbled person. The juxtaposition of this shiny new structure with an American flag waving, (from a flagpole kit given by my parents), next to the peeling shack he lived in, was painful to view. 

The person in question didn’t become unglued at the scene of the crime. I paid a cleaning crew to come and take the bed away and do what they do. No, it was the piles of unwashed laundry and unpaid bills that did me in. I could see exactly when he went down the hole and didn’t come out. I keep seeing his mail, which went from opened in June to stacks in September, and I think it wouldn’t have killed you to have paid this for a few months, until something could be worked out. But, no. Miss psychology major had a lesson to teach. A lesson she wrongly and  arrogantly assumed could penetrate fifty six years of illness and drug abuse. 

Of course I know there would always be another four hundred to pay, or more. And for how long? My brain knows that. The guilt that threatens to envelop me is being held at bay by the shields of my loved ones and the the Holy Spirit. There is Grace everywhere I turn; from my brother’s neighbors who have taken in his pets with great love, to the support of my sisters, to my special friend who stood at the bedroom doorway and asked God to “bring David to a place of peace and light.” 

So I take immense comfort from all these things, and I will heal as I do my best to honor what is left to do without bitterness. I truly view it as my cross to bear and what I owe to my parents, and to David. Maybe I can do for him now what I was too weak or cowardly to do when he was alive. 

And I hope that will be enough. 

I know this post is hardly a ray of sunshine, but I had to get this story out there. And anyway, if you happen to see a chocolate lab pit dog bounding out on East Road in southwestern Michigan, you will see all the love and light you can stand. David rescued him, and I know Rocky did the same, if only for a brief period of time. One of the last things my brother wrote was on a sticky note he attached to the door to his house, to reassure the police: “Dog Rocky is very friendly.”

Cheers and peace to you, my friends. 

 

 

 

 

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material girl?

So my post today is accompanied by my home brewer son’s version of an IPA. He and a friend have been churning out some pretty good stuff of late. They certainly have an array of beer consuming pals among them to cheer them on…but the brews still have to pass the parent test.
As it goes, this one is not overly bitter, which makes the IPA grade for me. Regardless, he and his buddy are young. Unafraid of making mistakes and learning from them, because that is how one produces good beer. And a good life, right?
Ah, the young.
Today I was in our local nail salon, getting a pedicure. This lovely soaking, massage and scrubbing is the one thing I treat myself to somewhat regularly, partly because it’s one time of the day I can get distracted from the gnawing ache in my shoulders. And taking a break from my writing of the great American novel. I have to tell you though, that I have sat there wondering the entire time, f the Vietnamese technician’s shoulders and neck ache at the end of their day from the perpetual bend of their head. The only thing that has stopped me from asking is that their English is usually limited to, “pick your colah,” and “watah.”
Here I am so busy justifying why I was there, I am getting off track.
So this very young, maybe nineteen or twenty, attractive young woman was next to me. Slim, with perky boobs (of course) in a tight white tee. I do think she had on one of those padded push up jobs on, but I didn’t want to look like a wierd old lady staring, so I can’t be sure.
Anyway, her technician happened to be a little more comfortable conversing, so she asked the girl: “So, what you do today?”
Girl: “Just going to the gym.”
T: “You go to beach?”
G: “Nah. I live right next to the beach. I can go anytime. No big deal.”
The girl kept looking at her Apple watch, and the technician asked about it.
Girl: “It’s not that different from the phone, really, except you can’t make a call. It’s really kind of pointless.”
T: ” It’s nice colah though.”
G: ” I know. I like the blue. It’s really sort of useless, but it’s cool.”
T: “Yes, cool. Like this colah I put on toes,”
G: (silly laugh).”Yeah, I know. I like it because it makes me look tan.”
At this point, I am striving not to cast a scathing look in said girl’s direction. Dear God, I think, was I ever this vapid and clueless? Even at my most vain and self-involved teenage level? Did I EVER take the lucky proximity to our beautiful lakeshore for granted? I rack my feeble brain.
I do remember liking and wanting nice things as an adolescent, but I honestly think it was pretty simple stuff. I asked for Love’s baby soft perfume at Christmas, and records. I remember coveting Izod and Ralph Lauren polo shirts, but having to work my ass off to buy even one.
If this girl had worked a day in her life, nothing would surprise me more.
I know these attitudes are a function of youth and our insane get more, have more, be more, culture. But the fact that she acknowledged having this overpriced gadget was “useless” and “pointless”, but worth having anyway because it was cool, says volumes.
At least my polo shirts provided covering for my body, right? And I was the one who bought the damned shirts, not my parents. 

Sigh. How best to give a mouthful of reality to this silver spoon?
I have heard various prominent people over the years advocate for youth to perform mandated military service of one year.
I think this could work, but I wonder about depositing their soft candy rear ends in the middle of a third world country for a few months. Seriously. Where they are sleeping in dirt huts and have to walk for clean water, fighting malaria, eating unknown food and Internet access is a distant dream. I wish someone had made me do something similar. Really, it wouldn’t even take a third world country to rattle their perspectives. We have more than enough poverty and different ways of living right here, to open their eyes. In the world according to Ellen, they would be forced to work in homeless shelters and live in the Appalachian mountains, and/or visit inner city schools, while mentoring fatherless children desperate for stability, love and decent food.
Isn’t it scary that we are in danger of raising a generation full of young people whose biggest concern is obtaining the newest Apple creation? They claim to be so much more open minded and accepting than us geezers, but they are also the most entitled-minded and narcissistic. Millenials admit to having very little to no spiritual commitment, and this is a shame. I understand the divide, because organized religion has effed it up for so many inquiring, eager minds. But when you look at doing the tasks I listed, this is the work Jesus would do, and did. Serving others is not in many a young one’s radar, unless it serves them.
I know that every generation bemoans the one before them; parents of the sixties’ flower children thought the world was coming to an end through drugs and rock and roll. But what scares me is that many teens of today view social justice as something to devote two weeks to, to be able to put on their college application.
If they can give up their beach, gym, and nail days, of course. 

No use going into the myriad of reasons why, but we can each do our own world according to Ellen with these misguided souls. So along with non-voluntary services of some sort, all twenty somethings must learn about making beer, and provide free, copious samples of their best to their stressed-out parents. All that sampling will get the crankies out, and the students can learn all the hands-on science they should have learned in high school. 

Today’s ranting aside, I am grateful for my hard working, caring sons, nephews and nieces who give me hope. I am more optimistic than not, but these incidents make me pause and fear a future of iPhone, addicted robots. And with that weary thought, another home brew is in order. 

Friends, cheers to you and the young people in your life…if they can’t bless you with a homemade concoction…may they at least gift you with a pedicure. 

 

 

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Lucky Girl

My last post alluded to dealing with some writer’s block.
Well, it comes and goes.
I’m just going to tell myself if I’m writing it’s all good, even if isn’t on my novel. 

Today’s brew is Closure, an over-used word that I like because it means everything is neatly tidied up. Which happens in reality, like, never. Oh well. We can dream condition like this exists, anyway. 

Today is also the day my mother in law Mary passed away due to cancer two years ago, and this hardly seems possible. Thinking about her passing, and my parents’, is like what they tell you about raising kids: the days seem long, but the years pass so quickly.

I suppose it’s true that when people die, they become sanitized and lionized by those left. But when I write that Mary was as a pure a soul as I have ever known, this isn’t exaggeration borne of grief. She did have that heart of gold that stopped beating too soon, the line that is in all of the memorial cards. 

One of my earliest memories of her graciousness was when I became unexpectedly pregnant, unmarried, with her grandchild. Both she and my father in law were head over heels in love with their new little red headed addition to the family, but it was a stressful time. I was trying to work a new job with a newborn, living at home, and trying to make a relationship with their son all at the same time. 

She never once said to either of us, “how could you let  this happen?” Or gave one hint of disapproval, ever, although to a strict Catholic family I’m sure this wasnt a high point in their lives. Instead, she did everything she could to encourage us to stay together. Not just then, but always. 

Many times, she would pick our infant son up from day care so he didn’t have to stay there all day. After I picked him up and took him home, I would find forty, fifty dollars tucked into the pocket of where his bottle was, and I would call her. “Thank you so much, but you don’t have to do that,” I would tell her, even though I desperately needed the money for diapers and everything else a baby entails. “Oh yes I do. Anything for little Seanie.” The nickname that had been christened upon this little angel of hers, who brought endless joy to their lives. 

And that is how it went for all of her precious grandsons. Anything for them, because they were truly the jewels in her life. In particular, when she lost her mate and the light went out in her beautiful eyes temporarily. They were a salve to her loneliness, and they were with her almost as many nights they were at home.

She was not a mother in law that intruded and gave unwanted advice, unless asked. She was not one to call and whine that her son never did anything for her. Indeed, she never asked for anything, ever. In fact, I used to lecture her that she did too much for people, that they took advantage of her. And, it happened. We used to call her a bum magnet, but she’d laugh it off. “Oh,” she’d say. “So and so is harmless, or so and so just needs a friend.” They certainly found a good one in her. As did I. 

She hated being a widow and being without a partner, and dipped her toes into the dating scene at midlife. Which takes a fair amount of courage, because here’s a news flash: it doesn’t get any easier after high school. ” It’s still all about the looks,” she would tell me. “They all want the tiny belly, even if you have horrible wrinkles.” Well, she didn’t have a tiny belly, (does anyone, after twenty five?) but she had beautiful skin, and she did attract her share of suitors. Oh, the stories she would tell me. We would laugh and laugh at the junior high antics of these middle aged men, and then she’d have a crush on one and they would break her heart. And that was hard to hear, because I wanted her to be happy and find someone worthy.

For Mary, family would always come first, and most of the men she met couldn’t handle that. So as time went by she just enjoyed her line dancing and hoped to maybe find a companion. And never stopped cheering on her kids and her grandkids, no matter what the endeavor. 

She began having symptoms that something was very wrong the summer before her death, but anyone who knew her well, knew that she and medical procedures did not mix. The only doctor she trusted was our hometown hero, Doc Rambo, and I think the main reason she liked him is because an exam would last approximately three minutes. “Whaddya think is wrong with ya?” he’d ask. You could self diagnose yourself, even probably ask for the drugs you think you needed. The best part? “He doesn’t tell you to get on the scale,” she’d say. “Why the hell do these other doctors have to know what you weigh, when you go in to see them for a cold? They just want to lecture you.” 

I laughed, but she may have been right. 

In any case, Doc convinced her to see a gynecologist for her symptoms. Told her it was serious…and we began to worry.

Tests confirmed she had a rare uterine carcinoma, and this is when things got really scary. I asked him for the exact name and scribbled it on paper to look it up online, later.   She really only wanted to know how long she had, in order to make whatever time she had count. 

And nobody, except for that gynecologist, would be straight up with her. Even he was vague, but at least had the decency to tell her to have her daughter come home and to do the things she wanted to do. 

Meanwhile, I discovered the diagnosis was as lethal as they come, but I said nothing. Mary knew I had looked it up, but she said she didn’t want to know. It’s in God’s hands, she said. And her faith was as deep and true as her heart was good, and it carried her through the following months. 

I wished I  had even a quarter of her faith, but I was busy being angry that the doctors would not tell her the truth. It was all, ” Well, nobody can predict the future,” blah blah blah, and since nobody can predict I might as well earn a few hundred thousand dollars by recommending a surgery that won’t give you a chance in hell at living one bit longer.”

Ah, yes. Cynical was I but I kept my mouth shut because these things had to be her decision. But it was very difficult seeing someone so doctor-phobic, suffer, even though it was relatively short in duration. 

And I still get angry at the unfairness of it all. Why her? Why so young, because when you’re staring down fifty, seventy is young. 

I’m not so angry anymore. No, I feel lucky. I feel so blessed to have known this kind, generous, funny, loving soul. I thank her a thousand times over (and I think I did while she was still here), for loving my boys unconditionally, for the way she cherished them every minute of the day, for being there when we parents just didn’t cut it. I feel lucky that we were never the picture our culture gives of mother and daughter in laws, that of being catty and interfering.

How I do miss the talking to her, though. So do a lot of people who knew her gentle listening ear. 

But I miss laughing with her the most, because I never knew anyone who could poke fun at herself the way she could, and take the pokes from others too. She used to laugh at something one of us would say about her mannerisms or such, and she’d say, “I don’t know what you’re all going to laugh about after I die,” and laugh some more.

And, she was right. 

Because when we gather for family functions, her absence is still so painfully evident. We do reminisce, and laugh about some story about her, but the gap in our lives seems unfillable at times. They say that one’s grief for someone is made all the stronger by the love that was felt, and I believe that. I also believe that God puts certain people in our lives for many a reason. 

Whatever that reason was for me, I am a lucky, lucky girl to have had Mary Cassidy in mine. 

Cheers to whatever is lucky in your life, friends. 

 

 

 

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The dream of writing the Great American Novel

Some of you may have noticed my blog writing has been on hold, while some of you know the reason why. I have been hesitant to put this out there for a couple of reasons. One, because (gulp) now I will be held accountable, and two, I can hear the skeptics groaning already. Let me break the suspense lest you all pass out:

 I have begun a serious attempt at writing my first fictional novel. The story is about a young man (who is a composite of both my kids),who faces some back to back heartbreak. And very simply, it’s about the power of unconditional love to help find one’s way back. 

Yes, there it is. Truth be told, I’m kinda proud of myself.  From the time I learned to read, I was fascinated with books and the ability of story to transport me to another time and place. I read every Little House book by Laura Ingalls Wilder more than once, and collected Nancy Drew mysteries like boys collected baseball cards. I loved lining up their yellow spines on the shelf and the smell of the ink. By seventh grade, I was reading books my mom had in the house and bringing them to school. I would read “Helter Skelter,” in between classes I hated and were a bore, even though it scared the crap out of me. One of my teachers commented on the “mature” content of these books at parent teacher conferences, but it wasn’t to stop me. The said teacher was wondering where the precociousness was for the rest of my classes. I think my Mom said something like English always had been my strong suit. Yes, it was. My only strong suit, along with band. Thank God the books weren’t removed, as would have been for some in the same circumstance. 

Like most voracious readers I had a powerful imagination, so I was always thinking up stories and playing them out in my head. In sixth grade I wrote some stories I passed around to my friends and received the very biased reviews of, “Wow. You could be Judy Blume.” An author whom I also loved, and still do. But my writing never really went beyond being able to put out “A ” term papers and editorial rants to our local papers.

There are a few predictable reasons for this. Primarily, early on I didn’t have anyone telling me I had some talent, and I lacked the self-confidence, discipline, and perseverance on my own required for making a career out of writing. And that is still an ongoing challenge me, and for many undergoing similar endeavors. But here is the kicker: one must also simply get accustomed to constant, and I mean constant, rejection of one’s work.

That’s no surprise to anyone in the arts, of course. The challenge lay in putting yourself out there, again and again, because you know you have something to offer. You know you have an ability that maybe not everyone has; to put into words (or music, or acting) universal themes that touch people in some way. 

So that sort of leads me to answer the question I and millions of others ask: why? Why slug through hours of imagining plots, outlining characters, writing dialogue, banging out thousands of words on a keyboard, only to revise and edit, over and over? And do this day after day, unpaid, without a single reassurance the words may never see the light of day? Indeed, I’m realistic. I know the odds are highly stacked against writing a bestseller. What is in my favor is that I’m not really motivated by that. Yes, at some stage I will try to retain an agent and enter the dog eat dog publishing world. But right now, I am focusing on getting the story down, even if it kills me. Which it probably will, because when all is said and done I think will be the hardest thing I’ve ever attempted. 

Greenbush and assorted breweries are helping me to not pull my hair out at writer’s block. Did you wonder why I’m taking time now to write this? I mean, I did want to do an update, but the real reason is, I am knee deep in “wheredoitakethisguynow” mud. And it sucks, but I will get through it.

Because even though I can be lazy, I am at least a lazy perfectionist. I abhor cliches and the idea of people yawning at my characters, so I edit feverishly when I should be just concentrating on finishing the first draft. I go to bed thinking about my story, dream about it and wake up thinking about it. Sounds OCD, but its actually a good sign. The best writers Do. Not. Give. Up.

So I’m getting there, slowly but surely. And I feel like my son, who could never go far without taking his guitar and feeling compelled to play it at every opportunity. Artists compose and create because they have to. They have no other choice; its in the blood and must be honored. The stories must be told without regard to fame or worldwide acknowledgement, but if this should occur, all the better.

Wish me luck that mine makes its’ way out to you when the time comes. And maybe make a toast that my stymied brain becomes flooded with glorious prose. The sooner the better, preferably. 

Until the next update, hopefully not generated by a dry spell…Cheers!

 

 

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Ellen’s Little Helper

 

” You washed away my sorrows, saved me from myself

You washed away my troubles, laid them on the shelf

Your love flowed like mercy running through my veins

From the first taste you held me, pleasuring my pain…”

“Whiskey Angel”, the Black Lilies

 

My last blog was accompanied by Ursus, brewed by Greenbush. Well, this time I am sitting IN the brewery…chased here presumably by cabin fever, and this is a cool place to be as the snow flies. Great beer, food, staff, and they have Wi-Fi. I am sipping “Apathy,” an oatmeal stout, and it is a fine fit for this blustery winter weather. The server has been doing a superior job of checking on me without hovering, a skill I appreciate because I have now been here longer than everyone who came in before me. Ah, well. I will make it worth her while before I leave.

I’m pretty sure anyone who has been following my blog knows its an understatement to say I like good beer. A lot. After all, it’s in my blog name and subtitle. I have my husband to thank for informing me about the many differences in style and taste. You may have guessed that he likes beer too. A lot. He throws down the super bitter kind though, so this is where we part ways with preference. We have had some great times, met incredible people, all while discovering brewpubs all over Michigan and beyond.

But let me tell you something you probably didn’t know.  After I toss back a velvety stout or a refreshing pale ale and start to notice its’ effects, it’s the one time that day I will feel the unrelenting ache and burn that plagues my upper body start to recede. Talk about liquid medicine. Ahhhh. It must be like a heroin addict releasing the needle, only I’m a hop junkie releasing the lovely yeast tincture. Bring. It. On.

I can feel some of you fretting already at the words above. What’s this? She’s like a heroin addict? No, not exactly. But I will tell you this: I have a good understanding about how that can happen. And I sympathize with users trying to find relief, even if the agony is inside their head. That’s real, too. I sympathize because I will try almost anything to dull the tiny shrapnel-like shards digging at my shoulders and neck non-stop, try anything to ease the thick fog my brain has taken residence in, try anything to cut through the fatigue that so often pals up permanently with pain. These things are most assuredly NOT in my head, although there are misguided people and dumb-ass doctors who would suggest it is so.

Now, I’m also not a complete fool. I know the dangers involved in “self-medicating.” I know the horrors alcoholism can wreak, the whole shebang. I also know from experience that any more than two of my favorite brews will bring the opposite effect of what I seek, so that’s where I draw the line. I have zero interest in entertaining blackout bingeing and vicious hangovers. It takes me 2 days to recover if I am not in bed by midnight, for God’s sake. And that’s with no drinking involved. It is the very rare occasion that I surpass my limits, but if it does happen I just blame my husband. Joking. Sort of.

I haven’t wasted time analyzing what it is about imbibing that makes my pain better.  It’s no mystery. Spirits have been popular since Jesus turned water into wine, even before. (This reminds me. If you haven’t seen the documentary “How Beer Saved The World”,  you should). I’m sure the anesthetic properties (hops!) as well as the relaxation factor that eases tension, each contribute to my enjoyment. Alcohol’s effects aren’t even as strong or as long lasting as advils and opioids, but beer is a hell of a lot more fun. Of course with every plus there’s always a pesky minus to be had, and this is no different. Among other things, those luscious suds do add unwanted layers to a belly and they’re also not a friend to your liver. However. Within the world of  stomach lining-eating, glaucoma risks and osteoporosis-causing side effects that I inhabit, these are more than tolerable. As my diabetic mom was so fond of saying to a carton of ice cream: “something’s gonna kill me. Might as well be you.”

The truth is, I don’t care.

I will very joyfully succumb to numbing nasty nerve receptors as opposed to facing “reality.” My reality is that I have fibromyalgia-like symptoms, blood work that indicates I’m a good candidate eventually for a big autoimmune disease to flourish. Or, maybe not. After four docs and two rheumatologists, nobody knows what the hell to do with me. And, this is quite common in the realm of autoimmune disorders. It takes the average patient eight years to get a firm diagnosis.

Nice, right?

So I quaff my favored concoctions and wait and worry in my grey zone about the future, although I try not to dwell there. Too much living to be had and pubs to be discovered.

I suppose you could say I am walking a thin line between recreational use and a problem. I probably wouldn’t argue with you. If you are prone to quoting bible passages condemning alcohol, you might be justified in your fervor. Sometimes it feels like Satan himself has taken over my traitorous body, after all. You might be well intentioned with your concerns, maybe even have voiced such to your friends or family members that are on their own possibly similar journeys. You might make commentary on Facebook or in social conversations about the evils of Big Pharma and how if everyone would just start grazing on roots and vegetables grown in llama shit fertilizer, everyone’s ills would magically disappear.

Believe me you, I have my issues with the medical field, particularly end of life ones. Fodder for future blogs, for sure. But remember that old saying about walking a mile in another’s moccasins before opening your yap? A pathetic paraphrase, but you get the point.

If you have not experienced the daily cornucopia of piercing, throbbing, numbing stiffness and achiness of chronic pain, you don’t know whereof you speak.

It’s the kind of pain that maybe can be temporarily relieved by additional measures such as analgesics, injections, anti-inflammatories, narcotics, surgery, heating pads, Ben-gay, stretching, massage, acupuncture, chiropractics, hot tubs, epsom salt baths, marijuana, herbal supplements, or  good sex. Key phrase being temporary. For me and my thousands of friends it always comes back, like a patch of pointy weeds sprouting and multiplying.

I am really not writing about this to elicit sympathy. I don’t want it, not in any form. I don’t even want anyone to say, “I’m sorry, I had no idea.”  Aside from right now, it’s not something I really talk about. Neither do many of the other legions out there whose world is like mine, many of them in much, much worse shape than me. I am lucky. But (most) people who have chronic conditions get tired of yakking about themselves and don’t want to be Debbie Downers all the time. Of course on the opposite end of the spectrum are those lost in this very thing: “poor me” syndrome. The person whose life is so insulated because they can’t see beyond their own strife, and every single conversation is about their ailments. I hope that is not me as I write about me in this blog. Ack!

Somebody just shoot me if I contract that syndrome. I got enough crap going on.

So, what is the point of bringing this to light? It is not to complain about plights in life. We all have them, and I look at this as my cross to carry, whatever the circumstance. But one of the reasons I began this blog was to bring awareness to certain topics, and this is one of them.

I believe what the majority of people who have chronic pain want is just a modicum of understanding, and it is woefully lacking out there. Judgment, though, there’s always loads of that to spare.

It would be nice to debunk the myth that dealing with chronic pain (and fatigue) is  a figment of one’s imagination, just living in our minds. Are there hypochondriacs or losers trying to work the system out there? Yes, but most of us are legitimately trying to not be that person. Pain can certainly can have psychological ramifications, because it’s depressing as hell. For some people, it literally rules their life and their every move must be planned out. For example, one may have to nap and lay on the couch for hours in order to participate in an activity later that day. Even showering some days can be a heroic effort. The toll this takes on marriages, work, and family life isn’t even measurable.

And yet, some of us are told we brought this on ourselves by our behavior, attitude, or God knows what else, and we just need to buck up. Maybe we did, I don’t know. Maybe I spent one too many nights in college with my head unsupported, bent over books like Snoopy and his doghouse. Maybe I destroyed one too many endorphins and brain cells by pulling all-nighters, partying mindlessly and eating sludge like Little Ceasar’s crazy bread at 2 a.m. Could’ve been exacerbated by the endless slouching, or maybe it was one too many times cradling a phone while trying to cook, or carrying those carseats that were like toting Flintstone barbells around. The leash-tugging, critter-lunging mutt in the house has probably done more to kill off my joints than any of the other activites combined. In any case, it’s done, and I’ve stopped thinking about the causes. What I do think is that we most likely know more about “bucking up” than the clueless fools who keep spouting this, will ever know.

Every single one of us have been scouring for information and remedies, where nothing seems too nutty to try if it will help. There is also probably nothing you could suggest that we haven’t heard of and haven’t already tried, in fact. Yes, we know taking ten capsules a day of devil’s claw and cat’s claw and seaweed worked for Aunt Helen, and eradicating all flour, sugar, dairy, meat, high glycemic fruit, fruit juices, soda, coffee, bread, carbs and nightshade vegetables worked for Cousin Lou. We’re not sure how he’s still among the living, but good for him.  We have all eaten organic or pesticide-ridden food, chowed fast food or rabbit food, banned or didn’t ban packaged food, gulped fermented food or raw food and coconut oil and fish oil, exercised or had to give it up, banned or didn’t ban alcohol, prayed or cursed God or both, and here we are. Some of it works, some of it doesn’t.

We appreciate your caring, really. But if you mention one more time what Dr. Oz is touting as the next cure-all, we might slap you. I am convinced these companies are dumping money in his pockets to go on about the newest green tea extract miracle supplement, then raking it in as desperate folks rush the shelves.

You should absolutely ask us how we are, but ask if we would like to know about something you think would help. Just don’t get offended if your well meaning advice is not taken.

Wait…the lecture’s not over.

You might want to respond (as I used to) that I should be grateful I can walk, I can see, I have a roof, food, a good family, etcetera. I am. I am beyond grateful for these things, not to mention insurance that covers (mostly) procedures and meds. But I refuse to measure my luckiness against those who are not anymore. You know what I mean. You pass by someone handicapped and you think, “Thank God I’m not THAT bad.” Not only does that minimize that person’s trials, but your own as well. It’s true that witnessing others who have more on their plate than us, can give perspective about what matters. But there is an air of arrogance to this that will bring us down somehow or another. In the end we really are all on the same road together, so the sooner we stop comparisons of every form, the better off we will all be.

If you have spent any time looking at pain support groups online, you will find hundreds of people who have tripled your weight in burdens. Many not only have rheumatoid arthritis, but lupus, reynaud’s, thyroid disease, IBS, and sclerodoma to top it off. This is the nature of autoimmune illness; once you have one you are vulnerable to others. And nobody knows why. I have nearly wept upon reading some of these stories. I believe though that I am only a hair’s breadth away, either through fate or choice, from being the person I just cluck-clucked about. So I just want to just practice saying, “Thank you,” without adding, “thank you I’m not bedridden, my whole body useless, cane or wheelchair dependent and IN depends, my mind departed, my whole family dead.”

Of course, if you find me in said condition, please shoot me by then if you haven’t already. Just make sure we toast to our whiskey and beer angels, so I can get my fix before my demise.

Friends, I hope this post finds you pain-free, and maybe a little bit kinder to those who aren’t. There may be a part two to this, as I have some pals that might be giving some input. Stay tuned, and until my next soapbox subject…Cheers!

 

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