Archive for the ‘Family’ Category

Failing the Mom

July 18th, 2016

wanda1While my mother, Wanda Lee Michael Ball, died almost 12 years ago, I continue to recall my times with her. Those are almost entirely happy and grateful. She raised my sister and me solo, did a damned good job of it, and balanced fun and moral and smart by example and word.

On occasion, I do have minor regrets though. I recall particularly how I failed her by turning down one request. Sure, she denied me this or that over the the years as well. Yet, as an old guy now myself, I am increasingly aware of the stresses and pains — interpersonal, intellectual, physical, emotional — that living and aging bring. I could have taken one for the team that afternoon.

In her mid-50s, she had a devil of a year. Even typing that, I snort at Wanda’s example. She was loath to swear or even euphemize. “Damn!” was extreme language for her. When she was angry or very disappointed, her strong language was typically, “For crying out loud in a bucket!” (full emphasis on bucket). A malefactor we might call a bastard or asshole would suffer her, “What a crumbum.”

To most of us her 1979 was a year from hell. It included:

  • She had finally found happiness and fulfillment with a lover, who was chased by his ex-wife’s lawyers and courts for new spousal and child support. He got his company to transfer him to Asia and safety.
  • Her own  company got sold to a much larger pharma who handed payouts to the entire sales staff. Thus she was jobless.
  • With her payout, she had to invest it in six months or lose much of it to taxes. That meant buying a house for her and her sister across the country a decade before she wanted to consider such.
  • She got a breast cancer diagnosis. Her doc wanted to aspirate the growths, but her nurse sister convinced her to get a second opinion in her pending new town of Santa Fe. The surgeon there saw the lymph cancers as well and scheduled her for a radical mastectomy.
  • As part of the treatment at the time, her doctors immediately stopped the heavy doses of hormones she was getting for a hard menopause. As a result, her personality changed and her always modulated and logical self became short-tempered and even occasionally irrational, in other words like most other adults her age.

Beaten up and beaten down in every way, she did cope. In Santa Fe without her friends and lover, without her career, without a breast, and on an on.

In many ways, I was there and helpful. I visited, I called, I sent her goody boxes (something she had always done for her children). I was swell to her until she asked one thing that choked me.

Her surgeon liked to tell the story of when he visited her with the post-mastectomy lady and a couple  of nurses a few days after the surgery. The woman showed with a suitcase of padded bras and prostheses. The nurses were there to observe and learn.

Wanda looked at the assembled crew and asked, “What are you doing here?” The woman said she was there to help with the recovery. The surgeon said that Wanda then stated very clearly, “I’m not sick. I just had cancer,” and shooed them out. She was definitely not interested in being fitted for an artificial breast.

You should know that she never identified strongly with her mammary glands. Hers were small. Her daughter’s large. They’d joke about it being obvious whose bras were hanging to dry.

She had cancer of both breast and lymph. The prognosis after successful surgery was death within five years. She went 25.

On one of my visits not too long after the surgery, but when she had healed as much as her body was going to, she asked and I faltered. I knew they had taken a big chunk of muscle as was the style in those years of mastectomy. When the two of us were on the living room couch, she asked in her previous style whether I wanted to see and feel where the breast had been.

I did not and she seemed truly disappointed. It was a ritual offering that I failed to accept.

Yes, yes, the idea of a son touching his mothers breast, rather where the breast used to be, sounds morally and sexually wrong. It really would not have been. It was a medical, anatomical thing. It was yet another of her healing mechanisms.

I should have bucked up and gone with it…for her. I couldn’t and didn’t.

Shortly after I was rereading one of my favorite poets, Frederick Nicklaus. In The Man Who Bit The Sun, one of his poems starts:

I remember a horse in Indiana;
it came from the fields, it ran alongside
the bus. I remember its reddish hide.

But believe me, I failed the fright of its eyes.

So here it was. My mother looked me straight in the face and asked for something pretty simple. I failed. I couldn’t do it.

 

JP Porchfest Again

July 9th, 2016

We’ve gone to all the JP Porchests. Truth be told, that’s a small deal. Today’s was the third annual. Yeah, yeah, it’s spottier than say the Lowell Folk Festival, but no matter what music you like, they got it and if you don’t like one group, look at the event map or simply wander the neighborhood. There are 100 or so in play at any moment.

I finally relaxed on this one. Previously, I’d planned the long day from noon into evening, hopping in 15 to 20 to 30 minute listens. I wanted to get the maximum aural and visual exposure. This year, I sussed out the performers in advance off the Porchfest site and simply picked several to listen to a long concert with each.

Liv Greene is apparently a Tufts senior and likely older than she looks. Her voice and song writing are plenty mature. She is wont to compose morose lyrics that she mixes with folk cover songs. She pulls off her sad tunes with strong guitar to match her sweet voice.

We saw her later playing with Liv Brook in the duo they call Liv and Letliv, doing Appalachian songs to guitar and fiddle. I grew up with WV hillbilly music. They’d do just fine on Jersey Mountain.

livgreene2
Aurora Birch was starkly slender and dressed all in black. She closed her eyes when she sang. She could seem forbidding except for her frequent gesticulations and grins between songs. She clearly enjoyed herself. She switch among several acoustic and one electric guitar and jocularly regretted not also playing her banjo. abirch1
Fiona Corinne followed the sincere and subtle Aurora Birch…in a very different style. She let us know that she grew up in the world of musical theater. She proved it with the strongest voice of my afternoon. fionac1
Boston’s poet laureate, Danielle Legros Georges, was serious and politically aware. dlgeorges
Allysen Callery accompanied her ethereal voice with finger-style guitar. allysen

We heard snatches of several of the many dozens of performers, but those were ones I dove deeply into. I think that suits me better than trying to catch as many as possible. This is like my beloved Lowell Folk Festival. The key is to pore over the schedule carefully and map an itinerary.

Lowell is an absolute must, but JP’s Porchfest is damned good. Each is well worth hitting the schedule in advance and plotting your performance. Oh, and like Lowell, this one is free too.

Out-Irish and Out-Boston Each Other

June 23rd, 2016

Provincialism and parochialism at their best were on display at Boston Police Academy and had nothing to do with cops. They simply let locals use their auditorium for public meetings like the monthly Fairmount Hill Neighborhood Association

The feature last evening was Boston/Milton developer Denis Keohane. We got to hear the Irish born (himself), even-more-(artificially)-Irish Bostonians, and the overlapping nativists. Oh, with a good dose of NIMBY to boot completing the theater.

The gist is that Keohane (originally from Kinsale in Cork for those who care about such) thought he was there as a courtesy to the residents. That’s not how many in the room figured it.

He presented an early-stage plan for eight houses on a large (91K square feet) derelict lot one long block from my house. His plan starts with meeting requirement in square footage per house (8K) and setbacks all around. The road is 40 feet wide and all in Boston, so the city will plow it in winter. One third of one of the houses sits in Milton, so that one has complicated realty taxes but the building authority and regulations are all Boston.

keohanevilleExpectation differences ruled the meeting. It quickly became obvious that Keohane was a wildly successful residential and commercial developer who came to make nice to the locals. He seemed at first quite giddy that this would be his first project as-of-right and without having to file and fight for variances. He thought he was being gracious.

Legally he didn’t have to ask the neighbors for anything or inform them of anything. His plan includes building a road up the middle of the land and plugging a row of four houses on each side. He was getting the permits to do that. So there.

Well now, not so simple to the many who wanted more than intel. They demand obeisance.

The brogues thickened as Denis sweated his hour on the stage. It made me think of Southerners I know who suddenly develop the strongest accents away from home.

Let’s be aware that Keohane is not quite 50 and has been in the U.S. for 28 years. His first 21 were in Ireland, which he left for economic opportunity. He married here, they have three daughters in their 20s, he has completed numerous successful projects mostly in Boston and some in abutting Milton, and has won town-level elections in Milton.

Shame of a key detail…

Two older men whose Irish accents got stronger as the evening progressed found a chink when Keohane freely confessed that he was not aware that there had been a reservoir on and above the property in question.

My attitude is that ignorance is almost always (baring some scientific and very specific subjects) quick and easy to fix. Give the info and get to the important stuff, I say.

In contrast, many parochial types are like puppies with a swock and just can’t put it down. Thus at the meeting, a couple of alter kakers returned repeatedly with oh-so-you-really-didn’t-know-about-the-reservoir!? The theme seemed to be that if Keohane didn’t know that, anything he said relating to ground water was untrustworthy. Pigeon poop on that.

Keohane presented salient info, specifically that he has an engineer drilling 20 holes to find out when they hit water. The 8 basements are to be 10 feet underground. He said if they find water at 2 feet, that’s a likely reason to walk away from the development. Otherwise, they’d work with pros to mitigate the water and get it to the street pipes and drains.

The old guys kept saying if he didn’t now about the reservoir, his other info was suspect. One even repeated that the water had been their for centuries and would always be there. On the other hand, I wonder whether the water guys can mitigate the water in ways that would in fact lower the water table and make basements drier for all us neighbors. (I’ll attend the water-drilling followup to ask about that possibility.)

The usual suspects…

Several area folk at this meeting come to all local hearings and info sessions. Their aim seems to be to show they can make presenters squirm or badger them. From their comments and questions, they likely would say, “I’m only trying to get to the truth.” That’s the way of jerks who enjoy acting out their control-freak nature.

At numerous such meeting and hearings I’ve attended I see:

  • Gotcha questions indicating “I know this and you didn’t.”
  • Efforts to squeeze some minor concession out of the speaker (to show personal power?)
  • Claims they support positive change when in fact they oppose all change
  • Requests or demands for more information, future meetings, and more trips to regulators

Looking for trouble…

Some folk asked where the coyotes and other furry varmints would go. One couple recalled when a large house went up above this parcel, they for the first time got rats, which the developer had to get rid of for them.

Keohane said he had pest control for development and afterward in the specs, which he detailed.

Yet water was the big issue. One resident recalled ice skating in there as a child. Charming for recreation, but not as much for basement owners.

Keohane had lots of water answers, from percolation (perc) testing to having rights to drain water-table and storm runoff into city systems. Not good enough for the toughs.

Several ended up asking him to look for trouble. Specifically even though the area is not listed as environmentally sensitive or protected, why not go out and see if anyone might just reconsider adding it to wetland shields?

Of course, Keohane noted that his folk has checked the lists and found nothing. I ask why would he create problems?

Not from here…

Bostonians at their worst can be no different than provincial types elsewhere. I was comfortable with Keohane’s Boston cred, professional and personal.

Not so some others, three mentioned his, to them, tenuous connections. When one said it was their neighborhood, he reminded her it was his as well. She went on several levels deep, trying to trump him. She alleged to feel strongly because she’d grown up there. He came back with his nearly three decades in the immediate area, a long-term wife and three kids, arriving here to make his way when he was only 21, and so forth.

She played her final trump card. She had not only lived her 50 years, but had been born here, while he had not.

That was too much for Keohane. He said, “We’re done here.” He allowed as that was not fit argument. He was understandably insulted. She muttered a faint, “I apologize.” In fact, he was out of there.

I call an unfair-fighting foul on her.

Civic theater

As petty and annoying as some of these folk were, there are worse ways to spend an evening than attending neighborhood hearings. You can learn more about your local folk than you want to know.

Refining Rubes…Maybe

April 20th, 2016

Odds are you don’t know farm life. Not only are few of us farmers or even from an ag background, but also time, mores, economics and politics have shifted considerably from the early 1900s. I straddle times and conditions. I have milked cows (manually and mechanically), collected eggs, scalded and plucked hens, and worked corn from seeding to weeding to harvesting to turning under.

On the other hand, I never was in a position to inherit a family farm. I grew, picked and sold vegetables but was never in effect indentured servant/slave to nasty father. I never even belonged to 4-H, while I knew many peers in WV, VA and SC who were all those.

Yet, The 4-H Harvest: Sensuality and the State in Rural America (Gabriel N. Rosenberg, U. Penn Press 2016) goes far beyond county and state fairs, farm kids with beloved pigs and cows, and FFA meetings.

One warning is that the book’s index sucks mightily. I’ve done large book indexing and am positive that the author had nothing to do with this one. Many complex and detailed citations are missing (homosexuality, venereal disease, and on and on); it lacks the ideas and uses only keywords. Boo. The other shortcoming is that Rosenberg is far more concerned with the political and economic relationships than the kids. We can infer about the social, intellectual and economic outcomes for the 4-H youth, but he tells us more about the political players individually.  A third note should be that this is an academic press property; at $55, it’s a good meal price; get it at the library.

As someone who visited relatives’ and friends’ farms, I did the work, but I never actually owned and raised cows, sheep or pigs for exhibition (and eventually slaughter). My chums who did that grew up knowing the true script for animals. They had no apparent problem assisting at the birth, naming the cow, raising her, exhibiting her, then either selling or killing and butchering her, and in the latter case eating her little one.

Fatalistic comes to mind.

The 4-H book recalls other intersections. The Y is one. As a child in several places I belonged to YMCAs. When we moved to Boston, I found myself a member in the original Y. I learned it was the Garden of Eden for Northeastern University.

That is, the nation’s first Y started to be a shield for Christian young men who had moved to the (relatively) big city from the farm to earn a living. The new institution offered wholesome residence, free from bars and prostitutes and the moral perils of rooming house life. This Y offered evening lectures to keep the young men wholesome and occupied. Those in turn led to the college and university — evening activities for the mind and soul rather than the crotch.

Likewise, the 4-H clubs were specifically to counter the immorality and amorality of rural life. In contrast to our idyllic bucolic images, country life was rife with lust, pregnancy, venereal disease, bestiality, homosexuality and.well, non-refined ways to spend an evening.

The clubs viewed, described and treated the youth involved much as they did the produce and animals (other than not eating the kids). The descriptions of the programs and contests are embarrassing in their paternalism. Then again, this was largely the range of the 20th Century, start to finish. There was rampant racism and sexism, with the asininity of stereotyping,  that continued well into the 1970s.

Oddly, the author keeps his academic distance and does not wonder specifically whether the good and bad balance on the 4-H scale.

As an aside, the book reminded me of a dinner about 1970 in Cape May, New Jersey. The hosts were the former mayor, Belford (Bucky) LeMunyon and his wife Ione. She was the aunt of the woman I kept company with in Manhattan. A guest (to my embarrassment I do not recall his name) was a retired local physician. He recalled performing seemingly unceasing Army physicals during the WWI draft in a field outside of town. There were stations of long tents and much longer lines of naked men, each wearing only a bag with personal effects. He remembered to that day one potential soldier after another with secondary or tertiary syphilis, sores and a fatal prognosis unknown to them. They were farm boys given to the amoral sexuality of rural life, young men who had no idea they were close to the insanity and death that end-stage disease brings.

The 4-H book refers to the raw and common sexuality of the farm life. We can sit at a distance and snicker at the self-righteousness of the clubs and Ys preaching about the risks to body and soul from city life, while farm kids were at least as likely to suffer…or more so.

 

 

Hear Hair Talking

March 26th, 2016

I parrothairyadmit that I am one of the millions (or more) who snicker at Donald Trump’s hair weave or whatever artifice crawls around his skull. Most recently, I’ve enjoyed the parrot tulips pending outside and potted on the dining table. I’m simple enough to be amused at the idea that he could take one of my images, like the adjacent one, to his hairstylists. He could say, “Do me!”

I think if he’s going with the orange skin and hair-like-objects theme, he should display some panache.

This is a derivative theme for me. In the early 1980s, a friend and godmother of  one of our sons introduced the concept the phrase.

She is the artist who called herself Savannah, in lieu of her more painfully Southern name, Marion Francis Talmadge Etheredge. More painful was her nasty divorce. Throttled and dumped on by hubby, a few older relatives on her own side, and one of her daughters, she was poor and poorly, angry and alert.

Tall, blonde and striking, she outdid herself when she visited us. We’d moved to Boston with our first boy and she remained in our mutually beloved Manhattan. When she arrived, Boston was not ready for her in the early 1980s. She wore a black body suit and sported three colors of short hair. The not-too-worldly locals literally stopped and gawked.

She spoke about her appearance (we thought she looked great and powerful). She said after the terrible divorce proceedings she went to her SoHo stylist ripe for a real change and statement. She just told her, “Fix me!”

In this temporal reality, Trump is all bluster and theater. Does he have that much nerve?

 

Family Clipboards and Whistles

February 6th, 2016

Clipboards and lanyards with Acme Thunderer whistles were family tools for me. My true role model was Granddad, William Benjamin Michael, who worked on the B&O Railroad for 48 years until they forced him to retire. I had full train trappings, replete with cap and overalls and he let me drive a wood-burning engine around the yard. I never became a toot-toot engineer.

In a boomer lifestyle though, lifeguarding and water-safety instruction was a family biz. My mother ran Red Cross chapters in West Virginia, Virginia and New Jersey. She had been on her way to becoming a nurse when she married, was a Gray Lady in Japan when we were part of the Occupation Army there and came to her post-divorce career with many duties. Those included teaching home nursing, first aid, emergency first aid (bang, post-atomic-bomb stuff), and the range of swimming and lifeguard c0urses.

[By the bye, I took and taught those emergency first-aid courses too. I’m fine with having learned to delivery babies and less pleased with knowing how to treat radiation poisoning.]

Mom Wanda taught me to swim first in the South Branch of the Potomac by Romney, West Virginia. There were also pools, where I saw her in action —teaching, managing other instructors and generally being group mother.

As far as I recall, my sister and I never thought about it. Somehow organically, we also became lifeguards and water-safety instructors (WSIs). I also taught first aid and coached summer swim teams where I guarded. Back in the sensible days, my summer earnings from guarding, teaching and coaching paid for most of my college costs. The rest came from academic and athletic scholarships.

Thinking back, I remember Wanda with clipboards and whistles. Those became part of my life too, all and every summer. From beginner through senior life saver, my chargers were under my watch and subject to attendance checks and fill-in-the-boxes accomplishments. I would only guess how many class forms I completed, likely a thousand or two over many summers. Each form was on a clipboard, as much a part of the WSI uniform as a swimsuit.

Wanda also had a lanyard and whistle of dubious utility.

thudererWhen I became a lifeguard for summers and in college, the nasty-sounding Thunderer (pic from the Acme site [no coyotes]) became essential. Particularly when keeping a pool safe when it was rife with other teens, authority was in the whistle.

I was not the beloved laissez-faire lifeguard. No dunking on my watch. I’d throw people (almost always boys) out for running after being warned, diving when others were below, and again holding someone under water. Fortunately, I was large enough and athletic enough to pull it off. Plus, most young swimmers depended on me to pass their swimming courses.

My mother was often in a Red Cross uniform. Other times, I remember her in a bathing suit with a WSI path (I may still have one of mine), and always with the whistle and clipboard.

Those were badges of office in my family.

By the bye, none of my three sons had the slightest interest in being a team swimmer much less lifeguard or instructor.

Today in my house, I have numerous leftover clipboards. I put them to use daily though. When most of us turn on the TV, I either read a book or engage in my preferred evening activity, cryptic puzzles. My favorites are from the Financial Times.

My wife says the British puzzles are impossible and illogical, but they are my recreation and pleasure. They also work best with a clipboard.

 

 

Everyone’s cousin leaves Haymarket

January 15th, 2016

pcampoSurely it’s good when changing of the guard does not involve an ambulance or hearse.  Yet the absence of my favorite Haymarket vendor has disturbed me. Today I got truth and knowledge.

I’d had an eye operation and was under surgeon’s orders to “putter around the house” and not do anything athletic, nor lift anything, nor expose my head to extreme weather.

When I returned after several weeks to my weekend ritual of 36 years, Pat (left in colder days) was not there. He and his father, Frank, had that stall back when my now huge number-one son was an infant in a Snugli on my chest. Now though instead of Pat, Ottavio Gallotto, President of the Haymarket Pushcart Association, had his crew there.

I didn’t ask about Pat, hoping he was hale and away to pick up a tan or the like. I was trepid. His father had died in 2007. Frank was a great role model for Pat, born Pasquale. Frank was one of those kind and gentle souls, who wasn’t ruffled by even the nastiest bargain hunter. Someone would be yelling, feigning indignation, but Frank let him vent and then explained how things were. Nice guy.

I noticed too that Pat’s mom, Jean, whom I’ve never met, died this past fall. So, somewhere I feared he might have fallen ill or worse as well. I know he was younger than I, but hey, 20-year-olds have heart attacks and strokes.

With mixed feelings, I finally asked Ottavio today. He paused and said, “He retired.” (pause) “He is only 60.” (pause) “Crazy, huh?”

Maybe not so crazy. His father worked much longer in their stall. Maybe Frank never tired of it and Pat wanted to spend weekends doing something other than setting up a stall before dawn, artfully arranging lemons and grapefruits, and in 100F or 0F standing there dealing with the likes of me until late afternoon every damned Friday and Saturday. Good on him. Bad for us.

Various Haymarket vendors develop their shticks. There was the relatively famous guy at the butcher shop catercorner from the Campo camp. He frightened some sensitive folk with his sudden “Want some meat, buddy?” query, invariably delivered less than a foot from your face. As I recall there was even a t-shirt with the saying and his raw-steak-like red/blue face.

Jimmy was another who has moved on. He hated the cold. That’s not a good fit for an area close to the waterfront. He was cheerful in spring and summer, but come the dreadful winter winds with sleet, snow and ice, he’d let everyone know how unhappy he was.

And Pat’s calling card was his calling. He’d greet everyone as “Hey, cuz,” or “What do you need, cousin.” Everyone was family to him. He got that attitude from Frank.

So, Haymarket now is without Pat. Clearly, I”ll have to deal.

I got used to the candy/nut man moving on. My sons considered it a right and rite to get a treat from him as a reward for shopping with me. I got used to the massive herb cart going away too.

Pat was the place for certain items. If you wanted the prettiest and most flavorful lemons, you’d head there. He kept his prices the lowest in the market for what he carried too. It was a pleasure doing business with them, father and son.

 

Boo for Holiday Booze

December 24th, 2015

mymable“Oh no, Bill, not the boys!”

My grandmother, Mable Michael, had particular, peculiar, nearly miracle hearing. Let’s go with selective. She didn’t respond to all that much and seemed to lose the lower tones as so many older women do. And yet…

I recall a specific Christmas holiday in my college days in her home in the Eastern panhandle of West Virginia. Several of my friends from the area has joined me in her living room, filling the couch and chairs.

She had a clear relationship with alcohol, as in it was sinful, shameful and to be avoided. She was like a Jew who speaks of alcoholism as the shegetz disease, without the quirk of ignoring Jewish vintners or the dominance of Jews in the whiskey distilling trade.

Her hypocrisy was baser and plainer. Her husband (my beloved grandfather) might have two 3.2% beers (all that was legal in West Virginia) and he was on the road to hell. Yet, we all knew we had to bear our version of frankincense each Easter, Thanksgiving or Christmas in form of Mogan Davis blackberry wine.

We never saw it. We never saw her or anyone drinking it. By the end of the vacation, somehow the bottles disappeared (and were concealed in bags or more in the trash). She arose about 5 every morning to spend time with The Upper Room devotional, her Bible, and likely a glass of the star of David.

I never saw my grandfather tipsy. Well, maybe once. He took my sister and me to the Burlington drive-in movie and tossed back a 3.2 or two. As we were leaving, he drove off with the speaker still attached to the front passenger window and the cord snapped. High or impatient? We’ll never know.

Anyway, he was no sot and no one ever likely got drunk on 3.2 beer. You’d pee yourself into fatigue first.

That particuar Christmas eve, we were in the living room. She as usual was laboring in the kitchen for her planned massive Christmas Day family feast. After all, her beloved only son would arrive with his brood of four, plus wife.

The ambient noise level was high. The TV was on, as they always were in the 1960s. Hell, they still are (why is that, writes the non-TV watcher?). Granddad came to me in the distant corner armchair. He bent down to my right ear (farthest from the kitchen and his vigilant wife) and whispered so I could barely make it out, “Would you and the boys like a little nog?”

In West Viginia terms of the time, that of course meant some store-bought sugary eggnog from a carton with a small splash of bourbon. I attended the University of Sourh Carolina, where bourbon was a sacrament and such splashes were better suited as aftershave than refreshment. Still it was a host-worthy query.

Immediately from the kitchen — how the hell could she even have the faintest sense of the query — Mable immediately bellowed, “Oh no, Bill, not the boys!”

To this day, I wonder whether she sussed the concept or exhibited some canine-level superpower. Though everyone in the living room was of legal drinking age, she’d have none of it.

Even then we laughed.

 

 

The Brassiere Jungle

December 12th, 2015

Woe was I (although I hardly knew or admitted it). Growing up, I was the token male in a mom-led with older sister household.

To my later benefit, I learned early to leave the toilet seat down. I also chose to become the best cook, with my maternal grandmother as the family star baker up to her death — another big plus come dating, single-life and marriage statuses.

Alas, there was 50s and 60s underwear.

After the questionable innovation of pantyhose — expensive, fragile necessity for working women and aggravation to lusty companions — the canopy in the bathroom was less lush. Yet I grew knowing a veritable orchard of lingerie.

In our various apartments and houses with shared bathrooms, I’d bushwack to the shower and sink. My fastidious mother and sister regularly washed multiple sets of what one neighbor, Mrs. Kidd in Danville, VA, still called unmentionables. Hanging from shower curtain tubes, towel racks and of course, the folding wooden Rid-Jid drying structure filling the tub/shower space were a Tarzan transit worthy set of vines comprising bras, girdles, stockings, garter belts, and underpants.

Certainly fighting this overgrowth to wash and shave was better than life with stinky mother and sister. Yet still…

Now as a long-term married, I remain pleased that my first and only uxorial unit does not try to make me relive my unmentionables past, the ghosts of brassieres that had been. Just today as I headed up after breakfast to brush my teeth, she hastened before me, saying she’d left a bra in the sink.

As it turned out she had in fact already rinsed it and hung it over a towel on her towel rack.

That got me thinking of how oddly proud so many are of what married types do in sight, hearing and smell of each other. Allegedly after a year of marriage, the couple are happy to defecate, pass wind (loudly and laughing), and do all manner of private business next to the spouse. Supposedly, that is intimacy.

I guess I’m too much of a prig. I don’t want her to perceive me as a flatulent, coarse, stinky animal. I think of Rose Sayer in The African Queen, when she said, “Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above.”

 

Romancing the Diseases

December 6th, 2015

Cristobal_Rojas_37aSeveral physicians have told me how they used to dread the day of the month the new Reader’s Digest appeared. When I grew up, that formulaic and wildly popular little maggy featured an article on a disease. Within two days, docs would get calls from those sure they had it. That was crazy talk, but it still required diagnosis and much reassurance.

My maternal grandmother, an otherwise bright and witty human, played at that several times a year. In her defense, she lived in a small town in the eastern mountains of West Virginia. Excitement did not seek Romney out. Adding a bit of drama to a humdrum life is understandable.

Well, my grandmother, Mable, did have a disease. Several doctors had diagnosed her with nervous asthma. That is, her wheezing and shortness of breath were as real as someone reacting to physical or airborne irritants. She refused to accept that she might do something other than squeeze her nebulizer bulb. She found one GP, as they were known in the days before FPs and PCPs, who humored her and agreed that she had no control over her condition.

Wasting Envy

Her foible was small beer compared to Romantic Era poets, opera composers, painters and novelists. Check here, here, here, and here, and relish La Miseria by Cristóbal Rojas  above.) Numerous artists sincerely desired to have and die from tuberculosis, for its effects of paleness and weakness. I fear we still see such effects in thigh gaps, anorexia, obsession with wearing size 0, and countless young women who have bodies better suited to 11-year-old boys.

Being too thin, too weak, too wan sound frightful to me, conditions you should avoid through exercise, sensible diet and being sure you have good levels of hormones chugging through your veins.

And yet, a small part of me senses the glamor my grandmother sought to liven her rise-work-eat-sleep quotidian existence. For one specific for Mable, she was big boned (I inherited my big, honking feet and too broad chest from her). She truly wanted to be slight like her sister. They shared a dad, but Mable was the eldest and Anna, from their widowed father’s second wife, the youngest. They were physically unalike and Mable envied her little sister’s build.

Years later I recalled them on my first real full-time job. I went from college to be the editor in chief of the black weekly newspaper in Columbia, South Carolina. The race was important, in part because most readers and all the board members were African Americans.

So were the two everyday office staff, Ida and Jackie. They had been friends from elementary school, through college and now on the job. They were each other’s bridesmaids even. They were intimate and much of the day included personal chitchat mixed with work.

They talked a lot about each other’s bodies. They had the two stereotypical African-American women’s bodies — one short with large bust and bottom, one very slender. They each claimed regularly to want the other’s body. They would embarrass me with such talk as Ida saying her hubby, Thomas, would love to have a wife with Jackie’s sizeable breasts. While I lived with a woman, such intimate talk was not my norm.

Poetry of Illness

While not a drama queen myself (as the French might say, j’ai du sang-froid), I don’t totally lack sympathy with the disease romantics. In fact for a mild example, I recall being maybe 8 when my sister brought home one her many disease gifts. This was German measles as I remember it.

I laid n the bed febrile and covered with itching sores. I projected to various movies and Captain Gallant of the Foreign Legion (a TV show my sister and I watched). There were deserts and heat and suffering and heroism. Blah, blah.

As an adult though, I am only disappointed when my body fails me at any time. I long ago accepted that only in kiddy land can doctors fix you. They are good with acute and obvious conditions. Faced with chronic or nebulous adult disorders, they fail more often than not. “Live with it” is the too frequent prognosis.

Recently though I had minor pleasure at thinking I had rare disorders. I was not aware that desire existed at all in my brain.

Straight up, I had not heard of either polymyalgia rheumatica or macular pucker. I got diagnoses or each of those in turn. Because I have a broad general knowledge and knew of neither, with each I figured I was pretty damned special.

Wrong.

Instant Claudication

For polymyalgia, I went to bed feeling fine, but woke so sore I could hardly move my arms and struggled mightily to walk 25 feet to the john. I got slightly better over the week and decided to wait it out. A couple of weeks slithered by before I called my doc.

He knows my mild disdain for his profession and was positively chipper in being able to tell me that, “Come in for a diagnosis, but I’m sure that you have polymyalgia rheumatica.”

I had never heard of it but clicked around the tubes to see that I had the symptoms. He confirmed the initial call and hooked me up immediately with a rheumatologist. Before visiting the latter, we spoke and like my internist, he was sure right away.

The good rheumatologist Bates has a lollipop face and is young enough to have a daughter the age of my grandson. He was both very compassionate and a regular pro with polymyalgia. He squashed my romantic, special image quickly by noting that old white women frequently get a mild form of it but typically Caucasian men from 55 to 70 get it hard as I did. It is kind of like sickle-cell disease for African Americans or any of that dozen or more Ashkenazim blood disorders, a curse specifically on old white people. Fair enough.

Dr. Bates said simply, “It’s not rare. If you know a bunch of white men in their 50s and 60s, you know someone who had it.” Sure enough, I have found several peers with the condition. They don’t brag about, but deal with it.

By the bye, it used to be that just had to be crippled for one to seven years and it went away. Nowadays, steroids, typically prednisone, fix it. It requires months of dosing and one to three years of tapering off. You can relapse, often worse.

Well, it’s neither romantic nor glamorous.

Eye Trouble

My recent chance at drama and uniqueness was macular pucker, a.k.a wrinkled retina. I had blurred vision in one eye and went for my regular eye exam with my self-diagnosis of cataracts. I’m that age.

My optometrist wasn’t playing. He didn’t have all the eye diagnostic gear the surgeons do, but he knew it wasn’t cataracts.

I wanted cataracts. They are a known status and the surgery is nearly 100% effective and immediate.

Instead after a couple of visits to one set of eye specialists and surgeons, and then a second opinion by one of the super doctors, I got the pucker punch. It’s built-up scar tissue from unknown origin on top the macular and retina. It has no relation to macular degeneration. There are no drug, vitamin or exercise fix. Queue the operating room. Moreover, unlike cataract surgery, going into the eyeball to clear out the cells may or may not improve the vision.

Lord, I miss the long gone days when Dr. Newman could poke my butt with penicillin and fix my swollen tonsils.

Regardless, it turns out that my ignorance of macular pucker did not make the condition unique or even that unusual. It’s not as common as polymyalgia, but it’s not rare or romantic or dramatic.

I’m not likely as many to long for the exotic and romantic diseases. Yet, I do have a sense of what that’s about.  I think medical stasis and boredom are better.