Saturday, November 12, 2011

Losing My Religion; and What Does Community Mean?

Maybe not losing. Maybe changing. But changing usually involves losing.

Of all the things my recent medical emergency has done to me, enhancing my piety is not one of them.

I'll tell you the truth: One of the most unnerving aspects of waking up in an ICU, having no idea why I am there, is the realization that my checking out could have been permanent. And then that would have been the end of it. There was no white light at the end of a tunnel; no angels; no comforting retinue of departed loved ones there to greet me on the other side. Just...nothing.

Nor was my medical counsel all that helpful; because no one -- not the ER docs or the neurologist or my doctor -- is exactly sure why light anesthesia that I've had before with no ill effect would suddenly rebound in my system. Was it a function of sleep apnea? Something wrong with my liver? No conclusive "why" has shown up in any tests. This thing happened to me, and no one knows why, and no one knows if it will happen again or why it might.

For a full week after I got home, I was afraid to go to sleep each night because I wasn'the t sure I'd wake up again. I was well on my way  to zombiehood before my body finally cried "Uncle" and I surrendered to an 8-hour rest.

So let the record reflect: I'm not going gently into that good night.

There was that. And then -- I don't know how I can describe my feelings without sounding like a diva and a whiner, but...the response of my local faith community (as opposed to the rest of you all) other than our pastor, who showed up to help Fellow Traveler the night I went into seizure, was...well, kind of a whole lotta nothin'.

I got, I think, a total of three get-well cards from church folks -- one from The Ladies, our back bench of elders who are always good eggs about sending people cards -- but for a church where every Sunday we have letters read from strangers thanking us for the showers of cards they've received from our congregation...I couldn't help feeling as insecure as my five-year-old self in kindergarten: "No one likes me." The only fellow church members I heard from on an ongoing basis during my convalesence were people asking me to do things and then wondering why those things weren't forthcoming. I tried so hard to explain to them how unwell I still felt; truly, for more than a month after my hospitalization I was having problems with my vision, with fatigue, with short-term memory, with the general feeling that a dull dark cloud had settled over my cognitive function. But all I heard was, "Why isn't the church calendar online?" "When are you going to update the website?" "Can you______?" "Can you_____?" And this is what Fellow Traveler -- who in addition to taking care of me 24/7 was also battling walking pneumonia -- was hearing as well. It was incredibly frustrating not only not to be heard, but not to be cared about other than as the means to an end.

But, thinking about it....we really  don't have a lot in common with a lot of people at church. We really don't. A lot of them are part of a hard-living, hard-partying, country-music blaring, oppositional-behavior-embracing local culture that we don't find charming or fun or something we want to join.  We can count on the fingers of one hand households that we're on dropping-in-on-friendly terms with, and maybe another hand of households we'd consider first-name-basis acquaintances.  So why should we expect anything from the others? (The other day our pastor was asking me -- I guess I'm the resident social media expert -- about some cat-fighty Facebook drama with individuals at church who weren't getting along, and I had to admit that I didn't know who the hell he was talking about.)

I know that the mainline-denominational party line is to emphasize that we're part of a community, not all off having our own me-and-Jesus experiences in a corner somewhere. But, seriously folks -- real community is a rare commodity, and I think in an effort to reject me-and-Jesus-under-a-blanket-with-a-flashlight quietism we tend to oversell both how much of it exists in our churches and how church community informs our own faith.

And I also wonder how much community we want, deep down. I've observed Evangelical acquaintances where "community" has morphed into a near-cultish insularity and group control that includes "shepherding," tattling, peer shaming and a lot of other crap that most of us in Mainlineland wouldn't tolerate. When I think of FT's and my circle of friends and aquaintances -- we tend to like to spread our social capital wide instead of depending on one sector to provide the bulk of our emotional and social support.

Long story short: We're stepping back from a lot of our involvement in church, including the compulsion to provide warm-body ballast at random church activities and to be volunteers of last resort. We're tired, and we're just not feeling it. I've been doing  my assisting gig on schedule, but when the alb comes off I leave. And while my inner nag is telling me that I should feel guilty about all this, what I think is the healthier part of myself is telling me that this is something we need to do for our own health.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

A Very Bad Wizard

I think you are a very bad man," said Dorothy.
"Oh, no, my dear; I'm really a very good man, but I'm a very bad Wizard, I must admit." -- The Wizard of Oz

Our pastor cited this quote on Sunday -- I wish I could tell you that I could connect the dots between this and the Gospel lesson the way that he did, but four days later I'm not quite able to manage that.

What I can tell you is that I certainly know what it's like to be a very bad wizard.

There's the thing with our pond fish. This spring, after the pond thawed, there appeared to be no fish left at all -- just some winter-killed minnows floating on the water. There were no sign of the bluegills we'd put in the pond the year before. So in a burst of aquacultural enthusiasm I added a little bag of feeder goldfish for some color. As spring progressed into summer, everything seemed hunky-dory. But suddenly it seemed as if there were more fish in the poind that what we'd planted -- goldfish and bluegills. There wasn't time for them to reproduce. So apparently some fish had survived the winter, and were now competing for resources with the newcomers. I usually don't root for the great blue herons that regularly visit our back yard, but now I was practically flagging them down for an all-you-can-eat sushi buffet.

And then there's the thing with the honeybees. Our bees are still alive; they've been on our flowers and vegetable plants and wild plants all summer and fall. It's been fun to see them in the morning, working the annual bed, the herbs and wildflowers; "Hi, girls," I'd say. But because of the unskilled-noob way we installed the packages, we can't open the hives without hopelessly disrupting the colonies, and now it's too late in the season to mess with them; they're no longer able to create the wax to repair their homes. So now they're stuck in their original hive body and the roof area where they decided to establish themselves (honeybees actually don't like the frames that beekeepers use in hives, and if left to their own druthers prefer to hang their own elongaged ellipses of comb from any handy upper support). If they had taken to their frames, we would be able to add a top feeder to their hive body and supplement their own stores of honey this winter; but as it is they're pretty much on their own. Every other day I've been feeding them with jar feeders, with increasingly thick formulations of simple syrup, some of which they'll eat and some of which they'll store; but when it gets too cold to continue that, they're going to be on their own. I recently related our dilemma to some crusty old downstate beekeeper who came into the antique mall one day, and I saw the look in his eye when he said, "You might have a problem keepin' them bees alive."

Now, keep in mind that people who raise semi-wild animals for a living learn to roll with the punches of nature and circumstance and human error. The bee guy who came into our store -- a  guy who's been doing this for decades -- confided to me that last winter he'd lost almost half his hives; some to the colony collapse disorder that's devastated American beekeepers in recent years, but some just to chance. He told me that despite disappointments like this, there's no place he'd rather be on a given day than out working with his hives.

I want to get to a place like this, instead of where I am now, secondguessing my attempts to play God, or at least wizard, with sentient beings. I mean, I don't take my garden personally; when crops fail, as they sometimes do, I'm able to step back, analyze what went wrong and move on. This summer the weather necessitated a late planting of almost everything, which meant that my experimental teepee of yard-long beans didn't amount to  -- well, to a hill of beans. I think I picked a half dozen. I didn't go into a depression. I didn't berate myself for wasting the lives of helpless beans that don't really belong in Zone 5. I shrugged and thought, "Next year I'm growing those up a trellis alongside the sunny side of the garage."

At some point this fall I hope to pass by the pond, salute our fish and say, "I'm glad I saved you from life in a pet-shop tub and fish-farm pool. I'm glad I was able to give you all six months of freedom in the wild; and I'm glad you gave us the pleasure of watching you live your lives. I hope I see you again come spring thaw; but if I don't, thank you."  And on the way back to the house I'd like to be able to stop at our two beehives and say, "Thanks, girls, for pollinating our vegetables and flowers this year. Thanks for teaching us a lot. I may see you again around April or I may not; but you've made our yard and our neighborhood a better place. And whether we're out with our hive tools doing some renovations on your house next spring, or making room for a whole new colony -- know that what you did here this year was important; important to us and important to a lot of the other living things around us."

That would, I think, make me a better wizard than the one I am now.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

To Sleep -- Perchance to Dream

Let me tell you about my night at the sleep center.

This was one freaky-deaky experience.

Since sleep apnea can be a contributing factor to anesthesia going awry in some patients, and since I exhibit some symptoms of apnea, my doctor arranged for me to undergo a sleep study. My appointment was scheduled for 9:30 pm, at a sleep center in the same city as my doctor. Fellow Traveler and I, already angsted up by late-night driving through deer-intensive countryside, arrived at the given address to find ourselves in the parking lot of a rather conventional professional building housing everything from insurance agents to electrolysis practitioners. The building was mostly dark; but when we buzzed the intercom a light came on in the hallway, and when we identified ourselves we were directed by intercom down a winding stairs to the ground floor.

About 5 seconds into this descent I had the sudden urge to run, run like the wind back to the Jeep -- it seemed like the setup for a local film student's horror movie ("This 'sleep clinc's' patients are just dying to get out!") -- but when we finally reached the bottom of the stairs we found a mild-mannered technician who introduced herself and led me into my room -- which, other than lacking windows, could have been in any decent business-traveler motel; roomy bed with a pleasant duvet in restful colors, wardrobe, flat-screen TV. My angst level ratcheted down a few notches.

I had a few minutes alone to get into my jammies, and then the tech reappeared and we got down to business -- a business involving a myriad of leads and electrodes which the apologetic young woman glued and wove on my face, into my hair and down my shirt and legs. A shock of wire led down from my head like a horse's mane, gradually merging into a lighted panel on the bedstand. The tech snapped a pair of belts around my torso, over other wires, and pulled another band around my head. I then had a breathing tube added to the mix. If I'd been in a more jovial mood I might have feigned The Robot, but that frisson of anxiety I'd felt at the top of the stairwell shivered through me again; especially after I got a good look at the closed-circuit camera aimed at me, that would be recording my movements all night.

FT and I said our goodbyes, and then the tech left. "You can watch TV until you're ready to go to sleep," she explained. "When you turn out the light you'll hear my voice on the intercom, and I'll have you do a few exercises for me to make sure that everything is attached correctly."

So that's what I did; watched part of a depressing Tigers-Rangers game, decided I didn't want to see it through to the end, clicked off the television and turned off the light. And, on cue, the tech came on over the intercom, giving me instructions like "Move your eyes from left to right, and then repeat," and "Flex your right leg," and "Count slowly from one to five."

Then -- darkness; mostly, except for the flashing lights next to the bed and the camera and sensor pointed at the bed. And I lay there, feeling all the hardware attached to me, unable to get comfortable and afraid to move too much lest I mess up the wiring, and feeling very sorry for myself. This has got to be the most miserable, most expensive sleepover ever, I thought glumly.

I'd like to tell you that at some point I relaxed and fell into a lovely sleep; but I didn't. I tossed and turned -- on at least two occasions forcing the tech to come in and reattach the leg wiring -- self-conscious in the knowledge that every movement, every breath, was being monitored and evaluated. I finally did drift off to sleep, a few times, enough to engage in some very bizarre dreams with complicated storylines...and then a voice came over the intercom again: "Good morning! It's time to get up!" It was 6:00 am.

I was surprised to find FT already back at the office; she'd only gotten a couple of hours' sleep at home before packing the dogs in the Jeep and returning. After being slowly, methodically detached from my wiring I shuffled off to the bathroom down the hall -- unlike the nicely composed sleep lab, this room had obviously begun life as a janitorial area, with a walk-in shower and foofier faucet fixtures added but the deep utility sink retained; and to add to the thrown-together ambience, I couldn't get the warm water going in the shower, and emerged cold and cranky.) We said our goodbyes, then made our way across town to one of the few local diners open at 6:30 before finally heading home -- where we both promptly crawled into bed and fell asleep for the better part of the day.

The tech had told me that a surprising percentage of the population suffers from sleep apnea; that it's most commonly obstructive apnea aggravated by things like weight, poor sleeping posture and adult tonsil issues but can also have its roots in a neurological problem, the brain periodically failing to send the proper "breathe" message. Fixes may include everything from diet and exercise to tonsillectomy to a C-PAP machine that helps maintain constant airflow at night. The tech also told me that she loves her job, and that, unlike my night there, the clinic is usually booked up with two patients per evening. I would be horrible at any shift work, but I have a hard time imagining myself sitting in a room all night watching strangers writhe around in bed (although I suspect some of their nighttime dream conversations provide a good laugh for the staff).

Geez. I remember back in the day when old folks just seemed more snorey, and no one questioned that. Now I have become a snorey old folk myself -- one who might have to spend more nights attached to a machine. During asthma season FT often needs to give herself breathing treatments, and I have visions of us in the evening, hooked up to our respective breathing apparati, in a scene that's not nearly as appealing to the two-rocking-chairs-on-the-porch-in-the-sunset scenario I'd prefer.

Oh, well -- it was quite a night, anyway. And I'll get my results next week.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Happy to Be On This Side of the Grass

Hey -- guess what? I'm still here.

That was not a given back at the end of September. I'd gone in for a routine colonoscopy -- in fact my first, baseline one recommended for we 50-year-olds. I was lightly anesthetized with Versed and Demerol, a mixture I'd been given before for oral surgery, with no ill effects.

I remember waking up woozy and uncoordinated and having to ride a wheelchair to our car. I remember eating a late lunch on our patio. I remember walking inside and lying down on the sofa. At some later point I moved to the bedroom.

Then, apparently I experienced what they call a rebound effect from the anesthesia; instead of passing out of my body the way it's supposed to, it somehow re-anesthetized me, to the point of seizure and respiratory failure. Fellow Traveler, who'd been checking on me every quarter hour, stepped into the bedroom to find me on the floor, face bloody, writhing and trying to cry for help. Yup; I almost bought the farm that night, while the local first responders and ER staff worked on me.

I'm not sure whether to be relieved or disappointed that, during this medical crisis, I didn't see Jesus or my dead relatives; I wasn't encouraged to walk toward the light; I just woke up in ICU, stuck with tubes and sensors, being coaxed into eating a really bad omelet.

I came home for a week of marginal functionality -- I was on bedrest, which wasn't difficult for me because my head felt as if it were stuffed with a heavy bolt of wool, and I was having a hard time with eyestrain and sudden changes in light and dark. I also discovered that, during my seizure, I'd broken a molar, my notorious "weather tooth." But my biggest problem was fear: fear of going to sleep and not waking up; fear of sleeping alone.

Then, just as the fog was starting to lift and I was tentatively puttering around the house in gentle activity -- I came down with a bad upper respiratory infection, one that knocked me back into bed for another week.

All of which is to say, it's been an interesting couple of weeks. And I'm on a fairly short leash for the next six weeks. Oh -- and Michigan law mandates that, since I seizured, I can't drive for six months. (How advantageous that most of my six months will be during the time of year that I hate driving the most.)

But as FT's uncle used to say, any day on this side of the grass is a good day. Right now FT is at the antique store where we keep a booth; I'm taking a break from some very low-key laundering and dusting, watching the honeybees on our new mums and asters. My head and eyes are still "heavy," but they're getting better.

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Blogger

As I suspect other bloggers do as well, I struggle with juggling my desire to blog here with the rest of my life responsibilities.

When we have friction at our house, it's very often the result of the perception that I'm spending too much time online. Again, that's probably not a unique thing for anyone who's reading a blog.

My problem is that it is very, very hard for me to sit down and write anything of substance in a focused way for short measures of time. Well, I take that back; that used to be what I did for a living, writing promotional material for a local governmental-services office. Hack writing under a deadline is like taking a trip around the block for groceries; you're on autopilot, basically, at least after you've gotten into your professional groove, and you frankly don't exert all that much cerebral effort dutifully churning out press releases and PSAs.

To me blogging is different. It's about endurance and attention, not sudden brilliant bursts of insight. First of all, even under a pseudonym, you're putting yourself out there when you own a blog. You want what you say to matter -- because otherwise it's just an exercise in narcissistic time-wastery. And you also don't want what you say to sound like crap; you want to craft your thoughts, not simply disgorge them as they pop into your head. And, for me, even with a life filled with abundant raw material for any number of literary projects, it's difficult to sit and stare at a blank screen and come up with posts ex nihilo. I usually have to prime the pump by reading the newspaper or reading other people's blogs or keeping up with online conversations on the two discussion groups I hang out at. Somehow all of that, along with the rest of the day, spins together and, on occasion, provides me with an observation or insight that I'll find blogworthy.

So for me blogging takes time and focused attention. It's probably something I should do at the crack of dawn when I'm alone, undistracted and not distracting anyone else (except maybe Mollie the cat). I suppose I'm Exhibit A for Virginia Woolf's campaign to have female writers claim a "room of one's own"....although considering what happened to Virginia Woolf I'm not sure she's the best advertisement for that proposition.

But I really want to write more. Sometimes I feel as I've been given a gift, something that makes me me, that I'm not valuing the way that I should; and that if I don't continue to exercise this gift, it will begin to fade away, and part of me with it.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Our Excellent Adventure in Chi-Town, With Random Field Notes

Those of you who have been following our struggle to have Fellow Traveler's RA-related jaw pain relieved will be as pleased to hear this news as I am to share it: The VA located an oral surgeon for us who has facility in arthroscopic surgery -- not all that common in that particular field -- who says he can do an arthroscopic procedure that's much less invasive and risky than the condylectomy we'd been envisioning; it's an outpatient procedure done under general anesthesia in about an hour or less, and avoids jaw wiring.

It so happens that this surgeon is located in Chicago, which meant an unexpected road trip for us earlier this week. And at first we were pretty angry about it, because Fellow Traveler had worked hard to arrange for out-of-system surgery in our area, with a well-regarded oral surgeon who has a good track record for condylectomies. At the last minute the VA backed away from that plan and insisted that the surgery be performed in-system, throwing a monkey wrench into our scenario of a 30-minute drive to our regional hospital.

Our response? "As long as we have to drive 5 frigging hours across two states for a frigging consult in frigging Chicago, we're going to milk this for all the entertainment value it's worth." So we took our sweet time driving through Michigan, staying off the freeway for much of the journey and stopping to antique in Saugatuck, and then lodged overnight in Porter, Indiana, in Dunes country, at a really swell little hotel called the Spring House Inn. (More about that later.)

Here are some of my very random observations along the way:

Weirdest Michigan Bible Belt sign:  "New Testament Taxidermy." What does that even mean?

GPS: We loves us our GPS, even though Priscilla (that is her name) occasionally falls asleep at the wheel, so to speak, making us miss exits or sending us down the wrong two-lane road. Because I am not the big-city driver in the family, I am designated navigator, keeping FT informed of upcoming turns and such before Priscilla weighs in.

On being a non-confident/incompetent driver on long trips: I don't do big-city driving; straight up. It's not just out of being unaccustomed to multilane expressways with tiny entrance and exit ramps: I think that I have some sort of neural processing deficit (and I'm not being funny here) that prevents me from organizing in a meaningful way the sensory information bombarding me in city driving  -- what other people seem to be able to sort out in a kind of logical, linear fashion on the road just hits me all at once in a terrifying manner; a random merge is like a head-exploding nightmare to me. Which means that I probably should not be driving a large metal missile going at 70 miles per hour in the midst of a lot of other missiles with human beings in them.

I've given up the idea that I can somehow overcome this problem, as have my loved ones. But I still feel like an epic failure as a competent adult. I try to compensate by driving the non-city, blue-highways portions of our trips while FT naps, so I can feel like I'm contributing. The GPS is really helpful here, by the way, because it has a handy "avoid freeways" option. On this trip, we had a really pleasant meander through much of western Michigan, and we really didn't notice much of a difference in time.

Porter, Indiana: In researching our trip online we found a hotel, the Spring House Inn in Porter, an hour outside Chicago, that looked like a good, inexpensive place to spend the night. Because it's near the Indiana Dunes, I guess I was expecting the town to be like the picturesque duneside towns of northern Michigan. So coming off the freeway exit and finding ourselves in a messy, down-at-the-heels tangle of fireworks factories and truck stops and train tracks was something of a was the almost nonexistent promotion of the nearby Indiana Dunes. (Not to offend any readers from Indiana, but -- what is up with that?) And when we came upon our sight-unseen-booked hotel and saw weed-infested parking lots and an empty auxiliary banquet hall with a FOR SALE sign at the roadside, my heart sank.

The good news is that the Spring House Inn is a little gem that just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. It's tucked into the edge of a verdant woodland that brings to mind Hoosier author/conservationist Gene Stratton Porter's A Girl of the Limberlost.  The interior is clean and cozy and hints at former glory as a popular local honeymoon destination. Our handicap-accessible first-floor room was spacious, with a huge bathroom. The staff is friendly and helpful. And the rates are amazingly reasonable. If you like rooting for the underdog, and have an affinity for Fawlty-Towers-style boutique lodging, then this is a great place to stay, especially if you want/need access to Chicago but prefer to make hotel arrangements outside the city. We've already booked a room there for the operation-week trip.

Interestingly, we never did find the Dunes. (Again -- what is up with that? Maybe you need to hire the "Pure Michigan" ad campaign people or something.) Nor did we ever find a real downtown Porter. But we did find a great barbecue joint, Wagner's, around the block.

The Jesse Brown VAMC: I'm not sure what we were expecting when we arrived, but we were happily surprised at the courtesy and service we received here -- especially when the staff found out we'd traveled all the way from mid-Michigan. We also love FT's young doctor, who's done dozens of the surgeries that he is recommending for FT -- even though I'm sure I have shoes older than he is. We were able to get not only our consult but all our pre-op labwork and X-rays done, with time left over to enjoy real Chicago hot dogs and a boat ride at Navy Pier. By about 4 pm, though, we'd had enough of Chi-town for one day and were glad to beat the evening rush hour out of the city back to Porter.

Chicago: If we hadn't have been so roadweary and preoccupied with medical matters we might have spent more time investigating downtown. And the area surrounding the VA was definitely not a place for disoriented Prius-driving out-of-towners, GPS or no. We liked Navy Pier, though.

Southern Michigan wine: Just to show my Hoosier readers that I'm an equal-opportunity kvetch -- we were decidedly unimpressed with the (admittedly small) sampling of southern Michigan wines we tasted en route. The vineyards are very pretty and tourist-savvy to be sure, but the products, especially the red wines, are just not in the same league as northwest Michigan's wines. We wound up buying a bottle of white demi-sec from one place, but more out of mercy than excitement.

Well...that's what we've been doing on our summer vacation, so far.

Now the Silence, Now the...Silence...

The padre and I were talking the other day about an interesting dynamic of our church: the almost total lack of feedback we receive from parishoners about anything -- anything.

Our education committee had met earlier in the week, members all dispirited because every attempt they've made to interest young families in our new religious education schedule seems to fail. And they don't know why, because no one will talk to them. Attempts to elicit positive, proactive information from this demographic -- What is it that you do want for your children's religious education? -- are met with silence, or "Dunno."

Our pastor had to tell the group, Welcome to my world.

I certainly experience this as person-in-charge of our church's online properties. I can't tell you how often I've tried to, say, incorporate lighthearted quizzes on our church Facebook page, or cajole readers into submitting questions for our Wednesday Whys feature -- and get no response at all. Whenever anyone comments on our church blog, it's a friend of Hope from outside our congregation.

And yet we have a healthily growing congregation; we've been holding new-member classes now just about every other month. People seem to like us, and keep coming back.

So why won't these people talk to us?

I don't know. Does anyone else have this dynamic in their congregation, or is it just us?

Friday, June 17, 2011

Friday Five: Stairway To...?

My's been so long since I've participated in a Friday Five that I've practically forgotten how. But here goes.

From Friday's RevGalBlogPals "Friday Five":

I am currently reading a book entitled Stairway of Surprise: Six Steps to a Creative Life by Michael Lipson. His premise is a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson: "I shall mount to paradise by the stairway of surprise." Lipson's book is about practicing or developing six inner functions--thinking, doing, feeling, loving, opening, and thanking.

So these categories of attention are a jumping off point for today's Friday Five:

Pick five of the six actions and write about how you are practicing them today or recently. For a bonus, write about the sixth one you originally didn't choose!

What or how are you

1. thinking?

2. doing?

3. feeling?

4. loving?

5. opening?

6. thanking?

Thinking: Right at this moment I am thinking about our new-ish bees (currently dancing in the sunshine -- a rare commodity this week, a state of affairs that makes bees depressed and moody), and how we are going to remove them from the roofs of their respective hives, where they've taken up residence despite our best attempts to install them the right way, and into the lower hive body, which is where they're supposed to be living.

 I got on an online bee forum, and a couple of kindly souls there told me that we will have to cut the bees' natural comb from the roof, and wire it onto empty hive frames. These will go in the bottom box, where we want the bees to live. Then we have to sugar-water spray the frames filled with our beeswax foundation -- if you've ever seen a picture of beekeepers in action, those are the flat things they lift up out of the hives -- and place them around and above the removed comb. Then we have to replace the top board of the hive -- it's a flat board with an oblong hole in the middle that our bees used as an entrance to their attic abode -- and cover the hole with mesh screen so that they can't repeat their shenanigans. Then we replace the roof -- which presumably by this time won't have thousands of angry bees stomping all over it.

This sounds like a lot of engineering, as well as crisis managment, at least for insects. I still can't quite get my head around the honeycomb wiring part of this dilemma, and wish we had a hands-on Bee Whisperer nearby to help us finesse this.

Doing: At the moment I am sitting in the wreckage of our living room with the dogs. Long story short, we've had a busy week with multiple interruptions and, yesterday, a bit of a short-term medical crisis for Fellow Traveler, so we've done no housework in days and days -- and I'm wondering where to even begin; especially since we're leaving for Chicago on Sunday for a consult the next day with an oral surgeon at the VA's shiny new state-of-the-art dental center at the Jesse Brown VAMC. (This saga deserves a blog post all its own, so I'll fill in the blanks later.)  In about 10 minutes I hope to be doing picking up and dusting, at least, in this room.

Feeling: After our very long and trying day yesterday (another story all its own) I have to admit that I don't feel much of anything. I feel a little spatially disoriented; I was driving around Midland today running errands, and despite my having been to these places dozens of times I had to check myself several times to keep from missing turns along the route. My brain just feels a worn-out rubber band. My eyes are tired. I'm just...tired.

Loving: If you're expecting something profound or romantic, I fear you'll be disappointed. Because at this moment I am loving the thought of the Zingerman's Pimento Cheese I procured on my Midland errand run earlier. And I am loving the sound of our dog Bear -- our legacy from FT's departed aunt -- snoring contentedly on the rug. She is an epic snorer -- something that, sadly, also runs in the human side of this family. And right next to me on the sofa is Chica -- Chica Bonica, Chica Unique-a, sometimes Chica Sneaka or even Chica Freaka -- also chillaxing. We are so pleased that these two little dogs, with such different personalities, have become fast friends. We call Chica the Monkey Dog because she is so active and agile and busy. Bear, by contrast, is a short, stout, no-nonsense old girl. But Chica treats Bear with the affection and deference of a beloved auntie, and every so often Bear dispenses with dignity and initiates rough-and-tumble play with Chica -- this from the obese shi-tzu whose belly literally touched the floor when we brought her home, who did little more than sleep and eat.
Opening: What am I opening? Hmmm. In a short while I'll be opening the Jeep and removing a new barrel charcoal grill we bought last week (of course it was on sale), that the big-box-store people assembled for us. It's supercute; we didn't want some hulking big iron monster taking over our patio, so we got the junior version of a popular model. It has a side and front shelf area, which I like, and it's a little bit larger than the tabletop barrel grill that we've been using for the past couple of years.

Thanking: I'm thanking God that FT is okay after a scary episode of her not being able to breathe. This happens almost every summer; summer colds go around, FT gets one, it turns into bronchitis and that aggravates her asthma. Thank God for Z-Packs and nebulizers too. And for the controlled anger I summoned up yesterday after we were ushered into to an exam room at the Saginaw VA and just left there for over two hours, FT hooked to an oxygen tank and pulse oximeter but not checked on at all -- "Oh, someone will be coming to see you shortly" -- until I got irritated enough to find an  RN and demand some attention for a patient who was having trouble breathing, for God's sake, don't-you-even-read-your-own-triage-protocol-there-on-the-wall.  And thank God for the nice evening-shift ER doctor who was not only helpful and courteous to us, but who kicked some fannies and took names (literally) when he found out how long we'd been left waiting.

Finally, speaking of stairs and creativity: Enjoy this video of Bill "Bojangles" Robinson:

Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Sermonator

Things that I, lay minister, have found out about sermons over the past year:

First of all: Give me the more unfamiliar, unlovely texts; the ones that no one remembers from Sunday School. For some reason I find them more intellectually engaging and actually easier to tackle with the congregation than the ones that come with a lot of preconceived assumptions and sentimental baggage. My idea of preaching hell is doing so on Christmas, Easter or the Sunday we tackle the Beatitudes. I'm just weird that way. Good thing I'm a layperson.

I've also found that there's something about small worship gatherings that throws me off-kilter. You'd think it would be just the opposite; that an intimate group of familiar faces would set me at ease. No. To me, behind the pulpit those Advent or Lenten evenings, it's like doing standup at closing time in an unpopular bar. I feel like I'm dying up there.

And then there's The Sermonator. This is my affectionate name for someone in our congregation who has taken it upon herself to become my personal trainer for preaching. Now, you have to understand that, being the very anal-retentive, self-critical soul I am, I start mentally dope-slapping myself for my homiletical inadequacies the moment I step out of the pulpit. I need, and appreciate, having some knowledgeable, objective other give me honest feedback, positive and negative -- even when the latter feels like a final rapier-stab to the heart after my post-sermon self-recrimination sesson; because at least it's coming from somewhere other than my own head.

But The Sermonator does not fall into the category of respected reality-checker. Imagine instead the love child of Ethel Merman and Cheers' Cliff Claven, and you'll get some idea of her m.o. The Sermonator is someone who, after a Sunday where I was feeling ill and ran through the sermon a bit breathlessly just because I needed to sit down as soon as possible, collared me in the fellowship area after the service and told me, loudly, "YOU DON'T HAVE TO BE SO NERVOUS! WE'RE ALL FRIENDS HERE! JUST PRETEND WE'RE ALL SITTING HERE NAKED! I'M SURE YOU'LL DO BETTER NEXT TIME!"

Thank you. Thank you so much.

The other week I did a fill-in Lenten service for our pastor -- one of those dreaded small-group homilies; my discomfort compounded by the gravitas and majesty of the text, Hebrews 12:1-2: Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. Oy. I spent all day writing the homily; thought it was crap; gave it anyway.

Afterward one of my respected reviewers described my message as "interesting," an adjective that felt like a baseball bat to the solar plexus. I said a few goodbyes and fled to my car...only to notice The Sermonator hot at my heels.


At this point I felt a weight descending upon each shoulder -- my good and bad angels had chosen this moment to manifest.

My good angel was in the guise of a pleasant Southern matron sipping a sweet tea.

"Well, bless her heart," exclaimed the good angel. "That gal is doin' the best she can, just like you."

My bad angel bore a distinct resemblance to Chelsea Handler. In one hand she held a pitchfork; in the other, a large vodka martini.

"SHUT UP!" screamed the bad angel. "SHUT UP! SHUT THE *&#@ UP!"

I decided I'd better pay more attention to the good angel. But I poured myself a big ol' glass of merlot -- we're out of vodka -- when I got home.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Friday Five: They Say It's Your Birthday

This week's RevGalBlogPal Friday Five asks us our opinions about birthdays:

1. What are your feelings about celebrating birthdays, especially your own?
I enjoy celebrating other people's birthdays far more than I do my own -- not just because I'm getting older, but because my family just didn't "do" birthdays well. Which brings us to...

2. Do you have any family traditions about birthdays?
Birthdays in my family tended to be more like the Costanza family's Festivus day -- Airing of Grievances and other assorted drama. I escaped this kind of thing on my birthday only because my birthday is the day after Christmas, and as such it was usually subsumed into that celebration; I mean, when your competition is Baby Jesus, you can't win when it comes to birthdays. When I was small my aunt M would take pity on me and throw a birthday party for me in June; but it just wasn't the same.

3. Is it easy to remember friends' and family members' birthdays? If so, how do you do it?
It's extremely difficult for me to remember people's birthdays, I think because I've never made a big deal about my own. I find Facebook to be very helpful in reminding me about birthdays; also those online card companies that, if you're a member, send you reminders about loved ones' birthdays several days ahead of time. This question, by the way, is inspiring me to add a "birthdays" sheet to our household Three-Ring Binder of Useful Facts, especially since Fellow Traveler also has trouble remembering birthdays.

4. What was one of your favorite birthdays? (or your unhappiest?)
My unhappiest birthday was when I was about five, sick in bed with pneumonia; definitely not fun. One of my favorite birthdays was a few years ago when Fellow Traveler treated me to a romantic bed-and-breakfast getaway up north on the Leelanau Peninsula. As luck would have it, an unseasonable warm snap hit the area when we arrived; imagine green grass, rain and peasoup fog in northern Michigan in late December. Then, just as suddenly, the temperature plunged again, bringing with it a combination ice storm and blizzard; this made for a rather cozy evening trapped at our B&B, drinking wine and playing Scrabble as the wind howled and ice pellets slammed into the windows outside...driving home the next morning, not so much. But in retrospect it was a pretty swell time overall.

5. Post anything else you want to share about birthdays, including favorite foods, songs, and/or pictures.
During the aforementioned birthday trip to the Leelanau, we visited a lovely rustic Italian restaurant called Trattoria Funistrada. Finding it involved navigating up and down curving, hilly back roads at night in fog thick enough to cut with scissors. By the time we crept into Burdickville, the little Glen Lake neighborhood where the restaurant is located, FT and I were both literally aching from the angst of stressed driving; so how wonderful to walk in and find a warm, friendly place that seemed to have been dropped into this unlikely landscape directly from rural Italy. We had a great meal there; conversed with the people sitting all around us because it's that kind of restaurant; had a lovely time. For some reason Funistrada's website seems to be down, but you can read some reviews (including mine) here.

Potlucks: The Original Food Rave

Today someone sent me a link to a story in the New York Times describing the phenomenon of "food raves" -- ephemerous underground restaurants, patronized via word-of-mouth, that give up-and-coming young chefs a chance to build a customer base without having to deal with the sometimes considerable licensing fees and bureaucratic hassles involved in the currently trendy pursuit of running a food cart.

My first thought, upon reading the article, was, " Good for them." My second was, "I wish we had food raves in our area." And then it occurred to me: What's another example of cooks showing off their signature dishes to a large crowd in a semi-spontaneous way?

Church potlucks.

Whoddathunk we were on the cutting edge of foodie culture?

Potlucks, at least in my state, have had to go increasingly underground because of onerous health department rules regarding advertising meals to the public; basically, if the food isn't made on premises according to state regulations, by people certified to handle food for public consumption, you can't advertise the meal outside your organization. Bulletin or newsletter blurbs are okay, for now; but mention a potluck on your church signboard or newspaper blurb and you're likely to get a frowny-faced visit from a local health department inspector. A couple of years ago our church ran press releases about our midweek Lenten worship that happened to mention a pre-service potluck, and we were promptly spanked by the Powers That Be. You can bet that schooled us.

People who know me are well aware of my liberal credentials. But these are cases where I feel real sympathy with my conservative neighbors who deeply resent this kind of nanny-ish state intrusion into what is simply a group of friends and neighbors coming together for a meal.  Especially when we all know supermarkets with perpetually sepulchral-smelling meat counters filled with irridescent steaks and gray chicken, or restaurants where we would no more order the egg salad sandwich than directly inject the salmonella into our veins, it seems inefficient, as well as petty, for local bureaucrats to make church kitchens -- at least in my lifetime experience a bastion of proud, obsessively hygienic church ladies who've never seen a church surface they didn't want to scrub with Comet, Pine-Sol or Murphy's Oil Soap, who'd likely commit hara-kiri with the ubiquitous church-kitchen electric knife if they ever inadvertently gave someone food poisoning  -- a front line of their war against food contamination.

I've worked in the public sector, engaging in what we believed was improving quality of life for citizens, catching that crusading spirit, and I truly understand how easy it is for health inspectors to see the world as one big, roiling cauldron of pathogens that they have been tasked with controlling at all costs. But -- I mean -- come on. For some reason I trust that Mrs. Tannenbaum's locally famous bratwurst potato salad isn't going to kill me. Not that I know a Mrs. Tannenbaum who makes bratwurst potato salad. Or that, if there were a Mrs. Tannenbaum, she would bring bratwurst potato salad to a potluck. Or that I know of any potlucks, anywhere, held by anyone. I'm just saying.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Gathering the Crumbs

I have an appointment in the Nearest College Town this afternoon, after which I'm going to go grocery shopping.

What will I find today? Maybe a bag of interesting organic granola. Maybe a can of white clam sauce, or packet of mole'.  Maybe some spendy pet food for the fur-chilluns.  And of course I can't forget a couple of pounds of good coffee.

I'm not going to a big-box supermarket. I'm not going to our food coop, or to a specialty-foods boutique.

I'm actually heading about a half-mile down a dirt road, next county over, to an Amish-run discount foods store.

We started shopping here maybe a year ago; we'd heard that it sold mostly outdated supermarket rejects, which didn't interest us, but finally one day we stopped in out of curiosity. What we found was a clean and tidy little store that carried, yes, a lot of old grocery items (signs around the store alert shoppers to this) -- but also a lot of perfectly good merchandise, including fresh cheeses and cured meats.  Interestingly, much of the items in stock are organics -- the same brands carried by the food coop. Ethnic specialty foods are also plentiful -- and, again, not all past their sell-by date.  The store sells bulk brand-name laundry detergent and fabric softener too -- just bring in an old bottle. Prices are all drastically reduced.

So if you can picture grocery-shopping America as a big aquarium, merchandisers sprinkle their wares on top of the water...what doesn't get picked off their keeps falling down, down, down, until it hits stores like this, in the hinterlands.

For us it's a challenge to find bargains here. I make sure to bring my reading glasses so I can discern the tiny date information on boxes, bottles and jars, and we both spend lots of time inspecting the goods. We've gotten some incredible deals; a couple of weeks ago, for instance, we scored on specialty organic dog and cat food, both well within their sell-by dates, for half off the list price. The store's havarti cheese is considerably less than it is at the nearest supermarket. Awhile ago we hit the store on coffee delivery day, apparently, and were able to buy several pounds of decaf "boutique" coffee, again at half off the normal price.

Shopping in such a venue requires patience, attention to detail and the flexibility to accept that whatever delicacy one finds on the shelf on a given day is a gift; to take it and enjoy it and not expect it to be there again. (I think there's a lesson in there somewhere.)

It's also quite a circus of characters, and of character itself. About half the clientele seem to be people like us -- savvy middle-class shoppers hunting for a bargain while enjoying a jaunt into the countryside. The other half are people who look as if they need every penny they can save; for whom this store isn't just a rural novelty but a real godsend. It's also interesting to note shoppers' comfort levels in engaging with the young Amish women who staff the store -- some are polite and friendly; others seem afraid or resentful.  We sometimes catch a whiff of xenophobia; frowning shoppers mumbling to one another about how they're somehow being taken advantage of. We sometimes wonder what those Amish girls think of the lot of us English -- our relative loudness and assertiveness and occasional public crudeness; behaviors which, by the way, aren't exclusive to poorer shoppers. Especially when other customers in the store are being jerks, FT and I feel a certain responsibility to be especially courteous and friendly to the staff; even if they think we're weird, at least we're nicely weird.

Wonder what I'll find today?

Monday, April 11, 2011

Shop Talk

What I did during my blogging vacation: Among other things, got all entrepreneurial and stuff. Really.

Our slow process of cleaning up and clearing up our home and adjacent buildings made us realize that we really needed to do something with the collection of estate-sale items that Fellow Traveler has collected over the years. We've never had much good luck selling stuff on eBay or Etsy. When we tried selling a few vintage items at our last garage sale, we discovered that the local folks are just too poor to care; they were interested in my old beaten-up college-era casseroles and silverware, not the items of value to collectors. Meanwhile, some of our favorite television programs -- the pawning/antiquing/picking genre -- was making us want to visit some estate sales and "junque" emporia.  We just need to find the right people, we thought.

One weekend we decided to wander into the local antique mall. This was once a department store, the pricier one in town, back when I was a kid. It had three stories, which was pretty impressive for our little town. My frugal parents hardly ever went there unless Mom needed some special dress or Dad ventured into the sporting-goods section for hunting gear. Anyway, when it, like most small-town department stores, went out of business, the owner turned the building into an antique store, renting out booths to collectors.

I can't recall why we went inside -- I think just to see if we could find some deals; FT has an interest in antique marbles and toys, while I collect hen-on-nest covered dishes. But as we wandered from booth to booth, we noticed an empty corner. "The stuff in our garage would fit in there," murmured FT. We looked at one another. "I wonder what the rent is."

As luck would have it, Skip the store owner -- a rather dapper and genial 80-something -- happened to be in the store that day. We asked him about the rent. We found out that it wasn't very much -- and that we could reduce it substantially by working in the store instead of simply selling our wares there. We also got the impression that he thought FT and I were interesting, knowledgeable and responsible -- perhaps even likeable.

That next Friday we moved in.

It's been about a month now. And while at the time I felt somewhat equivocal about taking on another life responsibility -- I find I really enjoy it. I love opening the store in the morning; wandering up and down the stairs switching on an insane assortment of light switches; putting the sandwich board out on the sidewalk and hearing the zap of the neon "Open" sign as I plug it in.

I also enjoy being in the midst of good-quality antiques and collectibles from a time when craftsmanship was valued. Skip runs a rather tight ship when it comes to vendors' displays; the place is neat and tidy, not like an episode of Hoarders, and contemporary garage-sale flotsam-jetsam is kept to a minimum.

And I enjoy dealing with the public. (This is one reason that I was content to slum in a bookstore far longer than I should have been after my university education.) It's fun for me to talk to visitors from other communities and promote our area -- the other day I wound up drawing an "Amishing" map for one downstate couple looking for a reason to drive out in the country. And you just never know who is going to walk through the door and what they want. One day it was men's old shaving razors -- we sold three of them to different people. (I later read in the New York Times Style section that personal "mantiques" of the 30's-60's are a trending thing among decorators and collectors.) One day a woman was ecstatic to find a googly-eyed coconut monkey for her backyard tiki hut. We sold our amberina pattern glass canoe to a fellow for whom this one thing had become a magnificent obsession; he already had 30 of them, he said; he wasn't interested in collecting anything else; he just liked glass canoes.

This is, contrary to what you see on TV, not a way to make a living. This past month we paid our booth rent with enough left over for a pizza, and that's it. But it's fun. It's exercising some of my marketable-skill muscles after a long holiday. It's also reawakened the collecting urge in me; I'm thinking of maybe upgrading my rather pedestrian assortment of hens-on-nests to include one of the really choice Atterbury glass-eyed chickens, or pursuing an interest in collecting/trading in young women's books of the fin-de-siecle and 'teens -- those brave, smart and subtly feminist heroines of books like Polly Goes To College and the old Campfire Girls series.

It beats sitting on the sofa watching American Pickers, anyway.

What the Health

So anyway...

In my last post I had mentioned Fellow Traveler's latest health issues.

As long-time friends will recall, we have been patiently waiting for FT to get an all-clear from the VA for out-of-system surgery for her jaw, to replace her RA-ravaged cartilage and ease her pain. We had cleared one of the final hurdles in this long (two years, actually) process, when -- the day we returned home from a beekeepers' conference in East Lansing -- she woke up with a stabbing pain in her chest whenever she took a breath. Was it bronchitis? Pneumonia? A heart problem?

We wound up at VA Urgent Care for most of the day; I fretted in the waiting room while FT was poked, prodded, monitored and scanned. Initial diagnosis? Pleurisy; a very painful inflammation of the lining of the lungs. They pumped FT with antibiotics and sent her home with orders to rest and an appointment for some additional cardiac testing just to rule out any heart-related problem.

A few days later we got a call. The doctor reviewing FT's scans didn't like the looks of something on one lung, and was scheduling a follow-up CT scan in June.

This sent me into an internal panic, even as I was keeping up a brave face for FT. FT has never smoked, but her deceased former partner was a chain smoker; had breathing secondhand smoke for years taken a dangerous toll? Had years of asthma done likewise? Had a blood clot in the lung from back in FT's childbearing years left scarring?

While we were processing this news, trying to put a positive spin on it ("They said come back in June...not 'We want to see you next week'...") , FT took her stress test. It wasn't pleasant, but not as frightening as she'd anticipated after reading the scary procedural preparation sheet. She had an echocardiogram. A couple of days passed. Then we got another call: There seemed to be a diminished blood flow to part of FT's heart, according to the stress test results; could she come in for a cardiac consult?

More panic. It was a very quiet, pensive drive back to the VA.

But FT's other test results didn't seem to confirm that there was a problem with her heart. She has a normal EKG; her echocardiogram seemed fine. The cardiology person all but ruled out a heart issue; scheduled another stress test with a different dye medium just to make sure, but told FT, "If you can make the pain happen by pressing on your chest, it's not heart disease." She even suggested that FT's arthritis might be inflaming her sternum and rib joints.  But she wrote FT a referral to a pulmonolgist to further explore the possibility that the pain is lung-related.

If this sounds like a breathless, cursory review of our last month...well, it is. My anxiety response has pretty much burned out at this point. And we're taking things day by day: If FT wakes up with less pain, it's a good day; if the VA doesn't call, it's a good day.

And, ironically, as all this was happening -- FT got her formal, written clearance from the VA for her out-of-system jaw surgery.

I'm trying so hard to work up the intellectual gumption to return to blogging on a regular basis. But if I don't, you'll know why.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

My Future Flower Bed?

I'm too tired right now to write that catch-up post I talked about last night...but I want to commit to posting every single day, so in that spirit I present to you a handy video about starting a new garden bed. I'm seriously considering trying the "lasagna" method for the annual bed I want to start next to our front garage.,AAAAAEBQ1X8~,4LcKJKyjVWFA5YuyjNPXYzRLy0uw4H-T&bclid=773439037001&bctid=1521609018

Friday, April 01, 2011

Friday FIve: "Good Things" Quick Picks

This week's RevGalBlogPals Friday Five asks us for a "quick pick of five good things in our lives.

This challenge came at a good time for me, because lately we've been having to focus, not on good things, but worrisome health things. I'll write more about this tomorrow, when I catch you up on what's been happening in my life since my blog hiatus.'s good to remember good things. So here goes:

1. Our family extracurricular activities. Our footloose-and-fancy-free schedule has gotten a bit more structured these days, as we've taken on two very different tasks. Since our church secretary cut drastically back on her schedule due to health issues, I've been working at church one day a week as unpaid secretary/newsletter editor. There are four of us, each with a slightly different set of daily tasks. I've enjoyed this pretty much (although I did have to put my foot down about our church's heretofore que-sera-sera approach to its newsletter, and institute due dates for content).

Meanwhile, we were visiting the local antique mall about a month ago when we noticed a little empty corner booth. Fellow Traveler said, "That would be a great place to sell our stuff." (Said stuff being her formidible collection of estate sale goodies.) This is a nice, tidy venue, with real antiques and collectibles. We asked the owner about rent, and we discovered that, as long as we volunteer to work in the store one day a week, we can rent booth space quite inexpensively. The owner, after quizzing us a bit and finding out that we know a little bit about antiques and collectibles and have experience in "people" occupations, made us an offer and we said, "Sure!" About 15 minutes later, as we drove away, we turned to one another and murmured, "What did we just do?" But this has been a pleasant little pastime once a week. We meet lots of interesting people, get along well with the landlord, are learning more about the business -- and we sold a couple of our things.

2. Bear. Our adoptee dog -- Fellow Traveler's aunt's-and-uncle's dog, who was about to be put down after the aunt died and the uncle wound up in the hospital -- is a real joy. And this is an especially good thing for me because I frankly had not been completely sold on the idea of another dog. I wouldn't have let the cousins-in-law kill Bear; but I'd envisioned fostering her for a few weeks until we found some suitable adoptive family. What happened after we brought her home, though, was remarkable: After a week of getting to know Chica and Mollie and learning the rhythms of our home, and after regular daily exercise and a balanced diet, this largely inert, morbidly obese lump of a dog started responding to us; her sweet personality began to emerge; and she started moving on her own -- running, even. Now I have to huff and puff a little to keep up with her some days as she gathers the courage to explore our woods. Chica, for her part, after about a day of poutery, has become a good pal to her new, older friend.

3. My tomatoes. The photo to the left is not actually a photo of my tomatoes; but my little tomato seedlings are starting to look like that photo. I have mixed cherry tomatoes; mixed heirloom standard-size tomatoes; currant tomatoes; "Black Trifele" and "Black Zebra" tomatoes; and a few six-year-old seeds that I stuck in a couple of peat pots just to see what would happen, that successfully germinated.

4. Our beekeeping experiment. We don't have our bees yet -- but we do have our hives, our bee suits, our tools and various and sundry other beekeeping things. We recently attended a beekeeping conference at Michigan State University, my alma mater -- I thought Wolverine fan Fellow Traveler would spontaneously combust upon setting foot on campus, but she was a good sport all weekend, venturing as far as the Student Union for a taste of the MSU dairy's famous ice cream -- so we're also fairly knowledgeable, at least we think, about what to do when the bees get here at the end of the month. Maybe.

5. Our recent visit with Miss Ruby. We were surprised and delighted to get an e-mail from Daughter-in-Law telling us that she was coming to Michigan with Ruby to visit her mom, various relatives and her best friend from medical school. Since The Kids believe that we live in Terra Incognita, and since DiL's other visits were all in the southern part of the state, we traveled to the Ypsilanti/Ann Arbor area, both Fellow Traveler's and DiL's former home base, to spend the day with Ruby, stay overnight and then lead SiL to her aunt-in-law's home in Bay City. So we got to play with the grandbaby the better part of two days. Ruby is growing so fast -- she literally grew out of one pair of shoes the morning after we arrived at Other Grandma's house -- and she is not only on her feet but constantly on the move. She's also an enthusiastic talker, even though her active vocabulary right now is rather limited: "Mama";"Dada"; "No"; "Amma" (which we discovered means any convenient, attentive gray-haired lady). Her favorite word, out of all those, is "No" -- delivered without anger or petulance, mind you; just a matter-of-fact statement of opinion. She's a little pistol, is Ruby. And we're glad we got to see her.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Friday Five: "It's Only Words" Edition

From the RevGalBlogPals website today:

There is a dramatic and surprising venue for Spiritual Formation/Sunday School classes at my church: Each week a different person teaches about a "word" that expresses his/her passion or interest. The first week someone spoke about "hospitality" with abundant treats on her mother and grandmother's china arrayed on tables. Other words have been "connectivity," "Trinity," "money," and "dreams." No one knows which person will be teaching until the class convenes. I am teaching this Sunday and plan to talk about "stirrings."

For this Friday Five, please list five words that identify your passions, spirituality, and/or life. Describe as much or as little as you wish.

First of all -- this is s pretty cool idea for a small group.

Now -- on to my Friday Five! These are, by the way, in no particular order.

Curiosity. I want to know stuff; that's one of the defining characteristics of who I am. This has, in my life, sometimes gotten me into trouble ("Hmmm....what's going to happen if I stick this loose plug into the light socket?")...but usually it's a quality that's stood me in good stead.

Faith. Even if it's very weak...even if some days I can't even precisely define what my faith is in. When I tried living without faith, it didn't work out so well.

Persistence. As Fellow Traveler can tell you, I tend to hang onto projects -- or problems -- for dear life, until I get the outcome I want.

Quiet. I've heard, "You're so quiet," my entire life. And sometimes I perceive that as a criticism, not simply an observation. Fact of the matter is, when I feel like talking, I can talk your ear off. (Ask my friends.) But in social situations I do prefer to take things in, to listen, to formulate my responses carefully. And I cherish quiet moments in a life that's often a swirl of activity and data.

Growth. I enjoy growing things...and I enjoy growing myself; learning new skills, developing insight; moving forward into the next thing. I'm not sure if this is a virtue or the opposite of the contentment that's the goal of a monastic life, but -- I prefer it to the opposite.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

In the Joint

Yesterday Fellow Traveler had her long-awaited consult with a non-VA oral/maxillofacial surgeon regarding her arthritis-ravaged jaw.

It was one of those mornings that just begged for a do-over. I had intended to accompany FT to this important appointment, but a relatively mild cold I've tolerated for the past week suddenly exploded in intensity, and I woke up with a raging fever and sore throat; there was no way I could go along. Then, about five minutes into FT's journey through town and toward the freeway our normally reliable Jeep began stalling whenever she slowed the car to a stop, so she was forced to turn around and carefully drive back home to switch vehicles.

I didn't see her for several hours.  Part of the plan that day was for her to come home by way of our church and help train a new volunteer on our database system; then she was going to stay for a council meeting in the evening. But a snowstorm began to build in the afternoon, and FT finally decided that it was unwise to try and navigate through the bad weather in the Prius.

By this time I was not only sick but anxious because of the increasingly bad roads, so I was relieved to see the Prius turn into our driveway. And I'd only gotten a short-form version of how the consult went over the phone, so I was eager to hear the details of the exam.

Here's the story: The good news is that the surgeon is recommending a less invasive, less dangerous operation than what was originally described to us; rather than attempting to replace the joint, he is going to realign the joint to reduce the bone-on-bone discomfort. More good news is that, while not a common surgery, this surgeon has done it enough times to be fairly confident that it will relieve FT's pain for an extended period of time.

The bad news? The benefits of the surgery won't last forever. Preparation for the surgery involves several weeks' use of a new quartet of medicines, including steroids -- something FT hates and has resisted taking in the past because of prior bad experiences -- a bite splint and a host of lifestyle restrictions. Post-surgery FT will have to have her jaws wired for six weeks. And if for some reason this surgery is not successful, the alternative -- a scary procedure -- only has a 20 percent success rate, and a high degree of danger.

FT came home exhausted, jaw pounding in pain, from her two-hour exam -- and from trying to process all the information that the surgeon had given her. I was still feverish and miserable but also trying very hard to understand exactly what this proposed surgery will entail, both in terms of the procedure itself and the necessary aftercare.

It made for a pensive evening.

FT has had so many surgeries for her RA-eaten joints that we jokingly refer to her as the Bionic Woman. Her degree of pain makes her so miserable on any given day -- her jaw swells noticeably, making it difficult for her to speak clearly -- that saying yes to something that may end that pain for at least several years, is not that difficult a decision to make.

But I worry. And I feel bad that FT -- who's already had so many joint replacements that we jokingly refer to her as the Bionic Woman -- has to go under the knife yet again. I know our life together has been blessed immeasurably these past going on five years...but there's always an undercurrent of sadness for the pain she's suffered and anxiety over the future. If this is, as Luther saw our life partnerships, a school for character, then we must be in graduate school.

Friday, January 07, 2011

A Post-Holiday Friday Five

Today is Tree-Untrimming/House Undecorating Day -- not one of LC's favorite tasks, but something that must be done. It's also the day that I, like my mom, write up a short review of our Christmas, pop it in a little envelope and add it to the box where I keep our creche.  So it's rather appropriate that this week's RevGalBlogPals' Friday Five asks us to review the past holiday season -- the good, the bad, perhaps the ugly, although I hope not.

1) What food item was one of your favorites this year - a definite keeper?
It hurts for this scratch-cooking foodie to say this, was really, really nice to enjoy a Honeybaked half-ham, handily delivered to the door, this year. (I made roasted acorn squash and Brussels sprouts, and a heap of mashed potatoes.)  We'd sent a full ham dinner to one set of relatives for Christmas, got a handsome discount because of that, and decided to use the savings on ourselves. We can definitely get used to this new tradition. But we've now both had enough ham, Honeybaked or otherwise, to last us until next Christmas.

Oh -- and, after the panic about finding my old family recipes, I did discover a new and improved sour cream sugar cookie recipe. That one's a keeper.

2) Was there a meal or party or a gathering that stands out in your mind from this most recent holiday season?
Christmas Eve morning saw us at the bedside of a dying friend and neighbor; not really the gathering I'd expected or hoped to have on that day, but it was what it was; and if our presence gave our friend extra comfort in her passage into life eternal, then God bless that day.

One of the nicest gatherings was, ironically, just one day after. You see, we had planned to have our hamfest on Christmas Day -- an intimate, even romantic meal, just the two of us. That was before FT's 90-year-old uncle called us up to invite us to their house for Christmas. Uncle was an avid fisherman back in the day, and we'd sent him and FT's aunt some salmon filets for Christmas. "We don't know how to cook these," he told us. "You two will have to come and do it for us." Which of course was just a ruse to have us come and visit them. Their own children, for various reasons, maintain minimal contact with them, so FT and I are their defacto family; we'd helped them put their Christmas decorations up around Thanksgiving, mainly to keep Auntie off the ladder, and had made them dinner that day as well. So that is where we spent Christmas Day -- squeezed around the generally unused dining room table in their tiny dining room, eating a rather simple meal; but enjoying it very much. (I did learn, however, that while Finns love beets, they do not love pickled beets; a note for next year.)

3) Were you involved in a jaw-dropper gift? Were you the giver or recipient or an on-looker?
Well, I"m pleased to say that I was a giver, a co-giver and a recipient. I was co-giver of Bananas, a humongous, ginormous stuffed gorilla we gave Miss Ruby for her birthday. We had feared that this was more an exercise in wretched excess on the part of Grandmas than a gift that Ruby would actually like -- we were even afraid that the huge ape would frighten her --  but Ruby loooooves Bananas. And her parents have taken to dressing Bananas in various themed clothing from week to week (fellow half-century fossils might remember the store mannequin in the Monkees' old TV show that was used similarly). So we're very happy Bananas made such a hit with the whole family. (And we'll just mention that, power shoppers that we are when it comes to our grandchild, we bought Bananas at a 70-percent-off store-closing discount.)

I was the jaw-dropped recipient of a Kindle, as I've mentioned elsewhere on this blog.

And I think I managed to jaw-drop my dear partner with her deluxe beginning beekeeping kit. This gift had started out as a meager purchase of a few essential beekeeping tools, as a kind of teaser/encouragement until FT could get some advice on what sort of hive and clothing to purchase. But it growed. And now all FT has to do is paint her hive (she's thinking maize and blue) and, this spring, fill it with bees. (This weekend we're going to visit with our cider-making/beekeeping friend Wally for some expert advice in this endeavor.)

4) Was there at least one moment where you experienced true worship?
I assisted for the first time on Christmas Eve -- I've never had that experience, of assisting when the church is packed to the rafters, and it was very meaningful to me; particularly assisting with distribution, being able to place the Body of Christ in so many hands, look into so many eyes and say, "...for you."  I think that was the high point of my Advent/Christmas worship experience.

That and -- as unexpected and sad as the day was -- being able to pray with our dying friend just moments before she passed on. When I did this, all my existential doubts and sadness and discomfort and other distractions swirling about in my head made way for a kind of calm certainty that I was merely a vessel for a Mystery far bigger and more profound than my puny presence, and that the Church of all ages and places was with me as I made the sign of the cross on my friend's forehead, and prayed, and read the 23rd Psalm to her. After she passed, I again found myself feeling rather awkward and incompetent as the hospice professionals took over and I tried making awkward conversation with our friend's partner and other visitors. But for a brief time I was in a special kind of sacred space.

5) What is at least one thing you want to make sure you do next year?
After my mindblowing three-day cookie-baking marathon -- next week I want to make sure that I start this project far earlier in the month. I know growing up that my mom would very often begin the weekend after Thanksgiving, and freeze the cookies until the holidays. I will also make a comprehensive list of what I need -- not only the ingredients themselves, but how much of them. And I will make the time to include my honey drop cookie recipe, another old favorite that didn't make the cut this year just because I was too tired.

BONUS: What is something you absolutely must remember to do differently... or not at all!
My attempt at incorporating a water feature into our Advent wreath was indeed beautiful and evocative -- but not very practical. Among other things, it takes a tremendous number of floating candles; the water needs to be changed regularly; and the bowl is subject to smudges and water marks. I made it; I'm glad; next year it will be different. We are thinking about going back to one real Christmas tree in the house. We miss a real tree. And -- no attempt to create an Advent blog or special Advent feature on this blog this year; not unless I get really bored and/or inspired somewhere in the middle of the Pentecost season and write it all up in advance. My relationship to Advent devotionals is much like Charlie Brown's relationship to Lucy's football -- so very tempting to undertake, but I just know it's not going to end well.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Recipe Interlude: Sour Cream Cut-Out Cookies

When we got back from our California trip, my window of opportunity for cookie-baking had been narrowed considerably -- especially considering that our cookies were mostly for export out of state.

So I steeled myself for about three days of nonstop cookie baking. I went to find my tried-and-true recipes, in my mom's old cookbooks.

I couldn't find the books.

The old, tattered Betty Crocker cookie book -- not in the bookcase. Ditto the old Br'er Rabbit Molasses book. The stained spiral-bound Lutheran ladies' cookbook -- not in the bookcase.

I went to the garage office, where I still have a few boxes from our house consolidation, and tore through them looking for any old cookbooks. No luck. I came back inside and looked behind the other books in the bookcase, thinking I may have squirreled these unlovely but useful books somewhere out of public eye. Nope.


Then I vaguely remembered having a fish-or-cut-bait moment, as we cleaned out our garage that spring after I sold my house, looking at a box of battered old books and loose recipes and making an executive decision to let it all go.

This was probably a smart decision at the time. Yet now I felt sad; another connection to my mom and my roots lost. I remember my mother telling me about writing for all sorts of free cookbooks from food companies when she was a newlywed. I remembered her own handwritten recipes in a falling-apart ring binder. All gone now, I sighed.

Until I snapped out of it and reminded myself that the recipes are not lost forever. And my particular family cookie menu has found a new generation of appreciative eaters in our kids.

So I got online. I found the Betty Crocker mother lode of cookie recipes. I did general searches on other recipes. And I did it; I replicated the standard LutheranChik Family Christmas cookie plate.

Not only that -- I actually found a better sugar cookie recipe than the one I had. (Sorry, Lutheran church ladies.) The recipe I'm about to share with you makes very soft, lovely, delicate cut-out cookies. And of course they're not just for Christmas. Think about making these, say, for a sweetie on Valentine's Day, cut into hearts and iced and sprinkled with glistening sugar:

Sour Cream Cut-Out Cookies

1 C. butter 1 C. sugar 3/4 C. sour cream (light sour cream works okay but nonfat sour cream does not) 1 egg 2 tsp. baking powder 1 tsp. baking soda 1/2 tsp. salt  1 tsp. nutmeg 4 1/2 C. flour

Cream together butter and sugar. Add the sour cream, egg and the vanilla; mix well. Stir in baking powder, baking soda, salt and nutmeg. Gradually add flour until dough is too difficult to stir. Mix the rest by hand. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and roll out to 1/4 to 1/2-inch thick. Cut into desired shapes with your favorite cookie cutters. Space cookies about 1 1/2 inches apart on a greased cookie sheet. Bake for 6-8 minutes in a preheated 350-degree oven or until lightly browned at the edges. Cool completely on wire racks. Decorate as desired.

These tend to dry out quickly, so enjoy them within a few days of baking them. They can also be made ahead of time and frozen,un-iced, then thawed and decorated right before serving/giving them.

Monday, January 03, 2011

LC's Semi-Random Bible Verse of the Week

God shall crush the heads of his enemies,

and the hairy scalp of those who go on still in their wickedness. -- Psalm 68:21

This verse jumped out at me as I was reading the appointed Psalm for today's BCP Morning Prayer. I know this is no laughing matter from a theological standpoint -- there's a reason why not every verse of every Psalm makes it into the Sunday lectionary -- but you've got to love the Psalmist going all WWE on his enemies here.

I'm not sure I'm up to praying for the crushing of my enemies' hairy scalps. Public embarrassment, maybe; but not breaking their heads. Maybe that's a 21st century developed world thing.

Honeybees and Do-Bees

We have a beehive in our living room right now.

It's kind of cute. It was marketed as an "English garden hive," as opposed to the workaday boxes one sees in commercial beeyards; it is somewhat smaller than a standard hive, with a peaked roof and copper flashing, and looks like something Peter Rabbit might have hopped past on his way to the carrot patch.

With this hive came an assortment of beekeeper gear: a hat-and-veil combo; gloves with arm gaiters; a smoker; a hive tool; an instructional DVD.

I, the Christmas elf who produced this hive and kit, had  gently quizzed FT earlier in the year about her sincerity in taking up beekeeping. Are you sure? Are you sure this isn't like the dark-of-night, REM-sleep-fueled conversation you had with me several months ago when you suggested to me that an urban chicken coop might be a fun backyard project, and then the next day when I recalled that comment over breakfast you stared at me in horror: "I told you what?!..." No, FT insisted repeatedly; this isn't like the phantom egg farm; this is for real; I want to be a beekeeper.

Which is actually pretty exciting. Although we have to get cracking on ordering that most important element of the equation, namely the bees, a task that I understand needs to be done right about now for an April shipment, due to high demand and short supply. I'm anxious that this timeline is somehow going to conflict with FT's jaw surgery -- what if the bees come when she's recuperating, whacked out on painkillers and not ready to participate in the task of introducing the bees to their new digs in our back yard?

I want this to be FT's project, not mine; but I'm hoping she reconnects with our new friend Wally from a surburban apple orchard and bee yard on the outskirts of Bay City, a delightful older gentleman who, once he heard about FT's interest in bees, was ready to take her under his wing (so to speak) and share his expertise. Wally can give us the 411 about procuring our bees. I also bought FT a year's membership in the state beekeepers' association, so maybe we can find some encouragement and assistance a little closer to home as well.

So there's that, happening at our house right now.

In the meantime, we are becoming bees ourselves: do-bees at church, doing things -- generally things involving computers -- that other people can't or don't want to do. Today, for example, while I'm staying at home nursing a bad head cold, the somewhat well-er FT is at church, helping the Finance Committee switch its data over to a new computerized data management system. For my part, I'm entering data for the quarter into our online event and scheduling calendar. I sometimes feel guilty about dragging my non-Lutheran-from-home partner into the inner workings of our church; but she enjoys solving computer problems -- and, as a relative newcomer, she a certain amount of freedom to express herself and get things done that someone enmeshed in the complicated interpersonal relationships and histories of our congregation probably doesn't. One of our perpetual organizational problems is a reluctance on people's parts -- in part I think a function of our congregational demographics and local culture -- to own and execute final decisions; I remember a short-lived stint on the Evangelism Committee where a mind-numbing, hour-long handwringing session involving the purchase of customized church coffee mugs -- "I don't know what to do you know what to do next?" -- was enough to make me hand in my resignation in frustration; "I am not going to waste any more hours of my life discussing how to get a picture on a coffee cup and calling that evangelism," I told the pastor.  FT, by contrast, doesn't have a problem with just doing something that needs to be done, committee be jiggered, and explaining it the words of another military gal, the late Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, it's easier to ask forgiveness than to get permission.

I myself have made the commitment to volunteer in the church building one day a week. Our pastor is transitioning into a new house away from the parsonage, our longsuffering volunteer secretary is wanting and needing a break, and so a few of us are going to rotate days in the office, answering the phone and being available for any walk-in assistance. I have plenty of my own church-related tasks to keep me busy on my office day, so it gives me an opportunity to work on those without succumbing to the temptations of the home sofa office.

All of which is to say...things are buzzing around here. In a good way.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

The Rekindling of Desire

Let me introduce you to my favorite holiday toy:

Yes, it's true; I have succumbed to the electronic lure of the Kindle.

I've been a Kindle skeptic for a long time. There's the creepy Big Brother thing about dependency upon one company for e-books (a company that is constantly collecting personal information about customers and that has in the past deleted customer purchases, with a refund but with no cogent explanation); there's the angst about increasing the digital and informational divide even further between the technology haves and have-nots (most of the people in my church, for instance, regardless of age, have no access to the Internet or even a decent personal computer). There's the issue of longevity -- what happens to my books if I break my Kindle, or if Amazon ever decides to change its technology? And there's the issue of tactile pleasure -- sometimes there's just nothing like turning the pages of a book.

Yeah; I know. But my new Kindle is

I mean -- I've already downloaded a couple dozen freebies; everything from the Iliad to The Voyage of the Beagle to a short tome on Amish gardening tips. My Kindle is wi-fi enabled, so I just book-shop right on it, 24/7, click the "buy" button (even for the freebies) and -- ka-ching! -- my book is suddenly there, ready to read. Wow.

For the past several years I've listed "reading more" as a New Year's resolution; and for the past several years that hasn't really happened. But now I find that I've already made it through one of my e-books (and learned that baking soda is a cheap and easy amendment to acid garden soil). And I'm headed for one of the Great Books now...perhaps the Epic of Gilgamesh, or the Analects.

Ooh -- shiny.