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: