The Busman’s Holiday


Yesterday, as I do every year at this time, I posted a shout-out on Facebook acknowledging the marathon challenge faced by clergy and church musicians during the four brutal weeks that make up the holiday gauntlet of Advent. It is a time of nearly unparalleled stress in overlapping professions where ritual performance art intersects with the divine (sometimes, depending on if you can get the incense lit and the organ tuned) and Murphy comes home to roost with his law.   

I haven’t seen it all, by any means, but I’ve seen enough. Usually from a perch in the choir or in a back pew enduring another children’s rendition of the Nativity with the rest of the dads who, reliably, had nothing to do with the production. The seasonal mayhem is manifested in ways both entirely unpredictable and utterly unsurprising. And all of it must be borne, if possible, with immeasurable and (largely) unacknowledged patience and good humor by priests, deacons, organists and choirmasters from here to the ends of Christendom.

I’m not sure what it is about the run-up to Christmas that invites Disaster but it must be pretty seductive because She shows up on schedule every year. I mean, if I had a nickel for every acolyte who fainted in a church on Christmas Eve I’d have retired ten years ago. It’s always a heart-skip when something goes haywire but it’s also not the slightest bit shocking when it does. And, in a strange way, it’s the awareness of impending and inevitable chaos that adds special poignancy to the season. For me anyway.

The potential for disaster and unscripted drama is limitless. A wrong page is ribboned and a robotic lector gamely ploughs straight through a reading from Pentecost. The consecrated host and the organist’s shoes go missing. Underhydrated acolytes topple like bowling pins. An unhinged thurible scatters hot coals among startled congregants. Tiny choristers puke quietly in their stalls. Pew candles ignite scarves and hair product. Hired soloists, carpooling, take the wrong exit off the Turnpike. The timpanist arrives full of bourbon. The organ springs an untameable g-sharp cipher. A frayed pageant angel bursts into exhausted, inconsolable tears. The power goes out. The fire department shows up. The police file a report with your name in it.

Through all of this chaos wade the heroes – the clergy and the underpaid musicians who almost literally throw themselves at each Advent with fervent, renewed hope for and low expectations of mankind. It’s an annual demonstration of grit and courage in a season of miracles. It is a magnificent display of faith, endurance and high pain thresholds.

And here’s why they do it. Sometimes, just when you think things can’t possibly get worse or weirder, it starts to make sense. Your plastic sheathed candle is lighted, your toddler is finally asleep on your lap, Christmas cookie vomit drying slowly in her hair. Your mother-in-law’s scarf fire is extinguished, the acrid smell of scorched lambs wool mingling with the incense. The head of the altar guild’s grand niece, visiting from Bismarck, ND, steps up on the altar and begins to play Silent Night on her junior flute. She’s a smidge flat. But she’s earnest and focused and her breathy rendition echos in the quiet church. It’s perfectly imperfect. Just like us, with any luck at all.  

And so, like lots of people I know, I both love and dread this season – with all of its anticipation and anxiety, promise and futility, trial and error. The ritual celebration of the tiny baby miracle is repeated all over the world with enthusiasm and hope, ever striving to honor the perfect with whatever pantomime of perfection we can muster. That we fall woefully short every single time dims not the courage of our church leaders. They shepherd us through our clumsy dance, patiently helping to choreograph our celebrations with whatever meager gifts we have to offer them and each other.  Their fire extinguishers, real and metaphorical, primed and ready.

So, priests, deacons, organists and music directors, we salute you. We honor your sacrifice. And we think forward fondly to December 26th when, if there is any justice on this earth, you’ll be curled up on the couch watching a hockey game with the sound off, with a fire you intended to start crackling safely in the hearth, with the Kings College choir rebroadcasting on the radio and with empty chocolate wrappers strewn at your feet.

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Home Alone

pitcher

The last time my wife left me alone for a week things unraveled pretty quickly.  The standard eat-when-you’re hungry, don’t shave, wear pajamas the whole time stuff wasn’t the half of it.  Among the low-lights:  I primed and started a temperamental chainsaw in the kitchen, fired a gun in the house as an experiment (I know) and practiced a rudimentary form of self-accompanied Karaokee  with piano.  In my pajamas (see above).  And I work from home.  Tip for future employers reading this – pick the other guy.

So when Audrey left for a week this time I saw trouble brewing and had a little talk with myself.  Structure, buddy.  Food pyramid. Hygiene. Leave the reptile brain in the shower.  Jesus, TAKE a shower.  Pretend you’re on Candid Camera.  So far?  So good.

Let’s jump to Tuesday – day two unsupervised.  I finish work, hit the gym, bathe, and then pursue a safe and healthy end-of-day activity.  Evening diversion?  Harrisburg Senators game at charming FNB park on City Island.

Thunderstorms having passed through just ahead of game time, the temp is a perfect 76 degrees with a dry, soft breeze from right field.  I arrive four minutes before the National Anthem (male duet, standard bass-line harmony, crowd appreciative).  Announced attendance of 2,850 (about 40% of capacity)  seems a generous estimate.  First pitch is  on the dot of 7:00 pm.  Play Ball.

I reserved in advance and paid for with my credit card an aisle seat behind third base and four rows behind the visitors’ dugout.  I could’ve paid next to nothing for bleacher seats and then sat pretty much anywhere I wanted but I’m not a starving grad student at Fenway (anymore) and I wanted to do this like an adult.  So I studied the seating chart and then plunked down (figuratively) seventeen bucks for a spot in foul-ball territory where I knew I’d have to keep my head on a swivel and pay attention to every pitch.  Think Structure here.

The Harrisburg Senators Baseball Club is the double-A minor league affiliate of the Washington Nationals.  They play in the Western division of the Eastern league which fields twelve teams from Maine to Virginia to Ohio.  It’s a ride-the-bus league and populated with very good, very young players who have sifted up through the high school and college ranks.  And they really are kids, mostly: early to mid twenties making maybe $1,500 a month plus meal money in-season and hoping to jump the long line of wannabes into the majors.  You can see the big-time from here.  But this is also where dreams die.  And hot dogs are $2.50.

On this perfect Summer Tuesday night in Central Pennsylvania I am celebrating my temporary bachelorhood in the most authentic and American way I know how.  I’m people-watching.  Down and to my right, in the first row, is a young dad with a baby not more than a month-old.  He has two other elementary school-aged kids in tow also but they are mostly absent and running around on the mezzanine.  The infant is impossibly tiny and fragile and I’m horrified that this dude has intentionally put her in harms way.  It’s all I can think about.  When the first pitch of the game is fouled off and bounces three feet to my left and my worst fears are nearly realized I’m overcome with anxiety.  I want to grab the baby and make a run for it.  But the dad is unfazed.  He’s calmly feeding the infant a bottle and checking his cell phone at the same time.  In flip-flops.  No mom in sight – probably her night off with her girlfriends.  I’m glad she’s not here to worry with me.  I suddenly envy this guy his nonchalance.

To my right are a group of retired gentlemen in cargo shorts and button-down short-sleeved shirts.  They are having a supper of beer and brats and one of them is carefully scoring the contest in his program with a fountain pen.  My dad used to do that.  I estimate these guys might have seen around five thousand baseball games between the four of them over the last sixty something years.  They are relaxed and happy, enjoying the game and each other.  Their spouses are here too and also sitting together but apart from the men.  I think of mosque  worship.  The women are chirpy and laughing and completely disinterested in the game.  Or at least I think so until one of them aggressively berates the home plate umpire for his stingy strike zone.  Go figure.

In the outfield bleachers a whole section is taken up by a boisterous group of black children of middle-school age.  They are all in matching blue shirts and they are having a time.  I guess some kind of camp outing.  They try to engage the left fielders on both teams without success until the visiting player finally tosses them a retrieved a foul ball.  They go nuts and it’s the most beautiful moment of the night.  I get a lump in my throat.  Later, around mid game and probably under day-camp curfew, this joyful mob files out of the park and I am very sorry to see them go.  I listen to them laughing and singing all the way to the parking lot and after that the stadium is very subdued.

I decide to stretch my legs and so I wander around the food court a bit and check out the field view from a couple of different vantage points.  This is a beautiful ballpark.  On a pretty little island in the middle of the Susquehanna river.  I get a hot dog.  And then another one.  The sun is setting and the vibe changes to night-game.

By the time I return to my seat, the infant is asleep in her father’s arms, oblivious to her peril and the visiting pitcher is on the ropes.  It’s not the lanky-22-year-old-righthander-from-Tennessee’s night. He’s given up two runs in each of the first two innings and now, with two outs and the bases loaded in the bottom of the fourth he runs the count full on the Harrisburg shortstop.  His next pitch is a knee-high fastball which the Senators infielder turns on and instantly deposits into the right field pavilion for a grand slam.  Ouch.

The pitcher’s shoulders slump.  He pounds his mitt and tugs at the bill of his cap and scuffs the dirt on the mound with his left cleat during the home-run trot.  He gets the next batter out but the damage is done.  He gives up another run in the fifth before he’s yanked.  I watch him try to keep his disappointment under control during the long, lonely walk back to the dugout but his agony is palpable.  Nine runs – eight earned – on ten hits with a walk and three strikeouts in four-and-a third innings.  Not the kind of day at the office you want if promotion is on your agenda.  The lazy, happy summer baseball crowd vibe is a weird contrast to this kid’s painful night on the mound.  He needs a hug but I doubt he’s going to get one.

Summoning my best imitation of an adult, I decide to head home after the sixth inning.  It’s dark now, the Senators have a comfortable 9-5 lead, the camp kids have gone and left the park quiet and I have to work in the morning.  It’s a ten minute walk back across the Walnut Street footbridge to collect my car, stowed in the St. Stephen’s Cathedral parking lot.  I stop once and give ten bucks to a pilgrim holding a “homeless vet” sign.  He thanks me and promises to buy himself a hot meal.  I’m touched that he feels the need to validate my gift and that he probably lied to make me feel better about it.  I hope things get better for him or at least that he has a dry place to sleep.  I think about the young pitcher from Tennessee and hope he has a Plan B working.  And I remember to acknowledge just how very lucky I am not to have to worry about my next meal or what the hell happened to my fastball.

I listen to the rest of the game in the car on the way home.  The visiting Bowie (MD) Baysox stage a remarkable late-game comeback but fall to the Senators 13-10 in spite of it.  I experience brief regret that I didn’t stick around to see the finish but I’m happier to be home safe and on schedule for a rational bedtime.  Tuesday is in the books, I survive it unsupervised, without doing anything noticeably dangerous or stupid and I’m inordinately proud of myself.   One day at a time.

Persistence

image1Early morning in early Spring.  I am struck by the perfection of my placement under layers of blankets.  I reach over with my left hand and the other half of the bed is smooth and cool.  A perfect metaphor for its departed occupant who, I surmise, is up-and-at-’em already.  Probably out for a walk or curled up downstairs in the big leather chair by the fireplace writing something I’ll shake my head in wonder at later.  Mainly, though, Audrey’s absence means the coffee has percolated and the cat’s had her breakfast.  And, sure enough, the fed cat appears, launches herself onto the bed and, ignoring the empty acreage, sets up shop on my shoulder, purring ostentatiously.  I pretend she was never born but a ten pound tuna-breathing chainsaw is hard to ignore.  I’ve got to get up.

Many decades ago and for a brief period I regularly performed a credible imitation of an athlete.  Where that actor went I couldn’t tell you but I miss him now.  I shift the cat and with painful deliberation coordinate the muscles required to effect a launch.  I actually have to hook a foot on the edge of the mattress to create enough leverage to heave my torso vertical.  I think of the “better half” who earlier slipped so effortlessly from the covers that I didn’t even notice.  I contrast her graceful escape with the preposterous flailings of her rhinoceros husband who, in terms of displacement anyway, is more like two-thirds of the marriage.   But I’m up.  And suddenly angry at my decrepitude.  I bear weight.  Both knees pop.  I scratch my ear and hear clearly the ruined sinews of my left shoulder grinding.  The cat slips under the covers and on to the warm spot I have surrendered.  Like a hermit crab.  Our little pas de deux and her one job – getting Glenn up – completed, she settles in for an all day nap.  I hate her.

The stairs are a chore.  My knees scream on each one.  I get to the bottom and only then discover that I’ve left my glasses and my iPad on my desk upstairs.  I wince back up and down again only slightly limbered by the exercise.  Audrey is gone.  To work  I now realize on Saturday at a job exponentially harder than mine.  Our coffee, brewed in the pre-dawn, is now cold.  I microwave a cup and settle on the futon to skim through Facebook and the local news.  A shooting in Harrisburg.  A Turnpike fatality.  A local college in shocked mourning at the sudden death of a Sophomore.  Three separate and heartbreaking awfuls.  I purposely ignore the day’s fresh presidential election obscenities and skip straight to the hockey scores.  No Canadian teams in the NHL playoffs for the first time in 46 years.  I pout, involuntarily.

Today it takes three cups of bad coffee to get me moving.  I trade pajamas for sweats and wander out back to our wooded lot for a look around.  A Cooper’s hawk has spent the last several weeks constructing an elaborate nest about fifty feet up a gnarly walnut tree.  Now his full time job is convincing a female to join him in it.  The other day I waddled out to check on his progress and inadvertently chased away his date who flapped off in a startled hurry.  The male glared at me, fuming mad.  I felt terrible.  Today he’s alone in a pine tree and gives me a sharp bark and the stinkeye.  He loathes me.  I take his picture and slink back into the house.

I have some business emails to sift through and some significant work to do on an unfinished project I’ve been promising my boss for a month.  So I decide to go to the gym.  Planet Fitness.  Ten bucks a month.  It’s crowded, as usual, with no-nonsense Pennsylvanians who are working out like it’s their job.  No chitchat.  No bullshit.  Just exercise.  I grab a mat and a corner of floor space and labor through my routine of age-appropriate calisthenics:  situps, pushups, chinups.  Repeated until I see spots and nausea sets in.  A tiny girl next to me is doing some improbable yoga, contorting in amazing shapes.  She has on headphones and I imagine she is listening to a Haydn symphony.  Joyful and brave.  I want to tell her to enjoy her body while she can.  Before she has to hook her foot on the mattress to get out of bed.  I think of the murdered boy in Harrisburg, the teenager crushed when her car flipped over on the Turnpike and the college student whose sudden and unexplained death bewildered her friends.  I want to tell this girl to be careful out there.  And to wear her seatbelt.

Next is a half hour on the eliptical.  It’s knee-friendly and a good alternative to running which is on the lengthening list of things I can’t do anymore.  There is a sturdy, handsome woman about my age on the machine next to mine.  She’s worked up a good sweat.  Her face is set, determined, focused.  She too is listening to music.  Tom Petty I hope.  And not Beyonce or something.  I wonder if she knows about the dead children on the news.  She could be the mother of one.  I think about the parents of those kids.  If they still get up, make coffee, read the paper, go to the gym.  The unbearable agony of persisting.  It scares me.

I finish my workout.  At home I wander back into the woods and there are the hawks –   two of them.   Arrangements have been made, apparently.  They fly off when I arrive but not very far.  They perch at the edge of our woods, about fifty yards apart.  The male barks at me.  He tells me they’re not going anywhere.  I close my eyes and talk to them telepathically.  I tell them I’m not going anywhere either.  And that the last time I checked my name was on the deed and my signature on the monthly mortgage checks.  They’ll need to get used to me.  I tell them how cool I think they are.  The conversation makes me feel better.  Like I’ve made some progress with them.

Back in the house I find the cat still asleep on my side of the bed.  I scratch her head and she yawns.  I ask her, if it’s not too much trouble, could she catch me a mouse later.  I want to make a housewarming gift to my hawk couple.  She rolls her eyes and goes back to sleep.

Merry Christmas

We are pointed in the general direction of the 7am American Airlines commuter out of Harrisburg, headed to Chicago this very early morning where, if all goes according to plan, we should connect to San Francisco and a week-long visit with our daughters up in wine country. This is the first Christmas in my memory not spent at home (or at Audrey’s mother’s in Maine) and it feels strange and wrong to be standing in a security line waiting to get probed. We’re working on less than four hours of sleep having collapsed around midnight after three Christmas Eve services at St. Stephen’s Cathedral. I am travel-anxious, grumpy, disoriented and, at this point, impossible to please. I expect the gate agents all to be wearing Santa hats and exuding special holiday cheer as if preparing for a pageant but they are simply sleepy and businesslike. Likewise the security folks are their usual dour, no-nonsense selves repeating their useless blue-gloved pantomime of protecting us from evildoers. They look alternately bored, aggressive and deeply sad. I should feel sorry for them but I don’t because they are about to judge me and confiscate my toothpaste and I am actually getting angry standing in my socks with my belt in my hand like a prisoner about to trade in his street-clothes for stripes. But then Audrey and I are each handed a laminated card for “expedited” boarding and are whisked through the metal detector on a gust of white privilege leaving other darker, shoeless travelers to the vagaries of the x-ray machine. I’m now annoyed that, in my paunchy middle age, I’ve been deemed un-dangerous and I squelch an alarming instinct to start a fistfight just to prove them wrong. But, of course, they are dead right. And just doing their jobs. I remind myself for the umpteenth time that I should strive to be much more compassionate and a nicer guy generally and that I am married to the Episcopal Bishop of Central Pennsylvania and if anybody knew how reliably and relentlessly pessimistic I really am just how much harder that would make her job. It doesn’t help. I need a distraction and I need to calm the hell down and suddenly, out of nowhere, this Christmas morning I am diverted by the oddest thought. What would it be like if Jesus worked for Homeland Security?

If Jesus were a TSA agent, he’d confiscate that 1911 Colt .45 automatic you forgot was hiding in the side pocket of your carry-on bag and he’d give you a sour look. But he’d let you keep your grandfather’s pocket knife and your nail clippers. He’d pretend not to notice the joint you forgot was at the bottom of your purse and which you will be delighted to find on excruciating day three of your visit to in-laws. He’d know you swapped out the contents of your miniature shampoo bottle for bourbon because the thought of spending nine bucks on a drink in the airport makes you homicidal and he’d simply whisper a warning not to mix it with the Valium you’ve been hoarding for this trip. He’d know you were going to visit your sick mother – maybe for the last time – and he’d give you a little card which would tell you exactly what to say to her. He’d unblock your two-year-old’s sinuses so the cabin pressure wouldn’t make her cry and he’d change your perfume so that it would remind your next random seat-mate of his favorite elementary school teacher fifty-seven years ago. Jesus would tell you to be patient with the crabby flight attendant in coach because her shoes irritate her corns, tell you to pass on the airplane food, slip you a meal voucher and command you to order the house special pizza at Wolfgang Puck’s in the O’Hare terminal because it is surprisingly good and you deserve it. Most of all he’d tell you to relax, try to enjoy the journey and to forgive all, not just some of the trespasses. And he’d smile and look you right in the eye and wish you Happy Holidays because, as he’d be the first to admit, it’s not all about him.

I feel better already. Merry Christmas.

Thank You

Audrey and I were recently privileged to attend the wedding of our next door neighbors, Criste and Tyler. Audrey officiated which meant I got to crash as her plus-one. Perks for clergy spouses are few but this was a treat: lovely couple, perfect weather, perfect setting in the alpine glory of Northern New Hampshire, lovely families, amazing friends, tearful toasts. It was pretty amazing.

And here’s the best part. We got thank you notes for showing up. I know, right? And these weren’t just any thank you notes. These were thank you notes that make you want to send a thank you note for the thank you note. If you know what I mean.

And that got me thinking. Audrey generally writes the thank you notes for the two of us. She is a very thoughtful and gracious person, has nice left-handed penmanship and owns stationery. So…her job.

I am not known for my grace or my penmanship but I am keenly aware of the very many things for which I should be thankful. And right now, on the eve of our pack-up-and-move to Pennsylvania, I am thankful for our time here. In Connecticut. So here goes.

Thank you, Connecticut:

Thank you for graduating me from your schools (in spite of myself). Thank you for my college roommates, who taught me Family 101 from memory. Thank you for introducing me to the love of my life. Thank you for employing us all. Thank you for your Hockey (and for letting me try on Gordie Howe’s skates once-upon-a-time). Thank you for helping us raise three beautiful children. Thank you for letting us jump off Town Bridge and into the amazing Farmington river. Thank you for patient local police, who rarely arrested us. Thank you for the Atheneum, the Hartford Symphony, the New Britain Museum of American Art, Voce, and Joyful Noise. Thank you for inviting us to hike your Blue Trails, for The Mark Twain House, the Beecher family, Heublein Tower and Sessions Woods. Thank you for amazing neighbors who never once complained about our property devaluation schemes: when we parked our old truck on our front lawn, when our loud parties spilled outside, when we built huge fires, when we owned a duck. Etc. Thank you to The Episcopal Church here which unflinchingly welcomed and nurtured us in faithful community (and to all the church music directors who let me crash their choirs). Thank you for your bald eagles, brown trout, red-tailed hawks, coyotes, bobcats, hummingbirds, foxes, black bears, otters, heron, owls, snapping turtles, chickadees, woodpeckers, river rats, whales, sharks, stripers and bluefish. Thank you for my Subaru. Thank you for our craftsman bungalow. Thank you for our amazing mechanic. And carpenter. And plumber. And dentist. And cat sitter. And nephews and nieces. And brothers and sisters (in law). And tattoo artists.

In no particular order.

Thank you, Connecticut. Thank you very, very much. For everything.

Pennsylvania? Here we come.

Sent from my iPad

Ball and Socket

“Write what you know.” That’s not just sound advice, it’s a warning. Honoring that old adage should disqualify me from tackling anything more presumptuous than a grocery list. It should. But it doesn’t. Because… go big or go home. So here’s a little story about death and grief.

My mother died this past February 1st, exactly two weeks shy of her 99th birthday. My brother called that evening to let me know that her caregivers thought our mom had probably had a stroke (or a couple) and that she had maybe a day left, or two at the most. I decided to drive up to Boston the next morning and then spent a restless night second guessing myself about not having gone right away. When I finally surrendered to insomnia sometime before dawn, I wandered downstairs to make coffee and check my messages. There was a text from my brother, sent just before midnight. Two words: “It’s over”.

After my father died twelve years ago, my mother lived for awhile with our family in Connecticut, then later with my brother in Belmont, MA and then, finally, in institutional care near him. My brother became our mom’s primary custodian and he was devoted to her. He visited her most days, regularly springing her for afternoon drives, ice cream and wheel chair rides to hilltop sunsets. He took her to concerts, to the theater and brought her back to his house for parties and gatherings. He supplied her with endless recordings of the classical music she adored and otherwise made sure she wanted for nothing. He set her up in a series of first class custodial arrangements of increasing intensity as she became less and less independent and arranged for her transfer to an inpatient Alzheimer’s unit when she could no longer safely be cared for in a traditional geriatric setting. In the last month or so, as she lost strength and started making it abundantly clear that she was “ready to go”, he arranged for her transition to hospice care in which comfort she spent the last few of her thirty six thousand one hundred forty seven days. And my brother was by her side at the end. A gymnast might say that my mother stuck the landing at the end of an amazing routine. We should all be so fortunate.

After my brother contacted me and both of our out-of-area sisters to let us know our mom had died, he made all the necessary arrangements (attending physician, funeral home, coroner, etc.). The ambulance corps snuck her body out in the very early morning so as not to freak out the surviving residents at the group home and her furniture was removed later piece by piece with similar discretion. That’s the kind of attention to detail you don’t think about unless you’re in the business of caring for the very old. And my brother was all over all of it. By the time I got up there the next day, all the heavy lifting (literal and figurative) was done. All that was left for anyone to do was let it sink in.

Once I knew my mother was dead, I honestly didn’t have much appetite for confirming that fact by viewing her body. My son felt the same way and articulated it thus: “When I saw her at Christmas, she was smiling and holding my hand. And that’s how I’d like to leave it”. Amen. Some people need more closure than that but, like my son, I’m not one of them. It’s not that I get queasy about death (at all) but my experience with corpses is that they are like empty boxes the day after Christmas. Not the gift, if you know what I mean. And…recycle comes to mind. But of course I drove up to Boston anyway because it seemed like the right thing to do and I really just wanted to be with my brother for awhile. My youngest daughter insisted on begging off her Super Bowl bartending gig to join me. I immediately assumed she was one of those people who needed to put some witness punctuation on The End so I didn’t fight her on her decision to tag along. But when we got to the funeral home she took a seat some deliberate distance from the body, made pleasant conversation with my brother and his wife and didn’t really even look at her grandmother. And then it hit me. She didn’t need the closure either. She’d just instinctively made the trip to be with me. When I called her on that she said, simply, “Yeah, I’ve got your back”. Hmm.

The funeral director had unlocked his place just so the four of us could spend some time with the vessel that was my mom before it got shipped off for cremation. I thought that was pretty decent, especially on a rainy Sunday when his shop almost certainly otherwise would have been closed and he’d probably have been at home pre-gaming the Seahawks – Broncos tilt. My mother’s body was laid out simply on a plywood platform supported by a collapsable stainless steel table on rollers. She was covered from neck to toe with a simple cotton blanket and looked to be sound asleep. Except that her left eye kept drifting open, just enough to add to the illusion that she was stirring or dreaming (my brother carefully shut it each time). And I don’t know if it was the lighting or what but if you turned your head at just the right angle it looked for all the world like she was breathing. Totally weird. It was unnerving enough that I finally put the back of my hand on her forehead to make sure that she wasn’t more than room temperature. But she was cold. And gone. For sure.

One other thing I now know for sure is that you can’t not inform people when your parent dies. If you don’t tell, folks wonder why you left them off the distribution of that chapter in your life and they feel neglected and hurt. But if you do tell, it almost always provokes in the tellee a physical grief reaction which is either a flashback to some other heartbreaking personal loss or a fast-forward to an impending one. And so I cringed at the burden I’d impose by sharing the news. Because, at least in the case of my parents, the people I’ve informed were usually made to feel significantly worse than I did. My mom and dad were in their mid forties when they had me and they both lived long (ridiculously long in my mother’s case), full, rewarding and fascinating lives. A majority portion of those lives was archived history before I was even born. Profound grieving over either of their deaths just didn’t happen for me. At least not in the traditional sense of a stabbing loss or regret or betrayal. Because, in both cases, my parents’ deaths seemed timely and the aftermath, therefore, very normal. But tell somebody “My mom died” and it’s as if you’d announced the family dog had been run over in the driveway. For some reason it comes off as the most shocking thing you can say out loud. Right up there with “I have cancer” or “The Yankees just signed Ellsbury”. Terrible.

Anyway, when it was time to leave I took one last look at my mother’s body and then headed for the door. Just as I left the room I had a sudden and sharp moment of clarity that, with both parents dead and none of their siblings surviving, my brother and sisters and I had finally severed ties with a whole generation. And with that realization came a stab of panic, like I’d had my mooring rope sliced and was drifting helplessly away from the float. That’s the only time I got a little weepy. And in that vulnerable moment I did something completely unplanned. I turned to the funeral director and mentioned to him that my mother had an artificial hip. And asked him if he could salvage it for me from the crematorium.

I don’t know much about the funeral home business except that A) it’s a growth industry and B) it takes a special breed to do it right. My guess is that part B includes keeping a straight face and an even keel in the face of the myriad manifestations of grief and loss. Whatever, this sturdy pro did not flinch. He told me he wasn’t sure about the crematorium’s policy on requests like mine but that he would follow-up and let me know. Long story short, I got my mom’s hip. A little sooty after baking @ 1800 Fahrenheit for a couple of hours but otherwise completely intact.

Some of you will, by now, have concluded that I am insane. That is completely understandable. But here’s the thing. My mother, a true child of the depression, was an instinctive collector and saver. Dozens of used margarine cups and their lids carefully nested in a forgotten drawer. Heaped scraps of interesting fabric. Jars of buttons, sorted by size. Miscellaneous shiny objects. Rivets from the Eiffel Tower. Ancient mortar purloined from the Great Wall of China. From the ridiculous to the sublime. Collections on collections. Each special to her for some now forgotten reason.

Here’s another thing. My mother was the least squeamish person I have ever known. Possibly the least squeamish person with a fully developed conscience who ever lived. Trained as nurse, she was coldly clinical about animal biology and pretty unflappable in the face of gore. She took out more of my stitches than doctors did. She kept her own removed gallstones in a jar of formaldehyde. She brought adorable laboratory animals to visit at my nursery school before euthanizing them, by hand, back at the office. Ask anyone in my family about the surgical steel pin-through-her-phalanges hammertoe repair which she boldly displayed to all on Christmas Day one year (that still makes me squirm). Unbelieveable.

Of our species, my mother was a compelling specimen. She was quirky. She was interesting. She was fearless. Why I loved her so much. And in that one clear, sad moment I suddenly wanted to hang on to her. So, her hip: Closure curio? Titanium talisman? The ultimate consolation prize? Insert joke here. It’s on the mantle over our fireplace now. An odd, cool and memorable item. Just like its previous owner.

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Some Thoughts, #4c

Topic #4 – The Car (finale)

Several years ago, because I guess working seven days a week, getting a doctorate and running marathons weren’t burning up enough of her life, my wife decided to take up the violoncello. Because it’s all about balance and moderation. Benedictine wannabes are pretty hard to keep up with, in my limited experience. I’ve heard it argued that the cello is among the most difficult things to master. Maybe like attaining fluency in Mandarin. Which I suppose is next for Audrey based on her trajectory evidence.

A couple of weeks ago, m’lady broke the bridge on her instrument. And because her old man doesn’t have anything better to do most days, he volunteered to deliver it up to Northampton for repairs at the workshop where it was born. Which womb is the home of Francis Morris, one of the loveliest guys you’ll ever have the pleasure to meet. A talented violin maker (and restorer) and truly balanced human, he deserves his own post, a task I hereby bequeath to my wife since she knows Mr. Morris better than I, is as big a fan and is doubtless looking for something to do. But for the record? Francis Morris is a New England treasure.

Anyway my fifty mile drive up and into Western Massachusetts found me intersecting the Appalachian Trail somewhere north of Sheffield which crossing I marked with some pangs of regret. Audrey and I have for many years shared and teased each other with a dream of hiking that icon. A twenty two hundred mile ribbon stretching from a launching pad at Stone Mountain, Georgia to the terminus at the smack dab middle of nowhere on the summit of Mt. Katahdin, Maine.

Audrey and I are probably not going to check a “through hike” of the AT off our bucket list. Mainly because we’d need to coordinate six consecutive months unencumbered by jobs to get it done (don’t look at me – I’ve been leading by example all year). But also because I doubt my knees would hold up for a job like that. So the AT is just another line in the endless rolling credits stream of it’s-not-gonna-happen. Sigh.

After I spotted the trail sign out the passenger side window, I found myself deconstructing the theme of lost time and missed mission and pretty soon after that started feeling seriously sorry for myself. But just when I was about to ruin my own day, I remembered something Audrey related to me about the AT; that several South-North through hikers actually quit at the base of Mt. Katahdin, just one last tiny day hike bite shy of finishing the whole enchilada. Which seems kinda crazy after five or six months of blisters and mosquitoes and black flies and sleeping on the ground and boiling your water and being hungry all the time.

At the last minute, in the epicenter of the Maine wilderness and against all logic, an otherwise rational through hiker wakes up on the last day and simply does not want the adventure to end. Abandoning the hike is the only act that makes sense to that pilgrim. The semi-permanent semi-colon punctuation on that amazing journey. A psychological gimmick that indefinitely postpones the emotional let down that inevitably follows an epic achievement like a six month forced march.

That’s one way to cope. Another is to finish the stupid hike and get on with the next in the adventure sequence. Doctorate, marathons, cello, Mandarin, etc. Or whatever.

I’ve taken a little bit of heat for never really properly finishing the car installment in this blog. And I may have explained why above, if you can sort your way through all the clumsy metaphorical digressions. I’ve also been thinking that I’ve been accused of lots of frailties in my life, but rarely of being a quitter. So here goes. About that car…

When Bill and I arrived at the Enterprise counter in Avon, CT on the morning of May 6th, we were escorted out back to select from the fleet of “Mid-Sized” sedans that fit our rental profile. Only to find that they only had a single vehicle in that category on the premises. So we shrugged our shoulders, pointed at it and said we’d take it.

First off, let me remind everybody that “Mid Sized” in rental car dialect translates to compact car. A key fact I unaccountably managed to de-select from my accessible life experience database even after having rented scores of cars over three decades of business travel. So my first thought was that this little caboose was gonna be pretty cozy with four occupants plus luggage (especially mine). I flirted briefly with an upgrade until Bill rescued us from a paperwork nightmare and said, simply, “Let’s Go”, invoking the exact language Dwight Eisenhower employed to launch the invasion of Europe. A born leader. Bill’s first of many saves on our trip.

Depending on which poll you Google, the 2013 Chevrolet Cruze is rated somewhere between fourth and eighth in it’s peer class of compact cars. And to be fair, there isn’t much separating the top ten. For perspective it competes in size and price with the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, Kia Forte, Ford Focus, VW Golf etc. My verdict? It passed. And it had a couple of things very much in its favor.

First was the engine, which in our LT version was a turbocharged 1.4 liter inline four cylinder with plenty of gallop and very decent fuel economy. I think we averaged close to 33 mpg on our trip which involved a spectrum of hauling from drag racing across South Dakota to climbing the rockies to meandering around San Francisco and included both two and four passenger loading. Coupled with a 15 gallon gas tank, the range was phenomenal which came in handy in the couple of circumstances where finding an open gas station was looking problematic.

The other thing I liked about this car was the trunk space which was amazing. When we met up with Emma and Nic in Las Vegas I was worried we’d never fit all our stuff and that we’d have to jettison our beloved cooler. But we managed to squeeze ourselves and all our baggage in somehow. And even though four people was a tight fit, the back seat experience wasn’t awful.

There were a couple of things we didn’t like so much. Bill had issues with the unpredictable six-speed automatic transmission which downshifted on him at odd occasions during static cruising. I did not encounter this problem when I was behind the wheel but I also didn’t drive with nearly as much maniacal purpose as Bill did so that may have had something to do with it.

Bill and I did share periodic episodes “stick syndrome” which neither of us completely tamed. That’s the phenomenon where somebody who normally drives a car with a manual transmission occasionally forgets and employs his left foot to plunge in a phantom clutch. Results ranged from terrifying to hilarious but I can’t really blame that on the car.

The other major drawback was near zero rear visibility. The tradeoff for the huge trunk capacity was a tiny rear window which forced reliance on mirrors for virtually all six o’clock intercepts. I’ve noticed this is a common issue with most modern cars and it is an evolutionary step backwards, if you ask me.

The other modern blight our car suffered was chronic over-engineering. Call me old fashioned, but if you give me power windows, air conditioning, a decent stereo and a rear defroster? My cup already runneth over. The Chevy Cruze owner’s manual is three hundred and ninety six pages long. Not kidding. Thirty three of those were devoted to the “Infotainment System” which I assume means radio. Even with written instructions we never figured out exactly how it worked. So we listened to stations at random mostly.

And the dashboard was truly a marvel of confusion. There were just too many buttons, signal lights and controls, many of which were replicated in miniature on the steering wheel so the driver could access them all without reaching too far. I assume this was to improve concentration on the task at hand. But if that task is trying to change the radio station, driving the car immediately becomes a distant second priority. Very few of these controls were intuitive and some were stupid. The radio was a frustration. We never figured out how to open the trunk without the key. The cabin temperature control was in constant contact with the driver’s right knee and was therefore in peril of random adjustment all the time. And so on.

And then there were the nanny issues. When the internal clock tripped that it was time to change the oil, that’s all we heard about from the dash monitor. Like some kind of water torture. When finally we did change the oil (an astonishing act of Christian charity for a rental, btw), the guy at Jiffy Lube supposedly reset the alarm. But thereafter the car periodically feigned an oil pressure emergency which required a restart each time. Like a soccer player crumpling in a heap without being touched. We got used to that pretty fast and it didn’t slow us down much after the first couple of diva tantrums.

The one gimmick we both grew to love was the thumb activated cruise control on the steering
wheel which allowed for a change of speeds. We had fun playing with that and seeing how long we could drive without touching the pedals. Stupid and dangerous but amusing.

On balance? The car was fine. It was comfortable, quick, efficient and reliable. I suppose if I owned one I’d eventually master all the controls and avail myself of all the stuff we ignored (navigation, internet radio, bluetooth, waffle maker, etc.). It wasn’t perfect, but the little Chevy Cruze never gave us a bit of real trouble other than taking an oil pressure injury dive every once in a while. But it never quit on us. And here I can say, finally, that I didn’t quit on it either.

A note on this blog: I have decided to keep this…whatever it is going with periodic installments if it makes sense to share something interesting. Or stupid. And even though I can’t use the excuse of our road trip for content anymore, I’ve decided to keep the xcroadtrip masthead since that’s easier than recruiting readers to another site.

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