Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Gift

Monday started early.
She was awakened by a hungry cat, who figured 5 a.m. was a good time for the first meal of the day, while I was, soon after, disturbed by an overwhelming essence of cat-food breath when the same striped beast felt a nose-to-nose post-breakfast nap on my chest was in order.
"Since we're up so early, why don't we do something?" I said. "Like maybe head for Chicago and go to the Art Institute."
Acting quickly, I snapped off the back of my cell phone, fiddled with the wiring and converted the simple communications devise into a powerful portable defibrillator to restart her heart.
Well, not exactly, but she really was pretty startled by my suggestion.
"Who are you and what have you done to my husband?" she said in amused amazement.
It's not that I don't like to go places and do things, but my usual day-trip ideas are generally somewhat less sophisticated than what I was proposing. Usually, I'm more apt to suggest something like a look at the world's largest statue of a jackrabbit.
Or a pie-eating contest.
Or both.
But before you start thinking that a visit by the two of us to the big-time world of art would somehow resemble an episode of the Beverly Hillbillies where Jed and Miss Hathaway visit the Louvre, let me just say this:
I belong.
Now, I realize that for those of you who know me, discovering that I'm an actual member of the Art Institute of Chicago might be kind of like finding out that Bozo the Clown just joined your Mensa group. Even my pals at the Galva Arts Council tend to bypass me when the topic turns from folk music and coffeehouse snacks to the visual arts.
But really.
It's true.
I am, indeed, a card-carrying member of one of the best-respected art museums in the world.
Before you start wondering if pigs are about to take to the air or if the temperatures in hell are dipping below 32 degrees, let me explain.
It all started one Christmas morning, when my late mother-in-law gave me an unexpected gift. Other than our shared interest in her daughter and her grandsons, we didn't have a lot in common. She was a highly educated Phi Beta Kappa, with advanced degrees in foreign language, and keen interests in politics, classical music and fine art. I, on the other hand, made the Galva High School honor role a total of one time, spoke only Pig Latin, never knew who I should vote for, and listed John Lennon as my favorite composer and Charles Shulz as tops among American artists.
So, I was surprised that she gave me a membership to the museum.
"What's up with this?" I wondered. "Is she trying to smarten me up?"
But while that might have been a good idea on her part, that wasn't it.
I was, at the time, making almost weekly trips to Northwestern Memorial Hospital on the north side of Chicago, where the good doctors in the oncology department were trying to figure out a baffling set of symptoms and conditions related to the ongoing cancer I was battling. I didn't feel good enough to make the drive every week, and I was going far too often for it to be possible for my wife or sons to take me, so I got into the habit of riding the train to Chicago, then hopping a bus to the hospital. It all worked out pretty well, except I didn't have a place where I could hang out, rest and wait before and after appointments.
So that's what she gave me.
For awhile, I didn't go far beyond the cafeteria and members' lounge, but eventually, I began to wander the halls and galleries that contain some of the most revered art in the world. And while any schmuck (like me) knows names like Picasso and Van Gogh, I soon added others to my list of "gota-see" faves. The place is, indeed, timeless, not only because of the years and years worth of astonishing work displayed, but also because it is so far away from the fast-paced world just outside its doors.
Barb passed away several years ago, but I've continued to renew my membership. Partly because it gives us a reason to go once in awhile, and partly just as a way to remember her.
Because, here's the thing: when you're dealing with cancer or any serious disease or condition, a lot of people say, "Let me know what I can do."
But in most cases, there isn't much, other than encouragement, prayers and the occasional favor or errand.
But she thought of something.
She gave me a place to rest. A place to think about something other than my own sorry situation. And a place to wonder and look and learn and enjoy a little bit of life that was far, far away from doctors and hospitals and tests and the not-so-succesful surgeries and scary prognoses that were darkening my days at the time.
So, here we were, taking a break in the museum lounge on Monday afternoon. We had just finished traipsing through the new modern wing and were anticipating a quick visit to a new exhibit and some old favorites before we headed for home.
I thought about all the things we'd seen and the great day it had been.
And I thought, as I always do when I'm there, of my mother-in-law and the priceless gift she gave me.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Thing about Spring

I got a cell phone picture from my North Carolina daughter-in-law Tuesday morning that gave me pause. It showed grandsons John and Cyrus sitting bare-chested, bathed in summer-like sunshine, enjoying an outdoor lunch at their backyard picnic table.
"80 degrees," read the caption.
"What am I doing here?" I grumbled.
Why, indeed, did we leave North Carolina just as a warm, lush, wonderful spring was truly springing once and for all? Why would we give up what just might be some of the finest beachcombing weather of the year, just to return home for the hit-and-miss season that is March in Illinois?
Well, because we're crazy, I guess.
Because we like it.
We like the first glimpses of new life and springtime hope, as tiny shoots of pale-bright green work their way through a winter's worth of blown-down leaves and dried-up grasses.
We like the change in light, in color, and in temperature, as the first balmy breezes of a new season battle against the last cold blasts of stubborn wintertime.
We view the oh-so-subtle changes in the rolling fields around us.
We ooh and aah as buds and blooms begin to sprout; as the tulips begin to awake from a long winter's sleep and bluebells, violets and scilla dot yards and garden plots with the season's first bits of dainty color.
We listen and ask questions of our farmer friends as they prepare for another year spent feeding the world.
We watch the children in the park next door as they shout and run and play and play some more in a warm new world of fun and sunshine.
We even like the work we do, as we rake and pile and haul and burn last year's leftovers, making way for the bright new days to come.
"This is like my first spring," she said, and I knew what she meant, for it is the first year we can remember that we've both had a chance to really enjoy time together spent chipping away at outdoor chores on a weekday morning, instead of frantically turning our backyard into a forced labor camp on every available weekend afternoon.
There are no guarantees, we know, as an early spring can disappear quickly when winter decides it's not quite done with us.
But we know, in the end, it's gotta come.
Gotta come soon.
A Period of Adjustment.
Early spring weather wasn't the only change waiting for us as we made our way home.
After a couple of months of idyllic beach-bumming, we were, almost immediately, plunged back into the veritable vortex of work, fun, commitments and all-out craziness that is often our life in Galva.
She, of course, hit the ground running, and hardly missed a beat.
But I confess that I've struggled a bit with the new-to-me notion that folks might rightfully expect me to keep up with commitments, make it to appointments and even (gulp) work a bit. I had, in fact, a bright-and-early eight o'clock errand this past Monday morning that I blew by waking up fifteen minutes before I was to make my grand entrance.
She: Did you forget to set your alarm clock?
Me: What's an alarm clock?
But slowly, ever so slowly, I'm catching on again.
A rhythm, of sorts, is re-establishing itself as we greet friends and do the things we've always done in our home town.
Instead of story hour at the library with grandson John, grandkid sleepovers and aimless strolls up and down the beach, it's been time spent with coaches and kids, long drives through the changing countryside and determined walks around Wiley Park and the Johnson-Sauk Trail. I have even begun to re-assert my alpha-male status in the clan of the evil cat Max, and Salty the self-tamed squirrel has rediscovered me, hitting me up for the first crackers of spring just this morning.
But before you know it, we'll start the cycle all over again, as we head south to the "other life" we've chosen to pursue in this back-and-forth year.
And as we face that eventuality, we often think how nice it could be if we could combine both of those lives, all of the time.
But we can't.
So we'll do the best we can.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

A few stops along the way

It's nice to be back here in Illinois again after months in the Carolinas and days on the road. True to our best instincts, we, of course, took the long way, heading from North Carolina to illinois via Florida in a roundabout journey that saw spring warm to near-summer before shifting back to something colder and whiter as we moved closer to home.
I suppose we might have put off our return a little longer, as spring has really just arrived in the southeast. We hope, however, that we will manage to drag some sunny days this way, just as winter followed us when we moved down last January.
But while the weather attracted my attention, dictated my mood and affected my wardrobe as we went down the coast and back up through the heartland, there were other stops and sites along the way worth remembering.
As usual, we didn't have a real plan or timetable.
Nor did we include any interstate highways in our route.
So, like always, we found a few off-the-beaten-track places that I'm glad we saw.
Like Pawleys Island, a tiny South Carolina barrier island that has been a laid-back vacation and resort community since the 1700s (yes, 1700s!), when nearby plantation owners and farmers moved their families away from the mosquitoes and malaria that infested their riverside rice plantations and onto the breezy coastal isle. The historic district is still there, complete with narrow, sandy streets and authentic antebellum beach bungalows that even include, in a couple of cases, slave quarters.
We discovered another middle-of-nowhere treasure in the South Carolina countryside called the Hampton Plantation, a colonial settlement that is tucked away deep in the woods, displaying a well-preserved Georgian mansion that was a both a hiding place for Francis Marion, "the Swamp Fox," and hosted General George Washington during the American Revolution.
We traveled through and over the marshes, rivers and rice fields of the South Carolina low country, then spent an evening and a morning in beautiful
Charleston, where only Ash Wednesday and the beginning of lent prevented us from eating our way through the South in a self-indulgent campaign more dramatic than Sherman's march to the sea.
Then Florida.
Forsythia and azaleas bloomed and burst forth with the resonating blaze of springtime in the deep south, as we visited family and walked the banks of the St. John's River.
We could have stayed forever in that splendid springtime.
But it was time.
Time to go home.
A lazy drive through Georgia found us near the Tennessee border Sunday night, and a longer, harder day on the road got us close to Illinois by late Monday afternoon. All the while, radio reports on the tragic, dangerous events in Japan haunted our thoughts and kept us thinking and praying. It was getting colder now, both out of doors and in our hearts, as well, as the news continued to get worst and worst.
We crossed a flooded Ohio River into our home state and started the last, long stretch.
"That's snow out there," she exclaimed as we spied some suspicious-looking stuff on the grass near the banks of the flooded Kaskaskia River as we drove through southeast Illinois.
Late that night, we finally got there.
The cat was waiting, impatiently, as if we had just stepped out and were finally coming home for dinnertime.
His, that is.
"We're home, Max. Did you miss us?"
He didn't say, though I think he did.
But it was good, anyway.
Good to be home.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Bug

In last week's column, I promised you tales of our latest travels, as we had intended to take off on our Galva-by-way-of-Florida homecoming journey bright and early Monday morning. But a whole series of events got in the way of our planned departure, resulting in a Tuesday column-writing session in Carolina instead of somewhere on the road.
It all started on Friday, the day we probably would have spent cleaning house, doing laundry and starting to pack the car in anticipation of a Monday departure. Instead, five-year-old grandson Cyrus, who attends St. Anne's Day School, wanted us, along with his mom and brother, John, to go with him on a field trip to see a fellow named Charles Pettee, who was presenting a community wide pre-K music concert called "Catch the Bluegrass Bug."
Now, that in itself would seem like my kind of thing, as I've performed in front of young crowds myself from time to time and certainly share the "bug" when it comes to bluegrass and other folk music. I expected maybe a few dozen carefully chaperoned kids sitting on a gym floor in front of an earnest, engaging banjo picker, so was surprised when we walked into a packed auditorium containing no less than 500 crazed urchins, with only about three adults who were actually paying attention to them and what they were doing. From past experience, I can tell you that the average pre-K student has both the attention span and energy level of a sand flea, so I wondered if old Chuck would be up to the task.
Not so much.
Instead of immediately involving the little ones in a happy sing-along or some such interactive activity, he proceeded to sit and sing. Now, he wasn't a bad picker, or singer, either, but nothing he could do matched the bubbling intensity of the little-kid frenzy that faced him.
Or rather, didn't face him, as most of the 500 kids (except poor Cyrus and John, who were stuck with us and had to stay in their seats) ran wild through the hall in a veritable mosh pit of pushing, shoving, laughing, crying, dancing, hopping, screaming and other activities near and dear to the heart of the average two, three and four-year-old.
We all have our roles in life. Mine, as far as kids and grandkids are concerned, has sometimes been as the tough guy who demands certain behaviors in certain situations and isn't above making those demands known. In fact, grandson John calls me "grumpa" in an unintentional, but spot-on portrayal of the difficult old man I sometimes am.
I wasn't going to let the wild crowd of kids get to me, though, feeling that as long as our kids were well behaved, all was good. It was a little more difficult for my partner in crime, who recently retired from a long career that included large groups of unruly children seeking firm direction.
I could hear the enamel flaking off her gritting teeth as a three-year-old bully clotheslined a running younger buddy and dragged him back into the fray by the hood of his sweatshirt.
She: Did you see that?
Me: Easy, killer.
Her hands clenched as child after child ran up and down the aisle, playing a never-ending game of "let's see how soon somebody can get hurt" in full view of their parents and teachers.
She: Grrrr.
Me: Steady, girl.
She was stunned when one young lad began to probe the insides of an electrical outlet as his mom happily videotaped it all.
She: That's shocking.
Me: That's for sure.
She was speechless and I was just glad we had gotten through the ordeal without physical or mental harm as we made our escape at the end of the performance.
Saturday was an even bigger day, as we celebrated the third birthday of young John with a pirate-themed party at our house and beach. It was about then that we realized that putting on a big birthday bash would again leave little time for the chores and errands required to leave town for an extended period, meaning we'd probably need to stay an extra day.
So our Monday ETD became Tuesday.
It was a sensational birthday party, with grandma's cooking and mom and dad's innovative party games making it fun and memorable for both Johnny and his beachful of playmates.
All was on schedule, with Sunday earmarked for cleaning up from the party and generally winding down, while Monday would include packing the car and doing some of those last-minute things that every journey requires.
Then, I stepped out into the street in front of an oncoming Mack Truck.
Or at least that's what it felt like.
Chills, fever. coughs and congestion, along with a distinct touch of nausea and other intestinal delights, plus the kind of body aches that come after, say, a fall down an elevator shaft.
I had the flu.
After the fact, I heard that it's been making the rounds in the area, especially in the elementary schools, with both kids and adults alike being felled by a couple of different strains that seem to take either an intestinal or upper respiratory direction.
I managed to get both.
For awhile, I thought I was going to die.
Then I was afraid I wouldn't.
I'm feeling better now, so we're probably going to make it our of here on Wednesday morning, which is fine, since we seldom adhere to a schedule anyway.
But, where did it come from? What was the source of this virulent virus that felled North Carolina's grumpiest old man? Then I remembered.
500 running, panting, sweating kids in a closed auditorium. And me.
Remember the "Bluegrass Bug?"
The bug got me.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Long Way Home

The first phase of our bi-coastal living experiment is coming to a close, as we prepare to leave the shores of the Atlantic Ocean for awhile, hoping to catch the beginnings of spring along the banks of the Edwards River and other Galva-centric waterways for awhile, before doing it all over again later on this spring. Looking for warm March weather in the midwest is an iffy proposition, we know, but we're hoping to drag some balmy temps that way, just as the snow followed us to North Carolina on our way out.
We've loved our experience here, though not without some longing for what we left behind. I was thinking about what I miss--and don't miss--about home the other day and came up with few thoughts.
Things I've missed:
Friends, neighbors and colleagues at the Star Courier, kids and coaches, my own bed, Kitchen Cooked potato chips and Max, the cat.
Things I haven't missed:
February weather, late-night drives from far-off basketball games and last-minute basketball deadlines, my snowblower...and Max, the cat.
You'll probably note that Max made both lists, which just fits the love/hate emotions his surly personality inspires in me.
We're not, of course, planning a direct route home. Instead, we'll take the long way and wander down the Atlantic coast, with stops planned in Charleston, Savannah and Hilton Head before spending a couple of days visiting family in North Florida. After a last bit of warm sea air, we'll head north, zig-zagging our way home. Our not-so-direct traveling strategy is one we plan to continue as we go back and forth between both our homes for the next year and beyond, wishing to see as much as we can see for as long as we can see it. Next week's column will be written from the road with, I hope, something interesting to tell.
Riding the whale.
"We're keeping it simple," she said, as we considered what to bring and/or buy as we worked to make our unfurnished beach abode habitable.
So we did.
I've already recounted the thrift-shop purchases we made to provide ourselves with places to sit, and I think I mentioned our decision to go with blow-up mattresses instead of hauling or investing in standard mattress-and-box-spring beds. We've had an inflatable unit as part of our tent camping gear for several years and it's been comfortable and durable, so we thought, "why not?"
Why not enjoy the luxury and comfort of sleeping on air?
More importantly, why not avoid the expense of buying a "real" bedroom set and the extreme effort of dragging it to the top floor of a 4-story beach duplex?
Why not?
Here's why.
The bed we purchased for our own use is (was) an elevated queen size with a built-in electric pump. Like any air bed (and even the air mattresses folks use to bob around in the pool on hot summer days) it is (was) made up of a series of heat-welded chambers that keep the surface of the bed relatively flat and stable.
Now, before I tell you about my own middle-of-the-night experience, let me share some advice I unfortunately found after the fact.
"One of the things you should do to keep the life of your double air bed longer is to never overinflate it. Yes, some people like to have a bed that is a little firmer, but overinflation can stretch the materials and burst the seams, no matter how thick the material is or how good the seams are welded."
On the night in question, I had, indeed, added a little air to the mattress, bringing it to a level of firmness that was pleasing to a back made sore by bending over to pick up seashells and other arduous tasks. She was sleeping soundly, of course, enjoying the much-deserved rest of a giving grandmother who has done her all to make every day special for her beloved grandsons. I, on the other hand, was a little restless, wondering, perhaps, if the greedy little buggers had beat me to the last of the chocolate chip cookies again.
Suddenly I heard something I had never heard before.
Now, the combination of crashing surf from our ocean-side windows combined with the hunt-or-be-hunted squawks and splashes from waterfowl and other night critters who live in and around the inlet in the back has made for a new kind of nightsound that is new noise for someone who grew up listening to the endless WOOT-WOOT-WOOOOOOOT of the stream of freight trains that barrel through Galva.
But that wasn't it.
The sound coming from the bed was not unlike the muffled explosion heard after a naval destroyer launches a couple of depth charges to try and sink a U-boat lurking beneath the waves.
"KA-THWAP," rumbled the bed from deep within its air-filled chamber. "KA-THWAP."
I think I can say without getting too personal or boastful, that the earth truly has moved once or twice over the years while sharing a bed with my spouse, but what happened next was exceedingly different. The surface of my half of the bed suddenly expanded, creating a giant bulge that literally rolled me onto the floor. I battled back, dragging myself back on top of the yet-to-be-seen protuberance and hung on for dear life to the sheet and blanket.
It reminded me of trying to take a ride on the back of a humpbacked whale. I was pretty sure that wasn't exactly what was happening, but something was most definitely wrong.
My desperate scrambling finally disturbed my slumbering bedmate, who has, over the years, likened sleeping with me to sharing a bed with a restless raccoon.
"What are you doing?" she said, somewhat tersely.
"Well," I said. "I think there's something wrong with the bed."
"Why don't you turn on the light?" she said sensibly.
"Uh, I didn't want to wake you up, but I guess I did," I muttered, as I flipped the switch.
Revealed by lamplight, the swollen half of the bed was easily three times its normal dimensions.
"IT'S A TUMAH!" she cried in her best possible impression of Arnold Schwarzenegger as the Kindergarten Cop. "IT'S A TUMAH!" she laughed.
Come to think of it, she's still laughing.
And now you know why I miss my own bed.
Things are pretty quiet on the north end of New River Inlet Road. It's the off-season now, so the area has yet to become besieged by bevies of beach lovers. But even when the real summer weather hits, this end of the island is less busy than the rest, as there's not much in the way of restaurants, go-carts or miniature golf. So we were surprised to encounter a bit of a traffic jam the other day, as a line of trucks and vans made its way up the road and into a parking lot across from a palatial beach house.
Later in the day, we drove by again and saw some of the lights and equipment I was accustomed to back when I wrote and produced television commercials and videos.
"Somebody's shooting something," I said, and wondered if the crew was there for a film, a tv show or a commercial.
"Can't be Home Makeover," she said. "That house is already about as good as it can get."
We knew who to ask.
Nothing important gets past the ladies who run the cafe at the shore end of the fishing pier down the way, and, of course, they knew the scoop.
"One Tree HIll," said one.
"Wait until this summer, they'll be here all the time," added the other.
Like many of the other soap operas and reality shows I've never seen, One Tree Hill is quite popular with many, including my daughter-in-law, who now vows she'll sneak in for a closer look once production starts in earnest.
"You may have to bail me out, but I'm going in," she said upon hearing the exciting news.
Apparently, the natural beauty and relatively slow pace of this little corner of the world has drawn some attention from the film and tv communities, as both Dawson's Creek (never seen it) and Nights in Rodanthe (slept through it) also shot segments nearby.
I've considered catching some online reruns of both tv shows, just so I'll know what's going on.
Or maybe not.
Why change now.