Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Try-not-to-be-so-grim Reaper

My mom was recently diagnosed with Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL), and possibly some kind of lymphoma, as well. CLL is a cancer of the blood, although her hilarious Polish hematologist says, “We don’t say cancer here.” Whatevs. Dance around it any way you like, doc; we all still know what it is.

The past couple weeks of doctors, tests, diagnoses, probabilities, more tests, pamphlets, reckoning, announcing, and “bucking up” under the weight of sincere sympathy has been an emotional tectonic upheaval for Mom and our family. And for me, it’s also been an intellectual exercise, because that’s my go-to coping strategy: gather information, evaluate, research, analyze, put into perspective, re-evaluate, decide on a course of action. So in my completely overly analytical way, I’ve been thinking about the blessings and challenges (pro’s and con’s doesn’t quite work here) of this latest plot-point in our lives…

BLESSING: My mom is 79. CLL is a very slow-growing cancer if it doesn’t insinuate itself into other body organs/systems.

CHALLENGE: In our family, beginning with my maternal grandma and my mom, only-daughters provide end-of-life care for their mothers, at home if at all possible (I hope my daughter is reading this and will save a copy for her daughter). This means that my husband, the real MR. INCREDIBLE, and I are mulling over new living possibilities, so that Mom, Ray, and I will eventually share a home. (Honestly…the guy is Saint Ray.)

BLESSING: Mom is asymptomatic right now. No pain or discomfort. She doesn’t need any sort of treatment at this point. In fact, she was anemic when diagnosed and is now taking iron, so she’s actually feeling perkier.

CHALLENGE: It’s one thing to say you're all cozy with death, to spout one’s beliefs about death—that we’re all energy, that energy doesn’t “end,” that death is not a blinking out of all light but a transition to some other state of being, that a released spark of energy will find another “form” down the line, that birth and death are simply two brilliant, beautiful, natural points—an entrance and an exit—on energy’s journey. It can be quite another thing to test those beliefs on your mommy.

BLESSING: My mom is a wise, patient woman, and she has plenty of time left to teach me everything she knows. And I need the corn casserole recipe.

CHALLENGE: I must not scream in public or punch doctors in the face. I must not scream in public or punch doctors in the face. I must not scream in public or punch doctors in the face.

BLESSING: My mom has a bucket list. My brother has declared this coming season the “Summer of Mom.” This means that I get to take Mom to Louisiana soon to see her BFF, my wonderful Cajun nieces, and their precious children. My mom and her BFF will play penny slots and cribbage. We will eat crawfish and gumbo. We will take the babies shopping. Then, in late May, three of my four brothers and their spouses, Ray, and I will take Mom for a week-long stay on an island in the Bahamas (#1 on her list). Don’t ask me why, but I SO want a picture of Mom in a snorkel. Maybe holding a bonefish speargun.

CHALLENGE: Over the next few weeks, I will be practicing my wicked-ass teaching skillz, instructing several doctors on decent “bedside manner.”

BLESSING: My mom and I are great friends. She can make me laugh harder than anyone else I know.

CHALLENGE: In spite of all that’s going on with Mom, I must rise above the urge to see EVERYTHING else as trivial; I must also pay attention to my 60+ students and their needs.

BLESSING: My mom is a writer. This means she can keep teaching me until the end of my own life, and my children after me, and their children, ad infinitum. Shakespeare (or whoever wrote the stuff for which he gets credit) says about writing, “So long as [wo]men can breathe or eyes can see, / So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.” This means my mom is INFINITE.

CHALLENGE: My mom is stubborn. I will make her take Emergen-C every day, even if I have to bake it into pies.

BLESSING: We don’t deal well with death in the U.S. Seems to me this is partly western culture’s de-valuing of our elders, or maybe our obsession with ME and MY sense of loss and OHMYGODWHO’LLFOCUSONMENOW. I’m trying, though, to see this as an opportunity for our family to have conversations about death…to make whatever time we have together joyous (do any of us know how much time we have?)…to make Mom’s passing as sweet and peaceful and full of love & laughs & music as possible…to focus on HER…and
to truly celebrate—party hats maybe?—her amazing, continuing life.

Saturday, February 7, 2015


Folks - the Spambots have found their way to Uncannery Row. So for now at least, I've had to add that pesky word verification thingie to the comment function. Sorry about that...

Friday, January 30, 2015

Conversations with Clyde

new crazy-straw glasses and flameless candles
Yesterday was a nine-to-nine day for me. And although today I’ll pay for it today (I’ve already walked into a door, spilled coffee down the front of my PJ’s, and put the peanut butter in the dishwasher…and it’s only 9 a.m.), I really DO believe that all things work for good.

All my classes were great yesterday, with interested, engaged students. My heart was simultaneously broken and mended by spending time with Clyde. And last night at the reading, I was treated to Natanya Pulley’s work, including her snort-laugh-accurate fiction about reading too many maudlin creative writing submissions. I got to visit at length with a friend I hadn’t seen in a while, and I got to see my friend’s lovely adult daughter, whom I hadn’t seen since she was 3’ tall.

practicing his flamenco
But the highlight of my day, of course, was picking up Clyde from preschool and taking him out for an early dinner. This child, at 5, is audacious, intelligent, and can snap into a total, frustrated meltdown at any moment. He constantly reminds me of my oldest son at that age. You know, those kids who can be so precocious and downright naughty that they need at least ONE person who will always be on their side, long after they've driven everyone else to distraction. I try to be that person for my kids and grandkids. 

When I walked into Clyde's classroom to pick him up, he was deep in concentrated building, midway through the third story of his three-story block tower. Just as he turned and saw me, face splitting open with happiness and love, his “best friend” XXX calmly walked past and kicked his tower into a bazillion pieces. Clyde threw a block at the kid's head (we have to work on that), screamed “You stupid! I hate you! I wish you never existed!” (we have to work on that), and erupted into unbridled weeping. It took much hugging, calming, time-outing for XXX, and soothe-talking to bring him back, so we could leave for dinner. 

Here are some highlights of the afternoon's conversations with Clyde, Master of the Segue:

M: Where would you like to eat?

C: Somewhere they speak Spanish.

M: Why is that?

C: Because I want “seis cheese quesadillas, por favor.” (recites his order, non-stop from school to the restaurant)

C: Can I go over and talk to those boys? (two young boys with their parents at another table)

M: No, I’d like you to stay here, please.

C: Why?

M: Because sometimes people eating dinner together would like privacy.

C: But I think I might know one of them. At least he has glasses like the boy I know.

M: I’d rather you stay here with me. How many pets do you have at your house now?

C: (counting on fingers) One fish, because Julian died, and three cats, and five chickens.

M: I thought you only had one or two chickens left?

C: We found some more.

M: So you have five?

C: No. I only saw one. We have one chicken, and the duck died.

M: That’s kind of sad.

C: Yeah, but I have to ask you a very important question, Nat. (all my grandkids call me Nat)

M: Okay.

C: How did the very first man get here without a mom to born him?

M: That IS a very important question. Maybe he started out as a chimp, and over the years, he got more and more like a man until he was a human.

C: That’s what my mom said.

M: Well, what do YOU think?

C: I think he was made out of mud, and the first mom was made out of his ankle bone.

M: Where did you hear that?

C: From my mom. (I doubt this)

M: Maybe the first man evolved from a fish. That means he started out as a fish and changed a little bit, then a little more, until he was man hundreds of thousands of years later.

C: I know how to tell the difference between a lung fish and a gill fish. Want me to tell you?

M: Yes, please.

C: A gill fish goes like this (makes fanning gills by his ears with his hands) and breathes through his gills. A lung fish has lungs inside his body and breathes air.

M: Wow.

C: Did you know there are only two kinds of fish that aren’t fish, they’re MAMMALS! (very excited)

M: What are they?

C: Whales and dol-a-phins. (3 syllables)

M: Cool.

C: I told my teacher that if my friend is at school on Monday, I’m gonna punch him in the face.

M: (long conversation on the drive home about being nice, teaching XXX how to be nicer by Clyde setting a good example, XXX growing up and having his own children and teaching them how to be nice because he learned it from Clyde and others, kids who aren't as lucky as Clyde and whose parents don’t always know how to teach them to be nice, blahblahblah)

M: (later, to Clyde’s mom) Tell your mom our new plan for teaching XXX how to be nice.

C: No! I hate that stupid plan! I’m gonna punch him in the face! (we have to work on that)

Saturday, January 10, 2015

The Ten Noble Truths

I’ve been teaching the novel Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse in my literature classes for the past few years. The novel is poetic, and it speaks volumes to 18-year-olds. It’s heavily influenced by Pietist, Hindu, Buddhist, and Jungian philosophies. I’m always especially interested in the Buddhist leanings of the novel, and after much thought, I have come up with my own version of Buddhism’s “Four Noble Truths,” on which the structure of Part I of the novel is built. But four just wouldn't cut it, so I call mine the “Ten Noble Truths”:

1.     All life is suffering (the Buddhists had this right).
2.     Technology is a root of suffering. You desire unnecessary stuff (a pair of red Uggs, ShamWow, blue solar lights, the Garden Weasel) because you see it on late-night TV or annoying online Zappo’s ads. Your children don’t answer your texts immediately. You cannot program the DVR. You forget to do the online boarding pass until it’s too late. The PocketWhip app on your iPhone won’t “crack” the whip.
3.     The “clean house” myth is a root of suffering. This is especially true if you have a cat, dogs, parrots, children, grandchildren, live on a gravel road, hate to clean, love to cook, can’t afford a housekeeper, or have a life.
4.     Gardening is a root of suffering. Hahaha...root...get it? Anyway, you should grow bush beans and tomatoes, strung up to chicken fence with baling twine. You can EAT this stuff, and any weeds you accidentally pull with your beans are probably good for you, too. But no. You foolishly plant a prissy flowerbed that you’ve planned on graph paper, with a 6” layer of decorative, weed-inhibiting mulch over landscape fabric, with a mosaic birdbath and adorable solar garden statuary. But Mother Earth is a sardonic beeyotch, y’all. In your post-gardening stupor, while you’re lounging in the air conditioning, sipping espresso martinis and feeling all proud of yourself, your garden sculptures are disappearing under a sudden explosion of “feed me, Seymour” Creeping Something-or-other (which you fertilized along with your lovely and expensive annuals), and your flowers are brunch for the evil rabbit horde.
5.     Tardiness increases suffering. The later/closer to a deadline you are, the more things will go wrong, and the more suffering will increase. Procrastination and denial will not ease this suffering, trust me.
6.     Hot flashes happen when you’re not suffering quite enough to suit the Universe. When you’re already so hot you’re mopping sweat with a dishtowel and stripping down to your skivvies, THAT’S when you’ll have a hot flash that cranks up your body temp to “pompeii.”
7.     Winter is another root of suffering. Blizzards, stalled cars, slow, icy slides into ditches, and -30 wind chills are the price you pay for the glorious surprise of spring, the bounty of summer, and the nostalgia of autumn – you know, those 3 weeks between winters.
8.     Food is a stinking TAPROOT of suffering. You eat too much. You eat too little. You eat at the wrong time of day. You eat when you’re standing/sitting/upside-down. You eat carbs/fat/calories/pesticides/additives/food colorings/gluten/sodium that will kill you. You eat too much raw food. You eat too much cooked food. You eat too much orange/white/red/purple food. You eat too much hot food. You eat too much frozen food. Your food isn’t local. Your food is wrong for your body/blood type. Your food is genetically modified. If you really loved your body, you’d do 350 crunches right now and convert to breatharianism (
9.     Work is a root of suffering. Especially in the U.S., we are Borg-like in our devotion to the Great Money Machine (Ken Kesey’s COMBINE), and we operate under the delusion that workaholism makes us righteous. Really, though, it just makes us tired, sore, wrinkly, and humorless. The sloth has it about right: hang out, eat, have sex, listen to old Moody Blues records, sleep, poop, and relax.
10.   There is no end to suffering, because we’re really just brainy, domesticated chimps, reaching for that Brass [nose] Ring ( Ironically, if we lived more like wild chimps, we’d probably suffer a lot less…


Note: This blog post is dedicated to my cousin, Deena Garven, whose daughter Britta passed on to the next Great Adventure this morning. I cannot possibly imagine a greater suffering than saying goodbye to a child. I cannot imagine surviving it. Still, I know that in my own life, humor has always been healing, sometimes lifesaving, and I’m asking the Universe in all her mercy to help Deena hold on to her wicked sense of humor.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

2014: Year of Lots of Stuff, A Pictorial

Some of Ray's family: where he gets his good looks.
My daughter's cake reminder to "let it frickin' gooooo!"
These girls had their first birthday party.
Surprise visit with my junior high talent show partner.
This boy served us coffee and cupcakes.
Dad and Mom in one room, no lightening bolts.
This girl developed some attitude.
This girl developed a devilish grin.
We celebrated this friend's birthday.
My brother Jeremiah Johnson and his golubushka
Christmas miracle: long-lost kid returns to Bohunk fold
These children ate this dinner sometime this year.
four giant heads, and Mt. Rushmore too
most of the 2014 Bohunks
We wore these at our summer KS (OZ) women's retreat.
SD contingent at Bohunk-fest
We did this 25 years ago last February.
Bucket O' Bunnies (presents from the dogs)
Consider this my holiday letter.

Back in the day, before BS, before late middle-age, before five gorgeous grandchildren, and before the business model of higher education, I used to write an annual clever, theme-based holiday letter, complete with a photo spread. Sometimes the letter was in the form of a newspaper front page. Sometimes it was an epic poem. Sometimes it was a circus flyer. Ray would print 150 copies, and I would tuck one into each of 150 Christmas cards, go through my entire address book, and mail them out to everyone we know. The cards were painstakingly chosen for their artwork and sentiment, and I wrote a personal note in each one. If you ever got one of these, I hope you saved it for posterity, because it will NEVER. HAPPEN. AGAIN. 

This year, I was lucky to get the tree up after "Semester: The Undoing" dragged me around the block a few hundred times. Christmas was just Mom, Ray, and me this year – the kids stayed home or went to their in-laws. We have scheduled a belated “Christmas” twice now but have been thwarted by illness and weather. We'll keep trying, but it looks like I may have my tree up till Easter.

I can’t recap our year for you, because I can’t remember most of it. (Note: BS tinkered with my short-term memory, which is now rather cheesecloth-y.) I’m pretty sure we took a couple road trips, Ray played some gigs, and I read a poem or two here & there. There was a women’s retreat, dinners with friends, and a handful of potlucks. We said goodbye to a few people and hello to a few. We got together with my wayward brothers and Ray’s sisters. We enjoyed another Big Fat Bohunk Reunion. I survived another semester of teaching writing to students who hate writing and never read.

Ray played with two bands, and I sometimes got to be the chick singer. I bought a new Taylor GS Mini guitar, the Ukelele Fairy gave me a new Lanikai bari uke, and my voice is finally waking up (BS put my vocal cords to sleep for a couple years), for which I am grateful beyond words.

Our four kids and five grandkids are all busy, happy, healthy, kindhearted, and generous (the only thing in this letter that really matters).

“Semester: The Beatdown” doesn’t start until a week from today, so I should be able to procrastinate until at least a week from yesterday before I have to buckle down and prep.

Here are our wishes for the coming new year:

  • more laughs, less complaining
  • peace, love, and sanity
  • more compassion, less ego
  • all organic, fat-free, carb-free Doritos
  • fewer clever Facespook platitudes, more anonymous action
  • more peace, more love, and more sanity
Addendum: As of this morning, my cousin's daughter Britta is in the hospital fighting for her life. At age 25, she is in liver failure with complications. Please send all the love & light you can. 
Britta the ballerina

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Good thing I can hold my breath...

These teens need smothering grandma hugs.
Holey moley. This semester is whomping the H-E-double hockey sticks out of me. My skin is flaking off in papery white sheets. My “teacher’s neck” is now “teacher’s neck, shoulders, upper back, and aching arse.” I’m living on coffee, vitamins, and Medifast bars. My La-Z-Girl is permanently molded to the shape of my drooling, napping form, like the inside of a giant, bizarre, Styrofoam packing crate. Ray spooks around the house trying not to make the air ripple.

I’m not sure why this semester is so much worse than EVER. BEFORE. EVER., but I have my theories...

These toddlers need new superhero costumes.
1.   Brain drain. I just had the 2nd anniversary of my brainsplosion, and I’m still challenged by a few lingering “deficits,” as neurologists like to call them, that haven’t quite disappeared (deficits that are not at all conducive to the nature of teaching): 1) I can’t process as quickly as I could pre-BS (Bastard Stroke); b) I can’t multitask as efficiently now, so I sometimes “lose track” of things that need doing until deadlines are about to swallow me whole; IV) I have some short-term memory glitches, and while I make numerous lists, I don’t always remember that I’ve made them or where I’ve put them; and 6) my brain, my own tangled Grey Gardens, is absolutely no good after, say, 3 p.m. without a re-boot (nap), and definitely shuts down completely by 7-ish – this is tough if you have piles of papers to grade, which you couldn't grade during the day if you wanted to (see #2 below). 

2.   The “business model” of higher ed. When I started teaching (back in the day…barefoot through a blizzard…only a boiled egg for lunch…blahblahblah), I had a 1-page syllabus, I planned lessons, and I went to class and taught. Period. My students were better thinkers, writers, speakers, and readers by the time the semester ended, because I CARED about their learning and had time to be innovative, creative, attentive and PRESENT. Now, I have an 8-page syllabus full of policies and procedures, I have to know/monitor/manage a host of on-line “tools” for quantifying, assessing, and reporting, I’m always behind, and I’m always bleary-eyed and exhausted. And in the name of all that is holy, don’t get me started on ongoing gender struggles for female faculty, or the annual faculty evaluation process. It’s impossible to get everything done unless I forego frivolities like eating, laundry, cleaning my house, showering, or speaking to my family.
These budding performers need a manager.

It's only's only temporary...
3.   Pining after my kids & grandkids. I have the most adorable, genius, fun progeny on the planet. I want to hang with them, maybe instigate The Great Silly String Fiasco of 2014.

This semester is so bad, that I've had to jettison anything extraneous – travel, shopping, gym, fun with family & friends, knitting, reading, home & yard care, anything that smacks of a “personal life” – just to keep my head slightly below the surface of the water. And I have 50 research papers coming in Tuesday, so if you don’t see or hear from me by Thanksgiving, airdrop a life preserver, deodorant and a roast turkey.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

It's not's...uh...preparation.

A plethora of wild plums
Just peachy!
Hummingbird Jam: Tiny, feisty, very bold.
This year, more than any I can remember, I’m clinging tenaciously, desperately, call-the-hotline-ey, to summer. Call it Retirement Envy. Call it JBAD (Jack Blizzard Anxiety Disorder). Call it gingerpigheadedness (if Faulkner can make up the word “pinkwomansmelling,” I can make up a few of my own). Whatever the root cause, I’m having a hard time letting go of long hours of daylight, balmy breezes, healing afternoon naps, and the “leisure” time to clean that closet or grout that backsplash. I’m having a hanging-by-my-fingernails-on-a-greased-highbar-above-a-spiked-pit-writhing-with-flaming-horned-serpents hard time. And since I’m already three weeks into a new semester, and I already have papers to grade, I need to do my double-tuck dismount in a goll dern hurry.

But I am a Master Procrastinator. For example, I accidentally misplaced a stack of pre-semester meeting notes and regentally-mandated syllabi goals, outcomes, methods, and policies (bringing my once-upon-a-time one-page syllabus to a whopping book-length 9 pages) in one of the 30 antique postal boxes in my office. I can’t be expected to search them all, right? So instead, I spent the next two days canning tomatoes. I bitched, griped, and laughed semi-hysterically when acidic tomato juice ran into the burns on my forearm (oven-roasted bacon makes a LOT of grease). Then we picked more tomatoes.
Tomatoes ready to roast for Base.

I procrastinated to the point where syllabi and homework schedules could not be postponed any further. As in, I’m serious now, dammit. As in, get your hands out of those wild plums this instant and plumb the depths of remedial composition, dammit! As in, classes start tomorrow.

So we picked more plums and tomatoes.

Never mind that I’ve got an entirely new on-line-only (mandatory, of course) composition software “classroom tool” to wrap my brain around. I’ve got Hummingbird (tomato) Jam to cook down, by gum, and a dehydrator full of cherry tomatoes. I’ve got gooseberries and more wild plums to turn into wine. Ray made his heavenly applesauce, and how on earth can a person do lesson planning in a house that smells like cinnamon and cardamom?!?
Ray's famous Applepie Sauce

And what if I AM wearing bathing suit coverups, sunglasses, and flip-flops to class? My students wear shorts so short, they’re more like denim underpants, or they wear PJ bottoms and bedroom slippers, so I hardly think they’re in a position to judge my fashion sense. At least I leave my inflatable seahorse in the car.
Roasted Summer Splendor Tomato Base.

Ah…there’s the satisfying pop on another sealed jar of Hummingbird Jam. Let me have just one more day of summer, then I promise, I’ll get right to work…

The Cake  (Gratuitous Grandkid-ish Shot):  My daughter made this for our granddaughters' 1st birthdays. Their party theme was "fairy garden party."