Campus Tour

January 28, 2019

The Tigers of Clemson University won the national championship three weeks ago. Naturally, Sandy and I had to see the place.

img_20190127_065942765-14435706595616658466.jpgOnly kidding. I don’t follow college football. Nor do 99 percent of the people I know. I did watch that big game in which the Tigers dismantled Alabama’s Crimson Tide. I forgot about it almost immediately afterward.

But I had a full week of no medical stuff scheduled, and Virginia was dreary and cold, so we decided abruptly to drive to South Carolina to see our daughter/son-in-law/grandkids—although we’d just been there for Christmas. Clemson is an hour away from their place. Mike was on a work trip, so Sandy and I along with Marie and the kids went.  The little field trip got us back “on the road,” seeing a place we’ve never seen and most likely will never see again, this time a Division I football campus.

Although daughter Marie graduated from the University of Tennessee and son-in-law Mike went to Penn State, the big state university world is alien to me. I got my A.B. and M.A. from small liberal arts colleges. But I’m getting used to looking for odd, even bizarre adventures—things you may get only one shot at. Welcome the experience and learn from it, if there’s anything to learn.

Apart from ESPN, Clemson’s national championship probably got its biggest press coverage for the fast-food banquet for the team’s visit to the White House, laid out by President Trump after he shut down nine federal departments. Not the players’ fault they became props in a chapter of that sad, seedy melodrama.

img_20190125_1243042334121029123141958051.jpgClemson was founded in 1889 as Clemson Agricultural College by Thomas Green Clemson, a Philadelphia native who married the daughter of Senator John C. Calhoun. Clemson enlisted in the Confederate Army at age 54 and served during the Civil War, along with his son. Later, through a convoluted series of transactions, he and his wife inherited the property on which the university was founded. Clemson now sits, grimacing in bronze, on a pedestal in front of Tillman Hall.

The Agricultural College opened in 1893. The school graduated its first class in 1896 with majors in agriculture and mechanical engineering. Until 1955 Clemson was an all-white, all-male military academy, although the school didn’t officially ban women or blacks. In 1955 the first white women enrolled, and in 1963 the school admitted its first Afro-American student, Harvey Gantt, who later became mayor of Charlotte. Oddly, the campus hosts a Strom Thurmond Institute; nearby is the Clemson Area Afro-American Museum. The school became Clemson University in 1964.

We followed a trail of bright orange tiger paws along a four-lane road onto the campus and parked at the Class of 1944 Visitor’s Center. With a campus map we tramped past a hodgepodge of glass-and-brick-or-concrete campus buildings to the massive Hendrix Student Center, which strangely was nearly deserted. We enjoyed ice cream cones at the student-run ice cream parlor.

From there I had to see Tillman Hall, which boasts a tall clock tower and thereby stands out from the other uniformly modernish, flat-roofed campus architecture. We passed Carillon Garden, donated in 1993 by the golden anniversary class of 1943 to honor students who died in combat during World War II. We slogged around the glittering Reflection Pool and past the football-field-length Cooper Library, one side of which, in broad daylight, offered a light show advertising the virtues of a Clemson education: agriculture, engineering, overseas studies, a National Championship football team, among others.

img_20190125_1133149577427614449718680378.jpgMemorial Stadium, also called “Death Valley,” meaning for visiting teams, has a seating capacity of about 82,000. It appears surprisingly small, compared to the massive venues at Penn State, U-Tenn., Florida State, the few I’ve visited. Lampposts along routes to the stadium are festooned with banners that cite one survey or another: “happiest students,” “best S.C. education value,” “great alumni support,” and so on.

Although educators widely ignore the annual U.S. News rankings of colleges and universities, the higher-ranked schools typically flog them as testimonials. Clemson, which the magazine grades as 24th among public universities, is no exception. Although I once heard the school called a “farmers’ college” by someone who would know, that was some years ago. I’m sure that, if you apply yourself, you get an excellent state university education at Clemson.

We straggled back to the car, exhausted, our daughter not convinced that Clemson is the place for our grandsons. She and Mike are thinking more of Stanford. Clemson, though, would offer in-state tuition. Plus football.

Dark Night

January 21, 2019

On Thursday we approached the fortress-like medical office building where my doctor practices to see an ambulance and fire engine parked outside, warning lights flashing. EMTs were hauling one of those reinforced stretchers inside that rabbit’s warren of physicians’ and therapists’ offices. Couldn’t be my doc, I muttered.  We rode the elevator to my doctor’s suite. As I thumbed through the years-old magazines in the waiting room, sure enough, the EMT squad came hustling out of my doctor’s treatment room tugging the stretcher with an unconscious man strapped to it.

Make you wonder? Made me nervous. Hope he’s OK.

Why does this past week now seem brighter and happier than the previous one? Day to day, hour to hour, it was nightmarish. Seven days of biting, damp Virginia winter cold. A wretching all-day, all-night chest cough. Concerts of insurance company “hold” music, followed by baffling cross-examinations by reps who always want your date of birth but can’t answer your question.

Yet the weariness falls away, hope and good remains.

Like a nervous tic I can’t stop, the rotten weather draws my mind back to that September night Sandy and I spent at Picacho Peak State Park (yeah, that one) in Picacho, Ariz., (see this blog, Sept. 16). That 100F-plus evening that seemed to drain every trace of moisture from our bodies as we sat gasping in our lawn chairs trying to have fun now seems now like a warm, cozy dream. Me mentioning it still sets her teeth on edge (what, that again?), as if I’m recasting a hellish experience as an exotic summer adventure.

img_20180915_1908023948733243036808042340.jpgI recall the heat, the creepy, empty campground, the yellowjackets, the scorpion in the shower. But what also rushes back is the star-filled desert sky at midnight, the soft, warm breeze, the silhouettes of the giant Seguaro cacti against the moonlight, the overwhelming sense of isolation of the place that yet conveyed not loneliness, but a strange peace.

And now here we are standing in the cold in front of that ugly medical building. How do we get back to that midnight moment at Picacho? Why on earth would I want to? I’m looking at a big task, the health problem now staring me in the face, sure. But then we’re also stuck with all those mundane challenges that so-called seniors face: managing money, managing time, eating a healthy diet—all hard work.

Meanwhile, outside our little universe of semi-retirement, the fabric of national life is being shredded. Federal employees, treated like slaves, are getting groceries from food banks, selling their kids’ stuff, choosing between medicine and utility bills.

We are in a dark night, the metaphor fought over by novelists and poets to convey a thousand meanings. On the downward scale, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s bleak novel “Tender Is the Night”  tracks the self-absorption of the 1920s that descends into depression and tragedy. Downward farther are the bottom-dwellers of culture and literature since, cued by Jean Paul Sartre’s line, “Hell is other people,” the close of his 1943 play, No Exit. What could be darker? Sartre was celebrated as a pop hero by the life-is-a-crapshoot school of thought, which is still with us in America, and now holds high political office.

The dark night I home on is that of the poem, The Dark Night of the Soul by the Spanish mystic, St. John of the Cross, and his accompanying essay, The Dark Night. The essay is famous on its own, but actually is a continuation of St. John’s Ascent of Mount Carmel, which sets out the purpose of  “The Dark Night.”

St. John leads us through a progression of metaphorical “nights” during which man’s senses and soul are purged of sin, as God calls him to perfection. These steps in purgation strengthen the soul for the final Dark Night, during which angels permit the devil to attack the soul thereby to purify it and prepare it for union with God’s love.

The work of the Spanish mystics is spiritually intense, not typically taught in Catholic schools. St. John’s Dark Night may be a hitching post for me, leading me backward to the dreamlike warmth of Picacho, but then forward through my current health-care melodrama to the end of it. That is to say: the darkness of this season will end. We all will get well.

Steady …

January 14, 2019

Winter has swept in on us in northern Virginia, with a hearty six or seven inches of the white stuff, down from the 10 or more inches promised, or threatened. We looked at it out the windows, then decided to move on. We, and all those out-of-work federal employees, already know it’s the coldest, grayest, bleakest season.

On Thursday Sandy and I got home from our two-day trip to Philadelphia where our son Michael and daughter-in-law Caroline accompanied us to Penn Med, the University of Pennsylvania hospital in downtown Philly to get a sense of what it would be like to get my treatment up there. Like hicks from flyover country we gawked at the hundreds of patients, doctors, and staff people lining up and milling around that overwhelming, humongous institution, famed for the brilliance of its cancer specialists.

img_20190113_1237065963286440308502085236.jpgIn a nice but too-brief chat, the physician assistant who spoke to us before the surgeon showed up demonstrated some shoulder and arm exercises. “Bone heals quickly,” she said with a smile. “Your chest incision is healed.”

That was very good for my morale. She started to talk about how she loved Duke basketball (Duke? Here in Villanova country?), but then the doc walked in with his grim prognosis.

The docs were polite to the Virginia hicks, but I didn’t get having my vital signs checked in back-to-back meetings and being asked the same questions about my mental state three times. Policy, I guess. My blood pressure did rise a bit the second time.

Enough of that. What’s good, what’s positive? I drove for the first time in more than a month up to and back from PA, both ways over the 4.5-mile stretch of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, which Sandy refuses to attempt. From mid-span you can see twenty miles or more over the glittering bay at the tankers on the horizon. Coming home, the wind was seriously brisk, whipping huge, stormy whitecaps, rocking the van, ours and others. She sank down in the seat, eyes closed.

Yesterday was CAT-scan day, another $250 co-pay, with my junk insurance. The technician made me stretch my arms straight over my head—I managed it without the sharp pain I had got used to since the surgery last month whenever I accidentally stretched. Stepping out boldly, I climbed into my shirt and jacket—by myself. That night I tested the breastbone by lying on my side. Almost no pain—nice. Still, the chest seizes up when I cough, sneeze, or laugh. This isn’t over.

What else? Michael’s and Caroline’s kitchen renovation is complete, and spectacular: new walls, cabinets, appliances, everything shining white, the whole house fitted out with high-tech stuff, like those “smart” light switches they can control with their phones from miles away.

From Colorado, Louisiana, South Carolina, the girls keep calling to check in with us. That matters.

We have something important next weekend: a memorial service for the son of a friend who passed at a too-young age last week. That matters, too.

In the middle of all this I still look occasionally at the Virginia Happy Trails website. I won’t be at the next event, the first-of-the-season Massanutten Mountain 50-kilometer (31-mile) training run, which I’ve done a half-dozen times. In those years Sandy tirelessly prepared veggie chili for the finish. We’d lug the chili, grill, pots, and plasticware out to Strasburg the night before and get a motel room. She’d dump me at the race start in pitch darkness at 5:00 AM. When I struggled into the finish eight hours later she’d be there, since noon, cooking and ladling out chili to famished runners. She became an institution, the “Chili Lady,” who runners would ask for through the training season.

But we won’t make that race, nor the second or third ones. But I still look at the list of entrants and recognize most of the names, friends, fellow trail runners. Once, not now.

Wait a minute, I should cut myself some slack, and everyone else. Right now in this chilly gray January, others everywhere are facing real crises. Looking back at what I’ve written—every week—there most definitely are too many “Is.” I this, I that. Too many people preening, starting, at this moment, in the federal executive branch, is bad for all of us. We struggle, some of us, to recognize it.

We are living through dark times. Still, I’m fine. This sloppy snow will go away in a few days. Michael says that in six or seven weeks, the planned extent of my treatment, this stuff near my heart will be a distant memory. Others have it worse. We’ll learn, gritting our teeth maybe–and move on.

The Last Christmas Card

January 7, 2019

Christmas 2018 was nearly two weeks ago, we’ve pretty much recovered from it. Then Friday we got the card, from Sandy’s young niece Sarah and her husband John. It was one of those cards you can create yourself, with a beautiful photo of the couple holding their two little boys.

It’s been more than a year since we saw them, maybe close to two. They got married young and lived in Nashville for a few years, John working on construction jobs and Sarah studying to become a midwife. A year or so ago they bought property, something like 10 acres, in Cumberland City, along the Cumberland River, between Nashville and Clarksville, which sits on the Tennessee-Kentucky state line and is known mainly for Fort Campbell, home of the Army’s famed 101st Airborne Division.

1546792440420blob7691990934453700341.jpg The suburbs turn rural quickly up that way. It’s country, and I mean country. John built a “tiny house” on the lot. Their life has included some hectic moments. Both are working at their own businesses, John drives long distances for work projects. Their two boys are a handful.

Yet Sarah’s message was brilliantly happy: “We miss being close to friends and family, but we love being out in the country. We’re excited to move into a loft apartment in our pole barn in the next couple of months. We love having company! So please do come see us!”

The card, somehow, freed me from my recent run of dark moods and bellyaching. I felt like jumping in the car and driving the 700 miles to drop in on them. Not possible right now, with everything we’ve got going on.

Their message conveyed a sense of pure exhilaration. It wasn’t Pollyanna-carefree/Merry Christmas/ho-ho-ho. It told me something about them, about how they go about their lives. Yet without Google Maps I couldn’t tell you how to find Cumberland City.

As I work at my hit-or-miss contacts with family, the nieces and nephews usually get left out. They’re all over the country, the way families scatter. Siblings and cousins, and then their kids, grow up and move away. The same goes for friends, neighbors. The Christmas card habit brings them back, if just in a flash of color and good wishes. It also brings those fundraising appeals, for cancer research, victims of homelessness, poverty. They’re mass-produced, sure, but they remind us that the world is complicated, that people are hurting.

We could pause our breakneck schedules and extend a hand, over time and distances. Or at least think about it. The rush of time and the onslaught of everyday life get in the way.

Then what we do depends on how we choose to be.  Do I wake up preoccupied, obsessed, beaten down, by what feels like a grind of annoying chores and irritating responsibilities? Do I scramble through each day on an ironclad schedule of thinking about all the terrible things that could happen if I forget to do something I think I absolutely have to do?

That takes you only one place: cluelessness about others.

The solemnity and serenity of Christmas is, each year, supposed to be the antidote for all that. But let’s face it, we can take some lessons over and over that never register. The magic fades. The decorations are taken down, the gifts go in the closet. We’re back where we started: cataloguing self-imposed obligations instead of choices.

So how do we want to be? The way we hope others see us.  Do we need to toss everything and buy some land in rural Tennessee and live in a tiny house? Sounds tempting. Maybe someday.

Short of that—look at things the way they are, recognize what’s good and true. Then turn to the things we have to do—they get done, eventually. If storms are coming, let them come—they’ll be over sooner. Think like Sarah and John. Welcome visitors.