Three Anniversaries

August 26, 2019

Today is our wedding anniversary: 41 years. We are spending the day and night in Richmond, Va., exotic city of mystery and romance. Who doesn’t go to Richmond for anniversaries?

Well, no one I know goes there. But we thought we should go somewhere since, beside our Road Trip Across America, little trips here and there has been a theme of the past year for us. We didn’t get to Paris, London, or New York. We didn’t get to Nashville, which we’ve hit many times to see friends and family.

We did get to Seattle, then, a little further down the scale, to Greenville, S.C., Greeneville, Tenn., and Staunton, Va. That’s about it.

The Road Trip is our second anniversary of the month. It was on August 17, 2018, a Friday, that we finished loading the van and set out, getting on U.S. 50 near Winchester, Va., and pushing into West Virginia.

That also was the day I started this blog, now 67 posts ago.

The day started for me with an MRI at a local imaging facility, squeezed in before departure. At the time it was just another annoying procedure the urology practice demanded after the doctor looked at my first-ever CT scan. I recall telling the admin person on Wednesday, the 15th, that we’re leaving Friday no matter what. By then I was seriously thinking they liked putting me through pointless tests.

The hospital couldn’t get me in that quickly, so I went to a place that accepted our insurance—the cheaper place. Turns out the MRI wasn’t pointless.

img_20180817_122220162~24834685632878554497..jpgAnyway, once on 50 we wound through Winchester, then got a photo of the West Virginia welcome sign. In my first post, at our campsite at North Bend State Park near Cairo, W.Va., that evening, I wrote, “we stopped for a sandwich in Burlington and ice cream at McDonald’s in Grafton.”

The turning point: a call from the urologist as we arrived in St. Louis on the 20th.  I needed a biopsy. It could wait—one week. We talked to our son Michael, a medical physicist who works in cancer oncology. He advised pushing on to Las Vegas and leaving the van with our daughter Kathleen, who then lived there, and flying home for the procedure. Leaving the van would force us to return to retrieve it.

“You’ll never drive out there again if you drive all the way home now,” he said.

I put the blog on hold after we reached Vegas on the evening of the 25th.  We left the van and flew home. The doc couldn’t complete the biopsy on his first try, so I ended up with a stent and waited two weeks to give him a second shot at it. We flew back to Vegas Sept. 13 and picked up the van. The next day we got back on the road.

August 20 3
Top of the Arch, St. Louis

We junked our original, way-too-ambitious itinerary. I picked up the blog and traced our exhausting, interstate-only route home. We hit a few neat stops: the Grand Canyon, El Paso, New Orleans to see daughter Laura, and Greer S.C., to see our second daughter, Marie, son-in-law Mike, and grandsons Noah and Patrick. We got home Sept. 24th and got the word: cancer. I dropped the blog again, this time for a month as we sorted things out, then resumed posting in late October.

Today, it’s impossible not to look back. That crazy day before our 2018 anniversary, Aug. 25th, sticks with me. We started at a KOA in Flagstaff, Ariz., and made a quick side trip to Sedona. We then shot back to Flagstaff on I-17, switched to old U.S. 66, and headed to Vegas.

Grand Canyon

The last 200-plus miles is mostly desert, the dash thermometer touched 105F. After a stop in Seligman we left the Mother Road and jumped on I-40. In Kingman we found that U.S. 93, the direct route to Vegas, was closed at the Hoover Dam, forcing a 60-mile detour (at least). We left civilization behind after Bullhead City—for the next 40 or 50 miles we drove at low speed, seeing only a few empty mobile homes reflecting the blazing sun. We got nervous about the radiator, so we drove without air conditioning, preferring sweltering to overheating.

Showcasing my planning skills, we didn’t have a place to stay in Vegas. I had guessed we could camp. I must have been imagining an air-conditioned state park.

On the outskirts of Vegas around 6 P.M., we pulled into a church parking lot and started calling hotels. Only one, the Excalibur, had a room left—one room, and they were not negotiating. No specials for seniors. It was way more than we budgeted for, which was zero. We took it.

img_20180826_0808378244470976426101282185.jpgWe hiked what seemed like a mile through the packed casino and collapsed in the room. When we recovered we walked slowly up the Strip, ending up at the Rainforest Café. The air-conditioning alone was worth it. For a mid-priced chain the dinner was okay.

As we sat, dazed among the fake jungle noises, we felt better. We were celebrating our anniversary, in baking Las Vegas.

All through that day, despite the 100-degree highways and rattled nerves, we felt we accomplished something, maybe validating our staying power. It had been 40 years since we tied the knot in a small church in Nashville, on a day nearly as hot. Then three kids, the crazy move from Nashville to Jersey, the fourth one, Kathleen, the migration to northern Virginia. We lived through a blurring rush of anniversaries as the kids grew up. I published a couple of defense-industry newsletters, wrote lots of free-lance stuff, worked as a contractor, then got out. Sandy did accounting for CACI Inc., until the company moved the work to Oklahoma. She was laid off just before we left.

On Sunday, anniversary day, we were still wiped out. We went to a noon Mass, trudging the three blocks to the church at the sun’s peak. But we knew we had much to be thankful for.

I took a dip in the pool then ran from the heat. Later we had dinner at Battista’s, the famous tourist trap. I had been watching our expenses, but gave up. Hopeless. That evening we met Kathleen, handed over the van, and said goodbye. Next morning: a shuttle to the airport for the first day of our 41st year. It felt good. Today, looking forward to 42, it still does.

Book Club

August 19, 2019

I’ve now attended two meetings of Brew Republic’s “Books on Tap” and felt good about it afterward.

The book group, sponsored by the Prince William Public Library System, meets monthly at a brewery to discuss a book assigned at the previous meeting. The two books I’ve read, both novels, offered some quality writing, I thought.

Two friends started attending the meetings a few months ago. They invited me to last month’s session and gave me a copy of the selected book, a lightweight but complicated tale entitled Swamplandia, by Karen Russell. I slogged through the story at half-attention. It was the same for most of the roughly dozen folks who showed up. Several admitted they started the book but didn’t like it and put it aside. I piped up with a couple of general observations, but pulled back when the moderator waved a list of questions from a publisher’s website about the symbolism of this or that character or setting.

The second book, another novel, News of the World, was shorter and even lighter. I appreciated author Paulette Jiles’ style but didn’t love her story. Some enjoyed it, others didn’t finish it. The non-finishers still made their points, though.

“Books on Tap” is the first book club I’ve joined, so I don’t know what others are like. Joining the group just means getting the current book and showing up. You exchange quick introductions and start gabbing about the book, or other things entirely. The moderator, a librarian who chooses the books, fires prepared questions at the group. Anyone can chime in until he or she is interrupted by someone louder or closer to the moderator. One guy has disliked both books, hasn’t finished either, and made sure everyone knows it.

Timg_20190817_1648271684951167790323529415.jpghe covers of both are heavy with rave reviews, but neither is Pulitzer Prize quality. Both have young women as the central figures.  Swamplandia is more or less a fantasy adventure, written by a much-praised young author who grew up in South Florida and writes about South Florida, obeying the sage maxim, “write what you know.” Same with Jiles, who lives in Texas and writes about Texas, in a graceful but ponderous style, if that’s possible. The latest book, entitled The Girl Before, a “psychological thriller” by JP Delaney, a pseudonym, is about two women. Not sure if that’s a trend in book club selections or in fiction in general, since until Swamplandia I had not read a novel in years.

The discussion is a little chaotic and the books, despite the fabulous canned reviews, aren’t memorable. Still, it’s a nice evening. You sit in the bedlam of happy hour straining to hear others dissect the book, then jump in. The attendees, mostly women, are from diverse backgrounds. This week we heard from a daycare teacher about young-child development and an opera singer about her performances. Because of the brewery noise no one speaks for very long unless he or she is on a second or third beer.

With a few exceptions I stopped reading fiction after Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities, published in 1987. He made his name in the ‘60s going after the affluent big-city Left in two non-fiction narratives, Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers. His closeup of the Mercury Seven astronauts, The Right Stuff, in 1979, became a classic. I reviewed it for a literary magazine and got a nice note from Wolfe.

Wolfe then was in his prime and working on early drafts of Bonfire, a ten-year project. It won glowing reviews, as did his second novel, A Man in Full, in 1998.

If you read The Catcher in the Rye in high school, you know that American fiction long has had a neurotic strain. But fiction took a morbid nosedive in the ‘70s and ‘80s. The Vietnam legacy had something to do with that, although it produced great writing, as with Tim O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato and James Webb’s Fields of Fire. But then, to toss off an irritable broadside, novelists shifted from angry anti-war preaching to agonizing over their own psychoses and their angst. “I am alone in a tragic world” became a suffocatingly imitated theme of what passed for literature, usually leavened by political popping off.

Even before the 1960s ended both fiction and non-fiction became swamped with themes of alienation, depression, persecution.  Norman Mailer may have started all that much earlier with The Naked and the Dead—classic but nihilistic—in 1948. Mailer then drifted into decades of left-wing politics. He validated despair as a dominant literary theme with his last major work, The Executioner’s Song, in 1979. The 1,000-page-plus opus traces in a prurient closeup the crimes, trial, and execution of Gary Gilmore, who in 1976, after killing two people in Utah, demanded to be executed.

The Executioner’s Song is weighed down with Mailer’s soapboxfull of social and pseudo-psychological commentary.  The book distorted reality to make the psychopath Gilmore an edgy, hot-tempered iconoclast, but won the 1979 National Book Award.

The novels of Stephen Crane, Twain, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald also were dark. But Crane, Twain, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald wrote about the real world, not their personal dysfunctions. They produced literature.

I need a deep breath after that rant. The chatter about lightweight fiction at Books on Tap is OK. The young folks, earnest part-time students of literature, launch analyses at each other between slugs of beer. I put my two cents in, then shut up. Towards the session’s end it does get loud. Interest in the book rises and falls. Maybe, in this strange way, we’ll see fiction become fun again.


August 12, 2019

The nearly two weeks since we returned from Pennsylvania have been quiet. We’ve read all the paperwork the hospital gave us on follow-up care and watched, on the internet, as the bills rolled in, the insurance company bobbing and weaving, paying some, batting others away. We’re braced for the verdict on all that. We’ve stayed close to home, counting our blessings, which are abundant. The kids have been calling, we’ve talked to the grandsons. They all pick us up, give value to our lives.

We’ve gone as far as the supermarket, several supermarkets, trying to follow the doctors’ advice and shop “healthy,” avoiding processed foods and high-salt stuff. The other day I noticed an old guy—he looked old, with his “Retired Army” cap—in the checkout line in front of us, buying Canadian bacon, which is supposed to be better for you than regular bacon. He also bought two sixpacks of Coke, supposed to be bad for you.

He’s lasted this long, I’ll let him have the Coke. It then occurred to me that I may be older than him. I don’t wake up reminding myself how old I am, but I’m no young buck among the senior citizens sitting or dozing in doctors’ waiting rooms.  I’m one of them. A member of a non-exclusive club. I’m back to running with our local group, the THuGs, but not kidding myself. I hear and feel the wheezing with every breath as the rest of the pack gallops off ahead. It’s not the wheezing of a 60-something.

In spite of our creakiness and our prescriptions, the choking-hot August grind has us looking to escape northern Virginia again. We can follow, or try to follow, our healthy meal plan somewhere else. The urge to get out of town got me started on this weekly homily when we left on our “Route 66” road trip last summer. Medical stuff suddenly got in the way.

We’re looking to the end of that. The woman who leads the yoga class I’ve been attending, twisting her body in ways that hurt me just to watch, asked about Sandy’s recovery. She had a stroke when she was 21. She’s now 41. And here she is.

img_20181125_1049594097824543706424868274.jpgAnd here we are, in wonder at that. Meanwhile, we’re thinking about our next trick. We’re on tap to attend the wedding of one of Sandy’s nephews in a small town in northwest Georgia next month. The route also will allow a detour to Springer Mountain, the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. Something else on our list—to visit Springer, maybe hike a mile, and wonder whether someday I could stick with it to the other end, in northern Maine.

The wedding is the destination, but the pure certainty of a deep-forest mountain trail like the AT draws us powerfully now, when we need certainty. When I step onto a trail, my mind is full of the everyday program of our lives: money and bills, aches and pains, questions about the future—ours, our kids’ futures, the country’s future. Others wrestle with complicated questions of life, belief, what comes next.

The trail asserts itself quickly. Only the rocks and roots, the thorns, the steep climbs and switchbacks matter. That is the simplicity of nature, which is the simplicity of God: no ambiguity, no doubt, no lingering, nagging, tentative questions. The mental effluvia flushes away. If it doesn’t you may choose your next footfall badly and open a gash in your leg or your head.

When you leave the trail your mind is remarkably clear. The petty cares and the large ones you carried to it are gone, or in a good place. You may not remember them for a day or so. The forest trail doesn’t care about your problems, your big thoughts, your schedule for the rest of the week. It doesn’t care about your bloodied knee. It still will be waiting for runners and hikers in a thousand years.

Whoa—that was a digression, but for me unavoidable, defining a private, driven mission hidden in a family obligation. So on to the wedding. A long drive (airfares are too high), a chance for Sandy to see family, then a bonus stop to see friends in Atlanta and another visit with our daughter, son-in-law, and grandsons in South Carolina. The five-year-old will have started school. We’ll hear how it’s going.

That’s the looking ahead. We never think about the goodbyes and the drive home afterward, which will bring us sharply back to attention to all the important stuff we had left behind, the stuff I would leave behind if I were hiking the AT. Sandy is getting her blood pressure checked twice a week.  I have another appointment this week—the urologist this time, to talk about surgery. I’ve got the pulmonary guy the following week. Put it on my tab, I tell them.

The anticipation is happy right now. We’re OK. Prayer reminds us that despite a few course adjustments, we’re truly free. I still feel pretty good among the other oldsters in the waiting rooms. Meanwhile, the AT crosses I-66 at a trailhead near Markham, just 50 miles from the house. I’ve run it both north and south from there a bunch of times. May get out there again and get my brain cleared.

Alex & Marge

August 5, 2019

Alex and Marge are very different people. Maybe not so different. When they heard about Sandy’s hospitalization last week they dropped what they were doing and called, and brought us delicious meals. Sandy wasn’t about to cook, and my kitchen skills are about a C- graded on a curve.

Christine, Alex’s wife, prepared the veggie chili. Alex delivered it, along with Pils IPA, his idea.

Two years ago Alex offered to pace me on the final one-third of the Massanutten Mountain 100-mile run. He drove two hours from home, leaving a camping trip with his kids to meet me, then waited longer than that at the rendezvous point for me to show up. I got there late, in tough shape, and missed the cutoff at the next aid station.

Alex was okay with that. “It happens,” he said, bailing me out.

img_20190627_1248119037380476824813448779.jpgHe should know, he’s an elite runner with 12 finishes at the HURT (Hawaiian Ultrarunning Team) 100, and finishes at the Fat Dog 120-miler in British Columbia, the Cruel Jewel (Georgia) and Pine to Palm (Oregon) 100s, two 100-milers in Greece, and 10 100-kilometer races. He owns a company, Athletic Equation, that manages a dozen races each year. It’s work.

I know Marge from working at the food pantry at our former parish, where she puts in lots of hours. That involves heavy lifting, dealing with desperate people who don’t speak English, and waiting late for people with appointments who don’t show up. Marge handles it, and has for years. She also makes time for couples figuring out complicated situations, like us.

Alex and Marge are different, but not unique. Through the past six months of medical stuff, others helped us. Running group members Kevin and Jean and Kirk and Debbie cooked huge meals for us. Kirk and Debbie brought us soup, lasagna, and barbeque. I sometimes ate a couple of bowls of their chicken soup for breakfast. Kirk drove me to some of my radiation sessions and bought coffee afterward.

Alex’s and Marge’s separate vocations: running ultra-trail races and distributing groceries to hungry people don’t seem to have a common thread. But they and others stepped up for us because they share a commitment: being there when they see the need.

It could be that compassion and generosity, the qualities that make some people special, are more conspicuous right now. Decency and kindness shine more brightly through the nightmare of mass shootings. They sustain us against the shabby spectacle of a president slandering others to entertain an obtuse minority indifferent to any sense of country as community.

So it’s by default that virtue, which draws human persons to carry out magnificent acts of mercy or simple kindnesses is easier to notice these days. I’m thinking of the ICU nurse at Bryn Mawr Hospital who last week, when he recognized the need, unlocked Sandy’s bed and raced with her to the CT scan facility, bumping less-critical patients from the queue. He could have called an orderly. She was frightened. “You’ve got a lotta years left, Sandy,” he said calmly. The neurosurgeon who performed the surgery, a young woman with ultra-high-pressure responsibilities, came by Sandy’s room at the end of every day to offer support, guidance, and a smile.

That quality is shared by the members of religious orders and volunteers who trek out into the Arizona desert to stage stocks of water and food for desperate souls running from human traffickers. The operative policy today: arrest all of them.

The good in humanity is everywhere. We know it, we feel it, all of us, within our communities—the presence of God among us. We recognize it in people who see need around them and step forward to do what they can without being asked, reminding us that kindness and generosity are natural instincts. That could be their understanding that veggie chili (although I’ve gone back to eating meat) or a casserole, for a couple dealing with complicated health situations, is just the right touch.

The mood of the country is dark right now, as anger and vindictiveness pool in the capital then gush, like arterial bleeding, across communities, tearing them apart. Alex and Marge and millions of others rebuild them, quietly, with acts of kindness and faith. Could be dinner (and beer).