September 30, 2019

Two of our kids suggested, gently, that I hire someone to powerwash the house instead of doing it myself. Our son Michael owns a powerwasher, a sleek blue-and-white Subaru EA190V gas-powered beast weighing at least 80 pounds. I borrowed it from him two years ago and did a section of the house, the driveway, and sidewalk. It’s exhausting work, but I got it done. I was in better shape then.

Because of all the rain last year, everything I had powerwashed was again coated with green mildew. When up at Michael’s place (near Philadelphia) in July I asked him if I could use the powerwasher again. He said sure, adding that he had just hired someone to do their house for about $125. “So that’s an option,” he said.

That sounds reasonable. But I homed on getting it done without looking up contractors, asking for references, discussing rates for square footage, available dates, etc. So I wheeled the powerwasher out to the van and with a deep breath hoisted it into the luggage space. I stumbled backward but stayed on my feet.

img_20190927_1510312821319222652626833899.jpgTwo weeks later, on a mild day, I hauled the powerwasher out of the shed, added some gas, opened the choke, and yanked the pullcord to start it. It ran for two minutes then died. I looked it over, closed and reopened the choke, switched the starter button off then on, and tried again. Nothing. Then again—again, nothing. The pullcord wouldn’t move. Was it locked up somehow?  I added some oil I had bought for our lawnmower. I topped off the gas. On the fourth try the gadget started. I got a small area of the north end of the house done, then quit, my arms aching. I looked at the front and back of the house, dingy with mildew, and the deep-stained walkway and driveway.

I took a deep breath. How much of all that could I get done for $125?

August became early September, stifling and choking-hot. No powerwashing or any other outside chore. But last week the heat abated. Powerwashing time. I bought four gallons of gas, guessing at how much I would need.

The next morning I zipped up my water-resistant jacket and waders, dragged the powerwasher out again, and gassed it up. I yanked the cord. It started. I grabbed the wand and started washing, more or less where I had quit the previous month. Five minutes later the machine stalled. I dropped the wand and looked it over. I had done everything correctly. I checked the oil, it looked okay. I turned off the choke, then turned it on. I turned off the starter and reset it. I tugged the cord. Nothing. I went through all those steps again. Again, nothing. I ground my teeth. Do I need to top off the oil? I didn’t have any more, I’d have to schlep up to the supermarket.

Just then the phone rang inside, Sandy answered. I kept fiddling with the machine, Turned the choke off, then on, reset the starter. Tried again, then again. What’s that line about doing something over and over exactly the same way and expecting a different result? I stood there, glaring at the machine. Did I break it? How much would it cost to repair it?

Sandy came to the back door and announced, “Marie said, why don’t you just hire somebody to do that?” I looked at her but said nothing. I recall Marie telling us she and Mike, like Michael and Caroline, had just had their house powerwashed by a pro.

What they’re thinking is: why is a 70-year-old guy looking at surgery in two weeks struggling with a heavy, temperamental powerwasher? Is he that cheap? Does he even know how to powerwash while balancing on an extension ladder?

And grumpily I tell myself—all reasonable questions. What’s my answer, besides the obvious one that I’m investing sweat equity instead of cold cash? After all, I’m not working, I don’t have to fit the job in among other errands on a weekend.

We can afford to hire a professional powerwasher, really, we can. Why go through all this hassle?

I wonder. Maybe it has to do with my own outlook on work over the years. If something looked doable, I’d try to do it. When I was publishing my newsletters I did my own proofreading and copyediting rather than hire someone. That can be risky—but by making mistakes I polished my skills. When the issue came back from the printer, I was satisfied that it was entirely my product.

Same with powerwashing. No cost for the machine—it’s Michael’s, the guy who owns every power tool that exists. The only cash outlay is a few bucks for gas. Getting the thing going is complicated, but I know that if I tinker with it, I’ll figure it out.

And I did. Eventually I learned to keep the starter button in “warm start.” It then fires right up and purrs along smoothly until it needs more gas. I refuel and keep working, moving the wand back and forth in four-inch strokes. I get the sections of the house I missed earlier. I get the concrete porch. Hours pass. The sun gets hot. I finish the driveway. Then the sidewalk. The dirt disappears, the clean siding and pavement emerge. I then go back over the streaks I missed. Would the hired guy do that?

So I burned up a couple of afternoons. I made myself useful, got some fresh air—hot and humid air—and focused on positive things. While gripping the wand to blast away the mildew and grit I never thought about insurance or prescriptions, the business side of our life, which distracts us from dreams and bright ideas about our future.

Still, it’s true—I could have been reading a good book while sprawled in the backyard swing, mixing oil paint for a landscape I’ve started, or taking a nap, while a professional powerwashed our house. Instead I worked up a drenching sweat and a serious backache. But I got it done, my way.

The Walk

September 23, 2019

This past weekend marks two months since Sandy’s stroke. We think it happened Friday, July 19, when she experienced numbness in her left arm as we drove to Pennsylvania. The next day she went to the ER, was admitted, and spent six days in the ICU. Since we’ve been home we’ve tried sporadically to walk, but the heat and general tiredness usually got to us. Each morning she checks her blood pressure—it’s up, then it’s down.

We’ve moved forward. This week we got out nearly every day, around 5:30 AM. It’s pitch dark. I wear a headlamp, she carries a flashlight. We head up our street, past the homes of neighbors we know and then those borderline-shabby rentals at the far end of the block.

Sandy has gotten stronger, now able to climb the Paxton Street grade without stopping. We turn right onto Colby Drive, the main street through this neighborhood. During morning rush-hour drivers cut through from Old Bridge Road, the six-lane east-west artery, to Minnieville Road, the north-south spur, so they can jump on I-95.

img_20190921_174356551_burst000_cover_top6678364819899014444.jpgOn Colby we can hear the whooshing of the fast movers in the I-95 high-occupancy toll, or HOT lanes. As we walk, traffic is light but steady and fast, no one actually drives 25 MPH. They don’t want to see pedestrians. We’d like to hike the street but stick to the sidewalks.

Walking is recommended for older folks as a way of maintaining basic fitness, losing weight, or just airing out brain cells. It burns fewer calories than running or more intense fitness programs, but let’s face it, walking is easier. You don’t need special gear or even sneakers. You can walk on a treadmill at a gym, which quickly gets monotonous, and no one sticks with monotonous exercise. It’s better outside.

When you walk you can talk. We rehash last week’s trip to Georgia and South Carolina, what we enjoyed, what we didn’t. The subject of where we would go if we fixed up the house and sold it always comes up. We visited Easley, S.C., a cute place with a nice downtown and its own walking trail, but otherwise another spot on the map that didn’t grab us.

I mention Educated, by Tara Westover, which our daughter loaned me. I finished it in two days, it’s that kind of book, the memoir of a young woman raised in a fundamentalist Mormon family who didn’t go to school but haphazardly educated herself enough to pass the ACT and get into BYU. She earned a PhD at Cambridge, but over time became estranged from her possibly disturbed parents. The book has won rave reviews, but also raised some questions: after all, a memoir may settle scores, but still is only the author’s view. Then I ask: how do you write a memoir at age 32?

I’m still running. On Saturday I volunteered at a 12-hour trail event at Prince William Forest Park, near Quantico—runners follow a 6.5-mile trail course as many times as they want for as long as 12 hours. I signed people in, then ran a nice loop myself. On Thursday I went six road miles with our THuG running group. We start together but they move out ahead, I chug along. I could train harder, but my mind is on other things.

Eugene’s and Jean’s card

After a half-mile we make a turn onto Minnieville, the traffic roars by. We got onto our favorite topic, ideas for going somewhere after my kidney surgery, now set for October 10. We talk about leaving town almost as much as we talk about doctor’s bills. We’re invited to a cousin’s wedding in Virginia Beach on the 26th. Then I want to visit my cousin Eugene and his wife Jean, who live on a farm on Long Island, N.Y. Just this week they sent me a jar of their homemade strawberry preserves with a card: “Take care of yourself and each other. Love and God Bless.” Meant a lot to me. We started eating the preserves. Exquisite.

So we’ll look at that. Then I got the idea of driving to Niagara Falls. It would be about eight hours, probably nine for us. Or Baxter State Park in Maine, where we could see the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail; my idea of symmetry, since we saw the southern end two weeks ago. That would be around 15 hours, or several days round trip, the way I drive. But it’s already fall, driving into snow country in late October might not be smart.

Dawn starts to paint the sky as we move up Minnieville. The earth still is dark, but the trees and houses on the east side of the road are silhouetted sharply against the pink horizon. The sky above is deep blue, the moon still is bright, but the blueness fades to a pastel as it meets the early sunlight. The early chill is gone, we’ve probably gained ten degrees. Sandy ties her jacket around her waist, but I’m still in my hooded sweatshirt.

We pass the commuter parking lot at Tackitt’s Mill, where the “slugs” gather to catch rides to the Pentagon and Crystal City, heading for their cubicles. Cars are lining up. I “slugged” for something like 25 years, Sandy for five. Those are bittersweet memories. Retirement is a financial rat race, but it’s infinitely nicer than the rat race in the bowels of federal contracting. We pick up our pace.

We cut across the Tackitt’s parking lot and turn onto Old Bridge to face rush hour head-on, a parade of hundreds of cars, headlights in our faces, inching up the hill. Our talk shifts a bit, how are we doing, what’s the plan for the day. We hardly ever have one, but the chores pile up. Some days we get to Mass. I have to weed-whack the backyard, maybe paint the bathroom cabinet—little things we used to put off. The big thing: we got the walk done. Tomorrow, another chance to walk—to think, plan, maybe make life better.

School Lunch

September 16, 2019

Stumbling in the front door yesterday after 10 days away, we fell on the sofa and took a breath. Later that day, I rehashed the past week. We achieved our goal or, I should say, my goal of getting to Springer Mountain, the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, in northern Georgia. Then we spent a couple of peaceful days with Sandy and Glenn, old friends who live near Atlanta. We went to lunch with grandson Noah, our kindergartener, at his elementary school in Greer, S.C.

We accomplished all these concrete things, and a few others, pushing ourselves on towards whatever comes next in these senior years, which are up to us to fill. The medical stuff is a separate story. But I’ve learned not to waste time thinking and planning. I did that for years. The lesson: step out and do what you’ve talked about doing.

We actually visited the Springer Mountain parking area—the true start of the AT is a mile farther south. Through-hikers get dropped off near the trailhead and hike in; the parking area has a 14-day limit. We got there by pushing our rented compact on a nerve-wracking slog up a seven-mile-long, winding, unpaved Bureau of Land Management road that at times took us flush against a steep drop. The nearly hour-long teeth-rattling climb, and then the descent, had Sandy gripping her seat and gasping, me white-knuckling the wheel.

But we got out at the top and looked around. Check.

A couple of vehicles were parked there, but we saw no one. It was just us, a couple of old folks alone in the woods. The silence calmed us, offering the peace one finds in a Benedictine chapel, where one encounters the presence of the Lord. That peace, on a Georgia mountainside, eased the tensions of the storms we face.

I walked a short distance up the trail, following those unique white blazes that mark the full 2,100-mile-plus length of the AT from that place to Mount Katahdin in northern Maine. Is that next? Who knows?

At the kids’ home in Greer we entered their world then, at our daughter’s suggestion, ventured into an alien space: public elementary school for the kindergarten lunch break. I think I may have had lunch with our kids at school at some vague point in the distant past. Noah’s school, a mile from Marie’s and Mike’s neighborhood, is a happy, if highly structured institution of something like 700 kids and the requisite number of teachers, aides, administrators, other staff people. It struck me that the parking lot was nearly full. Did students also drive? I kept my bad joke to myself.

img_20190912_1049429458876936191127275522.jpgI enjoyed the cheerful sloganeering above the walkway to the front door: “Synergize!” “Be Proactive!” “Sharpen the Saw!” Sharpen the saw? Remembering this is elementary school, I had to ask about that one. It means be cheerful, have fun, I was told. To be admitted to the school we handed our licenses to an aide, who scanned them, printed nametags, and simultaneously checked our names against a sex-offender database. That wasn’t done when our kids were in school.

The walkway slogans also hung on signs from the ceiling of the cafeteria. We were a little late, the kindergarteners already were seated, crammed into long tables with their teachers. No talking is permitted for the first ten minutes of the 30-minute lunch period so the kids will eat their lunches. Then we chatted with Noah about his day. I looked around. The walls featured paintings of the new seven wonders—great wall of China, Christ the Redeemer, Taj Mahal, and so on.

The 30 minutes was suddenly over, we said goodbye, the kids lined up and filed out, making room for the first graders. “Eyes straight ahead,” an aide commanded as she marched them back to their classrooms.

It was a happy and enlightening half-hour. The school, no doubt like elementary schools everywhere, works hard on attitudes, judging by the signs: “Win-Win,” “Put First Things First,” “Begin with the End in Mind.” I guess that’s a good thing. Going back a very long way, I recall near-perpetual fear of the nuns at my parochial school; that was the depths of the Cold War, when we practiced air-raid drills. It was the same for Sandy. Our kids’ first schools, both Catholic and public, pushed a happier school experience. I guess it worked, to a point.

It was sobering though, to pick up Noah at the bus stop later. Parents have to meet their kindergarteners and show an identification card that matches a badge on their kids’ backpacks to retrieve them. No ID card, no student—if the adult doesn’t have the card the child isn’t allowed off the bus. No happy, tired piling off and heading for the playground. Horror stories about kidnappings have had a sad impact.

Schools have come a long way: sunny, cheerful, pushing positive thinking and, as with the license check when you visit and the ID check at the bus stop, responsive to the nightmares of modern life. This is America today. We seniors see some of it in the headlines and in the annoyance of airport security checks, but are mostly left alone. We’re baffled by urging to be “proactive,” and “synergize,” or I am, anyway.

People with impressive degrees are trying very hard to think up ways for the schools to protect, and meanwhile educate, the nation’s kids. It strikes me, though—why the stiff dose of happy think? Why are things like this? My grade school didn’t have signs hanging in the cafeteria. Just a giant crucifix. What did I miss? The nuns were strict and sometimes terrifying—but maybe we—and society—were a little less nervous, a little less paranoid, even with the air-raid drills. And we’re reasonably normal, I think.

I know I’m a grump about these things. I didn’t like my grade-school days. Lunch with Noah was fun. It did take us a long way from that other world, the sublime peace of the forest of Springer Mountain. But both convey meaning, and lessons about our lives. We’ll be back to visit them again, I hope.

Down to Ellijay

September 9, 2019

The silence here at our rented cabin just north of Ellijay, Ga., is nothing if not intense. The thick southeastern forest crowds in below the deck, not a leaf stirs. Through the trees we can make out the shape of another small house, beyond that, nothing but deep green.

We’re here for just a couple of days, for Sandy’s nephew’s wedding. The bridal couple lives somewhere else in Georgia. Initially we were puzzled about why they chose Ellijay, an inconspicuous spot in the rough northwest corner of this huge state. It doesn’t matter, we’re here. We drove down from our daughter’s place in Greer, S.C., Saturday, puttering on I-85 towards Atlanta, being passed by dozens of vehicles flying Clemson flags en route to the Tigers’ home game with Texas A&M. When we crossed into Georgia they were replaced by cars heading for the Georgia game.

From the interstate you drive winding rural roads, tacking west through rugged country, passing through Talmo and Gainesville, then Dawsonville, Juno, Emma, Talking Rock. You don’t see much of these places before turning into Ellijay. The cabin is a few miles up the highway, then a few more turns into the woods, then a scary, unpaved, rocky, winding, uphill two-mile battle past a few other rough-hewn cabins.

Coming here means orienting to well-hidden country. Although we’re just a little over an hour from the outskirts of Atlanta. we’re in deep mountains, the far-south extension of the Appalachians that back home are the Shenandoahs then, as you move south, the Blue Ridge, then over to the Great Smokies. In Georgia the Appalachians fold into Chattahoochee National Forest, 750,000 acres of thick, craggy, nearly empty wilderness.

After landing at the cabin we collapsed for a little while, battered by the nearly four-hour drive, then made our way into town. A sign along the road off the bypass advertises the “historic downtown district,” which in so many small towns means a few worn-out brick buildings, several usually boarded up, and a stone marker commemorating something or someone. So we nodded, a little impatiently. The road winds a couple of miles through thick swampy forest, the trees smothered in kudzu. But Ellijay has a spark about it, busy streets, an apple festival (Gilmer County, of which Ellijay is the county seat, is the apple capital of Georgia), barbeque cookout, several churches, an  upscale restaurant, others trying to be upscale.

Summit Farm

We got dinner in a tavern-type place, too hungry to be picky. A local guy sitting at the bar next to us, wearing a stars-and-stripes do-rag, told us Ellijay’s population was about 2,000. He moved back after years away to be close to family, but didn’t say what he did for a living. I never ask the question. He might drive a truck or write for the Times-Courier. Yes, Ellijay, or Gilmer County, has a newspaper.

Sunday morning on the cabin deck brought a bracing mountain chill, welcome after the stale heat of northern Virginia. Again, the soft stillness eased our progress into the day. Moving slowly, we slipped back into town and got breakfast at the Cornerstone Café, opening 8 AM. We had Mass at nine a few blocks away, so we got to the Cornerstone just before the doors opened, meeting a bevy of local old timers standing around looking hungry. It was okay, small-town diner-comfortable, with lots of coffee and chitchat.

The wedding was sweet. Jimmy the groom and Meredith, the bride, beamed and laughed along with siblings and other family from near and far. The venue, a place called Summit Farm, perched on a high slope above a lush meadow that stretches a mile out in the sunlight to thick woods and then to those pastel-green sawtooth peaks on the horizon. The owner waved at us and explained that he puts on dozens of weddings each year for couples entranced by the spectacular beauty of the place.

We ran around saying hello to all those relatives we haven’t seen in years, smiling for photos, getting the news on graduations, births, health problems—the way it goes at weddings.

Sandy, brother Tim, sisters Lynn, Kay

You may travel to places like Ellijay, Ga., which you had never before heard of, then wonder why you’ve not heard of them. Let’s face it, we can discover hundreds, maybe thousands of Ellijays across the country. You slip through them, find the unique charm of those hidden places or gape at the power of their towering peaks or crashing surf, then leave with a vague good feeling, a sense of having treated yourself to an adventure.

You’ve made a mental list of the places you want to see, and feel richer, smarter, more cosmopolitan for doing it. Then you remind yourself—I do, anyway—that there’s a clock ticking. You come down to earth and mentally start editing that list. The big, glamorous places that people brag about seeing, that you told yourself you would someday visit, are the first to go. Then one day you stumble into Ellijay. Something about it stays with you. Then you realize you’ll never go back. The same goes for all those relatives you haven’t spoken to in years, but wish you had. You promise yourself you’ll find a way to visit sometime soon. Then you start editing.

Summer Passing

September 2, 2019

Summer tiptoed away this Labor Day weekend with soft sunlight and clear sky. We tried to keep it here by seeing people we care about. I continued to annoy Sandy with my “where were we this time last year” shtick, recalling the road trip, but that more or less petered out after our anniversary (last week’s post). For the record, on this day last year we were in the two-week dead zone, me waddling around with a stent, as we looked forward to our flight back to Vegas.

As this past week ended our daughter sent us a real-estate listing, a two-bedroom house in Greenville, S.C., near where they live. Why don’t we just do it? Our son Michael, the closest to us of the four kids (near Philly), quizzed me. “Go ahead and do it if that’s what you want,” he said. “If that’s what you want”—the caveat always attached. So, for us, the usual paralysis.

On Cary Street

We thought about what touch-ups the house would need if we decided to put it on the market. Paint the kitchen ceiling. Paint the bathroom downstairs. Do something about the shower in the other bathroom. Replace the broken spigot on the back of the house. Replace the drain line from the sump pump. When I think about it, the list of stuff we’ve put off gets scary. Who in his right mind would want to buy this place? We’ll paint that ceiling, maybe next week.

I pulled back from all this navel-gazing just in time. It’s been a great week, starting with a charming visit with four ladies, two from Guatemala, two from Peru, with whom I worked at our former parish’s food pantry. I asked them if they’re going back; they all have family in those places, but they’re all U.S. citizens. They shook their heads, they don’t know what the future holds. Same as us, same as everyone. They sang old Latin love songs along with a karaoke machine. It was fun to watch, the way native-born sixty- and seventy-somethings sing along with the Beatles, the Stones, the Beach Boys.

Afterward, we all had tea. We kept the conversation light, although that day Trump had announced new barriers to asylum for those who seek it.

The next day we showed up at the Happy Trails running club annual picnic. Grizzled old guys, my group, along with kids in their twenties and thirties, all talking about their next 100-milers, their favorite shoes, their injuries. It’s fun, although my last ultra event was more than a year ago.

We headed out for our anniversary trip to Richmond. Our hotel was at the bottom of narrow, cobblestoned Cary Street, in the well-preserved old business district that draws the visitor back to Richmond’s dark years as capital of the Confederacy. Downtown then blends with the Monument Avenue neighborhood, the Avenue accented by all those fabulous old homes and with the statues and memorials that lend the name: Robert E. Lee, J.E.B. Stuart, Thomas (Stonewall) Jackson, and Jefferson Davis.

Those four still are revered by the Trump constituency, who don’t care much that Lee, Stuart, and Jackson learned their military skills at West Point and Davis was U.S. Secretary of War, before they all decided “states rights” and preserving slavery were more important to them than a united nation, and crossed over to the Rebels.

Offering a faint sort of balance, Afro-American tennis star Arthur Ashe’s statue, much smaller, is there, too.

The government district near our hotel reminds me of the slippery characters we’ve had to endure in state leadership in recent years. Still, Richmond is a net positive, with its elegant Fan District, Virginia Commonwealth University, the prestigious VCU Hospital. The city is the southern redoubt of the growing Democratic clout of northern Virginia. It also marks the jumping-off point to the hardscrabble red-state rural South, the depressed old coal-mining and farming counties on down to Tennessee and North Carolina that still send hardcore Republicans to the legislature.

We enjoyed a relaxing dinner with our son’s best friend. Tuesday morning we piled on the fun with a mile-long hike up East Main Street to the Third Street Diner, a 24-hour hole-in-the-wall bar-diner that serves great breakfasts. Thursday, a happy visit with old friends, contemporaries who braved northern Virginia traffic to visit. We compare notes on our aches and pains, next medical stops, our kids, our plans, such as they are.

img_20190831_1116324391893682648644792020.jpgSaturday—the Ring, the annual masochistic Happy Trails Labor Day extravaganza consisting of a full circuit of the 71-mile Massanutten Trail out in Fort Valley, Va., usually held in oppressively hot weather.  I’ve completed the Ring once and twice finished the “reverse” Ring, held the last weekend in February—same race but in the opposite direction, usually in brutally cold weather. No ultra-running for me this time, or maybe ever again. We’re volunteers, delivering dropbags, handing out aid at the 25-mile point, and hauling exhausted, dropped-out runners to their cars.

Driving those winding rural roads through the lush, thickly forested mountains takes me back, not just to when I entered every Virginia mountain trail event I could afford, but also to those young years, when Sandy and I drove through Middle Tennessee to her aunt’s farm in Pikeville, hard against the Cumberland Plateau. We indulge in these memories then awaken abruptly to load whipped runners into the van. I sympathize, but privately think: I finished this thing. Next time: persevere, get it done.

img_20190901_1107267305791781964322365633.jpgSo our life is full of these treasured days. I did get a letter Wednesday from the pulmonary critical-care doc (copy to oncologist) advising more diagnosis of the thickening of my pericardial wall, which encases the heart. “Recurrent cancer or radiation effect,” he wrote.

Still waiting to get a surgery date for the kidney. Still taking my pills. Still swinging, metaphorically, from vine to vine, among the physicians here in northern Virginia. But ready to say goodbye to summer. And maybe to this place.