July 27, 2020

Some milestones flash by. You get married, acquire in-laws, have kids, make new friends, change jobs, attend weddings, move to a new town. You’re reminded (someone always knows) of birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, soccer games, swim meets, then deaths and funerals, sometimes after they’ve occurred. If you don’t pay attention, life can be a blur of missed special occasions.

Not this one. One year ago tomorrow Sandy was released from the ICU at Bryn Mawr Hospital in Bryn Mawr, Penn. She spent a week there, starting the day before her birthday. Her birthday present was an MRI, followed the next day by an angiogram—a catheter inserted in her thigh and pushed into an artery in her brain. The diagnosis: an ischemic stroke, in which blood flow to the brain is blocked.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that strokes kill about 140,000 Americans each year. Nearly 800,000 have strokes each year.

She experienced symptoms: numbness in her arm and an optical migraine, on Saturday, July 20. It was the hottest day of 2019 in eastern Pennsylvania. Our daughter-in-law Caroline rushed her to the Bryn Mawr ER. Luckily, the hospital is a stroke specialty center.

The docs said Sandy’s stroke was “minor”; it didn’t seem minor at the time. It affected the left side of her brain, but she didn’t suffer any loss of physical or brain function. Through her ICU week, cardiologists and neurologists debated the right level for her blood pressure. Too high could cause damage to limbs or vital organs, possibly blindness and death (true for anyone with chronically high blood pressure, if untreated). Too low risked inadequate pressure to push blood through her brain’s constricted arteries and veins. I don’t think they flipped a coin, exactly, but the range they agreed on, between 140 and 160 (systolic, or top number) is too high for most people, but strong enough to keep blood flowing to her brain, with moderate risk.

It was a rough week: following the angiogram, two or more blood draws, days and nights, a continuous IV and real-time blood-pressure monitor, an emergency CT scan, summits with a rotating crew of specialists who shared their uncertainty. The problem: how much blood pressure medication would she need to stay in that 140-160 spectrum? They came up with a mix of pills.

Through it all—or most of it–she smiled, or tried to smile. She gritted her teeth during the blood draws, but came up with a grin. She toughed it out.

We picked up her first prescriptions from the closest CVS after discharge. It still was hot as blazes. We stayed with our son and daughter-in-law for a couple of days, extending our total stay from a weekend to twelve days. Then, at home, weekly visits to the family doc for blood-pressure checks and appointments with a cardiologist and a neurologist.

A few quiet weeks passed. We started walking, first up the street, then around the block, then a mile, then two. I covered this in some of my posts of last summer. Sandy’s BP was way up, then down. She went through two or three of those at-home blood-pressure devices, including one with an audio feature. It spoke to her: “Your systolic pressure is … your diastolic pressure is …”

Time crawled by, weeks, then months. She saw the cardiologist and took the stress test and passed. A “B+,” I called it. The neurologist visit was a little creepy, he grilled her about depression and gave her a prescription for anxiety. More pills. But she started feeling better.

She went back to the gym and walked on the treadmill, rode the exercise bike, lifted light weights. She went to weekday Mass. We kept up the walks. She talked to other women who had lived through strokes.

We got back on the road, to a family wedding in Georgia, then, for symmetry, Thanksgiving with our son and daughter-in-law in Pennsylvania. I suggested driving by the hospital, she wasn’t interested. For Christmas we trekked to South Carolina and watched the grandsons open their stuff Christmas morning.

She talked to people at Sentara hospital and a nearby assisted living facility about visiting with recovering stroke patients. The need is real, and urgent. Recovery, even for minor strokes, is slow, difficult, painful.

We managed to get our last “on the road” junket in, to Florida, in March. Then covid-19 hit. The workshops and visitation programs all shut down. We shut ourselves down. Like the rest of the country, we watched the reports: seniors were the first victims, then first responders, then everyone else.

Meanwhile, healing continues. Sandy still is on her meds, 6:00 AM then again at 6:00 PM. That will be every day, forever. She won’t be getting off the stuff, with one exception, the anxiety prescription. One day she simply stopped taking it. The doc was OK with it. I haven’t noticed a difference, probably because anxiety is contagious. She may have passed it to me.

She came with me to my oncologist’s appointment last month. We sat in the waiting room, everyone wearing masks, looking nervous. The doc came in, we talked through our masks. He looked over my scan and said it looked good. Back in four months.

So this week, her anniversary week, we looked back to the stroke birthday, 66—here we were at 67. It was uneventful. The kids called and sent gifts, we went to Mass. Prayers were for the covid victims, for all those suffering.

Later we went to dinner, socially distancing. We looked back two years, when she turned 65, a big deal. I recruited all the kids to show up for a surprise party. I called friends local and long distant, most made it. We ordered food, drinks, the works. The weather cooperated, it was clear and cool out in the yard. It all came together.

This anniversary moves us forward. We’re thinking of all the stroke victims, still in need. You push on, knowing what they’re experiencing, while their doctors and nurses now are in their own danger. Then we remind ourselves: another year is ahead. Prayer and courage gets you through it, to healing, peace, and the next anniversary.

Back to Vietnam

July 20, 2020

As I read about Trump and his White House people savaging Dr. Anthony Fauci, I thought of Vietnam. That is, the vicious war and its spinoffs at home, some of which I lived through and participated in. Then, as now, America suffered.

Last week I watched a “webinar” presented by a history professor at my alma mater, St. Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., entitled “St. Anselm and the Vietnam War.” The presentation focused on 1969-1970, the height of the anti-war movement. The professor referred with academic dispassion to a demonstration in downtown Manchester in fall ’69 and the “love it or leave it” criticism of the demonstrators by the local newspaper editor. He then discussed the explosion of student activism in May 1970, following the killing of four people on May 4 by Ohio National Guardsmen at a demonstration at Kent State University that responded to President Nixon’s “Cambodia incursion.”

In April President Nixon had authorized U.S. and South Vietnamese forces to attack sanctuaries in neutral Cambodia used by Viet Cong guerrillas and units of the North Vietnamese Army (the People’s Army of Vietnam, or PAVN). The operation abruptly expanded the scope of the Southeast Asian war. Historians believe the action, (opposed by Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird) incited further popular support for the communist Khmer Rouge, which was fighting a civil war against the Cambodian government.

I got a mild kick out of the professor using a digitized image of the front page of our May 15 issue, which featured a story I had written, “Events of Week Lead to Optional Strike.” Those memories rushed back: two weeks of angry exchanges among students, faculty, and administrators, dozens of tense interviews, sleepless nights of writing, rewriting, copyediting, page pasteup (no desktop publishing in 1970).

Just before the Kent State killings, Connie Buckley and I, both juniors, had taken over as editors of the college newspaper. I recall we wondered what in heck to put in our first issue to get our fellow students to pick it up and read it. Suddenly the nation blew up before our eyes. Instead of announcing spring sports scores and exam schedules, we found ourselves reporting on national tragedy, as colleges and universities shut down in a strike against the war, against Nixon, against the military. Those who were there remember: the nation’s most prestigious schools shut down by angry, agonized protests that at times descended into violence.

We already were on the front lines. In mid-November 1969 Buck and I hitchhiked from New Hampshire to Washington for the Vietnam War Moratorium march organized by the “New Mobe,” along with 250,000 others. On a cold gray Friday we marched past the White House, each wearing a sign bearing the name of a soldier who had died in the war. We shouted the names. Buses had been parked along Pennsylvania Avenue to keep the marchers at a distance. Weeks later, in a story for the paper, I wrote, “for a few moments it seemed we became the dead G.I.s whose names we wore, saying, ‘What about me?’”

At the time and for a while afterward we savored the sense of being “involved,” of doing something meaningful and important. Yet while in D.C. I watched marchers carrying Viet Cong flags smash windows along the route. This is not for me, I thought. And as we watched over the next six months, despite the sincerity of millions of Americans who opposed the war, the movement was coopted by political extremists, including some very violent people.

We both wrote editorials for that May 15 issue. Although many students expected us to endorse a school shutdown (some hoping to get out of taking exams), we went the other way, opposing the shutdown. And we heard about it.

The debate over the impact of the antiwar movement continues and never will end. The war ended because America’s leaders saw finally that it could not be won, whatever that meant. American troops were pulled back and shipped out. Without them, the South Vietnamese army, organized to fight Viet Cong guerrillas and led by corrupt officers, was no match for the regular North Vietnamese army, the PAVN, armed with Soviet-supplied weapons, including tanks and heavy artillery.

In September 1974 President Gerald Ford issued a pardon to Nixon. Suddenly, in April 1975, as Ford watched on the sidelines and America’s ambassador to Vietnam refused to believe what was happening around him, the PAVN was in Saigon. Two weeks earlier the Khmer Rouge had entered Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital, and started four years of genocide.

The opposition to the Vietnam war evolved through the late 1960s. It started with horror among ordinary Americans at casualty reports, hundreds of dead soldiers and Marines, week after week. It grew to anger, in voice and strength, under Johnson, then Nixon. The Cambodia incursion prolonged the agony. The antiwar movement descended into nihilism and Nixon was reelected. We are still living with the consequences.

So today, full circle. In 2016 a cadre of Americans, as angry with conventional politicians as their parents were in 1975, managed to elect a pseudo-reality show host as president. For three years we watched, and Senate Republicans watched, as Trump marketed hotels, slandered good people, fawned on dictators, lobbied foreign leaders for political gain, played golf. Then covid-19 attacked. When Americans weren’t sufficiently distracted by the president’s tweets about movie stars, women, and race-car drivers, he needed a bigger target, a teller of truth. That’s Fauci, whose expertise in the science of infectious disease may help us end the pandemic which, with Trump’s connivance, has become a holocaust.

For most Americans Vietnam and the antiwar movement now are a brief few paragraphs in history texts. I recall those casualty figures. I read about the covid-19 deaths, now more than double those of Vietnam and rising. I think of Fauci’s warnings to all of us. Then I think of Trump, and—golf.


July 13, 2020

We’re getting used to the idea of moving to South Carolina. Or trying to get used to it. Our daughter, son-in-law, and two grandsons are there. The rest of our kids fled Virginia years ago. We’re stranded here in a place that the passing of time has made as comfortable as old shoes. Right now, with the virus raging, the timing for a move is a little uncertain. But life here is getting a little weird. See last week’s post.

I like the feel of Virginia. The Old Dominion is one of the three places, along with Boston and Philadelphia, where American history got its start.  We have Mount Vernon, Williamsburg, Jefferson’s Monticello, James Monroe’s Highland, James Madison’s Montpelier. The American Revolution and the Civil War both ended here. South Carolina? Famous for starting the Civil War.

That’s unfair, sure. And, although it’s true, also beside the point. History hasn’t tied us here, it doesn’t tie anyone to anyplace. People who will spend their lives here won’t do it because they’re sharing in the story of their surroundings. Same with the old timers in South Carolina and everywhere else. We all have our cultural inclinations: highly unlikely someone who grew up in Alabama surrounded by friends and family will one day decide to move to Vermont. Other things matter. Folks who don’t like cold look to escape to warm places. Local politics may chase people, though not likely to a distant state. The other things really come down to work, health, family. When those things push us, moving is easy.

What’s hard is looking at the options. Regardless of age, what we’re all looking for, move or not move, is decency, tolerance, a steady state for the balance of our lives. Sandy and I know this transplant to South Carolina is our last best shot.

Right now the virus is dictating the decency of life everywhere. Virginia is battling back, reporting fewer cases and deaths lately, as people wear their masks and take care in public places.  In the Trump/red states, Texas, Florida, Arizona, covid is tearing out of control.

Is state leadership smarter in Virginia? Probably. We have our 10-percenters who always do the wrong thing. Some Yankees see only politics. Talk-show polemicists insist that many southerners risk infection to show they’re loyal Republicans: no masks, no distancing, all-out at the bars and the Trump rallies. They have demolished the quality of life of the places where they live, the argument goes.

Is that so? That’s the easy presumption: that southern and western states opened early because they’re more concerned with business and a tough-guy sort of freedom than protecting health. But that’s wrong, completely wrong. The same thing happened in Michigan, Wisconsin, New York. It happened in L.A., it happened in London. The pool parties, the bar scenes, the unmasked crowds showed up everywhere.

It happened in those places because people want to belong, to be with others like themselves. Just as true in Virginia as everywhere else. Here we paid attention to the experts. In Texas, etc., state and local governments let human nature have its way. Ignoring sound medical guidance was colossally stupid. But they did what people wanted.

The point is about belonging which, let’s face it, includes going out, having a good time, with the bright lights, the music, the good-looking gals and guys. When I was in my twenties Mickey Gilley put a point on it with “The Girls All Get Prettier at Closing Time.” Years later Toby Keith followed with “I Love this Bar and Grill.” Belonging, when you’re young, is about going out, rubbing elbows and shoulders. It’s all a little fantasy, as the music tells it. Nothing about covid-19. You can’t drink wearing a mask. It’s what we do, what we all do—or did.

That’s a digression: “opening up” in Texas, etc., also let infirm seniors toddle off to the buffet and the barbershop.

We’re in a different universe, but not so different. Belonging matters for us, too. But our kids are far away. Our “guest” bedrooms, the beds neatly made, have become silent spaces, cheerfully, lovingly fixed up, but silent. Family can’t just drop in. Their lives are filled with work, chores, bills. Life is complicated. For us, that means life is quiet.

Moving away will be excruciating, like tearing off a bandage. Driving away from here that last day will be like a slap in the head—if we can get to that point. The practical problem is overwhelming. We’re looking back now at 42 years of collecting stuff.  This house became a warehouse. Along with the two never-used bedrooms, we have two others disguised as an office and a storage room. Weeks go by when I don’t visit the far end of the house.

I’ve been probing back there, tentatively. I found a dusty folder labeled “Original Orders” that sent me to Marine Corps Officer Candidate School in August 1971. The orders—surprise—were typed on an actual typewriter, with a carbon copy attached. Then plastic model jet fighters our son Michael and I built when he was in grade school, lined up on top of a bookshelf.

I stumbled on copies of papers I wrote in grad school. Copies of hundreds of my bylined articles from magazines and newspapers back to the late 1970s. One of them, entitled “Music City Not Altman’s Nashville,” appeared in the Nashville Banner (long defunct) in 1975 after I moved to Music City. I have a copy of the Marine Corps Gazette from December 1976, and magazines that ran book reviews I wrote. Another piece ran in The Wall Street Journal in 1986, after we landed in Jersey. Still have a copy.

This is the way it is when you hike up your britches to move. Some of it I’ll keep, some will go to the landfill. Keep sifting, shake the dust off, come up for air. Constantly. This is how we learn about ourselves. We’ll probably replicate these collections at our next house. The truth about us may be buried, but it’s there. It’s home.


July 6, 2020

Sitting in the back yard on the bench our son built for us, I don’t want to think about complicated things, although more and more, everything is complicated. But I’m done “decluttering” for the day. It’s quiet. The neighbors next door aren’t on their deck playing their unique music. Anchored here, thinking my old-guy thoughts, I can’t help going over in my head the bizarre, baffling, hilarious things I’ve seen around here in these 33 years.

Above my head a huge maple extends its limbs over the roof, probably damaging it. Our back yard is a hill steep enough for the kids to sleigh down when they were that age. The yard is enclosed in scrub and trees that hang thickly over our weed lawn, blocking most daylight. The property behind us at the top of the hill resembles a jungle. The occupants, probably renters, have not yet cut the yard this spring and seldom did last summer. It’s a thick tangle of bushes and vines, nearly obscuring the house. I don’t mind, the massive growth gives the impression that we live on a lush nature preserve. Sandy worries about snakes, though. I imagine the forest reclaiming the entire lot, then spreading down the hill.

The fence along the south side, put up by the owner years ago, is collapsing. He’s been gone for a half-dozen years, the house is rented. The current tenants aren’t motivated to do anything about the fence. Neither were the previous occupants. So it sags, sometimes a ten-foot section teeters over and falls into our yard. I’ve propped it up with a two-by-four.

The house on the north side has a basement apartment. The owner bought the place about eight months ago. He lives upstairs and rents the apartment to a couple with three little girls. They cook many of their meals outside on a propane gas grill on the side of the house facing us. The parents don’t speak English, but the two older girls are perfectly fluent. Sandy has given their mother a couple of our daughters’ old but still good coats and dolls. The girls always wave, smile, and yell “Hi!”

Like anyone who’s lived in the same place a long time, we’ve seen it change. Change is putting it mildly. People talk endlessly about the explosion of residential and business growth in northern Virginia over the past three decades. Trees go down, subdivisions go up: thousands of homes and townhomes. Then the Stop-N-Gos, the 7-11s, the Sheetzes and Wawas move in.  Live here if you need gas and coffee.

But that’s going on everywhere. I wrote last summer about how you’ll never be lonely if you drive along America’s numbered state highways. It’s here, where we live, that we observe the evolution of suburbia. A caveat: in neighborhoods ruled by HOAs, things don’t change, except for the trees and shrubs. Most people don’t want to be hassled so they generally obey the rules. They get the pools and tennis courts.

Our neighborhood was one of the first settled in the “community” of Lake Ridge, within the worn-out industrial-residential town of Woodbridge. Lake Ridge isn’t a municipal place, just a series of subdivisions along a four-lane thoroughfare. This neighborhood doesn’t have an HOA. So we don’t have those annoying fees. Folks are free to put their own stamp on their homes and the street out front. No HOA means Christmas lights year-round, religious statues and giant inflated Darth Vader balloons on the front lawn, slat fences labeled “beware of the dog,” and boats, including some enormous ones, parked in the street. These are boats that never go to sea.

We have pickup trucks and minivans parked closely together in the street to conceal that license plates are missing. We have cars and trucks parked nearly forever, abandoned. Late last year, on a pouring rainy night, we were amazed to see a tow truck pull up behind a car that had been parked for months, hook it up and haul it away.

Sandy frequently counts the cars parked in front of a house down the street where probably four families live. It doesn’t bother me. Sure, they’re probably illegal. None of my business. The family next door to us, or some of their many friends and relatives who visit frequently, without masks, likely are illegal. I hope the police have more important things to do.

The neighborhood probably is a lot like others. We have our petty crime, our odd door-to-door people (no “no soliciting” signs around here), our amateur fireworks any time of year, our loud dogs and missing cats. We have neighbors who moved in late at night and moved right out again. We have—there being no HOA—front lawns that can get to a foot high. We have our oldsters who keep their eye on you. We have our do-it-yourselfers who shouldn’t do it themselves.

We have, as aforementioned, a mix of nationalities, which means exotic cooking aromas, Vietnamese, Salvadoran, Chinese, and others, and loud music from other continents—all the other continents. What we haven’t had is trouble. OK, one bad experience, a robbery, years ago. Otherwise this mix of bureaucrats, maintenance and construction people, restaurant staffers, domestic workers, enlisted military—families, single parents, and retired folks—gets along. We all wonder about each other, but we get along.

Isn’t that all that matters? The rough spots I see may be rough only to me. The yapping dog up the street may be truly his owner’s best friend. The flip side of self-awareness, after all, is cluelessness: my neighbors may not like the color of my house, or my attitude. Be positive, I remind myself, constantly.  Things may fall apart around us. Still, find good thoughts. Live with faith and hope.

In Nashville we lived in the city, near academics, professionals, students, and musicians, with city bus service, neighborhood shops, cafes, a theater. Then, of necessity, we landed here in the suburbs. Not the manicured-lawns kind. We found ourselves in the melting-pot burbs, the “beware of the dog,” big-boat burbs.

I hear a distant, low bark of thunder, and look up. The sky is darker. I stay in my chair, thinking about how we got here: what if this happened, if that didn’t. We’ll move away eventually. We wonder who will move in. My joke is we’ll come back in 10 years. Our house will be gone. Instead, we’ll find a forest.