The Plan

February 1, 2021

Eventually, many of us uproot ourselves. We give ourselves over to the purgatory of changing places. Former hometowns recede into memory. The connections to those we care about remain, as if we had said “so long” just yesterday. Then we think about highways. We want to see people. We have only so much time.

South Carolina Upstate is as good a place as any to feel time obliterate itself. It’s a modest spot on the map a few hours from the coast. We have good hospitals, a zoo, and a minor-league pro ball team. You find snippets of history across the state, some of it violent. Secession started in South Carolina, in December 1860.

Greenville has a Confederate museum. Like many S.C. towns, it has a road and a school named after millionaire slaveowner-cotton grower and rebel hero Wade Hampton, later former millionaire, senator, and governor. I just set aside Wade Hampton: Gentleman and Soldier, a tongue-in-cheek Christmas gift from my daughter. Hampton’s story captures not just the indelible mythology of the Lost Cause, but its tragic legacy for 2021.

While we work at settling here, now three months, a friend is planning a run-hike in the Grand Canyon next month on a section of the rim-to-rim network of trails out there. A hard challenge, but the kind of thing that refreshes spirits. I remind myself I only have so much time.

We could go to the Canyon. We could ride up I-26 to I-40 and across Tennessee, first through the mountains and the flat cotton South to the southern Plains, and over the Texas prairie to the desert. We’d pass through six states to Williams, Ariz., then turn north on U.S. 44 for the last 50 miles.

We could do that, or just stay on 40 out to California and see family. I’ve been telling them I’ll visit for years. But we’ve got a lot going on here:  the new house, the radiation sessions, the doctor’s appointments. February is not the time for cross-country driving.

Instead, there’s my still-new but rapidly aging bright idea, fast-hiking the length of the Appalachian Trail through Shenandoah National Park. I got a taste of it in September when I joined a friend to crew a runner overnight for half the distance. I want to see those white AT blazes again.

Right now it’s talk. Then there’s the climb of Mount Katahdin, northern terminus of the AT, in Maine. I’ve been to Springer Mountain, Ga., the southern end. Aren’t we all making big plans? Plans, or dreams. It would allow stopping in Virginia to see old friends, then near Philadelphia, where our son and daughter-in-law live. We could visit people in Jersey, an old friend in New York, and cousins out on Long Island. I could combine this trip with my 50-year college reunion, St. Anselm in Manchester, N.H., in June.   

These days many Americans are dreaming of recovery from disease, of getting decent work, and putting food on the table. Some are wondering when the national anger will fade, or if it ever will.

We wonder if we’ll ever set out on that Northeast junket. When do you know you shouldn’t be taking 2,500-mile road trips?  Last March before the pandemic blew up we drove from Virginia to Florida, then detoured to Greenville. Life changed. Florida tried to stop out-of-state visitors. We learned about masks and home confinement. Who doesn’t remember those things?  

But meanwhile all of us, not just the oldsters, reflexively struggle to resurrect memories. We try to leap back over 2020 and connect present to the past, that is, the past up to the start of last year, not because of the pandemic or the politics, but because we treasure the years when we were carefree with our dreams. More and more, old folks hear from younger adults wistful stories of their past, and the simplicity, the pleasure of it. They’re learning to revere memory, as we did, not just for the lessons it holds, but for the joy of summoning those they love.   

Then we find freedom. We know we get to a point where there’s more behind us than ahead. We find it when we get serious about measuring the good and maybe the not-so-good we’ve accomplished. We step up to take inventory, the sum total of what we’ve learned about ourselves and what we’ve meant to others. That we call wisdom.

We cherish the youngest, the children because we love them, but also because we want to teach them. We want to show them the richness of life ahead of them in that sweet spot between, well, between whenever we think we got our act together and the present moment, when we’re planning out months, not years.

The trick to that is not lapsing into the creaky “when I was your age …” stereotype of the old coot who thinks his complaints, grievances, and grudges are worthwhile lessons. And while we think we know the type, it’s not easy to avoid. After all, most of us didn’t make ten million dollars or become President. Something went wrong for me along that route. The sooner we recognized it and quit stewing about it, the sooner we relaxed.

I’m still looking at the Arizona trip, ready—maybe not exactly ready—to strap on a hydration pack and slog down the Canyon trail. Then we could hop in the van and finish the trip to California. We wouldn’t be on anyone’s clock. We’ve been talking about a big plane trip, maybe Hawaii or Alaska, never been to either. Then there’s Mount Katahdin—the climb, the campout, the fast trek back down. It would refresh spirits.


January 25, 2021

A multi-colored digital billboard is flashing above the city: “Seeking Information, Violence at U.S. Capitol, Call FBI.” So the detective work of tracking down the bad guys isn’t just by shoeleather or following up telephoned tips. 

If the feds think billboards will help find Capitol rioters here in Greenville, S.C., they must be using them elsewhere. Where, I wondered—New York, Chicago, Philly, L.A., Miami? Or perhaps just smaller cities like this one. Probably not Cambridge, Georgetown, Tribeca, Bel Air.

We, all of us—maybe not all of us—are struggling to make sense of and recover from the mob assault on democracy two weeks ago. Biden took the oath and spoke eloquently, maybe that’s a start. Sandy and I bought a house, for us, that’s a start. If things work out, we’ll move in late next month.

We got through signing most of the papers, then dodged the headlines about Biden, QAnon, covid-19, the election hoax, etc.  We drove the 30 or so miles to a state park outside Spartanburg and tramped around for a while. We stared at the lake (Lake Craig) and wondered why the place seemed deserted. The inauguration, I guessed.

It was the same downtown. On Main Street the 30-foot-tall obelisk topped with a statue of General Daniel Morgan, the hero of nearby Cowpens, gleamed in the chilly January sun. Sure enough, someone had climbed the obelisk to fasten a mask over the statue’s face. I looked around, the Spartanburg streets were nearly empty. It was an unnerving, unsettled moment.

 I wondered about that (to me) obscure name and place, Cowpens. It seemed strange that the most decisive battle of the Revolution, just over an even 240 years ago (Jan. 17, 1781), took place in this rural corner of South Carolina. The War for Independence exploded in the North, in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. Valley Forge, Saratoga, Ticonderoga, Trenton, and Brandywine are the places that register for me. Yet it was at Cowpens that Morgan defeated an outnumbered British force, severely weakening the Brits in advance of the siege and surrender at Yorktown ten months later. The inscription on the obelisk testifies that Morgan, at Cowpens, won the war: all the original colonies plus Tennessee contributed to its construction.

It was an odd lesson to gather in, in mostly a good week. Biden took over, Trump went into hiding. We got the house. Our oldest and youngest daughters flew into town Thursday on nearly empty flights, from Pittsburgh and Steamboat Springs. Then I got a passing grade on my PET (positron emission tomography) scan, or at least a C. Good enough.

The house is in a subdivision in a suburb. I wanted to live either in the city or the country. It has a yard to tend to, I didn’t want to do that. But looking at homes for sale is a grind. This one is close to our daughter’s, son-in-law’s, and grandkids’ place. That clinched it.

We picked the girls up at the airport Wednesday, Laura in the afternoon, Kathleen at 9 PM, all of us in masks. They sat in the van’s back seat a good six feet away. They’re quarantining for a few days at a rented place downtown. Then we’ll get caught up.

The PET report came back basically OK. The PET shows the body’s metabolic activity. The tech injects you with a tracer drug, you sit still for an hour, then get inside the donut-shaped tube for 20 minutes. The drug adheres to cancerous tissue and glows on the scan, showing whether, and where, cancer is hiding. It was sent to the radiation oncologist overnight. He found a trace of something where I had my problem two years ago. That needs monitoring, he said.

I lay down on the radiation slab, reached back and grasped the handbars, the tech slid me under the device, aimed the beam at my chest, and marked the target area. I’m down for 27 sessions. In a couple of weeks the medical oncologist will tell me what’s next. 

Like everyone else, we’re scrounging for good things, in our own lives, and in other’s lives.  Kathleen and our son Michael have had their covid vaccinations. Biden is trying to get the distribution right. But South Carolina still is near last place among the states in getting the shots to people. And we now know that scary critters are out there: not just the contagious microbes, but also the “Stop the Steal” groupies, the militias, the social media psychotics, the new Confederates, and the Republican liars, still waiting for the election to be reversed.

So we keep sorting things out, extracting hope and faith from chaos and tragedy. Maybe Biden needs a General Morgan for a Cowpens reprise. For two months the political liberties he and so many others fought for over those 240 years were in jeopardy. We’ve stepped back from the brink.

Meanwhile we’re depending on the good people, the doctors and nurses who will get us through covid and cancer, and those FBI agents with their billboards, winning the country back. They’re front and center, saving lives, standing up for us, creating hope.

Looking Glass

January 18, 2021

In the middle of the Pisgah National Forest, near where North and South Carolina meet, I hiked down a steep flight of stone stairs to Looking-Glass Falls. The white water thunders some 60 feet into Looking Glass creek, sending a soft mist drifting across the rocks to where I stood. The creek crashes over boulders and rushes southward for a couple of miles to the Davidson River, which joins the French Broad River just east of Brevard, N.C.

Where, exactly, were we? I had only a vague idea. We drove to Waynesville, N.C., that morning, Wednesday. The idea was to get out of town after an information-packed hour with the radiation oncologist, the “rad-onc” who’s taking my case, following up last month’s operation. The doc ordered a PET (positron emission tomography) scan. PETs are more precise than CTs and MRIs in detecting bad news. I’ve had two of ‘em.

So it was time to go to the mountains. The GPS route was up U.S. 25 to I-26 near the state line to Asheville, then 20 miles west on I-40 to Waynesville, which calls itself the “gateway to the Smokies.” They rise sharply in the northwest, topped with recent snow. We hiked up and down Main Street in coats and gloves against the biting mountain air, admiring the local flavor: Mountain Quilts, Wildflour Blue Bakery, Spenceberry Antiques, Blue Ridge Beer Hub.  

I wanted to stay longer, but it was time. For the return we found U.S. 276, which winds south out of town. “Does this get us through the mountains?” I asked somebody. It’s fine, he said. 

The first ten miles meandered through gentle hills past homesteads and small farms along the swift-flowing Pigeon River. We entered Pisgah, the forest closed in. Civilization fell away, we started climbing. As we puttered up the switchbacks I looked nervously at the sheer, snowy cliffs ahead. Some miles in we inched past an intersection with the Blue Ridge Parkway, which continues west across the state to Cherokee. We both held our breath as we climbed and climbed, then descended slowly, then more slowly through thick forest that rose up the slopes, nearly straight up around us.

We had never been this way before, which starts innocuously as Pigeon Street then becomes the Cruso Road. It passes Wagon Road Gap and Wagon Road Ridge, then Pisgah Ridge, Justus Cove, and Sliding Rock. This is wilderness, empty and desolate in mid-January. The road winds and cuts back between narrow cliffs and descents, the heights fade into the thick, shadowy forest. Then we rounded a bend and saw the falls.

Looking Glass Creek appeared. I drove a short way past and pulled over. We stepped out, catching our breath against the sharp air. Through the trees we heard the water’s thunderous cascade into the creek and through the sluice of the rocks below. It echoed against the forest solemnity. I stared, hypnotized by the collision of sound and stillness. The raw wildness of the rushing torrent and the rising mist conveyed a mysterious, undefinable beauty, the beauty of a mountain church, telling of the nearness of God.

I stood looking at the creek for a while. The sight and sound of the pure, luminescent wild water eased the tension of the previous day’s appointment. The doc walked us matter-of-factly through my CT scan images on his wide-screen computer monitor, pointing out my problems as of last March, then the evolution forward to October. The technology, I thought, is impressive. Impressive—but for me, ominous, foreboding, full of meaning.

“I’m proposing probably 30 sessions,” he said, talking about radiation. “The PET will tell us whether chemo, given concurrently, also will be appropriate. I’ll discuss with the med-onc (medical oncologist).”

So there was that, back in Greenville, and the rush of bulletins from Washington reporting the Trumpian barbarism along the Mall and in the Capitol. Arrests are being made, National Guardsmen are deploying, perimeters are being set up. We’re reading about social-media psychos, heavily armed, among us.

Refreshed by the cool spray on my face, I tramped slowly back up the hundred steps to the road, panting and wheezing. We pushed on. “Not out of the woods yet,” I thought, then frowned at the ambivalent metaphor. I decided to keep it to myself. Sandy stared straight ahead.

We wound on through the towering forest out of the mountains, passing a trailhead and a campground, then the Pisgah National Forest visitor’s center. Then a busy intersection, and we were in Brevard, a good-sized town. My cellphone buzzed. The rad-onc’s scheduler had an appointment for the PET in a week. The doc wants to see me the next day to discuss the results. I thanked her.

With Brevard behind us the forest closed in again. We were on the Greenville Highway, which zigzags southeast then southwest, tacking toward South Carolina’s mountains. We saw the state line and the sign, “Greenville County” perched amid the trees. We passed Ceasar’s Head State Park on a sharply angled switchback, then Table Rock. Twenty more miles got us to Traveler’s Rest, and the outbound rush hour. A day on the road, getting our wilderness fix. Looking Glass, a sudden exhilarating stab of beauty, reminds us that beauty exists. It exists, forever, and the sadness fades.

The Capitol

January 11, 2021

On a warm morning in September 2015 I stood with thousands of others in front of the Capitol reflecting pool and listened as Pope Francis, high on the south portico, spoke about the world’s need for peace, charity, and courage. Earlier, he had addressed a joint session of Congress. He said:

“The contemporary world, with its open wounds which affect so many of our brothers and sisters, demands that we confront every form of polarization which would divide it into these two camps. We know that in the attempt to be freed of the enemy without, we can be tempted to feed the enemy within. To imitate the hatred and violence of tyrants and murderers is the best way to take their place. …

“Our response must instead be one of hope and healing, of peace and justice. We are asked to summon the courage and the intelligence to resolve today’s many geopolitical and economic crises. … Our efforts must aim at restoring hope, righting wrongs, maintaining commitments, and thus promoting the well-being of individuals and of peoples. We must move forward together, as one, in a renewed spirit of fraternity and solidarity, cooperating generously for the common good.”

Just over five years later the entire world has been sickened by last Wednesday’s spectacle.  Nihilistic thugs attacked the same site, stampeding the balcony where the Pope had spoken, into Statuary Hall and into the House and Senate chambers, trying to carry out Trump’s orders to destroy American democracy.

What happened in those five years? The first, 2016, was consumed by the presidential campaign, filled with venom and obscenity. Sixty-three million voters preferred a morally and intellectually diseased man-child of a New York slum empire and failed casino owner to a Democrat branded as a creature of the Washington political establishment, then headed by a Black president. The next four, just now ending, became the Trump nightmare.

A new branch of the publishing industry—dozens, maybe hundreds of books and magazine articles—has grown up devoted to parsing why Americans then supported Trump and why many still support him. Theories range from the long-term decline of manufacturing, nervousness about erosion of cultural values and gun rights, the Afghanistan war, rising healthcare costs, and racial hatred ingrained since Reconstruction. All of that, the pontificators have suggested, translate into resentment of liberal “elites,” a theme massaged 24/7 by Trump acolytes and psychotics using social media.

Then there was the “economy.” Elect me, a no-nonsense businessman to bring back jobs in mining, steelmaking, etc., etc., and meanwhile balance the federal budget, Trump said. Millions of relatively well-off people, maybe uneasy about Trump’s pornographic personality, went along, expecting a Republican-led economic renaissance.

Covid and Trump’s callous indifference to it helped demolish that myth. The centerpiece of his 2020 campaign, an avalanche of lies, was not enough to win him a second term. Instead the Trump presidency metastasized into Wednesday’s rabid mob attack.

Still numb from watching the recycling TV footage of the Capitol assault, Sandy and I tramped to the medical oncologist Thursday. He advised me of my sentence to approximately four weeks of radiation therapy to “clean up” the thymic carcinoma cells likely left behind after my surgery two weeks ago. Last Monday the surgical oncologist, a dynamic leader in the field, had said with a warm smile (behind his mask) that he “enucleated” perhaps 99 percent of the lesion stuck to my ribcage and diaphragm. But with cancer, 99 percent is never enough.

The docs at the Prisma Health Cancer Institute here in Greenville, S.C., are the best at what they do. Surgery, radiation, chemo—they’re on top of it all. So we left after the twenty-minute appointment—friendly, positive, but no-nonsense—with the sense that things will be OK. We’ll keep hunting for a house, expanding the search from the city to the burbs then maybe beyond, to the closer reaches of Upstate boondocks, where you can see the gently undulating spine of the southern end of the Blue Ridge.

We get along doing that by recalling what moves us to joy. Tired of the video of the criminals in the Capitol and of the coward-crybaby president telling them to attack while he watches on TV, I recall the Pope’s brave and eloquent words of that September day: “… hope and healing, peace and justice.”

“Move forward together,” he said. I keep asking myself, how do we do that? For starters I’ll keep these upcoming appointments. Then as time and the rapacious local spread of the pandemic allow, we’ll keep looking for a home. For all Americans: no way out but to admit that Trump already is only an ugly stain on American history. The nightmare is over. Time to leave the four-year-long dark age behind, to move on, to heal.

Gated Community

January 4, 2021

The real estate agent stood next to her car inside the gate. She yelled, “Punch #2124.”

Sandy undid her seat belt, got out, and punched the code into the keypad. The gate opened. She got back in, refastened her seatbelt, and put the car in gear. She hit the brake. The gate had closed again.

We went through all that again except for the seatbelt part and drove through. We followed the agent through the neighborhood streets. The red-brick condo units looked well-constructed. She drove slowly, watching the unit numbers, and stopped at the last one on the street along the neighborhood boundary. She fumbled with the lockbox, we walked in.

The day was overcast and chilly, in the middle of that dead week after Christmas, when everyone is exhausted and no one wants to think about the New Year. But it was time for us to do this. Two months have passed since we landed in Greenville. Two weeks have slipped by since my operation, I’m walking slowly. We’ve got four months left on the apartment lease. The clock is ticking.   

The place was empty, the layout as described: two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a gas-fed fireplace, a “bonus” room upstairs. It was little messy, scraps of trash here and there. Sandy noticed a water stain on the kitchen ceiling. I stepped out the back door. The tiny yard, within an eight-foot-high fence, was littered with gardening tools. Beyond the fence, traffic roared by. I went back inside.

“The owner was a single man,” the agent said. “His family just placed him in assisted living.” She walked with us through the rooms, pointing out this or that feature, trying to show enthusiasm. She said she didn’t know for sure if the neighborhood was age-restricted to “55 and better,” as the phrase goes, but it looked that way.

We drove to another unit a few blocks away. It was identical on the outside to the first, but on a gentle rise. The place across the street was decorated with a big orange “Tennessee” banner, which cheered me, a relief from the ubiquitous “Clemson” flags and tiger-paw decals here in Greenville, near the center of the Clemson universe.

The place was clean and freshly painted the same color we had chosen to help sell our house. The layout was identical to that of the first unit but the kitchen had been fixed up a bit, with a granite countertop, which is all the rage, and a colorful tiled backsplash. The living-area and dining room floors were new ceramic tile. I looked out back, the yard was the same size as the other place’s but faced a neighbor’s backyard instead of a busy street.

The asking price, $209,900, was $100 less than that of the first one. The monthly HOA fee is $267, which covers yard care, pest control, snow clearing, and upkeep for a community pool.

We drove away. The gate opened automatically. We wished the agent a happy New Year. “We’ll keep looking,” she said, smiling. We headed back to the apartment.

So this is house-hunting, our first try since 1987. Sandy found the two units on the internet. We had driven past the neighborhood but couldn’t enter without the agent. Now we know something about gated communities. At this one the unit layouts all are identical, scratch that, some of the two-car garages have two doors, others have one. All your neighbors would know exactly what your place looks like inside, except for your furnishings and the wall color.

I realized I had never asked myself what is the point of the gate? To keep the riffraff out? The tourists, door-to-door salesmen? The drug kingpins and Hell’s Angels? Some gated communities include golf courses and other features not open to the public. No doubt, the residents would say, the gate ensures security. But most neighborhoods are fine without gates. At this one, a determined bad guy easily could vault the neighbor’s fence that meets the gate. He would have to commit his crimes without an escape vehicle. Security? Maybe. But I guessed also the gate offers a vague sense of exclusivity that comes from separating yourself from others.

Privacy is comforting. But the urge to separate, represented by the gate, also can feed the inclination to reclusiveness. Traversing the neighborhood, we saw one old guy jogging, or trying to jog. He waved, but stared. The streets were otherwise deserted. We saw no one raking leaves or puttering. The entire neighborhood was silent. The grounds are maintained by the HOA. You don’t have to do anything outdoors. Unless you’re leaving the compound, you don’t have to go outside, ever.

I thought of another silent place, Pony, Montana, 60 miles southwest of Bozeman, which we visited three times for trail runs a few years ago. It’s the middle of nowhere. No gate restricts entry, anyone can live there. The place had an unused school building, a bar, a post office, a few houses and trailers. The spectacular snow-topped Tobacco Root Mountains loom behind town. One road leads in, as with the gated neighborhood we just visited. Privacy—plenty of that. Would I rather get my privacy behind the gate in Greenville, or in Pony? Honestly, I’m not sure.

Back at the apartment, I looked, half-hearted, at The search will be hard work. We have only the sketchiest idea of what we’d like. Except for the big backyard and the three extra never-used bedrooms, we liked the house we had in Virginia before we sold it.

On a pleasant day last week we went for a walk along unfamiliar streets through a thickly wooded neighborhood. Oaks, maples, and poplars, nourished by the rich, damp Carolina soil, towered above large, lovely lots. It was quiet. We looked over the long ranch-type homes, knowing they were too large, too expensive, too much work. We’re hoping only for a permanent address, a touch of greenery, maybe a bit of character or flair.

You can find anything if you want to pay for it. Two-bedroom single-family homes are hard to find. Bigger is better, square footage is the bottom line, with at least two bathrooms. Our seven-year-old grandson, visiting our daughter in Pittsburgh last month, couldn’t believe her apartment had only one bathroom. His priorities are way different from ours. Still, we’d like two baths, maybe a view of the mountains. You don’t get that for $210,000 in a gated community. But you might get a fancy countertop. Then they can put me in assisted living.