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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

Simplicity

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.