Grandpa Smith’s Cookie Cutters

I’m sure you recognize these cookie cutters: a faux-festive leaf, a doomed turkey, a stunted evergreen. At one time there was a Santa whose pack protruded from his back, giving him a distinctly hunch-back profile. I don’t know what became of him.

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Not to detract from their utility; they and an assortment of stars and bells and snowflakes did yeoman’s service, Christmas after Christmas, until I inherited the cookie cutters crafted by my Grandpa Smith for his wife, Grammy Smith, a century or more ago.  There must have been a dozen or so in all. Four have come to me: the tree, the Santa, the bird, and the outline of a wreath.

 

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I never knew Grandpa Smith. He died years before I was born. But I felt I knew him from the stories my dad told and wrote about his “pop”, a small-town grocer in eastern Pennsylvania in the early years of the the twentieth century. One of my most cherished possessions is a little book my dad wrote, called My Pop the Grocer, a collection of his memories of childhood during the years leading up to the Great Depression. In it, we learn that, in addition to being an astute businessman who fought the good fight against the reviled Chain Stores, Grandpa was an inventor and a putterer. If the cookie cutters are any indication, his imagination and joy of creating outstripped his grasp of function. Re-mastering the cookie cutters has become a December tradition.

For the past few years the cutters have been in the care of my daughter, Erica, so I’m a bit out of practice. But this year I have them back, and yesterday morning I spent an hour making Grammy Smith’s sugar cookies and Grammy Smith’s molasses cookies, using Grandpa Smith’s cutters. Oh yes–and I rolled them out on the slate rolling surface that was my mom’s. Even when I’m alone in the kitchen, Christmas baking is a family affair.

 

The trick in using these cookie cutters is to make a dough soft enough to roll thin but strong enough to keep the delicate figures intact. (Hence, Grammy Smith’s recipes; all those years ago she must have struggled to get it right.) Separating the cookies from the dough, after they’re cut, is an exercise in precision. It’s easier to peel the dough away from the cookie than to lift the cookie out–which is almost sure to separate Santa’s tassel from his hat, if not his entire head from his shoulders. By carefully extracting the dough that gets stuck in the cutter, he can often be stuck back together. The tree hangs together pretty well at the dough stage, but is likely to break at the trunk after it’s baked and if it’s baked too crisp, the lower branches break off. The bird’s tail and beak are always at risk. The wreath is no problem.

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But they are a joy to behold, especially the jolly old elf. Whenever I use them, I think about the grandfather I never knew. They remind me that, despite our insane preoccupation with the accumulation and subsequent dispersal of “stuff”, the stuff that ties us to our roots is worth hanging on to…and passing on.

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Riding the Roller Coaster

On one of our first dates, in the risky sixties, Jack and I went to an amusement park. The only thing I remember clearly is the roller coaster. Jack feigned nonchalance and I pretended to be keen, and so we both ended up scared to death in an attempt to impress each other. Just at the point where the car plunged full-tilt into the abyss, the park folks had seen fit to post a sign saying “Please Remain Seated.” Really? We both laughed hysterically, grateful for a face-saving outlet for our mutual terror.

These last months have been a roller coaster of another kind, and we’re well past pretending or saving face. Nonchalance has been in short supply. Plenty of fear. Not a lot of laughter.

Many of you who read this blog know that a few months ago Jack suffered what doctors believed to be a metastasis of the cancer that we all hoped had been eradicated by the removal of a kidney in April. A CAT scan in August revealed nodules in his lungs, too small to biopsy at the time but clearly suspicious. That suspicion has defined the past three months. We knew, of course, that the cancer might spread. We hadn’t thought it would be so soon. Even Jack’s renowned optimism gave way to resignation and depression. A scan in November would be followed by a biopsy and a plan for treatment. Maybe, with luck, we’d be able to go to Mexico for a few weeks, but he’d be on the cancer treadmill. I was trying to prepare myself for whatever might be required of me—including trying to overcome my congenital pessimism because we all know the health advantages of having a spouse with a positive attitude.

Last week, Jack got surprisingly good news. The “almost certainly malignant” nodules have not multiplied or grown perceptibly since August. While they may still be malignant, they’re growing so slowly that no one is terribly concerned about them at this point.

So instead of contemplating a winter of cancer treatments, we are making plans for our annual migration to Guanajuato soon after Christmas.

We’re also observing with interest our surprisingly subdued reaction to this welcome news. Just when the roller coaster should be swooping us upward, we are both feeling a bit flat. We were psyched up for bad news—adrenalin flowing, fight or flight. And suddenly…no immediate need to either fight or flee. It’s almost a let-down, odd though that seems. It’s interesting to think about the unconscious strategies we use to protect ourselves from emotional pain, and the unexpected consequences they may have.

Of course, there’s no fooling ourselves. We’re climbing up from an abyss without really knowing where the roller coaster will take us next, or how long the ride will be, or who will be the first to hit bottom. But it all seems a little farther away than it did just a few days ago.

So now, it’s time to leave the amusement park, get organized for our move south, and stoke up my usual angst about living with a foot in each of two countries—straddling the raging behemoth in between.

 

 

 

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A Sterling Review

A couple of weeks ago I got an email from an acquaintance in Mexico telling me how much he was enjoying reading Shifting Currents. He bought the book from me last winter, but must have left it languishing on his shelf until recently. Of course, I always puff up a bit when I get such messages. And Sterling is an accomplished writer himself, which makes his praise doubly welcome.

As I always do, I asked him—as modestly as possible—if he would be comfortable and willing to post a review on Amazon. You know—one of those two or three sentence come-ons that encourage browsers to buy your book. (I’m not sure how many browsers Shifting Currents gets, but I’m on a bit of a promotional binge and eager for whatever attention I can generate.)

He said he would, and I believed him—but I’ve learned not to count my chickens since folks often agree but don’t follow through. So I was pleased to receive another note a week later suggesting that he was still working on it. Working on it? The man is a fine and prolific writer. How long should it take to write a few sentences?

Yesterday, he posted the review, and I understood. I was also blown away. Thank you Sterling, for taking the time to write this and for sharing it widely in your own networks as well as on Amazon. My only concern is that, when people encounter me face-to-face, they will be searching in vain for the qualities you ascribe to me in this wonderful review/essay.

Sterling’s blog can be found at sterlingbennett.com  There you’ll find reviews of his novels and his comments and observations about living and writing in Mexico.

When my mother called me in from the woods, she told me I was going to repeat the eighth grade and this time with Latin, American history and a real English teacher. And so, off I went to a lonely boarding school outside Boston with bee’s waxed floors and gas lanterns on the wall. And then, not long after, Lincoln Steffen’s autobiography came into my hands. I remember exactly where I was sitting all those years ago, and I remember the feeling of being transported to a world that was not centered around myself.

In the sixties I was a graduate student at Berkeley in Germanic Languages and Literature and read Theodora Kroeber’s Ishi, the Last of His Tribe and her biography Ishi in Two Worlds. The books had such a powerful influence on me that I would still like to have my ashes strewn on top of a certain cliff that looks down over Deer Creek Canyon northeast of Chico, California, where I found my better spiritual ancestors. Where Ishi lived and where the rest of his people were wiped out by white people for sport or bounties.

Reading Paula Dunning’s memoir, Shifting Currents, has now provided me with a third epiphany, this one explaining what I was doing for thirty-five years on a small, non-producing farm one and a half hours north of San Francisco, on a ridge that divided the dairy country to the south from the apples, plums, and grapes to the north. Her chronicle gives shape to what remains only a vague understanding of my own “farming” years, where I raised two children by myself and taught full-time at a nearby university. It was more that we kept animals, as well as ourselves: cats, dogs, pigeons, chickens, a few milking goats, a few Black Angus beef cows, two pigs, two sheep, a donkey, a pony—now and then a horse. Most of which got loose, or broke through old fences. Or, in the case of sheep, were attacked by big dogs from miles away.

Dunning and her husband Jack emigrated from the United States to Canada in the 70s and, in a moment of divine insanity like my own, bought a large farm in Ontario and, like me—but on a much larger scale, “went back to the land.”

For me, Dunning’s prose raises a reoccurring question, and that is, what is she doing to evoke this sense in the reader of being in the presence of something larger than ourselves. The closest I can come to an answer is that she anchors even the smallest, every day images and rhythms of farming in an epic sea. Not in the wine-dark sea of Homer, plowed by Greek ships, but rather in the loamy one that the Dunnings’ tractors pass over, following the curve of the earth, plowing Canadian fields into chestnut-browns, that sprout and become Alfalfa and Timothy in emerald greens—that form waves when the wind blows across them. In late summer, those fields morph into rows of drying hay and under them, calms of yellowish gray stubble left standing after the cutting. Followed by the rhythm of baling, hefting the bales onto the hay wagons, stacking them, and then raising them into dark, sweet smelling lofts. All of it, an ocean of activity bounded by the dark hill at the end of the property that serves as one navigation pole, the bend in the river as the other.

Dunning describes what many of us who have lived with animals have sensed, and that is being near to an Otherness that we do not really fathom. An intelligence, a spirituality, that lives behind the rectangular pupil of a Nubian goat, in the sweet breath of a cow, in the exuberant playfulness of pigs. Beings that depend on us and yet whose souls, for want of a better word, remain unreachable and beyond our control.

From cave paintings we know about the spiritual connection that used to exist between humans and animals—as opposed to, say, the tight-wrapped packages in the meat department. It helps to think of Dunning’s writing as similar to ancient cave painting. Her images hint at what we still sense. It may be what Rilke meant about the poet’s task being naming the unnamable. Or what Goethe described as symbol, where, through an image, an idea remains active but also unapproachable, and, though expressed in all languages, including art, cannot be put into words.

There are no saber-tooth tigers in this book, but there are dangers. Machinery that can eat children. Six hundred pound, water-filled tractor tires that can trample us all. Chimney fires that can blow through chinks in the brick and consume the whole house and the family that lives inside it. Damp hay, baled too soon, can smolder and ignite. A river close by to drown in. And the constant possibility of being rendered dead or maimed by hoof, horn or machinery, all of which can cut, hurl or drag.

In the 60s and 70s, there were other costs in “returning to the land.” Most “normal” people didn’t heat with wood, try to grow their own food or raise children “at the North Pole,” as Dunning’s mother believed she was doing. As my own mother believed about my child rearing. “In the 70s,” Dunning writes, “we felt we should be able to do everything, from scratch.” Which diluted our development in certain areas. And so there was always an undercurrent of self-doubt, the nagging question, “Did I make the wrong choice?” And so we suffered gently numbing embarrassment when tennis-playing urbanites visited with their clean shoes and spotless sweaters. With their expectations of unexposed drainage ditches in the yard, or of available hot water for showers and of functioning toilets—both of which seemed to stop working at just the wrong moment—in a comedy of irony and mortification.

Dunning chronicles the social tensions. The farmer neighbor, conservative in her views of school sex education, let alone birth control, was completely practical on how to use three fingers to get a calf to begin sucking and therefore to survive. A young “liberated” leader led Dunning’s women’s group—subdued and cautious people—through the early feminist guidebook “Our Bodies, Ourselves,” with its explicit drawings of women’s bodies and how they function. In a delightful scene, Dunning describes how a session devolved to snorting and laughter—and friendship.

Or the pitfalls possible when Dunning’s “normal” parents visit and a symbolic patricide occurs, a shift in familial power. Dunning yells at her father when, in his innocence, he gets in the way of mischievous, escaped cows and blocks their passage through a critical gate open to where they’re supposed to be going. Then, still full of remorse, she tries to honor her father by asking him to carve the Thanksgiving Turkey—the relationship now changed forever.

Living with animals in the 70s included taking their lives, intentionally or not intentionally. Farming presupposes the role of life-taker. An assumption sometimes only challenged by a child, as when Dunning’s young daughter—a one-person Greek chorus—wails, “Why does everything have to die?”

When a cow is to be slaughtered, Dunning, pregnant, feels she should help, but dreads participating. She is relieved when her neighbor Morley appears to take her place and comments, “Has Jack been reading that damn book again?” Some how-to-slaughter-a-large-animal guidebook that we back-to-the-landers might have bought back then in a counter-culture bookstore. Morley continues, “And you shouldn’t be anywhere near. It could upset you and harm your baby. This is not something to mess with.”

But Dunning has always messed with it. With the Otherness. Always walking a line close to something larger than herself. Something she is aware of and paints with her imagery. Pointing at things that most of us—deep down— know something about.

Dunning confesses to a lingering self-doubt on the Ontario farm. Her husband also taught at a university; while she at times worried, she may have been “just a farm wife.” But when you read her writing, you see she was no such thing. She was becoming a psychagogue in the sense of someone who—in this case, with words—can lead us right up to the edge of other worlds. Someone who offers us a path to understanding the Land and the Creatures on it that we live with—human and non-human. Aside from also being one of the finest and strongest writers I have ever read.

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Heat Wave

The summer that wasn’t seems to be morphing into the fall that isn’t. It’s the end of September and the temperature outside is pushing 30 degrees Celsius at 10 am. The hill shows barely a hint of colour. Yesterday we came home from a week at our Lake Superior cottage, driving through the Superior highlands that should be awash in reds and oranges. Not yet. The week was horribly hot, even on the water, which was glassy-still—barely a breeze except for one day when the air just couldn’t contain any more moisture and thunder storms rolled in for a few hours. Then, back to the heat, which is breaking records all over Ontario.

Colours just beginning

This follows a summer of dreary skies, cool temperatures, and too much rain. There were days on end in July and August when I couldn’t walk on my vegetable garden without sinking in the mud. The bean plants turned yellow—drowned, I suspect. My own tomatoes and peppers have done reasonably well; I don’t know why. Most people gave up on them weeks ago. Not enough sunlight to ripen fruits that were rotting on the vine. Now the plants appear to be dying of old age. I guess that’s what they’ll do if there’s not a frost to hasten them along.

Tomato plants waiting for a frost. Dying of the heat?

Of course, the grass loves all this. The late-summer respite, when the grass slows down, never came. The lawn is still growing like mad, cashing in on the combination of summer’s moisture and September’s heat, revealing varieties of weeds and grasses I’ve never seen before. I know I waxed eloquent a few posts back about the pleasure of mowing the lawn. That was June. This is almost October. Enough, already.

But wait. Am I grumbling about a wet summer and a late September heat wave while much of the world is reeling from hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes?

I pour myself a glass of ice water while reading that folks in Puerto Rico will be without power or water for weeks, perhaps months. I lower the blinds on my south-facing windows while families in Mexico (the country second only to Canada in my heart) and the Caribbean have lost their homes, even their children, to a series of natural disasters I can barely fathom. I search in vain for signs of fall in my own wooded hill while forest fires devour parts of western Canada and the US. And of course we hear only faint rumblings of the suffering from extreme weather events in Asia, so focused are we on our own hemisphere.

How easy it is to wallow in our own private and passing discomfort when genuine disasters are erupting out of sight. Mea culpa. On so many levels.

Tomorrow is supposed to be cooler.

 

 

 

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Old Quilts

I went on a closet-cleaning binge a few weeks ago, prompted by my need to find space for five boxes of books. Ever hopeful, I’d ordered a hundred more copies of Shifting Currents. One thing led to another, and I found myself scurrying from one closet to another. Eventually, I was face-to-face with my three family heirloom quilts.

One was a gift from my mother just a few months before she died. It’s a handsome and warm bed cover, sewn entirely by hand. When mom passed it on to me, she said “You’re the one who should have this, since you’re quilting now too. It’s true. I’ve lost my enthusiasm for it now, but for quite a few years, I made quilts for us, for children, for grandchildren. I know how much work and care goes into them.

I didn’t know the great-grandmother who made this, but when I look at the tiny, even stitches on the back, I imagine her cutting the pieces, sewing them together by hand, sitting at a quilting rack in an old Pennsylvania farmhouse, perhaps hosting a quilting bee.

 

The other two came to me years ago as quilt tops, discovered in my grandmother’s house long after her death. We don’t know who began these projects and left them unfinished. I chose backing material and had a neighbour hand-quilt them for me.

“I’ve stitched them pretty close,” she said when she’d finished the job. “The cotton’s in bad shape.”

They looked great, though. The pink one became our daughter’s bedspread until she left home. We used the other on our bed until it began showing signs of wear.

At some point, probably twenty years ago now, I folded them up and stored them—at first in plastic and then, thinking perhaps they’d survive better if they could “breathe”, in a wicker chest. Every once in awhile, I took them out to admire them and hang them out to air. Each time, the old cotton had deteriorated more.

A few weeks ago, when I found room for them on a closet shelf, I decided it was time to pass them on to the next generation for safekeeping.  So, a few days ago, when our daughter was visiting, I asked her if she wanted her old quilt back. Her eyes lit up. But when she saw it, she shook her head. “I’d love to have this if I could use it. But it’s beyond repair.” She fingered it nostalgically. “They all are.”

She was right. But still…

“You’ve made quilts, mom. What would you say to your great-great-grandchildren when the quilts you’ve made are falling apart in a hundred years?” I paused. They really are at least that old.

“Ditch ‘em,” I said sadly. “Give ‘em to somebody for their dog.”

Her turn to nod.

That’s what I’ll be doing, I guess. It makes me sad.

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Mowing the Estate

Yesterday we came home from a week at the lake. It’s never a good idea to leave home for a week in June, although we usually do. And, as usual, we returned to a lawn — or what passes for a lawn — in desperate need of mowing. (Some of you are already rolling your eyes. I know who you are and what you’re thinking.)

This is a confessional piece. I love my lawn — my huge, weedy, splotchy lawn.

If I were doing it all over again, it would be much smaller. Or, it would be a ground cover that didn’t need to be mowed with paths wandering through lush plantings and copses of birch trees where daffodils bloomed in the spring. I would be a better person for that. But it’s too late, and in the interest of cultivating my newest commitment to embrace the present, I’m going with what I’ve got.

What I’ve got is a yard that has swelled over four decades from a normal-sized farmhouse yard that abutted fields and a barnyard, where cattle ate grass in the summer and churned up mud the rest of the year, to an estate-like acre-plus. (Cue in eye-rolling. Note: I am not asking for absolution.) Estate-like in size, only. No one has ever planted or sodded this acre. No landscape artist has set foot here. If you were imagining one of those vast lawns where the mower leaves perfectly spaced parallel swaths, forget it.

Nothing here is ever parallel. And, except in odd little patches where we’ve thrown down actual lawn seed to fill in a trench dug for a new water line or an underground cable, the greenery is what you get when you mow down an abandonned hayfield, half a century later. A lot of quack grass, millions of dandelions, some strange, pale green stuff that seems to thrive in the sunken, wetter spots, and moss that’s begun taking hold under the pine trees. I don’t mow the moss. Lately, bare spots have begun appearing and seem to be growing in size and number. This troubles me when I’m mowing, but I mostly forget about them between times. I do fear they may eventually take over. Sometimes I think we should level and till and fertilize and replant. But in forty-five years, we haven’t, so I’m thinking we won’t.

A few years ago, trying to be a better, greener person, I decided to stop mowing a triangle that abuts a line of spruce trees near the road. The environmental impact of this decision is exactly zero, but it made me feel somewhat better at the time. Now a small grove of poplar trees has sprouted up there among the tall grass. Perhaps the carbon they absorb provides some compensation?

In a short story I wrote a few years ago (http://agnesandtrue.com/the-red-kite/) I had my protagonist reflecting on how her huge yard came to pass. Although written in third person, in a transparent attempt to be fictional, it’s painfully true to fact:

When they moved here years ago, a small yard surrounded the house. Back then, she pushed an old mower that spewed out black smoke while the kids piled up the clippings to make hay for toy cows. Now, the lawn is huge, estate-like. As she circles around, she thinks about how each part was added.

First, they carved a mammoth garden plot out of an adjacent field; as the garden gradually shrank to a manageable size, they began mowing around the edges. Then, they fenced in an area near the house for their daughter’s horse; when the horse moved on to another child on another farm, they started mowing that chunk too, since they’d become used to seeing it chewed down. Twenty-five years ago, when they sold the last of their cattle, the barnyard next to the house started growing unsightly weeds, so they mowed that. Eventually, they had to tear down the old barn itself, and that space needed to be tidied up too. Now, they spend three hours on a riding lawnmower every week from May to October. Except for the mowing, they rarely step onto the grass. Their lawn has become an environmentally embarrassing objet d’art in an ever-expanding frame.

Not only do I love the yard itself, I love mowing it. (Okay, not always…) I love driving around on the riding mower, looking at my home from every angle.

From the mower, it looks perfect. I don’t notice the warped deck boards and how badly the deck needs staining, or the weeds poking up through the several bricked walkways and small patios. From this perspective, the shrub and flower beds don’t look nearly as neglected as they are, and you can’t tell that the hot tub is derelict.

 

I inhale the sweet smell of cut grass, the whiff of an onion as I pass over chives that have escaped the herb garden and become part of the lawn, the minty-ness in the air when I mow close to the deck, where the same mint has been growing for half a century or more and, like the chives, has encroached into the yard.

I even love the sound of the mower as I bounce along. It’s a miniature reminder of summers spent on the tractor, planting and haying—not nearly such hard work, but inviting the same reverie. I listen to the voices inside my head, sometimes talk aloud to myself, sing, and gaze alternately at the fields, the hill, and the house, feeling lucky to be here.

And later, when it’s done, I sit on the deck enjoying the quiet, and I say — almost always —we’ve just got to find a way to mow less. This is unconscionable.

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Update and a Nostalgic Romp

It’s been a month, exactly, since my last post. I was reminded of that when a friend who rarely visits Facebook phoned me last evening. “I’ve been watching for an update on your blog,” she said. So, at the risk of boring those of you who already know all this, either personally or from Facebook, here’s a quick update, followed by a bit of silliness.

Jack had his left kidney, along with a very large tumour, removed on April 21 in Hamilton. The surgery went well, and the surgeon confirmed that there is no sign of metastasis, so we are very hopeful. We spent a few days at our daughter’s house in nearby Wellesley before driving home last weekend. Jack had very little—surprisingly little—pain, and was up and moving about very quickly. At home, he’s continuing to do well, walking every day. We’ve both come to realize that it will be some time before he returns to full strength. He’s learning the pleasures of a mid-day nap, something I’ve been trying to explain to him for years! He has a follow-up appointment with the surgeon in two weeks. After that, he’ll be referred back to the local urologist/oncologist for ongoing monitoring.

As you can imagine, I was more than ready for some diversion in the immediate aftermath of Jack’s surgery, so I was delighted to receive an email from an old high school friend, Marilyn, addressed to me and our mutual friend, Carolyn. (Yes, Marilyn and Carolyn. Even worse. Marilyn Cooper and Carolyn Miller. I was a non-alliterative Smith.)

The subject line of her email read “Something I found”. Like many of my friends (and me soon, really, I mean it…), Marilyn is de-cluttering, and she stumbled on a folder of high school memorabilia in which she found this elaborate composition, a note from Carolyn on side one

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

and from me on side two, clearly written during Algebra class. You can see why they were worth saving without trying to decipher.

Marilyn, it seems, was not in that class and apparently we missed her!

Algebra III. I remember it well. The class, not the content. It was the last math class I ever took, and I’ve never regretted my ignorance of Trigonometry and Calculus. I can’t imagine it would have been worth the pain. There’s some evidence here that I wasn’t particularly attentive in Algebra, which would have made further study even more challenging.

A flurry of reminiscent emails among the three of us ensued. Was it that day or another day that the teacher rudely interrupted our whispered conversation or our elaborate note-writing by expelling us from the classroom? Both Carolyn and I remember that moment clearly. Miss Smith, Miss Miller: You may leave. I can still hear it, still feel the mortification, still see us clutching our notebooks outside the classroom door, uncertain what to do.

But this wasn’t the end of Marilyn’s discoveries. She also reminded us of a long-forgotten and never fully appreciated sport, introduced in 1962 in our alma mater. Matracking: an all-male team sport, invented and promoted by the Nerds of State College High School, many of whom have gone on to do great things.(Yes, there were Nerds before computers, sometimes referred to as Egg-Heads.)

“It was a kind of anti-jock enterprise,” recalls Carolyn.

Indeed, as self-important budding intellectuals, my friends and I were avidly anti-jock. I extend much-belated apologies to all those we must have offended by our assiduous avoidance of school spirit and all things athletic. But in our defense, the football team didn’t exactly applaud the Matrackers, either. And the Athletic Department didn’t provide costumes for Matracker cheerleaders.

Matracking began in the gym, where wrestling mats (which were used only by the boys), were stored on large metal racks on wheels. Remove the mats, hang a half dozen Nerds from the top bar, race across the gym floor, and there you have it: Matracking. I have a vague recollection of someone maneuvering the matracks out of the gym and into the hallway. Carolyn recalls the “team” coasting across the stage during an assembly, or perhaps in the finale of Macbeth: the Musical, another fine example of budding intellectual prowess.

If Marilyn had not designed this logo and stored it faithfully for the past 54 years, it’s entirely possible that Matracking would have been lost to posterity. Thank you, Marilyn, for preserving this piece of history! I invite any former matrackers to share their memories as well!

After last week’s nostalgic romp, I asked Marilyn what she was going to do with all this stuff. “I wish I knew,” she replied.

Which may be the subject of a future post. Because we’ve all got that stuff.

 

 

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April…and Waiting

Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time staring into space. It’s an activity I’ve often though is under-rated, but I may be carrying it to extremes. Usually, it’s the space between my laptop and the bulletin board on the wall in front of me, where I try to avoid the little sign attached with two thumbtacks: Write a little bit every day without hope or despair. Right. Any minute now. But I think I’ll check Facebook again. You just never know what might have showed up in the last ten minutes.

When I tire of the bulletin board, I shift my gaze to the right where, looking out the windows of my study, I see the cruelty of April unfolding.

Of course, it began in March, and for the first time in a decade I’ve been here to see it all: the crisp white snow cover gradually softening into slush and sinking into the ground; the water rushing from the hills across the fields, through the culverts, and into the river; the annual reappearance of the puddle — nearly a lake, really — in a back yard hollow which, god knows, I’ve had 40-some years to deal with. And haven’t.

The mower will get stuck again for the first mowing or two, but then I’ll forget about it again. Of course, there are the more cheerful signs of spring as well. The ducks are back on the river. We saw several sandhill cranes landing on the field a few days ago. Although there’s not much sign of green yet, crocuses and daffodils are poking through the soil, and both the rhubarb and the garlic are showing evidence of life.

It’s been a long, strange couple of months since we returned early from Mexico to deal with Jack’s cancer diagnosis. We were at first heartened by how quickly he moved through a system that is often sluggish. Within three weeks of his diagnosis in Mexico, he had seen a urologist/oncologist here in the Sault, undergone tests to determine that there has been no metastasis, been referred a surgeon specializing in renal cell carcinoma at McMaster Medical Centre in Hamilton, and had a consultation with that surgeon. But that was four weeks ago, and he’s still waiting for a surgery date. Sometime in April, we were told then. It’s April now, okay? Let’s get on with it.

I wrote earlier that I’m happy to be part of a medical system where everyone is in the same boat. I am. Really, I am. And while the system is not noted for its speed, it is noted for its effectiveness. After meeting with the surgeon, Jack was reassured that his situation is not critical, and that time is not of the essence. That’s why he’s on a waiting list, not an emergency list. Which is sort of an April place to be, I guess. Dreary, puddled, muddy. Waiting.

In the meantime, I’m staring out the window, watching drizzle fall on puddles, and feeling mildly pleased with myself because now I’ve written a little bit today.

 

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Not a Cancer Blog: Some Thoughts on Healthcare

How quickly the personal becomes the political. Perhaps inevitable in this super-charged political world we’re now experiencing. In just ten days, we have experienced the medical systems in two countries, giving rise to some reflection about what it means to be adequately cared for. Canadians, who most frequently compare themselves to Americans, take pride in their medical system. Compared to Americans, so they should. Compared to the rest of the developed world, it seems we’re middling at best.

Two weeks ago today, Jack visited a specialist in the city of Leon, Mexico—a man who speaks passable English and who is well-known for his diagnostic skills. Jack had phoned for the appointment two days earlier. When we arrived at his office, the doctor was waiting for us. He spent the next hour and a half with us, grilling Jack about his symptoms and giving him a thorough examination. At the end of the visit, he suggested that the best way to get to the bottom of the problem was to admit Jack to hospital for two days of tests. We paid up and left.

The following Monday, we checked in to Aranda de la Parra hospital in downtown Leon. I say “we” because it was assumed I would be with him in the spacious room that included a comfortable chair and a bed for me. By the end of that day, we knew. By the end of the second day, we walked out with blood and urine test results, CAT scan on a CD, fancy colour photos of Jack’s esophagus and stomach, and a receipt for several thousand dollars.

Throughout our stay in the hospital, where the care and the accommodations couldn’t have been better, we were repeatedly required to sign receipts indicating that Jack had, indeed, received this pill and that test. Before we could receive copies of test results, we had to settle up at the cash counter. This was a top-tier hospital.

Mexico does have a universal public healthcare system. No one with resources would choose to use it.

We made the decision to come home without a second thought. We knew the first step would be to get a referral to a specialist from our family doctor, and we dreaded the wait that might entail. Our daughter-in-law, who works in the system and knows how to get around hurdles, stepped up. She arranged for a quick appointment with a urologist/oncologist, based on the Mexican doctor’s referral. So, we entered the Canadian system one step closer to treatment than we would have been if we hadn’t had an inside track.

When Jack saw the urologist two days ago, the doctor made it clear—in the nicest possible way—that while he accepted the diagnosis from Mexico, he wanted his own CAT scan. He would order it as an urgent matter, it would be done within forty-eight hours, and he would see Jack again today to discuss results and make a plan. Except yesterday the office called to say oops, they can’t get him into the CAT scan queue quite that fast. But it will be soon. We’re quite sure early next week.

This is how it works in a system where everyone has an equal claim to service. You can’t jump the queue because you’re the most important person to you. Or because you have deep pockets. Still, urgent cases do move into and through the system in a reasonably timely way.

Fortunately, the doctor also assured us—and this is backed up by other sources—that urgency is a relative thing in this case. Renal cancer is slow-growing, and a matter of days or even weeks is unlikely to have an impact on the success of treatment. Which is good, because the approval of a cardiologist is also required before doing surgery on a man “of Jack’s age”, and we live in an under-serviced area where cardiologists are booked solid.

We are not panicking. But we are pretty sure that in Mexico, the kidney would be gone by now. Along with a chunk of our money. In the US too, of course, with perhaps more money than we have. We’re also sure that, if things move too slowly here, we can go elsewhere in Ontario. Privilege is not without some advantages here, either, though they are fewer and subtler.

I am a firm defender of universal, single-payer medical care. I’m proud of Canada’s system, though as you can see it’s far from perfect. I’m also a self-interested human being. If there were, at this moment, an option to pay more for speed of service, I’d have my credit card out in a second. And if you don’t think you would, I’d challenge you on that. The fact that I can’t is what keeps us from the multi-tiered Mexican system where the bottom tier provides minimal service, or the cash-driven American system where the poor may be unable to afford the care they need.

So, the personal does become political. The balance between the individual and the common good is never easy to strike. Based on my own and others’ experiences in our medical system over many years, I am confident that the urgency of Jack’s situation is being taken into account and that he will receive the necessary treatment within a medically appropriate timeline. It might not be our timeline. Reluctantly, I must accept that. At least for the moment. We’ve only been home for four days.

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Half a Glass, Please. Red.

On Friday, we closed the door of our Mexican house and said an early morning goodbye to the bougainvillea, finally blooming, and the hibiscus in full flower

We’d spent the day before packing and repacking. I felt the usual annoyance at the amount of camera and computer paraphernalia that makes our carry-on suitcases and backpacks heavier than is reasonable for a couple of 70-somethings.

“Can you find a spot for this?” Two hard drives and a pair of binoculars appeared on the bed beside my backpack, which I had naively believed would be nearly empty. I sighed and bit back a response. I should know by now. I will never be one of those women who travels with a colourful woven bag slung over her shoulder, containing nothing but her passport, her wallet, a good book, and a shawl.

In Friday’s pre-dawn, the now heavily-loaded backpack on my shoulders, I closed the door behind me. Jack had already packed the suitcases into the car, which we will leave at the airport for friends to pick up and store until we return. It is like every return trip. And like no other. It is February, too early to go home. We have had only three days to prepare. That was when we learned that the cluster of symptoms Jack has been experiencing since our arrival in December—even earlier as we look back—was due to a large malignancy on his left kidney. We were going home for further tests and treatment, unsure sure what was awaiting us.

After a day with our kids and grandkids in Kitchener, we are now home. Galen travelled with us and is spending a few days with us—an upside of the medical emergency is time alone with our youngest son. Home is where we need to be now, dirty heaps of sloppy snow notwithstanding. I had thought a month or so of crisp, bright winter would be good for my soul, another possible up-side, but instead we are welcomed home by a February thaw: gray, drizzle, snow turning to ice on its way to becoming slush.

We are still unsure exactly what’s ahead, but this morning we met with the urologist, who presented us with an overview of treatment possibilities. Although Jack brought piles of test results and documentation from the hospital in Mexico, the system here requires its own results, so the doctor is ordering additional tests and repeats of the Mexican ones. We see the doctor again on Thursday, at which point he should have the results he needs and begin to map the way forward.

Jack is a glass half full guy—annoyingly optimistic at times, if truth be told, but optimism will serve him well for the next while. And though it goes against my nature, I will be trying to walk on the sunny side too, looking at only the bottom half of the glass. Maybe I’ll shift from white wine to red—easier to see the fill-line.

I don’t want to turn this site into a cancer blog. I’ll continue writing about other things. But most of you know Jack, and this is a way to keep you up-to-date as things evolve.

 

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