Sorting

sorting


When you’re recuperating from an illness, you find yourself with time on your hands. If you’re like me, you begin to clean and organize things. Photos and receipts and greeting cards pile up over the months and years, and it’s nice to go through them once in a while.

 

 

Receipts and greeting cards are easy to throw away, but photos are a little more difficult. I find that I’ve taken too many overexposed photos of Beautiful Scenery over the years, and it’s easy to toss most of them in the trash. When there are people in the photos, however, I hesitate, as if they exert some magical hold on me. Might some hypothetical future descendant muse over these photos, wondering at how distant and mysterious we were?

 

 

Well, hm. First of all: what descendants? Apart from a few mangy stuffed animals, I have no kids. I keep in touch with a few members of the next generation of my family, but none of them seems impassioned about family history.

 

 

Also, the sad truth is that objects like photos are not generally magical. I pull out old theater stubs and concert programs, examine them with regret, and toss them in the trash. They may have been magical for a little when then they were new, but time has taken their magic away. Photos are a little different, but even they lose their immediacy after a few decades.

 

 

How do you react when you see a photo of a distant ancestor? Curiosity, maybe; regret that you will never get to know them; sadness that things pass and people die. I think always of those family-reunion photos in which the kids are lying on the floor up front, clowning for the camera, and the older generations stand ranked behind them, with the oldest of all scrunched against the wall in back. I realized some years ago that (without ever quite realizing it) I had suddenly become one of those pale oldsters in the back of the photo – some forgotten great-uncle, what’s-his-name, the one who moved to Rhode Island and lived with another man and had no kids.

 

 

Forgotten.

 

 

Well, hm.

 

 

Get to work sorting and labeling those photos, kids!

 

 

Maybe someone will remember you after you’re gone.


 

Grandma Lottie

grandma lottie


Years ago I came to terms with looking like my father’s mother, Grandma Minnie. I have her pallor and her blue eyes, as well as (naturally) her inner sweetness.

 

Now the page has turned.
 

 

I posted a photo of myself on Facebook not long ago, posing in a pink knit hat, as follows:

 

 

ljw pink

 

 

Very nice, everyone said. Then my cousin Linda piped up with: “Did you know that, with that scowl, you look just like Grandma Lottie?”
 

 

When I peeled myself off the ceiling, I wrote back to her immediately to acknowledge that she was right. I even dug out an ancient photo of me in 1970, posing with Grandma Lottie in front of her house, which further proved the point:
 

LorenLottie

Grandma Lottie was my mother’s mother. She was consistently dour and seldom wore her teeth unless absolutely necessary, which makes two of us. Despite her forbidding look, however, she was always sweet and kind to me; I remember the smell of food cooking in her little kitchen, and I remember walking with her in her garden (where she often gave me plants and cuttings). The photo at the head of this piece, probably taken in the 1920s, is nice: she’s almost smiling in a Mona Lisa way.
 

 

Grandma Lottie married three times, which is enough to make anyone look dour and forbidding. My grandfather was her second husband; he died in a mine cave-in around 1926, so I never got to meet him. My mother, who was only six or so when he died, always said he was a very nice man; I wish I could have known him.
 

 

Anyway, back to Grandma Lottie. It’s plain that she wasn’t a smiler. But what’s wrong with that? I think smiling is overrated. It’s supposed to make you feel good, right? It’s supposed to make other people feel kindly toward you? I wonder. Greeting a stranger with a wintry glare can be a very bracing experience, and it’s strangely productive: it sets people back on their heels and makes them wonder what they’ve done wrong.

 

 

 

It gives you the advantage.
 

 

As I told cousin Linda: I’m proud to carry Grandma Lottie’s scowl and black-framed glasses into the new generation.
 

 

Somebody’s gotta do it.


 

Attention whore

attention whore


Way back in the 1990s, my mother had her own adventure with cancer. Along the way, she managed to get herself dehydrated, and ended up in the hospital. To my surprise and that of my siblings, she seemed to love the experience. “I call the nurses ‘the girls,'”she told me over the phone. “They are so sweet to me. They know I’m not supposed to have coffee, but oh, I wanted it so much, and one of them brought me a little cup of coffee, and – oh, Loren! – it was so good! And I asked her for one more little cup, and she brought it for me, and – oh, Loren! – it was so good!”

 

I listened to this story with a thin-lipped expression. Later I repeated it to my sister Susan, who grimaced. “I know,” she said. “The nurses fell for it. Mom can be so damned cute when she wants to be. But you just wait: once the nurses catch on, it won’t be so much fun for Mom any longer.”

 

Which, in fact, happened a day or two later. “I don’t know what happened all of a sudden,” my mother groused on the phone. “The nurses don’t seem to pay attention anymore. Sometimes I press the call switch and it’s a couple of minutes before anyone shows up. It’s like a whole new staff. I can’t wait to go home.”

 

This whole thing seemed very strange to me. Mom was normally the soul of staunch individualism; she lived all by herself at the end of a dead-end road, and most days she didn’t see a living soul. Why should it be so much fun for her to be the center of attention all of a sudden –
Aha.

 

She finally had center stage with a whole retinue dancing around her, and she was loving it.

 

She had become an attention whore.

 

Flash forward to the other day. I’m in recovery, which means I spend days at home alone watching TCM and waiting for the mail. So then I have a doctor’s appointment, and the doctor says, “You could use some fluids. We can give them to you today, in the chemo ward – ”

 

I nearly knocked her down, I was so eager to get to that chemo ward.

 

“Chemo ward” doesn’t sound appealing, but it’s nicer and more comfortable than you think. The chairs are all recliners. There’s a TV in every little nook. There are chairs for visitors. The nurses are funny and make light conversation as they poke and prod you and stick needles into you. Snacks and beverages and warm blankets are available upon demand. In short, the staff waits on you hand and foot.

 

Does this sound familiar?

 

Ah, but I learned from my mother’s experience. Her mistake was that she overdid it.

 

I will not overdo it.

 

I have another fluids day soon, back in the chemo ward with those nice kind attentive nurses. I hope I can maintain my composure.

 

I don’t want the girls to know what an attention whore I am.


 

Westerns

westerns


I was born into a shit-kickin’ family. My father’s parents were Eastern Washington farmers, and my sister Susan married into a local dairy family, and – well, what more do you need?

Evidently it’s in our DNA. My brother Leonard worked in grocery stores his whole life, and yet he talks like Walter Brennan. He was, for a fact, born on my parents’ farm, during a brief period in their early married life during which they were farming, but still!
Anyway, everyone in my family loves Westerns, and the whole Old West folklore thing. (When Leonard found out I was doing our family history, he drawled: “Are we descended from any horse thieves?” Evidently that would have been perfectly delicious. The reality – some Polish peasants, some Italian peasants, some English hooligans and riffraff – just isn’t colorful enough, in a six-guns-and-Randolph-Scott way.)

Every once in a while I try to reassociate myself with my Boot Hill roots and watch a few Westerns on TMC. Sometimes they’re harmless enough that they sort of wash over me. But – you know? – a lot of them – most of them – just aren’t very good.

(Disclaimer: Yes, I know that there are some classics, like “Cimarron” and “Stagecoach” and “Red River.” I have seen at least ten minutes of each of these – more of “Cimarron,” because it has Irene Dunne in it – and they are all lovely. I stick by my original point, however. Read on:)

  • Westerns are all depressingly similar. I will spare you a recitation of plot points, cliches, situations, etc. I will only say that I recently fell asleep during a Jimmy Stewart western, woke up about ninety minutes later during another Jimmy Stewart Western, and was uncertain for a few minutes if it was the same movie.
  • They certainly save money on costumes and sets. I’m sure there was a kind of Studio Western Kit, containing things like 1) one chuck wagon 2) three dance hall girl dresses 3) two fancy saddles 4) one fancy lamp with a fringed shade, for indoor / city-slicker  / bawdy house scenes.
  • Scenery. Magnificent, right? HDTV has killed that illusion. In Movie #2 the other day, J. Stewart and company were riding along a dangerous mountain ridge with all kinds of mountains and forests and valleys in the distance, except that, um, no they weren’t. The foreground was perfectly clear and in focus; the scenic background looked like Jackson Pollock’s hick cousin Vernton Pollock had blooped and blopped together some green and blue and white paint to produce Western Background #14.

And so forth.

I am sure, as we say, that for people who like that sort of thing, that is the sort of thing that they like. I like all kinds of silly / stupid / sub-par things, especially in the movie category. (Next time you hear me warbling on about how wonderful “Shack Out On 101” is, give me a real hard whack on the back of my head.) But, bafflingly, I was born without the mental toolkit required to make sense of these verkakte Westerns, even though genetically I should be right in there with my relatives.

Sigh.

Okay. Now: anybody want to see “Shack Out On 101” one more time?


Love your enemies

love your enemies


When my mother was undergoing cancer treatment in the 1990s, she went through all kinds of interesting states of mind, way beyond Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s measly five.  Elisabeth would have been astounded.

 

 

One of the most unexpected was the “I’m gonna tell you what I think of you before it’s too late” phase. We discovered that Mom was calling up people from her past and telling them all the things she’d been holding back for decades: how they’d disappointed or betrayed her, how they weren’t good enough for their wives/husbands, how they’d made bad decisions. (Myself, I was surprised that Mom had ever held anything back – she could be a real loudmouth when she was wanted to be – but apparently she’d kept a lot of opinions back after all.)

 

 

I am my mother’s son. I am full of grudges and unsettled scores. I am terribly self-righteous, just as she was. I only hope that, as the cancer treatment weakens me, I don’t succumb to Mom’s let-‘em-have-it mentality

 

 

This is why I was bemused by something that showed up on my Facebook wall a while back: a serious discussion of why you shouldn’t have enemies. To wit:

 

 

  • Enemies take up a lot of your valuable time – whether you’re actually taking revenge, or just thinking about it. (This is true, and I hate the idea of wasting time, especially at this point in my life.)
  • Your enemies probably aren’t worth hating as much as you think they are. (Maybe. Some of mine are pretty loathsome.)
  • Most of the world’s religions tell us to be kind to our enemies.

 

 

This last one needs some scrutiny. Certainly Jesus tells us to love our enemies. But the God of the Old Testament certainly didn’t mess around with anyone who got in his way. And many modern Christians seem to act as if they loathe whole squadrons of people.

 

 

So what’s an unbeliever to do?

 

 

Well, I normally don’t like Saint Paul, but in Romans 12:20 he comes up with the perfect reason to do good to your enemies:

 

 

Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head.

 

 

See? You can make your enemy ashamed of himself by being nice to him. And then, if he doesn’t make friends with you, he presumably goes to hell.

 

 

Doesn’t that make you feel better?

 

 

It does me a world of good.


 

High-tech medicine

high tech medicine


My father’s radiation therapy in the mid-1970s was really brutal. It scorched his entire torso, and it did no good anyway, as his cancer was far too advanced.

My mother’s 1990s chemotherapy in the 1990s was much milder. She was only nauseous a few times. Taxol made her hair fall out, which really stunned her; I think it was the worst thing about the treatment for her. But the chemo extended her life considerably, without much affecting her quality of life.

And now it’s twenty years later, and I’m doing a tandem combination of radiation and chemotherapy. The radiation is directed straight at my left tonsil; after the first few treatments, I haven’t noticed many ill effects, apart from a little neck soreness/stiffness. The first few chemo treatments were similarly mild (apart from a little nausea and fatigue).

When I go in for radiation, I lie on the table and let the nurses fasten on my Radiation Mask:

 

Radiation-mask

 

They also give me a plastic hoop to grip with both hands, so I don’t flail my arms too much. The treatment is about ten minutes long; the machine makes all kinds of space-age humming and beeping noises. Then the attendant comes in and unbuckles me.

My mind wanders during the treatment. Early on, I found myself thinking about the plastic hoop. It’s ridged, and slightly flexible –

When the attendant came in to unbuckle me, I handed her the hoop and said: “This is a dog toy, isn’t it?”

She chuckled. “Yep. The medical version costs a hundred and fifty dollars. I bought that one at Petco for seven ninety-five.”

File this one under “health care costs,” and “high-tech medicine,” and probably under “human ingenuity.”

Pity the poor dog going without his toy. But it’s in the name of medicine, after all.

Woof woof!


Smoking, take two

smoking take  two


(Note: this is a rewrite of a blog I wrote back in 2011, with maybe a few updates, in the light of recent events.)

 

 

Both my parents smoked. I have distinct memories of sitting in the front seat of our family car, with my father in the driver’s seat on my left and my mother sitting to my right, both of them puffing away, the ashtray overflowing. I couldn’t breathe. I finally spoke up about it when I was about nine or ten years, and it actually inspired my mother to quit smoking.

 

 

This, however, didn’t stop me from taking up the habit myself. I got a free sample of Lucky Strikes at Fenway Park in 1983; I smoked one or two of them; soon after I was in Morocco, and smoking a pack a day; soon after that I was in Tunisia and smoking two packs a day.

 

 

I kept this up until 1998. Remembering the family proclivity for cancer, I resolved to quite when I was forty, and I managed it, just a few months shy of my forty-first birthday.

 

 

I have been reasonably healthy on and off since.

 

 

And now, fifteen years later, I discover that I have throat cancer, the main risk factor for which is – ahem – smoking.

 

 

Go figure.

 

 

I freely acknowledge that it’s my own fault. I knew there were bad genes on both sides of the family, and I knew that smoking could only be bad for me. But I kept it up for fourteen years.

 

 

Foolish, naturally. Most of those fourteen years between ’84 and ‘98, I was just smoking out of habit; I even (as do most smokers) kept it up while I was sick with colds and the flu. I even smoked at meals. I was smelly and utterly obnoxious, and probably nearly burned myself to death more than once. I realize that now.

 

 

But I remember one beautiful morning in Tunis, before I developed my two-pack-a-day habit. I left the house around 8am, bought a pack of local cigarettes, lit up, and –

 

 

That first puff was heaven.

 

 

So it wasn’t all bad.

 

 

But it probably wasn’t worth getting cancer for.


 

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