Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Sneaker Waves

Just like the calm periods of our lives,
a peaceful sea can belie threats
and dangers that await us.

While visiting the coastal town of Yachats, Oregon, this past summer, I took an afternoon stroll along a bluff. On that walk, the bright sun warmed my face, and the wind blew just enough to rustle the fronds of sea grasses. To the west, the Pacific Ocean undulated in gentle swells and sent up delicate sprays of foam when it met with the rocks below. All the elements that day combined to produce feelings of peace and gratitude and safety. Then I came upon a plaque that cautioned me to beware the sneaker waves.

People who live along the west coast are most likely familiar with the term sneaker wave—a rogue wave which appears out of nowhere and strikes with great force. If you’re combing the beach, the wave can steal the sand right from under your feet. If you’re standing on a massive rock, observing sea life in a tide pool, it can attack and sweep you out to sea in the blink of an eye. Particularly alarming, these waves come at times when least expected, at times when the sea—at her charming best—lulls you into a blissful sense of security.

The plaque I happened on that day was a memorial to two young victims of sneaker waves and a caution of the perils they present. After I read it, I continued on my walk, my thoughts occupied with the sneaker waves of life—those events that shake our emotional foundations or knock us from them with devastating force. Events such as the death of a beloved partner or child, the diagnosis of a disease for which there is no cure, a divorce that leaves one shattered. Events that come with no sign or warning and often in the happiest, calmest periods of life.

Since that day, I’ve revisited the idea of sneaker waves from time to time and considered what I might say about them in a post. The death of a dear friend this past week prompted me to finally put words to my thoughts.

Patsy was really more family than friend. She was my daughter’s mother-in-law, my son-in-law’s mother, my grandsons’ “Mamaw.” I didn’t see her often, as she lived in a different state, but I always felt a strong connection to her because of our mutual love for the people in our lives.  I couldn’t have asked for a finer person to share my daughter with or a more devoted grandmother for my grandchildren. I will deeply miss “co-grandparenting” with her. My heart grieves for all the family members and friends who will miss her gentle and caring spirit.

Almost two years ago, Patsy was hit by a sneaker wave—a diagnosis of cancer. While this news no doubt shook her world, it didn’t defeat her. She battled the disease with faith and courage. Then a few weeks ago, a second wave hit. Her chemo wasn’t working. The doctors were out of ideas.

The plaque I encountered on my walk last summer offers not only warnings but also suggestions. Among them: Respect the immense power of the ocean. An unwavering Christian whose faith radiated in all that she did, Patsy knew another “immense Power” and drew on it throughout her life. Our time on Earth can be slippery and tenuous, but the other Power that Patsy knew offers a rock solid footing. So while the final sneaker wave Patsy encountered was frightening and sad, it wasn’t devastating. She faced it with the hope and assurance of a Firm Foundation.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Caddyshack Politics

The gopher is my favorite.
He represents all those pesky
variables neither party can
For the past thirty years or so, my go-to source for understanding politics has been the George Orwell classic Animal Farm. Whenever I found myself befuddled by all the craziness and crazies involved in that particular realm, I’d think back on some character or incident in that book, and  my questions would be answered. But I have to say, even Animal Farm can’t make much sense of the insanity found in this current presidential election. So I searched for a different frame of reference and found it in another classic—the 1980 movie Caddyshack.

Wait. Before you start rolling your eyes, think about it. The dominant setting of this movie is the lush, rolling golf course of Bushwood Country Club. (Ironic that it’s named Bushwood?) Running this seemingly idyllic world is a regime which establishes and enforces the rules— the special ones for those in charge and the ones for everyone else. Most strictly enforced are the rules that bar newcomers who don’t fit the long-established expectations of appearance and decorum. Life at Bushwood is about nothing if not appearances.
At this point, I have some explaining to do. Lest you think I’m comparing the Bushwood world to either the Democrat or Republican party, you are wrong. I’m comparing it to both parties. Regardless of their names, both parties have been around a long time and both have their rules and conventions—weird and convoluted though they be. And in both parties, there are special rules for special people. Both parties have their unprincipled, high muckety-mucks. And both parties work overtime doing damage-control to their tarnished appearances.
So back to Bushwood, where trouble is brewing. Into this well-guarded world, comes an outsider. Crude and bumptious, he respects neither the rules nor the anointed leaders. But he does bring a certain element of fun and the appeal of shaking things up, so he attracts fans. The establishment wrings their collective hands, battle lines are drawn, and members and employees take sides. Chaos ensues.
And now you’re thinking, you’ve got this all figured out. In the present election, the identity of  this obnoxious outsider is obvious. But, once again, you’re wrong. Both parties this season have had their unwelcomed contenders. Admittedly, one of these intruders is louder and more pretentious than the other, but both parties have had to deal with the unrest and frustration these interlopers have either stirred up or exposed.
So where will all this pandemonium lead? Well, in Caddyshack, pretty much the whole golf course blows up, but at the end, all is well. As the characters party to the music of I’m Alright, the viewer gets the feeling everything will work out and life will go on. It is a movie, after all. In real life, the consequences of this election could be direr. Things could blow up and we won’t be alright.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Kitchens of the Great Midwest -- A Book to Devour? Savor?

It has been a while since I blogged about the Circle of Friends book club, but I’m glad to report we’re still going strong. For a change of pace, we met yesterday for a luncheon rather than our regular dinner. We enjoyed delightful egg casseroles supplied by hostess, Carol, and an array of colorful and healthy salads. To offset all that healthfulness, desserts included lemon cookies, crepes with lingonberry jam, and Pat Prager’s award-winning peanut butter bars.

No, this isn't Pat. This is Cheryl who
whipped up a batch of Pat's peanut butter bars
to share with the Friends. Cheryl says she has
to admit they're tasty (even if she did make them
This pan attests that the Friends agree with


Thank you Shelly for nominating
this book for our club!
Now if you’re thinking Pat Prager is a member of our club and wondering exactly what awards her peanut butter bars have won, you obviously haven’t read the Friends’ selection for this month—Kitchens of the GreatMidwest by J. Ryan Stradal. And you should read it.
It’s hard to describe this book, but if you think Prairie Home Companion meets Fargo with a few recipes thrown in, you might be getting close to the idea.
Or maybe this will help.
Take one obsessive-compulsive female jock; one love-struck teenage boy; one spoiled, selfish, ego-centric woman; one traumatized, twenty-something alcoholic; one lonely, middle-aged woman whose identity is wrapped up in her cooking. Sprinkle generously with a spicy blend of Lutheran church ladies, pretentious foodies, middle-school bullies, and all manner of misfits, mayhem, and music references. Gently fold in one big and big-hearted female chef with a near perfect palate. Mix together in an Olive-Kitteridge-type plot, and serve with a generous dollop of satire and spot-on language.
Follow this recipe carefully, and—voila!—you have a delicious and fitting read for a group of ladies who love their food almost—almost—as much as their books.

Elizabeth brought some yummy succotash, also a
dish of significance in this book. Sadly (or not),
 there was no lutefisk to be had. Cheryl tried to obtain
some via the internet, but it seems no one is willing
 to ship this Scandinavian delicacy in the summer months.
 Probably a good idea.
 A couple of reviews to prove that others enjoyed this book as much as the Friends did:

"An impossible-to-put-down, one-of-a-kind novel. I have never read a book quite like this. This stunning debut announces J. Ryan Stradal as a first-rate voice in American fiction."
                                                   --Rob Roberge, author of The Cost of Living

"A Great American Novel in the fullest sense of the term. Everything you want a book to be."
                   --Ben Loory, author of Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

My Latest Gardening Strategy --Tough Love

This is the season I grow increasingly offended by Facebook posts. No, not political ones. Few of those ridiculous rants will tempt me to unfriend you. But a pic of your hussy of a hydrangea, exposing her voluptuous blooms for all the world to see? That’s a different story.  
Admittedly, there is a good deal of envy behind my outrage. If Facebook is any indication, it would seem that growing show-stopping hydrangeas is an inalienable right of any gardener south of the Mason-Dixon line. But, sadly and unjustly, that is not the case.
I have two hydrangea plants. One is on the side of my house and gets limited light exposure. About every other year, it produces one or two decent blooms. It has been there a long time, and I haven’t pulled it up because . . . well, it’s doing its best under trying circumstances.
My sun-deprived hydrangea
... you have to admire this kind of effort.
The other plant, however—the one on my patio—is a different story. I’ve tried everything—cutting it back, not cutting it back, fertilizing it, moving the pot around for maximum sun. For a while, the plant gave me fairly decent blooms, but now it's going through its teen years—that’s about age six in plant years—and has grown lazy and stingy. Over the last two summers, it has given me nothing, nada, zilch in return for all the love and pampering I’ve lavished on it.
I need to explain that I began setting up housekeeping in the mid-70s—that transitional period between the Age of Aquarius and Stayin’ Alive. It was also the time of decorating your space with enough houseplants to replenish a ravaged rainforest. When it became apparent the green in my thumb was lacking, my friend Donna—still under the lingering effects of love and peace—offered advice: “Words of encouragement and tender caresses will restore vigor and vitality to your languishing plants . . . along with regular watering and feeding and adequate exposure to sunlight.”
I followed that perfect blend of mystical and scientific advice for years, but recently I’ve realized that plants—like pets and kids—have distinct personalities. Even when they’re in the same family. What works well for some doesn’t necessarily work for others. Some respond favorably to positive reinforcement and kindness. Others require something a bit more . . . forceful.
I tested this theory last spring with my obstinate hydrangea. I squatted in front of that petulant plant to deliver a tough-love talk.
“No more coddling,” I said sternly. “No more free ride. If you don’t produce a bevy of beautiful blossoms this season, you’re compost.” With that I stood, brushed my hands on my jeans, and walked away. When I glanced back, I could’ve sworn its over-indulged foliage was smirking.
I waited all summer. As had become its habit, the plant accepted my feedings and waterings like they were services owed, not privileges. Every day it lazed in its bed of dirt, soaked up the sunshine, and snacked on slow-release fertilizer. Not a single bloom appeared.
Toward summer’s end, I stood over it, shaking a hand trowel. “That’s it,” I said. “I’m through with you. I’ll let you stay in this pot for now because it’s too late to replace you. But come next spring, a butterfly bush is going to occupy this very space.”
With steadfast determination, I made good on my threat. The rest of the summer and all through the fall, I didn’t give that plant so much as a sprinkle of water. I turned a blind eye when its impertinent green leaves paled. I watched with sadistic pleasure while they withered and turned crispy. In winter, when hard frosts threatened, I didn’t bother to move the plant to a more protected space, and I scoffed when I saw its naked, shivering stalks protruding from a blanket of snow.
In the early days of this spring, I surveyed my patio, making note of what new plants I would need. I came to the bare twigs that once was my hydrangea and with stalwart resolve leaned down to rip them from the soil. But as I peered into the pot, I saw a speck of green the size and shape of a doodle bug. On closer inspection, I saw that this was a bud, not a bug, and it was attached to one of those twigs . I released a weary sigh.
 “Okay,” I said. “One more chance.”
My "other" hydrangea shows
that it's trying...we'll see.
As of this post, I’m pleased with the attitude adjustment my hydrangea has made. At last count, there were eight—count ‘em, eight!—blooms bursting forth from those once-barren stalks. Not huge blooms, to be sure, and I don’t consider this a total turnaround on the plant’s part. But I’m a reasonable person. I can appreciate small victories.
Also, I’m feeling a bit smug these days. I’ve never been over-confident about my gardening skills, but it appears my tough-love theory might have some merit. I’ll give it this summer before coming to a definite conclusion.
In the meantime, I’m preparing for a little heart-to-heart with an uncooperative clematis.



Tuesday, May 17, 2016

My Poem Didn't Win

The title of this post isn’t completely true. I actually did have a poem that won second place at a recent writing conference. It just wasn’t the poem I thought would win—the one I really hoped would win. But this post is far from a complaint. It’s a celebration of what did win. And it’s chance to share the poem that “lost.”
I’m familiar with the person who judged the category for my poem. I know him to be an excellent poet and, more importantly, a kind person. I’m sure he had a difficult choice in selecting winners from over forty poems submitted by talented writers. And I’m sure the winning entries were deserving of those honors. I’m also sure that while my poem isn’t a winner, it isn’t a “loser,” either. In fact, it might be my favorite of all the pieces I’ve ever written.
Author StevenJames spoke one night at the conference about The Untouched Moment and how writers have the opportunity to capture moments that “resonate with truth.” Here’s the truth behind this poem: A picture of my grandson Brooks, taken by my daughter last spring, inspired it. I set it as the background on my computer desktop, and every time I looked at it, I smiled and thought there's a poem in there somewhere. Eventually, the poem surfaced. The picture takes me not just to the happy place Brooks was experiencing but to those magical times all children encounter through their imaginations. Those moments untouched by logic and reason and fear.

Last Christmas, I had the photo and the poem transferred onto a 5X7canvas and gave it to my daughter. She has it displayed in her living room. At the ripe old age of five, Brooks probably can’t appreciate this gift right now. But at some point in the future—maybe even after his Grammy Dee is gone—I hope he’ll look at the picture and read the poem and be transported back to a care-free, childhood moment. And I hope he’ll appreciate that his mother and his grandmother were able to capture it for him.
                                                              Swingset Superman

                                                        Red cape streaming
                                                        o’er field of green,
                                                        Superman flies
                                                         in a backyard swing. 

                                                        Toes in gray Crocs
                                                         reach for the sky.
                                                         Shouts defy death,
                                                         “Push high! Push me high!”
                                                         No time to waste!
                                                         Evil must be subdued.
                                                         Wrongs must be righted,
                                                          justice pursued. 

                                                         Gripping chains tight,
                                                          he chaos assails.
                                                          There are buildings collapsing,
                                                          trains off their rails! 

                                                          What danger awaits--
                                                          what marvelous wonder--
                                                           this brave hero’s trek
                                                           through the endless, blue yonder?


Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Conversation Starter

I appreciate that a certain fast food chain is rewarding phone-free meals with free ice cream. For families with children, this is a great idea. It encourages interaction, conversation, bonding—things that probably every family with kiddos could benefit from these days. But as an empty-nester, I’m thinking I’ll keep my phone and forgo the freebie.
If I went to a restaurant with even one adorable child—infant, toddler, adolescent, teenager—I’d find plenty to talk about before and during the meal: How was your day? What did you learn at school? How did it go on the calculus quiz? Things I wouldn’t know because I wasn’t with them all day. And even if those questions were answered with no more than an “I don’t remember” or "I don't won't to talk about it," I could still keep the conversation rolling by coming up with more questions. Or in the case of a teen, more interrogating. 
But these days, my immediate family consists of two adults—Bill and me. Since we’re both retired, we spend a lot of time together—a LOT of time. We pretty much know what the other person had for breakfast, what news was in the paper that morning, what came in the mail, which team won what game, what cute thing a grandson said. And since there are no longer children at home, we don’t have that mainstay of conversation. How much more can there be to talk about?
I once read that the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, aka Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson, would take turns counting in French whenever they were eating out just so onlookers would think they were engaged in lively mealtime conversation. If those two world-hopping jet-setters (before there were even jets) couldn’t come up with something interesting to say to each other, what chance do we lowly, dull commoners have? There’ve been times I was tempted to use their tactic, but one thing held me back: Neither Bill nor I speak French. And if we counted in English, people would be on to us.
The solution to our dearth
of dining dialogue
We’ve all seen the couples who sit silently in restaurants, either staring blankly at each other or gazing lovingly at their food. I once swore that would never be me. But, as with so many other of my foolish claims, I was on the fast track to eating my words. Then, quite unintentionally, Bill hit upon a solution to this dining out dilemma—his cell phone.
Mind you, I’m not talking about him hunched over his screen with scrolling finger poised, oblivious to my presence. I’m talking about his sharing those bits of breaking news he has immediate access to. I’ve come to view those as “conversation starters,” and we do a good job of turning those juicy tidbits into interesting exchanges.
I can hear the criticism from those of you who possess the “gift of gab.” If I were smart or could remember what I read in the morning paper or was the sort who could ramble nonstop about . . . say my new bed sheets, I suppose I wouldn’t have to resort to technology for inspiration. But since I’m none of those, the phone has become a useful tool for “feeding” our dining out dialogue. As a bonus, I’m learning new information and keeping up with current events. I’d say that was worth the price of an ice cream cone, wouldn't you?

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Achieving Balance

In the past, a couple of my Facebook friends have posted pictures of themselves doing a headstand. Big deal, I thought, when I saw them. I can do that, and I’m older than they are. Fact is, back in the day, I was pretty good at standing on my head. But as the need to do a headstand hasn’t arisen lately—say in the past thirty years—I hadn’t put much effort into maintaining that particular skill. But I viewed those pictures as a challenge. So I got down on the floor and tried to get into the initial position for a headstand by forming a tripod with my head and hands and resting my knees on my elbows. Just let me say, it’s not like riding a bike. It doesn’t come right back to you.

Assuming crash position
Undaunted, I made it a goal to start working little-by-little, step-by-step, until I could reclaim this pretty much useless ability by my sixty-sixth birthday. I put more effort into my Pilates classes, and I practiced headstands several times a week (in the privacy of my bedroom). Before long, I could hoist my rear over my head and keep it there. But straightening my legs was another matter. They were a lot heavier to lift than I remembered. (Couldn’t possibly be those extra pounds I’d packed on, could it?) And if I tried to use momentum to swing them into place, I threw myself off balance and collapsed like an imploding building. (Remember, this is still in my bedroom. Alone.) Finally, I had one of those aha! moments. Not exactly the-secret-of-life kind of epiphany, but still, for me, an important one.
Core engaged=Success!
During the course of a forty-five minute Pilates class, the instructor must mention the word core at least twenty-five times. Every move comes with the admonishment to “engage your core,” “maintain your core,” “focus on your core.” So even with my rear mid-air and all the blood in my body pooling in my head, I remembered use my core. I drew in my breath, sucked my navel to my spine as they say, and pushed, not from my legs but from my abs. And voila! The legs rose! A little wobbly and certainly not perfectly straight, but they rose!
The point of this post isn’t to announce that at the ripe old age of sixty-six, I can do a headstand. Well, okay, that may be part of it. But my headstand and the thought process that went into it got me to thinking about the relationship between core and balance—not just in the physical sense, but in the mental, emotional, and spiritual senses as well. Many times when I feel things getting out of whack—off-balance—I have to stop and consider what’s at my core. I have to ask myself, what do I love, enjoy, value, aspire to? What are my responsibilities to God, to others? Am I focusing on those? Am I making time for all of them?
I’m not saying I always do this perfectly--just as my headstand isn't perfect--but it’s a goal. And when I do “engage my core,” I can feel myself rising.