On Guard

It is Wednesday at 5am and my husband Jon is already talking.  In whole, long sentences. I wait for him to take a breath, then I slink out of bed, as usual, to make coffee. It appears to be a wifely, domestic chore but really, it’s my escape to six minutes of solitude. But on this morning neither the quiet, the sun rising on the water, the rooster’s crow from the farm across the creek, or the gentle putt of a crabbing boat’s departure fail to clear the swirl of smoke over my head. My mid-week slump settles over me like skunk mist. These are the stay-at-home days when I am irritable and inconsolable.

Exercise often eases my angst, so I put on my Asics and trot out for a run. I chat with neighbors. I ogle dogs. I arrive home feeling a bit lighter. Still there is an inexplicable foggy residue. Perhaps some downward dog breathing and stretching will loosen this grip of grayness. I grab my yoga mat, my mediation book and my glasses, then head to our rickety dock, confident that this next act will sun salutate me through the wet blanket of my isolated mascara-less existence. Striding down the three deck steps toward the pavers which lead to the rear gate, I am closer to recovery. My glance falls to the ground, off to the left, and there alongside a large decorative rock is a thick, slimy snake.

Namaste.

I reverse scream, (which is when you suck in air loudly, rather than expel it) run back into the house, drag Jon from the shower to the window and yell “LOOKIT!” I Google “Maryland snakes.”

What is it doing here?

But I already know.

It is here for brunch.

On the Sunday before, we’d returned from a three-day weekend of hiking and relaxing in western Maryland. We’d let Lillian and Delilah out of the car so I could lead them into the yard. I’d swung the gate open, and there feasting in our bird feeder, were two fat rats. My reverse scream almost sucked my husband’s hair off.

Now, there is a reptile, one which must be permitted to sunbathe, thrive and dine in our beautiful rose bushed and mulched yard—our sanctuary, our COVID safe place, our stay-at-home get-away.  I want to throw up.

My refuge is ruined. I can no longer read, lounge, sip coffee, watch my dogs frolic or do anything which requires me to close my eyes, in my own back yard. I am vigilant. I am anxious. I am jittery. I am scared to death of bird feed.

I am uncomfortable.

And then I think: is this what they are talking about? Are there people in this country, black people, who always feel this way, this wary, this edgy, just walking around?

I happen to be reading a book of Rebecca Solnit’s essays right now. She says, “Comfort is often a code word for the right to be unaware, the right to have no twinges of one’s conscience, no reminders of suffering, the right to be a ‘we’ whose benefits are not limited by the needs and rights of any ‘them.’”

We’ve called an exterminator to rid ourselves of our temporary discomfort. The snake  will politely dab at his lips with his napkin and leave on his own. Good snake. But what can I do to help exterminate the discomfort I may cause others?

My long-time friend, Greg, who is black, referred me to Emmanuel Acho’s new video series, “Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man.”  (@thEMANacho)

Acho says we white people are the ones who have to solve the problem.

Greg suggested I start by engaging in uncomfortable conversations with my fellow white folks. I began with a family member. Yep. It was uncomfortable. It gave me the willies. Was it as bad as rats and snakes in the yard? Nope. And I think it was the right thing to do.

I understand that my duty as a very white chick is to listen. But I’ve also decided to borrow the TSA motto, See Something, Say Something, (they’re not using it much right now anyway) and when I see something that is clearly hurtful to others, especially to black people, I’m going to say something—without being righteous or indignant.  I’d like to simply make a  point. Do I think my comments will change anything? No. Not singularly. But it’s possible that others might join in. Then it’s a chorus, and then it’s a song. And maybe not everyone’s singing but deep below the skin, there’s a vibe and everyone just might nod along.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stick a Bonnet On It

It is the fourth week of our forced isolation and I’m just back from a legal field trip—I’ve been to the grocery store. My two washable, reusable bags are lumpy and overstuffed, one hanging from each shoulder as I negotiate my way through the front door and between two Rhodesian Ridgebacks who smell meat. As I hoist the bags to the kitchen counter one falls open, revealing its coveted contents.

“Hey, you got toilet paper!” my husband exclaims, dancing about like a Charmin bear.

Suddenly I am “Ma” from Little House on the Prairie, who’s come home from the mercantile with a piece of cheese.

I smile victoriously, pulling my sweat-soaked makeshift mask up from where it’s slid around my neck, and use it to dab at my forehead. There’s one more bag out in the covered wagon so Pa goes to fetch it. Alone for a precious 17 seconds, I do a quick inventory of things lying around the house that I might wrap up and give him for his birthday, which is next week. Nothing seems appropriate. What would Ma do? I glance outside. An acorn, perhaps? Maybe a stone from our abandoned pond? Half-pint would have been happy with that. She would have carried it around in her apron for the rest of her life.

We are living in simpler times, but the vestiges of our former lives remain.

Currently, my husband derives untold joy from running to the mailbox as soon as the mail delivery person drives away. I suspect Pa was much the same when the Pony Express came by. Simple pleasures, right? But in much the same way, it’s ill advised to step between my husband and the mail’s modern upgrade, an Amazon delivery, lest you be trampled. Thus a modern solution to the birthday present problem, Amazon, meets simpler times: deliveries are big doins. I cannot prevent him from intercepting his own gift.

We all can recall what harried frenzies a morning work meeting could incite. A 9:00 am meeting was the worst. There was the whole getting out of the house on time thing, followed by the commute thing, complicated by the traffic thing, planting oneself at the meeting table thing (shall “I Lean In” today, or oh f**k it, I’ll take a chair by the wall) then remembering when you’re supposed to talk and when to  shut up.  The online meeting solves so many of those dilemmas. The automobile situations are obviously eliminated (unless the only quiet place you can conduct a call is from your car) but perhaps not as obvious is the equalizing nature of The Zoom. Everyone has their own box in which they must stay. All boxes are the same size and appear in no particular order.  And everyone talks out of turn and over each other anyway, no matter who’s got rank. (Ma would have shushed everyone.) Particularly delightful is that no one can see if you are writing “good idea!” or “Nellie= ASSHAT!” in your notes. In those ways, Zoom technology is actually taking us back to simpler, less frenetic times. Those who would complicate things, however, are beginning to flood our inboxes. I cannot for the life of me discern what it is about the blouses Ann Taylor is marketing that will look better on a zoom call than anything else in my closet. (Please, not a return to the Pussy Bow!) And Facebook keeps trying to sell me hair color. As a professional video-ish-type person, I can tell you that the proper backlighting will eliminate not only the appearance of your blossoming roots but will render the tired details of your whole face equally undiscernible.  The bottom line is that no one looks good on a video call. NO ONE. Ma would just stick a bonnet on her head and get on with the butter churning. So be Ma. Use the technology at hand to simplify.

Lillian, like Ma, is simplifying

It’s nighttime and Jon and I are getting ready to turn in. As I turn out the light, Jon tells me that due to several factors I’ll not get into here, there could be a shortage of meat. I spend the next few hours staring out the window, wondering how unhealthy we will be when forced to live on pasta and baked goods. How mortifying it will be to have to phone Russia for a delivery…to stand in line with our plates while the local farmers peel rabbits. It’s been a source of pride for me that we’ve remained healthy eaters and exercisers through The Covid and in fact, Jon has lost about ten pounds. (As head of the food Gestapo I am taking partial credit for this.) We have relied heavily on protein. Good, yummy protein, not the shit of nutrition bars. This is my anxiety. I can stand strong in the face of a scratchy throat, a canceled graduation and all of the personal career and mid-life crisis threats that come with a weakened economy. Meat, apparently, is my trigger.

On “Little House,” Pa would say something disturbing about a bear or Mrs. Oleson just before Ma blew out the candle, triggering Laura to express her anxiety by asking a bunch of dumb questions. “Do bears eat people?”  or “Why does Nellie act so mean?” Mostly, she got a lot of trite answers, but finally Pa would say, gun in lap, “Do as you are told, and no harm will come.” The simpler living lesson here? When asked, “Is it okay if we go ahead with the Maypole licking contest this Saturday?” Dr. Fauci simply channels Pa. “Do as I say. Keep your distance.  Don’t lick things.” And maybe you’ll be okay.  Unfortunately, and maybe like Fauci, Pa would crawl up on the roof during a cyclone to nail on some extra boards to save his family, but in the end he wouldn’t be able to save himself. Only time and tweet will tell. Maybe one of those Michigan protestors should send the doctor some ammo.

Many of us are triggering all over the place. (Another of mine was the positive tests on lions and tigers at the Bronx Zoo—which snowballed in my delicate mind to a ban on dog snuggling.) I am reminded of that meme, something about not knowing what another person is going through except we do know and it’s The Covid. So we need to take it easy. On ourselves. On others.

So onward. Stop checking your stripe in the Zoom square, throw on a bonnet and head on up to the roof with some nails. Slice yourself a nice piece of cheese and enjoy the view. You’ll see that some things are better at a distance.

Postcard from the Ledge

I am skeptical.

I am skeptical because my husband is a professional salesman. He expertly tells me on saaaaay a Tuesday, that the few days we’re planning to spend in Key West will be very expensive—think $500.00 to $600.00 per night. I wince.  By Wednesday he’s looking at AirBnB, and finds a sailboat we could occupy, but only for slightly less. By Friday’s Coile kitchen happy hour, he’s showing me pictures of a houseboat moored in the Cow Key Channel, which is comparatively economical.  I decide it’s “kitschy.” After our second beverage, he shows me a photo of the houseboat-wife easily climbing from a rowboat, over a seawall, which stands between the boat and the parking area, where our rented Mustang convertible will sleep, awaiting our morning departures to Duvall Street. The wall seems a small obstacle. Besides, I’m not “high-maintenance.” I’m a sport.

A few weeks later, our houseboat hosts pick us up at the Hurricane Hole Marina and ferry us to the mothership. We get an instructional tour, beginning in the galley.

“Here is a percolator…”  houseboat wife begins.

“We have, like three kinds of coffee in there,” houseboat husband offers. I marvel at the generosity of former guests.

“And if you run out of propane, there’s… um… well, there doesn’t seem to be a replacement tank, so we’ll bring you another when we refill your water tank because it only holds 17 gallons.”

“It’s amazing how fast that goes,” house husband helpfully interjects.

“Since there’s no hot water your showers will go real fast. But still you’ll need us to refill the tank. But you won’t even know we’re doing it—we do it from the outside.” I envision houseboat husband and wife hovering outside the window with a tank and a hose, while I jump, blue and naked, from the tiny shower stall.

My skepticism is morphing. It is morphing to trepidation. I am feeling like less of a sport.

Percolator and empty propane cannisters

Houseboat-wife continues.

“There’s a head forward and aft. Don’t put toilet paper in either of them.” I think maybe I could use a hair dryer, but what’s the likelihood…

“And when the red light comes on, you can incinerate. It’s totally green. Just burns it up. It smells a little, but it’s fine. I’ve been swimming right next to it when it’s eliminating.”

I choke a little, way down in my throat.

I look at my husband. He has his plastic sales smile on.  I can tell he’s wondering how much this is going to cost him, maritally.

“If you have any maintenance problems, just ring this,” she says, gesturing toward a silver bell, the clapper enabled by a shredded rope.  “Our maintenance guy, Howie, lives right there.” She points to a makeshift floating shanty about a hundred yards away. The shanty has grey siding and white trimmed windows. “But he’s not very reliable at night.”

I hope I do not see Howie at night.

Howie’s place and means of summons

Our house hosts ferry me back to the dock so I can drive the car to its spot, leaving Jon to launch the rowboat and meet me at the wall.

I pull the rental car up to the designated spot and scan the cove for husband in rowboat. No sign of him. I get out of the car, slightly concerned, but confident our life insurance is in order.

“Hey!” I look down to see his head peeking over the wall. He looks like Kilroy.

“What are you doing?” I ask.

“I’m standing.”

“Wha-“

“My feet are in a kayak.” I peer over the wall. Indeed, he’s standing in a tippy little boat. The top of the wall is about five feet higher than his feet. There is no possible way he can scale the wall. Nor is there any way I can jump into the other kayak he’s towed ashore for me. It occurs to me then that the house-wife is about 5’10”. And that photo must have been taken at high tide.

“Where’s the rowboat?” which to me, would have seemed the more stable option.

“No oars.”

“What about the SUP board?”  I love SUP boarding.

“No paddle.”

Eventually we find a sandier spot so I can jump from the wall into the water without maiming myself, then get into my kayak in a fairly civilized manor. We paddle out to the houseboat, which I now notice is named, “Last Resort.”  It very well could be.

We land the kayaks, drag them up to an attached float, and wiggle our way back onto the houseboat by walking up a chain. Yes. Walking. Up. A. Chain.

Entry/exit chain and space for feet on the launch

We decide we will stay aboard now because the sun is setting and our transport dinghies have no lights. We dine on cheese and Wheat Thins.

“Tomorrow morning we’ll just head in and get breakfast and enjoy the day,” I said, trying to convince myself all would be well. Plus, I am sticking with my “sport” persona.

Husband nervously agrees. He fiddles with his phone. We bunk down in the aft cabin after I warn him that he may touch me only for purposes of warmth. Mine. “Sport” only goes so far. He’s soon snoring, but I am vaguely aware that we are tourist targets in the midst of a boat graveyard. I sleep only a couple of hours.

By the next morning, husband is admitting defeat.

“First stop, breakfast,” he says, sheepishly. “Next, I’ve picked out a few hotels…”

We make coffee which perks its last gas just as it becomes drinkable, but I think that I do not need much caffeine because the shower head is spitting icy blades of refreshment. Ready to attempt shore leave, we toe back down the chain to the small boats. It is then I notice the launches are facing the wrong direction. What might have been a fairly simple slip and slide into the sea has been made impossible because the launches are bolted together, facing each other. I hoist my kayak into the air, throw it into the water then awkwardly jump toward it, maneuvering to avoid an ankle-mangling collision with the other useless water vessels on the float. About a million f-bombs are carried away in the 20-knot breeze. The seal on my “sport” mask has now popped.

Eventually we are headed toward the wall where we’d spied a section, seemingly sloped, teasing us with scalability.

Jon went first, somehow heave-ho-ing himself out of his boat and up the wall to the sidewalk, unscathed save for a spattering of pelican pooh.  Since I was wearing flip flops, I chose to step out of the boat into a few inches of water and climb from there. I realize too late, the quicksand-like nature of the bottom, which is sucking me down several inches each time I attempt to reposition.

“Flip flop gone!” I call to Jon.

“No, I’m sure it’s right there, just reach down.”

I stick my hand into the muck, and squealing like a stabbed hamster, pull up a slithery branch, then some snot-covered rope.

“Flip flop gone forever!” I howl, before sticking my bare foot into a cement crevice and hoisting most of myself over the wall, then rolling onto the sidewalk. And so, I arrive on Key West with one bloody knee and one shoe.

 

Gateway  to Key West

We climb into the car.

“Do we need to get you some shoes?” he asks tentatively, sensing I am at the end of my own slippery rope. I squelch an urge to demand some sort of Manolo Blahnik replacement, admitting that I have some sandals in the trunk. He drives to the nearest breakfast-with-a-bar.
Two Irish coffees and one lobster benedict later, we are headed to the Curry Mansion Inn, where we are giddy with relief that there’d been a cancelation. One more night aboard “Last Resort” and we would take refuge in the well-appointed, spit-polished, full-barred, hot water-tanked, toilet paper-absorbing B&B, leaving our full houseboat fare in our wake. We further sooth the insult of our early departure by leaving houseboat wife and husband some beer and Wheat Thins.

We toddle about the Key West bars and shops, husband eyeing various baubles. This would be a costly reparation.

Curry Mansion Inn                              One up-side:  beautiful sunrise from front deck

 

 

 

The Art of Sitting and Staying, Explained


I used to be the Queen of Leave.

I was a producer at a Louisville television station. The management fired the anchor, who was my friend. So I left.

On to Detroit, where I produced a morning show. After a year or so I was moved to the afternoon show, where, yes, I got more sleep, but my work was heavily managed – nearly done for me. Not only were my shows subject to more inspection, so was I. (Substitute MeToo hashtag with #WhoWasn’t?) So. I left.

In Miami my departure was more mutual. And ugly. Still, when given the option to stay, all that was left of me was one of those little white swirls and a “peeyyyuuuwwww” sound effect.

As a freelancer for about a dozen years in DC, I was only as good as my last performance. So essentially, I left, only to start over, every day.

There was a recession on while I was a producer at The Pentagon Channel, so leaving wasn’t an option.  But every week around Tuesday or Wednesday, I’d tell my friend, Candace what I wanted written on my cake, because, “My last day is Friday,” I’d say. Some women fantasize about a handsome co-worker. I thought a lot about the exit door.

As I moved from place to place I’d drag the same possessions. Some I’d never unpack. They’d sit in a closet or a basement or a garage, until I dusted them off and put them on the next moving truck, so they could sit in the next closet or basement or garage.

I was the same with relationships through my 30’s. I never had much staying power because I was always going. I’d vanish when things didn’t feel quite right, without asking why, without explaining, sometimes dragging it out over a series of conversations, (it’s not you it’s me. No wait, really, it’s you…) sometimes slipping out during a long silence or while the guy checked the meter and before the other shoe dropped.

“You’re still looking,” said one boyfriend, on my way out the door.

I’d drive to parties and other occasions alone, so I could escape unnoticed and unaccompanied.

As I got older, I worried that I wasn’t staying anywhere, ever.

My first big commitment was to a Rhodesian Ridgeback puppy, named Loretta.  Then my dad passed away and a friend told me that buying a house would make me feel better. Suddenly I had a home and a dog. For the first time, putting down some roots felt good and grounding.

Still I flipped in and out of situations, work and romance, always filled with “what if” and “while I still have time.” I always felt like I was in the wrong spot.

“You’re where you’re supposed to be,” my friend Krishna would say.

I arranged group coffees and bike rides, always the single dog mom.

Once, while huffing and puffing my bicycle up a particularly challenging hill, my friend Jenn pulled up alongside and said, “Just settle in.”  I relaxed a bit and stopped changing gears, steadily climbing to the top.

Then Jon came along and there was that magical thing that happens before it all goes side-ways and I need to slip beneath the crack under a door somewhere to get out. But I stayed vertical. There was no shoe. And he loved me and my house and by now two Ridgebacks and my friends and when he put a diamond on my finger and even when I made him wear bike pants. He actually was, eventually, grateful for the bike pants.

I hedged and figured I could still wiggle out if I needed to, if I found out I couldn’t breathe or if, one morning, he drank all the coffee. But then I realized I couldn’t leave. And then I knew I didn’t want to. I stopped looking, pulled up all the escape ladders, filled in my moat and walked down the aisle.

“You’re more free than you’ve ever been,” said a friend.

The name of this blog remains, “On Dogs and Men,” meaning Lillian, Delilah, Jon and mankind. The former sub-title, “Men Come and Go, But Dogs are Forever,” is changed now, though, to “The Art of Sitting and Staying.” Woof. The four of us aren’t going anywhere.

Near Enough

black

I was not close to her.

But I was near enough.

Wendi Winters would pop up into my world regularly and with enthusiasm. I saw her sometimes at local writery, womany things, but mostly at the pool.

Often as I searched around for my goggles and cap, I’d ask her what she was working on.  I’d ask not so much for the actual answer, but to hear her excitement over her actual answer. There were no small stories to her.

“Oh, you have to read my “Teen of the Week” this week. This kid is amazing!!”

Or

“Did you know there’s (insert ancient artifact) buried all over at the (insert local landmark)-?  I told her she should write a book about “what stuff used to be.” She said there were already too many of those.

There is a man who swims around the same time we do – in the mornings.  He likes to talk. He likes to talk so much that when I see him coming, I pull my latex over my ears and spend as much time on the bottom as possible. But not Wendi. Wendi swims with her head above water. Her politics were similar to mine. Opposite his. She would engage. I held my breath a lot. Later, in the locker room I asked her, why?

“Oh, I just like to tweak him,” she said. I shook my head. Better her.

She left that day, like most, wearing a large belt. She liked belts. I always assumed that was a nod to her former careers in the fashion industry.

A fellow writer and friend of Wendi’s once hosted a gathering of women writers.  About 25 of us were standing around the kitchen and each was asked to introduce themselves. I don’t remember what I said about myself, but Wendi went next.

“She forgot to say she’s a damned good writer,” Wendi said loudly.

The highest praise a person can give me, in a crowd where I was anonymous. So. Very. Kind.

The last time I saw her was at the pool. She was swimming with her head up, telling the lifeguard, who was new to town, about all the fun things he should do in Annapolis. She loved this city. She loved that newspaper.

And for all of that, someone walked into her office and shot her.

I took some flowers over to 888 Bestgate, because, what else can you do. A reporter asked me what I thought this means for journalists. I muffed my answer at the time, but now with a clearer head, I think it means very little for journalists. It was an attack by a deeply disturbed person who was upset with a product, got their hands on a gun, and did the unthinkable. It is similar to many other attacks on businesses. I don’t see it as an attack on journalists. It was yet another attack on America. One of this country’s so-called “freedoms” is menacing so many others.

The day after the shooting, I said to my husband, I am not going to be surprised if we hear Wendi confronted the guy, or at least walked toward him. I just felt that. She went toward things.

The next day in a radio report, we heard that’s exactly what happened.  She probably saved lives.

I didn’t know her well. But I was near enough to know:  Wendi Winters swam with her head above water.

 

Brooching the subject…

Madeleine Albright was wearing her customary brooch on her left shoulder. I stared and squinted, trying to figure out today’s selection, but I was sitting too far back in the audience of the Washington Post’s “Securing Tomorrow” program to see it clearly. David Ignatius, who’s been covering the president and foreign policy, was the Q part of the scheduled Q & A.

I don’t often write about, or even refer to, this president.

Albright, you’ll recall, was Secretary of State under President Bill Clinton. She’s written a few books, and she was there mostly to talk about her new one, “Fascism: A Warning.” When told that the title seems alarming she says, with characteristic Albrightism, “Good.”

When asked what advice she would give this president regarding his, as of this writing, on again, meeting with Kim Jong-un, she pointed out that the North Korean leader has spent his life studying for this meeting. He is technically adept and smart. He is his father’s son. Albright met with Kim Jong-il in 2000 and was surprised at his note-less grasp of information – or propaganda – depending. She had been briefed by many experts. She was prepared. Her suggestion (which she joked she might tweet) to Trump: Don’t be extemporaneous. It came across, less as a piece of advice, and more of a punchline.

Being a one-time refugee from Hitler’s Europe, she calls herself “appalled” by this president’s stance on immigration, recalling that when she became an American citizen, while she was at Wellesley College, she was encouraged and felt welcomed. She says empathy is an essential part of presidential leadership.

She recalls Putin as “cold and reptilian,” and an “expert” at weaponizing information. He is intent on separating other world powers from the US. He is so passionately trying to restore Russia to its previous strength and status, he is willing to infiltrate American elections.

Then, she talked about Hitler.

She says Hitler rose to power as the division between the rich and the poor deepened.

There was disagreement over who were the true victims of war. Mussolini exacerbated the situation by promising to “take care of” his supporters. Both promised people things to the exclusion of others, then created scapegoats. Scapegoats who needed to be eliminated. The German business establishment, by most accounts sophisticated and schooled, initially dismissed Hitler as a lightweight. They hoped and figured he would go away. But he appealed to those who felt ignored, outweighed by the culturally elite.

She says her Republican friends are also dismissive of their leader, hoping this president, who promised to “Make America Great Again,” just goes away. Immigrants have become scapegoats. This president works to pit American against American. Albright reminds, “Good guys don’t always win, especially when they are divided.”

She understands this president’s motivations. She calls him the “most undemocratic president” in American history.

Albright says this president’s disrespect of the press is “outrageous.”  This is when my stomach tightens. Like it did when, earlier this month, he threatened to revoke the white house press credentials of those who his administration deemed “unfair” to him. He may be planning, via limited access, to censor the news.

Fascism occurs step by step, says Albright. She says it all makes her very nervous.

I wanted to stand up in the audience and yell, “What can we DO?” I am wary and frustrated. “Calling my Congressman” feels, at the moment, tantamount to “Thoughts and Prayers.”

Ignatius’s last question, appropriately, came via Twitter, from an Albright fan, asking which brooch she had selected for today’s program.  She revealed that she’d worn it for David and for his colleagues at the Post, in honor of their profession, their commitment to journalism and to the truth.

It was a feathered quill pen.

I haven’t often written or referred to this president. I’ve been mostly sticking to a cute puppy picture posting policy, hoping that he just goes away. But what truly has made America great is speaking out, and writing, responsibly, against what’s wrong.

Thank you, Madam Secretary.L&D wearing brooches

Delilah and Lillian sport brooches in support of the former Secretary of State.

The Pull of the Pack

l face of america arch 2

“SLOWING! SLOWING! SLOWING!”

I see the lowered palms of fingerless gloved hands, signaling the universal sign for “stop.”  Six hundred bicycle riders pack up, waiting for the front to re-gain momentum. They’d come to a small hill and were inching up. Now moving too slowly to stay vertical – and having demonstrated the Charlie Chaplin static “stop and drop” one time too often, I kicked my cleat out of my pedal and stepped one foot onto the asphalt. We were about two miles into a 110 – mile ride.

This was going to be a long weekend.

I shivered, breathing in the fog separating me from the sun and studied the shrouded landscape, flecked by 400,000 simple white grave markers.  The route, which began in Arlington, had taken us through the National Cemetery, then would go on through Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, next passing the silent, swanky homes in Potomac, up the substantial climbs of Poolesville and into Fredrick, Maryland for an overnight stay. The next morning we’d head out toward Gettysburg, where the hills would grow steeper and closer together, the road finally flattening a bit through the battlefield then on toward a celebratory finish line.

Leading us was a group of wounded or otherwise disabled riders, mostly military veterans, using hand cranked, three – wheeled bikes. It took an extraordinary amount of effort to ascend. But they screamed downhill like cannonballs. All the hand cycles had push poles, so able-bodied riders could assist at any time.

push pole on bike

The pack began to inch forward.

A few minutes later I hit the same small hill but had so little momentum, I slammed into a higher gear, grinding up. We were all still packed in pretty tightly, which normally gives me the jitters. But the pace was slow, so I didn’t worry too much about crashing.  I glanced at my husband, Jon, who looked as cold as I felt. I longed for a bigger hill to warm me up. He told me to be careful what I wished for.

This was our first “Face of America” ride, in which hundreds of cyclists come from all over the country, having raised hundreds, some, thousands of dollars for the organization which hosts all sorts of similar rides across the country.  Our friend, Colonel Greg Gadson had invited us to be on his team.  He was one of the guys up front.

Fifteen miles of jamming up- then spreading out later, we came to our first rest stop. Normally, on an organized ride, these stops are optional, but safety on this one stipulates that everyone stops together, then heads back out together. Normally the stops are brief, as most riders are in it to cross the finish line as soon as possible, leaving nothing on the road. We were probably stopped here though, for more than 30 minutes. We chatted with Greg. We nibbled on bananas and homemade cookies, Jon seeking out my favorites: chocolate chip. Finally, we heard the sound of the escort motorcycles revving up and headed back to re-mount and be paced back onto the road. About fifteen miles later, we repeated the exercise. By now the sun was breaking through. It was becoming a beautiful day. I tilted my face toward the warmth and removed a layer of clothing. I thanked the volunteers. I offhandedly began receiving cameras passed to me to take photos of their owners with Greg. There was a constant stream. I listened to countless stories of how they knew him, wanted to know him, saw him in The Movie, or had met him along the way of seven other Face of America rides he’d done. Jon fetched coffee and water for the two of us. Then the motorcycles cued us back to our bikes.

It was like any other organized ride we’d done, but in slow motion.

“SLOOOOOWWWWWING!!!”

I tapped my brakes. A guy wearing Mardi Gras beads pulled up next to me.

“Hey, did you have to take your shirt off to get those?” I asked.

“Yeah,” said the man, who was slightly paunchy and well into his 60’s. “It got pretty crazy last night.” We laughed and talked. He had come from Myrtle Beach and was riding with his son, who’d traveled from Missouri.

The pack thinned and we hammered on.

The lunch break lasted around an hour. There were sandwiches, and a band. Everyone stood in the food line, asking about home towns and how many times you’d done the ride. The veterans (military and non) welcomed both of us, treating us as new club members who would surely be back again. Jon and I both peeled down to our base layers: Our “Face of America” jerseys. Now, we blended.

The terrain rolled ahead, and we rolled with it, churning on the ups, braking on the downs. Just when it seemed we were no longer wheel to wheel there’d be an urgent bellow from the back.

“MOVE TO THE RIGHT!! HAND CYCLE COMING UP!!!” Then everyone would smush over, pedal to pedal, while a hand cyclist, being pushed by a ride marshal would scream by, the low-rider’s fists, a blur, the marshal barely breathing hard.

There were probably thirty marshals all together- all tall and lean and cool as cucumbers passing easily through what at any moment could become a slow speed peloton derailment.

As I ambled along, another tall, lean one pulled along side me. I recognized him as Jon Brideau the newly anointed Executive Director of World Team Sports, which organizes Face of America.

“EVERYONE STAY TO THE RIGHT, PLEASE!” he called ahead. “WE ONLY GET ONE LANE HERE. THERE IS ACTIVE TRAFFIC!”

“You have a hard job,” I remarked.

He smiled. “No, it’s not at all. I mean, you can just tell people, and after that it’s up to them. So how did you get involved in this ride?”

I explained our connection to Greg, how I’d met him at Walter Reed and had written a book about him, but that it now needed to be re-written.

“How does one go about doing that, re-writing a whole book?” he asked.

“I have no idea,” I answered, marveling that the guy in charge of this whole glob of potential biking chaos was pedaling along side me, talking as if I were the only one on the road.

He laughed.

“That’s why I’m going to start an MFA program at Pine Manor in Boston this summer,” I said. “This way I’ll have a whole faculty to help me.”

“That’s so cool, really awesome, great,” he said, looking right at me. “I’m from that area. I’ll tell you a secret about Pine Manor.” Then he told me the secret.

Something got his attention and he pedaled on ahead.

How was it that someone who’s devoted his career to helping less -able people, thinks I’m doing something cool?

The last rest stop was shorter, as clouds darkened overhead. The rains came just as we pulled into our last stop for the day- at the Flying Dog Brewery. A beer, a quiet dinner with our team captain, and a short night later, we were back on our bikes. Temperatures overnight had dropped significantly.

The shiver-fest was compounded by 18 mile -per- hour winds. We warmed in the pack and howled through the down-hills.

The countryside was beautiful and endless. It was occasionally dotted by people who came out of their warm homes to stand in the icy wind to cheer us on. It made me feel less scared about America than I have been in recent months. There were still so many good people.

“Mommy’s all right, Daddy’s all right…”

From somewhere nearby I heard Cheap Trick singing “Surrender.”  A rider with a small orange speaker mounted to his handlebars was passing.

“I think that song was popular during my senior year of high school!” I laughed.

He slowed down, confessing to being old enough to appreciate the song in much the same way. We then mutually confessed to various dorky high school concerts and discussed more recent performances by artists who were aging out. He was somewhat grossed out at a “Meatloaf” concert while I was still mesmerized by a 70-ish Cher.  After a few minutes he peeled off to meet up with his team. I looked at my odometer. We’d killed quite a few miles.

Increasingly, the pack-ups became like alcohol- free cocktail parties.

One woman, around my age, talked about wanting to meet Greg to show him a picture she’d taken the year before. I assured her he’d love to see it and we had a great conversation about one lesson Greg had taught me several years ago, when I’d complained about him taking close-up pictures of my face. And my wrinkles. “Do my legs define me?” he’d asked. “No.” “Well your wrinkles don’t define you,” he’d advised. The woman, whose name was a more European version of Terese, said she’d bet he’d taught me a lot. I said he had.

A marshal slowed down long enough to say he’d been recruited to the job by a friend he met through his work in disabled ski instruction. Then he spun up to grab a push pole.

Another rider explained that he came all the way from Puerto Rico to do the ride because he really liked it – “…and it gives my wife a break from me!”

I turned to my right to suddenly see the monuments of the Gettysburg battlefield.

“Look at that!” I gasped, involuntarily. One rider, clearly a multiple- timer, smiled knowingly. I’d always wanted to ride through this park. Now I was. And I didn’t have to rush.

I was thrilled, but a little sad. Two days ago, this ride had stretched ahead interminably. Now I didn’t want it to end. I felt the tiniest of lumps in my throat.

We are always pushing to move forward with our lives, our careers, our relationships. They stretch ahead, and we lurch toward the finish line, missing the markers, the perfectly aligned tombstones, the volunteers who baked cookies, the fathers and sons, the push poles and even – even the impact of our own goodness.

“It’s about the journey,” our team captain had said.

We should stop trying to finish it so soon.

 

 

A Bit About Two Veterans

 

They are zooming toward us like cannon balls, screaming past the black diamonds, on plastic seats attached to a single ski. They are butt-slaloming. Meantime, my co-worker is being a butt.  He’s complaining. He’s rude to guests. He’s yelling at me. He is miserable, but I am thrilled as I watch my new friend, Lt. Colonel Greg Gadson shush past. He is followed by a tall guy in a red jacket on real legs, on two skis. This, I learn, is Lt. Colonel Chuck Schretzman. My insides are warm, but my hands, face and ass are freezing. The cold shoulder from the videographer who is apparently suffering from some sort of altitude dementia, does not help. We are on the side of a mountain in Breckenridge, Colorado shooting a story about wounded warriors learning to ski.

Schretzman and Gadson met on what they call the “friendly field of strife,” in the early ‘80’s at West Point. They were both defensive ends, vying for time on the turf. From that competition, grew a life-long friendship. Weddings, kids, many deployments and one downhill run later, they ended up here, with me, at the bottom of the mountain.

Schretzman is tall, broad, blue- eyed and blonde- the opposite of Greg. Pretty stunning, actually. I chat with him, while trying to mask my colleague’s impatience. It’s like trying to casually shake a lobster off my hand. We’re chatting when Schretzman leans closer and says,

“Do you need me to talk to that guy?”

I’m embarrassed and say no, and wish I had a 2×4. But I’m also impressed by his observation and kindness.

Then it’s Casino night at the lodge and Chuck buys me a beer which I nurse for hours.  The next day we’re back outside and he yells from the lift.

“Hey are you still drinking that beer?”

Mr. Grumpy and I finish shooting that afternoon and go inside. I see Greg and Chuck sitting alone at a table. I grab beers and sit down. It’s only then I notice the tears streaming down Greg’s face. They are looking at photos of the blown-up Humvee.  I don’t want to intrude, but I don’t want to chicken out. So I sit. I give Greg a hug, which seems stupid and futile. Like that’s going to fix things.

But I learn about staying.

I’m sitting at my desk at the Pentagon Channel and Chuck calls to tell me that Greg is going to the Super Bowl and will be talking to the New York Giants before they head out onto the field. It takes me a few weeks to get the whole story. Greg had been speaking to the team all season, about teamwork, about thinking of nothing but the guy next to you, about the reason he is alive was the guy next to him. He talks to them the night before the playoffs at Green Bay. And they win. And then, the New York Giants, against big odds, win the Super Bowl. Because they had this lucky charm. It’s just this freaking great story.

I know very little about the military, and nothing about football, so I figure I’m the perfect person to write this story. And I ask Greg if he minds being the subject of a book. It takes him a while to say yes.

I spend the next couple of years interviewing his mom, his dad, his daughter, his friends, his doctors, therapists and teammates. I even get to talk to Michael Strahan and Coach Tom Coughlin. It takes me months to find soldiers who blew up in that Humvee. Kim, his wife, does not want to talk but emails wonderful excerpts from her personal journal. I learn about battlefield medicine, the golden hour and how to annoy Army public relations folks. I become exceptionally good at annoying public relations folks.

I talk with Chuck about the moment he heard Greg had been hurt- how he’d just picked up his keys and got in his car. Chuck told me about meeting Greg’s wife, Kim at Walter Reed, and watching Greg be wheeled, unconscious, on a stretcher, to the ICU. He told me what Greg’s legs looked like, before they were amputated. Best of all, he told me the story of Greg coming to, a few days after arriving at the hospital, as Chuck stood over him reading letters from West Point teammates. Greg had simply opened his eyes and said the words, “Golden Rule.” Chuck was baffled, so then Greg blurted, “Be on time!”  It was their West Point football coach’s golden rule – to be on time.

Eventually I feel like the book is done. It ends with the Super Bowl victory. I am an okay writer, but terrible at marketing and as time passes, so much more happens. Greg’s in a movie called “Battleship,” he goes to the Olympics in Beijing, he becomes a model for Ossur, which makes prosthetic legs so he makes a lot of Zoolander jokes. He admits to having suicidal thoughts, in his early days of recovery. And I feel like I need to re-write.

So I keep talking to Greg about things, because by now he is my good friend. And he calls one day to say something is wrong with Chuck. Then he calls weeks later to say Chuck is fine. Then he calls after that to say Chuck has ALS.

It is now Greg’s turn to be the rock. For Chuck and for his wife, Stacey.

I know nothing about ALS. Except that so far, no one has survived it.

So, I am the perfect person to write this book.

At least I’m going to try.

Chuck and me at Greg's - Copy

Talking with Chuck.  Photo by Greg.

Mind’s Eye, Blind

“Cinnamon swirl, carrot, strawberry, caramel, chocolate, mint, mocha, or vanilla – pick four.”

I sat, wide-eyed, staring at my fiancé across the tiny table. We were about to get married. We were tasting cake.  It’s a lot less fun than it sounds.

“Um, cinnamon swirl… and – what were the choices?” I asked.

She sighed and I’m pretty sure, rolled her eyes. She was maybe in her late 20’s, and she ran the place. In a slightly harsher tone, she repeated the list, we made our picks and she turned on her heel toward the kitchen. I thought about Seinfeld’s soup Nazi. Clearly, we had violated some unwritten bakery etiquette.

The cupcake Nazi returned with our cake cubes. We straightened in our chairs, delicately picking at the samples, lest our knuckles be wrapped with a spatula.

“Now, we can do a texture, a fondant, – what are your colors?  Do you have a theme?  What’s your vision?” She rounded her lips like a big cherry lifesaver.

“Ummmmm. I just- I like teal but that doesn’t seem very appetizing on cake…”

The truth was, I didn’t have a theme, or a vision. I was 53 years old and never thought I’d get married, so I hadn’t thought about it much. Did I have to have a theme? Like Star Wars or Snow White or something? Can’t “We’re getting married!” be a theme?

We paid for my chai and Jon’s coffee, eyed some confection called “unicorn poop,” and trudged to the parking lot.

“I thought this was supposed to be fun,” I told Jon tearfully. I was an old bride, and clueless about cake. And themes. And dresses and playlists and seating charts and registries. I had three bridesmaids, all in their forties, who, it seemed to me, ought to be able to dress themselves. Our guests – I suspected, would figure out with whom they would like to sit without direction. Our only goals, from the outset, were inclusiveness and revelry. I did not think anyone needed to be choreographed.

At lunch one day I confessed to my friend, Lynn, that I didn’t really know what I wanted.

“It’s really not for you.” She smiled. “It’s for everyone else.”  I agreed. And I began to think more along those lines.

Several recent brides told me that I really would not enjoy my own reception.

“I didn’t see my husband the whole night!” complained one.

“I never ate, or had a drink,” said another.

“I had bruises on my arms from people pulling me around,” still another warned.

I braced for a very expensive mediocre time and hoped to avoid injury.

In the weeks that followed, our guest list blossomed. Relatives and friends were coming from England, California, Ohio and Kentucky.  People we’d only hoped might be there were hitting “accept” on our jonandterese.com website. We were flattered. I was terrified.

While the wedding dress people were less harsh than the confection queen, they still were very interested in my “vision.” The old storybook version of Cinderella has a picture of fairies arguing over what color Cinderella’s dress should be, resulting in a half pink, half blue number. That was as far as my gown fantasies had gotten. Forty-plus years later, “white” was pretty much all I could conjure. At one very foo- foo shop I stepped out of the dressing room and saw one of my bridesmaids,  Krishna, beaming. And so, it was decided.*  I didn’t truly love the gown until the seamstress got a look. As she tucked and pulled, I looked around her shop where several heavily beaded and laced gowns were bending their hangers. Mine was bling-less, with an elegant cut, helped along by a severe protein and vegetable diet. I marveled at our good taste. She thought we’d made a superior choice.

The wedding day zooming at us like a freight train, my groom and I spent the remaining weeks adjusting crowd numbers with oyster shuckers and crab catchers, and expanding our tent and table order. Jon and the groomsmen ran extra electrical lines to support the band and porta potties. We wrote and printed a detailed program and hosted Reverend Bill for dinner. We met with Doyle our friend and bartender, compiling an intimidating list of booze, beer and wine. I poured over wildflower orders for what would be a slightly chaotic DIY project. Each day, I eyed my neighbors’ feathery pampas grasses, which they’d promised me for centerpieces. Thankfully, the bridesmaids easily agreed on dresses and shoes,** despite some early raised eyebrows at my insistence on black. I worried that Lynn, who was hosting all three events at her beautiful waterfront home,(the rehearsal dinner, the reception and Sunday brunch) would grow wedding weary.

Even as we wrestled with every detail, I still didn’t have a mind’s eye.  It was all a jumble of jobs, hopefully ending with me somehow getting up the aisle, followed by some facsimile of a party.

Events began to unfold on Thursday with an almost in-law dinner. There were no incidents.

Our rehearsal was followed by a walk in the labyrinth on the church grounds. Jon and I had planned to walk it alone and were surprised and honored when we were joined by the Buckley family, bridesmaid, Jenn and her husband and groomsman, Craig. The crabs were sweet and the wine flowed freely afterwards.  Dan Haas, a local musician, played just right the sort of music. I had a fabulous time swooshing around in a splurged-upon dress, visiting with college friends, and cousins and watching a few become uncharacteristically overserved.

Saturday began with a 5:30am run with Jenn, which did a lot to settle my nerves. Then we ran the dogs which settled them as well.  A cleaned-up Jenn, along with Claire and Krishna showed up on queue with breakfast – and the hair and make- up frenzy began. All of the sudden it was time to get dressed.  Everything was coming together. I was oddly calm.

Jon and I had our “first look” photos taken at home along with some family shots. He looked handsome and happy in a plain black tux, a pocket square I’d picked out and the boutonniere we’d fashioned from a black calla lily and a rose.

I rode to the church with Claire and her husband Chris, who kept me hidden from the 200 guests, swarming the doors. As I stood outside, holding my brother’s arm, waiting for Trumpet Voluntary (Purcell) to begin, I marveled at the day. The flowers were stunning, the bridesmaids gorgeous, Lillian and Delilah, decked out in sparkly collars and haute black leashes, were behaving like perfect attend-dogs.

Because Jon was raised Quaker our ceremony included an element of “Meeting for Worship” in which everyone is invited to speak.  I’d pictured a silent, confused and bored congregation. But a few Quakers and non, spoke warm and beautiful words, sweetly bringing laughter and of course a few tears. Best of all, when the “meeting” closed with the sign of peace, Jon and I lapped the entire church. I worried that it took too long, but I loved seeing everyone close up in that moment.

Our guests gathered on the lawn for a 200 -person team photo, everyone wearing victory medals Jon had designed.  Then we were swept away to a nearby marina, where a chartered boat waited to take the bridal party to Lynn’s. It was one part of the plan I’d requested, but my “vision” had still been cloudy… how would I navigate getting onboard in my dress and shoes? What if it was windy? Would we all arrive with our over-goo’d and sprayed hair standing skyward?

We pulled away from the dock, the sun gleaming on the white deck and our rhinestone shoes. I looked around the bay where I’d spent countless hours kayaking, SUP boarding and swimming. Now my new husband and I were being motored across those same waters toward all of our friends and family.

As we rounded the point, the billowing tent and lawn party came into view.  Guests milled about with snacks and cocktails in hand as the band played its first set. It looked like a scene from movie. I scanned the crowd for Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson. But no, those were our friends. This was indeed, our party.

I snapped a photo in my mind. Finally, my vision. And I understood why I didn’t have one until that moment. It was simply more grand, more elegant and more perfect than I could have possibly imagined.

cake top with bobblehead

*please see earlier blog: Say Stress to the Dress 

      **please see earlier blog: Big Box Bridal

Input. Output.

lilly&lilah helmets

Lillian and Delilah prepare for the backlash following their mother’s latest blog post. 

 

“What if I start crying?” asked the surviving wife.

“Well, then I’ll probably just start crying along with you.”

I glanced back at the videographer.

“If we all start bawling, well, then we have a problem.”

The woman, whose Army husband had only months before committed suicide, laughed a little, then settled in to tell me her story.

She cried. I cried. The camera guy kept it together.

She was brave. And I allowed myself to lose objectivity. As I am no longer with the mainstream media, it’s been a personal trend over the past several years. Reacting, that is.

I guess that’s why at 5am yesterday, when I first heard on the radio this president’s rant against the “dishonest” media, I involuntarily snorted, ‘OH MY GOD.’  It’s not the first time we’ve heard it of course. But as I laid there pondering my path to the coffeemaker, it was the first time I doubted my ability to stand in a press box, and not react. I don’t think I could have done it. I would have shaken the shot, pulled a plug or worse, yelled something back at him. The fact that so many are required to keep steadily working while being directly pummeled with insults solidly builds my faith in them.

I’ve always been fascinated and at the same time annoyed by the public’s distain for the media. It’s an easy target because it is inherently accessible. It’s also made to look easy, by the real pros. Those two things, I believe, combine to create an “anyone can do that” attitude.  And, unlike performing brain surgery or creating digital apps, it’s all splayed out there for everyone to see and criticize.  I remember several conversations with my own parents in which they criticized the media, citing false assumptions, when their own kid, who spent every year since age 16 in a newsroom, was right there to consult. But because they watched the news, they knew better than I, who wrote and produced it. I don’t mean to call them out. They’re just like everyone else.

Calling the media “dishonest,” and pointing at them directly, in a forum like what I’ll call the Phoenix political rally, makes obvious some ignorance about how the sausage is made.  So, I offer a brief primer.

In instances of presidential mass coverage, most cameras are on what we call “lock down.” There are usually designated, agreed upon source cameras, which feed all the networks. They cannot move. They must be trained on the president at all times. Most often it’s a live feed, directly to all the networks. If the camera pulls any fast moves everyone is stuck with it. Therefore, whether it is live or an immediate taped play-back, it is a straight feed. There simply is no possibility of “dishonesty,” on the part of the people in the box. From the president’s lips, to your ears. It’s a simple thing.

When he looks into a live, locked down camera and tells his supporters about the “dishonest media,” it’s as if he’s asking folks to disbelieve the words coming out of his mouth, even as they runneth over.

Obviously, various members of the media chose portions of the speech to re-play. Most times all the networks focus on the same things – those things they deem newsworthy. The words of a president who incites a crowd to cry against their senator who has served his country for many years including as a POW and now is quite possibly terminally ill, are newsworthy. Uh, sorry if that amounts to negative coverage. It was a negative happening. A deplorable moment. To ignore it would be irresponsible.

In these cases, the media is present to act as a megaphone, if you will, to deliver the message of this country’s leadership directly to its public. It is not there to “edit him pretty.”

If you are one of the complainers who is tired of the “negative” coverage of your president, consider these two things:  If it weren’t for the media, you might not yet even know, among other things, who is the president- you definitely wouldn’t know who’s still on his staff; and if you don’t like what the media is reporting out, you might suggest the president better control what he’s putting in.