Monday, June 30, 2014

Vision is a Precious Thing

“Hey Dave, would you mind if Ben looks at your corneas?”

“No. Of course not.” I saw Ben as I was coming into the Ortiz Eye clinic. He was going around to the back, texting as he walked, while I was coming in the front. Ben’s tall. He’s a basketball player who just finished his freshman year in college. Ben is Tim Ortiz’s son. Tim is my eye doctor.

“I’ll be right back,” Tim said.

Lots of people have looked at my corneas. While I was studying for finals my junior year at ISU, pulling all nighters, it became hard to read. I had to cock my head to make the letters clear up. It was frustrating. That was 1972. I’d been wearing hard contacts since 1968. My high school coach thought contact lenses would improve my peripheral vision. I was a pitcher. When I went to the stretch and looked at first, I couldn’t see what the runner was doing out of the corner of my eye. They’d steal on me. I’d worn glasses since third grade and my eyes were fairly bad. Coach thought the contacts would move with my eye and I would see more clearly. He was right. It helped me on the basketball court too.

Tim came back to the exam room with his son. Ben is taller than his Dad. He adjusted the stool in front of the slit lamp. I put my chin in the little tissue covered cup and my forehead against the bar. His face got close to mine. A bar of light moved slowly in front of my eyes.

“See the button?” Tim said.

“Yeah,” Ben said.

“That’s the grafted cornea. Dad referred him to Dr. Noth. When did Dr. Noth replace your corneas Dave?”

“1990 for the first one, 91 for the second.”

“Wow that was 24 years ago,” Ben said.

“Yeah, and look how clear they are Ben. Tissue donation. Accident victims usually, and they only take younger corneas.”

“Yep, I said. “I may be 63 but my corneas are still in their forties.”

When I went to my eye doctor at Gailey Eye clinic in Bloomington after finals were over he was immediately concerned. He needed an auxiliary lens on the machine that measured the curve of my eye.

“I’m not sure what’s going on with your eyes Mr. McClure but I want you to go home and leave those contacts out for a full week, and then I want to re-examine you.”

“A week? I can’t do that. My glasses stopped working a long time ago. They’re useless. Way too blurry. I wear my contacts all the time. I have to work and stuff.” I worked at Bloomington’s newspaper, the Daily Pantagraph.

“Tell your employer you have a medical emergency. If needed I’ll contact them. It’s very important you leave those lenses off your eyes so we can see them in their normal state. It must happen that way. This is a serious matter and nothing to fool around with. Do you understand?

“So he had them replaced why?” Ben said.

“Kerataconus.” Tim and I said it at the same time.

“I’m not sure what that is,” Ben said.

“You explain it Tim.” Ben wants to be an eye doctor. He’s helping Chris Ortiz, his cousin, an optician in the dispensary; fitting, adjusting, fixing glasses and generally learning about lenses for the summer. He has to do really well in the sciences as an undergrad. With hard work, he’ll make it to Optometry School like his Dad, his Grandpa, and his Great Grandpa, and come out an eye doctor. For now, Ben’s just learning.

“The cornea begins to change shape. No one is sure why. In Dave’s case it could have been complicated by those old hard contacts. Anyway, the cornea becomes cone shaped and irregular. It warps. As it stretches it scars. A kerataconus patient can have distorted vision, poor night vision, blurred vision, all of that. How am I doing Dave?”

“Fine,” I said. “And for years after my corneas were replaced I wore glasses with a very simple prescription. But over time my eyes affected the shape of these new corneas. So I’m back to severe astigmatism. But clear corneas. No scars. If your Dad does his job right, I see just fine. They change often, my eyes do, and my prescriptions, but they continue to be correctable. I pass my driving test. That’s what counts most.”

“We’ve got him now in a SynergEyes contact lens,” Tim said, “but he’s no longer getting the wearing time he needs. We’re fitting him with a new Bausch and Lomb lens just out that’s a specially made soft contact for kerataconus patients. He’s one of our first fits.”

When I first heard the word, when Gailey Eye clinic diagnosed me with kerataconus in 1972, I was terrified. I assumed I would go blind. It’s easy to be fatalistic when you’re young. It’s easy when you’re old as well. They had another doctor confirm it. That doctor asked if his intern could look at my eyes. That has just continued. They dismissed the intern and both doctors took me into an office and talked to me for long time. I was twenty.

“We’ll refit you with contacts that should be more comfortable and improve your vision. They won’t be particularly comfortable, although you don’t seem to be especially sensitive to eye pain. They’ll have a center touch that will hold your contact back, sort of force it to a manageable curve. You’ll have to see us, or another eye care professional, at least annually and immediately if you have a problem or think your eyes are changing. You’ll have to be careful about keeping them clean, about limiting your wearing time, and especially vigilant about abrasions. You’ve had abrasions I assume.”

“Yeah.” They were hellish. Light killed me. I stayed in a dark room for days.

“So what happens when you can’t correct my vision with special contacts anymore?”

“Well, there are cornea transplants. But the procedure is not where we want it to be. Patients recover by lying flat with their head between sand bags for extended periods of time. There are good results but not as often as we believe they should be. Let me just tell you this. The longer you can wait before you get transplants, the better that procedure will be. They’re doing amazing things. But they need time to perfect the procedure and put it into practice.”

That was good advice.

“Weren’t they different procedures Dave? Tim asked. “One eye from the other? I think I remember my Dad saying that.”

“Yeah. In 1990 on the first eye Dr. Noth did something like sixteen separate loops each with a knot. In 1991 he did a running stitch, like a spiral notebook, with one knot.” In 1990 I was in the hospital overnight. In 91 it was outpatient. I made the kids breakfast and when they came home I was in the recliner with a patch on my eye.

“How did it go Dad?” Dean said.


“Great.” He turned on The Simpsons and settled in front of the TV with a box of Cheerios. His sister joined him.

“Does it hurt?” she asked.

“Not much.”

“That’s good.”

In 1988 I was on an eye care mission in Mexico with Phil and Tony Ortiz. Tony is also my brother in law. Tony, Phil’s brother and a former optician at Ortiz Eye Clinic, was my roommate. We were getting ready to go to clinic the first morning and he saw me feeling the dresser top with my hands.

“What are you doing?”

“Trying to find my contact case.”

“Jesus Christ. Can’t you see it?”

“Not without my contacts.”

“You better see Phil.”

I saw Phil when I got back and he spent a long time with me.

“What do you think?”

“Well, you’re case is pretty advanced. Your contact fit is not bad but I think we can do a lot better. They’ve developed gas permeable lenses that are going to allow more oxygen to those poor corneas of yours and probably give you more comfort and maybe more wearing time.”

“What about glasses? I wouldn’t care so much about the contacts if I could have glasses that I could see with. Just see fairly OK around the house you know? Even if I couldn’t drive with them.”

“That’s just not going to happen. We’ll do the best we can do, but you have to understand some things. The reason the contact works is that it holds your cornea back in a more normal shape and that improves your vision. But when you don’t have contacts in your eye the cone comes back, distortion occurs, and glasses can’t accommodate that. But I think you’ll soon be a candidate for cornea replacement. And when that happens we’ll refer you to someone good. The transplant procedure has gotten a lot better. I think you’ll be fine.”

Within a year I renewed my driver’s license, or tried to, and flunked the eye test. That is not a hard test. I flunked it in a pretty big way. When you do that they require you see your eye doctor for a more complete examination, and he or she can determine if you see well enough to drive.

“OK,” Phil said. “I’m going to sign this form allowing you to drive, and you can drive after we give you new contacts. But you have to promise me you will make an appointment with Dr. Noth. Good young ophthalmological surgeon in the suburbs. He’s doing these surgeries all the time and having great results.”

In 1990 Dr. Noth was getting corneas regularly from an eye bank in Michigan. His office staff gave me a beeper. When the cornea became available I had to respond to the beeper and accept it within two hours. If I turned it down, couldn’t have the surgery for some reason, it went to another of his patients. I was on the list. The beeper went off in about three weeks. Eighteen hours later I had a new cornea. In 1991 he got two corneas every Wednesday. They just looked in the book and scheduled me for an upcoming Wednesday. Outpatient. Slick.

“What made these operations so much easier?” Ben asked. He stayed behind the slit lamp a long time looking at my eye.

“Amazingly thin suturing thread,” Tim said. “And great magnifying instruments. It’s all about the tools.”

I thought I was cured after the transplants. However my eyes have required lots of prescription changes. I’ve gone through countless corrective lenses. Phil retired. Tim became my doctor. At one time or another I came to Tim with various complaints.

“Look, Tim, I talk to groups of people. If the light’s not good, or sometimes when it is, I can’t see the expressions on their faces. I cannot talk to people if I can’t see what they think of what I say by the look on their face. It’s impossible. I don’t know whether to change what I’m saying or not. It’s like speaking blind.”

“My wife and I took my daughter to the airport, there’s a big banner hung across the corridor, and I can see the right side of the banner fine and the left side is blurred out. So I close my left eye and scan it with my right, moving my head like I’m watching ping pong. It’s a pain in the ass.”

“It’s getting harder to read. When I read at night, with a lamp beside the bed, it makes my eyes really tired. And sometimes the letters on the page just fly apart. The words on the left side jump up above the words and letters on the right. That’s never happened before. It’s driving me crazy.” Tim listened closely every time. His response to my last concern went something like this.

“So here’s what’s happening Dave. Your eyes are changing in different ways. One eye is now very different from the other. That thing you’re describing when the letters on the page suddenly go out of focus? That’s your brain being unable to compensate any longer for the different images it gets from your two eyes. I’ve been surprised for some time that you’ve been able to accommodate the difference I find in your eyes. What you’re telling me is evidence that we’ve got to do something else. You may have to go back to contacts.”

Not long after that Tim and his staff fit me with the lenses I’m wearing now, a hybrid lens with a gas permeable center and a soft contact skirt which improved my vision dramatically. With them I see better than I’ve seen since 1992. And we hope for a similar result, with more comfort, from this next generation of soft lenses. The technology is amazing. It’s what keeps me going, driving, living a normal life, seeing the letters as they pop up on this computer screen right now.

But it’s not just the technology. It’s having eye doctors who understand eye disease. It’s going to a stable clinic that knows me and my history, keeps well trained staff, stays current with the best new products available, and takes the time to make sure I get what I need and understand how to use it. It’s like being taken care of by family. I feel blessed. When I realized by being part of I Care international’s Central American eye clinics for twenty five years how rare such eye care is in the world, for so many people, I feel humble. We take so much for granted. Vision is a precious thing.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Reader Feedback

I got out of the shack in a fairly big way this past week. I attended the celebration of fifty years of hard work by the Child Care Association of Illinois, staying in the city for a couple of nights. Over the weekend I went to the Flaherty family reunion in Dimmick Township. Flaherty was my wife Colleen’s maiden name. I wasn’t used to seeing all those people at either event but it came back to me fairly well; mingling, remembering names, short conversations. Seeing old friends is a pleasure all its own, but what also came of my travels is this: I met a lot of Dave in the Shack readers, and they told me things about reading what I write.

Until my computer went to hell and I reconstituted the e mail list, I had forgotten who was getting this thing. Knowing who gets it doesn’t tell me who actually reads it. The blog program gives a report of how many people click through to my link. They may well realize what it’s about and close it immediately, but I consider each click a read. Each week people comment by replying to my e mail or leaving a comment on Face Book. I appreciate each bit of feedback I get.

I generally get around a hundred reads per post. However, last week’s piece on gun violence bumped that number up to over two hundred. Write about something controversial and it gets passed around. I attribute that mostly to Face Book. People share posts because they may feel it represents something they agree with and want to be associated with. So posts with a political slant circulate more. The post on my garden for example was read by the usual number. Too personal I think for someone to want to share as if it was their own. That’s OK. Getting a lot of reads is not my motivation for writing this blog although I’d be lying if I told you the feedback doesn’t mean a lot to me. However feedback and a lot of reads by themselves is not enough for me to want to keep beating any particular drum. Fox and CNN have apparently mastered that drumbeat strategy, but it does nothing for me. Did I write about that missing plane? I forget. Where is that plane by the way?

If you would assign one person to each e mail address on the distribution list that links to Dave in the Shack, or each Face Book friend that clicks to read a weekly Dave in the Shack post, and put them all in one room those assembled might very well may look at one another and say “Who are you and why am I here?” The answer to those two questions involves both fact and assumption. You are all people who in one way or another know me or the work I once did with kids and families at YSB. You are people who read in general and choose to read in particular what I write. Those are facts. Now the assumptions. You like what you read there. And another pretty safe one, you’re nice people.

I started Dave in the Shack in 2008 while the director for Youth Service Bureau of Illinois Valley. I was trying to communicate to board, staff, donors and anyone who would listen what YSB did and why. I wanted to build empathy for the kids and families we served, especially the families, and make social work real for those who weren’t involved. Along the way I slid in personal stuff. The personal stuff was well received.

At the reunion my old secretary, the last part time secretary, the one who told us at her exit interview “you can’t ask a part time person to do all that”, told me she enjoys Dave in the Shack. She said she’d been talking about it with her friends and one asked what it’s about.

“That’s just it” she told her friend “it’s about everything. You never know what he’s going to write about. That’s why I like it. And somehow no matter what you write about something about all of them is the same."

“Any particular one that stands out?” I asked, fishing for compliments.

“I like the one about your brother. About you and him making the shelves. I sent it to my sister.”

At CCA’s fifty year anniversary party a guy came across the room I hadn’t seen for a year. Looked just the same; big, smiling, bow tie, hair too long. Do you think bow ties make your head look bigger? And do you think Paul Simon wore bow ties to take attention away from his ears? Anyway, my acquaintance of twenty five years walks up smiling, shakes my hand and says

“So the asparagus. You burn it in the spring? I don’t remember that. We had asparagus on the farm and I don’t know, I guess we cut it down. I don’t remember doing anything to it at all.”

“Well, we burned ours. Every spring around Easter. It may not always have been on Easter Sunday but you know, for story purposes, that worked out well. Did you salt yours when it was over in the summer?”

“Yeah. We did. I don’t know why.”

“Me either.” We could have known each other for a hundred years and never talked about asparagus except for my writing that piece. We talked about other things, but that garden blog piece brought us a little closer.

As I write and self publish those little farm vignettes I realize there is a whole generation of us older people who grew up on farms and had to learn to live in the city, where you don’t do things like hang chickens from a tree and cut their heads off. The “Raising Chickens” blog piece, a memory of my Mom actually, has proven to be a big hit among former farm guys especially. I got a lot of favorable comments about it at the reunion.

“And the piece about the gloves…winter gloves. I forget what you call them.”

“Chopper mittens.”

“Yeah. You wrote about that kid’s Dad putting him on a horse to ride home, all alone, wet and freezing. Jesus can you imagine?”

“Yeah,” I said. I was imagining it when I wrote it. I’m starting to learn that people like imagery. They like detail that allows them to see things as they read. Done right it adds to the story, becomes part of it, rather than being set off by itself and a distraction. Maybe the imagery tells the story all alone.

One of my wife’s cousins took me aside to talk to me about “For Some, Winter Never Ends.” It was the sort of eulogy piece I wrote about the man who shot and killed himself in a house not far from where we were having the reunion.

“I went to school with him. He was very quiet back then. Sort of blended into the walls. All this time since, he was living out there. Hell, I could have talked to him. I mean I knew him. But you just forget.”

“I know.”

“Anyway it was nice you wrote about him.”

People in Chicago especially liked the piece I wrote about the Symphony Orchestra, which makes sense. It’s a venue local to them after all. They especially liked the parts about people sleeping through performances. They reported laughing out loud at the description of the old folks drooling.

“That could be me,” one friend, about my age, told me,. “Hell sometimes it is me.”

Another old friend still remembers the piece I wrote about going to the State Fair. What stuck in his mind was the description of riding the double Ferris wheel. I love it when it works. I was hoping that little passage would resonate.

Different pieces appeal to different people. Quite unexpectedly my eye doctor liked the account of mushroom hunting I put out about the first of May. Didn’t know he hunted mushrooms or had that much appreciation for being in the woods. You never know sometimes. But it has given me a new way to see people and connect with them. Several of my old social work friends liked the piece I called “Independent Living” in which, acting as something of a freelance street outreach worker in retirement, I put a kid on a bus back to where he might find support and a future. Many identified with “Computer Hell”, an account of technology and the system for figuring it out that went terribly wrong inside the shack.

But the most feedback I’ve gotten in a long time came as a result of writing about these tragic school shootings. A dear old friend, twenty years my senior, replied simply “Take me off your list.” I understand. It was a tough read. Brutal maybe. But one I think we have to wade through and ponder. Another thoughtful acquaintance, whom I see from time to time, took me to task on blowing it all out of proportion. I used the word “statistically” in that piece, not providing or even looking up hard numbers over time. Yes the numbers are low and admittedly there exist other problems that if we put more energy into might help more kids or even save more lives. But there is no news more emotionally loaded for the parents of young school children than reports of students being shot and killed in community schools. I may write a follow up to that essay. To my friend, who wrote a pretty good essay himself, I would suggest he cut and paste that response into the comment section of the blog itself. No one ever does that. Others might want to read your thoughts on that matter. You made good points.

While I’ve got your attention, let me just say that I cannot meet all your requests for Dave in the Shack mention. The guys in the beer club want me to write a piece on their organization (or lack of it). This family reunion deserves 1200 words at least as does the Child Care Association’s fifty years of work to help kids and families in Illinois. I have wanted to write about my second trip to Symphony Hall. Then there’s my seventeen year old dog to consider. I keep waiting for her to die, have her obituary pretty much written, and damned if she doesn’t keep right on living, oblivious to her circumstances. I may have to write about her while she’s still alive. Assuming of course I am also.

There’s a farm story about baling hay, the county fair coming up, and most importantly the recent come back of my friend Bill. No shortage of material. And on top of all that new things happen. It’s hard to keep it all organized.

I had a really good conversation with one of my old peers. Let me say that another way. She’s not old, it’s just that we worked together for a long time. She also writes, has attended writing workshops and employed a coach. I value her opinion. She sat down next to me at the closing luncheon in the beautifully restored ball room of the Blackstone Hotel. It’s all white and crystal. Lots of light. You can see the blue of the lake. She asked if she could take the chair next to me and just talk about books. I never just talk about books.

“So how do you think I’m doing?” was the first question out of my mouth. I used to ask that about YSB, with the pronoun we. Now it’s all on me. I wanted her to tell me honestly what she thought of my writing.

“I think it’s getting better. I don’t have time to read them all. But I go back and catch up from time to time. You’re doing better at providing detail. And you don’t overdo it. The detail seems to add to the story not just be thrown in. And your dialogue is improving.” When you sit in a shack by yourself it means a lot to talk to someone you know is smart, face to face, about something so important to you.

“But that’s the blog. How about the book?” she said.

“The book is a whole other story. I spent half the winter trying to figure out if book chapters are like short stories, like a series of blog posts. And when I found out they aren’t, that the book is a whole thing and not a collection of parts, it got a lot harder.”

My friend is writing, has essentially written, a complete memoir. I haven’t read a bit of it. But knowing her I expect it to be heartfelt and emotional. She talked in depth about the experience of writing it.

“What are you trying to do?”

“I’ve switched gears. I started out to write the story of building the shack, which is a true story, but I didn’t think it was saying anything. Now I’m writing real fiction. There are parts of me in two main characters and parts of my family and friends in the other characters but none of them are real people. I had no idea it would be so hard. It’s so much easier to sit down and write one story, start to finish, and then begin another. This book is one long slog. I keep losing the concept. I can’t sustain the thought. Sometimes I think I should stop writing the blog and do nothing but concentrate on the book.”

“I wouldn’t do that,” she said. “And don’t be too hard on yourself. Just keep writing and get it done. I think it will be good. It’s never as good as you want it to be.”

Nothing beats encouragement from someone you know and respect. Nearly everyone who reads this is someone I know and respect. Thanks for all your comments, both digital and face to face. And while I have you here let me restate the thing I’ve been putting on the end of my e mail just to highlight it.

•If you want to unsubscribe, hit reply and say “take me off your list” or anything like that. I’ll do it. It won’t hurt my feelings. Really.

•If you want to communicate directly with me, hit reply and say whatever you want. I’ll read it. I’ll probably respond.

•If you are friends with me on Face Book and prefer to read Dave in the Shack by clicking on a link to my blog in a weekly post, rather than receiving an e mail, by all means unsubscribe. To friend me on Face Book, search for Dave McClure. I’m the one whose profile picture is the shack.

•Sharing Dave in the Shack on Face Book, forwarding the e mail, sending it to your friends in whatever format you choose is not only allowed, it’s encouraged. More is better.

And finally, thanks for reading all the way to the end. I’ll be in touch again next week.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

It Takes My Breath Away

As much as I try to insulate myself here, withdraw after a career working with kids and families, the news sometimes takes my breath away. Sometimes it feels like the air is being sucked right out of this shack. I’ve turned off the e mail feed on my computer and stopped listening to the radio while writing. I check Face Book only on my phone now and have cut way back on connecting there, instead leaving the IPhone on a charger out of reach. I turn my attention to the garden, writing whole blog pieces on nothing but a little plant filled patch of dirt tucked behind my garage. No matter what you do the world intrudes. And it’s a troubling picture.

Late last week I saw images and read stories in multiple forms of media about people, primarily men, strolling into businesses; restaurants and department stores, openly carrying loaded assault rifles. For the cameras and reporters and anyone who would listen they pretended to be surprised why anyone would feel afraid in “what must be the safest place in town right now.” They sought and gained national, maybe international, attention for flaunting their second amendment constitutional right to bear arms in America. It was at the same time an incredible, outrageous, and effective demonstration. At our church we have posted signs at each entrance banning concealed carry. Our church. There we are following another directive “Thou shall not kill.”

Monday in Las Vegas Jerad and Amanda Miller, a married couple, steeped in the anti government rhetoric of the Cliven Bundy ranch encampment in Nevada, enter a small restaurant and assassinate two policemen seated at a table eating pizza for lunch. The policemen are apparently killed simply because they are policemen in uniform. The killers shoot and kill them policeman because they are “oppressors.” They throw two flags down over or near the bodies; a yellow Gadsen Flag and a Swastika. The Gadsen Flag is the iconic American symbol of a coiled rattlesnake snake with the caption “Don’t Tread on Me” printed in black.

They proceed, armed with more weapons and ammo taken from their car in the parking lot, to a Wal-Mart across the street where they intend to barricade themselves in the back of the store and kill more policemen in what they hope will be a deadly standoff. Inside the store Jerad Miller shoots his rifle into the ceiling, commands the employees to leave, and announces “the revolution has begun.” A 31 year old armed shopper, exercising his right to carry a loaded weapon, approaches Jerad Miller. It is assumed he did not realize Jerad’s wife Amanda was nearby and similarly armed. Amanda shoots and kills the armed shopper, shoots and kills her husband as previously arranged, and carries their deadly plan to conclusion by shooting and killing herself. Five gun deaths on a sunny morning amid the clean streets, the parked cars, and of big box stores of America. Somewhere buried under all that violence and death lays a twisted political statement I don’t understand.

On Tuesday, the second to the last day of school at Reynolds High School in Troutdale, Oregon, a city of 16,400 people 12 miles east of Portland, 15 year old Jared Padgett, a student at the school, shot and killed 14 year old freshman Emilio Hoffman in a locker room. He wounded a teacher who was also a coach and had attended the school as a young man. Jared had come to school with an AR-15 rifle and a brown paper bag filled with more than 15 fully loaded magazines, as well as knives. They were concealed in a guitar case and a duffel bag. Police on Wednesday said they know of no link between the shooter and his victim, and no motive. He exchanged gunfire with police before taking his own life, Anderson said. He shot and killed himself while seated on a toilet in a stall in the locker room. The police sent a robot into the stall to determine if he was indeed dead and if bombs were present. It was over quickly.

By the way, when you Google Oregon School shooting you must choose between a numbers of pop up entries: Oregon School Shooting 2012, Oregon School shooting 2013, or Oregon School Shooting 2014.

In the eighteen months since the Sandy Hook school shooting in December of 2012 in Newtown, Connecticut there have been 74 school shootings identified primarily through media reports. An organization called Everytown released data that include incidents that were "classified as school shootings when a firearm was discharged inside a school building or on school or campus grounds, as documented in publicly reported news accounts," and "includes assaults, homicides, suicides, and accidental shootings." The data was also mapped on Zeemaps by The Huffington Post's Mark Gongloff. (Both and Zemaps can be googled for more information. My links didn't make it to the blog.)

At Sandy Hook 20-year-old Adam Lanza fatally shot 20 children and 6 adult staff members. Prior to driving to the school, Lanza shot and killed his mother at their Newtown home. As first responders arrived at the scene, Lanza killed himself by shooting himself in the head. Sandy Hook was the deadliest mass shooting at a high school or grade school in U.S. history and the second-deadliest mass shooting by a single person in U.S. history, after the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre at which a senior at Virginia Tech, shot and killed 32 people and wounded 17 others in two separate attacks, approximately two hours apart, before shooting and killing himself.

All this was preceded by the incident which seemed to plant this phenomenon of school shootings in our collective American conscience, the shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado in April of 1999. There two senior students Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris staged a complex and highly planned attack involving a fire bomb to divert firefighters, propane tanks converted to bombs placed in the cafeteria, 99 explosive devices, and bombs rigged in cars. They murdered a total of 12 students and one teacher, injured 24 additional students, with three other people being injured while attempting to escape the school. Both boys then shot and killed themselves.

School boards and administrators, kids, parents, teachers, and law enforcement officials have all gotten smarter and better at reacting to these incidents and reducing the carnage. Consultants train them. Everyone knows the drills and employs similar security measures. Nothing stops it. Besides prevention measures like lock downs everything is after the fact. And after the facts are established, the stories accurately written, the cases studied, little or nothing of substance happens. We seem as Americans frozen, numb maybe, but seemingly powerless to react. Is it possible that we are together unwilling to act in any meaningful way, even to protect our children and ease the fears of their parents?

There is this, being circulated on Face Book this week, an invention now on sale to protect your child in school.

It is The Bodyguard Blanket, designed and manufactured by ProTecht, and advertised as a 5/16-inch thick bulletproof rectangle that students can wear over their back in the event of a tragedy at school. The product comes adorned with backpack straps and is reportedly able to protect against nails and shards of metal as well as bullets. ProTecht, which posted a video of a test blanket being shot with test gunfire, is made with the same material that makes up the body armor military, police officials, and police dogs rely on. Price is a problem. Each blanket sells for nearly $1,000. School funding being what it is I don’t see it happening. There are cutbacks you know. What have we come to?

My kids are out of school, in their 20’s and 30’s, living in Chicago, making their own choices and exposing themselves to risks of other kinds. They no longer face the possibility of dying because they go each day to a school in which my wife and I enrolled them. I feel for my young friends, many of them teachers and exposed to the double whammy of being also the parents of children in American schools. This is the America they live in. I have made it to the relative safety of this shack. They live in a world, media stoked yes, but one that contains a real and statistically higher level of violence and trauma than my children and my family ever faced at that stage of our life. How do we help young American families raising kids cope with this fear?

I don’t think we will change this deadly dynamic of gun violence in America until we find the political will to do so. Do you? What is more important than this? Where do we start?

Friday, June 6, 2014

Garden Report

So far it’s been a good year for the McClure garden up here on Fields Hill. I picked and ate way more asparagus than usual. I harvested stalks from our one rhubarb plant and baked a pie. Unlike most years, I managed to plant early rows of spinach, leaf lettuce and radishes. As I had hoped to do for many years, I got four Brussels sprout plants in the ground while it was still cool, giving them a head start on the summer heat. Not only has the weather been mild, with timely rains, but something else has changed. I now have time to think about it.

It’s not only the time I devoted to work, the hours from when my car left the garage until it returned, but the space work occupied in my brain if you will. Use any analogy you want, the brain as a hard disk, the brain as a bucket, or the mind as a crowded mess of facts, appointments, looming decisions, emotions and worries. Mine was full. For years the garden was one of many things pushed out, forgotten, ignored. Here’s how it went.

Take the asparagus for example. It was easy to remember to burn off the asparagus each Easter because that was a tradition on the farm. There, just past the clothesline, we had a big patch, 10’ x 20’ maybe. No one knew who planted it originally, but it had been well taken care of through the years. Sometime after we’d been to church, had our pictures taken by the blue spruce tree in the front yard, hunted Easter baskets, eaten a big dinner, and changed out of our church clothes Mom sent one of us kids out to the asparagus patch with farmer matches to burn it off. Tall chest high stalks, thick with ferns matted together, brown from having stood all winter, it seemed always dry and ready to go. All you had to do was gauge the wind, light the side of the patch opposite the way it was blowing, and stand back. It was a show fit for a pyromaniac; billows of white smoke, balls of orange flame, furious crackling, gusts of heat and ash, and no sooner had it begun to burn than it was over. All that remained was bare dirt and stubbly charred stalks. For the rest of spring we simply watched purple asparagus buttons poke through the ground, cut them when they were 4 inches or so high just starting to green, and ate them until they got tough and spindly. Then we salted the patch, throwing table salt from a coffee can over the entire thing, and let it grow up again into tall stalks with thick ferns. Each year we did it all again. That’s what I had in mind when I planted asparagus roots in a long row across the edge of my little town garden, just South of the garage, ten years ago. But most years I did little more than burn it off at Easter.

As days get longer, and the soil holding asparagus roots begins to warm to the sun, spears poke through the ground and shoot up fast. Amazingly fast. To do asparagus right, you need to check it every day, cutting the stalks at the right time, when they’re tender. All it takes is a stroll with a pocketknife. Cut one, put it in your hat, consider cutting another but leave it for the next day, cut more, get a meal’s worth. Note other stalks just beginning to come up, spotting them for later. For a little patch like mine it takes only a few minutes. But neglect it and you’re cutting the tops off tall stalks, realizing others have grown past the point of picking. You kick yourself for letting half of it go. Some years I’d have no more than two meals at most. I’d burn it off, knowing full well it would be ready to eat in a week or so. I might remember it in two weeks while pulling my car in after work, too tired once I got in the house to come out again. Then one morning, late in a suit and tie, I’d pull out of the garage and see tall stalks waving in the wind. I couldn’t find time to include asparagus in my life. Thoughts of home grown vegetables were replaced by some bad foster care case, the budget, a staff person struggling to do her job, one of a hundred different things.

This year was different. I boiled asparagus and ate it with butter. I creamed it, baked it on a cookie sheet with olive oil and salt (dusted with parmesean before serving), put it on the Weber with slabs of salmon, and gave it away to the neighbors. Sometimes we’d be eating asparagus twenty minutes after it was cut. God it’s tasty. Call 2014 the year of asparagus in the McClure garden.

Other stuff is on the way. I was a little late getting my radishes in but in a week or so I’ll be pulling those. My Mom and I used to arrange thin circles of radish on a single piece of Colonial white bread with butter, salted, with maybe a scallion sliced in with it. Fold it over. If I close my eyes I can taste it still.

I planted twelve Roma tomato plants. I cook them down while fresh to make chilla sauce, a sweet relish for roast beef made with cinnamon, clove, onions and sugar. The rest of the Romas I freeze for pasta sauce and chili through the fall and winter. I planted eight more tomatoes for slicing and BLT’s (four early girls and four better boys), and one grape tomato plant for salads and popping in your mouth while in the garden pulling weeds. I managed to get all the tomato and pepper plants in right before those nice rains we had last week.

A friend gave me four very healthy tomatillo plants and I can only find room for two. I’m giving one to my friend Sharon who has a very organized raised bed garden. If you want the last one let me know. I planted two kinds of garlic last fall on Halloween, creamy white and spicy purple, and put some onion sets next to them not long ago. I plan to put in a fall crop of green beans after I pull the garlic and onions, probably around the 4th of July. Think I’ll try pole beans. I put in a lemon grass plant but the rest of the herbs, mostly basil and thyme; I put in pots this year to save room. We have herbs coming up like perennials, oregano in the garden and chives in one of Colleen’s flower beds. I put in two cuke plants, one doing a lot better than the other. And pretty much the rest of the garden is peppers.

It is difficult for me to stop buying peppers. I make my own Jamaican jerk sauce, so I grow a lot of Habaneros. I grow serranos because they go so good with tomatillos in fresh green salsa, spiked with salt, onions, and lime. I planted jalapenos, trying to avoid buying those giant hybrid things they’re attempting to pass as jalapenos these days. They’re not hot, those big jalapenos. Who wants a jalapeno that’s not hot? I planted cayenne peppers, and Thai hots, along with some mild Anaheims and poblanos. Are they poblanos when they’re fresh and anchos when they’re dried? Or is it the other way around? Anyway I’ve got them. I bought an orange bell pepper plant just for grins. I’ve never been able to grow bell peppers in the garden better than those I can buy in the store. That single orange bell plant represents one more try. I wanted to plant some spicy red globe peppers, like pasillas, and those long sweet Italian reds but couldn’t find any. Not that I had room.

The main purpose of all these peppers is a chili paste I’ve been making for quite a few years now. I call it Irish Asian, in that it’s an Asian, specifically Thai style paste grown and put together by an Irish guy. It’s something like Sriracha sauce only not as creamy. Sometimes I roast the peppers. I always add lemon grass. It’s a fluid recipe, more concept than prescription. It ends up canned in small Mason jars. My kids and I eat in on most everything.

Oh and I’m growing four mystery peppers for my friend John, the guy who gave me the tomatillos. He brought the seeds all the way from Guadalajara. When they bloom I’m going to put cheesecloth over the plants so they don’t mix with the pollen from my other peppers. He claims this is an ancient strain of Mexican pepper unlike anything else we have around here. It’s hard to believe a pepper plant that grew up, along with it's ancestors before Columbus, in Southern Mexico is going to flourish in an Illinois summer. Can it possibly produce the same peppers this far north? Like everything in anybody’s garden, you have to be patient and see how it turns out. He gets the seeds, I’ll eat the peppers.

It’s entirely possible I over did the peppers and overcrowded available space. Too many plants will stunt the growth of all of them. I just couldn’t leave any out. My biggest space invader is the corner patch of horseradish which started as a few roots from my friend Jim who owns the roto tiller. Having a friend who owns a roto-tiller is better, I think, than having one yourself. I use it twice a year, and honestly the garage won’t hold one more contraption with an engine. I already have a riding lawn mower and a snow blower. We make a day of the roto-tilling, have lunch, and knock back a few drinks. It’s friendship and farming combined. I hope he likes the arrangement as much as me. He’s a reader of this blog. I have a feeling he’ll tell me.

Where was I? The horseradish. Jim gave me two rhubarb plants and three or four horseradish roots years ago. I lost one of the rhubarb plants, froze out the first year I think. And while the remaining rhubarb plant has stayed about the same size, the horseradish has gone crazy. Seriously, it’s out of hand. I can’t seem to get rid of it. When I dig the horseradish and grind it I do my best to get every root possible out of the ground. Each time I think doing so will set it back considerably. On the contrary, I think it thrives on the challenge. Each year it seems to get bigger. Horseradish grows giant leaves that end up shading my peppers. I do nothing to help it. I don’t water it. I don’t care for it. I hate to think I have to poison it to scale it back but in truth I have what I must admit is a horseradish problem. Advice welcomed.

So that’s the crop report from Field’s Hill in Ottawa along with this observation. Gardening beats work all to hell.

P.S.-For those of you who read last week’s post, I’ve attached a picture of Denny’s shelf. Just got it finished and up yesterday. Handsome piece of work don’t you think? Maybe I’ll throw in a pic of the garden in a few weeks.