Friday, July 4, 2014

The Week in Review

Some weeks fly by and some weeks crawl.

My 4-H Fair judging packet came in the mail. I’m not sure how I became a 4-H Fair judge. They’ve assigned me once again to judge baked goods. I have to say, in all modesty, that while I’m no expert in the baking process I feel more than qualified to judge baked goods. I don’t think I’ve turned down anything baked in my life be it a biscuit, shortbread, cookie, brownie, piece of pie, slice of cake, you name it. I have deep experience in this category.

They sent along just one judging sheet to remind me of how this works. I do it only once a year after all. The one they sent is for biscuits. There will be a whole slew of biscuits, some prescribed number on a plate covered by plastic wrap, and we’ll judge each entry on appearance, tenderness, texture, flavor, menu, and knowledge of the exhibitor. There’s a space for comments.

Under each category are characteristics we’re asked to mark as very good, some improvement needed, or much improvement needed. These are kids after all, and there’s no need to be harsh. Everyone can improve. And really, is there such a thing as a bad biscuit? Reading the biscuit characteristics makes me want to head back to the house and whip up a batch. For appearance, the factors are golden brown top, symmetrical shape, uniform size, fairly smooth level top, creamy white inside. I can picture them. Under tenderness just two measures-crisp and tender crust, moist and tender interiors. Tender biscuits. Now there’s a part of life we often overlook don’t you think? That’s Wednesday morning the 9th. I’ll be out at the fairgrounds south of the river having a biscuit or ten. Someone has to do it.

The Cubs astounded me Wednesday night by completing a sweep of the Boston Red Sox. In the series finale the Cubs scored sixteen (that’s right 16) runs. When Cub players were on base other men in Cub uniforms got base hits. I was amazed. They scored in almost every inning, with players other than Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro driving in runs. Second baseman Darwin Barney went four for four. Darwin Barney hitting .214. If you remember, this is virtually the same Boston Red Sox team which won the 2013 World Series by beating the Cardinals 4 games to 2. The Cubs swept them. It hardly registers. It’s as if I write the words in English but they appear on the page as another language.

Not that the Cubs can actually do anything at this point. I mean, they only won 9 games through April. They won 11 more games in May, ending the month with a 20-33 record. They won 16 games in June, which included a five game win streak, and now their first two games in July. So here we are on July 4, 2014 with the Cubs in the cellar of the NL Central with a W-L percentage of .446, 12½ games out of first. That’s second best among the six cellar dwellers. Only Minnesota in the AL Central has a better W-L percentage at .452. The Cubs could be the worst team in baseball, but they’re not. That distinction belongs to Arizona with a record of 36-51.

Where do we go from here you ask? My goals for the Cubs are modest. They have trades to make and prospects to bring up. I’m hoping that by the end of July we are the best cellar dweller among the six and that by season’s end we not only lose less than 100 games but finish within ten games of .500, finishing no worse than next to last in our division. Go ahead. Call me a cock eyed optimist. But I’ve been wearing my Cubs hat rather proudly this past week.

As you might have guessed it was a slow week here at the shack. S-L-O-W. But you know what they say. You should make hay while the sun shines. I read two great books: Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do they Live Forever? by Dave Eggers and To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris. Dave Eggers has written a lot of books. I got started with Zeitouan, a chilling non-fiction account of an Arab American caught up in the Katrina disaster n New Orleans. I followed it up by reading A Hologram for the King, westerners holed up in a rich and modern Mid East oil kingdom. Joshua Ferris has written only three books. I read his debut novel And Then We Came to the End, an insider’s tale of the unraveling of an ad agency and how it affects the people who work there and their relationships. He’s adept at describing the interplay of people who are close to one another but not intimate.

I love it when I race through books. They used to be page turners. Now they’re Kindle clickers. I have the font pumped up fairly high so I was clicking like crazy on my old first generation Kindle. Dave Eggers explores the scary mind of a man unhinged in a book that is pure dialogue, simply and only the verbal exchanges between the wacked main character and his victims. The America it paints is one that scares the hell out of me. I can’t quit thinking about it. It’s a gripping book and a quick read.

Joshua Ferris on the other hand creates a middle aged neurotic dentist seeking identity, and finding it. Alone, without family or faith, he is closest to the women he employs in his dental practice. He is portrayed as a man who lives dangerously deeply in his head but manages to think his way out of it and into some semblance of normal life by the last page. He makes great use of references to social media and digital communication throughout the book. I wouldn’t say you have to read these books. Of course you don’t. But if you do you’ll probably like them.

And finally, at the 900 word mark, I cannot let the week go by without relating this memory of my Mom. I wanted to say I don’t know why it popped into my head, but I do, so I won’t. After my Dad died my Mom made an annual trip or two to Ottawa, usually on Mother’s Day and later in June for the kids’ birthdays. She’d stay for a couple days. She did it to see us of course, and her grand kids, but also to prove to herself she still could. She made the trip well into her eighties. During one of those visits, one of the last ones I think, she broke our stove.

To appreciate the story you have to know some stuff about my Mom. She was a physically imposing figure. Both tall and heavy, she carried herself well with her shoulders back and her chest out. Big chest my Mom, and big arms. Big. Strong.
She was smart and never forgot anything. She said what was on her mind. When we did the same she challenged us. While she could be extremely kind she could also be tough as nails. She worked hard all her life and was proud of her ability to get things done; cook big dinners, clean any mess, milk cows, drive a tractor, push a milk cow around when it got out of line. Watching her work, and live, made one cautious to criticize her.

That’s why it was so surprising when she began to fail. She slipped and fell in the barn carrying a bucket of milk to the milk house. Fell, with her leg under her, and broke the small bone next to her shin. I don’t know where I was then. They called to tell me. Dad had to milk by himself for a while. She was back in the barn, with a walking cast, in a couple of weeks. But realizing she was vulnerable at all was new to me.

She started taking a pill for arthritis. After Dad sold the cows they both slowed down. They bought two recliners and got a satellite dish to pull in WGN and watch the Cubs. She started walking a little brokenly. She wouldn’t exactly say if it was her hip or her knee. Probably both. She started to get that side to side gait, coming down heavy on her feet.

It was that problem exaggerated, years later, which caused her to break our stove. By that time Mom was holding on to anything and everything she could as she walked through the house. She had a cane, used it sparingly, and while helping Colleen cook, going from the fridge to the dining room, she held on to our stove handle, put her weight on it, and snapped it right off. As little kids will do, Dean announced to everyone

“Grandma broke the stove!”

I came in from the other room and sure enough there was my Mom, a yellow dish towel in one hand and a three foot chrome stove handle in the other. I took the stove handle from her and guided her to a dining room chair. I sat next to her. She put her head in her hand.

“I want to pay for that.”

“Mom, the stove came with the house. It’s probably thirty years old. We’re going to remodel anyway and buy a new gas stove. Why they put an electric stove in a house that has gas is beyond me anyway.”

“Yeah, well I feel stupid. How are you going to open that oven door when it’s hot now?”

I looked in the kitchen at what remained. “I think I can get some vice grips on those posts there and get it open just fine. We’ll make do. Please, don’t worry about it.”

“I still feel dumb.”

“Mom, the bigger problem is with the way you have to walk. I think you need more support. Have you considered getting a walker?” I shouldn’t have said that.

“You won’t be seeing me use a walker anytime soon.”

“OK. How about using your cane more, or getting a better cane. One of those with feet on it maybe. Mom you have to face this. You’re not getting around very well.”

“Do you think I need you to tell me that?”


“Well let’s make a little deal then. You take care of yourself and leave me up to me.”

“OK,” I said. That was the end of that.

That deal became one neither of us could keep. Mom fell, injured her neck and spine badly, and never walked again. We thought it was her knee but it may have been her heart that caused her to pass out at the top of the stairs and tumble backwards. She lived her last years in a power wheel chair, with round the clock help, in that same house. She had to accept help. I became the manager of the nursing staff, my sister the banker, my brothers the maintenance men. We had to work things out. My brothers and sister and I had to care for her and she had to accept it. She did so with a surprising amount of grace. There were bumps along the way but we worked them out.

I write this today because all week I have been wishing my family did not have to watch me grow old.

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