Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Baby in the Sun Remembered

If you are new to Dave in the Shack let me tell you how it came to be.  I was the director of Youth Service Bureau of Illinois Valley, a social service agency that serves troubled, abused, neglected and otherwise needy kids and their families.  It was hard work.  I realized at one point that I had to communicate what my organization did, what we valued, and why we mattered much better to everyone involved: my staff, my board of directors, our foster parents, donors, funders, and the community we served.  When we were a little organization I used to brag that we were “too small for rumor.”  You could put everyone in a room and tell them the same thing all at once.  We grew.  It got complicated.
 
When I realized how easy it was to share information by e mail I began sending out a weekly communiqué to a limited list in house.  Then we found Constant Contact and compiled an even bigger list.  At some point in 2007 I named it the Friday Update.  Then we created a YSB Face Book page and readership grew even larger.  When I retired in 2012 I hadn’t missed a Friday.

After retirement I managed to keep some of those readers when the Friday Update transitioned to Dave in the Shack.  I have since added new ones.  I now have the luxury of writing about absolutely anything, and I do.  If you’re reading this thank you.  I value your reads, likes, and comments.  As a conventionally unpublished author you are my audience.  You continue to make this effort worth doing for me.  

During this time between Christmas and the New Year I dove into a project I’ve put off for some time, rereading those old YSB posts.  It’s five years worth, over 250 posts.  I think I wasn’t ready to do it till now.  I knew I would find painful reminders of the kind of problems we encountered helping families, but I also was afraid I would discover how much I missed it.  My fear came true.  I remember the cases, the people, even the particular days so vividly.  I was so close to real life doing that work, so close to danger and joy, risk and reward, success and failure.  Since then things have evened out some here in the shack.  I wouldn’t go back, but it has been fun to visit.

I believe there may be some value in compiling the best of those stories to share with young social workers who are contemplating or have just entered the work of child welfare and youth development.  The field changes all the time, but aspects of the work will remain universal;  forming relationships, gaining trust, starting at the beginning and doing the right thing.  Maybe some of those stories could be helpful.  I’m going to find out. 

Today, for the last blog post in 2015, I want to share with you a Friday Update I read again last night for the first time since I wrote it in 2012.  These  winter holidays revolve around babies;  the Christ child in a manger , the new year represented by a bouncing baby wearing a sash, pushing out the year just ending  hobbling off as an old man.   The New Year is a chance at new birth.  That’s why we make resolutions.  It’s a fresh start, like a baby born into the world.  Along with sadness I tried to capture hopefulness in this brief and real encounter I once had.  I hope you feel it.
 
Baby in the Sun

I’ve been in more meetings than I’d like the past month; meetings with adults making arrangements, making decisions, planning, doing things that have to be done, all the while talking and concerning ourselves mostly with other adults.  It’s a trap that can take you away from the real work.  And then when you least expect it the real work sneaks up on you and captures your full attention.

It was one of those hot days.  Jackie, whose office is close to mine walked past my office to go out the back door, turned on her heel and filled my doorway.

“You should come out here and see this baby.”

“What baby?”

“We have a newborn in foster care.  You have to see it.”

Jackie rarely tells me I have to do anything, which I appreciate.  I was reviewing a policy about risk management.  If the truth were known I don’t care all that much about managing risk.  I prefer to take risk.  This policy implied the opposite; safety, containment, and protection.  I hate policies really.  They imply you do the same thing in every situation every time.  Who can say that?  More than that, who wants to do so?  I stood up and followed Jackie out the door.

The heat hit me hard in contrast to the air conditioning.  There were no clouds.  It was bright.  Standing by her van was Jami and in her arms was what appeared to be a vinyl covered box, like a small dresser drawer.

“Look,” Jackie said.

In the infant carrier was a perfect baby. She was dressed in a lime green onesie.  Her feet were bare.  Traces, just wisps of toenails were visible on each of her ten miniature toes.  Her calves were tiny and on them were short little shins.  Her knees were the size of thimbles.  Her arms were folded across her chest and she was sleeping.  Her nostrils flared slightly as she breathed.  Her skin was paper thin and white like a fine china plate.  I thought I could see through her eyelids.  Dark hair covered her head and in the midst of it a barrette held a tiny tuft of hair with a lime green bow.  Each fold in her ear was perfectly formed.  She breathed in, held her breath for just a moment, and then sighed.  Her mouth moved to one side then returned, and her hand moved up to touch her cheek.

“She’s beautiful.” I said.

Jackie, Jami and I stood looking at her without speaking.  When we began to talk we didn’t look at each other but rather at this perfect baby.

“What’s her name?”

“She doesn’t have a name yet.”

“Why not?”

“The mother hasn’t chosen one.”

“How old?”

“Three days.”

“She seems so small.  Was she premature?”

“Full term and healthy. Just little.”

I wanted to touch her skin but I was afraid I’d wake her.  I didn’t really want to go on with the conversation, find out the rest of the story, but I knew I would.  It’s the dark side of babies in foster care.

”The Mom?”

“Drugs in her system at the time of the birth.”

“Where is she?”

“With a boyfriend not the father.  They’re about to be evicted.”

The baby turned her head and for a moment moved her arm down to her side before bringing it back by her face.  I thought I saw a faint smile.  I thought of my own beautiful daughter, born nearly twice the size, now 28 and making her own way in life.  We look forward to her visits home.

“Heroin?” I asked.

“Yeah.”  It seems like its heroin so often now.

“She’s told us she doesn’t think she can quit.  She’s tried before she says.”

I look at the baby.  Her toes move just a little.

"But her Mom will name her right?”

“We think so.  She has another day.  If she doesn’t the hospital picks a name.”

“She should have a name her Mom gives her.  It may be the only thing she ever gets from her Mom, but she should get that don’t you think?

“I think her Mom will do that.  She’s talking to us.  We’re trying to get her to agree to treatment, if we can find an opening.”

There have been so many cuts to drug treatment programs that finding a bed in a treatment center when you need it, when the addict is ready to go, is something of a crapshoot.  Successful treatment and months and months of clean drug tests is the only way this mother will regain custody of the perfect baby in the infant car seat, now in her third day of life, sleeping in the summer sun outside the YSB office among social workers.
 
“The father?”

“Not identified.”

“Family?”

“Not coming forward and the Mom is not helping.  The baby has been to the doctor and is going back to one of our foster homes.  It’s tough for them.  She didn’t sleep too well the first night.  She has a tiny tummy and seems agitated.  But then again, she’s only three days old.”

God help her I thought.  And then I thought it again, a silent prayer.  Really God.  Please help her, and her mother, and us.  Help YSB make the right decisions, say the right things, chart the right course here at the beginning of her life.  Help her mother, or her father whoever and wherever he may be, find the strength and the will to parent this girl.  Help our foster parents love her and care for her but not so much that they can’t release her to her family when or if they prove themselves able.

But most of all help this tiny girl, this little human being.  Her life is so uncertain.  Let it be a full and wonderful life.  Let her experience family, and friends, and all the good things that exist in the world. 


That little girl, wherever she is, will turn four in 2016.  I may be retired but I still think of those kids and families.  All the time really.  I hope this little girl is in preschool.  I hope she’s well fed, loved, warm, and looking forward to kindergarten.  I hope she talks a blue streak and does not know the particulars of her circumstance that day when we looked at her in bright sun and pondered her future.  I hope her days unfold like a rich and exciting book.  When she is my age it will be 2076, America’s Tricentennial.  I hope she looks back then at her years on earth with satisfaction and joy.  I hope you do too.  Happy New Year.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Snickers

I was the only male nurse’s aide in the place.  They assigned me most every day to the segregated men’s wing.  I made their beds, helped them shower, took them to the basement dining hall, emptied their bedpans, persuaded them to sign over their Social Security checks, brought snacks to their room, did all the things nurse’s aides do.  It was 1977. I was back from a trip to South America and profoundly broke.  The nursing home job came available first.  I took it and liked it.  I learned a lot there.

One of the things I learned was the depth to which people can be alone.  One of the guys on my wing was Ted Becker.  Ted was a bachelor farmer whose parents were both dead.   When Ted was sixty, years after he had moved out of his parent’s farmhouse due to its poor condition and into a mobile home by the machine shed, he suffered a debilitating stroke in his tiny trailer living room.  At the time Ted was morbidly obese.

The story, as told by the other nurse’s aides (which well could have been rumor) was that the EMT’s had a difficult time getting him out of the trailer.  Ted couldn’t walk, they could barely pick him up, and the gurney, with Ted on it, wouldn’t fit through the door.  They used a power saw to enlarge the doorway.  Those are the kind of indignities I hope are never rumored about me.  When Ted left the hospital following his stroke he came to the nursing home, recovered somewhat, and never returned to normal life.  That was four years before I came to work there.

“Ted was morbidly obese?” I asked.

“That was before we put him on a diet” one of my co-workers said proudly.  “He was over four fifty when he came in.”

I looked at Ed down the hall, slumped and scrawny in his tall back chair.  He couldn’t have weighed more than 160 pounds soaking wet.  That would explain the huge folds of skin that draped from his body in the shower.  Though undoubtedly healthy it also struck me as cruel somehow.

The tall back wheel chairs had a tray fixed in front that kept the patients confined or controlled depending on how you looked at it.  Ted couldn’t have gotten up by himself anyway, but the tall chair with the tray did help him sit straight.  Ted slumped to his right side.  I straightened him up several times each day.

Everything on Ted's right side-face, hand, arm, leg, foot-was fairly useless.  The stroke had taken away his speech.  Occasionally he would grunt but not often.  He got a lot done with his left side though.  He could get his left foot just beyond the lower platform of his chair and propel himself slowly down the hall.  If he could get the left side of his chair to the rail that ran the length of the hall he could pull himself even faster.  Try as I might I could not picture Ted as a fat man.

“I guess that explains why he’s so hungry” I said.

Ted was beyond hungry.  He was ravenous.  You had to have a strong stomach to watch Ted eat.  Think Labrador Retriever and a bowl of dog food. The guy was crazy to eat.  He absolutely coveted the snack cart I brought around mid afternoon.  You had to watch him like a hawk.  If you did you would see him inching towards it, pushing with that left foot, and if he succeeded in getting close to it with his left hand, it was an all out attack. 
  
It wasn’t only food.  Ted would stuff toilet paper in his mouth.  Try to eat Kleenex.  The guy would eat anything.   Before you know it his mouth would be absolutely stuffed with whatever was within his reach.  He was in constant danger of choking.  Unashamed, constant, ravenous gluttony defined Ted’s existence there.  Without speech, the means to express himself, or the ability to walk food was his currency, his goal, his life’s desire.

I soon realized that no one visited Ted.  The nurse’s aides from the area thought he might have had a sister that moved away, but no one knew anything about Ted’s family.  And Ted couldn’t tell us.  So he lived his days in the nursing home as a solitary soul.  The meaning of that didn’t fully sink in till Christmas.
 
Except for the dementia patients (Alzheimers was not a diagnosis then), nothing brightens the life of a nursing home resident like visitors, presents, or mail.  Christmas was a time when all those things increased.  Around the holidays residents went to their family’s homes, and if that was not possible the families visited, brought food and brightly wrapped presents, decorated their rooms, sat and talked, and brought the grand kids, most of whom looked bored and scared at the same time.  But Ted got none of that.

In addition to in person visits, the old people in the nursing home who were lucky got cards from family and friends, old neighbors, you name it.  I did mail call for my guys on the wing and I’d walk down and back that sad hall each morning handing out envelopes, opening them for the guys if they could not.

Every day Ted looked hopefully from behind his tray.  The skin on Ted’s face sagged and made his eyes look bigger.  He had soulful blue eyes.  He looked up hopefully.  There was never mail for Ted.

“Not today Ted,” I said as cheerily as I could.

The few days before Christmas were the heaviest card days.  I had a big basket of mail to pass out.  When I came to Ted’s room he was there, slumped over in his chair wearing a plaid flannel shirt with drool on it, khakis, and his black Chuck Taylor high tops.  The Chucks were good for Ted because he was incontinent at times, and when he had accidents we could easily wash the canvas shoes.   I had dressed him.  His eyes were glued to the mail as if it was a pan of brownies.

 “Ted you got a card today.”

His eyes grew big.  I straightened him up.  He fumbled with the envelope with his one working hand and when he couldn’t open it I opened it for him.  It was a card from the nursing home administrator.  Everyone got the same cheap card.  She had her signature stamped inside.  But to add a personal touch she wrote “Ted” before the cheesy Christmas message.
 
“Look Ted, she wrote your name” I said.

Ted looked up at me and his eyes filled with tears.  He cried openly.  Stroke victims will do that.  Ted had gotten a Christmas card and he was crying for joy that someone remembered him.  It was from a nursing home administrator who rarely left her office and didn’t know Ted from a bale of hay.  But it was everything to Ted.  I think that was the moment I knew I had to get out of that job.  It was just too sad.

Thankfully on Christmas Eve I didn’t have to work.  I had bought a few presents and got ready to drive to my parent’s farm house in Danvers.  My parents were both alive then and I was looking forward to seeing my brothers and sisters and the nieces and nephews.  Christmas on the farm is a whole other story but I love Christmas more than any other holiday.  Before I left town I got gas on the South side near the nursing home.  It was before you could pay at the pump so I went inside to pay with cash.  There was a candy counter there.  As I was paying I looked down through the glass top at the candy bars and as the kid was handing me my change said

“Give me a couple of those Snickers too, would you please?”

It was dark when I parked on the street by the nursing home and walked across the yard to the side door.  I made my way up the back stairs to my guys’ wing. It was that quiet time after dinner but before lights out.  I went down the hall to Ted’s room.  He was slumped in his chair, sleeping.  Ted didn’t have a TV like most of the guys.  He didn’t have anything really but clothes.  His one and only Christmas card was thumb tacked to his bulletin board.
 
I turned on Ted’s bed lamp rather than the overhead light.  The rooms then were bright and stark; florescent overhead lights, white walls, shiny linoleum floor, hand cranked metal bed, metal nightstand, and a Formica tray on a stand that rolled over the bed.  To make things worse it was too hot in those rooms, radiators cooking, air not moving, and always the smell of urine.  Christmas Eve in the nursing home.  May we all be spared such a fate.
 
“Wake up Ted I’ve got something for you.”

I gave him a minute to open his eyes and get used to me being there before straightening him up in his chair.

“Ted I’ve got something for you but you are going to have to cooperate.  It’s not on your diet and I don’t want you telling a bunch of people I’m giving you this.  But you strike me as a guy who can keep his mouth shut.  Can you do that?”
Ted may have gotten the joke but could smile only crookedly so I couldn’t tell.  I had his attention however.   When I took the Snickers out of my coat pocket his eyes lit up.

“OK Ted, I want you to eat this slow so you don’t choke, you understand?”
When he realized what was about to happen he literally began to drool.  I got some Kleenex out of his night stand and wiped his chin.  With my Swiss Army knife I cut a small piece of the Snickers and put it on his tray.  His left hand flashed out and the chunk of candy bar was in his mouth almost before I knew what happened.  He stared at me as if I was going to dig it out of his mouth as I had done so often with other things before.

“Ted I want you to chew that slow and swallow it before I give you more.”  He did.

I cut off another piece.  We repeated that five times with the first candy bar. 
“You feel OK Ted?”  He nodded enthusiastically.

“You don’t feel sick do you?”  He shook his head vigorously in the negative.  I wiped his chin with the Kleenex again.

I took out the second candy bar.  We did it again.  I can’t say he slowed down much, but I think he began to savor the bites a little more.  That could have been my imagination.  I wiped his chin once more. 

“This is the last piece Ted and then I have to go.”

I laid the remaining piece of Snickers on his tray but he didn’t take it.

“What the hell Ted, aren’t you going to eat that?”  He just stared at me.

“Ted it’s yours.  Eat it.  I brought it for you.”
 
He didn’t move.  His left hand hung down by his side.  Then he brought his hand up, pointed his finger at the piece of Snickers, and pointed to me.  I couldn’t figure out what he was doing.  He kept pointing at the candy and then pointing at me.  Then I realized he wanted me to have the last piece.  The guy who would eat the envelope his only Christmas card came in was sharing his candy bar with me.  I was dumbfounded.
 
I ate it.  Just Ted and I in a barren nursing home room with a single dim light.  He looked at me closely as I chewed the Snickers, his eyes bright.  I looked back at him.
   
I think people that don’t or can’t talk; babies, those who don’t know your language, stroke victims, all try to express themselves with their eyes.  And sometimes if you pay close attention they succeed.  Or is that just us giving words to their expressions?  We don’t know.  I thought that night Ted talked to me.  I think he said thanks.  I think he wished me a Merry Christmas too.  You could see it in his eyes, his poor old big blue eyes.

“Merry Christmas to you too Ted.”  I said.  “And thank you.”

That was my only Christmas in the nursing home.  I left in the spring.  Ted died the next year.  Choked on not one but many ham sandwiches.  I suspect someone didn’t watch the snack cart closely enough.  I never forgot Ted, or the kindness in his eyes that Christmas Eve.  If we let it, Christmas brings out the best in all of us.


Merry Christmas.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Waddya know? Santa Showed Up.

I ran into Santa the other night at the YMCA.  I rarely go to the Y at night.  I do Yoga on Tuesday and Thursday morning, and try to get in the pool Monday, Wednesday and Friday at noon like I used to when I was employed.  That doesn’t always happen.

When I went to the Y that night the place was jammed, parking lot overflowing, street parking mostly taken.  I swiped myself in and happened to walk by the small gym and who did I see but my old friend Santa Claus.  I had to stop and watch.  He was rearing back with his big red belly sticking out, giving the room the exaggerated wave of his arm and booming out the Ho Ho Ho’s.  The guy cracks me up. 

He had just walked in and the kids, who had been eating pizza, were screaming.  Some kids were crying and terrified, running away from Santa, burying their face in parents’ necks, while other kids were breaking free of their parents and running straight at Santa.  It was the kind of craziness Santa loves.  Some kids made it and wrapped themselves around his legs.  Santa kept laughing the whole time.  I’m telling you, the jolly one is really a ham.
 
He’s working the crowd, shaking hands, bumping fists, giving high fives, patting heads, smiling at Moms and Dads.  Unlike past years Mrs. Claus was with him. Something about her outfit bothered her; the way the apron hung, the hem of her skirt dragging on the floor.  Between smiles she fussed with it.  But Nick, St. Nicholas that is, was in his glory.

When I was working at the agency I’d see Santa every year, sometimes four or five times.  Those last couple of years I saw him all over the place, Rockford and Aurora, Streator, LaSalle, Mendota.  And then I retired and our contact stopped.  Funny.

As I watched him smiling, his white beard neatly combed, the big red bag on his back, trying to make contact with every person in the room, I realized how much I had missed him.  He has a sort of presence, Nick does, that makes you feel good.  It’s the jolliness in guess.
 
He made his way through the gym to a room where a Christmas tree, and chairs for he and Mrs. Claus, were all set up.  There he would talk to each boy and girl individually, and Mrs. Claus would give them a smile and a candy cane.  That’s where Santa has always been the best.

This year for the first time there was a flat screen TV on the wall behind Santa with a video loop of a burning fireplace.  Not a burning fireplace mind you, just the illusion of one.  No heat, some light, no additional logs needed.  Kind of nice but weird somehow.  An elf was behind a camera taking digital pictures.  Another elf kept kids quiet in line and let the next family know when it was their turn. Like a starter on a golf course.  I made my way quietly to a corner where I could just watch. 

Parents rarely do this these days but in the presence of Santa they urge, almost demand, their kids to leave them, for just a few moments, to go to a stranger and talk to him privately.  Sit on his lap even.  They want the picture, for one thing, but they also want the relationship, the moment, however brief, when their child looks in awe at Santa Claus and tells him what they want for Christmas.  Santa will tell you it’s mostly an American phenomena although it happens in one form or another all over the world.  But the American Santa experience is the most intimate.  Santa is pretty flexible.  He’s an international figure you know, well versed in cultural differences.

As good as Santa is at working a room he excels at one on one.  If the little boy or girl is even a little comfortable and accepting, Santa manages to engage them.  He shuts out the rest of the noise and clatter and focuses on that one child on his lap.  Occasionally a family will put two or three kids around him for a picture, but after it’s taken he always does an individual session.

If Santa can make eye contact with a kid, he’s halfway there.  Santa has blue eyes, and bushy eyebrows.  His cheeks are red.  There’s a lot to look at, a bunch of things to catch a kid’s eye.  If Santa can get that kid to meet his gaze, bend the right way to get in their line of sight, turn them gently just a bit with his arm or knee so that they look at his eyes, the visit with Santa begins.

“What’s your name?”

“Maddy.”  Once Santa gets a name he uses it over and over.

“How old are you Maddy?”

Some kids are just agog and can’t talk.  They get lost in the red velvet, the white ball hanging from Santa’s cap, the hairy beard, and this year that damn digital fire behind Santa.  Their mouth hangs open.  They’re speechless.

“Can you hold up how many fingers old you are?”  That usually works.  Once Santa gets an age he has information for another question.

Seeing three fingers he asks, “Are you in preschool?”

Maddy is transfixed.  Santa repeats his question.

“Yes,” she says softly.

“Do you go to Opportunity School?”

Santa knows all the local preschools.  He’s ready with a follow up with another if Maddy says no.  These are Ottawa and Marseilles kids, so there’s a limited number of choices.

Maddy nods again.  She hasn’t taken her eyes off Santa since she sat down.  Her skin is fair and clear.  You can see little blood vessels in its whiteness, and just a faint smear of pizza sauce.  Her eyes are fresh and bright.  They glisten.  Little children are magnificent in their innocence.  There is splendor in their lack of pretense.  Oh to be so young again, to do it all over.
 
“Are you good to your classmates Maddy?”
She nods again.
 
“I know you are.  You’re a good girl.  What can I bring you for Christmas Maddy?”

Maddy looks back at her Mom as if to see if it’s all right to say.  Her Mom smiles.  She turns back to Santa and says softly

“Shopkins.”

Santa seemed a little confused.  “Mrs. Claus do we have any of those Shopkins left that we can give Maddy?”

Mrs. Claus looked as confused as Santa felt.  Both of them looked at Maddy’s mother who nodded.

“Yes we do Santa.  We have plenty.”

“OK Maddy, Shopkins (?) it is.  Anything else?”

Maddy had tuned out.  That short exchange was all she could manage.  She slipped off Santa’s knee, took a candy cane from Mrs. Claus, and ran back to her mother.  From the safety of her Mom’s side she looked back at Mr. and Mrs. Claus.
     
“Merry Christmas, Maddy.”

Maddy smiled.  So did her Mom.

Santa repeated that simple exchange, that little intimate moment, about a hundred and ten times that night at the Y.  Each visit varied.  Santa changes his delivery based on the age of the kids and their situation.  Santa usually asks the five and ups if they’ve been good.

Some just give a timid nod yes, others say yes with bravado of varying degree.   The most honest reply something like this:

“I try really hard.”  If there is a time during the encounter when they break their gaze with Santa it is usually following this question.  How many of us can say yes with certainty, even as adults?  It’s a Christmas ideal, something to aim for, not a means test.  Santa always says something to the effect of:

“I think you’ve been pretty good.”

 Once in a while he makes that question more pointed, especially if there are siblings on his lap or standing with their parent(s) saying things like

“You don’t fight with your brother do you?”

Their look often becomes serious, sometimes they shoot a quick look at their Mom.  If the brother in question is standing next to their Mom waiting his turn he often smirks, obviously knowing the answer.

Most kids are amazingly honest.  “Not much, but you know, sometimes.  Most of the time I don’t.”

Santa is rarely stumped.  He’s pretty quick on his feet. I did see him stumped in Streator once.  A little boy about five named Jalen got up on Santa’s lap with an extremely serious look on his face.  That night Santa had been emphasizing the joy of giving presents in addition to getting them.  He was asking each child if they had gotten their mother a present.  As he did he looked at the women who had brought them with a smile.  He asked Jalen if he’d gotten his mother a present.

The woman with that little boy just shook her head while Jalen looked up at Santa with big liquid eyes and said.

“My Mom’s in jail.”

Santa paused.  “Are you going to get to see your Mom on Christmas Jalen?”

Jalen looked up at Santa with a mournful little face.
 
“They haven’t told us yet.  I kind of don’t think so.”

Santa looked up at the woman who had brought Jalen to see Santa and she just shrugged.  Santa looked away.  He paused so long it was sort of uncomfortable.  Finally he looked back at Jalen and said something.  His voice cracked a little. This is what he said.

“You know what you could do Jalen?  You could make your Mom a picture.  Draw it and then color it.  Maybe a Christmas tree.  And on the picture you could draw you, and wish her a Merry Christmas, and tell her you love her.  That might just be the best Christmas present your Mom ever gets.  And you could mail it to where she is.  Think you could do that Jalen?”

Jalen managed a little smile.  “Yeah.”

If I’m not wrong Santa stopped asking that question.

I hung out as Santa had some pizza, talked with the elves, got into a group picture, and made his way out of the building.  It was a nice warm night.  He and Mrs. Claus looked a little bushed.

I whistled a few bars of “Up on the Housetop” to get their attention as they walked across the parking lot.  Santa stopped and turned.

“Dave, how you doing?  I haven’t seen you in years.  I was afraid once you retired you stopped believing in Santa.”

“I’d never do that Nick.”

“Let me introduce you to my wife.  This is Dave.  He and I have known each other for a long time.  Dave used to work with kids, I would visit them, and we got close.”

I shook her hand.  She has blue eyes too, and a great smile.

“Santa you look good.  Your suit looks good.”

“I got a new one.  I wear them out you know.  This one is from China, can you believe it?  Well made.  Good thick velvet.  Nice red don’t you think?”

“Yeah I do.”  Some say the suit makes the Santa.  I don’t believe that myself.

Santa got out a set of car keys and pushed the fob.  The lights flashed and the door locks clicked open on a late model Buick.  Nice looking.  Chrome wheels.  Santa only brings the sleigh out, makes the reindeer work, on Christmas Eve.  When he’s making pre Christmas appearances in America he likes to drive a full size Buick.  They tell me he drives a big old Mercedes in Germany, and is hell on wheels on the Autobahn.

“Santa you got a new ride there.  Last I saw you were driving a 1990 something LeSabre.”

“Yeah, I had to give that one up.  The engine was still good but there was a pesky wobble in the front end.  That and the gas gauge didn’t work. They wanted to charge me an arm and a leg to fix it.  I got almost  170,000 miles out of that LeSabre though.  Had the big engine.”

“This one’s a Lucerne with all the bells and whistles.  Preset seat positions and outside mirror setting for the Mrs. and me.  Dual temperature controls.  Back up alerts.  Compass in the dash.  It’s a 2006 with less than 100,000.  Should last seven years if not more. “

“Santa do you have another appearance to make tonight?”

“Nope, this is the last one.”

“Well would you and the Mrs. care to come up to my house for a nightcap?  Maybe a bourbon?”

Santa broke into a smile, looked at his wife, and quickly agreed.  “Mrs. Claus is kind of partial to red wine.  Do you have any?  Maybe a Cab or a Zinfandel?   I have some in my bag if you don’t. ”

“I got plenty Santa.  You can follow me up the hill.”

“Come on Dave.  I know where you live.  From when the kids were little you know.”

“Oh right.  I forgot.”

Soon we were gathered around our kitchen counter enjoying beverages.  Mrs. Claus and my wife seemed to have a lot in common.  They talked at one end of the kitchen over a bottle of “7 Deadly Zins” while Santa and I toasted a couple of fingers of Bulleit Bourbon on the rocks and had our own conversation.



“You just keep going don’t you Santa.  You haven’t lost your touch with the kids at all.”

“It’s the kids that keep me going.  How can I stop when they believe so much?”
“You’re such an optimist Santa.  You can’t tell me it’s gotten easier for you over the years.  Don’t you think the world is in sorry shape?” 

“Let me tell you Dave, the world has always had its troubles.  Having flown over it once a year for centuries I can tell you there were always troubles out there, you just didn’t know about them.  Yeah, I worry about flying over the Middle East.  There was an Egyptian passenger plane shot out of the sky not long ago, and then there’s those damn military drones.  Nothing good about military drones that I can see.  That and the lasers people keep shining at aircraft.  Scares the reindeer half to death.  But we always make it through.  I’ve got other worries.”

“Like what.”

“Global warming for one thing.  I live at the North Pole you know.   Hell, we’ve got open water not a half mile from the workshop now.  Getting to be a watery mess up there, everything melting.  Poor damn polar bears stranded on ice floes.  I’m not sure where it going to end.  To tell you the truth, I’m thinking of relocating.”

“Moving from the North Pole?”

Mrs. Claus heard that.  “Nick, stop that crazy talk.  You’re going to start rumors.”

“I don’t care.  Think about it Dave.  I have a worldwide logistics operation with its headquarters at the very top of the world.  It makes a hell of a lot more sense to locate along the equator.  Most of the population is in the temperate zones on either side.  I could cut a lot of time and travel off Christmas Eve if I were in say Cuenca, Ecuador.

"Not Quito?"

"Too much altitude."

"Esmeraldas is a nice town."  Tropical."

"But it’s on the coast.  Coastal cities are threatened by global warming  too. ”

“Dave you’ll have to forgive Nick," Mrs. Claus said loudly from the other side of the kitchen.  “He’s been thinking too much in the off season.  Deep down he knows he can’t break with tradition like that.”

“The damn tradition is getting in the way dear.  Times change.  How can we possibly not change with them?”

“Well Santa." I said.  "I hate to say this but I don’t think that’s really your core business.  Outside of the Christmas Eve trip, which I know must be taxing, you’re an inspirational figure.  You’re as important on a night like tonight there at the Y as you are on Christmas Eve.”

“How do you figure Dave?”

“Well the important thing is for kids, and people in general, to develop belief based on hope.  You’re the epitome of hope and kindness.  There is nothing the least bit violent or extreme about you.  You stand for good.  You accept everyone.  You bring joy and peace.  You’re a lot like someone else I admire.”

“Nick, finish your drink," Mrs. Claus yelled.  "We’ve got to be going and let these nice people get to bed.”

“Yes Dear,” Santa called back to his wife.  To me he asked “Who is this I’m so much like?”

“Jesus of Nazareth.  In fact, you’re so international, so well known around the world, you bridge even beyond the Christian religion these days, which is a plus.  Think about it.  Is it only a coincidence you and Jesus both have your most activity, your biggest celebration, at the same time?  It’s his birthday, and you make that trip bringing joy and peace to the world on the same night.  You complement each other.  I think you’re a lot more alike than different.”

“Oh come on Dave.  You’re stretching it.”

“I am not.  That bag of yours that never runs out of toys?  It’s the loaves and fishes all over again.  Or water into wine.  You operate out of a belief of abundance.  You offer an extravagant welcome.  You exemplify good qualities.”

“Yeah, well if you say so.  In the end I’m just a persistent myth with a great story.  Not that I mind being a myth.  Some of my best friends are myths.”

By this time we were walking the Clauses out to their car on our driveway.

Santa leaned in to me and said, “Your point again?”

“It doesn’t matter where you’re headquartered.  It’s who you are that counts.  It’s what you stand for.”

Santa was getting in the driver’s seat of the Buick and Mrs. Claus in the passenger side.  He began talking to her immediately.

“See honey, Dave just said it doesn’t matter where we’re headquartered.”

From inside the car I heard Mrs. Claus say “Damn it Nick, we’re not moving to Ecuador and that’s the end of it.  I don’t care what Dave says.”

The Buick left my driveway.  As it turned onto Caton Road a power window came down silently and a white gloved hand extended out the driver’s window and waved.

And I heard him exclaim as he drove out of sight


“Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.”

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Be Calm

I just planted tulips.  I spaded up a little bed for red tulips on the west side of the shack a while ago and waited so long I had resigned myself to the fact that I’d lost the planting window and wasted those bulbs.  But there it was December 8 and just as it got dark I finished putting 30 oniony looking bulbs in the soft unfrozen dirt wearing nothing but a sweat shirt and bibs.  If this is global warming I’ll take it.

Planting fall bulbs with confidence they’ll sprout in the spring is optimistic don’t you think?  Like my garlic bulbs I planted these three inches deep or so.  They freeze under there you know, along with the dirt around them.  When the temperature goes in the single digits and below zero they’re out there, harder than a rock, under the snow, and still they respond when the ground warms up come April.  There is enough life in them, somewhere in that small little dome of matter, to push their way up through the ground.  And then as if that weren’t enough damned if they don’t go on to bloom.  Grow stalks and leaves, wave in the wind, get high, flower, go nuts.  You have to envision spring to plant in the fall.  Whether you are conscious of it or not you implicitly assume both the plant and the planter will be alive when the big show goes on.  Planting is a hopeful and life giving act.  We need some hope these days.  I think maybe that’s why I did it.

 I’m all backed up on blogs.  I’ve got to figure out what I think about the topic to follow and get this off my chest or I’m going to get hopelessly bogged down.  What’s worse than a bogged down blogger?  Luckily I put some days aside to write a 5,000 word piece for my family, a long delayed little chapter of our family history that made me cry while I wrote it.  Immediately after it was finished it seemed like the world blew up.  I’ve been stuck there ever since.  My mind has been taken over by the news.

John Kass, whose snarky prose irks me, also gives me food for thought.  He finds humanity in the worst of stories.  As liberals and conservative, Republicans and Democrats, find fodder for their beliefs and opinions in the tragedy of fourteen people murdered in Southern California (and I am as guilty as this rest) Kass picks this out of all the noise surrounding it.  He writes:
 
“It is an unspoken promise our politicians make to us, that we make to ourselves, that if we put a name to a thing and define it, and attach ourselves to a point of view, and condemn or shame anyone who may disagree with us, we might find a small measure of control.  Of course there is no control.  That is the thinking of children who believe that all they have to do is demand a safe space and they’ll get one.  But there is no safe space. There never was a safe space.”

Even the killers, the shooters in Southern California sought that safe space.  Kass goes on: “What I couldn’t get out of my mind was something that would have been comical if there weren’t so much death involved.  The idea of Farook and Malik dropping their 5-month old daughter off with Grandma.  Then they were both in their black tactical gear with their assault rifles, with their pipe bombs and an improvised explosive device, they were read to kill and kill and kill.  But first, they took care of their baby didn’t they?  They made sure their child was safe in grandmother’s arms.  Only then did they get back in the SUV and drive off to slaughter the infidels.”

We now know that Grandma lived with them, and so there was no side trip needed to make the drop off.  But that doesn’t dull the point John Kass is making.  They made sure their baby was safe, before they wreaked havoc, mayhem and fear not only to Americans in San Bernardino, but to all of us.
 
Now that we have such sophisticated social media one dangerous incident can send waves of shock across not only our country but the world in minutes.  Bad news used to travel fast.  Today that adjective doesn’t begin to capture the speed and the impact with which bad news hits.  Bad news is international and instantaneous.  It hits us wherever we are, whenever we check our phones.  We now not only watch the stories develop after the fact but we sometimes watch them take place.  We are flooded with images, sounds and opinions before we have barely grasped what happened.  It apparently no longer requires thousands of deaths and monumental building collapses to potentially change the course of world history.  You can do it in seconds with an assault rifle or two.  And these smaller and more frequent tragedies build on and magnify the last.  The entire world is impacted by a few deadly minutes in a relatively out of the way community in Southern California, just as the world is rocked by a handful of crazed gunmen in Paris.
      
So much violence is happening at once and we are aware, it seems, of all of it.  For example in Chicago a  young man the State of Illinois was charged to protect as its ward was shot 16 times by a policeman with little or no provocation.  How do we know?  We saw it.  It happened over a year ago and was covered up till now but the video, horrific as it was, is everywhere.  I don’t know how many times I saw it on my TV, computer, and smart phone screens.  As fresh witnesses to violence against a boy in an American street committed by police, whose sworn duty is to protect us, it is an assault on us.  Those images haunt me.  The clips inside the Paris night club haunt me.  The bodies being hauled out of the auditorium in San Bernardino haunt me.  Consider me now haunted.
 
All of that comes on the heels of the violence perpetrated against Planned Parenthood in Colorado which adds abortion to the toxic political debate.  I was so sucked into that nightmare video by CNN’s broadcast with its nonstop commentary and the endless loops of visual mayhem that I went to bed feeling that the America which I worked hard to bring peace to in the 1960’s was being eaten up and spit out by the desire to what?  Further a cause?  Gain attention?  Destroy the status quo?  What is happening to us?  Whatever end is desired, violence is the means of choice used to gain it.  And no one bothers to calculate whether the ends justify the means.  They just keep pulling triggers.

Maybe Kass is right and there is no safe place.  Maybe I should believe and take to heart the idea that my safety can be lost in a second on the whim of a person intent on destroying it.  Let’s examine that.  If that is true then should I assume it is not safe in my church as was the case in Charleston?  Should I be wary at Handy Foods while shopping for food?  Should I cast a suspicious eye at the other patrons at Herman’s Liquors?   Is it not safe even here right now in the shack by the stove?   The shack door is not locked when I’m in here, sitting with my back to it, and even if it was there are big windows to shoot through.  In America today should we just assume that we live only because, with seemingly everyone armed and possessing the capacity to kill us, no one chooses to shoot us?  Is that the America we’re living in?  Are we being asked to accept and embrace fear as part of our daily lives?  Should we counter that fear by arming ourselves and being prepared to kill each other?

I went with two other couples to  Two Brother’s Brewery, inside the old Aurora Roundhouse, to hear my nephew and talented bass player perform with the suburban band “Hoss.”  They’ve been playing together a long time, despite jobs and lives and children.  They go to extraordinary lengths to each year perform a benefit Christmas concert that is terrifically entertaining.  Each year they learn an entire great old album.  Some years ago they performed Bob Marley’s Greatest Hits album, learning both reggae and Marley’s songs at the same time.  This year for their second set they worked up all the songs on the Talking Head’s Remain in Light album, plus a few more.  To hear those classic songs, fresh and unique in the early 1980’s, played live now today by good musicians was a rare treat.  The place was loud, the crowd was enthusiastic, and besides that the beer is really good there.

I have to admit danger briefly crossed my mind when we had our arms up in the air, yelling along to the lyrics of Once in a Lifetime,

Letting the days go by
Let the water hold me down
Letting the days go by
Water flowing underground
Into the blue again
After the money's gone
Once in a lifetime
Water flowing underground

Though the club in Paris was a much bigger venue it may have felt much the same that night at the Bataclan just before the shooting started.   Someone at Two Brothers greeted us at the door, but there was no real security.  I looked around.  It could happen, in that big room with the tall ceilings, the old limestone walls, the stage lit up by fancy  lights which held the vapor from the smoke machine, turning it red, blue, and green in turn.  Someone could have just walked up behind us while we were focused on the stage and let us have it, spraying the crowd with bullets.  Our lives could have come crashing down but they didn’t.  We listened till the music ended, made our way back to our van, and were soon safe at home.  A night without incident in Midwestern America, like so many other nights I’ve lived.

Back to my questions.  Are we being asked to accept and embrace fear as part of our daily lives? Should we counter that fear by arming ourselves and being prepared to kill each other?

When I drove home from work the night of September 11, 2001 long lines of cars clogged the gas stations.  Fear of what might happen next caused people, inexplicably, to seek safety in a full tank of gas.  Times have evidently changed however.  Last night on the news I was shown images of block long lines at a gun shop in San Bernardino.  Fear and measures taken for safety have taken an alarming upturn.
    
Both scenarios reminded me of the night the American led coalition put together by George H.W. Bush, massed on the border, crossed into Kuwait and began to chase Saddam Hussein’s army back into Iraq.  I was in Handy Foods that night and a guy I didn’t know came up to me, rolled his shopping cart next to mine, and said

“We started shooting over there.”

His cart was full of canned goods, much of it canned meat.  He was visibly scared.  I could see it in his eyes, feel it in his body language.  It’s amazing to me how such infinitesimal odds of danger create such palpable and personal feelings of fear.  You have to be damned scared to buy that much Spam.
 
If you count back from that night in Handy Foods when George H.W.’s Desert Storm operation began, we’ve been in a shooting war in the Mideast for 25 years.  My kids, now 32 and 30, have lived with their country being an international aggressor, leading the charge in invasions and airstrikes overseas, most of their life.  That’s part of what they know and believe about America. Their government hunts down and kills people by drone.  We finance violence.  And what have we accomplished?

Of course American led violence was ratcheted way up fourteen years ago after 9/11.  You could feel it coming.  Afghanistan was bombed until there were no targets left.  Iraq was taken apart.  We put U.S. troops in both countries, suffering 6,717 American deaths and a whopping 50,897 wounded. The effects of those wars are still being felt among American veterans. We struggle to care for them properly still, their mental health needs in particular.  Should we ask them to lead the free world on the Mideast battlefield again?  What will be different this time?  Haven’t  we battled insurgents in Mosul before?

I read with interest on Face Book the words of a Fox News analyst (now suspended), who railed against our President after hearing his Sunday night nationwide address.  Before calling him a name I wouldn’t even put in my blog let alone say on TV, Col. Ralph Peters said this:

“Mr. President-we’re not afraid.  We’re angry, we’re pissed off.  We want you to react.  We want you to do something.”

As you can see Donald Trump is not the only one lately mouthing angry public sentiment, no matter how primitive and damaging it is.  I think that is pretty much what Americans want.  We want someone to do something, anything, to make us feel better again.  We want our safety back.  Maybe not even that.  We want our sense of safety back, and by the way we want it back right now.  Would invading and occupying Raqqa make us safe?  A city we only learned the name of a month ago?  Where is it?  Syria?  Is that where ISIS is headquartered?  OK, let’s go there.  Let’s do that.  That should put an end to this.  To them, whoever they are, however they believe.  The sooner the better.

I’m very glad Barack Obama is our president now because he is deliberate and slow.  We should not trust our first reaction as people or as a nation.  We have done and can further do a lot of long term damage by reacting and making policy out of fear and its first cousin; anger.  Our track record of bringing peace to both the Mideast and our own country by waging war outside our borders is not good.  Killing them where they live before they kill us may sounds good but I think it’s a failure.  So what do you do?

For myself, I’m going to take the advice of Santa Claus, whom I just ran into down at the YMCA.  We had a nice long talk, which I’ll share with you another time.  Before we parted that night he gave me that smile, like only Santa can, and offered this timely holiday suggestion.

“Be Calm and Jingle On.”

That’s my plan for the near future.  Heck I may adopt it as a year round strategy.
I may not be safe but I feel safe so I’m going to continue life as I would like it to be and live without fear.  I am not going to lay in a supply of canned goods and bottled water preparing to hunker down against a rising tide of anarchy.  I’m going to go to church and welcome those I don’t know.  I’m giving strangers the benefit of the doubt.  I’m going to go out of my way to greet and get to know foreigners and people different than me; those with headscarves and prayer rugs especially.  I need to understand everyone more.

I am running my gas tank down to an eighth of a tank like I always do.  I am not locking my door.  I am sitting with my back to it, letting the sun come in the window, and enjoying the quiet.

I am not buying a gun.  I am not stocking up on ammo, going to the firing range, keeping a loaded pistol in my house, shopping for an assault rifle, or putting in a security system.  I never have.  I see no reason to start now.
 
I’m going to live the rest of my life as peacefully as I possibly can.  I live in a good community which I want to help improve.  I will support and work to elect government officials that put peace and the welfare of humans on the planet before all else.  I’m not sure who that is right now.  Between the Democrats and Republicans we may currently have only the choice between More War and Much More War.  But as peace candidates emerge I will look at them closely.  I won’t stop reading and watching the news, but I’m going to approach it with both skepticism and balance.

And if the warm weather holds I’m planting daffodils.  It’s a free country.  You can’t stop me.


Saturday, November 28, 2015

Seeing the World As It Is

Waking up one morning in 1975 I saw my roommate’s dog Casey, an Irish Setter, sitting against my bedroom wall.

“Casey.  Good morning.  Come here girl.”

I made that smooching kissing kind of sound we make to call dogs to us.  She didn’t move.

I was in the smallest bedroom of a country house I shared with two other guys.  I was there temporarily.  Well, we all were there temporarily as it turned out but I was the most temporary of the three.  I planned to leave in the spring for South America, a plan I carried out.

In my little bedroom was a twin bed mattress and box spring, a wooden barrel, some books on the floor, and a backpack with very few clothes on top of it in the corner.  I was covered by a sleeping bag.

“Casey, don’t be silly. Come here.”

I stretched out my arm and wiggled my fingers, promising to scratch her behind her ears which she liked so much.  She was about three feet beyond my outstretched hand.  Still she didn’t move.  I pushed out from under the sleeping bag, closing the gap between us and touched her.

When my fingers touched her I realized it wasn’t Casey but my brown wool sweater.  I had mistaken my sweater for a dog, and was reminded how bad my vision was without correction.  It’s sobering, but you learn to live with it.

I first got glasses, for myopia, in 1960 when I was in third grade.  When I left the eye clinic in Bloomington wearing them I looked down the street and said to my Mom

“I can see every leaf on those trees.”

I loved wearing glasses.   I never took them off.  As I got older my glasses got thicker.  I got contact lenses in 1968 because my coach thought contact lenses would improve my peripheral vision.  He was right.  With them I could see if the base runner leading off first was leaning towards second when I pitched.  When basketball season came I became more aware of the whole court.  I experienced little discomfort, and wore those contacts as much as I possibly could, which was probably a mistake.
 
My vision became more of a problem in 1972.  After spring finals at ISU I went to my eye doctor because I thought I had scratches on my contact lenses.  My vision was annoyingly blurry, both near and far, as if I was looking through something.  I cleaned the contacts, the old hard kind, little pieces of blue plastic, several times but could see nothing on them.  Turned out it wasn’t my contacts but my eyes.  I was looking through scars on my corneas, like stretch marks.  My corneas had become cone shaped.  I had developed an eye disease called kerataconus. When corneas lose their uniform curve and shape they not only scar but they distort your vision.  There’s no getting around that.

I was fit with special contacts that held back the cone but at the same time irritated my eyes more.  I learned to live with that.   As the years went on with the help of excellent eye doctors I made use of every new technology available.  I was fitted with gas permeable contact lenses which allowed more oxygen onto the surface of my eye and lengthened my wearing time.  But my eyes continued to change.
 
I flunked the vision portion of my driver’s test in 1990 and went to my trusted eye doctor for a more extensive exam.  He passed me, allowing me to drive, but only after exacting a promise that I would visit an ophthalmologist who specialized in cornea transplants.  Turned out I was a prime candidate for such surgery.

My corneas were replaced a year apart in 1990 and 1991.  After each surgery I snapped that eye’s hard contact between my fingers, the little bastards that caused me so much discomfort, and vowed to never wear contacts again.  The transplants gave me not only a clear surface to look through but reduced my astigmatism as well.  After it was all done my new glasses, rather than being coke bottle thick, resembled those of a normal person.  I thought the transplants would eliminate my eye disease.  But I was wrong.

It crept back.  Astigmatism became the problem.  While my corneas remained clear something about my eye caused them to again lose their shape.  My prescription crept up again, and not uniformly in each eye.  My eyes became very different one from another.  The eye doctors worked so hard to help me see.

I would attempt to explain to my eye doctor, now the son of the man who insisted I see the surgeon, what it was like to see through my eyes, so he could understand what was happening.

“Don’t try,” he said.  “Vision is a hard thing to put into words, especially the vision of people with kerataconus.  Looking through non uniform corneas, each eye different from the other, and each patient’s eyes different from the next, causes unique individual distortion.  It’s distorted in an infinite number of ways.  Your brain can accommodate many of those differences.  But convincing me what it looks like for you is not really helpful to me.  It’s interesting, but not important.  My job is to produce vision for you as good as possible given your eyes, and when I can no longer do that get to someone who can make your eyes better.”

He gave me a prism in one lens after I complained that my eyes watered at night while reading.  Even with it I reported that occasionally the vision of one eye or another suddenly wildly diverged, the print on one side of a sentence jumping way higher than the other side making it impossible to read.
 
“That is your brain taking a break.  The difference is too great and your eyes go out of focus temporarily.  Your brain can’t hold it together any longer.”

If I stood in front of a wide banner with print trying to read it across, one side of the banner, usually the left, would be clear while the right side blurred out.  I found it better to close the right eye and move my head to scan the entire width with the left.
 
Occasionally things that I knew were concentric, say targets with equally spaced rings, the kind you shoot arrows at, would not be so.  On one side the rings would scrunch together.  On the other side they would bow out.  But the worst part of living with so much astigmatism, which requires such a strong prescription, is the lack of depth perception.  There was a time before I flunked the driver’s test that I desperately relied on “stop ahead” signs.  Without them I would slam on my brakes at a rapidly approaching stop sign believing I had plenty of time.  No one has told me this but I think corrective prescriptions with high minus make everything appear smaller, yet in relative proportion.  It allows you to see the world more clearly, but not as it really is.

A few years ago my young cutting edge optometrist introduced me to an innovation called Synergize (brand name) contacts.  It’s a gas permeable lens surrounded by a soft contact skirt.  That skirt allows your eye to push the lens out to the curve it needs while the rigid lens stays in place over your pupil.  They fit tightly so extended wearing time is not recommended.  With them I saw amazingly well.  But as time went on I could wear them less and less.  And when I took the contacts out and used my glasses they didn’t function well because of something called corneal molding.  Even when that subsided glasses could not replicate the vision afforded by those advanced contacts.  Finally I had to abandon the contacts because blood vessels began to grow onto the iris in an attempt to bring needed oxygen to the surface of the cornea.   When that happened I was once again referred to a young and respected ophthalmologist.

Beginning this summer he performed a series of procedures to both eyes, incisions which relaxed my cornea and allowed it to take a more normal shape.  He risked cutting into my transplanted cornea, a risk not all professionals of his kind will do.  He was relaxed and confident.  I like him a lot.  I think his confidence comes from not only his skill and experience but because he has the best equipment available, all the latest technology, and a team of people around him who supply him with very accurate information and take no shortcuts.  I felt immediately comfortable in his office, believing I had arrived at a good place.

This past week he concluded his work, performing two cataract removals and replacing my God given lenses with corrected Alcon Toric lenses.  Each of those lenses has six diopters of correction for my astigmatism.  That puts correction inside my eye, in the small lens in front of my retina, rather than on or directly in front of my cornea.  It’s an outpatient procedure done while you are awake.  For the second eye I turned down the pre op offer of Valium so I could pay better attention to what was going on.  I was at the Center for Minimally Invasive Surgery in Mokena, a nice unassuming place by a warehouse off Route 80.  My doctor asked where I wanted the surgery done.  I replied that I wanted to be where he most liked to be.  Totally his call.  He picked CMIC.

In preparation I needed only to strip to the waist before putting on the funky gown.  I even kept my shoes on. They put little booties over them.  A nurse writes something on my forehead above the eye I’m having done, most likely “Cut this one!” and puts both dilating and numbing drops in that eye.  Another asks me to look straight ahead and puts a dot on my eyeball for the doctor to use as a reference when placing the Toric lens.

“Is that a Sharpie?”

She smiled.  “I don’t know.  Sort of.  It’s a felt tip marker of some kind. Special though you know.”

Bianca, a nursing student, was my transporter each time, wheeling me from the staging area to the hallway outside the operating room.  She wrapped a warm blanket around me while I waited.  I was operated on early last Saturday so we talked about the snowstorm and snow removal as we waited.  I was lucky to have made it to Mokena from Ottawa.  Bianca and her family lived in a nearby unincorporated area notoriously bad at plowing snow.  She felt lucky to be there too.

Inside the operating room they tilted my head so the eye being worked on was properly positioned and clamped into something of a soft vice before forcing my eye open with a speculum.  Before I was clamped in I looked at the equipment instruments, big overhead lights, and a giant machine on a massive arm that looked like a movie camera.  On the side of it was the word “Leica.”

“Hey,” I said to no one in particular.  “It’s a Leica.”

“You familiar with the microscope industry?” A nurse asked.

“Not at all.  But Leica used to make very good cameras.  Professionals used their stuff.  I hadn’t heard of them in years.”

While travelling in the 70’s with a Minolta I would run into  world travelers with money carrying Leicas.  They were proud on the verge of snobby about them.

“Well that is a spanking new digital Leica microscope that makes all this work possible.”

“Good to know they’re still around.”

My doctor came in and shook my hand.  He looked different.  We were both wearing hair nets for one thing, and he sported orange crocs on his feet.   He asked the nurse to put the music on.  It was mindless pop.  He sang along to “You Shook Me All Night Long” by AC-DC as he got ready to work.

“Doc, how about telling me what you’re doing as it goes along today?  I didn’t take the Valium.”

“I’d be glad to.  Let me get this instrument in position.  We’re about ready to go.”

He put an extremely bright light directly above my fully dilated eye.  Inside the brightness were three rectangular brighter lights.  It was so bright everything seemed to be turning red.  Nothing I could do about it.  Above me the doctor pulled the camera into position and looked through two eyepieces.

“I have a great view of the interior of your eye thanks to this machine.  Your eye is fully dilated and I can see your lens very clearly.”

“OK, I’m making a 2 millimeter incision on the side of your eye, and inserting my probe through that incision.  Your lens has a diameter of about 6 millimeters.  First I dissect it, then I apply radio waves that break  up those large pieces into bits small enough to be sucked out by the probe.  It’s called phacoemulsification.”

I felt nothing.

"This is going well.  Now I’m beginning to clean this out.  I’m vacuuming out your old lens in a sort of sac it rests in while leaving the snug place it fit into intact.  I’ll insert the new lens in that same place and in time it will incorporate itself into that same place.  The eye will grow around it somewhat.”

As he did this a sound like a video game came from my right side.  Bloops and bings of various length and tones  burbled along.

“What’s that funny noise?”

“The machine gives me some audio feedback on material entering and going through the probe. Along with what I’m seeing it helps me know when I’ve gotten all the loose material.”

“OK.  I’m done with that part.  Now I’m putting your new lens into my probe.  I’ll put it near the site and then release it.  When I do it unrolls and takes shape.  It has a diameter of about 6 mm like your natural lens with arms of another 7 mm that are used to hold it in place .  So in total its 13 mm.”



“And you get that thing all rolled up into a cylinder that fits through a 2 mm incision?”

“Yep.”

“That sounds like magic.”

“I know it sounds like magic but it is actually wonderful material and great science.”

“I forget about great science sometimes.”

“It’s easy to do that.  But in my work I see firsthand what a difference it makes.”

“OK your new lens in nicely situated.  Now I’m going to rotate it to the proper axis.”

“Is this where the dot on my eyeball comes in?”

“Yeah.  Not high tech at all but very effective.”

“OK.  One more look around.  Like leaving a hotel room and making sure you didn’t forget something.  OK we’re done.  That went well Mr. McClure.  I think you’ll have a good result.”

“Do you glue the incision shut?”  I knew I didn't have a stitch the previous time.

“None needed.  It’s so small.  It should close and heal nicely on its own.”

“So that’s it?”

“Well, your careful compliance with the follow up regimen of drops is important. But other than that I’ll see you tomorrow, and in a week, and then my job is done.  You do know to call me if you have any kind of emergency at all, right?”

“Yes.  What would that emergency be?”

“Anything you think is a problem is an emergency.  Call if you have any concern but especially in the event of pain.  You should experience little if any pain.  Perhaps some discomfort for a while after the numbing drops wear off, like a speck of something in your eye, but nothing serious.  Just call if you have a worry.  See you tomorrow in my office.”

And with that he was gone, off to take care of the next person in the hall.  Bianca wheeled me out, gave me coffee and snacks.  Another nurse went over discharge instructions, and before you knew it I was back on Route 80 headed home.  I was there just over an hour.

That was a week ago today.  I’m writing this now with no glasses, no correction at all.  I’ve been driving in town.  On Thanksgiving I drove the Buick to pick up my son at the train station in Joliet.  Hell I used to drive to Springfield and Chicago with corrected vision much worse than this.  I’m pretty confident I could pass the test at the Driver’s License place right now.  I think I’ll need a slight correction in the end, but it’s evident that I am seeing better than I have seen since before I was nine, and maybe ever.  I’m amazed.

Given that I will need these eyes for only twenty more years, give or take five or so, this could be my last big fix.  (Knock wood.)  Even if my eyes deteriorate and my prescription changes I’m starting at such a good place I may never need the kind of correction I needed just four months ago.
 
And so this Thanksgiving I am glad to be living in these times when such technology is available.  I’m thankful for these caring doctors:

              Dr. Tim Ortiz, Optometrist - Ortiz Eye and Hearing Center
              Dr. David Lubeck, Ophthamologist - Arbor Eye Care

And I’m thankful for the staff that support these doctors.  Like many who lead or have led organizations, they may in the end be only as good as their staff.  Those two doctors are surrounded by good people.

And while I’m at it let me express my thanks to the Alcon company, and Leica, and all the producers of the equipment and materials that go into these amazing new technologies and procedures that have been developed.  I can and do criticize our health system for many things: high costs and profits, lack of access, and other shortcomings, but when I realize all it has done to enhance my life and the lives of others it shuts me up some.

So yes I’m thankful for the insurance company and the structure they work within.  I had fallen into a gap between my wife’s teachers insurance and Medicare.  She qualified for Medicare while I did not, and I was no longer eligible to ride along on her policy.  So I took out a Blue Cross/Blue Shield policy to get me by.  Thanks to Obamacare it covered all my preexisting conditions.  This deal cost me some, but given the outcome that cost is ridiculously low.  How do you put a value on clear sight really?

At this time last year I was on a solo road trip to Florida via two lane roads through Kentucky, Tennessee, and Alabama.  This year, to celebrate these new eyes, I’m going to take a similar trip, in a new used Buick with a gas gauge that works, going further east before heading south.  I hope to catch West Virginia, North Carolina, all of Georgia, and central Florida.  The Blue Ridge Mountains are out there somewhere as are the Appalachians.  I’ll leave January 4th and blog along the way, reporting on what I see.  If you are familiar at all with that route and have suggestions for places to visit by all means let me know.


Trust me, I am very grateful to be able to make such a trip again.       

Monday, November 16, 2015

An Escape into Food

Last weekend I wore myself out along with my family and many of my friends by preparing and serving a seven course dinner which was auctioned off this spring at YSB’s Blue Tie Event.  The successful bidders opted to have the dinner for 12 in the upstairs dining hall of Reddick Mansion, an old Italianate Mansion in Ottawa on the town square.  It’s the default dinner site, although we’ll prepare and serve a meal anywhere the bidder chooses (within reason) providing there’s a suitable kitchen.

Sadly we’ve lost track of how many years we’ve done this, but it’s gone on for a while now.  I started out doing it mostly myself, but quickly I recruited help.  It’s pretty clear now I couldn’t pull it this meal off without the help of my family and friends.  Here’s a description of the courses and a few other random thoughts about the ingredients and all.  Eating is one of the real pleasures in life, and eating well is a bonus. The only thing better than eating fine food is writing about it.  I hope you like it.  Who knows?  Maybe you’ll buy it at YSB’s fundraiser next year.

Dinner at the Mansion November 7, 2015
  • ·       Fancy cheeses with crackers, olives, hummus with warm pita bread
  • ·       Fresh greens with handmade dressing
  • ·       Smoked Pork Belly with Apple Chutney and carrots
  • ·       Jumbo Shrimp in Cajun sauce with Polenta Cake
  • ·       Sour cream Gnocchi with red sauce (grated cheese?)
  • ·       Prime Rib with horseradish sauce, green beans, and carrots
  • ·       Pumpkin crème brulee, espresso, and liquers


We have prepared some new and old dishes for you Saturday night.  Let me tell you a little about them.

The appetizers are uncomplicated finger foods to get you started.  My son Dean makes the hummus from scratch soaking good dry garbanzos and adding the best tahini and olive oil he can find.  He won’t tell you all the spices he uses.  We offer some cheeses you might not usually buy for yourself, and fresh olives to go with them along with warm pita bread.  Enjoy the appetizers as you have a glass of wine, meet the other guests, and get ready for a serious meal.




The salad is made from seasonal greens and is simple, topped with goat cheese and hot pear slices sautéed in butter.  My daughter Moe makes a vinaigrette dressing by hand with Champagne vinegar and other good stuff which is served on the salad.  If you would like an alternative, or would prefer to have it on the side please let us know.  Again, pretty straightforward up to this point.

Your group will be the first to experience our seared pork belly.  This idea comes from Moe’s friend Don and has been fun to do.  I bought a local pork belly from the Wyanet Locker, which keeps them on hand to make their own bacon.  Pork Belly is just what it suggests, the belly or bottom cut, between the front and rear legs of a mature hog.  It is uncured, and includes a layer of rich fat.  We brined that belly overnight in a mixture of water, kosher salt, brown sugar, bay leaves, peppercorns, and garlic.   The next day Tom Gardner smoked it for about four hours on the South Side of Ottawa using applewood chips for flavor.  Prior to serving we seared it in a hot iron skillet, plated it on a bed of homemade apple chutney, and drizzled it with a bourbon and brown sugar syrup.  We think you’ll like it.


 
On the chance that he might know, I inquired to the butcher at Wyanet Locker about the pig from whence the belly originated.  Wyanet is a small farm town west of Princeton and the locker plant there not only does its own butchering but arranges its own slaughtering, often buying local pigs from area farmers.  He was unfamiliar with that particular pig but knew the farmer who sold it and promised to talk to him.  I gave him my cell phone number.
 
The next day the farmer called.  He remembered that particular hog he recently sold to the people at Wyanet and told me a little about him.  Actually he told me a lot about him.  I had the feeling he missed him.
 
He recalled that as a young pig he was rambunctious, full of life, and a vigorous eater.  He came from a big litter and enjoyed his time with his litter mates.  He was, if not the biggest, certainly one of the biggest of all the shoats on the farm, and could always be found cavorting around the pig pen.

“Happy as a pig in shit,” the farmer recalled.

He was castrated at a young age, which mellowed him.  As a barrow he settled into a life of solitude, often seen standing alone at the edge of the sty gazing beyond the horizon.

“Dreamy like, you know?” the farmer said.

I know full well.  Contemplative, meditative, content with life.

His life was short.  He was slaughtered at eighteen months, his body cut to pieces with his best parts on sale in the Wyanet display case.  Miscellaneously, he can be found in their sausage.
 
His belly will be on your plate, soon to be a part of you.  Enjoy.
The next dish, Jumbo Shrimp, is a McClure variation on shrimp and grits.  The polenta, the Italian version of corn meal, is fashioned into something of a soft cornbread slab.



Over that are lightly cooked jumbo shrimp topped with a bayou inspired Cajun sauce.  The shrimp are local from the Fox River.  No they’re not.  I’m putting you on.  We have no idea where the shrimp came from.  Whole Foods.  Wild caught somewhere in the Pacific.
 
We sneak in a new vegetarian course next, simple gnocchi with a red sauce.  We were going to put them on the next plate but we thought the plate, and your palate, would be crowded with too many tastes.  Gnocchi are a little dumpling cooked like pasta, popular again in Italy and places crawling with Italians, like Argentina.  These are a variation, made with sour cream added to flour, which makes them light and delightful.  Don’t you delight in light food?  Hence delightful.



We serve them with Caton Road marinara sauce, not enough to overpower them but enough to give you that nice tomatoey garlicky taste.  That’s Caton Road garlic too by the way.  We might give you fresh grated Parmesean Reggiano cheese on top of that dish, and then we might not.  We don’t know if we can line up enough graters.  We’ll surprise you with that.

We finish the entrees with an old standard, prime rib of beef served with homemade horseradish sauce (made from horseradish root dug from my garden in Field’s Hill).  The prime rib, bone in, is I think the best cut of beef from our friends the McGrogans at Handy Foods in Ottawa.  We serve it with freshly steamed and sautéd green beans and roasted organic carrots.  The carrots were grown in Sharon Loudon’s raised bed backyard garden just across the river. Sharon is one of your servers and her garden is only, I’d say, a good drive, a solid three wood, and a five iron (maybe an easy four) from where you’ll be sitting.  The carrots were in the ground till yesterday.  This dish is not fancy, but it is damn good.  You can screw up good food trying to be sophisticated.  We keep it simple and hope you appreciate it.



We finish with an old favorite, crème brulee.  Owing to the season we will add some pumpkin and pie spice.  We make this ahead and burn the sugar on top just before serving it to you.  It is rich and sinfully good, if I do say so myself.  We like serving this to our dinner guests, because they like it so much.  With it you get, if you wish, espresso coffee in teeny cups and saucers with tiny spoons (NO  DECAF-DON’T ASK) and assorted shots of three after dinner liquers, take your pick, in fancy ass little glasses.


 
And that’s it.  We hope you like the food, the surroundings, the wine and the company.  Enjoy yourselves.  Drink plenty but not so much that you don’t remember the meal.  Be kind to your server, they’re both volunteers and our friends.  And feel free to tip them.  All gratuities go to YSB.

Thank you for supporting the kids and families Youth Service Bureau of Illinois Valley works so hard to help.  They’re not eating as well as you are tonight, I guarantee.

Bon appétit,

Dave McClure


P.S.-That farmer didn’t really call me.

Photos by Wynn Venard