Thursday, October 30, 2008

Comfort Food and Welcoming an Old Friend Back

In the exuberance of the day after my "sleep test," Ted and I wandered down to the Temple Dining Room again for lunch. I don't know if it's that a night hooked up to electrodes made my immune system kick in to high gear or what, but I felt finally somewhat returned to myself, healthy for once. I had a cup of vegetable soup, Copper River salmon with dill sauce, and a side of whipped butternut squash. Oh my god, every bite tasted fantastic. In the weeks of the sinus infection, I'd lost my appetite and yesterday's lunch was the first thing that really tasted good for ages. The food at the Temple, cooked with care by family chef Larry Battiste, is made fresh from fresh ingredients, and it felt like The Cure. I wanted to go back to the kitchen and kiss him.

Halfway through the salmon, I noticed a distinguished looking man in a gray suit eating lunch alone at a nearby table, and realized it was Steve Wilson, who recently came back to Flint from Grand Rapids to be executive director of the Ruth Mott Foundation. It was wonderful to see him again and to welcome him back. In the Eighties he was the Flint tourism director -- a punishing time for that job -- and was one of the people utterly unfairly humiliated by his portrayal in Michael Moore's Roger and Me. I never forgave Moore for so indiscriminately making people look foolish -- even though he's gotten better at selective rancor, I think, especially in Sicko, the scars of his earlier random cruelties remain. Anyway, back then Steve Wilson wrote a play about Flint and for a time hung around the downtown poetry scene, which was quite lively in those years. I was fond of him; I read the play in an early iteration and did my best to encourage him.

Now he's back, looking stylishly mature, in a position that may make it hard for him to keep up with his personal creative projects, but it's so great to see that he's here in an important position in an institution that makes a big difference to Flint. He says he's still writing, when he gets a chance. It's heartening when good people find their way back to this old burg.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Awake after MIA

Yeah, yeah, I've been gone. Life is more important than blogging.

Last night I went to the Genesys Sleep Lab in West Flint for a so-called "sleep study," due to reports from my beloved that I was having occasional -- but scary -- apnea episodes. So I packed up my toothpaste and iPhone, donned my red flowered pajama pants and my Good Beans Cafe teeshirt (thanks StixDesign) and reported in.

Apparently a lot of people in Flint can't sleep. At the end of a long maze-like hallway in the dim afterhours clinic, I discovered I wasn't the only one. There were at least four of us last night getting electrodes pasted onto our anxious foreheads, chests, fingertips and calves.

The tech who tended me said she can't sleep either. She works 10 p.m to 6:30 a.m. every day, and goes home and sleeps through the day on the couch. She uses the CPAP machine, just like I might have to, depending on how I do. She looks forward to winter when the snow makes the world quieter; she lives close to a school and the children make a lot of noise. Sometimes she can sleep through it but not always. While she's watching the sleep subjects at work, she reads books and is studying for her sleep certificate. She was kind and friendly and was wearing a jaunty nurses uniform with Elvis Presley snapshots on it. "I couldn't believe it when he got married," she said, smiling. "My mom said, 'what did you think?'" She is 56 and remembers that moment vividly. She's been sleeping on the couch for six years, since her husband died. Back then she had to start her life all over.

I sort of started my life over at 50, too. The thought of that abandoned bed, empty from the funeral on -- a sad and poignant image. And understandable.

Lordy, the sleep lab felt like a cheap motel. Hard miserable pillows, a bad mattress, no art on the walls, a bedspread that looked like a reject from a hot pillow joint. How could a person, wired up like a weird Shiva, fall asleep like this? At least there was a TV with all the channels. The box of leads slung over my teeshirt, a plastic air fork in my nose, I watched Jon Stewart interview a strangely unfunny Steve Martin. Then the tech came back, turned off the lights and turned on the computer.

I felt momentarily claustrophobic and a bit nauseous, watching an orange light blink on the small plastic helmut on my thumb. It was strange thinking somebody would be watching me, listening to me, monitoring all my vitals, for the next six or seven hours. In another room, somebody coughed, and coughed again. She's worse off than me, I thought. I called Ted and said good night. It was our first night apart in Flint.

I muttered my mantra, a string of trusty repetitions, two syllables again and again, fighting off a wave of despair about my mysterious body, the way each of us is trapped in one body for life -- the same one, always the same and always changing, never quite telling the whole story. I appreciated the widow with the Elvis Presley tunic watching my heart rate and listening to my breathing and noting my brain waves, while slowly turning the pages to her sleep certificate textbook. it can take a lot to get through the night: last night, at least, neither of us was alone.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

New Housemates for Troubled Times

Can you see Henriette's Egyptian eyes?
This is Gus, warily checking out the dining room

What's better for a peaceful night than a cat asleep at the foot of the bed? Since the unhappy demise of our beautiful Joey two years ago, we haven't had a cat, and I've missed it.

A combination of circumstances has brought two new kitties into my life -- Gus and Henriette, who moved in yesterday, and aren't quite sure they like this new place. They're brother and sister, both shorthairs -- Gus is gold and Henriette, delicate little girl, is gray.

They've both been mostly hiding in the basement since they arrived, though the little dabs of food I've put out for them have disappeared, and Henriette did find me in bed last night at about 2 a.m. and settled down with a few meows for about 10 minutes -- then rushed off again to hide. This morning I caught her -- eyes only-- under the dining room table.

It's nice to have cats in the house again. Their previous mommy, Megan D., has agreed to help me take care of them during my jaunts to L.A. Thanks, Megan!

Friday, October 10, 2008

Peaceful Power Outage: Are We Losing Silence?

For about 75 minutes tonight, the power was out in my neighborhood. I enjoyed it. A brilliant moon rose through the trees, casting a bright shadow on the street and the back yard. I felt my way around to a dozen candles and lit them on the dining room table, the mantle, the kitchen counter, and my bedroom windowsill. The house was so silent: after today's cataclysmically scary stock market gyrations, the abrupt break from CNN, PBS, NPR, Wall Street, email, Facebook, blogging -- it was a relief.

Briefly, in the curious absence of news, I wondered if something apocalyptic might be happening. I filled up a pot with water and inventoried the canned goods and medicines I have on hand. I called Ted on my cell phone, realizing too late that it was down to 10 percent charge. We had enough time for Ted to assure me the world wasn't coming to an end -- at least not that he'd heard.

So I relaxed. Coming down the stairs holding a brass candlestick I've always loved, I talked to myself: though I've been sick lately, though the world is in turmoil, I'm basically doing okay. The silence afforded me that one brief moment: I'm okay.

I'm not sorry the power came back on, but I must admit that I could do without the loud commercial about the Sonic Scrubber and the raucous arguments about Sarah Palin and Barack Obama on Larry King that are hitting my eardrums. How hard it is to just turn off the cacaphony.

As it happened, the comp staff from UMF convened at my house this afternoon for one of our Friday social gatherings, and we'd considered these very issues. Today our catalyst article was a recent piece from The Atlantic by Nicholas Carr titled "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" We talked about how we've all become multi-taskers and that the experience of simply sitting still, deeply reading, is rarer and rarer. Carr says once he was "a scuba diver on a sea of words," and now he's more like a guy skimming over the surface on a jet ski. He cites a study suggesting "we may well be in the midst of a sea change in the way we read and think." Carr reviews other technological innovations in history -- starting with Plato's suspicions of writing -- and taking a look at what happened to Nietzsche when he started using a typewriter. He notes how the development of clocks in the 14th century changed everything: "In deciding when to eat, to work, to sleep, to rise, we stopped listening to our senses and started obeying the clock."

My colleagues and I, leisurely sipping wine and snacking on little plates of fruit and cheese, declined to agree that "Google is making us stupid." We did agree that the way our students are experiencing the world -- and the way we ourselves, like Carr, are changing how we read -- suggests we need to consider and reconsider how we teach. Prodding our students into critical thinking from whatever texts they encounter remains the challenge -- and we figured teachers have been bemoaning their students' fumbling attempts at critical thinking for decades, if not centuries. Like us, our students have to learn how to sort through the noise.

Still, I do crave the silence; We'll never know the silence of the world as it used to be. I wish I had the chance to know that quiet -- how it might have been, four hundred years ago, say, to walk into the world at night, and to hear the sounds of that world: no motors, no jets, no trains, no sirens.

But I couldn't resist turning on CNN during the meeting to check the 4 p.m stock closing -- my friends tried to stop me! And when the power was out tonight, I could have read by candlelight. But feeling restless and at loose ends, I just stretched out on the couch and took a nap. The sound of the house woke me up first, the frig and furnace cranking rhythmically into action, and then the house lit up, the candlelight dwindling and insignificant in the bright glow of my conscientiously-installed fluorescent coils, and CNN blared back into the room.

We can take it

Reassuring Architecture, with Comfort Food in the Basement: The Flint Masonic Temple, Built in 1911

Here's my solution this morning: listening to the Best of Warren Zevon, RIP ("Ain't that Pretty at All" is especially cathartic) and keeping the TV on mute while the invisible, slippery, wussy world of global finance goes crazy. Now Bush is talking and I'm not bothering to mute's great to listen to Dubya's voice and Zevon's simultaneously. Later maybe I'll go have lunch at the Temple Dining Room in the basement of the Masonic Temple, an eccentric gray hunk of early Twentieth Century architecture in downtown Flint. I like everything about the Temple dining room -- that it's in the basement, that juries eat there, circles of twelve diverse Americans sipping coffee from cups with actual saucers, that old ladies who put on makeup eat there at tables alone, that the menu has comfort food like liver and onions, grilled cheese sandwiches and macaroni and cheese, that there's always a pile of chocolate chip cookies at the cash register when you pay on the way out.

So maybe it's a day for comfort food in downtown Flint, which has already gotten about as bad as it can get and is already used to Big Busts and is even, contrary to reputation and in defiance of expectations for ourselves about as low as Sarah Palin at the VP debate, showing some signs of transformation.

The sun's out and my morning tea tastes good. We're going to have a new president soon. Hang on, my fellow Americans.

Friday, October 03, 2008


Oops -- found my original version of this post, embarrassingly in another blog -- the one that's supposed to be for my grad students -- and isn't supposed to reveal my cantankerous and highly partisan political views. So, in a lame attempt to compartmentalize my worlds, I grabbed it off of there and quickly slapped it back here where it belongs. Sort of. Ta Dah:

I didn't think there was a clear winner in the debate last night -- except maybe all the rest of us finally released from the suspense, exhausting ourselves wondering what was going to happen.

Well, I mean, I think by far Joe Biden was the smarter and more tolerable of the two. His answers were passionately on point and he managed to respond with the depth that his experience and intelligence afford him. I'm very relieved, despite her "right off the bench," presumptuous, "Hey, can I call you Joe?" that Biden referred to her as "Governor Palin." It was that kind of situation: no false intimacy, please. She was the sexist in the room.

I most admired his spirited "John McCain is no maverick" riff late in the debate. To me that was Biden at his debating best. I also thoroughly enjoyed his follow-up response to Palin's description of how she visualizes her potential role as a VP by admiringly invoking Dick Cheney -- and Biden promptly, bitingly said he thought Cheney was the most dangerous Vice President in U.S. history. Touche, Joe, yeah, say it's so!

I also cheered when he asserted, "Facts matter!" Yes! Yes! Of course, he got a number of his facts wrong. And I know most people really don't care. Still, I wished for something more -- harder questioning, more rigorous tangling, more substance. Dream on, I know.

Palin's smarmy refusal to answer the questions really got on my nerves. When she said she essentially felt no obligation to answer the questions posed, I felt echoes of the attacks on Gwen Ifill's right to moderate and a sleazy cynicism about the whole point of the debate. The Fourth Estate hasn't been stellar in its behavior, but once Palin and her handlers agreed to the debate, they should have shown more respect. Let's see, doesn't the Constitution elevate freedom of the press? Isn't there something in our history that calls for the stringent and enlivening necessity of having vigorous journalism? Oh, reporters...don't you just hate them?

One of the many questions Palin didn't bother to answer, revealingly, was the closing one about her Achilles heel. Not that Biden developed the subject much more lavishly, but he at least acknowledged the question, admitted discipline was indeed one of his bugaboos, and added one more -- what he called his "passion." Revealingly, Palin, who never blinks, except for those cloying, infantilizing winks, blew the whole question off, turning it into an opportunity to congratulate herself.

Finally, Palin's tiresome closing line -- on which I've ranted before in this space -- set me off just as much as it has all the other times: that John McCain is the only one in the race who's fought for the country. That smug faux patriotism is one of the things that I hope will get her and her arrogant side-kick, the candidate supposedly at the top of the ticket, soundly thrashed on Nov. 4.

Trying to coddle my irritations -- and a lingering cough -- with healthful panaceas, I was drinking strong green tea laced with Bushmill's. It didn't help. It took several tablespoons of Nyquil later to get me to sleep. And even then, Ted said I snored loudly and drove him into the guest room. That's marital politics -- the politics of the body, the politics of adaptation, the politics, when the day is done, of forgiveness.