Sunday, December 28, 2008

Welcome to a New Human

Image courtesy of Jack's proud daddy
Here's Baby Jackson Rendleman, born the day after Christmas to Eliot Rendleman and McKenna Rose -- a dad and mom who are sure to be wonderful parents to this new little human. He's getting treatment for some initial jaundice -- not uncommon for little guys. Or wait, could this REALLY be him in his space ship, just before arriving from outer space to save us all?

Monday, December 22, 2008

From Ted to Tonga

It's beginning to creep me out how many of my blog entries start with, well, the aging body and its ailments. One hopes the writing doesn't stop there -- one hopes this seemingly inevitably burgeoning body of material (so to speak) will lead, like all decent material, to other considerations, deeper understanding, connections to others, and humor (okay, wry, dark and absurd).

Well, here's another one. It starts with Ted's colonoscopy last week and takes me back 32 years to Tonga. It turns out this potent life experience of mine, that intense two years in the South Pacific, is not so far in the past after all.

I was sitting in the endoscopy waiting room at Little Company of Mary Hospital in Torrance, waiting for my husband to wake up after his procedure. I'd already had the pleasure of regreeting our ace colonoscopy doc, Oren Zaidel, who came out and cheerfully said, "It's nice to see you on this end of things!" Must be hard saying anything that's not a double entendre in his business, but who doesn't need a chuckle when skimpy smocks, exposed derrieres and long tubes are the order of the day? Anyway, Dr. Zaidel said my beloved had done a fine job of cleaning himself out (this is the kind of thing that gives us oldsters a renewed burst of self-esteem). He said Ted had one mere polyp and was blissfully sleeping off the blessed dose of demerol.

I settled back to read my New Yorker and check out the others in the room: a sweet, fretful silver-haired lady , whose befuddled husband was being admitted after his test, a trio of 30-somethings waiting out their father's procedure -- they looked upwardly mobile and were chatting alternately in Spanish and English -- a bilingual virtuosity I greatly envy. And then there was another couple -- a honey-skinned, stocky duo, a man and woman who looked to be in their 40s. I wasn't paying much attention until I started recognizing a word here and there: "Io." "Ikai." "Mahalo," "Oiaue," I once knew that vocabulary well: it was a language I once adored for its delightful blend of consonants and sliding, sensual vowels. They were speaking Tongan.

In Michigan there aren't many Tongans -- and I hadn't heard the language spoken by a native for years. At first I simply sat back quietly and took it in, my memory rushing back to 1976, when I first landed in the overwhelmingly exotic and noisy Kingdom and tried to make sense of the language while surrounded by it. It was an exciting, infuriating and deeply satisfying time. Finally I couldn't resist.

"You're Tongan!" I said. They looked up mildly and said yes. I quickly spilled out a bunch of commentary -- how I had been a Peace Corps volunteer long, long ago, and how I loved the language though I'd forgotten it all, how I was deeply changed by my two years in their country, how I met my husband there, how I still dream about it from time to time, blah blah blah.

I am such an American, always talking, always talking about myself.

The two sat quietly, smiling. They said they had left Tonga after high school, 17 years ago, and had never been back. They said yes, they'd heard about the riots and fires in Nuku'alofa, the capital city, two years ago. They said they liked the U.S. better because, the man said, after all, Tonga is just a little island and there isn't any opportunity. Eventually they told me they were Mormons -- not a surprise, considering the long-standing influence of Mormons in the Kingdom.

I continued my Yankee gushing. I said how much I loved the Tongan proverbs, and managed to spit out two of my favorites: Longolongo pusi kai moa (It's the quiet cat that eats the chicken) and Kai lu fa ihe tu'unga u -- Eating the "lu" (a Tongan delicacy, a sort of coconut and taro leaf tamale) found by surprise in the pit after the feast. That last one stands for serendipity and plucky hope to me -- you never would have guessed there'd be anything left in that pit, but you looked anyway and eureka! Food!

The woman smiled again at my probably awkward pronunciation and repeated both proverbs. She and the man exchanged a few phrases in Tongan. Then I babbled what a beautiful country they came from: how I'd gone up to Vava'u, one of the northern island groups, and loved it. How I'd hitched a ride on a boat to the islands of Kao and Tofua. They admitted they had never been to Vava'u themselves -- nor Kao or Tofua -- that they stayed close to home on the main island of Tongatapu.

Then, in a classic Peace Corps conversation, the woman and I determined that we had lived within blocks of each other, and that she not only knew my Tongan father, Sione 'Osamu, but vividly remembered him and his kids in Ma'ufanga, the neighborhood where I lived. I mentioned the crotchety grandfather, Pasikala (Bicycle). When I said "Man, that guy didn't like Americans much," the woman said "Don't worry -- Pasikala didn't like anybody."

I explained my husband and I had met on New Year's Eve in 1976 at the King's palace, and the two murmured pleasantly. Then I remembered I had a bunch of Tongan kava music on the very laptop I was toting, and within a minute I had opened iTunes and had the sweet sounds of Tonga filtering into the overly warm little room.

"See?" I said. "See how much your country still stays with me?"

The man and woman continued smiling, and in the Tongan way, maintained a dignified reserve, declining comment -- never volunteering their names or many details about themselves. Certainly I would not press: that would be rude. I began to feel like a big floppy dog, so happy to be talking about Tonga, but after all a little bit embarrassing. But one never knows. I hope they found my interest entertaining, at least. Who knows what they think about their little South Pacific homeland? Who knows what they think about Peace Corps? Who knows why they have never gone back, or how hard their life in LA might be? Who knows if they've experienced racism or poverty? A whole vast set of possibilities remained unsaid, and an old, familiar Peace Corps guilt crept in. I remember how one of my Tongan colleagues used to make fun of the U.S. volunteers -- noting that all we wanted was a little hut and a black British bicycle -- naively ignorant of how VERY dissatisfying those minimal expectations were to the Tongans themselves, who wanted concrete block houses, big cars and, in many cases, an escape route out of there.

Eventually somebody came and told me Ted was ready to go, and when I said, "mo nofo a, eh?" (you two stay, right?) the two smiled even more broadly and said, "she remembers" and answered "alu a, eh?" (You're going, then?) and then there was Ted, upright and only a little discombobulated, and we went out into the rainy LA afternoon in a present that was rich with the past.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

"What is left is undetermined but I'll do fine"

First day off the Levaquin, and I'm hopeful I might get a night's sleep. I feel fairly "normal" tonight -- grateful I'm off the drug that seemed to hit my body hard. I have felt old and creaky and dispirited. In the meantime, I am off all dairy foods, have lost about seven pounds (which I needed to lose) and have been reminded yet again of the fragility of the body.

Classes are over and I'm almost done grading, so this blessed evening is proceeding with the glow of leisure that I haven't been able to afford for weeks -- months. The cats have been especially affectionate, Joey II particularly, with a loud purr as he settles into my lap. I'm watching "I Am Legend" except for the bad parts when I have to look away, walk away (and now I'm putting it on mute altogether, and the caption says "ominous music playing," a measure of serenity being the goal of the evening.)

And speaking of a return to innocence, earlier today, I actually finished reading a novel, the first one in ages I've had time to read -- Jim Harrison's The English Major. While there's something a bit lightweight in his easygoing prose and ambling narratives, this story about a depressed 60-year-old Michigan guy, a farmer and one-time high school teacher who travels from state to state after his wife dumps him, well, it was just what I was in the mood for. Harrison's vitality and love of life's sensual pleasures -- the good food, the good wine, the de rigueur humorous Harrison sexuality (his guy Cliff clearly is a "butt man" in this novel) -- make for enjoyable reading on a winter Saturday. I think it's interesting his protagonist is essentially a naif, yet manages to eat and drink very well thanks to his gay son, go-getter realtor ex and boozed up physician friend A.D. Yep, this is what every 21st Century English major needs -- lord knows the "free market" ain't coming through. Good Read

After his car dies -- conveniently after he arrives at his son's lavish accommodations -- the boy signs over an SUV, with Onstar and everything, for the rest of the journey. And his ex, who'd left him for Fred, a gold-digger they'd re-met at their high school reunion, eventually sets him up with a property that once belonged to his grandfather. He's a Luddite -- flushing a cell phone down the toilet in one satisfying scene -- and aches for a return to Eden.

And he gets it -- is given it -- not by striving, but by his ex-wife's potty-mouthed pragmatism. Does she still kind of like him, and his Emerson- and Rilke-quoting ways? Once resettled, he goes back to work on his big creative project: renaming the states and the birds of North America. (For the record, Michigan is Potawatomi, California is Chumash, and Ohio is Wyandot. The brown thrush becomes the "beige dolorosa," which I really like, and the robin is renamed "Rubens"). this the Baby Boomer man today -- his "noodle" still frisky and his expectations scaled down to a good dog, a good meal, a twiddly-wink bit of whimsical work, and some lucky tenderness? It's a gentle tale, and it's nice when a story ends with "This won't be a bad life, I thought happily. What there is left of it is undetermined but I'll do fine."

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Up Early

So, what are the benefits of sleeplessness? I've been up since about 5:30 a.m. -- and I'm NOT a morning person -- probably the side effect of the powerful antibiotic, Levaquin, I've been on for the past nine days. It's clearing up my two-month-long sinus infection, but has its cost. I'm grateful for this drug but really wouldn't mind a decent night's sleep. Before Levaquin, I'd also been having trouble sleeping, as I've amply noted here, partly due to recurring congestion and trouble breathing, and now I'm at least getting through the whole night (or whatever part of it I'm asleep) without producing a damp mountain of kleenex at my bedside. (The kind with Vicks and lotion is my favorite -- addictive comfort.)

In the meantime, is anybody else finding it almost impossible to listen to the news these days? Just a few of the items barraging the airwaves: more elephants being slaughtered for ivory, the Tribune Company filing for bankruptcy, the Baltimore Opera going bankrupt, a fiery jet crash killing three in San Diego, worsening strife in Zimbabwe as a cholera outbreak kills hundreds, workers sitting in at their factory at Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago, the housing crisis hitting hard in Nevada, the auto bailout triggering hours of hot air, jobless numbers abysmal, and snow and sleet predicted -- again -- for my neighborhood this bleak December day.

I find myself simply turning off the stream. Stepping out of the river. Clicked off the TV last night during the elephant segment: I couldn't stand one more second of the horror of the piles of immense, brutalized bodies. Turned off NPR during the Zimbabwe report, even though Jimmy Carter's voice -- the true Christian, one of an international group of peacemakers called "The Elders" on the scene -- provided momentary reassurance.

So, I ask myself, contemplating my wakeful healing process, what is good about all this?

First, of course, I am lucky there are drugs that help. And I'm especially lucky I have health insurance to help me buy them. I'm well aware others are left hanging out there, unable to afford care. Isn't it time our society figures out universal health care? (Note to readers: Watch Sicko again: the Brits, the Canadians, the French all get it...why are we so doggedly compassion-challenged?)

Second, it is good to be alert to the world. Morning Edition has been running a series called "American Moxie" and I find the stories inspiring and encouraging. It takes moxie to get through this life. A galvanizing reminder.

I'm reminded of a time in my life when, mired in emotional pain as I left my first marriage, I tried to get my therapist to prescribe me a tranquilizer. She refused, contending that in my case, I "needed to feel" what I was going through. I never forgot her infuriating wisdom. In that instance, I believe she was right, and I'm grateful she was there helping me navigate those rough seas. By paying attention, by letting my body and mind deeply experience all the grief and doubt, I somehow began to heal and hope.

But now it feels as if the whole earth is quaking with troubles, and I find myself muttering, damn, let's just prescribe anti-depressants for everybody: drugs all around, Prozac on the house!

But it's not a time for somnolence. We need to keep our wits about us, and like those employees refusing to leave Republic Door and Window, we need to stay put, stay the course, feel what we feel, and let our resilience and dignity and hope help us find a way forward, looking for the open doors, making new windows to fresh air and blue sky.

Through a crack in the heavy green curtains here in my sitting room, a space I cherish and which makes me very happy, I see light is beginning to break. Time to feed the cats and start the day.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Sweet Melancholy for a Saturday Night at Home

Today a quiet requiem for Virginia, Teddy's mother, who passed peacefully yesterday at 90. She was a good woman with many complexities and charms, and she raised a remarkable daughter; for that alone, for giving life to my wonderful friend , I am deeply grateful to Virginia.

So then, trying to recover from a pesky sinus infection, eschewing alcohol and pumping antibiotics, I painfully turned down a chance to show up at what's probably the holiday party of the season and opted to stay home with the kitties tonight. They cleave close by, furry little epitomies of peacefulness, while I coax myself to relax in the sitting room that used to be our dining room. It's a cozy space now, with our oriental rug filling the room -- the hutch, my personal symbol of plenty, along one wall, and the couch I bought for my early life after my divorce providing soft solace. On my dad's barrister bookcase rescued from his pastoral study from long ago, is my funky little stereo/CD player, and I'm listening to Nick Spitzer's American Routes on Michigan Radio.

In the midst of a sad and unnerving time, it's momentary bliss. Tonight's show is a tribute Sam Cooke, and right now I'm hearing "You Got to Move," after other soulful favorites like "Little Red Rooster" and "Bring it On Home" and "Lost and Loving." Damn that guy could get down to it. I know I'm missing a great party tonight but Sam Cooke's soulful voice is making my melancholy seem not just okay, but right for this winter night.

And of course, it's a story with a tragic, mournful end. He was shot dead on Dec. 11, 1964. The music is a legacy not just of deep gospel roots and badboy energy, but something bigger about the human condition. Now he's singing the classic that wraps it all up: A Change Gonna Come. I'm shedding a tear -- soothing saltiness for the body and soul. My thoughts are with Teddy tonight, who is entering a whole new phase of life. Here's to our mothers, and the rich weave of gifts -- both troublesome and full of blessings -- they give us. Here's to Virginia.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

A Flint Poem by Danny Rendleman: Shooting Nine-Ball with My Father at the Rainbow Bar

And Weesner's novel -- centered in a wrenching father-and-son relationship -- brought me back to a poem by another Flint native, Danny Rendleman, a poet whose depictions of growing up among "shop rats" in the Fifties and Sixties will break your heart. Here's one of my all-time favorites, from Danny's amazing 1989 chapbook from Ridgeway Press, Skilled Trades.

Shooting Nine-Ball With My Father at the Rainbow Bar

This is his second home, my mother says,
and not just for the money he leaves here Fridays.
No phone: no one is ever taking calls. Tonight
I am beating my father at nine-ball
and not just because he is drunk and old.

I'm pretty good, he's finding out, not just
some sissy boy who's always reading, though
pretty drunk, too. We are the last customers
and Trigger, the owner, wants us to leave.

But it's not even last call, and my father wants
one more Corby's on the rocks and one more game,
just about to get his touch back, to break even,
to show his son what's what. But he keeps scratching or
miscuing or missing widely, and I'm up about ten bucks,
but I'm starting to miss some gimme's myself
and not liking it, and beginning to sweat
and fret and wonder why we're here.

But we can't quit, though we know mother
is waiting, we hope, and Trigger is waiting to close up, and
we're going to hurt in some
important places in a few hours.

My father, as handsome as he's ever going to be, and as
fine, leans over as I line up a money shot and says to me,
"Look here, Danny,

how you doing, son?" What we both want from this life won't
come clear for some time.
At that moment, he will be dead and I will be
contemplating a not dissimilar plot ending. We walk out
back to his '57 Oldsmobile and try
to decide who'll drive
as well as the where and why of it.

A Poignant Novel Set in Flint

In one of the other blogs I follow, Flint Expatriates, energetically run by former Flint boy Gordon Young, somebody recently brought up a novel by Theodore Weesner titled The Car Thief. This wonderful first novel, which came out in 1972 (above is the original cover) was reissued by Grove Press in 2001 and apparently still is selling respectably and regarded highly. Weesner, who grew up in Flint and got his high school diploma via GED, is a longtime New Hampshire resident. Rereading the first few pages of the novel on a cold, dark Flint night, I'm struck by how Weesner gets at something so bleak about this town -- a bleakness that lurks here still, in the opening images of his bitter yet vulnerable teenage anti-hero.

Here's how it starts:

Again today Alex Housman drove the Buick Riviera. The Buick, coppertone, white sidewalls, was the model of the year, a ’59, although the 1960 models were already out. Its upholstery was black, its windshield was tinted a thin color of motor oil. The car’s heater was issuing a stale and odorous warmth, but Alex remained chilled. He had walked several blocks through snow and slush, wearing neither hat nor gloves nor boots, to where he had left the car the night before. The steering wheel was icy in his hands, and he felt icy within, throughout his veins and bones. Alex was sixteen; the Buick was his fourteenth car.

The storm, the falling snow, had come early to Michigan’s Thumb, for it was not yet November…By evening, a chilling breeze had begun moving through the city, blowing over the wide by-passes and elevated freeways. Now in the morning the snow-covering was overall. It was four or five inches deep, as wet as a blanket soaked in water, as gray and full in the sky as smoke from the city’s concentrations of automobile factories.

A cigarette Alex had not wanted so early in the morning was wedged in the teeth of the ashtray drawer. He could not remember having lighted it, and he thought about snuffing it out but made no move to do so. The dry smoke reached over the dashboard like a girl’s hair in water. Picking up the cigarette, discovering either weakness or nervousness in his fingers, he drew his lungs full and replaced it in the teeth of the drawer. The smoke burned his eyes, as if from within, and he squinted as they watered.

Monday, December 01, 2008

What's Keeping Flintoids Awake?

Graphic by Patty Warner/Stix Design

Here's a sneak peek at my upcoming column in East Village Magazine. I'm indebted to John Sonnega, a sleep researcher at the University of Michigan - Flint. As you can see, I've been working out what this insomnia thing means since my own "sleep study."

Something is keeping us awake in Flint. Did you realize? Are you one of the ones who takes a pill, even a teensy one, to get yourself to sleep?

If so, you’re not alone. Here’s something to think about the next time you’re pacing the floor at 4 a.m.: according to a 2008 survey from the Prevention Research Center of Michigan, one in nine Genesee County residents reports trouble sleeping every single night, and a stunning one-third of us rate our sleep quality as “fair” or “poor.” On average, we pop pills to get to sleep three nights a week and, for our trouble, still manage an average of only 6.45 hours per night, less than the recommended seven.

In this, amazingly, our county is not so different from the rest of the country, though the City of Flint itself is somewhat worse off than our snoozier out-county neighbors. Whether the onset of the Obama administration or the re-opening at last of the Olympic Grill, with its happy cries of “Opa!” have calmed any insomniac fears has yet to be determined. But we still have, well, the Mayor, the collapse of Generous Motors, polluted brownfields by the acre, copper thieves plundering empty houses, and plunging 401ks.

And as a very good friend of mine recently said over the last dregs of a bottle of Bushmill’s, we’re all gonna die.

When UM- Flint professor and sleep researcher John Sonnega offered the above sleep results in a talk to one of my classes recently, I took the news personally. That very day, I was groggy from a virtually sleepless night, one of many; recovering from sinusitis, I’d had trouble breathing and imagined dark scenarios. My husband said I often up wake gasping and snorting, not exactly my image of myself as a middle-aged babe. Scary apnea, he confessed, had been going on awhile.

Prof. Sonnega said there were several sleep labs in town to study us bedraggled insomniacs. My doctor sympathized, and two weeks later, my symptoms not much improved, I reported at 10 p.m. for a “sleep study” at a hard-to-find Westside lab.

It was one of the first cold nights of the year, a Tuesday, the chill offering needed relief to this year’s allergy sufferers. For the past eight hours, as directed, I’d refrained from chocolate and caffeine. I’d packed a little bag with red flannel PJs and a toothbrush.

At the end of a long maze in the dim clinic, I saw I wasn't the only one. Three others sat on the edge of low-slung beds in other rooms, getting electrodes pasted onto 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., and goes home and lies 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 quiet; she lives by a school and the children make a lot of noise. At night while she's watching her subjects, she reads books and studies for a sleep certificate.

She was kind and friendly, but I have to say that lab was like a cheap motel: hard pillows, bad mattress, no art on the walls, thin bedspread. How could a person, wired up like a high-tech Shiva, fall asleep like this?

At least a TV had all the channels. The box of leads slung over my top, plastic air fork up my nose, I watched Jon Stewart interview an oddly unfunny Steve Martin. Then the tech came back, turned off the lights and left me alone.

I felt claustrophobic and a bit nauseous, watching an orange light blink on a plastic thimble on my thumb. It was strange knowing somebody was watching me, monitoring my vitals. In another room, somebody coughed, and coughed again. She's worse off than me, I thought.

I muttered my mantra, a string of trusty repetitions. And then, astonishingly, I fell asleep. The next thing I knew the tech woke me up and it was 6 a.m. She peeled off all the wires and I went home.

Insomnia, of course, is not just a physiological but a spiritual problem. In the tossing and turning, the body’s anxious refusal to do what it’s supposed to do, something fearful and irrational sweeps in. Often, I turn on NPR; all night, it’s the BBC. I used to like the voices, liquid and steady as a salmon run. But lately there’s too much Congo, Zimbabwe, Darfur: too much bloodshed and pain. Couldn’t they report just one little light-hearted feature about, say, a French accordionist? Or a placid potter in Rotterdam? A recipe for butternut squash? The sad litany morphs into despair: this poor old planet, I murmur, and then I lapse into fruitless loops.

If I lived right, wouldn’t I fall asleep like my cats, who stretch out blissfully? If I only knew what’s bothering me, what I need to resolve, could I sleep then? Or maybe it’s hormones, or what I ate, or what I drank? And thus the wheel goes round.

In the meantime, the trains kachunk-kachunk along the Court Street crossings; there are sirens, the morning paper drops on the doorstep, a good neighbor scrapes snow, two joggers pad down Maxine, chatting, as they always do, at precisely 5:58. I wonder if they sleep well.

I am trying to find the peace in this. I’m trying to figure out how to tell my frayed mind that all is well, that all will be well. But the deep unconscious, like the Loch Ness monster slicing back and forth in dark water, seems to know better.

I’m still waiting for my sleep study results. But at least now I know I’m not alone – for whatever reason, a third of you are out there too, waging a similar war. Prof. Sonnega’s research suggests that neighborhood factors like fear of crime might play a role in sleep – sobering results that say we need to work together on what happens after dark. There’s a plank to lay your head on: a good night’s sleep for us all, sleep like a honeyed drink whose only hangover is waking up feeling kind of good.