More from Michael Perry

February 5th, 2013

I have read and re-read Michael Perry’s latest book, “Visiting Tom.” It is perhaps his best thus far.

Much of the pleasure I find in this book is the local lore and history that he has woven into it. Tom, you see, is a farmer who is Perry’s neighbor. His ancestral home farm fell victim to the Interstate Highway system. The main thread of Perry’s narrative is the story of Tom and his adaptation to having had his life and his land riven by a noisy highway.

Perry has answered many questions that I have asked myself as I use that Interstate, the stretch that cut Tom’s farm in half. I drive right past Tom’s farm many times per month. I know right where it is. The book shows me what that land looked like and felt like in the days before the modern highway cut through it. The book answered a question I’ve had for perhaps fifteen years — a question about some very tall crosses that face the Interstate and are quite visible from the traffic lanes. One is inscribed “Wallie,” and the other one “Debbie.” The answer about the crosses says much about the independent backbone of men such as Tom when faced with bureaucratic nonsense.

Michael Perry once again has made an extraordinary book out of ordinary people and things. Read it, but listen to it as well. It is available as an audio book and Michael himself narrates it. Having heard him speak, I cannot imagine anyone else reading it for the audio book — it just wouldn’t be right.

Perry is poetic, profound, and hilariously funny. Even his random Facebook comments and blog posts are a hoot. He writes of a battle he recently fought with a heavy Wisconsin snowfall. That post concludes: “The Eskimos have a word for snow like this. It is not printable.”

Tough day

October 16th, 2012

It has been a tough day.

Leo the cat has been a buddy for a couple of years.  He wasn’t my cat.  I was his person.


He was adopted by the daughter of my partner.  She did this impulsively, didn’t really think it through.  Leo didn’t like staying alone in her apartment — and she worked some long hours.  Leo would entertain himself in some  mischievous ways.  He stole her hair ties and batted them all over the apartment.  She’d find new hiding places, he’d find them and bat them around.  ”Cat Hockey,” if you will.  The “Goal” was the crack under her front door.  Great fun for the kitty, not so much for his roommate, who came home to find her hair ties in a pile on the landing outside the apartment door.  When he ran out of hair ties, he would go unspool all the paper towels and shred them all over her kitchen.

So she did what many kids do — she brought the cat home to her Mom’s place and left him.  That left Mom with a total of three cats for a time — all bequeathed by her two daughters. The younger daughter took a cat with her when she found a job and moved out.  That left two — Leo and Milo.  Milo is an elderly gentleman — he’d be 80+ people years.  Leo was respectful of Milo and they were buddies in gentle play and companionship.  

Leo  Milo

Leo continued to toss around the hair ties we bought him — stashing them under rugs and having all manner of fun with them.  I am sure he considered himself a kitten, though he was about 15 pounds and had an enormous head.  I nicknamed him “the Ocelot” for his appearance and some of the noises he made.

Leo Chair

Whenever I stopped in to visit, he’d come running to the sound of my voice.  He’d run and hop onto the back of the chair I usually sat in, and await being fussed over and petted.  The kitten in him prompted him to curl up in laps.  He was dog-like in seeking a hand to pet him — and he could be quite persuasive.

Somewhere along the line things changed.  It may have been the hustle and bustle of remodeling and workmen tromping about.  Leo would retire to the basement and hide out.  It may have been some kids who showed up for a family reunion and chased him. In the end, we suspected a physical illness we couldn’t understand.  Whatever the cause, Leo began to neglect the litter box.

Try as we might, we couldn’t predict when this would happen, nor could we figure out why it was happening.  Leo seemed almost remorseful.  He’d behave differently when he’d had an episode of leaving piles and puddles in the basement.  The basement has a painted concrete floor and, while this is a huge inconvenience, my partner patiently cleaned up the messes.

Today was different.  Leo had cut loose all over the hardwood floors in the kitchen.  We’d agreed not to spend a bunch of money on vet bills, and he’d had some other health issues earlier.  We’d spent a ridiculous amount of money having some of his teeth pulled when he had an abscess.  

Mary, my partner, has a lot of other issues in her life right now, including aging parents and the onset of dementia in her Dad.

So, today, it was time for Leo to leave us.  He’d never been an outdoor cat.  We’d already seen what happened when he was left alone. I was crazy about the little guy, but had no place for him.  Mary had to journey to look after her folks — today being her Mom’s birthday.  I had not been around to clean his messes, but I’d seen him claw her new furniture.  Nobody wanted Leo or, in the case of those who might want him, nobody had a place for him.

So, the difficult decision was made, and I would see Leo off.

I’ve no idea why, but I’d always figured that if I had to take a cat for euthanasia, I’d take the cat outdoors for awhile.  Cats are always trying to slip away and run outdoors, so I figured there’d be no harm in indulging that impulse on our last day together.  I should have asked him first.  His howls of protest told me that I’d made that choice mostly for myself.

His behavior this afternoon made it clear that he knew something was up.  But that romp in the park wasn’t his idea.  I brought him home.  He was miffed at the trip to the park, and had been avoiding me, but suddenly he jumped up on my lap as he always had, and commenced his trademark purring.  I’m  glad he did that.

Leo Sun

After a little while, he hopped off my lap and lay in the last shaft of sunlight coming through the south window of the den.  He stretched out and dozed for a few minutes.  I was thinking that we had 20 minutes to get to the vet, and we’d better get this done.  He stood up, turned around, stretched and came over.  He rubbed against my leg,  then he put his forepaws up on my knee.  He let me pick him up — though he’d always hated and resisted being picked up, being his own cat and all.

Into the carrier with minimal protest.  He didn’t even protest the last car ride.  He furiously rubbed his noble head up agains my fingers extended through the door of his carrier.

At the end, he was a  good kitty.  He purred as the initial sedative hit him, taking his eyes off mine only when he became too sleepy to hold up that majestic head of his.  The rest was over quickly.  HIs last motion was to extend his forepaw toward my hand as the IV needle went into his hind paw.  And he breathed his last.

The litter box is an important part of what might be looked at as a “contract” between human and cat.  Keep it clean, treat the kitty well, and cats are fastidious about their elimination habits.  They’re clean and dignified animals.  Ignoring the litter box is indicative of something seriously wrong with a cat.  I’ll never know why Leo so breached his dignity as to leave little puddles and piles all over.  No matter.

Whatever dignity he’d lost was more than replenished by his conduct in his last hours.  Now, he lay peacefully on the unfriendly table at the vet’s, with a little washcloth I’d placed as his pillow.  I will always remember him, especially that last purring visit we had right before the end.  I didn’t want to watch his nose turn purple, and I didn’t want to feel him turn cold.  I petted him for a last time, and took my leave.

I will take his carrier and donate it to the Animal Shelter.  The Humane Society will also receive that last stupid gift I’d bought him — a retractable leash and a stretchy harness.  He didn’t want those, though I imagine he appreciated the gesture.  In his way, he had had a better idea of how to spend our last hour together.

So long, Buddy.  Thanks for the laughs, the naps, and the “High Speed Kitty Massages — No Claws, Just the Pads™.”  See you at the Rainbow Bridge.

Department of Redundancy Department

February 11th, 2011

I just read a memo from work, referring to the “ED Department.”

Now, in the lexicon of abbreviations and acronyms, the average person might associate “ED” with “Erectile Dysfunction” or with  any number of other things.  But in hospitals, “ED” means “Emergency Department.”  You are probably more familiar with “ER” for “Emergency Room” — not only because of traditional usage, but because of the popular TV show of that name.  But people who work in the area formerly known as the Emergency Room want everyone to know that it is not merely a room.  No, it is WAY more than a “room.”  It is a Department.  Whoever wrote the memo wants us to know that it is not the Emergency Room (ER) but the Emergency Department Department (“ED Department”).

It reminds me of a stop I made at a “convenience store” in the wild weeds of Minnesota a few years  back.  It was so long ago that there were no bars on my cell phone in that neck of  the sticks.  It was cold.  I had had a car malfunction — nothing I couldn’t fix myself, but I needed to update folks at my destination and reassure them that I wasn’t “in the ditch” somewhere.

My smallest bill was a ten, and I didn’t have enough change to feed the public phone I found outside the store.

I asked the clerk if she could provide me with some change for the phone.

She: “Sir, there is an ATM machine right over there.”

Me (after mentally shaking my head like the duck in Yogi Berra’s “AFLAC” commercial): “Uhhhh..  thanks?”

I headed toward the door, hoping to find a more conscious retailer nearby.

As an afterthought I asked the clerk on my way out, “Is that an automated ATM machine?”

She: “How should I know?”

Letters from the Past

January 14th, 2011

I am a grammar geek.  I decry the decline of the English language.

History is on my side.  Remember the Ken Burns PBS series The Civil War, which aired around 1990?  This was a pioneering series in many ways.  Most people remember the cinematographic technique, where Burns panned the camera over period photographs, lending the illusion of movement.

I, however, was most struck by the words of the people who lived during the time of the Civil War.  The letters home especially impressed me.  Many of the correspondents were common folk, educated to the norms of the time.  Yet their writing had such elegance and propriety.  Even the “lowly private” writing home to his sweetheart composed solid prose, grammatically correct and with proper syntax.

I reflected on that series when I read letters my grandfather wrote home during World War I.  He was raised in Nebraska — born in a humble dwelling dug into a riverbank with sod walls.  He joined the Navy Reserve and was activated during the San Francisco earthquake in 1906.  Later, he served during the Great War.

His letters, too, were striking.  They were models of proper English, though his topics were workaday — once chiding his sister for not having written him more often.  I picture him in a cramped compartment on the ship Imperator, carefully composing his letters, which were flawlessly typed, probably on an old battleship-gray Underwood typewriter.

I had to laugh when I read a forum that discussed guides to grammar.  Someone brought up “Elements of Style” by Strunk and White, pronouncing it the best for its size and type.

Of course, someone else had to point out that this venerable little text was first published in 1918, and that certainly there was something out there that is more modern and up-to-date.

1918.  Hmmm.  That was about the time my grandfather wrote his letters.

The Old Tunes

January 3rd, 2011

A cold, lazy Sunday evening. I tuned in Wisconsin Public Radio’s program, “Simply Folk.” Some of the selections took me on a trip back to childhood, my Dad singing campfire songs.  You should be able to  go to the website and download or stream the show if you’re interested.

I marveled at the fact that I remember the words to those songs after all the years. Right now, I have no idea where my checkbook is, but I remember all the words to “Puff, the Magic Dragon”. All of the original words, and the additional bawdy lyrical embellishments that my brother Dave and I added to the tune, as well as the lyrics from the parody sung at the old Penny University back in the day.

I picked up a guitar — something I do with increasing rarity — and my fingers found the chords without much thought on my part. The cats beat a hasty retreat as I began to sing. This set off a reverie about times past. The Penny University was a rag-tag storefront near the Junior College where my academic career began. It was a magical place, though. Taj Mahal played there, as did Bill Monroe. It was right along Route 66, and the establishment’s owner enticed acoustic acts back during the folk scare to stop by and play. The place served coffee for a penny per cup, hence the name. I spent many a weekend night there listening to incredible music, often staying for the “hoots” — open-mike sessions following the scheduled performances. I had always been an evil influence on my brother Dave. The “PU” was one of the places we used to go hang out. I’ll write another post about trying to function as an altar boy at 8:00 Mass after having hung at “The Penny” until 2 that same morning.

The late Clabe Hangan was a frequent headliner at the place. He sang a version of “Malaguena Salerosa” that would give me goose-bumps every time I heard it. Clabe recorded for Folkways Records and had a pretty loyal following. One night, he was singing that tune, and a rich harmony joined him from the back of the little smoke-filled room. I turned and recognized a face from an album cover — Harry Belafonte. Turns out he was a buddy of Clabe’s and had stopped in on a drive between LA and Vegas to catch a set.

Good music was part of the time and place where we grew up.

I wonder if anybody will remember Lady Gaga’s lyrics in the 2050s?

When I’m Sixty Four

December 13th, 2010

Wow — that sure crept up on me! I’ve reached a milestone — 64 years since I entered the world. It doesn’t seem possible. One would ordinarily think that the 64th would be a sort of a milestone: the beginning of a victory lap in a career, culminating in the 65th.

Retirement, enjoying the fruits of a lifetime of labor, reaping what one sows by carefully putting money aside for life after work. Certainly, for the better part of two generations, that has been the case. But I’m  not sure. I mean, I know I’m going to take the lap that ends at 65, but I don’t know if that will be the milestone it has formerly been. I don’t think 65 will mark for me the threshold of whatever is next.

I have a career many people would give their eyeteeth for. Hell, many people would give their eyeteeth for any job in today’s economy. So far, I am healthy. I’ve whined in my posts before about my  shoulder. It makes me useless for most things — “differently disabled” — but it does not affect my ability to work in my  chosen profession.  The disability would have stopped people who do “real work” right in their tracks: the car mechanic, the drywall installer, the policeman, the baggage handler, the orthopedic surgeon. Anyone who must exert more than ten pounds of force with the right arm. But not me.

It’s mostly a blessing; if you are under the illusion that “disability” is a pretty good way to make a living, you’ve never actually faced the choice. I know people who are permanently disabled, and I know they’d trade places with me in a hummingbird’s heartbeat. Given the option, I decided to struggle back into my profession. Most days, I’m pretty good at it, thank God. So why, on the eve of my sixty-fourth birthday, was I at such a low ebb in my morale?

Depression, we’re told, needn’t have a rational cause. It helps to know that, though my well-being is under my control, having a bit of depression doesn’t make me a weak or a bad person. I can help myself. Having a birthday so near New Year’s day makes a doubly compelling case for making “resolutions” regarding doing something about myself. I was thinking today that I either have to get back on my indoor bike, the indoor walking track or a treadmill — optimally, all three — or I have to get on something like Prozac.

I’m going to try the  simpler options first. I know they’ve helped me in the past.

The other thing I have to do is to seek a wider network of support.  I’ve pretty much put all my eggs in a single basket. No basket should be expected to hold all of anyone’s eggs.  Redistributing those eggs will be an exponentially harder task than getting onto that damned stationary bike at 0430. But I gotta do it, if I’m going to see 65. The people whose resilience I most admire, and into whose basket I’ve put my eggs, have a seemingly endless procession through their lives of people who truly care.  Their phones ring off the hook every night with the day’s transactions of cheering up and being cheered up.  Everywhere they go, people are happy to see them.

Maybe I can’t be like that, but I can promise myself that I will make an honest effort to connect once again with family and friends.

Time’s a-wastin’.

Thanksgiving — North Weeds style

November 25th, 2010

The phone call came at 6:15 AM on Thanksgiving day.  A little girl, my granddaughter’s age, had been in a horrible accident on the Interstate.  I had been in the twilight zone between asleep and awake, hearing the radio without listening, when the phone rang.  I hurried out of the house.

“Hurried,” as I age, has become more and more a qualified term.  Hurried this morning meant that I showed up with bed hair and with toothpaste stalactites at each corner of my mouth (no time to use a mirror, razor, or washcloth — you get the picture).  It also meant that I shuffled across the icy parking lot.  Again, the same weather that caused the accident in the first place, that denied us air superiority for transfer to a trauma center, caused our parking rink to become a skating lot.  I learned that shuffle with a painful lesson five years, three surgeries, and a permanent disability ago.

The little girl will be fine after some recuperation.  It could have been so much worse.  I left her in the capable hands of those who during more pleasant weather would have arrived much more quickly with a clatter of rotor blades.  By land or by air, they’re always a welcome sight.  Angels don’t always need wings.

Oh — “hurried” also meant that I spent approximately thirty minutes in the trauma room with the fly on my jeans unzipped.  Oh, well.  Dress in haste, repent at leisure.

Black Ice

November 21st, 2010

Ice is at its best when it’s blended in a margarita.

It’s at its second-worst when it’s underfoot, robbing every earthbound creature of its traction and footing.

At its worst, of course, it’s on the wings and control surfaces of an aircraft, robbing the occupants of the most important of the four forces of flight: lift.

As a native Californian, I became intimately acquainted with the margarita variety of ice.  I hope never to learn about the aviation variety.

As a reluctant midwesterner, though, I’ve grown all too familiar with the underfoot and pavement-bound variety.  I’ve taken multiple unplanned trips to the ground because of it.  I have a right arm with which, even after three surgical procedures, I can lift but ten pounds following an encounter with a slick patch on a parking lot.  I’ve fallen straight backward onto my head and lain for a moment looking up at the actual and virtual stars swirling overhead, and realizing that it wasn’t my fault I was still alive.

We just had our first encounter with “freezing rain.”  We didn’t get as bad an encounter as folks further north did, but it’s coming.

Every year at about this time I ask myself the age-old question: why do people live here, anyway?


November 21st, 2010

Opening night at the Symphony.  There’s a new conductor.  Everything he does is large.  Typical of conductors, he wears a tuxedo with tails, and has troubled hair.  He puts everything he has into his work, and gets a great performance out of the symphony.  The guest soloist is from Spain, a virtuoso clarinetist.  He plays beautifully, though one is distracted somewhat by the fact that he bobs and weaves, in the manner of  snake charmers in the old cartoons, while he plays.  His first piece is difficult, all big intervals and with a harmonic structure that is difficult to follow, but it works.

The evening is a smashing success.  The only fly in the ointment is the dimly-lit lady sitting right over there, who could probably peg a Breathalyzer at twenty paces.  Sitting in her high-octane ethanol miasma, I wonder at the quality of life that would convince her that it would be a good idea to become totally oblivious to her  surroundings.   “Wow.  I’m really faced.  I think I’ll run down to the Fine Arts Center and take in the Debussy”.

I don’t think her eyes were pointed in the same direction.  She might as well have been at Sears watching the washing machine demo, or staying home  watching her Jello gel.

Oh well.  Different strokes for different folks…

Writing (again…)

November 13th, 2010

Yeah, I guess this is a recurring theme of mine — or maybe sort of an obsession.

I haven’t been writing much for my own amusement lately.  Which is OK — there’s lots of other stuff I have to do.  And other stuff I’d like to do.  My writing output lately has been utilitarian.  Pedestrian.  Humdrum.  Where’s my thesaurus?

I wrote what I thought was a small masterpiece, a review article about nursing care of patients in the hours after the hackneyed “Golden Hour.”  A team had asked me to write a short article to be used as the jumping-off point for an educational session on a tricky topic.  About stuff that can go wrong when the patient leaves the bright lights and intensive observation of the ER and is tucked snugly into bed on a general floor, where the nurses are always hurried and busy and must make the most of every minute they spend with their patients.  I wanted to write a synopsis of many articles from nursing journals detailing the shoals and narrows of the demanding care of such a recently traumatized patient.

I thought I’d done it pretty well.  When I read my email today, I saw that a colleague who had reviewed my writing had praised it most generously.  The fact that she’s a good writer herself, and the daughter of a retired English teacher, made me feel all the more warm and fuzzy.

Then I opened the next email and saw the article as it was distributed to my nurse colleagues.  It bore a faint resemblance to what I’d spent most of last weekend working on.  Puts me in mind of the old computer programmers’ saying: not every revision is an enhancement.

My writer colleague commiserated with me over the new version.  I thanked her, but reminded her that one of the really hard things about writing for someone else is that you have to let go of what you wrote.  You have to see your carefully crafted words, your clear formatting, yes, even your strategically placed “white space,” go through the alimentary tract of committee-think and emerge at the other end in the expected state.  Nobody can let it go past their desk without a bit of “tweaking.”  Sometimes, your writing comes back like a long-lost friend, one who’s put on a bit of weight and been through a fire and a couple of sword-fights.

What to do?

Smile, have a cup of hot tea, and write something in the old, long-neglected but ever-forgiving blog.

Hey, C-Suite: Revise THIS!