On the Way

red rosesMy mother died on a cool Monday night in October. It was no surprise, just the last moment in a slow surrender of her body to its 92 years and encroaching dementia. Having noticed the subtle signs of a body changing its earthly direction, the director at the nursing home called my father that morning, and he and my siblings kept vigil with her all day. But in the conceited fumbling the living do to calculate or control the dying, everyone figured she would linger through the night.  And so, the nurses counseled Dad to go to the lounge for a nap, assuring him they would alert him if it seemed she decided to go.

Which she did – about 5 minutes after he settled into his lounge chair.

I don’t know why she chose to leave us on that day as there was nothing special about it.  No anniversary or birthday, not even the end of a long week, when a person might be glad to lie down and sleep for awhile. Maybe it was her intention to slip away like that. An average day, another soul passing.

Regardless of the reason, Mom’s passing set in motion the plan she had laid out for the last ceremony she would attend, her funeral.

Like any good party planner – and she was a good party planner – Mom had locked down all the details of her final event, what she would wear, who among her children would do the readings, sing the songs, and, no, the wake was not to be held at the family home. She didn’t want all those people traipsing through the house she had furnished with such care over 50 years.  She even specified that she be buried with her first-communion rosary and prayer book. At some point, while she worked out her plans during her decreasing moments of lucidity, my siblings and I joked that we would pack a flask of her favorite cocktail – a Manhattan – into her casket so she could toast us once she got past the pearly gates.

As part of her plan, she had requested that her six grandsons bear her casket during the funeral. Her wish meant my 15-year-old son would need to be prepared for his role as pallbearer, an idea (and word) entirely new to him. As he’s a reticent child, I took extra care in explaining to him why his grandmother required his assistance at her funeral.

“Well, in a Catholic funeral, see, someone has to carry the casket into and out of the church. And so your grandma wanted you to be one of those people,” I said.

He looked at me, eyes wide, as if he had just been asked to leap untethered from an airplane.

Trying to normalize what to him, I imagined, seemed like a very strange task, I slipped into my teacher role to explain further.

“It’s primarily a symbolic role,” I said. “The funeral director will tell you what to do, and you’ll have your cousins to help. You probably won’t have to carry the casket very far because they put it on a cart to move it around. It’s just in an out of the funeral home and church. There’s not likely to be any real heavy lifting; your grandma weighed only 90 pounds when she died.”

As my son’s entire teenage wardrobe consisted of T-shirts, jeans and sneakers – passable attire for any event in the Pacific Northwest but not in the least bit acceptable for a solemn ceremony in the conservative Midwest – my husband and I patched together suitable clothing for him to wear — my white button-down Oxford shirt, a tie, belt and shoes from my husband’s collection, and a pair of black pants hastily purchased at the local Target store. I called my daughter, who was away at college, and arranged for her to meet us in my hometown for the funeral, a trip best accomplished by bus. Along with arranging the ticket, I instructed her to bring the navy blazer she had borrowed from me for her brother to wear. So, with borrowed clothes packed, the dog stowed at the kennel, and airline tickets in hand, we set off for the heartland.

Though Mom had died just before midnight on that Monday, the funeral was scheduled for the following Saturday to allow long-distance relatives (primarily us) to get there. My daughter arrived in town on the bus on Friday afternoon. The three of us flew in that evening, which meant we missed the traditional calling hours at the funeral home. I didn’t mind, as I couldn’t imagine standing around the funeral home for several hours while friends and relatives filed past the open coffin, talking in low voices about how good Mom looked.  Of course she looked good.  This was a woman who never missed an appointment with her hairdresser when she was alive (or after she’d died, for that matter.  Her favorite hairdresser did one last curl and spray for her final party.)

Although we didn’t get there in time for calling hours, we did arrive in enough time to get dinner before checking into the hotel.  My husband, ever the food hound, had already researched local restaurants on his cell phone, and directed us to an Italian restaurant tucked away on a side street in a neighborhood I’d never seen before, though I had lived in the area for 20 years. The restaurant resembled a 1920s speakeasy, with a buzzer to ring at the door to gain admittance and a long wooden bar behind which stood rows of glass bottles filled with varying levels of colored liquid.  Along the walls were framed photos of famous people like Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner, but the overall mafia vibe was broken by the Willie Nelson songs playing loudly over the stereo system.

Hungry as we were, we ordered too much food – an appetizer and huge plates of pasta, along with salad, bread and beverages. While we waited for our order, I sought out the women’s restroom, which was down a flight of stairs lined with stonework. There were even more pictures along the way, the most noticeable of which was a larger-than-life painting of a man on the wall just inside the restroom door.  This man, painted to resemble Michelangelo’s David, was nude, except for a fig leaf placed in the customary spot. In the center of the fig leaf was a silver knob, much like you’d find on a cupboard in your kitchen.

There are moments in life when your brain registers what’s coming just slightly behind the motion of your hand.  I pulled the knob in the middle of the fig leaf, which lifted a small door to reveal the man’s penis painted in detail on the wall beneath. As if that scenario weren’t mortifying enough, the door was rigged to a siren that blared loud enough to be heard upstairs in the dining room. Jumping swiftly back and dropping the door, I quickly went about my task and returned to the table, trying not to look sheepish.

Between the salad and entrée, my daughter decided she needed to use the restroom. The three of us left at the table heard the siren, and shortly thereafter, she slunk back into her seat, face flushed to the hairline.

“Did you lift the handle?” I asked, eyebrows raised.

She nodded rapidly, head tucked between her shoulders, eyes looking alarmed.

We laughed then, and dug into our pasta, which had finally arrived.

The next morning at the hotel, we all got dressed in our formal clothes. I stood watching as my husband helped my son tie his unfamiliar tie by reaching over his shoulders from behind while both looked into the mirror. I smiled at the contortions of my husband’s face, tongue tip angled toward the corner of his mouth, while he thought through how to tie a tie that wasn’t around his own neck. Then, we drove to the funeral home for the last viewing and the subsequent caravan to the church.  My husband and children sat in the row at the back of the room where the casket was, and I went to the front row to sit beside my dad. More friends and relatives, including cousins I’d not seen in 30 years, filed into the room and took seats while John Denver’s song “Rocky Mountain High” played in the outer room.

Dad was holding up pretty well for his 91 years and the effort of receiving everyone who had come to the previous night’s calling hours.  Around the room were displayed flower arrangements, a cherub carved from stone, and a collection of photos of my mother at various events – my parents’ wedding, cocktail parties, and a formal dinner at which my mother wore a slinky green dress, dangling crystal earrings, and a bouffant hairdo that made her look like a movie star.

While we waited for the signal from the funeral director to begin the last prayer, Dad pointed to the enormous spray of blood-red roses blanketing the closed lower half of the casket. They are stunning and highlight the polished cherry wood of the casket itself. Then Dad tolds me the story of the first bouquet of roses he bought Mom for Valentine’s Day after they were married. They didn’t have much money then and Dad couldn’t afford to buy a whole dozen, so he brought home six red roses, set them in a vase on the sideboard, and leaned a mirror against the wall behind them to make the bouquet seem larger.

I laughed at his description and asked, “Did she notice?”

He chuckled. “Yep.”

After many years of similar bouquets, given on similar occasions, she eventually told him to stop bringing her flowers as they would just die and she’d like something that stayed around awhile. Most likely she meant something shiny.

A few moments later, the funeral director ushered the priest into the room and we all stood for the final prayer before the casket was closed. When the priest finished, each of us filed past Mom, lying still on her white satin lining in her refined black knit dress. As I bent to kiss her goodbye, I noticed that along with her prayer book and rosary was tucked a recipe card. My sister had not forgotten about the flask, but decided it would be better to include the instructions for making a Manhattan instead, to be sure God got it right when Mom arrived.

Climbing into the car in the parking lot, my husband, daughter and I found ourselves third in line after the hearse, behind my father’s and brother’s cars.  My son had stayed behind to carry out his task as pallbearer.

As we waited for others to get into their cars, the funeral director worked his way down the line, planting a small black flag on a magnetic base on the hood of each car. He told us to keep our headlights on.

And that’s when the questions began —  not from my son or daughter, as I was expecting, but from my husband,  and I realized I had wasted the time preparing my son so carefully; he seemed to be carrying out his role without concern.

To understand the origin of his questions, you need to know that my husband was born in Japan and so he was not familiar with the Catholic rituals surrounding life (and death) events.  As a scientist, he is also of a curious mind (which I mean in both senses of the word). When it comes to the final ceremony in his home country, it’s all about swift cremation and enshrinement in an urn in a closely packed cemetery on a hillside. There is little pageantry, and the deceased is tucked away within a couple of days.  He had never attended an American-style funeral.

“What’s the flag for?” he asked.

“That’s just to mark that we’re part of the procession,” I answered.

“Why do we have to keep the headlights on?”

“I dunno. It’s just tradition, a way to mark the solemnity of the event.”

“What happens now?” he asked as Alan joined us in the car, the casket having been loaded into the hearse.

“Well,” I began, “First we go to the church for the funeral, which should last about an hour.  After that, we go out to the cemetery for a brief ceremony, and then we’ll go back to the school beside the church for lunch.”

And that’s what happened next  – the slow procession of cars behind the hearse through the side streets of town to church. Alan and his cousins carried out their role as pallbearers. During the funeral Mass, the priest recited the necessary prayers and sprinkled the casket with holy water. Dad entered Mom’s name into the final record (though he had to start over because he began at first to sign his own name). My second sister and I read our assigned passages, and my first sister sang the designated final hymn.

In the car on the way to the cemetery, my husband’s questions began again.

“What’s that police car doing up front?” he asked, nodding at the cruiser preceding the line of cars moving slowly away from the church.

“It’s customary for the police to lead the procession to the cemetery,” I answered.

“Why are those cars pulling over on the other side of the road?”

“Well, that’s a traditional sign of respect – the living acknowledging the passing of the dead.  It’s kind of a nice honor.“

“How come we get to run the red lights?”

“Why can’t we drive faster?”

Once again my brain was slow on the uptake, and I found myself – ever the teacher – shifting from the inkling of irritation over explaining the obvious to studiously answering his questions. Moving from annoyed wife to erudite instructor, I realized that, yes, this was actually my mother’s funeral we were talking about, and my irritation melted into amusement.

When the procession arrived at the cemetery, the police car turned off and the rest of us followed the hearse to park randomly around the gravel paths separating the rows of headstones.  We got out of the car and took seats graveside, waiting for the priest to arrive. The watery blue sky reminded us that fall had arrived and we could hear the slight wind rustling the dead corn stalks in the field behind the cemetery.  Maybe this was the reason Mom left in October – to avoid having to face another frigid Midwestern winter.

The casket had been set on its frame over the grave, and the area around the grave, including the chairs we were sitting in, was sheltered by an awning erected on poles.

My husband, scrutinizing the casket on its frame above the deep grave, noticed the finely polished wood, the shining brass handles.

“How much does something like that cost?” he asked.

“Um, it depends,” I said, “on what it’s made of.”

“But that’s a nice coffin,” he stated. “Do they just put it in the ground like that?”

“No, dear, they put it in a vault.”

“What’s that?”

“That big concrete box sitting in front of the first row of chairs, with the etching of a dove on the lid.”

“They put the casket in that box?”



“Um, I don’t know.  To protect it? That’s just how it’s done.”

“So they put all that in the ground?” he said in amazement, trying to figure out this strange protocol.


“Will Alan have to get down in the hole to help?”

“Uh, no.”

“How do they get it down there then?”

“Um, I don’t know.  The funeral director takes care of all that after we leave. I think they use a machine to lower it in.”

“So they could bring it back up?”

“Um, yeah, in theory they could, but we don’t usually do that, unless there’s been a crime and the body has to be exhumed.”

Just then, the priest stepped to the side of the grave and began his last round of prayers. When he closed his book for the last time, everyone stood up and began milling around the seats and out into the gravel pathways. Like my siblings and a few others, I stepped up to the casket and removed several roses from the flower blanket that still adorned the lower end. People came to speak to my father and shake his hand or offer a hug before they drifted off to their cars or to look for other dead relatives in other parts of the cemetery.

We stayed awhile under the awning, helping Dad greet those who came to honor her and console him. Then we moved out among the rows of headstones and, as my husband stood surveying how the cemetery was laid out (and apparently how the dead were laid out in it), the questions began again.

“So all the dead people are down in the ground?”


“So we’re standing on top of dead people?”

“Um, yeah.”

“Well, if these are called headstones, shouldn’t the head of the person be under it?”

“Well, yeah, that would make sense, but the stone is usually already in place before the person dies. I think it’s good enough to make sure the head is at that end.”

“How do they know they’ve got her head at the right end?”

“Um, well, I think there’s some sort of indicator on the casket.”

To be honest, I was just guessing. I have no idea how to tell which end is up. It’s not something I’d ever thought about. But once you assume a role, it’s hard to give it up.  So I concluded confidently, “The funeral director probably knows which end goes up.”

My husband’s mother had died several months before my own. Had we been able to attend her funeral in Japan, I would likely have had similar questions and would have welcomed the explanations. But I doubt my husband’s irritation would have made the same transformation as mine.

A few days later, I was back in my classroom on the west coast, where the students were asking about how much detail a writer should include in a descriptive essay.

“It depends on the knowledge base of the audience,” I replied.

And there it was – the perfect chance. “For example, here’s what happened to me over the weekend….” I began. And I told them of my husband’s questions and my answers, and found myself amused all over again.

On that night in October, Mom slipped her earthly bonds and left her slightly odd family behind. But — she left me this story to tell.




Kay pulled her car into the garage on a murky Thursday night after a round-trip drive from Seattle to Florida. It was just this sort of weather that had convinced her to go, to get out of the persistent rain of November and search for the golden globe of the sun, which, she believed, was embodied in the yellow sphere that was a grapefruit.

When the idea first claimed its place in her thoughts, she considered it ridiculous. Why would anyone drive thousands of miles for a silly looking yellow fruit? She could just pick one off the produce table at the local grocery (and mischievously imagine sending the whole pyramid cascading to the floor).  When she announced her plan to her teenage son, he looked at her obliquely, as though he wasn’t quite sure who this woman was.

“When the rain begins in the fall, I’m going to go south and find the perfect grapefruit,” she said one evening in February, before the cherry trees began to bloom and made her forget the inky weight of the winter clouds in Washington State.

“How will you get there?” her son asked as he sliced carrots in the kitchen for the salad.

“I’m going to drive,” she answered pensively, looking into an imaginary distance over his shoulder.

“Drive?” he asked, puzzled. “But how do I get home from school? And who’ll make dinner?”

“Well,” she answered, “by Fall you’ll be 16 and can drive yourself to school, and you and Daddy do pretty well in the kitchen when I’m not around. You’ll manage it.”

After staring at his mother for a moment, the boy went back to slicing carrots.

And so, when the first rains roared in with the wind one November morning, she set off, stopping first in Arizona, and then in Texas, looking for the perfect grapefruit. The ones she found were large and smooth, but the skin wasn’t quite the right hue, and so she drove on, across the bayous of Louisiana, through the hills of Alabama, to the Sunshine State.

And there she saw it, just outside Homestead on her way to the Keys, the very fruit she’d been looking for in a grove of roadside trees. The dark glossy leaves of the trees sheltered the heavy, shiny fruit, whose dimpled skin, a vibrant yellow, bore a subtle blush of pink.

She pulled the car to the side of the road and calmly climbed over the slatted metal fence that surrounded the trees. In just a few steps, she arrived under the arching branches of a tree and absorbed the cool air and pungent fragrance of the yellow globes clustered above.

Then, in one fluid motion, she reached up and plucked the fruit hanging right over her head.  The stem gave way with a snap and the branch sprang upward, relieved of its weight.

And there it was, round and warm and glowing in her hand, like a perfect sphere of flame.


March 8, 2016

The Dog Explains (or Why I Ate the Chocolate Cake)


Dear Big Female,

Look, I know you got really mad at me a couple of days ago, when I leaned up on the kitchen counter and took a bite out of the cake the young male had just finished baking, but you know, I just couldn’t help myself. See, it had been a tough day in the dog world. It was that day after the two days when all you people are around, coming and going, zinging in and out of doors all day long.

After those two days of activity, I’m used to having a day of rest, when I curl up in my white domed house outside and sleep all day. Yeah, it’s kind of depressing, but I’ve gotten used to it. Matter of fact, at this point in my life, I need that day of sleep. And if I get too bored, I get out of my house and run around in circles trying to catching that stump on my backside, just for the hell of it. I haven’t managed to catch it yet. I’ve seen other dogs do it, but it’s easier for them. They have those long droopy sticks on their backsides. I might have had one once too, but I don’t remember.

Our days here usually begin with the opening and closing of doors before I’ve been let out of my crate down in that room with those scary white boxes that bang and hum. Most of the time, you make those machines bang during the day when I’m not in the room, but sometimes at night, after you’ve brought me into that room to go to bed,  the machines are still banging and humming and I see you open the doors on them and move clothes from one to the other. I know these are clothes for everybody because I see them on your bodies on different days, and I’ve figured out which ones you wear for the night when everything in the house gets real quiet. I refuse to get in my own box at night until I see you or that younger female in your night-time clothes. (I know you and she are females because you smell different than those other two, with their shorter hair and harder voices). I figure it this way – I ain’t gettin’ in that box to spend all those dark hours, and some of the light ones too when the air is warmer and the trees have those flat things hanging on them . . . what ARE those flat things anyway? They just look like grey blobs to me.

As I was saying, I’m not gettin’ in that box till I know the house is going to quiet down. And I know the quiet won’t come till you’re in those night clothes. I just hate to think I might miss something, you know. And yeah, sometimes I get funny and refuse to get in the box till it’s YOU who puts me there, not that younger female. Sometimes, I just like to see how much control I have. I’m a dog. I can’t help it.

So anyway, it had been two days of the coming and going. The voices of all of you, the footfalls in and out. First, the door out to that place where you keep those other two big white machines, the ones with the wheels. Those are the machines that come and go, that make creaking noises in the room where my box is. When I hear the first creaks, I know the day is about to begin. After the creaks stop, I wait in my box for awhile, hoping someone will come let me out. If you make me wait too long, I get frantic and scratch at the box, start in with that high-pitched bark that I know will get your attention, until you come to let me out. When you do let me out of the box, though, I just can’t go through the door to the yard right away. I need you to pet me for a while, and I make sure I get you to do that by looking up at you with my pathetic expression and sitting on your foot. You grouse about that, but it almost always works. If it doesn’t, I do my doggie bow – front legs stretched out, head low, tail up. I’ve heard you call it the “downward facing dog” pose and I’ve seen you try to imitate it. Frankly, I can’t figure out why you humans would want to be imitating us dogs; it’s you guys who have all the power.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABut back to the day of the cake . . .

After I had been let out of my box, the younger male plonked my breakfast down in that shiny bowl outside the kitchen door, the spot where I spend many hours practicing my sad look through the glass. I had already done my tour of the yard, to make sure no intruders had appeared in my territory while I was in the box. Sometimes, I can tell those puffy gray critters with the stripes on their tails and faces have been snooping around again. They leave behind a nasty fishy smell and they never clean up after themselves. You pulled me away once when I had one up a tree and another time when one was hiding under the deck, but they’re enemies, I tell you. All my barking at them is just my fair warning that they’re on my turf and should expect consequences.

That particular morning, the yard was pretty clear of invasion – just a few slugs headed for the garden and those black things that move through the sky. (Some of you people call them crows, some of you say they’re ravens. Frankly, I don’t care what you call them. I just know they make a lot of noise. Between watching them and those other white ones that sit on top the house dropping clam shells on the driveway, I get a crick in my neck.) But that morning, there was that other male in the house, that tall one with the light hair who’s been coming around recently. He stays real close to the other female. They watch a lot of moving pictures on the screen downstairs, in the dark room with the big couch. I’ve convinced you to let me in the house more often, You older people have gotten older too, gotten some of those light hairs on your heads like I now have on my snout and you’re gettin’ a little soft about where you’ll let me be, especially when I practice my pathetic face through the kitchen door or it starts to rain again, like it does so often here. When you fall for my trick and let me in, I figure it’s wise to be polite and I offer my thanks by stretching out in my down-dog bow.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASo as I was saying, I’ve convinced you to let me in the house more often. The room where the food is served is my next target. I’ve managed to sneak over there from the kitchen a couple times already. The advantage of being an Aussie is my grace. I may be male, but I am dainty, I tell you. The hard brown floor scares me because I can’t get any traction on it like I can the white tile in the kitchen, but I can tiptoe soundlessly from the kitchen to the rug in the eating area without you even hearing me, especially when my toenails are clipped, like they were at that dog hotel you left me at a couple weeks ago, the one where they got me wet and rubbed foamy stuff all over me. I loved the rubbing, hated the wet stuff, and that scratchy, funny-smelling paste they scrubbed my face with. It makes me itch and then you fuss at me for leaving wads of fur on the downstairs carpet from my scratching. Don’t EVER let them use that stuff on me again.

Besides the outside, I figure it’s my job to watch the intruders in the house too. This new male smells pretty safe. He must hang out with a lot of other interesting animals, dogs among them, and he knows how I like to be pet. But the young female is different when she’s around him. She shows her teeth more and changes the way she walks. She likes it when the new male gets really close to her on the downstairs couch, and especially when they start rubbing their faces together. But I just can’t allow anyone to be touching anyone in this house besides me. I get agitated and just have to speak, which usually stops the touching. I suspect you just might be letting me in the house on purpose when he’s here, just so they won’t be touching.

So there was that male in my territory, and the young male, the one who actually lives here, is always noisier and more active when the other one’s around. They wrestle around sometimes like they’re litter mates trying to determine who’s the alpha dog. That morning, they started playing with the little machine that zips around the floor making a loud whine, a smaller version of those white-wheeled machines that make my room creak. For this, the young male holds some sort of gadget in his hand to direct it. He thinks it’s fun to make the thing chase me, and it hurts when it bangs into my ankles.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALater that morning, the three of them were moving around the kitchen cutting up round yellow things (at least I think they were yellow; I’m never too sure of my colors) and squishing the juice out of them with another type of buzzing machine. Then they were banging the dishes around and making tantalizing food smells. And then the big male and female went down to the beach with a couple of puffy shirts and some long sticks. I wanted to go with them to see what they were going to do. You KNOW I hate to miss anything. That’s why I follow you wherever you go, even if it’s back up the stairs you just came down. But this stupid band around my neck, the one with the little box attached to it, started beeping when I got to the edge of the yard, and I knew that, if I didn’t stop, I was going to get zapped like I have sometimes.

I usually stop when I hear the beeping, but sometimes the temptation is just too much to ignore, like the time you and the little male put that smelly food out on the upper lawn, where I’m not supposed to go. It had something to do with a project the young male was doing for school. I knew that if I didn’t get to that food first, those brown things with the thin legs and pointy sticks on their heads would get to it first. The taste of that stuff was well worth the momentary zap.

I also needed to go with the young female and her friend because it’s my job to keep my people together. You know, I get really anxious when you all split up and two of you go off one way while the other two go another. It just feels wrong, and I worry that I’m not doing my job. Like when we ran into that bunch of goats on the beach one day. They were wandering in all different directions, the silly things. I know they didn’t belong to our pack, but y’know, something just came over me and I had to gather them up, get ‘em in a tidy group, even if it meant nipping their ankles. You stood by horrified (after all, who would expect to find goats on a beach?) but the owner of the goats knew what I was doing. HE knew, and didn’t mind.

So when the female went off with her male friend, I got nervous. Things appeared to be spinning out of my control, so I did what I always do when it seems that way, especially when that nasty neighbor comes down the path with his big black and brown dog. It’s not the dog I mind because he and I are of similar mind. It’s that human. There’s something wrong with that male – even the female trainer you hired for me once said so, and I can never know when he might decide to throw stones at me again. Never mind that we both saw him beating his own dog with its own leash in our yard that one day when the dog wouldn’t come after he called it. Or he would prowl around our house with his dog if I wasn’t out barking at him. When he comes down the path to the beach, I run madly along the edge of the lawn and bark and bark and bark. Sure, all the running and barking is exhausting, but in the dog world, things must be kept in order.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWell after awhile, I got bored with running and barking while the young female and her friend were down at the beach, and you know that didn’t take too long. You know, I’m a smart dog, smarter than those dumb yellow dogs up the street who spend their days chasing the same ball hour after hour. They’re always just thinking “throw the ball, throw the ball, throw the ball!” It must drive their people nuts. See, I figured it out pretty quick. If I bring back the ball you’ve thrown, you’re just gonna throw it again, and that’s no fun. I was willing enough to learn “sit” and “down” in that class you took me to, but when you got to telling me “stay,” I thought, “Unh-uh. No way. I ain’t doing this anymore.” First off, if I stay, I’m probably gonna miss something interesting somewhere else. Second, responding promptly to commands just means you’re going to be ordering me around all day. In that case, I might as well be as dumb as those dogs up the street. I may be just a dog, but I have to have SOME dignity.

After I got tired of barking along the lawn’s edge, I came back up to the kitchen door and pulled the usual stunt: park myself outside the glass, perk up my ears, cock my head slightly to the right, and look into the kitchen with my big brown puppy eyes. (OK, OK, so I just turned 9, but you know we dogs are always puppies, till the day we die.) This trick almost always gets to the young male, and I hear him say, in a tone as pathetic as my expression, “Mom, look at puppy. Isn’t he cute?” And sure enough, one of you will come to the door and let me in. Sometimes, when the older male is home, even he will fall for it. He’s the one who first started letting me lie on the floor by the downstairs couch while he watches his own moving pictures.

So like a charm, my pathetic pose worked that afternoon, and in I came to watch and sniff while the young male banged around the kitchen concocting more food and more tantalizing smells, this time with something smooth and dark brown that involved eggs.

They say dogs like these things called eggs, but I don’t know. I never had a chance to eat one before. Blueberries and strawberries, yes. Even spaghetti. Those long strands wrapped themselves around my snout. I used to pick blackberries off the vines at the beach, but gave up because I didn’t like getting scratched on the snout by the thorns. Give me a piece of bread and I’ll pick it up tenderly in my teeth and tiptoe away, so no one can steal it from me before I have a chance to eat it. I may be a gregarious dog, but I fiercely protect my food. And I know that, when one of you drops something on the floor and loudly shouts “Oops!”, you’re not fooling yourselves. Or me. I know that’s my signal to come get the food you’d like to feed me without feeling guilty.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASo there was the young male, mixing things in a bowl with yet another one of those noisy machines, this one with silver things that clattered and spun around. This food didn’t appeal to me at first. The smell wasn’t quite right. But then he poured the stuff in a pan and stuck it in that big hot box, the one with the window in the door, and left the kitchen. Awhile later, he came back, opened the door, and pulled out the pan, setting it on the counter. You didn’t see this because you were somewhere in the house that I’m not allowed to go (yet). But I noticed. And sniffed.

After another little while, the young male came back and took the thing out of the pan, setting it on a plate. It looked to me like a dark round loaf of bread and smelled warm and slightly sticky. Then he did it again – poured more dark stuff in the pan, put it in the hot box, and – when the bell dinged – pulled it out and put it on the counter.

While he was doing all this, the female and her male came back to the house, and once again doors were opening and closing, people came and went, up and down stairs, in and out of rooms. So much commotion. I had a hard time keeping up with it all.

Eventually, the female and her male settled on the couch downstairs to watch their moving pictures (but mostly they were rubbing faces), the young male went off somewhere I couldn’t see, and you went downstairs to the room where you often sit staring at a glowing screen and talking to yourself. I decided to lie down where the young female and her friend were. Someone had to keep an eye on those two. (Better me than you, eh?)

A little while later, I awoke to voices – yours, the young male’s, and a new voice I’d never heard before. It was coming out of a small box you were holding in your hand and then laid down on the desk where you were sitting. You and the young male were peering at the screen and talking to each other and to the voice in the box. You have to forgive me – I was sleepy and confused by this strange voice with no body, and so I had to come into the room and bark. Loudly. And when I did, you got up from the chair, pulled me out of the room by that band around my neck, and then shut the door in my face! Well, I thought I’d better speak louder, to let you know I was there, ready to be of service in case you needed protection from that voice in the box.

And just then, that bell rang, the one with the two tones that mean someone new is here. Now this is a noise that just sets me off. Something about the tone hits me at a place I cannot master, just like the sounds the young female makes with her fingers on that big black box downstairs, the one with the white sticks. The sounds from that box make me sing. This bell makes me bark.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASo there I was, barking downstairs, frantic because people were jumping up and moving, the young male ran up the steps to open the front door, which is what makes that bell stop ringing. A minute later, he came back down the stairs into your room. The voice in the box was still talking to you. Then you ran upstairs and then came back down to talk to the young female and her friend, who were slowly getting off the couch. The young male was still listening to the voice in the box and pushing buttons to change the pictures on the screen at the desk. Then the young female and her friend went upstairs, you went back to the desk and continued to talk to the voice in the box, and the young male went upstairs too.

I was getting dizzy watching all this and I finally decided to go upstairs to see what was going on. That’s where most of the pack was. I could hear the voices near the front door – the male friend of the female was putting those things on his feet that you all put on when you’re getting ready to leave, and usually leave me behind. The only time I ever get to leave this place is when you put me in one of the big white machines with wheels and you take me to that place where they look in my ears and try to poke something in my backside. Oh, I fight that, I do! Even after you wrap that blue thing around my snout and two of you hold me down in a corner of the room. Or you take me to that place with all the cages and other dogs, where I get lots of attention and play time. I pretend not to like it and grab your leg with my front legs when you turn toward the door to leave. I can’t have you thinking that I really want to be there, but if you let them scrub my face with that stinky scratchy stuff again, I just might decide I really don’t like to go there.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASo what with all the noise and commotion of the people at the front door and all that running up and down steps and the bell and the buzzing, beeping, clattering machines, and the smells still wafting from the kitchen, well – I don’t know what took hold in me. As you know, I have never put my paws on the kitchen counter before. Oh yes, I’ve done my circus dog act, prancing on my hind legs when there was something particularly luscious-smelling there. But I’ve never made contact with the countertop. Even when I’m overcome by the doggie devils, I’ve tried to rid myself of them by bashing an empty milk jug around on the porch or by charging insanely around the flower beds in the yard.

But this time, they got the best of me. Up I went on my hind legs, my paws rested on the counter, and before I knew what I was doing, my snout was in the brown loaf the young male had made. One bite, that’s all it was. And it didn’t even taste good. Too sweet. Not a hint of meat.

And just then, the young female saw me. All the noise at the front door had stopped and she had come back into the kitchen. She shouted my name and grabbed that band around my neck to pull me away. And then, the last doggie devil was let loose in me. I turned my snout and tried to grab her arm with my teeth. It was my food, you see. I had to protect it. I missed grabbing her arm, but she shouted, “No! Bad dog!”

And with that shout, the doggie devils disappeared and there I was, shoved rudely out the door to the porch, banished from the smells, the kitchen, and, sadly, from my pack of people.

Later, I heard the young male and female telling you what happened, gesturing toward me and the broken loaf. I saw the young male standing stiff, arms firmly crossed, with a hard, hard look on his face. The female was pointing to that spot on her arm where my teeth grazed her skin. I sat looking through the glass, feeling very, very sad. Even after 9 years, enough years to render me older and wiser, sometimes, the devils still win.


An Aseptic Septic Story

On a cloudy day in November of 2010, I was out walking in the yard. Despite the clouds, it was a dry day here in the Pacific Northwest, something unusual for November. I was just checking on plants, amusing the dog, and breathing the clear air before starting dinner. Walking along the path to the shed, along the retaining wall that runs across our yard, I heard the sound of water running.

Well, not running, exactly. Gushing.

Where there had been no sound of water ever before.

And you know, that’s never a good thing.

I quickly traced the sound to a cascade of water coming over the top of the retaining wall, onto the path just ahead of me. It lasted about a minute, then stopped.

Along with that gush of water came the sort of smell you know means trouble. Slightly sweet, very earthy.


Like most homeowners, I know just enough about the systems attached to our house to be dangerous. When we moved out here several years ago, it was the first time we’d ever owned a property with a septic system. I’d heard about these systems in the Midwest town I grew up in, but they were only for the farms that surrounded the town, for the “country people” as we thought of them. I had no idea then what a septic system was or what it did. Those of us who lived in town just flushed away that stuff in the toilet with no concern for what where it went. And the garbage disposal? Well that was a downright miracle for clearing your kitchen sink, something I came to appreciate later during the years we lived in Japan, where the garbage disposal did not exist.

I recall once trying to describe to my students in Japan what a garbage disposal was and how it worked.

“Where does all that stuff go?” one of them asked.

“I don’t know, and I don’t care,” I replied.

But now, we’d bought a house with a septic system and a well, which is quite common in this part of the country. And as good homeowners, we asked neighbors and friends about the system to figure out what we needed to know. How do they work?  How do you know if something goes wrong? And, most importantly, WHAT do you do if something goes wrong?

This far into my life, you’d think I’d have figured out not to ask such questions. It only encourages the horror stories. Tales of murky things seeping from the ground, odors wafting to the sky, and thousands of dollars spent. Tales enough to make your lips curl in fear and disgust. The worst was from a friend who noticed nasty things seeping up in her yard one day.  Forty thousand dollars later, she had herself a brand spanking new septic system, tank and all.

Being the proactive sort, I decided to stave off the possibility that we too might one day have our own septic stories (yes, I recognize the irony here), and so I took up the county on its invitation for new septic owners to take an introductory class about the care and keeping of our systems.  I went – not eagerly (for who is eager to contemplate their own waste processing?) – but resolutely, determined to understand and master our system.

Truth be told, I came home befuddled.  All the jargon – what could it really mean? Sand filters, mounds, baffles, and alarms. The drainfield. Operational certificates. Gravity systems and aerobic treatment. The only thing I was sure of was that our entire property is essentially a sewage system, what with the tank down below on one side of the house, the pumps and pipes to the filter up on the other side, and another pump and pipes pushing the effluent still higher up to the drainfield. No longer could we be oblivious to what we put down the sink.

The other piece of information I managed to glean from the class was that the most fragile systems are the ones with a sand filter.

So what system did I discover we had?

One with a sand filter, of course.

And what could disturb a system with a sand filter?

The answer to that question depends upon whom you ask. And ask I did. As I said, I like to be proactive. Besides bleach, I was told that everything from synthetic cleaning products to plain old white rice could cause problems, and the output of a garbage disposal was definitely forbidden. (Never mind that we do indeed have a disposal; I have become intimate with those drain traps in the shower and kitchen sink.) Essentially, a sand filter fails when the bacteria in the filter, the ones that break down the waste, quit working, leaving the sludge to build up and clog the layers of gravel and sand that filter the water before it’s pumped to the drainfield.

But several years passed and we had no trouble with our system. The only time the alarm went off was during a heavy downpour when the earth couldn’t keep up with the sky and the sensors detected too much water in the area. When the time came for us to renew our operational certificate (by then I’d learned what that was), I called a septic service and watched intently while the inspector removed the lids to the tank, measured the slop inside, cleaned the filters, pumped the sh–, uh, sludge into his truck, and wrote up his report for the county. I even monitored his work on the neighbors’ system when they couldn’t be home for the appointment. (That’s when I learned that, unlike us, our neighbors do not live on a sewage-processing plant. The sludge from their system gets pumped about a quarter mile away to a mound in a pretty little wooded area at the corner of our street and the main road.)

But that November day, when the water cascaded over the wall, I quickly learned how little I’d learned.

I called two different septic service companies to come see what the trouble was, and the diagnosis was what we feared.  A failed sand filter.

The beauty of a sand filter is that it lies below ground and you never know it’s there – until it fails.  That’s when you discover just how impressive the filter can be. In our case, it’s 9 by 42.  Feet. Half our front yard. A space large enough to park our cars, nose to tail, that is if you wanted to park them many feet below ground. The water had been pouring over the retaining wall whenever the pump in the septic tank tried to send fluid into the clogged filter, thus the sporadic nature of our “waterfall.” Several times a day, at precise intervals that matched the timer on the pump, the waterfall would appear.

Once the magnitude of the problem set in, we resigned ourselves to a large sum to be paid out for repair, but not one as large as the county tried to extract from us. In the process of approving the new design and issuing the repair permit, the county officials tried to tell us that, not only did we have to rebuild the sand filter, we had to replace the septic tank as well because it was not “up to code” (a phrase that is really code for “We’re going to suck your wallet dry.”)

I still don’t know much about septic systems, but I know when officials become a bit too officious.  There was nothing at all wrong with the tank, and so I investigated the regulations and talked to another septic designer, who was actually willing to look at the county’s records, unlike the designer we had, who was a little too quick to arrive at our door in his shiny sports car, wearing his well-creased pants, his hand extended for payment.

Finally, the county issued a permit for the rebuild, but it was many months before work began. (You’ll be relieved to know that the septic specialist we hired created a temporary fix to stop that cascade over the wall.)  So, in August of last year, the same month that saw the death of the grand fir tree a few feet up from the sand filter, the work began.  What follows is a pictorial record of that work. Click on the photos, if you like, to see the detail. I promise they’re odor-free.

The work begins. One man. One shovel. One tidy pile of dirt.

The top of the filter is knee deep.

Digging deeper…

And deeper still. The white pipe carries effluent from the tank to the filter.

Three men and a hose. These guys oversee the pumping of sludge to the truck.

Here you can see the layers in the filter: sand and gravel below the pipe, rocks, dirt and the roll of sod.

Sludge is also pumped from the sand filter.

Now comes the big equipment: A large metal dropbox for the excavated guts of the sand filter, and a cute orange digger. The workers laid steel plates across the yard to minimize damage and level the surface for the equipment.

Dig in!


The digger marks out the area. The corners are dug out by hand.


As the wet gravel is pulled up out of the pit, the workers spread “pixie dust” (a concoction of lime) on the pile to help dry the rocks and contain the odor.

Pixie Dust

A couple of the many loads of gravel and sand that were hauled away.

The view through the front door

Digging and dumping.

Once this was a lovely lawn…

But you gotta love guys who are willing to get knee-deep in your muck.


More digging and dumping.

The nearby trees loved getting their roots in the muck.

The empty trench

The ARC infiltrator panels go in. These panels are now installed in filters to increase the drainage area.  The old filter didn’t have them.


Layer by layer, the new sand, gravel, rocks and topsoil go back into place.

The finishing touches.

From the first spadeful of dirt to the last rake-over, the job took about 5 days (and $13, 000 dollars).  Next time we see a waterfall in the yard, it will be one we put there intentionally.

The Cat and the Brain Surgeon

Like many other critters of his kind, Steve was a mischievous cat. Slender and black, except for two white hairs on his chest, he was a stray camping around with his siblings outside the building where I worked. His feline family was discovered one November day by the office manager, Peg, while she was outside on break having a smoke.

Peg was quite fond of cats. She had two in her high-rise condominium in downtown Chicago. She was so fond of them that she lost both friends and service people because of their antics. At a dinner party one evening, one of the cats leapt into the center of the dining table, where Peg had placed the gourmet pizza she had ordered for her guests. She described to me later the scene of the cat, kneading the stringy mozzarella, and the horrified reactions and quick departure of her guests. On another occasion, she told me how the other cat drove away an appliance repairman by dive-bombing him from its perch on the kitchen ceiling fan. Clearly, her cats ruled her life.

So when Peg saw the family of strays outside our office building, she took it as her mission to find them a good home, and I was one of her prospects.

Never mind that I already had one cat. Matilda was a gorgeous tabby, her thick gray fur accentuated by stunning green eyes and a snow-white bib and paws.  She had been with me for several years and as many moves, from her original home in a double-wide trailer in south Texas with Confederate flags taped over the windows, to steamy Mississippi, where the cockroaches were large and fun to chase, and now to gray and frigid Chicago. Although she was a beauty to behold, her personality was not so attractive.  She was a lazy cat. An ornery cat. And most of all, a gluttonous cat.

After one weekend away, I learned not to leave my apartment without first carefully securing the lid of the plastic tub of cat food and tightly closing the door to the pantry, where the tub sat on the floor. If I did not do so, Matilda would paw open the pantry door, push aside the loose lid, and gorge herself on kibble.  It was no wonder she weighed 13 pounds.

Although I am a dog person at heart, if I were to have any pet at this stage of my life, it had to be an animal suited to my itinerant lifestyle. Besides traveling, I sometimes worked long hours and felt guilty about leaving Matilda at home alone. So when Peg began her assault on me in an attempt to place the strays, I was an easy target.

The Cat Comes Home

I held myself to taking only one of the strays, the pure black kitten, whom I christened Steve, and our period of mutual adjustment was brief. I quickly learned to close Steve out of my bedroom at night or he would claim my pillow for himself. I didn’t mind when he perched behind me on a chair, front paws on my shoulder, watching as I read the Sunday paper at my kitchen table. I was even amused the day I came home to find the stream of toilet paper flowing from the bathroom down the hall into the living room.

I worried for awhile about Matilda’s adjustment to her new roommate. The two of them didn’t seem to get along, often fighting over who got to sit in my lap while I watched TV. Matilda had never shown any interest in my lap before. I stopped worrying, though, when I came home early one day to find Steve and Matilda cuddled together in a chair. “Ah, you silly kitties,” I thought. “I’m on to you now!”

I did mind, however, when Steve took to leaping on my kitchen counters, and scattering crumbs of litter down the hallway after using the box. And I was disgruntled when he would pick fights with Matilda outside my bedroom door at 5 a.m.  But I got really irked when he turned my new couch into his personal scratching post.

And so, ignoring all the recommendations of animal welfare groups everywhere, a few weeks after I brought him home, I took him to the vet to have his front claws removed. It was uneventful. I drove him to the vet’s office one Friday morning, and brought him home later that day, offending claws removed and one of those plastic cones around his neck to keep him from chewing out the stitches.

He got along well for the rest of the day, but the next morning, he figured out how to wrest himself out of the collar and gnawed out the stitches in his right paw. I came home from

mid-morning errands to see pools of blood at intervals down the hall to the living room and Steve, frantically running around the room, flinging blood from his paw onto every surface, especially the white couch. In a panic now myself, I dropped my bags, grabbed a towel, and snatched the cat up, wrapping his paw in the towel.  Then I called the vet, raced to the car, and drove through Christmas-season traffic as quickly as I could, holding Steve on my lap with one hand and driving with the other. Meanwhile, trying to rid himself of the strange feeling, Steve continued flinging his paw about, spattering the interior of my car with blood.

After the vet sedated the cat and repaired the damage, I drove home with a sense of relief, puzzling over how to get dried blood off wood floors and out of a white couch. Those tasks were easy, though, compared to getting red blood out of the red upholstery of my car.  I had parked in the garage and, to see better for the job, flipped on the dome light inside the car. Twenty minutes later, task complete, I headed back inside to a peaceful afternoon and a quiet weekend.

The Dilemma

On Monday morning, in a rush (as always) to get to work, I turned the key in the car’s ignition, only to hear that distinctive “ffffffft” that signals a dead battery.

Dammit. I’d forgotten to turn off the dome light.

Fortunately, my landlord was home and gave me a jump with the cables I carried in my trunk. So off I went to my office, to continue work on a manuscript I was editing for Dr. M, my boss in the neurosurgery department at the university. I parked my car in one of the last open spots on the fourth level of the parking garage, hoping I’d have enough juice in the battery to get to an auto parts store at the end of the day.

The Good Doctor

Arthur C. Guyton Research Center

Image by / // / via Flickr

Dr. M and I had met a few years before in Mississippi quite by accident. I had been looking for jobs and had applied at the University medical center for a secretarial position in the EMT department.  But someone processing the application made a mistake and sent my resume to the ENT department. There, it caught the eye of a doctor who noticed my degrees in English. He sent the resume on to his friend, Dr. M, who was looking for an editor.

Dr. M was a native of Syria, and had come to the US, like thousands of immigrants before him, looking for more professional opportunity and a better standard of living.  After finishing his training in West Virginia, he gave up a private practice for the chance to work at the premier medical institution in Saudi Arabia, as a way of paying the debt he felt he owed to his Arabic culture. But after 4 years there in Riyadh, his American wife grew tired of the restricted life and the abaya, and he came to Mississippi with an ambition to climb the academic ladder, his ultimate goal being the chairmanship of a neurosurgery department.  Along with him came a large, late-model Mercedes, which he had received as a gift from a patient in Saudi Arabia.

My ambitions were not so grand as his. I had come to M’sippi to follow a boyfriend and to look for a steady teaching job. The city where I’d been living in my native Ohio had long been saturated with college-level English teachers. I had applied at the medical center to tide me over till the proverbial “something better” came along.

And that something better did, indeed, appear.

I was at home one Friday afternoon when the phone rang. I picked it up, expecting it to be the boyfriend calling, but heard instead a strangely accented voice asking to speak to “Joo-leee.”

“That’s me,” I said, puzzled.

Dr. M told me his name and then said he wanted to hire me to be his editor. Having never met the man, I thought it best to arrange an interview. That interview eventually lead to a fulltime job as a medical editor, and over the years, we have collaborated on four books, two dozen book chapters, and many more journal articles. Even at that early stage of his career, Dr. M was gaining a worldwide reputation as a skilled skull-base surgeon.

Dr. M was a not an imposing man. Of medium build, in his early 40s, he had thinning dark hair, wire-rimmed aviator glasses, and a prominent nose fringed below by a mustache. Whenever he wasn’t in the operating room, he smoked incessantly, and his desk was littered with papers and cigarette ash, which he would paw through whenever he was looking for something. He was more than hospitable; he was generous, with a natural charm that he used to manipulate reality into what he wanted. Others would say of him, “There’s the real world, and then there’s Sam’s world.”

I was glad to be part of Sam’s world. He taught me much about the publication process and opened for me a professional opportunity I had never even considered. He brought me exquisite gifts from his many trips to academic meetings around the world, and supported my travel to professional meetings of my own.

Just How Good is the Doctor?

Wrecked bicycle wheel

Image by Tom Lawrence via Flickr

One evening, while out riding my bike, I hit a patch of loose gravel and fell, hitting my head on the pavement. I awoke in the ER to find Dr. M hovering over me. He was the neurosurgeon on call that night and he tended to me immediately, alternately scolding and teasing me about the accident, saying there were better ways to avoid coming to work the next day. He stitched up the gash in my head, kept me in the hospital for a couple of days, and then arranged for his wife to take me home and call my parents to assure them that I was OK.

A week later, when it was time for the stitches to come out, Dr. M came to my office with a package of sterile instruments. As I sat typing at my desk, he ripped the sutures out, all the while telling me a story of the first time he had removed stitches from someone.

It had been while he was in medical school back in Syria. His chairman had had a wound that had been stitched up and he chose Dr. M to remove the stitches. Sam gathered the necessary tray and instruments and, to compensate for his nervousness, took special care to sterilize the tools by pouring alcohol over them as they lay on the tray. Then, wanting to be especially careful not to endanger his chairman with infection, he decided to sterilize the instruments further. And so, he lit a match, and dropped it onto the tray.

Dr. M laughed as he told me the story. As demanding as he could be in his work, he also knew how to poke fun at himself. Despite the conflagration in his chairman’s office that day, Dr. M had gone on to a successful career in neurosurgery.

I once asked Dr. M why he became a brain surgeon.  He answered, laughing, “It’s the only thing I could do well.”

One Evening in Chicago

For his part, Sam was very happy to have me be part of his world. I made his English sparkle, and eased his climb up the professional ladder. When his ambition outgrew his position and he was hired at a university in Chicago, he arranged to take me with him. I couldn’t resist. It was a step up in status and salary and a grand leap out of the South, with its oppressive humidity and laconic pace.

So in that chilly late November in Chicago, I left the office in the darkness of early evening to find that, once again, I needed an electrical bailout to get my car started. I walked all the way back to the office, cursing Steve the cat, to look for one of the residents-in-training, whom I knew was still at the hospital and would be glad to help me out of my predicament.  Instead, I came across Dr. M, still at his messy desk (he’d given up the cigarettes by then), reviewing his mail and other papers.

“Joo-lee,” he said in that lilting accent I’d become familiar with, “what are you doing here?  I thought you’d have gone home by now.”

Old: Banks of conventional lead-acid car batte...

Image via Wikipedia

“I’m looking for Andrew,” I replied. “My battery died and I can’t get my car started. He told me to come find him if I needed help.”

“Oh!” Dr. M said, looking concerned and starting to get up from his desk. I noticed the glint come into his eye. “Don’t worry. I will help you! Where is your car?”

I froze for a moment, wide-eyed in the doorway, trying to think fast.  Here was a man of generous spirit and superb surgical skill, but one who was not so adept with problems outside the operating room. Not long before, his wife had had to take him to the emergency room when he cut his foot while trying to mow his lawn. On another occasion, he ended up in the ER after he injured his ankle trying to play basketball with his son. I really didn’t think it wise to accept his help now, but he was insistent.

“Let me take you to your car,” he said. “I will help you.”

“No, really, Dr. M, that’s OK. Andrew said that I should come look for him if I had any trouble.  I’ll just go find him.”

“No, no” he said, smiling and chuckling. “I will help you.”

Another Dilemma

It was clear that he would, in fact, help me, whether I wanted it or not. And so I acquiesced, and dutifully waited while he gathered his coat and briefcase and turned off the lights in his office. And dutifully I walked beside him, down the hall, down the stairs, and out to the physician’s parking lot in front of the building, where we climbed in his big old Mercedes, the one he’d had shipped back from Saudi Arabia and was still driving through the frozen streets of Chicago. He fired up the engine, and we lumbered out of the parking lot and back toward the garage where my little hand-me-down Oldsmobile sat on the 4th floor.

Up each ramp we rolled in the huge car. Enveloped in the smooth leather of the passenger seat, gliding through the darkness with only the glow from the dashboard instruments, I felt like a little girl in my father’s big car, feet not able to reach the floor, head barely touching the headrest. The car was cavernous, and comforting. We talked about the weather and other superficial things. I felt a little awkward being out of the usual confines and prescribed behaviors of the work world.

Finally we came to the stall where my car was parked, and Dr. M pulled the Mercedes up alongside and got out, leaving the engine running.  I pulled out my keys and climbed into the driver’s seat of my car to open the hood. Then I went to the trunk and brought out the cables the landlord had used that morning. Meanwhile, Dr. M opened the hood of his car and came around to peer at my battery. He took the cables from me and clamped one end of each onto the battery posts of his car, talking both to me and to himself as he did so. We could see our breath in the cold night air.

I sat down in the driver’s seat of my car, leaving the door open, and watched through the windshield, beneath the edge of the raised hood, while Dr. M placed the clamps on my car. He opened one clamp and attached it to one battery post; then he placed the second clamp on the other post.

I couldn’t help myself.

“Um, Dr. M, shouldn’t one of the clamps go on the frame of the car?”

“Oh, no, no!” he said. “Don’t worry! I’ve done this before. Now, start the car!”

OK, I thought, perhaps he knew what he was doing. Maybe there was a chance this would work. I turned the key.

The starter ground; the car wouldn’t start. I turned the key off. Through the windshield, I watched as Dr. M adjusted the clamps.

“Dr. M, are you sure the clamps are in the right place?”

“Yes, yes!” he said cheerfully. “Try again!”

I turned the key again, and again, the starter ground. Nothing. I turned the key off.

“Um, Dr. M, I don’t think this is going to work.”

He readjusted the clamps.

“Try again!” he said brightly.

On the third try, the battery began to smoke.  I sat there, amused and alarmed, watching the tendrils of smoke drift up from the battery.  I could see his form hunched over the side of the car.  I could see his surgeon’s hands repositioning the clamps as the smoke drifted over them.

On the fourth try, there were sparks.

I clapped a hand over my mouth and closed my eyes firmly against the blue and white points of light leaping off the battery and around his hands. Those hands, which were so adept, so skillful when working inside a human skull, and so inept under the hood of my car. My eyes squeezed closed, I sat there thinking, my God, I’ve ruined this man’s career. And all because of a silly cat.

Where There’s Smoke…


Image by arbyreed via Flickr

On the fifth try, one of the clamps melted off the cable, and Dr. M had to give up. Relieved, I turned the ignition off and got out of the car.

“Maybe we should call a tow truck,” I proposed. What other solution could there be?

“No, no!” Dr. M said, still cheerful, and chuckling a little. “I have some cables in my trunk.”

He wandered around to the back end of the Mercedes and opened the trunk.  Fishing around among the rags and other junk, he hauled out a pair of old battery cables. As he raised them high over the trunk, we both noticed it. One of the clamps was missing.

Yes, indeed, he’d done this before.

He turned to me, still holding the cables up, laughing at himself, and I laughed too.

“We’ll call a tow truck,” he said, still chuckling, and a little red in the face.  Perhaps it was from the cold. I had begun to shiver.

He put his cables back in the trunk and slammed it shut. Then he closed the hood of his car.  We disconnected my cables and put them away with the loose clamp, and I closed up my car.  I was shivering harder.

We climbed back into the Mercedes and he used his car’s phone to call a tow truck, all the while running the engine to keep the heater on. I tried to convince him to go on his way, that I would be OK waiting there for the tow truck to come.  But again, he insisted.  We sat in his car for half an hour, waiting for the truck, making light conversation to pass the time. He kept the engine running and the heater going.

Finally, we heard the loud motor of the truck as it entered the garage and climbed the same way we had come an hour earlier.  The truck pulled up behind my car and the driver got out. At that point, I again encouraged Dr. M to go home, telling him that the driver would take care of things now. But again he insisted on staying.

And not just staying, but escorting me to the service station in his Mercedes. He didn’t want me to have to ride in the truck cab with the driver, so he followed the truck with me in his car. And he stayed with me at the service station until the new battery was in and I was on my way home to the cats.

Matilda Goes On… For a Little While

In the crush of daily life, too often our best moments and relationships slip away. By a year or so later, my relationship with Dr. M had begun to deteriorate. He was not happy in Chicago. In the Deep South, he had made up his own rules. The folks in Chicago wanted him to follow theirs. And he was still looking for the chance to run his own department. I found him increasingly difficult to work with and began to doubt my place in his world. I eventually left Chicago to take a job in Minnesota. Shortly after I left, Dr. M got his chairmanship and returned to the Deep South, where he still presides over the department he’s ruled for 15 years.

When I moved to Minnesota, I decided to take only one cat with me. I had grown tired of Steve’s nighttime mischief and staged spats with Matilda. I left him behind with the landlord’s children, who were thrilled with his antics and energy.

As for Matilda, well, with another move, she just became grumpier and fatter. After too many mornings of hearing her beg for food at 5 a.m., I found her a good home elsewhere and got myself a dog.

Would You Like Some Clam Chowder with Those Breasts?

Because I own a couple of them, I feel entitled to say it:  I’m tired of seeing women’s breasts.

Low cut, clingy, see through, what-have-you.  Too many articles of women’s clothing feature the exposure of breasts.  And unfortunately, too many women have signed on to these styles because they are the latest fashion (Thankfully there are a few hold-outs; just ask Dear Abby.)

There’s not much I can do to influence fashion trends other than buying from companies that don’t cater to the barest common denominator.  But I do think I have the right to complain when the social focus on women’s cleavage interferes with my lunch.

It was a quiet weekday when my parents were visiting from the Midwest. We stopped at a popular local seafood restaurant near the water to have a leisurely lunch.  The restaurant wasn’t particularly busy, so we took our time ordering and chatting, enjoying the afternoon.  It was my parents’ first visit to town and I was trying to show them the sights and culture.

As we ate and chatted, I couldn’t help but notice the arrival of a couple at the table across the aisle.  The man was tan, buff and wore a leather jacket.  The woman was also tan and was wearing something of the current fashion with her bleached hair.  They were neither young nor old, but they chatted enthusiastically in that way a couple does when they’re on a date. He fawned over her, she over him, and my dad (in his 80-some years) and I couldn’t help but glance repeatedly at their table. It seemed an ideal tableau — a not-quite-middle-aged couple enjoying each other over lunch.  I was almost envious.

Then I noticed the man pull a package out of his bag and hand it across the table to the woman.  It was a gift, brightly colored paper with a pretty ribbon.  Ah, I thought — they must be celebrating something.  Her birthday perhaps?  An anniversary of some sort?  They didn’t sport any obvious wedding jewelry but you can’t assume anything based on the presence or absence of rings.

The woman was enthusiastic as she opened the package.  From the box, she removed a narrow booklet. Chirping happily, she leafed through the booklet while he pointed at different pages and commented on what each held.  Curious, I looked long enough to discern what the booklet was about.  A cruise perhaps, or a weekend away?  All sorts of romantic visions swam in my head.

But as I looked, the images on the pages of the booklet became clear.  This was not a promise of a Caribbean cruise to a romantic island, but a sample of breasts from a plastic surgery clinic that specialized in enhancement. I choked back an incredulous outburst and nodded my head for Dad to size up the situation.  As you might imagine, we spent a good part of the rest of that lunch making wisecracks about the couple: “Gee, which sample d’ya suppose he likes best?” and “Hm. Wonder what she’ll give *him* for their next celebration.”

Geez, do I have to say it?

Ladies:  If the guy you’re with wants to pick out body parts for you, run, run as fast as you can as far away from him as you can get.

And guys (I’d say gentlemen, but I think the gentlemen among us already know this):  It is NEVER appropriate to indicate any sort of dissatisfaction with the breasts of the woman you’re with. They are hers, not yours.

Going Out of Business

What does it say about our economy when the local DOLLAR STORE goes out of business?  Really now, they can’t make a go of it at a dollar per item?

My family followed the demise of this business over the course of the summer, watching the street-corner advertisers wave their placards with the ever-decreasing prices.

Eventually, the prices dropped to 50 cents.  At that point, my son said that it was no longer the Dollar Store.  It was the Half Dollar Store.