September 24, 2011


Bearing in mind that an old definition of “news” is when the train leaves the tracks, here are some news bites from Shuddering Squirrel Acres.

Kids, Don’t Do Dis
Close to finishing a baby cradle that’s expected next week, I was at the table saw in my woodworking shop yesterday, getting increasingly frustrated at how quickly the blade heated up as I tried to cut an ash slat to size.
Ash is very hard wood, for years the standard for baseball bats, and can be difficult to cut. Smoke was wisping a bit and I was distracted for just a second, a split second really, but that’s all it takes. There was pain, reflexes kicked in, and I yanked my left hand back, splashing blood on the cement floor.
Two nearly identical wedge-shaped divots were cut into the tips of the ring and middle fingers, about halfway through the nails and a quarter-inch deep. I think the blade missed bone.
The wounds are gruesome, but there is surprisingly little pain. Can’t guess why.
I also can’t figure out how one blade cut the same wound in two side-by-side fingers.
The lesson, kids, is to back away from power tools as soon as you suffer a brain fart. I was dumb but lucky. Didn’t have to pick up any fingers.

Memento mori, Pete, but not yet
Our Trusty Dog Pete continues to impress us with his loyalty, his joie de vivre, his deep and abiding love for a black rubber ball, his manners – he even goes into the woods to poop – and his obedience, at least most of the time.
Make no mistake, he is a working farm dog, and does all his tasks well. He keeps an eye on the chickens and helps Larry round them up when it’s time to go back in the coop. He walks the perimeter of our property at least twice a day. He barks only when there is a good reason. And best, the destructive squirrels have disappeared into the woods. They gnawed through a fuel line on my truck, twice; chewed the front out of Vicki’s favorite cane rocker; and gnawed on the arms of our other porch rocking chair.
Vicki told me that when Pete was away from home for a few hours the other day, our yards were quickly teeming with squirrels. When he returned, they vanished. Good Pete.
It was the time away from home that I want to report.
After keeping me company, out of the way, while I worked in my shop for most of the afternoon, he went outside when it was time to close up. A short time later, I went out back in our screened room and saw Vicki kneeling beside a prostrate Pete, her pretty face wracked with pain, tears pouring. Pete was still as death.
I ran over to them and saw she had several treats in her hand, untouched. That’s when we knew for certain that something was terribly wrong. Vicki had taken the treats outside and found Pete lying on his side.
She used to be a veterinary assistant and has seen many dogs die. “He’s leaving us,” she said, trying to catch her breath. Pete’s eyes were partly closed, his breathing was shallow, and he didn’t respond to anything.
Understand that this noble dog, a black German shepherd, simply showed up here one day and refused to leave. He was covered with grotesquely bloated ticks, his belly badly flea bitten, his ears full of mites and guck. He was a little skinny and made it clear that he only wanted some love. He acted as though he’d been living with the opposite.
Vicki and I believe this dog was sent to us. We had agreed that neither of us wanted one, or another pet of any kind. We were resolute in this. When Pete showed up, we caved like Michigan at the Rose Bowl.
So I didn’t believe he was dying, and scooped him up, holding him on his back and hustling to my truck for a trip to the vet. He started to squirm, all 80 plus pounds of him, and Vicki helped me lower him to his feet. He led me to the passenger door, I opened it, and he climbed inside. Vicki, still crying, asked if I wanted her to go. I hated to leave her in such grief, but there was no room.
Fortunately, the sheriff’s boys didn’t spot me hauling ass through town. I’d called ahead and the vet’s staff was waiting. Pete walked me to the door, and seemed to be getting new wind.
I gave them his history, such as we know it, while they went to work. His temperature was normal. They said he was standing like his back hurt. An x-ray showed he had two compressed discs in his lower back, somewhat common in big dogs that leap for the sky. He was given a shot of steroids, for fast pain relief, and I was sent home with a regimen of pain pills and – because his spleen was slightly enlarged – an antibiotic in case he’d picked up a tick-borne disease.
As I walked him to the door, Pete abruptly turned and headed back into the bowels of the building. The nurse who’d helped us grinned and yelled, “Pete’s making a break for it.” He managed to take a tour of every room in the office before I caught up with him. He was declared a very sweet dog, as he has been with everyone who meets him.
When we got back home, Vicki was not there to greet us. She stayed inside, after she and Pete made truly joyful noises during their reunion, because she was certain I would be alone.
Three days later, Pete’s his old self, but a little peeved that we won’t play as vigorously as he’d like. Now with two vets’ visits notched on his collar, he’s into us for quite a bit of money.
When we paid both bills, we didn’t blink.

September 20, 2011

Going 60: The Egg & I

No. 1, Sept. 8, 2011

It’s tempting, when yet someone else asks what it feels like to turn 60, to tell them the truth. But I suppose simple courtesy requires some sort of pleasant, bemused reply. What I’d like to say is, “Just like it felt to turn 50. But beat all to hell.”
The last decade has been, by turns, physically crushing, emotionally brutal, spiritually challenging, and socially disappointing. Yeah, woe is me. I was raised in the church long enough to accept that we all have our own crosses to tote, and while I suspect mine was heavier than others, I know even more bear crosses of lead.
As they say, life happens, and nobody gets a pass from its vagaries. The most important difference between people, my dad taught, is their reaction to getting knocked on their ass. Do they stay down, or stand up? My sisters and I have always gotten back up. We’re from Detroit’s west side, and I’d like to think that when there’s a brown storm, our dad’s tenet shows.
Two of my oldest, best friends came to visit for what they called my “miracle birthday.” They know the details. Plenty of other people would, at one time or another, have laid money against me getting this far for entirely different reasons. To put it in the simplest terms, I haven’t always made the best choices.

Understand that I don’t regard 60 as old in any sense but physical wear and tear. I’m part of that first wave of boomers who redefined the concept of aging as time went on, and rather confidently expect to live another 40 years or so if our execrable health care system ever catches up to the extraordinary work being done by research scientists.
Leukemia Cell
About a week ago, The New York Times ran a science piece about a cancer researcher in Philly who has found a way to “gut” the HIV1 virus of its AIDS-causing core, marry it to a patient’s own T-cells, and send them through the body to attack cancer cells. The story centered on a 65-year-old man in New Jersey who was close to done in by leukemia. The genetically engineered treatment nearly killed him. When he recovered, the leukemia was gone. No one is calling it a cure, but there’s little question it is a significant advance.

When those friends visited for my birthday, it was also to stop by and see a neighbor, another of their nearly lifelong pals who – against some pretty impressive odds – happens to be a native of the same tiny town we chose as home when we moved to the hills of Middle Tennessee two years ago. The men in our small group of marrieds are only a few months apart in age. There’s a few years’ difference between us and our wives, who make us look good.
Although I’d met my friend’s pal first in Michigan and later in New Orleans, we didn’t know much about each other until he invited Vicki and me to share July 4 with his family. When we met, there was instant recognition of a fellow traveler, a guy who shared the same time, many of the same places, and many of the same milestones. It didn’t take much talking out; we’re simply old friends who only now are acquainted.
It happens that we made this acquaintance at the same time he was diagnosed with a virulent  cancer that has reached Stage 4, the direst. He began radiation therapy this morning; chemo starts tomorrow. In a couple of weeks he’ll turn 60.
I spend as much time with him as I can, not because it feels like it’s running out, but because he’s my friend and has had one of the most interesting lives I’ve encountered. We have wild tales from the 1960s; I remember somewhat more of it than he. Where I settled in to something of a routine after that – college, work, marriage, children – he was itinerant, picking up more varied experiences and settling for nothing less than a life fully lived.
We talk a lot and it’s a mutual pleasure, I’m told. It occurred to me a couple of weeks ago that he is a complete man – a warrior and a hippie, a sybarite and an intellectual, a father and a husband. He was a Green Beret and an acid rocker. He is one of the most gifted storytellers I know, and I’ve always been a sucker for great stories and the characters who lived them. The tale of the worst day of his life has nothing to do with cancer, but of a six-hour span in which he destroyed his truck and a car wash, ruined a new carpet with airborne purple oil paint, and trashed his lawnmower on an iron-capped gas main.
We talk politics a little, but are far apart in our positions. We discuss theology, one of his passions, and also differ there in some significant places. No matter; good talk. We talk about many less weighty things, and have a tendency to laugh a lot. Cancer is not a verboten topic so we talk about that too. He was insistent, during one talk, that I understand how he regards the long odds against him. “I don’t just feel, I believe, it’s not my time,” he said, looking me right in the eyes. “So I’m going for it.” He is in every sense a stand-up guy.

Simple, our best layer
My 60th birthday was remarkable mostly for what happened on it. My gift from Vicki, a fine band saw to round out my woodshop, arrived a day early. Shortly after, our friends from Michigan pulled up our long gravel drive. Then Simply Red, the pretty little hen we call Simple, laid her and the flock’s first egg. It was a warm, flawless, deep brown egg, smallish because our chickens still have some growing to do. That night, together we discovered a stunningly authentic Mexican restaurant and opened the meal with guacamole prepared tableside in a molcajete, as it’s done in Mexico. We spent most of the next day with our ailing friend and his wife, and there was laughter nearly the whole time.
I didn’t see any “new beginnings” messages in the timing of our first egg. The early arrival of the saw was luck; the saw itself a generous gift from a wife who loves me fiercely, flaws and all. The visit from our Michigan friends was its own special gift from a couple who’ve never wavered in their affection and support. We have shared backgrounds because we lived most of it together.
What I said at the beginning about how it feels to turn 60 stands as a matter of unadorned fact. I’m standing, and doing it in a place surrounded by trees, largely secluded, and generally peaceful.
I’m 60 and living how I’ve always wanted, with a mate who has long wanted the same kind of life. The water is good, the wildlife plentiful, and the ground fertile. We’re tending gardens, a greenhouse, honeybees and chickens, a sweet/smart dog who walked out of the woods one day and wouldn’t leave, two beautiful cats, and a personable little parrot named Monk. As a capper, we now have warm, entertaining friends just a few miles away.
I have no complaints (except our satellite internet hookup) and am looking forward to so many things.
Turning 60 is nothing. My cross isn’t all that heavy.