Sunday, November 30, 2014

Snow and Brain Health

    Hold these images in your head.  A swooping crow carved by a hill's shadow, suction-like prints from a creature from out of space, a new species of white leaves edged with green, a cat's butt hiding under a stool hoping birds won't see it, the morning sun making shadows on the roof, a splash of melting ice just above the last photo of fall leaves frozen in an early snow.  Look at them again slowly.  They are for your good health.  Your brain health.

     Senility is like the topic of sex for a teenager.  It is on your mind, but proffered as a conversation piece with hesitancy and reserve. Forget the name of your host, whom you have known for twenty years, and wonder if Alzheimer's will be diagnosed next week.  Can you still smell peanut butter?  Good, you likely don't have Alzheimer's yet.  Hedging your diagnosis, you begin doing crossword puzzles, take vitamins for brain health and if you are lucky find some snow.  Yes, snow.

     We have had two snowstorms in Walla Walla that left just enough of the white stuff to brighten the world, make walking treacherous and challenge the brain.  Let's start with the walking piece.  Walking in snow, when it is a sporadic activity makes the brain focus and makes you proceed deliberately.  Minute decisions ask of your brain to choose the safest route, to guide your footsteps at a slower than normal pace, to be alert to the sheen of ice and to be more aware of oncoming traffic.  Successfully navigating snow and ice is a boost to your ego, a lift to your spirit.  A good mood is good for brain function.  New or at least rare situations make the brain work harder.  Bring on the snow!

     Walking during the first snowstorm brought my attention to those suction cup like footprints.  At first I was puzzled about who or what had made them.  My brain went into "what if" mode checking off possibilities.  My first thought was that the footprints were made by a creature from out of space, or a giant octopus or finally made by Bey, the big dog from down the block.  While my brain whirled through the options, it was feeding off of a situation that simply doesn't appear on a dry or wet sidewalk.  No snow, no wild brainy ideas, no thinking out-of-the-box or even in-the-box.  Bring on the snow!

     The crow swooping down to grab a morsel of bread shadowed on a hillside would have been almost invisible on a muddy field of wheat.  The snow made the bird so clear that I almost checked it on my bird list for the month.  Recalling data like the shape of a crow uses one part of the brain and then grabs the piece that creates fantasy from reality (hill shadows in the snow resembling a crow) and the brain makes synapse connections once again.  Snow at work.

     The snow covered green leaves were so stunning that I stopped and gasped.  My brain sent out a wish.  Could I have a bush as beautiful as that one in my yard?  What kind was it?  At that point realism caught up with my brain and said, "Oh, that is just snow on leaves with the edges melted in the sun.  No new species.  I want my brain to have work like this.  Shakes things up.  Reminds me that my brain still loves to work, to play and to solve problems.  Snow at work.

     Clumps of snow falling from a branch indicate the movement of bird or a squirrel, a swinging bird feeder marks a leap by that cat who has been hiding near the feeder and splashes of icy water mark the sun warming the roof and warn of ice on the stair later.  We must be programmed to notice motion in winter.  I catch my brain being sharper in snowy weather.  Were I a hunter, I would need to notice motion, tracks, and the angle of the sun on the roof and mark the weather's oddities like snowing on fall leaves before they have even lost their fall color.  I would need those skills to bring food to the table and to keep myself safe.  One day, maybe, going south for the winter will have an appeal for me.  For now, I prefer to take my brain work in snowstorms.  Bring them on!

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

A Travelogue of Embarrassments and Disasters

     Fairy tales usually tell all.  The seemingly stupidity of trading a good milk cow for a bean or the hazard of carelessly pricking your finger on a poison-tipped object are everyday disclosures in fairy tales.  When I packed my black wagon and set out for seven months of adventure, I decided what got embellished and what got left out in the telling.  But I was shortchanging my readers and I knew it.  Burning up my underwear in the microwave was perhaps the, stupidest and the funniest tale that was excluded.  Coming around a highway bend with a five-car crash spread across all four lanes of a rain slick dark highway was potentially the most disastrous untold tale.  (I survived.) 

     My travelogue may have seemed a little bland minus fire-eating dragons, ogres and talking animals (other than Lizzie, the dog), but here in this singular post are the undisclosed pieces of the tale.  I had locked them in a portmanteau and hidden them from your sight, but guilt struck and so here is the unadulterated version of my fairy tale of a trip.

     Like a princess setting off to fight the dragon and find a prince on a long journey, I planned ahead ordering my car top carrier well in advance.  Saddlebags weren’t going to be sufficient to carry all of my baggage.  The carrier came wrapped, delivered by a moving van and dumped on the porch. Stupidly I didn’t open it right away, just happy that it had arrived.  The day before the beginning of the journey, I dragged out a ladder and unwrapped the car top carrier to find it had been flattened by a heavy object (maybe by a dragon) on the journey here and was now oddly warped.  Tears rolled down my face as I tried to pop it back into shape.  I called my friend, Marc, and the two of us got out a hairdryer, warmed the plastic and with a fair amount of stomping and grunting we managed to get it back into a useable shape.  Marc assisted in getting the thing up on the car and secured in place.  Rescued by a prince of a guy.

      The next day in pouring rain I loaded the car top carrier.  “Are you taking a weapon?” some friends asked.  My lovely hand carved bow made by Marc went in the far side of the carrier.  Not very accessible as a weapon to be sure, but I just wasn’t expecting trouble.  I went to lock the car top carrier.  No luck.  First Phil, than Billy and finally Bob, all neighbors, came and tried their hand at battling the lock.  When it would not function properly, Billy lent me a tie-down strap to get me as far as the locksmith, who couldn’t work her magic on this lock and so on to the auto parts store to buy two brightly colored straps that the store lady helped put on.  Off I set with straps gaily flapping in the wind like a decorated steed with ribbons flowing from its bridle.  Actually the whole thing looked dorky and make shift, like I didn’t quite understand how a car top carrier worked.  Just lock it!  In Colorado Springs R.E.I. cheerfully ordered a new carrier, refunded the shipping cost of the original delivery and a young salesman assisting in getting the new one loaded.  Another prince.

     Utah is was where a tax collector (as this is what they are) pulled me over for swiftly speeding on the outskirts of the town.  I actually was looking for the sign that said I could speed up again and thought that I must have missed it.  Desert towns sometimes seem to spread so slowly outwards with a house here and now there, that I couldn’t tell if I was back on the highway or not.  Well I was also fiddling with the radio stations.  Grey-haired smiling ladies must look pretty harmless and maybe slightly inept with bright yellowish-orange straps dangling from their roof top carrier.  “A warning”, he said.  But of course this is where my driving record stands as a testimony to my usual law abiding bent.  Another prince of a hardworking highway patrolman let me proceed on my journey.

     Wandering maidens usually sleep in cottages or snuggled under the roots of a tree.  I could sleep in my wagon, but I also had a tent.  In Canyonlands I choose a free camping site on BLM land just outside of the park.  The campsite had to be reserved with some evidence of possession.  Exhausted at the end of a long driving day, with wind pushing me sideways and rain clouds moving in my direction, I set up my tent to mark my site. The meaning of a nearby scattering of large stones became obvious, as I had to use them to hold the tent corners down.  When the tent still threatened to blow off into the desert, I added more heavy stones.  With the tent well filled with rocks, I never slept in it.  It looked a little crowded.  The photos of the tent sitting on a hillock above a deep red puddle made the week’s camping site look idyllic, when actually the tent up close looked more like a rock shop. 

     Mothers must have worried mightily as their children left on adventures.  Fairy tales are replete with the hazards of not being able to send word home for help.  In Canyonlands, no one knew precisely where I was.  I felt a little guilty that those who worried about me didn’t know where I was precisely.  But really, I kept myself safe.  That is the bravery that new-age princesses possess.  The most glorious of all nights was one of those nights.  I pulled into a deserted campground after having been lost.  GPS got me there finally.  As I stepped from my car a million stars from horizon to horizon greeted me.  The last few honks of the night foretold of a body of water nearby.  In the morning I was woken by continuous waves of geese and ducks flying over my car as I ate my breakfast of steaming hot chocolate and cereal.  A real princess could have lived happily ever after in this spot and the story would have ended right there. 

     What book of car stories would be complete without at least one locked out of the car tale.  Now I prepared for this event with a key hidden under the car.  But the plot thickens when the key must have been brushed off in the snow and ice many states back.  So when inevitably I locked my key in the car fussing with the dog, the sun was heading rapidly below the horizon in a small Oklahoma state campground.  With the luck of a princess I knocked on precisely the right door (and actually the only one available) of the young couple watching the sunset.  The teenager called his dad, who it turned out to be the local sheriff!  He arrived, and then the park ranger arrived, the highway patrolman arrived and eventually from an hour and a half away the wrecking company lady arrived.  Coming and going, the highway patrolman checked on me in the cooling evening, negotiating the best price for the wrecking company and returning with his flashlight at just the right moment.  By the patrolman’s flashlight and headlights, the wrecking company lady with her bags of tools finally unlocked the car for only $90. She was a princess for sure. 

     My dear friends in Akron have collected gorgeous Persian rugs for many years.  Tim travels to the middle-eastern region of the world for archaeological digs and brings back an occasional rug.  The one my dog chose to pee on was the smallest and I think that it was the most gorgeous.  Tim just graciously cleaned it up.  Another prince.

     Have you been waiting for the burning underwear tale?  Me too.  I burned my hand grabbing the smoldering pile of underwear from the microwave and swiftly throwing it into the bathroom sink laughing hysterically all of the way.  Haven’t you also heard of people drying their socks and stuff in the microwave?  The idea seemed so ordinary.  I had been camping in California campgrounds for some days with the bathrooms locked due to the statewide drought.  Sticky from the sea air and salty water, I finally decided to head to a motel for a night.  A sweet motel receptionist granted my wish and gave me a cottage amid gardens instead of the motel room, which I had called about.  “Same price.” she said.  I even had a little private patio for pup and for hanging underwear.  Off I went to dinner on the beach when the fog rolled in.  By morning my underwear hanging out on the line seemed even wetter than the day before.  That is when I remembered the microwave trick.  And trick it was.  Thirty seconds.  Nothing.  Thirty more and there was a little steam.  With breakfast-making beckoning, I rashly gave the underwear two minutes. The smell of smoke alerted me to the urgency of checking the microwaving underwear.  The grey smoldering pile of newly purchased underwear was tinged with small rings of fire.  Faster than a sword's swoosh; I swept the underwear out of the microwave and into the bathroom sink.  At that moment the fire alarm sounded the alert to the village.  Now my cottage was actually a duplex, which had occupants at home next door.  But they simply ignored the warning, possibly chuckling about the likelihood of it just being someone burning up their underwear in the microwave.  I opened doors and windows, turned on the fans and took the underwear disguised in a brown paper bag to a distant garbage can.  I was the rescuing princess in this story… and the ass.     

The End

Postscript.  Embarrassment is spelled wrong on the poster of:  A Travelogue of Embassments and Near Disasters.  (This is a full disclosure post.)

The End Again


Friday, November 14, 2014

The Shawl of the Social Worker

The Social Worker's Shawl
     The shawl that is proffered by a social worker employed in a cancer center is one that blankets skin denuded of hair and of dignity.  "Soups" they call the chemical mixtures which fight cancer.  The bowl of searing liquid, served drop-by-drop seems like a bizarre recipe offered with such kindness.  The hopes are that cancer cells will die in the soup's scalding, burning swirl.  Social workers are like your mom, tucking you in to keep you cheered, reassuring you that chicken soup is good for you.  She keeps you warm and tells you that your illness might pass soon; you'll see the sun again and return to your playmates and to your toys.  She answers your questions.  "What is in that soup?" queries a child, uncertain that they will like the taste.


 Seven years, twice a month I watched Barbara, our local Providence St. Mary Cancer Center social worker.  With that concerned mother look she would solve dilemmas, suggest an alternative healing for pain, encourage patients to undo knots of their family relationships and ask for help, sooth a sorrow and demystify a cancer treatment, find a resource, locate funding, educate, argue with insurance companies, read poems of longings and during rare times used her shawl as a winding cloth.  Often she would drape her shawl about two patients one frightened and one a survivor from cancer, a survivor from soup.  They would find warmth sitting there together.  Barbara's shawl was comforting.  The many colored strands were like a mother's many loves woven with wisdom and hemmed with laughter and empathy.    

     For three and a half years running my beloved Gary and I regularly attended a cancer support group run by Barbara.  You see Gary and I were rarely apart.  Usually, not always, I was the only wife to come to this group.  Now, many years after Gary's passing, I still go to Barbara's cancer support group.  I may seem to be an oddity, a child who won't leave home.  I have friends in this group, who suffered and then survived.  They know and I know that soup may be served again.  They know and I know that shawls are not out of style.  I stay partly to understand how to knit a shawl and how to lend it.

 Painted at A Social Worker's Art Therapy Class
By Kathy
     Barbara offered Gary and I the chance to come and paint.  I was still working and couldn't usually come.  For Gary this class was reminder of a talent long laid neglected.  His painting of the Wallula Gap became a gift to his dear daughter, Marzieh, on her wedding day this year, which will be three years after his passing.  When I see these intense colors in his painting, they seem to have been inspired by a shawl.

Wallula Gap by Gary


Sunday, November 9, 2014

Spilling Paint 'n Bending Nails


     Who else would conceive of making a vintage cigarette machine into a bathroom mirror and cabinet, but a guy whose handyman calling card says “Spilling Paint and Bending Nails”?  On a sunny November day Rae began selling his accumulation of paint ‘n nails, saws ‘n pumps, levels ‘n blades and erstwhile machines of puzzling uses.  Rae won’t be without most of these, as he has many duplicates of them at the beach.  Flying kites at the ocean drew Peggy and him away from Walla Walla for longer and longer periods until his little house and shop sat quiet year-long.  His dearest, Peggy, passed away and the little house sat even quieter eyeing the road for Rae's return.  On Rae's visit this time, the little house was to be left behind for good.  The vintage cigarette vending machine cum bathroom mirror to be left behind.

    Rae shook old friends out of their routines, mixed in his house ‘n shop with its conglomeration of stuff, stirred them all into silliness, and poured out an estate sale of heroic, poignant and comic dimensions. 
Randy happened along a lent a hand and a ready smile.
     The shop needed some serious attention to get ready for the sale.  Randy, Jerry, Adam and Rae focused on the shop and the yard.  In a quiet moment  I wandered this shop with the light slanting in from the small windows, while the tools and surfaces seemed to speak of dignity, beauty and of a life of well-lived use.

Screwdrivers of many vintages
Saw blade
Shop essentials: bench, cigs and a hammer
     Outside the afternoon caught the warm colors on the items laid about on tables or tucked here and there.

Light case

Scraping tools
Paint Contraption
     How does one determine what to take and what to leave?  How does one paint this object with too much meaning to leave behind and that object to be brushed aside?  Difficult choices one after another.  The house held three generations of stuff.  Bomber jacket from World War II, Rae's grandmother's black bulldog, the brass vase that Rae's stepfather shot a bullet through, quilts, china, Valentine cards, sewing supplies and a handmade cedar chest.  Rae generously let his friends trade work for coveted items, keeping them then somehow in the "family".

Peggy's garden sculpture, now in my garden
    But where are those silly friends to help make light of the difficult choices, to laugh over the early yard sale nut who arrived at 6:20 a.m. for an 8:00 a.m. start, and whistled about for awhile as Rae woke up and then spent only 50 cents?  Oh, there are those friends.  Fooling around in slow moments with mirrors, strobe lights, rolling pins and curtains.  




Rae, Florene and Kathy

Rae decked out in a shop curtain bridal vail.  Becoming.
     The little house and shop chuckled at the sights, relieved that the warmth of all those years will be remembered now forever by a gathering of good friends, each carrying away something special that will remind them of Rae and Peggy and their little house and shop.

    It was a good home.  It was a good shop.  Bye.  Thanks little house and little shop.  And thanks Rae for inviting us to join you in this important endeavor.  We all know where to find you.  We will see you again.  Spilling Paint 'n Bending Nails.


Wednesday, November 5, 2014


Today I honored the one-year anniversary of the seven-month journey begun on November 6th, 2013 by painting from memory the landscapes of the places that I loved while traveling.  Land and scap are Dutch words for land and sea.  I saw both.  I loved both.  

     My memory of places rushed out onto the paper in bold colors, surely reflecting the intensity of the journey and it's life-changing qualities.  I stood and observed in stillness in each of these locales. Smiling.  Absorbing lines, colors and movement and painting them in the landscape of my mind.

     Neither the oranges of Mesa Verde nor the turquoise of Yosemite's rocks were ever colors that I would have used in paintings prior to this trip.  Now after returning home, I was surprised that watercolor washes weren't adequate to express the depth of beauty and the strong images stretching across my mind's eye.

Boston and it's harbor, Plymouth Rock bay, the dome in a  Montreal park, the trees on top of Mesa Verde,  a cliff house below on a creek and the mountains of Yosemite crossed by a ribbon of road.  I'm grateful, intensely, for the blessings of that journey.

      All followed by the moon and friends.   Thank you for continuing to join me.