Friday, December 30, 2005

Mistakes Make Great Jokes

We had a little meltdown this morning, followed by a good laugh. Today would have been Mom and Dad’s 36th anniversary, and this morning when she saw Dad’s white Cadillac out in front where I parked it when we arrived last night, she remembered a family joke.

Mom and Dad got married in Reno on what they thought was New Year’s Eve. (This morning I asked, “What, were you drunk?” Mom laughed. “No, just ditzy.”) So every year Mom would tell Dad happy anniversary on the 30th, and he would say, “Oh, I thought it was tomorrow.”

Morgan heard our teary giggling this morning over the growl of the bathroom fan, and asked what was going on. When we reminded her of the anniversary, she said, right on cue, “Oh, I thought it was tomorrow.”

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Eleven Minutes

Bud is standing at the stainless steel filter console, smoking, cigarette clamped between leathery fingers stained burnt sienna. (He tells me, laughing, that his white cat licks the nicotine off his knuckles.) Through the break room window I watch his murky exhalations rise and get snapped into the swift, hot current from the make-up air units, imagine the smoke being trundled through the great open space like a leaf in manic rapids, out the louvered vents at the far end of the plant.

He stabs the glowing screen and an automatic valve hisses, sealing off the influent flume to the filter. The filter will draw down for sixteen minutes, allowing most of the water trapped in the basin to move through the filter media and escape to the chlorinated clearwell, ensuring the other three filters will gain in level so their flow can feed the starved filter.

Sixteen minutes, another hiss and Travis and I bolt for the door, wrestle over the captain’s chair in the control room. Neither of us really wants a shot of stress in front of the computer, but the scuffle has become routine. This time I win; he settles into a chair beneath the window, starts in on a story. On the screen numbers are flashing, plunging, the flow rolling over into the negative.

The five-minute multiwash stage begins when a horizontal red slash on the tidy diagram of pipes and valves and tanks changes to green and tips on its end, “valve open.” In the same instant there is a rumbling beneath our feet and the blowers in the concrete basement roar to life, forcing streams of air through the layers of sand and anthracite in the filter bed, releasing trapped impurities into the clean water flowing backwards through the filter from its three counterparts.

My job in all this is to monitor the negative flow and trick the console. When the operating capacity is at winter lows, the flow of water from three filters isn’t enough to maintain a high enough pressure through the fourth to remove the trapped matter from the filters. On the hill beside the plant is the backwash tank, filled with treated, disinfected water. Because its floor is higher than the surface of the filter no pumps are required; the simple opening and closing of a valve controlled by the computer allows gravity to feed the filter. The computerized console operates on the assumption that there is sufficient water from the three working filters. I am there to make sure the console never realizes there isn’t by opening the backwash valve just enough to maintain a certain flow. If the console detects that there isn’t enough water, it will stop the backwash process (this would be a crisis). Too much pressure will wash the permanent filter media out to the waste lagoons with the backwash water.

After five minutes the blowers slam off and the six-minute air purge stage begins. The flow continues to be erratic and I stop listening to Travis, focus on the numbers, peaking and diving like a roller coaster, unpredictable. The flow drops; open the valve 18%. The flow rises; close it to 14%, 12%, 10%. When six minutes is up the valve hisses and the influent flume spills half-filtered water from the sedimentation basins into the newly cleaned filter. The slash on the screen diagram goes back to red, horizontal, and I enter ‘0’ and close the valve, finally relax.

In the ancient leather logbook (on the brand new cherry-veneer desk) I enter an average flow for each stage, calculate and enter the total (Multiwash: 3,600 gallons per minute x 5 minutes, Air Purge: 3,200 gallons per minute x 6 minutes= 37,200 gallons). Add to that the filter-to-waste amount, the gallons flushed to the lagoons before the filter is put back online, because the filter doesn’t function well until it has a small amount of debris in it (Filter to Waste: 500 gallons), and write the final total in the report that goes to the County water master. (He determines how much water the City can pull from the Bear River, balances the water rights of all the communities and ranchers along the line. We deduct the wasted, non-treated water from our total use.)

Each filter is different. Eight is well behaved and hardly needs any help, Six is a maniac, all over the place, Five does fine during the multiwash but goes nuts during the air purge, Seven is a weakling and needs the valve open at least 20% all the time. (Filters One through Four sit empty in the old plant, waiting.) The air valve sticks on Six and takes about thirty seconds to open when it’s cold in the main basin. Five fills back up the fastest. Eight gets a slimy polymer scum built up on top that has to be hosed off the walls when it draws down. Seven would rather not be washed, retaliating for the disturbance by putting out slightly higher NTU water for the first twelve hours afterwards. How often the filters get washed depends on how much water is being treated. Right now it’s every six days, at 1.7 million gallons per day (MGD). In July and August it’s daily, at flows upwards of 8 MGD.

If you're not running the computer during a filter backwash, you're out watching the water get clearer and clearer. I'll never get tired of watching it. In 25 days I will have been at the plant for a whole year, and I can hardly believe it. It seems like I’ve always known the scents and sounds, the temperaments of the pumps and valves, the daily routines and monthly sampling rituals. It seems strange to think that I could be this charmed by a world of concrete and brass and multicolored wires and three silly men that treat me like a kid sister, but I’ll enjoy it while it lasts.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Shock Value

What the heck should I wear to this?

Monday, December 26, 2005

I Can Make the Rain Go

I finished Accordion Crimes on Christmas day, and I give this systematically dog-eared paperback copy (pleated like a bellows itself, but not by me) about six months to live, owing to the number of times I predict rereading it and all the places I will drag it (stuffed into canvas tote bags labeled Wyoming Association of Municipalities), after I’ve loaned it to all the people I want to discuss it with, assuming they don’t already have their own copy. It’s one of those alchemical books that magically transform me into a better writer by the time I’m done absorbing them, their language and construction, their mistakes and brief brilliance. This one also apparently has the power to plunge me into an aggravated state of temporary depression. Thank God it no longer possesses the advantage of surprise.

I have to be honest and admit, however mentally ill it proves me, that the off-key, number one reason I enjoyed this book so much is this: the central character is an inanimate object. (No, it doesn’t tell its own story like that goofy toaster.) I am a person who gets severely attached to toys, shoes and clothes, ticket stubs, soup bowls, vehicles, buildings. I like to imagine where the things I encounter came from, how and why they were made, where they may go after I no longer have a use for them (assuming I can bear to get rid of them). How clever of E. Annie “Controversy is my Middle Name” Proulx to strew a sinister accordion’s linear path with the wrecked lives of dozens of remarkably screwed up people, fleshing out each era of the instrument’s tumultuous existence. The details are so biting, so outlandish or crude or hilarious in many places that the juicy tidbits Proulx throws in about people who are on the story’s stage for a mere instant are like surprise gifts.

I got Anne Rice’s CHRIST THE LORD: Out of Egypt (from Mom) and Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire (from RaeDell) for Christmas. The Broadway musical Wicked is based on Maguire’s book, and if the book is anywhere near as mind-blowing as the show, this is going to be another of my very dear favorites.

I’m happy tonight. (I need to obtain one of those absurd Internet mood gauges so you can check before you dig into a post, don’t I?) Christmas stress is behind me and turned out to be a trifle after all, the weather’s unseasonably kind (I’m sure we’ll pay for it), I’ve made an intriguing new friend, I have hot water on demand, and there’s a new Playstation 2 in the family. If I could just get more than four hours of sleep at least three nights in a row, I’d have the world on a string.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

In Case You Were Worried

I'm good, really, honest. By the time I went to bed Friday night I was starting to feel pretty good about the world again. (Everything was wrapped, and Mr. Goodwrench brought me Cheetos, chocolate milk, and The Lion in Winter, and when does that cheeky Glenn Close not improve my mood?) By 2:00 a.m. I thought I was dying (burst appendix, gallstones, kidney infection, my God why do I hurt so bad?) but I took a tylenol and imagined the ration I'd get from Jeff if I went to the ER and they found nothing wrong, so I slept with my cellphone under my pillow in case I found the agony unbearable and had to call somebody to come haul me out to Evanston Regional. By morning it had subsided a little and it got better throughout the day and I got petted and fussed over, so now I'm going to bed with the microwaved rice pack on my gut and hot water with lemon. In the morning I'll clock in at 7:00 and do the lab work and the daily rounds, check the blasted broken UV, and cuddle up with some hot cocoa until my family comes to rescue me with decks of playing cards for Nertz. Plus I have some enthralling correspondence to attend to, this evening's pleasant memories to turn over, and tomorrow evening to enjoy.

Dang, I have to get up in five hours. Merry Christmas, everybody.

Friday, December 23, 2005

A Watched Pot Never Boils

I woke up in an abysmal mood, wallowing in doubt and self pity, hungover from salt (never liquor, but alfredo sauce sure could be the death of me) and afraid to open my eyes. Somewhere when fall turned to winter I lost my grip on things, on determination, the summer's serenity (maybe you noticed, maybe I didn't make it evident). I hate being in my twenties, long for anything but this irresolute decade, this aimlessness, this hopeless confusion, daily giving up old dreams, nightly picking up vague new ones framed by apprehension and regret. I'm beginning to think I absolutely can't write fiction (admittedly, I haven't given it much of a try, but when I do it feels all wrong), and that all I'm good for is the relatively amusing detailing of my numbered days in this freezing outpost that feels like a dead end, albeit a pleasant enough dead end. But I had bigger plans than this and I find every day that I lose a bit more of the ambition and energy to pursue them. I dread this weekend, finding I'm flattened by grief I thought I cleverly evaded, so accepting, so optimistic, so well-adjusted. I'm drowning in frustration. I hate Christmas shopping, hate feeling obligated, trying to compare the value and usefulness of everything anyone gives me with what I dredged up for them, lacking last year's inspiration. Last year it was enjoyable and my thoughtful gifting was (as far as I know, and I have reason to believe) successful and appreciated. This year the thought of receiving things I'm sure I don't deserve dismays me. Christmas lights are blinding, carols are jarring, liquor is inviting, food tastes abnormal. My eyes are quick to tear and I feel weighted, bound, heavy. (My besieged Christmas Angel is doing her damnedest to save my Scrooged soul. She has far better weapons than Marley's translucent chains or the Ghost of Christmas Future's foreboding vignette: she has the Internet.)

I'm afraid I'm morphing again; it happens every time I'm unsatisfied with my life (or when a trying phase is finished, or when I find someone cut out of my life like an amputation, self-inflicted or unpredicted). A few small changes at first, then big ones, things I don't plan but discover one morning. A haircut, a tattoo, a month-long mood swing, stepping on the scale to find a few additional killing, hated pounds or looking in the mirror and finding whole curved dimensions peeled away so quickly that I look sick and bruised and angled. Discontent is the name of this game, The Twenties, a directionless existence (intermittently so enjoyable that I am brought to tears, but ultimately despairing), without a glowing horizon- that consolation of Christian faith- or the all-absorbing profundity of my own children and a home. I am too proud to worship a numbing elixir like Dad's faithful gin, too deliberate to spontaneously succeed, too attached and cowardly to make a clean break and find some far-flung place to start over in. I once felt that I was meant for something momentous; don't we all, at some stage, in some protected vault in our self-deceiving human brain?

I survived the worst to find a bright time, a short-lived respite of peace and possibility. Now what? The only option left to me is to do what I have always done: wait to stumble into greatness the way all good things have come to me (and they have, this is certain). I think I'm too lazy to really earn fulfillment, too steeped in the enjoyment of everyday life to sacrifice the time to create it. Someone recently accused me (concerned, encouraging) of having become complacent. God help me, I may have. One chance: I've recognized it.

I've wasted the day, pawned the morning reading a book containing a series of unfortunate people connected to a cursed button-box. (There was a brief mention of Grandma's friend Frankie Yankovic and I bawled into a quilted pillow, ended in admiring the pieced symmetry of the sham.) I'm going to receive heaps of unwarranted sympathy and solace tonight from someone who doesn't know how to be unkind to me. I don't always feel what I've been compelled to write today; I'm a genuinely happy person 99% of the time. But I have my moments, and this has been one hell of a year. I'm tired and worn. Maybe I'm expecting too much of myself, maybe I'm trying too hard. Maybe a reeking pouch of ground henna isn't going to change my life, but it's going to change my hair color for a month and a half. Maybe I'll wake up tomorrow ready for the festivities at the luxe rural home of my brother-in-law's sister, who dropped me on my head (onto a plush lawn) from her back when I was four. My knee-high striped sock came off somehow, and it was all I cared about. I remember wailing, "my sock, my sock!" and gripping handfuls of the fragrant, pliable Kemmerer grass while Morgan tried to console me. I suppose I was fine when the sock was restored. If only life were that simple now.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Assorted Observations

Before our concert tonight, I walked out of the room where two dozen eight-year-olds were tuning violins (you can't imagine it unless you've lived it) and thought that, for some reason, the herd of people entering the auditorium looked extremely familiar. It turns out they were. They were my family; more than half a dozen cousins loaded up in the Varley bus and came to see little ol' me scratch her way through Le Danse de les Mirlitons and The Russian Sailor. I was so glad to see them I cried and smudged my eye liner, and I didn't even care. They are so precious to me, and getting moreso every day. I love their conspicuous politeness (in this town of uncivilized slobs) and their obvious enjoyment of each other, and they generated enough admiration and encouragement for three of me. Angie was a special treat, home from college in Colorado for the holidays. She's learning to play the cello (among other things), and it's fun to have someone who understands the trials of moving to a fussy, fragile string instrument from the hardy and mellow trombone.

Grandma's little brother Pete (last of the five Bertoncelj children: Frank, Angela, Andy, Molly, and Pete) passed away in Omaha today at the age of 91. More about this later, but the synopsis involves a great deal of commiseration and confusion. Is it harder to lose someone you've had around longer? I can imagine it being so. It's obviously a very individual thing. But I have lots and lots of heartfelt sympathy to pass on to his immediate family (my cousins), and the usual regrets. Pete was a legendary storyteller and, as with Grandma, I didn't make the effort to listen close.

I ordered Bud a basketball book for Christmas but will have to drop it by his house. I toyed with the idea of getting him a novelty wine glass that holds the whole bottle, but I'm afraid he'd find it useful. A gift certificate to Kate's would have been okay, too, but there was never a time to go pick one up. He's always there.

I'm about 45% grinch as of 11:40 this evening, down from yesterday's 72%. Jo said Don is sitting up on the edge of the bed, gesturing obscenely that he wants the feeding tube out, and enduring dialysis with a sly sense of humor that is making him the darling of the stoic nursing staff. I managed that nasty run of notes at the end of Mozart's Magic Flute tonight, and I'm a little more than elated. I'm also utterly exhausted and probably dehydrated, and I think it would be sort of nice if I could just sleep through Christmas.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Don't Mince Words

Succinct is not my middle name. (Good thing, too, because then my initials would be... well... you know.) Anyhow I can't seem to master brevity; it's like I'm cursed, fated to overdo. And there's a distinct possibility that I'm addicted to adjectives. Ten points for me for plowing ahead, anyway.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Where Are You, Christmas?

My next read comes highly recommended by people I didn't know actually read novels. Quién sabía? It's always nice to be surprised. I couldn't stand it; I got Accordion Crimes, and I'm losing a lot of sleep and a bit of vehemence.

I had six Cokes with rum in four hours Friday night and a 16 oz. slab of Lynn's shocking prime rib. I won a bike race t-shirt and $20 in ChamberBucks (which can only be spent at participating Evanston retailers) in the door prize drawing. I wore a lot of teal sequins, four-inch heels and mink eyelashes. It was all great, but it wasn't the same without Jo and Don. Jo would have loved Perv the Elf, who Bud introduced us to at Kate's. ("Have you been naughty... or nice?") I carried Perv around half the night, squeezing his little felt hand to make him say crass things and get a little plastic hard-on. ("Wanna touch my lump of coal?") It was nice to have K&M along for the ride; last year Daisy went into labor and pushed out six chocolate Labradors the night of the Christmas party, so Morgan spent the night on a cot in the basement, occasionally trailing her restless girl into the backyard to catch puppies before they hit the snow.

Mikey looked pretty good Friday night for a man with aggressive bladder cancer. Mikey was my boss at City Hall and probably the first direct supervisor of my entire work history that I liked in the least (and it turned out I adore him). He's big and goofy, cheerful and patient, and my only real art patron; I've painted a sunset
lake (with a campfire and fishing tackle) on an oar, a trout on a mousepad and an apple platter for him. In the summer he walks the streets of Evanston in Bermuda shorts and Hawaiian shirts, and I have a snapshot of him grilling hamburgers in the parking lot behind City Hall with a blue Wal-Mart bag on his head to protect him from the raging blizzard. Mikey will be okay. He has a great family and strong faith. I want to demand that someone tell me why all these horrible things are happening to the best people. Good news from LDS Hospital: Don is making progress. He's down to just the feeding tube and responding "appropriately," whatever that means. Dirk came out of his ICU room this morning and said, "I think I've got my dad back." That's good enough for me. I understand it's a long road ahead, but I'll take what I can get. Barry and Wendy were also at Kate's Friday; Barry's enjoying his new job up in the Jonah Field. When Dave came out of the restroom and saw him, he picked him up and spun him around like one would a little girl. Apparently Barry's lost ten pounds.

I'm done Christmas shopping, which means my favorite part can commence: the wrapping. (Home stretch, baby!) I never expected to be affected in the least by Faith Hill's cloying and annoying soundtrack offering from the Disney Grinch flick, but at four'o'clock on Friday I got fairly tear-stained thinking that this year, I could make a very convincing Cindy Lou Who. (Button nose? Check. Holiday reluctance? Check.) You know the lines that got me (lucky you if you don't): "My world is changing / I'm rearranging / Does that mean Christmas changes too?" Ouch- a little too close to home, thank you very much. I may not be a prepubescent Who, but I'm still looking for a new meaning in the holidays. Maybe it's time to begin that long-postponed spiritual journey. If that's the case, I'm sure I'll be looking for guidance in the most unexpected places. Consider yourself warned.

One Thing After Another

I'm sharing the first fifth of the email my poor mother sent to my sister and I today because it's so typical of her entire life (and because she's so funny). Few people could display more grace and humor after coping with almost 60 years' worth of this kind of day. Few people make better use of exclamation points, either. I've added clarifications in [ ].

Hi Girls,

What a week!!! Started out great, was getting all kinds of things done and then ZOWIE!, the Christmas devil hit. Aside from running out of time (who shortened the month?), the unexpected keeps getting in the way (and if this stupid keyboard sticks today, it goes out the back door and you won't get this email). I got allll the stuff ready for the Pinedale trip, called Rose and went out to start the car. Nothing. Borrowed Donna's truck for a jump and still nothing. Decided it was the starter, called Rose - cancelled the trip, called Eric for advice - take a hammer to the starter. What? Sometimes when it is this cold [ten to twenty below zero on average overnight in LaBarge] and they are getting weak [like the Buick's], they'll freeze up and a good whack with a hammer will loosen things, he said. Okay?? I don't even know where the starter is!!! (nor did the girls). Called Guy [Dad's best friend and Mom's employer, you might say] (who has been swamped since Brent is off to SLC with Suzie's dad in the hospital and Mike is off having his truck fixed) - when you go for coffee, come show me where the starter is. We have two pickups gathering dust - you can take one of them. I'll bring it down. An hour later Sharon [Guy's wife] arrives with the pickup toasty warm, so it had been running awhile - Guy had to dash to Evanston. Call Rose - I'm on my way - do you have jelly jars I can borrow? For a cranberry relish and cran - jalapeno chutney - actually yummy. Finally off to Pinedale, lunch at the house. Bo [Rose's ailing, elderly Manx cat, who sometimes boards with Mom, who feeds him the cantaloupe and green beans he loves and just plain spoils him rotten] is good, check out the new dollar store (typical) [BIG thing in Pinedale, a town of 1,200- a new 99¢ store] and get ready to head home. I'm at the door when the most eerie sound comes from under the window. Thought a little kid was hurt. Seconds pass - she yells Bo! as she dashes behind the coffee table under the [Christmas] tree and grabs him by the scruff. He threw up under the coffee table and there were pine needles in it! Dumb cat. Called when I got home and she said she didn't know if he'd make it through the night (doomsday speak) - but he was fine as we talked [Bo is almost always fine, and Rose is something of a pessimist- I often think she's just afraid to expect too much. My cats have ingested and passed pine needles, sewing needles, rubber bands and yards of synthetic raffia without so much as a twitch]. So I'm late home so Deena is late for Xmas program in BP. Forgot the jelly jars at her house and all the stuff for the Kids Shoppe [Pinedale's Christmas charity, of sorts: people donate tasteful items in good shape for small kids to "buy" for family members, teaching them the joy of giving at Christmas and not just the joy of a mountain of toys] is still in my bedroom - went off without it. Brain cramp.

There's more- much more, but you get the idea. Mom is the kind of person everything little thing happens to, but she never, ever complains, except to make light of it to her girls, which seems to make it all better. Her emails make me laugh so hard sometimes that I have to forward them to people who have no idea what she's talking about, just because she's so... Mom. There's no one quite like her. I've toyed with the idea of developing a comic strip based on her for years, but I think it's already been done- see Lynn Johnston's For Better or For Worse. I thought you might get a kick out of her. I sure do.

Blyth & Fargo


Christmas at the Machine Shop

Uinta County Courthouse



Thursday, December 15, 2005

Gender Bender

I would know the larger of my two cats was a male even if I hadn't taken him to the vet to have his berries removed the first week he lived with me, because he makes such a huge show of pawing the wall after he's used the litterbox, instead of actually moving any sand, much less covering his business with it. Kitty gets in after with an offended, fussy air and covers it up for him. That's how I would know Kitty is a female- that and the fact that all he has to do to piss her off is look at her.

While gathering reading material for the short ride to Britan's Christmas program in the valley yesterday, I dropped a paperback book on my rumpled bed, next to a blob in the covers. The blob said, "meow?" so I poked it, and it growled. That made me poke it again because it was funny, and every time I poked it, it meowed. After poking out the rhythm to Jingle Bells, I lifted the top blanket and found Kitty peering out, pupils dilated, her orange and black fur a spiky, static crop. She was cuddled up to my rough but incredibly warm heirloom Hudson Bay wool trapper's blanket, the one Grandma embroidered her initial on (in green floss, a block 'M' so it wouldn't be confused with her sister Angela's). I couldn't blame Kitty. I put the coverlet back down and poked the blob again. It hissed, so I buried it with throw pillows.

Smoke and Mirrors



Tuesday, December 13, 2005

State of Bliss

I just washed my dishes in my own kitchen, in my own sink, in water so hot that the outer layer of skin on my fingertips is sure to peel off (I was always going to be a thief, because as a child I never had reliable fingerprints- my hands shed like a snake in this arid climate and I was always in the water). The hot water came from my faucet, without me having to launch a clandestine operation around the back of the house and down into the cellar. I haven't enjoyed housework this much since I was ten years old, when Grandma would ask me to do the dishes (on Topaz Street) and I would pretend I was Cinderella. Now I have to go to orchestra with prune-wrinkled fingers and a really sparkly ring. Some nameless plumber is my hero.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Wonder of Wonders

Yesterday Morgan and I made a pilgrimage to Utah to see Jo and do some holiday shopping. I knew the moment Jo hugged me that she was hanging by a thread. Jo is in no way a hugger. (I knew it Friday morning, too, when I finally got hold of her on the hospital phone, and she said with a tearful falter I have never heard in her dear raspy voice, “Oh Adriane it was so scary. I had to hear them holler clear and they took me into a room that looked like a chapel.” I’m still wondering which staff member’s misguided idea that was. Religious surroundings don’t comfort everyone, and may falsely indicate to traumatized family members that a patient is already beyond human help.) Her daughter Deede spotted in Jo’s hand the only remotely useful thing I could think to bring, a big box of her beloved almond Crunch’n’Munch, and remarked, “You sure know your girl, don’t you?” I do. I know for a fact that crusty, scrappy Jo is scared to death. I know that she’s weary and apprehensive, but hopeful, and I knew when she saw me that she was glad we came. And I know it kills her to go into the room where big, bear-like Don is lying, connected to a smorgasbord of equipment, because whenever he recognizes her through his drug-induced stupor, he indicates (if his arms are not strapped down) that he wants her to get the hoses and tubes and needles the heck out of him. He recognizes other people, his handsome son Dirk and feisty daughter Deede and his doppelganger brother Bob. He squeezes their hands (tight enough to crush them) when they ask him to, and then drifts back off to sleep. The doctors aren’t worried about his heart or the stint, but the other organs that took such a brutal hit when he had the second, massive heart attack (luckily already in the ER), his liver and kidneys and brain. They have no timeline for Jo, no definite prognosis, nothing but a terrible, winging expanse of touch-and-go days in the ICU. So Jo sits in the waiting room surrounded by family and a constant stream of friends, recalling hilarious, happy memories of Don and desperately hoping for at least a few more.

It seems odd to think of Don as just a collection of bones and organs, because he has so much sheer presence. It’s not just that he’s so big, like Dad was; like Dad, there’s something I can’t put my finger on, almost like the strength of his character emanates from him- in Don’s case, his intense goodwill and curiosity, impishness and energetic industry. I love just being in a room that Don is in, watching him when he doesn’t realize it, especially when he’s concentrating hard on something mechanical, on a Jazz game, or on Jo’s lips (which he reads because he doesn’t hear very well- too many years around loud equipment). I often think that the essence of love is the way Don looks at Jo when she doesn’t know it, with a beautiful blend of adoration and exasperation, like he may never figure her out but loves trying. A lot of Evanstonians are making the excursion to the LDS hospital on the hill west of the Avenues, tucked against the shoulder of the Wasatch Mountains. So many people love Jo and Don. I am lucky to count myself among them.

Yesterday was the ticket, too, to reviving my gaunt and listless holiday spirit. I spent the day shopping with Bing and the original family Christmas Angel (who gamely convulses me every five minutes with her witty, sisterly silliness), and I found a real holiday miracle to fervently wish for this year: Don’s complete and swift recovery.

LDS Temple from Capitol Hill

SLC Capitol

LDS Temple




Frost on Back Door

Snow in Evanston

Wasatch from Parley's


Sunday, December 11, 2005

The Absurdities of War

Most average people have to make a few sacrifices in order to live as inexpensively as possible. They do this so they can afford to spend more on recreation, hobbies, and addictions, save up for a home, or perhaps so they can pay off debt. I am an extreme example. I occupy half the basement of a large and venerable house that was long ago converted to six apartment units, and I enjoy telling people that my rent is $225.00 a month, which includes utilities. You can't get your basic costs much lower than that in any region of the U.S. unless you move back in with the 'rents. Part of the reason I live in this charming dump is that it's hard to find rental properties that accept my two cats, but the main thing is that I'm being thrifty for the reasons stated above. My lifestyle, however, is not for the faint of heart.

I run an extention cord from inside to plug my truck or car in (whichever I anticipate being the most useful the next day), and being paranoid, I roll it up every morning and hang it in the stairwell. Every wall and baseboard I try to scrub crumbles due to water damage and an old termite problem. My plants sit clustered around one of three small, high windows that let in a surprising amount of afternoon light. I have to kick my door to get out and cuss to get in. I have no counter space, and no three-prong outlets; I have installed adapters, but one of these days the ancient wiring is going to fail. I have separate faucets for hot and cold in the bathroom sink, and most of the shower walls are now silver duct tape. The pump that moves the heated water around to heat the house occasionally makes an intolerable racket, and one of these days it's going to go kaput. If the high school kid who mows the grass doesn't replace the five-foot drain pipe that carries the roof drainage away from the house and out into the center of the lawn, the water flows directly into my living room window. This has happened twice. I have no concrete sidewalk to my front door, which means that the snow drifts three feet deep between me and the street and freezes to a sheet of ice where it gets walked on very often. This year I'm sprinkling icemelt on my path, which means that the high sodium content is going to kill a strip of the pathetic, patchy lawn. So, no big deal. And please understand, I'm not actually complaining. My home is cool in the summer and warm in the winter, very quiet 99% of the time, and since I'm fairly adept at interior design, it's tremendously cozy. In fact, I'm getting very attached to it.

The string of temporary tenants marches by overhead while Dean and I remain comfortably ensconced underneath. Dean and I almost never speak, but it's hard not to feel close to someone when you hear almost every intimate aspect of their daily routine. We each have private entrances, and our only shared wall is the one between my bathroom and who knows what part of his apartment, and the rest of our units are separated by the boiler room, which suits me just fine. Dean smokes constantly, a cheap and ghastly brand. I have a difficult time keeping my sink plugged so his secondhand smoke doesn't creep into my kitchen through the pipes, and I've filled every reachable crevice between us with Space Invader foam from Cazin and Houtz Hardware on Front Street. I've taped all the gouges in my shower closed where termites once chewed through the particle board behind the flimsy laminate, but I can still hear Dean coughing in the typical phlegm-laden style of a lifetime chainsmoker. Sometimes near the end of the month he runs out of money for cigarettes and I get a short reprieve. I don't have the guts to tell him his secondhand smoke is increasing my cancer risk by 50%. I just retaliate by watching British comedies at all hours and practicing the violin.

But two weeks ago, Dean stopped coughing, and in the exposed pipes in my kitchen and bathroom I could hear water running nonstop for days. I thought for sure he was a goner. Turns out I was wrong. When I went to pay my scant rent on the 2nd I mentioned my suspicion to Mary, who blanched. "Don't say that!" Before I could apologize, she wailed, "I don't want to imagine having to clean his apartment!" She explained that in one of the units on the top floor, the hot water had been running in the bathtub for days, and the residents in the other units had alerted her. She called the tenant and asked if she was experiencing plumbing problems. "Oh, it's just a drip in the tub," said the fool, which everyone knows (by the constant rush in the pipes and lessened hot water pressure and supply) is not the case. Mary identified the problem as one common in older houses, a broken gasket that shuts off the faucet's flow. "I've got a plumber on the way," she assured me, but the water continued to flow, until Wednesday night when I came home to find no response from the hot water tap at all. The next morning I called her from work to complain. "I know it's off," she said. "I shut it off. The gas bill is going to be outrageous." She had told everyone who was home, but didn't bother to leave a note for me. Luckily I have my own restroom at the plant with an ivory-tiled, chrome-plated shower in it, a Rec center membership (a last resort- the showers are just sick), a key to Jo's, and my sister lives in town. I figured the plumbing problem couldn't last much longer, now that it was an emergency. Two days passed. Mary called me Friday night. "Would you consider turning the hot water on and off certain times of the day? I can't get a plumber." I thought of all the men I have faith in and offered Jeff's services, Mr. Goodwrench's, Kelly's, anybody's. "It's something Kathy [the owner of the property] knows how to fix, but I hate to have her come all the way from Salt Lake to do it." (It's a measly hour-and-a-half drive to Salt Lake, and her tenants have no hot water. What's wrong with this picture?) She said she thought she could get the man who rents the whole house next door to do it; he's renovating the bathroom in that house (which seems odd, but I know about improving a rental property, believe me. It took $200.00 and four people a whole month to make this place livable, but it's paid for our trouble several times over). But today there's still no change, so, being a fairly proactive person, this afternoon I crept into the terrifying cellar behind my kitchen wall (down a staircase in the back) and turned the red rubber-covered valve handle. I ran back in before anyone else could discover it and took the hottest shower I could stand, washing my hair until it squeaked, standing in the stinging downpour until I couldn't take anymore. I left it on for everybody else until I got home tonight, and I assure you, I will never go back there after dark again. I'll have to turn it back on in the morning, and I might let it run all day; serves Mary right for being ridiculous, having to explain the gas bill to Kathy. I thought tonight as I turned it back off: I hope somebody's in the middle of a shower, and I hope it's the kid in the silver Impala who always parks facing the wrong way, stomps up the stairs at 3:00 a.m. and shot off fireworks in the yard at 8:00 a.m. the day I wanted to sleep in.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Don Update

They put in a stint and as of 7:00p.m. last night, he's okay.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

A Plea

I'm holding my breath for Don tonight, and Jo. They flew Don on Life-Flight to the Salt Lake City hospital at 6:00 a.m. this morning, after restarting his heart. Nobody's heard anything since. I can't imagine a world without Don. He pulls my hair and fixes my bike tires and cups his hand around his ear when I talk to him. He hides his banned cigarettes in the obliging pockets of his cargo pants, and his smiles are worth a thousand words. He never hugs, just claps you hard on the shoulder with a big paw. Oh God, let Don be okay. Jo needs him. I need him. Please don't take him away.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Fortress of Solitude

I had a ruthless weekend. I felt ambushed at every turn, blindsided by bad luck and betrayal and depression. I finally got around to watching Love, Actually, which I’ve wanted to see for a year. It was lighthearted and fairly witty and enjoyable, and I loved the cast. (I have long suspected that Liam Neeson is the only living celebrity that would cause me to have a nervous breakdown if I met him on the street. But I’m forgetting Christopher Walken.) I felt like a few things just weren’t wrapped up by the end of the film. Still, I think we’ll get it for Mom. She’ll adore the prime minister’s goofy disco sequence and the octopus costume.

The Cadillac is surprisingly sure-footed on snow and ice. I forget that it has twice the power and probably weighs nearly twice as much as my truck; I shouldn't be so surprised. It plows through drifts and crunches over ice boulders like a tank, and it makes me feel safe.
Winter has never hurt me this bad, knocked the joy out of me like a physical blow. It’s all sharp edges and bitterness and long periods of dark. After the emotional desolation of the weekend I don’t really care if Christmas comes or not. It might have something to do with Dad and Grandma, and not only Friday's holiday-related disagreement. I keep finding things I was going to give Grandma and Dad for Christmas, little stuff I’d squirreled away early in the year, just silly things to make them smile. Neither of them really needed anything. Mom took such incredible care of them that there was never anything to want for, except time and attention, and I feel like I did at least give that. I'm putting off sending the few Christmas cards I bother with, because I know I'll have to say something about the year. What is there to say? I can’t even seem to induce the holiday spirit with shopping and music and memories. And I know I’m not going to bother decorating, which makes me want to cry. Doesn't it feel like we just did all this?

I'm honestly working on adjusting my attitude. I'm neglecting the fiction blog I started with such energy, opting to read, instead. Reading keeps me sane and gives me hope. And I almost wish I had a friend devoted and willing enough to cut off my trigger finger, one strong enough to cement my faith, one able to hold my attention for years and years. But of course, I have my mother. I called her on her cellphone a few nights ago (desperate for the counseling and sympathy only she can give) and during our conversation she momentarily "set me down" on the counter while she checked a friendly roughneck into the motel and then answered a phone call. I could hear everything going on in the cozy office she's probably decked out with the vintage decorations she's hauled from home to home for decades. I can't adequately praise her personality; I know this. So it has to be enough for you to try and imagine the feeling I get when I hear her interacting with other people, which may only be possible if your mother is or was as good a parent as mine, or if you know Mom, whose name is Trudy Kay (named for her maternal grandmother Jedert, or Gertrude). Mom's voice is magic. It's welcoming and low and musical, and hearing her talk in her kind, confiding, friendly tone is like a tonic. It doesn't matter what she says (in her lovely, perfectly proper English). She always sounds like the person she's addressing is the most important person in the world, and you get the feeling she would do anything to put them at ease, which is generally the truth. My mother's people, who are absolutely fantastic people (not fanatically churchy, not drunks, not judgemental or nosy or aloof; but enthusiastic and interested and happy, supportive, caring, able, and intelligent and simply, certifiably great) often tell me she's the best of them. Being a bit biased, I am inclined to agree.

But I got sidetracked; I was talking about reading.
I finished A Widow for One Year weeks ago and I’m still trying to forget the scene where the heroine wakes one morning with her husband dead beside her. It forced me to think of Mom, and that April day I will never forget. I read the other day about a fictional, autobiographical account of Jesus’ life that Anne Rice has just wrapped up. In the interview she mentioned “career suicide,” and I thought how brave she is. I read Colleen McCullough’s The First Man in Rome again, and though it fails to spellbind me the way The Thorn Birds always will, it’s well researched and expansive and filled with the everyday details that make her writing so appealing to me. I read some more Annie Proulx (still seeking the secret of her acclaim, but maybe I’m just too close to her subject matter) and some manga, and the latest from Lemony Snicket, because I got tricked into reading the first few and now I have to find out how the Series of Unfortunate Events ends. He's really dragging this on, if you ask me. But I enjoy how he continually tries to convince the reader not to finish the book. Maybe I should take his advice.

Jeff, who speaks in a local Hillyard dialect that early on I frequently had to ask him to translate, seems to have invented a word that I propose adding to the dictionary. The word is "conscue," and in Jeff's usage it means that someone has pulled one over on him or that there has been a miscommunication (of which he is the victim); one might say it's a blend of conceal and skew. "Them engineers sure can conscue the truth." The first time he used it, Travis and I looked at each other and dove for the dictionary. It’s not in there, but I’ve Googled it and it turned out to be French. With my limited French I can't divine what it means to them (which is unusual), but I’m enjoying Jeff’s version. I even added it to my spellchecker. I hope this doesn't give anyone the impression that Jeff is not intelligent; he's extremely logical and resourceful. He just talks like a rancher, and I like him exactly the way he is.

I was sitting with my back against a tiled wall
the other day, talking to Travis while I watched him mop the floor of the men's room. It struck me that I spend a considerable amount of time in the men's room; there's only one key to the stainless steel tissue dispensers, and I'm forever having to go in there and get it. Also, we only have one mop and bucket, so we take turns using it, and I sometimes mop the men's, if Travis is doing something else. I've gone in there to fetch rubber boots and work gloves from lockers, hunt down the Clorox or Lime-A-Way, and witness a plumbing issue that culminated in lithe little Jeff having to squeeze through what appears to be about a fourteen-inch-square hole in the wall (I've never measured it, but I'm pretty good at eyeballing things like that). So I'm not uncomfortable in the men's room, but I'd never want to have a coed biffy; I love having one all to myself. Last week I stooped to using the one at Wal-Mart (which was mercifully empty and fairly clean) and forgot to latch the stall door behind me; I never do it at work, because there's nobody but me. It's amazing how many things become so habitual that you do them automatically. I hope it never causes a problem.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Light my Fire

I don't care what the experts say (and they insist that there is potential damage to our circulatory and nervous systems); I love external sources of heat. I love hot baths with oil, and hotsprings and saunas and whirlpools, hot water bottles, electric blankets, bonfires, and heated leather car seats. I love tanning beds (but not often enough to actually color) and standing in front of the radiant heaters in the old plant until I feel like the skin of my face might melt like a plastic doll's. I love morning showers so hot my knees and shoulders turn blotchy red, and using the blowdryer to dry my damp gloves with my hands still in them. I love wrapping my hands around a ceramic mug full of something too hot to drink and leaning into the steam. I love wool (socks, sweaters, coat, hat, scarf), and flannel shirts and Polartec gloves. I love sticking my ice cold feet under the warm bodies of my sleeping cats (they resent me for it) and I love napping curled up to something, someone warm: man or child or dog. I love those little under-desk heaters and I love the handheld infrared beam Bill gave me to press against the knotted muscles in my lower back. I love putting clothes on straight out of the dryer. I love my down comforter, even though it crackles, and I love the small velour bag full of dry rice that I put in the microwave every night and then transfer from frozen extremity to frozen extremity until I fall asleep. I love any place drenched in sunlight: backseats of cars with dark upholstery, a wide black trampoline in a green backyard, hammocks stretched between trees, gabled dormers (with square, solid cakes of sunshine coming in), desert sand, concrete that could fry eggs, and gooey asphalt, melting black. I love the deck of a pool under noon sun in August, sprawling on a dark towel to attract more heat to myself. Mary used to say I might bake myself. "I just don't like to be cold." I was not made for the cold.

I got carded at Kate's tonight by an overzealous girl with braces. I shook my head and said I wasn't staying. I was sick of the crowds already, and I didn't want to go home smelling like smoke. I haven't smelled cigarette smoke in my apartment for three days now, and somewhere in the house (there are six units), water has been running for three days non-stop. I haven't heard Dean's loathsome smoker's hack through the wall, either, and I have come to the conclusion that he died and left the water on. I don't have the guts to knock on his door. Besides, it would mean going outside, and I don't want to get cold.