Just-In-Time is for suckers…

My grandparents were products of living through a Depression and a couple of world wars in the heart of what was then Appalachian coal country. They picked of some quirky habits that I always attributed to being young during those times.

The minor eccentricity I remember clearly was my grandmother’s insistence on using a tea bag well past the point where it would just barely turn a cup of hot water vaguely tea-colored. Another was the jar of soap slivers that would eventually be re-pressed into a “new” multi-hued bar of soap. Waste not, want not, I suppose.

In the basement, though, through the door that separate the finished part from the rest, in the far corner was a room that wasn’t quite cold enough to be a fruit cellar and not quite finished enough to be a walk-in closet. That room was where the canned goods were stockpiled. If it was a food product they put in a can any time between 1965-1990, I have to believe you could find it in there. As late as the early 1990s, I’m absolutely sure I saw cans come out of that room with “best by” dates in the early 70s. No one ever died of food poisoning from a home cooked meal there, so I don’t suppose any of it was the worse for wear.

Having come of age myself in the halcyon days of Regan-era plenty, as a kid I never quite understood the virtue of having a room full of canned goods. After living through the dawn of the Great Plague, though, I feel like I’m starting to understand the undeniable beauty of having large stacks of things that could become unexpectedly scarce.

And now that it’s coming back in stock, it’s why over the last few weeks I’ve been making sure I’ll never again be caught with less than 100 rolls of two-ply Charmin.

As if I needed any more proof that my inner child is a slightly eccentric 75-year-old man.

The smell of summer…

There’s a certain smell in the summer. Maybe in my mind it’s actually the smell of summer. 

It’s a smell of damp wood, sun-scorched earth, brackish water, salt marsh, and the slightest hint of creosote. It’s strongest, most potent in the high summer, just after the sun sets, maybe around 8:30 or 9:00. It’s a unique smell I only catch somewhere near the Bay after a blisteringly hot day with high humidity. On days when the weather is just right, you can feel it in the air as much as smell it.

This is the time of year I can smell it here at near the head of the Bay. I could smell it from the patio of my one-bedroom bunker in St Mary’s County, too. But the first place I smelled it was in Tracy’s Landing. It was a million years ago when I was a kid and summer was defined by “long” trips to my aunt and uncle’s house. It wasn’t more than three hours from home, but the drive then felt like it took forever. The flatlands of tidal Ann Arundel County might as well have been another planet from the ridges and valleys of far western Maryland.

It feels like that was lifetimes ago, now. More than anywhere else it was on these summer trips that I learned to love the Bay and the critters that dwell in, on, and near it. Those summer days were filled with buckets of corn distributed at a waterfowl sanctuary in Shady Side, picking fossils out of the creek out on the “back 40,” feeding Stormy and Hazy, the resident horses, gathering up vegetables for the night’s dinner out of the deep garden plots just a few hours before they were on the plate, trot lining blue crabs in the West River in a hand-made skiff, or chasing rockfish out on the “blue water” Bay in a proper work boat. There too, innumerable family events unfolded – back before family got too damned weird.

All these years later and I remember it all with stunning clarity thanks to something as completely ephemeral as a smell I can’t quite describe.

Emoting…

I’m not a towering example of modern, overly emotional masculinity. I’m good at anger and its derivatives. I can even pull of contented without much trouble. The various subtile shades separating those two poles, though, mostly fall into the category of things that must be jammed down and best left unobserved by the outside world.

I had Maggie and Jorah out during my lunch break this morning. They were mostly out lazing around the yard – occasionally ginning up enough interest to chase off an intrusive bird or butterfly. Mostly they were content to lay around. I just happened to be looking in the right direction when Jorah plopped his chin down on Maggie’s back as they laid there in the sun. For the briefest of moments, it wasn’t Jorah I was seeing, but my dear old Winston. They’d laid in the same position for hours in the yard, looking out the sliding door, or piled together on the living room floor. It was the kind fo thing I’d seen a thousand time over the last ten years – but not once in the last six months.

It took my breath away.

At least it did before some dust or grit happened to blow into my eye and I had to struggle mightily not to make a spectacle of myself to any of the retired neighbors who happened to be nosy enough to wonder what I was doing home on a Monday. Even so, there may have been a little bit of emoting.

Winston’s been gone now almost seven months. The days are busy. The herd demands my attention. But there’s not a day that goes by when I don’t think of the snorting, shuffling bulldog who use to be with us. Most days now, it’s with a smile… though it turns out it can still be with big wet manly tears, too.

Asking…

People have a certain way of asking things that isn’t so much about getting permission as it is about telegraphing what they plan on doing. The thoughts of the person being asked are entirely secondary, because even when the answer is no, they assume that the answer is really yes, because that’s the answer they want to hear.

Most people are polite. They’ll let themselves be bullied into doing something that they don’t want or aren’t able to do just to avoid offending the person asking the question. I’m as guilty of going along to get along as anyone else. Sometimes putting up a fight just isn’t worth it.

On the other hand, sometimes the fight is that important. In those cases, I believe in standing my ground. I won’t be bullied, guilted, or otherwise manipulated into giving the wrong answer just because that’s the one someone wants or thinks that they somehow are entitled to hear.

There’s a long and wide stubborn streak running through my family and I’m willing to put up my share of that streak against all comers.

Specialists…

I’m old enough to remember taking the family dog to a vet who ran his practice out of a converted shed in his back yard. Treatment for most any ailment was a shot of antibiotics and a bland diet – his weapon of choice was boiled hamburger and rice. It was the middle 1980s and the very notion, at least in the mountains of western Maryland, that there should be anything remotely like a “specialty” vet didn’t cross any of our minds. Dogs got their rabies shot every 3rd year, ate table scraps mixed with their dry food, and all lasted for somewhere between 8 and 10 years.

Flash forward 30 years…

My bulldog, being typical of his breed, assembled an impressive roster of medical professionals on his “healthcare team.” Cardiologists, allergists, orthopedic surgeons, and anesthesiologists over the course of treating his many various conditions. My labrador, now into old age herself, has already acquired a opthmologist. In the coming weeks it’s likely we’ll add a radiologist, an oncologist, and a general surgeon to her list.

Veterinary medicine as it exists today – with the ability to diagnose and treat the family dog in a remarkably similar way to how how I’d be treated if I walked through the doors at Hopkins with the same symptoms – is a marvel. It’s also a money making juggernaught, but that’s a separate discussion. The practice I’m taking Maggie to this week in hopes of working up a final diagnosis and beginning outline of a treatment plan includes easily a thousand or more years of combined experience in emergency medicine, cardiology, dentistry, dermatology, radiology, neurology, oncology, and ophthalmology, in addition to maintaining six surgeons on staff. Their posted resumes are suitably impressive (yes, I’ve read them all). I’m cautiously optimistic that all this will translate into identifying what the best options look like for the road ahead.

I’m walking into this week with just enough knowledge based on internet deep diving and journal article reading to hopefully ask reasonably informed questions. I’ll be counting on this bunch to know the line between what science can do and what science should do. Don’t get me wrong here, I’m thankful that the state of the art has grown beyond crate rest along with boiled hamburger and rice, but there’s more than a little bit of me that misses simple, country diagnostics and treatment – and its inherent acceptance that the power of medical science to extend life has, and should have, logical limitations.


On the day after…

Yesterday was darkness, overcast and dreary. Then, as if the universe has some semblance of a sense of humor, just as dusk was coming on, it snowed for a while. Winston hated the snow. Given the arthritis and metric ton of metal in his leg, a natural aversion to the cold isn’t exactly shocking.

This morning, on the day after, was as bright and sunny a winter morning as you could hope to see. I won’t pretend that everything is ok or that I’ve even started adjusting to the new reality. There are still moments when loss is a deep, yawning chasm. Even with the rest of us in it, the house feels unnaturally empty for his absence. In the sunshine today, though, there were also moments of glimpsing what’s beyond all that. At least the big, manly, ugly cry sobbing has given way to a more manageable leaking about the eyes.

There’s not one second of the day I haven’t missed Winston’s slobbering, or the ponderous thump of his steps coming down the hall. Hell, I even started making breakfast for him today before catching myself and very nearly coming unglued.

Today I am immensely thankful for the long Anglo-Saxon tradition of quashing all the bad feelings and getting on with it – stiff upper lip and all that. The rest of my now diminished pack needs the best of me and the gods know that just now I need them more than ever.

100% American…

Look, so here’s the thing about Senator Warren and President Trump… I just don’t care. Arguing the finer points of an Ancestry.com DNA test makes you both look even more ridiculous than usual. That’s no small task given the two pols in question and yet the two of them have managed to yet again exceed exceptions… or is it that they found a way to nudge the bar just a little bit lower?

It doesn’t matter a lick to me if you’re 1/2 Sub-Saharan African, or 1/3 Anglo-Saxon, or 1/4 Pacific Islander, or 1/1024 Native American. Sure, I guess those are all fun factoids to trot out at parties but beyond that they’re mostly irrelevant. It’s the kind of differentiation that feeds into my general eye-rolling when someone defines themselves as Irish-American, or African-American, or Japanese-American. While interesting from the historian’s perspective, or for those who study mass migration, knowing where your 12x great grandparents came from is largely a “so what” kind of declaration. Congrats, your ancestors were Welsh shepherds. Here’s a cookie.

If you say you want to live in a country where people don’t judge or make assumptions based on your background, heritage, skin color, or ancestral place of origin, trying being “just” a plain old American. No hyphen needed. No percentage necessary. Just tell me you are an American and that’s all I need to know.

Just in case…

If you live long enough you’re sure to noice there are moments where you repeat habits and patterns of past generations. Resist as much as you want and there are some elements of your parent’s personality that are sure to come through lound and clear despite all protestations to the contrary. As much as the big story today should be that Fortress Jeff is now manufacturing hot air six percent more efficiently than I was when the day started that is, in fact, not the big story… even if the projected savings on electrical and propane changes alone would have rated a mention here.

I’m writing here tonight not to sing the glory of high efficiency HVAC systems, but because I caught myself squarely in the midst of following my father’s footsteps. You see, when I walked through to the kitchen to brew up another coffee, I noticed the demolished remains of the old furnace laying on the driveway. Next to the shredded metal carcass of the furnace was a stack of 3-inch PVC pipe, the former intake and exhaust, that had been cut into neat eight foot lengths ready for disposal. Being my father’s son, of course, I couldn’t let perfectly good PVC pipe get thrown away.

Despite the fact that I have never in almost 40 years had a situation where I though, damn I wish I had a 16 foot length of 3-inch PVC pipe handy, I went out to the driveway and toted the two lengths that were clean cut and without joints back into the garage and leaned them in the corner. I laid them up “just in case,” against a day that when I need just exactly 8 or 16 feet of pipe to take on some project here at the house.

These lengths of pipe join sections of trex and 1×2 that came off the access ramp that use to be in the garage, several coffee cans of mismatched screws, nails, bolts, and nuts, a few smallish squares of drywall, and some leftover tile that matches my kitchen floor. All of it is material in waiting – most likely for a project or requirement that will never come – but ready just in case.

What Doesn’t Annoy Jeff this Week?

What Annoys Jeff this Week is usually the place where I vent my spleen each week. Most of the time it’s easy enough to cull the “top three” things from the list and give them each a little paragraph of exposition. Some weeks, this one included, offer what I can only describe as an embarrassment of riches. In fact this week it would be easier to discuss the few things that have not annoyed me in some way.

1. The critters. Despite the bills for care, feeding, and entertainment, I can’t think of a time when I’ve ever begrudged one of my animals anything. Regardless of the stupidity going on “out there” beyond the four walls of the house, they’re consistent in their affection and pleasure at seeing me every afternoon. Even the cat. Walking through the door to be greeted by a wave of fur and slobber is the high water mark of each and every day.

2. Living rural. Every time I switch on the television I find myself faced with an endless amount of stupid things happening. For the most part that coverage is dedicated to the things happening in major cities here at home and around the globe. Now I’m tuned in to the local news outlets closely enough to know that there’s plenty of stupidity happening in Cecil County, too. Fortunately, my little corner of the place is remarkably serene. Now there may still be plenty of stupidity happening nearby, but we have the common decency to (mostly) keep in behind closed doors.

3. Blood. You don’t get to pick your family. What you end up with seems to be mostly be left up to the luck of the draw. Let me say that knowing that, I feel like I’ve been given a very fortunate hand to play. I’m looking forward to that rare opportunity of spending some quality time with them this weekend.

If there’s anything else you can think of this week, it’s safe to just go ahead and assume that it has annoyed me at some point.

Unexpectedly gone…

It doesn’t happen often, but there are some times, some moments, when I just don’t have the right words. Anything I manage to get down on the blank page feels somehow inadequate to the moment.

Saying a real goodbye is always a struggle. Saying a final goodbye almost beyond my weak capabilities. Since long before our written histories, honoring the dead was a task for the living. Maybe it should be hard to put those ideas into words. Maybe, at its core, goodbye should be something felt rather than something said.

Another of the too rapidly diminishing links to my youth is unexpectedly gone. My memories, though, remain – of summers spent “far away”, of learning to love the Chesapeake and those creatures that dwell on, in, and above its depths, of family in better times. Those memories remain and loom ever larger in my mind, making it that much harder to think of saying the inevitable goodbye.

As I’ve worked and reworked these few sentences tonight I keep coming back to a quote first heard long ago. One of our greatest warrior philosophers offered that “It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died. Rather we should thank God that such men lived.” While it may be foolish, I’ll mourn tonight – but I’ll also be well and truly thankful that such a man lived.

This world is a little less warm and its light a little less bright for his passing.