Fielding phone calls

The fortune I plucked from the fortune cookie that accompanied the Chinese food I ordered last night couldn’t have been more timely.

Some fortunes pack a punch.

I’ve always liked cracking open the crunchy shell to see what message awaits me. Most of the time, the wisdom offered has little direct relevance to my life. Other times, it seems like the fortune was hand-picked, slipped inside just for me.

During the past three-plus weeks, I’ve received close to 130 voicemail messages from my brother. He was released from a state mental hospital in Wyoming–where he landed after several months in a detention center and a judge’s ruling that he was incompetent to stand trial–on February 4. By February 5, the calls to my work phone were piling up. One night, I counted more than 60 calls, one left right after the other. As soon as the recording time ran out, my sibling hung up and called back to talk/rant/insult/manipulate/threaten some more.

At one time or another, all of us pick up the phone without looking at the caller’s ID or assume it’s someone we’re expecting to hear from only to find a spam recording on the other end. But my sibling’s calls are something else altogether.

He recounts events that happened 20, 30. 50-plus years ago, giving his “spin” on the memories.

He hurls demeaning accusations at anyone who has built a life that is better than his, which, unsurprisingly, is everyone he knows. My tolerance grew thin when he badmouthed my dad, who passed away more than three years ago, and laughed about our “poor mother who has Alzheimer’s.”

He denies multiple convictions for burglary, drugs, sexual assault, illegal possession of weapons, harassment, the list goes on. Somehow, he invents an explanation for these “mistaken” charges that assigns blame to another. In no circumstance, ever, does my sibling acknowledge his role in the seedy circumstances in which he finds himself again and again.

There’s much to say about why my brother acts as he does and why he denies the presence of numerous mental illnesses with which he’s been diagnosed. His sole defense is that he is an alcoholic, and even that he blames on others.

“It’s our family’s fault that I have alcoholism,” he’ll say. “So and so, so and so, so and so, and so on–the majority of whom reach back generations–were alcoholics. It’s not my fault.”

Currently, I’m writing an article about people like my sibling, the abuses he doles out while denying his culpability in any of his actions. I’ll post news of the publication on this site for anyone who might be interested in reading more.

For now, fortunately, I’m being offered a respite from the onslaught of disturbing messages. My sibling was picked up by police yesterday morning and has been charged with “terrorist threats” for promising to do whatever, wherever to get to me and my mom. He’ll face those charges in court after serving time for escaping the state jurisdictions where warrants have been issued for his arrest. I can hear him now: “Why would I stay in Colorado, California, etc. for a trial when I didn’t even do anything?!”

Sigh.

I won’t be giving him a call anytime soon. After a lifetime of dealing with my sibling, I’m putting my own needs above his.

A long wait pays off!

My youngest daughter, Helena, found out today that she’s been accepted to Auburn University’s Nursing School. The news was a long time coming, following two years of hard work in pre-nursing classes ranging from human anatomy to chemistry to biology to stats, a detailed application, an interview, and weeks of waiting for a final answer. Helena couldn’t be happier, and we are proud parents.

My oldest daughter, Celia, has also received positive responses from a couple of the graduate programs to which she’s applied. She’s still waiting to hear from her first choice, though. I hope to share more good news about Celia’s next steps soon!

A long wait . . . comes to an end!

Today was the day I’ve been waiting for: my first COVID vaccine! Woot!

The mood was downright festive when I walked into Margaret Cameron Spain Auditorium at the University of Alabama at Birmingham to receive the first of two doses. I joined a line of other UAB employees who’d been alerted that it was their turn to come on down for an injection that will, we hope, be the first step in protecting the masses from one nasty virus.

The process was oh-so-simple and oh-so-appreciated. After a quick temperature check, each of us was handed a clipboard containing an information form and pen (all thoroughly sanitized) for completion. Then, we followed the line to a station where said form was dropped off and preceded to a vaccination pod where we received a shot in the arm and our vaccination card was signed. Finally, it was off to a seating area where each of us waited for 15 minutes for observation (and were given individual timers to ensure there was no cheating!) before being set loose.

My 15-minute wait among other newly-vaccinated employees!

One shot down, and one to go!

So, all done with my first vaccine. I’ll return in 21 days for the second dose.

As I walked out the door to head to my car, the healthcare worker standing at the exit cheerfully bid me farewell: “Have a great day, and congratulations!” Indeed.

There’s no happier day than Vaccination Day after close to a year of modified living through a pandemic.

Justice for Black farmers

As the Biden administration moves forward with confirming the new U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary, Tom Vilsack, who will replace outgoing Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue, the founder and president of the National Black Farmers Union John Boyd, Jr. is speaking out about the need for further support of one segment of the agricultural population.

This CBS News story reveals some of the slights experienced by an important segment of the agricultural community. The number of African-American farmers tilling the land and raising livestock across the country is declining rapidly–in 2017, fewer than 2 percent of farmers were Black–leading to increasing exclusivity among those who contribute to the world’s food supply. According to Boyd, Black farmers who are among that population are often overlooked when supplemental governmental farm programs are devised or implemented as well. And many are discriminated against when seeking loans to purchase land or to update their operations. One effort to even the playing field is the Justice for Black Farmers Act, which Boyd discusses in the clip.

https://www.cbsnews.com/news/tom-vilsack-agriculture-department-black-farmers-group/

As a fifth-generation “White” family farmer, it’s easy to see a community of farmers who look a lot like me as the norm. I have to remind myself that in order for an industry to thrive, diverse voices are needed at the table.

Do you have ranch?

A few times a week, sometimes multiple times in a single day, my oldest daughter, who’s 23, asks, “Do you have ranch?”

She’s referring to ranch dressing, which she and my youngest, who’s 19, view as the preferred accompaniment to just about anything potentially dunk-able–chicken, veggies, french fries, even salmon. No dinner is complete in their eyes without the availability of this treasured creamy sauce, hence the multiple bottles that line the top shelf of our refrigerator. There’s usually a back-up supply in the pantry, too.

While in Poland with my elder daughter, we dined at Hard Rock Cafe more than I would have liked. The reason? It was the only restaurant in Krakow or Warsaw serving ranch dressing.

In Italy with my younger daughter, we occasionally passed by a pizzeria or bistro serving fresh pasta to eat at–you guessed it–Hard Rock Cafe. The ranch dressing lured her (and by default, me) back again and again.

It’s hard for me to make sense of the obsession with ranch. I’ve read that ranch is a generational draw, a sign that said eater is of a certain age and likes the option of pairing whatever’s being served with the white stuff.

A story on Salon.com reminded me of these excursions into the world of ranch–and taught me more than I ever knew about this increasingly popular, perhaps “divisive,” condiment. Go figure.

https://www.salon.com/2021/01/31/the-story-of-ranch-the-cool-american-condiment-that-has-divided-a-nation-and-taken-over-etsy/

Do nothing?! That sounds REALLY hard!

By posting this article, I am failing (miserably) to follow Olga Mecking’s advice: TO DO ABSOLUTELY NOTHING, what the Dutch call niksen.

https://www.salon.com/2021/01/28/niksen-dutch-art-of-doing-nothing-book-olga-mecking/

At first glance, this article on Salon.com made me chuckle. But then, I began to feel a tad anxious. I am guilty of being incapable of letting time pass without grabbing for something that will assure me that time has been well spent. Perhaps there’s something wrong with people like me–you know, the ones who have to stick to a strict schedule and feel let-down or downright unlovable if we let something, anything, slide.

Take today, for example. I had one of the mile-long to-do lists mentioned in the article and wasn’t sure how I was going to pull it all off. It didn’t help that I woke up this morning already feeling “behind” in my quest for productivity. Yesterday, I spent two hours with my mom when she went for her six-month dental check-up. While the nursing facility where she resides transported her to and from the clinic, I met her there to usher her through the appointment, from completing the sign-in and co-pay to getting Mom situated in the hygienist’s space (after realizing she was too weak to climb into the chair) to helping her with the clean teeth goody bag every patient leaves with as evidence of the visit. Given the lapses between our face-to-face chats these days thanks to COVID, it was wonderful to spend this extra time with Mom, to rub her back and hold her hand. Still, some shoes dropped during that workday detour across Birmingham.

Somehow, someway, I got through today’s tasks. Reaching the finish line required a smattering of the rushed, possibly unnecessary time fillers that people like me forge through with little thought. The kinds of busy fillers that Mecking advises to just let go.

As if.

While on hold to speak with Mom’s insurance provider, I revised and posted an assignment for my science writing students. Heck, the wait was so long that I even had time to send said students a friendly message through the online teaching portal to let them know the information was now available. I bet they were thrilled to learn they could dive right in. More likely, they wished I’d read the article about Mecking’s new book earlier in the day and taken her advice to heart.

As I ate the cut-up veggies and dip I’d brought for a mid-day snack, I worked on crafting a job ad for a position my department is filling this semester. By the time I’d polished off the celery sticks, I was hitting send to distribute the draft to members of the search committee.

On my way down the stairwell to get to class, I called one of our farm operators to ask whether he’d sold any soybeans this week. Prices are good but gradually creeping downward–would he recommend signing contracts now for the 2021 crop? By the time I reached the classroom door, I had my answer.

I checked in with Mom on speakerphone during my drive home. We wrapped things up just as I parked at the grocery store to grab items for tomorrow’s dinner and a prescription that was ready for pick-up.

Tonight, try as I might to kick back and relax with a good book or the next installment in one of the NetFlix series I’m watching, I know I’ll find a bit here and a bit there that I can get through at the same time. It can’t be viewed as drudgery or nervous energy if getting those “bits” done here and now saves me time tomorrow, right?

And the notion that I’d just stretch out on the couch without so much as a scratchpad in reach? Unfathomable.

The fact is that “doing nothing” isn’t in my DNA. Mom never sat idly, instead occupying herself at the close of the day with an embroidery project or a library book. Dad was a scribbler, jotting down ideas for the farm as the television blared in the background.

We Ryan’s, like many, are multitaskers. Maybe, as Mecking suggests, we need to get off the hamster wheel once in a while and learn how to “be” in silence. I guess I’ll add “experiment with niksen” to my weekend list.

Learning to do things in new ways

Today is my dad’s birthday. He would have been 85.

There’s some irony in Dad passing away exactly one week before his birthday in 2018. I can hear him now: “Well, I almost made it to 82–close, but no cigar!”

While last Sunday was pretty tough emotionally, as I thought back on that day I held Dad’s hand as he slipped quietly away, today I feel joy and gratitude.

I’m so grateful for my dad–for his love, his strength, his ambition, his infectious humor.

I’m fortunate that I have the kind of job that enabled me to spend the final nine months of his life by his side. That I was there for the physical trials as well as time together to laugh and learn from one another.

I realize, this year especially, how lucky we were not to face end-of-life struggles during a pandemic. A moment that keeps us away from those we love and want more than anything to protect.

Dad had 81 great years. As we near a full year of living with COVID, I think about how Dad would have approached this unanticipated and abrupt change to just about everything from 2020 onward. I think he would have shaken his head in disbelief and then adapted. Worn a mask. Stayed home. Limited trips to the grocery store and kept a safe social distance when he had to venture out. Remained peeled to the television and criticized Trump’s idiocy for shutting out the scientists and boasting about his own (non-existent) expertise.

During his lifetime, Dad encountered plenty of challenges–the Depression, cold Illinois days and nights without electricity to keep warm, the 1980s Farm Crisis, lean years when he and Mom struggled to pay the bills, one crisis after another involving my brother. He surely would have lamented the changes that have affected us all, but he wouldn’t have missed a beat in making sacrifices to keep himself and others safe and healthy. I can hear him, again: “The world changes, and you’d better learn how to keep up if you don’t want to be left behind.” Or worse, Dad.

In this morning’s LA Times, Rose Carmen Goldberg penned an essay about adapting to a new world. Following her father’s passing in an assisted living facility amid COVID, she joined a virtual grief support group. While initially, she was skeptical, she learned to appreciate the uniqueness of the forum and the compassion of the community she encountered.

DISPATCHES FROM
THE PANDEMIC

Grief powerful enough to cross a virtual divide
By Rose Carmen Goldberg

It started like any pandemic-era Zoom meeting. I awkwardly angled my screen toward my bedroom wall to hide the clothes littering my floor. I changed into one of my button-up Zoom shirts. I joined others on screen. A gray cat slinked across someone’s keyboard. One participant struggled to turn on her video.

Then, suddenly, it felt very different. The moderator asked everyone to say the name of their loved one who had died. “My mom, Dana.” “My dad, Hal.” “My friend, Laura.” “My husband, Robert.”

Four months before that Zoom meeting, my dad had died alone in his assisted living facility in Oakland. As he declined after a stroke, I chased him from a distance. I videoed my way into rooms I could not enter because of COVID restrictions and blew him kisses from behind a glass wall. There’d been no memorial, nothing. It was as if my dad had vanished into thin air.

The hospice program that had cared for my dad encouraged me to join a virtual grief group. I declined brusquely. My loss felt so private. The last thing I wanted was to share it with strangers. Besides, Zooming about grief seemed tacky, emojis and chat boxes so incongruous with the sanctity of death.

A few weeks later, my mom called. She’d received my dad’s ashes. They came in a dark box engraved with gold designs. I imagined a van full of these boxes shuttling across the country, delivering the dust of the dead like holiday packages. I pictured my mom, in her one-room apartment in Berkeley, with this box for as long as the pandemic dragged on. I was too sad to cry.

The next night, my cellphone alerted me it was running out of space. It was clogged with photos from friends in quarantine trying to text their way out of isolation. Scrolling through the photos, I came across the last one I took of my dad. He seemed real, too big for that small box. Instantly, I felt like I was holding a bomb about to detonate. I threw my phone across the room. The next time a hospice counselor called, I said I was ready to join the virtual grief group.

I was nervous before my first meeting. I imagined I’d find Brady Bunch squares of grievers, a pixelated quilt of strange sad faces. I wondered if it made sense to sign up for more darkness. What I found, though, were heartbroken but whole people. Like me. Struggling through the pandemic and longing for a new future, while learning how to build bridges with loved ones lost to the past.

Every week a participant made a presentation about the person they had lost. We held frayed black-and-white photos of youthful smiling faces up to our screens. We shared color photos of these faces, sunken and weak. We talked about the lives lived in between.

As I showed photos of my dad, I felt suffocated by grief. Too choked up to talk, I closed my eyes. When I opened them, I saw group members crying with me. One gave me an air hug through the screen. Sitting in my bedroom alone, my loss felt shared, and lighter.

Technological glitches brought us closer, too.

One participant kept losing connectivity while trying to tell us about her mom. She frantically logged in again and again. Once she regained video, she fought futilely for sound. Her silent face caved in with pained defeat. These moments only reinforced how much we needed one another, former strangers, now friends in grief.
We shared milestones. In November, election anxiety muddied our mourning. At Thanksgiving , we hid from empty dining room chairs by eating turkey in our kitchens. Some decided not to send Christmas cards , not wanting them to be death announcements.

Our last meeting was the Monday before New Year’s Eve. With a new year and a COVID vaccine upon us, we pondered how we would reenter the world without our loved ones. “We are in the eye of the storm, it seems like help is on the way, but what will it feel like when the world reopens and starts spinning faster?” the moderator asked us.

I felt dread. Eventually, my dad’s assisted living facility will reopen to visitors. I’ll be allowed to go to the common room where we used to eat cookies. But it won’t matter because my dad won’t be there. I’ll be able to host dinners in my apartment. But my dad’s chair will remain empty.

For me, my group members, and many others, I realized, the reopening of society post-quarantine will cause a second period of grief.

There was solace, though, knowing I won’t be going it alone. I’ll likely never see my group members again. But I’ll carry them, like a blanket wrapped warm around me, a comforting reminder of the strength of human connection. Powerful enough to cross the vast virtual divide.

The final session ended unlike any other Zoom meeting I’d ever attended. The moderator angled her camera toward a table covered in candles. She lit them one by one for each person we’d lost. As we logged off, she whispered, “These candles represent your courage to comfort others. They represent the light of love.”

Write. Teach. Repeat.

I enjoyed an excerpt from an interview with novelist Jonathan Lethem that I came across today on Slate:

https://slate.com/culture/2021/01/jonathan-lethem-writing-rituals.html

Lethem addresses the ways in which teaching writing helps to inform his own writing process by encouraging him to see the world differently–through the eyes of his “really brilliant, younger” students and, I assume, brilliant, not-necessarily-younger colleagues. That’s hard to do when writing in a vacuum day after day, something that a lot of us who consider ourselves writers are doing more than ever during a pandemic.

I like Lethem’s notion that teaching writing forces him to think about ideas and the process of committing ideas to the page differently, a difference that he suggests keeps writing “alive.” I couldn’t agree more. The need to talk about writing with college students forces me to wrangle with my own composing process. Lurking in student-writers’ struggles are glimpses of similar challenges I face when I open my laptop: writer’s block, frustration over complicated syntax that I’m trying to simplify without losing the bulk of meaning, delight when I discover the right word for what I want to convey. The act of teaching writing, and mulling over writing with others, can be a “replenishing” experience.

Having taught writing for more than three decades now–a job that I’ll be delving back into within the hour–I must admit that some parts of the job are more enjoyable and enlightening that others.

Some of the best moments?

Seeing a student develop a voice that is unique.

Reading a successful second, third, or tenth draft of an essay that proves to be well worth the hard work a student put into it. And well worth the wait, from my perspective!

An insight offered during class that makes me reconsider what I think I know about writing or suddenly see why I’m hung up on a particular problem in my own writing.

Some of the worst?

Student writers who believe they have nothing to learn and assume the multiple drafts requirement is just something I’ve invented to keep them busy.

Those who argue about a grade I’ve assigned on a piece of writing by referencing their junior high or high school English teacher’s assessment of said student’s talents.

There is one other gem in this interview. Lethem says that he finds it important to write every single day. While that’s not exactly groundbreaking advice, I appreciate his position that “adding something to [a current project] every day . . . is the quintessence of practice.” He says “It might be four hours. It might be 20 minutes, but there’s something about contacting the project every day. It means that I’m thinking about it, even when I’m not thinking about it. When I’m sleeping, I’m solving problems semi-consciously. This is the center of it for me.”

Lethem has a point. To do anything well, I think, requires making a commitment. And devoting at least a bit of time each day to the task is a necessary first step.

Wooden nickels

Today is the third anniversary of my dad’s passing. I miss him. Terribly.

I was thinking yesterday that when someone passes away, we don’t realize for some time–if ever–what the aftermath of that loss will be. Dad’s death meant not only saying goodbye to a parent whose presence was woven deeply into my life, but also losing the foundation for how our family functioned, the push we needed to keep moving forward. Trying to manage on my own since Dad left, I see plenty of cracks emerging in my not-always-successful efforts to hold our lives together.

Just about every day, I turn to the practical know-how Dad shared with me during our final nine months together. How to manage the crops–keeping track of each year’s input/expenses and output/grain sales, the three-year business cycle. Who to ask for advice on buying land or taking on a new tenant. Which checkbooks to use for Mom’s health care costs, unexpected household repairs, real estate and income taxes.

But I also rely, perhaps more so, on Dad’s wisdom, the continual stream of one-liners accompanied by real-life examples to remind me how important it is to reflect on how and why we take on life as we do.

One of Dad’s favorite sayings was “Don’t take any wooden nickels,” a phrase common during the Depression intended to remind people to choose wisely, to tread cautiously when entering a transaction or forging a relationship that could have long-lasting payoffs, both good and bad.

While sifting through my parents’ roll-top desk last summer in an effort to clear out the house for auction, I came across a wooden nickel. I smiled and promptly placed the memento on the pile of items to bring back to Alabama. Now it sits propped up next to Dad’s picture in my home office.

That nickel alongside the snapshot of Dad with a familiar smirk on his face reminds me of so many tokens of wisdom he shared every time we talked:

  • Make sound choices, based on credible information.
  • Listen to those you trust, but make up your own mind at the end of the day.
  • If you’re going to do something, get going. Don’t wake up at 30 and realize that all your peers have college degrees, careers, families. Don’t wake up at 50 and realize you forgot to save for retirement.
  • If something looks too good to be true, proceed with caution. I’m reminded of this one when I think about the farm crisis in the 1980s. Many of Dad’s fellow farmers were taking out big loans to buy land–the interest rates were “unbelievable,” and grain prices were good. The banks handing out money like candy predicted the economic upswing would last . . . until it didn’t, and many of our neighbors lost everything they had. Dad hadn’t been convinced that borrowing all that money was a smart move, and we kept our farm.
  • Take care of yourself and those you love. Plan for the unexpected. Offer support where you can. That said, don’t be a fool and keep feeding a hungry lion that’s always going to want more.
  • Do what you can as best as you can, and accept that there are things beyond your control.

As a writing teacher, I’m well aware that many of these “gems” read like tired cliches. But they meant something when Dad spoke these words, maybe because he lived by them and offered stories of people who “took wooden nickels” and suffered as a result. Those stories are embedded deep in my soul and guide me in my admittedly often-failed attempts to keep the farm going, Mom safe and happy, Joe in a place where he can’t reach us.

On January 16. 2018, Dad and I were on our way to St. John’s Hospital in Springfield, IL when I noticed that the back tire was low on pressure. I told Dad that I would get it checked out after his TAVR procedure the next morning and then we could decide whether we needed a new tire or just a patch-up. Usually, Dad would chime in with advice on where to go, what to ask the mechanic, and so on. Instead, he turned to me from the passenger’s side and calmly said, “You’ll know what to do.”

Three years in, I’m still trying to figure out what’s right, how to act when life’s challenges come hurtling towards me. I fail a whole lot, but I pray that at least sometimes, I get it done in a way that would make Dad smile.

“Don’t take any wooden nickels.”

Go easy on yourself

In an essay in today’s Washington Post, author Allyson Chui reminds readers to go easy on themselves if they stumble with their New Year’s resolutions in 2021:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/wellness/2021-resolution-goal-stress-covid/2021/01/14/15a50904-54fb-11eb-a08b-f1381ef3d207_story.html?

While resolutions typically focus on individual behaviors and individual commitment–for example, no matter how tired I might be, I will get my heart pumping no fewer than three times a week–a pandemic throws up obstacles far beyond an individual’s control.

For many years, I fell into the habit of making “brushstroke” resolutions: eat better, be more patient, stop procrastinating. Drawing on expert advice that such statements be replaced by specific, measurable goals, I’ve revised my resolutions in recent years to targets like “do weight-bearing exercises two times a week” and “limit my to-do list only to those items I can feasibly accomplish in a day.” But even those more concrete goals can be thrown off by the unpredictability of a pandemic–fear of going to gyms limits access to weight-bearing exercise machines and fewer open businesses influence what’s “feasible” on a given day.

Chui’s message is one that I, and most of the people I know who consider themselves overachievers, can benefit from hearing–during a pandemic, or during any “new year” for that matter. There are many reasons that have nothing to do with good intentions and personal perseverance for faltering on our resolutions. I’m replacing feelings of guilt when I fall short with strategies for hitting reset and beginning again.