What’s the Question?

Lou and Peter Berryman have a song on their Double Yodel CD called, Come To Mind in which Peter mentions that he’s no good with answers. He says that he gets by with mostly two suggestions: “Put the curtain in the tub, when you take a shower. And learn how to live with your questions.” This is really good advice. I think of it almost every time I take a shower. I’ve known for years that I’m much better at questions than answers. Oh, I have some answers, but they’re hardly ever the right ones.

For instance, someone will ask me where the peanut butter is and I don’t know. I wasn’t the last one to put it back, and my best guess is that it’s in the fridge or maybe the dishwasher or even, possibly, the trash. Those are the three places that things seem to end up in our kitchen, when they’re not where they should be. So, I answer that it might be in one of these places, but in a really wimpy tone of voice. How different my tone and my life would be if, just for once, someone asked me something I know for sure.

For instance, if some fine morning, someone stumbled down the stairs, looked in the fridge for a long, electricity consuming five minutes and then turned to me and with a puzzled look said, “Mom, what was Yip Harburg’s real name?” I’d say, with complete confidence that it was “Isidore Hochburg”. He got the nickname “Yip” from yipsel, which is Yiddish for squirrel, because he was so active as a boy. He wrote all of the lyrics for Over the Rainbow, the Depression anthem Brother, Can You Spare a Dime, April in Paris, It’s Only a Paper Moon and many, many more songs. He also wrote two books of rhymes which were republished in one book that’s available from the Freedom From Religion Foundation. He was a Democratic Socialist and was blacklisted in the 50’s. He’s one of my heros.

But no one ever asks about Yip Harburg, although I don’t know why. Neither do they ask about anything else I know about including live bottoms, Blonder Tongues or Frigiscopes. (Sometimes I wonder, Is the art of conversation dead?) So, I waste hours on answering questions about mundane things like missing wallets, strayed shoes, how long to nuke jello and whose cat threw up the mouse on the bathroom rug (which is really important, because it determines who has to clean it up).

It’s no wonder, with all this trivial chatter going on, that we don’t get to the good stuff. “Honey,” I can see the geek saying someday, looking lovingly into my eyes, “Do you think live bottoms are better in a bed or what?” “Why, yes,” I’d say, batting my eyelashes, “I certainly do. Having a conveyor belt on the bottom of a truck bed to move the cargo out under the rear door – which is hinged at the top – is really effective. Dangerous though if the driver forgets to latch the door. That’s why they have those ‘Warning: Live Bottom’ signs on the trucks.”

Or, “Lill,” a friend might say after routine hospital tests, “Did you know that Doctor Martin has a Blonder Tongue?” “As a matter of fact,” I’d answer, “I actually saw it last time I was at his office. Blonder Tongue is the best company for broadband equipment that I know of.”

Unfortunately, it’s very unlikely that anyone will ever ask me about Frigiscopes. Not unless, like me, they’ve had to undergo some rather unpleasant tests that only females are subjected to when they flunk their PAP test. (But, Doc, I studied all night! Honest! Can’t I get at least a B?) As I lay flat on my back on a cold metal table, my feet in stirrups and a covering the size of a dishtowel over my “lap”, there was a great rustling and shuffling of feet and my doctor led twenty first-year medical students into the room. Most of them were Asian, and as the doctor spoke, many of them bowed in my direction. I tried to do the same, but it’s very hard to bow when your feet are in stirrups and you’re lying flat on your back. It just looks like you’re sitting up.

I’m pretty unflappable and not terribly modest in medical situations (I’m a DES daughter, which is why I was there in the first place and have had many medical procedures), but I began to wish that I had read the papers I signed a little more closely. Especially the part which gave permission for twenty students to each peer through the lighted scope called a frigiscope (I am NOT making this up) until they had located the suspicious cells the PAP test had found. It took a while.

As a matter of fact, it took so long, that I was sure that the cells would have all mutated into cancer cells before the last student – a young woman with extremely thick glasses and a wall eye – had spotted them. When she finally said the Chinese equivalent of “eureka!”, the other students broke out into cheers and clapped and the doctor patted my foot, which was asleep from being in the stirrup for so long, and said, “I hope you weren’t too bored.” “Not at all,” I said, half delirious with relief that the ordeal was over, “I can’t remember when I’ve had such a good time.” (Of course, at the moment I couldn’t remember much of anything including my middle name, but he didn’t know that.)

I could answer questions all day, only I doubt that they’re answers to questions that anyone but me would ask. I notice things, wonder about them, write them down and then look them up. That’s how I found out all of the above and more. It’s great because later on in life, when there are dull lulls, I can rummage around in my mind, pull out nuggets of information and review them to keep from being bored. (This, rather than pure loopiness, is why I stand there chuckling to myself in checkout lines.) Or I can write about them, when I can’t think of anything else to write.

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Talkin’ Turkey

wild turkey

Wild Turkey

As my daughter so aptly put it this morning when she looked at the thermometer, “It’s not even up to none degrees!” Well, to be honest, it’s all of 3 degrees out there now, but with the wind – and there always is one on our hill – it feels like fifteen below. This is why I was not amused when Jetta, the Black Lab, decided that turkey chasing was a fine thing to do on a brisk morning like this.

We live on sixty acres of woods and fields, on top of a hill in Maine.Our “driveway” is a little over a half mile of “discontinued” town road. The road isn’t discontinued, mind you, it’s just the maintenance on it that’s been discontinued by the town, so we plow it and grade it and throw a little dirt on it when we have the money. Well, Geekdaddy plows it and Son and I throw sand on it. I drive, Son sits in the back of the truck and shovels sand onto the worst potholes. This passes for entertainment in Maine, especially in mud season.

We have around thirty wild turkeys who hang around our dooryard in the winter. They’re all huge and can fly up into the top of a tree in a heartbeat – an amazing sight no matter how many times I see it. They taunt the cats, who know better than to tackle one, but the three wannabe lions lie there, twitching their tails and hoping that one of the birds will suddenly keel over at their feet.

Today, only one turkey showed up and it was limping and holding one foot up, as if it was injured. It was much too cold for the cats to go out, but the dog had to go, so I let her out the sliding door to the deck. With a loud “woof”, she was off, in hot pursuit of the poor injured turkey, which still managed to stay ahead of her by half-running and half-flying.

I charged out the door, visions of game wardens filling my head, and sped off after both of them. Up the driveway we ran, until the turkey flew up into an oak tree and the dog stopped and wagged her tail and looked at me as if to say, “Wow! Wasn’t that fun? What should we chase next?”

It was then that I realized that I was still in my t-shirt and sleep pants and I also realized that a long line of snowmobiles was approaching, which meant that I had to grab the dog, who hates the noisy things and would dearly love to catch one. There must have been twenty of them. I mean, who are all these slackers, riding around on snowmobiles on a Monday morning? Don’t they have jobs? Are they all independently wealthy or something?

Every single furshluggener one of them waved and smiled through their face shields, as they passed about three feet in front of me. There I stood, my thin flannel pants flapping around my legs, my teeth chattering and my fingers growing numb on the dog’s collar.By the time the last one in line kicked snow over the tops of my duckboots, I was so cold that I lost my grip on Jetta’s collar and didn’t even care.

She didn’t chase them though. No, instead, she ran back toward the house, dug around in the six foot high snowbank that Geekdaddy had plowed up for the kids to play in, and came up with a tennis ball. She shook her head at me, playfully, and then tossed the ball into the snow and dove in after it, until only her tail and hindquarters were showing.

To my credit, I didn’t bury her the rest of the way, although the snow shovel was right there and I was tempted. Frostbite and damage to my Rosacea prone skin aside, no harm had been done. Well, except that I’m going to be wondering which of the townspeople I meet in the next few days saw me standing out there in my nightclothes.

I love our dog, but this is the last time I try to keep her from chasing a turkey. Next time, I’ll do the sensible thing and just get out the roasting pan and preheat the oven to 375.

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Thank you, Robin, Chris and Kim

This is the first post I’ve written in over a year. It’s long and rambling. Be warned. I don’t really want to write it or write anything for that matter. I haven’t been in a writing mood for a long time. Not for this kind of writing anyway. I have ghosted some ebooks and written on a freelance basis for cold, hard cash, but not for fun or to express myself. Recently though, I bought and listened to “Still on The Levee”, Chris Smither’s 2-CD set and a few days later, Robin Williams killed himself.It’s no secret that, like Williams was,  I’m a bipolar bear, as my late son, Mike, who also had bipolar disorder, used to say.

My father had it and his father had it and they both died from heart attacks in their fifties, brought on by chain smoking, constant coffee drinking and staying up when they should have been sleeping. My father confided to my mother, during the early “happier” years of their marriage, that he was afraid that she’d realize that he was crazy and have him “put away” as they called it in those days.

Instead, she told him to leave, one morning when I was ten and he strolled in at 4 and smirked when she asked him where he’d been.  I don’t know why she asked, she knew he’d been with someone new, someone who hadn’t known him long enough to realize that he was crazy and moody and impossible to live with. There were a lot of those relationships in his life until he found a woman who didn’t care how crazy he was and put up with his moods and strangeness, because she was crazy too – crazy in love with him. She was with him when he died and I’m glad he had her and sorry I couldn’t get along with him or please him. Very few people could.

What this has to do with Chris Smither’s music and Robin William’s suicide is that I’m my father’s daughter – although without the cheating on my spouse part. When I hear about someone committing suicide because they’re bedeviled by the same demons that aim their pitchforks at my backside, I can’t help but feel sad for them and worried for me and the many other demon-beset depressives in the world.

One of the things that has kept me above ground since I gave up on suicide after two failed attempts when I was in my early twenties, is the blues. I discovered them at a bar in Boston where I was smoking three or four cigarettes for every beer I downed and wondering if I should maybe slow down on drinking so I could walk home without falling over or start ordering pitchers to get it over with. I was giving it a lot of thought, thinking and drinking and not paying much attention to the guy with the guitar who was setting up on stage. Then he started to play.

The bluesman was Chris Smither and he played like the devil and sang like an angel – or maybe it was vice versa – but he was awesome. After almost fifty years, I can’t remember one particular song that he sang, but I do remember that I came to about twenty minutes later and realized that I was still holding my beer glass and hadn’t taken a sip since he started playing. Now, back in those days, anything that could make me forget to drink was a miracle and I needed a miracle that night.

It was a very black period in my life. Like my father, I was afraid that I was crazy. I had just left my abusive first husband who was driving around town with a shotgun, looking for me and had his friends out doing the same, and I had no idea what I wanted to do or what I could do with the rest of my life. As a matter of fact, I wasn’t really sure that I wanted the rest of my life to be any longer than it took to drink a six pack and swallow the bottle of pills that I had in my backpack.

I didn’t want to hurt the people who loved me, but a lot of the time I thought that I’d hurt them more by staying alive and making them sad, than I would if I just ended it all and let them grieve and get over it and then get on with their lives without the complications and problems I caused for them. When I thought about the people I loved, the people who loved me, they seemed to shine bright, smiling and quick-stepping lightly through their lives. I was pretty sure they’d continue to do that after a short period of mourning for me if I offed myself.

I felt like a shadow, slowly drifting into life’s corners and getting stuck in places too deep and dark to see my way out.  Then, sometimes, I’d slip through a crack in my moods into an inferno and be brighter even than normal people were, thoughts burning in my brain like manic flames, words making people laugh and think and ask me to stay with them, until I crashed and they started sighing and avoiding my eyes, instead of laughing or agreeing with me. The Killing Fog, which was what I called my depression, was back and I was socked in and thinking that the bright times just weren’t worth the pain of the dark times.

One of my friends, Kim, wrote this in her blog, Union Thug Gramma:“Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.” I think we’ve all heard this quote and, to a point, agree. On the other hand, if you’ve never experienced the sheer black walls of the abyss known as severe depression, you can’t understand how just ending the pain, even if it means ending your life, can be enough at that moment in time. Luckily, many more people attempt suicide than succeed. Of course, if people know about the attempts, those survivors, many times, are shamed, laughed at, called names. So they, no WE, hide behind our secrets not allowing others behind the curtains that lead to the abyss.”

Her post is a well-written counterpoint to an editorial by Jim LaPierre, who writes for our local Bangor Daily News. He said (bold type is the line I disagree with): In my clinical opinion, suicide is the option chosen by a person who cannot see an end to their suffering. Death seems like a more desirable option than what is being experienced. In my personal opinion, the choice is the most selfish f@cking thing a person can do (outside of euthanasia).

Jim, from what I’ve read in your column, you’re a compassionate survivor of substance abuse and counsel others who have addiction/depression issues. This is why I can’t understand how you can be so wrong about suicide. Selfish?

In order to be selfish, you have to be able to know that what you’re doing is hurting someone else and care less about that than you do about your feelings and your comfort. I can tell you from personal experience that when I attempted to kill myself, I was not capable of realizing that it was selfish. I wasn’t able to think about anyone else, because the Killing Fog blinded me, deafened me and numbed my brain so completely that there was no room, no way for me to think about anything or anyone else.

I’m not a selfish person. If anything, I put other people first too often in my life unless I rein myself in. I want my loved ones to be happy and if I can do anything to help with that, I will. I don’t want them to hurt and if I can stop them from hurting, I’ll do it, even if it means that I get hurt in the process.

Robin Williams wasn’t a selfish person. He was a person who felt the need to communicate with other people, to make them laugh and think and experience through his talent for acting and comedy. Chris Smithers has been singing the blues for over half a century and I wonder how many people, besides me, are walking around in spite of depression, partly because of his music and that of other musicians who turn pain into beauty with their lyrics and instruments.

Robin Williams stuck around for 63 years, which is how old I am. I wonder how many of those years were more than he wanted to give to other people. I hope to hell that Chris Smither sticks around for at least as long as I’m around, and, yeah, that’s selfish.

I need his music. Ditto for John Prine, Slaid Cleaves, Betty Soo, Mike Rosenberg, Keb Mo, Devil Makes Three, Brown Bird, The Berrymans, Elsa Cross, Ray Bonneville, Ray Lamontagne, Kelly Joe Phelps, Gurf Morlix, Ian McLagan and Lucinda Williams and a host of others who keep me sticking my spoon into another quart of Ben and Jerry’s instead of the wall. I know some of them have problems, including leukemia and cancer in at least two cases, so I hope they overcome their health problems of all types and have long, creative lives.

As for euthanasia, Mr. LaPierre. It’s my life, and when it’s not worth living to me, it won’t be worth living for the people around me either and I’ll end it. I’m hard enough to live with now. Ain’t no way my near and dear will object to me checking out when life gets to be too much for me. Trust me.

From Can’t Shake These Blues by Chris Smither: Seems so hard, nothing left to fight it; seems so easy to just let go. Seems so dumb to get so excited; this might be the last I told you so. Can’t shake these blues…

Posted in death, loss | Comments Off on Thank you, Robin, Chris and Kim