The Wing Chair, Revisited

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I’m sitting in the last of the day’s light, watching yet another snowfall softly make its way onto my car, the street, and in much more poetic fashion, onto the bushes and naked trees in my front yard. I’ve turned my wing chair toward the window in order to see the snow, and am listening to Esperanza Spalding–a recent wonderful discovery–and finishing up a Sue Miller book, while sipping Merlot. An altogether pleasant, relaxed way to spend a March evening.
But as I sit in this comfortable chair, I remember how I grew to nearly loathe it last year at this time. After a hip replacement in mid-February, it was necessary to sit in a chair that allowed my hips to be higher than my knees for three months. The wing chair couldn’t quite achieve this feat on its own, so I bolstered the seat cushion with extra padding and pillows. And it was from that spot that I did nearly everything that required sitting over those months. I would pull up a tray to eat meals there, and perched on the chair to read, work on my computer, write letters, chat with visitors, and watch t.v. How I longed for the day when I could sit somewhere else, and have a different view of the room! In retrospect, I realize this was a fairly insignificant complaint. I was, after all, so incredibly lucky to have had the healing surgery, really nothing short of a miracle in restoring my ability to walk without pain.  I suppose, however, that it’s human nature to want what we can’t have, to miss the simplest of things when they’re literally or figuratively out of our reach. When I was finally able to graduate to sitting anywhere I pleased,  I eschewed the wing chair, preferring the couch (a better view of the fireplace and so much nicer for naps!).
So it’s nice to return there tonight, this simple piece of furniture that served me so well during those recuperative days. As the sky darkens and the flakes mount, I know I’ll be back.

A Street Curb Named Desire

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I read an article recently on the various quirks we humans have, and was reassured to find that I’m not alone in some of my behavior. And I’m not sure if the failure to master parallel parking falls under the heading of an endearing quirk (probably not) or, more likely, complete ineptitude on my part. Whichever area you assign it, it’s pretty much been the bane of my vehicular existence for the last forty plus years.

I didn’t get my license until I was 20 and a junior in college.  I wasn’t that interested in driving, had friends to squire me about, and it simply didn’t hold the allure for me that it did for lots of other kids my age. My Dad, an incredibly kind and patient man, understandably seemed a little more tense with me by the time I followed my three brothers to a license. While I knew all the rules of the road and was conscientious about following the speed limit and using the signal indicator, parallel parking was a bugaboo I simply couldn’t conquer. We practiced it ad nauseum, but I think his unflagging patience was tried to its limit with me. Finally, the day of the road test came and I was of course pretty nervous about the parking portion of the test, which came  last.  [May I just interject that I was really annoyed when I learned my own children weren’t required to park when they took the road test. So unfair!]  At any rate, I passed the driving portion with flying colors, and then carefully pulled into the designated parking spot between two orange cones. If memory serves, this maneuver took two or three tries. I knew I was in trouble when the young officer opened the passenger door, leaned his head out and asked, “What do you want me to do, lady, take a boat to the curb?!” He passed me anyway, either out of pity, not wanting to have to repeat the experience, or a combination of the two.

I’m sorry to say that I haven’t improved much since then. I am self-conscious enough about my lack of parking skill that I’ve employed a number of methods to avoid the whole experience. Generally, I’ll coerce a more competent friend into driving if we have to head into the city, and have been known to ply them with paying for drinks if they’ll take on the parking chore. On one notably humiliating occasion I even stopped the car in Old Town Alexandria and had my daughter take over the wheel; it was that clear that I wasn’t going to be able to park. I suspect she is disgusted with me to this day! Should I find myself in the unhappy position of having to actually park on my own, it’s often quite the show. I tend to garner one or more men who out of kindness or sport feel called upon to help me as I flail about and drivers behind me become increasingly annoyed. The kibitzers will stand on the sidewalk offering helpful advice and counsel, all the while attempting to hide grins or outright laughter. “That’s it, turn that wheel! Good, come on back…you’ve got it!!”  On finally exiting the car, I feel like I should either take a bow or slink off with my head down, but generally just thank them profusely and hurry the other direction.

However, that was then, this is now. I don’t know if it was turning 65 recently or simply chagrin with myself for being so incompetent for so long in this one area, but I decided to embrace parallel parking. Okay, embrace is too strong; I decided to attempt it with less fear and loathing. Perhaps I wanted to disprove the adage of being unable to teach an old dog new tricks, or simply wanted to master it while I was still able to get behind the wheel. In any case, I now deliberately choose spots on the street that require me to use the parallel parking skills that my contemporaries mastered years ago. No pulling in head first for me, no sir! I’m not saying it’s always pretty; it isn’t. It takes two or three tries sometimes, and frequently involves the tires scraping the curb as I settle in. But I’m doing it, and I’m 65! And yes, I have the i-phone photo, proudly sent to my daughter recently, to prove it. Now if I could only learn how to use chopsticks….

Dance Party

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I saw something quite lovely the other night, and as small a gesture as it was, it tended to renew my sometimes flagging faith in humanity. A friend and I went to a mini-concert at a local mall, the kind they often have for shoppers and other interested folk on weekend afternoons and evenings. It was a pretty evening, breezy and full of puffy white clouds, with a relaxed, mostly Baby Boomer crowd. When the band came onstage and started to play, several children, there with either parents or grands, got up and started to dance to the beat. It always tickles me to see the unabashed freedom of little kids; they aren’t even remotely embarrassed to dance in front of a bunch of strangers. Such uninhibited joy in their movements!
Before too long, a man of indeterminate age who was obviously special needs came over to the area where the kids were, a grin on his face. He was bopping along to the music as well, and the mom of one of the dancing girls jumped up and joined hands with him. She danced and twirled with him, and soon some of the children joined in, making their twosome a circle. Before long, another fellow who was with the first joined the fun. And a couple more women from the audience got up to dance with both men. The joy on the guys’ faces was transcendent and it made everyone in the vicinity smile. It also taught the children an incredible, unspoken lesson about kindness and reaching out to those who may be a little different from you. As the concert drew to a close, I know the enthusiastic young mom who energized that dance party left feeling good. But no more so than the male dancers, and those of us in the audience who saw more than a concert that night.

Of Hips and Help

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“I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”  A Streetcar Named Desire.

It is difficult to accept the help of strangers, but I would maintain that it is even trickier to take help from friends and family. It has always been tough for me to ask for help of any kind, but that reticence was recently put to the ultimate test. You see, a few months ago I had my faulty left hip replaced. I think I had been, in retrospect, fairly cavalier about the experience prior to actually taking it on. Hip problems, along with failing knees, are nearly ubiquitous with we Baby Boomers; it simply couldn’t be all THAT hard, could it? Ahem…yes, it could! I began to realize as the date for the operation approached that this was, in fact, a pretty big deal. Beyond the basic mechanics of forever after having to be pulled aside as I set off alarms in airport security and permanently taking antibiotics before a dental visit, there were lots of things that would need to be attended to once I returned from my two day hospital stay.

The biggest roadblocks were the mandatory precautions hip replacement patients must take. While several were issued for the three months after surgery, the two most daunting and important were the admonitions to never bend at a 90 degree or more angle during that time, and to avoid twisting my body. This sounds fairly easy until you think about how often you do both. I am a consummate rule follower, albeit an occasionally forgetful one. So I jotted down both rules on post it notes and taped them to either side of my walker. Goofy, but effective…at least while I was on the walker, the first three weeks or so. More to the point, being unable to either bend or twist made me incredibly dependent on others to help with the simplest of tasks. Can you change the sheets, unload the dishwasher, pick up a piece of paper just dropped? The list goes on and on. So I had to simply give up the notion that I was an island and accept the help of a variety of people, from friends and family to those strangers mentioned earlier, who included CNAs for a short time and folks in the general public on a daily basis.

I embarrass fairly easily, and worried I would drop my keys and have to ask the stranger in line behind me at Martin’s to please pick them up. Would he think I was lazy or simply incompetent? While that particular scenario never played out, I did have a time or two where something similar happened. Incredibly, the world did not come crashing to a sudden halt. I think a huge part of the reluctance to ask for help is the loss of control, as well as something we women are very familiar with…never wanting to be a burden to others. We are so used to being caretakers ourselves that it pains us (sometimes literally) to ask for assistance. And the thing is, people really want to help. I’ve always had a fairly optimistic opinion of mankind in general,and my recovery period merely confirmed it. Those recuperative weeks were filled not only with nurse and physical therapist visits, but with a steady stream of friends and family. They brought homemade or purchased meals, flowers, books, and cards. More importantly, they also brought kind words, hugs, laughter,and a genuine caring and concern for my well being. Help was offered daily in a variety of ways, from my neighbor tromping through several inches of snow to feed my dog, to a stranger holding the restaurant door open as I entered, cane in hand. And I’m not sure why this should have been a surprise. My impulse when someone has a setback of some kind is exactly the same….how can I help? What can I do to make things better?!

So, should you ever find yourself in my position or anything close to it, don’t hesitate to reach out to others for help, as difficult as that seems. Instead, realize with gratitude that they love and care about you. They want to ease your burden and brighten your day in any way they can. And truth be told, one day you may well be able to return the favor.

The cab not taken….

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Sometimes in life you’re presented with an opportunity you just shouldn’t pass up. That happened to me last summer, and I’m still regretting not having jumped into it with both feet.

My significant other and I were looking forward to using a generous gift certificate about this time last year. It was for a wine tasting followed by an elegant four course meal with wine pairings. The setting was Barboursville Vineyard, just outside rural Gordonsville, Virginia. The vineyard has been around for some forty years and its reputation is exceeded only by that of the restaurant adjacent to it, Palladio. As regulars at the weekly wine tasting here in my small hometown, we were looking forward to expanding our horizons. Plans were made for an overnight trip, including a stay at a charming bed and breakfast that appealed to me because Jack the dog’s photo was included with those of the staff on the website.

Never one to let a neurotic impulse go unchecked, however, I worried that we would have a hard time that night. We would, after all, be tasting a large number of wines…there were 19 available. That would be followed by an evening of still more wine…four different kinds with the meal, to be precise. Since my capacity is about a glass and a half (my daughter has in the past noted my cheeks getting rosier at the table and commanded, “Step away from the Pinot Noir, Mom!”), I was apprehensive. I knew we’d be in the middle of nowhere, coming back to the B and B in the dark, and on winding roads that could play tricks on the eyes after even one glass of wine, let alone three or four. With that in mind, I began hunting up possible taxi service to and from the vineyard.

Trust me on this…there’s not much available cab-wise near Barboursville. But one of the sites that came up when I googled possibilities intrigued me. It was called “Cabioke” and, as you might surmise, combines the best of both a taxi cab and karaoke. There was no information, just a name and phone number; evidently, this was a one-man operation. The friendly guy I spoke to assured me that in addition to the karaoke screen, the requisite disco ball was in place in the cab, thus adding to the fun. I was more than a little excited about this possibility, I must confess…I pretty much never pass up the chance to make a fool of myself. I could just see it. Me, lustily singing at the top of my lungs, probably a little louder on the way home than en route to the winery. I could fulfill all those latent desires to perform in front of the masses, belting my heart out to “I Will Survive” or “Dancing Queen.” And while being seated would cramp my ability to groove to the music to a degree, I still felt like I could put on a pretty good show.

By the time the day approached for our trip, we’d done a bit more checking. As it turned out, my knowledge of “wine pairings” was more than a little deficient. It seems they only provide about a 1/4 of a glass with each course, possibly taking into account the possibility of customers’ cars landing in ditches at evening’s end. I suspect the expense involved in a larger pour, along with tasting tradition, also plays into this decision. Moreover, the wine tasting that preceded dinner would be like others we’d attended; you’d certainly have the option to toss any leftover wine after a sip or two. So both practicality and thriftiness played a part in our choice to make the drive to and from the vineyard on our own. Truthfully, I was sorely disappointed, and didn’t forget about that “cab not taken.”

So I recently did a little more checking online. While the impression I had from the guy I spoke to is that he indeed had a standard sized cab decked out, that is not what you find when you google the term “cabioke” today. Instead, you are squired about in a limo (yes, they let us know it’s “pimped out”), which I found very tempting. After all, my best college pals and I are making plans to visit Wintergreen Resort next spring, and a winery tour is in the works. Cabioke touts itself as providing just such a service! I truly see no down side to our booking this smooth ride: friendship, raucous singing that could include backup for the lead, a built-in audience with more room for any needed choreography, a variety of wines, and safe travel. What could be better for friends of more than forty years? Are you ready, girls?! I may not have hailed that oh-so-special cab before; I’ll not let another chance slip by!

A Dem’s Dream….

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I recently lucked out and got to hear former President Bill Clinton speak in Richmond, Virginia as part of the “Richmond Forum” series. The luck came in the form of a friend’s husband. She is politically liberal; he most definitely is not. Since they had purchased season tickets for the Forum this year, she asked if he’d mind missing that particular program, since she knew his reaction to Mr. Clinton would most likely consist of ongoing eye rolls. When she e-mailed to ask if I might be interested, I played it cool, calmly responding, “Yes! Yes! A thousand times yes!!”
You see, I’m one of those folks who was born with the “hard core Democrat” gene. In addition to brown eyes, dark brown hair, and an eerily similar paternal birthmark, I inherited from my parents the proclivity to vote exclusively for the Democratic candidate, regardless of whom that might be. An unkind term for folks like me is “Yellow Dog Democrat,” which means, of course, that we vote for the candidate with (D) by his or her name on the ballot, even if that candidate happens to be a yellow dog. While I have yet to see a golden retriever on any ballot I’ve marked, I’d happily vote for one over the Republican on any given day, so I certainly take no offense at the moniker. The only time I did not vote for a Democrat in an election–be it for town council, state, or national office–was when I lived in Alabama. The Democratic candidate vying for Attorney General in one of the elections there went by the name “Bubba.” I confess time has erased the last name from my memory, but that’s not important. The point is that this fellow’s Christian name was “Bubba.” It was not a nickname. Try as I might, I simply could not bring myself to pull the lever.
Since that minor deviation in the 80’s, however, I’ve been unswerving in my Democratic zeal, driving by myself and waiting for hours…some of it in the pouring rain…to see Barack Obama and Joe Biden on the campaign trail, canvassing for those two closer to the election, posting signs in my yard, sporting bumper stickers for Democratic candidates of every stripe, passing out flyers in freezing weather in a largely Republican polling place, yadda, yadda, yadda. You get the picture…I will bore anyone who is willing to give me two minutes with political chat lauding the Dems.
So you can imagine how delighted I was when the ticket to this sold out program landed in my lap. My friend…a real peach…wouldn’t even allow me to pay her for the ticket, for goodness’ sake. We headed to a spot about two blocks from the venue, cleverly avoiding the parking garage that would have delayed our exit by at least an hour at program’s end. She knew of a cute little place on the VCU campus where we could grab a bite. As we sipped two of their signature beers and waited for our table, we struck up a conversation with a couple about our age, also waiting for a table prior to attending the program. While they weren’t overtly political (“I think it’s interesting to see these speakers, even if you don’t always agree with all of their politics,” said he), we did not hold that against them, and even shared a table with them when one finally became available. Turns out they have season tickets with seats close to my pal’s, so she and her husband will be seeing a lot more of them at programs in the months and years to come….
After a quick walk to the venue, seats were found, programs perused, and at last the event opened with a mini-documentary on President Clinton, focusing far more on the good works he’s done in the years since leaving office than on his legacy as a politician. The audience rose and applauded heartily as he stepped onto the stage, then settled back to listen to this master speaker. Two things about his talk stood out for me. Though I’d heard that his speech was to be limited to about forty minutes, with another twenty or so for questions, I found that timeframe more than a little unlikely. This is a man who is a dynamic speaker and one who…let’s tell it like it is…likes to hear himself talk! My yellow dog label allows me to honestly admit that I love listening to him regardless of the topic, so if he’d deviated from the alloted time I wouldn’t have been upset. To my surprise, however, his speech was nearly on schedule. We were seated fairly high up, but big screen t.v.s allowed us a good look at the former president. While he looked fit, he definitely seemed to have aged a bit. However, his voice was strong and he never wavered as he warmed to his subject that night, which was the second unexpected aspect of his appearance.
Rather than launching into a detailed analysis of politics past or present, he instead focused on the challenges that confront the global community in working together to make life more sustainable. He highlighted several programs his nonprofit foundation has launched, partnering with others to bring about real change both here and abroad in such areas as health care and empowering citizens economically. Only during the question and answer period (with questions having been pre-selected), did Mr. Clinton address political issues, touting compromise in Washington (good luck with that!) and, much to the chagrin of many audience members, eschewing term limits for members of Congress. I’d sort of hoped he might address his spouse’s possible run for the presidency, but…probably to no one’s surprise…no questions on that burning issue were chosen.
The evening was, in short, fabulous! The visit and speech may not have made history nationally or even locally, but it certainly did personally. While seeing this dynamic former president wasn’t on my “bucket list,” it’s only because I hadn’t taken the time to add it. I’m not sure I touched the sidewalk as we headed to the car that night. And I have to admit it: The smile on this yellow dog Democrat’s face has yet to fade….

Those Whom I Loved First

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“I find as I grow older that I love those most whom I loved first.” Thomas Jefferson.

I will confess from the outset that this quote was stolen from a college classmate, but I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t mind. It expressed so beautifully how I felt after returning from my fortieth college reunion last weekend that I simply had to make it mine (well, Mr. Jefferson’s and mine).

I attended a small college in a beautiful part of the state, surrounded by the Blue Ridge Mountains and given to spectacular autumns of red and gold maples with a backdrop of picture perfect sunsets. From the time I visited the spring before freshman year with a small church group I knew I would love it, in no small part because the college was, in a sense, family for me. Both my brothers, an aunt, uncle, and various and sundry other relatives had attended this church affiliated school; it was a bit like coming home. No towering modern buildings to be found here! While I can’t vouch for ivy on walls, others with a better memory probably would; the campus was that quaint. We didn’t know everyone, but with an enrollment of only 900, we knew a lot of folks. My high school class in Northern Virginia had boasted 550 students in the graduating class. I began to finally feel a bit like a big fish in a small pond, as opposed to the rarely noticed minnow I’d been before.

The girls on my hall, every one of them freshmen, bonded immediately. We later agreed that the year passed in somewhat of a blur, as we all averaged about three hours sleep a night. It was basically one long slumber party, and we subsisted nicely on popcorn, Coke, and whatever care package had been sent that week. It was the late sixties and the world churned outside our doors. We sat up late and fervently tried to solve the world’s problems; but to no less extent, we also tried to salve one another’s broken hearts after someone had been disappointed or summarily dumped. We quizzed each other for tests and exams, laughed at everything and nothing, cried at one another’s sorrows–real or imagined–and formed friendships that have managed to stand all these years later.

When I look now at the faces of my classmates from so long ago…and not just my dorm friends from that first year, but all of us who crossed the stage four years later to collect our diplomas…I get a definite lump in my throat. The faces that I see are lined, the hair on the men thinning or a fond memory, the middles on all of us expanded a bit from the lithe creatures we were at eighteen. And yet these are the people whom I loved first in my burgeoning adulthood, whom I lived among in the closest of quarters for nine months of each year. In those faces I recognize that boy I had a crush on in math class. The girl from first floor who loaned me a shawl for the Homecoming dance. The couple who married sophomore year and are together these many years later, still holding hands as they head for the dance floor. Those sweet, wonderful faces that I know have endured every joy and sorrow there is. Many of us have faced illnesses that we thought might prove stronger than us, only to fight through. We have lost spouses to divorce and death, seen our children struggle mightily, been unemployed, loved and then parted from friends. And yet here we are all these years later, brought together by our love of this place and these people. Stories are swapped, yearbooks flipped through. Laughter abounds, arms are linked in affection; hugs are plentiful. “We must get together sooner,” we cry. “Let’s not wait five more years…how about two?” The old songs are danced to one more time, and though the hips move a little more slowly, the Motown beat still courses through our veins.

As I head home at the end of the weekend, exhausted but oh so happy, I send up a silent thanks that we’re all still so close. That we can look at one another with a vision that extends beyond the present and allows us to remember those innocent years so long ago. May it continue to be so for a good long time, my friends.