Vinegar and floodwater

The river is rising, and more rain is coming.

I work downtown, a short stroll from the river, and the thing to do these days is to take that stroll at lunchtime and stare at the muddy water as it streams past. Levees have given way upstream, and even local neighborhoods have been evacuated. Record flooding is happening all over the place. I saw my first record-breaking flood the month I turned ten, and witnessed several similar floods over the years, which is why my childhood home was bought by the government and leveled.

I remember carrying things out of the basement when I was a child to rescue them from coming floods. I didn’t think I would be doing that again, certainly not at work. But last Wednesday the building managers had a series of worried meetings as they considered the worst-case scenario for this flood event. The building is protected by a rarely-needed sump pump. The pump had not even been checked for several years. Management hired some specialists to check the pump on Friday, but meanwhile they also considered the option that a power failure might occur over the weekend, rendering the pump powerless. So, management decided to have all the employees drop what we were doing and carry things up out of the basement.

Several different entities are in the building—some related to one another, others merely renting space. Tenants include branches of the state university, attorneys, and even a vegetarian restaurant. The building itself is part of the public library system; it contains the library’s archives, the library’s art collection (aside from objects currently on display in other library buildings), art galleries (one of which sells locally-created art), and several other library departments. The basement contained (until the end of last week) storage for the art collection and for the archival items received but not yet processed. In other words, irreplaceable, one-of-a-kind items (some quite valuable) were threatened by the flood. It made sense to bring it all upstairs.

People sometimes donate unique items to the library, which is why it maintains an archive. In the library’s archives are family records and photo albums, business records, church records, government records, and the like. The library owns letters and diaries written by soldiers during the Civil War. It holds Red Cross records, Garden Club records, school records, and thousands of photographs from earlier times. People use the library’s archives to study the history of railroads, the local fire department, historic people buried in local cemeteries, and their own families. People come to learn the history of the house where they live or of a business building they are remodeling. Not all this information was threatened by the flood—the material that has been processed is safely stored higher in the building. But who can say what information is hiding in the material not yet processed? Not to mention the art collection—it all had to be moved.

The research room is open nine hours a day, six days a week. Junior high students and university professors might be working within touching distance on their different projects. Books have been published based on information available only in this building. Many of the people who come—roughly half of them I would guess—are researching their genealogy. And, because there is a restaurant on the first floor, researchers and librarians sometimes smell the food being prepared. One day last week, the restaurant workers were roasting garlic—the scent reminded me of my mother’s zucchini recipe, fried in a skillet with garlic and herbs and a little vegetable oil. Other days the research room smells of freshly-baked chocolate chip cookies.

This morning the research room smelled like Harvard beets. Those are beets cooked in vinegar. This time the restaurant was not to blame. Among the items brought up from the basement are several canisters of film. Old film made of cellulose acetate plastic can chemically disintegrate, and the most obvious symptom of that disintegration is a vinegary scent. The library has one full-time employee whose task is to convert older records, whether audio or video, into a digital format before the original is lost beyond hope of recovery. These donated films are now sitting up on the third floor, undergoing chemical change, and the scent wafts down the atrium into other parts of the building.

The river continues to rise. No one knows how many days the library’s art collection will be sitting in hallways and meeting rooms and nooks and crannies all over the building. No one knows how many days the unprocessed archives will continue to form a maze between offices. A potential catastrophe has been averted, but it was done through many hours of hard labor and with no small inconvenience to the library’s staff. J.

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Turning into my parents

An insurance company advertises that they can save you money, but they can’t keep you from turning into your parents. I guess all of us become more like our parents as we age, no matter how often we told ourselves as children that we would never say or do certain things that our parents said and did.

The other day I was preparing to mow the lawn and the mail carrier said, “Looks like someone is getting ready to have some fun.” I laughed and told her, “No, but it has to be done.” Instantly I remember how many times my mother and my father said the same thing about lawn and garden work or about housework: “It has to be done.” I felt at times that they were committing themselves and their children to a lot of chores that really didn’t have to be done. Pulling weeds was never my favorite summertime activity. But they justified their own efforts—and the efforts they demanded of their children—with that simple slogan, “It has to be done.”

Both my parents grew up during the Great Depression. There were probably a lot of things that “had to be done” in those days, from growing their own vegetables to taking small jobs to earn a few coins to help support the family. Then they had the wartime years, where certain things “had to be done,” such as going without food to help feed the soldiers and collecting scrap metal and rubber for recycling as part of the war effort. Many of their peers settled into more comfortable lives in the Fifties and Sixties; but for my parents, life remained full of chores and duties that had to be done.

I wrote an essay in college about my parents’ “work ethic,” saying that I hoped I would not be as duty-driven as an adult. Some years I have succeeded in living up to my college dream, treating the things I do at my job as things I get to do, not things I have to do. At home I try to reduce the work that has to be done—as I’ve written before, one hour of lawn work a week is enough, in my opinion. My children have had chores, but they were meant to teach them life skills, not as something that “had to be done.”

To my surprise, that slogan of my parents came out of my mouth as naturally as if I invented it myself. “It has to be done.” The grass has to be mowed. The city will fine me if my lawn exceeds a certain height, and given all the rain we’ve had lately and all the rain in the forecast, there was only a window of a day or two open to get the grass cut.

What things do you say or do that you learned from your parents? J.

The celebrity roast of Nelson Mandela

My memory is not what it used to be.

Then again, it never was.

I wanted to write a post about something I saw on TV a long time ago and how it affected me. But when I started factchecking what I saw, it turns out that what I remember didn’t actually happen. Some people would blame this on the Mandela Effect, saying it really did happen, but the lines of history have changed. Others would simply acknowledge that memory is not as reliable as we generally want it to be.

Here’s what I remember: in the 1970s there were frequent television specials called celebrity roasts. These were staged like tributes to performers such as Bob Hope or Lucille Ball, but instead of honoring their careers and achievements, these shows made the honorees the brunt of jokes and humorous insults. The roasts were, of course, heavily scripted. The episode I remember honored Orson Welles. The reason I remember that episode is that, at the end, when the honoree got to stand and respond to all the evening’s speeches, Welles deliberately jettisoned the script that had been prepared for him and gave sincere, spontaneous, and glowing tributes to all the entertainers who had just spent the hour insulting him. I would like to think that Welles’ graceful and kind example helped me to mature at least a little bit, realizing that it is classier to be kind to others than to return insults with insults.

The Internet confirms that dozens of such specials were filmed and broadcast in the 1970s. Dean Martin was the host for all these roasts except the one in which he was honored, when Don Rickles hosted. Rich Little and Nipsey Russell were frequent speakers at these roasts. I thought I remembered Paul Lynde being on them often, but he only spoke at two roasts. In addition to the many comedians that were involved, occasionally athletes were honored. Two politicians—Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan—also received the gauntlet of the roast.

But although Orson Welles was a speaker at several of these roasts, he was never honored with a roast. My memory of his gracious kindness is a false memory.

Well, not entirely false.

A little further digging has shown that, on October 5, 1978, James Stewart was honored with a roast. Orson Welles was one of the speakers. When Welles rose to speak, he discarded his script and gave Stewart a heart-felt tribute based on memories of experiences they had shared. When Stewart had his opportunity to speak at the end of the event, he responded to Welles in the same spirit. It is possible that he also spoke kindly of the other speakers.

It is natural that, because of Welles’ classy behavior at this roast, I would think of him as the featured star rather than merely one of the speakers at the event. This is why factchecking is important: human memory is quite fallible.

Here’s another example: I remember hearing an exciting baseball game on the radio in 1984. The Cubs and the Cardinals were playing in Wrigley Field, and my parents and I were weeding the garden behind our house as we listened on a small transistor radio. The game was tied in the eighth inning, and the Cubs had put in their star reliever, Lee Smith, to preserve the tie. The pitcher was due to bat sixth in the bottom of the inning, so it seemed like a safe move to bring in Smith. (Baseball fans will understand the strategy.) But the plan backfired. In the bottom of the eighth inning, the Cubs found themselves still in a scoreless tie, with the bases loaded, two outs, and their best relief pitcher coming to the plate. Relief pitchers rarely are called to hit. They are almost a certain out. And, indeed, Smith did strike out in that at bat. But not before Leon Durham stole home. Smith returned in the ninth to finish the game and earn the victory in a 1-0 game.

Last year I went through microfilmed records of old newspapers to find the description and account of that game. Most of it happened just the way I remember it. But Lee Smith was not the pitcher who came to bat with the bases loaded and two outs in the bottom of the eighth inning. The pitcher’s name was Warren Brusstar. And while Brusstar was a decent pitcher who won eight games and saved eight games in his three seasons with the Cubs, he was no Lee Smith.

Why would I remember Lee Smith coming to bat instead of Warren Brusstar? Because Smith was the star reliever for the Cubs that year; he was the kind of pitcher you would want to leave in the game to pitch the ninth inning. In fact, I have no idea why Smith did not pitch in that game. Maybe he was injured, or maybe he had pitched a lot the day before. But for many years, whenever I remembered that game, I had the wrong pitcher in mind.

My memory is not what it used to be.

Then again, it never was. J.

Cold in the Heartland

The blast of Arctic air that has moved across the Heartland this week brings me memories of other winters. Growing up in the Heartland, I was accustomed to a few days some years when the high temperature of the day was below zero degrees F. I was also accustomed to a few days some years when the high temperature of the day was above one hundred degrees F. We learned to live with such extremes, although central heating and air conditioning made the living far easier.

When I was a boy, I watched Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin as they walked on the moon. When winter came, I chose to imitate their excursion in our back yard. The temperature was five degrees below zero, so it was important to leave no skin exposed; but that was just the point. I was dressing up as an astronaut, putting on double layers of shirt and pants, thick socks, black boots (which had five buckles each), mittens on my hands, a heavy coat with a hood, a stocking cap under the hood, and a scarf across my face. Dressed in that fashion, I went through the back door and backwards down the steps, making a giant leap for mankind. I observed the scenery, took samples of the snow, and played astronaut to my heart’s content. For the next couple of years, whenever the weather gave me the opportunity, I repeated the experience, leaving footprints that would never fade, since there is no atmosphere—and hence no wind or rain—on the moon.

It’s hard to describe the difference of a day below zero to people who are miserable when the temperature falls below forty degrees F. Snow has a different sound when you walk on it in the deep cold of winter—instead of crunching, it squeaks. Frozen fog is a sight to see—ice crystals hanging in the air, not falling as flakes. The coldest days come with clear skies, as the snow reflects the light and heat of the sun back into space. That sunlight glaring off the snow can almost blind a person, especially a person wearing glasses that have just become coated with frost when they hit the cold air.

Heartlanders in general, and Chicagoans in particular, are proud of our ability to face all kinds of weather calmly and stoically. We laugh at dwellers of the desert who come to visit in August and wilt, even though the temperature is only ninety degrees, because the relative humidity is also ninety. We laugh at the foreigners who bundle into their heaviest coats when the first snow falls in October and then take pictures of themselves and each other. We know how to drive in the snow, and we sneer at those who slide off the road. Harsh weather makes us strong, able to face any difficulty, unlikely to be overcome by adversity.

The story is told of a Heartlander who died a couple of years ago; he was sent to the devil’s prison for his sins. The devil knew this Heartlander to be a tough man, so he tried his best to make him miserable. He cranked the thermostat up high, but the Heartlander simply relaxed and said, “Feels like a July day back home.” Annoyed, the devil turned the temperature even higher, but all he heard was, “Feels like the middle of August back home.” The devil decided to try the opposite extreme and turned the air conditioner on full blast. Soon fog was swirling, icicles were forming, and even the devil himself begin to shiver. Satan smiled, though, as he heard the man running around in the fog shouting at the top of his voice. Strangely, though, the man did not sound unhappy. Satan lost his smile when he heard what the man was shouting: “The Cubs won the World Series! The Cubs won the World Series!” J.

Childhood injuries

I had a mostly-healthy childhood, except for the summer I turned six. That’s when I fell off the basement steps and hit my head, and a short time later I was wrongly diagnosed with asthma.

My family lived in a ranch house that had a largely unfinished basement. The top of the steps faced the back door of the house: to reach the basement, one took four steps down facing west, stopped at a landing and turned, and took eight steps down facing north. The first four steps were enclosed by walls, but the other eight steps had only a handrail, with open space on either side. That is why, when I fell, I did not fall down the stairs. I fell off the stairs, landing head-first on the cement floor.

I do not remember the fall, so I don’t know what I was doing that caused me to fall off the steps. My mother was in the basement and heard me cry when I hit the floor. She feared a concussion and raced me to the hospital after leaving a note for my father. My sister rode to the hospital with us, and she remembers talking with me, making sure I stayed awake, because of a common misperception at that time that a person with a concussion would slip into a coma if he or she fell asleep.

I remember being in the hospital. I was in a ward for children, one with several crib-like beds. I must have been there several days, because I remember that my bed had become a rat’s nest including a few toys from home, hand-made get-well cards from my sister, and coins from well-wishers who I no longer remember. Across the room was a girl named Rosie. One day I scrawled a message to her and tried to toss it to her, but it fell short. She cried, but I remained calm. I pressed the call button and asked the nurse to pick up the message and hand it to Rosie. I remember her name because I named a toy for her, a pale blue rabbit with a rose atop its head.

I was home and convalescing when I had my next medical episode. I was playing with a toy called Rig-a-jig. (see image below) The plastic shapes could be connected in a number of ways, either by putting them sideways tab to tab, or by connecting two tabs with red plastic tubes, the shortest of which was about half an inch long. An almost endless list of projects could be produced by attaching the pieces together. But sometimes the plastic pieces got stuck to one another and were hard to separate. That was the case that day—one of the short plastic tubes was stuck on the tab of one of the colored shapes. Being six, I had the bad judgment to try to loosen the tube with my teeth. I succeeded, but the tube went down my throat. Once again, my mother rushed me to the hospital, where I was X-rayed. The plastic tube did not appear on the X-ray, so the doctor decided that it had gone into my stomach and would pass through my digestive tract without causing any harm.

No one connected that event with the fact that I almost immediately developed symptoms of asthma—the characteristic wheezing sound of asthma when I breathed, which worsened when I exerted myself and had to breathe more deeply. I was not allowed to play outdoors—even my first-grade recess times were spent in the classroom. I came home from school as quickly as possible, which meant that I was always wheezing strongly when I came in the front door. Tests were scheduled to determine which allergens were responsible for my symptoms. Only a couple days before the scheduled tests, I coughed out the plastic tube, and my symptoms disappeared.

When I brought the phlegm-coated tube to my mother, she at first accused me of swallowing a second tube. When I insisted that I was not holding a second tube, but that it was the first one that had disappeared down my throat earlier, and when she noticed that I was no longer wheezing, she called the doctor and canceled the tests. He asked if he could have the tube to show his colleagues. Evidently, I had inhaled the tube and it had lodged in a bronchus, from where it produced the noises that sounded like asthma when I breathed.

Children sometimes do foolish or careless things that cause them harm. I’ve been to the emergency room with my own children more than once. But none of them has ever inhaled a piece of a toy, I am glad to say. Repeating their father’s mistake would be doubly foolish. J.

 

rigajig

A watched pot/making ragout

They say that a watched pot never boils.

That is, of course, a figure of speech. Set on a working burner that is turned on, a watched pot of water will eventually come to a boil. In fact, two pots of water—one closely observed and the other ignored—will come to a boil at the same time, given that all the variables—amount of water, starting temperature, and so on—are identical.

But the meaning of the expression is this: when you are waiting for a change to occur and you are paying attention to the process and watching for the change, it seems to take a lot longer than if you keep yourself busy with other matters and do not focus all your attention on the change you anticipate.

But that literal statement is far less poetic than, “A watched pot never boils.”

When I was a boy, I used to love to watch a pot of water come to a boil. First come the wisps of steam that indicate that the water is getting hotter. Then small bubbles begin to form on the bottom and sides of the pot. They grow bigger, until some of them rise to the surface and pop. More and more bubbles form, bigger and bigger bubbles, coming faster and faster, until finally the entire pot of water is at a roiling boil.

As a man, I don’t generally have time to watch water come to a boil. Usually other tasks need to be done—tend to the sauce, put away the spices, set the table—so when the water is boiling, I can drop in the pasta and know that the meal is just a few minutes away from being served.

Last night I made ragout. (For those who don’t know, “ragout” rhymes with Magoo.) Like goulash, ragout is a hearty stew which can be prepared in hundreds of different ways, from a planned recipe to “clean out the refrigerator and use whatever hasn’t spoiled.” My ragout recipe has developed over time and resembles spaghetti sauce, but with lots of vegetables as well as meat. I start with onions, garlic, green pepper, celery, and carrots, chopping each ingredient and then tossing the pieces into a skillet which has been heating a little vegetable oil. I add them in that order, so that the onions cook the longest and the carrots the shortest amount of time, keeping them crisp. Next I empty the skillet into a bowl and place 1 ½ pounds of meat in the skillet. I use a mixture of ground beef and pork sausage, but 1 ½ pounds of either would work too. When the meat is browned, I drain the grease and immediately add a cup of burgundy and a small can of tomato paste. I stir the mixture until the meat is coated, then add the spices: a bay leaf, a tablespoon of Italian Seasoning (a blend of oregano, thyme, and parsley), a teaspoon of chili powder, a teaspoon of cinnamon, and a teaspoon of Worchester sauce. Then I open and drain a can of mushroom pieces and add it to the sauce; also a large can of diced tomatoes. All this takes about forty-five minutes. Stir thoroughly, bring to a simmer, and leave at a simmer for another half an hour, stirring occasionally. During that half hour, I boil the pasta. I prefer egg noodles, but elbow macaroni or just about any other pasta would do as well.

The leftovers warm nicely in a microwave for lunches the rest of the week.

While the sauce simmered, and after the table was set, I got to watch the water come to a boil. It was just like being a boy again in my mother’s kitchen. J.

“Your dreams are within reach” “Yeah, right”

“Your dreams are within reach.” So promises a sign outside a church I pass every morning on my way to work. Some days I like to think this wish is true. This morning I rather hope that my dreams remain out of reach.

The earliest part of my dreams last night that I remember featured Elvis Presley berating me for the condition of my body. But afterward I was outside my house, trying to set up the grounds for croquet. (When I dream about “my house,” it generally resembles my childhood home, even though that building is no longer standing.) I found that I was unable to place the wickets as I wanted. From that I concluded that the house must have shifted, making the yard smaller. I then tried to hammer one of the stakes into the hard ground. My effort broke open a hole that led to the basement of the house. My father was in that basement, trying to fix the sump pump and not succeeding. The dream concluded with me driving to the grocery store, only to have the car stall at the entrance to the parking lot. By pressing the accelerator while turning the key, I was able to get the car to move forward. With considerable effort, I twisted the steering wheel and coasted into a parking spot. I went into the store and asked to use the phone to tell my family the car was broken. When I dialed, I got the voice mail message, which had been changed by a relative who does not live in our house and had no business messing with our message.

Why would I dream about so many things going wrong in my life? I was jittery yesterday over a number of small reasons. My daughter, who hurt her foot last month in a freak accident, was to have surgery yesterday morning. Her driver took her to the office early in the morning and they waited for a while, only to realize that the surgery is scheduled for Wednesday the 23rd, not Wednesday the 16th. My daughter called home to tell me about the mistake. While we were talking, I heard another voice in or around the house. At first I assumed that two neighbors were having a conversation near the house. When I returned to breakfast, it struck me that the sounds did not resemble a conversation between two people. (You can tell that I was not trying to spy on my neighbors.) For a while I considered that it might be one neighbor talking on a cell phone, but that still didn’t seem to match the sounds I was hearing. When I went into the living room, I found a cell phone on the table that was taking, repeatedly saying “hello” in several different languages. Last weekend my daughters recharged several old cell phones, prior to turning them in for a refund. They did not realize that alarms were still set on these phones. So I’ve been turning off music every morning this week. Hearing unfamiliar voices in the morning, though, left me with a very unsettled feeling.

Feeling unsettled made me overreact when I went on Facebook that morning. I don’t often visit Facebook any more, but sometimes I like to see what family members are saying. One of the first things I saw was a post by my sister which told how to cope with toxic family members. Because I was feeling jittery, my first reaction was to think she was putting me in that category. I know that is not the case; she tends to share things she thinks will help somebody somewhere, whether or not they are relevant to her own life and circumstances. In fact, when I went back later to read the entire article, I could see that it had nothing to do with me. But that’s the frame of mind I was in yesterday, ready to believe the worst about myself from even the slightest and vaguest suggestion.

One reason I am feeling so unstable is uncertainty about my career. I have two or three possibilities before me. One is that things remain as they are. Another is that I might be offered a full-time job in another state. The position has been open for nearly a year, and the committee in charge of hiring has had my name suggested to them, among others. I have yet to hear from them to arrange an interview, but I have good reason to believe that they have not quite reached the step of interviewing anyone yet. If I were offered the job, I would almost certainly take it. Some days I feel certain that it will happen, and I just have to trust God for the timing. Other times I feel as if it will certainly not happen. This winter when I saw cars with license plates from that state, I treated them as a secret message that the job will be offered. But on other days I rolled my eyes and said, “Yeah, right,” when I saw those license plates.

On one of the second kind of days I got a phone call with a new offer. This would be part-time instead of full-time. I would have to keep my current full-time job to have health insurance, but the net pay would increase, even though I would have to drop one current part-time job. The drive to this new position would be about an hour each way, but I wouldn’t have to do it more than twice a week, most weeks of the year. This offer is on the table, mine if I want it. But I don’t know whether to accept, particularly while the full-time possibility remains hanging in unknown territory.

For those of you who are so inclined, I would appreciate your prayers. I could use some wisdom, but also a lot of comfort and inner strength. Also, please pray for both these positions, that they would acquire the servants who are best for them. And while you’re at it, please don’t forget my daughter. She would really like this foot problem to heal, and to do so correctly. J.

Kathy

Last night being the first of several at my sister’s house for a late Christmas celebration, I slept lightly, and I remembered all of my dreams in the morning. Most of them included the theme of bringing order out of chaos, needing to clean up a large area filled with trash. Sometimes the mess was at work, sometimes at home. Invariably I was aware that a few valuable items were scattered within the trash, and I feared that they would be lost. Most of the other workers in the various dreams seemed content, though, to stand around and converse aimlessly with one another rather than getting involved in the work.

Oddly enough, Kathy appeared in two of those dreams. Kathy and I attended the same elementary school and junior high school, in which we were in the same homeroom. We also attended the same high school, but followed different paths which rarely crossed. She was one of the popular girls—cheerleader, athlete, pep club, and student government. I was involved in the band and orchestra, the school newspaper, and the spring musicals. Kathy was one of the truly attractive girls in junior high and senior high school. She was lovely in appearance, but not vain, gentle in manner, kind without being condescending. She was one of a trio of girls who always sat together at the beginning of the school year, when the teacher organized the desks in alphabetic order. Later in the school year, when the teacher allowed us to choose our own desks, the three friends remained together. Only if the teacher tried to rearrange the seating to split apart friends (for better order in the classroom, or so they said) did those three become scattered; and of course many opportunities arose during the course of the day for them to reconnect—to eat lunch together, or exercise together in Physical Education, or visit in the hallways between classes.

In one of last night’s dreams, Kathy was sitting at a table when I walked past. She stood, hugged me, kissed me on the mouth, smiled and said something friendly that I can no longer remember, and then sat again. I can assure you that in all our years of school together, she never did such a thing to me—not even once.

In the later dream, she and I both knew that it was Tuesday and that the lunch that was to be served on Tuesday was particularly repulsive. I knew of a couple of good restaurants across the street from where we were cleaning, and I wanted to invite her to join me for lunch. To the end of the dream, though, I failed to work up the courage to approach her with my invitation.

This morning, with Kathy still at the edges of my memory, I typed into Google® her name and our hometown. I learned that she had graduated college, gotten married, worked as a nurse, and had two sons. She was respected and well-liked by her coworkers and the patients she served. However, Kathy died almost one year ago. The comments that followed her obituary glowed with praise for her life of service and her kind and helpful personality.

I cannot guess what brought Kathy’s image into my dreams last night. Of all my classmates from those early days of school, she is scarcely the most memorable. We never became friends, as we truly had few common interests. Of all the dreams in all the unfamiliar bedrooms in all my travels over the years, why did she have to come into mine last night? J.

 

O Christmas tree (Oh, nuts)

The story so far:

Last May we had a fire on our property—a good-sized storage shed/workshop went up in flames. The cause was a fault in an electrical outlet. As I was driving home after I got the news, I prayed two things: that the fire would not spread to the house, and that no one would be injured. Both prayers were answered. Less important, but also in my hopes, were the Christmas decorations in the back of the shed. Arriving home and seeing that most of the damage had been in the front of the shed, I continued to have hope for a while longer.

But the fire traveled up from the outlet into the rafters and then was carried to the back of the shed, where the decorations were stored. Most of those boxes were scorched, and many of their contents were singed. These contents included many ceramic ornaments and decorations that were hand-made by my mother, who is no longer around to restore or replace such items. Others were special gifts from other years, or special purchases from past Christmases.

The insurance company was very helpful, paying one company to tear down and replace the shed, paying another company to clean items that could be cleaned, and paying us replacement costs for ruined items we did replace and partial value for items we chose not to replace. Most of the cleaned items were returned to us at the beginning of November. I found the autumn decorations and was pleased with their condition. Now, as Christmas approaches, I am gradually unpacking those decorations and placing them around the house.

Our seven-foot artificial Christmas tree had been on the floor of the shed, underneath the other decorations. The cleaners firmly said—before we even had a chance to ask—that they do not clean Christmas trees. I set the tree up in the driveway to air, then left it in the garage until the new shed was completed. This week I finally brought it into the house. My family and I have looked at new trees in the stores, but nothing available now appeals to us. Many of the new trees come with lights already permanently installed, and the Salvageable family does not work that way.

When I was a boy, my father trained me to decorate Christmas trees with a very high standard of perfection. Every light must be attached to a branch; none of the lights can float in midair between branches or merely lay on top of a branch. They must be installed several inches down the branch so there is room to hang ornaments. They must go deep into the tree to give it full dimensions instead of being a cone of lights. In all my years of decorating Christmas trees, I have always insisted on following my father’s method.

I bought eight new strings of lights, each with 150 bulbs. That’s 1,200 bulbs to be placed firmly on branches. As I put them on the tree, I noticed a faint odor of smoke still lingering in the tree. I also noticed dirt gathering under my fingernails. The tree is fifteen years old, so some of that dirt could be from other years rather than ash from the fire. We bought this tree one January after the previous tree had toppled as my son added trucks and dinosaurs to its decorations. It remains full and lifelike, although five of the branches are held to the trunk by twist-ties. When all the lights were attached, I continued with other duties, such as picking up a daughter from dance class and getting the garbage out to the curb. While finishing the latter task, I saw that all the lights on the tree had gone dark. Not wanting to spend more time on it that night, I unplugged it and left it alone.

The next day it was found that only the bottom string on the tree was malfunctioning. I removed it from the tree and checked carefully for breaks in the cord, thinking that a cat may have chewed on the tree and cut the cord. Second I checked for loose bulbs. When both inspections failed to reveal a problem, I decided to change the fuses in the plug of the cord. Suffice it to say that, in an effort to remove and replace those fuses, further damage occurred to the plug, making the string’s replacement inevitable.

Before going to the store, I looked again at the instructions for the cords and learned that the old method of stringing all the cords as one line no longer works with modern lights. No more than three strings can be plugged in together. This appeared to mean that I would have to strip all the lights from the tree and reattach them. At the store, however, an extension cord was found to solve just that problem—the cord has three sets of outlets along its length, so it can be wound through the tree and bring power to all the lights.

I brought home that cord and the new string of lights, only to discover that I had grabbed the wrong package of lights—the cord was white instead of green. So that meant another trip to the store to make the exchange.

Today the tree has lights, but not yet any ornaments. Six boxes in the shed contain Christmas tree ornaments. (I hope one of them also contains the missing pieces to the manger scene—it is short an angel and two sheep and one other figure, probably a shepherd). Maybe tonight and tomorrow, and possibly stretching through the week, those boxes will be brought into the house, each individual ornament unwrapped, inspected, and lovingly placed on the tree. Many memories will be renewed. And we will have our Christmas tree throughout the coming twelve days of Christmas. J.

Stream of consciousness

…when your doctor changes all your medications—blood pressure, allergy, and mood control—at the end of November, so that the first week of December you cannot assess which things are shaping your approach to life: the change in medication; dark, gloomy skies; later sunrises and earlier sunsets; an allergy to oak leaves and their dust; pressure of the holiday season; the latest senseless obsession; traffic and bad drivers; tedious tasks at work….

Listen: When I was a teen-aged boy, my mother would bring me to the county fairgrounds on the day when all the 4-H members in the county would bring in their projects to be judged and displayed. In the morning I would help check in the wood-working exhibits—woodworking! (And all these years later, I still can’t complete a decent woodworking project. It’s taken me all fall to finish the task of rebuilding a wooden rail around the front steps. A decent carpenter could do the work in half a day, but I’m doing the same steps three or four times to get it right, and often walking away for days in disgust before I can return to the task.) Anyhow, when all the projects were checked in, I would go over to the Home Economics building, with its 4-H exhibits of cooking, baking, canning, sewing, knitting, crocheting, macramé, ceramics, flower arranging, table setting, and the like. Each category was being measured by a different judge, who would award blue, red, or white ribbons and then select champion projects from the blue ribbon winners, while a person such as my mother would record the judge’s remarks on each exhibit. My job that afternoon was to gather all the sheets of paper containing judges’ remarks and arrange them alphabetically by exhibitor name. Each 4-H exhibitor could then come to the fair and pick up the judges’ remarks for all of his or her exhibits. Little did I know at the time that this annual task would prepare me more for my present career than all the classes I took in college and in graduate school.

For some years ago Mr. X and his secretary arranged all his incoming mail and copies of outgoing mail in folders by the month. Now these papers are being saved for researchers to study Mr. X and his boss. But no one is going to care what letters Mr. X received and sent in February 1985. No, they will want to know if Mr. Y sent a letter to Mr. X or his boss in 1985 or 1986. So I am taking boxes of folders, removing all the letters, and arranging them alphabetically by year, just like those 4-H forms from long ago. My task is not to read and interpret the letters. All I’m here to do is arrange the letters and describe the arrangement in a database so other people can come here and read and interpret them.

Meanwhile, we have a sick cat at home. About three weeks ago he suddenly lost his balance so badly that he could barely walk. We asked ourselves what could afflict a cat so suddenly: a stroke? MS? ALS? Guillen-Barre? The veterinarian suspected an inner ear infection and started the cat on steroids and antibiotics. He (the cat) has gotten better, but we cannot be sure how much is due to clearing the infection and how much is due to his ability to adjust to continuous vertigo and (perhaps) double vision. He can walk and even run a little, but his jumping is limited to beds and couches—this of a cat who regularly patrolled the top of six-foot-tall bookcases, not to mention the china cabinet and the grandfather clock. He seems content with his lot rather than unhappy. But, when walking or sitting, he tilts his head to one side as if that helps him see things better. It’s cute and endearing, but also heartbreaking because he never did that before.

And why do WordPress and Createspace both demand that I review my work one more time before I can publish it? I always write in Microsoft Word and read through the text several times to make corrections before I copy and paste it. Why do these companies assume that I’m handing in a rough draft that needs another look before it can be shared?

And we are gradually unpacking the Christmas decorations which were sent out for cleaning after our fire last May. They are all in good shape, except for an occasional stain here or there, nothing intolerable. But they were not packed by the cleaners in any sort of discernable pattern. So at present we have a manger scene with ceramic figures of Mary and Joseph, shepherds, wise men, camels, and angels—but no baby in a manger yet, and no sheep. And other random items are similarly appearing in the house as we unpack one box at a time. Still, life goes on, and it’s hard to know how to feel….

J.