Making sense

Anne Lamott, on writing ...

"We are a species that needs and wants to understand who we are. Sheep lice do not seem to share this longing, which is one reason why they write so little. But we do. We have so much we want to say and figure out.”

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Not just a house

Last night, scrolling through Facebook -- casually -- while watching another sad episode of Hoarders (where do they get these people?), there it was, on my husband's cousin's page: pictures of our old house, the one on Church Road,  the Louisville house, high on the hill -- thirty-five pictures of exterior and interior shots. It's on the market: $305K.
My heart immediately sank. Felt sick to my stomach.
That five-bedroom, 3,800-square foot, two-story house, with its dramatic loft and amazing laundry room (yes, laundry rooms can be amazing) and two-bedrooms-down-three-bedrooms-up-three-bath house is for sale. It sits, gloriously, like it's proud of itself, on three acres of fertile Nebraska farmland. Even though it was the house my husband and I poured blood, sweat, and tears into back in 1997 -- we nearly divorced trying to get the behemoth finished -- it's the sister-in-law that's selling it. My husband's sister, the one who looks just like him, only way prettier.
Their great-great-great-great (?) grandfather, along with his two brothers, left Germany in the mid-1850s to take advantage of America's Homestead Act. The Stander boys lay claim to several hundred acres and set up their new lives. Not knowing any English, they knew hard work and how to get crops to grow and within thirty years they were well-established farmers outside the Village of Louisville, which, currently, boasts a population of about a thousand.
My husband left the farm in 1977, a newly graduated senior, to serve in the United States Air Force. One of his brothers was already in Western Nebraska, married with a few children; two other brothers stayed in town. Not one of the boys chose farming. One sister took to nursing in Lincoln; the other married, had two boys and got a job as an LPN in a nearby small-town clinic. Their mom, sadly widowed at age 50, remained in a house on the original homestead. She never remarried.
My husband, whom I married in 1985, told me early on, when I asked, that there weren't enough acres to farm successfully -- the land had been parceled too many times to great-uncles and uncles -- and each time there was fighting and gnashing of teeth. That's not how it's going to be with me and my siblings, my husband said. All that fighting stops with us. And, apparently, it has. No one has fought over or is currently fighting to keep what remains of the original homestead.
His sister, who never married, is living in the gargantuan house we put there in 1997 -- she and my mother-in-law, who's now 84 and getting frailer and less mobile. That's why the SIL is selling the house. Neither she nor her mother, obviously, are in good enough physical condition to maintain the large home and the three acres it's sitting on. If you've never been to Nebraska, let me tell you now that the winters there are harsh -- lots of blizzards -- and the wind never seems to stop blowing, pick a month, any month, and it's windy as hell most days.
We had lived in the house (that nearly destroyed our marriage) only a year and a half when my husband got a job transfer back to Kansas City. To be frank, I was okay with the move. You can take a girl out of the city, but you cannot take the city out of a girl, and let's just say that I was not destined for rural life. One day I will write multiple essays about my failed prairie life existence. You will laugh a little (there was a bull with a ring in his nose that lived next door ... he hated me and tried to kill me on multiple occasions); you will cry a little (I missed my family; I missed grocery stores; I missed neighbors). One of the essays will feature a totally true telling of the Red-Eyed Locusts Outbreak of 1997. Scary shit.
What I did feel bad about was selling the house that sat on homesteaded land. Before the Stander boys put down their stakes, only Native Americans roamed that part of the prairie. For me, it was a Pretty Big Fucking Deal that the house stay within the Stander family. After much advocacy and a dangled financial carrot (we lost $40,000 on the transaction), we "sold" the property to my husband's sister. She and my husband's mother moved in together. And they stayed there for the next fifteen years.
Only now Catherine is officially old, and Mary Kay is no spring chicken AND she has bad knees and is looking at retirement (she's 63?) and wants a way smaller house, one she can manage, and to get that way smaller house, she's going to move into town. Louisville.
Which explains why the beautiful home sitting at 34410 Church Road in Louisville, Nebraska, is for sale.
What is not fully explained to me is why I care so much. I'm not the Stander. Yeah, I married one, but my (Irish-immigrant) McDowell blood still runs through my veins. I am a city girl through and through. I have zero desire to return to that house to live in it (nice to visit; wouldn't want to live there). Would be nice, I think, to keep it in the family ... if I had $305K lying around I'd buy the house and turn it into a writers retreat. There are private bedrooms with built-in desks and sweeping, panoramic views of the prairie. Sunsets are particularly gorgeous. A person could get a lot done staying in that house for a month, two months. There's no Starbucks, no nearby shopping Plaza to distract. There are several bars in town to get a drink-on, but that's to be expected. Small-town life generally features equal amounts of churches and bars.
So I'll play the lottery hard -- the old college try -- but I know it won't be long before a non-Stander comes buy and snatches it up. The property is certainly priced to sell, fast.
It really is a beautiful, expansive, spacious, comfortable house. One with 150-plus years of German immigrant history.
I wish it, and the next family to enjoy it, all the best.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Was I Drunk When I Mentioned Iowa?

It's snowing. Again.
Which brings to my Kansas City neighborhood, approximately a foot of the white stuff that is far prettier to look at than to navigate a two-ton vehicle around in. Is that grammatical, that sentence? I don't care.
Twelve inches of snow means my anxiety is high. Hypochondriacal thinking peaks right along with new mounds of snow: What if ambulances cannot get to me in time, supposing I fall over in the kitchen (myocardial infarction) trying to scramble the morning eggs? What if emergency personnel do arrive in timely fashion but then get delayed on the Interstate because Audis and P.T. Cruisers are sideways in the middle of the road. What then?
Twelve inches of snow means I am stuck indoors, freezing my cahunas. Not sure if I spelled that right. Don't care. It's friggin' cold in here. I have on two pairs of socks and furry indoor booties. I cannot feel my toes. Because of cold temps, my arthritis (assuming I have arthritis) in my left shoulder, left elbow, and left wrist acts up. I think, because I know probably too much about heart disease signs and symptoms, that this pain is of cardiac origin and there exists a real possibility that falling over in the kitchen isn't just hyperbole.
Twelve inches of snow means I am still in my pajamas and ratty robe, the one I bought for the hospital when I had Elizabeth ... in 1991. It is too cold to shower; it is too cold and snowy to venture outdoors. Why bother getting dressed. Right? I am torn apart with this thinking, however. If I should collapse in the kitchen while scrambling eggs, shouldn't I be dressed when the paramedics do arrive? Should I try harder to be prepared?
About five years ago, in casual conversation during a neighborhood get-together, in the midst of August heat (think 102 degrees), we fifty-somethings started talking about retirement and where we were going to land once and if we ever got a satisfactory price out of the homes we've been living in for the last fifteen to twenty years. Someone said Texas; another, Florida.
"Iowa!" I blurted. "Where it's winter more than it's not and it never gets over a hundred."
My husband, who started out on the Nebraska prairie in 1959, agreed. We looked at each other and nodded our heads. Yes, Iowa. We could see ourselves retiring there, out on some small green acreage, unburdened with city crime and air pollution.
The next morning, when we awakened, all cotton-mouthed and head-achey from the prior night's revelry, we remembered what we'd said. Iowa still sounded good to us. Field of Dreams was a mutual favorite. What's the famous line from the movie? Is this Heaven? No, it's Iowa ... . We'd visited the film site already, taken a dozen pictures, run the bases that, really are, to this day, set up in the middle of a cornfield right there in blue-skied Iowa.
But that was five years ago and two dozen snowfalls ago, and now I have changed my mind.
That should be my prerogative, being a woman and all. Also, I am five years older and more arthritic and hypochondriacal. Retiring in snowy, ass-cold Iowa is not where I need to be.
Not Iowa. Not Nebraska. Not Missouri, unless we head south.
Kentucky. On this miserably cold day, I'm thinking Kentucky. And I'm not drunk, so maybe I'm on to something. Unless great change happens in my/our lives. Maybe one of our kids will get married, settle down, procreate.
And if that happens, I'm retiring to wherever the grandchildren are.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Grown-Up Accounting

So I'm trying to get life insurance. I want to leave some sort of financial legacy if I should kick it sometime soon, or, as is the case with my (proposed) twenty-year term limit life insurance policy, within the next two decades.
Although I've long thought about dying -- I'm a neurotic sort -- it's occurred to me, as I near fifty, that people my age do, in fact, die, and when someone dies at fifty, people shake their heads and say, Oh, so young, but it's not the same kind of head shaking that happens when someone eight or eighteen passes. Now THAT's tragic. For people my age, the body starts deteriorating: There's cancer. A lot of cancer. And sudden heart attacks.
Like many people who think about their deaths, and hope they get to be ancient and die in their sleep, without a conscious last-breath clue, I can easily picture myself, being visual and all, my own Last Day. There I will lie, in the Death-Is-Approaching Bed, all veiny and wrinkly and smelling of lavender and stale urine, a metal pitcher bedside filled with icy water. I picture beautiful music present in the background, something flute-y or piano-y or harp-y. And candles. Maybe incense. Ideally, I will be surrounded by my three children and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Probably my husband will already be gone -- he's seven years older and prone to high blood pressure -- and I will not remarry should my sweet man predecease me, so it's with great likelihood that the people surrounding me as I die will be biological offspring. Maybe a sister or two. A cousin. Possibly, although this is a long shot, some long-suffering friends. (I am not a very good friend. Ask people who are friends with me. I never call or invite my friends over. They make an outing date and I say, Yeah, that sounds like great fun, but then that date approaches and I would rather take a bath or read a new book or roll around on the floor with my dogs.)
In my ideal death scenario, as my respirations decline slowly, slowly, slowly, I will see Jesus waiting for me at the end of that bright light we've all heard about, and there will be Mother Mary, in her beautiful blue robe, with her slender arms outstretched, waiting to receive me. On the sidelines will be my grandmother Dorothy, holding an enormous jar of dill pickles (this makes great sense to me); and my mom and dad, who will greet me with hot cups of coffee and an open Scrabble board, maybe even a Winston Red; and my Aunt Jannie, who makes me think always of pink cotton candy, I don't know why; and possibly my favorite teacher, Miss Pagna, who was the reason I taught school to begin with; and my husband, of course. My guy who loved me through all my neuroses and shenanigans and fluffy-cloud-unicorn thinking. He's going to be there, all strong and tall and smell-good-y. Also welcoming me will be all the dogs I've known and loved: Midge, Blackie, Fluffy, Barney, Taffy, Sunny, Bella, Millie ... and each will be freshly bathed, healthy and bark-y, but the good bark-y, not the annoying bark-y. They will dance around my feet and I will magically have endless peanut butter spoons to lay at their feet.
Heaven is going to smell like cinnamon rolls and espresso and a baby's neck, right after its bath.
Now, at age 48, I must prepare for my eventual passing, even though I desperately hope it's another thirty, forty, dare I say, fifty years away. I love life, I mean, I get a huge fucking kick out of being alive, and I sure hope there's more in store for me. I want symphonies and concerts and crab legs and black-tie dinners and Christmas Eves and ocean holidays. I'm greedy.
I want there to be more in store for my husband, too, and our three children, all of whom are adults and poor (the children, not the husband) because they have liberal arts degrees and have to pull espresso shots at Starbucks just to get health insurance. They are suffocating under enormous student loan debt, and it brings me great joy, therefore, to think that when I die I can bequeath money, enough to clear their frigging academic debt and maybe allow for a European vacation.
When I worked full time, I think I had a $100K policy. Now that I am not working, I have a $0.00 policy. The hubby carries $10K on me, which is enough to bury my corpse and/or cremate me (I'll let him decide should I die first) and maybe have a small get-together, but not enough to be preserved in a fancy coffin and/or urn suitable for important placement and then have cold shrimp served at my wake. I think it would also be nice to hire an improv comedy troupe to perform at my service. I have no idea how much that would cost. Do you? For sure, I want a readers theatre group, small in size, from the local high school (if such schools still exist when I die at 92, which is the age I've aiming for). I want the group to read portions of Thornton Wilder's Our Town, concentrating on the part where the woman who died in childbirth exclaims, Oh Earth, does anyone realize how wonderful you really are? and then goes on to discuss hot baths and hot cups of coffee and new-ironed dresses.
If my Scrabble-playing parents were still alive, they would tell me that I am being perfectly ridiculous spending any time at all planning my death scene, funeral, and subsequent monetary plans. Possibly my father would be interested to know if I planned on having any George Jones music played at my service, but I know for sure that Mom would tell me, as she lit another cigarette an inch away from her oxygen cannula, that I was a person with a paper head and should spend my time instead making her a big bowl of tapioca pudding.
In about a week, I'll know whether underwriting approves my life insurance plea. I'll know how much money the policy will be worth; I'll know how much my monthly premiums will be. This, this I can intellectualize. I get it: it's grown-up accounting. Responsible living.
Why am I so anxious? It's not like I don't have a plan.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Really, Philip Seymour Hoffman?

Oh, good God, here we go again: another celebrity drug-induced death.
Is it because they're so rich and famous that snorting coke or heroin or shooting up, or whatever the drug lingo is (I don't know; I've never even smoked weed), that being high is the only
way to go higher in life?
I gotta tell you: I am effing pissed off at Philip Seymour Hoffman. Utterly disappointed.
Forty-six too old for him? Had he had enough living?
Look, PSH: You had a pretty damned good life, by all accounts, by how we Americans measure success. An Oscar, a respected acting career (you were the actor's actor, man), money in the bank (bet it's been a long while since you had to pay an overdraft bank fee ~), a freaking glorious apartment in New York City.

Top of the game, Philip, and you decided to roll up your shirtsleeves on Groundhog Day and pump poison into your veins. You selfish, stupid idiot.

Were you not aware that there are other human beings, right now, this very minute (the kind who live month-to-month financially and are anonymous in the world) who are battling cancer and kidney failure and COPD and sickle cell anemia and name Some Other Horrible Disease and they, THEY, are wanting nothing other on this second day of February than to live to see the next second day of February.

I don't get it, I don't get it, I don't get it: the unfairness, the inequity. How some people love life and want only to live and have lives that are cut short through no fault of their own, and then how there are some people who molest children and/or are drug dealers/or steal money from the elderly and/or plant bombs in big cities during marathons and those people live to be freaking 92 years old .

Where is the justice?

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Bucket List - Evolving/Emerging

Came across a forgotten notebook today. Inside, in addition to a day's accounting of what I'd eaten, from Nov. 2, 2013 through Nov. 8 ~I'd enjoyed a pumpkin spice latte at 7:30 a.m. on Monday, Nov. 4 ~ I also discovered a hastily scrawled title several pages later: "My Bucket List," dated March 25, 2013. My mother had died one year prior. Is that why I'd chosen that particular date? Did I need yet one more reminder to actually live my life instead of Dr. Phil-ing my way through each day?
Here's the list, with what I have accomplished since then asterisked:
- Ride in a racecar
- Shoot a gun
- Fly in  a small plane (ideally over the Plaza at Christmas)
- Take a motorcycle ride
- Snow ski
- Ride a horse
- Drive to CMSU at five in the morning (CMSU, now called UCM, was the college where I'd met my husband; located in Warrensburg, Missouri, it is a 90-minute drive ~)
- Ride in a police car (not as a criminal)
- Tour the White House
- Milk a cow *
- Do Open Mic night at a comedy club
- Go to NYC at Christmas
- Learn to speak Spanish
-  Go to England
- Learn to swim
- Learn to play piano
- Own a piano
- Go tanning (I've never been to a tanning salon)
- Vacation in Colorado
- Return to MacDowell
- Publish a book
- Try on an evening dress
- By an evening dress
- Attend a night at the opera

Hmm. Milk a cow. The only Bucket List goal I've met ... involved squeezing (surprisingly) rough, dry teats and getting milk to spray forth. I had taken two of the children I nanny to a local dairy farm. Each of us milked a cow that was the size of a compact car. While the 8-year-old girl screamed her way through the experience, I showed a weird and unexpected expertise. If I remember correctly, it was a proud sort of small victory.