Sunday, January 20, 2019

Southern Snow

It’s snowing down south.
Not really.

The phrase just popped into my head.  It's something my mother used to say.  For the first few years, memories were painful.  Nowadays, I am happy whenever something tweaks recollections of her. 

The white pelicans have returned, as they do each January, gliding across the water like swans.  They swim synchronously, in large clumps.  Sometimes they cover the lagoon behind our house like a white blanket.  But there is no snow here in central Florida, any more than it is in coastal Texas, where I grew up. 
My father woke me early one morning in my seventh winter, and told me to look out the window.  The ground was covered in fluffy white stuff.  It was at most a couple of inches, and very little was left by nightfall.  But while it lasted, we had a ball.   My mother, who grew up in Iowa, tramped down the snow in a circle with a cross in the middle and taught us to play Fox and Goose.  Then we used up most of the snow in the yard to build a snow man with a sarape and sombrero.  A choppy old 8mm movie shows my elfin mother scampering about in her hooded car coat and pedal pushers.  (If you are of a certain age, you will remember that pedal pushers are capri pants). 

Those of a certain age, may also remember another meaning of “It’s snowing down south.” It means, “Your slip is showing.”  Not like the pink slip from the boss.  It’s like a petticoat without ruffles or crinoline.  Just a sleek satiny tube.  Something Diana was not wearing when the paparazzi ambushed her at the nursery school, her legs clearly visible beneath a diaphanous skirt.  There was a time when no self-respecting woman would leave the house without a slip between her skirt and girdle.  Yes, a girdle, even if you were quite thin.  A lady should not jiggle, and besides, you needed a girdle to hold up your hosiery.  But your slip could make an unwelcome appearance.  This was a common occurrence in the late sixties, when the mini-skirt held sway.  Hence the phrase, “It’s snowing down south.”
It can get cold on winter mornings around here.  I cannot find my good black gloves when we take the dog for a walk.  So I have to wear the horrid white fluffy ones that were the last pair left at the Walgreen's next to our hotel in Washington when we were there for a wedding, unprepared for the cold snap.  The gloves are warm, but they make me look like Mickey Mouse.  Or maybe, a mime.  And the fluff drops off.  White flakes drift down and cling to my black corduroy pants.  This makes me smile.

It’s snowing down south.

Sunday, December 9, 2018


Let me say at the outset that I am not a thrill seeker.  Please note that I did NOT say, “nor have I ever been,” although I would contend that the latter statement is true.  Admittedly, some could cite meager evidence to the contrary in the distant past.   I have been known to jump off a bridge into the alligator gar infested Tres Palacios River.  I did scuba dive once in Jacob’s Well, a cave that has subsequently been closed due to a few deaths.  But I doubt that I would have parachuted out of a plane during my freshman year in college, even if my father had agreed to fund me the $100.  I think I would have chickened out at the last minute, gazing out the door of the plane.  And please note that I have never ridden on an oil well pump or walked across a river on a natural gas pipeline.  I do have some limits.
My point is, I am not addicted to adrenaline rush.  I just like to do interesting things, and sometimes my curiosity leads me to distort the risk/benefit ratio of an activity.
We were not seeking thrills when we decided to walk with lions.  My husband and I were visiting Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, a weekend break from our volunteer work in Tanzania.  A travel agent friend had booked us for four nights, and I wondered what we would find to do with all that time, once we had seen the falls.  It turns out, you cannot just “see the falls.”  They are located in a rather inaccessible spot  where the Zambezi River disappears into a massive crack in the earth.  We hiked for a mile along top of the other side of the cleft, looking down into the cataracts.  We were told the full extent of this wonder is best seen from the air, so, somewhat apprehensively, we booked a helicopter.  It was a good call.  We would never have appreciated the geology if we had not taken that ride.  The massive split in the earth is continuous with a zigzagging gorge that extends for miles, the results of multiple massive water falls throughout millennia.    From the air, one can see the beginnings of the next waterfall, a crack in the floor of the Zimbabwe river. In a few thousand years, this cleft will form the next waterfall, and Victoria Falls will become just another zig in the canyon.
We took a sunset cruise on the Zambezi, rode a train across the gorge into Zambia on the bridge that is famous for bungee jumping. 
That left us with one more day.  A plan to have a massage and pedicure seemed far too tame, but the bungee jump exceeded my risk tolerance.  Even going to Zambia side to sit in Devil’s pool seemed too hazardous.  Not the pool itself—thousands have bathed in that water without being washed over the edge.  It is the walk along the top of the falls to access Devil’s pool that is occasionally fatal.  Our guide said that when someone slips and topples off the edge, the body disappears for four or five days until it floats up.  The corpse cannot be directly extracted but can be dislodged from rocks and allowed to float downstream, where it can be retrieved. 
In contrast the Lion Encounter sounded pretty tame.  A walk in the park.  With young lions.  I imagined cavorting with kitty cats, scratching behind their ears.  Maybe they would purr?
An orientation video at the preserve explained the purpose of the conservation project: to address the decimation of the lion population.  Cats are bred in captivity for eventual release into the wild.  After weaning, they are taken on daily walks to teach them about life outside.  The fees we paid for this experience supports this project. 
We were assured that the lions would accept us as members of the pride.  But there were safety tips, such as “Don’t wear anything dangly, like a scarf.”  The lions might try to “play,” like a kitten batting a string.  You get the picture.  Also, don’t approach them head on.  (i.e., don’t get near the teeth)  We signed releases of responsibility for loss of life or limb and set off down a dusty path, escorted by two guides, a videographer, and an armed guard.  The size of the gun gave me pause.  They said the gun was not to protect us from the lions.  It was to ward off other animals, such as elephant or buffalo--big animals would jump at the opportunity to kill a young lion.  It was then that I realized that we were not in a “park.” 

We were instructed to select a stick from a pile of branches. “If the lion comes toward you, just point the stick and say ‘No.’” Hmm.  I thought about circus lions, hoped for these cats to be equally well trained. 
The lions were nestled together under a tree.  Looma, the male, and Pemba, the female were three-year-old cousins, billed as “cubs.”  At as they clambered to their feet, muscles rippling beneath tawny fur, they looked pretty big and powerful to me, their haunches as high as my hips.  Looma had massive paws—kind of like a puppy who will grow into his feet—and the beginnings of a mane.
We started walking and they ambled alongside.  Although they apparently “accepted us as part of the pride,” they weren’t particularly friendly.  A couple of times, Looma veered off to one side, shouldering me into some shrubs.  He raised up to sharpen his claws higher than my head on an acacia tree, peeling off large strips of bark.  He and Pemba left the trail a couple of times to play with each other, like kittens—tumbling, biting clawing.  In those moments, I was glad they did not want to play with me.   
Pemba would occasionally growl, and my heart rate would spike.  Once, Looma suddenly started trotting toward me.  I pointed my stick and said “No,” but he was not impressed by the gesture.  The guide stepped between us.  At his point I wondered,  What am I doing here.  These are lions!   

We did get to pat them.  It was very well orchestrated.  The lions lay down and we walked around behind them, giving their heads a wide berth.  Then we knelt down behind them and patted their butts as the videographer documented us and the handler took still shots.  The fur was very coarse—not like a porcupine, of course, but not as smooth and soft as a horse or a cow.  The lions glanced back to acknowledge us, but they certainly did not purr!

We have been in close proximity to lions before, on safaris, through the windows of Land Cruisers.  We also climbed a mountain in Rwanda to commune with gorillas, gentle vegan animals with soft fur.  But to be in the direct company of powerful carnivores who could easily have ripped us to shreds in an instant was surreal.  As Looma and Pemba scampered off into the forest to play with their siblings and cousins, I felt a mixture of sadness that the experience was over, and relief that we had gotten through it unscathed!  We did not make a big impression on the lions, but we will never forget them.

Saturday, August 18, 2018


If you’re not from Newfoundland, you may be wondering, “What is a capelin?”
This is like asking “What is a grit?”  (Cousin Vinnie made that mistake)
I have never seen a single solitary capelin.  They only come in throngs—nay, droves!  It looks like the sea water has turned to fish when they wash up on the shore to spawn on gravel shoals.  You can scoop them up by the bucketful.  One wonders where all these tiny fish have been all winter and spring.  

When the capelin roll in, the bird, whales, and cod follow.  I felt a little bad the first time I jigged a cod and watched him (or her) gasping in the bottom of the dory, drowning in the air.  But when we slit its bulging belly, capelin poured out.  It was plain to see the cod had gorged on the little fish while they were still alive.  I thought to myself, well, what comes around goes around. 

The next question is, “Why would you smoke capelin?”  This is, in my opinion, a perfectly legitimate question.  You would only smoke capelin if you intend to eat them.  Or give them to someone who would like to eat them.  It is a taste that I have yet to acquire.  I prefer cod, in its protean manifestations: pan fried cod, baked cod, deep fried cod, cod au gratin, fish cakes, fish ‘n brewis…
Do I sound like Forest Gump?

If you want to smoke capelin, you start with a bucket of the tiny fish. 

Actually, you'd better get the charcoal going first.

Then you need another bucket, full of water.  And you need a lot of salt.  Also a potato.
With a nail in it.  
Pour a bunch of salt into the water, and mix well.  Here is where the potato (with a nail in it) comes in.  If it sinks, you need to add more water.  If it floats, then you’re golden.  You have reached 100% salinity.    

Add the capelin to the brine and soak for 5-10 minutes.  If the eyes turn white, you’ve left them in too long!

On low heat, smoke for an hour or so.  Or roast at high heat over charcoal or in the oven until crunchy.  
Eat them whole. 

Or not.
I’m told they make great fertilizer.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Suicide is a Meme

Anthony Bordain.  Kate Spade.  Young doctors plunging from towers.  Such high profile cases grab our attention, but they are merely tips of an iceberg:  the epidemic of suicide.  What’s going on?  What were these people thinking? 

I wasn’t.  Thinking, that is.  I was far beyond thought.  I had no choice, no other option.  At the tender age of 20, life was unbearable, and I had to make it stop.  Everyone I loved would be better off without me. I remember exactly what I felt, with laser clarity, as if it were yesterday.  Feelings are to belief as facts are to knowledge.  Was there a suicide hotline, 50 years ago?  Would I have called one?  I doubt it. 

My descent into depression was gradual and mundane.  No unique tragedies, just the usual assortment of disappointments, romantic conflicts, a genetic family curse, and a general disillusionment with mankind.  The world was in turmoil:  King and Kennedy assasinations, childhood friends coming home dead or crazy from the Viet Nam War, Kent State, violent demonstrations everywhere.   Graffiti in a toilet stall in the student center read:  “Committing suicide at Rice is redundant.” 

Not everyone who feels sad commits suicide, but contemplation is nearly universal.  Some inciting stimulus is required for actual commission, like a match tossed into the pile of straw.  For me, it was the suicide of a family friend.  She had invited us over for dinner, shortly after her husband left her.  Despite her changing circumstance, she was upbeat and charming, totally devoted to two adorable children.  We shared the same name, spelled the same way, and she understood me, encouraged me.  Less than a week after that nice evening, my parents didn’t show up to meet me for dinner.  That was the time before email and cell phones, so I got the news of her death from a payphone in a dark parking lot.  If I close my eyes, I recall the sound of the nearby surf, the warm, humid air, and the diamond studded black velvet sky. 

Fortunately, I had no access to a lofty ledge, so I couldn’t just take one small step into oblivion.  I didn’t own a gun.  And my room mates came home early.  I have a vague recollection of a large tube pumping out my stomach and waking up to my mother sitting on the side of my bed, wiping my face with a cool cloth.  After a few weeks of therapy, the psychiatrist, threw in the towel.  I wasn’t compliant.  But I was better.  Time and family support lifted the fog of depression.  Here was the big takeaway, the overarching lesson:  my family would never have recovered from the pain of my death.  The real tragedy of suicide is the desolation of those left behind.

It wasn’t grief over the loss of a friend that drove me.  It was simply her act of smashing through the mysterious wall at the outer boundary of life, leaving a gaping hole in reality, like a gash in the side of an airplane at 30,000 feet.  She was the queen of hearts pulled from the house of cards, the domino falling against me. 

Suicide is an impulse that can jump from one life to another, like some viral meme, or a spark from a wildfire that flies across a river or highway to spread the inferno.  If someone else steps over that line, the act is no longer unthinkable.  Maybe the urge to shoot people in a school or a club is a similar germ.  I feel immune now, as if I have been vaccinated.  Still, at the first news about Bordain’s death, before I heard that he had taken his own life, I had a weird random thought.  The world is in terrible shape.  He’s lucky to get out before it gets worse.

Suicide is contagious.  It is a tragic epidemic.  Like any public health crisis, we need more research, more knowledge.  We can’t just build safety nets to catch the falling.  It is just not possible to deliver the a critical message of hope for redemption on a need to know basis, at the crucial instant of decision.  We need to address the forces that drive people to the narrow ledges of skyscrapers.   

Thursday, May 31, 2018

(One of) My Worst Nightmare(s)

An old medical joke compares the strategies that different types of doctors would use to stop a closing elevator door.  The internist would use his hand.  A surgeon, would be more leery of a hand injury, and so he would block it with his foot.  An orthopedist would put his head into the gap.  As a surgeon, my worst nightmare has always been getting a hand mangled in a garbage disposer.  I never dreamed that my cat could be a far greater threat. 

Denial of peril is a natural coping mechanism.  How else does one continue to function?  Like when I was Christmas shopping on Oxford street.  I found it a bit odd, but not worrisome, that there were suddenly guards at the entrance to Debenham’s, inspecting all the purses.  I didn’t find out until much later that the Wimpey’s next door had been bombed.  My mother, at home in Texas, watched it all unfold on television and thought I should come back home immediately.  That was back in the early 80’s, and the IRA was always blowing something up.  But I never felt personally threatened during my year in Britain, even when they blew up the Horse Guard parade an hour after our picnic in Regent’s Park.  The nurse from Northern Ireland said she felt much safer back home than in London, because in Belfast, you knew where the shooting and bombings occur.

Back to the cat.  His name is Amarillo and he has black and white tuxedo fur.  To be fair, he gave me ample warning.  We were changing planes in the Philadelphia airport, in one of those “Companion Care” rooms where you can lock the door.  I let my pet out of his carrier, so he could stretch his legs.  The old bathroom had been retrofitted with electric photo sensing faucets and soap dispenser, and a crude wooden box under the counter hid the plumbing and wires.  I didn’t notice the opening at the end of the box until it was too late.  Curiosity compelled Amarillo to leap through the perfectly cat-sized portal.  I reached in and grabbed him by the scruff of the neck so that he wouldn’t follow pipes and wires through a gaping hole into who knows what kind of netherworld.  When he slipped free, I grabbed his leg.  That must have hurt.  He growled and hissed, but I refused to release him until his teeth plunged into my hand.  Then, he was the one who wouldn’t let go.  Think of the Dune Trilogy pain box conceived by Herbert’s sadistic imagination.  When I finally managed to extricate my hand, it didn’t look that bad.  A little blood, a few poke marks, but everything worked.  Amarillo, to his credit, seemed genuinely stunned and remorseful, and retreated into his carrier. 

It was a three-hour layover and by the time we boarded the plane, my hand looked like a baseball.  My pain score was 9 out of 10.  It was worse than labor, because the agony was continuous.  Back in Florida, I had to take the cat home, empty the litter box, and fill up his food dispenser before taking myself to the Emergency Room.  They sent me home with pills, but by the next morning the swelling was half-way up my arm, with pus pouring out of a few orifices and red streaks approaching my elbow.  I spent three days in the hospital on IV antibiotics.  My right hand was useless, and for some reason the nurse in the ER put my IV in the bend of my left arm, so that side wasn’t much use either.  I couldn’t write, couldn’t type, and eating was a chore.  I watched a few bad movies and 6 consecutive episodes of Law and Order Special Victims Unit. 

I did get better and by the next week, I was back at work.  On Saturday, enter the tortoise.  My hand was 90% better.  It was still stiff and tender, and I was guarding it.  But I saw this reptile, a gopher tortoise, to be exact, trying to escape my back yard.   He was wedged against the fence. Who knows how he got in.  I ran out and carried him through the gate and watched the tall grass shudder in his path as he lumbered across the field.  On the way back into the house, I stopped to pull some weeds among the lantana.  Big mistake.  Searing pain.  I couldn’t see my attacker—probably a yellow jacket, maybe a bee.  Within an hour my hand was once again a throbbing orb and the itching and swelling extended above my elbow.   My sympathetic cat tried to lick it and make it better.

The hand is 99% normal today.  My husband, who was out of the country, has returned home.  I am back at work, able to perform surgery.  Still, I am apprehensive.

There is an old medical superstition that bad things come in three’s.  You see two stab wounds in the ER and you know it’s just a matter of time before someone comes in with a gushing jugular.  I feel like Sleeping Beauty on her 16th birthday, dreading an encounter with a spindle.  I have decided that if I see any animals in distress, they can just do without my help.  Even if a bird flies into the window, or a baby squirrel fall out of the tree.  But what if the neighbor’s pig escapes again?

Saturday, May 19, 2018

A letter to my Father

May 17, 2018

Dear Dad,

I had a nice trip up to Baltimore for Susie’s retirement party.  As you will recall, retirement is a bittersweet process, unplugging from a career that provided purpose and friendships.  I was so proud of my little sister.  People said so many wonderful things about her.  They didn’t just talk about what a good job she had done or how effective she had been as a leader.  They appreciated her subtle, dry humor and her patience and fairness.  Some recounted stories of how she had made them feel welcome when they were new to the job and to the city.  She had encouraged many through tough times, and regularly celebrated accomplishments.  One person said that she was the kindest person he had ever known.  Susie, in her typical self-deprecating manner, said to me, “It’s amazing how easy it is to be perceived as kind.”  She is so like you.
We spent the next two days at her house, sorting, tossing, packing, getting her house ready to put on the market.  She will be moving back to Texas.  Of course, our family home was sold several years ago.  Still, she is still going home.  It has been said that “Home is that place where, when you go, they have to let you in.”  But a place is not necessarily a specific a building.  Home is family–people who love you. 
I helped her install a new tile floor in the bathroom--something you would have done, if you had been here.  I found a box of photos that you took 20 years ago, when you helped her to move into this house.  And in another box, I found a letter that I wrote to you in 1979.  Back in those days, before email, before texting, when we actually hand wrote letters.  I will never forget that you wrote a letter to me every day during my first year in college.  This particular letter had to do with Aunt Frances.  She had recently been discharged from the hospital after a prolonged illness.   The nature of the illness wasn’t stated in the letter, but I recall that she fell and broke her arm.  In the hospital, she had a seizure, and it became evident that she was in withdrawal.  For years, she had taken a “stomach medicine” that contained phenobarbital, and she was addicted to it.  We joked about how this sweet little old lady with matching purse and shoes was a junkie.  Frances was very sick, nearly died.  She was never what I would call a pleasant person, and the withdrawal made her much worse.  She said some very hateful things to Mom.   But she was your sister, and you loved her and took care of her.
The old letter that I found was apparently intended as an apology for seeming unsympathetic to Frances.  I said that I was glad that Frances’ ordeal was over.   I said that I had been more worried about you than Frances—that it was such a strain on you. You always know what to say to make people feel better, to help them see the answers to problems.  I said that it was a rare talent, something that I wished I had.  I went on, at some length, to tell you what a wonderful person you are. 
I said that I was sorry that the letter was not more cheery.  But it must have touched your soul, because you kept it, all those years. 
You used to have this saying, “A successful family is a self-destructive unit.”  You meant that in reference to a nuclear family—that children grow up and build home of their own.  But in a larger sense, a successful family is bound together by the kind of love that endures. 
I can’t mail this letter to you.  The postal service does not make deliveries to heaven.  But I can feel you reading over my shoulder.  Give Mom a hug for me.
Love always,

Monday, February 12, 2018

The Shape of Toilet Overflow

    I have not seen the movie, THE SHAPE OF WATER.  It wasn’t on the airplane playlist.  But It’s a very catchy title, so I have adapted it for my purposes. 
I’m not talking about the icky mess that requires a plunger.  The floaty ball in the tank failed to shut off the inflow.  Anyway, the shape of the water that greeted us after a long day in the operating room, was a flat, giant amoeba.  We propped the door open so that we could sweep out the water.  Some flies got in, but we don’t really care about that.  They are annoying, but don’t carry malaria.  Only the night mosquitoes do that. The skinny cat with the big ears, who always seems to turn up when we are around, came to the door, desperate for some tuna or at least a hot dog, but he was reluctant to cross the thin waterfall over the threshold. 
It’s ironic.  At breakfast, this morning, I said, “Well, at least we still have water.”  That was just before the woman called to us through the kitchen window, announcing that she was the electrician sent to repair our water heater.  I had to inform her that it would futile at that moment, since the power had been off since sometime after 10 pm last night.  And no, it wasn’t that we hadn’t prepaid the power company.   We had 110 credits when I checked the meter before going to bed.
We had encountered a Goldilocks moment when we arrived back in Tanzania.  We were the bears.  Someone had been sleeping in our house, and he left his stuff.  A receipt indicated he was off climbing Kilimanjaro.  When a young man from Oregon returned on Saturday, intending to stay another week, we told him we were surprised to find someone in our house.  Hands on hips, he declared, “Well, they didn’t tell me you would be here.” He wasn’t aware that had been assigned to the wrong house.
We hired a man from town to repair the fridge on Saturday.  The electrician says the hot water heater is fried and maybe tomorrow he will have the right part.  This afternoon, the power was restored, so we plan to heat up water in the electric kettle for a lukewarm bath.  Tom just announced that he is wading back to the bedroom for a nap.
A little voice says that maybe someone is trying to tell us we shouldn’t be here.  But a great big voice says, “Don’t be ridiculous.  This is exactly where you are supposed to be.  Have you ever felt happier, more alive?” 
There’s the way Kilimanjaro glitters in the sunrise, the rope of ants across the kitchen steps, the grapefruit size tumor removed from a young man’s face (and the three similar sized tumors scheduled for next week), the emergency trach in a baby who choked on gravel, the six-hour throat reconstruction in a woman who has been unable to speak ever since she slashed her own throat 7 months ago, in the throes of post-partum depression.  Monkeys are jumping on our car, coming to beg for bananas. 
We’ll have plenty of hot water when we get home.