Archive Page 2

The Balls of Bothell II

One of my early posts was called The Balls of Bothell. The Balls, Darl and Jeannine, lived for many many years on a curve of the busy road that runs around the north end of Lake Washington. I never met them, but like thousands or even millions of people traveling on Wasthington State Route 522 (called Bothell Way on that stretch), my wife and I had become familiar and even attached to their wooden sign, which we looked for and verbally celebrated every time we came around the curve in the highway where we knew it waited to announce their habitation at that place. It said “The Balls of Bothell” in big gold letters, and then in smaller letters beneath that it said “Darl and Jeannine”.

The sign hung from a post at the bottom of the Balls’ driveway. It was there for ages and then one day it was gone. I wrote a blog post about the sign and about our experience of the sign, and wondered what kind of people the Balls were and whether they were aware of how time and the increase in traffic on that once quiet country road had rendered strange such an exuberantly personal and inviting sign. (You know me…just wondering.) I didn’t have a photo of the sign to go with that post, and at the time I had no reason to think I’d ever see it again.

I think the Balls' sign hung about where this new post is. It was a few yards back from the road but the road was not as wide then.

I think the Balls’ sign hung about where this new post is. It was a few yards back from the road but the road was not as wide then. The curve is known locally as Wayne Curve.

If you go to that post and read through the comments that readers posted, you’ll see that old Darl himself eventually got wind of my post and logged in to give a shout out to all his fans, reporting that he still had the old sign and the sad news that Jeannine had passed on a few years earlier. I made a mental note to track him down and ask him if I could come look at the old board and take some photos of it, but I never got around to doing it.

Darl Ball, 1926 - 2013

Darl Ball, 1926 – 2013

Then Darl died, a fact I learned in those same comments when his relatives and friends started turning up and leaving little eulogies to him and Jeannine. One of those people was Darl’s nephew, Bradley Mitchell, who goes by Mitch and in conversation calls his uncle simply “Ball”. Mitch commented to let me know the sign had come to him and that if I wanted to see it I should come over to his home in Kirkland soon, because he was preparing to ship the sign to some relatives out of state who had the Ball surname.

I visited Mitch this past June. He is an interesting character in his own right, having himself many times been the subject of magazine and newspaper articles and television segments because of his large collection of deep sea diving gear and other marine equipment, many specimens of which fill his home. In the relatively small world of deep sea diving gear hobbyists, I’m sure his is a household name. But he clearly lives in a state of constant and enduring admiration of the man he calls simply “Ball,” and while he commented with very few words about anything related to his own celebrity, he was fairly verbose about his uncle’s life and times, and had dragged out for my perusal numerous photos and several paper artifacts from his uncle’s days in the Merchant Marine (Certificate of Efficiency to Lifeboat Man, serial number B71663; Certificate of Service to Able Seaman, serial number A120679; and a temporary American passport issued by the American consul at the East African port city then known as Laurenço de Marques, now Maputo in the People’s Republic of Mozambique).

Young Darl and his Merchant Marine buddies.

Young Darl (far left) and his Merchant Marine buddies.

I took several photos of the photographs he laid out. I spent an hour with him during which he said a lot of things that I did not write down and which I cannot now remember. I do recall him noting several times that Ball joined the Merchant Marine even though he couldn’t swim a stroke. That single fact seemed to represent the very gizzard of the man for Mitch. He also told me, something that may be of interest to history, that his was the third sign the Balls hung, that two others had been stolen over the years. I can’t remember if he said the earlier ones were smaller or larger, but I think they were not all of the same dimensions. It’s my opinion that when the stolen ones eventually turn up in some garage or at a flea market, they should be given to the City of Bothell for museum pieces.

You can read about Mitch in this April 7, 2007 Seattle Times article, and if you catch up with Mitch you can ask him all about his Uncle Darl, how the man went to Texas or someplace to buy a large piece of construction equipment — a crane, I think — and drove the thing all the way back to Seattle to use in the landscape business he’d started after the war. I would have liked to be able to relate more of what Mitch told me about him, since I had openly wondered about the Balls in my earlier post, but it wasn’t the right time and I was not on my reporter game.

Nevertheless, my main purpose was fulfilled; I got to see the sign again, which was much larger than I had remembered. And because I know there are so many out there who remember it fondly, I provide a couple of pictures of it herebelow, with thanks to Bradley Mitchell for letting me take them and use them.

Mitch Bradley.

Mitch.

Sign Number Three.

Sign Number Three.

Nowhere I can reach her

Sweet life’s a sparrow lost at sea,
In dark of night with far to go

– Tom Rush

I died, and behold I am alive forevermore…

– The Book of Revelation

My sister Jeni died in April. She died of complications from her third battle with a cancer that came upon her when she was in her early thirties. Needless to say… Well. There are so many things that are needless to say. Most everything I can think of to say is needless to say, which is why I’ve had trouble imagining how to write about this.

Jeni, under attack and bearing it with grace.

Jeni, under attack and bearing it with grace.

Jeni died suddenly, we felt, for we were not prepared for the precipitous downturn in her health and the failure of her liver, pretty much in a single day, after what seemed like a pesky imbalance in her body chemistry that simply needed correction and monitoring. We her family were caught off guard, though some friends were able to see that the battle had become very fierce in recent months and were very worried. She herself expected to come home from the hospital after a few days, and although she was uncomfortable and in some pain at times she did little complaining, focusing her energy instead on her work, which was as a piano accompanist for voice students at Seattle Pacific University in Tacoma. The thing that galled her the most was the occasions when she could not play piano because her fingers became bloated and painful and her fingernails turned black, or the drugs took away her energy. She wanted more than anything to continue to support her students.

My sister and I were not as close as many siblings are, but she mattered to me. It was important to me that she was there, that she was here, here in life with me and my brother and my parents, that she remain a living piece of the nuclear unit I was hatched into. And I also genuinely enjoyed her as a person — her sense of humor especially, and her generosity and her courage, and her willingness in later years to see things from other people’s points of view. We had very different experiences in our faith journeys and it was, all our adult lives, difficult and even uncomfortable for us to converse about those journeys. I am a person of doubt, she of certitude. My faith is an unquiet searching — a thrashing one might even say — in the face of enormous fears. The voice of God in my life is hard for me to discern because my ego, my lower power, makes so much racket. My sister Jeni’s faith was a serene confidence that the Wonderful Story that had been handed down to us was true, literally and absolutely, and though the cancer bared its teeth and gnashed at her for twenty years, which was surely terrifying for her, she spoke most often of God’s provision and God’s care and God’s mercy and God’s grace and God’s love, and of her certainty that she was in the palm of his hand no matter what happened. She gave the disease nothing but her body, which in her view was the least of her.

My sister playing piano and my brother-in-law Randy blissing in her presence.

My sister playing piano and my brother-in-law Randy adoring her.

The feeling was -- and remained -- mutual.

Some years go by. The feeling was — and remained — mutual.

Jeni asked God when the cancer first came if she could be allowed to see her children grow. The oldest of four was only eight or nine years old then. I was turning a spadeful of earth in my parents’ backyard when my mother came running out of the house through the sliding glass door that gave onto the brick patio under the old crabapple tree. She was gasping and sobbing, having just gotten the phone call from Jeni. At that time I could not imagine the fear that engulfed my mother because I was not yet a dad. But that was Jeni’s request, the prayer she prayed. And she did see them grow. She saw the three girls wed and her son affianced.

I wish to do honor to my sister and her world-view, to a faith that in large part I share with her, but the words I would use to describe what has befallen her and my family, and myself, are different words than she would use. She left behind an online journal that has become a permanent testimony to her courage and to what she would describe as God’s faithfulness. Many, many people, some fellow cancer patients and others not, have expressed what a blessing her candor and faith have been to them. But I am having a different experience of it all, and my faith is sore afflicted these days.

I, my sister Jeni, and my brother Ben.

With Jeni and my brother Ben.

 

Jeni's family in our parents' back yard.

Jeni’s family in our parents’ back yard.

The facts on this side of the veil are simple enough: she got breast cancer, she survived it, it went away for almost a decade, it came back again and she survived it again, even though it took an enormous toll on her physically, and then it came back a third time, and while doctors were trying to figure out the origin of a big bellyful of fluid that my sister in her wonderful phlegmatic way named Henrietta (her journal abounds with references to Henrietta’s waxing and waning and how uncomfortable life with Henrietta was), her liver just conked out.

It happened on the 3rd April. She had been in the hospital over Easter weekend because she had passed out at home. The doctors had found that her sodium levels were alarmingly low and her potassium high and couldn’t figure out why. My brother Ben talked to her Easter weekend and she said she was low on energy but was hoping to go home before Monday. He, a fireman, became alarmed when she was still in the hospital on Tuesday, and wondered whether the doctors weren’t saying how much trouble she might be in. I, swamped and mentally exhausted at my new job, did not even realize she had not gone home. Wednesday Angela called me in tears and said “Jeni is dying. She has a day or two.”

Four generations: My grandmother, my mother, my sister, my niece.

Four generations: My grandmother, my mother, my sister, my niece.

It seemed unreal. I wondered what to do. I went back to my desk to see how I could tidy up things so I could take a day off the next day and go to the hospital, but Angela called a while later and told me I needed to get on a bus to the hospital right away. It would not be days but hours. My new job is in Renton, which is a half-hour drive south of Seattle in good traffic, and I had no car because I ride in a carpool. My sister was in Bellevue at the hospital I was born in. I caught several buses and got to Overlake Hospital in time to join a growing circle of friends and family. Jeni’s husband was there and had been there since morning. My mother was there. Angela arrived with the girls shortly after I got there. Jeni’s son and youngest daughter were there. Her oldest daughter was flying with her husband from Minnesota, and her second oldest daughter, who had just landed with her husband in Japan for a visit with his family of origin, had turned right around and was trying to get a flight back home. Jeni was not lucid when I got there. Her eyes, her beautiful eyes that had such wit and humor in them, a readiness to be delighted, were open slightly as she labored to breathe, but she was unable to respond. We took turns holding her hand and stroking her arm and talking to her, and her husband Randy, a theologian, acknowledged that what he was hoping for now was an outright miraculous healing. But there was no reprieve this time. There came a point when the many church-friends that had gathered to support us moved out into the hall so that Randy and the kids and Angela and I and our girls and our mother could have a quiet moment. We did not want to acknowledge what we knew. My nephew Scott raised a piano concerto on his phone, something by Brahms that my sister loved, and it filled the room while we were quiet. I went out to text my cousin in California and some relatives on the East Coast, and when I opened the door to go back in she had slipped away and Randy was sobbing and holding onto her and saying her name over and over, and my family was bent inward around him like the petals of a flower closing at dusk.

Playing for family at my uncle's mansion on Cascadia Avenue, late '70s or early '80s.

Playing at my uncle’s mansion on Cascadia Avenue. For me, the sound of Jeni playing piano is the sound of family.

It all happened so fast. Not just her death, I mean, but her life. She was fifty-two, just sixteen months older than I. It will not be long at all before I reach an age that my older sister — she who came first and was always — never reached. A half-century and change. No time at all, really.

I think we are all still a little stunned. It was different with my father’s passing a year and a half ago. We had seen that coming, and he seemed like he wasn’t really looking forward to anything in particular anymore. He felt bad leaving my mom, he told me near the end, but they both knew he’d have been absolutely sunk if she’d gone first. So his breathing got more difficult and his energy waned and one day he went into a kind of dream state, where he was alternating between sleep and a fitful busy-ness with his arms, as though he were picking books off a shelf or dabbing at a painting or gathering pieces of yarn from a loom. He didn’t know he was doing it. Then he would suddenly see one of us and his face would light up in recognition, but only for a moment. He would say something incoherent and fall to dreaming again. Then he went into a coma, and it seemed strange but it wasn’t unexpected. He only lingered for two days. I was relieved. Although I’ve missed him a lot since, at the time it seemed like a mercy.

On our way to somewhere where dressy clothes are required.

On our way to somewhere with a dress code.

Up against the wood paneling for a picture.

It’s Easter. Up against the door, you two!

But my sister was so young. My poor mother must bear the unbearable anguish of burying a child — a weight I can’t even imagine bearing up under. Months later she cries every morning.

My sister died two months ago and she’s not here anymore. She’s not anywhere where I can reach her. That gone-ness is the part that keeps feeling so alien, and it scares me because it threatens to pull my feeble little faith into the rip in the cosmos that her death leaves, this gaping hole in the world that we’re all standing around. That dark hole she disappeared into forces me to ask myself what I believe about the Hereafter. It may be just a phase, but I don’t like the answers I’m coming up with.

Because our lives were both so busy in separate circles, I don’t miss her all through the day the way her children and husband do. It hits me out of the blue in moments when I have an impulse to share an idea with her, to call her up. Then I realize that I can’t do that. I’ll never be able to do that again. It is a sudden and permanent change in the configuration of the world I know. Or when I’m doing the dishes, sometimes it hits me that my sister’s life is a historical finality now, unlike mine. She was less than two years older, and yet while my life continues to have uncertainty, and choices, and joys and sorrows I have not yet foreseen — continues to “unfold” before me in time as I inhabit time — my sister’s life is a known span, a completed thing. Her life was a whirlwind of activity and learning and loving and growing and struggling and rejoicing and making music, but a whirlwind that people will speak of now in the past tense even as we struggle to hold her in the present. For a while there will be many of us who knew her and we will speak to each other about things she would have enjoyed or what she would have thought about something or things she used to say. Or we won’t speak but we will remember, each in our own eye, the look of her when she laughed, or hear in our ears the sound of her voice or her piano playing. Then there will be conversations with people who are very young now, like my daughters, and we’ll say “You remember Aunt Jeni. We used to go to her house at Thanksgiving.” And then we will say to friends we make in coming years, “Jeni was our sister, you never knew her,” and to those who have not yet been born we will someday say, “she died before you were born.” And when my children are grown they’ll say “Jeni was my dad’s sister. She played the piano.”  And when all of us have followed her into the Beyond there will be only photographs and stories handed down, maybe a recipe for a favorite family dish. Someday long decades or centuries from now she will be a name in a family tree, attended by two cold dates — 14 November 1960 and 3 April 2013 — whose life people may wonder about, and if they do they will imagine her incorrectly. But in some ways, my own life is exactly like that. All of our lives are like that. Already complete and finished and spinning away through the macrocosm like comets loosed from their orbits.

Whatever she figured out, I never quite got it.

!,?

I shrink from that thought, that we are nothing but cold stones in a vacuum, and what defeats the finality of that metaphor — at least for me, at least right now — is the same thing that defeats the finitude of death, whether we believe in a resurrection or not. It’s the bond between one life and another. The fact that we’re standing here stricken and knowing how stricken we are, knowing the fullness of our loss, the fact that we stop what we’re doing and come together celebrating the life and grieving the loss… that’s what tells us we are not just historic entries in a ledger, rocks tumbling through space. Yes, we will all eventually fade from the memory of earth and its inhabitants, but at the moment that we die we drag the hearts of our loved-ones to the edge of the abyss, stretching the bonds of a love loth to yield, and when the cord finally snaps we leave them there staring into the dark. The echo of the break whips into those left behind and ricochets through their souls. The wound proves the love and the love proves the life.

If each of our lives really is like that, I guess that’s okay. I mean it has to be, doesn’t it? And we won’t know until we don’t care. But maybe — I hope despite my extended moments of disbelief — maybe each flaming star of a life is also a sweet dream in the eye of a benevolent God, whom in my heresy or ignorance or willfulness I imagine to be grieving for us and with us…

The two who are gone.

Dad and Jeni. The two who are gone.

…and with us — in light of the beauty of each of the unnumbered lives it has created — capable of being startled by their brevity.

Joseph Mitchell, my favorite Beatle

The only analogy I can think of for what today was like for me is what December 4, 1995 might have been like for Beatles fans, when the surviving Fab (which then still included George Harrison) released the first song that all Four had performed on since “The End” in 1969, despite John Lennon’s having died fifteen years earlier. That song was John’s “Free As a Bird”, which the three living Beatles pulled out of a heap of unreleased demos and added their own voices and playing to (here’s a video of it that for good or ill tacks “The End” on the end). That was a great day whose air I felt privileged to breathe, and I was never even a devoted fan. To witness the release of a new song by the Beatles, and all four of them at that, was to feel the wind from the rushing wheel of history blow the forelock from my brow.

Informed last week by a friend that a never-before-published work by Joseph Mitchell — this boy’s fave — was about to be published in The New Yorker, and informed today that indeed the event was upon us, I rushed out to buy the annual anniversary issue. I couldn’t even wait until lunch. I padded up Post Alley, the back way to the Farmer’s Market, and emerged from the cobbled lower level of Pike Street at the corner of First Avenue, where I found a fresh, thick bunch of the new issue faced out in the front row at First and Pike News, and carefully lifted out the second one back.

Not since I was two.

Not since I was two.

“BY JOSEPH MITCHELL” the cover flap read. His byline is in the table of contents for the first time since 1964 (five years before the Beatles’ last released album hit the shelves…think about that!*). Friends, you know this about me…I love the man’s writing, and even though everyone knows that Mitchell was working on something, or many somethings, for the thirty years he continued to go to the magazine’s offices after his last published piece came out, I never really imagined myself actually being able to go and buy an issue of The New Yorker with a new Mitchell piece in it, especially since he had died before I ever even encountered his work.

So there it was in my hands. I paid for the number and hied back down my cobbled lane like one of those burrow spiders who only emerge to catch a small bird or a vole, then drag it back down into their hole. At great peril to my life, given the delivery trucks backing up to the brewery and the Four Seasons Hotel, I flipped through the magazine to find the story and, not finding it because of the stiff inserted ads, consulted the table of contents — page 62 — then opened the spread and saw my literary hero in his Brooks Brothers suit and fedora, standing in front of Sloppy Louie’s restaurant.

That’s when the significance of what I was about to do — what thousands have no doubt already done in this past few days who have received their subscription copy, like my friend James, or signed in as members online — hit me like two cymbals clanging on the sides of my head. I was about to read material that, from everything I’ve read and been personally told by folks who knew him, Joseph Mitchell had not considered ready to be published, i.e. that he did not wish people to read.

Is there such a thing as reader's block?

Is there such a thing as reader’s block?

The piece, called “Street Life”, is apparently one of three excerpts from a memoir that was incomplete when Mitchell died in 1996. Thomas Kunkel has been writing a biography of Mitchell (for too many years than Mitchell fans eager to read it are happy about) and the excerpts are among the Mitchell papers to which Kunkel has access through Mitchell’s estate. Mitchell famously quit publishing his work after “Joe Gould’s Secret” came out in 1964, but he never stopped writing and his fans never stopped hoping.

I shut the magazine and walked back to my office, disturbed a little. Would it be wrong to read these newly unearthed Mitchell pieces, these treasures from his pyramid? Did I really want to be that kind of person? I’ve written a lot of posts that I have never published because I didn’t feel they were quite right or I wasn’t able to finish for one reason or another. I can understand from my own experience how the more Mitchell wrote the more he became dissatisfied with his work. The perfectionist blossoming into stillness. I wondered whether I would feel betrayed if someone posthumously posted my drafts or whether I would feel honored, only a little anxious because they weren’t fully baked.

Fortunately I didn’t have to answer the last question, because it suddenly occurred to me that I’m not Joseph Mitchell. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Nicole Noone’s delightful word-to-the-unwise Flynn Carsen in the movie “The Librarian: Quest for the Spear”, comes to mind about now: “Hey, let’s stop for a moment, and consider. I’m way out of your league. Way out. If your league were to explode, I wouldn’t hear the sound for another three days.” We’re not talking about my little screeds here. We’re talking about unpublished work by one of the finest writers in American letters. It would be a sort of crime against humanity for Kunkel not to give these pieces to TNY and likewise for TNY to refrain from publishing them.

And once published, they must be read. So I’m going to read the piece. Of course I am. But I’m not going to do it while walking down the alley dodging trucks. I’m going to make myself a cup of coffee, maybe tomorrow, maybe the next day. I’m going to sit down with the magazine and consider the history, the privilege, even the theft. I’m going to keep in mind that the author likely would never had allowed this work to fall under my eyes if he had been able to prevent it. And then I’m going to savor every word.

——————————————-

*As I don’t need to tell you, “The End” comes from the last recorded album, which was not the last released album (Let It Be was recorded in January 1969 but not released until after Abbey Road, which was recorded in April). And a snippet of the medley, a little ditty called “Her Majesty”, was cut out and then stuck on the end, after “The End”. So even though “The End” was the last song the Beatles recorded together in the same spiritual plane, it was not the last song on the disk nor was its album the last one fans were introduced to.

How the cautious child rolls

If we needed any more proof — and we didn’t — that Mara’s modus operandi in the face of new challenges and developmental steps is to observe for a long long time and then suddenly just do it, we got it this past summer.

We had already learned this about her. In walking, potty training, and other major milestones, Mara waited so long that we thought maybe she would never get going on it, and then one day she just did these things. She did not spend the time in cruising (walking while holding on to furniture) that most toddlers do before walking on their own; at a reception after a funeral in St. Louis for Angela’s brother-in-law, Mara left the security of my leg, which she’d been clutching, and set off across a room full of people to investigate a fake bird that had caught her eye in a floral arrangement. And she basically went from diapers to no diapers in a day, but only after we had begun to think she would wear diapers well after her third birthday.

What we learned was that while it seemed to the untrained eye that Mara was undriven, she was really watching adults and other children to see how things were done, and perfecting her plan mentally before taking the plunge. But when she did go, she always surprised us with her level of competence. It was as if she didn’t want to try something until she had worked in out in her mind and thought she could do it perfectly on the first try.

Mara had had a bicycle with training wheels for a long time, but for several reasons she never learned to ride it. Mostly it idled in the garage. The reasons are these: 1) we live on a steep hill that people bomb down in excess of posted speed limits on their way through to the freeway, and our driveway, while wide, is short and steep, so that the only paved, level, safe place for her to ride is a 3-foot wide concrete walkway at the side of the house which is bisected by a fence gate; 2) the only level spot in the neighborhood, the playground of the elementary school just up the hill from us, was fenced off and torn up for construction for the past several years; 3) the one time I drove her and her little bike to a school parking lot to help her get up to speed, it was an unpleasant experience for everyone; her bike had no place for me to put my hand to run along behind her and push by, and so I had to run fast while bending over and reaching underneath her seat to hold onto it; and she kept braking suddenly, which action had the results you might expect if you were paying any attention at all in your college physics survey course. Mass, momentum, velocity…you get the picture.

The problem with training wheels, of course, is that they don’t train kids how to balance a bike, they train kids to pedal very slowly while leaning severely to one side, as though they were on a sailboat on a tack. At turns or at unexpected jostling the bike’s frame jibes, throwing its weight onto the other training wheel, and the kid quickly has to lean the other way. They make small bikes for toddlers now that have no training wheels and no pedals — the youngsters merely sit on them and balance and push with their legs, like Fred Flintstone. At some point, they begin coasting, and once this balance is achieved they are ready to advance to a pedal bike, without ever having gone through this goofy leaning stage.

But Mara didn’t have a balance bike. Her bike was a cute little pedal bike. Pink. I had taken the training wheels off of it for her at one point and we had tried again on the walkway beside the house, she trying to balance and I running along holding her seat, wrenching my back. But the fence and gate made it impossible for me to stay with her for more than fifteen feet.

Meanwhile, Mara had bought a Razor, one of those metal scooters, with ten bucks of her own money at a yard sale a few years back. She had seen other kids with them and thought she wanted one. She was able to balance on the scooter almost immediately, but after the initial thrill she didn’t use it a lot.

Until this spring.

We started going up to the finished playground every evening after dinner earlier this year, Millie to practice her climbing on the play structures in the wood-chip-covered areas (more about that anon) and Mara to scoot around the pavement. I started to realize that she was becoming something of a speed demon on the scooter. She would crouch down and bend the onboard leg so that she could make the most of every thrust of the motor leg. Her hair, which is of a very thick, heavy warp, rose up behind her and began to flutter like a banner in the wind she created, and she began to lean into her turns as confidently as an Olympic skater.

The new bike.

One summer day I was standing out in front of the garage in the driveway, maybe sweeping it or something. Mara, with bike helmet on, had been scooting briskly back and forth in the cramped space and Millie was toddling around. Mara mentioned her old bike, which was now hideously small for her, and it occurred to me that now that she’d mastered balance so well on the scooter, she just might stand a better chance of learning to ride the bike. I said as much.

She disappeared for a moment into the garage, and while I was imagining the bruises and pulled muscles I would have to endure in the course of a revived Bike Riding Education Program, and wondering how long it would actually take, and whether it would be worth all the effort — my cajoling and her fearful declining, and the arguing, and my ego-driven frustration at having a daughter that still wouldn’t be able to ride a bike on her graduation day — I looked up and saw her careening out of the garage on her bike, wobbling through the narrow space between the car and a wall of storage boxes, and — once she cleared this canyon — pedaling up the few feet of steep driveway before putting her feet down to stop.

She had just ridden her bike. Just like that. Without any practice, without further trips with the bike to a schoolyard. Without coaching. Without the “don’t let go dad” at full speed down the middle of the street, when dad has already let go and is standing back at the house waving. Without any of that. She just got on the thing and started pedaling.

That’s our Mara.

I dropped the broom and ran into the house to fetch Angela, and Mara repeated her feat. And then we took the bike up to the playground, laughing and verbally reliving the amazement. She looked ridiculous on that bike. It had gotten so small over the years that she had to ride bowlegged just to keep her knees from getting fouled by the handlebars, and the back wheel was so close to the edge of her skirts that it pulled at them and smudged them. But she didn’t care. She was riding a bike, and she immediately took it to top speed. Within a few times around the playground she had the hang of the turns — which, as I recall, was the most terrifying part about learning to ride a bike — and pretty soon was racing in happy circles as though she had known how to ride for months.

We took her to get a new bike at the first opportunity, and as the summer waned we took her new ride up the hill every evening after supper and she rode like mad (and Millie rode a three-wheeled scooter we’d gotten her to satisfy her desire to go fast like her sister). Watching Mara, I thought about how worried I had been that she would never get it, that I would never be able to teach her, that there was no place with enough runway around here. And suddenly she was on the other side of that leap. A few days ago the world had been shaped in one way, and now it was shaped a different way.

A wise friend of mine is always saying to me about life, “don’t miss it!” Well, with Mara, we gotta keep our eyes open. The changes are sudden and unheralded. That’s how she rolls.

Four eyes

For a blessed decade and a half from 1980 to about 1995 I wore no spectacles. I clearly remember the day when at 18 years old I carefully folded my glasses — “my glasses”, the phrase has been part of my brain’s cellular networks since before manned space flight* — placed them into their hard plastic case and put the case in the drawer of the night table between my brother’s bed and mine, where they remained for years.

I had had enough. Enough of the name Four-Eyes. Enough of having to pause on the cusp of jumping into a lake or a pool or even stepping into a shower, or doing anything acrobatic that might render my person upside down or spinning in quick circles, in order to remove my spectacles. Enough of being automatically disqualified as a candidate for adoration by the fairer sex. Enough of glare and fogging and enough of the painful pinching on either side of my nose and behind my ears.

What I got. Illustration of hyperopia and its correction by A. Baris Toprak MD, image licensed through Creative Commons.

Some people’s eyeballs are misshapen, so that the place where the lens of the eye focuses an image is not at the back wall of the eye as the design calls for, but forward or back of it. If the eyeball is too long front to back, the focal point falls short of the retina, causing distant objects to appear blurred — that’s myopia or near-sightedness. Hyperopia or farsightedness is when the eyeball is too short and the focal point falls behind the eye, causing near (and sometimes also far) objects to be blurred. An astigmatism is something else again, where a defect in the cornea causes two focal points to fall in two different places.

I heard various things over the years about my eyes, but the story is hazy in my mind. I never heard the word hyperopia, but I understood that I was farsighted, and I also remember hearing the word astigmatism, which I misheard as “a stigmatism”. I remember being told that one of my eyes wandered, and I think I remember that it was my left one, and I remember this because I found it confusing later, since my left eye is the sharper. Whatever the combination of problems was, I was fitted with glasses when I was two years old.

My next-door neighbor, Heather, and I, and my glasses: inseparable. We’re two or three years old here.

The caption written on this photo says “First ‘garden’ Age 3 Summer 1965″

Well, that’s the way it goes, and it’s water under the bridge. Life was hard for a lot of kids, and this was a mere inconvenience. I am lucky my eyesight was corrected. But it was no fun having glasses. They fell off my head more than once and broke, which was a disaster because glasses were not cheap even then and my parents had little extra money. I have a memory of this happening right out in the street in front of my house (we played in the street in 20th-century South Bellevue), which is not to say that it happened there, my memory having been proven to be a rat’s nest of crossed fibers. In this memory they broke at the bridge, and whether or not it happened where and when I remember it, I do know that my mom taped my glasses together at least once, so that caricature of the kid with glasses with tape on the bridge was a reality for me.

My eye doctor was Dr. Boyd. I liked him. His voice was comforting. I don’t recall Dr. Boyd’s face but I recall his voice. Its reassuring smoothness was a counterbalance to the cold metal of the phoropter, the eye-testing machine he pulled in front of me like a dragon’s head on a long, hinged neck and set on my nose. As I peered through it with my eyes watering, focusing on the eye-chart at the front of the room which always started with a large sans-serif E, he would test lenses in front of first one eye, then the other, flipping the lenses quickly each time and asking silkily which seemed sharper…”This one?…” (pause…flip) “or this one?” Sometimes the lenses would touch my eyelashes as they flipped and it tickled.

Perception is such a subjective thing. The phoropter.

The usual suspects.

In those days a visit to the eye doctor always involved dilation of my pupils via eye-drops to facilitate the search for any signs of disease in the retina. Nowadays they have other means of examining eye health, but I vividly remember the little cardboard sunglasses they gave you to wear for an hour after your visit. You’d leave the ophthalmologist’s office with your pupils owl-eye wide and unable to focus on anything. I’m surprised, when I think back on this, that this was not more terrifying to me. But I was more worried about what people would think when they saw me wearing those paper shades.

I remember when I was very young, maybe seven or eight years old, asking Dr. Boyd — my mom was there in the room — when I would be able to not wear glasses anymore, and I remember two words of his response, and they were “maybe” and “twelve”. I ignored the first and sealed the second on my heart like a promise. When I was twelve I would be done. I would be cured. I would be righted. I would be good enough. Normal. Whole.

Twelve came and went, and when I complained to my mom that I was promised that I would not have to wear glasses anymore when I got to be twelve, she could not remember any such promise. I don’t recall asking Dr. Boyd about it, but it didn’t matter; regardless of my expectations, I still needed corrective lenses. I believe this is the first thing in life that I recall having an active, conscious resentment about. The world owed me a life without glasses and that life wasn’t forthcoming. I didn’t think about it a lot, but when I did I felt let down. What had gone wrong? Why didn’t anyone remember that I was supposed to be done with glasses when I was twelve?

Twelve. With Mom and little brother Ben in the nation’s capital.

What can you do? Over the years I became one not only with my specs, but with the resentment and dissatisfaction I felt at being what seemed to me permanently defective. I sublimated all this, of course, because after all I had friends enough and lots of things to do. My aunt and uncle paid for oil painting lessons for me, which I took every week with my friend and neighbor-across-the-street, Mark, at the Ilona Rittler Gallery in Bellevue; and Jeff and Kip and I got hold of a Super 8 movie camera in a drawer in Jeff’s house and started making movies. Life was full.

Still, the damned things rankled. One day when we were in high school my same-age cousin Karen, whom I have always adored, told me that I had to “do something about those glasses”. I think it was one of those moments you never forget and you always see clearly. I remember exactly where we were standing in my folks’ old house, next to the refrigerator. She meant no harm, in fact she was trying to help. At that time I had those goofy glasses that tinted themselves when I went outside because my eyes were so sensitive to light and I was already prone to migraines. She was just calling a spade a spade.

I don’t know how long after this it was, but it wasn’t very long until I tucked my glasses in at the back of the drawer and went about my day with uncorrected vision for the first time in my entire life’s memory.

With Mark (left) and Kip (taking photo) on a camping trip at the Washington coast, maybe 1979 or ’80. One of the earliest photos I have of my glasses-free period.

My eyesight in those days was not that bad. I could see distance a little better with the specs on. Without them there was just a little softness to the world’s background details. After a few months I didn’t even notice this, and when I tried the glasses on again out of curiosity the world looked bent and strange. I couldn’t go back now even if I wanted to, I thought. But it was fine. I could read the small print on an aspirin bottle. I was excellent with a Frisbee. There was nothing I couldn’t do.

After several years, I went back to Dr. Boyd for a check-up and admitted that I’d abandoned my prescription. He seemed unfazed by my recklessness, and after hauling the phoropter over and measuring my eyesight he told me my eyes had actually gotten better. This was great news to me, but it made me wonder if I shouldn’t have rebelled sooner. Dr. Boyd said that as I aged, my eyes would get tired by the end of the day and when they did, if I had glasses it would be less of a strain. My choice. Go. Be free.

I could hardly believe my good fortune. My ophthalmologist had given me my walking papers. I could get glasses again someday “if and when I wanted them.”

Damn the uncorrected vision! Full speed ahead! Jeff and I on Ross Lake heading to camp at Dry Creek, c.1984.

Shooting downtown with Kip’s little brother Cal, early ’80s. Contrived? Sure, but at least I didn’t clonk my glasses against the viewfinder (or the window). Extra credit Q: what corner is this?

So began my blessed decade. I ran and jumped and climbed and flipped and dove and twirled and hung upside down. A lot. I developed a measure of physical heedlessness. The line across my nose disappeared, as did the impressions behind my ears. Shooting photographs was much easier without spectacles in those days before digital monitors, when you had to press your eye up to the viewfinder. I could wear normal-people sunglasses instead of my tint-o-matic glasses or even worse, the flip-up plastic shade attachments.

My young adult years featured a good measure of travel and adventure. At that decade’s beginning I went to Dutch Harbor, Alaska, and packed crab. In its middle I worked on a farm in Germany and then toured Europe, and toward its end I assayed to reach the Sahara Desert through Morocco. Not that I wouldn’t have embarked on these adventures if I’d had to wear glasses, but the going was sure easier without them and there was a noticeable decrease in my drag quotient. I sped through life. At twenty-nine I went to Ohio and rode horses every day for more than a year in all kinds of Ohio weather, without having to wipe the rain off my glasses so I could see, or take them off and defog them after walking into the ranch house from the cold outside, or push them back up my sweaty nose while I bent over a horse’s hoof with a farrier’s rasp in the punishing afternoon sun.

Wheeling through ancient forests on a day off from my (admittedly light) farm chores, near Tübingen, (West) Germany, 1985. My hawk-eyed vision catches sight of something noteworthy.

That thick book on my knee? It’s the Let’s Go Europe guide. Small print in there. Sailing the wine-dark sea with traveling companions on our way to Thira, 1985.

It was a John Barth novel that signaled the approaching end of that crisply outlined era. I was living back in Seattle and sitting one dim wintry day (I do not say a winter’s day, for it may have been a wintry day in summer, as happens frequently in these parts) at Diva Espresso, a coffee shop on Greenwood that relied on its big windows for daylight and on dark days was poorly illumined by overhead lamps. I was reading The Sotweed Factor. And all of a sudden I was unable to resolve the text. My eyes could not pull hard enough to bring the letters into sharp focus. I was about thirty-three or thirty-four years old.

An astonishing failure of my memory now presents, which is a stone bummer when you’re trying to wrap up a story of epic proportions like this one. I don’t recall whether I got glasses right away or waited a while. My wedding picture from 1999 shows me without them. I have very few actual memories of putting them on or taking them off prior to about the year 2000, when I was thirty-eight. At that time, I was using them for reading at work, and in subsequent years I remember that it became a requirement of the State of Washington Department of Licensing that while driving a motor vehicle I must wear corrective lenses. I remember putting them on while getting into my truck. But at some point I started keeping them on after getting out from behind the wheel.

At the ranch, 1992. I could see for miles. Photo courtesy of Brooke Trigleth, used with permission.

(It wasn’t my dog.) First snow at my little Snoqualmie redoubt, November 1993. I didn’t know it then, but my eyesight was going south.

My eyes have deteriorated in descending plateaus. I think I had a single prescription from the late 1990s until about 2008, a plateau of about ten years. But my eyesight tumbled another level last year. I was still a few months shy of my fiftieth birthday and I was dead set against getting bifocals until I had put a tidy half-century of living in my wake, but the eye doctor I went to said that the days of single lenses were coming to an end for me. He chuckled when I mentioned Dr. Boyd, and I was surprised that my old ophthalmologist’s name was familiar to him.

But Dr. Boyd is now infamous. He has not been seen in Washington State since 1995 and his license was revoked in absentia in 1997, according to an article in Eugene, Oregon’s Register-Guard in 2000, which cited his entry in the National Practitioner Data Bank: “Boyd transferred his assets to Lichtenstein and fled his $6 million mansion in 1995 — taking with him one of the world’s largest collections of medieval armor — rather than face an avalanche of more than 100 lawsuits alleging that he botched radial keratotomy eye surgeries.”

Angela and I, yet unwed, capering at a friend’s birthday, circa 1997. I had probably gotten a pair of glasses by now just for reading, but the glorious ride was about over.

At the perfect game with the perfect date, August 2012. My eyes are so bad I can hardly read the menu even with my glasses. Time to turn yourself in, amigo, consider bifocals.

So at age fifty I have ordered my first pair of bifocals. I could have gotten progressive lenses, a graduated solution with no lines so that no one can tell you’re wearing readers and mid- and long-distance glasses all at once. For a number of reasons I opted against that for now and decided to keep my distance glasses for walking around and driving and get a pair of bifocals that split between computer (arm’s) length and close-up book reading. But the story may not quite end there, because after two weeks of wearing them I went back to the glasses counter and told the people that I needed them to adjust it slightly because it feels like I have to hold books too close to my face while at the same time I find myself leaning forward slightly toward my computer monitor. They referred me back to the doctor and said that maybe, just maybe, a single lens adjusted between computer and book might be an option. My appointment is tomorrow so we’ll see.

“We’ll see.”

“Maybe.”

“When you’re twelve.”

As I said, despite the inconvenience attending my early life I was one of the lucky ones, and I now see that I was lucky in more ways than one. The surgery Dr. Boyd got sued so many times for was an operation he routinely recommended for myopia. But I didn’t have myopia. I had everything else.

*Absolutely untrue. Russia’s Yuri Gagarin went into space in April 1961, and we flung Alan Shepard into suborbit less than a month later, in May. As near as I can reckon, I was conceived a month after that.

Jubilee Farm

When we drove up and parked at Jubilee Farm a crowd was gathering around the top of a little grassy hill, and I could see Erick Haakenson directing adults and children in what I at first thought was a giant tug-of-war game, folks lined up ready to pull on a rope. But it wasn’t a tug-of-war game. They were cocking a trebuchet. A trebuchet is a cousin of the catapult but instead of a winch a trebuchet has a weighted beam. You lift the weight and hold it in place with a pin. Pull the pin, and whatever you loaded into the basket attached to the unweighted beam-end gets flung out into the adjacent pasture, in this case a large pumpkin.

Arriving at Jubilee Farm. If you click for the larger version you can see the line of people about to pick up the rope.

Locked, cocked and ready to fling. Erick stands at far left on the hill while the three pullers pull.

Erick moved everyone except for three adult volunteers off the hill, for safety’s sake, and then the relocated assembly shouted a countdown from ten, at the end of which the volunteers pulled on the rope that held the pin, the pin came out, the 2,000-pound weight dropped, the beam rotated, and the pumpkin joined that relatively small fraternity of gourd vegetables that have been privileged to leave earth’s bonds momentarily behind, lifted into the blue sky above the tops of fir trees. It landed and exploded in a thud of yellow and orange, and all the children ran out to examine it.

Jubilee Biodynamic Farm occupies 200 acres at a sharp bend in the Snoqualmie River, near the town of Carnation. It’s a small farm owned and run by Erick and his wife Wendy. They raise vegetables and keep some livestock, mainly for the manure, and the farm is supported by a CSA program, wherein townies who wish to know where their food comes from and have a relationship with its grower pay an annual fee and receive weekly boxes of the farm’s produce in return.

It’s a princess patch.

I met Erick years ago at the Seattle Tilth Harvest Fair. He had a table set up with a few apples and other fruits and some vegetables on it, but he said he wasn’t really there to sell produce that day so much as talk with people about biodynamic farming, which is his passion. Biodynamic farming seeks to restore and maintain ecological balance, so, for example, instead of adding chemical fertilizers to the soil, BD farmers might use manure from cattle, returning nutrient to the soil from right there on the farm instead of importing something external. Basically, it’s farming in harmony with instead of in opposition to the processes of nature. But there’s also a huge emphasis on community in the BD movement, since the approach is based on a holistic idea of the health of the land.

Shortly after this encounter, we took Mara, who was then two years old, to Jubilee Farm to hunt down a pumpkin for Halloween. We climbed into a wagon for a free hayride around the edges of fields full of broccoli and squash and carrots and chard and onions and cabbage, and just before the tractor started to pull the wagon Erick himself jumped up into the wagon so he could ride with us and tell us how things were going that year. As we skirted the fields he shouted above the sound of the tractor to report that it had been a good year for some things but not for others. He talked about wanting to eventually get his tractors off of diesel and onto biofuels, in keeping with the biodynamic model.

I was entranced.

The man was singing my song, namely the song of can’t we just quit bashing the earth we’ve been given for our home and sustenance in order to make bigger profits and start being responsible stewards and reckon the health of our soil and our communities as a bottom line asset?

Silas explains one of his ideas to Mara. He has already proposed marriage and they talk a lot about the house they will build together.

We started planning how we might participate in Jubilee’s CSA program, which was not outrageously expensive but would amount to a rerouting of our food budget that would take some planning and experimentation and education for us to make work for us. Like how do you make a meal out of kohlrabi? And what the hell is kohlrabi? But that’s when we finally moved out of our tiny 1912 cottage-y house into our big swingin’ 1960s plate-glass windows and a two-car garage house (we don’t have two cars), and for several years we were burdened with a monthly mortgage that forced us to retreat from the expensive moral high ground where our food was concerned.

We never joined, and what’s more, we began getting our pumpkins at another farm up north every year with friends of ours who went there, whose daughter is Mara’s oldest friend. I’ve written about our annual trip to Craven Farm at least twice before, and we’ve had fun there. It’s a big operation and a well-oiled commercial enterprise, complete with tractor-pulled hayride through a corn-maze (not free), some small farm animals in a petting barn, a concession stand with a play-and-eating area, even a permanent espresso bar and a gift shop. We’ve been to weddings and other events at Craven Farm. It always seems to be stunningly beautiful there, tranquil and magical and…the word ‘shimmering’ comes to mind, and they have vast pumpkin patches, and a separate patch with smaller pumpkins for littler people. Even though you don’t necessarily feel the farmingness of it, there’s nothing not to like there.

Millie became rather attached to her tractor.

But for a number of reasons we decided to go back to Jubilee Farm this year. Even though we’d only been once before, a long time ago, we had been missing it. Or at least Angela and I had. Mara didn’t remember it. But she was game, especially since her buddy Silas and his mom said they’d go with us, and Millie at just two and a half years probably doesn’t even remember Craven Farm, so she was untroubled by the change.

When I saw Erick conducting the trebuchet firing I was immediately glad we had come back. It occurred to me that Erick is always outside talking with people, or driving the tractors, or helping people weigh their pumpkins. I love that. Whereas Craven Farm is big and smooth and feels a bit like going to a fair, like a place eternally at ease, the feeling at Jubilee is more like going to a holiday gathering at your favorite uncle’s farm. Erick and Wendy are always participating, engaging the people who support them not just by being customers, as Erick said, but by being part of the community that the farm operates in. This is a farm with a family at the center of it, and the families that visit it during weekends like this are often families that have worked in Jubilee’s fields in a “workshare” capacity. They know Erick and Wendy and Erick and Wendy know them. At Jubilee Farm, you get a whiff of the realness, the danger, the dependence on the weather and on the community of friends, the skin-of-their-teeth determination that keeps Erick and his family in the game.

Getting our gourd on. Image copyright Juliana W., used by permission.

We caught a hayride out to the pumpkin patch and Silas and Mara had a blast running around and assessing the features that in their minds make up the ideal jack-o-lantern. There weren’t pumpkins small enough for Millie to pick up in the field, but she found a tiny one she coveted later at the cashier’s counter. The wagon picked us up with our chosen pumpkins to take us back to the barn. All three kids enjoyed a large haybale maze in one of the sheds, and Millie twice climbed up unaided into an old International tractor, whose gear levers she seemed to intuitively understand. We had gotten there late and things were closing down. It had been a beautiful day, even hot, which I think surprised everyone. There was hot cider and hot corn on the cob for sale on the barn porch, but we bought popsicles out of a freezer.

Erick’s son David conducted an end-of-day pumpkin fling with the trebuchet, and the dwindling crowd again pulled the rope to lift the 2,000-pound block. This time I shot my hand up when volunteers were called for to pull the pin. It took me and the man and woman with me three pulls with all our might before it came out. I fell to the ground. The pumpkin arced through the sky. The children ran after. It was great to be part of the fun.

David Haakenson readies the trebuchet for another fling.

Silas and his mom had to leave, but Angela and the girls and I took a stroll down the long road across the highway — Angela had asked Erick where the cows were that we kept hearing. A quarter mile down the road the cows were in a pasture picking at what little green there was in the grass after the long drought we’ve had since late July or so. Angela and Mara fed them over the electric fence. If I understand correctly these animals are the engine of soil replenishment for Jubilee’s crop fields. Most of the calves were black — all black, even their faces. The cows were mostly black or black with white faces, though some were a dirty white and one or two were brown.

It was cool in the shadow of Tolt Hill, and a little mist was even coming up, even while the lowering sun was still painting the treetops across the valley. The quiet between the lowing of the cows was soul-enriching. David came walking down the road to check that the fence was on. With him was his wife Kristin, who was carrying their baby son Micah in her arms. He pointed to the new barn being built across the fields, and told us that the cows were being so vocal partly because they were unhappy about the lack of green grass. He said they were moving the herd every 24 hours in an effort to make the fields provide enough nutrient to keep them fed until November, when they’ll go into the new barn for the winter (in the barn, I happen to know, they’ll get good hay that was put up at the end of the summer – dry but tasty).

Millie in the shade of the barn. Image copyright Juliana W., used by permission.

Silas and Mara enter the haybale maze. Image copyright Juliana W., used by permission.

Angela and I missed the tradition of doing Craven Farm with our old friends, but this feeling was more than mitigated by the fun we had discovering new adventures with new friends. Mara had not uttered a single word of discontent (she was happily capering with Silas). Jubilee’s patch was not as large nor as plentiful as Craven’s, and there were no wheelbarrows to stick your toddler in when they tired of tripping around among the pokey vines and stems. Sending us off in our haywagon, Erick had acknowledged that “at Jubilee we grow pumpkins with our left hand; mainly we’re all about biodynamic vegetable growing.” But, he said, he was glad we were here and he thanked us for coming, and in his voice I could hear a person who really knows the non-monetary value of people, of community. We’re not sure Jubilee Farm will be our annual pumpkin patch until Millie is old enough to tromp around on her own, but Jubilee Farm is busy with family events all year and we want to find a way to work this wonderful little farm into the rhythm of our lives.

My J.P. post gets republished

My friend Elisa is editor at ParentMap, a parent’s resource magazine that is both a monthly printed magazine and a website and blog. She asked me if she could republish on their blog the story I wrote last fall about J.P. Patches, who was created and portrayed by Chris Wedes, who died over the weekend at age 84.

I said could she ever. She did a great job of it. It’s here:

http://www.parentmap.com/blog/12281/the-city-dump-will-never-be-the-same-a-patches-pal-remembers-jp


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