Where’s Susan Hayward When She’s Needed?

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Today, I had rather thorough pre-testing for a procedure that is scheduled for this Friday. The dread has been building for months, but it is at least the last real hurdle between me and the ever-elusive new and improved heart. By noon, one might say that I was even a bit excited about Friday. I kept daydreaming about being able to go into the ocean, drive Nigel, and regain the option to leave the house for more than a few hours at a time. I’ll finally be able to detach my IV and secure it in the pantry’s “miscellaneous” drawer. And all the cardiovascular accoutrement can be removed from my chest, and the apertures sealed.

While watching the steady flow of bile-rousing rhetoric on CNN, I noticed I had a voicemail from this morning’s hospital team. They were very sincere but felt that they would be unable to perform the procedure there because of the severity of my health issues and some of the particulars. Mind you, while not huge, Rex Hospital is a leading medical center in the Triangle.

Shocked can only describe the second wave of disappointment after the notion had started to set in as I verbalized it to my beloved. The anesthesiologist suggested I have it done at UNC in Chapel Hill, where I already spend an inordinate number of days and nights. The Transplant Assessment Cardiologists think I should have the procedure done in Raleigh.

Dammit. I just want to do something other than read. With my heart pumping at only 10-15%, almost every part of my body seems affected. It’s reached a point at which, in a conversation, I’ll forget the topic, the purpose, or even who it is to whom I am talking. To avoid frustration and maintain an iota of dignity, I shy away from the phone. Similarly, it is excruciating to write anything. Words do not come easily anymore. Syntax and structure become struggles. I might even need to nap after a few paragraphs.

In light of all of these new developments and criteria, I bet Susan would know what to do. And she’d do it with a song in her… Well, you know.

It’s clear to me that it is probably best that I take a break from Tartuffe’s Folly for a spell, at least until I can remember and write and feel motivated and hear a stronger heartbeat. The pusses and I might post a note every now and then.

I hope to have my voice back by early dewberry season.

“Dignity: the doomed man’s final refuge.” (Max Frisch)

(Image: “Monsieur” by Martin Battersby.)

Mondays. Can’t Trust That Day

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Today was rather hellacious but, before I start complaining, I best remind myself that tomorrow is a repeat. Further, it’s still too early in the year to risk taunting the Universe.

Jon awakened early to take Pfluffer to the vet for laser surgery and to get his dressing and booties changed. Before Jon even had his keys in hand, three trucks had filled our driveway and five workmen were ready to replace our back door.

Of course, we were conflicted. I was still in bed. Jon was late to transport the patient. But our back door had started crumbling from water damage years ago and, like our health, had reached critical status. Henry had broken through a panel; the door was eaten away at the bottom; and we had duct-taped the glass to prevent it from sliding further. Frankly, a small child, medium possum, or a large squirrel could easily just push the door in. More likely, any one of a number of outdoor pusses could easily falsify identification, sneak inside, and no one would be any the wiser.

Whenever we had rainfall at Marklewood, the flooring just inside the door would flood, requiring mopping, drying, replacing, and dragging. The backdoor’s shabbiness left the house vulnerable and its occupants often wary (me, not Jon) and nervous.

Naturally, it is impossible to control air flow around such a door when the winds are blowing a chilly -12°F and whistling gust at it. One never adjusts to the rattle when one has an inadequate heating system.

So Henry and I were just in chaos today, barricaded from the downstairs and our daily regimens destroyed. The outdoor pusses kept snooping inside the trucks. They believed they were infiltrating in some guerrilla catfight.

Happily, Pfluffer was the only one to have a doctor’s appointment. Jon’s and mine come later in the week. And it was a gift that Pfluffer could at least miss one day of the noise and strangers. He has quite a few untreated social issues and would hide in the attic for days.

For tomorrow, we’re prepared. Henry, Pfluffer, Claudja, and Hermione will be sequestered safely and securely where we need not worry but yet not know. I will be awake, with my iced coffee, and the hatches will be all battened. Jon, though, will be heading alone to Chapel Hill for a dental appointment, but he promises to bring a legendary BLT.

Back in the eighties, as I devoured life, I had no idea that having a new backdoor could be so epic for two men and their brood of rescues. Fry-up some chicken. It’s time for a shindig at Marklewood!

Vital Signs of Misbehaving

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I am appreciative of home health care for so many reasons. These well-intended, perky nurses answer my questions; change my dressings; and (I feel rather certain) spy. Most of all, along with my daily dosage of Zoloft and Wellbutrin, they keep me safely far away from the bleak black abyss of despair and the chilling snaps of ribs cracking.

That, friends, is my life as this year continues to unfold as if we still believe that humanity deserves hope. I am caught in an unfamiliar dimension or reality between a Heather and a Zenobia. Those of you who have met me will chuckle at the irony of such names and their potential allegory. However, I cannot laugh.

They have recruited my Jon! He takes and records my daily vital signs and questions me if the results skew oddly. I believe he finds it amusing and weirdly satisfying for me to be dependent. Wait. I should’ve said: “for me to be less independent.” Jon, though, would never begrudge me anything (especially care and support!).

So at least until we get that phone call from UNC (“Get thee to Chapel Hill within two hours or forfeit cardiac organ of the previously mentioned second party.” Perhaps, I embellish.), Jon and I can still misbehave a little. As long as I can maneuver that darned IV pump, I usually have a two hour window. At that point, we notice pumpkins and mice, scurrying like the Perrault fairy tale suggested.

Nonetheless, within that time frame, we can enjoy BLTs from Chapel Hill’s Merritt Grill, which rightly boasts to serve the world’s best BLT. Or pizza from Lilly’s with my favorite toppings: artichoke sauce, fresh fennel, Italian sausage, fresh shrimp, and mounds of gooey Gouda. Or a big, comforting, and disgustingly greasy Southern country breakfast.

These foods have been absent from our dining regimen for over three years. Once I can tolerate such dietary unrestrictions, I plan to re-experience them at least once before I receive my new heart. At that point, the Food Channel will likely seem like porno with better plots and acting.

As far as those areas of misbehavior in which a man of my situation can realistically partake: there is only one, oversleeping. My buddies in England may imbibe in my behalf. French friends can fetch the fryers. It’s difficult to be rude or indignant about cigarette smoking since I enjoyed the habit for so long. I did quit and no longer have much of a craving.

To any of my friends or loved ones who are over fifty years old and still enjoying the occasional carnal romp wherever and whenever the urge strikes: indeed more power to you. Kudos! I’ll leave you my Nitrostat.

I must thank Heather, the efficient Yankee, and Zenobia, the quirky Southerner who wears a toboggan with a tassel. They come to Marklewood and rescue me from the clutches from CNN and MSNBC. They draw Jon and me into their wacky world. We laugh.

(Image: Snow Queen by Sergio Mora.)

I Saw the Sign and It Opened Up My Eyes

Allegorical Portrait of an Artist, Probably Rachel Ruysch

Yes, it has been another one of those typical weeks that lately almost seem comfortable. I limit my java intake to one single cup per day and, in like vein, open the icebox door from time to time and say a few good byes. Of course, moderation will become the new key. Yet, Edy’s Grand Gourmet, Philadelphia Cream Cheese, pastrami, and marzipan pillow cookies might as well bypass the decrepit local buggy station and continue on to Swift Creek.

The postman continues to deliver letters from SSI, SSDI (Disability), and Medicaid that wholly contradict each other in intent, benefit availability. Apparently, my need for a new heart would be less complicated in 47 of the other states. They are now re-reviewing my need for medical and financial assistance. Yes, with the opening of each envelope, I became more indignant and frustrated.

Pfluffer is still sick and listless. Jon is still sick and listless. And so on. And so on. And so on.

To escape this morning’s dread, as I often do, I started cruising Art Gallery and Library sites across the internet, especially Russian, French, and Chinese ones. (I search using foreign keywords to broaden my the scope of my image results.) Somehow, I stumbled upon this 17th century painting by Dutch portrait painter Michiel van Musscher (1645-1705). I quickly became fascinated with the allegorical portrait for the less than obvious reasons: mainly the subject’s dour and sullen demeanor and expression. Of course, I was amused by the playful cherubs, reversed bust, tiny artist’s palette, chaotic floor setting, and the tiny barely visible spaniel and cats frolicking below the easel. The painting’s narrative was indeed a puzzle.

I looked to see what museum or gallery held such item, only to find that it is the North Carolina Museum of Art, here in Raleighwood, and about fifteen miles away. The Universe gave me a gift: a sign to “stop my sobbing” (Thank you, Miss Hynde.) and enjoy the day somehow.

And thus prompted the notion of a December haircut. Signs are signs.

(Image: “Allegorical Portrait of an Artist, Probably Rachel Ruysch” by Michiel van Musscher, 1685.)

Whether ‘Tis Nobler to Save Heather’s Feathers

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I have always had conflicted feelings about holidays, such as today’s. They naturally rekindled all of those delightful family get-togethers at which either no one talked at all or everyone yelled. Those of us who might be under age 17 could rarely manage to sneak a cocktail. (‘Dis functional?) There was never anything interesting on television except for parades, football games, and variety specials hosted by folks with names such as Vikki, Andy, Steve and Eydie, Lawrence, and the like. I never quite wrapped my oddly-cultivated perspective of the world around why that Thursday was never ideal for a PBS special on Egyptology, an all day marathon of Bea Lillie, Mildred Dunnock,  or Estelle Winwood films, or anything else “normal.”

As I grew older and into my own sense of sensibilities and sensations, I also started participating in the vicious sport of competitive party-throwing. Thanksgiving, however, was a mid-level holiday: a nightmare for young amateurs, too rigid for seasoned pros. Most hosts prepared the fairly similar menu year after year. Yes, Aunt Barbara had loved the lamb chops, Brussels sprouts stuffed with Gruyère, and the saffron crème brûlées. Yet, she couldn’t resist her own slightly Southern and most passive aggressive “digestif”: “But I do so love a proper turkey. The day is just incomplete without it, unless of course the chef doesn’t know a snood from a dewlap!” By the time I was thirty-something, the joy had been sucked out of a holiday turkey, except for the early ’90’s when deep-fried birds offered an actual trend.

Needless to say: I have spent almost half of my life attempting to prepare exotic and fabulous alternatives to these culinary traditions. Needless to say: I have learned to carefully select both my battles and my month. Similarly, I yielded my favorite fashion color and my penchant for baggy turtlenecks.

My battle seemed fruitless and surely doomed until I met Jon and became confident that, yet again, the winding lane to cohabitation would be both paved and short. Although Jon loves. No, make that “really loves.” Actually, it should read: Jon is near tears and speechlessness when he sees a roasted turkey, cranberry relish, and pumpkin pie. Of course, if forced to eat the cranberry item, I prefer the ground type made with fresh oranges and cranberries. Jon prefers the gelatinous type that is capable of neither melting nor becoming anybody’s sauce. Pumpkin pies simply annoy me and have done so since I went to St Thomas More Elementary in Chapel Hill. Let my epitaph read: “There is no Punkin. There is no Sammich. And Now There’s No Me!”

I digress in not returning sooner to explaining the Thanksgiving miracle that is Jon. Although he’s a card-carrying member of the traditional, he’s usually willing to experiment and trust my broader food knowledge. Plus, he loves me slightly more than turkeys, so I win by a hair. For the last decade, I have been able to show him firsthand several plausible options. One year, however, I acquiesced. Our dinner group included five men, all unemployed; and four women, my employed sister and her three daughters. I had selfish reasons though. I had a Southern hankerin’ for my favorite stuffing: cornmeal, spinach, mushrooms, sausage, Vidalias, and fresh fennel.

Usually, whenever I purchase a turkey, it is in the spring or summer. We opt for a free range one that we hope had a relatively stress-free and fulfilling life … and that it was given intravenous valium or copious morphine before it was killed, plucked, and trussed. And that it wasn’t dressed inappropriately for the occasion.

Finally, most of you know that I have a bad habit of naming random things. Our most recent automobiles here at Marklewood were Nigel and Ian. My iPods have been Leopolds I, II, & III. The downstairs vacuum is Emmanuelle. The upstairs canister model is Emmanuelle II. The Two Rubies are my prized non-blooming and mammoth begonias.

And since 1992, whenever I did happen to prepare a turkey, I named it Heather. Heather rhymes with feather so it provides a good segue for jolly banter. Since that’d be such an odd choice for a turkey, I chuckle instantly, knowing that one might expect a Blossom, Amelia, or even a Fern before a “Heather”.

The Novembers in which I prepare a roasted duck, leg of lamb, prime rib, Cornish hens, or even a pasta, I always think to myself: “Heather escaped another one!”

That Heather! She’s got it going on … for a turkey with the right type of meal ticket.

 

(Happy Thanksgiving from Mark, Jon, and all the rescued pusses at Marklewood. Heather finds it safer to reside in Holly Springs.)

Whispered Confessions by a Maid of Dishonor

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If there is indeed a utopia to be found, surely it features among its endless litany of precious perks: perpetually glistening windows, self-vacuuming needlepoint rugs, and laundry that reverts to being “breezy” fresh, neatly pressed, and folded and yet put away. Sadly, here in the hinterlands, there is neither utopia nor hope of its discovery. The noble and almighty “Gods of Household Missions” taunt Jon and me.

Maytag, Hoover, and Windex are merely powerless muses who remind us that the overly exaggerated “Twelve Labors of Hercules” were actually “seven” one time obstacles. Of course, this was back in an era when historians were less persnickety about details and image, and more concerned about scaring the masses into submission … not unlike FOX News, the Westboro Baptist Church, nor that Coulter person.

True, we at Marklewood take our household missions seriously, constantly in fear of wrath of the housecleaning deities. But we amply mist our humble house with denial and burn the obligatory candles of neglect. We have become modern “maids of dishonor”.

We leave our spectacles bedside, so as to render us unable to scrutinize any dust. Pfluffer does, however, always manage to scrawl some cryptic message on the television screen with his “swiffer-esque” paws. I imagine he’s critiquing either litterbox maintenance or streaks on his otherwise shiny food bowl.

With five indoor pusses, it is always both safe and prudent to assume that at least one is napping. Obsessive worrier that I am, I fear waking them from a recuperative or healthy slumber … with the ugly and intrusive mumblings and moans of Velvet, our venerable vacuum.

Now that my beloved is retired, he is determined to catch up and thus stay ahead with laundry, although he is befuddled by the concept of sorting. He expertly cleans the lint trap as well as the dryer’s ductwork that “exhales” its hot, pungent breath into the nandina out back. He measures, wrings, and fluffs with a master’s finesse, but stops just short of folding. Clean clothing and linens are now a-mound on our guest bed, with shirts casually hanging from the posters. I am the real culprit as I prefer t-shirts, boxers, socks, and towels to be folded in a precise and consistent manner. Unsuspecting eyes have indeed caught me re-folding polo shirts and then re-stacking and “colorizing” them. Oy.

Although my most satisfying dreams involve both greater closet space and an “easier to maintain” Marklewood, I am a pragmatist … at least on a Monday. At the start of a week, I am easily teeming with resolve and vows.

But avoidance, denial, neglect, and habit play a mean game of Bridge, and I feel forever trumped. I suspect that should you drop by for a tall iced coffee and tasty puffed pillow cookie, you might find the downstairs lighting more ambient than expected. Velvet will be alone and likely up to no good in the linen closet. The guest bedroom door will be tightly shut. And Sam will be sound asleep in my favorite chair, safeguarding the television screen from Pfluffer’s scribbles and dreaming of his own version of Utopia.

(Image: “Messenger” by Ray Caesar, 2004.)

Knock, Knock, Knock on Wood

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Yes, I again taunted the Universe, tempted those clever Fates, and forgot to buck off any superstitions that had yet to mar my October. In a house in which ample wood surfaces appoint almost every turn or seated vantage, I forgot to knock where braver men would have dared to overlook. As I commented on the month’s near tragic run on calamity and hurdles, and fool-heartedly looked to November’s fresh start, I left the last days vulnerable.

In the grayest of afternoon’s hours, Jon and I advanced cautiously steer through the winding, overgrown, and pot-holiest of driveways. Jon was in his usual state of half sleep while I was basking in the recent saga of modern zombies, cockney ne’er-do-wells, and the various brands of haughty Hampton bitchiness that typifies each point of a compass. We were finally returning with our Nigel, a Jeep XLT that required an organ transplant of its own. Naturally, such a procedure is costly and never covered by automobile insurance or Medi-Car. We went for an entire season without wheels so that we could, once my “disability” kicked in, pay both the piper and the Universe’s tithe.

We feared the worst, the unspoken dread that would indeed make a month (that just couldn’t get any worse) in fact worse. Nigel, our beloved Jeep, was about to be ripped from the only home he has ever known and towed to Benson, not to be confused with Lizard Lick which, although in this same market, has its own reality show. There was little we could accomplish at 3AM or, for that matter, in the few days that it would take to gather the funds as well as the various processing fees and daily storage.

I won’t elaborate as to the hoops that the Universe held high or the speed at which it urged: “JUMP, dammit!” But after a week of negotiating its discharge, Nigel was finally released today at three.  As we inspected the “refurbishing”, if not renewal, the jeep glistened and flaunted the return of its original pristine aura and bouquet. Oy vey. I am knocking wood as I post and will do so again once I am settled in bed. Although I am by no means a martyr, I do feel as though some “Bad Seed” has been sticking her arrows into me, with hopes that I drop my penmanship medal, Sr Edward Patricia’s class of ’65.

There are four hours left in this Godless month and I’m no longer taking chances. Jon has made certain that we even have Halloween candy on hand this year, even though we’ve only had one “trick or treater” over the dozen years. There is at least one perk to being known as the two crazy men that live down that dark secluded driveway. Come to think of it: that child who came to the door on the Halloween of 2004 was a prissy lass of nine or ten who haughtily complained about her candy options. Her name might just have been Rhoda.

(Image: “The Third Heart” by Andrew Ferez.)

A Nostalgic Tidbit: So Many Lives Ago

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Ishkabibble Sieber-Markle

Proudly announces the birth of
Her first “official” litter:
Funyon & Cheetoh
(Solid gray & marmalade colors respectively)
Total weight of three ounces
Father unknown but narrowed to five roguish toms
on Sunday, the thirtieth of April, 2006.

In effort to make the baby pusses more adoptable
Within “high-fallootin’” Raleighwood communities,
Their given names will be recorded as
Clive and Clovis.
No gifts please!

The elder sibling puss, Spike Lee of Oakwood,
Is thought to be the result of a wanton and carnal romp
In Fuquay-Varina on a steamy tin roof.
Subsequently, his birth records have been destroyed
And he has been quietly adopted by a proper Jewish Family.

This announcement, sadly, never made it to print in the “News & Observer”
but will always make us smile and think of Ishkabibble.

Naturally she’ll face the same challenge as the date for their Cat Mitzvahs nears.

(Reprint of a rescue’s birth notice from 2006!)

(Image: “Widget as Bacchus” by Melinda Copper.)

More than a Humble Umbel

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“There came a time when the risk to remain tight in the bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” (Anaïs Nin)
To those of you who today celebrate, atone, welcome, or simply express the joy of found love:

I offer you humble blossoms in both spirit and image, and wish for you a release from stress and gleeful reflection.

Be safe. Be kind. And, each day, be gentle. We only learn of snippets of each other’s life. We are each much more than the other could possibly imagine or, for that matter understand!

(Image: “Bouquet” by Marion Peck, 2007.)

Exchanging Peasantries: A Recipe

Zamfir Dumitrescu (19)

As I sit in the sunroom pondering those worries that prevent a steady slumber, the kitchen gods often whisper to me. This would indeed be a perfect late summer’s eve for a cassoulet. It is unseasonably cool, damp, and we have survived yet another torrent. And, of course, Jon and I crave a familiar creation that at once comforts our cockles and restores our hearth’s dominion.

As with other such recipes and traditions, mine is borrowed, augmented, and made more appropriate for our odd lifestyle and tired taste-buds. What was once a French country peasant staple is now a Marklewood delight, and further one that allows for great freedom of expression. I also find that such a creation allows me the opportunity to “gently” clean the icebox of neglected ingredients!

Cassoulets are, by tradition, a crocked meal, at once combining meats, beans, herbs, and sauce, although I usually add rice. Rice is my current starch trend as I prefer its texture (and Henry, who adores “people food”, is awfully fond of the saffron variety!) As with all well-intended and pragmatic one-pot meals, I begin with selection of the perfect vessel, in this case a ceramic and lidded cooker. Friends, I urge you to verify any such choice to ascertain whether it is indeed oven-worthy, as I have oft let an assumption lead me astray. Of course, such a ducky preparation would be divine if the cats would hike down to the lake and rustle up some fowl.

Today, I am using a teal hand-sculpted three-quart work of art that my friend Patricia, a dear and rather Bohemian pottress, created for me years ago. It had a domed cover with a peculiar and thus engaging finial. I begin the layering process (I adore creating levels of taste in such meals) by meticulously placing a vegetable along the bottom of the pot.

Although a cassoulet would by tradition call for white beans, I am using Brussels sprouts, as I have fresh ones on hand and, although Jon doesn’t quite understand them, he will tolerate them in certain preparations. I ready them by quartering them and sautéing them with butter and garlic, and then line them up like attentive soldiers, back to back or a similar formation.

I then spoon a melange of similarly sautéed onions and mushrooms and make every attempt to cleverly conceal the waiting sprouts.

Upon this layer, I add about four cups of rice. I offer “about” as one perk to this concoction is that exactness of quantities is unimportant, as the flavors compliment in any sensible proportion. Henry prefers saffron rice, as it melds mild flavor, texture, and butter, which is intoxicating to an indoor puss.

The final layer is that of substance, or meat if you must. I prefer sausages as they contribute full flavor. Today I am taking the ever appropriate Summer sausages, browning them in a skillet, and then slicing them for ease in placement. Sometimes it is all about such ease, lest I forget an unfortunate creation of last year. That incident will safely go unposted and forever unshared.

Once all of the layering is complete and I am certain that there is absolutely nothing else I can add, I place the cover … ultimately cooking the cassoulet for forty minutes at 375 degrees. Again, with such a preparation, there is no need to be exact so even a half hour longer will not overcook the dish … just allow you more time on your favorite social networking site before dinner.

What I adore about this hearty meal is that the flavors essentially trickle down: The mushrooms and onions position themselves between the sprouts, sharing in the garlic, and filling any gaps. The rice fills similar gaps thus created by the mushrooms and onions, absorbing butter. And the juices and herbed flavors from the sausage similarly infuse the rice.

As I wait for the dish to complete and the timer to chime, I ponder two other reasons for my fondness.  First, I can use the same sauté pan for the Brussels sprouts, ‘shrooms, and meat, thereby creating only one such pan to wash. Secondly, the cook time allows me the opportunity to wash and quickly put away that very pan and any utensils or holding bowls. I so enjoy having only one cooker to clean after dinner!

One final note, my friends: when spooning and “plating” your cassoulet, use the largest spoon you can find. Gently ease it towards the bottom of the dish and simply scoop. Never try to mix the ingredients. Sometimes it is best to allow the flavors and aromas to gently transition while on the plate and, thus, avoid offering instead just one big ole complex taste! There is such an effort as “over-mixing” as I have been vehemently accused on many a night!

In closing, oh comrades in cookery,  Jon and I anticipate a warm and hearty dinner, worthy of an Arctic evening, or the weather of a storm. Someday, perhaps you will join us, although there may not always be a cleared chair. However, there is indeed always plenty of food to nourish and savor.  Usually.

As they say in the South of France: “Bon Appetit, Y’all!”

(Note: Such a dish goes well with almost any robust wine, although I prefer a pinot noir. More importantly, I would put a Karen Akers CD on the carousel and turn the volume a little higher than is customary.)

 

(Image: “Untitled” by Zamfir Dumitrescu.)

The Good Neighbors

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In my over three decades since those grilled cheese college days, I have moved nearly a dozen times. With each new address, I rarely even met my neighbors, let alone made an effort to know them. That never bothered me: I was raised in a family of complicated drama and tormenting dysfunction. Communing with the “folks to either side” always meant relinquishing privacy and risking the reveal of damning family secrets. Neighbors seemed created simply to water plants and feed pets while on vacation or fill in gaps at holiday festivities. Of course, there is an exception.

In 1993, I returned to Greensboro, where I had spent my formative years … at least since age ten. I had been long gone since my young adulthood, and was at my once home. I was emotionally ravaged, nearly broke once again, and at yet another crossroads. However, I am (if nothing else) both scrappy and a survivor … in practical and creative measure. By that Christmas, I was general manager of an extremely popular and eclectic eatery, involved in a meaningful and rewarding relationship, and relearning how to receive the joys of the Universe. It was that very night, the grandest of holiday eves, that Michael asked me to move in with him. I did. And that’s where this neighborly tale begins, my friends.

Our neighborhood was a relatively Bohemian, diverse, and well-maintained enclave of primarily “twenties” homes. The street itself was sloped, lined with magnificent but overly-needy Pin Oaks, with a graduating view of the downtown skyline. The panorama at the street’s bottom was a lush and willow-dotted park, best suited for frolicking pups, children’s ball games, and the occasional festival. Our house was on a corner, leaving us really only one other family of any consequential proximity: Richard, Libby, and their daughter Bailey.

Michael was already friendly with the Smiths, but I was obviously new to the dynamic. Perhaps, because we were always having cocktails, entertaining, or reading mail on our porch (while they were engaged similarly on theirs), it was a natural and quick transition for me. By spring, we often shared pertinent details and intimacies of our lives as well as our latest gardening efforts. It seemed as though most everyone in Westerwood took spring plantings extremely seriously. Richard and I were no exception. Libby and Michael certainly appreciated our efforts, frequently assisting, but clearly had to acquiesce to our compulsive, creative, and sometimes convoluted craft.

Although Richard and I probably spent more time “communing” in our yards, it was probably Libby whom I really got to know. It was easy. While Richard seemed always pensive, reserved, and methodical, his wife was what I call a “gentle Type A”! Our outward sensibilities, love of witty naughty banter, and appreciation of pop and social cultures were beyond aligned. Further, truth be told, we were both more likely the household “diva” type to our jokingly “long-suffering” and patient husbands. I jokingly called her “Libbatory”, in that Southern manner that Michael savored and she despised. At his most casual, Richard was always “Dr. Smith”!

It wasn’t long before the Smiths became more than neighbors as we surreptitiously peeled any remaining layers of formality. They survived our various stays in the hospital, family dramas (usually in-law-inspired), and overall eccentricities, as we survived theirs. Of course, they managed to stay healthy, trading hospital stories for those of dealing with a pubescent, increasingly hormonal daughter … a situation that easily trumps most.

Our house occasionally became a haven, a safe house for teenage rebellion or similar squabbles … as I came to Libby rather often to report the latest misbehavior of Michael’s judgmental and often ill-intended family. Before long any family get together seemed hollow without the Smiths. Our lives had become gently intertwined. The phenomenon didn’t even dissipate when Michael and I had a picket fence built enclosing the front yard. We could rest our coffee cups on a picket while we chatted or, more often: Libby could balance her red wine glass upon that whitewashed apex, as I did my customary evening highball.

Life had definitely started to approach perfection. By the winter of 2000, Michael and I had renovated parts of the house with our slightly odd “stamp”; I was in my fifth year as the manager of a successful design and retail firm; and we had phenomenal next-door neighbors … the latter I had always viewed as some television-era quasi-suburban myth. Needless to say, change again loomed. The almighty forces of the Universe sat upon their billowy thrones, wreaking rhetorical havoc with our lives. Michael became extremely ill.

Shortly after the Bushes held their White House-warming fete, his doctor phoned me with the prognosis. I had to tell Michael, because his doctor was located three counties away and time was now a crucial factor. His brain was rapidly succumbing to tumors which would ultimately rob him of everything, every iota of cognition, and eventually life itself.

Over the next six months, the Smiths were there as Michael lost his ability to speak, remember, drive, dress, bathe, or do most anything that required cognition on any level. Naturally, Michael and I became increasingly isolated as he deteriorated, but I always knew that Libby and Richard were but a few feet away. I felt safer and less alone. Then Michael died.

Life was far from idyllic. I lost my job, my employer folded and moved to Charlotte, and I lost the house. Michael had refinanced our home when he was first sick and the mortgage was three times what I could afford. He didn’t have health insurance and the house no longer had equity. And I didn’t have Michael.

That next summer, many of my neighbors chipped in and helped me sort, pack, and load nine rooms and two lives of furniture, collections, and artwork into a large moving van. I was on the cusp of a spontaneous move to Raleigh.

As I drove up my street that balmy night, I sobbed and gasped like a young child being sent away. I knew what a blessing the Smiths had been to me. In retrospect, I figure the Fates knew that I was going to need such people in my life.

Today, order has once again been restored to my life and I rarely see them. But each day as I recount that last summer in Greensboro, I naturally think of them. I now view them as the only neighbors I have ever really had. The others, both before and since, were just “folks next door”!

If Dr. Smith should perchance read this humble recollection, I trust he’ll forgive my syntax and narrative digression. I fear he is aware of neither my disdain for proofreading, nor my alternate moniker … “Prometheus Unposted”!

(Image: “Tea Shop” by Patrick Hughes, 2012.)

A Late Afternoon Mumble

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No matter how regenerated I might feel when I reluctantly stumble from bed, I am sometimes still disconnected, jaded, and prone to the negative. I curse my tossing that spurred this early “uprising”; struggle to find my robe; and like the looming “zombie of Marklewood” I lumber into the office. Yes, it is just as I left it … as it always is.

I make my commitment to the unseen dusk, still mumbling, and start my java regimen. Alas, these hours are chock full of something, all right! Wincing at its drip and puff for Jon will yet be long asleep, Henry follows me into the bathroom. Surely he wonders if I will ever shave again, that coming from a puss who knows his whiskers.

Heading downstairs as Henry returns to claim my bedspot, I seem to hit every creak and crackle on those ancient walnut planks. The few well-oiled silent ones smile back at me: “you fool, go back to bed!” Alas, that staircase is always “Up!” Again, I wince at failing my silent intent.

The kitchen is empty except for the loud hums of the refrigerator. Its door is ajar, undoubtedly from the pusses’ attempt to steal a midnight treat. I fetch my ice and cream, as I ready my usual iced coffee. Again, I mumble … perhaps with more resonance and frustration, as no one can hear me know. There are no blithe spirits here this early morning.

I step into the sunroom with its windows still open from yesterday.The early hours reveal the green spring dusting that blankets the room. How odd that daylight overlooks such disorder! Ah, what a mighty mumble yet stirs within me, as I anticipate the mission ahead … perhaps tomorrow. I open the door quickly with frustration, and in a moment’s drama, make no noise at all. I step outside, sit on the stoop, and resecure my robe. The world all around me is still abed: no gusts, no bristles, no fugue of chirps.

Turning inside as I forgot my lighter which is essential for such a smoke, I spot a tentative watch from under the Jeep. That Thomas!  He smiles at my wee hour comedy, for he knows the sequence. Then while it’s still dark, I am greeted “one by one” by the all the grateful outdoor pusses who guard Marklewood. They cautiously tiptoe toward me and rub against my leg as if to urge: “go get your lighter, we’ll keep you company.”

Sitting on the stoop, with a pile of loyal pusses struggling for my attention, I notice the cigarette smoke billowing and then veiling my view of the stars. The quiet is indeed glorious. Well, it is the quiet save for the harmony of contented purrs.

I smile because at only THAT moment does my day begin!

Heading back inside the house, Henry is standing there ready to walk his customary two paces ahead of me. By now, the coffee is surely ready. The commitment is indeed made:

I am up.

(Image: “Leverian Museum” by Sarah Stone, 1775.)

Cheers, Daphne!

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It was the first unpleasantly hot day of spring a few years back. I clearly remember suppressing a chortle at 4:38 as I quickly parked my car in the crab-grass covered lot.

A meeting with a certain new design client had rambled and meandered for, what seemed like hours and hours, but turned out to be only hours. Daphne is opening a spa/salon in an isolated hamlet about twenty miles East of Raleigh.

Her intent is that it be an opulent and fussy den of indulgence: massages, manicures, facials, and copious glasses of red wine. The converted insurance office was to be appointed with glamorous furnishings and trendy hues. For example, one such notion is to place four peacock-blue, leather and studded wingbacks positioned around a chartreuse velvet ottoman.

I asked Daphne why she chose Lizard Lick to locate such a new undertaking. Yep, skeptics, there is indeed a Lizard Lick, known best for its “reality show” towing service. She looked at me squarely in the eyes and offered: “well, frankly the folks out here need a place to drink!”

Her point was well-taken. I started visualizing my sketches on the long drive home to Marklewood.

(Image: “Entranced” by Mike Worrall, UK.)

Feeling Blue in the Green Room

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On these less than comfortable last days of Summer, I am a reluctant contestant on some not-as-yet aired game show. Ot at least so it seems. The Universe holds me at bay keeping me a-pace in its Green Room, without so much as an informal contract, letter of intent, or a meager bowl of pretzels. For a routine unencumbered by employment, my days are kept busy with rigorous qualifying rounds: tests, maneuvers, and interviews.

With each new challenge Jon completes, a new one arises with perhaps an even greater pay-off, in that it is another crisis averted. As I am his trusty navigator and appointed “lifeline” (Thank you, Meredith), I am only a pretender. I have no answers, only questions. My reservations outweigh my intuitions. And often my reassuring smile is courtesy of nature’s deft makeup crew; and my comforting words of hope, scripted.

And so I pace in that Green Room, fearing yet the inevitable isolation booth. I have, however, learned to distinguish the various hues and shades. Recently it has been a magnificent and surprisingly modern “seafoam”, the very green that’d make the game show angels smile.

(Image: “Untitled” by Albert Weisgerber, 1907.)