Tag Archives: Slice of LIfe

The Dog Days of Winter

I awoke at four a.m. on a snowy February morning dreaming of and missing my parents, while thinking about the Dog Days of summer. If I could explain the workings of the subconscious mind I would do so as I accepted the Nobel Prize for science, but I do not have a clue, only appreciation. Many problems are solved, jangling nerves and emotions soothed by our never off-line mind, courtesy of nature’s sleep mode.

I drifted off the night before knowing I would shovel snow in the morning. Now awake, I struggled to retain my dream before it disappeared amongst bothersome conscious thoughts of the day to come. I pulled on long johns, wool socks and tossed my jeans over a shoulder, then cranked up the thermostat as I shuffled through our dark, Victorian home to the kitchen. Radiators steaming, coffee pot perking, I propped open the back door and released our Sheltie, Sammy. Paws crunching on the white blanketed deck, he scampered to and fro before doing his duty and scrambling back inside for breakfast, gobbling his grub with the intensity of a starving man.

Ah, Dog Days, I thought, my dream rushing to the fore. With a jolt from a stiff cup of Joe, I flipped my mind and laptop on and Googled Dog Days. Beginning with Wikipedia, I switched back and forth between blank mind and snow-white document screen, tracking ever lengthening threads of information and thoughts sparked by my subconscious wanderings.

The Romans, I learned, called the Dog Days of summer “dies caniculares and associated the hot weather with the star Sirius…the ‘Dog Star’ because it is the brightest star in the constellation Canis Major (Large Dog).” On our modern calendar the “Dog Days of summer” follow the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, and run from July through August in the Northern Hemisphere and January through February in the Southern. Unaware of the original meaning of the phrase, many of us associate Dog Days with the lethargy of domesticated dogs during these blistering months. But, unlike the Romans, we do not sacrifice any of our furry friends in hopes of abating the heat; instead, we retreat to air conditioned rooms or lay in the shade with our pets and take a nap.

Mmmmm, I thought, giving Sammy a pat on the head and with my brain, computer and radiators humming scrolled down the screen, continuing to alternately read and write.

It seems that in the 19th century, Dog Days were thought of as an evil time when, according to John Brady in his book Clavis Calenderia (circa 1813), “the Sea boiled, the Wine turned sour, Dogs grew mean, and all other creatures became languid: causing to man…burning fevers, hysterics and phrenises.”  Although not written in reference to the Dog Days, Noel Coward’s lyric “only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun” is the 20th century take on the sultry days of summer. As for 2013, in our anxiety riddled society, the Dog Days are a time to wax on climate change and our impending doom.

This prompted thoughts about my melancholy dream of my parents. Jumping down the screen, the text reminded me that we live in an equally halved world above and below the equator. So, conversely, when the Southern Hemisphere is lolling through their Dog Days, the Northern is experiencing the shortest day of the year around December 20th.

Now, there is no corresponding popular phrase to capture the two months which follow, but they are associated with the winter blues. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine “some people experience a serious mood change during the winter months, when there is less natural sunlight. This is called seasonal affective disorder (SAD)…and is a type of depression.”

Of course, I thought to myself in the now cozy kitchen, most of us do not go mad in July or August or plunge into a clinical depression in January and February. But as a writer with a vivid imagination capable of conjuring calamities provoked by the slightest of pretenses, it is reassuring to know that they may be due to nothing more than the tilt of the earth.

“You’re just out of sorts,” my mother used to say, “get busy and it will go away.”

And there it was.

I stopped typing, gratefully punched the “saved” button and refilled my coffee cup. I stared out the window, the weak winter sun sparkling off the crystallized earth.

My parents both passed a few years apart at the end of January, their funerals held on harsh, unforgiving days like the one yawning before me.

My father, a decorated combat GI in WWII, received a full honor guard, a line of gray-haired veterans standing at attention, freezing rain soaking their uniforms and streaming down weathered faces.  I have no idea how long they waited in the drizzle before we arrived, but they were ramrod straight and ready for their fallen comrade. It was one of the most moving and reaffirming moments of a depressing day.

Although 82, my mother died unexpectedly. She was in the hospital for minor surgery and choked to death the night before while eating. A classically trained pianist and soprano, her once perfect posture was destroyed by osteoporosis, her internal organs collapsing on one another, and she could not muster enough wind to clear her throat. A nurse discovered her when she came in to pick up the dinner tray.

I spoke to Mom earlier in the day, never thinking it could be our last conversation.

I heard my wife, Yolanda, stirring upstairs and I made another pot of coffee. Sammy, hunger satiated, stretched out near a radiator, sound asleep, his world a place of perfect contentment.

I switched off the laptop, slipped on my jeans, laced up my boots, donned a wool cap, leather coat and gloves and shoveled snow.

It was time to get busy.

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Filed under 21st Century America, Dog Days, Family, February 2013, Greatest Generation, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), Winter Blues, World War II

9/11 at 11

We go from here.

When I was growing up my father said this to me when I did something that threw me off stride in my march to adulthood.  No choir boy, I heard it often.

I’m grateful to have been raised by parents born in the 1920’s. Mom and Dad weathered the Great Depression and WWII. “Potato pancakes” was a staple at their supper tables. Mom was a survivor of polio, Dad, bloody combat.  When he was nineteen his platoon was decimated in the Battle of the Bulge, seven soldiers alive at the end, five walking, they carried the other two to a field hospital.  The platoon was filled with replacements and Dad and the others followed Patton across Europe to victory.

We go from here.

My parents experienced suffering in a way few from succeeding American generations have. But that suffering provided a sense of proportion to their daily lives. Far too often now, Americans, as individuals and a country, invoke the term “crisis” to describe things that I’m certain my folks would view as challenges, but not crises.

9/11 was different.

I asked Mom if it was worse than Pearl Harbor.

“Yes,” she said, voice cracking.

I called Dad.  Only months from death, three packs a day of Lucky Strikes taking their toll, he struggled to breathe and his short-term memory was shot. But he understood what happened on 9/11.

“We’ll beat ’em,” he whispered.

We go from here.

A few weeks after 9/11 I drove to West Lafayette, Indiana with three buddies from high school to watch the Illinois-Purdue football game.  I don’t remember who won. I recall a small plane approaching the stadium, a wind-whipped advertising banner in tow. Everyone’s attention went from the game on the field to the plane in the sky.  I realized I’d never hear the approach of an airplane or gaze at its flight path in the same way again.

Ten years passed.

The fall of 2011 I was at the Illinois home game against South Dakota State with a friend I’ve made since 9/11. Two trumpeters played taps and there was a moment of silence. Throughout the game uniformed service men and women, Illinois alums, talked and waved from the big screen on the stadium scoreboard, some holding babies, others taped from overseas posts.

The next morning, the tenth anniversary, I stretched in front of the TV, preparing to run three miles on a quiet Sunday morning.  Relatives of people who were killed on 9/11 read names of victims, ending with their loved one and a brief remembrance of what they meant to them. Tears welled in my eyes.

I ran.

Along the way I waved to friends, neighbors and a local cop on patrol.  I thought of the last decade, years 9/11 victims and their families lost. With rare exception, my wife, Yolanda, and I put our children to bed every night and awoke with them each morning.  We went to piano recitals, soccer games, swim meets, first communions, birthday parties, and high school graduations. Our daughter, Anissa, blossomed into a woman. Our son, Michael, survived a horrific auto accident. The paramedics told us there was a ten percent chance someone survived such a crash in one piece. Our son walked away and, two years later, off to college.  Both my parents died.

I finished my run strong, racing up the final hill to our house.  I snatched a cold bottle of water from the fridge and wandered into the TV room where Yolanda was watching the 9/11 memorials.  Paul Simon sang “Sound of Silence.”

When he finished, Yolanda told me that earlier that day a suicide bomber injured seventy-seven American service men and women at a base in Afghanistan. Five Afghani civilians, including a three-year old girl, were killed.

It’s Sunday, September 9th, 2012, and I open the Champaign News-Gazette to articles about memorial plans for the eleventh anniversary. At the bottom of page one is the headline “On average, U.S. has lost a soldier each day in 2012.” One of the latest casualties was Pfc. Shane W. Cantu, twenty, one year younger than Michael. Cantu was, according to his buddies, a lot like my son, a gregarious guy who lit up every room he entered. Cantu was ten years old on 9/11. In the story, a military historian says Afghanistan has become the “’Who Cares?’ war.”

Ten years, now eleven.

We go from here.

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Filed under 21st Century America, 9/11, Citizen Soldiers, Family, Friends, Greatest Generation, Illinois Football, Newspaper, Running, September 2012, Small town America, World War II

And for God’s sake…Clean your room!

It can be a battle cry or a plea, a conversation starter or killer, the opening ante or the last card played in high stakes parent/child “it’s our house/my room” poker. Sure, I know there are families where kids’ rooms are well-kept, but I have never lived in such a house.

I could Google the topic to find statistics and studies to determine if there is a correlation between neatness, character, academic achievement and all-round “great kid” status.  But in this election year where we are inundated with polls and prognostications, I have no desire to research another flash point issue in which an expert shrugs his shoulders and says: “At the end of the day, it’s anybody’s guess.”

No, this is one topic where we can rely upon anecdotal experience to yield unreliable results.

My oldest brother, Scott, was a hall of fame slob, the color of his carpet unknown until he moved to college and the debris field cleared. He was also class valedictorian, varsity basketball player and trumpeter in the band.  After he graduated from college and got his own apartment I was stunned when he scolded me for putting a beer bottle on his coffee table without a coaster.

My other brother, Tim, was a Boy Scout and National Merit Scholar who vacuumed his carpet and made his bed every morning, without Mom asking. In my book, and Scott’s, Tim was a traitor.

I do not recall whether my sisters, Amy and Holly, rooms were orderly. But that being the case, they must have been acceptable.

I was not a tidy kid.  But I was child number four and Mom was running low on energy by the time I reached my teens, closing the door with a groan more often than engaging me in debate.

One day, however, she reached a breaking point and rolled in the big gun: Dad.

Now, in general, Dad displayed little interest in housekeeping. He kept the TV room and the area around his easy chair organized. Lucky Strikes and stainless steel Zippo lighter squared against a chrome ashtray, remote or, in the prehistoric days of my early childhood, one of his five kids within range to change channels. That was about it.

But he lived in Mom’s house and she had spoken, so the order was issued: “Clean your room.”

Skeptical of my return minutes later, we marched upstairs for inspection. Seeing the bed made and floor rubble free, Dad strode toward the closet.

“Dad,” I blurted.

Dirty clothes, empty boxes, stinky sneakers and a basketball spilled on top of him.

“Nice try,” he said. “Now clean your room.”

Like his uncle Scott, our son Michael has morphed into a respectable housekeeper. I spent a week with him this summer at his apartment and was amazed by stacks of washed dishes, folded towels and clean sheets.

Our daughter, Anissa, has not reached this point. Mainly because she has never met a hangar, hook or organizer she liked.

Upon entering the house her shoes go one way, purse another, jacket a third. Car keys have been located under seat cushions, on bathroom shelves and beneath her bed. Dirty clothes are abandoned in the laundry room, languishing until dresser drawers and closets are bare.

Last week we moved Anissa into her dorm room. Excited, she flipped off her Birkenstock sandals and went to work. Later, we prepared to run her and her roommate, Stephi, to Target for supplies.

“Where’s my Birkenstock?” Anissa said.

We all stared at her bare left foot.

“Where’d you take them off?” I foolishly asked.

My wife, Yolanda, sighed. Anissa shrugged, her palms up.

We shifted suit cases and boxes, propped up the futon, checked under both beds. Nothing.

“Well,” Anissa said, “this is a new one, even for me.”

Stephi, filled with the fearlessness of youth, attacked the futon like she was wrestling an alligator. She flipped it to the floor, peeled back the fitted sheet and shook it until it coughed up a Birkenstock.

“I knew it had to be here,” Stephi said, eyes shining.

Hours later, as we drove home, a picture of Anissa’s made bed and well-organized desk glowed from the screen of Yolanda’s Android.

“How long do you think it’ll stay that way?” she said, gazing wistfully at the photo, saving it in her gallery.

“It’s anybody’s guess,” I said.

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Filed under 21st Century America, August 2012, Brothers, Empty Nesters, Family, Housekeeping, Small town America