Saturday, April 24, 2010

Lucky Duckies

Memphis is famous for its barbecue, Elvis Presley, Beale Street, and—duck hunting. Each May, pork connoisseurs travel from far and wide for the barbecue contest; in February the Elvis fans gather from all corners of the globe to pay homage to the king of rock and roll; and in Autumn scores of men and boys in trucks and camouflage descend on the city for the activity that is as much a part of Southern heritage as football and grits.

As a transplanted Yankee, I’ve embraced most things Southern, but no one has been able to convince me that shooting helpless animals is a sport. I’ve heard all of the arguments in favor of the gruesome pastime, but I remain unconvinced.

As a bird lover, the only way I’ve been able to help is to provide a little respite for the ducks passing by en route to their natural habitats. I stop short of hanging out a shingle, but birds know that our yard—though not a five-star operation—provides fine dining, a heated pool, and protection from gun-toting rednecks.

Each year we have a pair of mallards who drop in for an extended stay. I don’t know whether they are the same birds or a different couple that has come upon the recommendation of the first. Apparently word travels fast in the duck community. Because ducks are monogamous (at least for a season), I like to think the pair books the honeymoon suite each year for their anniversary.

I am a bird watcher so having these guests in my backyard provides a close-up look. I love to watch their little webbed feet paddling under the water propelling them all around the pool like the wind-up toy my children used in the bathtub. In a murky pond, when you can’t see the source of their propulsion, it looks as if they are gliding on ice.

On the pool deck I scatter grain and bread crumbs to keep them fat and sassy. But my husband, Jim, the resident curmudgeon and pool-man, complains about the mess they leave. Unfortunately, they can’t read the sign meant for our human guests: “I don’t swim in your potty. Don’t potty in my pool.”

Recently we witnessed a blessed event. On a summer Sunday afternoon, we came home from church to find the momma Mallard and her brood of seven, happily paddling in the pool. In spring and early summer, to avoid human predators, ducks sometimes nest well away from the water. Probably the female laid her eggs nearby and brought the baby quackers to our “cement pond” for their first swimming lesson. The daddy duck was nowhere to be seen. Like many human fathers, the male takes no responsibility in caring for the offspring. He was probably out with his pals on the golf course.

When we approached, the momma duck swam vigorously to the opposite side, followed dutifully by her young family. But when she jumped out of the pool, the little ones flapped their wings to no avail. They were trapped. Getting into the pool was easy but getting out presented an unanticipated problem. Unlike the ponds she usually frequented, this one had no means of escape. The eight-inch jump from the water’s edge to the concrete was easy for Momma but impossible for her babies.

We had to come to the rescue. The ducks couldn’t stay there until they grew big enough to make the jump. “Grab a kickboard,” I called to my husband, but the kickboard had to be held by human hands and the wary mother wasn’t coming close. “How about a rubber raft?” Same problem. Jim went into the garage and brought out a large piece of plywood making a handicapped ramp for the brood. We chased the mother toward the board, but at the last minute she veered to the right or left and hopped out the side. Obviously, she didn’t understand our escape plan.

Finally, amidst much squawking and trauma, Jim chased the mother duck out of the pool and swept the babies up into the leaf basket. The distraught mother must have thought the ducklings were to be the main course for our Sunday dinner. They tumbled out onto the ground and waddled away, under the wooden fence, back to their nearby nest.

Maybe next year, I should direct the Mallards toward the historic Peabody Hotel where the accommodations far surpass ours. At the Peabody, ducks receive the treatment they deserve. They have their own duck master who literally rolls out the red carpet for the feathered celebrities as they waddle from the elevator to the marble fountain where they swim all day in climate-controlled comfort. The lucky ducks enjoy the same amenities as the hotel patrons—excepting alcoholic beverages. At night they retire to their sleeping quarters on the roof with a view of the city. They rest safe and secure because the only shots being taken are by the scores of photo-snapping tourists.

Friday, April 16, 2010

When cancer returns

When I was finishing "Cancer Journey: A Caregiver's View from the Passenger Seat," we just found out that Jim's lung cancer had metastasized for the first time. In one of my preliminary drafts, I wrote that a recurrence is not as difficult as the initial diagnosis. Lynne Eib, one of my endorsers, suggested that I might want to qualify that statement, because many people find a recurrence or metastasis much harder to handle.

This weekend at a conference in Chicago, I was talking with a man whose prostate cancer had come back, eleven years after surgery and treatment. He was devastated. For five years he believed he was cured, only to learn the cancer had returned.

What a blow it must be to have cancer reappear--like a soap opera character who, after a thorough search, is given up for dead, eulogized, and laid to rest, only to show up years later, resurrected, causing havoc in Pine Valley.

In 2008, when Jim had his first recurrence, I had been looking over my shoulder for five years waiting for cancer to come back. Therefore, as I said in my book, the recurrence was not so shocking. Even in 2009, when the cancer metastasized to the bone, I was not caught completely off guard.

But, I must admit, if it rears its ugly head again, I will be crushed.

The solution? Do I protect myself by refusing to accept the miraculous remission that we are enjoying? Must I continue to look over my shoulder to keep from being blindsided if the cancer returns?

I would rather not. I have made a conscious decision to adopt the philosophy of the cockeyed optimist, claiming and believing that Jim has been healed--even if that means making myself more vulnerable if I'm wrong.

I'll let you know how it goes.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Good Old Days

When we were sorting out the contents of my mother’s home, my eight- year- old grandson pointed to a small mahogany chair with a needlepoint seat cover and asked, “Gigi, why does that chair have a desk on the side instead of the front?” I realized that the “telephone chair” was as foreign to him as the black dial telephone it was designed to accompany.

“Time was,” I explained, “when we were bound to the six foot area near the wall where the phone jack was placed. We couldn’t multi task while on the phone. No cooking, driving, or throwing in a load of clothes.”
The phone chair was most often located in the living room where you were tethered to the telephone chair for as long as the conversation transpired. For teenagers, this could be a lengthy time, particularly if you had a boy friend who attended a different school.

The phone chair had a desk on one side with a shelf for phone books. We didn’t have numbers on speed dial, so after we dialed them daily over a period of years, they became forever imbedded in that computer prototype--the human brain. To this day, I can still repeat the seven digit numbers of my best friends. (We didn’t have area codes.) We never called our next door neighbors. Why call when we could open the door, walk out on the front or back porch and speak directly to them?

The little desk held not only the phone but the phone dialer, a plastic stick with a ball at the end that fit neatly into the dialing holes on the phone. These were a necessity for women who wanted to preserve their manicures (home manicures. I never knew anyone who had their nails done at a salon.) Usually there was a message holder—the fifties version of the answering machine—in our case a small wooden block, a wooden rod, and a clothespin attached, to hold important messages. Mine was a craft project from Girl Scouts, painted white with a pink plastic flower glued to the base—one of my more useful creations.

In the early fifties, we had a party phone. Unfortunately, we didn’t make the invitations to the party. Most often the other members on the line were eavesdroppers and phone hogs (according to my parents) who didn’t take the hint when you picked up the phone several times during their seemingly interminable conversations.

Every night like clockwork, we had calls from certain individuals—Aunt Ann, Uncle Bill, my mom’s best friend. They were taken right in the living room where everyone could hear at least one end of the conversation, unless it was drowned out by Bonanza or Dragnet. There was no such thing as a private call until I had a phone in my bedroom, which wasn’t until I was well into my teens. Even then you ran the risk of someone picking up the extension.

We didn’t have call waiting or beeps to indicate another incoming call. If a love struck teenager monopolized the family phone, the caller would get a busy signal—very annoying and apt to be reported to the adults in the family who, when the line was finally clear, were greeted with, “Who have you been talking to? I’ve been trying to call for an hour.”
If the phone rang during dinner, Dad would jump up from the table and run into the living room. There were no telemarketers. No one called during dinner unless it was an emergency because all of our friends and family knew that we ate precisely at five p.m., every night of the world and dinner was not to be interrupted.

A long distance call was a rarity, even in families where money wasn’t a major concern. When I drove back and forth to college in the early sixties, we had a system to let my parents know I had arrived safely—without incurring the extravagance of a long distance charge. The routine went like this:
I dialed zero.
Operator: “Can I help you?”
Me: “Yes I’d like to place a collect call to Madison IL.”
“What # are you calling?”
“Your name?”
“Cyndi Zahm”
Ring Ring. Dad would pick up.
Operator: “You have a collect call from a Cindy Zahm. Will you accept the charges?”
Dad: “No, I’m just a workman. The family is out right now. (He didn’t want the operator to know he was a tightwad intent on beating the system.)

There is no longer a need for telephone chairs. Seldom do we sit to take a phone call. We can reach out and touch someone from the tub, the table, the traffic, and, alas, the toilet. Unfortunately, it works two ways. There is no escape.