Questions for the Winter Sky

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Winter sky late February, 2014 at Longleaf Preserve near Pensacola, Florida

The photo above is a good reminder never to leave the house for a walk without the old point and shoot camera in my hand. It was Monday, February 24. Buck and I started our walk later than usual. After our second or third house-to-gate lap, we rounded the driveway in front of the house to circle back to the gate a third of a mile away when I looked up and saw this amazing sky. The clouds looked like they were quilted from softest down. The opening, like an upside down inactive volcano, was rimmed in sun-gold.

Our hearts were heavy that day, because we had learned Sunday that a dear old friend was near death. After returning from our walk, an email from his daughter told us TC had died Sunday, only an hour after we had talked with his wife, B.

A brilliant, wise, and kind man, TC was an engineer with a stellar career until retiring in 2000. Disaster struck eleven years ago, when he was diagnosed with an unusually cruel disease known as Semantic Dementia. Imagine an intellectually gifted person, one who managed a major industrial plant and thousands of employees, a person who founded a scholarship program at his beloved alma mater which continues to educate new engineers every year, a person who — along with his devoted wife of 55 years — created a youth program at their church decades ago which continues to thrive long after their relocation from Pensacola to other cities and ultimately to Birmingham; a father of two accomplished adults and grandfather of five. A person who loved to read.

Now imagine that person, or yourself, with four objects on a table: a pen, a pair of scissors, a table knife, a flashlight. Someone asks you to pick up the scissors. You pick up the pen. Frontal lobe deterioration is rapid, irreversible. For the last five years of his life our loquacious friend didn’t say a single word.

Some days I wonder whether we might be more content not to have so much information at our fingertips. In the past few weeks, I’ve learned far more than I am comfortable knowing about conditions that can affect the lives and quality of life of human beings: Guillain-Barre Syndrome, from which our friend Harold is slowly recovering (he proudly took eight steps on a walker yesterday); and Semantic Dementia, which took our friend TC’s mind and eventually his life.

I look at the photo of the sky and wonder at it’s ability to comfort my ruffled spirit. I have so many questions.

Road Trip to Naples and Cocoa

2013 March 20 Leaf in Stream

There are days when I ‘m that leaf, swept along in the swirls and eddies of a spring-fed stream. Some weeks, the leaf is my boat. I peer over the edge, use binoculars to focus on each new shore; discover new worlds; rediscover familiar ones. All sense of time is lost. It’s time to anchor awhile and reflect.

I have learned why many writers grow beards if they can,  leave their hair long and wild or short and haphazardly chopped; why they’re often thin and pale, and talk out loud to themselves while brushing their teeth or mutter beyond the bathroom door. And something else is at play. Did you ever see one of those millennium countdown clocks  that were popular the year before the 20th changed to the 21st? We were living part-time in Rice Cove in Canton, North Carolina then. One of those damnably mesmerizing clocks was in our tiny local post office there. Buck acts like a man with an atomic clock imprinted on the insides of his eyelids. And not just with his manuscript. There are friends to see, karma to serve.

And so, we set sail in the old black town car, a cruising bath tub, from one end of Florida to nearly the other. I have brothers and a sister in the middle of the state I would like to see — need to see — but this was not that trip.

First stop was Gainesville, one night flying low. We brought a hotel picnic for our friends: big ole’ shrimp from Joe Patti’s Seafood. We poached and peeled them Saturday night before leaving Sunday morning, the 10th. Buck made a  fiery dipping sauce, me a fresh Cole slaw with pineapple slivers for a surprise of sweet, and they went into the cooler with store-bought potato salad and goat cheese. A canvas bag was stuffed with crackers, Brazil nuts, almonds, oregano to sprinkle on the goat cheese, and our staples of peanut butter, dried fruit and trail mix bars. The venue was strangely perfect for distraction-free talk, which was just the medicine. It was a standard Residence Inn style room, so there was a sofa, coffee table and pull-up chairs.

Next stop was a mini-retreat for two in a motel at the base of the Charlotte Harbor bridge in Punta Gorda. The weather was coolish, windy and gray. Perfect. Buck picked up a book I brought in my other canvas bag, the one stuffed with food for the mind, and I haven’t gotten it back since. It was Sol Stein’s classic, Stein on Writing.

Wednesday, we drove another seventy miles south, to Naples, to see one of two remaining high school chums of Buck’s, and his wife (surely one of nature’s life force spark plugs). Each morning, I left their villa early to walk Old Naples, remarkable manicured real estate, down Park Shore Boulevard across the bridge separating Venetian Bay from Inner Doctor’s Bay, then right on Gulf Shore Boulevard, past Park Shore Marina, all the way to the end, where a walking path links to the Gulf or back  across the bayou and to Crayton Road, which is the one I chose. Breakfast and a hot ping-pong match with friends awaited. Yes. Ping-pong. First time in more than forty years. Astonishing  fun. Lots of laughing, jumping, stooping, and heavy breathing. Puts you in the moment and keeps you there.

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Laconic joggers crossed the bridge, and couples walked their (mostly tiny, mostly white) leashed dogs along the wide sidewalks, poo bags discretely at the ready. Almost every person I encountered looked me in the eye, smiled and said “Good Morning.” I met a couple with their sweet-faced rescue dog, Bliss. They are best-selling authors and psychologists, Dr. Basha and Dr. Jeffrey Kaplan. We walked and talked together and parted with exchanges of email addresses and hugs. Delightful people. I hope to see them again.

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Someone said of this core of downtown Naples: “Nobody works.” Not true, of course, since it takes a subtle army of gardeners, mechanics, restaurateurs and other service workers to keep up this Garden of Eden, like some exotic aquarium, for all the folks here who are Somebody or were Somebody in real life.  The grass here is always green. And if it isn’t, it is swiftly removed and replaced with fresh sod, new palms and flowers — whatever it takes to sustain the aura of wealth and serenity.

I know. I talk like a peasant.  And why not? I am one, and proud to be. It’s beautiful, and I thoroughly enjoyed these walks and the interesting, nice people I met along the way. It is pretty, but insular, with its own form of genteel regimentation.  I might chafe at the hidden fence. Might.

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There was no fence, hidden or otherwise, separating these birds from their morning fishing. Buck made the same walking circuit with me later that day and the next. We saw these beauties on the Seagate side of Venetian Bayou.

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The walks and scenery were stimulating. I had a case of cabin fever in the pine woods and didn’t even know it. It was a gift to be blasted out of my comfortable study. Best of all was the company of our good friends and their mellow Weimaraner, Maggie Moo. I needed a good dog fix in the worst way, and I got a joyful one. Nothing like an under-the-chin puppy kiss.

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Roy and Bette spoiled us with delicious food, (including lobster tails they caught while diving in Key West, tossed with garlic, tomatoes, basil, Brie, and pasta — whoa), and most of all inspired us with their good natures, love for each other, and zest for life.

We planned to return straight home from Naples Saturday morning, a long but do-able drive. An email changed our trajectory, and we ricocheted from Naples, hugged Lake Okeechobee’s shoreline for a ways, then shot up the east coast on I-95 to rendezvous with friends aboard their Nordic Tug, True North, at Cocoa Village Marina.

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That’s Tom Conrad, captain of True North. He and Patsy are friends from Pensacola who have not permitted a challenging illness to keep them from their dream of living on their trawler. They are veteran cruisers of The Great Loop. Even now, Tom makes a 5:00 a.m. weather report much relied upon by other boaters.

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We joined Tom and Patsy for a visit on board, and then walked a few blocks to Cafe Margaux for dinner. Our server, Andy, was a wise-eyed raconteur, from Kentucky via many years in New Orleans until he was up-ended by Hurricane Katrina. After dinner, we returned to the boat for pie and more talk.

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We returned to True North Sunday morning to find the galley smelling like a high-end bistro at brunch time. Patsy had “whipped up” a homemade mushroom and Gruyere quiche and a fresh fruit salad for us. My first coffee of the day was there, on the water with sunlight streaming through the windows, in the presence of my lovin’  man and our good friends.

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Scene from Cocoa Village Marina, Cocoa, Florida, March 17, 2013

It was nearly one o’clock when we left Tom and Patsy for home Sunday afternoon. We made it as far as Tallahassee, when fatigue, blowing rain, and darkness caused us to stop overnight. The bridge over Escambia Bay leading us home Monday morning was a bright ribbon over lovely, familiar waters. Neither of us would trade anything for the touchstone of being with Roy and Bette, Tom and Patsy, and Neal and Elaine, but home is home and we’re happy to be back in our own bed. Buck is in his cave, furiously editing. He says Sol Stein has caused him a lot of trouble. High praise. As for me, I needed some fresh Florida scenery and culture to confirm words written for my character Grace’s own road trip to south Florida.

I wasn’t online while we were gone, except to check weather, driving directions and occasionally, e-mail. It will be a pleasure to catch up with you all and see what you’ve been up to.

The Trouble with Trouble

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Grace Futch Grider sent me this cocktail napkin. It’s vintage Grace. I ran across it this morning. when I was fetching a writing “vision board” back out of the closet that I had begun some months ago. The last time Buck and I saw Grace was in a hospital bed. She was aggravated because pancreatitis had gotten in the way of her immediate desire to put her nearly eighty-year-old self and a bunch of her fun-lovin’ friends on a train to Las Vegas. Gracie was a tough, self-made business woman. She founded Pensacola Beach Realty at a time when women running a business show here were an oddity. She served on a bank board with Buck. She was a passionate, if not especially skilled, golfer. She was a hell of a woman, a hot mess, and two tons of fearless fun. It’s been eight years, and we miss her like crazy.

The best I can do, Gracie, is enjoy the memories and name a pretty darn good book character after you. You’d like my Grace. She’s giving as good as she gets and more. Sound like anybody you know?

The Trouble With Trouble

1-The trouble with trouble.

Grace Futch Grider sent me this cocktail napkin. It’s vintage Grace. I ran across it this morning. when I was fetching a writing “vision board” back out of the closet that I had begun some months ago. The last time Buck and I saw Grace was in a hospital bed. She was aggravated because pancreatitis had gotten in the way of her immediate desire to put her nearly eighty-year-old self and a bunch of her fun-lovin’ friends on a train to Las Vegas. Gracie was a tough, self-made business woman. She founded Pensacola Beach Realty at a time when women running a business show here were an oddity. She served on a bank board with Buck. She was a passionate, if not especially skilled, golfer. She was a hell of a woman, a hot mess, and two tons of fearless fun. It’s been eight years, and we miss her like crazy.

The best I can do, Gracie, is enjoy the memories and name a pretty darn good book character after you. You’d like my Grace. She’s giving as good as she gets and more. Sound like anybody you know?

A Sensuous, Wonderful New Poem From Dick Jones

It’s called Morgan, Mulligan and Me. Go now, and read it, and while you’re reading, listen to the marvelous vintage recording of My Funny Valentine by the Gerry Mulligan quartet. Then (and here is the most important part), listen to Dick reading his poem. He provides a sound file at the end of the poem.

Add some enchantment to your Monday morning, kids.

Ever Dreamed of Visiting Antarctica?

Gentoo penguin and ice berg at Base Brown, Antarctica (photo by Gullible)

FRIEND AND FELLOW BLOGGER, GULLIBLE, not only dreamed it, she achieved it last November. And now, she’s interwoven the experience and photographs from her own comfortable, but nonetheless thrilling, modern-day expedition with riveting narrative of Sir Ernest Shackleton, his ship The Endurance and its crew, and their harrowing, heroic exploits in Antarctica.

It’s an exciting, 30 chapter (plus Afterward) read. The photographs are fabulous. If it doesn’t stir within you a desire to go adventuring, better check your pulse to be sure there is one.

Here is a link to get you started:  The Antarctic Journals, Chapter 8 by Gullible (pen name of Alaska writer Jeanne Wait Follett).

Gentoo penguins in Antarctica (photo by Gullible)
Gentoo penguins in Antarctica (photo by Gullible)