Charm School: The Art of Favorable Impressions . . . by Seth Langson

When I lived in Gastonia, my social life was Charlotte based. It consisted of recreational league co-ed volleyball, duplicate bridge club, festivals, establishments that served alcohol, midnight bike rides, and even the occasional blind date.

After every game, we’d gather at a local dive bar and commiserate over that night’s loss.  When our losing streak reached three games, I decided that the team’s morale needed a boost and invited all ten members of our co-ed volleyball team to cross the Catawba River and come to my house for a cookout on Sunday.

Bridgett immediately accepted the offer, showing that her social life was as dormant as mine. The rest of the team controlled their enthusiasm and told me they’d let me know.  Calls from the other team members straggled in over the next few days. Everyone had some excuse for not being able to attend the bash. Was our Esprit De Corps that bad?  Perhaps I should have given more than three days-notice.

This party was going to be so much smaller than I’d intended with only one guest. I called Bridgett to tell her the bad news.

“Hey, Bridgett. No one else is able to make it on Sunday.”

“Oh, I don’t care. I’ll be there at two unless you don’t want me to come anymore.”

I paused and considered truthfulness before I responded. “Umm, no it’s alright if you really want to travel all the way to Gastonia in this heat.”

“Great, I’ll see you Sunday. Do you want me to bring a salad or anything else? I make really good deviled eggs.”

“Just bring a tennis racket. There’s a court next door. I’ve already done the shopping and have all the food covered.”

What I really meant was that I’d already bought a four-pound steak in anticipation of the volleyball soiree. Hell, budget be damned, I’d also splurged and bought a case of three-dollars-a-bottle Romanian wine. This had been my liquid sustenance in law school even though all of the law students who wanted to work in big law firms drank Scotch. I drank the Eastern European version of Two-Buck Chuck wine, which pretty much said it all.

On Sunday, Bridgett arrived five minutes early wearing green shorts and a red and yellow checkered shirt. I didn’t know if she was color blind or just trying to dress like a traffic light. In any event, she gave new meaning to the phrase “dressed to kill.” Jenny, my 12-year- old Irish Setter, scrambled off the porch to greet her and immediately shed some of her orange red hair on Bridgett’s conversation-ending shorts. I thought that her luminescent attire looked better with Jenny’s red hair blotches, although Bridgett hid her appreciation of her canine altered look.

Ten minutes later, when the small talk became silence, I suggested that we play tennis on the court that was on the adjoining church property. I hadn’t played in ten years but was so bad that I never had to worry about the loss of muscle memory. Anything over the net was considered a success and the chances of my hitting a shot that didn’t have the arc of a rainbow were as likely as finding four leaf clovers in the desert.

As soon as Bridgett swung, I knew we were well paired… for tennis. The altitude of our shots was conducive to three-shot rallies which lasted almost a minute, long enough to increase my appetite for both food and air-conditioning. After thirty minutes, I’d had enough.

When Bridgett came to the net to shake my hand after the match, I gave her the highest compliment that I could think of.  “You know, you have the potential to be an adequate tennis player.” 

Bridgett smiled at me as if she’d never gotten such praise. “I usually play to the level of my opponent.”

It only took me four years before I realized that she’d been speaking about life, not just tennis.

“Are you ready for me to start cooking?”

“Sure, what are you going to have?”

“I bought this huge steak and I’ll cook it on the hibachi that’s on the porch. I’ve also got potato chips and canned green beans. I figured that meat and two sides were the way to go.”

“I’d have been happy to bring a salad.”

“I knew that you would, but I wanted to make the whole dinner. I figured I should reward you for making the forty-five minute drive from Charlotte. After all, no one else came.”

“Thanks. You really didn’t have to go all out.”

Encouraged by her enthusiasm, I strode outside to light the hibachi. Since I’d been using this cooking method since law school, I knew to move the cooker away from the house before I doused the coals with lighter fluid. As soon as the flames subsided, I returned the grills to the hibachi, slung down the salted slab of meat and stood back to admire my work.

Bridgett immediately reminded me of why I was single. “Wow. You didn’t clean the grills. They are coated with dog hair. It looks like Jenny’s slept on them.” That was my first clue that Bridgett was going to be high maintenance. “Bridgett, I always cook this way. The dog hair will burn off in just a minute.” 

She gave me a look that I mistakenly took for ardor and went inside to pour herself another glass of wine. I did the same just to appear polite. After five minutes of prattle about when she lived in Gastonia, I remembered that I needed to prepare the rest of the feast.  Bridgett would have nothing of it.

“I’ll do this,” said Bridgett as she tore open the bag of chips and inserted the can opener into the container of green beans.

“I’m impressed. Where did you learn such culinary skills?”

“In first grade.”

I decided to change the topic.  

Since I was an early adopter of healthy eating, I flipped the meat numerous times in an effort to keep it from being charred, but the hour on the grill betrayed my best efforts.

“Bridgett, what do you think? Is it ready?”

“I don’t know about ready, but it certainly looks done. I don’t think I’ve ever seen meat so black”.

When the cooked chunk of protein proved impervious to a fork, I shoveled the meat onto a plate and brought it to the table to be sliced. I’ve always had unrealistic expectations. 

My cutlery collection consisted of butter knives, steak knives, and a large carving knife, which if had it been created in the South, would have been used on a fresh-killed wild boar.

After the first two steak knives broke, I suggested that we amplify our means of attack and use the carving knife. Bridgett had another idea.

“Let me try the Boy Scout knife in my purse. My dad gave it to me when I was thirteen. He was worried that I was going to be too much of a girly girl.”

While Bridgett, poked, prodded and pierced the steak into four pieces, I slid over to the garbage pail and fished out the meat wrapper.  I don’t know how I missed the words “chuck roast.”

_____

Seth is an attorney whose practice was devoted to representing victims of sex abuse. He’s been writing humorous pieces since college and has had the great fortune to be in writing classes with Linda, under the tutelage of Maureen Ryan Griffin. These stories are true . . . with some embellishments.
Read Karen McFarland’s story about her life partner — “Tripping With A Botanist.”

Tripping With A Botanist . . . by Karen J. McFarland

Too many fantastical notions make vacations – especially honeymoons – highly susceptible to gross disappointment. Yes, indeed, I freely admit it and am blowing the lid off the idea that honeymoons are all they’re cracked up to be. My first indication that this was not going to go as well as the romance magazines tout was when I suggested we go to the beach and he insisted on a trip to the mountains. I lost.  

Two trips come to mind as less than the perfect experiences of paradise I thought they might be. Both involve my beloved spouse of many years, even though these took place when we were young and foolish, and highlight our vastly different career interests, lifelong hobbies, and our favorite free time pursuits. He’s a forest ecologist, basically a sort of botanist, who are very careful people, plodding, and thorough. He looks for – and finds – minutiae.  Ironically, these same perfectionists are so focused on their discipline, they lose stuff, and forget stuff like car keys, wallets, and even small children, constantly. At a summer field station, students had T-shirts made up that said, “Vegetation sampling kills brain cells.” 

I’m a musician and theologian, a free spirit who loves to be spontaneous, creative, and sees the big picture. I’m impatient with the slow, precise, and perfectionist styles. I live like I type – fast and with a lot of mistakes.

The first of these trips was my honeymoon. You see, I had grown up in the rolling hills and mountains of West Virginia and their charms had worn off. But, I had never been to the beach. The Ohio River I lived on doesn’t have any beaches. At least, not that I’m aware of.

We drove to the Shenandoah Mountains and followed Skyline Drive onto the Blue Ridge Parkway and on southward into the Great Smokies. Although we did indeed stop at every point of interest – falls, rustic cabins, old grist mills, interpretive displays of all the possible various types of old wooden fences, mostly we spent hours and hours on trails and at waysides looking at trees, shrubs, and various ground plants and wildflowers, from skunk cabbage to fiddle head ferns. I stood around a lot, pretending an interest I didn’t feel for this level of detail. A green leaf may have many jagged edges, but I don’t have any desire to count them!

My next clue that I was destined to be second class on this trip should have been that my brand new, ecologist hubby packed a plant press in the trunk of the car! Believe me, there was no music instrument case or book of esoteric philosophy tucked somewhere in there. The only photos of me in our honeymoon pictures is my palm holding a beaked hazelnut or some such other “unique” species. (Unique to him. They were all unique – and Greek – to me!)

Occasionally I was thrown a sop with a dinner at a fine national park lodge, or a chance to quickly browse the sights and shops in touristy places like Gatlinburg, Tennessee. And yes, in two weeks, I was once in my bathing suit sliding down a rock formation in a popular spot on a creek in North Carolina. But that was a long way from my dreams of lazy days sunbathing on the beaches of Hilton Head just outside our imagined luxury hotel or exploring the Outer Banks of North Carolina that I pined for.

My second-worst vacation was the one I took from my school teaching job to join my husband on his annual summer research trip through the mountains all along the eastern spine of the country, from the Appalachians in North Carolina almost to their beginning up in New England. The summer before I had spent June through August alone and forlorn in our tiny university married housing apartment in Ann Arbor. I didn’t intend to be left behind again.

All I want to say about that part of the trip is that I endured tiny isolated cabins in the woods lacking electricity or running water, long days alone while he was out researching and collecting plant samples in the woods, and opportunities to meet bizarre people a la Deliverance. Bearded men in flannel shirts popped up in the window of the cabin as I was dressing, with a brazen “Howdy, ma’am!” or suddenly appeared on a quiet trail springing from the woody underbrush in front of me with a suddenness akin to a jack-in-the-box, loaded gun slung over their shoulders, a couple of dead, bloody rabbits or squirrels dangling from their belts. The list continues with weary nights of my notating and pressing leaves while he slept, food either burned or undercooked over charcoal in the waning sunset light, with the occasional outing to a local greasy spoon diner.  

My husband whizzed us quickly by any possibly fascinating scenic or historical landmarks of great interest.

“Oh, did you want to stop there?” he’d innocently ask with raised brows after we were already several miles down the road.

“Guess not,” was my glum response.

The “vacation” nightmare ended for me in Burlington, Vermont, where a planned overnight with friends, in comfortable beds, with hot and cold running water, went bust.  I had planned to soak for hours in a generous tub.  

Our hosts, we learned, had been called out of town suddenly for a family emergency. A pleasant visit with hot, savory, home cooked meals and scintillating conversation turned into a solo tenting experience on Lake Champlain. These so-called friends left no key to their door, but had thoughtfully stacked a tent, with no assembly instructions, and two sleeping bags, on their front porch for us. It doesn’t sound too bad until you know that it rained relentlessly for the three days we were there, and the humidity inside the tent must have been over 80 per cent. Oh, and did I mention the mosquitoes?

Until the end of his career, he continued this kind of field research, many times outstripping his graduate students. Needless to say, I never went on a research expedition with my husband again, but we are still amazingly and happily married to this day, fifty plus years later.

To paraphrase the New York humorist Fran Lebowitz, “When other people say, ‘Back to nature,’ I say, ‘Back to the hotel!’”

_____

After growing up and going to the in-state West Virginia University, Karen has enjoyed two “careers:” the first as a free-lance violist/violinist mostly in southwest Virginia, a little in Boston, MA and Berkeley, CA, with a couple of isolated appearances in surrounding states.  She also taught lots of students both traditional methods and using Suzuki techniques.  After that, Karen became a Unitarian Universalist minister from Utah to MI and Ill before retiring in 2012.  Now she sings, writes, reads, plays with grandkids, performs wedding, memorial, and child dedication services (again as a free lance) and copes with maintaining a regular exercise program and a retiring spouse.  Occasionally she cleans the refrigerator while staring out the window at another snowy day in Michigan, while longing for a trip to Malta.

_____

Read Seth Lanson’s story about his life partner — “Charm School.”

Reflections on Living with My Husband’s Cancer . . . by Linda Whitesitt

Love

My husband and I are both classical musicians. I play the violin and viola, and Bennett is a conductor and trumpet player. Over the years we have come to know the old truth the music happens in the space between the notes. It is the mystery that rests between the notes as well as the nature of how they are connected that brings the notes on the page to life. It has been our goal to shape the relationship between the notes in such a way that we create music that moves us and the listener. The spaces and what they contain give the music meaning.

In the same way, the mystery that rests in the space between the moments of our life together flows through our relationship like a river and sustains us. For us, that mystery is love. Perhaps it’s the same for music.

As we have moved through time together, the experience of that “time together” — the accumulation of all the moments and the love between them — has carved out a shared history similar to how the unfolding in time of notes and spaces creates a memory of a unified work of art. Looking back, we see a musical work — and our marriage — as whole and indivisible, and neither one of us has been willing to tear it up and throw it away during the real hard times when we thought love had ceased to fill up the spaces. The wholeness and indivisibility of our shared life has always pulled us back. It is what remains with us just like the music is still present after the last note is played.

Love is what kept Bennett going before emergency surgery to repair a leak in the remaining portion of his right lung only a few weeks after his initial surgery for lung cancer in October 2009. Some time in the middle of the night before the early morning surgery, my husband’s roommate, on hearing Bennett distraught and tearful, managed to move his bed close to Bennett’s so that he could hold my husband’s hand and pray with him. Bennett’s roommate was not capable of getting out of bed, so we never have been able to figure out how he moved his hospital bed. But somehow he did, and in those terrifying moments late at night, he filled the space between them with love, assurance and comfort.

Bennett also shares a special relationship with someone else — his surgeon. We both know that his doctor’s caring attention, his supportive communication and his commitment have helped lengthen the tine in which we can both say, “We’re surviving cancer.” This is another space — the space between doctor and patient — that has been filled with love. And we know that relationships filled with love are healing.

Inhale / Exhale

Sometimes the spaces between notes are filled with moments of silence — moments when players stop playing and singers stop singing. Many times these rests are moments for breaths between phrases. They form a container for the phrases they enclose. Music played without attention given to breathing between phrases is lifeless, without flow and direction. Music, like life, needs breath to come alive.

There are many times in our journey of surviving cancer when breathing eludes me. So many events have taken my breath away: sitting in the doctor’s office and listening to him explain that the results of the biopsy showed cancer and, two years later, hearing that the cancer had returned; trying to take in another doctor’s description of the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation; hearing the surgeon say that because he had found cancer in a lymph node outside of my husband’s lung, it was Stage III cancer and not Stage I; answering a call from my husband and hearing him gasp that he couldn’t breathe.

There have even been whole periods of time, days even, when it seemed like I couldn’t breathe: the ten minutes it took me to get home not knowing if Bennett would still be breathing when I got there; the next two minutes waiting for the ambulance; the three hours driving behind the ambulance from our regional hospital to the hospital in Charlottesville; the days waiting for the results of CT and PET scans; the hours spent at Bennett’s side while chemicals flowed into his body; the days between treatments as I watched his body become weaker and weaker.

When my husband started to heal after the surgery and chemotherapy, there were many moments when I felt I couldn’t get my breath. Every time Bennett coughed, every time he sighed or groaned, my body would immediately shift into panic mode. Once when he yelled in frustration at a computer glitch, I was in tears by the time I got to the top of the stairs to see what the problem was. I drove him crazy with my constant query, “What’s wrong?”

It was during those trying days of panic for no good reason that a wise friend gave me words, stories and strategies to help me make my way out of instant fright over every sneeze and cough. One of the things she suggested was to breathe — inhale and exhale deeply. She even gave me different breathing responses for different situations.

When I remember to breathe, the cancer doesn’t go away. But just like the rests in music that form a container for musical phrases, my breath forms a container for the moments of my life, and I am reminded that for this moment, we are together. With each breath, I am thankful for the time we share. Breathing helps me feel connected to the life that surrounds my — my husband’s breath, the rain on the window, the flowers in the path, and our cats asleep on the sofa. Breathing gives me the strength to rest in the moment no matter what it holds.

Fear

Fear is a frequent companion. I fear my husband dying. I fear what might happen to Bennett’s body during chemo and radiation. I fear that the cancer will not respond to treatment. Now that the cancer has recurred (fall 2011), fear seems to be a constant, unwelcome, companion. It’s a hollow pit in my stomach that won’t go away.

Fear doesn’t always visit with the same intensity. It comes in waves similar to the waves of grief I experienced after my mother’s death. Sometimes, the strength of the wave knocks me off my feet. During the months when the CT scans showed nothing to worry about, the fear receded. But it always shows itself quickly when Bennett experiences a pain or a cough we can’t explain. When Bennett is away in the evening for a rehearsal and I am in he house alone, a wave of fear can pull me under. The thought — “This is how it’s going to be when he’s gone” — washes over me. It isn’t so much a matter of “I’ll be alone.” Instead, it’s “How will I be able to go on when the ‘I’ that I am feels so intimately tied to the ‘we’ that we are?”

This is the source of the pit in my stomach in this journey of “we’re surviving cancer.” The ground beneath my feet is always shifting, and these earthquakes make me lose sight of who I am because my “I” is a “we.” Who is the “I” in the “we’re surviving cancer” story? It’s not the same “I” as before there was any cancer. Confronted with the fragility of life, I want to hang on to how it was before cancer, and frankly, there are times that I get mad as hell that cancer has changed everything.

There was a time in the winter of 2010 during the “no signs of cancer” months when I found myself inexplicably angry at Bennett. It took me weeks to realize that being angry at him masked the horrible fear that it might be our last Christmas together. Once I discovered its source, my anger vanished, and with it, my fear.

Now it’s another Christmas (2011), and the cancer is back. There is no anger this time, only fear. What helps? Writing these reflections is a comfort. Finding the words to describe what I have kept and continue to keep inside shines sunlight into dark and fearful places. Taking to heart the one very important word in the title of our book — “today” — helps abate my fear.

Today — this day — this moment — my husband and I are eating breakfast together, paying the bills together, having dinner with friends together. We’re making music together, and he’s helping me with my work. The “I” I am today is this woman who loves this man, who reaches out and touches him and leans over and kisses his cheek. Today we are both alive.

I have today with Bennett. I’d be lying if I said that it’s enough.

Endure

It is in the small, sometimes inconsequential moments of our life together that I am frequently struck with the sudden, strong desire that “we” must endure. Fixing dinner, opening the mail, grocery shopping — these are some of the shared moments when I long that the pleasure of doing them together lasts as long as possible. In some ways, it’s the same as holding onto glorious moments in classical music.

A few weeks ago the music ensemble I direct and play in performed an arrangement of the “Nimrod” variation from Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations, a sublimely beautiful work. Playing it, I was deeply aware of every note, and many of them I held as if I didn’t want to let them go. I savored each note’s significance thoroughly before going on to the next. This practice of awareness is what I want to bring to every moment of our life together.

Cancer forces me to bring all of my awareness to the times my husband and I share. It also nudges me to be a more engaged witness in other encounters I have throughout the day. When I do, when I bring my awareness to the mountains before my eyes, the friend who is telling me about her day, the hummingbird’s wings I hear as she flies above the feeder, the shiny rock that catches my attention, I find that my life fills with meaning. The moment endures. It is luminous.

I remember entering a busy airport after a weeklong spiritual retreat in an idyllic country setting. I was stunned. My time away had made me intensely aware of the radiance of every person I saw. It was as if every individual was lit from within — everyone special, everyone shining in this great web of life. The moment didn’t last long, and I’ve never been able to recapture the depth of that experience, but my husband’s cancer brings me close.

At this moment one of our cats jumped into my lap as I was writing these words. Instead of brushing him away, I paused, took him into my arms for as long as he allowed me to hold him, and became aware of the preciousness of this moment. He’s not one to cuddle, so I had to treasure being with him fully and quickly. I want all of the moments in my life to endure, but my cat and life have other plans.

It occurs to me that “endure” has another meaning. Bennett is my hero when it comes to enduring many bouts with cancer without giving in to fear or pain. He has remained positive and optimistic throughout the surgeries and the chemo and is refusing to yield to despair when faced with lung cancer recurrence and the prospect of radiation and more chemo. In all of the health updates to family and friends he has written, there has never been even a hint of anger or despondency.

I have never known my husband to be anything but hopeful and determined. It is his indomitable will that has carried both of us through the sometimes bumpy terrain of our  life together. It is his unwavering commitment to me and to life that lifts me up in the moments when I lose heart. His words also help — “No matter what happens, Linda, we will endure.”

I want us to endure. Bennett teaches me how.

_____

Update: It’s been almost nine years since Bennett was diagnosed with lung cancer. His oncologist has declared his survival “a miracle.” I agree!

This story is from the book Linda wrote with her husband, Bennett Lentczner — We’re Surviving Cancer . . . Today.

Linda is our story gatherer, and Bennett is part of our our team.

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Read Linda’s story about her search for her immigrant grandparents.

Read Kate Green’s moving tribute to her mother.