A Regular Week

“In extraordinary times, the ordinary takes on a glow and wonder all of its own.”
― Mike A. Lancaster, Human.4

Sometimes, weeks usher in momentous change, unexpected glories, shocking news. Some weeks are game-changers and life-changers.

Some weeks, we look back at the day it started and think, “Unbelievable. I am not the same person I was when this week started.”

Some weeks are monumental.

This week was not one of those weeks.

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This week, we’ve noticed a skunk has been visiting, turning on the motion-activated garage light several nights in a row.

There was no rain this week, so we walked each morning. And we had a string of hot, hot days, so the morning air was fresh but not chill. This week, we got used to setting the alarm and dragging our butts out of bed before the sun comes up.

One morning, as we got ready to walk, Mark stepped out on the back slab, and he called me.

“Come and see,” he said, kind of urgent but whispery.

I thought one of the deer mamas was back there with twins or triplets, so I started over. But then Mark started throwing smack talk out into the yard.

“Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, I see you, Pepe’ LePew. I see you in my yard. You need to move on now. That’s right: you go somewhere else!”

“Are you welling at a SKUNK?” I asked, and I turned around and headed quickly back to the dining room.

Mark stepped back into the house. Well, he strutted a little.

“Yeah,” he said. “I sent that polecat packing.”

I thought it might be a good idea to wait a minute or two before we started our walk. We headed out just as dawn was getting serious. We saw a runner in fancy clothes, a comfortable couple around our age in safety reflective gear, a no-nonsense walker with headphones on who was pumping her arms up and down. We saw an old black dog with a white, white muzzle sniffing at the sidewalk. When we got close, he put down his head and turned, tail tucked, to head back to his house.

We saw Jay, the friendly realty guy, walking his playful blue-eyed musky-dog. We saw a mama deer and a baby deer poised warily next to a lawn where dogs often romp, reined in by an electric fence.

We did NOT see the skunk.

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On Tuesday, Jim and I drove out past the classic Denny’s, out to Old Wheeling Road, and we found the headquarters of RHDD. We were meeting Jim’s wonderful case-worker, Rachael, and she was going to introduce us to the Lauras.

The Lauras handle transportation for their organization. They showed Jim the bus and the van. One of the Lauras and one of the vehicles would arrive at the house to pick him up each morning, from the 24th on, and take him to class.

We met outside, social distancing, but a Laura offered to show Jim the bus and the van. They were baking inside, but Jim gamely climbed on the bus and checked out the seating, poked his head in the van. He learned what doors he’d use, allowing for safe distances between drivers and riders, and he and the Lauras agreed on a pickup time for the first week.

This was exciting: Jim starts back to college on the 24th, and he will not have to rely on Mom and Dad for transportation. He’ll have his own ride, thank you very much, and he’ll see us when he gets home.

He was strutting a little, too, when he thanked everyone and climbed back into the car. Rachael pulled out and we followed her back to Zanesville, where she and Jim met in a picnic pavilion behind her office while I got some steps in.

“That was a great meeting,” said Jim.

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On Wednesday, I came home from work, and thought about dinner. I thought about chopped and slicing, and stirring and simmering, and what I thought was this: I don’t want to do that.

So for dinner Wednesday night, Mark went out and got a loaf of bread, and we grilled cheese sandwiches, with American cheese and gouda, or Havarti, or Colby-jack. And we had soup: Tuscan sausage and white bean soup for Mark and me, which involved lifting a container from the freezer and reheating. Jim had a bowl of Lipton’s chicken noodle soup with his grilled cheese.

Jim’s father and I both told him what a treat that was when we were growing up—how Lipton was an exotic break from Campbell’s chicken noodle.

It was one of those nights when the sandwiches grilled up perfectly—brown and crusty, oozing cheese,—and the steaming soups tasted wonderful.

“Yum,” said Mark, and, “That was a great dinner,” Jim said.

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On Thursday, though, the college announced that it was moving classes to an on-line format. No rides would be needed.

“Oh, well,” said Jim. He seemed to be an odd combination of disappointed and relieved, which is, maybe, status quo for pandemic days. We’ll call his advisor, we decided, on Monday, talk about tutoring, and see whether that will be on-line, or via Zoom, or safely distanced face to face.

And then he’ll call and change his arrangements with Rachael and the Lauras.

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This week, I stopped at the library and picked up Kamala Harris’s The Truths We Hold, so I could learn a little more about this woman making history. I went to the last session of a racism discussion (went, via Zoom) at our public library. It was a ‘Where do we go from here?’ session, and I left with ideas and paths to explore. This week I learned to write a press release in a template format, and to include ‘boilerplate’ language below, and, under excellent tutelage, I expanded my technology knowledge to navigate a little more effectively in the on-line world.

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We all had Friday off this week, and Mark finished painting the basement walls, and I dust-mopped and vacuumed. Jim unrolled a new area rug in the family room, and laid two by fours on the edges to get it to lay down flat. Then he walked on it, barefoot.

This is a nice rug,” he said.

This week I ordered soft, velvety navy-blue throws to go on the new recliners we ordered last week. The throws will arrive long before the recliners do, but we think that’s okay. I ordered a single set of navy-blue curtains, too,–curtains to coordinate with the drapes on the bay window, and which can be pulled to block the sun that glares in at 7 p.m., shining on the big screen TV and erasing the picture.

This week I ordered groceries on-line in the morning and went to pick them up in the evening. And I looked forward to meeting friends for coffee. We’d meet in a park pavilion, and we would each bring our own drink and nosh. But I was excited to return to a certain degree of normalcy,—not saying that COVID is no longer here, but saying maybe we can navigate it differently. Maybe the things that enrich life—Saturday morning coffee with friends, touching base with loved ones, being there to share things,—are things we can still have. We just have to re-imagine their delivery.

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This week was about process, not outcome; it was a week when things continued, or groundwork got laid, or learning took place. There were no fireworks and no stunning surprises. It was a hard-working week with nice little breaks. We even, I think, all snuck a little nap in on Friday.

But, “This was a nice week,” said Jim, and his words make me spread it out, look back over it, pick up the week’s fabric and run it between my rough and gnarled fingers. I have to agree.

All of a Sudden: Mid-August

Leaves in the grass

I wake to the rattle of the spare room door. The wind, blowing in through the screened window, is shaking it. And a hard rain is driving down: the outdoor world a cacophony of discordant sounds—pelting and blowing and shaking.

I stumble over to prop the spare room’s door open. Then I crawl back into bed, pull the sheet up to my chin, and drift back off to sleep, oddly lulled by the dissonance.

In the morning, I slip my old shoes on and go outside. The grass is beaded with silver dew, and the little tree, the one by the kitchen window, has lost many of its leaves, pounded off by that insistent rain. They lay curled on the ground; they are golden and brown. They are harbingers of autumn.

It is August, the eighth month—the august month of portent and change.

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The library calls; the book I’ve requested is waiting for me. So Jim and I take an afternoon swing over, and, while he pores through the DVD’s, I take Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine to a table. This is an old, old book, with a third copyright date of 1968. There’s still a pocket in the front to hold a library card, and stamped dates march up and down the page. The oldest reads “FEB 79,” and it was taken out many times after that, too.

I flip to the first page of text and read, “It was a quiet morning…You had only to lean from your window, and know that this indeed was the first real time of freedom and living, this was the first morning of summer.” And I get to know Douglas Spaulding, aged 12, whose summer vacation is just beginning.

The novel takes place in 1928, but it describes a universal whoosh of “Welcome, Summer!” I felt it, this year, the first time I sat with my coffee at the wobbly patio table—maybe late in May—and realized the summer was opening up before me. There was so much I wanted to do, so many people to connect with. There were places to visit, meals to cook, and chronicles to write.

I gave myself up to that feeling of endless summer, and I  plunged: I did many of the things and saw many of the people. I visited some of the places, and I chronicled a tale or two.

And then, slick and sly, the pedestal whipped into a sudden turn, whirled me around a bend, and I looked straight into the eyes of August. Mid-August: that corner season.

August stared me down.

“Things are changing,” it said to me, and it turned its back and marched on.

Endless summer, I knew in that moment, had ended.

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August is rain. I open the weather app on my phone. Three of the next six days have thundercloud icons; two show suns peeking behind puffy cumulous-nimbuses. Only one day promises a clear sky and a pleasant temp.

It has rained almost every day this week; the crab grass which suddenly appeared this summer is tall and taunting.

I need to mow.

I need to spray a new coat of blacking on the metal patio chairs.

I need to hunker down and dig up the grass that is inching inward, overtaking the disappearing pavers that lead to the alley out back.

I plan to do all that in that one sunny day, and bowing to the season, start prepping the dining room to paint. August means working inside.

A memory pops up: my mother, keening at the window as rain streaks down the screen.

“It always rains on your vacation,” she says to my father.

My father manages my brothers’ little league team. Their season goes from May until July—longer if they make the play-offs, and they often do. There is no point, my father says, in taking time off until baseball season is over.

So August is vacation time, and we talk about trips to the lake and marathon backyard wiffle ball games. My father plans to paint the trim and change the oil and fix a couple of electrical things, outside.

But, my mother is right: it is August, and it always rains. My father sighs, and shrugs, and lights a cigarette. He turns a page of the newspaper in the quiet house.

And the rain pounds down.

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The newspaper is full of county fair news. The fair starts on Sunday, and, for 4-H kids throughout the county, a long year’s work is coming to its culmination. Fair week is competition week—kids will show their chickens and sheep, their goats and hogs and cows. They will shampoo and comb and coax; they will lead and prompt and try not to stumble. Solemn judges will watch and inspect and hand out ribbons and “master showman” honors.

People will bid on the livestock. Our butcher shop may have a sign: We purchased the best-of-show steer from Joey Shlagelholdt!

The winning kids’ hearts will leap—joy and pride, and sorrow, too, as they groom and stroke that winning creature one last time—preparing for the hand-off, knowing what it means.

In the buildings, other judges study handmade goods. They gently finger soft, knitted blankets, kneel down to peer at hand-painted pictures. They examine fragile antiques and vast collections. Some lucky judges slice into tall cakes on milk glass pedestals, cut into sugar crusted pies that ooze blueberry syrup.  Ribbons appear—yellow, red, and the royal blue ones. Ribbons that say, “Best of Show.”

The air is rich with steamy, fragrant, scents—Italian sausage, peppers and onions. Yeasty, cinnamon-y, fried dough.

The fair is the midway, too—the clash and grind of the rides, the whirling and spinning and laughter and screams. The people who travel with the fair seem rootless, disconnected; they open a curtain to let us look quickly into a different world, a mobile, ever-changing one. They carry a scent of the exotic, a little glint of danger. Middle school kids crowd the rides, in love with the mystery and their own daring.

August is the blatting of the loud-speaker, the harmonies of Montgomery Gentry and Jo Dee Messina, the free stickers at the political parties’ booths.  August is the county fair.

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I need, I decide, a cooking day. One late morning, I buy two huge packages of ground chuck at the little supermarket—such a great deal, and so many things we can do with it! After lunch I dig out recipes—“Dom’s Mom’s Meatballs,” “Best Ever Meat Loaf,”—and I pull the big blue polka dot pasta bowl down from atop the cupboard. I make bread crumbs in the food processor: I measure milk and grated cheese and I crack eggs. I slide my wedding ring off and put it on the window sill, and I splay my fingers. I plunge my hands, wincing, into the cold, wet, eggy mess.

There is no other way to mix the meatballs.

I shape a tray full of big, bold meatballs for spaghetti. I make a tin of tiny meatballs for Italian wedding soup.

While they roast in the oven, I pat meatloaf into pans, shape fat, hearty burgers, and stuff the remaining two pounds of meat into Tupperware. I carry a wobbling tower of packages to the chest freezer and pack them in.

When the meatballs are done, I pack them up and let them cool, and I think it’s a shame to waste an already heated oven.

I pull out dark brown sugar and dark and milk chocolate chips, flour, eggs, and butter, vanilla, and baking powder. I mix up a batch of cookies, drop lumpy balls onto cookie sheets, read a friendly novel while they bake.

I spatula golden, brown-edged cookies onto the broad old metal pizza pan, and when they are cooled, I stack them in my two plaid cookie jars.

It is August, and something deep within calls me to fill the larder, to preserve the fruits—to prepare for the darker days ahead.

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I sit next to a solemn young Boy Scout at a board meeting; he must attend, for a badge, a public forum where differing opinions may be heard. He must write up a detailed report. He opens his notebook, writes, “Notes” at the top of the page, and neatly numbers down the margin.

“When does school start?” I ask him, not thinking, and his face darkens.

“Some day next WEEK,” he mutters, and I see that the joy of his endless summer has begun to leech away.

It always seems early, the mid-August back to school here in Ohio. It dazzled me, when we first moved here, to hear people say, on July Fourth, “Ah, summer’s almost over already!”

“What do you MEAN?” I wanted to chivvy them. “Summer’s not over until Labor Day.”

But, calendar be damned, summer ends when teachers report back for Preparation Days, when the football teams trot out onto the field and sully their pristine leggings with grass-stains, when the cross-country runners span out over the edge of the highway—fleet to fledgling,–and when the kids go back to school.

So summer ends, here, in August. Summer, as I thoughtlessly reminded my young colleague at the meeting, ends next week.

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I come home from another meeting to find packages on the front steps—new black pants and a long-sleeved shirt, a floaty black top. Back to school clothes, for me, for the first time in several years. This Fall, before the end of August, I will be back in the classroom, teaching at two different colleges, trying to rub the love of words into a hot incense between my palms…and then, opening my hands, I will puff, trying to diffuse at least a little, tentative breath of that heady brew into my students’ beings.

I know I won’t always be successful, but sometimes—oh, sometimes—those tendrils reach out and find a welcome.

And I am caught in the excitement of preparation, in what some of my colleagues over the years have called Syllabus Hell, a time of sitting with the calendar and looking at the assignments, ticking off the holidays and fitting the semester’s expectations into a neatly plotted chart. A time to craft and tweak assignments to elicit, if not outright excitement, then thought and reaction and a spill of words onto a page. Or many pages.

My inner child geek still lives on, loving the smell of new loose-leaf paper and the first bloopy scrawl from a virgin ballpoint pen, and the fun of planning the term.

And this year, post-retirement, I am reporting to a smart young professional, at one of my schools, who used to work with me—who has graduated from adjunct to full-time faculty, to program coordinator, and now to the overseer of adjunct faculty at a different college entirely. Creative, compassionate, energetic, she embraces the role, and I sit across the desk from her and sign the forms she passes my way and accept the textbooks she hands me.

I am retired and teaching because I want to. I am retired, and I get to exult in the trajectory of people I’ve mentored who go on to do wonderfully unexpected things.

August is a time of year, but I realize it is a time of life, too.

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I read my Bradbury and mourn for that endless summer feeling, but a little fizz of excitement bubbles, too: new students, cooler nights, celebrations. I will go out and buy new pens and spiral notebooks; I will get a pair of sensibly stylish black shoes. I’ll goad the boyos into an autumn wardrobe contemplation, and we’ll think about, maybe, an October adventure.

There are things to be done and things to be planned, and the last, tastiest dregs of summer to be shaken from the bottle, mixed up with clear, cold water, and enjoyed.

It is August, with that clear-cut sense of what is ending, and the mysterious promise of what might be about to begin.