Tuesday, September 29, 2009

An Alzheimer's lesson

I told my dad on the phone that we had a bear visit our deck last week. It had snowed and I left our bird feeder out overnight. In the morning, surprisingly large bear footprints were framed by the slushy snow.
I laughed as I told the story. I knew we weren't in danger. I knew I could prevent further visits by doing what I should have done that night - not offering any more midnight snacks.
Dad listened carefully. Then, five hours later, he called me back. He was upset. He just couldn't shake the image of a bear threatening us. “Are you safe?” he asked. “Can you do anything to make sure nothing happens?”
We’ve lived in the Colorado mountains for more than 20 years, and we’ve entertained my parents many times with stories about the wildlife that visits our yard – deer, bear, raccoons, a bobcat, foxes, and in the first few years, an elk herd that has since moved on.
My dad was always interested and amused by our tales about the bear we caught clutching a PopTart wrapper in our garage; the deer that stood down our beagle, the fox who trotted up to us with a pillaged hotdog in his mouth.
But this time, there was no laughter; only fear.
My dad has Alzheimer’s. Most days, he keeps it at bay. He loves to talk about politics and sports and the economy. He jokes with my mom and volunteers at a local nursing home and plays a mean game of Gin Rummy.
The disease is hardly recognizable most of the time. But when something worries him, it consumes him. My story about a bear was something he couldn’t let go even though he couldn’t do anything about it; and ultimately, because he couldn’t do anything about it.
So he called me back. “I’m sorry to bother you. But I’m just worried about you,” he admitted. “I know,” I said. “And I appreciate it.”
The next day, I called my parents in the morning. “The bear hasn’t been back,” I reported. “I don’t think you have to worry anymore.”
“That’s good,” my dad said, noticeable relief in his voice. “I’m glad to hear it.”
Alzheimer's is erasing parts of my dad, day by day, but one thing that hasn’t vanished yet is his ability to love and desire to take care of his family. If that love comes through as worry, that’s OK.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Ready for some football

Today is my dad’s 80th birthday. Seven hundred miles separate us, so we won’t be celebrating together. But today, my thoughts are with him, and I’m thinking about…football.
It’s almost impossible to talk about my dad without talking about football.
He played in high school and for the Air Force. The football stadium in my hometown is named after him. When it was dedicated several years ago, our family snuck in one afternoon to take photos of him underneath his name which had been painted in bold black and red letters.
My dad didn’t think he deserved the honor. The school and the town did. His family did. He had been a middle school guidance counselor, teacher and coach for decades. He was known by generations of families simply as Coach. He coached many sports including girls’ basketball, but he loved football most of all.
He believed in football. He lived football. He thought football – coached the right way - taught valuable lessons about hard work and team dynamics. He was proud when he got to coach both of my brothers.
He worked every weekend during the high school football season, and when that season was over, followed teams on TV. Sunday afternoon football games on TV were the music of my childhood.
My dad followed football at all levels - high school, college and the pros - even when he retired from coaching. He knew – and still knows - every player from his home state who went on to college fame and those who went further, to the pros. After he transitioned from coaching to the athletic director position at his school, he still lived for football, offering his experience whenever it was requested. After he retired, he still lived for football, teaching coaching classes at a community college.
In retirement, it was the football he missed the most. He still attended high school games in his hometown, but he had to sit in the stadium beneath his name instead of standing on the sideline, closer to the action.
When my brother became a football coach in a small town about an hour from my parents’, a new football ritual was started; a priceless gift for my dad. For several years, my parents have traveled every Friday night to cheer on their new adopted team. After each game, my dad, not my brother, calls to give me a report.
My brother has started a new season with a young team – all his starters were seniors last year, my dad reports. “It’s going to be tough, a building season,” he tells me. “But they look pretty good.”
So do you, Dad. So do you.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Ooooohhh, aaaahhhh...aspens

A neighbor just asked me about the best weekend this year for aspen viewing. To answer that question requires a deep knowledge of the science of trees and weather, as well as a talent for looking into the future. In other words, no one knows.
But being asked made me feel good. When I worked as an outdoor writer at a Colorado Springs newspaper, I would get dozens of calls each year with that very same question. “My relatives are coming from Texas/Kansas/anywhere where there aren’t aspens. What will the peak weekend be this year?”
At first, I tried to explain that it was complicated and impossible to predict with certainty. Colder nighttime temperatures, the chance of snow and rain, and wind all played roles in the aspens changing.
Some years, the leaves have stayed green until a wind storm or deep freeze takes them overnight. Other years, they slowly change from summer green to a limey shade, taking on a tinge of gold before erupting into golds, reds and yellows.
But people wanted answers. I eventually gave up, and using my powers of observation (and guessing) I would throw out some dates. I felt more helpful; they felt more hopeful. Everybody won. And sometimes, I was right.
That brings us to the aspen report for 2009. The leaves are turning at 8,500 feet right now. It’s a subtle change so far, with an occasional overachieving tree that just couldn’t wait for the others. But I’m shooting for Sept. 25 and 26 at optimal dates… unless, that is, we get rain or wind or really cold nights.
Best bet for the best long-view aspen photos? Highway 67 to Cripple Creek (that's where I took this aspen shot last year). For further trip planning and a closer look, I’m offering up a trio of favorite places to hike amongst the aspens.
- Buffalo Peaks Wilderness Area between Fairplay and Buena Vista. Take a part or all of the Rich Creek-Rough and Tumbling Creek loop trail. (www.thebackpacker.com/trails/co/trail_18.php)
- Putney Gulch-Horsethief Falls section of the Ring the Peak Trail. (www.fotp.com/ringthepeak/Trail5-6.html)
- Three-Mile Creek Trail off Guanella Pass Road. (www.fs.fed.us/r2/psicc/recreation/sight_seeing/spl_scenic.shtml)

Thursday, September 10, 2009

To the good life

I interviewed a documentary film director this week, and when I asked him about the best moment of his life, he said, “Birth.”
I’m not sure if he was trying to be funny or deep or inscrutable, or was just annoyed by the question.
I know it was a cliche, in the same line as “if you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?” (Thank you, Barbara Walters.)
But this guy is at a high point in his professional life, and I really wanted to know if there’s a moment when you know you’ve made it, personally, professionally or both.
Of course birth and death are the bookends of our lives. But what about all that stuff in between?
I suppose for some people, “best” is defined by money or possessions. For others, it is professional recognition.
I think the best moments of my life are both large and small. In the “large” category: the day I met the man who would be my husband; the day we were married, and the day our daughter was born.
But it’s the smaller, more random events that sit between birth and death that make a life worth living. Just daydreaming for a few moments brings some to mind:
The night I played synthesizer in a heavy metal band.
The first time I climbed Pikes Peak.
When I finished writing my first book.
When a copy of that book arrived in the mail.
The day I learned to drive a stick shift.
The day I taught our daughter to drive a stick shift.
The first time I saw the mountains, glimmering in the distance as we drove west across Nebraska.
Watching bald eagles fishing in the icy winter waters of the Mississippi River on a -20 degree morning.
Watching deer graze in our backyard.
Teaching our daughter to read.
The day we bought my husband’s dream car, a black Camaro Berlinetta, off the showroom floor.
My first piano recital.
The day I skied alone after a foot of fresh powder, when the skis were blue, the sun warm, and the slopes virtually empty.
My daughter’s college graduation day.
There’s a common theme here. Most of these are from my life as an adult. Moments of personal accomplishment, discovery and adventure rank high on my list. But it’s a really long list. It’s a really good life.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Happy day

Today is our wedding anniversary.
I won’t say what year we were married. Let’s just say it was long, long ago.
It was a beautiful day in Iowa, a hot, Indian summer kind of day. Our car started on fire on the way to the ceremony (faulty wiring) but we made it just in time.
Our wedding was small, done in what our daughter now calls “hippie style.” A family friend who was a Methodist minister read Kahlil Gibran (“Let there be spaces in your togetherness, and let the winds of the heavens dance between you”). I wore my mother’s dress, all netting and pearl buttons, from the 1950s that fit perfectly; Mark wore a black polyester suit we found at K-mart (his first and last suit). We each had one friend stand up with us. We made the sandwiches (it was Iowa; of course we served ham) for the reception for our 20 guests. There were no bridesmaids in goofy matching dresses or groomsmen in matching rented tuxedos. There was no catered dinner or dance. No open bar (no bar at all). There was no expense, really, other than the cost of a really cheap suit, a bouquet of flowers and a plate of ham sandwiches.
After the reception, we stopped at Burger King (don’t know why; just sounded good), then headed to Colorado for a camping honeymoon in Rocky Mountain National Park.
It was perfect.
Happy anniversary to us.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Feeling nostalgic

Remember when…
You didn’t have to take off your shoes before you were allowed on an airplane?
If you wanted your oil changed, your nails done, your vision checked, your paycheck cashed and your grocery list filled, you had to drive to five different businesses?
Hitchhiking was something everybody under a certain age did?
Tattoos were something everybody over a certain age had (if they were in prison or the military)?
Coors had to be refrigerated at all times?
You were out and forgot to make a call, so you stopped at a phone booth?
KFC was called Kentucky Fried Chicken?
You had to drop off the film of your vacation at the local drug store and wait days while they developed it?
You bought film?
You had to pay a monthly fee for your e-mail account?
You got your check handed to you in an envelope at work, and you had to drive to your bank to deposit it?
A 36-inch TV was REALLY big?
“Friend” was a noun, not a verb, and “twitter” was commonly used in the phrase “all a’twitter”?
If you wanted your car window down you had to crank it down and if you wanted your car door unlocked you used your key?
You could smoke in a bar, and a restaurant, and at work, and you did?