Thursday, May 26, 2016

The World's Largest Man

Harrison Scott Key, The World's Largest Man: a memoir (New York: Harper, 2015), 336 pages plus 15 bonus pages including an essay by the author on memoirs along with additional information about the author.

Last week I attended a reading by an author at the Book Lady's Bookstore in Savannah, Georgia.  I heard about the reading from a friend on Facebook and the author's book sounded interesting, so at the appointed time, I left the slow life of the island for the hustle of the city and the struggle for parking places.  Upon entering the bookstore, I was excited to see a stack of yellow paperbacks with deer antlers stacked by the register.  "Hot dang," I said to no one in particular, "Patrick McManus has a new book out."  Then I saw the author's name, "Harrison Scott Key: the dude doing the reading...  The air in my sails begin to wane, the book's color and antlers had gotten me all excited..  But then the reading started.  Harrison began by handing out PBRs (yeah, that beer that was cheap when I was in college that is now back in fashion).  Harrison wasn't taking any chances with his audience.  Lubing us up, he soon had us laughing.  By the time he was half way through the reading, I knew I would be buying his book.  I have thoroughly enjoyed it, pushing aside two other books that I was reading.  Key began his reading by sharing bits of reviews that he's received.  In that light and to provide him some new material, let me admit that this book was almost as good as a McManus book.

The World's Largest Man is about Key's father and his own quest to become a father.  When Key was a child in elementary school, his father moved the family from Memphis (where you went to church to learn about the dangers of premarital sex) to Mississippi (where you went to church to engage in such sex).  (19).  According to Key, Mississippi is a state where crazy people believed that what can't be shot should be baptized (16), and children often learn child-birth before long division (37) Here, Key was taught the ways of the woods.  One early adventure was dove hunting at daybreak in which he realized that problem with the proverb about the early rising bird getting the worm.  They also get murdered. (32) Some readers may be offended by Key's frankness concerning sex (in a few occasions he hints at the involvement of livestock).  I wasn't overly shocked as I once had a boss from Mississippi, and remember one night after a few beers he told us about a boy from his school...  I've been through Mississippi, but Ron’s stories had always reminded me there was no need to linger there.  Key has reminded me again of the wisdom of passing through.   

Key keeps the humorous zingers coming as he tells about deer hunting, fighting at school, his first love, football and baseball.  He also shares about his father's tough discipline and his mother's love.  At times, as the reader, I felt contempt for his father and then at other times, I couldn't help but admire him.  Key's old man went out of his way to help children, continuing on coaching little league baseball and football long after his boys had grown up and moved on.  Key always felt he was not living up to his father's standards (something most boys feel, or at least I did). 

After high school, there is a gap and Key picks up his story when he is in grad school and is married.  He worries what his new bride will think of his family and there are some funny episodes around her first visits to Mississippi for holidays.  Once they have children, he sees another side of his father.   His old man loves grandchildren.  Eventually, Key is able to encourage his parents to move to Savannah where he is a professor at SCAD (Savannah College of Art and Design).  A month later, his father dies of a heart attack.  In the second part of the book, we see Key's struggling to be a man and protecting his wife and three daughters.  Having grown up around guns, he marries a woman who wasn't a "gun person" and so he leaves his guns with his parents.  One night, he arms himself with a serrated kitchen knife to check out a possible bad guy.  As Key says, "it would have come in handy had he come across an angry Bundt cake."  (273)  After his father drops off his old shotgun and they experience a break-in, he obtains shells for the shotgun.  But then, he realizes it was a foolish idea and adds motion sensor lights outside of his house and an alarm system. 

The last part of the book may not carry the humor of the earlier part of the book, but it has an honest feel as Key struggles to learn what it means to be good husband and a good father.  There is a tenderness to how he writes about his family and his aging father.   Key recalls the old truism from the country that things can kill you can also make you feel alive (238), but a few pages later he acknowledges that what really makes us alive is love. (246).  This is a book written in love, which is why I recommend it.  McManus has some good competition as does other Mississippi writers such as Willie Morris. 

I also liked the supplemental information provided at the end of the book.  These include tips about writing about one's family, an essay on memoirs (a term Key detests), more biographical information, and his top ten list of funny writers of which I've only read four (Charles Portis, Douglas Adams, Flannery O'Connor and Mark Twain).   Key acknowledge at the front of the book that he had changed many of the names (since most of them have guns).

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Good bye to all that (what's been happening to my leg)

My legs in better days
Hiking in Picture Rocks, Michigan, 2012
I love my legs.  They have taken me many places in this world and have served me well.  Prior to January 9th, I would walk an average of 20 miles a week.  I love walking, whether in town or through to the neighborhood or maybe to the marina.  As any of you who have read my blog knows, in my past, I’ve done extensive backpacking trips including the Appalachian Trail.  So when on Saturday, January 9th, a freak accident on the foredeck of a sailboat occurred, in which my leg was pinned and my body fell back causing something to snap in my leg, I found myself for the first time since an infant as unable to walk.  I also felt the most horrible pain I’ve ever experienced.  That day, I visited the emergency room.  An x-ray later, I was assured that no bones were broken, that I needed to be evaluated by orthopedic surgeon.  Hopefully, the PA said trying to cheer me up, “it’s just a bad bruise.”  They sent me how with crutches and pain pills. 

On Monday, I showed up at an orthopedic clinic.  I was first seen by a physician assistant.  In thirty seconds, he felt my knee and then asked me to kick (I was sitting on the table).  As much as mind willed my leg to move, it couldn’t.  He frowned.  “It’s up to the doctor to diagnose, but I am pretty sure you have a torn quad tendon.”  I had only a general knowledge about what he was talking about and asked why he was so sure.  He pointed to a gap in between my knee and thigh, how the patella (knee cap) was lower in my left leg, and said that inability to kick with the leg indicated the tendon wasn’t connected.  “How bad is that?” I asked.  Shaking his head, he said, “Bad.”  The doctor agreed and said that I’d have to have surgery.  Furthermore, although he wanted the swelling to go down, I needed surgery sooner than later for my quad muscles would begin to retreat up my thigh and become more difficult to reattach in surgery.  Over the next week, I had a full MRI on my knee to confirm the damage.  During this time, sleeping was often disturbing as I’d wake feeling my quad muscles retreating up my thigh.  It was a weird feeling.

After surgery
Eleven days later I had surgery.  I went in thinking that they were going to drill an anchor into the patella and then attached the tendon and I’d have a two week break before I could began rehab.  When the surgery was over, I learned that there was a complete mid-tendon rupture and because of this, the doctor had to sew the tendon back together.  My recovery would be even longer.  For the next six weeks, I’d have to have the leg in a straight brace to keep from having any movement of the knee so the tendon would be able to grow back together.  I was on morphine (as I am allergic to many of the other pain drugs), but on the second day when the block they’d given me in the leg wore off, my pain level went through the roof.  I waited in anticipation for each dose of morphine.  It didn’t end the pain, but it generally put me to sleep.  I also keep ice on the knee (with a handy pump that could keep ice water flowing around my knee.  I spent most of the next ten days in a morphine stumper with an ice knee. 
Left to right:  First brace, sock puller-upper, adjustable brace
After a week, I was told I could put weight on my leg.  I did go into the office but only for the mornings.  I’d catch a ride home at lunch and if anyone wanted to see me, I’d meet them at home.  I was never able to be comfortable more than an hour or so behind my desk with having my leg in a straight cast.  Even in my office, I spent much of my time on the couch, where I could sat my leg out where it was supported.   During these weeks I had to be helped in and out of the shower (which was a once a week treat).    The rest of the time I was just doing sponge baths but since it was so hard to move, I wasn’t really working up a sweat.  I’m glad I endured this in what goes for winter here in Georgia.  I also wore short pants almost all the time (even into the office), the exception being going to church, but even then I had to find “breezy” dress pants that allowed me to keep my brace on under my pants.  The other problem was putting socks on my left foot.  They even make a funky sock “puller-upper” which I used.  I could generally get shoes on but someone else had to tie my left shoe.   During this time, as the morphine began to wear off, I started reading more and putting together puzzles.

Brace with movement
(this was once they allowed me 90 degrees)
Six weeks after surgery, they allowed me to have 30 degrees of movement in my left knee.  I felt free.  For the first time in two months I could drive as I couldn’t get my leg inside on the driver’s side of any of our vehicles (with the exception of the golf cart and I did use it frequently).  With 30 degrees of movement, I could walk more normal instead of walking with a peg-leg.  This couldn’t have come soon enough as my hips and back were beginning to ache from my peg-leg strut.  I was also sent to rehab.   The horror stories that were the tales told by those with knee replacements weren’t my experiences as they had to go very gently with me, slowly pushing my knee movement further while working to strengthen the quad muscles.  Since my problem was with the tendon, which was still growing together, they took it easy on me.  It took four weeks before they got me up to 90 degrees (but when I was not in rehab, I had the brace to keep me at 30 degrees.  Then, after another month, they allowed me 90 degrees of movement in my knee all the time and in rehab they continued to work my knee.  Currently, my left knee can easily move to 120 degrees and they can force it to 126 degrees, which is about 10 degrees lower than my right knee.  After another month of having the brace that ran all the way from my thigh to ankle set at 90 degrees, I graduated to a much smaller brace. 
Current brace
At this time, the doctor released me to do things like sailing and kayaking (But no basketball, tennis, pickleball, or returning to active duty as a volunteer firefighter. That will take more time).  In rehab, they began to work me on weight machines (instead of the easier exercises I’d been doing there).  I am now doing these exercises every other day and on the odd days doing the lighter exercises at home.  I am also now able to bike and have been trying to put in 20 or 30 minutes a day riding.   Although I am slowly getting back to normal (I can walk a mile and a half now, but then I’ll need to ice my leg), I have a ways to go.  I will probably always have some issues with my left knee as the tendon is shorter than on my right knee.  But I am glad to be back sailing (I’ve yet to kayak) and to be able to walk, even though I haven’t got my distance back to anywhere near where it was before.  That will come.  

The Last Puzzle of this season
This one was hard and I ended up losing a piece

Monday, May 16, 2016

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes

After all my post in April, I’ve found myself busy in May and not very prolific.  I am writing a longer post about my recent injury, but that’s not yet ready.  I did sail this weekend, the first time since the accident, but didn't take photos.  Over the past couple of months, I’ve read a number of books that I had wanted to review, but have never gotten around to it.  Most I probably won’t get around to it, but this was one that I thought deserved a review. 

Caitlin Doughty, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory (New York: Norton, 2014), 254 pages

Having grown up in Hawaii and with a degree in medieval history, Caitlin Doughty may seem an odd candidate for operating a retort (the machine that burns the body) in a crematory.  But it’s not as far-fetched as one might think.  Her college studies involved the persecutions of witches, and those suspected of such activities often ended up being burned.  Thankful, Doughty was only burning the already deceased, but she paused long enough to reflect on the comparisons. 

Doughty first took a position in a Bay Area crematory that had a variety of clientele that included unclaimed bodies from the county morgue, people looking for low cost cremations, and immigrant groups who wanted to be with the body as it was burned.   The crematory’s two retorts were often busy and she reflects on picking out which bodies to burn and how, when they had extra time, they would burn unclaimed bodies or even amputee body parts from local hospitals.  You learn the details, the temperature of the retort, what happens to bones and to those who have a lot of excess fat (some of this is gross).  During her time at this crematory, Doughty experiences all parts of the business:  operating the retorts, picking up bodies, meeting with family members, and preparing the body for viewing.  Her first day at work she had to shave a man.  Bodies that are to be viewed are generally embalmed and we learn of the hazards of such chemicals.   As Doughty tells of her adventures, she also recounts the history of the funeral industry (it really got going during the American Civil War) and what has happened to it since then including the writings of Jessica Mitford.  She tells her story, along with the details of the history, with humor and grace.  She introduces her co-workers who mostly seem pretty normal, but then she tells about her adventures of going to S&M clubs while in high school in Hawaii to be flogged (high school, really?).

While working at the Bay Area Crematory, Doughty applies to mortuary school and leaves the Bay Area for Southern California.  Working with the dead, she begins to understand and appreciate the role the funeral business provides.  Although death rituals have often been tied to religious beliefs, she realizes how the American way of “hiding death” within the funeral industry doesn’t allow people an opportunity to grieve.  She encourages people to reclaim the practice of Ars Moriendi  (the art of dying).  She starts a website (The Order of the Good Death) and muses about opening her own crematory in which people could participate in meaningful ways to handle the bodies of loved ones.   

I recommend this memoir. Believe it or not, there are some funny parts in this book.  Furthermore, sooner or later, our bodies will no longer be functioning.  When that happens, things go south quickly (which is why we have funeral rituals: there is a body and something has to be done with it).  Knowing what happens after our lives are over, and making some decisions that reflect our beliefs, may give us comfort and also be comforting to those left behind.  By the way, this is the second book I’ve reviewed in this blog (two out of several hundred) about the funeral industry.  The other, which I also recommend, is Thomas Lynch’s The UndertakingDoughty referred to Lynch’s writing in her book.

As for what happens to us after the grave or retort, check out The Walking Man's musings.  Some interesting thoughts to ponder about our view of the next life.

Monday, May 09, 2016

Separate Pasts

 Melton A. McLaurin, Separate Pasts: Growing Up White in the Segregated South  (Athens, GA:  University of Georgia Press, 1998), 176 pages including 2 photos and one map of the town of Wade.

This was a delightful memoir but a hard read.  McLaurin grew up in the 1950s in town of Wade, North Carolina.  This village was along Old Highway 301 and the Atlantic Coast Line, just northeast of Fayetteville, North Carolina. Things were changing in the South in the 50s and shortly after McLaurin left Wade, cars driving south on 301 bypassed Wade on Interstate 95.  And there were other changes under foot. Starting in the seventh grade, McLaurin began working at his grandfather’s store across from the “Black” elementary school.  McLaurin focuses on his work at the store and his encounters with the African-American community which provided insight into the segregated South on the eve of its demise.   This book opened my eyes as I was born in the next county to the west, a year before McLaurin left Wade for college.  Our experiences of growing up in the South were different, yet in many ways similar.     

                McLaurin’s grandfather was a man respected by many in “The Bottom,” where most of Wade’s African-Americans lived.  He was one who extended credit when needed, especially in the off seasons when there were little work for the men in that community.  He was also able to intervene on their behalf with government bureaucracy.  One story is about a hard working woman named Viny Love who lived alone with her son who had cerebral palsy.  When she was shunned by a county welfare agent, he took it upon himself to get action from the county.  In pondering the event, McLaurin realized that he was okay to risk social censure to help “deserving” blacks.  Yet, even with that he also understood that his grandfather thought of them as human, they were incapable of fending for themselves and ”Irrevocably flawed.” (132)  McLaurin’s family didn’t allow him to use the “N” word, and he realized this was primarily used by lower classed whites; however, he came to learn that just because one didn’t think it was appropriate to belittle those of another race didn’t mean that they were above racism.  As he pointed out, African-Americans didn’t come to his home (except to work and then it was through the back door).  Nor did he go inside one of their homes.  There was one exception to this, when an elderly couple invited him into their kitchen for some pumpkin pie after he’d made a delivery for his grandfather.  By the standards of the African-American community, this couple was well off, but McLaurin was shocked by how little they had.

                Most of this book is about the McLaurin’s memories of interacting with particular individuals from “The Bottom.”  He writes about teenage boys playing basketball together and the disgust he felt when he realized that he had wet a pump needle to inflate the ball after he’d been in the mouth of a black boy.  He tells about the talk of sex, about myths of the men and women of the Black community.  He tells about his talks with “Street,” an African-American man who was considered crazy by both races (he was a Jehovah Witness).  Although McLaurin later realized the shallowness and fallacies of some of Street’s arguments, he did credit Street with forcing him to more deeply question his Presbyterian upbringing.  And he tells about the one older black man, Jerome, who, like McLaurin, was a Yankee fan.  When he’d come into the store, the two of them would discuss baseball.  No one else in the community liked the Yankees, according to McLaurin.  The whites didn’t because their name and because they were just too good through the fifties.  But they weren’t liked by those in the Bottom, either.  They were mostly Dodger fans as they were the first team in the major leagues to integrate.  The Yankees was one of the last teams to integrate when they signed Elston Howard in 1955 (there were three other teams that integrated after the Yankees: Tigers, Phillies, and the Red Sox).

In what had to be one of the more painful stories to write, McLaurin confesses about an incident when he, with a group of other white boys, taunted Sam, an older black man.   In the lead up to the event, the reader realizes how of mob mentality can take over.  This is McLaurin’s confession: 

“There was, I knew, no excuse for my behavior, and with that knowledge came a growing sense of guilt.  It sprang partly from the realization that I had betrayed the family’s expectations, especially Mother’s, that I have violated the basic human dignity that my family acknowledged blacks possessed.  Yet there was another sense of betrayal, deeper and more personal.  I realized that I had hurt Sam, had hurt him deliberated, and worst of all, had hurt him for his race.”  (109)

This memoir was originally published in 1987.  It was reissued in 1998, with a new afterword.  At that time, McLaurin was the chair of the History Department at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington and he reflects back on his adolescent years through the lens of the 100th anniversary of a terrible racial tragedy in Wilmington.  These stories are easy to read, yet difficult because of the subject matter.  McLaurin is not writing as a historian but as a memoirist.  As one who grew up as segregation was waning, I would recommend this book as a glimpse into a world that thankfully has ended even though there is still remnants remaining.   I find it odd that McLaurin now lives (or at least when this book was published) where the old Uncle Henry Kirkum’s Oyster Roast stood at the mouth of Whiskey Creek.  I grew up not far from there and from the fourth to the sixth grade, I sat in Bus #6, an orange over-sized stub-nose bus, as it passed Kirkum’s on the run through Masonboro Loop Road and on to Bradley Creek School.  

Friday, May 06, 2016

A-Z Reflection Post and an update on my leg...

I'm proudly displaying my 2016 A-Z Challenge Survivor badge! 

This winter, when I was spending a fair amount of time stuck in a recliner with a ruptured quad tendon, waiting for and recovering from surgery, and enjoying morphine for the first time in my life, I came across a post about the A-Z Challenge.  I had seen such calls for the challenge in previous years, but this time I thought it time to join the fray.  I decided on a theme of places I’d like to visit and then set out to find exotic places for each letter.  I have always considered myself well-traveled (I’ve been in 47 states, 5 Canadian Providences and 22 countries plus two Danish territories).  But with this challenge, I began to realize just how much more there is to see…  It was fun to dream and to explore such places and then create A-Z posts. 

I set a goal to have each post up by 6 AM (setting them to be published the night before).  I had written five or six posts before the month began which helped me especially during the busy weeks.  I was delighted to read post for a number of new bloggers (at least new to me) and to have a number of new folks comment on my blog.

Will I do this again?  I’m not sure, but maybe.  A future topic could be favorite authors (but do I have name for each letter?), places I’ve been, music, trees, flowers, rivers…  So many possibilities. 

On the home front, the doctor has cleared me for sailing and kayaking!  I’m still not cleared to go back on duty at the volunteer fire department.  I am a little sad, but even if I was just supporting on the outside, he was afraid that climbing up and down on trucks still had too much of a possibility for a fall that might re-injure the tendon.  I am now wearing a much less restrictive brace on my knee and am still in physical therapy.  I can tell that my muscles are strengthening, but there is still a difference between my injured leg and the other one.  I go back to the doctor in a month.  We’ll see what he says then.  Hopefully I will be cleared for most activities, even though I will still be working on gaining my strength in my left leg.  

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Sunday Afternoon Orchids

Sunday afternoon I headed south toward Richmond Hill to the Georgia Coastal Botanical Gardens for their annual orchid show.  I have always thought orchids are beautiful flowers, but don’t really know much about them nor have I been interested enough to learn the various types or how to grow them.  I've also not been to the Botanical Gardens except during their Christmas Light show.  Enjoy the photos and the personal story at the bottom.

Display of a variety of orchid

Orchid displayed 

 Years ago on “Secretary’s Day” (now Personal Assistant day or whatever the political correct term of the week is) I rushed into a florist to get flowers for my secretary.  It was in the afternoon and it looked as if they had a run on flowers.  There were four orchids left.  The three in the front looked as if they had been run over in the run, but in the back was a perfect orchid with a dozen blooms and half dozen bulbs waiting to open.  It was a beautiful flower.  I told the clerk I’d take that one, wrote out a card, paid for it and sent it back to the office while I ran on to another meeting.  My secretary seemed pleased.  A few weeks later, I was by her desk and looked at the flower.  “I wonder when those bulbs are going to open.” I asked.  She looked at me and saw that I was serious and then pointed out that the arrangement was silk.  It was as if someone had stuck a needle in my balloon.  But she graciously thanked me again, saying that she loved the flower for there was no way she could kill it.