Póg Mo Thóin

To the left of the Winmau dart board hung a stenciled wooden sign that read, “Póg mo thóin.”

“I wonder what that means,” I said with a tilt of my head and my hitch-hiking thumb pointing toward the sign.

sign

“Right?” Kody said as he aimed his dart. “It sounds nasty.”

We had dropped into a new Irish bar, new for us, where the green twinkle lights on the covered patio drew us in, green velvet bar stools invited us to sit, and a darling bartender with long red hair poured us drinks—a Wild Basin Black Raspberry seltzer in a chilled glass and a Jameson Caskmates IPA neat for me. To our delight, there were nice dart boards in a room on the other side of a partitioned half wall and darts with pointed tips. I emphasize nice and pointed because we have a tendency to play in a place with a terrible board and darts with blunt tips that don’t stick. Like the twinkle lights and green velvet, these were wonderful surprises.

I had been practicing my aim, and our game was tied. It was a matter of shooting two more bullseyes. I already had one, and so did Kody. With my eyes on the board, my ears  overheard a conversation between two guys at the bar, “What’s the longest road trip you’ve ever taken? I mean, not with your parents as a kid, but that you drove yourself.”

I couldn’t hear what the other guy said, but the bartender said, “Probably Austin. I never drive anywhere.” She seemed very young, but now that I’m fifty, so many people do.

I wanted to pipe into this conversation, but I was busy concentrating on my target. Ready. Aim. 5. Ready. Aim. 16. Ready. Aim. 2. Kody said, “I’m telling you, you’re on the spot.” My darts were close, but not close enough.

Kody couldn’t hit his either. His darts fell on the 9, the 14, and the 8. He breathed out with a huff.

“Thanks for giving me another chance,” I said with a smile. My wins against Kody are few and far between.

The first road trip that came to mind was the one I took with my friend Misti back in 2009. She had moved to Sitka, Alaska for a couple of years, and she was moving back to Texas and driving her car, the first stretch for her via ferry. And so I flew to Sacramento and met her to keep her company for the rest of the way home. We stayed in Sonoma Valley that first night, toured Napa, and dined at Bottega, Chef Michael Chiarello’s restaurant, where I had my favorite meal of the trip—Tortino Rustico Southern Italian ratatouille in a mascarpone pastry shell, fresh goats’ cheese, heirloom tomato sauce and arugula salad. I hate to be one of those people snapping photos in fancy restaurants, but I don’t regret keeping the memory.

My Bottega Dinner

I threw my darts again—6, triple 12, 10. By the way, if you don’t play darts, I hit the twelve on the small red strip on the inner circle, which means absolutely nothing. Triples on 15-20 is exactly what you want, but I had closed those numbers.

From wine country we spent a couple of days in San Francisco, drove down Lombard Street, toured in a double decker bus, walked on the Golden Gate Bridge, ate at Fisherman’s Wharf, caught a performance of Wicked, and ate pizza in a parlor alongside the famous San Francisco twins. From San Francisco, Misti and I traded off driving first down Pacific Coast Highway One and then east toward Las Vegas. And you know what they say about Vegas—what happens there, stays there.

Pacific Coast Highway One

Kody had another opportunity to beat me, and as he threw 20, 17, and 16, I heard the guy who proposed the road trip question mention his travels between Houston and Odessa. “It’s a good ten hour drive, but I just take my pee bottle.”

“Did he just say pee bottle?” I said to Kody in a voice quiet enough that no one else could hear. “Who needs a pee bottle? Just stop the damn car.”

Kody said, “I don’t need that much time. I’m already driving 110.” 

There was a note of truth behind his joke, and suddenly his driving seemed better than traveling with a bottle of pee. No offense if you happen to use a pee bottle, just not my style, and I laughed and shook my head.

From Vegas, Misti and I drove southeast a bit before hitting the Historic Route 66, stopping for restrooms and gas along the way, and after an overnight respite somewhere in Arizona, we sped on toward Santa Fe where we spent another night at a nice resort and celebrated with massages in teepees. Misti planned every last detail, and I’m the friend who says, “Okay!” I’m not sure who was Thelma and who was Louise. Brad Pitt may or may not have shown up along the way. But instead of running away and driving off a cliff, we drove right into Dallas back to our jobs and the reality of our lives. No one was hurt in the making of our escapade. Well, Misti might have been, but that’s her story to tell. Anyway, that is how you road trip with one of your besties.

I held the dart with three fingers, my index and my thumb with my middle finger to steady it. I stared straight in the center of the bull. I threw. I missed. I refocused. I threw my second dart. “Kody?” I said, pointing.

“Is that it?” he said, and he walked forward for a closer look at my dart in the red center of the board, worth a double bullseye.

“Didn’t you have an opportunity to take some points on me?” I said, rubbing it in just a little bit.

“You really gonna say that? I’ll be taking my points next time. Another game? I’m bringing the pain.” He was totally jesting.

“Well, game on.” I said with feigned bravado. “Game. On.”

“My Name Is Human” played in the background. This was Kody’s playlist. To think that jukeboxes can be controlled through the touch of a phone. Anyway, I had a friend tell me that he always liked my playlists. So Tim, this is for you—a random sampling of our Wednesday evening songs, old and new, from the jukebox to the car radio to videos on our TV in the living room.  And for those of you who don’t celebrate Valentine’s Day—try, “Póg mo thóin.”  St. Patrick’s Day is just around the corner.

 

Actinomycosis

It was two days before Christmas, and I had a sore throat. It seemed to be like my usual once-a-year sore throat that ran the course of a cold, coughing and nose blowing and a plethora of Kleenex consumption, and by the end of the week, I felt somewhat better. “But suddenly … This ‘but suddenly’ occurs often in stories. The authors are right: life is so full of the unexpected!” 1 But suddenly, the sore throat returned fiercer than before, and the infection—possibly via osmosis, I’m no doctor—attacked my gums, abnormally swollen and the deepest of reds, behind my lower molars.

But it was the holidays. First my birthday on the 30th. Then New Year’s Eve. Then New Year’s Day. So I suffered through the pain and opted for celebratory spirits. I can’t remember the last time I had gone to a general practitioner. I’m normally the picture of health, but I had plans to be out of town for a week beginning January 5th, and I didn’t have time to be ill. So on January 2nd, I set out to find a doctor. Mistakenly I went to a strip-mall Emergency Care center affiliated with a well-known hospital here in Houston. I thought this facility was like the Urgent Care near my house back in Plano. But no, I might as well have gone to the emergency room. They gave me a steroid shot, tested me for flu and strep, which by the way came back negative, and sent me home with an antibiotic and some Tylenol 3, and $5100 hundred later, I was on the mend, or so I thought. (Thankfully I have insurance and didn’t have to pay in full, but what the hell is wrong with our medical system?)

Over the course of the next week, my sore throat felt better, but my gums. Good Lord, my gums! I returned home on January 11th, the spring semester began on January 13th, so I just sort of curled up in my pajamas on the couch for the next few days and did my homework and submitted on line without leaving the house, and finally on January 16th I decided I must return to the doctor. Except this time, I knew I couldn’t go to the ER, so I set about finding a doctor on my insurance and finally had an appointment late that Thursday afternoon.

The doctor was young, like just out of med school, and with one look in my mouth, she said, “Are your gums normally like that?”

I sat on the examination table, my legs dangling, and shook my head “Um, no, that’s why I’m here,” I said. I had already gone through my recent history of sore throat and antibiotics. Yada. Yada.

“It’s like you have two pillars at the back of your mouth. That’s so weird. Does it hurt?”

“Well, it’s not comfortable.” I paused, keeping my snide comments in check. “They swell when I eat, and I’m popping quite a few Advil.”

“I think it might be gingivitis,” she said. “You need to go see your dentist.”

Now, I’m no dentist, but I knew without a doubt, the issue inside my mouth was NOT gingivitis. Gingivitis does not transform healthy gums into swollen mouth pillars. But with the office visit concluded and no co-pay since having already met my deductible for the year, I walked out the door and to my car in the lot, where I sat and dialed my dentist. Come to find out, my dentist takes off at two o’clock on Thursdays, the current time was past four, and he takes off Fridays. So I left a message with his answering service to return my call on Monday.

On Monday, January 20th, I made an appointment for Tuesday, the 21st. Approximately, one month from when the whole ordeal began, I would be getting some help, and I had great faith in my dentist. I just thought since it all started with a sore throat that I should see a medical doctor.

At my Tuesday appointment, the dental hygienist took X-rays and with one look inside my mouth she said, “I’ve never seen anything like this before. I will be really interested to hear what Dr. H. has to say.”

Flash forward a few moments—Dr. H. examined my X-rays and my gums. “Crystal,” he said, looking me square in the eyes. “You have cysts in the back of your mouth. I don’t think it’s any cause for concern, but I want you to be pro-active. I’m referring you to an oral surgeon, and we’ll send these X-rays over so that he can see what’s going on.” He handed me the card of the oral surgeon. “Thanks for coming to see me,” he said.

Once more, I had no co-pay. Once more, I walked out the door and to my car in the lot, where I sat and dialed my phone, this time the office of the surgeon. Monday, January 27th was the date of my next appointment.

Again there were X-rays, and then I saw the doctor. “Wow!” he said.

I couldn’t help shaking my head. Doctors say the craziest things. I looked in his eyes searching for the answer to the question—What does wow mean? I didn’t say it. I just looked at him with expectation for more information.

“I’m going to send you back for a CT scan,” he said. “The fee is $150, and your insurance won’t cover, but it’s necessary. Once I see the results, we’ll talk again and go from there.”

I nodded my okay, and the dental assistant ushered me into another room with a CT machine, where I stood stone still with my face in a contraption while technology circled my head, shooting more 3-D images. Afterwards, I returned to the examination room to wait with my feet propped up in the dental chair.

The results were there instantly, and once the doctor took a look, he returned to see me within moments. “The results are consistent with what you told me about your sore throat,” he said.

“Do you mind if I take notes on my phone?” I had the feeling I would be hearing some technical news.

“No problem.” He paused. “The infection from your throat has made its way into your gums and jaw bone.” He kept his eyes on mine, me looking up occasionally from my phone keyboard. “The bone doesn’t look normal. I want you to see the X-ray.” He pointed to the image on the wall and the areas of bone loss. “The infection is causing this bone erosion on both sides. See, this image should be smooth all the way around like this.” His finger circled back to the areas of healthy bone. “Your gums on both sides are really red, and the infection could be fungal, bacterial, viral, or all three. We won’t know exactly until we get in there, but we need to go in and clean out the dead bone and the infection and take cultures to see if we are dealing with anything else.”

The doctor gave me an official diagnosis that I asked him to spell, and he wrote it down and handed it to me instead: Actinomycosis.

And if you want to be grossed out, Google it. And if you care to pray for me, I’m headed into oral surgery at 7:30 on January 28. Oh, and thank you for bearing with me here to the end. Oh, and thank you for those prayers if you are that person.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

1 I borrowed the “But suddenly” line from last week’s studies: “The Death of a Clerk,” Selected Stories of Anton Chekhov, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.

Wild Improbability Continues

“I’m working on my memoir,” I typed on my laptop and scoffed, an audible huff through my nose. I feel like a fraud to say it—still I plan to persist. During the summer of 2011, I attended a two week summer writing institute through Plano Independent School District, where I taught sophomore English at the time. I wrote a piece about my son Drew’s paranoid schizophrenia diagnosis and how that came about during his first psychiatric hospitalization. This episode begins the story I must write.

I attended this same professional development opportunity nine years earlier in 2002. At the time I was a novice seventh grade English teacher and hardly a writer, but the course required a final written piece to be shared with our class on the last day. In all truthfulness I lacked the vulnerability to share anything real and the creativity to write believable fiction, so I wrote about writer’s block. Isn’t that ridiculous? Looking back, I would give anything to have written a slice of life involving Drew and Lauren. They were twelve and ten at the time, a cellist and a soccer player. But no, I wrote about writer’s block. In my defense, my piece was connected to my teaching and learning empathy for my students who struggled with their words on the page. And this course transformed my approach to classroom writing assignments—more mentor texts as models, more creative opportunities, more choices, and portfolios to track progress.

By 2013 I landed an opportunity to launch a Creative Writing elective class at my high school. While developing lesson plans, I adopted the philosophy that writers must be readers (and we took time for that) and that writers must write—every day. I remember feeling like a hypocrite, not unlike now, and forcing myself to write—(almost) every day, journaling bits of dialogue and scenes, keeping notes in my phone for later, and writing each assignment alongside my student authors. I’ve taught some truly gifted kids over the years, and my efforts often paled in comparison. Still I persisted. I started my memoir in secrecy during class and in my spare time and as inspiration struck. At some point, I knew I had a story to tell although the words written in 2013 remain really rough. Tell it I did, much more than showing. At the moment I have 53,834 words, single spaced in an 11 point font, on 101 pages, but as Anne Lamott would say, “It’s a shitty first draft.”

In the summer 2016, a job transfer for my husband brought us south from Dallas to Houston, I lost my beloved Creative Writing class and the convenience of good friends nearby, and I discovered a void. I didn’t write much for a while, instead drinking copious amounts of alcohol to fill the growing hole. Fast forward to August of 2017, Harvey, the hurricane, flooded my family out of our house and into a pet-friendly La Quinta for the next ten months. Not only had I saved my laptop, but my laptop saved me. I typed the story of our evacuation and sent my words for the first time into the blogosphere. I typed other stories, too, and again and again, I tapped the blue button in the upper right corner, the one that says Publish. Seventy-nine posts later, I see growth, and this growth encourages me to return to those shitty first drafts.

And in 2020, at age 50, I went back to school for a graduate program in Creative Writing, and my professor wanted to know what I plan to work on this semester and why. So this is it. “I’m working on my memoir.” And still, I shake my head and laugh.

The struggle is real.

It’s a New Dawn

One day this past summer I found myself alone with my thoughts in Galveston. From my beach chair near the shore, I soaked in the sun to the crashing cadence of the surf until I couldn’t take the heat. I stood up and walked into the waist-deep waves and said, “Take me down, Motherfuckers! You can’t fucking do it.” And I laughed out loud in the face of wave upon wave and walked in a little deeper.

It’s a new dawn.

Galveston saved me, and this week I return. This week’s writing retreat begins my new MFA program at a beach house nearby. Each morning through the sliding glass door of my condo bedroom—the golden orb rests for a moment on a blanket of orange and yellow and then rises into the blue. The waves advance on a new day and a new life. Each new dawn reaffirms my decision to be here. Each new chance to begin again—a gift.

It’s a new day.

I have a story to tell, and I have to tell it. For so many years, I thought the story was about my son Drew and his severe mental illness. I realize now it’s a story about me. It’s about my reactions and my coming to terms and what I’ve learned and how. It’s about my reality and my hope. It’s about sharing to help others and letting people know they are not alone.

It’s a new life.

So now I face the waves that crash into me. I stand my ground and let them hit, and I laugh out loud because I’m still standing tall with a smile on my face and a “fuck you” for anything that tries to take me down.

And I’m feeling good.

Seven Beliefs for Seven Decades

On an icy Oklahoma day fifty Decembers ago, I surprised my parents with my missing malehood. No one had seemed to consider that I might be a girl, and I would be named David like my dad with no contingency for a daughter. Following my birth and my mother’s subsequent emergency hysterectomy, the hospital window—obscured with crystals of glistening snow and a valance of shimmering icicles—captivated and inspired my parents. I would be the Crystal that melted their hearts.

I suppose I’ve been more reflective as I wind down my forty-ninth year. I was born December 30, 1969. Hard to believe that my time on this spinning blue ball spans seven different decades—the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s, ‘00s, ‘10s, now into the ‘20s. Fifty years later, I ponder how many more? I consider my friends who have leveled up to the big five-oh before me with varying levels of acceptance. I remember my friends and their significant others who have passed on too young and too soon.

As for me, I still feel the same as that little girl who had a little curl right in the middle of her forehead. Do you know her? When she was good, she was very, very good, and when she was bad, she was horrid. The baby of my family AKA the baby princess. Spoiled. Pouty. Ornery—disguised as sweet and shy.

I still feel like that teenager I once was and the twenty-, the thirty-, the forty-something, just with more experience, more compassion, and a little more fat.

What’s not to like about another year of life? A new decade? A brand new era? So many bucket list items, so many things to do, people to see, places to go, and the blue ball spins on.

At fifty years, nothing surprises me anymore. Truth is stranger than fiction. I’ve learned you can’t predict the future or plan for everything, not without disappointments anyway. Life delivers cruel and unexpected blows, mistakes and heartbreaks and devastating losses with love and joy in the midst. Life delivers inevitable bad and sad—illness, death, and natural disasters with something good in every day. There might be someone living with you and unable to care for himself, someone who hears voices in his head and screams at them, someone who slams doors in your house and causes your dogs to run and hide. There will always be people who don’t meet your expectations, people who don’t do things the same way you would, and so many situations outside of your control. Necessary changes don’t come quick or easy. Some need professional help.

At fifty years, I’ve learned to focus on the good, on the love, on the joy. This focus doesn’t make the bad and sad go away, it just makes the bad and sad tolerable. I notice my sad and frustrated, hateful and angry thoughts spawn more of the same. And I notice that happy thoughts do, too. Beside me now, I have two little black dogs with waggity tails and so much love in their deep brown eyes. These are a few of my favorite things. *Cue Julie Andrews. You know what else I love? Deep thoughts…

Seven Beliefs for Seven Decades:

The ‘60s: “And though she be but little, she is fierce” (William Shakespeare).

The ‘70s: “Do the best you can. Then when you know better, do better” (Maya Angelou).

The ‘80s: “Crystal, you can choose your attitude” (Dad).

The ‘90s: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget the way you made them feel” (Maya Angelou).

The ‘00s: “Above all, love each other deeply because love covers over a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8).

The ‘10s: “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear, but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind”  (2 Timothy 1:7).

The ‘20s: “Stock your mind. It is your house of treasure and no one in the world can interfere with it” (Frank McCourt).

Numbers are just numbers, and who knows when your number is up? And so I try—to live life with an abundance of love and adventure and joy. Carpe Diem, as they say, and Happy Birthday to me! I feel privileged and blessed, thankful and hopeful, and just really happy to be here.

iCANFLY

When I stepped into the wind tunnel from the safety of the doorway, I had only two things on my mind: Carpe Diem and survival.* I said a little prayer with faith and gratitude for peace and hope. At home on my laptop, I had skimmed a release of liability and waiver of legal rights and acknowledged that indoor skydiving can be HAZARDOUS AND INVOLVES THE RISK OF PHYSICAL INJURY/DEATH and signed the electronic copy. Then I hopped in my car and drove to Austin for some girl time and a sleepover with two of my elementary school besties.

Pamela, Denise, and I arrived at the iFly in leggings, t-shirts, and tennis shoes before receiving our flight suits, ear plugs, and helmets. During the safety debrief with our instructor Drew, we learned the basics of maintaining a stable flight position, sort of like assuming the airport security position, hands above your head, elbows bent, except with fingers spread strong, feet further than shoulder width, and pelvis forward with a slight arch to the back and a bend in the knee. Drew said, “Tilt your hands to the right to fly right,” while demonstrating with his hands. “Left to fly left.” He tilted his head back, “Chin up to fly up,” and then dropped his head toward his chest, “chin down to fly down.” He straightened his arms to Superman position and said, “Extend your arms to fly forward.” I forget what he said about flying backward, but it didn’t really matter. I was ready.

Denise, my friend since age 5, Pamela, my friend since 5th grade, and me.

I stepped up to the doorway and gently leaned into the wind. There was no jumping or falling. Just a sense of peace, floating in the air with an instructor by my side and a second instructor observing, coaching, and manning the camera from outside the wind tunnel. I never once feared for my life. None of us crashed into the wall or fell to our doom. Once back on solid ground, Drew gave me a high five and an enthusiastic, “You’ve never done this before? You were amazing!”

And I felt amazing. Little kids were suited up and waiting to fly after the three of us, and I thought to myself, Sometimes you need childlike faith.

Even before iFly, Pamela and Denise concocted a 50th birthday plan to actually jump out of an airplane with a parachute. Skydiving wasn’t exactly on my bucket list…

Until now…

Now I might just join them, and maybe one day I’ll finish this one…

When I stepped into the clear blue sky from the safety of the airplane, I had only two things on my mind: Carpe Diem and survival…*

*This post inspired by S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, “When I stepped into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home.”