Life, in the form of work and household obligations, has reared its hydra-headed distractions once again. Where was I? Oh, yes, matching confused wits with a GPS south of the twin cities, enroute to my one-time employer and to have lunch with an old pal who’s worked there for many years.
I’ll call him KO, so as not to get him confused with K (grade school to college friend now in Lousiville) or P&K (friends in Minneapolis since college). KO was one of the first computer programmers hired by this very large legal publishing corporation, way back when we were recent college grads, and has made them oodles of money. Seriously. I worked for the company in San Francisco for several years and I got a sense for how much of their revenue comes from technical products, and if KO had just negotiated a fraction of the royalties for the income his programming facilitated …
But nevermind all that. He has a nice house, near a lake (okay, Minnesota is lousy with lakes, but still … ) and a mostly healthy family (more on that to come). His company pulls out the stops in the employee cafeteria, the thinking being they want to keep people on site and happy rather than out looking for a meal. So we had linguini and clams in the cafeteria, amidst much laughter. Toward the end, however, he told me about his daughter, who’s come down with a serious albeit not aggressive form of cancer.
She lives in the Pacific Northwest now, attending graduate school, where she pays for health insurance yet her public university attempted to deny her medical care, claiming it was a pre-existing condition.
This kind of stuff just boils my blood. The profit motive and capitalism may be fine for some commodities, but for providing news and health care they’re all too often terrible. So here’s a young lady in her early twenties contending with a life-threatening illness, and a public institution forcing her to jump through hoops to prove she didn’t have the cancer earlier when she attended a different college.
Ever had a sick child? Can you imagine what it would be like to deal with that long distance, and then deal with the red tape involved in getting her basic care?
Fortunately, even though she’d rarely needed to see a doctor, she remembered that she had had a physical while at the University of Wisconsin / Madison. So she was able to retrieve their records and prove that the cancer hadn’t been there before she moved to Oregon. She’s getting medical care, and the prognosis is good.
But was the initial denial of service really the way we want to live? (<rant>As an aside, Dick Nixon had apparently agreed to some form of national health service with Ted Kennedy back in the 70s, but Kennedy felt it didn’t go far enough. He regretted holding out; can you imagine how much better off we’d be had we offered comprehensive medical insurance back then? Basically, Medicare for everyone? It never would have become such an overheated, overhyped issue … </rant>)
It was good to see KO; we said our goodbyes and I got lost and rescued by the GPS, as mentioned earlier, then made it through the backroads of southeastern Minnesota to a rural hillside where my old journalism teacher, Diamond Jim, now lives.
It was good to see the Diamond again, despite the tragedy of M’s untimely death. He was a bit subdued, yet eager to banter as we used to, all those years ago, giving each other grief in many of the comfortable old ways. He has a nice big spread, a wooded hillside and a fine big yard.
We sat out on his deck together, where he had a cooler with some beer and pop in it, and we chatted about various things as we watched the black-capped chickadees, white-breasted nuthatches, and ruby-throated hummingbirds, among other visitors. He told me he rarely gets sparrows, and when he does get them they are American, not the introduced English or house sparrow. The trees and bushes on his hillside are all habitat for native species.
As of old, we sat and “solved the world’s problems”; talking about the recession and the vehemence of the far right. I mentioned kleptocracy to him, and he liked the term – for rule by thieves who enrich themselves through being in power.
He told me that the rising cost of health insurance had concerned them last spring. They had considered dropping coverage, but an agent talked them into down-grading. A month or so later, M had the aneurysm; he alluded to how awful it was; the call for an ambulance, unsure of what was wrong, the wait, and the hospitalization. She had rallied, but the prognosis was never good. He told me she would joke and sing with the nurses, but two weeks later she had the second aneurysm and that was it.
So now he’s alone, although the hospital is prompt with its bills. A couple weeks of care comes to somewhere around a third of a million; had he not agreed to continue his insurance, it would have wiped him out. He’d have lost the house, too. “I’d end up in some little apartment somewhere, can you imagine?” he shuddered.
I had to continue on to see my parents for dinner so we wandered back out to the rental car. His golden retriever joined us, but then jumped into a small kid’s pool he has on one side of the driveway, where she began jumping around. “Check this out,” the Diamond said, and he showed me what she was doing. He’s put some minnows in the kid’s pool. His dog knows they’re in there, and goes fishing, trying to spook them out from the edges. I had to laugh; we kicked the side a few times trying to spook the minnows out – it was the right note to leave on.
I took highway 63 south to Rochester and met my parents; we went out to a very nice restaurant, where I (again) enjoyed the delicate freshwater flavor of walleye pike, this time “Walleye Milanaise.”
After dinner we went out for gelato, and I saw a little of my old hometown, which has changed almost beyond recognition. While downtown Rochester thrives, much of the old architecture is gone, and many of the remaining buildings house have long since changed tenants and even appearance.
People think of Minnesota as homogenously northern European in ancestry, the descendants of Scandinavians, Germans, British emigrants, with a few Italians, Blacks, and eastern Europeans tossed in. It may have been years ago, but I saw more hijabs—the scarves worn by Muslim women—back there then I do on a daily basis in California. Both in Minneapolis and in Rochester, where the Mayo Clinic gets many patients from abroad. Since I lived there, the state has had an influx of both boat people (especially Hmong; the movie Gran Torino was filmed in Detroit but the screenplay written in Minnesota) and east Africans.
Still, there’s something a little incongruous in having gelato with my parents in a downtown mall and sitting next to a woman in a full length burka. Had she or someone in her family visited 30 or 40 years ago, would she have worn the burka? Maybe for the wrong reason, feeling a need to comply with western mores. It’s fine, regardless, yet part of me looks at the extremes of conservative religion, both at home and abroad, and I wonder whether it’s becoming a more or less tolerant world.
The next morning my mother was focused on her to-do list for me: clearing out the attic, emptying out the house. My folk are in a big nest-cleaning phase. She wanted me to go through a lot of books; deciding which ones I wanted.
Years ago they asked us kids what of theirs we wanted, and when I had told them I was interested in the books I had envisioned having lots of shelf space myself some day and going through their books and choosing what I wanted. They’ve accumulated several collections I really like, but I’d also thought of my Dad’s paperbacks from the 50s and 60s, popular fiction and nonfiction both, sort of a time capsule of those times, which ties in to my love of American culture, especially popular culture.
I dug through several shelves, including a lot of old Pogo comics. I made some progress, but it kind of put me in a blue mood. Then it was time for the attic—where I had to poke up through a narrow crawl space and hand stuff back down to my Dad positioned halfway up the closet steps to pass down to my Mom at the closet door. The attic windows have gradually gathered dust so what was once a reasonably light attic (little more than a crawl space, with insulation between the joists) was now dark and gloomy.
Boxes of stuff from college, high school and earlier. About a decade ago I had gone through a lot of it and labeled the boxes for what to ship out to me, and what to leave for me to cull. I went through a bunch of it, but I just got more and more depressed.
I still can’t say why. But it put me in the blackest mood. I could hardly talk. I guess some of it was feeling pressured, but it also had to do with going through all that personal history, too. Report cards, coursework, old notebooks, and the whole while I just spiraled down further and further, and I had no idea why except I knew I had to do this now, before heading to the airport in the afternoon.
The attic had been hot and dusty, and I felt pretty grimy, so I took a shower and really just wanted to pack up, get in the car, and head for the airport. I felt so shut down; why had this bothered me so much? I was practically monosyllabic when they asked me if I wanted a bite of lunch, etc. My dad asked if I was having a nostalgic journey; I could barely answer “sort of.”
My blue mood had gone pretty black. I’m still puzzled by the depth of it; I don’t know why. Was it youth, promise, opportunity lost? I don’t think so, but I really don’t know. A wonderful vacation was sidetracked by their desire to empty out the house as much as possible, in preparation of them having to move out “some day” but their answers as to when that might be were vague. They’re in reasonably good health. I’ve asked them repeatedly, and they have no plans to sell.
When my mom’s aunt, my great-aunt, left the farmhouse where she had lived all her life, she emptied it of everything she had, even burning books rather than giving them away. I had gone up to west central Minnesota and stayed with her a number of times down through the years, so on a trip from California in the early 90s I visited her as she prepared to leave. She told me she didn’t want to give away anything with her name in it. She had a trash barrel out in the yard and she was burning all these paperbacks from the 1940s through the 1980s. I was kind of appalled. “She’s burning books!” I told relatives, who were bemused.
It’s kind of the opposite of being a packrat, I guess. Wanting to get rid of things as soon as they aren’t of use.
I had to talk to myself on the way up to the airport. It’s their house, you knucklehead, you’ve had free storage all these years. While I’d rather have returned deliberately and gone through it all with some leisure to decide what to keep rather a plane to catch, I’d have been in a better place for it, perhaps staying somewhere nearby and just taking my time to go through stuff and figure it out.
Afterward we sat down at the kitchen table and I had a bite of lunch with them, recovering some of my humor, and then hit the road. A big storm was forecast, so it looked like my timing was good. I listened to some of the Twins baseball on the radio, and the drive up to MSP was uneventful.
I didn’t realize how big the gathering storm was.