Friday, December 14, 2018

The Tire and I


Back in the mists of our early marriage, my husband showed me how to check the air pressure in the car tires. But those were the halcyon days of full-service gas stations, when the attendant always asked “check your tires, ma’am?” I would answer yes, and he would crawl around the car doing whatever was needed while I sat drumming my fingers on the steering wheel and looking off into space.
  
Now, a half century later, the chickens of my cavalier attitude towards tire maintenance have come to roost. Twice in the last six months, while I was far from home, the tire warning light gave me a fright by coming on.

The first time was during an episode of “wintry mix,” when the sky was simultaneously spewing rain, snow, and those annoying Styrofoam-like ice pellets. I was wearing a down vest instead of a parka and shoes instead of boots—I had expected to stay in the car, after all—and when I pulled into a filling station I had to tromp through a mountain of gritty snow that the plow had piled in front of the air pump.

I connected the air pump hose into my tire, got some quarters, waded into the snow bank, fed the machine, returned to the tire—and nothing happened. I offered the machine more quarters, hoping that my generosity would persuade it to disgorge some air, with no success. As a layer of wintry mix hardened on my glasses, I went into the station and asked for help.

“I’m sorry, the machine is out of order,” the attendant said.
“Do you know where I could find one that works?”
“Nah, not around here…”

Shivering, I got back in the car, dried my glasses, and drove home with bated breath, the tire light flashing reproachfully all the way. While I recovered with a glass of wine by the fireplace, my husband quickly inflated the tire with his portable air pump.

The next time the tire light came on was a sweltering July day. I was driving through the adorable Vermont countryside, replete with cows and barns, meadows and ponds. I stopped at a country store and was told that the nearest station was 30 miles away, but when I got there, there was no air pump. After more miles of hills, woods and farms I found a station with an air pump, which was out of order.

Sweating from every pore, holding my breath lest the tire go completely flat, I traveled on and at last found a station with a working pump. But by then I was so frazzled and dehydrated that all I could do was throw myself at the mercy of the cash register guy, who kindly inflated my tire while I sipped some Gatorade.

It took a while—about five months --to gear myself up for it, but yesterday I announced to my husband that I was going into the garage to check the tires, and would he stick around in case I needed help.

It was 20F outside and barely warmer in the garage, but I figured that this would be good practice for me, since the tire light liked to come on in extreme weather.

I found the air pump, plugged it into the cigarette lighter socket, and approached tire #1. I have a lifelong aversion to getting my hands dirty, and I wear gloves to dust a book or wash a dish, but this job would require fine manipulation, so gloves were out of the question. Trying to keep from touching any dirt, I unscrewed the inflation nozzle cap with my fingertips. This required me to kneel on the unpristine floor, but I reminded myself that in a real situation, i.e., by the side of the highway, conditions would be far worse.

“O.k.,” my husband said, “now screw the air hose connector onto the nozzle.”
I had to bend my arm at a weird angle to do this, and no matter how hard I tried the hose connector refused to connect with the nozzle. By now my fingers were red and stiff with cold, and smudged with grease.

Suddenly, a hiss as from a thousand cobras came out of the tire. “Quick! You’re losing air! Keep turning the screw!” my instructor said. But my frozen fingers could barely function, and the hiss was making it hard for me to concentrate.

Somehow the hiss stopped, and I checked the pressure gauge: 32 psi—just right.
But as I began to unscrew the hose connector, the hiss started up again. “You’ve probably lost too much air. Check the pressure again,” he instructed. I did: 31psi. “You’ll have to reinflate,” he said.

I rescrewed the connector onto the nozzle until the hiss went away. I pressed the On button on the pump and held on as it blasted air into the tire. I checked the pressure: 33 psi. I’d have to let some air out again, take another reading, reinflate….

What circle of hell, I wondered, was I stuck in? Would there ever be an end to this? Would my frozen fingers bend again? I didn’t remember the station attendants of yore having all this trouble.



Somehow, I got tire #1 done. I had to grab the door handle to stand up (my knees were frozen too). I brushed the dirt off my pants, hobbled over to tire #2, and genuflected. Some neighbors walking by saw me struggling with the air pump while my husband stood by with his hands in his pockets, and quickly averted their eyes.

Contrary to my expectations, tire #2 was no easier than #1, and neither was #3 or #4. Practice was not making perfect here. At one point there was an episode of cross-threading that I don’t want to even think about.

“I think that’s good enough,” my husband finally said of my work on #4. He helped me up and led me into the house.

“This is ridiculous!” I exclaimed, scrubbing my hands at the kitchen sink and slathering lotion on them. “Am I going to have to go through this every time I check the tire pressure? It’s too damn hard! There’s got to be a better way.”

“Uber?” said my husband.

But I will not capitulate. Research shows that it takes on average ten thousand hours to master a skill such as playing the violin. Assuming tire inflation to be only 50% as difficult, that means I’ll have to spend five thousand hours crawling around on the garage floor, screwing connectors and reading psis before I get it right.

Even so, I have no illusion that I’ll ever approximate the easy grace of those gas station guys of yore who so sweetly used to ask, “Check your tires, ma’am?”



Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Critters in my Bed


On my grandparents’ farm, a chick hatched with a twisted leg.  “Wring its neck, or the others will peck it to death,” my grandfather advised. But my grandmother had other ideas.

She lined a shoe box with hay, punched holes in the lid, and put the chick inside. She set the box in a brown wicker basket, along with twelve eggs individually wrapped in newspaper, a slab of fatback from last year’s pig to flavor my mother’s white beans, and a cabbage from the garden.

My uncle got on his bike and rushed to the recader, the messenger who got on the train and delivered my grandmother’s weekly baskets to us in Barcelona, where I was recovering from measles.

That evening the chick was on my bed, pecking at breadcrumbs.

I spent a good part of my childhood in bed, with colds and fevers and sore throats. I would pass the hours by imagining faces in the cracks in the ceiling and making mountains and valleys with my legs under the covers. Sometimes, nearly mad with boredom, I crawled under the sheets, all the way down to the foot of the bed, and stayed there until lack of air pushed me gasping back to the top.

My grandmother’s chick changed all that. Cheeping and hobbling on the sheet, flapping his stubby wings, he kept me company. Together we listened to the clanging of the streetcars outside and the singing of the maids as they washed the dishes in the neighboring apartments. Together we waited for the stories that my mother and my aunts took turns reading to us.



When, decades later, I was diagnosed with CFS, another, much longer era of bed rest began. But there is no real rest in this condition--just a malaise of mind and body, like the onset of a flu that never goes away, and an inability to relax or get comfortable, while the mind treads obsessively on the same well-worn track: This can’t go on! What can I do to get better? What if I never get better?

During what I call my horizontal days, there is little that other humans, no matter how loving, can do for me, since the energy to talk or even listen is more than I can muster. But I am never lonely. A long roster of critters, the successors of my grandmother’s lame chick, have kept me company through the worst of the illness.

On my bed these days you will find little red Bisou, a Cavalier, and Telemann, a gray cat. They love it that my CFS keeps me mostly at home. Best of all, for them, are the days when, after breakfast, I have to go back to bed and stay there. “Yay!” they say to each other as they rush past me into the bedroom, “she’s going back to bed!”

I lie on my back and Bisou reclines against my left leg. Telemann sits on my chest, purring and kneading, his white toes spread wide. Then he touches my nose with his, blinks three times and falls asleep.
                                                                    
So do I, if I am lucky. Otherwise, I close my eyes and try to remember Buddhist precepts (“pain is inevitable, suffering is optional”) but they bring me little comfort. Instead, I place my left hand on the dog, my right on the cat. Bisou’s long, flat coat feels like satin; Telemann’s short, thick fur feels like velvet. Their ribs rise and fall under my fingers, and gradually my own breathing slows down. We doze in a pile like an ill-assorted litter, and I can feel the oxytocin lapping at my tissues.

My spouse looks in. “Won’t you rest better if I get the animals out of here and close the door?” he asks.

“No! Please leave them. We’re fine,” I assure him. I can’t imagine anything more depressing than me alone in the room, obsessing about things left undone that I may never get done (what will my friends think if I cancel X? Will my loved ones stop loving me if I don’t do Y?) It would be like going back to my pre-chick days.

What impelled my grandmother to send me that bird? She belonged to a farm culture in which all animals, wild and domestic, were kept strictly outdoors. The hunting dog was chained in the yard, and the semi-feral cats that emerged from the hayloft only to beg for bread crusts never knew the touch of a human hand. A chicken in bed with a sick child! What could be more unsanitary, dangerous, disgusting? But fortunately for me, my grandmother listened to the instinct that told her that the lame chick would do me more good than any drug.

When the afternoon light begins to fade Bisou checks her inner watch: is it dinner time yet? Telemann yawns, executes a perfect down-face dog, and jumps off the bed. I throw a parka over my pajamas and take Bisou outside. Indoors, Telemann leaps miaowing from windowsill to windowsill, urging her to hurry up. 

After dinner, they both get the zoomies. Telemann hides behind the sofa and leaps on Bisou as she trots by. She turns and chases him under the bed. He dashes out and bats at her wagging tail. When he starts to lose interest, she paws at him to get going again.

We make a good team, the dog, the cat, and I. Together we have lived through another day without giving in to despair. I haven’t done the laundry, played the recorder, written a single line, or washed my hair, and there is no guarantee that I’ll be able to do these things tomorrow. But B and T, now stretched out before the fireplace and blissfully digesting their meal, aren’t thinking about tomorrow, and perhaps neither should I.