Midwestern Robot

I hope you have the best day ever

Home after two weeks away. After we unpacked the car and walked Nola, Dave said, “The last time we came home from a trip, we thought we’d see John in the morning.” Instead, we’d gotten a text from Gale about his stroke, and never saw him again.

Things I want to remember before another trip goes by: How kind John was. How good at evading pointed questions. How he brought us Red Vines and Snickers bars before every road trip, and sometimes for no reason at all.

How each morning, when he stopped by with Bud, he’d tell what he and Gale were up to that day—grocery shopping on their bikes, or taking a day trip to Valparaiso, or painting a table.

How just after we moved in, he gave us an ornate birdhouse he’d rescued from the alley.

How he knew the history of each house in the neighborhood and had a wry name for almost everything. “Missing Pines” for a certain house where they’d been chopped down. “Bubble” for a dog bath.

I want to remember his morning visits, though sometimes I complained about them. They occurred anywhere between seven and ten, and the unpredictability messed with me. In the days before Covid, a visit was signaled with John’s trademark whistle, though masks put a stop to that. Nola would find me in the middle of yoga or about to go into the bathroom or trying to journal, and whine until I went down to let her out. If the weather was cold, I’d also need to find a coat and boots, all of it, and in a bad temper if I was in the middle of something.

And then as soon as I stepped outside, my mood instantly lightened. “I hope you’re having the best day ever,” John would call, as Bud barrelled up the stairs to say hi.

John had treats and praise for Nola no matter how she behaved. “She’s the best dog in the manor,” he would say as she demanded biscuit after biscuit, and “She’s a little angel,” when she barked at passing dogs.

Dogs Nola and Bud romping in the grass.
Best mornings ever.

This summer, I moved a writing desk to the back porch, so I’d be right there when John and Bud arrived. By then, he was already weak with the illness that eventually took him. I realized his morning whistle would likely never return, and knew enough to treasure the mornings I had left.

No big life lessons. No personality clashes that left me ego-bruised but ultimately wiser. Just five or ten minutes, almost every day, of off-hand comments about nothing in particular. “Your lawn is looking great.” “Saw Bette Rosenstein at Galter this morning.” “Thinking about giving Bud a bubble.”

His parting message was always the same. “Hope you have the best day ever.” If we saw him later in the neighborhood, he’d say it again. “I hope you’re having the best day.” He said it so often, and to everyone he saw, that I think it’s what he would want us to remember most.

Unmasking wonder

After COVID, one thing I have to relearn is how not to walk around with my mouth open. Behind my mask, my jaw hangs like I’m constantly amazed, even if all I’m doing is choosing a pasta sauce. 

In the early days, when I noticed I was doing this, I’d shut my mouth. Images of hollow-eyed old men at the care home terrified me. I didn’t want to look like one of them, shuffling toward a visitor with a gaping jaw and a urine smell. But then I’d remember I was safe behind my mask.

Out in front of UPS yesterday, a man stepped right into my personal space to open the door. “I’m in line,” I said.

He snapped back, “I’m going to the mailboxes, so don’t even.”

I would have been totally justified in snapping back, I didn’t know that. But it’s hard to snap when your mouth is hanging open. A customer left while he was in there, so I was about to move to the inside line when the man came back out. “You’re also blocking the door,” he added.

I’m following the rules, I could have defended myself. I’m six feet back from the next person. “Thanks for letting me know,” I said instead. “Have a great weekend!”

He scoffed and pushed past me. The person in front of me commented, “Some people.”

She hadn’t heard my earlier snippy comment, but still, it made me feel better. Behind my mask, I marveled at the man’s insistence on correcting me, the other customer’s kind defense, and a new customer approaching with two huge bags of packages. How do people prepare like that? This was my second shipping trip in three days.

I will learn to keep my mouth closed again, but I’ll miss the privacy of my mask. It reminds me of the yoga lesson about how turning up the corners of your mouth can change your state of mind. Cultivating a half-smile can actually cause happiness. What if all these open mouths are teaching us wonder?

Read about a family, learn about an era

The Black Calhouns: From Civil War to Civil Rights with One African American Family by Gail Lumet Buckley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This detailed and long-ranging history of an extraordinary family is, at least for me, the best way to read history — through the perceptive eye of a uniquely-placed narrator. Buckley weaves social and family history into a journey as suspenseful as a novel, but grounded in hard truths. Seeing how individual members of the Calhoun family navigated the Jim Crow laws in the South and more subtle forms of racism in the North, and how their descendants initiated change and activism during the 1950s and 60s, was sobering and awe-inspiring.

I found this book because I was curious about Lena Horne, but this was a much richer read than a biography. Or, maybe, it’s the way I wish more biographies were written, with close attention to multiple relationships, in the context of which certain portraits of individuals stand out.

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Check out the life of UP copper miners in 1913

book cover

The Women of the Copper Country by Mary Doria Russell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Fascinating glimpse into a little-known — at least to me — part of labor history, and Michigan history, and American history. If you’re a fan of Elizabeth Gaskell, this fictional riff on a 1913 miners’ strike in the UP will be right up your alley. They even mention Mary Barton at one point. In a similar way, this brings the struggles and triumphs of working people, and the incredibly unjust machinations of the moneyed and connected into sharp and personal focus.

It’s written in present tense, which at first distanced me. I felt a sense of cynicism and fatalism or something that almost turned me off…but I kept coming back to it, to read a few pages more, and a few pages more… and then the style paid off hugely. I felt inside of a complex and somehow even-handed narrative that was exactly right for the story and the characters. It left me wanting to learn more about the actual history and also read more of this writer.



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