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Friday, May 31, 2013

Mike

I think that one of the numerous benefits of being raised by a woman who was fifty-three years older than me is that I am easily able to make friends in all age groups. I was often referred to in my youth as being wise beyond my years while at the same time being unafraid to act like a total goob in front of little kids. Aside from the obvious plus of being comfortable with people of all age groups, one great thing about this is that I have been able to develop great relationships with my friends and their parents, or even their children. One of the things that seems to strengthen my relationships with my friends' kids is that I don't let them get away with, for lack of a better way of putting it, any kind of crap. If you ask my friend Marie's son Nathaniel, he will tell you that this is true. He knows I love him, but he remembers me getting mad enough at him a few times to offer to break the part of his anatomy that already contained a vertical crack. Not that I have ever raised a hand to another person in anger. He knows that, I'm sure. I am not proud of making such a base threat. But it did catch his attention, and make him realize that the other things I said to him were sincere.

Among the many relatives of friends whom I've grown to love, a very special one was my friend's son Mike. I am sure that you have already noticed the past tense in the last sentence; Mike's life came to an end this April, just two months shy of his thirtieth birthday. I liked Mike the first moment I laid eyes on him. Even though I knew he had experienced what some people might consider a checkered past, I had no fear or nervousness about meeting him. After all, I dearly love his mother and his extended family. One of the first things I noticed about Mike was his gentle, sad eyes, followed by his warm, wide smile. "I'm really going to like this kid," I thought. I was wrong. I didn't just like him, I quickly grew to love him.

My friend adopted Mike when he was three months old. Even at that young age, he seemed to know that Julie was his mother. When she picked him up, he put his little arm around her neck. He was going home with his new mom and dad. Mike had the sort of trusting nature that is not a sign of naivety, but rather a pure and gentle heart. When combined with possible genetic tendencies toward emotional health problems and addictive behavior, it left him open to being manipulated by others and sometimes getting into trouble. Since it was not in his nature to willfully manipulate or hurt others, he was unable to recognize this tendency in others. Mike loved his family fiercely, and regretted anything he had ever done to hurt his mother. He missed his father, who had passed away long before I met any of his family.

Mike also loved and was loved by all kinds of animals. Kids thought he was the greatest person ever. He loved fishing, eating at one of the local buffet restaurants, pumpkin pie, and tattoos. On the day that I met him while on a trip to see Julie, we went to a restaurant that had cafeteria-style service. I saw a piece of chocolate cream pie on his tray and I remember thinking I wished I had gotten some too. Toward the end of the meal, someone mentioned the pie. Mike's face went from joyful to sad in seconds. "What? I thought it was pumpkin pie!" I knew right then I had to have Julie take me to the supermarket to buy him a pumpkin pie before I went back home.

A few days later, I asked Julie if I could cook Sunday dinner for her kids. They had conflicting schedules, so we ended up eating two Sunday dinners, but that was okay. While I was talking to Mike, he pushed up his sleeve to scratch his shoulder and I saw a tattoo on his upper arm of Dr. Hannibal Lecter from The Silence of the Lambs. I loved it. I think that is when Mike realized that I could easily be his friend, especially when he began to tell me a story about his tattoo. When it was new, he went on his break at work and put some lotion on it. "This girl I work with was right there and she said, it rubs..." "The lotion on it's skin," I interrupted, "It does this whenever it is told." It was obvious that I scored a few points that day!

A few days after Mike's funeral, I heard from his uncle, my friend Thayne, about a memory that Julie had shared about her son. He absolutely loved a chain of buffet-style restaurants in the area, and would gladly go there if given a chance. On one occasion, Julie saw him fill and eat one plate of food, and then a second and a third. The fun of getting to eat as much of whatever he wanted had captivated him. When he got up to get a fourth plate of food, Julie asked if he was sure he wanted more to eat, and he said that he did. She let him go, probably getting a chuckle out of it. A few minutes later, he came back with a plate that contained eight peas. He put it on the table, unable to eat another bite. Will you do something for Mike, Julie and me, dear readers? If you should find yourself at a buffet or salad bar restaurant, please get a plate and place only eight peas on it, and put it on the table for Mike, and all the people you know who have left us too soon. We love you Mikey...


Thursday, May 30, 2013

Building Bridges

The time during Gram's illness and decline, leading to her death, was one of the worst periods of my life. I wasn't simply in the process of losing my only parental figure. My whole existence was changing. I was losing my home, which added to the stress and sorrow I was feeling. But the worst of all was the treatment I was receiving from some of Gram's family. I know that sometimes people can lose their minds where their parents are concerned. For years, I had been the living peace of mind for Gram's children. They knew there was someone there, and that I would be their eyes and ears in case anything went wrong. If Gram fell down, she wasn't going to be lying on the floor for days because I would be there to pick her up. And if she got sick, I could nurse her back to health. I could help by getting groceries, making meals, and being a companion. Strangely enough, I think that my closeness to Gram made them feel two very different things. Yes, there was relief that someone was there, but on the other hand, I think there was some envy of the closeness of our relationship.

When Gram began a rapid decline in health at the age of ninety and a half, instead of being an asset to the family, I became a pariah. The same people I had overheard saying how old and frail she was getting suddenly blamed me for her decline. Gone was the knowledge that she was ninety and obviously entering the last stage of her life. Everything was my fault. I was openly accused of not giving her enough to eat or drink. Never mind that I made her breakfast every day before I went to work and often didn't have a meal myself. I had convinced her to use incontinence products so that she could drink whatever she wanted without worries about not getting to the bathroom on time. We did arm exercises and massage almost every night to make sure that she would have the strength to use her walker. But someone had to be blamed for her death, and especially since I wasn't born into the family, I was a natural target. There were other things I was accused of, but I don't want to get into them, since they are not ultimately what this story is about.

Gram died on Good Friday in 1997, two days after I told her that I had found an apartment. She had smiled and told me that she loved me, and then refused any further medication and oxygen. She knew that I was okay and that it was time for her to go. The day after she died, when I was still moving my things out of her house, two of Gram's grandsons showed up to change the locks on me. That spoke volumes to me, and became the moment I allowed myself to start releasing my anger and pain. There was no longer a reason to contain it, so I was willing to let the bridges burn. Aside from a call from one of Gram's granddaughters, Carole, who was horrified to find out how her father had treated me, and wanted to apologize for it, my contact with Gram's family ended. Part of my grieving process was for the entire family I had now lost, the people I began to refer to as my "former family."

Life went on, as it tends to do. I had some lovely but sporadic contact with a mother and daughter in the family, but that was pretty much the extent of it. But suddenly, in the spring of 2012, I had a friend request on Facebook from my cousin Carole. I was stunned and shaken. I had never really thought that she cared for or about me. My mind was flooded with all kinds of conflicting feelings. I was open to contact with Carole, but I didn't want my life laid bare for the rest of my former family members to see. I knew if I became her friend on social media, every one of them, especially those who bore me ill will, would have access to my life, and I didn't want my life to be an open book. What was I to do? I decided to send her a message straight from my heart, telling her how I felt about being "out there." But I was open to a reunion with her.

Seeing Carole again was amazing. In many ways, it was if we hadn't been out of touch for fifteen years. In others, it was like building a whole new relationship. I hope I have been able to make her understand that I never felt any hatred to her family. It was more of a love-but-not-like (okay, can't stand) type of feeling. We have learned so much from, and about, one another! All those years I thought she couldn't stand me, she was feeling for me so very deeply. And I was finally able to tell her that when she reached out to me immediately after Gram's death, it was a beautiful gift. I also learned that her relationship with her father was as difficult as the one I had with him. We were kept apart in so many ways when we were kids that we never had the opportunity to give one another the support we would have loved to provide. All those years wasted, not knowing that someone who loved us was firmly in our corner, ready to pick us up if we should fall.

As we go about building bridges, we continue to learn about what we both experienced, and how important we are to one another. And our love continues to grow, despite all of the blocks that were put in our paths in our youth. Carole, I look forward to many years of love for and from my cousin-by-choice. And I know we will build many beautiful bridges together.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Very Superstitious

When my sister and I, along with our friends, showed up at my cousin Mitzi's house in Hungary with no warning, she was completely unfazed. "I knew I was going to have company. I hit my left elbow earlier today. I was just waiting for someone to show up." Superstitions are funny that way. A simple bump of the elbow, and some relatives arrive unannounced from over five thousand miles away. It may have worked for Mitzi, but so far, it hasn't worked for me. I'll keep hoping, though. Or try to be more careful with my elbows.

Gram was a wealth of superstitions, mostly from her Irish/English background. Strangely, though, some of them were very Asian. For example, Gram always said that it was very unlucky to kill a cricket that found its way into the house. Almost every fall, there was a cricket in my bedroom, serenading me to sleep. I never tried to hurt one, although I did relocate a few to the back yard. Like many people in China, Gram was happy to have them inside the house because they were supposed to bring good luck. Which is why, on a chilly spring morning, I woke up because I felt something tickling my arm. Yes, there was a cricket in my bed. He had found the warmest spot in the room to settle down for the night. I got a good laugh out of it, and so did Gram. After she confirmed that I did not kill the cricket!

Another Chinese superstition that Gram had revolved around New Year's Day. Most of her practices related to the celebration were Irish in origin, but one was very Chinese. The one thing you could never do on New Year's Day was to sweep anything out the door or take out any garbage. This would be equivalent to throwing away your good luck. Her other rituals for the day were very Irish. If you were awake at midnight, you drank a sip of water before indulging in a tot of good whiskey. Also, after the last person who might be out for the evening arrived home, as the head of the household, she would hide a little bit of money outside the front door. Before anyone left the house that day, she would bring in the coins and distribute them to the members of the family. It was lucky money, not to be spent, but kept to ensure good fortune for the coming year. Although there were foods that one was supposed to eat for good luck and fortune, the most important was the first bite of food for the day. It had to be something sweet, preferably cake, to ensure sweetness in the coming year.

I did tell Gram more than once that I thought a lot of superstitions were created by mothers to encourage better behavior from their kids. Think about it for a few minutes and maybe you will agree. One of her long-standing beliefs was that shoes on a table were bad luck, as were hats on the bed. What better way to discourage your kids from laying down in their beds fully clothed? Make it unlucky! And how do you keep them from putting their big feet on the coffee table? Ditto. Make certain items unlucky, and you end the behaviors that result in those items being where you don't want them. Aha! There was another unusual bad-luck behavior that grew to make sense to me. Some people, she said, thought it was bad luck to cut a baby's fingernails with something sharp during their first year, so the mothers bit them off instead. The more babies I know, the more practical this seems. The way babies fling their hands around makes it hard to trim their nails without cutting their tiny fingers. So maybe it is unlucky to cut their nails!

There were numerous others as well. Never cut your hair or fingernails on a Sunday. Never come in one door and out the other. In other words, if you came in the front door, you needed to exit the same way. It was unlucky to take a first look at a New Moon through glass. If you were walking with someone and walked on opposite sides of a pole or column you had to say bread and butter to prevent a fight. If you gave someone a purse or wallet you had to put a coin inside to ensure that their purse would always be full of money. And if someone gave you something sharp, like a knife or scissors, you had to give them a coin to pay for it so that it wouldn't cut your friendship. Proving that much like her numerous sayings, Gram had a superstition suitable for almost every occasion! 

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Memorable

Saturday of Memorial Day weekend last year was a busy and fun day. We were picked up by our friends Marie and Thayne, and headed to a small local restaurant for some delicious breakfast burritos. Then we hit the highway to spend the day in Boulder, CO for the Boulder Creek Fest.  We like to call it the Freak Fest, because it makes a little joke out of what people think about Boulder. The Creek Fest is held every Memorial Day weekend. There are all sorts of merchants and providers of services from massage to spiritual cleansing to sports gear. And tons of yummy food. There are samples of all sorts of things, and it isn't unusual to come home with a few bags and t-shirts and energy bars. The star attraction of the weekend is the running on Monday of the BolderBOULDER 10K race, along with variations in length and mobility.

We spent much of the day wandering around various booths and getting samples and pens and numerous tote bags. We sampled delicious organic foods, as well as beverages, yogurts, and energy bars. When we crossed the creek we saw happy dogs swimming and playing games of fetch with tennis balls that danced enticingly due to the whims of the water flow. Then, more food! There were foods of all nationalities, cooked over open flames. There's something about the combination of fresh air and flame-cooking that makes even the simplest foods taste like a magnificent feast. We went home, feeling what we like to call "good tired," and acted like kids, going through our haul.

We were just lolling around when Trent's cell phone rang a little after eleven p.m. What the heck? We didn't recognize the number, so he didn't answer. Then my phone rang. Knowing it must be important, I picked up the call. One of the nurse coordinators from the University of Colorado Hospital's Kidney Transplant Clinic was on the line. She told Trent that there was a kidney that was a match for him and to be ready to come in the next day. The transplant surgeon, Dr. Igal Kam, would examine the kidney the next day to see if it was viable for transplant. We called Marie and Thayne to let them know what was going on, but we were actually feeling pretty calm about it and didn't get all worked up or excited. When we got a call on Sunday afternoon saying that the kidney had bad blood vessels and was not viable for transplant, we didn't get all crushed - we seemed to know all along it wasn't going to happen.

On Monday evening, our friends took us out for dinner. They had been on a day trip and didn't feel like cooking, so we went out for Italian food. A couple of hours later, we got another telephone call from another coordinator, Susie. She said they had another possible kidney, and to wait for her call on Tuesday. We felt a little bit of anticipation this time around. When we answered the phone call on Tuesday, we heard Susie laughing. You see, several months before, I had told one of the clinic doctors, Dr. James Cooper (whom we call Coop), that I wanted a notation made on Trent's chart. If a kidney became available, I said, call us and tell us to haul @$$ down to the hospital. When Susie called, she said that she had been informed to tell us to haul @$$ down to the hospital! We checked Trent into the hospital on Tuesday night, and early Wednesday morning, May 30th, he received the beautiful gift of life from the family of a man in his thirties. Trent was pretty amusing the afternoon of his surgery due to all of the delicious drug cocktails running through his system. He doesn't remember much of what happened, but that isn't the most important thing. He has a healthy kidney with better-than-average function. The doctors often tell him that he has better kidney function than they do.

So for us, the Memorial Day Weekend is doubly special. It is a time to honor the memory of the many men and women of the military who have served this country. Now, it is also a time for us to honor the family who served so many people by sharing their beloved family member through organ donation. I have no doubt that it was an incredibly difficult time in their lives, and I hope they realize that their selfless generosity improved so many lives. It is because of them that this isn't just Memorial Day weekend, but Memorable Day weekend. Thanks to all who serve!


Friday, May 24, 2013

Is It Something About My Face?

I made a quick trip through the supermarket the other day because we needed a few things for the upcoming holiday weekend. We decided we'll probably stay close to home and let all of the vacationers have the roads for themselves, so we wanted to make sure that we had everything we needed. Trent sat in the car while I jetted through the store, snagging this and that off the store shelves. As I exited an aisle, I thought for certain I had accidentally cut off some oncoming grocery cart traffic. When I apologized to the lady I thought I had made slam on her cart-brakes, she assured me that I hadn't. Then it began. 

In just a few minutes, without any promptings or probings on my part, I had learned the story of her life, as it is at this moment. Seriously! All I did was show some good manners, and the floodgates opened.  I learned that their family's only car had broken down, and that she just hated having to ride the bus to do her grocery shopping. Her husband says that he thinks they can do just fine without a car, but that's easy for him to say, since he doesn't drive. This is also a problem because her daughter is graduating from high school and is concerned about how much stuff she has to bring home from her locker. Mom remembers that when she was in school, she had a lot of stuff to bring home, too. There was a car advertised on sale for x dollars, and no matter what her husband says, she is going to find a way for them to get it, because she just can't be worrying about having to do everything on the bus, which she really hates doing. And she needs a car to get all of her daughter's accumulated high-school stuff home. She's not going to try and carry all of that stuff on the bus.

I smiled and nodded politely and murmured sympathetic words when it seemed appropriate. I wished her luck, and a happy day, and went on my way. This stuff happens to us all of the time. A few months ago, Trent and I went out to lunch at a burgers, wings, and everything but the kitchen sink sort of place. In the short time that we were there, we learned that our server was on her last day working at the restaurant. She had graduated from high school early and was going to hit the road the very next day to a college in Kansas that was giving her a full-ride academic scholarship. She also told us her planned majors and career path. Her mom had battled breast cancer, so she was going to do cancer research and cure breast cancer for her mom.

We have had numerous brief encounters with complete strangers that would have bystanders thinking we are old friends. Most of the time, we don't poke our noses into the lives of folks we don't know. Somehow or other, a conversation starts. It may be full of laughter or tears, or, like my supermarket saga, a very one-sided affair. When it happens, we're usually rather puzzled. What is it about us that makes people open up to us and share so much of their lives with us even though we are strangers? Is it something about our faces? We haven't figured it out. But we always have the hope that our brief encounters somehow help the ones we meet. Perhaps they are on edge, or suffering some deep stress. Maybe they have no one else to talk to. Maybe the eye contact we give them validates them as a human being and shows them that they are worth a few minutes of somebody's time. I'd like to think so. Perhaps, in this hurried, harried world, taking just a moment to make contact with another person helps us to retain our humanity. 

If you're ever in a supermarket in the North Denver Metro area, and you see someone who looks like me or Trent, feel free to look us in the eye and say hello. If you're troubled and need to say it aloud, tell us. Listening to your worries may take our minds off our own. And if you're feeling happy, the same drill works. Stop for a moment and share a smile. We'll all feel better. And maybe you can be honest and tell me the answer. Is it something about my face?


The faces that launched thousands of conversations...



Thursday, May 23, 2013

Is That In Code?

I have written before about my sister Liz, and how we have joked for years that she's "the pretty one", meaning I'm "the smart one." Hey, don't get mad, it works for us, especially because it seems to be true. Several years ago I came to realize that she didn't really understand all of the capabilities of her cell phone. It was not a smart phone, just a phone of average intelligence, but it was clear that she needed some help. As a seasoned user of an average-intelligence phone, and her sister, I took it upon myself to help her. Hey, I have ended up being a trainer at almost every job I've had. If I can train people to do telephone customer service, for example, I can teach my sister to make better use of her phone, right?

We started off by making sure that she was comfortable with text messaging. She caught on pretty well, and then I asked her about assigning ringtones to her contacts. She had no clue. So we did a tutorial on how she could know that it was her boss or her husband calling simply by the ringtone the phone was playing. This was pretty exciting for her, but she needed to get more ringtones. And since she didn't have a computer at home, I became the go-to person for her to acquire ringtones. Sometimes she would ask for a specific song, or something that would be appropriate for whomever she wanted to have their own specific tone.

So I started texting her different ringtones. At first, I had to walk her through saving and/or assigning each one, but she got better with practice. One day I was happy to have found her what I thought was a perfect ringtone. I texted it to her and waited for her happy response. Instead of a reply of thanks or expression of how clever it was, I got this answer: What? My mental reply was, "Huh?" So I replied by asking what she meant. I got a blank email from you. Uh-huh. I told her that I hadn't sent her any emails, blank or otherwise. She responded by calling me from work, and sounding completely disgusted at her too-stupid-to-live little sister. She informed me that I had sent an email to her phone and that there was nothing in it. Of course, the first thing I had to do was explain, for the umpteenth time, the difference between emails and texts, and that using the words interchangeably would confuse anyone, especially dumb younger sisters.

Liz huffed that I had sent her a blank text. I told her that I was sending her a ringtone; perhaps there was some mistake on my part, so I'd just send it again. I sent it again, and Liz called me back, more disgusted than ever. Still nothing. Then a light bulb went off in this little sister's brain. "Um, is the volume turned off on your phone? Maybe that's why you can't hear it?" She asked if she had to have the sound turned up to hear the text, and we got it straightened out. She had gotten the ringtone, and she liked it a lot. I walked her through saving it to her phone, and noticed Trent out of the corner of my eye, shaking his head. He praised my patience and my quick realization of what had gone wrong. And it never happened again...until the next time!

Something challenging about my sister and her texts - she makes up her own uses for symbols, or her own abbreviations for things. The big problem with this is that they have nothing to do with the way everybody, and I stress everybody, uses these symbols or abbreviations. And I am not a cryptographer! Here's an example of a Liz-text. Hey I hv to tlk to u @ work. Cl u ltr. This mystifies me. Does she want me to get in the car and come downtown to where she works so that she can talk to me about something? I show it to Trent, and he agrees that it seems she wants me to do just that. So I text her back. Do you want us to come down to your work so you can talk to us about something? She answers almost immediately. NO!!! It's wrk I need to talk to you @. Again, the lights go on and my detective mode kicks in. Oh! so you need to talk about your job? Her response barely contains her disgust at my stupidity. Yes, she wants to talk to me @ work. In Liz-text, apparently the symbol the entire English/American English-speaking world uses for "at" means "about."  And that's not even the worst of it.

I could go on, but I've forgotten most of her weird texting foibles. It's probably for two reasons. One is that they simply made no sense by any stretch of my (or Trent's) brains and imagination. And it can be pretty stressful when "the pretty one" thinks you you're a complete idiot and a pain in the behind because you can't break the code! 




Wednesday, May 22, 2013

We Don't Need No Stinking Badges

We don't need no stinking badges. Nor do we need bracelets, pins, or t-shirts. Or posts on social media. And I'm okay with not wearing shorts. What am I raving about this time?  Well, dear friends, pull up a chair and we'll chat a little.

Between the two of us, Trent and I have a veritable laundry list of ailments, diseases, afflictions...whatever you want to call them. I have even written some blog posts about them. But as a general rule, we try to keep these things low-key. Yes, we genuinely have some things wrong with our bodies and/or minds, and they are very serious. But we do not want these things to be the sum total of our existence. Yes, there are times when we have to tell people who don't know us really well that we have these problems. For example, I might have someone tell me, "Oh, honey, you should put down that umbrella and get some sun on your face." After politely declining several times, I might need to tell them that I have lupus and sunbathing and lupus just aren't a good combination. 

This sort of admission will often lead to an uncomfortable conversation in which the other person feels compelled to call you a poor, poor thing and then ask you to relate various aspects of your illness. While I love and appreciate people who are genuinely caring and sympathetic, these conversations or moments can be unpleasant or even become unbearable. You see, I am more than my diseases. As I was told by someone else with lupus just after I was diagnosed, "Lupus isn't who I am. They're not going to put 'she had lupus' on my gravestone." And Trent feels the same way. We don't want people to find us interesting because we are the ailment of the month. We want to be interesting because of the things we have learned, or our experiences, or our brilliant sense of humor.

That's why I don't wear shorts. In the most intense summer weather, you'll see me sweating my guts out and complaining about how terribly hot it is. Why don't I wear shorts? Because I don't want to talk about why my legs look the way they do, discolored and unattractive. I don't want someone to come up to me and say, "OMG! What happened to your legs?" I sometimes have to count to ten to avoid saying "OMG! What happened to your manners?" Because I do have good manners, I will briefly explain that I have chronic blood clots secondary to my lupus. But I'd much rather talk about a book I just read, or a favorite movie, or just about anything. That is why I don't wear shorts. And I have never owned a button or t-shirt having to do with any of my afflictions.

I am not saying that it is wrong to wear something that raises awareness of a disease or condition that you or someone you care about is experiencing. I may be a raving lunatic, but in spite of my assertions to the contrary, I am NOT the meanest person in the world. But don't we all know at least one person who wears an illness, either real or imagined, like a badge? Someone who makes a point of going out in public, or perhaps family gatherings, wearing something that points out that they have X Syndrome? Some people seek to use their ailments to position themselves in the center of everyone's attention, seeking the sympathy they seem to need to feel complete. Oh, I'm so worried that I sound like an insensitive cow right now! 

Perhaps recounting something that once happened to me will help clarify my point. When I was hired in the banking call center I have mentioned in other blog posts, one of my coworkers heard that I had lupus. Her approach to her illness was the polar opposite of my own. One day, she came over to my desk and began talking to me about my experience with the disease. "Do you have headaches?" I told her that yes, I had had headaches literally every day since late 1988. "Do you ever have pain in your chest?" As a matter of fact, I was experiencing pain in my chest that very day, and had been for several days. "Well, how do you handle it? Sometimes I just want to stay in bed all day." I told her that I had days like that too, but I just ignored them and kept on living. She went back to her desk, and within moments my manager showed up, grinning from ear to ear. She explained that this staff member was infamous for using her illness to try and get sympathy from anyone who would listen. She was thrilled that I had given an example of not just submitting and letting it overrun me, but fighting back. 

And no, I don't think my approach is better than anyone else's. I have had to spend a lifetime not giving up, and it has become ingrained in me. It fits in rather well with these lines from Dylan Thomas: 

Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.


My ailments, like Trent's, may have the power to destroy my body or end my life, but they had better be ready for one heck of a fight. Which may be why I identify with this quote from the movie Shawshank Redmption:

"Get busy living, or get busy dying. Damn right!"



Postscript: I know many of us have diseases which are beyond our control. The only thing we can control is how we react to them. May your will to fight be fierce!

Monday, May 20, 2013

Prince's Ears

I read something on Facebook today that triggered a memory that I just knew I would have to write about. One of my friends was telling that she was frustrated with the behavior of her stepdaughter following the girl's visit of several days with her mother. Unfortunately, it seems that visits to what I refer to as non-custodial parents can often result in bad behavior. It can be for any number of reasons. Perhaps the child is spoiled by the other parent. Or all too frequently, their heads are filled with hateful talk designed to sabotage the relationship with the people who live with the child every day. I don't know what was the case in this instance, so I will not speculate. All I know is that my friend was moved to share a comment about the only time she ever spanked this girl. It was several years ago, and the girl was repeatedly kicking  the family dog which was leashed in the back yard. The dog never tried to retaliate, seeming to know that the child didn't know any better.

Suddenly I remembered back to my high school years when I babysat Debbie and Mark, who lived a few houses down the street, five days a week. I loved these kids, and I think they also loved me. There were a few times when they were talking to me and accidentally called me Mom, as well as sometimes calling their Mom Katrina. We both took it as a compliment, which was good all around. Ann trusted me completely with her children, and instructed me about time-outs in their rooms and such. She also told me that if necessary, I was permitted to administer a smack if necessary. She was not an abusive parent. And I never smacked the kids. Remember, I had been on the receiving end of genuinely abusive hitting, so it was just not going to happen.

Many afternoons, Debbie, Mark, and I would go into the cozy basement and pile onto the big sofa to watch Sesame Street. Prince, their dog, was allowed to get on the sofa, too, and both kids liked to have him next to them during tv watching time. It was a very normal thing to have the kids calling his name or coaxing him to sit by them on the sofa. Debbie surprised me one day by simply reaching across me on the sofa and pulling Prince over to her by his ears. "Debbie! why did you do that?" I asked. "I wanted him to come over here," she answered calmly. I firmly told her not to do it again because it would hurt Prince's ears.

I'm not sure that Debbie realized that she was doing something that could hurt her dog. He was a very sweet and forgiving dog, and never cried out or snapped at her when she pulled his ears, so she wasn't understanding that it was uncomfortable for him. Surprisingly, Mark, at four years younger than her, was as upset at the ear-pulling as I was. A few days passed without incident, and suddenly Debbie was pulling Prince by his ears again. Both Mark and I told her loudly not to do that to the dog. It seemed I just couldn't get the message across to her that she was being mean, whether she meant to be or not.

Well, I must confess that one day I snapped. As usual, we were piled on the sofa when Debbie reached out and pulled the dog over to her by his ears. Without a word, I reached out and grabbed her ear, pulling her over to me. She burst into shocked tears. "Katrina! why did you do that to me? It hurt!" I quietly asked her if she liked being treated that way, and she said no. I told her that her sweet dog, Prince, felt the same way when she pulled on his ears, and asked her if she understood. She said she did, and when I asked if she was going to pull the dog's ears anymore she said she definitely would not. She was true to her word, and never did it again. She treated her dog with love and kindness. When Ann came home from work that night, I told her what had happened, and did so in front of the kids. I was afraid she'd be angry at me for yanking Debbie's ear, but Ann chuckled and said that it sounded like Prince's ears were not getting pulled ever again. I was relieved that she didn't think I was wrong, and that I didn't lose my friendship or my job. But mostly, I was glad that I rescued Prince's ears!

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Gram's Green Thumbs

Since we seem to have entered the spring season, I have been hearing a lot about people doing gardening. Whether it's a local friend talking over dinner, or friends on social media, it's the time of year when people tell how much they are enjoying digging in the dirt. We are apartment dwellers, so we don't have a garden. I do keep thinking about doing some patio plants; we'll see what happens. Fresh ripe tomatoes do sound lovely!

All the tidbits and photos remind me of Gram and her lawn and garden. Gram often had the greenest lawn on the block. It was also one of the largest since we didn't have a driveway. The back yard had plum trees and rose gardens and fruit and vegetable patches.  My mouth is watering thinking about the rhubarb patch that always sprouted up under a stand of plum trees at the far end of the yard. It was especially good when cooked with the strawberries that grew in a huge patch a few steps away from the back door. By the way, the biggest problem we had with the strawberries wasn't bugs or birds. It was the dogs. One dog, in particular, would go outside, lay down in the grass, and pluck and eat the luscious ripe strawberries that grew like weeds in Gram's yard. She never picked any that were only partially ripe; she had discerning taste and only ate the best!

Right outside the door were numerous mint plants, again growing like weeds. Gram often planted tomatoes right beneath the back kitchen window, and one of my duties was to go outside with pliers and pull off the voracious caterpillars that wanted to eat the tomatoes before we did. There were always chives and garlic sprouting up in one of her rose beds, and they kept the rosebushes fairly insect-free. Gram had roses of many different colors - reds, pinks, whites, lavenders, even silvery ones. And her day lilies, tiger lilies, and irises were gorgeous. They were grown with benign neglect. She never dug them up and replanted them each fall like some gardeners do. Nor did she do that with her beautiful tulip and crocus bulbs. 

As I said before, Gram's grass was beautifully green. I was the mower through my youth and early adulthood, until lupus made it unwise for me to get that much sun. Every spring she would trundle around her fertilizer spreader and her aerators to get things going and green. In the summer she always threw her coffee grounds into the back yard, which encouraged aeration and fertilization by worms, and it was gorgeous. Neighbors often asked her permission to prowl in the yard after dark, because she always had plenty of good worms for fishing trips. She was always repaid with delicious rainbow trout or pike, and we loved having the freshly-caught fish for dinner almost every week. My Uncle Joe loved to catch fish, but hated eating them, so we often had his catch as well. Whenever the fish still had their heads, Gram would cut them off and have me bury them next to the rosebushes. I can say without a doubt that roses do love fish heads. Her bushes always grew several feet tall and bloomed profusely.

Something else that Gram managed to grow that nobody else I ever knew to have in Colorado was an immense Wisteria vine. It bloomed gorgeously every year. There were also lilacs and peonies and stunning red canna lilies. She also had hyacinths, snapdragons, daisies, sunshiny daffodils, and more. One half of the front of the house began the season with tulips, and then the four o'clocks began to grow. One evening when I was out moving the garden house to water the lawn, I saw and heard what I thought were hummingbirds sipping from the flowers of the four o'clock plants. Their wings moved so quickly I could hear them buzzing. They were actually a species of Hummingbird Hawk-Moths, and I looked forward to seeing them when I did my watering a couple of nights each week. They seemed to grow accustomed to my presence, and didn't fly away when I came close to them. One evening Gram was delighted to see me in the front yard, turning in circles while they flew around me. It was so beautiful I was almost in tears. "Gram! I was dancing with the butterflies!" She said, "You sure were, honey! I've never seen anything like that before."

When fall and frost rolled around, Gram never really did anything special to her garden. If there were still tomatoes, we would pick them and wrap them in newspaper to ripen. And she would bring in some geraniums so that she'd have them for the next year. This, to me, is where her green thumbs truly showed. Some of the neighbors who had geraniums would carefully dig them up and plant them in pots that would be on the kitchen windowsills. Not Gram. She would get her pots and shovel some dirt into them. Then she would break off the main stems of the geranium plants and just shove them in the soil. They would immediately take root and thrive, and the kitchen windowsills were a riot of color all winter. When spring rolled around again, she shook them out of their pots, put them in holes in the garden, and voila! The cycle began again, and Gram was back at work with her wonderful green thumbs.

Friday, May 17, 2013

I Read Banned Books

One of my favorite people on Google+ has again inspired me to write a blog post. Terry posted a photo that was a play on a prison mug shot. A young woman is seen in profile, holding a book in one hand. In the hand closer to the camera, she is holding a placard that says, "Caught reading banned books." I immediately loved it, because that is something I tend to do. I only wish I hadn't lost my I Read Banned Books button, because I'd have it pinned to my purse every day. 

Gram never pushed her beliefs about what people should and shouldn't read onto me. Okay, well, maybe she did. She led by example. She told me about something her father had done way back in 1919, when she was thirteen years old. Her dad had been a child laborer and had suffered an eye injury in his youth. The pupil of one of his eyes looked like an old-fashioned keyhole the rest of his life, and he had trouble reading small print. It was just Dad and Bessie - Gram's mother died from complications related to childbirth when Gram was twenty-two months old, as did the twins she carried. Gram was often asked by her father to read books or newspaper articles aloud to him since he couldn't see to do so himself. She loved him fiercely, so it never seemed to be a chore to her.

In 1919 a book was published with the title The Sheik. It was written by an Englishwoman, Edith Maude Hull, and was considered pretty racy for the era. Although not explicit, it included hinted-at sexual situations. The heroine was also a very self-determined woman, a dangerous thing in those times. Gram told me that her father had heard that the local Roman Catholic Churches were actively telling their parishioners not to read this book. Perhaps rebellion was ingrained in him due to being the offspring of Irish immigrants, I'm not sure. But as soon as he could, he purchased the book and had his daughter read it to him. He was firmly convinced of a couple of things. If someone told him he must not read something, it made him want to do so. He also felt that books weren't dangerous. They may have opposing ideas from your own, but you still have the ability use your own mind and make your own judgements and decisions. 

This is something she told me when I was in college and had purchased my banned-books pin. She was perfectly okay with me having the pin, and was in fact, proud of it, and the story she told me about her father. She had never told me anything about book banning that I recall, but if we ever saw anything on tv related to banning or burning books, she made it clear that she thought that sort of behavior was immoral and criminal. Even at a young age, if I saw film of books being burned it really disturbed me. Books were, and are, so precious to me that even if I was too young to understand the implications of them being actively destroyed, I was smart enough to know that the people involved were burning something precious.

I tend to be a live and let live person, within reason, that is. While that is my general attitude, I am certainly not going to just let someone blithely do things that are terribly wrong, like abusing their significant other or a child or an animal. What I mean is that we all like different things. Case in point: the mania associated with the Twilight films. Millions of people have read the books and seen the films, and swooned over them. To me, on the other hand, some of the newer vampire books and films are the new Harlequin romances. I hate saying that, because I love a good vampire story. But, again, to each their own, right? Incidentally, the Twilight books have been targeted by book banners.

After seeing my friend Terry's post, I was thinking about who seeks to ban books, and why. One of the comments on Terry's post said something to the effect that politicians should be banned. In my experience, it isn't the politicians who do most of the book banning. It's moms and dads who get upset about what their kids do read, or might read. I think there are several reasons, mostly subconscious, why these parents seek to ban the books they question. 

I think parents may feel threatened by ideas and philosophies and behaviors that are different from their own. Instead of allowing their children to read these things and inviting thought and discussion, they try to prevent questioning of the established mores by removing all opposing evidence. Another reason some parents seem to choose books to ban has to do with the amount of sexual content. And to take it a step further, there's a lot of folks who want to ban older books, books that contain language or attitudes that are no longer prevalent, even though the stories may be fascinating, uplifting, or just plain awesome.

I certainly can respect all of these viewpoints, but who am I to tell you what you or your children are allowed to read? Because that's what it all boils down to for me. If someone succeeds in banning a book that they don't want to read, they are depriving me of my choice and right to read whatever I wish. Hey, I've read a lot of Stephen King books. I haven't turned into a murderous horrific alcoholic druggie who wants to take over the world. I'm not that suggestible. No, I don't have kids. If I did, there would undoubtedly be some books I might want them to wait a few years to read based on their level of maturity. But I like to think I would have the sort of relationship with my kids where we could discuss the things we read in books, or why I'd like them to wait a while before reading certain stories. Yes, maybe character x in book y allowed herself to be controlled by her boyfriend. But that doesn't mean I want that to happen to you. Yes, Tom Sawyer used the "n-word," but that's not how we talk. We do love the adventure in the story, and the relationship between Tom and Jim. I'd hope that discussing and learning about other ideas and customs and beliefs would help them become the people they'd like to be.

The kind of people I would want them to be would be loving, inquisitive, and kind, among other things. I would want them to be open to new ideas, but to make up their own minds in a way that satisfied their own conscience. And I'd want them to be the be the kind of people who don't try to control what other people are allowed to read. Free readers, unite!

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Boggled By Beagles

If you've read very much of my blog, you know that I love all kinds of critters. I have been befriended by horses, geese, cats galore, heck, I was even the object of a cockatiel's affection. I have had my hand licked by wild goats and wolves. But my favorites are dogs. There are so many things to love about dogs. They give affection freely. They do not judge by race or gender or age. They don't mind being seen in public with you if your hair is messy or you're wearing your laundry-day pants. It's a matter of complete indifference to them whether you're straight, gay, liberal, conservative, a good singer, a bad dancer, or can't balance your checking account. They just love the company of humans.

I am by no means a world traveler, but have been to Budapest and Western Hungary, as well as Vienna and Paris. I've been to several places in the USA. I have met all sorts of dogs on my journey through life, with all sorts of personalities. There was the Doberman I'd pass every day on my way to elementary school. She was incredibly sweet and stared at me longingly until I walked over to the fence to pet her. Odin was a two-hundred pound Newfoundland, the runt of his litter, who worked in a print shop at night with one of my college classmates. He was very intuitive, and would scare away anyone who had bad vibes. The biggest danger I ever felt from him was drowning in dog slobber. 

I've made friends with St. Bernards, Rottweilers, Bull Terriers (AKA Pit Bulls), mutts, Poodles, West Highland Terriers, English and French Bulldogs, Bernese Mountain Dogs, Irish Wolfhounds, Scottish and Yorkshire Terriers, Pugs, Labradors...too many breeds to name. I've met dogs that didn't speak a word of English, but clearly said, "Slurp, slurp, I must kiss you. I like you. Let's be friends." Heck, I haven't had a strange dog come up and kiss me since...last Friday. I haven't met any new dogs since last Friday, by the way.

Much like I do with people, I have been known to jump in the fray when I see a dog getting beaten up by another dog. I am literally sitting here shaking my head over that one, as I have watched people let their leashed dogs go after another pet and not do anything about it. Crazy Katrina jumps right in the fray and makes sure nobody is being bullied. And I am the one who will call the police when dogs are left in a hot car. And I have done the same for children left in a hot car, on more than one occasion. Shaking my head again. Why anyone would treat a child or a pet this way is beyond my comprehension. I guess to understand I would have to be a bit like them, and I have no desire to do so.

So you get the picture. I am someone who loves, and is generally loved by, dogs. Except for the neighborhood bullying Beagles when I was in High School.  I have known a couple of Beagle mixes, and the beagle part of their personality was very sweet. And hungry. Their beagle coloring made them lovely to look at, as they are really good-looking canines. Snoopy is a beagle. Although I have to say right here and now that he bears no resemblance to any beagle I have ever known. There were two beagles that lived across the street and two houses over. At first, I thought that the way they bayed instead of really barking was kind of weird, but I got used to it. The problem was that from time to time they would get out of their yard and try to terrorize the neighborhood. Like many dogs, they felt that everything as far as they could see was their territory. When they broke out of their fenced yard, they ran as a pack of two to explore that territory, and defend it if necessary. They would see someone coming and start to challenge them with baying barks and aggressive growling. Normally, I just hollered at them to go home and stared them down, but one day they went too far. 

It was a snowy day, and I was exhausted from walking more than a mile from school in snow that was over a foot deep. As I passed the edge of our next-door neighbor's driveway, I felt a sense of relief. I was at the edge of our property, so I was nearly home. That was when the beagles came out from behind Gram's car and started acting like they were going to attack me. I was furious and disgusted. It was one thing to have them get crazy with me in the street, or if I had been in their yard, for that matter. But this was MY house, and I had worked hard to get home. Attack me on my own lawn? I don't think so! I took a look at them, set my legs firmly, and beckoned them on while bending over at the waist. "You want to attack me in my own yard, you sons of female canines? Well, you better make it good, because I'll kick your butts!" (And would have done if necessary, but only in self-defense.) I must have been speaking in bully-dog tongues, because they sort or looked at each other like, "Oh, hey, was that mama calling us? I think it was! We better go home so mama doesn't get mad!" Yes, they did the backdown. Score one for the crazy tired girl. I got to my home and warmth and food with no further drama, where I was lovingly greeted by my dogs. And though they had many more escapes from their yard, they must have learned from our encounter, because after that I was never again bothered or boggled by the beagles.


Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Not A Residential District!

We were out and about this afternoon when a torrential rainstorm started. I'm not talking about one of those nice summery cloudbursts, those fifteen to thirty minute storms that are as powerful as they are brief. No, I'm talking about a major rainstorm here. One of those rainstorms that make your windshield wipers' high-speed mode seem really slow. The water was running through parking lots and gutters more than twelve inches deep, and in some cases ten or more feet wide. We're talking about one of those rainstorms where you start looking around to see if Noah and his Ark are going to float by.

Naturally, there were some drivers (like Trent, thank you, honey!) who exercised a bit more caution while driving down these semi-flooded roads. In fact, at one point we pulled into a parking lot to sit it out for a bit because the rain was that intense. And then there are the people who don't understand that water on roads can be even more treacherous than snow or ice. They seem to think that since they drive a truck or a fast sporty car or whatever, they are immune to hydroplaning. I'm sure everyone who reads this and drives knows what hydroplaning is. For those who don't drive, a brief explanation. When there is water standing on a road, even less than an inch, it can make your tires lose contact with the road. This can make your car more like a sled with no steering, as it can slip and slide even without you slamming on the brakes.

So here we were, driving two miles per hour below the speed limit through lots of rushing water. Some brilliant person behind us in a small truck decided we were impeding progress and passed us in a no-passing zone. And barely cleared the other lane before a person coming the other way caught up with him. Before I knew it, I was doing an impression of Richard Pryor. Years ago, Richard Pryor had a character in his comedy shows who he called The Drunk Directing Traffic. Even though he was barely able to walk, he had to yell at the cars driving by and comment on their bad driving. As the little truck drove by, I fake-yelled one of my favorite lines from this comedy routine. "HEY! Slow down! This a neighborhood, not a residential district!"

Obviously we made it home unscathed. But it never ceases to amaze me that as soon as the weather changes from dry and clear, people start driving like lunatics. Sweet people who normally drive like driver-safety award winners suddenly lose their minds. They change lanes without signalling or looking. If you honk your horn to let them know you don't want them to kill you, they make vulgar gestures at you while cursing to tell you to get out of their way. It shocks you so much that you can't even come up with a retort like, "Hey, do you kiss your grandchildren/boyfriend/girlfriend/mother/grandma/daddy or whomever with that filthy mouth?"

When it's over and you get home, you just have to laugh about it. During the bad-weather times of the year, we know there will be people out there who just don't know what they're doing. These people also tend to be out in great numbers on holidays and Sunday afternoons. Bless their hearts, they are the ones who drive to Aunt Ethel's birthday party two towns over and don't know the way. They slam on their brakes on the highway and cross three lanes of traffic to get to the off ramp. Or slam on the brakes while on the off ramp and then go off-road to get back on the highway. Eventually they will encounter the speed demons and drivers who think signalling means the other people have to get out of your way, so they just come on over without looking.  Ah, the adventures of the open road...

p.s. Every driver makes mistakes. I don't spend all of my time on the road complaining, and I am not one of those people who is hypercritical or thinks that everyone else's driving sucks. Part of this human's nature is to see one thing and be reminded of others. That's why I end up writing blog posts! :)

Monday, May 13, 2013

Adventures Of A Protector

In 1994, there was a news story about a woman named Susan Smith who was driving her car with her two sons in the back seat. She was carjacked, and a man drove off in her car with her boys, aged 14 months and three years, in the back seat. After the news story was over, I turned to Gram and said, "Gram, those boys are dead." Gram's face looked stricken. "Oh, honey," she said,"do you think that man killed those boys?" "No, Gram," I told her, "I don't think there was a man, or a carjacking. She killed her babies." I think Gram was shocked that I felt that way. "Think about it. I don't have any kids of my own, but let's take Debbie and Mark (the kids down the block that I babysat when I was in High School) as an example. If I was out driving and they were in the car with me, there is no way on earth that anyone could get me to leave them in the car so they could drive off with them. Even though they aren't my kids, nobody could take them away without killing me. You would be the same way. Most women would. I'm pretty sure she killed those boys and made up this story." Gram was quiet and thoughtful about it, mulling over what I had said to her. Ms. Smith made many pleas on television for the release of her children, but I just wasn't buying it. Nine days later, she confessed to driving her car to a lake and letting it roll into the water, watching her sons scream as they began to go underwater and drown. She wanted to get rid of them because she had been having an affair with a man who didn't want a ready-made family. Although it gave me no pleasure, Gram told me that I had been right all along.

I have always had a strong protective instinct. This can be a good thing, but when you combine it with my unnaturally cool head during crisis situations, it's really kind of amazing sometimes that I survive to tell the tales of my foolhardy behavior. When I trained Customer Service in a bank call center, we were in a non-customer-access area and had electronic access cards. I stressed to every group of new hires that they should never let anyone into our department. Believe it or not, there are some unbalanced people who have threatened to harm or even kill the people who help them on the phone. So imagine my surprise one day when I turned around after making photocopies and saw a strange man wandering through the call center. I went straight to him and asked what he was doing in the area, and sure enough, someone had just let him in when he said that he needed to talk to Miss Suzy. I informed him that he had to leave the department and could only contact us by phone. Luckily for me, he let me escort him out and there were no problems. One of my trainees, however, watched the whole scene unfold and freaked out. She thought for sure that I was a goner. I am glad that my impulsive behavior had a happy ending!

On another day I was in the middle of a training class when I heard someone get off the elevator, shouting at another, more soft-spoken person. My first impression was that there was a man yelling at his girlfriend, and that is something I just couldn't let happen. And again, without so much as a pair of Wonder Woman golden wrist cuffs to protect me, I ran to the source of the noise. It turned out to be two men, both former trainees of mine. The quiet one was about five foot six, and the loud one was about six foot four. They had gotten on the same elevator when Loud started yelling at Quiet to quit looking at him. Quiet had no clue what was going on, other than that he was shocked and a bit unnerved by Loud's outburst. When Loud started to go after Quiet, I stepped in between them and said, "NO. This is not going to happen. You, go over there. And you, go to the other end of the hall." Believe it or not, it was said in a calm and matter-of-fact tone, and both men complied.

One of the senior-level managers had heard the shouting and came out to the hall and took over the situation. Within very short order, I was back in the classroom and being hailed as fearless, which I dismissed. I was only doing what anyone else would do in the same situation. Before we took our next break, Loud had been fired. Later in the day, I learned the full extent of the situation I had thrust myself into. Apparently Loud had been on the quick path to termination. One of his female coworkers had recently been a victim of his stalking and had to take out a restraining order against him. He appeared to be losing control of himself and may have been on the verge of a psychotic break. Hearing all of this at the end of the day really shook me up because I realized that I could have put myself in great harm. 

When Trent found out what I had done that day, he was upset for a long time about what might have happened. Of course, he knows that is just who I am. I am the person who jumps out of the car to help if she sees an accident. If the drivers start screaming at each other about who is at fault, I am the one who steps in between them and calmly tells them this is not the time for arguing, and that the police can sort out their stories later. You stay here. You go there. And they comply. And then when the cavalry shows up, I give them my phone number and go home. And get the shakes when the adrenaline subsides, because that's what happens when you're a Protector.

Friday, May 10, 2013

My May-December Romance

I can't remember for certain exactly when it happened. I must have been about eleven when I started to fall for an older man. And I don't mean I was eleven and had a crush on a fourteen-year-old. This man was sixty years older than me. It was a pure and unrequited love for a man named Fred Astaire. My Gram had spent some years working in movie theaters where her husband was the projectionist, so she had no problems with me watching the old movies that were often broadcast on television on the weekends, especially on Saturday nights. Little did I know then how much these old black-and-white movies would mean to me.

I realize now that a lot of kids would not have been allowed to stay up on a Friday or Saturday night to watch a movie, no matter what the quality. Maybe it was because Gram had experienced these movies when they were new. She knew that they were fairly innocent, and that they were wonderful entertainment. They weren't going to lead me astray. They were just there for the sheer joy of watching. And Fred Astaire wasn't the only person whose movies I watched. I knew the names and acting, singing, and dancing of dozens of stars and supporting players. I saw their films, dramas, comedies, and musicals, in scratchy black-and-white, and their later films in "glorious Technicolor." I'm sure that not many of the neighborhood kids or my school classmates knew some of the names that were so familiar to me. 

When the newspaper arrived on Sundays, I'd check the television schedule supplement, looking for films starring my favorites. Yes, I was always on the lookout for Mr. Astaire, but oh, the lists of people I grew to appreciate! There were Jeannette McDonald and Nelson Eddy in lovely operettas. Jimmy Cagney as a song and dance man, and as a gangster or psychotically criminal mama's boy. William Powell, Myrna Loy, Shirley Temple, Eleanor Powell, Irene Dunne, Jimmy Stewart, Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, the impeccable Adolphe Menjou. Lionel Barrymore, Boris Karloff, Henry Fonda, Rita Hayworth, John Carradine, Peter Lorre, and dozens more. I could go on for ages, but you'd likely get tired of reading!

Some of the stories were happy and some were sad. There was comedy as well as extreme sadness, and often accompanied by lovely music and dance. I think that a child like me who had seen such ugliness found beauty, hope, and perhaps some healing in these lovely films. One of the best to give balm to my soul was Fred Astaire. Even though I consider myself pro-female and a supporter of girl-and-woman power, it really irritates me to hear people say, "Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, and she did it backward and in high heels!" Sorry, it just isn't true. Yes, they made ten films together, and she was an incredible partner for him. But did she ever do an entire dance number partnered with a coat rack, or climb up the walls to dance on the ceiling? Did she dance next to magic shoes that had wings or dance a number dozens of times like he did so that he could do a number with himself as the chorus-boys? Mind you, she isn't the one who made that statement, someone else did.

A lot of people have made jokes about Fred Astaire's singing voice. Surprisingly, many songwriters, people who wrote for singers from Frank Sinatra to Nat King Cole and numerous others in between, described Astaire as the best singer they ever wrote for. Irving Berlin, whose birthday is tomorrow, May 11th, wrote the song Cheek to Cheek specifically for Astaire's voice. Fred sang some of the most charming and heartfelt love songs I have ever heard. His delivery of songs can still make me cry because of their gentle sweetness and emotion. Just imagining him singing them can make the world a gentler place. Astaire, in his autobiography, tells that he was stunned and humbled when he heard that the great composer George Gershwin's last words were, "Fred Astaire."

We seem to live in an era in which our stars of the big and small screens, sports, and music are as often known for their bad behavior as their talent. There have always been stars who indulged in bad behavior. I have never heard anything like that about Fred Astaire. I have read the words of the incredible dancer and choreographer Bob Fosse, who was walking on the back lots of the studios (way before he became famous) and saw Astaire walking in his general direction. He was excited to see one of his heroes and thought, "Hey, he doesn't know about a nobody like me." He was thrilled when Fred said, in passing, "Hiya, Foss!" A simple, generous, and gracious gesture by one of the amazing talents of his time gave Fosse a wonderful moment and a wonderful memory.

Another story I like was told by the woman who was his housekeeper, in the 1960's, I believe. She said he was always a kind and genuine person and would chat with her about her mother back in Ireland. He was never demanding, and didn't ever want to inconvenience the household staff in any way. There was a story she told about him giving the staff the evening off because he had been invited to a dinner party. She was walking through the house and heard some noise. When she went into the bar area of the house, she found Mr. Astaire sitting in his casual clothes, eating some potato chips. When she asked him what was going on, he told her that the dinner had been cancelled, but he didn't want to bother anyone. He didn't even ask anyone to fix him a sandwich. But she did, of course. In direct contrast to the "Do you know who I am?" attitude we see a lot of these days, he described himself by saying, "I'm just a hoofer with a spare set of tails."

Well, I've gushed on and on, as I sometimes tend to do. Today, May 10th, is Fred Astaire's birthday, and I wanted to share some of the joy he brought to my life with all of you. No, I would not say that I worship him. Let's just say that his work is a beautiful gift that lives in my heart forever. 


Thursday, May 9, 2013

Missing My Sous-Chef

I used to work with an amazing sous-chef every time I went into my kitchen. For over twelve years, an eight-and-a-half pound poodle named Paris assisted me every time I cooked or did other kitchen chores. She left our lives on August 27, 2012, but we still laugh and cry and love and remember her every day.

I feel that it is important at this moment to tell you that I never wanted a poodle. I thought that they were silly dogs that just sat around being pampered and given puffball haircuts. Boy, was I ever wrong! When we decided that we wanted a puppy, we saw an enclosure containing four male miniature Schnauzer pups, and one with four female toy Poodles. We weren't too keen on getting a male since we wanted to litter box train, but we picked up one of the Schnauzer pups and put him on the floor. He immediately began humping Trent's shoe, so we put him back with his brothers. The poodles were all curled up asleep, three on the bottom, and our little girl sleeping on top of the others. And this desire to be "on top of things" lasted her whole life. I picked her up and she immediately cuddled up by my neck. My heart melted. I was smitten. Trent said he thought she was too mellow, but changed his mind when we put her on the floor. She saw a piece of paper and ran and attacked it. We knew we had found our baby.

So we took home this lovely two-pound puppy, and she quickly became one of the most important creatures in our lives. When I woke up in the night to go to the bathroom, I woke her and put her in her litter box. She was trained in very short order that the box was her potty. She sometimes got shy - if Trent was in the bathroom when she went in, she'd get this look that said, "Never mind, I can do this later." I think it took her about two seconds to learn that the kitchen was where delicious magic happened. She always had a bowl of kibble available, but we sometimes gave her canned food as well. We'd be just sitting around, and hear her "talking" in the kitchen. We'd find her there, her front legs down on the floor, and her head laid sideways on them. Her tail would be wagging as she asked the refrigerator to please give her some food. Who can resist such an adorable display? Not us!

Paris also loved to watch me when I went into the kitchen to cook. She was a big fan of her Mommy's cooking, so she liked to be right there to see what delectable dishes I was creating. In our last apartment, the setup was perfect for her. We placed an extra dining chair in a corner where the sink was directly next to her on one side, and the stove on the other. She was smart enough to never attempt to get on the stove, so there were no worries about her getting hurt. As my sous-chef, she knew that not only was something good coming, but that she might be invited to taste some of the ingredients. She never refused to quality-test a bit of hamburger or a bite of stew meat or steak. And she loved it when I made chicken in any form; it truly was one of her favorites. When I would cook a whole chicken into soup, she was ecstatic. I would get a small pot to cook the giblets and neck with some vegetables and rice. When I put them in the pot, I would show it to her. I'd tell her, "This is for you, Paris! This is your chicken stew!" Sometimes the excitement was too much for her, and she would have to avoid the kitchen to avoid losing her mind. But when the soup was done, and some of the meat added to her stew, she ate her chicken stew with gusto. And then offered to help us finish our soup. All I had to do to create a frenzy of excitement was to say the two words "chicken stew."

The kitchen in this apartment is set up differently than our last, so sitting on a chair didn't give her all of the views she would have liked. Instead, she sat on the dining-room carpet, just outside the kitchen entrance, where she had a good panoramic view of anything that happened in the kitchen. From time to time, she couldn't contain herself any longer, and came into the kitchen, lightly putting her front paws on my leg. "Do you want to see?' I'd ask. She'd give a cute sneeze of assent and I would pick her up in one arm and remove the lid, if necessary, with my other hand. She would wait for me to waft the steam forward, and sniff deeply of whatever was cooking. "Does it smell good, Paris?" Believe it or not, she seemed to give it a "licks rating." If she licked her chops two or three times in response to the question, she thought it smelled heavenly! And her tastes were not indiscriminate. Any time she was offered something new, she'd take a tiny bite, examine it, and taste it to see if she really wanted to eat it.

I miss having Paris in my kitchen. When I am making chicken, Trent or I will say, "Not till later, Paris!" If I am portioning hamburger into smaller amounts for freezing, I can almost feel her staring at me, getting ready to ask for a taste. And if I drop something on the floor, it's no longer accidentally-on-purpose, it's just an accident. And I will have to pick it up myself. Talking like she is still around doesn't mean we have lost our minds. We lost out heart to this precious little dog. These moments are our way of celebrating our life with her and our love for her, and expressing how much we miss the sous-chef.



Paris surveys the Thanksgiving 2011 feast she helped prepare.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Notes For Neighbors

I've spent a goodish amount of time as an apartment dweller. And I like it. If anything needs to be repaired, we simply notify the office and things are restored, free of charge. We don't have to mow, weed, or water. I find this to be a particular relief because as a person who lives with lupus, I really can't handle all of that sun. And if the spirit should move us, and our bodies and bank accounts are willing, we can move if we wish. Not to say that we will; we love where we live now.

We try to be good neighbors. If we are having insomnia and watching the telly  late at night, we are mindful of the sound level. Trent will probably get a chuckle over that and say that I hound him to keep the sound down. We don't run our washer and dryer very late, and when Paris was alive, we tried to make sure we didn't play noisy games with her late at night. Not that we are paragons of virtue. We are only human. Awake time for us might be sleepy time for others. It takes all kinds of working hours to keep the world running.

Our complex, although located very near a quite-busy intersection, is fairly quiet and peaceful. The buildings are only two floors, four apartments per floor. Every apartment is a corner apartment. We have a lovely clubhouse with a workout room, theater, and computers. One of the two swimming pools is about a sixty-second walk away from our front door. So we have a good thing going here.

But no matter where you go, you are bound to have some interesting neighbors. One lovely evening, our friends Marie and Thayne picked us up and took us out to dinner. We arrived at home with out tummies satisfied, and were ready to just lounge about the rest of the evening. Until we saw something just, well, disturbing. As I got out of the car and turned toward our building, I saw our upstairs neighbor through his dining-room window. Our dining room windows have a lovely window seat, and coverings in the form of blinds. Here was our neighbor in front of the window and talking on the telephone. Bare-behind naked. Yes, indeedy, folks. Right there for anyone of any age to see, was a flat-behinded, bulging-bellied, fish-belly-white, hairy naked man. "Ew!" I exclaimed, "I just ate!" Followed by, "Ow, my eyes!"

Our friends were equally surprised, especially when he sat down briefly and then proceeded to pace back and forth in front of the window. It was a true train wreck situation - too horrible to watch, and to horrible not to watch. Hey, I'm no prude. If you want to run around in your own home bare-butt naked, I am fine with it. It helps you keep cool in the summertime. But not everyone wants to see your bare behind. Interestingly enough, one day these people just up and left without even taking their furniture with them. After a few months passed, their furniture and other things were moved out so the apartment could be re-leased. There was a lovely leather sofa sitting in front of the building, and Trent said, "Wow, that's a nice sofa!" I panicked, thinking he might want to have it. "No way! I don't want anything his sweaty testicles have been sitting on!" We both got a chuckle out of my panic. Trent was just observing that they had left some decent furniture behind. Whew.

Today, we came home from a grocery-shopping trip to see a young couple enjoying one another's company on their balcony. And I mean really enjoying. I'm not sure what it is that makes people unaware that people can see what they're doing. Did they miss an important connection in their developing baby-brains? I know that babies, if they can't see you, will think that you are gone. Maybe that's what's going on here. Kinda like people who can't see outside at night because all that's in the window is their reflection, and don't realize that everyone else is getting a fantastic view of every little thing they do.

Inspired by these two incidents, and things that other people I know like or don't like, I have a few notes for neighbors, wherever you are:

Not everyone wants to see your nekkid behind. Or your privates, or little general, or whatever you want to call it. It is also possible that they don't want their two-year-old asking all kinds of questions about what they saw in the window. So follow this simple rule - if the window isn't covered, you should be. Thank you very much.

Your neighbors don't necessarily want to see you getting busy on the balcony. Refer to two-year-olds in the previous scenario. 

Please don't run a dryer full of sneakers at eleven p.m. You might just give someone a heart attack.

That's about it. Not too much complaining. Just remember the brilliant words of Bill and Ted. Be excellent to each other. And party on, dudes! (Quietly, if it's about two a.m.!)

Monday, May 6, 2013

Confusion

I am so confused. Yesterday was a normal Sunday, filled with normal Sunday stuff. I made a hearty, sort of old-fashioned casserole for dinner and watched the final episode of The Amazing Race. Some of you may be thinking that is a dorky thing to do, but I love getting little glimpses of places and customs around the world that I might never see otherwise. So the evening faded into night, and eventually we were ready for sleep. I asked Trent if we had plans to go anywhere the next morning. I had been hurting and feeling worn out quite a bit over the weekend. If you've ever heard anyone say lupus is not your friend, or that fibromyalgia is not your friend, let me tell you this: having both of them together can be like a day at a cheap carnival funhouse...not very much fun.

After I confirmed that I had nowhere to go, I decided to take half of a prescription muscle relaxer before going to bed. In a fairly short time, I was a passenger on the Sleep Deep Express. No local; too many stops and starts. The name Sleep Deep Express is a bit of an oxymoron, I suppose. It might imply that the journey is over quickly. Hah! I slept for more than ten hours. I woke up and started to ease into my day. I picked up my tablet and checked out the activity on Facebook. It's a quick way for me to keep on top of what my friends and family are doing, and how they're feeling. I saw a post from Melissa, a friend that Trent and I both adore, saying that today was definitely a Monday. "What's up with that?", I thought, "today is Tuesday." Maybe Melissa had Monday off?

I moved on to Google+ where I follow a larger group of people than I do on Facebook. I saw a post about Muffin Mondays; some foodies like to post their tasty muffin recipes on that day of the week. Wow, I'm thinking, my girl Melissa isn't the only one who is a day behind. Then there were a whole lot of posts about today being the day that people really needed to have an extra cup of coffee, and right away. In between were posts by people who were commenting about overdoing it during the weekend. A lot of people were saying that they had simply taken on too many chores and fun and other runnings-around on those precious two days off. I started to feel like the world was totally out of sync. Why were so many people a day behind sharing their stories?

Finally, I said to Trent, "What day is it?" And while he was answering that it was Monday, I kept speaking, saying that everyone was posting Monday-ish stuff, and today was Tuesday. But it isn't. It is Monday. I actually had to backtrack what I had done and cooked and eaten the night before. Zounds! See what happens when you take (prescription) drugs, kids? You don't even know what day it is any more! 

Suddenly I was reminded of something that happened several times between me and Gram during her twilight years. She would take a nap in the afternoon and sleep very deeply, just like I did last night. When she woke up, she would be convinced it was the next day. The first time it happened, I came home from a movie matinee to a very angry but relieved Gram. "It's a good thing you came home. I was just on the phone with Liz, and she's calling the police to report you missing." Why?" I said. "I just went to a movie!" She went on to accuse me of leaving the previous afternoon and never coming home. She had gone to bed, and when she woke up, I still wasn't home. After quite a bit of convincing that it was the same day, she called Liz and told her that the police could quit their search, I was home safe.

There were a few times when she called me at work, panicked that I had never come home the night before. She had taken her nearly-coma nap, woke up and made breakfast, and fed the dog. But I wasn't there. Why had I not come home? Finally I came upon a small but brilliant way to make her realize that it was the same day. When she told me that she had put the dog out and made her coffee and breakfast, I asked the question. "When you opened the front door to see if my car was there, was the morning newspaper on the porch? No? That's because it's the same day, Gram. Everything is okay. I'll see you in a few hours. I love you."

I'm glad now that I was patient with Gram when she had those moments. She wasn't suffering from dementia or Alzheimer's or anything. She had just slept so soundly and thoroughly that she woke up feeling like she had slept all night. Hey, I occasionally lose track of what the day of the week it is even without the Sleep Deep Express, and have known other people to do it as well. We try to keep track of so may things it's no wonder we occasionally fall into a state of confusion. Now that my mind is clear and I know for certain what day it is, I think I will heat up some of my casserole for lunch. After all,  I slept right through breakfast. On whatever day it was...

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Today Is Our Birthday

Just over a year ago, I asked some friends and family members, "If I wrote a blog, would you read it?" Their responses were all positive, so a year ago today, I sat down at the computer and wrote my first blog post.When I started, I was writing every day. My stats were dismal; no matter how many people said they had read it, I was seeing totals of three people reading my stuff. It was pretty rough. I also had to pull back and give myself permission to not write every day. What was the point if it became a chore, after all? Trent would tell me not to look at the numbers, because I wasn't writing for the numbers, I was writing for myself.

Then one day, something surprising happened. There was a comment on my blog from someone I didn't know. Someone from Canada, no less! I'm not saying that Canada was the most exotic location in which I had readers. I do have relatives in Hungary that read my work. I have no idea how she discovered my ravings, but I was glad that she did. After I signed up for Google+, I noticed that there was an option to share my blog posts. Should I, I wondered? Well, I decided to go for it. I found that there are some people out there in the great data-beyond that enjoyed my writing, they just needed to know I was doing it. I hesitated to tell you that part; I don't want you to think I joined G+ to increase my blog readership. I didn't. I took a look at this amazing and varied meeting place and decided I just had to belong. Adding links to my blog posts after being there a while was just a bonus.

So a year has passed since I began writing these little bits of my thoughts, experiences, opinions, and moments both happy and sad. This is my 145th post, which averages out to one post every two and a half days, which sort of makes me feel like a slacker. During the past fiscal year, Trent had two surgeries, one of which was a kidney transplant. I got bifocals, which has been interesting, to say the least. Our car broke down and was not repairable. Much worse than that, we had to say goodbye to the most precious thing in our lives, our dog Paris. We still miss her, and probably always will. Two people I know have given birth to lovely baby girls, both in December. We traveled with friends to Disney World. My friend's son died, and her third grandchild was born the same day. And we had to say farewell to our dog-friend Bowie.

Even while there were tons of things going on, I kept writing. I started carrying little notepads with me so that I could write down ideas. Sometimes they were for titles, sometimes content. Heaven knows how many more posts I'd have at this point if I could remember all of the brilliant ideas I lost track of. I'm glad I started writing, and I am going to continue. Trent was right; although I always hope that someone might laugh or think or even cry because of what I write, I am also doing it for me. Not in a selfish way; if so, it would be called a journal, not a blog. It has given me great pleasure, and sometimes catharsis, to be able to share these vignettes with others. Sure, it might be fun to have a best-selling book and have to struggle with who would portray me in the movie based on my ravings. But right now, I am happy with what I have. It seems to be working for me.

I don't know how long I will want to do this, but I haven't lost my desire to write. So stick with me, please. We have many miles left to travel together.