Saturday, December 26, 2009

Meow Culpa

The Old Man got very upset the other day because he found out I had called him the Old Man in the blog. He said to Mom, "What's this "Old Man" #&%*@? Did you get a boyfriend or something?" Well, you could have knocked me over with a mousie! In the cat world, all the dads are called Old Man because we usually don't know for sure which one is our actual dad. Sometimes there are a couple of dads for the same litter; it can get confusing. To cats, Old Man is a title of respect and a certain amount of fear. They are fearsome creatures, scarred up from fighting and everything. It's best to keep your distance.

But I guess to people, it means something else. I'm not sure what, but I know he did not like it. So, in the ancient words of cat spirituality, I say to Dad, "Meow culpa, meow culpa, meow maxima culpa. I will not call you anything but Dad from now on. Oh, and I am pretty sure Mom doesn't have any boyfriends. I have never smelled an outsider male person on her and I get to smell her a lot when I snuggle."

Now that I've taken care of that, I will say a few words about Christmas Day at our house. Tori woke up Mom and Dad at 3:00 a.m. and wanted to go open presents. Mom and Dad BOTH said the %$*&@$* words and told her to go back to bed. She did - after she went in the kitchen and ate snacks. We cats have never gotten a snack at 3:00 a.m. and I would like to figure out how to open the big box so we could do that, too.

Well, I suppose you can guess that Mom could not go back to sleep and Dad didn't get good sleep either. He said he tossed and turned. Just what he was tossing and turning is unclear to me, but I know it was not treats or cat toys. At least he stayed in bed. Mom went in her working room and turned on her machine. I don't really like that machine because Mom won't let me jump up and walk around it or sleep in front of it, like she let's me at her computer.

I tried to jump up and she said, "No, Smudge," and it scared me and I slipped. That made me grab with my claws and part of what I grabbed was Mom's leg, which made her yell again. I got out of there before she could yell anymore, but later she did say sorry to me and that she knew it was an accident.

By 7:00 a.m. both Mom and Dad were up, but not Tori. Dad made himself a breakfast taco and Mom made caramel rolls. The breakfast taco smelled really, really good; the caramel rolls not so much, but Mom and Dad really like them. Dad says they are better because Mom makes them from scratch.

This is a confusing idea for me. I asked Trixie if she knew what"from scratch" meant, but she just hissed and walked away from me. And there's no point in asking Frankie, as we all know. So I am still confused. What I scratch is not anything even a cat would want to eat, although I've heard that some dogs are known to sink that low.

Back to Christmas. When Mom and Dad finished eating, they made Tori get up even though she didn't want to anymore. And then they found a lot of things piled in the living room and more things wrapped in paper under the tree. I am not impressed with this Christmas business in the least. First of all, I was prowling the house, doing my guard duty, when the guy they call Santa came by with gifts. He was in and out so fast he didn't even leave presents for Frankie, the mean cat, or me.

Can you believe that? Maybe the mean cat didn't deserve one, but Frankie and I have been very, very good all year except for one or two small lapses caused by over excitement. (That's my story and I am sticking to it.) So we should have gotten something from Santa.

The second reason I'm not impressed with Christmas is that if it wasn't for our cousins Kasey and Coffee, we would not even have ANY presents. They gave us lovely cat treats, just the kind we like best, but no one else got us anything. So I say, "Bah Junebug," to Christmas.

Tori didn't like Christmas very much either. She was disappointed, I could tell. Dad said, "This is your first grown-up Christmas and you still want a kid's Christmas." But she got gift cards and a lot of money from her Grandma, so today she bought things that made her happy. So now she is excited about Christmas and it is already over. Go figure!

Alix and Adam came over, too, but not until afternoon. I could hear a lot of laughing, so I know everyone had fun, but I had to stay in the bedroom with Frankie because he just gets terrified when outside people come in our house. Trixie does, too, and then she is not so mean to us and let's us get on Mom and Dad's bed with her. I think Trixie would be happier (and nicer) if she would relax a little. She seems very anxious all the time and I know the 'rents are worried about her because she keeps getting smaller and smaller.

If she would not hiss at us, Frankie and I could snuggle up with her and keep her warm, and groom her so her coat didn't look unkempt, and entertain her with our tricks and games. But it doesn't seem as if she will ever relax about Frankie and me. Too bad for her.

After Christmas there was a pretty big mess of stuff on the floor in the living room. Sometimes our people would rummage around in the mess and pull something out. Then they played quietly for a while. It is nice to see people relax and play. They should do it more often. That, and nap more. Who was it that asked, "Why can't people be more like cats?" (I think it was in a song.)

Let's hope New Year's Eve is more entertaining than Christmas.


Wednesday, December 23, 2009

"He's Not Heavy, He's My Brother"

Mom is back in her room for making things. She told the Old Man that when she finished this present, she would be done for Christmas. I hope so, because she has not had much time for me lately. Last night I got my first good snuggle in a long time without Frankie S. butting in.

Frankie is my younger brother. We don't have the same father, but that really doesn't matter to cats. (And it shouldn't matter to people, either, IMHO.) Mom whispered Frankie, Lovie (his twin sister), and Little Bit into our house last June. She didn't want them to grow up wild like our birth mother. We had five cats in this house and that is a lot more cats than anyone should have. In fact, the perfect number of cats to adopt is ONE and it should be ME!!!! (Are you listening, Mom?)

Mom and the Old Man built this cage thing to keep the kittens from running all over the place. At night, they put them in the hallway bathroom so the could run around and play. I got kind of put out, because Mom spent an awful lot of time playing with them instead of me. Finally, she got rid of my two sisters. A nice lady came over with her four people-kittens and they picked Lovie and Little Bit and took them home.

That left Frankie. I know they planned to give Frankie away, but it never seemed to work out. When they found a place that would take him, he ran away! In fact, that kitten ran away two times before he settled down, and he brought us all fleas the second time!! The fleas made me get a b-a-t-h. I hate fleas.

One day, Mom told the O.M. that I liked to play with Frankie and they should let me have him for MY pet. And then they laughed, like it was real funny. They should know that no one can own a cat. Cats own themselves and sometimes people, but we are clever enough to let the people imagine they are the "owners." Mom was right about me liking to play with Frankie. After living with two old, crotchety cats who wouldn't know a real mouse from a toy, I wanted more action and Frankie provided lots of action.

The problem with Frankie is that he is not as ... gifted... as I am. I say this in all humility; I am a tuxedo cat and Frankie is not. Mom oohs and aahs over his fur because "It is the softest fur I have ever touched anywhere," but Frankie is still scared of people a lot and she doesn't get to pet him or brush him as often as she wants.

Here's the bad part. Whenever Mom plays with me, or brushes me, or snuggles me, or even when I sleep on Mom's chest with my head tucked under her chin, Frankie sticks his big nose in. He is not afraid of them if they are being nice to me. I hardly ever get any attention just for me anymore. Plus, he wants to sleep on my cat condo. The old cats never wanted to do that. I admit it has plenty of sleeping places and even a hiding place, and jumping off places, but it is mine and always has been.

It must seem like I don't like Frankie, but I really do. Besides, he needs me because he is ... how shall I put it? ... dumb! We get wet food in the morning and at night, and while Trixie (the mean cat) and I are gobbling ours up, Frankie just stands there looking confused. So every time, Mom has to scoot him over to his food and say, "This is yours, Frankie." And he gets very excited about our evening treats when she opens the treat jar, but if she doesn't put the treats right under his nose he gets all frantic and crazy looking for the treats until she helps him.

I heard Mom talking to the O. M. and she said, "I think Frankie doesn't see well and that's his problem. His eyes are a little crossed, after all." Now I'm a cat, and I'm his big brother, and I'm telling you: Frankie is as dumb as a stump. But we'll let Mom think it's his eyes. After all, he's not getting any little cat glasses any time soon, now, is he?

So that's a little bit more about my brother Frankie. And, BTW, he IS heavy, he already outweighs me. But if he thinks he can be the boss cat around here, he is so wrong. I'm already letting Trixie know that I am boss now.


Sunday, December 20, 2009

Smudge at Your Service

My Mom is busy in the room where she makes things. (I love to go in there now because she has lots of interesting things on the floor called scraps and they are fun to bat around and pounce on.) Mom doesn't know I am doing this, so don't tell her.

She hasn't been using her computer very much to write things lately. I'm pretty sure this is bothering her because I heard her telling the Old Man that someone sent her an anonymous email accusing her of being remiss. Whatever remiss means, she felt bad about it. Also, she overheard two other friends at a Christmas party saying she hadn't posted since October. Even though she feels bad about letting people down, she told the Old Man, she just couldn't post because her heart wasn't in it. So it seems to me that Mom needs some help.

My name is Smudge. I am a very handsome tuxedo cat. I'm not bragging. Mom says that all the time, so I know it's true. I live here with my younger brother, Frankie S., and a mean old cat named Trixie. We used to have another old cat, Jack, who was the boss cat, but he went away a while ago and he never came back. He had gone away a few times and then come back smelling funny, but this time he just disappeared. Mom and the Old Man were pretty upset, so I think something bad happened to Jack.

Mom went away and was gone so long I didn't think she was coming back, but finally she did. I felt so relived. (The Old Man tries hard, but he has a lot to learn about snuggling cats. Cats always say you can't teach old people new tricks, so I guess I shouldn't be too hard on him. He tries.) Anyway, while she was gone for a long time, her father went away and he didn't come back either. That upset Mom and the Old Man more than I've ever seen.

After she came back so sad, Jack disappeared. And after that there was a lot of commotion about holidays and she didn't seem to have much time for us. And, I hate to tell you, we found out that when Frankie escaped that time, he brought back fleas and gave them to all of us! It's embarrassing, but it's the truth. Mom really, really hates fleas and she was yelling about it a lot. Which is kind of dumb (sorry Mom) because everyone knows fleas can't understand people talk or cat talk for that matter. Or if they can, they pretend they can't.

So many things happened this fall that Mom got what's called a flare with her disease. I haven't seen this often, but I've only been here a year. The mean cat has been here 15 years and she told us that sometimes Mom got so sick she had to stay in bed all the time. That doesn't sound too bad to me, but apparently it is bad for people. No one wants her to get real sick like that, especially the Old Man, so he makes her rest. That isn't too hard, because every time she sits in her big chair, she falls asleep anyway.

So I guess that's why she hasn't been writing. She had to go away for a long time, then people and cats started disappearing, then the holidays came (and they haven't disappeared yet), and then she started her sleeping problem. Which is where I come in.

On December 27, 2008, Mom saved my life. She whispered me in from the backyard when I was very, very cold, and I was sick, and my real mom had disappeared. (She did come back, though. I see her out the window everyday now when the Old Man feeds hers.) I felt plenty scared of inside, I'll tell you, but I felt sicker than scared, so I let her tuck me inside her sweater thing and carry me around for a few weeks until the medicine I got at the sick animal place started working. By then, we had adopted each other and she's been my Mom ever since.

So that's why I am helping her out with her writing. I never thought I could write this much, but I am a tuxedo cat and everyone knows how smart we are. Poor Frankie, my little brother, is not a tuxedo cat, and you can really tell, but that's another story.


Monday, October 05, 2009

Fourth and Final Vacation Report

I am finally finishing my report of vacation doings. It has taken a long time. I wonder why that is ... oh, well, time flies when you're having fun!

Our 4th big adventure happened at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art. We were lucky enough to have our return stay in OKC coincide with the museum's late night. After we checked into our hotel, we took short naps, then headed out to find the Art. Actually, we were quite close, although I was glad to have my GPS along. OKC has a lot of twisty and one-way streets that would have been difficult to navigate from a map.

The museum itself is nestled between downtown buildings. It looks more incorporated with the business community than our art museums in Houston. They are in a separate Museum District. The glass-fronted building immediately revealed an unexpected treasure: A three-story, 2,100-object glass sculpture by a famous glass artist named Dale Chihuly. This lovely piece of art is titled the Kirkpatrick Memorial Tower. (Click on the name to see a photo of it.)

We first learned about Chihuly at the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft, a wonderful public art gallery and artists-in-residence workplace, when they sponsored an glass art exhibit last year. Along with glass from many artists, there was a film about Chihuly, his vast glass art facility, and techniques of blowing/making art glass. It fascinated me, partly because son Nick made beautiful glass art in college.

That exhibit had primed me for anything Chihuly. It turned out that the OKC Museum of Art has the largest collection of Dale Chihuly's work in the country. (His wife came from there, so he has roots in Oklahoma.) Once I heard that, I got excited. My excitement doubled when the guard told me that photography - even flash photography - was permitted in the Chihuly galleries. I immediately left to get my camera out of the car.

If you clicked on Chihuly's name in the paragraph above, you saw photographs of his exhibit. (If you didn't, do it now!) I cannot begin to describe them to you in words because they are so lush, so exotic, so mindblowingly beautiful that I would be writing for the rest of the day.

I took 234 photographs of the glass pieces. And I got a little revenge on Michael. I cannot tell you how many times I have stood around waiting for him to finish taking pictures. This time it was him waiting around instead of me! LOL

My plan is to use 15 of those photographs for my Houston Photographic Society portfolio review next week. In a portfolio review, several professional photographers evaluate your work and give you feedback in a kind of round robin manner. With this information, the photographer being reviewed can learn what needs to be done to improve the images and/or market them.

Turning pictures of glass art into good photographs is actually very difficult and I have struggled with it despite having taken so many pictures. I want my portfolio to be top-notch, with no amateur mistakes. Wish me luck on that.

Take a trip to Oklahoma City sometime and see the glass art galleries for yourself. They are gorgeous and you will be glad you did.

And that, along with the previous three blogs I posted, is what I did on my summer vacation. It was truly a good time.


Friday, September 25, 2009

Vacation Reveries Part 3

As promised, here is part three of my travelogue about vacationing in Grand Forks, North Dakota last month.

In 1997, Grand Forks experienced one of the most devastating floods in U.S. history. The Red River, which incidentally flows north to Lake Winnipeg in Canada, overflowed its banks, forcing 60,000 people from their homes. Flood waters filled the entire city and, to make matters worse, downtown Grand Forks started burning after the flood hit. Because fire trucks could not get through the flooded streets the fire burned out of control, destroying 11 buildings in the process.

Grand Forks has a sister city, East Grand Forks, which is just across the Red River on the Minnesota side. It too was devastated by the flood, with every home in the town under water. Between Grand Forks and East Grand Forks, the scale of destruction was enormous.

The basement of my sister's home flooded, but not the upper floors. When my dad built the house, he put the electrical junction box/circuit breaker panel in the garage for his own convenience although builders usually put them in the basement. This decision helped my sister and b-i-l very much because they had electricity after the flood, which most people did not have.

During the evacuation, their family got separated. My sister, b-i-l, and niece went to Bismarck to stay with one of our brothers. Their son ended up in Fargo with his very pregnant girlfriend. Her parents ended up in Minnesota. The teen-aged couple delivered their baby in a strange city with not one family member or acquaintance present to help or support them. (Fortunately, that turned out well. The baby is now a good-looking 12-year-old with two very darling little sisters.)

That's the background for telling you about the Greenway. The two towns decided to prevent a similar disaster by protecting the land in the expanded flood plain from development. To this end, they built the Greenway, 2,200 acres of open space developed and maintained for recreation in the heart of Grand Forks and East Grand Forks. The Greenway is comprised of several parks, a campground, 2 golf courses, disc golf courses, not to mention more than 20 miles of multi-purpose trails, and shorebank fishing sites.

The campground is very slick. A large area of homes in East Grand Forks disappeared due to the flood, either washing away during it or being torn down after. Those in the flood plain could not be rebuilt, but the streets remained, the driveways remained, the sewer, electric, and gas connections remained - a perfect set up for a campground!

Michael and I decided to check out the Greenway. It is only three blocks east of my old house, so we walked over one morning. My old neighborhood remains about the same as I remember it except that the trees are much bigger and the streets correspondingly shadier. Crossing over to the Greenway, we walked through a small heritage park with historic homes I had never seen before. Apparently they were moved to that spot sometime after I left home in 1968. The wall of the levee rises immediately behind the historic homes. We walked another block to an entrance, which happened to also be the entrance to Lincoln Park golf course.

My most vivid memories of Lincoln Park are tobogganing down its hills in winter. Piled with the accumulated snow of a North Dakota winter and perhaps exaggerated by my tender age, those remembered hills were much taller and steeper than the gentle low hillocks visible to me as we entered the Greenway. Michael had his camera - of course - and we decided to take a little walk on the trail. We turned south so that we would be closer to home when we exited. The thing is, we had no idea how far we would be walking to find an exit. The pathway stretched ahead of us, meandering in lazy curves with a steep hill on our right - the levee itself - and the gentle slope down through trees to the river some distance away on our left.

We walked a long way. Sometimes we saw the rooftops of homes adjacent to the levee. In other places, you would think we were in the country. Periodically we came upon park benches set under trees, an amenity we would be thankful for after we had been walking for a while. A bicyclist passed us on the trail but we saw no one else, perhaps because it was a weekday and people were at work. I started to flag; walking or standing for more than 15 or 20 minutes puts a big strain on my hip and knee joints because of my lupus. Since there didn't seem to be any point in backtracking when we must be coming to an exit, we rested on a bench until I felt ready to keep walking.

The opening in the levee wall appeared at 32nd Avenue. We had entered the Greenway at 23rd Avenue. Nine blocks doesn't seem like such a long walk, but we had started out at 28th Avenue and now had to walk back to it and we had also walked three blocks east of our home base. Altogether we walked twenty-four blocks. I felt relieved when we got back home and I could sit on the sofa and lounge!

Another adventure we took involved driving to the University of North Dakota to see an exhibit at the North Dakota Fine Arts Museum. I had been to UND many times in my childhood because my dad worked on campus. He was assistant director of the state public health laboratory officed there when I was a child and going into his office had been a treat for me. The fellow who was my dad's boss, Mel, always had a piece of chocolate candy for me, the kind wrapped in shiny tinfoil and sometimes a small gift from a trip or something. I don't know why I received these tokens of affection from Mel, but they came with no strings attached and I looked forward to them.

The lab smelled funny, chemical smells and some animal smells. They kept white mice at the lab and periodically we would get to bring a couple of white mice home as pets. The mice scared me. I had been the first person to come upon an unfortunate scene of mouse-cannibalism among our pet mice as a preschooler and I never trusted mice after that.

UND has grown tremendously since my last visit. The English Coulee, a creek that used to be at the far western edge of the campus, now runs through the middle of it. One of the new buildings housed the art museum we were looking for. After a few wrong turns and wrong buildings, we finally found it. We wanted to see a photographic exhibit I had read about on the Internet. The photographer, Chuck Kimmerle, has had a career primarily as a photojournalist and this was his first solo exhibition. The show was named "The Desolate Landscape."

I hate to describe the work because I cannot do it justice. Be sure to follow the link I included above so you can see his work for yourself. Kimmerle photographs with a large format camera. This means that he can get exquisite detail from a long way off. He has photographed North Dakota's endless expanses, winter and summer, in a way that renders them mystical and sacred. The photographs look beautiful on the Internet, but seeing them in person, printed 20-inches by 24-inches, is literally breathtaking. I felt bad that no catalogue of the show had been printed because I wanted to take all the images home with me.

The final "big" adventure of our time in Grand Forks was the visit to Jennifer Patterson's studio in Alvarado, Minnesota. Jennifer owns Quilted in Clay and makes beautiful jewelry in the form of miniature quilts and quilt blocks. I met her at the Houston Quilt Festival last year and purchased the loveliest set of earrings and a matching necklace from her. Recognizing Alvarado, I introduced myself as being from the area. She said I should call her if I came for a visit and that is just what I did.

My parents and sister & b-i-l joined Michael and I on the trip to Alvarado. Jennifer and her husband Bruce actually live outside of town on a lush farmstead. Driving up the last mile or so on a gravel road, we passed an old, weathered building, a grain mill perhaps, overlooking a creek right at our turn into their front yard. As it happens, they own the old building and hope to renovate it into a guest cottage. Another old building they own sits right near their parking area - an old one-room school house.

Their own house is a classic rural Victorian with a welcoming front porch, a friendly dog, and a large and imposing goose. Apparently the dog is totally harmless, but the goose is not! A large truck garden and several trees heavily laden with fruit surround their house. Bruce and Jennifer came outside to meet us and graciously invited us in. We walked through the kitchen where Bruce was putting up plum preserves. The kitchen table had rows and rows of stacked mason jars full of plum jam and the canning kettle boiled away on the stove.

While Bruce went back to his preserves, Jennifer took us into the dining room and showed us a tall stack of plastic bins full of her jewelry. She invited us to go through them and pick out whatever we wanted to buy and pointed out some bins with sale items in them. What a lot of fun we women had going through that jewelry, each piece lovelier than the next. Janet and I quickly found things we liked, but Mother doesn't have pierced ears and thought she wouldn't be able to get any. Fortunately, Jennifer makes clip on as well as pierced earrings, so in the end, all three of us purchased something we liked.

The exquisite detail on such tiny pieces just boggles my mind and I asked Jennifer how she made the jewelry. She was kind enough to show us her studio and demonstrate her technique. Jennifer uses the techniques of millefiori, an ancient and famous glass making tradition and applies them to clay. As you will see when you look at her website, the results in clay are really beautiful. She will be back at the Quilt Festival in Houston in mid-October, so if you are interested, you can see her pieces there.

That is it for adventures in Grand Forks. The rest of my time was spent with my parents and family. Mother gave me more tutoring in quilting techniques and helped me get my current quilt sandwiched together, helped me design the templates for the stitching, and then encouraged me to get started. Quilting a queen-sized bedspread is daunting, but mine is well underway thanks to Mother. Michael went out and photographed several times without me, but I haven't seen the results yet.

When we returned home, we stopped again at my brother and s-i-l's in Omaha for another nice evening of home hospitality. We drove back to Oklahoma City on a Thursday. We had a plan for OKC - to visit the the Fine Arts Museum which happens to stay open late on Thursday nights. That is the final chapter in my vacation saga. I didn't really intend to go on and on like this, but it turned out to be a great vacation and I don't want to leave out any of the good stuff!

So, as soon as I can, but before it turns into October, I will finish up with my tale of the Dale Chihuly glass exhibit at the Oklahoma City Museum of Fine Arts.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Vacation Reveries Part 2

I left off my vacation reveries with our time in my hometown, Grand Forks, North Dakota..

After Thomas Wolfe published his novel "You Can't Go Home Again" in 1940, the notion that you can't return to your childhood home because it has changed and you have changed achieved the status of cliche in American culture. Somewhat mangled into "You can never go home again," this adage is well-known and frequently cited. The Google search I conducted a moment ago brought up 47,000 citations for the phrase. But I think you can go home again if you have the right attitude.

Perhaps this feeling stems from the fact that I actually did stay in my childhood house during my vacation. My sister Janet - the only sister I have among six siblings - and her husband Dave - who was in my high school class - purchased my parents' home when my father became chief of laboratory services for the state of North Dakota and moved to Bismarck, the capital. This is not to say that the house remains the same as I remember it.

In their thirty-odd years of occupancy, Janet and Dave have made many wonderful improvements and updates to the house. Nature aided them somewhat in this endeavor by inundating the whole town in 1997 in a terrible flood that forced them to replace outdated equipment, like the old furnace. Other changes they made without catastrophic prompting, like renovating and redesigning the kitchen and creating a master suite out of the old master bedroom and an adjacent bedroom. Everything turned out very well and, oddly, the house retains the same ambiance it had when I lived there as a child.

It has always been a special house. My mother designed it for the needs of her large family and my father built it with the help of my brothers, a carpenter, and the carpenter's helper. It had nothing in common with typical tract homes of the 1950s. I'd venture that its New England saltbox silhouette is still unique in Grand Forks.

One of mother's special touches was a laundry chute from the upstairs bathroom through the first floor bathroom and then into a hamper in the basement bathroom adjacent to her laundry room. We may have carried clean laundry up the stairs, but we never had to carry it down!

Another special touch was in the kitchen. A set of cupboards hung above the dishwasher and sink, like a suspended island between the kitchen and dining room. The doors opened from both sides, so you could set the table in the dining room and unload the dishwasher in the kitchen and put the dishes in the same place. Also, the simple fact that we had three full bathrooms in 1959 was marvelous, but that is the one place where my mother missed the boat.

Four boys and one girl slept in upstairs bedrooms. Being the one girl had its perks, like my own bedroom (with very nice Ethan Allen furnishings because it was the guest room, too). The boys doubled up in two other bedrooms. The final two kids hadn't appeared yet, but when they eventually did, they slept in the extra bedroom downstairs until a few of us older kids grew up and left home, letting them "move up." But the upstairs had one big flaw, especially from my point-of-view - only one bathroom.

Mother had done quite a good job designing that bathroom. The commode and shower/tub had a locking door so you could have privacy without tying up the rest of the facilities. The main area had two sinks and lots of cabinet space for linens and storage. So far so good. But mother could have - dare I say should have? - divided it into two bathrooms, one off my bedroom and one off the hallway for the boys.

I admit I would have loved to have my own private bathroom for selfish reasons, but it was completely justifiable from a guest's standpoint, too. Many, many years later I asked Mother why she hadn't put two bathrooms upstairs. "It never occurred to me that you would need privacy. After all, you were only nine years old when we moved into that house," she told me. I have pictures of myself at that age and, with my flat chest, pigtails, and freckles, I admit young womanhood did not seem to be eminent, so I have to give Mother a pass on this.

Now that you have an idea about my state of mind relative to returning "home," I can move on to our activities. They included long walks on the beautifully-conceived flood plain greenway built after the terrible water disaster in '97, a fabulous photo exhibit at the North Dakota Fine Arts Museum, and a trip to an artist's studio in Alvarado, Minnesota that I had been planning for a long time.

I will move on to the activities, but not tonight. I need to pace myself or I'll be up too late and that will make it hard for me to get to my morning Artist Way group meeting. As the Mouseketeers used to say, "See you real soon!"


Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Frankie's Back!!

Our missing kitten, Frankie S. (named for Frank Sinatra because he has big blue eyes) is back in the house. For those of you who don't know about the feral kittens I whispered into the house in June, Frankie and his two sisters lived with us for several weeks while we looked for homes for them. The sisters, Lovie and Little Bit, were adopted by our friends the Crawfords and they have new names to go with their new family. Frankie stayed with us, although it was not intended to be permanent.

Michael decided to take him to our vet for a feline leukemia test. We wanted to let him loose in the house and needed to be sure he wasn't a danger to our other cats. On the way to the car, Frankie discovered that the door of the crate was not latched securely and he made a break! Before Michael could even react, Frankie hit the pavement and bounded across the street.

We've had sightings off and on in the month since then. He regularly came to our house to eat, but we were not able to coax him back inside. This is where having our A/C break down worked out for the best. We have had the windows open to keep the air moving through the house. And Frankie showed up at the window to chat through the screen with Smudge, who is his half brother, soon after we opened them.

When we had the three kittens, they all loved Smudge and wanted cuddle up to him. Smudge took a somewhat dim view of this, possibly because it was three on one, but he seemed happy enough to have visits with Frankie through the screen window. (Perhaps Smudge's recent stay at Coffee and Casey's house while we were gone helped him to be more flexible, too.)

I decided to try to whisper Frankie back in the house. I fed him wet cat food through the back door and I sat near the food bowl when I put kibble out for him. As long as I didn't look at him, Frankie was willing to eat with me two feet away, although he did seem nervous. Michael started talking to him through the screen, too, and he didn't run away.

But Smudge did the whispering this time. We opened our back door a little, Smudge sat just inside the house and said hi to Frankie, and Frankie walked right in for some love. After his tail came inside, I simply closed the door. Voila! Frankie's back.

This should not be confused with "Frankie's happy to be inside." He is anxious about Michael and me, and Trixie is being mean and hissy to him (as she is with Smudge and even Jack sometimes). Jack, being king of the hill, ignores Frankie altogether. Smudge acts pretty nice towards him, though, and it is sweet to see Frankie snuggle up for a head washing from Smudge.

We don't kid ourselves that Frankie is a natural house cat. I doubt that wouldl work with him even if we wanted four cats inside. And I'm afraid he's too set in his ways to get adopted at this point. The plan is this: We will get Frankie neutered at our vet's and have his ear notched like they do for feral cats. Then Frankie can come and go as he pleases and be an outside cat at our house if inside is too scary. By notching his ear, we are certifying that he has been fixed and has had a rabies shot at least once, which should help if he is ever picked up by the authorities.

I like Frankie S. a lot and I am quite happy that Smudge whispered him back into our house. This time, we are going to get him taken care of with no escaping. After he's fixed and healed, we'll give him his freedom if he wants it. I'm fairly certain he will.

The rest of the vacation story will have to wait.


Monday, August 31, 2009

Vacation Fun and Dead A/C Blues

Arriving home from a really enjoyable vacation with family in lovely, cool weather to a Texas home that registers 93 degrees at 8:00 pm seems like a bad practical joke. Our first thought? Someone turned the heat on by accident. Okay, it seems far-fetched, but we did not want to face the possibility of our A/C unit being on the blink.

We have lived in this house for 17 years. We have replaced floors, repaired or replaced a variety of major appliances, installed new storage systems, and, thanks to Hurricane Ike, we had a new roof put on last December. Why are we surprised that our A/C compressor gave up the ghost?

I'm not surprised - I feel betrayed! If the compressor had to go out, how about when we were home, and on a Monday, when service is readily available? Perhaps the lesson here is don't come home from vacation on Friday night...

Okay. That's off my chest. I don't intend to waste anymore energy on the air conditioner than absolutely necessary.

Vacation this year had some very special elements to it. First, Michael and I traveled without children! What a lovely change. We started and stopped whenever we felt like it. No one asked "Are we there yet?". No one had urgent potty issues in the middle of nowhere. No one complained about the snacks we packed or whined for special treats. (All right, Michael may have whined for coffee once or twice, but he wasn't too bad.)

Second nice thing, we shared the driving and we didn't push ourselves. And that worked out so well. The first day we drove from home to Oklahoma City, arriving at dinner time. The trip takes about 7.5 hours. Since we wanted to visit the Oklahoma City Murrah Building National Memorial after dark, it worked out perfectly.

If you haven't ever visited Oklahoma City, I strongly recommend it as a destination. The OKC Memorial is one of the reasons. This is our third visit to the Memorial, the first being during it's construction. The designer did a fantastic job of conveying the solemnity and sorrow of this loss. Each lost life is represented by an empty chair which rests on a glass cube. During the day, the cubes seem to disappear and the chairs "float." At night, the individual cubes are lighted from within, creating a beautiful night-time scene. There are many other poignancies about the memorial, and I encourage you to check it out for yourself, preferably by visiting in person.

The second night out, we stopped in Omaha and spent the night with my brother and sister-in-law, Mark and Judi. We had the pleasure of a delicious family dinner with Mark & Judi and my niece Jenni and her family. Lots of conversation and a comfortable bed rounded out the evening. The third day turned out to be the hardest driving-wise. It took nine hours (including stops) to get from Omaha to Grand Forks, North Dakota.

Grand Forks is my hometown. Better yet, my sister Janet and her husband Dave live in the house we grew up in, so Michael and I got to sleep in my childhood bedroom. It seems to have shrunk since I left home in 1968! Janet and Dave bought the house when my dad took over the state public health department for North Dakota and he and my mother moved to Bismarck (state capitol). Mom designed the house and Dad built it with the help of a carpenter and my brothers in 1959. No one outside our family has ever owned it or lived in it and this summer is the house's 50 anniversary. That made our visit seem special.

Even more special - my parents were there on an extended stay. They are both elderly and my father is frail, so they rarely travel from their current home in Helena, Montana. In fact, most summers, we go to Helena to see them. Getting the chance to have my annual visit with Mom and Dad at Janet and Dave's house really made me happy. The icing on the cake? The weather was unseasonably cool in Grand Forks, actually requiring sweaters on occasion. Now that's a treat in August when you are from the Houston area!!

A lot of very interesting things happened while we visited Grand Forks - a fabulous photo exhibit at the North Dakota Fine Arts Museum, a field trip to Alvarado, Minnesota to buy handcrafted jewelry, the acquisition of a bass chime for the backyard. Yes, there is much to tell, but not tonight my dears.

I will pick up the story tomorrow if I don't have a heat stroke before then.


Monday, July 20, 2009

Kittens with Attitude - Need Good Homes

This is Kitten # 3, the only boy in the bunch. I caught him last and he is still a little scared, but when I pick him up, he snuggles up with me and purrs, purrs, purrs. I think this boy will make a nice house cat.
This is Kitten # 2. I practically snatched her out of midair as she was trying to climb over her brother to get to the food. As her number suggests, I caught her second. She is tinier than the others, but has a very assertive personality and doesn't let the "twins" bully her.
This is Kitten # 1. She stumbled into a trap we set to catch an adult feral for a trap-neuter-release event. We terrified her at first, but now she is tame and wants to be picked up and petted. If she doesn't get enough lap time, she lets us know it!

I have some video, too. Unfortunately, I haven't mastered the technique for getting it from my camera to the internet yet. I'm working on it.

These three darlings need homes soon. They are at a great stage for bonding with new owners. We took them to our vet for check-ups, baby shots, and deworming. They will need another baby shot in a bit, and, when they are 5 to 6 months old, they will have to be neutered. We can't rescue these babies from the hard, short life of a feral cat only to see them join the kitten production line in a few months.

So if you knows a nice person or family who would like a nice kitten, please contact me asap. If you contact me from the blog, remember that I can't reply to your comments directly, so you need to give me some kind of contact information.

Thanks for your good wishes for these kittens!

Ciao (or should I say Meow?)

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Family Wellness Training Weekend

I am beat from an intense weekend of training, but before I head off to bed, here's a brief rundown on the experience. Michael and I went to this training program because our friends at Lutheran Social Services of the South (LSSS) were sponsoring it and we have a great deal of respect for them. They have been instrumental in providing couples enrichment programs for adoptive parents of special needs children and we have learned so much attending their programs for the last few years.

In April, we were fortunate to be invited to attend a leadership training program for adoptive parents in the Hill Country, also sponsored by LSSS. Funding for marriage and family support programs is drying up in our bad economy, and LSSS is trying to recruit and develop people from the served communities to step in and help.

One of these programs is Twogether in Texas which is a premarital course that the state of Texas sponsors for engaged couples. The state fee for a marriage license is $60 and, by completing this 8-hour course, a couple can get that fee waived. Since Twogether in Texas is free to the participants, this is a good deal. The state also waives the usual waiting period after getting your marriage license. These incentives are designed to lure people into taking a class that can help them have a better marriage with better communications.

The program that Twogether in Texas uses is based on the "Family Wellness" training program. A couple of psychologists developed the program twenty years or so ago and it is widely used for couples education, family education, premarital education, etc. In fact, there are seven different Family Wellness curricula, all based on the same theoretical framework. Once you have graduated from the framework training, you can teach any of the seven classes.

We did not know this information when we showed up at the hotel Thursday morning. We expected our fellow attendees to be other adoptive parents. They weren't. Instead, the classes were filled with professionals from the community. They included clinical psychologists, MSW therapists, ministers, consultants, and a variety of private practitioners from all over the Southeast Texas area. We felt overwhelmed at first, as it appeared that we were the only "civilians" in the crowd.

We took it in stride, though, and joined into the training wholeheartedly. Family Wellness master trainers, Michelle and Joe Hernandez from California, did an excellent job of guiding us through the material for three days with the help of some other folks who were doing master trainer internships. We knew several of these people from their involvement in our post-adoptive services programs.

We learned the material and we learned how to instruct and coach others in the material. I can't say enough about how exciting the program is. Family Wellness concepts are deceptively simple and easily accessible, but it became clear to us in the first few hours of training that they were also enormously powerful. Since we have participated in quite a bit of couples/marriage enrichment programing through our post-adopt affiliations, we think we are good judges on these points.

I won't go into the training much more because I truly am tired. Three long days in the classroom, plus preparation time each night for our mock training sessions really took it out of me. (Each training team had to prepare and present a six to eight minute class from the material on Friday and on Saturday mornings.) My body doesn't tolerate that kind of abuse and my lupus is kicking into high gear tonight. I have a lot of joint pain, from my knuckles to my hips to my toes, plus tremendous fatigue. I will need to do a lot of extra sleeping for the next few days to get the beast back into its cage.

At the end of the day today, Michael and I graduated. We are now certified Family Wellness instructors. Because LSSS paid for our training and books, we have promised to present two free Family Wellness courses, one within 8 weeks and another within a year. The courses can be from any of the seven curricula. We will be looking for opportunities to fulfill this commitment, so if you have any suggestions for organizations or groups who could benefit from or would like to sponsor such training, please let us know.

More when I am rested.


Thursday, June 04, 2009

"You are now free to move about the cabin."

This morning at 10:00 A.M., a life-altering event took place. My youngest child, Victoria, graduated from high school. Dressed in a ruby red cap and gown, she and 16 other young people took the traditional walk across (in this case) the altar and received their diplomas from the University of Texas - University Charter School in Waco, Texas. As much as the day can be called a red-gown day for Victoria, it is a red-letter day for me.

I began parenting in 1974. (That's 35 years ago for those of you who don't do math in your head. I didn't have to do the math because my oldest child turned 35 last week.) 23 years-old at the time of Alexandra's birth, I attended graduate school at Washington University in St. Louis. I had been supporting myself since I turned 18 and left home for college, and I certainly felt grown-up and ready for parenting. While I didn't count on my first marriage ending so precipitously, making me a single parent, I managed well-enough for the two and a half years before I married Michael and got some help.

I felt grown-up and ready for parenting; after all, I had been taking care of myself for years. Attending college and graduate school at private universities required an enormous effort on my part because I paid my own way -for tuition, for books and fees, for housing, food, and anything else I needed. My parents did not approve of my choice to leave home for college and made supporting me conditional on attending the local university. I could not conceive of staying in my small town when a whole unexplored world beckoned.

This parting of the ways made me an emancipated youth at a time when normal emancipation happened at 21, not 18. Voting happened at 21, not 18, for that matter. Many colleges required parental permission for student s to stay out past midnight, among other arcane rules of the dark ages. And even today, it is damned hard to be classified as emancipated in the eyes of the federal government's financial aid machine.

Why does any of this matter? And what does it have to do with Victoria's graduation?

Being busy educating myself from the ages of 18 to 24 and busier raising children from the ages 23 to 58, I missed out on opportunities to explore the very world I left home for so eagerly. When I talk with my peers and compare notes on the 60s and 70s, I hear some common themes. Hitchhiking around Europe or taking the Grand Tour with nothing but a knapsack and a Eur-rail pass is one. Attending the moratorium march on Washington to end the Vietnam war is another. Hanging out in Haight-Ashbury (that's San Francisco and hippiedom for you youngsters) is another.

I also did not join the Peace Corps and go to Africa or South America. I did not join VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) and go to Appalachia or urban ghettoes to change the world, although I did do volunteer work and hang out with official VISTA volunteers. I did not go on any civil rights marches or voter registration drives in the South, although I actually wasn't old enough for much of that action. I don't feel bad about admitting that I did not drop out or drop acid. I managed to cross the borders of Canada and Mexico a few times, but usually under the most mundane of circumstances.

Again you may be asking: Why does any of this matter? And what does it have to do with Victoria's graduation? Just this - I am now free of responsibility for anyone. Victoria will surely need guidance at times, but won't want it or accept it for several more years if my experience with Alexandra and Nicholas holds true. Michael is responsible for himself and as happy to be a free spirit as I am. Okay, there are the cats, but providing for them is reasonably uncomplicated.

I am now free to move about the cabin on the jumbo jet of life. I have dreams that have been delayed for 35 years. I have plans that were put on the backburner when people cooked on cast iron stoves. I have a closet full of some days that can actually become todays. I have firsts waiting for me that I never thought I would accomplish - First visit to Costa Rica. First trip to the U.K. First Grand Tour of Europe. First stay in an Italian villa. First idyll on a Caribbean beach. First .... the list goes on and on.

Watch out world, here I come.


Thursday, April 30, 2009

May Baskets, Markie, and Me OR It's Never a Good Idea to Jump Out of the Second Story Window

We had lovely celebrations on May Day during my childhood. On May 1 each year, we would make May Baskets for our friends. May Baskets usually were decorated cupcake papers, or perhaps something stronger, with a handle made out of twisted pipe cleaners. Into these little baskets went a variety of small candies, maybe a posy of flowers, and a name tag.

The really special thing about May Baskets stemmed from the stealth and secrecy of planting them on
someone's front doorstep, ringing the bell, then slipping away without being caught. I remember making the baskets of treats up with my mother's assistance. (Okay, she did most of the work and I probably just got in her way, but I was little and doing my best.)

We would fill up a 13x9 cake pan with the May Baskets and take off around the neighborhood to drop them off. Maybe the mothers coordinated their timing, but I don't ever remember running into anyone else while delivering my May Baskets. Nevertheless, I always got May Baskets in return.

One year, when I was five or six, my neighborhood
Markie Hall (a year younger than me) gave me a wonderful May Basket that I still have all these years later. It is about four inches tall, with a handle that rises another three or four inches above the basket. The basket had a paper doily as a liner and I'm sure it was filled with candy, but the little woven basket in and of itself made me so happy that I don't remember much more about it.

Markie's parents owned a flower shop and perhaps the wicker basket was just a run-of-the-mill item to them. Or maybe not. I have no idea if anyone else got such a lovely little basket and it would probably have been a topic of conversation among the preschool set, so he might have had "special feelings" for me.

I know we played together a lot. He had no siblings and no prospects of any, being the only child of a middle-aged couple who had not been able to have other children.

Aside: I knew this by eavesdropping on my mother's bridge club and at various other womanly get-
togethers. A favorite trick of mine was to sit under the card table - which had a very proper, long tablecloth on it - and dig around in the ladies' purses while enjoying their conversations above me. This lasted until the day I applied a lipstick I found under the table in someone's purse to my own face, without a mirror, and then reappeared among the ladies looking like a clown. Please remember, we're talking preschool here!!

I, on the other hand, had way too many siblings for my own good, namely three big brothers who picked on me and made my life miserable most of the time. Someday I'll tell you about the candy rocks that weren't candy or brushing my teeth with
Brylcream before I learned to read. (Which may be why I became an early reader.) Be that as it may, Markie and I found each other and played happily together even though he was a boy.

One summer afternoon when I was six,
Markie and I ended up in the boys' room upstairs. The boys' room consisted of a raised attic with a dormitory-like sleeping area, a large study area, and a small bathroom. My dad had built it when he and my mother moved in to their new, two-bedroom bungalow with three children and one on the way. I can't remember why Markie and I had headed upstairs. It got hot up there in the summer and my brothers would probably not have been very happy to find out we had been playing in their territory. Maybe that was the appeal.

But there we were -
Markie, me, and a window overlooking our side yard. Naturally, we got the bright idea to play "parachute." I don't recall ever playing parachute before then, or hearing of anyone playing parachute. I don't recall if it was my idea or Markie's or just the devil taking the opportunity to screw with a couple of kids. But we did get the idea that it would be fun to make a parachute and jump out of the second floor window of my house.

How do you make a parachute when you are five- and six-years-old respectively? Why, you use the boy's tee-shirt, of course!
Markie took off his shirt, climbed up onto the window ledge, held the tee-shirt over his head, and jumped. The moment his feet left the window sill, I knew with utter and absolute clarity that it had not been such a good idea. I knew it so clearly that I didn't even watch the results, I simply turned away and found a hiding place behind my brothers' dresser.

It felt like I stayed hidden for a very long time. I figured
Markie had died, I would follow shortly, and there was no reason to rush things by giving myself up; however, when my mother came to the foot of the stairs and called me, I went to her as meekly as a lamb to the slaughter.

Surprisingly, I didn't get into trouble. When I asked my mother years later how I escaped punishment that day, she told me that I looked so terrified when I came downstairs, she didn't think spanking me was necessary.

Markie did not die. He didn't even break anything. He may not even have gotten grass stains on his clothes. He did have the wind knocked out of him, which actually feels awful, as I discovered myself about thirty years later. And he earned absolutely stellar bragging rights. No one, I mean not even the biggest lunkhead boy on the block, had ever jumped out of a second story window on purpose!

I can't remember if we played together after that. I'm thinking that if his mother had anything to say about it,
Markie shifted his attentions to safer playmates, like my older brothers. And, thinking that, I'm also now pretty sure I got the wicker basket from him when I was five ...

Happy May Day one and all!!


Tuesday, April 14, 2009

A Moment of Grace

April 12, 2009 marked the 30th anniversary of a calamitous loss
for Michael and me. This is my recollection of that event.

The most astonishing thing about tragedy is the amount of time a split second can take. Awake, but not up, I heard a sound like a rifle report at 6:10 a.m. and looked up to see a crack of blue sky at the top of my bedroom wall, where it met the ceiling. Without another thought, I shook my sleeping husband.

"Get up! The house is falling in," I yelled.

He got up immediately, without questioning me, and we ran for the third floor, where our 4-year-old daughter and 3-month-old son were asleep. Both of us wore almost nothing, and I grabbed my robe, belt missing, as we ran.

Holding my robe closed with the baby, I started back down the two flights of stairs to the front door. At the first landing, I realized my husband had not followed.

"Come on," I yelled in panic, "we have to get out of here."

For the first time, I could see the doubt in his eyes about my conviction of imminent demise.

"I'm not going anywhere without my pants on," he said categorically.

I replied by taking my daughter's hand from his, and, in my heart, abandoning him to his foolish pride and his fate.

At the front stoop, I stopped to bang on our neighbor's apartment door. I knew that Jack, the husband, would be gone to work, and that Kitty would already be busy with housework. As she opened the door, I warned her that we had to get away because the house was falling in. Kitty gave me an incredulous look and then staunchly refused to leave without her purse. As she walked back into the apartment, I followed, grabbing her telephone to call 911. My pounding heart made my fingers awkward and my voice breathy, but I managed to dial and to ask for the fire department. In the seconds it took for the St. Louis Fire Department emergency dispatcher to answer, I forced myself to calm down so I could speak clearly.

"I live at 2348 South 12th Street and my house is falling in."

I hung up the phone and walked back to the front door. Kitty stood behind me with her purse, urging me to put on her slippers against the cold April air. I had not even realized that my feet were bare. Slipping them on in Kitty’s doorway, I looked at the beautiful blue sky and the antique blue and white tile inlaid on the porch of our reclaimed tenement house. I thought about how the tenants living in the apartment beneath us had just moved out in a pique because we did not want them to keep their mange-ridden dog after we had our new baby. I thought about my husband, whom I had not seen since my flight down the front stairs. And I thought about what I would say when a fire truck showed up in front of my perfectly fine, about-to-be-renovated, 150-year-old home.

I thought about all these things in a flash, and then, in another flash, the wall across the porch from us melted into a black cloud of dirt and grit. I turned away, sheltering my children from the choking cloud and myself from the anguish raining down with the dirt. As soon as the collapse seemed over, I grabbed my daughter’s hand once more, clutched my infant son closer to my bosom, and ran past a 20-foot cascade of bricks that had been my absent neighbor's bedroom and my front yard. I ran down the sidewalk and through our gate into the safety of the empty, dawn street.

Standing on the cold cobblestones, I screamed for Kitty, who had turned back, and screamed again when she still didn’t come, fearing that the rest of the house would collapse any minute. I listened to the wailing of an approaching fire truck. The next-door neighbors ran out to investigate what had thrown them from their beds. It was the collision of three courses of old brick, three stories high, two rooms deep, against their house as our sidewall collapsed across the four-foot gangway we shared with them. The collapse that began with the sound of a gunshot at 6:10 a.m. and finished in a cloud of grit and dirt at 6:14 a.m.

Those four minutes seemed like an eternity to me. They gave me enough time to save what I loved the most, my children. They gave me enough time to warn my dear neighbor, Kitty, who finally came away from the danger after checking her stove. They gave me enough time to call for help and to doubt myself. They even gave my skeptical husband enough time to put on his pants, take the dogs out the back way, and run for his life when the wall crashed into the gangway just as he stepped into it to investigate. Those four minutes gave me enough time to capture a moment of grace that served me well when reality took over.

We had planned to renovate our old, four-family flat into a gracious home with two apartments for income. The architects and professional engineer that we had hired to design the renovation were young, enthusiastic, inexpensive, and, we discovered too late, inexperienced. Our professionals dismissed a small, ground-level separation between the floor and exterior wall, discovered on a recent walk-through of the project, with a simple and easy answer.

"We'll just need to reinforce the foundation with concrete," one of them said.

Unfortunately, everyone underestimated the urgency of the problem, and before the engineer and architects had even planned the remedial measures, that wall collapsed, taking a second wall with it.

30 years should be enough time to recover from grief, but I still choke up when memories of that day surface. My recollections usually stem from news reports of similar tragedies. Once, hearing a woman describe the engulfing, smoke-like wave of dirt and soot she experienced in a wall collapse in Houston, I broke into tears, engulfed myself in the billowing, choking dirt that remains one of my most vivid memories of our loss.

When I look at the tall townhouses springing up around our city, I see my four-year-old daughter’s green bed ruffle fluttering at the edge of a three-story precipice that had been the wall she was sleeping next to only four minutes before it appeared. Entering unfamiliar spaces, I glance up, automatically assessing where danger might lie, and seat myself carefully away from anything suspended from the ceiling, unable to forget that what seems solid can become, in as little as four minutes, a pile of debris. And when I look at my children, now 34- and 30-years-old, I am swept back into that moment, standing on cold cobblestones in a belt-less bathrobe, clutching one child’s hand, and pressing the other child’s swaddled body into my own. I am swept back into that moment when I encountered grace.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Thoughts on Saying "Uncle"

Since the kitten Smudge entered our home on December 27, 2008, I have observed quite intriguing feline behavior. Jack and Trixie, our 15 year old cats, do not like Smudge, who wants nothing more than a playmate. Apparently bad attention is better than no attention, so Smudge behaves like an obnoxious brat to the older cats. He will pounce on the cats' tails as they whip back and forth in annoyance; he will spring out from under the dust ruffle of our bed at an unsuspecting cat; he will leap up where another cat is settled peacefully and practically land them.

Jack has achieved an equanimity about it. He and Smudge play fight, rising up on their haunches and bopping each other soundly with their front paws, no claws extended. Jack towers over Smudge and outweighs him by ten pounds, but he's the one who usually walks away from their encounters.

Trixie is another matter all together. She is a very timid cat. Many of my friends have never seen Trixie because she stays on my bed or hides when we have company. After 14 and a half years of carefully cultivated association, she has sat on my lap three or four times maximum. She loves to be petted by me or one of our immediate family members, but if you pick her up, she leans away from your body as far as she can until you put her down. This said, Trixie is very attached to me and apparently very jealous of Smudge in addition to annoyed by him.

Trixie has gone overboard expressing her feelings. She hisses, snarls, lunges and otherwise threatens Smudge ... and Jack ... and us if Smudge is close to us. For years I have been protecting Trixie from Jack's aggressiveness - he outweighs her by nearly as much as he outweighs Smudge - and suddenly she has Jack on the run from her slashing claws and gnashing fangs.

Now comes the really fascinating part. Whenever the atmosphere gets too intense - Jack throws an extra hard punch or Trixie corners him - Smudge flops onto his side and presents himself helplessly, belly exposed, to their teeth and claws. And immediately, the aggression stops. I have heard of submissive behavior in animals before, but observing it is different. A snarling, hissing cat just stops, looks, and walks away? Yes, indeed.

This made me think about human relationships. As a naive 18-year-old from a small city, I vividly remember the first time I witnessed random violence. I was riding a city bus in St. Louis that had a short layover at a big stop in a seedy, industrial area. Two men were at the bus stop (among other people) and I saw one of the men attack the other. In short order, the second man had been beaten viciously enough to be on the ground and no longer even protecting himself. The winner - if that can be called winning - then proceeded to kick the other fellow in the stomach several times before deciding to quit.

Back on the bus, I practically vomited in disgust and terror, but no one else seemed to take much notice other than to walk in the opposite direction of the attack. I kept waiting for someone to intervene and help the injured man, but no one did. When my bus pulled away from the stop, the victim was stirring, but had not yet gotten up and still, no one helped him.

So, it would seem that cats (and other "dumb" animals) know how to say "Uncle and what that means, but human beings don't. How could we have missed out on such an important biological imperative?

Do you remember, as a child, that you could get a bully to stop beating on you by saying "uncle?" In fact, making someone say "uncle" often motivated the attack in the first place. But once you said it, the pain stopped; you might slink off in humiliation with taunts at your back, but no one kicked you when you were down. If they had, the crowd would have turned on them with derision for such craven behavior.

So kids do it and cats do it, but adults don't do it. Hmmm, could it be that we actually teach kids not to be merciful or relent in their assault on someone else?

This morning, when Smudge flopped over yet again into kitty submission, I tried to imagine Trixie then attacking his exposed underbelly and ripping it out with her fangs - the cat equivalent to kicking the s**t out of someone who is down - and the picture just wouldn't come together. It's not going to happen.

Wouldn't it be lovely if humans could be as evolved as cats?


Friday, March 20, 2009

Miscel-Lanie: Feral Cats, Art Exhibits, Ballet, Theatre, Etc.

Some weeks are crazy. Go, go, go. Busy, busy, busy. But even most crazy weeks are not like the one I've just had. It started last Saturday. I finally managed all the arrangements to capture Mom - our feral cat friend - and have her spayed. Except for one little problem. No way was Mom going into our trap, thank you very much. What we found in the trap early Saturday morning was Dad, the male cat who Smudge looks just like. Well, a neutered feral cat of any gender is a blessing, so we took Dad to SNAP (Spay and Neuter Assistance Program) to be fixed.

Michael and I then zoomed home and did some housework before changing into good clothes and heading back into town. First, we attended an Artist Talk at the gallery show of our friend Lillian Warren. Lillian's new work at the Rudolph Projects | Artscan Gallery impressed me a lot. Titled "Here is Nowhere," the art explores the landscape of contemporary America with all it's sameness and anonymity.

Originally photographed or videotaped, often from within a car, the scenes have an "anywhere" feel to them. Those could be electrical lines anywhere; highway overpass buttresses anywhere; highway signs anywhere; street scenes anywhere. For me, this gives the paintings the feeling of being everywhere. Each scene looked like someplace I have been although I can't quite put my finger on where it is. The colors in the paintings are subtle, mostly early evening or early morning colors, dusky or smoky, full of purples and roses and soft blues. Everything identifiable is slightly fuzzed out, adding to the sense of everywhere-ness.

After a lively discussion with Lillian and her gathered admirers, Michael and I moved on to Gallery 3 at the Winter Street Studios where our friend Piyali Sen Das Gupta has a show mounted. Piyali, hosting an open gallery, greeted us when we arrived. Her current show features her dog, Scooby, a basset hound I have had the pleasure of meeting in person. "The Dog Stories," as she titles her exhibit, features much more than a dog; it is the story of the conjunction of a woman's life and a dog's life and how the dog fits into and enlivens the woman's milieu. The paintings are whimsical, brightly colored, and enchanting. Scooby is always somewhere in the art, always looking up from his short, basset hound position with soulful, adoring eyes at the woman or the viewer.

Although she also has drawings and prints in the show, Piyali primarily hung paintings done in egg tempera. I have learned a bit about egg tempera from Piyali over the years and admire her work even more because of the demanding nature of that medium. Egg tempera paintings take a great deal of time and layer after layer of paint that has been hand mixed using perishable egg yolks. If you haven't seen the exhibit, hurry and get over there before it comes down at the end of March. It is well worth the effort.

We visited several studios on our way out of Winter Street, discovering something to enjoy in each one. Then we grabbed a bite to eat, picked up Dad from the clinic, returned our rented live trap, and then made a beeline for home. Once there, we set Dad up with food, water, a bed, and the surgery-required litter of non-irritating shredded newspaper in our shed for safe keeping, not that he appreciated the effort much. Back into the car as fast as possible, we sped down the highway to the Wortham Theatre for a performance of the Houston Ballet.

Luckily, we managed to get there for most of the dance talk, an informative presentation on some aspect of ballet that the company offers to patrons before each performance. The show, "Masters of Movement," featured three short ballets: The Leaves are Fading, The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude and Soldiers' Mass. I found The Leaves are Fading" to be the least interesting. Very pretty and romantic to the point of sentimentality, it went on too long for me. Without drama, I became bored, although I loved the flowing, gauzy costuming.

"Vertiginous" lived up to its title in every way. A new word for me, vertiginous required a trip to the dictionary when we returned home. It means "having or causing a whirling sensation; liable to falling," and that is exactly what the performers delivered, an on-the-edge thriller with five dancers who remained in motion every minute of their time on stage. Lasting only twelve minutes, it seemed to go on forever (in a good way) and left me breathless and wondering where the dancers' stamina came from. The final piece, "Soldiers' Mass" moved me to tears. Featuring an all-male cast, it recreated the experience of a unit of soldiers who all died in their first battle on the first day of World War I.

It took me until the Kyrie Eleison was sung to realize that the music actually was a mass. It had been written to commemorate these very deaths and then later choreographed by Jirí Kylián. The dancing was superb and the fear, suffering, and bravery of the doomed soldiers came across beautifully. As you might guess, "Soldiers' Mass" gets my vote as the best of the three, although the Houston Ballet did each one beautifully.

After the ballet, we headed home and turned in because we had more excitement ahead on Sunday - a play at the Alley. This performance - "The Man Who Came to Dinner" - had us belly laughing. The actors' performances were collectively excellent and some individuals were absolutely superb. Which ones, you ask? Well, go see the show and find out for yourself! (Hint: the Alley's rep company regulars outdo themselves in this production.)

I intended to catch up on my week, but find myself pooped after Saturday and Sunday. I guess my readers will have to wait for me to catch my breath before they hear anymore.


Friday, March 13, 2009

Going Green or How I Became Irish

The immigrants who settled North Dakota, my birthplace and home, came primarily from Scandinavia and Europe, with a smattering of French fur traders tossed into the mix. Thus, my Swedish paternal grandfather – Johann Sven Gustafson - and my Alsatian grandmother – Frances Froelich. I grew up in a Catholic family and attended Catholic schools bursting at the seams with the burgeoning baby-boomer generation, but even in a Catholic setting, the Irish had little presence in my life. My classmates had names like Budzeak, Chaput (pronounced Shep-ee), Eisner, Garceau, Kroeber, Prochaska, and Lizakowski.

Exposure to names like these from an early age, besides bestowing on me a facility with hard to pronounce or spell surnames, also forever marked me as an outsider in places like Houston. You see, I grew up pronouncing the oe combination with the German “A” sound, as in Fray-lick (Froelich) and Kray-ber (Kroeber,) whereas Houstonians pronounce it with the “O” sound. People are always correcting me, but I stubbornly cling to my linguistic heritage.

Back to my classroom. I will allow that one or two Anglo-Saxon names cropped up – Houlihan and Higgins come to mind – but overall, the Irish just hadn’t made much of a mark on day-to-day life in Grand Forks, North Dakota. Even today, the population with Irish ancestry in my home state hovers around seven percent.

St. Patrick’s Day had nothing to do with green beer, Irish stew, leprechauns, or parades. Instead, we celebrated it from the vantage point of our teachers, the nuns, who proudly told us that Ireland had no snakes because of St. Patrick and his miracles.

If you have seen the play “Doubt,” the movie “Doubt,” or even the trailer for the movie “Doubt,” you have an inkling of my life as a Catholic schoolgirl. Meryl Streep’s performance terrifies, but at least we know she’s acting.

My first teacher at St. Mary’s Elementary School – which I didn’t get into until second grade because of baby boom overcrowding – had the rolls-off-your-tongue moniker of Sister Theodosia. Sister Theodosia earned my unending opprobrium when she decided to give me a new name. My actual given name is Mary Lane, but my family only called me Lanie. My mother can’t explain why she saddled me with Mary at all, but, by age seven, I really didn’t think the name had anything to with me.

Sr. Theodosia, on the other hand, being certain that Lane was not a saint’s name, refused to use it and insisted on calling me Mary. Naturally, I ignored her, thinking she meant one of the many other Marys in my class of 40. Let’s see: we had Mary Margaret, Mary Ann, Mary Catherine, Mary Ellen, and three just plain Marys. I thought she should have been relieved to have at least one student whose name was unique, but she would have none of it.

It is terrible to be in trouble on your very first day at your new school when you are really a good little girl. It may even account for some of my life-long foibles. My mother tried to reason with Sister Theodosia, but the best she could negotiate for me was Mary Lane, which rolls off the tongue as Marralane. I hated it, and I hated Sister Theodosia, but I suffered it until I turned sixteen and my rebellious side blossomed. Then I reclaimed Lane and later managed, by a clever arrangement with my maiden name, to ditch Mary forever.

Now, I know you are wondering what this has to do with “Going Green or How I Became Irish.” Just this: As a nice Swedish girl from the North Dakota, I had little or no point of reference for Irish-ness. Then I landed in St. Louis for college, and, as it turned out, stayed for a lot more fun.

St. Louis is kind of the anti-North Dakota as far as the Irish go. For one thing, they started going there early, in the 18th century, welcomed by the French, with whom they had waged a futile war against England and with whom this particular bunch of Irish folk were co-religionists. And they kept coming because the people in St. Louis treated them a lot better than the people on America’s Eastern Seaboard did.

Coming from an area populated largely by blue-eyed, blond-haired people, the incidence of red hair, green eyes, and freckles in St. Louis astonished me. Not to mention the number of Catholic churches - one on every corner it seemed. Suddenly, St. Patrick’s Day had MEANING in capital letters. There were parades, there were hats, there were tee shirts, there was green beer and Irish stew, and there were buttons that said “Kiss me; I’m Irish.”

The name Gustafson closed the door on pretending to be Irish, but I enjoyed the beer, the parades, and the antics of the Irish all around me. To me it seemed as gaudy and over the top as Mardi Gras does today. It’s fun to watch, but I’m not taking my shirt off for plastic beads, thank you very much.

By skipping over nearly a decade of my life in St. Louis, we come to the significant part. In January of 1976, I met an appealing, redheaded, green-eyed fellow whose name and family, it turned out, were decidedly Irish. That December I married him and found myself suddenly Irish. As if to prove the point, our friends Steffie and Lenny Marks even gave us a set of Irish coffee goblets as a wedding present which we use to this day.

The very next St. Patrick’s Day I found myself at the Buel Street Pub with a mug of green beer, wearing a green tee shirt that said, “Kiss Me, I’m Irish,” and shouting “Erin go Braugh” although I had no idea what it meant. It turns out going green is easy once you get over being Swedish.