Tuesday, November 29, 2011

I Have a Question

I am a person who always has questions. I wonder who the missing link was, envisioning a hairy, stooped fellow who wakes up one morning and announces to his cave mates, "I've decided to do something with my life." I wonder who decided the order of the lights on traffic signals. Did a committee haggle over this - "Red, green, yellow!" "No, yellow, green, red!" "I still think we should use blue instead of green." - until one stalwart member stood up and pronounced, "Enough of this, we're going with green, yellow, red and that's final." And did we give people the green light before or after the invention of traffic signals?

Questions. How could there be nothing, as in, 'Before the Big Bang, there was nothing but a void.' For me, even a void somehow implies thingness. It has a name, it must be something. Ideas are intangible in the same way that nothingness is intangible - you can name it. The naming does not create the existence of the thing, but it calls up the memory of it. When I name a table, for example, I can touch it's surface in my brain, I can see the crumbs left from a meal, I can hear the scrape of chairs being pushed under it.

What do I imagine when I contemplate the void, the no-thing of the no-time before the Universe exploded into existence? My brain balks at the task. It wants to imagine something, needs to imagine something, because humans are, after all, the essential imaginers. Not to imagine the nothing seems impossible to me. My human brain keeps trying to bring up memories of nothingness, to feel it under my fingertips, to hear its missing sound waves, to see across it vast invisibility.

More questions. Are the billions of cells in our bodies really citizens of human-sized universes, having sprung from the nothingness before the sperm collided with the egg? Each cell seems so intent on its task, and the tasks themselves seem so complex, so improbable. Could all these bits of aliveness really perform all their duties without some kind of sentience? I imagine one cell among the teeming masses of cells, pondering the same questions I ponder. "Where do we come from? What existed before the Big Bang that created this universe of which I am a part?"

And more questions. If I had done what my parents wanted when I graduated from high school and attended the local university, what life would I be living today? I try to imagine myself being someone else, yet essentially me. I would probably have married and had children, because marriage and children are part of the expectations I have always had about my life. But what husband, what children? What would Alix and Nick look like if someone else was their father?

I imagine Alix and Nick in different housings, the same people but with different skin color, or hair color, or eye color, but that's not how it would be, is it? My Alix and my Nick wouldn't be at all, other someones would fill my life, if there even were children populating my other imagined life. Perhaps in my different outcome, I would marry a man who was sterile, or I would miscarry every pregnancy, or I would abandon my husband and children, leave them behind.

In books and movies that tackle these questions, the lives we might have lived are often portrayed as parallel universes where things are just slightly askew, where a small change has small repercussions. But why would that be so? Why wouldn't a small change have a giant repercussion, make an alternate life that bears not the least resemblance to the actual life we live?

I love these questions. I love giving in to the absolute impossibility of following a metaphysical question to its conclusion, but trying to follow it anyway. What if we discovered the secrets of psychic phenomenon and everyone could participate in ESP and telepathy and telekinesis? Impossible, you say? But consider sound waves, consider explaining sound waves and radios or telegraphy to someone in the tenth century.

"There are these invisible waves, like the waves of the ocean, and they are continually emanating from everyone and everything that makes noise. And if you build a machine that can capture these sound waves and transform the invisible waves back into noise, then you can hear things from another village, or another country, or another continent." And the people you shared this insight with would consider you a lunatic or heretic or witch, none of which you'd want to be considered in the tenth century.

So, what if psychic phenomenon are just another kind of wave, waves we haven't discovered yet? What if the mechanism to decipher them exists in the structures of our brains, but most of us just don't know how to use those structures. If that were the case, then those few of us who were naturally inclined to pick up the psy-waves would be actually psychic, not loony or frauds or misguided.

I had an intensely psychic experience when I was sixteen, something so profoundly real and frightening that describing it to other people brings tears to my eyes 45 years later. How do I explain that experience in a rational world where ESP is bunk? I don't explain it, of course, it becomes another question for me to ponder.

Did I tell you I loved questions? I once asked my husband something like, "If I died in a car crash and my face was disfigured, how would you identify my body?" He did not respond well to this question. What I really wanted to know was this: do you know my body well enough to identify the scars and small anomalies I have accumulated in my life?

For many years, Michael became irate, and frustrated, and put out at many of the questions I posed. He had a moment of insight a decade or so ago, a moment he remembers with fondness and even relief. Michael has told me he suddenly realized that I wasn't necessarily looking for an answer to my questions, but that I just enjoyed playing with the questions. Bravo, Michael. It is not the answers, but the questions that I love. I will admit, though, that when I think of Heaven, of life after death, I envision a place where the actual true answer to every question I have ever asked or ever could ask is available, an infinite Wikipedia where no one has fudged or lied or misunderstood, and all the explanations can be counted on to be absolutely correct. Now, that would be Heaven.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

His Scruffy-ness

It feels like it's time for a cat update. In October, we officially adopted Scruffy, the tuxedo tomcat who had been begging to come into our house for months. Adopting him involved two trips to the vet's office, one for a check-up and shots, the other for a neutering procedure. That done, we began introducing him to our other cats.

Smudge, our alpha cat and also a tuxedo, did not like Scruffy one bit. Aside from the fact that they are both black and white with that distinctive "I'm dressed for a gala" look, the two have nothing in common. Scruffy is burly and, since he wasn't neutered until he was almost 2, has the full- faced jowly look that tomcats get. Smudge, on the other hand, is sleek and slender jawed.

Scruffy can be aggressive with our other cats. For the first several weeks of shared space, first Smudge, then Scruffy, received slashed noses. Smudge growls whenever Scruffy comes near, a deep-throated, rumbling that emanates from deep within his chest. Scruffy has stopped chasing Smudge and Smudge leaves the room if Scruffy shows up.

With Baby and Frankie, the dynamics are a little different. Frankie is definitely a lover, not a fighter, and he avoids Scruffy whenever possible, to the point of skipping nightly treats if the catmosphere is too tense. Frankie has always buddied up with Smudge in a pleasant, deferential way and he has always rough-housed with Baby in the big, overgrown kid kind of way. That remains the same, although Frankie seems edgier with Scruffy inside.

Baby is the only one who approaches Scruffy with any sort of camaraderie. They nose bump and butt sniff in friendly cat fashion. Occasionally Scruffy rubs up against Baby like he's looking for a friend, yet he also chases Baby around the house. This alarmed me at first, but now I've decided that it is playful rather than aggressive, so I ignore it.

For a while, I tried to intervene every time Scruffy got bossy or mean with my house cats. The funniest thing happened though. When I yelled at Scruff to stop or no-noed him in my tough voice, I scared the other cats more than I scared him. Occasionally trying to stop a stand-off resulted in a fight, because when I would startle the cats, one of mine would inevitably run, and Scruffy would then attack.

I quickly learned to leave them alone to sort things out, operating on the same principals that I used in childrearing. Things are quieter now days, with less in your face behavior by Scruffy and a little more tolerance by the house cats. Scruffy insists on being an indoor-outdoor cat, something we haven't had in 20 years, but it works well to give Smudge, Frankie, and Baby some relief from the changes he has wrought in our cat dominance hierarchy.

The downside of that is a increasing interest by the house cats in the outdoors. They want to see where Scruffy is going when he leaves. Last night, Smudge dashed into our bathroom as soon as I shut the door on Scruff, trying to get up on the windowsill (which isn't big enough for him) to check out the backyard. A few days earlier, Baby actually made a break when I held the front door open for Scruffy. I followed him, alarmed, and found him sitting on the front terrace looking bewildered. He advanced and retreated on several areas of the garden before dashing back inside, apparently overwhelmed by the sights and smells of his childhood territory.

I need to collar Scruffy and put his rabies tags on him so that he is protected from the cat police, although, if the feral colony is any indication, there actually aren't any cat police where I live.

Michael and I both intended for Scruffy to be his cat. That isn't working out as well as we hoped, although I am doing my part by ignoring him most of the time and petting him half-heartedly the rest of the time. Michael lavishes him with attention and, if Scruff is as smart as I think he is, he will figure out that the food and the love do NOT come from the same hands.

Scruffy would be happier in a one-cat family and we would be willing to give him up, so if you'd like a nice cat who isn't much trouble and who loves to be petted, let me know. Scruffy might be meant for you!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

McMenamins Kennedy School Hotel

I spent a long weekend at McMenamins Kennedy School Hotel recently, a bit of whimsy that I initially thought about last year, when we went to Portland for our first visit with Michael's son, MG, and his family. The hotel popped up on a Google search of Portland hotels and it looked interesting, a hotel in a school with a salt-water soaking pool. Last year, however, they were booked for some of the nights we needed and I put us in the Doubletree instead. (Gotta love those cookies!!)

This year, I determined to get into the Kennedy School and I booked early. Michael wanted to go to a hotel closer to MG et al, but the Kennedy School just appealed to me and I talked him into it. I was, therefore, the one on the hook when we arrived at the hotel and were underwhelmed by our first impression.

In fairness, we arrived late - two hours later by Houston time than it was in Portland - tired, and hungry. Our room, Thumbelina, had the vaultingly high ceilings of an old elementary school, a wall of windows at least eight feet tall, and a small space heater to combat the icy atmosphere. We put down our suitcases, jacked the heater up to high heat and max blower, and went to dinner.

Along the way to the restaurant, we looked out the window to get a glimpse of the saltwater soaking pool that had captured my interest online. It was outdoors, a fact that I knew but had not, until that moment, realized meant outside in the cold. And, because it was closed, it was swathed in plastic insulating tarps, making it look as uninviting as possible. What have I done? I wondered. This place is going to be awful.

The hamburger I had in the restaurant tasted great and the roaring fire in the adjacent courtyard looked inviting, but we were still cold and apprehensive. Walking back to Thumbelina, we noticed a plethora of artwork on the walls and signs pointing the way to the Honors Bar, the Detention Bar, and the Boiler Room Bar. There were quite a few people in the hallways and the premises looked very big and spread out, which, in fact, they were.

Unfortunately, Thumbelina had not warmed up appreciably in our absence. I did take a minute to notice the welcome sign written on the chalkboard, the lines from the story of Thumbelina inscribed on the wall, and the mural of leaves sprouting and spreading around the top of the room.

The chalkboard ranged across one entire wall. The headboard of the bed appeared to be an antique that may have started life as a door, the storage in the room consisted of a wardrobe and two bedside tables. The room offered a table and chair as a desk and a comfortable Victorian sofa for seating. Period pillows rested on the sofa and the bed.

We took care of personal necessities in a rather unimpressive bathroom, outfitted with a pedestal sink, a small, square shower, and two shelves to store our toiletries. The only decoration consisted of Thumbelina's leaves invading the bathroom walls like kudzu. Having done everything possible to delay undressing in our Arctic room, we gave in and got ready for bed. As I pulled my slinky, satiny nightgown over my head, I wondered why I hadn't thought to bring flannel jammies.

Day two began somewhat better because, when we woke up, the room actually felt warm. We had breakfast in the Courtyard Restaurant, which Michael enjoyed and I did not. I had muesli, which tasted okay, but the waiter served my steamer lukewarm. In case you aren't familiar with them, a steamer is frothed, flavored, steamed milk, a latte for people who don't like coffee. (I got a lukewarm steamer with a deeply frothed top in a latte cup on Friday and a piping hot steamer with no froth in a glass on Saturday. Call me picky, but neither one made me happy.)

After breakfast, we decided, with some trepidation, to try the saltwater spa. When we arrived at the changing room and got ready, I wondered what the heck we were doing. Walking out the door to the atrium produced chills on every square inch of my body, but, oh, the water was heaven! Soaking in that hot water, watching the steam rise lazily from its surface, occasionally wafted one way or the other by a stray breeze, and admiring the lush greenery, which included banana trees, I felt absolute contentment. This is why I came here, I thought, this is perfect.

The Kennedy School's place in its community unfolded for us when a play group of toddlers and parents began to assemble in the pool. They were not rowdy or unruly; perhaps something about the hot saltwater relaxed and soothed everyone as much as it did me, and we shared the pool contentedly until Michael and I felt ready to leave.

Over the four days we spent at the Kennedy School, I came to appreciate the atmosphere of community it fostered. The school auditorium had become a movie theater which was sold out every time we tried to see a movie. (The lesson there is to plan ahead, because guests can attend movies for free. Outsiders have to pay $5.00.)

The two-story Boiler Room Bar has fixtures and railings made from parts of old mechanical heating plants and a cute, little, waist-high, open-topped elevator to get disabled visitors downstairs. The place had a crowd every time we walked by. The Honors Bar, by comparison, fit into what had probably been a janitor's closet and had no customers when we visited. We did not ever get to the Detention Bar, but I imagine it had a bigger population than the Honors Bar.

Having stayed at the Kennedy School Hotel once, I have satisfied my curiosity sufficiently and may never stay there again. But I definitely recommend it to others. Just remember to pack warm pjs for the first night if you visit during cold weather, and plan to get your steamer fix at a nearby Starbucks instead of the Courtyard Restaurant.

Repurposing old buildings into something productive and community-building is a feat that I wish Houston businesses would emulate. Our wonderful Alabama Bookstore, an old-time movie theater turned into a Barnes and Noble bookstore for many years, might still be operating instead of facing a wrecking ball if Houston took renewal as seriously as Portland does. McMenamins would be a good source of information about conversions of old properties because they have successfully converted several in Portland and its surrounds. Hey, Houston developers, check them out!!.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Travelin' Times

2011 has been a year of traveling times for me. In February, I went to Omaha, where my brother Mark and sister-in-law Judy live, to visit while my mother stayed at their home. The cold weather and snow didn't bother me too much, but they did make me happy to live in Houston, where really cold days are rare and snow even rarer. We spent most of our time in quilt-talk and quiltwork, since Mother, Judy, and I are all quilters. And we spent time with extended family, too, including the energetic young sons of my niece Jenny.

In May, Michael and I traveled to Brooklyn to spent a long weekend with our son, Nick. We had the pleasure of meeting his special friend, Kate and revisiting a college friend of mine, Greg. Our days were filled with simple, but satisfying activities. We spent a morning at the Cloisters, a place I've wanted to visit sine the first time it figured in a novel I read. We walked across Central Park and to the MET, then cabbed our way to Times Square for a meet-up that couldn't have been more surprising - my niece Leslie, from Wisconsin and her husband were also visiting New York City that weekend. What are the odds? We also saw the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, the Brooklyn Bridge, and spent lots of time walking the Park Slope area of Brooklyn. Discoveries there were primarily culinary and delicious, most notably The Chocolate Room. I had the best dark chocolate sorbet there imaginable.

Two weeks later, we jetted off to Huntington Beach, CA for Luisa and Derek's wedding. The wedding itself was a delightful harbor cruise and dance party that lasted for hours, thank you L&D, but the weekend offered ample activities for quiet old folks like us. Beach walks, exploring Huntington Beach, drinks and meals with other wedding guests, and a spectacular dinner at Rockin Baja Coastal Cantina in Newport Beach. They served the best seafood dinner I have ever eaten in a tin bucket and, when the food finally ran out, I wanted to put my head in the bucket and lick the sides!

In July, we drove to Grapevine, Texas for the Mayborn Literary Non-Fiction Conference, an annual event that feeds the body and the intellect. We listened to good writers and great writers talk about their craft and bought book after book, providing ourselves with lots of wonderful fall reading material. Most recently, I finished The Zookeeper's Wife by Diane Ackerman. Excellent!!

In October, I flew to Helena, Montana by myself to visit my Mother and the large contingent of extended family I have there. Mother and I had a lovely time, mostly visiting with each other and being entertained by the great-grandchildren who seemed to be everywhere. We took a side trip to the Archie Bray Foundation where extraordinary potters pursue their passion and the gardens are littered with pottery "libraries." We also drove to Bozeman for another family visit. Altogether, I have eight adult relatives in Helena and eleven child relatives, making it the single most populous locale for descendants of my parents!

Two days after I returned from Helena, Michael and I left again, for Portland, this time to see son MG, daughter-in-law Shannon, and grand kids Olivia and Mackenzie. We're staying at the fabulous, funky Kennedy School Hotel. It has a heated, outdoor, salt water soaking pool that we braved this morning despite chilly weather. Marvelous, marvelous, marvelous! Steamy clouds drifted overhead as we sank into the warm embrace of the pool. We wondered if anyone else would try the pool out and discovered that it is popular meet-up spot for hotel guests and neighbor folk, too. If my bathing suit weren't still wet and cold, I'd go back now. Exploring the neighborhood this afternoon, we found the best gyros either of us has ever eaten, and we have eaten gyros in a lot of different cities, at a restaurant call The Blue Olive. Retail explorations took us to Monograph Bookwerks, a fine art books and objects store, where we found a lovely book on Wabi-Sabi, and to Six Days Art Co-op, where we saw many intriguing and beautiful art pieces, although we bought only two items (for gifts, so sshhhhh!).

Tonight the Portland Devereuxs join us for dinner and together we plot the rest of our weekend. Can't wait! And it is also hard to wait for the BIG trip in December, when we go to Costa Rica to celebrate our 35th wedding anniversary. Like I said, 2011 has been travelin' times for me. I wonder how 2012 can possibly compete!