Tuesday, October 15, 2019

And then there was one...

We are a three person household now.

Michael is the last bird in the nest, as his third sister has flown.

Sister L had been living with us since 2016, and as an adult child her rooming situation in our home was under contract. That is, she had specific obligations to fulfill in order to secure her room and board, and specific consequences outlined should these obligations be violated.

It wasn't much, really, but it was designed to help strengthen her ability to understand that life in the real world is hard, it isn't always fair and kind, and it demands a lot just to get along. We did not want to make living in our home smooth and easy and relaxing, as if to say "please stay with us as long as you like, and we'll provide whatever you want." That would be counterproductive to her as a grownup. Eventually she'd be faced with the harsh reality of taking care of herself completely, and it's best to get that set of muscles strong as early on as possible. As one pundit put it, as parents of adult children we should provide a safety net, not a hammock.

We came to a point recently where sister L  was occasionally skipping out on her chores. Sometimes she would mention she'd be out late, sometimes she wouldn't. And then there were times when she didn't come home at all, leaving the chores completely undone. We had warned her that she was using up her strikes, and while I very much did not want to compel her to leave for two weeks, as per our agreement, it became necessary to do so when she bailed for the final time.

Only she decided right then not to bother with the two week leave, but that she was moving out permanently. My wife and I could see that this was not an accident, that she had been looking for an excuse to be "kicked out" so she could justify moving in with this "roommate".

So this last weekend she very happily finsihed loading all of her stuff up into a borrowed vehicle and she and her roommate headed off, and out of our living arrangement forever.

And if I know sister L, there won't be any bouncing back. She's the kind of girl who sets her face forward and heads in that direction. My wife and I are confident that she has gained enough strength and maturity over the last two and a half years her to face the adult world and begin to make her way.

It's been a rough time for me, and for Michael. He takes it hard, in that his secure world that he had "nested" in, being surrounded by sisters and love, is eroding and now he is open and exposed, with only his aging parents left. It has manifested itself in an increased level of obsession with the cats, in that he must know where each of them is at all times. He spends the daylight hours in a mild panic as he moves from window to window peering outside hoping to catch a glimpse of them. He is relieved, for the most part, each night when he can lure them inside the house and lock their cat doors.

It will be tough for him to grow through and past all of this, to realize his own strength and security in himself, but I know he can. He has made tremendous strides himself, and is doing very well in his first year in high school.

Some day we will say farewell to Michael as well. It will be the saddest day, and I am sure his mother will take it as hard as I am taking sister L's departure.

But then we have a brand new adventure ahead of us: kids returning for holidays, and grandkids!



Monday, August 26, 2019

Just A Phase

I console myself with those words: "It's just a phase."

Often.

Michael will be starting high school in a few days, a fact that floors me. He could technically start driving before summer next year, and could potentially get a job working for actual money.

But he's not showing a lot of interest in anything aside from being anxious about the cats and playing video games.

And, oddly enough, watching other people play games on YouTube.

This is a phenomenon I really cannot fathom. The vicarious enjoyment of watching someone else play a game and listening to their running commentary is just beyond me. It's not even to watch what they're doing and learn from their mistakes or their successes, it's simply to be entertained by their actions and reactions to events and adventures in this digital, virtual realm.

And it's always the same kind of thing, no matter which channel or which player: a man-child alternately yelling "OH MY G*D!" and issuing shrill screams plows his way through whatever game it is they happen to be playing at the moment, whether it's a first person shooter or speed run right or crafting game or what have you. Fortnight, Roblox, Minecraft, Baldy's Basics... it doesn't matter. The gameplay all sounds the same: alternating invective and shrieking.

At least Michael has the integrity enough to avoid channels where hard swearing is the norm; we have set the limit on that.

But how he can derive any sort of entertaining value from the high-pitched antics of these basement-dwelling proto-adults is beyond me. And you can't blame the guy who owns the channel; there are a number of them, and they've all figured out they can actually make money playing games and yelling like toddlers. Technically, this is a paying job, so I can't cite them for being lazy and unproductive, in a technical sense. But what kind of example is this setting for my son?

Disney has picked up on the phenomenon as well, devoting entire programming lineups to these guys, with "Select Player" and "Parker Plays" among others. Headshots of fledgling facial hair visages with headsets inset on their monitor screen view as their digital characters go about their gameplay within a virtual world. We have reached the point where kids can watch other kids play videogames.

"Get him involved with something else," you say. "Get him away from his screen." Yes, I agree. And this I do, as often as I can. We limit his time with screens, and though it is a large limit, there are still boundaries. He knows he cannot visit sites or view content that is inappropriate for our values. He knows he must attend to his chores and whatever learning activity he is tasked with. But for the time not covered by obligation, his go-to is his phone and the glorious YouTube videos of screaming man- children.

Like all things, the fun to be found here will wane. Just as he lost interest in looking at sprinklers, finding smoke alarms, or watching "The Shaggy Dog," he will lose interest in this as well. Hopefully before he gets too far in high school.

I continue to console myself with "It's just a phase."

Friday, August 16, 2019

Wordcraft

Michael's in the last few days of summer before he starts High School. This is weird to write, the kid that was running around the house in a stinky diaper just a few posts ago is now going to High School.

He's had a decent summer: lots of free time, summer school at his new place of learning (which happens to be conveniently located only a few paces from our home), camp, a concert and a couple of beach trips.

He still insists upon lengthy and ceremonial good-byes for each parent, rising at 5:15 AM to say goodbye to his mom on days she goes to work (breaking the solemn teenager code of sleeping until noon unless pried out of bed by force), and plying me with hugs and well wishes on my way out the door. Seriously - neither one of us can leave the premises without first completing the appropriate goodbye obeisance to he who keeps the door.

This morning was no exception.

It was his parting words, though, that made me laugh.

I asked him to try not to burn the house down, as he'd be alone for the day doing Lord knows what all (eating ice cream from the carton, bingeing Stranger Things, locking the cats in the bathroom, microwaving eggs in the shell, etc.).

He responded with "Okay, dad - I promise to not try to burn the house down." He paused and grinned.

He knew that I knew what he'd done: subtly twisted the words around to give him an out, in case he does burn the house down.

He probably already worked his response for later while we stood over the smouldering ruins: "Well dad, see, I didn't promise to try not to burn the house down, I promised to not try to burn the house down!"

He should do just fine in High School. Just let the teachers try to get anything past him.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Milestone

Today Michael is fourteen years old.

And of course, I am struggling with wrapping my brain around this fact, and the knowledge that I have been taking notes along the journey of our life for almost as many years.

It is a milestone for sure; he is no longer a child, no longer a tot, no longer a random vector of actions and consequences.

Along with this milestone come others.

Michael's Mom and I have just completed a major remodel of our downstairs. In particular, the kitchen and dining room have been overhauled. We are talking down to bare studs, ductwork and sparking wires. Our kitchen is no longer a cramped, dark, grungy tidepool but is now transformed into a light, active, wide, hopeful space where delicious things are created and enjoyed.

Our daughters both have jobs where they work for other people and make actual money. One is a hostess at a local restaurant, working her way up to server, the other just started at a local theater supply company, something that is right up her alley.

More changes are coming, and we are very well aware that we are in the phase of life where we change from being active parents of children to being advisers to young adults learning to live on their own, but with our own regained life as a couple, our toes balanced on the threshold of a life of adventures together; the horizon now tantalizingly stretching before us.

It is this last bit that motivates me to want to take better care of myself and my wife, so that we can live longer and thus enjoy more while we are here. I want to spend that time touring the country in an RV, taking pictures of Mount Rushmore or seeing the autumn leaves in New England. I would like to stand before the Unisphere in Flushing Meadows, and put my feet in the Atlantic ocean while hand in hand with my sweetheart.

And I'd like to visit a south pacific island. Tahiti would be nice. Warm water, a bungalow on the beach, tropical sunsets and tropical drinks... sounds so nice.

I'm doing the long term plan thing.

In the meanwhile, I'll have to help Michael learn to drive, help him navigate high school without him turning into a nightmare, and help support him into his college or trade school years. And I need to ensure that the daughters, when they reach the age of 26, are safely booted out on their own.

Still lots to do before I can ever relax.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

All That Glitters

(this is a tale from 2008, but it stands the test of time.)

A couple of weekends ago, we took the family across the state to be a part of a ceremony to scatter the ashes of my wife’s grandmother on a mountain top.

My mother-in-law had arranged the ceremonial activities at the park on the summit of the mountain, and while doing so discovered that the park officials look upon this as an un-sanctioned activity. It’s sort of a “don’t ask, don’t tell” kind of thing; as long as we’re not advertising it or making a big deal of it, they’ll just sort of look the other way.

Her idea, as a loving tribute to be shared by all, was for each family member, from the closest to the more distant relatives to be given a chance to scatter some of grandma’s ashes to the wind.

And there was a breeze, light as it was. And it whimsically changed direction several times while we gathered around. 

One extra little touch my mother-in-law added to the celebration of life was to have the funeral company mix grandma’s ashes with some ground mica: a non-toxic and biodegradable glitter that makes the ash-tossing experience a sparkly, spiritual, very memorable affair.

When the ceremony began, my mother-in-law gave a brief discourse about memories of her mother. Then, she reached in with the scoop and gave the first toss into the wind. It was wonderful: the ashes flew out over the mountainside away from us to the south, and the sparkles remained suspended in the air like tiny diamonds, floating away in a gentle cloud.

The ash tosses from the next few relatives were just as majestic. We were all entranced by the glimmering cloud that floated gracefully away.

It wasn’t too much later that we ran short of close relatives. Cousins and next-generation relatives were called upon, and shortly thereafter the grandkids were ushered forward to try their hands and hefting grandma into the breeze. These last contenders apparently weren’t so much concerned with distance as they were determined to make a robust elevation, which had the unexpected consequence of giving us all a slight dusting.  

And then, as if to underscore the solemnity of the observance, the wind changed direction again, and we really started getting fallout.

At this point one granddaughter stepped up and gave a very healthy lob straight up, and our dear grandmother’s remains ended up coming straight down in an enthusiastic flump! on the rock wall where we were perched, a dense plume of glittering debris spreading throughout the crowd. Cousins, aunts, uncles, grandkids alike coughed, sputtered and scrambled backwards as quickly as they could.

We were all coated lightly in sparkles, spitting dust out of our mouths. Grandma was still very much with us.

Unfortunately there were still several cups left to toss, despite the number of family members that had already given their respects. And as the tossing continued, the accuracy diminished. The area was starting to look like the floor of a glitter factory after a controlled building implosion.  

Then my MIL decided on one last toss, with the entire remaining quantity.

This mass did not scatter, nor did it loft.

It went straight up a short distance, then straight down in a final, grand poof of glitter right on our feet.

Most of us closed our eyes and bowed our heads, but not so much out of respect and reverence for the moment but out of disbelief and denial over what just happened.

It was over. The remaining airborne dust settled, the last vestiges of shimmering cloud drifted off, and we all whistled and nonchalantly walked on up the hill. I felt this keen need to at least try to kick some unsullied dirt over the remnants of our deed, in some feeble effort to hide some of the evidence, but felt pressured to keep moving.

The group headed upward along the trail to a higher vantage point to switch our attention to simple enjoyment of the mountain scenery, in some hopes of erasing from our minds the grisly scene.

Meanwhile… other unsuspecting hikers walked along the trail and happened upon a remarkable and unexpected sight: piles of glitter!

Now, who would dump glitter right here? A curious hiker reached down and pinched some between his thumb and forefinger, and rubbed it around quizzically to test consistency. Hmmm. Slippery as well as shiny.

And here was a mother, scooping up a couple of handfuls: Hey, kids! It’s face make-up! She patted it on her kids’ cheeks, turning her children into sparkly-faced mimes, unknowingly initiating them into some ancient rite of wearing the dust of another family’s ancestors.

From my higher vantage point, I looked down upon the scattering and realized that the debris field covered a much wider area than I’d previously thought. It was probably forty or fifty square feet, a wide circle of silver shine that entirely coated the rocks on the mountainside.

Like Rip Taylor had a sneezing jag.

After a good half hour, we hiked down the back trail and made our way back to the tram area, saying nothing and doing our best to look nonchalant.

We had sent Grandma off as she’d wished, scattered across the mountainside. And in so many ways, she remains with us, and still touched lives of folks she never knew.


And I’m praying for a good strong rain.

Friday, August 26, 2016

A Tale of Two Kitties

Since I’d met Michael’s Mommy, we’d had one cat in our lives. Our dear departed angel kitty, Ariel. 

We had to put her to sleep in June.

We knew we’d miss her, that part was a foregone conclusion. But after her passing, our house just felt unbearably empty. Her presence filled our lives, and now we were suddenly without that filling. Devoid. Barren. A bitter chill despite the summer warmth. 

We knew there would be no replacement for her, but we knew we needed another little ball of fur to make our house a home again.  

The following Friday I came home at lunch and whisked Michael and his mom down to the pet shelter to investigate kitties needing homes.

There were lots of kitties: playful kitties, needy kitties, happy kitties, sad kitties… but the one that stole our hearts was a brand new addition: an eleven-week old black and white tuxedo kitten. She was a feisty ball of fluff, all paws and ears, curious and cuddly and full of love. 

We were smitten.

We brought her home and gradually introduced her to her new life as part of our family. Being a little black and white treat, we decided she should be named “Oreo”.

The weeks that followed were filled with us becoming used to our new little addition, who showed us her personality in no time: playful, curious, loving, happy and energetic.

To get from one place to another meant zooming. There was no walk, trot, prance or scamper, it had to be the full-on jet-propelled zoom. She zoomed into the bedroom in the morning. She zoomed downstairs to get breakfast. She zoomed to the top of her gigantic kitty condo where she’d perch and loom over all of us lesser beings, glaring like a vulture.  

She learned quickly not to get on tables or mess with the house plants. A few little spritzes from the squirt bottles I keep handy saw to that.

And she also started exhibiting behavior we can only chalk up to “embedded cat memory”. She would travel in Ariel’s footsteps, knowing where to stand when it was time to receive breakfast or dinner, knowing that the shower was an interesting place to investigate, knowing that the now-plugged-up kitty door leading to the garage is something to be curious about, and knowing that the front window is the best place to survey her domain. All the things her predecessor did.

In no time at all, though, this little bitty ball of fluff became a cat. She grew like a weed, and despite being 20 weeks old, she’s practically full-sized. Where she once occupied only a portion of her perch at the top of her carpet-covered condo, she now lops over the side.

The fact of her size increase was only made more apparent with the arrival of the next kitty, Taffy. 

Taffy came from the litter of a momma cat that showed up on Sister L’s doorstep several months back. Just last week she asked if we consider another kitten as companion to Oreo. We agreed, and brought home the extremely fluffy but nonetheless wispy grey tuxedo kitten at just 7 weeks old.

We kept her separated from Oreo for the first night, corralled in Sister L’s bedroom. The next day would be the first vet visit and a check for possible contagions such as feline leukemia. After the all clear, we cautiously allow the cats to become acquainted, separated by a baby gate and large sheet of Plexiglas. 

Later that day we let them visit.

Oreo was not sure she liked the new kitty, and there was a considerable amount of hissing and batting with each interaction. This was understandable, we found out days later, when we got the scoop from the vet that introducing a second cat to the home should be a very lengthy and involved process, since cats are territorial and need time to adjust to each other’s scents and presence.

It is recommended that you keep the new cat separate from current cat for several months, allowing only a very small opening by which sniffs can be exchanged, but not claws.

It is recommended that you swap their bedding from time to time, to get them used to each other’s scent.

It is recommended to move their food bowls closer and closer together over the course of this time, to get them used to communal feeding.

It is doubtful that any home in America has any hope of accommodating these recommendations, unless they are specifically architected with the intent of introducing cats to each other (actually this sounds like it could be a business opportunity: cat introduction services in a specially constructed, gradual meeting space).  

But we had neither known nor intuited any of these cat facts, and basically just tossed them together hoping things would work themselves out.

And they did.

In a matter of three days, the two kittens have become friends. They tussel, but without biting, hissing or yeowling. They sniff each other, play with each other, drink from the same dish on occasion, and both run when they see the squirt bottle brought to bear.

Oreo has asserted herself as top cat, and Taffy is the zen master of allowing the greater force to go as it will; she bends like a reed in the wind.

Of course, being kittens, they still haven’t figured out how to behave at nighttime. And for some reason I thought it would be a good idea to leave our bedroom door open last night so the kitties could come and go.

Which is why I probably got a good solid 45 minutes of sleep. Between their Big Time Kitty Wrestling all over the bed and the unusually warm nighttime temperatures here, I didn’t stand a chance.

I scooped them up and whisked them out of the bedroom at 4:00 AM and shut the door behind us. I figured at least my wife could get some decent sleep out of the deal.

I’m still not sure what we were thinking. I doubt I ever will really know. 

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Ruddering

Last night I spent a portion of the evening taking apart a bed, getting it ready to load into the van, where it will then be transported to its new home. It took me a while, and not because the mechanics were difficult.

Sister S is moving into a new place. She's held down a job for quite a while now and is heading in what looks like the right direction.

It made me wistful, as I'm sure it does every parent, to pack things up from a childhood bedroom. It's easy to say the old days are gone, but folding blankets and disassembling bed frames makes it so tangible; makes it inescapable. It took me some time, because with each item I packed away a memory came to mind.

With the Little Mermaid bedspread came to mind the time when her mom and I painted her room pink. It was so very pink. It was the richest, deepest pink that a room could be, and still legally be called pink. I think even Barbie would blanch at the pinkness of that pink. But Sister S loved it.

The pins attached to the lampshade brought back memories of trips to Disneyland, and her chasing after Peter Pan or hoping to find Johnny Depp by some miracle. Even at her most glum and uncommunicative, a family trip to her favorite park would always bring a solid, lasting smile.

Seeing tiny equestrian accessories on the nightstand reminded me of when she and her step sisters would play with their horses. We had more horses than all the stables in Texas for at least a couple of years; maybe they weren't real, but the girls were happy enough.

And I couldn't remember how many times I'd sat on the edge of this bed and just listened to whatever was bringing her tears of grief and anguish during those tumultuous teen years, and tried to offer what advice and encouragement I could.

Last evening I probably spent more time reflecting than I did packing. And I spent a good portion of that questioning my own credentials as a stepdad, and what things I could have done better.

But it wasn't all sadness, because beneath it all was gratefulness that she's getting back on track.

And the analogy of parenting with steering a ship came to mind.

Ships have to travel on the water, and as such they are subject to the wind and the waves. It takes a strong, steady hand at the wheel to keep the rudder guiding the ship along. Without the rudder, it's unlikely a ship is going to stay on course, but instead will get driven wherever the wind takes it. And even having a good strong rudder is no guarantee of safety against a bad storm.

The point is, kids need guidance. They need a strong hand holding the rudder, guiding them along, until they have the strength to hold it and the wisdom to see the obstacles and avoid them on their own. To let a kid grow up without guidance is to guarantee his eventual shipwreck.

It's up to the parent to understand what that means, to be strong and steady and to guide with a firm hand, but doing so without being completely controlling. A parent needs to know how much force to apply and when to ease up, and knowing when it is the right time to let go completely.

Letting go is probably the hardest part of all.