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.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Tweenage

Michael was accepted into a middle school program that essentially diverts him off the standard public school pathway and instead places him in an exploratory environment. We think this is going to be a really good fit for him for a number of reasons.

First of all, his natural learning style is doing. We've always said Michael is a verb, and he must DO in order to BE. His is not a mind that can simply listen to a lecture and absorb content adequately. For him, it needs to be tactile. It needs to be experiential. It needs to be entirely involving of all of his senses (except taste, perhaps - nobody needs to taste school).

Also, we are hoping that with a fresh start in a new environment, he'll be able to shed some of the stigma he's had heaped upon him during his years in elementary school. His small stature (no kid in his fifth grade class ever believed he was actually 12 years old) and his unique personality have unfortunately made him an easy target for bullies, most of whom we know would have followed him into the middle school he was slated to attend.

And, because this program is an option school requiring an entry application, we are hoping that most other kids there will be less inclined to bully and more desirous of exploratory learning. And most if not all the kids will never have met Michael before.

So without the oppression of bullies and with the cloak of some anonymity, we are hoping he is able to develop his social skills to the point where he can easily integrate with his class.

Unfortunately summer has been fraught with some difficulty. An incident on the summer school bus a few weeks back led to Michael being grounded from his electronic devices.

He has earned them back, but other challenges have arisen making parenting even more of a chore. There have been times in just the last few days where I have been extremely tempted to lose my temper and just go dukes.

Michael is a typical kid in many respects, and girls and boys alike must slog through their teen years in their own way. And even though they would never want to admit it, they know they need someone to help guide them through. They need the direction, they need the encouragement, and they need the strength of a parent saying "no - and that's final" some times.

Just looking at the barometer and watching the sails unfurl, I can already tell we're in for some choppy seas.

His mom and I have handled a rudder or two before, though in our cases it was separately and alone.

So even though it means a lot of work, at least this go-around we know it will be teamwork, and we will get through it.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Newness

I think it was in summer of 2014 when I wrote in a personal journal that I had a strong feeling that 2016 would be a year of changes. Specifically I'd said it would be the year that would herald the beginning of our golden years. In my mind, I had heard "the end of the old, the beginning of the new".

And it has proven true in so many ways.

I think this has been almost universally true, actually, as others in my own circle as well as others in the news have said as much about their own circumstances this year.

For us, it has come in several forms.

Most recently, we had to say goodbye to our beloved kitty, Ariel. She was a black cat, a standard domestic short hair, but so much a part of our family it was almost inconceivable that she would ever not be. But since last fall she had been on the decline. Her liver began acting up, so we tried to treat that - which caused her to go into kidney failure. So we discontinued that treatment, but then her thyroid became hyperactive. There was no treatment for that; nothing she could have handled. She did not tolerate the medicine, she wouldn't survive radiation or surgery. So we had to watch as she became thinner and thinner, ultimately bottoming out at just under 5 pounds. A mere whisper of her former self. We had an in-home pet service come and administer her final dose of sleepy medicine, and send her off to cross the rainbow bridge. Jackie held her as she left us. We all cried - it was the worst kind of grief. It did not help that we had said goodbye to her so many times in the days before. It did not help that we knew she'd be better off, that she'd jump into Jesus' arms right away, that she'd finally be free of pain and suffering. We lost our child, essentially.

At the same time, I've been reeling from huge losses at work. The company announced a huge, sweeping, deep cut of its workforce. At the time of the announcement, many employees were walked out of the building immediately. Another large set were offered separation packages. Most of the people that I had worked along side for 17 years were suddenly not there any more. And the announcements continued: new procedures, new employees moving in from sites that had been closed, new organizational structure. The company that I started at years ago is no more. The vision is gone, the devotion to progress and innovation is tossed aside in favor of commodity thinking and bean counting.

Smaller things: my in-laws found themselves unable to afford their custom home, and had to make the decision to move to a smaller house in a nearby neighborhood. Gone is the beautiful view, the wide spaces, the unhindered proximity to the beautiful Wallowa mountains. We got a new kitty: a little spitfire tuxedo cat who's a sweetie and who seems to be picking up the collective cat consciousness and is handily taking up where her predecessor left off: tearing paper, attacking ankles and eating like a hog.  Michael is going to middle school this year, and we're hopeful he can make a fresh start with a new student body; he's going to an exploratory option school where it's a good chance that most of the kids he knew from Rock Creek - particularly the bullies - will not be around to pick on him. We're hoping he can learn and grow in a fresh environment, and thrive.

Life goes on. And since this year, it will never be the same as it was. The old is gone, the new is here.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Continuing..

Okay... so I haven't written in a while. What else is new.

Michael is eleven and a half. His oldest sister is 22, middle sister is turning 21 shortly, and next older sister will be 20 when Michael turns 12.

Life is substantially different than the tumultuous times when Michael was little and all three girls were living with us. Now the oldest two are basically out on their own, while their little sister (Michael's Twin, if you recall) is attending community college while living with her mom, though she still faithfully comes to stay with us every other weekend. Michael loves having her around. They're both into Minecraft (yet another common bond) and can now converse in a language that goes right over our heads ("I'm trying to build a wither but I don't have the mod! Do I need an ender portal or just redstone?")

Michael spends most of his time with his face buried in his iPhone. He uses ear buds to keep the sound of his music/games/conversations to himself. This is simultaneously a blessing and a curse. While the silence is nice, it's impossible to get his attention. I have to physically walk over to him and yank the earbuds out if I want him to hear me. This makes things like calling "Dinner!" and "Let's go pick up pizza" and "Time for school!" an onerous chore.

He isn't diving at the moment. He had been doing really well, once upon a time. I had dreams of him placing at the Olympic games in 2024. Then his diving instructor was fired and banned from the parks district facilities. This was for political reasons (basically, he pissed off the wrong director), not for anything he failed at in his duties.

Then we got very fortunate, in that our friends at church happened to be in-laws to the head coach at the most highly acclaimed diving club in Oregon, one which trains Olympics contenders. We had an in, and got Michael signed up for instruction right away. All was going well and life looked good... until this head coach was fired by the board. This was for political reasons (basically, he wasn't kissing the behinds of the parents who made up the board).

At this point we decided we'd just let him take a break, and focus on Taekwondo. He's steadily progressing in that, and will be at black belt before Fall of next year.

We have a great church we're members of now, and we've become very active in the church - I'm on the worship team playing electric bass, and Michael's Mommy helps with the children's church and with the food from time to time.

So life right now is fairly placid.

But as I look back on our years past, I wonder sometimes how we got through as unscathed as we did. While some of my posts of that time were fairly light and innocuous, touching on such topics as Chuck E. Cheese, stepping on Legos and road trips, beneath the surface ran a continual current of strife. On a few occasions, this burden would bubble up and explode in the form of a cryptic post - some may remember the worker jackhammering the bricks - but for the most part, it was kept well hidden.

There were times when I wished I had a secret blog to write about things with complete anonymity. A place of primal screaming in the dark where I could shake the pain and emotion from the fabric of my life without worry over reprisal from some negativity-seeking family member.

God carried us through that time, though, and has deposited us here in this future where much of that ugliness is only a bad memory.

Time goes on, memories fade, and you find life where you go looking.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Everything's Fine, Mom

"Cleaner than it's ever been," she said. 

Those words still ring clear in my head, weeks after the fact.

See, we had decided to visit Grandma K in eastern Oregon during Christmas break. But because our elderly kitty, in the beginning stages of renal failure, needs daily attention, we didn't want to leave her alone.

So we called upon Sister S to look after her. All we asked was for her to visit the kitty twice a day for feeding and cleanup.

That's all.

This kitty was hers, technically. Michael's Mommy had gotten this cat many years ago, when Sister S was just a sprout herself. S was the cat's caretaker and friend, so it seemed natural.

We knew, though, that if S were to be at the house, her boyfriend would be there too. There was no way we were going to prevent that. So rather than fight it, since S is technically a "grown up", we decided to bend the rules a bit and say it was okay for him to be there with her while we were away. 

But we made it clear: No friends over, no parties, no booze, no dogs, nothing weird or damaging. Keep the house clean and secure. Simple enough.

So it came as rather a surprise when on the very first night we were away, we noticed weird things going on.

See, we got a security system some time back. This was on the heels of another mysterious and weird thing: the front door was somehow broken. Sister L, who was home at the time of this incident, swears up and down that she came home and found it that way. Odd, because nothing was taken or damaged other than the door. And even odder, the door appeared to have been broken from the inside: it was the door itself that was damaged, not the frame, as would be seen if someone had kicked the door in from the outside. This little discrepancy paved the way for our decision to get a security system complete with door-watching cameras, so there would never be a question about how that might have happened. We would know, because it would be on camera. The security system tells us when a door to the outside is open or closed and what time the opening or closing occurs. We can also set it up to record snippets of video around the time when a door opens or closes, so we'll know who's coming or going.

That first night at Grandma K's house, we checked the security system and noticed a couple of strange things. First, the door to the garage opened and closed about every five minutes for a good solid three hours.

Open. Close. Open. Close. Open. Close. Ad infinitum.

Second, the camera that normally points to the front door was pointed at the floor. Michael's Mommy and I were very concerned about this strangeness.

 "Please put the camera back," Michael's Mommy texted to Sister S. "Point it at the door."
 "We can't reach it," the text came back. Strange how it got moved if they couldn't reach it...
 "Get a step ladder," we replied.

After an hour or so, the camera was moved back to the right position. No more weirdness that night. We chalked the garage door opening and closing to wind pressure: if the door isn't shut tight, it might register opening and closing with each wind gust. We were willing to give her the benefit of the doubt.

The next night, New Year's eve, something just as odd happened, only more of it. The camera was again pointed at the floor. The door to the garage opened and closed. We recorded a whole lot of video of the side door to the garage, only it showed nothing. Sister S knows where the camera's blind spots are. One of the biggest is the front of the garage: the big roll-up garage door itself. If someone, say a devious 20-year-old daughter, wanted to sneak in big wads of friends, that would be the way to do it.

What she didn't consider was the fact that the other cameras also face the front yard, if only just a little. So on those cameras, we were able to see cars parked along the street, lights going on and off in the garage, and legs walking by. Furthermore, that entryway camera was once again pointed at the floor.

 "We need you to put the camera back," Michael's mommy texted, angrily.
 "I just want my privacy," came the reply. "I'm not doing anything wrong, mom. And it's weird that you keep watching what we're doing."
 "It isn't about you. This is about us being able to make sure our house is kept safe. We don't want weird things going on like what broke the door."

The conversation moved on from there, but we were left with the questions about why she thought she could expect privacy in a place that isn't hers to begin with, and more importantly, whether we'd have a house and personal property of any value when we returned. We asked for pictures of the TV, the computer, and the other items potentially worth a quick buck on Craigslist. Oddly enough we got back pictures of doorknobs along with the pictures of the valuables.

We congratulated ourselves on having the foresight to lock up the liquor cabinet and hide the cash and jewelry in our bedroom, and locking the door.

We told her that we expected the house to be spotless when we get home. "Don't worry, mom." she said. "It will be cleaner than it's ever been."

Right. Imagine our surprise, when we finally came home, and she and her boyfriend were still there. 

The house was a pigsty: dishes in the sink, miscellaneous bits of trash everywhere, furniture in disarray, and Michael's toys had been used. Evidently they thought it would be fun to have a war with a few of his ping pong ball shooters and laser blasters. There will little yellow and white balls scattered all over the house. I'm still finding them tucked under chairs and in corners.

And the house had a particular... funk about it. Couldn't really put my finger on it, just that it smelled weird.

When asked why the house was so dirty, she gave us the story that the place had been much worse when she got to it, about how hard she and her boyfriend had worked to clean it up as much as it was. She probably figured I'd forgotten that we'd spent a week beforehand cleaning it from top to bottom, since my wife and I both like coming home to a clean house.

The very next day, Michael's Mommy and I went to Home Depot and got a door re-keying kit and changed the locks. We also bought an air purifier in hopes of clearing the air of the funk.

And next time we go out of town, we'll just take the kitty with us.