Friday, December 11, 2020

The Curtain Also Rises

My mother had stated many times in the last two decades that she would never leave her house - the dream home she designed and built herself (with some help). It was the culmination of a lifetime of hope and saving. It was her ultimate art piece, her greatest source of pride.

She had lived there since 2000, guiding the building process along every step of the way as her friends and helpers slowly turned a vacant lot into a beautiful, spacious and modern home with soaring ceilings, massive gallery-style walls, an art studio, a Koi pond and generous entertaining spaces surrounding it.

It was truly a reflection of all she was, and was exactly the home she wanted to be surrounded and energized and inspired by every day of her life.

When she suddenly passed this year, my brother and I had to get to work to settle her affairs. After several weeks of labor and planning, we came to the same conclusion: we would have to sell her beautiful home.

This decision was not reached quickly or easily. 

We knew that selling this house to someone else meant we had to be 100% involved in the process of selecting the prospective buyer. We needed to be absolutely certain that the people who bought the house were artists, and understood and appreciated the house for exactly what it was created for. There would need to be art, life, joy, hope, inspiration, friends, and life in abundance.

Because in many very important ways, the home was her. Her home embodied all of the attributes of art, life, joy, hope, inspiration, friends and life. It was a work of spirit as much as of wood, stone and glass. There was absolutely no way to simply get rid of the old place and walk away clapping the dust off our hands in satisfaction. 

I reached an epiphany a few months ago that helped my brother and myself accept the idea of letting go of this treasured place that was so much a part of our mother, and I believe it is in tune with her life. As an art show or performance piece runs its course and eventually closes, so the curtain has closed on our mother's life in that house. Her scene has concluded, to a tearful standing ovation. 

And now, the curtain once again rises on a new life in that house, as we have a young couple buying the house just this week. They provided a letter of reference giving us some insight into their life, who they are, and just what they appreciate about the house. To us, they sound ideal: artistic and creative, joyful and enthusiastic, looking to be near family and friends. They are getting married later this month, they have a wonderful little golden doodle dog (which mom would have loved) and have already adopted the fish as their own, even before the paperwork is completed. 


My brother and I are very excited to know that the future occupants will love the house as much as we do, and have every intention of restoring it to its original glory without trying to change it into something it was never meant to be.

Our hope is that we can maintain a friendly relationship with them and be able to stop by from time to time for a visit. I'd like to see the Koi again and maybe tell some tales about my mom and maybe provide some insight as to a color choice or a architectural style. There's a lot to be known about the house, and my wish is that they are open to hearing all of the stories.

It sounds odd to say I'm handing my mom off to another family, but it feels that way in a lot of aspects. My prayer is that they take good care of her.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Depths

It is impossible to understand the true, full experience of another human being. Such experience is shaped, colored and seasoned with every nuance of every day, with all of the circumstances and events and interactions with others they know. To empathize with someone who's lived through something similar is almost disingenuous: each one lives a unique life and has a completely personal experience. 

2020 has been a very rough year. I doubt anyone could say otherwise. 

For my family, it has been particularly difficult.

I had always used my father as a high-water mark in terms of longevity. Despite having a family history of heart trouble and being the last surviving member of his family, he managed to keep hanging on and thriving. This year, though, after a few rounds of battling mouth cancer, he finally passed on at the age of 90. We were not exceedingly close, and our own family story is pock marked with unpleasant periods and silent epochs, as he and my mom had divorced before I turned a year old. Even so, we did enjoy talking from time to time, and had a similarly varied set of interests in language, physics, electronics, music and chemistry. 

In the mid 1980's, after my oldest brother passed away, dad re-entered our life in a significant way, moving into the house that my brother had owned. During one conversation, he, my older brother and I decided to start up a business together making and selling a waterless hand cleaner that dad had formulated back in the 1950s. Had we a greater sense of business acumen and were we less focused on determining which make and model our company car should be, we might have been very successful. 

My mother had enjoyed some success in her life as an artist, having taking up the paint brush at a young age and coming to full blossom not long after she and my father were married. Over the course of the following half a century, she made a large impact on the art scene in the central California valley. She had a number of shows at various galleries, developed great friendships with local, prominent artists, and managed to raise three boys on her whatever income she could make in that time. In the late 1990's she was able to sell her tract home and buy a residential lot for a good price, and have a custom home constructed. This was her dream home, her art home, her creative zenith realized in physical form. It was a showplace, a gathering place, a studio and a sculpture as much as it was a residence. 

She often said she could never imagine leaving this home. 

Earlier this year she was taken to the hospital with chest pains. As quickly as that, she passed away not even 24 hours later. My brother called me that morning to deliver the news. Both of us were completely stunned and heartbroken.

I can say that it was a blessing to know that neither my mom or my dad lingered through a prolonged illness, but it doesn't make it any less painful to accept the facts. 

This year has been very rough, more than I could have ever imagined any year could be. I think I can now empathize with others who have lost both parents for one reason or another. It is not a position I was hoping to gain, but that is how life goes. Some of it is what you bring to yourself, other parts are dealt to you. 

I'm done with this year.

  


Monday, January 6, 2020

Teenage Loudness

I had mentioned not too long ago that Michael's voice changed. This is hardly unexpected for a boy of fifteen. At some point, they all go through that transformation from child to man, and for some it is more rapid than others.

What I cannot understand, though, is what happened to his volume control.

The change in pitch I get: you get bigger, your resonant chamber grows and responds to deeper notes, your vocal chords elongate and vibrate slower. That all makes sense.

But the sudden, dramatic change in his loudness is what's puzzling me.

Whereas before he used a vocal level that was comfortably resting within the bounds of what we all have agreed to as an "inside voice", now his normal conversational level is somewhere around "chainsaw at two feet". In the space of less than a week he went from 5 to 11 on the volume knob.

It's amazing. Just listening to him at the dinner table is uncomfortable as he practically shouts at us, though he's less than 22 inches from my eardrums.

I have to constantly remind him to take it down a few notches. Of course, he responds to this admonition by producing the loudest whisper that is possible to make by the human larynx.

Some evenings his mom and I head upstairs early after having been worn to the nub by our respective workplaces (the fact that we're over 50 has nothing to do with it of course). Michael will remain downstairs "getting ready for bed" by singing, chasing the cats or hollering at whatever video game he's currently playing. And all of this sonic pressure blasts its way upstairs, making it nearly impossible for my wife and me to hold a conversation, despite a floor separation and a closed door. I am forced to storm downstairs and remind him yet again that he needs to tone it down and be considerate.

Naturally he has to whisper back: "OK!"

I suppose this is a normal teenage boy thing, and like every other phase will pass along into memory. But it sure is hard on my ears.

I wonder if they make those sound cancelling headphones in something that fits over a mouth.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Future

Ever forward, creeps the future.

But does so slowly. Unnoticed.

You think "Tomorrow will be the same thing as today, as yesterday was. Nothing really changes." But each new day connects to the one before it, with its tiny alterations. The days start to add up. And so go the weeks. And the months. And the years. As the song says, they start coming and they don't stop.

And by the time you step aside and take stock, fifteen years have gone by, and your baby is now on the brink of sixteen. He's sprouted mustache hairs.

And his voice dropped an octave. I didn't particularly notice that, until the end of last summer. One evening his mom and I were out on an evening walk around the neighborhood, and she got a call. I could overhear the caller - it was some man. Her responses were brief and direct. But when the caller said "when do you think you'll be home?" I then realized that "man" was my kid. I struggled with the notion that the little boy, whose voice very recently had been pitched up to the soprano of an eight-year-old, is now speaking in the basso profundo of an established adult.

We've already established him in his first year of high school. His report cards show huge improvements in his efforts and his output, and all his teachers agree he's on track for graduating with excellent grades. He is looking into getting his learner's permit now, too. The kid that was in a booster seat such a short time ago is eager to start driving.

His sisters have all moved out on their own, and they're doing very well: One has been working for several months at a local pizza restaurant (with prospects for becoming management on the fast track), another is gaining momentum in retail sales, and the third is finishing up her second year at a theatrical supply company.

Life has changed immensely since those days when Michael was knocking people silly with his head or pulling the guinea pig cage off the table, or when the girls were fighting over the computer or having screaming meltdowns over doing their homework. Those days my wife and I collapsed into bed at the end of each day, utterly exhausted. Our house regularly looked like a war zone. We ran the dishwasher twice a day, and never caught up on the laundry.

Now, our house remains relatively tidy, and enjoys periods of near silence.

For me, the next phase includes finally completing those home improvement projects I've put off for decades, and shifting gears into a more relaxed, uncluttered, uncomplicated lifestyle.

I'm hoping my wife and I get a chance to travel a bit before the grandkids come along.

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.