Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Cats and Evidence

Michael has reached the ripe old age of 18, which is incredible to me. It seems like it was only a few years ago that he was running around the house pouring perfume on his head, cheating at Hungry Hungry Hippos or cutting up placemats.

He's in his senior year of high school, has a bank account, and he's learning to drive. 

But, being a kid on the spectrum means he's got some extra challenges.

Some of them are easily blended into the typical teenage boy behavior gamut, such as lack of attention to anything that doesn't appear on a screen, being constantly hungry, and "forgetting" to do his regular chores. Every parent battles those problems.

But he also adds in a healthy dose of obsessive compulsive disorder.

His current obsession is our cats, and their "safety". By this I mean whether they are inside or outside of our house.

Before I delve into this too far, let me make it clear: our intention was never to have outdoor cats, but during our home remodel project, which lasted eight weeks, there were walls and doorways missing for extended periods of time. There was simply no way to reliably keep them inside and still go about our daily business. Once they got a taste of the big wide world out there, it was useless to try to contain them. Fortunately they know where their meals come from, and they stick close to home.

However, in spite of their habits of roaming during the cool hours of the morning and returning each night before supper, Michael insists he has to keep track of them, and becomes incredibly worried to the point of near panic if one or the other goes missing for what he feels is an extended period. Like, two minutes.

It does no good to talk to him about it. Reassurances fall on deaf ears. Repeatedly pointing out the evidence that the cats return to us EVERY SINGLE NIGHT is useless. 

Each morning, either his mom or I will let the cats out. They're practically clawing through the sliding glass doors at this point, and shoot out of the door like rockets once the crack is wide enough to admit a slightly chunky cat body. 

Following directly on their heels will be Michael. He needs to be right with them at all times to know where they're going and what they're doing. And if one or the other climbs a fence to visit a neighbor's yard, Michael will be plastered to our side of the fence making kissy noises hoping to lure it back.

Every day this summer, you can find Michael outside - either in front or back - walking around stalking the cats. Some neighbors have been suspicious of the apparently aimless teenager walking back and forth along the sidewalks, and he has been confronted on occasion by a neighbor wondering who he was and what he's doing. 

I've reminded him that at 18, he's now responsible for his own actions, and if for some reason a neighbor gets concerned and calls the police on him, he's going to have to talk his way out of it himself. 

But again - all of my warnings, advice, reassurances and admonishments are unheeded. 

He insists that the only way to keep the cats safe during the day is to follow them and monitor their activity. 

He can only relax and return to his normal, cheerful, talkative self once the sun starts going down and we bring the cats in for their evening meal. With the cats in and their doors locked, he calms down.

This is what OCD does to a person. An otherwise reasonable, rational person will throw logic, facts and evidence - despite the depth and repeatability - out the window if that person has determined in their mind that the feeling is more reliable. 

By this point the groove is cut very deep. He is entrenched in his routine. His habits and rituals are strong and he shows absolutely no desire to break free.

Our task is to try to break the ritual and thus disrupt the habit. One way is to vary the time each morning the cats go out. One of his OCD ritualistic behaviors centers around being exact with time. If the cats don't go out at exactly the same time each day, this confuses the OCD process.

Another way to break the ritual is through distraction or removal. We get him involved in something else (an extra chore or helping a parent with something) to distract him from his self-appointed duties. This shows the OCD that it is not in control.

School will be starting up soon, and he'll be forced to be away from the roaming cats for hours each day during the week. I know he won't like that; it's bound to cause anxiety. This can be therapeutic, though, for the same reasons as above: it breaks the ritual.

He's crafted a strong and harsh prison for himself, but he holds the key. He's the only one who does. The walls and bars are impenetrable from the outside.

My prayer is that he will soon decide he's had enough of it.

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Dreams and Visions

Do you ever have intensely vivid dreams? Dreams so real that it almost hurts to leave it; to re-enter the real world seems somehow foreign and obtuse?

Recently I had been reading and old journal entry from years ago about a dream I'd had. My recollection of the experience of this dream flooded my memory like it had happened just the night before.

The dream began with a simple family outing in our minivan. "I'm going to show you where I used to live," I said as I spontaneously took a freeway exit to drive through my old neighborhood. As we slowly drove the desolate streets, I regaled them with tales of this wonderful place; the shops and businesses, the amenities and local scene. I parked the minivan and we got out to stand in front of the largest of the remaining buildings, a three-story shopping and apartment building. I began describing in detail each shop and facility, where I lived and how we all worked and lived together here happily.

Then suddenly the dream changed from a narration to a flashback: I was at once whisked away to a brighter, happier time when the place was bustling with activity and merriment. Here now people lived, worked, laughed, loved, planned, built and prospered in a close-knit community under sunny skies. And then the dream changed into a news report with a montage of  images of shops being closed and families moving out of town, while the voiceover narration described the tragedy in sequence. Soon all that was left were darkened buildings, closed doors and empty streets. 

As I came out of the flashback and my own narration trailed off, I looked up at the desolate cinderblock edifice which stood on a wild, overgrown field while the cool wind and harsh sun pressed hard on it to yield back to the soil. The kids ran through the grass oblivious to the depth of significance the memories held for me. My wife stayed at my side and held my hand, listening and smiling kindly.

When I woke, the meaning of the dream hit me immediately. 

Just a week before, our company announced major budget cuts and devastating restructuring. Our group was one of many that would be impacted, meaning we would be focusing on new projects and new methods. It would also see the exodus of a vast majority of the team I'd hired on with. The "old team" was no more, and all that remained was a crumbling ruin of what we'd had, and bittersweet memories for those of us who decided to remain.

I think the dream is a lesson. Life is a journey, an adventure down a highway. There are stops along the way, but nothing permanent. Our experiences stay with us as memories, and they can be sweet, but it's important to not dwell where life used to be.  

Wednesday, August 4, 2021

A Callus Affair

We are currently enjoying week 6 of our adventure in skeletal fractures, with the rib pain becoming more of a footnote (with the exception of the pain they deliver when I'm riding in the passenger seat when my wife is driving and she makes one of her famous sharp left turns), and the humerus shaft now firmly joined by what the experts label the "Hard Callus" - a pre-mineralized cartilage profused with blood vessels and bone-building cells.

Rather than use a cast, the doctor decided in my case the best option was to immobilize my upper arm using something called a Sarmiento brace. This is a hard plastic clamshell sort of thing that secures with Velcro. It provides a Stormtrooper-esque level of protection: not enough to stop blaster fire penetration but plenty to keep the bones from shifting or getting bumped around.

My most recent X-ray was two weeks ago, and though my untrained eye would argue that the bones are still entirely separated, I was assured that there was callus formation going on. The fact that my arm aches nearly all the time is a good indicator that there's a lot happening; more than can be seen via X-ray.

Also, my arm doesn't wobble or crunch any more when I shift it. That is a huge relief. I had imagined a few years of living with an arm bone that would never actually join together and solidify, just forever flap around like a gooseneck filled with gravel. Every time I'd bump my arm it would send me through the roof in agony. There was one time I walked right into a door frame with my right arm, and the pain nearly made me pass out. And of course I will always remember when Michael decided to plop himself next to me while I was sitting on the couch, and landed his butt directly on my forearm. I swear I saw actual stars that time. His explanation? He had "forgotten" that I had a broken arm.

Each incident like this, and there were a lot of them (most entirely my fault), led me to believe that I'd never be able to heal naturally, that I would forever be re-setting the process back to square one, and that I'd need surgery like pins or a rod or an external fixator.

But no, despite everything, the healing process has gone very well, and I'm right where I should be by this point.

Physical Therapy is my new dread. To be fair, the fact that I'm at this stage now and I'm able to do the work is very encouraging.

But it hurts!

I cannot bend my arm down to my side due to tendon shortening, so that is an area of focus. I cannot squeeze my hand to grip things, so that is an area of focus. It hurts to turn my hand over, bend my wrist or touch fingers together. I cannot write or lift my hand to my mouth. All of these simple things will need weeks of work to re-establish.

It's a long road ahead.

Friday, July 9, 2021

An unexpected break

 This summer was supposed to be one of hard work, restoration and relaxation. 

But God had other plans in mind.

I was slated to take an eight-week sabbatical from my job, a perk offered by my company after a consecutive seven years of employment. This would have been my third. 

And none too soon; I had been feeling over-stressed and heading towards burn out for some time, and was looking forward to a well-earned respite from the high pressure environment in which I work. The project I was working on was heading toward a deadline that coincided with the beginning of vacation, and I was determined to hit the mark. This meant working long days and weekends, something I vowed I'd never do. If a company has to compel its employees to do that, then the real solution is to hire more employees or reduce expectations.

I was so looking forward to working in our yard: digging in the dirt, planting new shrubs and trees, landscaping with rocks, creating a water feature, adding awesome lighting, and generally turning our backyard into the tropical escape we had been dreaming about. 

Then, on Monday June 21st, all my plans evaporated.

You see, our little Pacific Northwest town was going to be hit with a phenomenal heat wave. So I decided to put a sun shade up in the entryway skylight. This was a 4 x 4 opening about twelve feet off the floor, sloping upwards with the vaulted ceiling. I'd made a shade using shiny cloth strung between tension rods. Normally I'd haul in the 24 foot ladder to install the shade, but being lazy I decided to try using the 9 foot ladder propped up against the closet door. 

I had the shade nearly installed, and just needed to press one side in... so I reached out to push using all my weight, and it gave way - leaving me with zero resistance to keep me up. So down I went like a bag of cement, landing with a resounding thud on the entryway floor.

Poor Michael, who had been assisting, ran around the house panicking, thinking his dad must be dead. He called out to his mom, not knowing she was at work.

I yelled for him to call 911, as I knew I had broken something. There was no way I could land that hard without a fracture.

He texted his mom, who arrived minutes after the EMTs. I knew when I saw her face in the entryway window I was in big trouble.

Fast forward to the hospital, the diagnosis was an oblique mid-shaft fracture of the right humerus and fractures of right ribs 6, 7 and 9.

I worked out a medical leave of absence with my boss, got coverage for the project, and will be taking sabbatical next year. We have hired a handyman and landscaping services to take care of our big projects, and are putting off completion to next year. My lovely wife has some time off work to help me recover, and I'm doing my part by staying still and doing nothing.

So, I guess I got that break I wanted, by getting a break I didn't want.

Funny how things work.

And I am *so very* banned from ever getting on a ladder again.

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


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.