Thursday, December 18, 2008

Cleo and Leo



So it seems people were quite taken with my recent story of the two kittens, two of many that have invaded my mother’s barn.

What has or will become of them? One friend practically begged to adopt them. She even promised I could visit them whenever I wanted.

E-hem.

I guess I did not make myself clear. Those babies are mine. I’m smitten. I don’t think I could part with them. I get like this. This is why I’m afraid to foster any animal.

That said, I have in the meantime been discussing possible names with my mother. I even got some input from friends…cat people all of them. Here are some ideas we came up with, some mine, some from others:

Cumulous and Nimbus or Stratus
Flora and Fauna
Antony and Cleopatra
Maximus and Persephone
Halle and Barry

My mother and I liked Halle for the tiny female but Barry just didn’t sit right for the male. And a name has to sit right or I’ll never us it.

Actually, I almost never use the name I pick anyway so you could ask, What’s the diff?

You see, my favorite cat (yes, I know you should not say that but it’s true), was originally named Muffin. I rarely called him that. I call him The Doots, a giant-pawed Maine Coon rescued a dozen years ago from a frigidly cold parking lot near a freeway on-ramp. Muffin was an attempt at a “normal” name, which sounded better than Ragamuffin, which is what he looked like at first. But that just seemed wrong, as it conjured images of a dirty little street cat urchin.

But Muffin was just too, too cute. And too common. One day I decided to call him Doots because it reflected the sounds he made when he “talked.” I learned that Maine Coons, which he surely is, like to talk. These are not long mmmeeeeoooooowwwwwwww’s. They are more like purr-meows that are short, staccato repetitive utterances, almost like cat barks. Often he’d do it just walking around as a person might be heard whistling strolling down a street: Doot doot-doot doot-doot doot!

I could have called it a “toot” but I heard it as “doot.” So I dubbed him “The Doots.” It took many years to officially change his name at the vet’s office for the record. They did not laugh. I’m sure they have heard stranger names. But The Doots is another story, one I’ll tell eventually.

Another cat, Mr. Kitty Man (genius, I know), is really “The Bird” or some derivation thereof (Derd, Nerd, Werd, Birdy) because as a youngster he sat looking out the window imitating the birds, practically chirping with them in unison.

But this is not unique. Most animal lovers know how personal a name is. It’s partly about reflecting how you feel about your pet, as well as how you feel saying the name.

While I loved the idea of the clouds (cumulous, nimbus) for the kittens, because they are varying shades of gray, those names weren’t rolling off the tongue so easily.

Then, just as I thought I could live with Cleo (which I first thought of as short for Cleopatra but didn’t like Antony or Cesar) and Leo (which could conjure up Leo the Lion, a big feline), my mother suddenly informed me that the bigger kitten, which she originally thought was a girl, and later decided was a boy, which is how I finally adjusted to thinking of him, was back again to being a girl.

This really upset my sense of him/her and of course the whole name thing. But within a day or so, she was back deciding he was a boy. So we are back to Leo.

Cleo and Leo just seem to fit. The names are short, kind of cute, and while it doesn’t feel natural just yet, that’ll come. Besides, it’s better than “kitty” and “kitty” as they have been known, and together as “The Kitties.”

Meanwhile, Cleo and Leo are growing nicely, sneezing less and getting stronger. Cleo, who is somewhat placid, as if she’s putting up with me when I hold and cuddle her, shows more enthusiasm leaping to the top of this scratching post as I tease her with a string — “The String” being the most excellent toy ever and at a cost of nothing. They also like to run and dive bomb each other. Leo, who is more of a love and cries as he seeks me out to sleep on my lap, has a stronger personality, more facial expressions. I swear.

So Cleo and Leo it is.

I think.

At least for the record.


NOTE: To clarify, Cleo and Leo are living at my mom's house, in a warm breezeway and get run-of-the-house time every evening. I see them several times a week. For now.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Remembering John


I was about nine. Maybe younger, maybe older. I can’t quite remember. But let’s say I was old enough to know better and young enough to be excused.

His name was John. John loved to skate at the rink where I was training as a competitive figure skater. It was a private club. Some thought it was a little snooty. I didn’t know about that. I did know something was wrong with John.

Wrong. Maybe that’s not a fair word. He was different.

John showed up regularly for the general skate sessions. I skated on those as well as the free skate sessions, which were exclusive to competitors. General skate was for a mish mash, skaters like me along with men and women my parents’ age. And there was John.

He seemed more like a child than the adult he was. He was awkward, off balance both physically and mentally. He was not bad looking but his hair was always greasy and his large glasses always slipping perilously low on his nose. He smelled like chicken soup every time he swooped past. He'd swing one leg back to do a spiral, not quite straight enough, not quite high enough, but it didn’t seem to bother him. Why did it bother us?

We all knew something was not right. Was he developmentally disabled? Was he in an accident? I don’t think I ever knew. But he was always friendly. He’d smile and sometimes try to talk to you.

I didn’t want to be mean but I kept my distance and averted his gaze. Like we all did. Maybe what he had would rub off. Maybe he’d say something we wouldn’t know how to respond to. Maybe we’d be trapped if we spoke back. The truth is, he scared us.

As I said, I was old enough to know he was different but young enough to be excused for being uncomfortable. I think back now and hope I was never mean to him, never ran away or laughed at him in front of his face.

Years later in college one of my girlfriends actually gasped in horror when a guy said something to her at a party. He’d been in an accident. His body and facial expressions were twisted like a surreal painting. His utterances were grunts.

I was taken aback, too, but mostly hated my friend in that moment for her selfish reaction. You see, the guy may have looked as if his brain was as warped as his body but it wasn’t. He saw the world — and her response — just as we did. Full on clarity. I’ve always been haunted by that. How would I feel to see someone look at me in horror?

Over the years, I have met and known many more people with disabilities — mental, emotional and physical. Yes, they can scare us. Usually, I think, we fear being like them more than being near them. What is it? Is it just a lack of understanding and education? We seem to have surmounted that hurtle when it comes to people with Down syndrome. Why can’t it be that way for everyone?

I was reminded of this again by a TV movie the other night about a man who had Tourette syndrome, which causes uncontrollable movements like ticks or sounds like grunts and even swearing. I’ve made jokes about this. But it’s wrong. Sure, sometimes it's okay to laugh or make fun as a way to cope. But not when it's mean, or breeds intolerance. That's as wrong as it would be to openly mock or laugh at a person with Down syndrome or autism.

I have watched people laugh at, yell at and veer away from those with mental illness. I know people with tremors so bad they’ve been mistaken for being drunk.

Maybe rather than trying to fix all these people as if they have the problem — because some cannot be fixed — we need to change our attitude about them.

Because I can think of nothing worse than being born with or suffering from something that makes you different than to be ostracized for it.

If we just adopt a new normal then no one is really different.

I’m glad I knew John. I doubt he had something that could be fixed. And I hope today, if he is still around, that he lives in a more understanding world. I know I’d take the time to talk to him.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

I Am Not A Crazy Cat Lady


Let’s just get one thing straight from the start, okay? I am not a crazy cat lady.

Besides, these are kittens I’m talking about. Homeless kittens. Just two out of a number of felines that have been occupying my mother’s barn in the past year or so. Where once were horses and llamas she now has a steady stream of cats, most of them short-hair grey-striped, some fully grown, some kittens, some so small and helpless they tug at your heart.

You see, my mother has been “invaded,” as she likes to say though not necessarily with a smile. It started with a friendly but cautious cat she called “Grey Boy” several years ago. My mother was coping with illness at the time and I saw how he softened her. How she, despite herself, despite not feeling well or even happy, beamed with compassion and joy and care when he came around. And concern when he didn’t.

My mother charmed Grey Boy enough to get him “fixed” but not before a fluffy female began hanging around, too. Soon there were young cats. They came, they went. There were always just a few.

This past year or so suddenly there were more. Too many. It was like a domino effect. Too many to tame. But she’s tried.

She feeds them and provides litter boxes along with cozy beds and toys amid a few bails of hay in what is a former garage with a concrete floor. Mahlie, our pony, is in one of two stalls attached at the back. The garage part has always been home to hay, horse gear and a tack and feed room. I like to think they all keep each other company.

Each night when my mother feeds Mahlie she fills dishes with cat food and water and does a random head count. Maybe eight cats of various sizes live there now. She’s caught some, mostly females, which she’s had spayed in hopes of controlling the population. But they stay just ahead of her.

Not all the kittens survive. Some have met cruel — but natural — fates. Owls, perhaps coyotes have taken some, she guesses. Older cats have disappeared leaving my mother to wonder: Were they hit by a car? Did they find another home? Were they attacked?

They are feral, but they know this is a place they can call home. Still, my mother tries to tame them in hopes of finding them real homes.

In the past couple of months, she captured six kittens — four striped and two fluffy grey ones — shortly after they were weaned. She put them in a large dog cage in the breezeway and posted notes around town.

People came and fell in love with them. One girl took two, and brought back friends. All found homes except one. He was rather shy and introverted, my mother said. She told the visitors she’d work with him and they could check back later.

Then she discovered more even younger kittens in the garage. She captured one, a female. Now the two are inseparable.

We have not named them but we’ve bonded. They come into my mother’s house each night for a couple hours — she’s hesitant to keep them out of concern for her lone elderly cat — to play and cuddle in her lap. I was sucked in the first time I saw them. Now I visit with them a few times a week.

Let me tell you, they are angels. At least to me. And, remember, I’m not a crazy cat lady. Just compassionate and caring and wanting them to enjoy the life they have. Like any of us.

With three grown cats already, I’m hesitant to adopt them. But I’d like to. Meanwhile, I am watching these two creatures grow and mature with about as much joy as if they were children. I worry when they sneeze and practically melt when they come to me to cuddle up or play.

People don’t always realize the gifts you get from animals. I was raised with a steady stream of them — cats, dogs and bigger “pets.” So I know.

I am amazed when I see these two cuddled up together as if they are they last living creatures on earth. They are not petty. They are not jealous. It’s as if they know how lucky they are and watch out for each other. There is a lesson in this.

I watch as they cling to each other as they drift off to sleep, the bigger one licking and cleaning the baby like a mother tending to her child. And my heart just lifts.

Seriously. Would you call that crazy?

Friday, October 31, 2008

Reserved Parking – Where Is My Space?


I was running into CVS the other day. Like most people, despite the fact that I run regularly and do yoga (the sweaty kind) a couple days a week on top of that, I always try to get the closest possible spot to the door.

For some reason, I am overcome with a colossal lack of energy when it comes to parking lots.

So there I was, elated as I spied a space at the last minute right next to the blue handicap spot. I did a quick look behind me to make sure no one was on my tail as I hit the brakes and whipped into the spot. Then I saw it.

Parking Reserved for Expectant Mothers.

At first I thought it was one of those spaces reserved for the Employee of the Month.

Now maybe I do not get out enough but I’d never seen this before.

I felt sheepish as I backed out and took a spot not 20 feet away. I probably burned more gas than energy moving the car and walking the extra distance.

But it got me thinking:

How expectant does a mother have to be to use the spot? Would anyone know if I was not expectant? (Not that I’d use the spot.) How many other people (clearly a man could not get away with this) take the spot figuring no one will know, or more cynically: Who cares?

I think they should adapt the sign to women in their final months. I mean, even women nine months pregnant seem to get around pretty well. Plenty of expectant moms jog with their baby bump in view. Why can’t they walk the parking lot?

Besides the usual Visitor and Resident parking signs, along with Handicap, I am now seeing signs for Hybrid Vehicles and Priests Only.

I think they should have more categories, clearly as reasonable as those for pregnant moms:

Reserved for the Obese (who wants a heart attack victim in their parking lot)

Reserved for People with Hangovers (that’d get them to your CVS for some Excedrin)

Reserved for People with Bad Hair Days (the quicker to get in and out and have no one see you)

Reserved for Organ Donors (this would help me out)

Reserved for Beautiful People (helps with store image and would be fascinating to see who thinks they are hot)

Reserved for People Who Are Sore (weekend warriors would appreciate this)

Reserved for People Too Lazy To Walk (again, that’s me!)

Reserved for People Who Think they are Important (this could work as a shaming mechanism so could backfire, but would also provide an interesting social experiment)

Reserved for Women Who Insist on Wearing High Heels Even Though They Kill Their Feet (but they look good so help the store image)

Reserved for People Who are Nice (how would anyone know unless the person visibly stiffed the poor Salvation Army collector by the door?)

What do you suggest?

Monday, October 13, 2008

Baby Showers - Thanks but No Thanks: A Satire, Sort Of


Who invented baby showers? Don’t answer. I’m sure it’s the same person who invented bridal showers.

They should be shot.

I never liked going to either.

This is how I see them:

You are forced into a room with a bunch of women, no doubt indoors on what is the most beautiful day of the decade. You dress in “feminine” clothes and act all girly and grownup as you nibble on pastel M&Ms and nuts from tiny cups on a table festooned with silk flowers, balloons or both.

You play silly games. Like a fill-in-the-blank on how well you know the bride- or mother-to-be. Or create a wedding gown out of a roll of toilet paper, then vote on which table did the best job.

It's at this point I usually wonder: “Why don’t they have any alcohol?”

Now do not get me wrong. I love my friends and I’ve been to many showers. I don’t particularly look forward to them but I go to be supportive. I actually have fun sometimes. Mostly, I believe these things, these rituals, you simply must do if you can. If this was my shower, as it once was, I’d certainly want my friends to be there. (Thankfully more and more showers have ditched the goofy games and include couples and drinks. But not often enough.)

I can handle dressing up. I can handle being around all that estrogen. I can handle being in a church rec room on the most-gorgeous-day-of-the-decade (think of the sun damage I’m not getting). I can even smile through the games.

What I wish I could bypass is sitting through what seems like hours of gift opening.

I did this last weekend. And I deserve a medal. I had a migraine, one that barely budged after taking a prescription drug that morning. Nevertheless, I arrived in a pretty blouse at my former work mate’s baby shower a half hour late — which let me off the hook from playing some game, I was told. Darn it.

I adore my friend, who is due in November and looks glorious. I wanted to see her and help her celebrate. But she's more like a sister. We do not socialize regularly so we don't have many friends in common.

“Is Colleen or Julie here?” I asked when I first arrived, hoping to at least sneak in some conversation with other former coworkers.

“They couldn’t make it,” she said. “I don’t think you know anyone.”

“Well, then,” I said cheerfully as I affixed my name tag while wondering what hugely important things Colleen and Julie had to do that they could not make it, “It doesn’t matter where I sit.” I grabbed a chair at a table with four women in the front and introduced myself.

“What is your connection to My Friend?” I asked of two aunts on her husband’s side who had not seen her since her wedding 10 years earlier and had no idea what she even did for a living. I filled them in. To my left was a sister-in-law and her daughter, a cute tween who documented every moment with her digital camera.

After lunch — buffet style with chicken breasts, salad, cooked carrots, rolls and white noodles with marinara sauce plus a delicious sheet cake — the gift table was ready for action.

I should insert here that my first move, a mistake really, turned out fabulously well. I ordered her gift online from her registry — I have no idea what it was — and shipped it directly to her. I later realized that during the gift opening ceremony — where we would look like Stepford wives offering occasional “ohhs” and “ahhhs” as she opened every single gift and pulled out every single item for all of us to see in case we missed it — that there would be nothing from me.

When I emailed her that this occurred to me, mainly thinking of her and the fun she was going to have opening gifts, she offered to bring whatever it was that I got her.

“You certainly don’t have to do it for my sake,” I emphasized. She later realized it would be one more gift to schlep back to their home. So she thanked me for all to hear before the gift opening commenced.

Unfortunately, I was the only one who did this.

The room was packed with maybe 40 or 50 women meaning the gift tables were overflowing with pink boxes and bags. Mercifully my friend’s husband was there to expedite — er, help — with the process.

As my friend opened the gifts, her sister, who was keeping notes on who gave her what, managed a kind of raffle after every third gift, using envelopes we’d pre-addressed for the Thank You notes as the raffle tickets. I see this as evidence that they know we need a little bribery to stick around.

My friend would pull a name and the winner got to choose from various Avon products on a table. I kept spying the goods, certain my name would come up. When I realized I didn’t want anything, I imagined myself magnanimously offering my place to the nice tween at my table and how sweet she’d think I was. Unfortunately, my name never came up.

At first the gift ceremony was pleasant enough but soon I was wondering why they can’t open a few representational gifts and say: “Well, you get the idea. Thanks for coming!”

Soon I was struggling to feign interest after the umpteenth pink “onesie” or whatever they were. Even my friend didn’t always know for sure what each one was.

I kept looking at the time and tried to decide what was an appropriate length for a shower. It started at 1. I’d have liked to have left by 3, even factoring in my lateness.

Just as it seemed it was never going to end, my friend unwrapped the final present at precisely 4 o’clock. “Hang out,” she offered as she thanked everyone and encouraged them to have another piece of cake.

I thought about grabbing a piece to go. Instead, I just grabbed my white paper goody bag of sample-size lotion and a scented candle and went up to take advantage a few quality moments with my friend and her husband. We chatted about the baby room, yoga and her due date.

I was actually one of the last to leave.

As I made my way out, I hugged her and told her she did not have to send me a thank you card. That they are costly (cards, stamps) and use up resources (trees). And, according to the etiquette books — “I’ve looked it up,” I said — if you thank someone in person, you do not need to send a card.

They probably thought I was spoiled sport.

She’s sending a Thank You anyway.

Note to anyone reading this who is planning a baby or bridal shower and was thinking of inviting me: You better invite me because I really do want to be there. Just don't mind if I bring something to read.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

The Blessed


Some years ago on a trip to New York, I found myself inside the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine. I used to live down the street from this massive granite and limestone Gothic structure, supposedly the largest unfinished cathedral in the world. Every day as I left my apartment I’d glance down the block at the imposing arches that loomed over Amsterdam Avenue.

I’d been inside a couple of times, once for a story. But not until a few years ago would I experience something I will always remember when I think of St. John.

It was the first weekend in October. The event, the Blessing of the Animals. Each year at this time the custom plays out at churches around the world in remembrance of St. Francis of Assisi, who had a great love for all creatures. I’ve read that at Franciscan churches, a friar with a brown robe and white cord typically welcomes each animal with a special prayer.

I couldn’t see the actual blessings as I’d joined a group of friends who had some coveted seats inside, toward the back of the cathedral, though it was arguable that standing outside offered the better view.

We sat snugly together for what felt like a typical church service with a few exceptions. All around us were people with their pets.

One couple brought a pair of cats that I spied to my right in the side aisle. There the plump felines sat, each in separate strollers, positioned as cats rarely are, facing forward with their spines curved against the seat back, just like toddlers. They were strapped in and appeared rather content as far as I could tell. We laughed at the silliness.

Then the processional began. First came little creatures. One by one, people dressed in white robes carried some form of life up the aisle to the altar where they were blessed.

A glass tank with an ant farm in it. A fish bowl. A cage with turtles. Frogs. Hamsters. A rabbit. A Macaw on someone’s shoulder. The animals got bigger as the ceremony went along.

Cats, dogs, a goat. Sheep. A donkey. Llamas. A cow. A camel. Many were festooned with floral garlands.

I can never remember: was there a giraffe, a zebra, an elephant, as I like to remember? Did I imagine that? I’m honestly not sure. It was all so magical, like something out of a storybook, watching these innocent creatures so out of their element in this concrete jungle.

Any silliness quickly gave way to a lump in my throat.

I also realized these animals surely didn’t want to be here in this church. But they obediently marched along. I later learned many were from petting farms, not sub-Saharan Africa or South America. Of course not.

That made me a little sad. Maybe even a little tricked feeling. But they were, I hoped, loved and cared for. I hoped this had not become an event to appease and entertain the masses.

I thought this again the next time I went, this time watching from outside. Some native New Yorkers happened by and asked me what was going on. They seemed intrigued before moving on. I was surprised more people weren’t crowding around. Or that more didn’t stay.

I found it hard to leave. I reveled in watching these animals as they came and went, looking dubious as they maneuvered the slippery stone steps that led to the massive wooden Cathedral doors.

I watched as I quietly prayed for them to keep their footing, quietly wanting to help them down, and all the while quietly blessing them on my own.

* * * *

If you have animals, or just love them, this weekend you might offer the traditional blessing yourself.

The Blessing goes something like this:

“Blessed are you, Lord God, maker of all living creatures. You called forth fish in the sea, birds in the air and animals on the land. You inspired St. Francis to call all of them his brothers and sisters. We ask you to bless this pet. By the power of your love, enable it to live according to your plan. May we always praise you for all your beauty in creation. Blessed are you, Lord our God, in all your creatures! Amen.”

Friday, September 26, 2008

Beau


The catch in my mother’s voice was audible. She didn’t have to tell me she was getting choked up.

It was Sunday afternoon when she called. She was on her way home from the state fairgrounds where she’d stopped to see some of the fall Saddlebred show.

I know why she was choked up. It’s happened to me when I’ve been there. I could never quite understand it yet it made perfect sense. A mixture of nostalgia and maybe, for me, even guilt.

We always think of Beau, our American Saddlebred, a beautiful chestnut gelding. My mother bought him for me to ride and show when I was a kid. She got him from a fast-talking trainer named Taft.

At the time, Beau was a three-gated horse. His tail had been broken when he was young so that it would shoot straight up in the air, his long tail hairs trailing like a streamer. Typical of Saddlebreds, he had a flashy, high-stepping gait. He’d been trained with heavy shoes to get him to lift his feet high.

But we never got into that. I think my mother felt it was a bit cruel. So Beau was a pleasure horse. He still picked his feet up a high, by now a habit. But I rode him in pleasure classes, where judges focused on him, and equitation classes, where judges focused on me.

Beau was always something of a star at home. We had, at one point, eight horses plus five llamas and a goat, among other pets, which is really what they all were.

The horses ranged from a persnickety and independent Welsh pony and her similarly independent daughter, Mahlie, to a retired hunter jumper named Boca, whom you could ride bareback with a halter and lead rope. There was also Cameo, a dependable, well-disciplined chestnut thoroughbred mare, and Tess, a powerful dark brown Dutch Warmblood, both of which my mother did dressage with. Tess was bigger than Beau and was the only horse Beau looked up to.

But in our minds, Beau was always the special one. He’d whinny in the pasture when you called him. He’d come looking for carrots or apples. Sometimes he was just curious, bounding over with his lanky, elegant gait, his tail high in the air.

Over the years, through early college, I showed him in four shows a year. All but one of the shows were held on the state fairgrounds.

I’d feel sick with nerves before my events. Beau was agitated too. He’d grown accustomed to a leisurely life at home. Here he was bunking with and sharing a riding ring with horses he didn’t know. There was always a thrill as we entered the coliseum, a vacuous space that echoed as the man on the microphone called the riders in. I always held the bridle firmly against Beau’s mouth, restraining him from what felt like a full charge into the ring, a thunder of hooves sounding as the riders all went in together.

There were never many spectators but those there would yell and whoop to get their favorite horse excited. Beau wasn’t used to this. We just had my mother, always standing in a corner on the outside of the ring, offering words to me or to Beau, whom she says always acknowledged her. I was busy focusing on the ride, his gait, making sure to keep space between Beau and the other horses. We were never the most serious of the competitors. We stuck to shows close to home, doing it more for fun.

We’d be told to walk, trot, then canter, go around the ring then change direction. I kept my toes forward, heels down, back straight and hands low while getting Beau to hold his neck arched and nose perpendicular to the ground. At the end, we’d line up in the center of the ring, Beau standing with his front legs close together, his back legs wider apart, with the front set slightly forward and the rear slightly back. The final task when the judge came to me was to back him up straight, which he usually did.

I quit showing Beau in college. I was living away from home and that last year we just did not put in the hours of practice that we needed. I always felt a bit ashamed about that last ride. Beau was not as disciplined, which was really my fault. We were a bit sloppy. We did not finish last but that was not the point. It was our last ride. It was not our best.

After that, Beau was a horse of leisure and had a good life, a great life. It came to an end several years ago after he suffered from a painful but common problem, laminitis, an inflammation inside the hooves that eventually makes standing too painful to tolerate. Horses cannot survive if they cannot stand up.

Thankfully, I’d been between jobs at the time. It was February. It was cold. But I would stand in the unheated barn with him for hours as he looked outside at the other two horses, by now just Tess and Mahlie, across a chain that kept him inside. It was painful to see how much he wanted out, as was his nature.

Soon after, Beau would lie down in his stall and not get up. He wanted to. He was even nibbling at hay. He may not have realized it but he gave up.

My mother called the vet. She looked on from the stall door as the vet told me to kneel on his head to keep him from jerking up as he injected something to sedate him before injecting something to stop his heart. I hated being asked to do this. I did it half-heartedly as I stroked Beau’s neck and nose and talked soothingly to him, which was really talking soothingly to myself, and took my chances that we’d be injured. He didn’t make too much of a fuss.

My mother choked up as she looked on and quietly said goodbye to Beau. I tried to be strong in front of the vet. But something ended when Beau passed on.

We had two horses, Tess and Mahlie, for several years after that. Now there is just Mahlie. And the barnyard and pastures have long since grown silent.

My mother does not get choked up often. Not, at least, that I see.

But when she does, I know why.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Popcorn Is Not a Problem


It’s not every day you find your food fetish soul mate. I mean, I thought I had a problem.

My addiction? Movie theater popcorn.

Don’t laugh. You know what I’m talking about. And don’t even bother with me if you can — wow — eat a half a bucket yourself.

The other night, one of my best friends confessed that she is like me. I could have been talking to myself in the mirror. The things that came out her mouth, damn near drooling as she waxed poetic about popcorn’s many virtues. Crunch-ability, buttery flavor, just the right of amount of oil that oozes out as your bite into the golden nuggets, the salt that makes the soda taste like nectar of the gods, and of course the serving size. The delectable jumbo-ness of it all. And — be still my beating heart — free refills.

Dear lord. I wonder if there is a 12-step program for this?

When she told me she sometimes passes by the theater on her way home for a night in front of the TV just to buy a bucket of popcorn, I knew I’d met my match. I’ve never done that, though I’ve contemplated it, even wondered if that would mean I’d gone over the edge.

“But what about the refill?” I asked. I mean, you pay like $5 for what is really about 50 cents worth of the crack-like goodness and you miss out on the refill? It’s just wrong!

“You should have a bag with you so you can dump the purchase, then go back and get the refill,” I said, salivating at the idea.

“Good idea!” Her eyes lit up. I think she swooned.

“Have you ever gotten the refill after the movie, when you leave?” I asked.

“No!” she looked like I’d just handed her a winning lottery ticket. “I never thought of that!” She smacked her lips.

Now we both agree on a few rules of popcorn consumption: You never begin eating the popcorn until the movie actually begins. Not when the previews start. It’s a weird quirk, some bizarre ritual I’m sure addicts and other obsessive-compulsive types must recognize in some fashion.

That said, I must confess, she is more disciplined than I. I used to be that way but I succumbed, gobbling through the bucket the moment I’m seated. I actually look forward to being a good halfway through before the movie starts so I can get the refill and not have to miss any action by having to do it later. And no matter whom I am with, I seem to get at least 90 percent of the bucket to myself.

Except one time: I was with a friend — a super smart professor type who’s a bit of a nut — at a special event movie screening. We shared a large refillable bucket. I was aghast at the way she inhaled the stuff, keeping my eye on her with sidelong glances. I could barely focus on the movie. She looked a little … wacky. Out. Of. Control.

My god, I thought. Do I look like this? I was a little horrified. I mean, I’ve been with friends — at which point I usually try to eat more slowly simply because I want to appear somewhat “normal” — and still! I have been teased for my incessant, rapid gulping.

At least I don’t get butter like my friend — my popcorn soul mate. And I’ve never gotten popcorn without at least going to the movie, too. I have fantasized about bringing a large plastic bag into the theater, immediately dumping the bucket and getting the refill then — two buckets, no missing of any action. Nirvana!

But I’ve not done that yet. I mean, I do have some control.

Give me credit for this too: I used to down dinner before a move, then compulsively crunched through most of the large bucket (well, it is more cost-efficient, you know, and there are people starving everywhere) only to feel positively grotesque afterwards, and, mercilessly, bloated the next day.

Solution? Now if I go to an evening movie, I skip dinner. Popcorn is my first, second and third course. It is a vegetable, you know. With lots of fiber. And, at most, I’ve consumed a large bucket and a half on my own.

Why, compared to some friends (god love them), I'm practically a poster child for eating popcorn ravenously but responsibly.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Library Junkie


Over the years I've loved the library in fits and starts.

In my more amorous stages, I'll think it's the greatest concept ever. But then I get fickle. I become enthralled by the glossier bookstores, where books are fresh and new and shiny and slick and, mostly, untouched. Plus, bookstores let you talk out loud and slurp up lattes.

By comparison, the library is like a friend I’ve lost interest in. A friend who feels a little worn, a little old, a little dull and just a little too quiet. Yawn.

I can get get a little squeamish about where those library books have been, too. I mean, think about it. Like, Was someone reading in the bathroom? Did they wash their hands? Were they — gasp! — picking their nose? What the hell is the greenish thing stuck it the binding?

I can make myself a little insane.

But then I look at all the books I’ve bought, some I love and will always have and some that simply sit, collecting dust. Books I thought at the time I had to read, had to possess but which then, suddenly, lost their luster because, quite simply, I had them. I took them for granted. I could read them any time, I told myself. And some, I just never did, perhaps because there was no due date, no deadline.

Some time back I decided to pull the in reins on clutter. Yes, that included books. Why do I need to possess these? I decided to donate. I have kept many. Many, many, many. But plenty had done their duty and no longer possessed me. It was time to part.

Plus, borrowing clearly made sense financially. I mean, here I was donating books that I probably should have borrowed in the first place. If I loved a book that much, I could always buy it later.

And so began my latest love-in with the library. Two of them actually. I play them off each other. One will usually have a book I want if the other doesn’t. There is practically a science to this, you see.

At the moment, I actually have the same book from both libraries. Initially I put holds at each place to see who’d produce first. When both came through, I figured I’d see who’d want it back first, after my three weeks was up. I’d keep the one with staying power.

This is because — of course — I would hardly have touched either book by that time. Oh, I did peruse the book but I had to focus on others first, others that would soon be due.

You see, I can get a little out of control, like a kid in a candy shop. Plus, I am not a fast reader. Well, actually this may have something to do with the fact that I try to read about six books at once.

Plus, it’s an organizational feat just to keep up with my due dates and manage my returns and renewals. When the three-week limit is up, I have to get online to renew. Some days that means one book. Another day it might mean 13.

That’s right. I admit it. I’ve become a bit of a borrowing junkie. At this very moment I have at least two dozen books checked out.

I can be pretty possessive too. Like when I go to renew a book that, I swear, I’ve been meaning to read or at least start but just haven’t gotten around to it. And there it is:

“Item has HOLDS.”

Who? I want to know. Who wants my book? I am so annoyed I immediately put a hold right back on it as soon as I return it. That that! I say.

Luckily many books I like are not new releases so I can renew with abandon. It’s practically like ownership. Of course at the maximum nine-week, three-time-renewal limit point, you do need to bring the book in, regardless of whether anyone else has placed a hold. This always makes me feel like a borderline criminal, as if I’m holding it hostage and they need proof that it’s still alive and healthy.

At that point, if I still want it, I let them check it in and then, if there are no holds, ask: “Can I please take it out again? I wasn’t finished,” I say, feeling like a binge eater who cannot stop going up to the buffet for more. Usually I get it.

What a high: Nine more weeks!

So that one goes to the bottom of the pile.

After all, I have others coming due soon, especially the more popular ones that some greedy person is surely putting a hold on this very moment so they can get their hands on it.

One thing I’m glad about: They no longer print out your entire list of checked out books every time I pick up a new one. I used to get embarrassed as page after page spilled out, proof that I was out of control, no different than someone who orders three meals “to-go” then gets caught downing all them all in the car in the parking lot.

One day I ‘fessed up, admitting I was slightly embarrassed by how many books I had checked out. I was happy to let them think I was using them for research.

That’s when I learned I’m nowhere near as bad as some of those crazy library junkies. Why they’ve seen people with seven pages of materials. With my three to four pages, I’m nothing.

The main thing is, I’ve clearly reduced my financial outlay for books.

As for the clutter? And the time spent managing this all?

Well, as I look upon a bed strewn with books, a wicker basket filled with still more — none of which I own — all I can say is: I’m working on it.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Not Cute Enough?


So the Chinese decided that the girl whose voice we all heard at the 2008 Olympics opening ceremonies was not cute enough to perform for all to see.

You see, she had crooked teeth.

This little girl, this little 7-year-old named Yang Peiyi (on the left), was not quite pretty or perfect enough. The Chinese had an image to protect, they said. Or project.

Whatever.

Whatever their reason it is not good enough.

Peiyi has been quoted as saying she didn’t mind being shoved off-stage for Little Miss Adorable, a 9-year-old named Lin Miaoke.

Right. Maybe she has actually convinced herself of that.

But how can anyone feel okay being essentially hidden from view because while her voice is beautiful, she just doesn’t cut it looks-wise?

That girl should be angry. At the very least, I have to believe she’s hurt.

I know I’d be.

And then I have to wonder what message this sends to young girls, even young women everywhere.

Hell, it bothers me. Something like that would haunt me forever.

It actually makes me sick.

But of course this kid can get her teeth fixed. Surely when she’s old enough she will.

Especially after this.

So will others with teeth like hers. Looks like hers. Makeup, plastic surgery, hair extensions, Spanx follow.

Don’t like your looks? Fix it. Not acceptable to others? Fix it.

On some level I understand this celebration of beauty. In the natural world, the better looking, the stronger prevail. They attract the best mates, the best birds and bees. Beauty is their way to flourish. That’s what evolution is all about. Adapt. Survive. Adapt. Survive.

But we are different.

Supposedly.

At least some of the time, we can look into someone’s heart and see beauty that might not win beauty contests. We find something to cherish in someone’s laugh, warmth, intelligence, humor.

But looks. This is still something we struggle with. I thought we were better than this.

I mean: It’s a kid. A 7-year-old kid.

God forbid she be a burn victim or deformed.

But she’s a kid. And a cute kid, too.

Why can’t the Chinese see that?

Can we see that?

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Frizz Frame: In Search of Frizzy Heroines


The message is powerful. As pungent as the odor from a bottle of perm solution.

Frizzy hair means geek, wacko, frazzled, frayed, untamed, uncivilized, unacceptable.

After all, when was the last time you saw a frizzy-maned leading lady walk into the sunset with the sexy hunk? Certainly not in “The Way We Were” or “Princess Diaries.”

Unless of course the leading lady gets a makeover, calms the curls or all out straightens them. This usually comes with other “improvements” like a nicer wardrobe, makeup and plucked eyebrows, ditching the glasses and braces.

The most recent example? “The Women,” a 2008 remake of a 1939 film now starring Meg Ryan — with a mass of cascading curls — who discovers her husband is having an affair with a perfume saleswoman, the smoothly-styled Eva Mendes. Ryan’s curls are not even frizzy. Bo-ho chic, maybe. But if you believe the not-so-subtle subtext, Ryan’s way to victory is through a flat iron. Need more proof? Her BFF, Annette Bening, a Hermes bag-toting high-powered magazine editor. Her style: straight. Stick straight. Another friend, Jada Pinkett Smith, also with straightened locks, is a smart, hip writer. One friend has frizzy hair: Debra Messing. Guess what? She plays the oft-frazzled, endearingly goofy earth mom, pregnant with yet another child. It would be nice to think some of the film’s bad reviews were by curly heads who are not going to take it any more.

The reality is, movies just don’t have a lot of time to build a character. So unless you read the book, you probably don’t know the back story. So they use superficial traits and hints we all agree on to make sure we get it. (You didn’t know you were so judgmental, did you?)

Sure, there are exceptions. The frizzy hair message is not always a total put down. Some women with frizz actually do get the guys. There’s Sarah Jessica Parker, best known for playing loveable fashionista Carrie Bradshaw in “Sex and the City” (most recently made into a movie). She often lets her frizz flag fly.

More common are the heroines like Cher in “Moonstruck” (1987). Her wild mane with streaks of gray didn’t dissuade the already smitten Nicholas Cage, though he wasn’t any major catch. Frankly, Cher’s hair spoke more to her working class roots and lack of sophistication than any kind of style. Even she gets beautified (neater curls and hair color) for a date with Cage at the MET.

There are also plenty of frizz-filled frames in movies made around the 1980s, mainly because they reflect the big-hair, perm-rage of the time.

For the most part, though, frizz is more typical among supporting roles — character pieces or “the unattractive best friend” — certainly not emblematic of the heroine, the leading lady we love for her beauty and success in life.

Here are just a few examples from movie history:

“Bride of Frankenstein” (1935)

Examples don’t get much better than this. This film pretty much set the standard for hair from hell hair (with added streaks of gray as a bonus). The Bride of Frankenstein’s frizzy out-of-control mane unmistakably telegraphed everything you want to avoid in a woman. After all, she was a monster. And not a likable one at that. As movie lore goes, to get the look actress Elsa Lanchester’s frizzy auburn hair was actually brushed over a wired horsehair cage. Nice. I mean, you don’t seriously expect to see the Bride of Frankenstein with Miss America curls or a swingy flapper cut. It had to be wild. It looked electrified. What better style to invoke fear than frizz?

“Little Orphan Annie” (1938), remade as “Annie” (1982)

Well, sure, if she’d had cute hair — nice straight bouncy locks pulled neatly back with a headband — she wouldn’t be an orphan in the first place. Right? But then there would not be a movie. Annie’s hairstyle -- a goofy Harpo Marx mop of red curls with slight degree of frizz -- is one of the worst styles on the silver screen worn by someone not openly mocked by the look. Only a precocious song-belting child could get away with a style like this and still find love. Oh, and you just know as Little Orphan Annie grows up she is so ditching that ‘do.

"The Way We Were" (1973)

This is a glaring example of how changing your hair gets you the guy, Robert Redford no less. We meet Barbra Streisand’s character as a geeky overbearing political activist with short curly hair, a dramatically different look from the neatly coiffed college girls Robert Redford hangs with. Years later, after she’s begun ironing her hair, they hook up and marry. Things don’t work out because she really never changed inside. Big surprise: After they divorce, she goes back to the goofy ‘do: The real her. Sure, she’s remarried (but you know he’s not as hot as Redford). One glimmer of hope during a chance meeting with Redford, now with a pretty, normal-looking wife: He genuinely seems to miss her despite the hair.

“Fatal Attraction” (1987)

This one is a bit tricky because Glenn Close’s wild mass of frizzy blond curls simultaneously signal her freak factor while acting as bait for Michael Douglas, who is easily seduced by her out of the lull of his routine marriage. So in this case, the wild 'do is a turn on. At first. But clearly, Close’s hair gets wilder and frizzier the nuttier she reveals herself to be, culminating in a scene at her home while listening to opera. She looks disturbed and demented as fuzzy tendrils eerily illuminate her crazed expression. Somehow, I don’t think this scene would have worked as well with the character coiffed in a sultry hair-over-one-eye Veronica Lake style.

“Dead Calm” (1989), “Days of Thunder” (1990), “Far and Away” (1992), “Portrait of a Lady” (1996)

These early Nicole Kidman movies showcase the actress’s formerly trademark long red corkscrew curls frizzed out like a giant mass of cotton candy. She plays an unglamorous role in the first, trying to save herself from a killer at sea; in “Days of Thunder” she plays a sexy doctor who gets Tom Cruise all hot under the collar so, okay, score one for the frizzies here, though it was not a leading role. The frizzy locks in “Far and Away” can be attributed to it being a period piece about Irish immigrants who, in the 1890s, barely had time to bathe. Her lead role in “Portrait of a Lady” found Kidman decidedly unglamorous. But director Jane Campion is known for her wrinkles-and-all approach, one that rejects the image of the beautiful heroine. Ergo, frizzy, unkempt mane. She’s not supposed to look beautiful. She’s supposed to look real. Kidman’s star has risen astronomically since then. Her frizz is rarely seen in film roles or tabloids. More often it’s stick straight or at the very least shows off contained curls (beaten into submission by anti-frizz product no doubt). After all, she’s a leading lady.

“Princess Diaries” (2001)

Once again, this time with Anne Hathaway as the geeky, clumsy lead, we see how frizzy hair (along with other unmentionables like shaggy brows and eyeglasses) leave little doubt this chick is living in uncool nerd-dom. She’s certainly not appropriate to take over the throne of a small European monarchy. Or course, after a Pygmalian-esqe makeover from her snooty, dignified grandmother, Julie Andrews, Hathaway gets straight well-behaved locks and, voila, she’s the “it” girl at school, a man magnet and darling of the local media. In her ascent to a more perfect life, she kept some of her klutziness, ostensibly to prove she’s human or at least not perfect. God forbid she kept the frizz.

“Elizabeth: The Golden Age” and “I'm Not There” (both 2007)

When you think of Cate Blanchett, you might think great actress, beautiful woman. Blanchett, however, does at least take risks. In two recent roles she is not at her most attractive and, surprise, sports frizzy locks. First, as Queen Elizabeth I, but here you can excuse the hair simply for being true to the time period when frizzy hair was in style and was even favored by the Queen. In her other role, in “I’m Not There,” she takes an even greater risk by looking decidedly unfeminine, donning Wayfarers and a frizzy mop of hair. And wouldn’t you know it? She’s a man, baby! And not even a cute one at that. She plays Bob Dylan.

“Sweeny Todd” (2007)

So Helena Bonham Carter is cute. Yes, even with the wacked out ‘do. But take note: She is a crazed crazy and hence, she has unkempt curly hair. Oh, and the long lost wife of Johnny Depp’s character? Yeah, she was real pretty and had nice smooth hair when they were young lovers. But — spoiler alert — guess who turns out to be the creepy, wacky, scabby-skinned woman in later scenes? You guessed it. And nothing says: “Man, I seriously need to get to a hairdresser but I’m a street urchin who’s lost her noggin’” like a head of unkempt frizz.

“A Mighty Heart” (2007)

Okay so we actually have sex queen Angelina Jolie trading in her straight locks for a tight-curl frizz look. And she is the heroine in this film. But, a big but, this is a biopic about Marianne Pearl, a beautiful woman in her own right and widow of slain Wall Street Journal reporter Danny Pearl. So the hair here was less about a character statement than about just looking the part. I will say I’ve never seen Jolie look less attractive. (Damn.) Though that was partly due to her having uncharacteristic dark eyes (via contacts) and little makeup. She also wore the hair on top of her head in a kind of no-style mop and looked tired, as any woman whose husband has been kidnapped by terrorists has a right to look. Still…. Troubling.

So what does all this tell us? I think frizz is indelibly etched in our minds as a problem that needs to be solved. At least in this culture. I wonder if that will ever change? Maybe someone should brainwash us all back to accepting it more. Even finding beauty in it. One can only dream of Cameron Diaz getting a perm for Charlie’s Angels III.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The Worst Kind of Rejection

"Despair" by my mother

Rejection is tough. Who wants to learn you were passed over for a job because they preferred someone else to you? Or the guy you liked chose another. Or you didn't make the cut for the team or group you wanted to join.

But really, that rejection is easy.

The rejection I’m talking about is worse. Far worse.

More than five years ago, I was finally able to give my mother my kidney. She’d been on dialysis for two years. Two years too many.

It was a long journey. At first we were told I was not able to be a donor. But we got more tests and surmounted that hurdle. Then ten days before the scheduled transplant surgery, we had to hold off. I might no longer be a match, we were told. That was devastating. But we did it. Amazingly.

I think back now on how lucky we were, within, I should say, a pretty unlucky situation: My mother lost her kidney function in her 60s, seven years ago. I was pretty much her only hope since younger people on “the list” (ie, waiting for an organ to become available when, yes, sadly, someone dies) seem favored. Why? Organs are in short supply, especially kidneys in Michigan. It’s a five-year wait, unless you have a living donor.

Thankfully I could do this for her. But as one journey ended another began. My biggest fear waking from surgery? That the organ would be rejected.

These things happen.

But it took. And life, for the most part, resumed somewhat normally. My mother, no longer tethered to a daily dialysis therapy, felt better and became more like her old self.

But in the back of my mind, way back at least — always — was this: Keep working.

You see, rejection is the nemesis of any transplanted organ. That’s not my mother’s kidney in her lower right abdomen. It’s mine. Save for organ donation between identical twins, your body’s nature is to fight that foreigner. Anyone with a transplanted organ is on a steady cocktail of immunosuppressants for the rest of his or her life. Period. No cheating. You cheat on this regime and you cheat yourself.

Still.

Rejection can happen out of the blue. For no known reason. Sure, you can slack on your meds and in that case you can be sure you’ve just condemned that organ to death. Eventually. Once rejection sets in, I’m told, it’s a slow decline. A one-way ticket.

Still.

They say if they catch it early, they can manage it.

Today my mother lies in a hospital bed. Rejection. Moderate.

And it’s scary.

Her doctor says they can treat it and she can, hopefully, have the kidney a few more years. I hope that’s true. I hope it works.

* * * *

In the Hospital

So here my mother lies at a teaching hospital, where we try to digest devastating -- disappointing at the very least -- news. And we have to deal with so many questions: Whenever she’s wheeled around — from the ER to the ultrasound to the floor where she was admitted to for the next several days — everyone from nurses to med students asks her history. What meds is she on, what caused her kidney failure, what brought her here today? Did she smoke? How long? What other symptoms does she have? Do you have any pain here? How about here? Can I listen to your lungs? Do you have an advance medical directive? A living will?

It’s exhausting.

When her nephrologist came to tell us the picture was getting more “complicated” after seeing the results of the kidney biopsy, I started to feel sick. “On a scale of 1 to 3,” he began….

All I wanted to know: Does this mean she’s going back on dialysis?

Yes the news was disappointing but it could have been worse. You always — I mean always — look for the silver lining.

My father, a retired physician, once told me: “Medicine is more art than science.” That's good to know sometimes.

Still, yesterday was rough — being awakened before 6 a.m. to find my parents spent all night in the ER and now had to go to a major medical center and can I help drive in case they need help?

I was at my mother’s side until after 9 p.m. that day asking questions, digesting answers, making sense of terms I don’t know, reliving my mother’s medical history again. And again. And again. It's strangely comforting and depressing to look into kind and compassionate faces as they sympathize, saying how sweet my mother is to have to go through “all this.” It takes its toll.

By 4 p.m. I had to step outside while she had a procedure. I needed air. I longed to go sit on a the bench in a garden patio area where I spent time the day before when she had the kidney biopsy.

It was raining. It seemed a subtle slap in the face. I just wanted some sun after a full day behind windowless concrete walls.

As I stood in the small covered area outside the doors, I mostly just needed to cry. To purge my exhaustion and disappointment. I empathized with my mother, who often says god must hate her for all she’s been through. She’s been through a lot. Too much.

Later, as evening set, my mother settled into her room for the next few days, with new nurses, new faces. What did she have done? What meds does she take? As I told her nurse the story behind this newly-bandaged site on my mother’s abdomen above the kidney — where she now had a catheter placed — I paused as I leaned over my mother’s body, my right hand over the bandage.

“That’s my kidney,” I said suddenly, smiling, then catching myself, almost surprised.

My eyes welled up for an instant. It was a flicker of amazement. A flashback of all we’d gone through. Here was my organ, born from my mother to me, and now back with her.

And now it’s suffering.

That's the worst kind of rejection.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Fifth Anniversary


May 19, 2008. 11:55 a.m.

Five years ago today, at this moment, I was under. Deep.

A team of surgeons and operating room staff surrounded me as I was cut open, all to get at my left kidney.

My mother, its recipient, surely she was scared. I mean, by now she might have been under, too. All I know is that I was rolled away at around 8 or 9 a.m., a steady steam of some wonderful tranquilizing drug cursing through my veins. I almost didn't need it, though. The anxiety I kept expecting never came.

One last look: At my mother, who had trouble forming a smile even if it would make me feel more relaxed; and my father and husband, who were facing hours — hours — of waiting while two of their family members underwent major surgery. Simultaneously.

My only thoughts before I was completely out were that they put my kidney into the right person. I didn’t want to be a sad story on “60 Minutes.” And, of course, I didn’t want any “complications” from the surgery.

Beyond that, the hope we all have when we donate a piece of ourselves to save another: Let the kidney take. Let it work. Let it fix this situation we’ve lived with — my mother surviving only through dialysis — for more than two years.

I woke up in my hospital room around 4 p.m.

I lived. Thank god. I took nothing for granted in all this. I mean, people die in surgery for strange reasons. Unexpected reason. So for this I was thankful.

My mother? How was she? I was almost scared to ask: Is the kidney working?

My mother was a few hours behind me so was still in post-op. We’d have to wait and see. But she’d survived. A very good thing.

What about me, then? Is my other kidney working? I’d heard the remaining kidney in the donor can be a little shocked when its partner is so abruptly removed. It could go dormant. Hours of chewing ice and staying hydrated via an IV drip later, I appeared to be fine. I was making urine. That’s all we needed.

I was also doped up on enough Morphine that I was in no pain. I couldn’t understand why my mother used to complain about how uncomfortable hospital beds were. Why this was practically like sleeping on a cloud.

I had thick tape wrapped around compresses on my abdomen where I’d discover four incisions, one through my belly button.

That wasn’t supposed to happen. It should have been a bikini cut.

Apparently the surgeons had trouble accessing my kidney through my small rib cage so they decided they needed a closer cut.

“I had my hand in there,” said my surgeon, a handsome Argentinian, with a smile, when the surgical team checked in on me later.

“I did too,” piped up another.

It’s an odd and indescribable feeling to imagine someone sticking their hand up into your viscera from a slit in your belly. I didn’t want to think about it.

As surgeries go, mine was more trying than my mother’s. Nevertheless, I was worried about her. I’d be just fine.

I gave thanks that the surgery went well, that my mother was awake. As for the kidney, they would be watching that for hours.

It needed to make urine. Something my mother was barely able to produce for two years.

Everything was about the bag at the end of the catheter.

And there it was. It flowed. It worked.

We stayed in the hospital for four days each. It was not a miraculous turnaround. My mother did not jump out of bed and start singing. Her face did not immediately flush with color.

In fact, she was strangely down. A little depressed. I think she hoped for that grand turnaround. We’d been told so often that that was how it went.

Reality sunk in. Thank god for reality and not just the happy stories. We were told it takes time to feel better. For many people this was true. This was going to be true for us.

It also took my mom some time to get over the guilt of taking my kidney. She never quite felt good about that. And here she was, making urine, yet stressed out with a rigorous and strong initial drug therapy that left her with new side effects.

She was a little overwhelmed. Maybe this was a mistake, she surely wondered.

But things did get better. They took time, but they got so much better.

Now, five years later, it’s a gift. She has my kidney in the front of her lower right abdomen. I tease her that she needs to take care of it.

And always we celebrate with dinner out.

“Who’s anniversary is it?” asks the waitress when I tell them we are celebrating.

“Ours,” I say, putting my arm around my mother’s shoulder watching as they always look, a little quizzical.

“I gave my mom a kidney.”

I say it proudly. I say it happily. I say it knowing I would do it again in a heartbeat.

She gave me life. I just gave it back.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Father


Some days my heart just hurts. I'm not sure it is a bad hurt. It can be a good hurt.

But it hurts.

I took my father to a birthday celebration last spring. The party was in honor of a man I’d interviewed. He was 100 years old.

It was at the Armenian church my father's sister attends and the one his mother once belonged to. Whenever my father goes to this church, which is not often, he sees people from his past, the old neighborhood, someone who knew his brother, someone who takes him back in time.

I'd wanted my father to meet this man since I met him three years ago. This little man, this centenarian, one of the few living survivors of the Armenian Genocide during World War I. He could be my grandfather. He could be my father's father.

I never knew my father's father. He died before I was born. My father does not talk much about him but I’ve seen him choke up at his memories.

I remember one time he was sitting at the kitchen table reading a letter his father wrote to him when he was in medical school. He told my father how proud he was of him. My father began to cry. He cried for his father, this immigrant who lost his entire family to the genocide when he was just a teen, who came to America, who built a successful business, who raised his family and who died too young from a heart attack after collapsing on the floor of his shoe repair business.

My father never assimilated into the Armenian culture, the Orthodox religion, the way his parents and two siblings did. As so many from the old neighborhood did. He did not marry an Armenian. The church has never been a favorite place.

And yet, my father enjoyed himself at this little centenarian’s party. I could tell. Even though — maybe because — being here brings back memories.

His best man at his wedding was one table over in the vast banquet hall. They only see each other at times like this. So rare. But my father lit up as they spoke, however briefly. And he enjoyed chatting with people at our table — people we did not know, but people who share similar family pasts.

We spoke of food, of cooking ethnic dishes like kibbie, pilaf, dolma. My father wanted to know where to find this bread his mother used to buy.

"No, it's hard," he'd tell them when they said it was the soft style lawash in most stores. "That's not the same thing," he kept insisting until they remembered the hard bread, too.

I watched my father as he told the woman to my right how he got his name. How, as a little child, he always wanted to be called by his father's name, which was Onnig, though he went by the American version, John. So when my father, whose given name was Nourhan, enrolled in kindergarten and the teacher asked his name, his mother said: “His name is John.”

I watched as my father’s eyes welled up as told this woman the story. And my heart hurt a little.

After dinner, one after another, people got up to honor this little centenarian, this representative and reminder of so much persecution but also of survival and hope. His daughter. His grandson. Close family friends. Three priests. They called him a patriarch, a role model.

Many spoke in the native language. I watched as my father listened.

I watched as he crossed himself and participated in reciting the Lord's Prayer in this language, a language I never learned and one he rarely speaks.

But here the language is breathed. It's celebrated, this beautiful and sometimes lyrical language that can sound short and staccato and then romantic with soft consonants and rolling r’s.

It's the language of his parents. It reminds him of his childhood, I am sure. Of his mother. Of his father.

I think as a child he was embarrassed at times by the language, as children of immigrants often were.

"Did you understand that?" I'd ask more than once.

"Most of it," he'd say.

I've seen my father cry more times than I've seen my mother cry. Outside, my father is rational, stoic.

But I know better.

I watched my father smile when the choir director sang and again when the centenarian spoke to the crowd. This old man, who lives on his own, slowly ambled up to the podium only taking someone's hand as he stepped up to the platform. He choked up as he recalled his life, his family's struggles, and then he called his daughter, now in her 70s, the one who watches out for him, "my guardian angel." We all choked up. I wondered if my father thought of me.

I'm close to my father but we do not verbalize much tenderness. We've been through a lot in recent years with my mother getting sick, and then getting better. Now my father is struggling with his own health problems. I know he thinks about this.

At one point in the evening, I saw him catch his reflection in a long mirror on the wall. He held the gaze for a moment as he raised his hand to stroke his jaw. And I wondered what he was thinking. My father is not vain. But I know he sees his age.

"Don't look," I wanted to tell him, as if to shield him from reality.

I imagine, in this place, some of his past was washing over him and in an instant maybe he was contemplating his life, his age, how he feels, how he looks, no longer how he sees himself inside.

"Don't look," I wanted to say.

My heart hurt a little.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Freedom from Things


Things weigh us down.

This I know.

I have boxes of T-shirts and clothes I never wear, dishes I don’t use because they are troublesome to unearth. I have projects from grade school through college and stuffed animals from my childhood. Towers of books collect dust while years of engagement calendars provide some record of my life. Magazines, too many to read, lie in piles. Old computers sit idle. These things are passive. They are quiet. Yet they posses an energy. And every day I feel their weight.

Things. They are just things, I tell myself.

Some of this holding on is guilt or laziness. Guilt in that I bought something I only wore once, or never really used; keeping it tells me I did not make a mistake. Laziness in that I dread dealing with it — hooking up those computers and combing through the files, downloading what I want on some outdated system.

I am my own worst enemy. Ennui overcomes me at the thought of dealing with these things. I find excuses not to do it. Work to do. A friend to meet. A book to read. I push away. I push away.

But it is more than that. I am often overcome with emotion — that of my attachment to these things.

Hanging on to a dream or a version of ourselves is a game we play. My language tapes, art supplies, travel books to destinations I’ve not yet been. My keyboard from when I took piano lessons. Will I play again? Am I turning my back on a hope I once had? If I get rid of it, doesn’t the dream die? Doesn’t a part of me die?

Things. They are just things.

I’ve gotten better about donating books to the library. If I want that information someday, I can find it there. In the mean time, someone else can enjoy it. I give it life. I no longer hold it hostage.

Still, on those computers are documents I am not sure I want to let go of. I have my master’s thesis. Stories I’ve written. Photos I’ve scanned in. Even my T-shirts and clothes, they are imbued with my life. That trip to Sydney. Those jeans from Rome. A gift from my mother. Red cowboy boots I wore as a child. And so I hold on.

But there is a line. I am trying to find it.

Some years ago, I finally got rid of my high school graduation dress, which I loved, and a sweater I wore on a first date with a man it took me a long to time to get over. But there is so much more. I have baby clothes, some my mother made, in a couple of drawers in my old dresser. Just a couple of drawers, I tell myself.

And my stuffed animals. This is hard. It is obscene to me to imagine my beloved first teddy bear in a landfill, his cracked pink plastic nose embedded in decomposing coffee grounds, his body buried beneath a warped pizza box. But who would want him? Most of his stuffing gone, his eyes now simple four-hole buttons, he is a teddy bear only I could love.

Things. They are just things.

Still, these things begin to suffocate us. And their importance is an illusion. I once read of someone who lost everything when their home burned down. Family photos, clothing, personal documents. Gone. But once past the sadness of the loss, they realized a certain freedom.

I like that.

I do not wish to lose my things in a fire that way but I like the ceremony of burning things. It is complete. You watch it burn. You know it’s gone. My mother has carried out this ritual. She, too, gets attached to things. I probably learned this from her.

For these things I’m close to, that I need to part with yet cannot imagine blindly donating or throwing away, fire provides a proper burial.

Not all things should be purged from our lives. Few would argue keeping family photos or other treasured pieces of our lives. There is value and history in such things. But only we can decide what to keep.


In the end, though, our things do not define us. And the old adage, “You can’t take it with you,” reminds me to live in the present. Enjoy what I have. Now
. Otherwise, I need to let them go.

They are just things, after all.

And in freeing those things, I free myself.