Sacrificing Innocents to the Cult of Trump

It was after a Maundy Thursday, or maybe Good Friday service and Paul, lapsed Catholic and attending all the Holy Week services for the first time in a very long time, was hearing all the readings and listening with a critical ear.

Allow me to paraphrase my wise hubby, “So, all these politicians cutting services like healthcare, food stamps, etc., to the poor are calling themselves ‘Christians,’ and yet, on the night before he died, Jesus Christ said to his closest friends, ‘Love one another as I have loved you’ and ‘love your neighbor as yourselves’; where in that was cutting food stamps and healthcare from babies?”

Where, indeed?

I go over it again and again in my head, trying to sort the cognitive dissonance which happens every time a “Christian” quotes the bible in support of the latest outrageous Trump Regime policy, usually with Old Testament scripture. And you know what? I am done trying to justify it, or even understand it. Folks are calling themselves Christian who are really, from my view, worshipers of the worst elements of the Old Testament, the judgy-est, most damning texts.  What we’re seeing is not Christianity, it is a new cult built around the most revolting, all-too-human figure currently occupying the White House.

While understanding that Jesus did not tell us to throw the old rules out with his coming, I do believe he told us to filter all that we do through his new covenant, that we love one another:

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”John 13:34-35

What we are doing to innocents brought here by desperate parents fleeing unimaginable violence will haunt us for years to come. The Trumpist cult that is now the GOP is fond of quoting the bible; here is one quote that has always intrigued me, as a student of psychology:


“The Lord passed before him, and proclaimed,

“The Lord, the Lord,
a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,
 keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation,
forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin,
yet by no means clearing the guilty,
but visiting the iniquity of the parents
upon the children
and the children’s children,
to the third and the fourth generation.”Exodus 34:6-7

This doesn’t sound much like a merciful God. But as a student of psychology, I understand how mental sickness, like many other things, rolls downhill, or through generations. The man who hated his father for beating his mother becomes an abusive husband; children who are sexually violated become abusers themselves (sometimes). God doesn’t need to send specific punishments upon our babies, we do it for Him when we allow our sick, abusive behaviors to dominate and take us over. Our sins roll down onto our babies when we don’t actively address and heal our wounds.

I wonder how many people have had a conversation with a friend the night before he or she died? I have. When my friend Jeff and I talked, seriously and lovingly, alone for the last time, we had the gift of knowing it probably was the last time, and after I fed him beef stroganoff and we did our usual ridiculous cutting up, we talked of Love. It was a conversational treasure I will carry within my heart the rest of my life, and is the conversation which resonated within me that Holy Week when Paul pondered Jesus’ last words to his disciples.

Jesus, the original rule breaker, chastising those fussing at him for dining with prostitutes and tax-collectors, and choosing his last words carefully, mindful of the importance, tells his followers to “love one another as I have loved you” and “love your neighbor as yourself”.

There is nothing of love in this:

horrible trump people on immigrants

Who are we becoming as an American People? This is what keeps me up at night. A populace which claims Christianity, but acts in distinctly unchristian ways? There is nothing of God in this policy and nothing of God in the people who revel in it. What we do know is that separating children from their parents in this manner results in trauma, the exact results of which may not be known for years.

The sins of the fathers will rain down upon us in ways we cannot even imagine if we let this stand, and they won’t be divinely sent. We will have seeded the clouds all on our own. We must not. We must contact our government representatives today and tell them this cannot stand.  Here is a link to find out who your representatives are:

Mother’s (birth)Day

Today would have been my mother’s 82nd birthday. I can’t even imagine what a wizened old crone she would have been, what with the sun-exposure, the smoking, the arthritis and asthma. I can’t imagine this specifically because the cigarettes killed her at 49, when I was 21, and that was a long time ago.

We did not have a great relationship. As a small child I worshiped her, greatly assisted by the fact that I didn’t live with her. She was someone pretty and shiny, with whom I spent very little time and almost all of it fun. Except when it wasn’t.

She married a good man, my step-father, Jack, who adopted and adored me, raising me as his own and giving my mother and me everything a hard-working man could afford. He came to the school recitals, the ER visits. He was faithful, and a good father. She was miserable; it was her default setting.

She was also in need of some serious therapy to get over her own bad childhood, filled with the emotional and physical abuse she would pass onto me in due time, also possibly the three children born before me, whom I never knew, for whom she lost custody.

There was much anger between us, in those teen-age years. An estrangement, ended only by the news she was in hospital, dying. She was way too screwed up on pain meds for anything to be discussed, revealed, or mended, so we told each other we loved one another, and I brushed her hair and tended her nails. When the end came, my first thought was, “It’s over,” as in all that agita and mess between us.

And God laughed, and laughed….

Because of course it wasn’t over, not by a long shot. It was years later and I had my own daughter approaching adolescence before I realized that, for all the truly good work I’d done on my head in the years since her death, my mother was finding ways to screw up that relationship. That there were things in my head scary enough to need a professional to guide me through them. So I found a warm and wonderful woman with a doctorate and many years in the field of Psychology, and she guided me in laying to rest some old demons, and taught me how to recognized the un-slain in the future, and deal with them when they arose.

When I think of my mom now, two weeks past American Mother’s Day, on this, her 82nd birthday, mostly I just wish she had been happier. Never happier than when she was miserable, she was just so deeply sad and angry. I wonder who she might have been? So far as I know, no one alive now could tell me who Donna Dee Kelly really was before she jettisoned anyone inconvenient and created her own life narrative out of thin air, spinning an elaborate web of half-truths and lies completely incapable of withstanding the weight of, or shielding her from, the circling hawks of facts and truth. For most of my early childhood the answer was to run, moving us every two years, whenever (I now realize) those birds of prey circled too near her.

It’s easy to recall some of her characteristics: generosity; flirtatiousness; charm; a vile,  hair-trigger temper; a complete inability to accept responsibility for her own actions (“you made me hit you”); fear, always fear, of censure, of being discovered, of being less than perfect, of being found out.  While I can recall some of her character traits, I have no idea who she was. It’s entirely possible she didn’t know, either.

I wonder, have I shown my daughter who I am? (Leaving open the possibility that she might know better than I.)

The Rev. Dr. Christy Thomas, in her excellent book, An Ordinary Death, writes movingly of sorting through her mother’s letters and writings, discovering a different woman than the one she knew, the woman her mother was outside of being her mother, and how she wished she’d had different conversations with her mother as an adult. I wonder if I do enough of that with my own daughter? Have I been brave enough?

I wonder, what conversations would you have, what things about your parent’s lives, would you want to ask? Keeping in mind that timing is everything, I’ll suggest to anyone reading this and fortunate enough to have a parent or two still around, it will be a treasure beyond price if you get their stories now.

A Wedding Dress


Shimmering fabric, delicate stitching, sparkling sequins, and warm, tiny seed pearls.

All of it swathed in yellowing plastic and stuffed in a dilapidated box, a veteran of four moves in two years.

Not my wedding dress, but my predecessor’s.

When one marries for the second time, particularly when one marries a widow(er), one encounters the unexpected fairly often in the name of Love.

There are surprises and complications one cannot predict, the second time around. Here are a few, certainly not all, things I learned:

  1.  One always compares favorably to a Crazy Ex.
  2. Apparently, all “ex”es are certifiably crazy. Be sure the one you’re dating isn’t it.
  3. The second time around, instead of or maybe as well as worrying if your parents or siblings will like your Newly Beloved, now you also get to worry if the respective children will like you.
  4. If the Newly Beloved is a widow(er) never, ever compare oneself to Late Spouse. See: Kobayashi Maru

I got lesson #4 about three seconds after Paul proposed. It was the first time I attended, with Paul, the annual Christmas party thrown by his adult daughter. Warmly introduced to the slightly tipsy best friend of Adult Daughter as Paul’s fiance, I shook her hand, sat down and watched, paralyzed, as she poured out a long line of Patron shooters, raised her glass and gave a long, emotional, tear-spattered toast to the late Jackie, “the heart and soul of these parties”, to cheers and tears all around.

So there is that.  (Refers self to #4, above, for 86,507th time.)

There is also a beautiful little girl with her grandmother’s name. It is up to her grandfather, father, uncles, and aunt to fill in the details of who the first Jackie was, but I can ensure this sweet artifact of her survives. One day, a young woman can hold and maybe wear something her grandmother chose for the most significant day of her life.

I want to think that if it were me, someone would do this for my daughter or granddaughter. Is that a weirdly old-fashioned notion? Maybe it speaks to my own rootless history, but I set about rescuing the dress.

The local cleaners hand-washed it, twice, to remove several stains along the skirt; it appears all of Jackie’s wedding guests baptized her at some point.

According to the Interwebnets, the best way of preserving it for a future generation is to gently, without creasing, fold it in unbuffered, acid-free tissue, wadding up sheets to fill out the sleeves and delicately embroidered bodice sewn with sequins and tiny seed pearls. Tucking in sachets of lavender discourages insects. Finally, it is wrapped it in yards of unbleached muslin and placed gently into an archival box specially made to keep fabrics safe from Father Time (or Father Dust & Bugs, anyway).

bridal collage

Tucked into an envelope will be a couple photos from Paul & Jackie’s wedding. Whether she wears the dress or not, our little Jackie can see her grandmother as she was on her wedding day: young, radiant, and just a little bit pregnant with Jackie’s father. In a sense, they are all there in the eyes of a radiant bride.

Bridal Jackie 1988


Passages and Paths, Obvious & Obscure

Yesterday afternoon, a room full of young Americans in every color young Americans appear, raised their hands and swore alike , “… So help me God”, to uphold the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic. Raising his right hand and swearing with them was Paul’s grandson, Levi. “… So help me God…”  he swore, and passed from teenager to U. S. Army soldier in a heartbeat.

IMG_8208 (2)
Proud Grandpa & Levi

Most of them were so young! Watching my daughter-in-law’s video of the ceremony, I was again amazed and thankful for people willing to devote portions and sometimes their entire lives to the service of our country.

(I might be biased, but Levi was clearly the handsomest male in the room and will no doubt look smashing in his dress uniform.)

Levi Grad 5 x 7 (2)

They swore their oaths and were duly shipped off. When Levi awoke this morning, he was in a different state and a different life. A month ago he crossed a stage and received his high school diploma: today he is a soldier in the U. S. Army.

I hope, despite the nerves and excitement, the crazy family vibe of parents and friends saying a temporary goodbye, that he was able to be truly present in the moment, that he recorded the sights and sounds of the ceremony that will forever be a point of demarcation in his life, a clear starting point for whatever comes next.

Would that every passage was so clear! Christenings, confirmations, bat mitzvahs, and quinceaneras; weddings, graduations, and funerals. Every culture creates helpful, symbolic markers along our varied paths through life. Growing up in Southern California, I tended to mark personal milestones by the most recent large earthquake or natural disaster, which is why I always know when we buried my grandfather: one week before the 1971 Sylmar earthquake. (Slightly related aside: all my Jewish relatives said the earthquake was a good sign, it meant that Papa was at rest and I’ve never figured out that logic.)

And yet, it’s often only after years and much soul searching has passed that I see other, but no less real, moments when for me everything changed, and I passed from one life to another in a moment almost ridiculously banal.

Keep your high school graduations; I think one’s actual passage from child to adult might be as devoid of fanfare as choosing to stay in and do one’s laundry on a Friday night while tackling the staggaring amount of reading one’s History professor has assigned. Sometimes, a career ends not because one was bad at it, but rather with an awareness of having nothing left to give it; one notices how a client has become a good friend over months of conference calls and working lunches; a new love is born across a fast food restaurant table, when she notices, with a bit of a start, she can no longer imagine a life without him in it.

Many are the blessings of retrospection, however much I bargain with God for prescience instead.

In the coming weeks, information will be blasting those new soldiers like a firehose. Some won’t make it through Basic Training and may struggle to find meaning for this particular passage in their lives. Unbeknownst to them today, their paths lay elsewhere. For some, the next four years will be a junction, or a stepping stone to another path. A small set of truly remarkable recruits will dedicate their careers to serving our country and us, their fellow citizens; yesterday will always be their first autonomous steps on their path through Life. Which of those, or a path I can’t even imagine, is Levi’s?

The beauty is, it’s his life to make and live. I believe he’ll be a good soldier; he’s determined, intelligent, physically fit, and in possession of a first class, loving heart. I’d want him beside me in a foxhole, and I know if he serves in a foreign country he will show the best face of the American Soldier. What will he learn, and lose, and love along his path? Levi, like all of us, has endless choices scattered along every possible path through Life, though I hope he’ll learn also that every choice has consequences, and closes doors behind him even as they open other, previously hidden ones, ahead.

Have you ever found, in retrospect, a moment where everything changed, one that maybe you didn’t see at the time? Do you ever see such passages when they’re occurring? What have you learned about yourself or others from the significant passages of your life?

Kids, Cameras, & Captures

One of the things I love about photography is it gives me a handy place to hide and watch people.

This is a big difference between me and Paul: though both introverts I find people fascinating, while his personal jury is out (I’m being kind).  It’s a difference that binds rather than dividing us, as both find the other’s perspective amusing, in the way one finds a crazy relative endearing. Auntie Martha may be mad as a hatter, but damn is she ever funny.

Kids are awesome to watch and photograph until they become conscious of the camera and start posing for every shot. The instant gratification of smartphone cameras has made this worse, I fear. It’s hard to get a good, candid picture of our seven year old granddaughter, who now vogues for every shot. Capturing her when she’s just being seven and fully engaged in life is the best, because it’s when her sweet, curious, dare-devil heart shines the brightest.

Jackie Summons 16 x 9
Jackie summons the Gulls

Not long after we met our now daughter-in-law, Sarah, I got this shot of her and Sean, Paul’s youngest son.

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I have no idea what he was saying but man is she ever listening to him. The lens captured what Paul and I had happily noted: she really likes him! They were so gooey-newly-in-love, each inquiring if the other was enjoying the meal. It would have been revolting if it hadn’t pleased us so, and we drove away saying to each other, “She gets him! She loves him anyway! And she’s nice, and smart, and pretty!” because really, what else is there for parents to want when meeting an adult child’s intended? Scrape away the need for income and being practical and tidy and not an ax murderer, and I believe we all just want our grown children to love some worthy person who also loves them back. Will have his or her six when needed. Gets them, in the fundamental, important ways the rest of the world may (and often does) miss. We already know all the wonderful quirks about our children that make them lovable but the wider world is a hard, impatient place, and folks are far more likely to see our babies’ flaws than finer qualities. It’s a gift to parents when you see a sensible and pleasant person clearly besotted with your offspring.

look of love, b & w

Flash forward a couple years and Sean and Sarah have a little one all their own. When lucky (and on high speed continuous shooting), I get a shot where one or the other of them are in their own little world with their little man, and it makes my heart happy and also makes me wish all children had parents who love them as much as these two love him.

SJ & Sarah pattycake 5 x 7

Paul’s namesake has a new girlfriend. She’s been a while in coming but clearly worth the wait. She’s smart, sweet, practical and makes him happy. Here he is feeding her a line of BS a mile wide and twice as deep, as a good Irishman does:

Alice & PD3 5 x 7 color

See it? She gets him, and loves him anyway. Plus dimples.

It’s frustrating when I don’t get the technical stuff right, or think I and my equipment are faster or better than we are but, hiding behind my camera I sometimes see things others maybe don’t and when the Force is with me, I can capture it.

Alice & PD3, 5 x 7 (2).jpg
Blather on, lucky man. She loves you anyway.

Gotcha!  She gets him.


Six Degrees of Immigration

The year I don’t know, but in the early days of the 20th Century a young man from a small village outside Kiev boarded a ship in Frankfort, Germany, crossed the Atlantic and, passing through Ellis Island, an anonymous agent recorded him under the Anglicized name, Bernard Gross. He married a fellow immigrant, a girl from the old country named Rachel. They became American citizens, owned and operated a laundry, and raised four children: Betty, Mildred, Harry, and finally, surprise! the baby upon whom everyone doted, Jack, “Jacky” to the family.

Jack played High school football and after WWII he followed his older brother west, tending bar and managing restaurants, eventually settling down with a pretty cocktail waitress, a single mother with a little girl. He didn’t live an extraordinary life, but worked hard for his living, bought houses, paid taxes, and raised another man’s child through fevers, stitches, accolades, accidents, and late-night ER visits, adopting her as his own and teaching her what is meant by unconditional love. His own father, Bernard, adopted her, too, with the less formal but equally binding ties of grandfatherly love.

That little girl was me. Only one degree of separation, a straight line linking a little girl growing up with a loving father and America opening it’s arms to a Russian Jew fleeing the pogroms of Eastern Europe.

There is no way to estimate what my closest associations with immigrants have meant to my life. Surely, I wouldn’t be me if I hadn’t sat in a doting Papa’s lap during holidays and family gatherings.

My country was built by immigrants, but as a country we have a habit of being pretty ugly to the most recent wave of them. Recent events conjure shameful memories from High School in Southern California, when Vietnamese refugees were settled in our area. Then, I witnessed a subtler, nonetheless savage, form of welcome by my fellow students in the form of whispers and snickers in the hallways and a pointed distancing. When the locker rooms became infested with scabies, the blame was laid firmly at the feet of the Vietnamese students, and the rampant but previously quiet racism of the school’s corridors turned vocally and disgustingly scurrilous towards them. It all sounds so petty and small, but it was relentless. I was never savage, oh no, I was worse:  I saw it all and remained silent. Which is why I can’t this time, I can’t be silent and honor those immigrants who, in six degrees of separation or less, have shaped, loved, guided, educated, delighted, and enriched my life beyond measure.

Children Waving to Statue of LibertyIt bears remembering that most people don’t want to leave their home countries, their relatives, their places of worship, their familiar foods and surroundings. When one’s choice is leave or die, it’s an easy choice to make, and there in New York harbor stands a statue inviting “the poor, the tired, the huddled masses” to our shores. America has long been the beacon of safety, of hope, the promise of God’s grace for whoever named God and even those who don’t.  How do I wrap my head around even the consideration of not living into that promise? If we aspire to being the “shining city upon a hill”, deserving that honorific demands no less than offering shelter and succor to all people seeking refuge, the least, the last, and the lost.

We cannot be both Christian and Isolationist. God’s grace flows first not to particular borders but rather, into the human heart open and ready to receive it. Then we hold it but a little while, passing it on to the next in need while being ourselves replenished in the giving. In this way we are constantly renewed while repaying the debt owed to our immigrant ancestors, who paved the way for us.

In this way we live into the promise of being the “shining city upon the hill”.

Weekend Coffee Share: Mother’s Day Edition

If we were having coffee, I’d wish you a Happy Mother’s Day if you’re a mother, and maybe whether you are or not we would talk about our own mothers, grandmothers, and the other women who mothered us.

With unadulterated affection I’d tell you about my Auntie Helene, possibly the most motherly woman I ever knew, fat and pink-cheeked and ready with a hug. She taught me a bunch of what I know about unconditional love. She raised me until I was 5 years old and was fond of saying, all my life, “You’ll never be so big I can’t spank you”, even long after I topped her by a head, yet she never lifted a hand to me. She’s with me every time I fry pancakes, pull the gallon of milk from the back of the dairy case, or hear someone order a highball.

Telling you about my own mom would be harder going, because ours was a fraught relationship at best and she died of cancer when I was 21. We had been estranged prior to her illness but I would tell you, over the second cup, that I had the blessing of the last chance many do not get, the one when it’s too late to talk out the issues but both parties find it possible to say, “I love you,” and that simple truth suffices, saving the life of the one left behind.

I wonder if we would agree that for some, Mother’s Day does not come with unmitigated joy. We might speculate that for those who have lost children, or never had babies when it was their chief desire in life to do so, the day might be bittersweet. Ones like me, who had difficult mothers, or those who were orphaned and never found one of those remarkable women who love children not their own. Maybe you would think it odd, but I often think of Paul’s first, late wife, Jackie, on Mother’s Day. She died way too young and left behind four beautiful children. All have children of their own now, two born too late to ever meet their grandmother. I always wonder if, in those last few months of her life, she was royally pissed off that she wouldn’t get to see how her children’s stories turned out; I would be. I worry that her children probably have a sad moment or three on Mother’s Day, and I’m grateful to Jackie for raising four kids so lovingly they were capable of welcoming me into their father’s life.

Carole & Charlotte napping
Is there anything better than napping with your baby?

We could talk about our own children and you, like everyone who meets me would come to know I am a pain in the arse when you get me going on the subject of my daughter, of whom I am terribly proud. She’s brilliant, caring, respectful, insightful, compassionate, beautiful, successful, and I often wonder just what the hell God thought he was doing to entrust such an amazing creature to my care. I failed her many times but I also did some things rather well, and my best, like most mothers everywhere. Having her in my life gave me a much greater understanding of my own mother, in the circular way Life has of teaching the most important lessons; I did things very differently than my mother did, but the understanding has been a unexpected gift.

If we were having coffee, you would probably admire the flowers gracing the table, the mantle, and kitchen counter as between Paul and Charlotte, my flower cup runneth over with roses, lilies, and tulips. Paul also gave me the gift of schlepping my camera equipment while I took pictures of running water for my photography class, treated me to Waffle House after, and we have a fine dinner planned tonight at our favorite Italian restaurant.

Waffle House Ladies
Bet they don’t eat eggs & hasbrowns at home.
Waffle House - Americana
Nothing says you’re in the South like a Waffle House.

If we were having coffee I would press you to have another scone and some of the strawberry jam I made last week, and we’d lift our cups to mothers everywhere, and their children, too, in a toast they all make it through Sunday, whether that means coping with memories still sensitive to the touch, or eating burnt toast and runny eggs prepared by lovingly inept children. May everyone find a moment Sunday and everyday to remember moments of motherly love.



National Siblings Day, Ambiguously

For two days my Facebook feed has been awash with friends posting pictures of their siblings, coupled with loving shout-outs to the brothers and sisters who irritated, annoyed, helped with, and shared their youth and parents. It’s sweet. And normal, because I guess it’s more the norm than being like me, an Only Child. And an Orphan, youngish.

Except, not really. It’s technically not true I have no siblings. And I think it’s not true I have no living parents, but I don’t know for sure. All of which has made the previously unknown (to me) National Sibling Day kind of bittersweet and weird.

I actually have three older half-siblings I didn’t find out about until I was 18.

Somewhere, there is a tall old man from whom I inherited blond hair, blue eyes, and a nose with a propensity to go arrow-like when smiling.

It was a thing for me, once, finding my older siblings. Making stabs at it a long time ago, maybe I thought having some sisters and a brother would make me feel less alone in the world. They were the product of my mother’s first marriage, which she denied existed until denial was no longer an option. Then she simply stonewalled, steadfastly refusing to answer questions until her death three years later.

She was married at barely 18, probably marrying away from her own abusive father as her older sisters had before her, and her younger ones after. She popped out three babies in the late 1950’s, then was divorced and lost custody of the children to her ex-husband in 1960. Nineteen-sixty. Custody awarded to a father – kind of unheard of unless a mother was proven “unfit”. Having experienced my mother’s unstable temperament and later having it confirmed she had some sort of a breakdown around the time of the divorce, I eventually realized how hard all of that must have been for my unknown, elder siblings. Picturing myself showing up on one of their doorsteps saying, “Hey, it’s me, your little sister! You know, the one she kept,” seemed like pouring salt in a wound and I understood at last why “discretion is the better part of valor”. Better they stay as they are. I also knew that sharing DNA was no guarantee of having one damn thing in common and it would be a shame to revisit pain on strangers, then sit in awkward silence, to satisfy my idle curiosity.

But seeing in my friend’s photos the similar smiles, the matching eyebrow patterns or hair colors, it would be a big lie if I didn’t say I’ve always wondered what they look like. Do they share an ability to cock one eyebrow? A love of reading? Biting sarcasm? Do they tear up at Hallmark commercials (especially the old one where the little girl gives her great-great-grandma a birthday card for her 100th birthday)? Would it help them if I explained my mother remained unstable and difficult all her short, unhappy life? Probably not. But it’s my prayer they long ago made peace with her absence. Maybe they had a lovely step-mother, just as I eventually won the step-dad lottery with my mother’s third marriage.

I’ll never know the answer to those or any other questions and I’m at peace with that; it’s part of adulting to let go of that which is not helpful. But seeing all the pictures with their wry, touching, humorous, and teasing comments I can’t help wondering what it might be like to have a person with whom I shared early history, had the wonderful sort of shorthand siblings have, the inside jokes and common gestures. Maybe that is just narcissism, and better put to rest.

I wish you all a happy National Siblings Day, and encourage you to hold them, your last links to your parents and early history, close.

Pillows of Optimism

Insomnia. Once upon a time I would have laughed myself silly at the notion I would ever suffer from it. Sleep was blissful respite, a safety zone from the terrors of the day, whatever form they took: bullying classmates; bullying mother; bad boyfriends; academic anxiety; work stress; parenting.

Then came middle age. Perimenopause. Divorce. Survival. I came to know insomnia extremely well, and the meaning of the Hour of the Wolf.

Working in restaurants most of their lives, neither of my parents ever adapted to the nine-to-five of regular jobs. Too many years in the hustle and flow of 6:00 p.m. to closing time, too many cigarettes and coffee, the restaurateur’s close allies but the mortal enemies of sleep.

Between cigarettes, coffee, and the heart-taching medications prescribed to treat her chronic, debilitating asthma, Mom was doomed to an unwelcome familiarity with the wee hours (yes, she smoked, multiple packs per day; you haven’t lived until you’ve seen someone with a cigarette in one hand and an inhaler in the other, struggling for breath). Propped up on a stack of pillows she watched the late news, Johnny Carson, the late old movies, finally falling into a fitful sleep about the time the national anthem came on and the channel went off-air.

Dad read and ate. He read all the time, two newspapers cover to cover every day and he generally had at least two books going simultaneously. Every trip to the supermarket with him included a pass by the paperbacks where he’d pick up whatever New York Times Bestseller he hadn’t yet read, magazines, and a Mad Magazine for me. He read sprawled on the loveseat in the family room smoking one cigarette after another, ashes growing inches long when a chapter had him engrossed, until bed. Once in bed, he’d read for awhile longer, then turn out the light.

insomnomnomNow, despite ceaseless fretting and not a small amount of expense on various pieces of exercise equipment in an effort to keep his waistline from its slow but steady increase, an hour later he’d thump out of bed and tread heavily down the stairs and into the kitchen, raiding the cookie jar or fridge. Maybe a piece of fruit or, to our dog’s delight, a bowl of ice cream (my dad gave the dog his own bowl), a piece of cheese. Then he’d stump back up the stairs, chewing, to look for sleep again. This cycle was repeated an average of three times a night. Between cleanings, the carpet up the stairs grew a trail stained up the middle from his nocturnal noshes.
As in so much of their married life, my parents’ individual approaches to their insomnia differed greatly; however, they were absolutely united in their shared optimism it could be vanquished by the latest newfangled pillow. They tried them all: donut-shaped to support the neck whilst cradling the head; wedges of foam to support head, neck and shoulders; body-pillows; the infamous water-pillow, a giant bladder one filled with water and which sloshed and blooped and did everything but promote sleep; foam pillows, cotton-stuffed pillows and feather pillows; pillows of every shape and size, in every imaginable combination. Every few weeks a new form of pillow came into the house bringing hope, but leaving only disappointment. Each inevitably joined all its failed predecessors, consigned to the pillow-gulag of the linen closet after a week-long trial period, having brought not blessed slumber but rather bloodshot, sleepless eyes blinking at an unforgiving dawn.

Neither lived long enough to learn the things I have: avoid sugar and caffeine late in the day; regular exercise; the blessings of Valerian root supplements, Benadryl, or Tylenol P.M. And something told me this morning when, pedaling away on my exercise bike I saw an ad for, they wouldn’t have believed me anyway. Made in the USA, Better Business Bureau certified, the official pillow of the National Sleep Foundation, and with a two-for-one special if you call RIGHT NOW, all my advice on diet, exercise, and herbal supplements would have fallen on deaf ears. They would have been on the phone ordering pillows, confident this time they were on their way to a decent night’s sleep.

And something in me recognizes for the first time a crazy sort of optimism in both which I can’t help admiring.


Ivan the (recently) Terrible, Blanca, and the Politics of Cats & Dogs

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The Cat Nobody Wanted

Poor Ivan, Ivan the (recently) Terrible, Ivan the cat nobody wanted.

Found by my step-son, Sean, the night Sean’s mother died, he’d been abandoned to whatever fate befalls tiny kittens taken too soon from their mother. There was no sign of momma-cat or siblings, just tiny Ivan, whom kindhearted Sean scooped up from a dumpster by the local 7-11.

Paul did not want another pet – they already had three dogs. His wife had just died and he had enough on his hands with the dogs, two boys, and a demanding job requiring brutal hours. But he was roundly shouted down by the extended family who insisted Sean keep the kitten found the day his mother died. Maybe they both lost their mothers that day.

Years pass and boys grow up and out of their father’s house. They took their dogs, but no one wants the once-kitten-now-cat who grew into a nasty, evil-tempered baggage, full of claws and teeth.

One day five years later, I moved in. Specifically, I and my dog, Tasha, who wanted to be friends with all God’s creatures.

Ivan wanted no part of Tasha. He was still only Kitteh, having no actual name because no one ever gave him one. He was Kitteh or Cat, glaring malevolently down from his kitchen table perch, spitting and hissing at Tasha’s wagging overtures, lashing out with the aforementioned claws whenever she passed. Within a day Tasha was giving him a wide berth. He was a little bit of an asshole, really.

I was working at a 5-A High school at the time and seeing a lot of Discipline, so much Discipline, and I noticed commonalities between the chronic discipline cases and Ivan the Terrible, as Paul finally christened him when I presented him with the choice of that or Vlad the Impaler. For a variety of reasons a lot of the kids I saw almost daily were being left to raise themselves with no consistent rules or structure in their lives, abandoned to their fates. It occurred to me that, brought into a house of grieving men and dogs, Ivan had had to raise himself, too. And no, kids are not cats, but most mammalian creatures fare poorly when left to raise themselves.

One day I noticed the most effective Assistant Principals and teachers strove to form bonds of trust and kindness with even the most troublesome students. When receptive, it often resulted in students capable of making course corrections before their lives went too far out to sea. It inspired me to try the same tactic with Ivan the Terrible. Though he was now an adult, perhaps he still had a chance of being a decent kitty.

IMG_0777 (2)He became my project.

I carried the broom around and when he looked about to swipe at her, I gently scooted him off in another direction, much to his indignation. I took him to the vet, brought his shots up to date, and had him neutered which sometimes settles a mean and/or wandering disposition. I shamelessly bribed him with lunch meat and the occasional meal of tuna fish. I stroked him gently on the head, developing an instinct for pulling back my hand just in time. Three strokes and no more, gently on the head, retract.

There were tears and blood, all mine.

Most of all I tried to be consistent, someone Ivan could count on always being gentle and kind. And, like the kids who maybe never had anyone show interest in them until they found that one special English teacher, or the AP who refused to let them fail, Ivan responded.

When I first moved in with Paul, he had the world’s noisiest house. I lay in bed with a cacophony of sound: first the master bath toilet, then the toilet in the other bath, spontaneously flushing; the alarm system’s periodic chirping; Paul’s alarm clock, with its vibrato-infused ticking which to my sleepless imagination sounded like legions of tiny Roman soldiers marching through the room; Paul’s dog, Lucy, chewing at herself on one side of the bed and Tasha on the other, indulging in the kind of deep ear scratching with attendant pleasurable groaning which always had me wondering if I should leave the room.

One midnight I woke to a new sound, a sound I knew from long ago, a rhythmic, vibrating, my God it was purring. Ivan the Terrible had nestled himself between our pillows and was purring. Amidst all the flushing, chirping, marching, and purring, I smiled triumphantly in the dark.

It came to pass that more often than not, Ivan the Terrible would be sitting at the front window when I came home from work. If he wasn’t there, he would saunter out from the bedroom as I walked in, offering a surprised little trill as though saying, “Fancy meeting you here”. He brushed against my ankles as I worked in the kitchen. He sprawled on the warm concrete of the patio, sneering at the dogs while Paul and I enjoyed pleasant fall evenings watching the sun set. He captured lizards, cicadas, and the occasional bird, proudly parading them before me; once, he even dropped one at my feet.

Tasha died the following January. I was bereft. Some weeks later I caught whatever crud had swept through the school and ended up in bed for three days with a raging upper respiratory infection. Giving every appearance of simply enjoying my feverish body heat, Ivan nestled at my side. In September, a woman blew through a left turn yield on green, totaling my beloved VW Rabbit, breaking three vertebra in my back, and leaving me covered in hematomas from shoulder to pelvis. Once again Ivan stayed curled at my side the four days I nearly couldn’t move. My daughter, Charlotte, suggested that perhaps Ivan was no longer currently terrible, but merely recently terrible, and so we added the parenthetical adjective to his name.

One bad afternoon we had dreaded too long, Paul and I sat on the floor of Dr. Gibbs’ veterinary office with sweet old Lucy, staying until she was safely across Rainbow Bridge. Ivan was the last pet standing from Paul’s old life, and he settled well into his role of Czar. He went from a rather skinny cat with a dull, thin coat to being a robust “stripey meatloaf” as Paul calls him. When it’s cold, he sleeps nestled down between Paul and me, gently wheezing and snoring. If he loves anyone it’s me, and I long ago abandoned all thought of finding him another home.

christmas blanca
A Pup for Christmas

December 1, 2015, finally in a permanent home and Paul and I missing having a dog, I brought home Blanca, a sweet Lab/Terrier/Whoknows mix from the local rescue shelter. She weighed 10 lbs that day, a few less than Ivan. He took one horrified look at her and bolted for the Fortress of Kitteh Solitude under the bed. He did not cuddle up between us in bed, even on cold nights, for a month. He gave new meaning to side-eye. But  one thing he did to an astounding extent is show Blanca tolerance.

Blanca thinks Ivan is her friend and wants him to play with her all the time.  She dances, prances, paws, and whines at him. She aggressively sniffs his butt, which he finds deeply offensive; he rejects her gifts of precious tennis balls and appears singularly unimpressed when she shows him how she can fit two balls and a toy into her mouth all at once.

talented pup
Now that’s talent!

To her pouncing and yipping outside he merely swipes at her and chases her off, which she takes as a friendly game of chase, running in circles around the yard as Ivan watches like the crabby old man he is, occasionally darting out when she slows, giving the illusion of participation. She nuzzles him with her muzzle and is rewarded with a firm bite on the nose, a hiss, and a slap upside the head. She yelps and goes back for more. But unless he is just worn out with her he bats at her with claws retracted, which is more than I can say about how he bats at me. Allowing no snuggling, he does permit her on the couch during afternoon nap time. All together, it’s a side of him neither Paul nor I imagined existed.

sharing the sunny patch
Sharing the sunny patch

Charlotte hypothesizes that animals instinctively know when one is a baby, and are gentler with them than they would be with another adult animal, thus why Ivan tolerates direct annoyances from Blanca (now about three times his size) when he wouldn’t tolerate Tasha walking past him. Maybe she’s on to something; or maybe it’s true that anyone can change, at any time of life, if they’ve a mind to do it.

It’s an election year and the campaigning is more vitriolic than ever, each candidate spending more time and money on condemnation and negativity than reasonable discourse. I can’t help wondering if they could spend a day in my house, watching a still-not-entirely-reformed, oft-times nasty-tempered cat putting up with an over-eager, bouncing, pouncing, tirelessly annoying puppy up in his business all day long, might they learn something? Something about how even two distinct species, with vastly different temperaments and upbringings can yet find a way to share space? Something about not letting every disagreement turn nasty, about maybe even yielding a little of one’s own turf for the common good? Maybe; maybe.

Stranger things have happened.

serious side-eye
Some serious side-eye