Monday, July 30, 2012

Life Out of Balance

Folded over the back of the sofa in the front living room is a pair of men's cargo shorts. They are too big for anyone who lives (or even used to live) in this house. No one knows how they got here. It's usually the kind of thing that irritates me to distraction, especially since I pass by them dozens of times per day and no one else here seems to be interested in locating their owner. Or (for the love of God!) moving them.

However, in a kind of koyaanisquatsi-sort of way, those shorts make complete sense now that our home has devolved into a kind of staging area/launching pad for children who are on the precipice of leaving. Nothing is where it is supposed to be, but there's plenty of crap just sitting where it shouldn't. A drawer of flatware and a bedside table in the front living room. Lamps and an entertainment center in the garage. Bags of clothes and a desk in the spare bedroom. I gave up doing any kind of deep cleaning a couple of weeks ago. It's more than's bordering on filth.

The cat's multiple bottles of heart medication are placed dangerously close to our own vitamins and there's a wet sock that someone dropped into the cat food bowl en route from washer to dryer. The odd and lumpy sacks of school supplies leaning sadly against my office doorway that will accompany me when I return to my nightmare job in a few weeks. Laundry--both done and undone. Stacks of mail and books, bins of paints for two art projects (admittedly mine) in the middle of the living room floor. I found a cobweb hanging from the ceiling of the boys' old room that looks exactly like an internet cable. One of the dogs ate aluminum foil yesterday and now we're counting the moments until we discover a canine yard bomb that sparkles like a disco ball. Precious memories!

Welcome to Slumdog Trailerpark 90210.

And that's just the part you can see with the naked eye, Jed Clampett. There's some emotional stuff here as well. In 20 days we'll officially be empty nesters. And I am so conflicted. I'm torn between wanting to gather all of our kids here for a giant do-over because I miss having boys who aren't so tall that I can't smell the tops of their heads without standing on a ladder....and reveling in the fact that my husband and I are still young enough to understand that a house with no offspring in it for more than an hour is code for something that typically requires a locked hotel room in another state.  (Kids, if you're reading this now, I apologize. The bleach for your eyes is in the laundry room.)  I desperately want both. I hope it's clear that the last sentence wasn't about bleach.

I spent a hot Saturday helping the oldest find estate sale items to furnish his house. The sale was held at a former neighborhood couple's home who were elderly until...well...until they weren't...and now we'll be making brownies in one of their old Pyrex dishes. I had a lump in my throat the entire time as I realized that--as expectant parents--you buy a bed for your baby to sleep in and a place to store their tiny clothes so they can come to live with you...and then years later you buy them another bed so that they can move out. To do some of this while standing in the middle of someone's former living room and seeing a stranger pay a dollar for what might have been a beloved vase snagged on a vacation or that front door Christmas wreath I saw for the past 17 holiday season made me realize how one could be sad and happy at the same time. It was confusing. I wanted to huddle up in the corner and cry, but instead I bought a paperweight painted like a clown (because my sister is terrified of them and I thought it might be a fun birthday surprise) and kept moving.

In June I published a guest column in my city's paper regarding the prospect of one's children leaving for the great unknown. From all accounts it was equal parts poignant and true for parent readers. It was a cathartic exercise for me and I think I was able to work through the sadness while making my readers laugh.  After that my husband and I went on the road for a week--Marfa, Santa Fe, Aspen-- and we sort of discovered what we were like before the kids came. I think that's called adjusting.

Shortly after that two of our three sons--and all their stuff--moved back for the second half of the summer. Hence the ever present feeling that the Joad family has been living here without my knowledge. Or that I'm Loretta Lynn and I've time traveled back to my birthplace in "Butcher Holler" wearing a feed sack dress and newspaper shoes. I wish I could say I was exaggerating.

  Anyway... now our sons are moving out least...the two who haven't already left. For one wallet-busting semester we'll have three in college and exactly one year from now...we'll only have one. Meanwhile I'll start teaching again in the same unhappy place where I was last year. I'll use my personal time to get my classroom ready and then my own money to buy supplies. I'll print up enough "Welcome to 5th Grade" information for every prospective parent and student knowing that only a dozen or so will actually come up to meet their child's teacher. Regardless of the preparation time, I'll drag a wheeled cart out into the heat and load it into my car, already overburdened with paperwork and expectations and parental excuses for why they didn't do blah, blah, blah.... And in that single moment,  the restful summer where I read 13 books, lunched with friends, finished two art projects, watched countless movies, discovered a junk shop and one new gallery in town which serves those who love "found art",  renewed my love for yoga, saw a friend/colleague get married in a mountain pasture, celebrated my wedding anniversary on a crisp night in Aspen, cleaned out my office and bedroom closet (not enjoyable but very necessary)...will recede far into the distance.

Tonight at the grocery store I saw the aisle which features all the summer items like cheap flip-flops, chip/dip platters, canisters for making sun tea, water pistols and swim goggles is about to be replaced by crap commonly associated with the beginning of school. As if I needed a reminder. I'm pretty sure that I'm not the only one who sees the prospect of that change and becomes upset enough to throw a clot. Luckily, it's on the same aisle as the wine and candy.

Coincidence? Probably not.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Greetings From The Feline Cardiac Unit

So Jimmy Jimmereeno (You can thank Salinger for that name), our fantabulous rescued kitten, who apparently lived for part of one brutal winter hunkered behind the storage barrels in our side yard before we discovered him and then lured him into our family with untold cans of Little Friskies, is not going to live to be an elderly cat. Or a middle aged one. Or even a teenaged cat tear-assing around the yard and threatening all manner of winged wildlife. Saturday, we found out that the typical heat-related malaise that he was exhibiting was actually fluid in his gut, an impacted bowel and breathing problems brought on by an advanced case of heart disease. I'm only being sarcastic to keep from crying, which we've done plenty of this weekend.

Jimmy stayed overnight at the animal spa vet clinic where he suffered untold medical indignities (catheterization, enema, injections, and the shaving of his upper paws --do cats have wrists?--to facilitate the iv needle) in the interest of evaluating his status, though we were told he did enjoy the oxygen chamber and was the best "pill taker" they'd ever had. Like Judy Garland or Elvis? That kind of pill taker?  Unfortunately, we'll never know for sure...though he did return home from his $1,400.00 hospital stay and immediately crawled behind the toilet in the guest bathroom to it seems a likely scenario. The shaved parts give the appearance that he's wearing fancy mittens. And? He's got fleas.

It's not like I'm being nostalgic for what life with an old cat would have been like. God, no! The onset of kitty cataracts, the surprise! pool of vomit in my shoe, skin conditions featuring uncontrollable shedding and scabbing, deafness, arthritis, reflux, dementia and incontinence. I've lived with an old cat before. And it's not about the fact that he won't live to reproduce. His balls were *cough* relieved of their baby making essences, so he was never going to be a father anyway. I think he's okay with it.

It's because he's the best damn cat we've ever had. He's sweet and personable and almost human in his communication abilities. He's the kind of rescued animal who knows he was one snowflake away from certain wintery death and was visibly grateful for the life he had with us. But now he sits and stares at the wall all bereft-like and wheezes a little. He takes three kinds of meds four times a day. Two are for his heart because now--without warning--a moment of unexpected surprise, stress or even an especially upsetting episode of Animal Planet might cause him to suffer a tiny myocardial infarction and die. Or simply lose the use of his back legs which will require us to purposefully end what is left of his time with us at the vet's office.

I'm not one of those people who believes that pets are the same thing as children, so don't expect me to ask about your dog's Petsmart bills when we're talking about the high cost of sending kids to college. They aren't the same thing at all. The loss of a child is horrific and sad and....unnatural...even though it happens. Parents don't expect to outlive the kids they brought to the planet, and mostly? They don't. The loss of a pet is...well...the loss of a pet. It's expected (eventually) and normal... but they are still precious family members whose presence brings quality to life.  And one, I might add, they will never grow up enough or be old enough to be independent from you. Their trust in your abilities to make them happy, healthy and comfortable makes this situation incredibly hard. So the decision to end their suffering still feels like murder-- while not ending it seems like you're just submitting them to misery. You-- and they--are royally screwed either way.

Jimmy's life expectancy? Somewhere between a few days to a few months. A really sad span of time where we get to watch him sit at the glass door and see the rest of the world having fun. A "little boy" cat with an old man's ticker. It's so unfair.

In the meantime, my youngest son thoughtfully brought home three Western Coachwhip eggs from camp. To put it musically? "My baloney has a first name, it's  S-N-A-K-E".  An unexpected hatching episode would definitely affect my heart in a negative way, but--truthfully? It is already broken.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

In a New York State Of Mind

Aren't I always? If you knew me to pick me out of a lineup, you'd know that the answer to that question is always a "yes". Out of the 2000+ books that you'll find in our home (Yes, there are that many and we even have bookcases in one of the bathrooms), you'll find a nice selection devoted to New York City. Biographies, historical studies, architectural commentary, short stories and novels...both about people who live in New York or written by someone who lives there.

You can go ahead and call it an obsession because that's probably what it is. When friends ask me where my favorite place to eat might be I'm going to rhapsodize about the steamed dumplings served in bamboo dishes at Joe's Shanghai in Chinatown. I'm going to talk at length about the need to spend a good long afternoon at the Strand Bookstore on the corner of Broadway and 12th. I'm definitely going to lecture about spending a night at the Algonquin Hotel or having a drink at its historic Oak Room and imagining the conversations held there by some of the best writers this side of the Atlantic. I'll talk about the fried egg sandwiches at the Red Flame Diner and eating homemade biscuits underneath the portrait of John F. Kennedy at Junior's in Brooklyn. There are the crisp morning walks to the museums or strolls with a camera through Central Park with its obligatory pause to reflect at Strawberry Fields. Rides on the subway where you can people watch or read a book....or watch people who are reading books...only to walk up and out into a completely different place: Wall Street or the East Village or Queens if you want to go that far.

You probably are thinking to yourselves that NYC is just a city and you'd be right, technically speaking. However it is--to borrow an overly used phrase--a melting pot of everything that is or was America. Our humble beginnings as a country have roots here and it was a major gateway to citizenship for many others. From brownstones to penthouses and every majestic bridge spanning the harbor, every brick and piece of mortar has a story to tell.

Right this very minute it's all there. The food. The lights. The noise with its constant hum of humanity punctuated by honking taxis. The smells of restaurants, dusty bodegas crammed with absolutely everything, soot, exhaust, new buildings next to old ones, sidewalk tables, snatches of music, subway performers, people speaking Dutch or French or German behind you while you check out the fish market on Canal Street where a Chinese woman sells you the most amazing champagne-hued silk robe. I've been to New York nearly ten times and I know I'm bound to go ten more before I do my final back flip off of the planet.

But Nora? Isn't there anymore.

And it makes me so sad. Nora Ephron...the woman for whom my favorite city was her favorite gone. This woman who was so full of words and energy, advice and opinions (and whom I had never must be said) died very quickly and quietly at the end of last month. I was devastated. I had collected and read her books back when I was a college student (and every year since then) and though some of her essays were about her own college days, I don't think I was swift enough at the time to grasp the gems of advice she was sending my way. Her novels, her movies, the sound of her very deliberate and oh-so-articulate voice as she expounded on the roles of women or the latest book, or turtleneck sweaters or how to make Yorkshire Pudding. Good God! I've don't even know what it is, but her confidence in the way things should be done convinced me that if I were ever lucky enough to wind up at her kitchen table (Oh, the thought of it!) and she pushed a bowl of it in my direction, I would take one bite and know bliss.

One of the last times I went to New York I spent a good chunk of the visit chasing really old ghosts. I photographed the door of the Algonquin suite of rooms where New Yorker Magazine creator Harold Ross spent some of his last days before dying at the Mayo Clinic during cancer surgery. I dragged my family to the house near Hell's Kitchen where Ross and Jane Grant (writer and eventual wife) brainstormed my favorite magazine which would feature the likes of Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker, Janet Flanner, EB White and the cartoons of Charles Addams and Peter Arno. We took the ferry out of the Battery to Ellis Island so that I could see the first glimpse of America my grandfather saw as he stepped off the ship that brought him from his native Germany.

It never occurred to me to look for the living model of humor and intelligence whose creative offerings had always been such an inspiration to me. She lived and worked there in the city which--and these are her words--made the best bread on the planet. Even better than the kind you could find in France. I probably passed her on the trying to cross a street while she casually munched a hot dog from Gray's Papaya. Or maybe I walked past her as I looked for the bathroom at Grand Central Station.   Either way, she was a living/breathing fixture of creativity and brilliance who walked among us and now she doesn't.

After her death the internet was filled with tributes and the account of her funeral service was both hilarious and poignant. One of her sisters--in speaking about Nora's wealth of confidence in her own way of doing things...and telling others the same--said that "the universe is practically opinion-less now". There are none left.

When sweet Fred Rogers died, I made a beaded bracelet with the letters WWMRD? What would Mr. Rogers do? Based on what I've read in the last two weeks I'm certain that a similar shirt for Nora would make complete sense.

Her death seems wrong somehow and I know that's strange. Everyone dies eventually. The famous, the infamous and people like me.  It is, as the say in that annoying Lion King song, the circle of life. But I always thought of her as being a part of the circle where the beginning and ending meet.  Untouchable. That's what I get for thinking.  New York City will always be here. Of that I am sure. And for right now? So will a little bit of sadness. Nora loved twinkle lights. The kind which festoon many downtown trees all year round now. They feature prominently in every movie she made. Maybe it's time to hang some more in the courtyard outside my house. I don't think I'd even have to ask what Nora would say to that.