Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Ode to my banjo, or, thanks, Steve Martin

Introducing Zeke to the banjo, Hawaii 2007

My dad, being a Jewish guy from Detroit, is naturally a big fan of bluegrass and old-timey country music.  When I was growing up, the music in the background was --  in addition to, and in fact, even more than the music of his generation like The Beatles and Peter Paul & Mary and Traffic -- Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson and old time country gospel and Doc Watson and twangy bluegrass instrumentals.  Sunday mornings were for Stained Glass Bluegrass on the local NPR station.  More than anything else, bluegrass is the music of my childhood.  

Of course, this drove our relatives crazy.  My grandmother would demand, "why are you listening to this??  They're singing about JESUS!"

And because my dad loves nothing better than to cross the line and get a rise out of people, the response invariably was, "this is American music.  What are you, a communist?"

My grandmother would throw up her hands and sputter while my dad winked at me and we shared a conspiratorial smile.

Of all the bluegrass instruments, I always loved the banjo most of all.  There's something about the irrepressible rhythm of a good banjo roll, the technical proficiency required to play a great break,* and quite frankly, the old-timey twanginess of it, that I just adore.  

My mom loves it too, and always talked about how she would love it if one of her children learned to play the banjo.

So the year I was 27, I was talking to my mom on the phone, and she asked me what I wanted for Hannukah.  

"Why don't you get me a banjo, and I'll learn how to play it," I suggested.

The next time she came to visit me in Atlanta, we went to a music store and picked out a banjo and I found a banjo teacher and I learned how to play.  I knew how to play the guitar, so the mechanics of playing a stringed instrument wasn't entirely foreign to me, but it was very difficult and required an enormous amount of practice (much to my roommates' chagrin, I'm sure).  

But eventually I became more comfortable on the instrument, and my banjo teacher introduced me to some other bluegrass musicians to play with, and over the next few years I developed this wonderful new group of friends.  We would get together and everyone would bring their instruments (guitars, mandolins, upright bass, fiddles, dobros, bouzoukis), and we would drink bourbon and play music and sing songs.

At a bluegrass jam in Atlanta, 2002

One night, I was out at a bluegrass jam a month or so after having lower back surgery.  The recovery had been slow, and I was still in some pain and feeling sorry for myself, but I was getting cabin fever and needed to get out of my bed and out of the house.  So I grabbed my banjo and went out to this party that I had been invited to.

It ended up being one of the best nights of my life.  I only knew a couple of people at the party, but the friends that I had introduced me around, and I joined a circle of musicians.  It was a gorgeous, crisp fall night in an old house in a hip, funky tree-lined in-town neighborhood, and I stood on the porch with a group of people and picked bluegrass and sang gospel songs.  For a few hours, I forgot about the pain I had been in for months and I reveled in the incredible social connection that comes from playing music with other people.  I felt happy and alive.

Over the next couple of years, I played regularly, even did some gigs with a little band I was part of, and got pretty good at both the playing and the singing.  

At my wedding in Australia, December 2005.  My Australian father-in-law, who also happens to be a bluegrass enthusiast, surprised me by inviting some bluegrass musicians that I had met and played with when I visited Jason in Australia in 2004.  Having these guys show up and play (and let me sing with them) was seriously one of the coolest parts of an already wonderful night.  In the picture above, I'm singing Old Home Place, one of my favorite bluegrass songs.

And then people started to move or drift apart, and I got married and left Atlanta, and all of a sudden it's been almost 6 or 7 years since I played with any regularity.  

Over the weekend, Jason and I were driving and Steve Martin was on A Prairie Home Companion playing banjo with his bluegrass group in support of a new album he recently released.**  They did a couple of numbers, and I felt the stirrings in my heart and in my gut that I get whenever I hear great bluegrass.  Because while I truly love all different kinds of music -- I listen to everything from blues to opera to reggae to hip-hop to dance pop -- bluegrass, and specifically, the banjo, is really the only kind of music that makes me feel like my heart is flying.  

I miss that feeling.  And though I don't know when I'll find the time to play, I'm heading out to Guitar Center to get some new strings.  

I really love playing the banjo.  And as happy as it makes me, life's too short not to recapture that feeling that it gives me.  So, thanks, Steve.

*"Break" is bluegrass-ese for a solo. 
**For the uninitiated, Steve Martin is a fucking amazing banjo player.  

Saturday, June 27, 2009


I've been wanting to write about my Grandpa Leo, who was honestly the best person I've ever known. Turns out, my little brother Sam beat me to it, and wonderfully so. This was first posted on his terrific blog.

While my experiences with my grandfather were not identical to Sam's -- I never had to live with my grandparents because I was evacuated from a Salvadoran civil war, for example -- he absolutely captures the essense that was my grandpa. I've just added a couple of pictures from the archives...

Grandpa Leo trying on the Akubra hat that Jason and I got him for his 90th birthday. He loved to greet Jason by saying, "Hi, mate!" in a quasi-Aussie accent. It was hilarious and charming.

Dancing with my grandpa at my wedding. He loved to dance.

Grandpa gazes adoringly at his great-grandson Zeke, 6 months old in this picture. He was crazy about his grandchildren.

I have changed nothing, so the voice is Sam's, today's guest blogger.
On June 12, my grandfather, Isadore Leo Seligson, died suddenly of a heart attack, while sitting in his car after an afternoon at the pool reading his paperback and, presumably, staring at a few nice looking ladies in their bathing suits. He was 93. 
I have been thinking about whether or not to write about him. On the one hand, some part of it feels exploitative (or something). I don’t know. But on the other, he was my friend. He was a wonderful man. Truly. He was different than you or me. I don’t mean some rags to riches story or his incessant drive for fame or power. I mean that a light shone within him and anyone who met him knew it immediately and he showed people and me how to love and how to be something good in this world. So you should know about him. You should remember him and you should know that even in a world full of pain and misery and corrupt institutions and tyranny and quests for power and fame and mindlessness, even in that world, there are people who are good. Simply good. Honest. Giving. Open minded. Loving. 
I am not a geneologist and this is not a formal obituary. So I’ll just share some recollections and thoughts and if it means something that’s fine and if not that’s fine too. But he was here. 
My grandfather’s dad, Julius, lived till 101 and was lucid all the way through. And in many ways he taught my grandpa the things that my grandpa then taught my mom who taught me. Things really about love and family and the power of those bonds and their importance. 
Here are some additional things about my grandfather. He loved people. He loved his children and he loved his grandchildren and he derived real and genuine joy from human connection. He loved to sit and tell stories with us. He repeated himself a little bit but less than you’d expect. So it really was always worth it to sit and listen, because you’d learn something new. Something funny. And you’d see the joy that he got in looking back over the life he lived richly. And being with us. 
Grandpa fought in World War II. He was a communications officer in the South Pacific. He would talk about the Japanese on the other side of the island. Manning the radar station. He would talk about the few times he got shot at. I remember he told us about being in Japan after the war was over and hiring this guy whose name I think was Mr. Ito to be his translator. And he’d syphon off food and supplies for Mr. Ito’s family at a time when the Japanese were very poor and when everyone needed everything all they could get. I doubt it even occurred to him to even attempt to harbor any kind of ill-wish towards the Japanese. 
That’s the kind of person he was. 
The defining relationship of his life was his marriage to my grandmother, Ruth. They were married for 66 years. His loyalty and his love for my grandmother was the model for marriage that I would like to follow. His patience. His devotion. She wasn’t always an easy woman to live with, as none of us are I suppose, and yet his commitment never seemed to waiver. They had some tough times. I don’t think he was a particularly good business person and, as a result, there were some difficult financial situations. But through every moment of their time together, at least those moments that I saw, he was her unwavering partner and companion and her lover and her friend. Her last few years were very difficult. She was suffering from dementia, she was becoming less mobile and, in some ways, reverting to childhood. He was a man in his late 80s and early 90s, old in his own right, but he took care of her every day. Cooking for her. Cleaning for her. Loving her. 
That’s the kind of person he was. 
He was my friend. In 1990, I lived in El Salvador. It was the tail end of the civil war down there. The FMLN, the communist guerillas, mounted a last ditch offensive to overthrow the government and they stormed San Salvador where I was living with my mom and dad who were both Foreign Service Officers. The first night my dad and I stood in our yard and listened to the gunfire and the explosions and it was kind of a novelty. Then a few bullets whizzed by over our heads, glowing red in the night, and we realized it was more than just a curiosity. So we went back inside and huddled in my parents bedroom. They evacuated the dependents (the proverbial women and children (not my mom who was part of the embassy)). I went to stay with my grandparents in Detroit (well Farmington Hills really) while my parents stayed behind to help develop the US response and strategy in that critical time. 
I was 12. I was a pain in the ass and a brat and at first it was painful and difficult to adjust to a new life with my grandparents as my parents. And they must have thought it strange to have this little shit in their midst years after they thought they were done raising kids. But there it was. I would get in fights with my grandmother, try to tell her not to come into my room, I even put a note on the door one time outlining the rules of engagement viz. my room which, of course, was their room. I think it was funny more than anything else. 
Over time though I adjusted to this new life. Even enrolled in a wonderful school in the Detroit area, the Roeper School. And my relationship with my grandparents evolved and became something more than it had been. My grandmother would knock on my door every morning and tell me it was the 5 minute warning before I had to really get up. Then I’d come down and she’d make me breakfast. And then my grandfather would drive me to school every morning. We’d talk and laugh and joke around and laugh at my grandmother. Schlepping me all over the place. Never complaining. Never begrudging me anything. He was my friend. 
That’s the kind of person he was. 
I eventually moved back to Salvador and finished 7th grade and then moved back to the States after that. But I think that time changed my fundamental relationship with them and it created a bond that lasted, I suppose, forever, in whatever way or however the word forever can mean anything. 
Over the years, I got in the habit of calling him every week. I’d miss a few weeks here and there but we spoke a couple times a month for as long as I can remember. I got in the habit of answering the phone, “Sam Jacobs here”. And for whatever reason, he got the biggest kick out of it and he’d laugh uproariously and he’d respond “Leo Seligson here” and, you know how it was, it was love. That’s all. And then we’d talk and trade stories and laugh together and he’d tell me how proud he was of me and he’d encourage me and teach me, in ways that are hard to explain but that you can see, how to be a good man. Even if I wasn’t always. 
He was faithful to my grandmother but he loved women and he loved hugging and he took a liking to my wife from the first moment they met at my cousin’s wedding in Denver years ago. There was this magical little day when the four of us, my grandmother and my grandfather and me and Erica, all had breakfast at the Brown Palace Hotel and we listened as they talked about living in New Orleans and how my grandmother was one of the first female DJs in the country and had a jazz show called “Buzzin With Cousins”. And how they started their bridal salon and how they’d take buying trips to New York to check out the latest styles. And they fell in love with my wife and she with them. 
My grandmother passed away last year and, I think, after years of taking care of her, grandpa went through a dark period and I think he was bored and I think he was lonely. He moved into a new apartment and he was volunteering at the Radiology Department of Henry Ford Hospital and he was driving old ladies to their hair appointments and picking up people from the airport and he was going to the Jewish Community Center for a schvitz and he was reading and listening to his Patsy Cline and Billie Holiday records. 
That’s the kind of person he was. 
In March, my mom and I flew to Detroit to celebrate his 93rd birthday with him. He seemed good. We had a wonderful time. Honestly, being with him was just being with a friend. Maybe a funny one. Maybe one with really bad breath who hugged really hard. Maybe one who didn’t want to use his hearing aid all the time out of pride. But my point is that it wasn’t trouble. It wasn’t hard. We went to dinner and drove around and we went to brunch with Melba at the Stage Deli and we laughed and he’d sit in the back of the car sometimes and listen to me and my mom tease each other and he’d get the biggest kick out of watching these people that he loved tease each other and I know that it brought him a lot of joy and I’m glad to have been a part of that. 
His passing has been very hard. You see, it was unexpected. His dad lived for a long time and Leo was healthy, and lucid, and thin, and gainfully employed even, and he was going to go to the beach with my family in a few weeks and I really was not ready to lose my friend like this. It’s just selfishness, I guess. I know he was ready to go and join my grandmother. Or just be gone from this plane. But I didn’t want him to leave. I don’t have that many friends. Not like him. I will miss him. Very plain and simple, I will miss him. 
It’s hard to explain in words, what kind of person he was. But it’s something you feel when you meet him. It is a grace. And a godliness. You see, he wasn’t innocent. He wasn’t naive. He’d been in a war. He’d seen things. The fucking Great Depression for one thing. He’d been married to a complicated woman for a long time. So my point is that his grace and beauty did not come from an innocence. They came from a worldiness. He believed in people and in love despite everything he’d experienced, or maybe because of it ,or however you want to frame it. He was a humanist. He was open-minded. In an era when many weren’t and when many aren’t. He didn’t care who you were or what you were. Gender, race, orientation, lifestyle. He was ready to accept you. As long as you were nice to his kids and his grandkids, he was ready to accept you. 
I have no regrets. I was lucky. My wife never knew her grandparents. I got to know mine. I lived with them. They were my friends. I called them and visited them and we spent time together. And I know that he passed from this earth in the way he would have wanted. Not in a nursing home. Not bed ridden. Quickly, suddenly, and with his characteristic humility and grace. And he was old and lived a long life and loved his children and his grandchildren and his great grandchildren and he showed me and us what it means to be something good. 
It was an honor to share this earth with him. An honor. And maybe there’s an after life that retains him in the way that he was. But I suspect it’s probably something where his energy, his soul or whatever you call it, has merged back into the mainline of the universe, the force. And that part of what makes this world so special is that these forms are so temporal and so unique and distinctive. So while I hope I may find him as he was at some time or in some place here or then, in this life or in a different state, I can’t be sure. But I do know that the way he was on this planet - the form that that energy had taken- it was special and true and full of light and love and effervescence. And if you knew him you knew you were lucky to have known him. And if you didn’t, well, maybe you have a sense for him now. 
He was a good man. RIP Isadore Leo Seligson. 1916-2009. 
PS Here’s the information from the funeral home.
PPS My sister wrote this wonderful piece about the feeling we have now that there’s no real reason to ever go back to Detroit after we’d been visiting there and using it as a gathering place for so long. I found it very haunting but that’s me. Take a look.

Friday, June 26, 2009

English for the cognitively impaired

In October 2001, I went to visit my mother in Papua New Guinea, where she was stationed at the time.  We met up in Australia, spent a couple of days touring around Sydney and the Blue Mountains, then headed up to Port Moresby.  We hung out there for a few days, hanging with her friends and colleagues, doing some touristy stuff, and then headed to East New Britain (a PNG province) to do some scuba diving in Rabaul.

The Sydney Opera House.  We even went to see an opera there (Mozart's The Magic Flute).  Seeing an opera in the Opera House is fun, but The Magic Flute is a shitty opera, as much as I love Mozart.

The Jamison Valley in the Blue Mountains, about 60 miles west of Sydney.  They're blue because the air is full of eucalyptus oil.

It was an incredible trip.  Mom and I got some great quality time together, we did some fun touristy stuff, and I saw a beautiful part of the world that I will likely never get back to.  And life in the ambassador's residence, with servants and a driver and a pool and a gorgeous view of the ocean, doesn't suck.  

A bird of paradise tries to get fresh with me at the botanical gardens in Port Moresby.

The volcano in Rabaul, which was still smoldering from an eruption 7 years earlier (in 1994)

But Papua New Guinea is seriously one of the most fucked up countries ever.  It's culture is still astoundingly primitive, its economy is and has pretty much always been in the toilet (notwithstanding vast natural resources), the government is rife with corruption and largely ineffective, law and order is a pipe dream, and there is no free public education (which I think dooms any country hoping to become a progressive society).  
One of the things that amazed me most of all was Pidgin (or "Tok Pisin"), which is the national "language," to the extent that such a heterogenous place with hundreds of different tribes and distinct cultural groups has a single unifying language.  

And I know this is indelicate and incredibly politically correct, but from the outset I maintained that Pidgin is basically English for morons.*  Yes, it's charming and hilarious, but also alarming in how simplistic and childish it is.

My mom is still on a Papua New Guinea listserv, so she gets emails from time to time that include news and gossip about PNG, as well as a glossary of select Pidgin words.  It never ceases to crack me up.

Here's the latest.  Enjoy.
(it helps to say the words out loud for full effect - I've also included some translational guidance in italics)
dai pinis =  die  (i.e., die finish)
em tasol = that's all ("
em" is sort of a pronoun/placeholder)
glas bilong kapten = binoculars (
glasses belonging to a captain)
glas bilong lukluk = mirror (
glasses to "look look")
hallans / hailens = highlands
haus sik = hospital ("
house sick")
hausboi / hausmeri = servant (
"house boy" or "house mary/woman")
het i pen = headache ("
head in pain")
hukim pis = catch fish / fishing
husat = who
kago = cargo / goods / baggage
kagoboi = porter ("cargo boy")
kilim i dai pinis = kill
kilman = murderer ("
kill man")
*My mother, who is far nicer than I, suggested to me that the simplicity of the language stems from the fact that because the culture was so heterogeneous, it was necessary to boil things down to their most basic points in order to be understood across tribes and language groups.  I stand by my assessment, however, that another reason for the simplicity of the language is the absence of highly developed culture and thought processes (see, George Orwell's 1984, in which Big Brother simplified language in an effort to eliminate advanced, abstract thought processes).

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Ghost town

It's a very strange thing when something, or someplace, that has been a constant in your life, no longer is.

People in my family live to be very, very old.  Most of my great-grandparents lived well into their 80s and 90s, and one lived to be 101.  My dad's dad died of a heart attack 32 years ago, but the other three grandparents were around until the last year, when my Grandma Ruth and then my Grandpa Leo died within 10 months of each other.  

So it feels very odd to only have one grandparent left (she's 92, I think).

But it's even odder that the place they all lived -- Detroit, Michigan -- is no longer a place I will regularly visit.* 

My parents both grew up in the Detroit area, and their families still live there, for the most part.  When I was growing up, Detroit was where the family gathered.  It was a home base.  My brothers and I spend parts of our summers there when we were living overseas, particularly when we were in Israel and India.  I used to help out in my grandparents' bridal salon.  They would take us to the theater and the symphony and the art museums and to Stratford, Ontario, to see Shakespeare plays.  Or we would just chill out and spend time with them and with our aunts and uncles and cousins, swimming in local pools or lakes.  Dinner in Greek Town or at Buddy's Pizza.  Movies.  Following the Tigers and Michigan football.  Looking through old photos.  

Even as an adult, it was a place where we spent Thanksgivings or just visited at other times of the year to check in with the relatives and recharge our familial batteries.

Detroit (or more accurately, its suburbs) was a place of comfort and familiarity.  Particularly with my peripatetic upbringing, it was a constant in my life -- something that didn't change, even when everything else about my life changed constantly.

And when Zeke and I were flying out last Tuesday, I remember looking out the window as the plane gained altitude and thinking, "I have no idea when I will ever be back here."

It felt like losing yet another relative.

*I still have some aunts and uncles there, and one grandmother, but it was really my mother's parents that were the draw that kept us going back there.  My dad's mom is in a nursing home and doesn't seem terribly interested in seeing us (in response to one grandson's regular phone calls, she complained, "why does he keep calling me??"), plus she doesn't really talk so visiting her consists of about 10 minutes of saying "hello" and then staring at the walls.  

Thursday, June 18, 2009

My family: like living in the circus, only without the elephants and carnies running around

I thought about writing about my grandpa today, but I just don't have it in me right now.  I'm so tired of long, mawkish posts that are like an endless pity party.  So instead, I've got a funny family story that randomly popped into my head today.

I think it's safe to say that my parents never subscribed to the conventional wisdom about what was safe or not safe for children.  Some of it was the times -- my brothers and I grew up before car seats and worries about "stranger danger" and such, particularly overseas, where the standards were even more lax than in the U.S.  When we were little and I was maybe 4 years old and Josh was 2, my dad used to ride us around, sans helmets or any other safety features, on his motorcycle in the streets of Venezuela.  When we lived in Virginia and Josh was about 6 or 7, he had a friend over and my dad took them someplace and let them ride in the trunk of the car.  When the friend's mom found out, she went completely ballistic, but my dad never understood what the big deal was.  As kids, we used to roam around foreign cities by ourselves, build elaborate ramps for our Big Wheels that entailed careening down massive hills that ended on busy streets, pull all of the couch and bed cushions out into the yard and jump off the roof of the house, and on and on.  I'm not sure if we were lucky to make it to adulthood without serious injury, or if maybe today's hyper-safety-conscious standards for kids are overkill.  Probably a little of both.

Anyway, my brother Josh finished high school at a boarding school in small town in Massachusetts a little ways outside of Boston.  My parents were stationed in El Salvador at the time, and the American school there was really substandard, so it was decided that Josh would finish his secondary education in the States (I was already in college, so it wasn't an issue for me).  We all went up for his graduation -- me, my parents, my brother Sam, and all of our grandparents.  

My parents had rented a Lincoln Town Car for the weekend.  It was massive, and for the most part, getting around Ashburnham (where the school was) wasn't a big deal because it's not a big town and everything was close.  But one night, we all went out for a big celebratory dinner at a nice restaurant in Boston.  And notwithstanding the fact that the Town Car was basically an ocean liner on wheels, there was no way we could fit everyone in the car, even if some people sat on laps.

So Josh and I volunteered to ride in the trunk.

Imagine, if you will, that you are enjoying a leisurely dinner at a pleasant restaurant.  It's a beautiful night, so you've opted for a table outside on the sidewalk, where you can enjoy the starry skies and the fine cuisine and the people-watching.  

During your meal, a big Town Car pulls up to the sidewalk next to you.  Much to your amazement, the trunk pops open and out climb 2 nicely dressed young adults.  They're laughing and chatting, and they are then joined by another group of people (presumably their family -- they all look alike).  You and your fellow diners sit there, slack-jawed at the oddness of the scenario, but the people in question breeze into the restaurant as if it were the most normal thing in the world.  They don't even give you a second glance, or seem remotely fazed or embarrassed by the spectacle they've caused.

That was life growing up in my family.  A little reckless, a lot silly, but never conventional or boring.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Once again, I prove myself to be the unluckiest traveller in the world, or, why DIA is the greatest airport ever

I feel like it's one of those times when the Universe is piling on.  I'm doing OK, but I don't think I've ever been so emotionally or physically tired, and the stress of the past few weeks is starting to take its toll on my body.

Last Thursday, my dad came into town for a visit/business trip.  Zeke is completely enamored of his grandfather, exclaiming "papa!" in a voice full of love whenever he sees him.  (Of course my dad eats it up, saying things like, "I love you too, Zekey, and the pony will be delivered next week.")  Jason came home for the weekend that night, and we were planning on a nice weekend, meeting up with some friends from Atlanta who were coming through town, taking Zeke to the park, and just generally relaxing.  

Then my mom called on Friday afternoon to tell me that my Grandpa Leo had died.  He was 93, still in full command of his faculties, living alone after my grandmother's death, volunteering at a hospital 3 days a week.  He wasn't sick at all.  

But I think he was tired and lonely.  Tired both because he was old and slowing down, but also tired of being the one to outlive his wife and most of his friends.  And lonely from missing my grandmother, to whom he was married for 65 years and whom he cherished and adored until the end.

Friday he went to the pool in his apartment complex to read and sit in the sun.  Sometime in the afternoon, he went back to his car.  And he just died in the car (not driving it, but while he was sitting in it).  I'm assuming it was a stroke or a massive coronary or something.  And that was it.

The troops rallied and started making plans to head to Detroit for the memorial service.  My entire family flew in on Saturday, including Zeke and my dad and me.  It was nice to have my dad with us while we were travelling, because navigating airports and airplanes with a toddler is challenging.  Not because Zeke is difficult or ill-behaved, because actually, he was awesome.  But because there's so much goddamned stuff involved.  The stroller, the car seat, bags full of diapers and butt paste and snacks and extra clean clothes and truck books and toys.  

Saturday we parked at the Denver airport, and made our way to the elevator to go up to the ticketing area.  I was lugging the carseat, the diaper bag/carry-on, and a suitcase.  Dad had the stroller and his big duffel bag.  We got to the elevator, and I held the door open so Dad could get the stroller in.  

I was still holding my car keys in my hand - the hand that was on the elevator door to keep it from closing.  The door moved a little bit, and my hand jostled, and the keys fell....

....in between the inner and outer elevator doors, down down down the elevator shaft.  I heard a "plink" as they hit metal and then the floor, stories below us.  

It was like I was watching it in slow motion, a feeling of horror spreading over my body.  "This isn't happening.  No way did that just happen," I thought to myself.

Dad got down on his hands and knees to try to retrieve them, as if they were simply stuck an inch or so below the door opening.

"Don't bother,"  I said.  "They're gone.  I heard them fall down the elevator shaft."

And of course, as I've explained in the past, my car key isn't just an ordinary key that I can take to the hardware store to have copies made.  It's a Mercedes "smart key" that synchs up with the car via laser or some such shit.  And it's the only one I have.  And the only way to get it replaced is to take proof of ownership and ID down to the Mercedes dealership so they can order a new one.  And it costs over $200.

All I could think was, "Motherfucker.  If I don't get the key back, I can't retrieve my car from parking when we come back into town.  I'll have to rent a car and keep incurring $18 a day in parking fees.  Plus once you order the new key, it takes them like a week to make it and send it out.  Shit shit shit shit shit shit."

So then the question was, what to do?  We had a plane to catch in an hour, security lines to get through, and somehow figure out who in the airport we could talk to that might be able to help with the key situation.  

We figured we'd check in and get our boarding passes, and then deal with it.  We asked three different airport employees what to do, and finally the last one took down my name, my number, a description of the keys, and the number of the elevator shaft where they had fallen.  She assured me that the keys would be retrieved.  I was dubious, but there was nothing left to do.  We went through security and caught our plane.

The flight was uneventful.  Zeke played with trucks and looked at his books and charmed our seat mates.  When we got to Detroit and went to get our luggage, my suitcase and Dad's duffel made it, but the carseat was nowhere to be found.   It hadn't made the plane.

"Of course," I thought to myself.  "Why shouldn't this trip be a total fucking nightmare, rather than simply somewhat hellish?"

But, United Airlines gave me a loaner carseat, and brought me mine when it made the next flight.  The next few days were difficult and tiring, but it was good to see my family and celebrate my grandfather's life.*

Of course, in the back of my mind, I was thinking about my car keys.  I was convinced that I was totally screwed and that I would never get the keys back.

But sure enough, when Zeke and I got off the plane yesterday, we made our way over to the Denver airport's lost and found.  And there were my keys, with the key ring itself slightly mangled, but otherwise no worse for the wear.  

Maybe my bad travelling mojo is changing.
*I'll write about it another time.  

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Aussie word of the day: food storage edition

I've become so immersed in my husband's Aussie-speak that I'm beginning to use it myself, to the point that today, I couldn't remember the word "cooler," i.e., the thing you put sandwiches and drinks in when you go on a picnic or to the beach.

For example, like everyone in Australia, we have an electric kettle for boiling water.  They drink lots of tea there.  Only they don't call it a kettle -- it's a "jug," as in "Darl,* would you be a dear and put the jug on for a cuppa**?"  "Jug" is also used to refer to any container in which liquids are stored.  And now I never say "turn on the kettle" or "boil some water."  I always say "put the jug on."

I need to do a Target run today, and I was making a shopping list.  Jason needs a couple of things for his job up in Vail, and I was planning on picking them up for him.  Specifically, he wants a big thermos to keep drinking water in, and a little cooler for packing his lunch.  So I wrote:
children's motrin
note pad with magnet for fridge
Special K
water jug
First, note that I wrote "water jug" rather than "thermos."  Second, you're probably asking yourself, "what the hell is an 'esky'?"

"Esky," which is short for "Eskimo,"*** is the Australian slang word for "cooler."  And as I was writing out the list, not only did I instinctively write "esky," but when I tried to remember the American word, it took me a good 20 seconds of thinking hard to come up with it.

I think I'm becoming indoctrinated.

*   darl = short for "darling."  Sounds like "doll," but with an "r" thrown in.

** cuppa = cup of tea

*** as I have explained previously, Aussies abbreviate everything.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Good Boy

Good night, sweet prince; And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.*

My old boss used to say that stories about other people's children and dogs are never that interesting, except to the teller of the stories.  Maybe so.  But as I sat today with my old dog's head in my lap as he died, I thought about his life with me, and how most of it was wonderful and full of funny stories that I don't want to forget.  

Max was a golden retriever mix that I got from the pound almost exactly 11 years ago, when he was about a year old.  He had all the markings of a golden, but I think was part sheltie, so he was a little smaller and a little fluffier than your average golden.  I used to joke that he looked like a golden retriever that someone had stuck in the dryer.  

Anyway, I had another golden retriever, a glorious, beautiful, sweet dog named Floyd, and he seemed a little lonely, so I thought I'd get him a friend.  My friend Karen and I took Floyd down to the Humane Society, because I wanted Floyd to interact with whomever he was going to live with, just to make sure it was a good fit.  The staff put us in a hallway, and brought out different dogs one by one.  With most of the dogs, Floyd didn't seem that interested.  But Max was different.

When they saw each other, they started wagging tails and sniffing butts and playing.  And that was it.  Max came home with us that afternoon.**

I had Max neutered, per the terms of the Humane Society's adoption policies.  But for a dog with no balls, Max had the biggest balls of any dog I ever met.  He was medium-sized, but totally fearless and tough as nails, invariably taking on the biggest dog in the park for no other reason than to prove he could.  Whereas Floyd was all sweetness and love, Max had a touch of the devil in him, and it never ceased to make me laugh.

A couple of stories stick out.

There was the time one of my roommates was celebrating a birthday, and Floyd and Max snuck into the room where the surprise, totally-made-from-scratch birthday cake was hidden, and ate the entire thing, including the candles and little plastic candle holders.

Or the time when I was visiting my mother when she was stationed in Papua New Guinea, and
Max and Floyd were staying with a friend of mine.  Max got a little rambunctious and was running around the house, slipped into the entrance to the attic -- which had no reinforced flooring -- and fell through the ceiling, essentially surfing a large piece of drywall down to the lower floor.  He emerged totally unscathed, but it cost me $500 to repair my friend's ceiling.

After Floyd died, Max went through a period of not wanting to stay out in the yard during the day.  I had a huge back yard in Atlanta with a big detached garage, so the dogs would stay out there when I wasn't home, and could go hang out in the garage if the weather was bad.  But after Floyd was gone, Max decided he didn't feel like staying back there by himself.  He wanted to roam the neighborhood.  It took me 2 months and $2500 on a new fence to keep him contained.  But a part of me respected his unwillingness to be hemmed in.

You might be thinking, "Jesus, this dog was a pain in the ass."  But he was wonderful.  I loved his spirit and his playfulness.  Above it all, he was loving and affectionate.  He loved to run, and was incredibly fast, almost keeping up with the whippets and the greyhounds we'd see at the local neighborhood dog park. He loved to swim in the creek and roll in the mud and the sand. And at the end of a long day of playing and romping, he would cuddle up at the end of my bed and sleep with his head resting on my foot. 

after a romp on the beach in Hawaii

Max allows 2-week-old Zeke to use him as a backstop, November 2007

March 2007, at the Grand Canyon during our cross-country road trip

another road trip pic -- in his pimped-out kennel in the back of the car.  He had more room than either Jason or I did.

It was love at first sight for Max and Jason, snuggled up in 2007 (top) and 2006 (bottom)

Max having a grand time at the Atlanta Steeplechase Races, April 2004.  When the horses raced by, he would chase them along the other side of the fence.

Having a swim in a lake in north Georgia, October 2002

He started losing his eyesight about 3 or 4 years ago.  It got really bad in the last year, when it was clear he couldn't even see gradations of light and dark.  Then his legs started to shake, and he started having trouble walking.  He didn't have the energy or the pep he used to have.  He wasn't himself anymore.

So while it was incredibly sad to see him die, I know that the life he was living was not the life for him.  He was ready to go, and I am glad that I could end his suffering and be there with him when he drifted off to sleep, this time for good.

Good-bye, my sweet puppy.  You were a good boy, and I will miss you.

*Just to clarify, this is a 2-year-old picture of Max sleeping, not a picture of him dead. 

**According to the paperwork provided by the Humane Society, Max's previous owners had given him up because they lived in a small apartment and didn't have the space for him.  Also, they had named him "Diamond."  I was all, "uh, no.  This dog can't live in a small apartment.  And no way is he a 'Diamond.'  He is a 'Max.'"  And I just started calling him "Max."  It didn't take him long to figure it out.  I think he hated the name "Diamond" as much as I did.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Decisions, decisions. Also, I apparently haven't lost my sick sense of humor.

So, anyone who is a Facebook friend knows that I'm having my dog put to sleep. The decision-making process has been both incredibly difficult and incredibly illuminating, from a self-knowledge type of perspective.

I have never been one to dilly-dally when making a decision. I hate the feeling of being in limbo, so once I weigh the pros and cons, I make a decision and I go with it. My feeling is, if it's a bad decision, then I'll take another route, but short of committing murder, there are very few decisions in life that can't be fixed. When I decided I was ready to buy a house, I found a realtor and, armed with the knowledge of what my budget was and where I could afford to live, I found a house and put a contract on it within a weekend. When I didn't like my job, I found another one. When I decided to try my hand at the Baby Boot Camp franchise, I thought about it, talked to Jason, and pulled the trigger. It ended up being a failure, but whatever. Live and learn.

But the decision to euthanize a dog, like the commission of a murder, can't be undone. Which is why I think I've been waffling. And it's a foreign, uncomfortable feeling.

The truth is, my dog Max is 12 years old. He's been going blind for years, but the process is now complete. He spends his life bumping into walls, into furniture, stumbling down stairs, and tripping down curbs. He has a massive fatty cyst/tumor on his side that doesn't seem to be growing, but it's enormous. His legs shake constantly, and the shaking has gotten worse, particularly in his hind legs. He has difficulty getting up from a lying-down position, and lately seems disinclined to get up to go for a walk. In the past month, the weakness in his hind legs has gotten so bad that occasionally when he squats down to poop, he can't hold himself up and he collapses.

In other words, as Kathleen so astutely put it, he's not having alot of fun these days.

Jason has been talking about how we should put him down, but it's always been a "we should think about doing this" kind of thing, not a "call the vet tomorrow" kind of thing. And for all of his infirmities, he still wags his tail when I scratch his belly and has periods when he doesn't seem so uncomfortable.

But then yesterday, we went out for a couple of hours, and when we got home, Max had fallen down the stairs to the basement. He hadn't broken anything, but he was really shaken up, and when Jason tried to walk him, Max could barely hold himself up.

That's when I knew it was time.

Today, I called a vet. Max had his shots and got a health clearance before leaving Hawaii (which doesn't mean he's totally healthy, it just means he can fly on a plane without dying on the spot), so we hadn't taken him to the vet here. So I had to call a vet that Max had never seen before and basically say, "uh, I think my dog is on his last legs and has no quality of life, how do I make the decision as to whether to have him put to sleep or not?"

And the response was, "it's pretty much up to you."

Which is not the answer I wanted. I went into Kathleen's office in tears.

"I don't want somebody to put it all on me. I want someone to say to me, 'Wendy, you need to do this.'"

And Kathleen, bless her, looked me in the eye and said, "Wendy, you need to do this."

She was right. And once the decision was made, I was sad and crying, but I was back in familiar territory, because I knew it was the right decision. I called the vet back, and they put me on the schedule for 10:30 tomorrow, which was pretty much the only opening they had this week.

Jason expressed dismay at how quickly it's going to happen. "Can't I take some time to say good-bye?"

Um, no. We could put it off for a day or so, assuming that the vet had an opening (which they don't), but having made the decision, I can't put off the actual event for days on end. I'm emotionally and mentally there now, and I just want to get it over with.

I told Kathleen about Jason's reaction, and she tsk-tsked. "He's been urging you to do it for months, and now that you've decided to do it, he wants you to put it off? Doesn't he know that once you've made your decision, you're done?"

And I had to laugh, because she's so right. I find it both disconcerting and comforting that she knows me so well.

Another thing that made me laugh was a Facebook message I got from an old high school friend of mine. I have received a number of public comments offering condolences, but rather than add to them, he sent me a private message.
I was going to post 'how many dogs have to be put to sleep before facebook adds a don't like button" and have everyone you know hate me, but I figured I would make it a message and have only you hate me.
And you know what? I don't hate him. I fucking can't stop giggling. Does that make me a bad person?

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Bump pictures -- week 23

I put up all three pictures so you could see the progression.

I'm starting to feel really huge and cumbersome. I say "oof" alot when I'm getting up or sitting down. I frequently find myself short of breath because I think my internal organs are squishing up against my diaphragm. Zeke gets a little frustrated when he wants to sit on my lap to read a book, and I don't have much of a lap left.

But, the Joey has started really kicking up a storm in the past week and a half. Not just the little flutters that I was feeling, but lots of "thump thump thump"-ing against the wall of my abdomen. I love it. Except for when she keeps popping me in the bladder.

A womb with a view (I know, I KNOW, it's been done to death, but I still think it's funny)

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Gimme the works! Or, if yesterday didn't kill me, then nothing will.

It's been a crazy week.

Friday Jason had a job interview.  It's a company to which he had submitted an online resume a couple of months ago, and suddenly they contacted him to come in and do a code* test and go through an oral exam and a drug test and a bunch of other stuff.  Jason said it was the most rigorous interview/application process he's ever been through in 15 years as an electrician.

He got the job.  

Which is amazing for a number of reasons, not the least of which that his income will mean the difference between being able to meet our monthly expenses and, y'know ... not.**  And the company has been interviewing about 10 guys a day for the past month, and Jason is the first guy that they've hired.  And it's an awesome company - good wages, incredible benefits, a huge presence in Colorado.

So he's all chuffed and proud of himself and psyched to be contributing to the family fisc, and I'm so happy for him and for us, because it's great.

But because nothing is ever easy, of course there's a catch.

The job he's been staffed on is in Vail.  Which is 90 miles away.  

The company provides corporate housing for its employees, and it's a lovely apartment right by Vail Village with an incredible view of the mountains and all that.  So Jason doesn't have to commute 2 hours each way to work 10 hour days.  Which is good.

But that means that during the week, I'm by myself taking care of an active 19-month-old and a 12-year-old blind, arthritic dog, trying to keep the house from being a complete disaster, and oh, yeah, working a full-time job.  While pregnant.

And just to make things really fun, yesterday -- the day that Jason left for Vail and I started my stint as a part-time single parent -- I completely fucked up my back.  I don't know what I did, but a little while after I woke up, the muscle behind my right hip/sacrum went into spasm, and became gradually worse to the point that I couldn't walk comfortably or lift my right leg without excruciating pain.

I called the chiropractor and went in for an appointment at noon.  Two hours later I walked out of the clinic feeling like a tenderized steak -- but still in pain.

First he tried to adjust me.  Normally my lower back adjusts really easily, but yesterday my muscles were so seized up that nothing would move.  He put some heating pads on my back for 15 minutes and then tried again.  Still nothing.

"Let's try acupuncture!" he said.

"Um, OK.  If you think it'll help."

So he took me into another room, stuck a bunch of needles in my back and in the side of my left leg, and left me there under infrared lights for 20 minutes.  

Still no relief.

"Well, the massage person's here.  Let's have her work on you."

"Fine.  Anything."

The massage lady had the most intensely strong hands of any massage therapist that's ever touched me.  And it felt like she was helping, really working to try to loosen up the muscle, but she was digging in so hard that by the time she finished, I was sore and exhausted and ravenously hungry.  

And still in pain.  I knew that one of the treatments (most likely the massage) was going to help, but that it would probably take a day for my muscles to calm down and for the pain to subside.  So I limped out of there, chugged two bottles of water, scarfed down a turkey sub, a chocolate chip cookie, and a bag of potato chips, and went back to work.  I was filled with dread at the prospect of having to chase after Zeke later that night, when all I wanted to do was have a warm bath and go to bed.

Zeke ended up being mostly fine, though of course I felt horrible when I picked him up at school and the first thing he said was, "Daddy?"

"No, honey, we're not going to see Daddy tonight.  Maybe we'll see him tomorrow."


Great, kid.  Why don't you stab me in the fucking heart while you're at it.

That evening, I did have to deal with a temper tantrum (he wanted to stay outside and play, even though it was 45 degrees and raining), so I had to waddle down the block with a screaming toddler under my arm.  But once we got home, he was happy to look at books and bounce around on the couch and watch Elmo.  He had a blast during bath time, and ate a decent dinner. We cuddled in the rocking chair and I sang to him for about 10 minutes, and he was in his crib, asleep, by 8:15.

I hobbled around the house for another 20 minutes, picking up toys, doing some laundry, and washing the dishes.  I let the dog out to pee, had a bowl of cereal, put on my pajamas, and went to bed.  I survived the first day.

My back is much improved today.  So things can only get better from here.

If not, I'm in trouble.
* The national electrical code

**It's been a rough few months, financially speaking.  But for the enormous generosity of my parents, and the fact that I bit the bullet, killed the sacred cow and cashed in one of my 401Ks to pay off our credit card debt, we would have had to default on the house in Hawaii.  Which would have sucked, not only for us, but for our renters.