Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Blue Bloods

It was 13 years ago, but I remember it like it was yesterday. Most Kentucky Wildcat fans old enough to have seen it do.

We were living in Falmouth at the time and the only entertainment we really had that winter was watching Wildcat basketball with our friends. It was Tubby Smith's first year as our coach, we had made it to the big dance two years in a row, and no one really had very high expectations for that team.

Until March.

I can't tell you a lot about the early games, except that we had this trend of getting behind early and then coming back in an exciting and stressful fashion. My stomach hurt constantly that spring; I'm fairly certain being a college basketball fan gave me an ulcer.

But I can tell you a lot about the Duke game. The parts of it I was brave enough to watch, anyway.

Some of you fair readers are from other states or favor other Kentucky teams and just don't get how it is with us and Duke. We hate them. No, more than hate. We abhor them. Probably the same kind of hate other college basketball fans have for us. The only team in the country that can really make us feel like the proverbial red-headed stepchild is Duke. Year in and year out, we have to hear how awesome they are. Even those years when we're pretty awesome, too. And then there's the whole Christian Laettner thing. How would you feel if your beloved team's most devastating loss shows up in every single highlight reel of the tournament's history every damn year and gets talked about almost weekly by one sports pundit or another? You'd probably have a chip on your shoulder the size of a Chevy.

So of course we met them in the tournament in 1998. We were, as so many are when they meet Duke in the tournament, not the favorite.

We had shag carpet in that little Falmouth apartment, the kind of shag carpet high enough to lose a kitten in. The game came on. I started pacing. We got behind. I paced some more. And suddenly that shag needed a rake taken to it in a bad way. I am pretty sure it had to be replaced when we left in May; I wore that sucker down to a nub.

I did what I always do when it looks like UK is going to lose: I looked away. It's hard to look away in a tiny 4-room apartment, so I went for a walk. A loooong walk. All the way to the mighty Licking River, which, it turned out, you could actually see and hear at the very end of our street. Huh, I thought. No wonder the flood hit our street so hard. I guess we should have maybe investigated that further when my dad asked us how close we lived to the river and whether or not we purchased flood insurance.

Our neighbors, who had just recently moved back into their restored home, shouted the score out to me each time I passed:

"UK's down!"

"They're still down!"

"It's not looking so good!"

Then I stopped getting updates, and the expletives I had been hearing from open windows changed to cheers and claps.

"Get back in here!" Jason called from our tiny, rickety balcony. "They're coming back."

I came back just in time to see the seniors, not a superstar in the bunch, make a collective decision that they simply were not going to lose. It was the most powerful display of sheer determination I've seen in sports before or since. These were kids who had grown up as UK fans themselves. They'd seen the Laettner shot. That chip on their shoulder lifted them up instead of weighing them down.

When Scott Padgett made the three-pointer that gave us the lead, he sounded a battle scream that was pure unadulterated triumph. I decided, as I have done many times since, that UK needed me to look away and send all of my positive energy their way from a quiet place where my mind rays could reach their full potential; usually, this place is the bathroom. I heard footsteps.

"You can come out now. You don't want to miss this."

I came out just in time to see them win and go to the Final Four. We laughed. We cried. We tried to call our friends in Lexington, but got a message that all lines were currently busy. This is the best way I can tell you about what it's like to live in Kentucky: we are, by and large, a united state of basketball.

History has a way of repeating itself. Life is very different for us now; we have a house, not a teeny little apartment. We are parents and have plenty to distract us from UK basketball. But some things never change.

This Sunday saw me, yet again, huddled in the bathroom, not able to watch as a close game became increasingly stressful. Yet again, Jason retrieved me with these words:

"You can come out now. You don't want to miss this." 

And for the first time in 13 years, we were back to the Final Four. A team that was in transition; a team we didn't have very high hopes for; a team that decided, just when it counted, that they were not going to lose.

Sounds very familiar.

I texted those old friends who used to live in Lexington (they now live in Louisville) instead of calling them. I had no problems getting through this time.

But that does not mean it's not still a united state of basketball.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Ides of March...Eh, Not Always So Bad

When I was a sophomore in high school, I became inspired by Julius Caesar.

It was only the second Shakespeare play I had ever read, but I had a fantastic teacher who made the story come alive and have resonance in the modern world. I fell in love with the language, with the politics, with the grim analysis of human nature and our desire for power.

And during the time we were studying it, I happened to also fall in love with a boy, and I guess that colored my response to it, too.

So enraptured by this play were my two best friends and I that we started seeing ourselves in light of the story and began to call ourselves "The Great Triumvirate." Yep, we were weird kids.

It was not a good year for The Great Triumvirate. We bonded over a shared feeling that life sucks. (And then you die, sometimes at the hand of someone you thought was your friend...Et tu, Brute?)

As a high-school educator, I've always believed  that there is a huge gap in physical and emotional maturity between freshmen and sophomores and have wondered what sort of cruel growth spurt Mother Nature puts kids through the summer between those two years of school. Whatever it is, it's intense and clearly visible. The three of us struggled that year; we were starting to see the realities of the adult world, but we still felt an awful lot like kids. Our well-meaning English teacher, what with his Lord of the Flies and Julius Caesar lessons that (in his own words) show us "Man is basically evil", got to us. We took it to heart and saw evidence of man's evil everywhere. Even in us. We were all three seriously depressed by adulthood and its ramifications. Looking back, I'm pretty sure we needed Prozac.

For me, it was just flat-out a bad year. I had entered the world of almost-adult dating the summer before my sophomore year and had back-to-back relationships with two older boys who owned cars, were popular, and who each unceremoniously dumped me within a month and broke my heart. Not because I loved either of them; just that they made me feel terribly young, unpopular, and patently undesirable. My mom had had a serious illness and had undergone surgery, and Dad's drinking was as bad as it ever had been or ever would be, leaving me to care for my mom pretty much on my own. I lost touch with most of my girlfriends, all of whom had either gotten wrapped up in a serious relationship or in school activities that my caregiver status didn't allow me to join or both. I ceased to have anything in common with the girls I had been so close to the years before. I clung to my two closest guy friends and we became almost inseparable. Depressed as hell, and troublemakers in a quiet sort of way, but inseparable.

Then something...changed. That late winter, one of them became more than a friend.

I had seen enough movies and read enough books even at the tender age of 16 that I saw the writing on the wall, and that writing whispered, in a soothsayer's voice, "Beware the ides of March." Metaphorically, of course. Suppose this boy and I admitted our feelings for each other. Suppose we gave it a try and it ended as badly as my other relationships that year had. I would lose one of my best friends. Not to mention what two of the Triumvirate breaking off would do to the third. So many things could go wrong. Somebody could end up getting stabbed through the heart on the capitol steps. It didn't help when our teacher followed Julius Caesar up with Antony and Cleopatra; talk about your relationships that don't end well.

It was around the ides of March, ironically enough, that I realized I couldn't keep my feelings quiet. The Great Triumvirate had gone away to compete in an out-of-town speech and drama tournament, and out of boredom and angst had started to write a collaborative short story/memoir about our alliance. It was meant to be a comedy that played heavily on what our much-admired English teacher had taught us that year both about writing and about literature. I suddenly saw that there was room in the story for a little romance, too.

Jason and I literally and metaphorically began to write our chapter of that story in March of 1990. I'm pretty sure it's going to end well.

As for the third member of the Triumvirate, he remains to this day a good friend and one of my favorite people on the planet. Through every major event of our lives, through weddings and births and funerals, he has been there. He was the best man in our wedding, and somewhere I have a snapshot of the three of us on that day: The Great Triumvirate still.

And not a dagger in sight.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

A Lapse in Logical Reasoning

Consider the following problem my 8-year-old 3rd-grader brought home for homework last night:

You need to fill a container with exactly 25 oz. of juice. You have a 16 oz. bottle and a 7 oz. cup. How can you use those containers to measure out the right amount of juice?

I imagine you had one of three reactions reading this:

1. You thought of the correct solution in under 5 seconds because you're brilliant like that (like my husband.)
2. You said to yourself, "Didn't they do this in one of the Die Hard movies?" (Also like my husband.)
3. Your brain got stuck between gears like a mountain bike being ridden by a 6-year-old, and it took a minute for the wheels to turn and everything to click into place and you got really sad because, after all, you did make an A in Calculus once upon a glorious time. (This was my reaction. Oh, brain. I miss you so.)

I did figure it out once I quit grinding gears, and I tried to explain it to the kid. With words. With drawings. With containers that actually held water. Eventually she did get it, but since her entire homework last night were what the writers of her text and workbook call "Logical Reasoning Problems" we had more like these to do and an hour and a half later, when all 8 problems were done, we were frustrated with school work, with math, with each other, and with existence in general.

I seriously doubt it's supposed to work this way.

I am all for my kid receiving an education that challenges her and pushes her to the best of her capabilities. This is one of the reasons why we are sending her to Catholic school. I am about one less Mass attendance a year away from becoming a non-practicing Catholic myself, so it's not really about the religion (though I treasured my faith as a kid and want her to, as well, even if I have times as an adult that my faith falters.) I work in public education and have seen some things in the elementary schools that I'm not crazy about. I don't want her education to be a cake-walk.

But I also don't want our life to revolve around my young child's homework, and I feel it has this year, so I am thisclose to being That Parent.

She has a teacher this year who believes homework is the answer to all ills. An hour is the average; two hours is not uncommon on weeks that book reports or special projects are due.

It's ridiculous and I am fresh out of patience and good humor.

The teachers who read this know what I mean when I talk about That Parent. That Parent emails and calls and complains that the teacher is assigning too much, grading too hard, not letting kids be kids because they have too much book-learnin' to do. That Parent not-so-secretly wonders if the teacher has any clue what he or she is doing in the classroom. That Parent is passive-aggressive at the least, plain old aggressive at the worst.

I don't want to be That Parent. But I don't want even one more hijacked night, where instead of getting exercise or reading for fun or running errands the kid and I are stuck at a desk near-tears for over 2 hours of homework.

Last night after we had murked through the math, she (I wrote "we" at first; goes to show you that this has become as much my homework as hers) had to write a pen-pal letter and study for a science test over the water cycle. She technically was supposed to study for a spelling and a religion test later in the week, too, but we drew the line. I thought it might be important that she, you know, EAT.

I've kept my mouth shut and my email-pen silent while I sat back and watched this year as she's brought "busy-work" home for homework; reading sections from the social studies or science book and answering the five questions at the end, practicing cursive o's 50 times, phonics worksheets. I didn't voice my concern at the vast Titanic project, in which she had to write both a short story (from the point of view of the iceberg) and a series of 5 journal entries from the point of view of an actual Titanic passenger, which meant research. (And because Ainsley has the storytelling gene, a whole weekend of writing because she wanted these entries to be epic.) I even have kept my mouth shut the past 2 weeks when, in her free time, she's been working on a series of 5 (!) mini-projects for Mr. Popper's Penguins involving writing a poem, a letter, a journal entry, creating a PowerPoint, and reading a picture book aloud to her class and showing them a Venn diagram of similarities and differences between two types of penguins.

I just don't know if I can keep that darn mouth of mine shut now.

When homework becomes work for the entire family, when the child doing it (who by all accounts is a perfectly bright student) can't do it on their own without help from Mom and intense frustration, when it means the kid doesn't get to play outside that day, and Mom doesn't get to go to her exercise class, when it keeps the kid from reading for fun (which I kinda think should be of the upmost importance in the primary years) or practicing piano or getting to bed on time, is it really doing what it's supposed to do? At what point has a mound of homework stopped reinforcing what was learned in the classroom?

I think we might just be there.

I know some of you are moms, and some are teachers, and some (God bless your hearts) are both. How much homework, in elementary school, is too much? And when do I unleash my inner That Parent?

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Scout: She Was a Good Cat

One of the best gifts we can give our pets is knowing when it's time to say goodbye.

Yesterday afternoon, we said goodbye to Scout. The timing was not terrific; Mom is still recovering from surgery and will come home now to an empty house. But Scout made it clear that she wasn't doing well and was ready to go in peace.

It might have been right, but it wasn't easy. I felt I owed it to her to be in the room with her as they gave her the shot, so after Jason and Ainsley petted her gently and said their goodbyes, I stayed behind to be the familiar and hopefully comforting hand that held her head as she left us. I had no idea it would happen so fast. I had no idea how unnatural it would all seem; she didn't suffer, but it still felt like murder.

Over and over as it was happening and when it was over, I gave her the best praise I could think of:

Scout, you were such a good cat.

Good cats can be hard to come by. I've known some who are too aloof and don't make their presence known in a house except to kill the occasional rodent and leave its remains in the most startling place possible. Some never quite get the whole litterbox thing down, some shred draperies, some bite and scratch and seem possessed by inner demons. But a good cat...that is truly a rare gift.

When Jason and I decided it was time to go from being a couple to being a family, we couldn't decide whether our first step should be a dog or a cat (talk of babies could only come after we had kept an animal alive for a while, we thought.) I lobbied for a feline, but Jason had never had a good cat and didn't realize that they could be more than cold, calculated shredding machines who decorate the front window and shed all over the couch and occasionally pee in the laundry basket.

My sister's neighbor took in a pregnant stray, and the kittens were born a month before we were to move back up to northern Kentucky from Lexington. It was a sign; these babies needed homes, we knew they were being handled daily to make them loving and accepting of humans, and my sister could just walk next door and stake our claim.

"I want one of the gray females," I told her.

"Done. Do you have a name picked out? They want to go ahead and start using her name."

That was a no-brainer. At that time, I wanted to name my first-born daughter Harper Lee after the author of my favorite book; it made sense to name our first pet after my favorite character.

"Scout. I want to name her Scout."

"That fits," my sister said. "She looks like a Scout."

From the beginning, Scout was one of those cats that a dog-lover can adore. As a young cat she played fetch with her little toy mice; we would wing one across the room, she would give chase and bring it back to us and drop it at our feet over and over again until we just gave up and hid the darn thing. As an adult she greeted us every day at the top of our stairs, so happy to have her people home, meowing and following us from room to room.

Aloof, she was not.

She never met a lap or a fleece blanket she didn't like. She knew when we were sick and parked herself at the crook of our knees, occasionally coming up to our faces to make sure we were still breathing. She killed spiders (even Shelob-sized ones from the basement) and tried to chase birds through the windows. She only got snippy and hissy in old age, and that only when she was cornered and/or being boxed up for the vet. With all the medical problems she had the last couple of years, and with all the poking and prodding she dealt with at the vet, I can't really say I blame her for fighting us and the carrier with all she had.

Not to say she was perfect. She did like to sharpen her claws on the edges of couches and she was incredibly shy around strangers. It took her a month to warm up to Mom when she left us to go live over there. She could make you crazy with her neediness once she got to know you; I can't tell you the number of nights she went up and down the hall wailing for us when we were in the same bed we'd been in every night for five years.

"Scout! We're back here!" we would holler. And here she'd come at the sound of our voices, running full-tilt-boogie down the hall and onto the bed where she purred and pawed as if she hadn't seen us for a decade or so.

She could drive you nuts trying to drink water from any tap you turned on, regardess of what you might be trying to be do with that water yourself or how badly you might not want her fuzzy butt in your shaving cream.

She had...shall we say, lots of personality.

We almost lost her several times: the electrocution behind the refrigerator, the allergic reaction to the stitches used when she got fixed, the fever and infection she got after a vaccination. Her immune system problems, her bowel problems, the diabetes caused by so many cortisone shots...every time I took her to the vet the last 2 years, I was afraid she wasn't coming back.

I'm glad she had those nine lives, because Scout gave us so much joy. My mom especially; though the living arrangement Scout's had the last few years was necessitated by Ainsley's asthma, it was really a blessing for Mom, who had such a lonely little house after Dad died. Mom needed Scout's company, and Scout grew to love her even more than she had loved us. It was ideal, really, that Scout grew old with Mom; they both favored long afternoon naps on fuzzy blankets and spending most days doing little more than getting a good back rub.

Scout's memory of me faded as the years with Mom passed; sometimes she would come out and greet me and let me rub her cheeks in our old accustomed way, but mostly she ran from me and hid under the bed. After all, I was the one who took her in for the steroid shots. Monday, though, when I checked on her and realized that she was not feeling well and not eating, she came out to meet me and wouldn't let me out of her sight. She purred and waited to be petted, her little body so thin and painfully bony from her illnesses, her once beautiful fur matted and uned for, her eyes sunken in from dehydration. We had thought of putting her down a couple of months ago, but when we looked in her eyes, it was still our Scout who was there. There was still life and light.

Monday, the light was beginning to fade and when my old friend and "furry baby" looked me in the eyes, I knew she was telling me it was time to let go.

She's gone, and we miss her. Mom's house felt so empty last night; my heart did, too. When we first adopted Scout, she made us a family. She gave me something to care for and worry about that was both bigger and smaller than myself. In return, we gave her two loving homes.

In the end, I hope they were enough.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Ma'am, I'm Going To Need You To Put Down the Marlbs And Back Away Slowly

We started our married lives, as so many do, with four healthy parents.

Well, healthy might not be so accurate given that we'd lose three of the four before we celebrated our 13th anniversary. But on the day we said our vows, all four parents were present and accounted for and were working, functional, productive, happy citizens of the land of the living.

Then we lost Steve to a sudden, massive heart attack. Cigarettes, and the blocked arteries they tend to cause, were certainly a contributing factor.

Then Dad died of bladder cancer, and the oncologist told us that bladder cancer, at least the subtype Dad had, is a smoker's cancer.

Our mothers tried to quit. Mom saw what Dad went through and gave it a good effort; alas, she failed.

Kathie began to have problems of her own and gave it a good effort; alas, she too failed.

We watched as Kathie fought with chronic lung disease caused by smoking and lost. We watched as my mom was diagnosed with both peripheral artery disease and coronary artery disease (smoking was given as a contributing factor) and had multiple angiograms and a stint placed.

"If she doesn't quit smoking," the surgeon who placed her stint told us way back in 2006, "I'll see her again in 5 years or so when the stint fails."

Five years later, he turned out to be right.

Until 2am Sunday morning, I would have bet money that my mom wasn't smoking anymore. She had too much to lose; she told me time and again, after hearing and seeing what Kathie went through, that she wanted more than anything to live to see Ainsley grow up and have children of her own. It made her sad that Kathie didn't even live long enough to see all of her own children marry and have children. Sometimes I smelled smoke on her clothes; I was assured it was from a smoky restaurant, or from visiting her boyfriend.

"Don't you trust me? If I were smoking, I'd tell you I was smoking," she'd say.

Turns out my mom is a brilliant liar.

That sounds more bitter than I mean for it to be. But when the sole surviving grandparent of your child gets taken into emergency surgery to repair a blockage that was supposed to have been repaired 5 years prior, and you find out that she confessed to the doctor that she's still smoking a few cigs a day, it stings a little bit.

"You have to understand," she told me yesterday, "that when we started smoking, no one knew how bad it was. It's so hard to quit something you've done for 50 years."

I can only imagine how hard it must be. I treasure my daily Coke and chocolate break; I like my Saturday night adult beverages.

But if I knew my consumption of those things, even in moderation, could kill me, I'd like to think I could do it. For Ainsley. For Jason. For the trip I want to take to England, for retiring in the mountains, for all the good books I want to read and movies I want to see and experiences I want to have in this world before I leave it for the next.

I'd like to think that. But I just don't know.

People try and fail everyday to quit smoking. It's a powerful addiction I will never understand.

Mom has assured me that this time, she's scared straight. She basically had a "leg attack"; for a few hours, her left leg had no blood flow and the pain and pressure were immense. She watched her foot turn blue and became unable to move it. It was, she said, the most scared she's ever been for herself and the most pain she's ever been in. Worse than childbirth, worse than her gall stones, worse than hernia surgery.

"We don't know that the cigarettes caused this," my sister said. "Mom inherited a lot of her heart and circulation problems from her mom, who never smoked a day in her life. Don't take it so personally that she's still smoking."

It's hard not to see it emotionally. All four of mine and Jason's parents were smokers; three of the four are gone, and gone too young. Some of the smokers I know stand by the assertion that cigarettes don't kill; for every smoking person who's died too young, there's a story of someone who smoked three packs a day and lived to be ninety and died in the throes of passion instead of hooked up to oxygen.

After Dad beat lung cancer and successfully quit smoking, years before he succumbed to bladder cancer, he sat outside at work one day eating a bolgna sandwich.

"Chuck, those things'll kill ya," a coworker told him. At the time, said coworker was taking his designated smoke break and chain-smoking half a pack of Marlboros.

Dad said he looked at him to see if he was joking; surely, a smoker wouldn't feel compelled to tell a processed-meat-eater that he was the one engaging in the risky behavior. He detected no irony, though, and told all of us the story.

"He's probably right," Dad said. "Something's going to get us all, eventually. I shouldn't judge him, and he shouldn't judge me."

I just can't stand the thought of losing our last parent to the same vice that played such a hand in the death of the other three. It seems preventable and senseless.

So, if you're one of the people I love who smokes, please, please, PLEASE put down the cigarettes.