Thursday, June 30, 2011

Pool Time

So today, we decided we were going swimming.  There are no pools really close, but there are three that aren't too far away.  At the Mt. Si Community Pool, an indoor pool, the staff is really sweet.  Last year, the boys took lessons there and high school kids taught them, nice high school kids.  We always see people we know at the Mt. Si Pool.  The building is large and made to look like a log cabin and has a great view across the soccer fields of it's namesake, Mt. Si.  The boys have to swim the length of the small pool to be allowed in the deep end.  This is good practice for them because they'll be going to Cub Scout camp in three weeks and need the practice.

We could also have gone to the Bellevue Aquatics Center, another indoor pool.  It has two pools, one warm and one cooler.  The warm pool is fairly shallow and small and is frequently used for physical therapy.  I think it's really good for the boys to see people who need some extra help, along with those with disabilities who manage quite well on their own.  The cooler pool is Olympic-sized and has a large and a small tube slide, a basketball hoop, and a large diving area.  The boys have to swim the length of the pool to be allowed to go off the diving boards.  They both want that privilege, so they're usually willing.  I don't know if you see the drift here, but I like them to be challenged as much as possible during the summer if they aren't taking lessons.  I figure that knowing how to swim is a necessity, like learning to read and do math.

The pool we went to today was the Mountlake Terrace Community Pool.  There wasn't a swim test, but I had them do as many laps as they could.  Adrian still had to be reminded to kick his feet and use his arms for the one length he completed.  He's only comfortable on his back and really needs another round of lessons.  Nick swam back and forth the length of the pool three times.  He likes the breast stroke and is very comfortable using the resting back stroke too.  He won't have any problems passing the swim test at Cub Scout camp.  I'm not sure Adrian will even try the test if we don't get more swim time in before then.  I'm hoping to go twice next week and once more before we leave for camp. 

The Mountlake Terrace Community Pool has a shallow toddler area with fountains and water toys that I wish I'd known about when Nickie was small.  It has a deeper section with lanes and during the recreational swim, they put long floating mats across it to run out on like a slip-and-slide.  There are lots of pool toys, balls, tubes, mats, and a basketball hoop.  There's also a separate area called the river that has a current and is about the size of an average hotel pool.  I like walking and swimming upstream in that one, but most of the kids are floating with the current, so I have to be careful.   They also have a Jacuzzi and a sauna.  The sauna felt great.  I love how the pores of my skin stretch open.  Also, there are no kids allowed in the sauna, so it's a way to get a relatively quiet moment.

In the Midwest, where I grew up, we never went to indoor pools to swim.  I kind of miss outdoor pools in the summer, but they're always overcrowded around here.  We went to one in Kirkland three years ago and the way they had it set up was that you waited in a long line, tried to swim for 45 minutes in an overcrowded pool, and then were dumped out to stand in a long line again for the next available 45 minute session.  The sunshine wasn't worth it for that.  With our cool wet weather ten months out of the year, there aren't many outdoor pools. Today, it's 66 degrees and drizzly.  We're not even thinking about going to the lake to swim yet.  The lakes here, usually being deep and fed by snow melt, are cold so we wait for the hot weather to set in before we go to one of the lakes.

Next week, it's supposed to get up to 76 degrees and I'm hoping that will feel warm enough to go to Wild Waves with their tube slides, wave pool, long lazy river, and great roller coaster.  I bought us season passes for the summer. If we go three times, we more than cover the cost of the passes.  Plus, there's a fun Haunted House on Halloween, so I know the passes will be worth it.  The boys are getting to the age that they want to be more independent and I can trust them to be on their own part of the time while we're there. 

I'm glad I decided to swim today instead of just watching the boys play or reading my book.  I'm a water bug at heart and I needed the exercise.

Thanks for listening, jb

Four Books at a Time

 I have to admit, I'm reading four books now.  It sounds crazy, but it isn't. 

I have a book that I'm reading to Nickie every other night when it's my turn to take him in to bed.  Mike and I have been reading to him at bedtime his whole life and he still loves it.  We don't want to stop and we don't like missing every other chapter either, so we each read our own books to him.  My husband has read most of the Narnia series and 'The Hobbit' to Nickie. Right now, he's reading 'Eragon'  by Christopher Paolini and as usual, I'm sad I'm not listening in. If I were there, I'd only be a distraction to sleep.  They both like 'Eragon.'  I am jealous of this author because he wrote the first draft of it when he was only fifteen.  This kind of jealousy is good for me.  I see I have work to do.  To the critics that say Paolini's work is derivative, I'd like to say that all work is derivative.  I know I'll read it when I get a chance.  Two recommendations in the family is good enough for me.

On my nights with Nick, I'm reading 'Magyk,' the first in the series of Septimus Heap books by Angie Sage. I like it well enough, but I don't like losing the perspective of the characters I really like as the story switches each chapter.  This does move the story forward and tells me information that a single character wouldn't know, but I don't like all of these people or seeing through their eyes.  There are bright spots, though, that keep it moving, like when Jenna realizes who she really is, the boggart in his mud, and Boy 412 as he begins to learn magyk.  So we're going on reading it. I also like how the story is evolving into a wizard version of WWII in which the witches and wizards are treated much like Jews were treated in 1940's Germany.

In my kitchen, I'm listening to 'Thereby Hangs a Tail' by Spencer Quinn.  I like this cheerful detective story because it's told from the perspective of a dog.  There are funny twists of language.  What the dog does with an idiom is hysterical.  Plus, I like that he has his doggy sense of being, aware of facial expressions, knowing a bad guy when he smells him, adoration for his man, and that distractedness around tennis balls, cats, and his favorite foods. I clean my kitchen while listening to audio books, and it is a tribute to this story that my kitchen is very nearly clean and I've seasoned my Dutch ovens and frying pans. I hate seasoning my cast iron, so you know this is a fun book.

I used to try to bring the kitchen book to the car to listen to while I ran my errands, but too often, I found that I'd forgotten to retrieve the current disk from the machine and was stuck with disks out of sequence. So I've been making my errands more fun by leaving a box of CDs in the car. Right now, I'm listening to 'Raven's Gate' by Anthony Horowitz. I've had trouble turning this story off, so Nick has gotten drawn into it despite the gory deaths, the summoned dogs and pterodactyls, and the teenaged fear of being trapped. I'm excited that this is the first book in a series and wish I had more errands to run tomorrow so that I could finish that last disk.

The only book I'm having trouble with is the one by my bedside. I'm reading 'Extra Lives' by Tom Bissell. He is really good at moving through a video game and telling what he's seeing and how it makes him feel. The problem I have with his book is not a problem, really. See, Mike has been asking me to read to him as he's trying to fall asleep. I've been reading to him from this book and, frankly, the language is beyond me. When I'm reading silently, it goes pretty well because I gather the meaning of those words through the context, but when I'm reading out loud, there are so many words I just can't pronounce. Even with someone who loves me and just might be asleep, this is embarrassing. I'm hanging in there, because I figure it's good for me to stretch. The book also discusses the shame that is laid upon people who love video games, the growth of the art form (yes, he argues that it is indeed an art), and best of all, he describes how a nonviolent man can enjoy engaging in such a seemingly violent outlet. Seeing as how I'm not really into video games but have two men in my household who are very interested, it makes sense for me to figure out this need. So, I would recommend this book to any mothers who battle with husbands about whether or not Billy should be allowed to play.

It should be confusing, reading all of these books at once, but it isn't. Occasionally, I back up a bit to see where I've been, but the story comes back to me. I figure that since I don't have much time to sit and watch television, I'm entitled to my vices, don't you think?

Thank you for listening, jb

A Bithday Party at Beaver Lake

Everyone is asleep. Seth just jumped onto the couch and just stood there until I put his blanket next to me. He's a funny cat but he knows how to ask for what he wants.

It was a beautiful sunny day here. I think it was in the low seventies with almost no humidity. Nick had been invited to a birthday party that Adrian hadn't been invited to. Since Adrian was over at the house for three hours, I figured he wouldn't mind running home just before we left. He kind of did. But then, his godmother asked if I could take him to the grocery store with me and to Tully's while she ran some errands. I didn't mind. Adrian likes Tully's because I always get him a foamy sweet drink smothered in whipped cream. During the school year, it's a great place to take the boys to do homework. Research says that if you vary where you study, you absorb more.

But here's the kind of day it was - we got to the party, held in a beautiful stone and wood pavilion at Beaver Lake in Sammamish and the boys took one look at Nick and Adrian and said "come on, want to be on my team?" I would have liked having Adrian with me at the coffee shop, but I spared him the grocery store which took longer than I thought, because I forgot my list. Then, I sat happily in the parking lot listening to my audio book, 'Raven's Gate.' I was almost to the end and I just had to know how it went.

When I got back to the park, the boys were happy and dirty and had eaten all kinds of junk. I missed watching them play and sitting by the lake, but I have all summer and the days are only getting warmer.

Thank you for listening, jb

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Mixing a Migraine with Boys

Migraine. Trying to be usefully anyway is hard.

I lost my blog from yesterday in the waiting room.  Stupid 'BlogWriter Lite' deleted it when I had to click my phone closed to get my blood drawn.  There was an older couple across the room from me and I watched as she read to him, one hand on his forearm, while he held his book loosely in his.  He wore a straw hat with an orange, green, and white, striped hatband.  He had on white socks with brown loafers.  His laugh lines were deep and he had patient eyes.  He reminded me of my Great Uncle Raymond, minus the cigar.  I loved my Great Uncle Raymond.

This is lame.  I wonder if I keep writing if I'll come up with something good.  I need a nap.  It's only 10:35 am and I got plenty of sleep last night.  I treated my migraine with my usual concoction, antihistamine, acetaminophen, ibuprofen, and caffeine.  It's sort of under control, but not quite.  I can still feel it lurking just under my skull, waiting for the time when I bend over and it can strike me deep in my brain with its lance.

Here's what happened.  Yesterday, I played with a rope while Mike showed the boys how to do a taut-line hitch and half hitches.  These are the knots he taught me to use when we tie the canoe onto the truck.  Good knots to know. Good memories of white water and a wet dog.  I kept playing with my length of rope while I watched the boys, in Laurel and Hardy fashion, put up a tarp as they pretended a storm was coming in and they still needed to cook.  They were hysterical.  I wish I had a video of them.  My rope was one of those with lots of fiber and a woody smell.  I could feel that I was a little bit allergic and would have been fine if I'd washed my hands when I was done, but I made the mistake of touching my face before we got home and waiting to wash my hands.  Then I got a welt on my cheek and started to wheeze.  Instead of taking a shower and antihistamine, I sat with Mike and Nick and hung out. Then, just before I went to sleep, Mike convinced me to take antihistamine.  Too late.  I woke at 4:07 am to one word.  Migraine.  There was nothing for it.  It was going to be a tough day even though I threw ibuprofen and acetaminophen onto it. 

I had some tea with caffeine, but now, Nick wants to go swimming at the Bellevue Aquatics Center.  Maybe we can go, but  I can't see it being easy.  We'd have to stop and get Adrian a new swim shirt since his mom said he won't swim without one and he outgrew his old one.  She won't be bothered to get him one until late August.  Plus, we need to buy Legos for a friend's birthday party tomorrow.  Swimming could have been an easy day of swirly water in my hair if not for that.  Boys in the toy section of Target is a miserable thing when they have no money to spend.  "Jake," I will tell them. "Just focus on what you want to get for Jake." They'll be begging for something they want and I have no fight in me.  Then we might get to the pool an hour after the session opens and we'll have to hurry out right when they close because Adrian has to spend a few minutes with his dad before he heads off to do karaoke.

I'm not doing very well here, am I? Sounding very crabby.  It's hard to blog when your brain is squishy and loose. 

Thanks for listening anyway, jb

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Eating Petunias

Sometimes when I'm hungry and eating right, I wonder if things around me are edible, like the petunias in the planter on the back deck and the tall weeds in my yard that look crunchy and juicy at the same time Well, I learned something today - petunias are edible, at least for giraffes. How do I know this? A docent at the Woodland Park Zoo took $5.00 from me and handed me a leafy branch and a petunia. After standing in a line for a half an hour, I got the honor of giving it to a giraffe.

He had the great long neck, huge eyes with long lashes, and a long black tongue. The docent said that it was thought that the tops of their tongues were black to prevent sunburn. Isn't that amazing? When the giraffe took the petunia, his tongue touched my little finger. The docent also told me that they pick their noses with their tongues. Great, I got goobered by a giraffe.

I've been to this zoo many times with my boy. I had always gone with the same moms and run the same circuit. Today, we went with my niece and her boyfriend, real aficionados of the zoo.

It's great going with experts to do what they love. My favorite baseball game was one we had gone to with a true fan. My favorite trip to the art museum was to see a Van Gogh exhibit with a friend who majored in art history in college. So the zoo was lots of fun with my niece who has signed up to become a docent. She looked so happy there. She even pointed out the mating flamingos.

I had never known that you could feed the giraffes at the zoo. I didn't mind the extra cost. I like doing new things, even if it means getting goobered by a giraffe.

Thank you for listening, jb

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Out And About With a Boy Near Seattle

Buddy, our cuddly kitty, wanted us to stay home today. He'd like some couch time, some extra snacks, and a massage behind the ears. He's a good cat, but those aren't good activities for a boy on summer break.

Here's what we did this week:

The Seattle area has some great biking trails. When we have a longer day, I want to pedal the Burke-Gillman Trail along the West side of Lake Washington. We only had an afternoon, so we biked from Marymoor Park up the Slough Trail. There was a Subway right at the park for a snack when we were done. I had a Italian BMT salad.

Biking was popular this week, so we went out to Tolt MacDonald Park in Carnation the next day. Nick's friend, Cole, and his mom, Susan, met us there. She didn't have a bike, so Nick, Mike, and Cole biked. Mike said that they biked under the bridge at the Tolt River, met with the Snoqualmie River Trail and went North through Carnation. That trail goes all the way up to Duvall, another ride for a longer day. That ride would deserve a picnic. Susan and I took a brisk walk along the same trail. She's in better condition than I am, so I got a workout trying to keep up.

Yesterday, it was raining in the morning, so Nick and Adrian debated the merits of jumping at Sky High or going swimming at the Bellevue Aquatics Center. Sky High won so I signed them up for an hour of trampoline time. I took an hour too. The teenagers there aren't too pleased to see the old lady blocking their leaps, but I love it. I can still jump, but I keep it simple. I don't do any tricks.

We have a long list of things to do that include mentally mapping our bike routes and how they fit together. We plan to go to the Woodland Park Zoo tomorrow and the Aquarium next week. There are biology lessons for us. We have season passes to Wild Waves. Wave pools and looping rides are all about physics if you look at them. I'll ask Nick the question, "Why don't you fall out when the ride goes upside down?" We will hike, finding geocaches, swim at as many of the lakes as we can. We'll look for rocks at the river. We might even go see if Nick has grown tall enough yet to drive his own go-cart. Every boys wants to learn good driving skills. This summer, I'd like to go up in a float plane. I also want to go to Friday Harbor for whale watching too.

It's going to be a very educational summer in the Pacific Northwest!

Thank you for listening, jb

Friday, June 24, 2011

Blowing Up the Stump, Epilogue

So I though you ought to know, after all that stuff about my dad's careful calculations with the dynamite, that there is an ending to this story. 

By now, you probably know that my dad died of colon cancer when I was thirteen.  He'd been struggling with his disease for almost two years.  When I was eleven, the whole family went into a different mode of living.  We did only what we needed to do.  It was a miracle that I still got to the library and piano lessons.  All home improvements stopped.  My brother mowed the lawn and we still maintained the weeds.  But you should know that my dad didn't have any extra energy for projects around the house.  Oh, he tried to go to work, but sometimes they brought him home early. 

The dynamite he had hidden was forgotten. About eight years after my dad died, my brother decided to help my mom out by cleaning out the garage. My dad had never been the neatest person, though he always knew where he had last put something.  My mom just wanted to find basic tools. I heard about this cleaning and clearing when I came home from college before my brother headed off to a new job out West.

My brother found that dynamite, seven and a half sticks of it, all sweaty and expired, in a wooden box labeled 'DYNAMITE.'  It had been hidden under the work bench. My brother and I had sharpened knives on a stone there, soldered parts back together there, and generally chopped, sawed, and nailed stuff back together there.  We hadn't thought a bit about any banging or showers of sparks or vibrations.  Sometimes being oblivious is a blessing.

So, that day when my brother was cleaning my mother's garage, he had to call the police department.  They called the bomb squad.  When they arrived, they evacuated the entire street.  Men with Kevlar shields took the expired, sweaty dynamite wherever you take such things in a small town.  I wouldn't be surprised if it went back to the munitions depot.

They left behind the box labeled 'DYNAMITE.'   Somehow, I ended up with the box.  I love that box.  I put dried flowers in it.

Thank you for listening, jb

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Blowing Up the Stump, Part 3

So, I told you that my dad brought home expired dynamite from work.  Well now, forty three years later, I'm not absolutely sure that's where it came from, but Daddy was an electronics engineer for the Navy.  Hey, it was a munitions depot, so is so surprising that it could produce the only dynamite I've ever seen in my fifty one years? Well, Daddy also got a blasters handbook.  For more than a week, he sat at the dining room table figuring out how much was the right amount of dynamite he needed to blow up that old stump in the back yard.  It was like he had dynamite and this was the perfect excuse for him to use it.  There he sat, with that little book, a slide rule, a mechanical pencil and a pad of graph paper.  Where do you pick up a copy of a blaster's handbook anyway? I don't really need to know because I inherited that handbook after my dad died.  I was the one who went to engineering school, so my mother gave me all of his books.  That's my favorite book in his collection. But where did he get it? Really!  It's not like you could order it from Amazon. 

Wait, I just searched on Amazon and believe it or not, you can buy a number of different editions of The Blaster's Handbook from them!  Way to go Amazon!  Still, the Internet wasn't around back then, so I'm not sure where he got it.

Daddy wanted to talk out this problem of the dynamite and the stump.  I know he talked to his carpool buddies because they magically showed up for three weekend mornings before the event and came early to our back yard on the designated day.  But when Daddy was really working on a problem, he talked about it a lot, so he talked about it even to me.  Maybe my mother was worried enough about this project that she asked him questions. I don't know.  Maybe he was just talking out loud and I happened to be there, interested enough in dynamite to listen to what he was saying.  I'll give him this - I never saw the dynamite before the day he blew up that stump.  I have no idea where he hid it and I wasn't about to go looking.

After filling pages of graph paper with calculations I didn't understand, he announced that either a half a stick or a quarter stick would be the right amount.  I wasn't sure why he didn't go right to a third of a stick, but then I hadn't learned about calculating maximums and minimums at the age of nine.  I must have asked him which, assuming he'd made some kind of error if he didn't know more clearly than that.  It made me nervous.  At eight, I wanted a man to know exactly how much dynamite was needed for a job that was going to blow near my house.  If he didn't do it right, I imagined the back wall of the house could collapse and all the windows in the neighborhood could blow out.  I had seen the movies.

Finally, my dad convinced us all that he knew how much dynamite he needed to do the job.  He had eight sticks of it.  Then, he started another part of the job that made me a little more nervous.  He decided to calculate how many pieces of that half of a stick of dynamite would blow the stump into chunks and how to wire it together to blow all at once.  Here, I imagined that perfectly placed dynamite pieces would simultaneously blow and the stump would cascade down in a confetti of sawdust that was easy to rake up and throw on the compost heap.  And while we were at it, maybe a shower of sparks should hang in the sky shaped like a chrysanthemum. 

The part that made me nervous was how Daddy was going to cut, break, tear, or file that half stick of dynamite into three pieces without it going off in our garage.  I had seen enough episodes of 'Road Runner' to know what could happen if my dad was the coyote instead of the road runner.   After the tree got him in the leg, I was thinking he might be the coyote.

I think my mom got tired of making coffee and serving cake to Jim, Sam, Rudy and my dad as they worked out how to wire that dynamite.  I was personally glad to see them all there, glad they each agreed with my dad's calculations.  I could see how you could make a colossal mistake using a slide rule.  (Hey, did you know I'm old enough that they hadn't invented calculators when I was eight?)  It helped that my dad told me how they had different engineers performing what he called 'redundant calculations.'  I liked that part, imagining the confetti coming down again.  I also liked that these men didn't tell me to go away and leave them to their games. 

"Oh, this is going to be good," Rudy said, rubbing the back of his head.  I thought it might be better if we could hold it in his back yard instead of ours, but I liked the confidence in his voice.

"Really good," said Jim, grinning.  I wanted to tell Jim I didn't want it to be really good.  Really good could be too big and my room was at the back of the house. 

"I think we're ready," my dad said.  It was like they were planning to shoot off a rocket to the moon.  This is how they worked.  Did I tell you how they engineered our upright piano down the stairs and into the basement?  Another time, maybe.

So there we were, in the backyard again. It was a hot Saturday afternoon.  There was iced tea, Kool-Aid, and oatmeal cookies this time. The whole neighborhood had turned out.  I would guess there were about thirty-five people standing mostly in Jim's back yard staring at that stump.  Daddy wouldn't let anyone but his three buddies near the stump.  They dug down around it and drilled three wide holes in the stump on opposite sides.  They wired the red hunks of dynamite and dropped them into the holes.  They connected the wires to a long wire that Daddy strung almost all the way across the yard to the edge of Jim's yard.  Daddy shouted for the kids to move back further onto Jim's yard.  Some of them hid behind trees and peeked out from behind them.  I stood as close behind my dad as he would let me.  I could see the little switch, a shiny metal lever.  That was it?  No plunger?

My brother did the countdown.  He had wanted to throw the switch, but my dad said he was going to be responsible for whatever was going to happen.  What do you mean whatever was going to happen?  Ten, nine, eight ....

I could feel a tickling deep in my stomach. 

Seven, six, five, four ...

Oh, I wanted this to work. I held my hands over my ears and braced myself.

Three, two, one, and, click.

I took a half a breath before it blew.  It was louder than the firecrackers the town set off for the Fourth of July.  One loud crack.  It worked!  That stump flew fifteen or twenty feet straight up into the air.  It seemed to hang there for a half a second, then it fell in one huge piece back into the hole it blew out of. 

Maybe Daddy should have used a whole stick.

Thank you for listening, jb

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Blowing Up the Stump, Part 2

So, about three weeks later, after my dad's bruise had turned funny shades of yellow and green, he decided it was time to get rid of that stump from the tulip poplar in the back yard.  Now, working at  a Navy base had its perks in 1968.  I'm sure that now they're more careful about expired and extra supplies, but back then, they periodically gave away what they didn't want.  There were some really cool things that came home from the base's surplus equipment days- a used artillery shell that stood about 3 1/2 feet high that sounded like a cannon when you put a fire cracker into it, a cargo parachute that floated cargo that was about my size, and dynamite!  Well, to tell you the truth, I'm not really sure if the dynamite came from the base or from somewhere else, like the Farm Bureau, but Daddy started figuring what to do with his dynamite.  He spent a lot of time figuring. 

You know, I really want to tell you about the time we used that cargo parachute on a windy day.  We'd gone down to my grandparents' house on a windy spring day.  My mom made me wear long pants because it wasn't warm enough for my usual tank top, shorts, and flip flops.  Daddy had the idea that we could fly that parachute like a kite.  Oh, and we did.  We really did.

Daddy's parents lived in bottom land further South in Indiana than where we lived.  There weren't as many trees or hills there and it was a great place for flying our kites.  Usually, we made our own kites out of newspaper and balsa wood.  If I made a kite for that day, I don't remember.  If I did, it is probably up there still, plowed under and turned to dirt.

We'd walked out behind Grandma's house, past the fairgrounds and up to the top of the Indian mound that was about a quarter of a mile away.  Long ago, archaeologists had discovered the long mound, retrieved all the artifacts from it that they wanted, and abandoned the site.  My grandpa had a great arrowhead collection.  I even have an arrowhead from searching around up there after they'd plowed the fields in spring.  The Native Americans were long gone, except what was in our blood.  My grandpa used to tell us how his grandmother was a full-blooded Cherokee.  There was a picture of a woman that Grandma showed me and my sister has shown me where she is on the family tree.  I always wondered if the arrowheads were Cherokee, but I doubt it.  Southern Indiana was Shawnee country and the Cherokees were from further South and East in Tennessee.
On that windy day, it was still too cold and wet for the farmers to have plowed and there were rows of stubbly corn stalks about six inches tall.  I was glad I hadn't worn flip flops since the corn rows were hard to walk on and the furrows between were still muddy.  Daddy got the parachute out of it's canvas pouch and let it billow open in the wind.  It was beautiful, like a hot-air balloon, only white.  I waited for my turn, knowing that saying anything wouldn't put me further ahead in the line.  Even Grandma wanted a turn to hold onto that parachute, her red and white dress billowing up a little, mirroring the chute.  She held it with one hand and held the other at her side holding her dress down.  It seemed like my dad went according to age, oldest to youngest.  It was going to take forever. I started to kick clods of dirt until my mother grabbed me by the elbow and told me not to get dirty.  My mom could walk through a pig sty and come out white on the other side. I, on the other hand, could walk through a clean room and get a black stripe across my shirt.  It was a gift she didn't appreciate in me.  I'm not sure I do either.

Finally, the afternoon threatened to end, the sun was low in the horizon, my shoes caked in mud, and my jeans had a brown hem.  Daddy turned to me and asked if I wanted a turn.  You didn't have to ask me twice.  I took the line, grinned, and hoped for a gust of wind. 

Boy, I got one.  That first second I had hold of the parachute, it bucked in my hands. I held on like a pro, but I ran forward with it trying to relieve some of the pressure of holding it.  Then I made my nearly-fatal mistake.  I jumped up with the joy of it. 

The parachute saw it's opportunity, picked me up and flew!

I went way higher than I would have jumped out of a tree.  Then I landed, not too hard, but not on my feet and I was dragged along a row of corn stubble.  It hurt, but I held on.  Did I tell you that by that age, about eight, I'd been water-skiing for three years and the main thing you had to do was to stay upright and hang on.  So I hung on.

The parachute lifted me up to standing and I jumped again.  I knew I'd never get a chance to feel this weightless again.  I took great long leaps, ten, maybe fifteen feet at a stride.  I was like one of the astronauts on the moon, taking one giant leap. 

"Let go!" Daddy screamed well behind me.  I didn't want to let go.  I wanted to fly like the barn swallows that swooped for bugs in the evening air.  I dropped and touched my toes onto the ground but was popped right back up again. 

"Let go!" Daddy's voice was even further behind me.  I looked back and could see him running.  They were all running.  I really didn't want to lose that parachute.  This was great!

"Let go!   I could barely hear him, but this time I could hear fear in Daddy's voice.  Fear.  That was a new one.   I let go, hoping our parachute wasn't gone forever.  It billowed and rolled, but losing its ballast, it lost lift and came down in some raspberry brambles at the North end of the mound.  I layed there in the mud, covered in scratches and let them examine me for damage.  I was fine.  I had flown.

After that, Daddy always tied the parachute, on a windy day, to a tree.

Thank you for listening, jb

Monday, June 20, 2011

Blowing Up the Stump, Part 1

Did I ever tell you the story about blowing up the stump?  It feels like I told that story a million times.  See, when I was about ten, there was a tree that got struck by lightening in our back yard. Chunks of it had been thrown across the clearing and there were jagged lines of dead grass around it.  It was a big tulip poplar next to our sand box, about fifteen inches in diameter, but at least thirty where it widened out at grass level. 

Now, sometimes cutting down a tree isn't a straightforward process even for an electrical engineer.  Tree guys can figure out stresses, weights, and cut angles when dropping a tree, but my dad saw a tree with just two branches and no nearby obstacles except our ancient swing set. Besides, my dad liked to do things himself. Some time I should tell you about the grand patio that he built out of pieces of hand-chipped limestone. Oh, that thing was a marvel.  Another time, though.

As usual, my dad gathered his carpool buddies to talk about the problem.  Now, his carpool buddies were all engineers except Phil, who was a forester.  Phil was out sailing that day.  Jim, who lived next door, was a mechanical engineer.  His daughters were my best friends and were there for all of these engineering festivities.  Sam, was an older guy, an electronics technician who always stood with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth while he talked.  His daughter was too much older, prettier, and cooler to be seen at one of these shin digs.  Rudy was also an electrical engineer. His little boy, Timmy, was only three but he could read already.  There were a half a dozen other kids in the yard and at least four moms.

My mom made a pitcher of iced tea and another of Koolaid and handed it out to everybody. It was a hot summer day and the glasses and Dixie cups were sweating before she got them off the tray.  Then, she stood to one side and gossiped with the neighborhood moms about anything but that tree. All we needed was some sparklers and a hot dog and it would have felt like the Fourth of July.

Eventually, they were done talking and my brother was volunteered to climb up the tree and tie a rope around each of the two main branches.  One branch went almost straight up and the other bent out at an angle.  Each was about eight inches in diameter.  Proving his manhood, my brother climbed the extension ladder as high as he could, shimmied up the trunk and a ways up each branch, tied them with ropes that had been looped through his belt loops, and came back down without falling.  The rest of us kids were conscribed to pull on the rope as a branch was cut.  This was supposed to apply pressure above the cut and bring the branch down in the open space in the back yard in case it had the inclination to fall in a different direction.  That sounded fun. With our red Kool-Aid moustaches and flip flops, we started pulling on the rope right away in the hopes that our combined strength would prove hardier than the branch.  It didn't.

Then my dad fired up the chain saw.  The moms walked around to the other side of the yard with their iced teas so they could hear to talk, only one eye among them on the festivities in case someone got hurt.  My dad moved his extension ladder to the back of the tree and climbed to the third rung.  He cut half way through the bent branch from the top. Then he got the blade pinched by cutting from the bottom. He wrangled with the chainsaw.  We pulled extra hard on the rope, tightening the pinched blade even more.  Sam told us to swing around to the right a bit, the blade came out, and my dad revved it up again. 

Just then, there was a loud crack and the branch came down before we could swing back around to the clearing.  As the rope slackened, I ran as hard as I could away from the tree.  Small branches and leaves lashed at my face and shoulders.  All of us kids except my brother ended up flat on the ground under all those little branches.  The moms took one group step forward, but stopped as we all stood up.  We had some small cuts, but nothing we'd go to our moms for. 

For the second cut, Jim climbed the ladder with the chain saw. Still enthusiastic, we leaned into the second rope.  His cut seemed easier since it was the straighter of the two branches. Two quick angled cuts and the branch was free and Jim quickly climbed down the ladder.  Here, time seemed to slow down and the branch balanced on the stump as we gawked.  But then, it twisted around in a surprising direction. I could feel myself being lifted off the ground as the body of leaves above the branch headed for Phil's yard instead of ours.

"Let go of the rope!" my dad yelled.  I got a good leap out of it, but not like the time my dad brought home a cargo parachute from work and we took it out in a stiff wind.  The moms came running as they saw their children flying off the ground.  It was great!

For just a moment, the severed branch still balanced on the main stump, but suddenly, its base shot toward the clearing as the rest of it fell in the other direction.  We scattered, but not fast enough.  That branch caught my dad square in the thigh.  He looked down at his leg, jumped back too late, but was never knocked down.  Instantly, he had a bright purple bruise that was the width of the branch, almost as wide as his own leg.  I could tell it hurt, but after a bit, he said, "It's not broken."  And he grinned.

My dad watched his friends finish off the stump from a lawn chair with a bag of ice on his bruise.  They cut some nice rounds for the fireplace, but they just couldn't seem to cut that stump at grass level.  The blade was too short and the angle too awkward. 

"The mower is never going to make it across that," I heard my dad tell my mom quietly.  "We're going to have to take out that stump."  Ah, I thought, we're going to have another engineering festival soon.

Thank you for listening, jb

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Going to Our Street Festival, Twice

So today, I took the boys, Nick and Adrian, to the local street festival. They marched in the parade in their Scout uniforms and helped the older Scouts with keeping the street clean. For that, they will earn a small badge and they were both willing and cheerful about it. After that, we walked around, they spent the hot cash that was burning a hole in their pockets, we ate, and we talked to friends. My favorite part is seeing friends while theirs is the chance to spend all the money they might have. It's always junk, the stuff they come home with, except for last year when a one guy was turning wands on a lathe and selling them for a reasonable price. Those wands were beautiful. He didn't have a booth this year, so we were back to junk.

Usually, I love the street fair, but this time, my heart wasn't in it. Mike stayed at home to get some rest if not actual sleep. I found myself telling my better friends and some of Mike's how hard the last few weeks have been with this sleepless illness of his. I cried when one friend was especially sympathetic. Usually, I'm in my chatty glory, glad to see all the community gathered and having a good time. Even other times when it rained, I wanted to stay to the end and help people take down tents. There are food booths and crafts, but my church is always there giving away bubbles and bottles of water. The historical society hangs a bunch of old photos and sells their books. I'll volunteer there some day. I love those old photos. The food pantry collects donations and cans of food. They support more than sixty families a week. My favorite librarians are usually handing out fliers for the summer reading program, and the Humane Society often brings a few dogs to get adopted. And don't forget that there are great junky toys to be had for an easy price.  It's a nice celebration.

But early on, I wanted to go home, to see how Mike had done.  The boys had spent their money and were starting to bicker, so we left at two, long before the tents were supposed to come down and the road open to traffic again.  When we got home, Mike had done a load of dishes and was picking up in the den.  He was glad to see us, he said, and was trying to burn up some nervous energy. 

"Hey hon," he said, "would you mind if we went over to the festival for just a little bit?"

"Sure," I said, sighing silently. "If you get out and walk a little, it might help you sleep tonight." We tumbled back into the car and went.  Mike bought more junky toys for the tired kids and was ready to come home within twenty minutes.

Thank you for listening, jb

Friday, June 17, 2011

Learning to Sing a Sine Wave

Remember that I told you that my dad liked to talk to me about his work? I wonder how it feels to be so passionate about engineering and to have no one at home to talk to about it except a nine-year-old girl. I know my dad wanted my brother to work on electronics with him, but my brother had no interest in it, absolutely none. My brother wanted to be outside. The two of them had a real connection when it came to camping and getting along outdoors, but my dad had a real sadness that my brother didn't like engineering.  I remember thinking, "But what about me? I'm here."

Back then, girls just weren't encouraged to show an interest in engineering. I know it's changed a little, but just a little. I didn't really love building things the way my dad did.  I just wanted to know how they worked.  Daddy got that and boy, did he explain. 

One Saturday afternoon, I went downstairs to tell my dad that lunch was ready. He was in his den.  I couldn't imagine how he liked being down there.  It was a corner room of the basement. The floors were bare concrete, the kind that could chill my legs to the knees in the summer. The walls were bare concrete too, painted white. There was only one small high window on the East wall and Daddy had a pull-chain bulb in the middle of the room to work by.  That meant that if he wasn't in there, I had to creep through the dark with one arm waving in front of me to try to feel the chain. Oh, that room was scary. I had to pass the furnace to get there and the furnace made noises that sounded like it was alive even though it was a big blue metal box. I used to imagine that my dad had captured the basement monsters and held them prisoner in there.

But my dad loved being in his den.  If it was fixed up, then other people would have liked being in there too and he wouldn't have been able to do so many neat things or sit and think which he always seemed to be doing when I came in.  So that afternoon, when I walked in, my dad was fiddling around with an oscilloscope.  I loved the little green waves on the screen and touched it almost afraid that he'd tell me to stop. My dad got a sparkle in his eyes.

"Do you want to see your voice?" he asked.

"How can I see my voice?" I asked looking past my nose and wiggling my lips. My dad laughed.

"Not your face, the sound waves," he said. I always thought of Grandpa Bill's blue boat when I thought of waves.  I thought my dad must be joking with me about these waves. "Real sound," he said. He walked deeper into his den and came back with some wires, clips, and other stuff. He started connecting them to the oscilloscope.

"Okay," I said, doubtfully. I stood and watched as he played with the oscilloscope's knobs, explaining what he was doing as he went. I had no idea what he meant when he said something about the 'frequency range of the human voice' and he said something else about 'hurts.'  Now, I know that the word is 'Hertz,' the measurement for frequency. I saw some lines on the screen. That was neat. He popped his big finger on the top of a cheap microphone, probably from the tape recorder my brother had that didn't work any more. After he adjusted a few more knobs, I could see lines on the screen every time he did that. Cool!

Then, he handed me the microphone and said, "Sing!"

Oh my God, I could see my own voice.  Then my dad started talking faster, about a sine waves and frequency. He said that if I made my voice very simple, I could sing a sine wave.  It took some figuring out, but I did it. Then he told me to sing higher and I could see the lines had closer humps. When I sang lower, there were fewer humps.  The really funny thing was that it was such a great line on the oscilloscope, I thought that had to be my best singing, but it wasn't.  It was strangely flat sounding.  When I went back to my nice voice, my dad got all excited again.

"Look! There are your overtones!"

I didn't get it about overtones until much later either, but I saw them, little tight spikes in the waves like a heartbeat. My dad moved the wave up and down on the screen, talking about voltage.  I just kept singing and singing into that cheap microphone as my dad adjusted the wave, showing me things. We both loved it.

"Hey, didn't I send you down here to ask your dad about lunch?" I heard my mom say from outside the den.  Play time was over.  We had to go eat.

So, once in a while, when no one is listening because it really doesn't sound pretty, I'll sing a sine wave. It's for my dad if his soul is out there listening. It's for me.

Thank you for listening, jb 

Thursday, June 16, 2011


So, I'm sorry about the cistern piece.  It was really lame and crabby.  It's been hard to be funny, even to write about anything that isn't happening right now. Yet, I've been avoiding this subject, the one that's really important to me. See, Mike's been having trouble sleeping. At the doctor the other day, I realized that he can name the day, so now I can name it. He's had trouble since April 20th, when he started taking an antibiotic called azithromax. He thinks there could be a link. The doctors went right over that one, but there are plenty of comments about it on the Internet. Now, when I say Mike's having trouble sleeping, I'm not talking about sleeping five or six hours and slogging to work sleepy. I'm talking about not being able to sleep more than an hour without help from a prescription. And now we have prescriptions in the house that make me nervous to leave laying around.

Mike isn't napping either. Most people who have insomnia can sometimes nap during the day to catch up a little. Long-term sleep deprivation can result in depression, hallucinations, lowered immune system, and even, in extreme situations, death. This doesn't even include the fact that your decision-making abilities are altered with sleep deprivation.  Remember that warning not to use dangerous machinery while using certain drugs that affect your ability to make decisions?  A car can be dangerous machinery.  So these days, I'm just happy when Mike gets home from work.

By now, Mike has three doctors for this problem, an endocrinologist, a sleep specialist, and a psychiatrist. And he's a changed man. I can't tell you how disturbing that is.  I don't mind taking up the slack with things that need to be done, but the quiet shuffle of his feet and the way his pants hang slack on his backside bothers me. He doesn't know the answers to questions and he has lost a lot of his sparkle, including that snarky sense of humor that used to drive me nuts. I miss that sense of humor. He has very little appetite.  I miss the way he enjoyed the food I made for him, too. He has been extra affectionate, but I think that's just because he really doesn't feel well and he needs me. Many nights, I've slept in the recliner as he's lying on the couch when he can't sleep. It makes him feel better that I'm there with him, even though I'm asleep. I wonder if I'd wake up if he was in trouble. It's a problem that's a lot like what I have when Nickie is having trouble breathing.

Nickie has been worrying about him too.  Mike hasn't had the enthusiasm with Nickie or the energy to do what they usually do together.  Last night, Nickie couldn't get to sleep because he told me that he'd had a bad thought. He said that he had started to think about what would happen to him if something bad happened to one of us. 'Well, Nickie,' I wanted to say, 'something is happening. No wonder you're worried.'  I didn't. I just listened for a minute longer as he talked.  Yeah, I actually managed to listen to him instead of talking myself. Amazing. Then I told him that we were doing okay so far and trying to get help for his dad's problem.  I couldn't tell him that there was nothing to worry about. I can't lie to Nickie that way.  Instead, I sat in the chair in Nick's room as he fell asleep and read my favorite blogs. Have you read the sweet blog by Nat the Fat Rat?

So here's what Mike has done to get help. He started with his regular doctor who did no tests and put him on Ambien.  He treated it as a classic case of insomnia and said that Mike's blood tests from last year were fine, so ....  Somehow, this doctor missed the fact that Mike was sleeping last year when the blood tests were taken. Mike tried the Ambien, but he said he felt like it was just masking his symptoms. He slept for about five or six hours a night for a couple of weeks until the Ambien abruptly stopped working. Kaput. Nothing.

So then, I managed to get him an appointment with an endocrinologists who didn't require a referral. This doctor really got going, bless her. She took eight vials of blood in a fasting blood draw, scheduled an ultrasound to check his gall bladder and liver, and scheduled a sleep study.  She said that problems with the liver can sometimes show up as an inability to sleep.  Thankfully, his ultrasound was fine, no liver or gall bladder issues, and his blood work only showed three things: an elevation of LDL cholesterol, the bad one, (no surprise considering Mike's diet), an elevation of cortisol, explaining the lack of sleep, and an elevation of ACTH, a hormone released by the pituitary gland. She told him that the ACTH causes release of cortisol and is usually related to stress.  So she prescribed Lorazapam and Effexor and referred him to a psychiatrist. She also said that if it wasn't stress, the problem could be a pituitary tumor. Now, that's going to make it hard to calm down. I think my ACTH levels are rising.  Still, I'm glad she was honest with him. 

So Mike came home that night and whispered with me in the kitchen while Nickie did his reading. Mike didn't want Nickie to hear the word tumor. I didn't want to hear the word tumor either. I swear, the weeks before any test regarding a tumor are the worst. In my mind, I've been through the whole process before it's happened.  You might remember that when I was just a little older than Nick, this same process started with my dad, ending in the worst possible way, except that for my dad, it was colon cancer and not anything near the brain. The test for the pituitary tumor has a glitch: anxiety can cause a false-positive. So they need to get Mike as calm as possible before they do the test. Right. Calm.

The problem with the Effexor the doctor prescribed was that it got Mike going instead of slowing him down. He had jolts of adrenaline, was jittery, and didn't sleep all night.  That was an awful Sunday night.  The next day, Mike wasn't able to do ordinary things like remember where to put dishes away when unloading the dishwasher.  So then, we went to see the sleep doctor. He told Mike that he didn't want to change what the endocrinologist told him to take, but that the Effexor can sometimes have the opposite effect on a person and it looked that way for Mike.  He was thorough. I give him that. So, he prescribed Trazodone, a drug that is supposed to help with sleep and anxiety.  That night after taking the new drug, Mike's heart rate went up to 112 and he got a really awful case of dizziness.  Those were two of the four symptoms the drug notes said to seek medical help for, so we called over the neighbor to hang out with Nickie as he slept.  She came quickly and we got to the ER in no time. I kept telling myself to calm down and make rational decisions regarding driving. By the time we got there, the symptoms had subsided, so Mike wouldn't go in. He was embarrassed. Oh, poor guy. I tried to talk him into going, but he just wouldn't, so we went home. After 48 hours, the side-effects of the Trazodone finally went away, but we missed the first night of weekend camping with the Cub Scouts.

Mike spent the next couple of nights on Lorazapam.  In the mornings, he almost looked rested and he functioned much better during the days. I asked him why they wouldn't let him stay on that and he said that it has real dependency issues and withdrawal usually includes anxiety that is much worse than what it was prescribed to treat. Shoot!

On Monday, Mike called his endocrinologist and she changed him to Citalopram for anxiety and Lunesta for sleep. The Lunesta has allowed him four to five hours a sleep in the night, but he's still waking up a lot.  Yesterday, Mike visited the psychiatrist who, he said, was kind and thorough.  He wants to monitor how Mike's doing on the Citalopram and send him to a psychologist for talk therapy and to learn some relaxation techniques.  I believe that anyone can benefit from talk therapy, so I hope Mike goes.  I'd much rather him have issues with anxiety than a tumor.

Last night was Mike's first night on the Citalopram. At first, he sweated profusely. It was an annoying symptom, but not a deal-breaker. Then Mike said he felt weird, as if he had eaten something that was going to make him sick. His stomach was irritated and he felt weak. He had more anxiety too. I'm wondering if all of this extra anxiety is made worse trying to find a single drug that doesn't have wicked and debilitating side-effects. This morning, he said it was still with him and he felt as though he had to talk his way through what he needed to do next.  He's going to call his doctor again. Citalopram may not be the answer either, but the doctor may want him to stick with it for a few more days to see if it evens out. What Mike has to decide is if the side-effects are worth the benefit it offers. We have yet to see any benefits to the anti-anxiety drugs.

In all of this, it feels like Mike's body has become a stew pot into which the doctor's can throw different chemicals to see what happens next.  Is any of it helping? I don't know. Mike is getting about four to six hours of interrupted sleep a night on most nights. That's an improvement, but not enough to live on long term. I'm really hoping his sleep study next week reveals something that we can work with.

I'm really hoping that one of these drugs starts to help Mike without disrupting his life with its side-effects. I'm hoping that the doctors stay curious about his problem. There's no doctor better than one who is curious. I'm hoping that the therapist can teach Mike some useful techniques for relaxing and let him talk out his issues. And I'd love to see Mike napping on the couch.

Please keep my dear Mike in your hearts and thank you for listening, jb

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Problem with Filling the Cistern

I'm standing in the neighborhood pump house waiting for the cistern to fill. The wet cement smell is making my nose itch, but the cranky boy in the house is more difficult to bear. He missed the bus, didn't finish the homework he needed to do, and is nervous about talking to his teacher about it. I'm not just avoiding his crankiness. The shut-off valve to our thousand gallon cistern broke and we're periodically filling it then shutting it off before it overflows. I have to go pick up the new one on Wednesday morning when it comes in.

We have lived in this house for twenty years now. My least favorite thing about my house and neighborhood is the community well. No, that's not true. My least favorite thing about living here is human nature. See, we used to divide the work and cost of taking care of the well. When we first lived here, the other neighbors took care of billing us, paying the power bill, and maintaining the system. We were oblivious. Then, the main pump quit and we all met to discuss what to do. Together, while sitting in our living room with cheese and crackers on the coffee table, we decided to divide the work. That seemed fair. So Mike and I took responsibility for billing until it was time to rotate again. We also decided, as a group, that each family should pay fifteen dollars a month until we had a monetary buffer of fifteen hundred dollars for when something failed. That way, a family didn't have to face an unexpected cost of three or four hundred dollars if a line broke or a pump died. The money would be in the account.

Either Mike or I sent out monthly bills for ten years. Seldom, did more than half of the neighbors pay the bill. It bothered me since the county wanted to take over the system, and everyone fought it because that would more than double our costs.  If one of our neighbors had decided not to pay the county, I'm sure they would have turned their water off, but they knew we wouldn't do that to them. I also took a sample of the water to be tested every six months. It wasn't a hard job, but it involved bleach and lots of calls when the water failed the test. We figured out that the tests only failed when it had been raining a lot and leaf mold seeped down into the well. I could smell it. It smelled like autumn leaves. The people at the testing company said we were all probably used to the leaf mold by now, but we decided to get a water cooler for our house anyway. I love my water cooler. It was funny that when we first got it, it made me feel truly wealthy. It wasn't that expensive and suddenly we all drank water instead of something else. That's a healthy choice. Nickie was only three then and he called it 'glug glug.' He still asks for water more often than juice or soda.

Eventually, I got aggravated enough that people didn't pay and convinced another neighbor to take over the job of billing. She sent out bills regularly for three months then quit. After four years of no one contributing, the account was emptied and the power company threatened her that they were going to turn the power off. No power. No pump. No water. In the meantime, there were people who had moved into the neighborhood and moved out again and never once paid for water.  Now that really yanked my chain. See, there's that human nature.

Last Sunday, Adrian's mom called saying the water was off and my responsible husband, Mike, took care of it. She was having a party. Mike and I were invited to the party, but Mike was going to be busy for the next hour or two.  Another of our neighbors, Clive, came down to try to help, but Mike gently shooed him off. Clive likes to try to do stuff to the pump, but he thinks he's better at mechanical things than he really is and Mike has to fix almost all of what Clive fixes. Mike is always the one that people call when the water goes off or turns brown. I get aggravated that everyone assumes that he should be responsible, as if he has nothing else important to do and they can spend his time however they want. We have another neighbor, Bill, who is good at that kind of work, but he and his wife aren't friendly neighbors. I brought a pie and a hooded towel set over when they had their baby, and his wife only opened the door a few inches to talk through it to me. She took the gifts though. No one calls Bill when the water goes out.

My parents were wrong when they taught me that people should be fair and I'm still paying the price for having that ingrained into my psyche. I get really irritated when people don't even try.  Remember, I said I hate human nature? I try not to let any of the neighbors know how irritated I get when they call at dinner time or 11:30 pm, but Mike knows. If they are on the phone, I try to sound pleasant. Clive got it into his head to call Mike every time he bought a new appliance and wanted to save the twenty bucks, the cost of having the delivery guys haul it off. And he used to expect us to take care of their cats on a moments notice when they went away on vacation. Clive never asks, just tells me to send Todd up the hill. He never thanks us and it pisses me off. So, there's that human nature again.

Even though it's our water too, I'm too resentful to go help the neighbors by filling the cistern. They don't deserve it. Still, I am willing to help Mike. Mike is a good guy. He's worth helping and he's had a really hard time lately, so I freely help him. And maybe that's human nature too.

Thank you for listening, jb

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Camping in a Lawn Chair

Tonight, I'm going to sleep in a lawn chair inside a bivy inside a sleeping bag under the stars. I love sleeping this way. The lawn chair keeps my old back from aching and the bivy is like a one-man tent with no poles and keeps the dew, light rain, and mosquitos out. I still get to breathe fresh air and look up at the stars in the middle of the night. I miss being in with Mike, but it's worth it. Nick is in with Adrian and his parents in a two-room tent. We are camping with about nine Cub Scouts and their families on an island in Puget Sound. People have brought sisters, brothers, two dogs, and one puppy.

Dinner was great. It's amazing how good hamburgers and hot dogs taste outside. They even had salads! Mike spent all afternoon making peach cobbler and pumpkin-pie cake in Dutch ovens over the camp fire. I only had a bite of each, but they were delicious.

We had a great campfire too. Mike, usually a quiet guy, gets up at Scouting events and tells stories, leads songs, and encourages the boys to do skits. They are usually really bad, but the boys love doing it and we always seem to laugh at the right time. The favorites usually involve rolling in the dirt and making gross sounds.

I'm going to tuck in now.

Good night and thanks for listening, jb

Hopefully Humane Uses for Dry Ice

I have to confess something. It felt right. It felt wrong. I don't know which feeling to trust. Maybe it's only accurate to say I must feel both at the same time.

I just killed my son's hamster.

She had a tumor that had grown out of control. It had grown into the makings of a horror movie, a large fleshy mass at her side. If she had a mean bone in her body, she would have been scary, but she was so very sweet. My friend Kris wanted me to do something last week. I wanted to bring her to the vet, but it got past that. I didn't want to hear the question, 'Why did you wait so long?' even in my own head. Tuffcake was struggling, to move, to eat. Two days ago, I gave her a lettuce leaf and she took it with some enthusiasm.  Tonight, I gave her an asparagus flower, one of her favorites, and she held it for a moment then dropped it.

This was a completely premeditated killing. I woke up this morning knowing that I was going to do something. Anything. One Sunday when I was just twenty, my cat came home with a baby rabbit that she had caught. Somehow, she'd peeled most of the skin off of this poor thing. She was proud of herself. I was in tears. Before I could chicken out, I grabbed a large rock and smashed the bunny's skull.  It twitched and was dead. It was awful. I cried all the way to church and well into the services. I'm sure it hurt that bunny a lot even though it was quick. I thought about getting a big rock for Tuffcake, but I knew I couldn't do it that way again.

I looked it up on the Internet. Did you know that if you google 'humane small pet euthanasia' it shows you how you can set it up using vinegar and baking soda to make carbon dioxide? I remembered that in the movie Apollo 13, they had an excess of carbon dioxide building up in the lunar module and the engineers had to use parts the astronauts would have on board to design a square plug to go into a round hole for the filter they had up there. 

I switched my evil plan to dry ice and added melancholy music because I understood how to use dry ice and I felt that Tuffcake deserved the higher quality that dry ice and good music would bring to her services. I set up the dry ice to go into a bowl with water, covered it with saran wrap, and then I taped a bundle of flexible straws into the edge.  This is the part where I started feeling how creepy the whole thing was. Then I retrieved an extra large bottle that had contained olive oil from the recycling bin. I cut it in half and made it so I could fit it back together. I thought that Tuffcake might like the smell of the bottle. She liked trying different flavors, avocado, kitty kibble, olives, kale, chard, strawberries, cherries, unsalted peanuts in their shell. I hoped she'd like the olive oil smell, but I cleaned it out anyway and dried it well. Being desert creatures, hamsters don't like being wet. Then I filled it with tiny fabric scraps from my quilting basket. I put in sesame treats, yogurt treats, peanuts, a green bean, a carrot, and the other end of the asparagus. I knew she wouldn't eat any of it, but I hoped the smell might make her happy, well, happier. I pulled out a bottle of vinegar and a box of baking soda in case I ran out of dry ice.

I handed Tuffcake the asparagus before I picked her up. I figured it might hurt to touch her, but she just sniffed my fingers. She always seemed comforted by being picked up except the one time Mike tried to pick her up with vinyl gloves on because he was trying to clean her house and she bit him. Mike was really sweet with me today despite the rift that bite had made between him and Tuffcake. I cried in the morning when I told him about my plan and he held me. I cried after we got back with the dry ice and he hugged me some more. I cried again when Mike took Nickie into bed and read to him even though it was my night to read from our book. I cried as I wrapped Tuffcake in pink and green ovals I'd once thought I'd make into a wedding ring quilt. I knew I'd never find a better use for those pieces. I wanted Tuffcake to be wrapped in something nice, not just scraps.

Just then, Nickie got up to go find an action figure he wanted and he asked Mike to get him a drink of water. There I was, running into the laundry room and hiding with Tuffcake wrapped in those quilt pieces, snot threatening to run down my nose, and nothing to say if he caught me. Thankfully, Nick didn't look at the setup I had going on in the living room in too much detail. I stayed quiet.  I had half a thought to bring Tuffcake to Nick for a little petting, but I really didn't want him to make any connections between her and that contraption. Mike herded Nick back into his bedroom and I prepared myself for another killing.

I put Tuffcake down into the bottle. She was so sick, she didn't even try to get out. She just sat quietly while I got the lid put on and the straw bundle jammed down into the neck of the bottle. Then I peeled back the saran wrap and dumped in all the dry ice, hoping it was enough.  The worst part of the whole thing was when she squeaked and tried to get her nose out to the edge where I had cut the bottle in half. The bottle didn't go back together as tightly as I'd like because of the grips on the sides. Oh, she squeaked. Four times, she squeaked before she settled down. It took five minutes before she stopped moving, but I wasn't convinced yet, so I waited. And I waited some more.

I'm glad about the music I put on because Nickie got up again, this time to go to the bathroom. The dry ice was still bubbling and despite the music, he wanted to know what that noise was. I wasn't about to leave and I gave Mike those 'please help me keep my boy from seeing this' eyes. By that time, Tuffcake hadn't moved in about twenty minutes. Oh, it was almost as awful as those four little squeaks, to hear Nickie chatting to Mike through the bathroom door. He wanted me to write that silly thing about the puppies:

C M Puppies. (Here you say the letters and it sounds like 'See 'em puppies.')
M R N Puppies.
O S M R Puppies.
C M P N?

There are things that make a killing surreal.  Reciting kid jokes, even scrambling for a piece of paper to write it down, all the while hoping that your poor anesthetized hamster didn't wake up while you were absent, is one of them.  I really wanted to have a proper ceremony, but the contraption and trying to hide it all from Nick make it strange, even creepy. It was hard to try and sound normal while he chatted with me through the door too. I just wanted to be standing there to block the view into the living room.

It sounds strange, even to me, to go to such lengths to shield Nick from all of this.  Nickie and I held his last hamster on our laps when she died of old age four years ago. The only thing wrong with the picture then was that we watched television while it happened. Nick knows death in a small way, but I didn't want him to see Tuffcake die, especially this way, especially with the hideous tumor trying to take over her tiny body, especially in a strange contraption that looked an awful lot like the experiments we did when we got dry ice for something. Nick liked doing experiments with dry ice. Throwing a hamster into the mix wasn't a part of that schooling.

Mike finally got Nick to sleep, the dry ice was fizzling out, an hour had passed, and Tuffcake hadn't moved. We decided to tell Nick that Tuffcake had died in the morning. I wrapped Tuffcake in more fabric and put her into a cardboard box so I could bury her in the morning. Prayers and services will follow the burial. After I was finished, I sent a text to my friend, Kris.

"I just killed Nick's hamster. Dry ice has sinister and hopefully humane purposes I'd never imagined."

Her reply came quickly.

"Ohhhhhhh. I'm glad you found a good solution. Sweet dreams Tuffcake."

Yes, sweet dreams Tuffcake. I'm sure there are asparagus flowers in hamster heaven.

Thank you for listening, jb

Saturday, June 4, 2011

We're Going Biking

It's sunny and 68 degrees. We're in the truck and headed to Alki to bike on the trail. Since it's one of the first sunny days, a weekend day no less, everyone and her brother will be out too. I don't care. We're going to bike in the sun at the edge of the Puget Sound. Maybe it'll be low tide and we can see starfish and sea anemones. We have Rainier cherries and carrots and some other snacks. When we get hungry, we'll stop at Spuds for fish and chips! I love Spuds. I wish we had time to take the water taxi to the Seattle waterfront, but the summer is young. Adrian is coming over for a sleepover with Nick and we're going to roast hot dogs and marshmallows in the fire pit. My house is a mess, but life is too good to hang around at home and clean.

Thanks for listening, jb

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Sleeping in a Covered Wagon

I am sleeping in a covered wagon in woods with two ten year old girls. One girl was scared and the other wasn't, but said she wished that her mom had come, that she was trying to be more grown up. I told Sara, the one who was afraid, to tuck into the quilt I'd made, close her eyes, breathe deeply, and name the people who love her. That's what I do with Nick when he can't sleep. Their teachers are talking quietly in the wagon next to ours. It's a comforting sort of sound. Tree frogs are singing. They almost sound like crickets, but it's a fuller sound and a little more sing-song. I can hear horses and an occasional car on the road.

I'll be able to sleep after spending the day helping twenty-nine kids in groups of six cut potatos, carrots, and potatoes for stew, apples and crumbles for apple crisp, and dough for fry bread. The kids were so proud that they made most of the meal and I was happy that no one cut themselves. Some of them had never held a knife. I was glad that Nicky knew just what he was doing with the knife.

He's in an open-air cabin. It has a roof, but it feels fresh and a little dewy already. I hope he can sleep. I hope the dad who is with him is kind if he can't. Most if the men here are kind, but there was one that I was glad didn't end up being in a cabin with Nick. His boy is rough and bullies the other kids. Dads usually have a lot to do with that.

I'm going to sleep now. I brought all of my pillows. I should be comfortable and warm in my sleeping bag.

Good night and thanks for listening, jb

Going to Pioneer Camp

I'm just about to leave for Pioneer Camp with my boy.  I can't wait, but he's not happy. He says he's going to miss his dad, his cat, and the television. I think he'll have a great time once he gets there. We're supposed to imagine that we're traveling by wagon train across the country before it was settled. I'm going to be working with the kids to cook. We're having jerky, beans, stew, buffalo burgers (made out of real buffalo), pancakes, and bacon. I packed a bag with some salad, fruit, and just a little chocolate. I'm going to be sleeping in a cabin shaped like a wagon with four girls. I figure if any of them has trouble in the night, I can slip them a square of chocolate and it will help.  It's like the way the professor gave Harry Potter chocolate after the dementors tried to suck his soul out of him.  I've embraced that since I read it and it's just supported all that much more since I learned that chocolate helps to release endorphins in your brain.

I'm almost in camp mode. I like being outside. It makes me feel better. I sometimes wish I had an outdoor kitchen and shower for when the weather is warm enough. Our camp this weekend is going to be cold and wet. It'll get down to 50 degrees tonight and no higher than 56 degrees today and tomorrow. Welcome to the Pacific Northwest. I'll be living in my layers with the long red Goretex jacket Mike bought for me a couple of years ago.  When he gave it to me, I told him that if I'm ever lost in the woods, they'll be able to see me via satellite. Ha! Never buy your child a green rain jacket. Red. Orange. Those are good colors for people who might get lost in the woods.

So, I've got to go. Wish me luck. I think we'll all have some fun, but you never know with camping. Since we aren't far from home, I won't worry about being stuck there.

Thank you for listening, jb