These Cats Have Character

November 11, 2018

 

My Dad was a fan of items — ornaments, decorations and tchotchkes– that he described as having “character”.  If I brought home art from school, the highest compliment would be when he looked at something and determined it had character. Out in the world,  he would have a certain amused and admiring tone as he picked up whatever thing had caught his eye, said, “now this X has character.” I am sure he bought these honeycomb cats for their character.

My dad had a respect and care for objects that– with all love to my husband– I can say I don’t see much in my current life where even expensive electronic items are flung about and the disposable nature of anything inexpensive is emphasized in how it is treated.

I have this very distinct memory of my father sitting at our dining room table, carefully sliding the decorations out of their envelopes, and assembling them  with a precise  gentleness. Which is probably why, so many years later, they are in remarkably good repair.

 

How many years, exactly?

label

Something else my father did was put dates on things, as if he knew that one day someone would become nostalgic and wonder. It’s hard to say — does this look like 1980…or 1960? Do the colors look like funky 60s colors, or neon 80s colors? The 1980s  would coincide with my childhood. But doesn’t it look like 1960? In which case he would have bought them during his first marriage, and a decade later packed and carried them into his new life, and eventually his second marriage. That’s a lot of years and travel for these little black cats.

 

Eclipse, August 21, 2017

August 21, 2017

5:40 AM
I open my eyes and squint at my glow watch in the dark. 5:40 am. No Paul in the bed. I make my way downstairs to where he sits on the couch with his laptop.
“Are you and Mom ready?”
“No. Getting ready was supposed to happen after you wake us up when there’s a plan.”
“There’s a plan.”
“I’ll wake her up. Where are we going?”
“Kentucky.”

Our original plan, to depart the previous day for Columbia, Mo, was thwarted when the weather forecast shifted to mostly cloudy.
“And they’re saying maybe a thunderstorm” said cousin Jan on the phone, morose.

Carbondale, IL was also mostly cloudy. For a while Benton, KY, a mere two hours away from my mom’s house in Terre Haute, was a contender, until it also succumbed to a forecast of partly cloudy.
“So where, exactly?” I ask, as we assemble food–egg salad sandwiches, bottles of water and cookies–for the car.
“Hopkinsville. It should be mostly sunny, and the Waze says it’s a three-hour drive.”

Yes, we are chasing the eclipse.

8:30 AM
There were concerns that the traffic would be impenetrable, that the gas stations might run out of gas, but except for a stretch of single lane traffic near some bridges under repair, the traffic flows, plus, we realize midway there, Hopkinsville is on Central time, so instead of arriving after nine, we’re in town by 8:30.

Handmade signs advertising $20 and $30 parking in people’s yards dot the road into town, but as early birds, we get a free parking spot on the curb just a couple blocks from downtown. There are just the beginnings of a crowd. Pedestrians emerging from hotels around town, others arriving by car and marveling at their parking luck. A line of people gathers at the 6th Street Café, which I assume is a breakfast spot. According to news reports, 25,000 people are coming for the eclipse, and the town has been celebrating through the weekend,with live music, food trucks and eclipse swag. But these festivities ended on Sunday, so although we see many eclipse-themed T-shirts, we see none for sale. The trucks with ice-cream, tacos and the like are not yet open, although the lemonade truck is doing brisk business already.

With the temperature rising, we wonder what we might do for the four hours until the celestial moment. The public library looks like a good prospect—especially since I have write a pitch that will be due soon after our return. (As Paul likes to say of our freelance life, “it isn’t a vacation if there’s not a deadline at the end of it.”) But approaching the front door, we see a sign saying the library is closed for the day.

I wander behind the building, and see a small valley with trees that looks cool and shady. It’s a trail that is part of the the town’s greenway. My mother and I take the path,  which turns out to follow a slightly stagnant creek, and emerge at the end into a park that boasts some play equipment, a picnic area with three tables and a view to the street and a Sherwin-Williams Paints. It seems less-discovered than some other places, and there’s  a place to sit, so we decide to settle in.

11:00 AM
We’re sitting at a picnic table under a shelter. Next to me, my mom reads a book. Across from us, Paul plays on his new ipad. On the table, some potato chips and egg salad sandwiches, and, fluttering in the light breeze in a way that is slightly concerning, our cardboard solar glasses. I’ve got my laptop open, with hopes that the right words for my pitch will magically flow from my fingers, but I’m distracted, not unpleasantly, by the world of here and now.

The tables around us are occupied by a Spanish speaking family who I judge to be from Spain. Have they come all this way for the eclipse? Behind us is a very talkative teen. Non-stop talkative. He’s talking about how he purchased the biggest snow cone from one of the trucks. I can’t help but turn a sneak a look. It is large and every color of the rainbow. The pineapple section is sweeter than he’d expected, he notes, striking up a conversation with a couple perched on a cement barrier nearby. We had offered to share our table with the couple when they arrived, but they’d declined, perhaps wanting to avoid conversation. If that’s the case, their strategy has backfired. Where are they from, the teen asks. Indiana? He’s from Louisville, but he lived for a few years in Indiana. It was a fine place, in terms of the buildings, but over-strict laws. In elementary school his parents had spanked him—not abusive, he wants them to know, just the kind of discipline that was normal in Kentucky. But at school he’d told his teachers, who flipped out and started a year of oversight with a social worker before life could go back to normal, he said. The couple nods politely at this disclosure, and makes an excuse to relocate to a bench across the park.

A lone man comes and asks if it’s okay to sit at our table. We say of course. He is the first Asian man I’ve seen in the town beside my husband. I wonder if it’s coincidence that he would choose to sit next to my husband.

We debate our plans for the next couple hours. Should we stay in the park for the big moment, which is scheduled for 1:23pm? I lean toward this, liking the idea of viewing the event in a leisurely manner from the grassy field. Paul is of the opinion that we should make our way to the car before the eclipse, so that the moment after the moment of totality we can beat the rush to the highway back home. We leave it undecided.

11:55 AM
This is the official start time of the eclipse, and everyone looks through their glasses at the sun—a glowing sphere that through an E15 filter looks like a glowing moon. The change in shape is not yet apparent. The moment of totality is almost 90 minutes away. Glasses come down, but the chatter gets louder and more animated. The Spaniards talking in Spanish, the talkative teen reciting every European and Slavic country where his various relatives are from.

12:10 AM
“It’s there in the upper left corner!” someone says.

I step out from under the roof, and look up through my glasses into the sky. It’s black. Black. Through the glasses, I can’t see anything but the sun. I finally get my head turned in the right direction, And there it is,—a bright sphere with an circular corner obscured. Exactly what you would think one spherical object moving in front of another would look like.

We finalize our plan. Paul decrees we shall stay at the park until 12:45, and then spend the last 40 minutes of the event near the car. And if it gets too hot, we can get in and turn on the air-conditioning.

12:20 PM
Paul sees a bug crawling on his bag. It is pale, has pincers and is the size of a small ant.

“Scorpion!” he cries. He shakes it off his bag and announces that the time to retreat to the car has been moved to now.

We make our way back along Main Street. On our right, we pass various government buildings and churches, their parking lots full of cars, their lawns full of people with chairs, blankets and canopies. It’s like a pre-football tailgate. Across the street, in a residential yard, we hear the gulp of a speaker being plugged in, and then, loud enough to provide party for the whole block, Rick James’ “Mary Jane,” begins to play.

12:40 PM
We’re back at the car. The sun in the sky looks almost, but not quite, like a crescent moon. The proportion and arc of line aren’t quite right. It’s more like if a Pac Man had a curvy mouth instead of straight angles.

We cross the street to the county clerks office.  Paul and mom sit on a bench in the sun, while I, always deferring to my paleness, retreat under the awning into the shade

1:00 PM
Although there are no shadows, the sun feels less bright. I can join my family on the bench. There’s a faint cool breeze. I look up through my glasses: The sun is a quarter full. It now definitely looks like the moon –but like a moon in a children’s book, its corners a little more acute and C-shaped than the moon we see in the sky.

Small clusters of people walk past away from the main crowd. Maybe they’ve had our same idea of avoiding the crowds, or maybe they are locals who have realized that the sky is visible from anywhere in town.

A tall lanky man arrives crosses the intersection toward the crowd.

“Oh yeah,” says Paul, “I’d forgotten that Kentucky is an open carry state.”

For a moment I look in the guy’s hand for a beer then realize that Paul is referring to the large handgun nestled in the holster on the man’s hip. He’s wearing dark jeans and an oxford cloth shirt. No uniform. No jacket. It’s jarring to see the gun on a civilian walking toward a large crowd of people.

A group of teenagers approach, carrying the inflatable air loungers. They set up on the brick walkway next to us, lying back and gazing upward in a way I’m too paranoid to do. There’ve been enough rumors of fake glasses and news stories about waking up partially blind that I limit myself to quick glances, even through my glasses. I wish I had their seeming peace of mind and lack of worry about the future.

1:20 PM
The breeze kicks up and the sky darkens, like before a summer storm. The streetlights start to come up, activated by the false dusk. Above us, the sun is a sliver in the sky.

1:23 PM
In the distance and the nearness, whoops and screams. I let myself watch the whole transition as the light becomes a line, then a shorter line and then a dot. And then—nothing. I remove my glasses and look up. A circle with a white fiery ring around it.

Around us, the world is not as dark as I’d expected, partly because the streetlights and the large LED screen blinking through the windows of a bar across the street. The horizon is purplish. I take more glances at the orb in the sky. I’m not sure how long its been. I put my glasses back on and wait until on the opposite side of the sphere a spot of light appears, then a line. The sun is coming back. The world around us seems a different color than it was before. Pinker? But not pinker. Yellower maybe. Warmer.

1:26 PM
“Ready to go?” asks Paul.
I am taking notes, trying to make a memory.
“Seems like you could do that in the car”

That’s what I do, trying to get the details down before they are gone.

1:39 PM
In the car, we’ve already turned north onto the Pennyrile Parkway out of Hopkinsville. In a few hours, I will read the Facebook statuses of drivers trapped in the bottleneck and Paul will be vindicated. For now, the traffic is slow but moving, we’re headed home. I crane my neck to look out the sunroof. The sun is a 1/8th crescent. Removing my glasses to look out the car window, the world looks normal, like any other day when a thin cloud passes in front of the sun.

The List is Long but Not Insurmountable

This past Memorial Day, I did not feel like BBQ’ing. Instead I was struck with the idea that I should tackle a task that has been on my To-Do list for nigh on five years: transferring a dozen VHS tapes to a digital format so that the tapes could be discarded.

This entailed purchasing a converter box and accompanying software, borrowing a PC computer (the software doesn’t work on a Mac) and a working VCR.  There was a false start about three years ago when the VCR only played with a time-code window that couldn’t be turned off without the remote, which we did not have… The computer returned to its owner and I lost momentum… for about three more years. But the power of list is strong, and a vaguely guilty sense of obligation can push when passion does not, so for the last week I have returned to the cause.

 

The recording process entailed watching much of the content on the tapes — which ranged from boring-to-watch, to embarrassing to emotional. My mom looks like my sister. My brother has more hair. My father was alive. But everyone was also so… them. So exactly the people I know that it kind of stabs you in the heart.

I, too, sound the same and look like a younger version of myself, which is… I don’t know. I think without any evidence to the contrary, one can begin to think that one has progressed from some mild stupidity in youth to wisdom–but the person I see on screen doesn’t seem to be in need of any great advice that I might now possess…

One tape is a “video portrait” I did for my first ever video class.  I interviewed a friend for the portrait. In the interview, he says “I have lists for everything–you can ask me my favorite songs, movies, television shows, friends–anything. I probably have a list for it.” This was true — he was (and remains) someone who has always amazed me with his ability to categorize and rank his preferences for all sorts of things.

I, on other hand, do not have those kinds of lists.  I’ve taken part in a dozen writing workshops where we are asked to introduce ourselves and mention out favorite books or writers. Despite having experience that has taught me this will be the first question, I often come up blank.  I despair as password authentication questions trend away from the factual: “What is your mother’s maiden name,” toward the subjective: Who was your favorite teacher?” I don’t have a favorite song or a list of favorite songs…

I do, however, have a list of things that at some point I thought would be good to do and have become part of mental To-Do List that keeps turning up in my brain like that pair of florescent sunglasses you bought at a gas station a decade ago on the way to the beach and now keeps reappearing under the car seat.

I don’t know how many items are on to-do list, or which items are at the top.  But today, the list is one item shorter. Small victory.

 

I Saw a Fish Poop

The other night we ate at a restaurant that has a tropical fish tank.

I had a good view of the fish over the shoulders of my dining companions, and I noticed that one of the fish had a small, rectangular protrusion from it’s “belly” region.  For a moment I wasn’t sure. “Is that a belly button. a phallus, or poop?”

They turned to look and both affirmed, “It’s poop.”

Huh.  I would have guessed that it would emerge from a different place. Shows what I know about fish anatomy. Nothing:fish-pooping-sketch

In my own defense, our pet when I was a kid was a dog.

At our table, we all watched, transfixed, waiting for the small brown cylinder to separate from the body of the fish. After a few moments it did, launching then wafting gently down, down… and getting caught in a plastic green frond.

The poop-caught-in-a-frond situation was both unexpected and disconcerting.  We waited for it to resolve itself. The frond swayed softly; at any moment it seemed it would dislodge its burden and the poop would continue its journey into the pebbles at the bottom of the tank, but this didn’t happen.  Instead, the poop remained, clinging to its position: img_3291

Would it ever fall?

Presumably yes, it did, but we didn’t see, because our food came, and we forgot to watch.

And we were  also distracted–per usual– by Paul.

It delights me that after years of marriage, I still learn new information about my husband. This delight is mitigated by the fact that some aspect of the new information is often horrifying. This night I learned that as children Paul and his brother did have fish as pets. Huh, I never knew that–interesting!

And then there’s the turn…

From somewhere, the boys had inherited a fish tank. It was a tropical fish tank, complete with little heater at the bottom.  Unfortunately, Paul and his brother — seemingly operating without parental oversight — didn’t realize that goldfish are not tropical fish, so their goldfish lived with a  perpetual low-grade fever.

The boys also knew little about chlorine and other water quality issues, so their fishes’ eyes exploded or fell from their sockets. Usually just one eye, but in one case both eyes –memorable to Paul because he could see all the way through the fish’s head. Each day after school, the brothers would come home to see whether their fish still had eyes, and/or if they had survived the day. Often, they had not.

Fortunately for the boys’ morale (but unfortunately for every fish who crossed their path) there was a fish store nearby, and goldfish only cost a dollar. He estimates the number of fish who lived briefly in their horror-tank to be “over twenty, but under fifty.”

After Life

Someone I know from my place of work died recently.  He’d had an interesting life: He’d served in the military then done well in academia. He married four times and had a number of children. As the person who processed his expense reports, I can say that in very recent years he spent months at a time in England and Italy, and that he ate well–like I imagine Henry the 8th would have dined if he’d had a per diem. His receipts reported spirits with every meal, and things like Shepherds Pie and quail.

For almost a year, the gentleman was ill and seldom visited our offices. The few times he came in, he seemed mostly peeved at his condition, which was revealing itself to be one with finite outcome. Upon his death, it has been his second wife, with the help of two various sons who has emerged to handle his large library, items in his office and the number of bills that he received to his work mailbox. When the mail began to transition and be address to “Executor of the Estate,” I called to confirm that this was she. This was when she revealed to me that there was, as of yet, no formal executor–because there was no will!

I found this both surprising, and I guess, not.  On one hand, he had fair warning.  On the other, maybe he figured that after he was gone, it didn’t really matter.  Maybe he’d had conversations and things were pretty much worked out in ways one can’t see from a distance.

But as the person opening doors, filing paperwork and procuring boxes for family members trying to work their way through the rooms full of books, papers, thoughts and ongoing business that one man accrues in a life, I could only be struck by how little anyone seemed to be prepared for this eventuality. And really, the choice not to make a will, even given a good six month lead time, seems somewhat self-involved and presuming–qualities some might have discerned in him even before his death.

My father had a will, but it has still taken my mother years to go through the myriad of things left behind. She continues to go through things, purging and storing and making decisions largely, I think, so that we–their children–won’t have to. Although it is hopefully decade away still, she is putting thought into things so that her possession and affairs will be as easily dealt with as possible.  Basically she is the opposite of presuming when it comes to such matters.

But the other night as I was thinking about this, I thought: What about my end of the bargain? An obituary seems the very least one could do in such a situation, and I realized I wasn’t sure what my mother’s parents’ names were, or even where she was born! Since I was using a Southwest voucher and making an impromptu trip to Indiana, I decided it was time to do for real something I have been promising to do for a couple of years–try to ask the questions that in the future I will wish that I had asked.  And this time, instead of assuming that I could come up with some good questions, I consulted the internet, something like “How to Interview a Family Member,” and of course, because it’s the internet, found several articles on taking a Family History, here and here and here.  A lot of the questions are similar. I ended up with a double space list of three pages, and after dinner this evening, turned on the recorder, and we had Part I of a very interesting conversation!