Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Autumn Leaves are Falling

For many people, the onset of fall is nothing but a reminder of the headlong rush towards winter, but I love this time of year.  Of course, that’s easy for me to say; I live in a part of the world where the temperature rarely goes below 40 degrees and snow is something we see from a distance.  As we drive clear, sun drenched streets, we can look towards the east where there are a couple of isolated mountains of enough elevation that their peaks are occasionally dusted with snow during the winter months.  It’s a cause for great excitement and considerable comment, as well as spontaneous “drives to the snow” to bring back snowballs, carefully preserved in coolers, for a seconds-long snowball fight or the general pranking of one’s friends.  Not for us the rapidly plummeting temperatures, the leafless, rattling tree branches, the desertion by hummingbirds and butterflies, or the retrieval from storage of ice scrapers and snow shovels.. 

In high school, my favorite English teacher once broke my heart when she groaned in an agonized tone, “I hate autumn.  It speaks of nothing but death.”  I had no idea what to say to her.  Even now, words of comfort or understanding would probably desert me.  At seventeen, I could only gaze at her with aching pity.  I wanted to graft my love of the season, whole cloth, into her brain.  Even that word—autumn—is beautiful.  It’s the taste of crisp apples, the smell of quiet earth and the soul-soothing touch of the lengthening angles of sunlight.

Here in Monterey, the season also brings with it our warmest weather of the year.  Many people call this Indian Summer, but that always seems a misnomer to me.  For someone who grew up in Pennsylvania and Vermont, Indian Summer was the warm period that followed a cool period that followed a hot summer.  Here in Central California, it doesn’t seem fair to call the one really hot time of the year anything but October.  When your summer is cold and foggy and your early fall is mild with the promise of sunshine, a week of 70s and 80s doesn’t really deserve to be called Indian Summer.

We are funny here, though.  We pine for warm, sunny weather for months, then two days into our warm spell, we’re all staggering around, sweaty and exhausted, poleaxed by the heat and humidity.  I really feel for Cleo.  I can pare down to shorts and a tank top; she is stuck in a fur coat.  The major part of every day this past week, she has spread herself out on the gel mat I stand on as I work at the computer.  It’s the only cool surface in the room.  Everything else is textile: the carpet, the couch, the cushions on the chairs.  She barely lifts her head as I straddle her, one foot on either side of her prone body, tapping away at the keyboard.  Occasionally, she’ll muster the energy to get up and greet a visitor, giving the hand a peremptory lick before once more flopping onto her side in heat-induced lethargy.  Of course, that means that in the evening, when the sun sets and the thermometer drops to a pleasant sixty-two or –three, she is ready for action, bounding into the backyard, barking a challenge and making the world safe for democracy.

A couple of times this past week, she rallied herself for daytime action.  At 10:18 AM on 10/18, many schools participate in the Great California Shakeout, an earthquake drill.  Cleo and I were in charge of the library, a beautiful, if impractical, open structure with soaring ceilings and outer walls of plate glass.  When the building was constructed, there was no thought for installing safety glass or, indeed, tempered glass of any kind.  Over the years, we’ve had occasion, thanks to chairs being too forcefully pushed out of the way, to replace two or three sheets of glass with the safer variety.  The cost of replacing them all would put us in debt for the foreseeable century.  So one of the things Cleo and I did last Thursday was to go around to the students sitting by the outer walls and quietly ask them, “What would you do if there were an earthquake?” 

“Oh,” responded one young man, looking with doubt at the towering window behind him.  “Huh.”

Huh, indeed.  That’s why we have drills.

We followed our earthquake drill with a fire drill.  Let’s just say, not Cleo’s favorite sound in the world.  With the county fire marshal in attendance, I wanted Cleo to be on her best behavior, so when she started barking at the alarm, I picked her up.  She quieted instantly.  And for an instant.  Then she redoubled her barking and upped the ante with some struggling, kicking and whining.  I put her down and headed for the mustering area, one of our athletic fields.  She strained against the leash the whole way, but once on the field, she got into line and sat politely, if anxiously, by my side.  Having Mom nearby helped her restrain herself, but once we were dismissed, she needed to get rid of that pent up energy.  In spite of the heat, she and I sprinted all over that field, chasing each other, chasing the crows, chasing a soccer drill thingie that flew like a Frisbee.  When she eventually lay down, panting, with her tummy pressed against the cool grass, I figured it was time to go in and get a drink of water.

Her other daytime outing was when Auntie Kim took her across the street to the Wilderness Lab.  I swear, though it’s only across the street, the Lab is always a good ten degrees warmer than the rest of campus.  Hot, dry, and full of prickly stuff, but also redolent of wild animal scat.  Cleo loves going over there.  This outing with Auntie was her first time without me.  When they returned, Kim was full of amazed compliments.  “Cleo was so well behaved!” she reported.  “A couple times she tried to sneak under the razor wire onto the BLM land, but the second I said, ‘No!’ she came right back.  She heeled all the way back to school.  Without a leash! Everyone was so impressed!” 

Well of course she did!  I’d love to say that it was because she is so very well trained, and to some extent, that’s true.  But the real reason she was so obedient was because without Mama there, she was afraid she’d be abandoned to the mountain lions and coyotes.  There was no way she was going to let her Auntie out of her sight. 

This weekend, the weather broke and we’ve had cool days, cooler nights and buckets of rain.  Sodden pine needles clog the gutters and storm drains.  As I write, I can hear cars swishing by on the wet pavement.  Clouds pile up above the Bay in frothy imitations of snow-capped peaks.  I’m snuggled up on the chaise, a blanket covering me, the world’s most perfect puppy warming my feet, her chin flung across my shins.  As I said, I love this time of year.

Dear Faithful Readers,

Thank you for your comments, your readership, your good wishes for Cleo and me!  I wanted you to know that I will be taking the next month off to focus on revising and compiling the first year's worth of blog posts for collection in a book that will be ready in time for the holidays.  Perfect for gift giving!  We'll be back in December.  In the meantime, feel free to be in touch.  We always love hearing from you all.

All the best,
Joyce and Cleo

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Muddy Outcomes

Sometimes it feels like every action we take comes with unintended consequences, whether positive or negative.  In foreign policy circles, this is called blowback, though I guess that term usually has negative connotations.  You probably wouldn’t hear a news anchor say something like, “Middle East peace was achieved today as a result of blowback from the Secretary of State’s most recent round of shuttle diplomacy.” 

But unintended consequences can be good.  Just a moment ago, in fact, as an unintended consequence of finally getting around to downloading IOS 6 for my iPhone, I discovered one of the coolest apps I’ve ever seen.  I’m keeping it a secret so it won’t get over-used.  Although, given that it’s one of the featured Passbook apps, that’s probably a lost cause.

John and I have been dealing with the unintended consequences of installing a dog door for Cleo.   Before we bought it, we carefully considered the dangers of unwelcome intruders (whether self-propelled or puppy-propelled).  A friend’s graphic story about a student of hers who woke up one hot night to discover a rabid skunk standing on his chest definitely gave us pause.  So far (knock on wood) we’ve been spared the entrance of anything untoward.  Last night, we might have been the closest ever to entertaining an unwelcome guest.  Cleo caught her first rat.  I wasn’t sure whether to be congratulatory or grossed out.  One thing’s for sure: She won’t be licking my face when she comes in from the backyard anymore.  Frankly, it was just a baby, about four inches long, but hey, when it’s in your backyard, a rat is a rat.  When I discovered her, she was a little confused about the whole thing.  I think she was as surprised as I was (let alone the rat) that she had actually succeeded in getting it, and she was trying to figure out what to do with it now.  I can just imagine her deciding that a good, safe place for it would be between the cushions on the chaise in the living room.  I could almost hear the characteristic, sneaky tick-tick-tick of her nails as she tried to tiptoe past me with her contraband.  I brought her in and locked the flap prestissimo.

What hadn’t dawned on us was that things besides the puppy might go out.  Or maybe I should say “in addition to” rather than “besides,” given that they are going out with Cleo.  I first became suspicious when I discovered an unusually dirty pair of John’s socks lying next to the refrigerator.  When I picked them up, I discovered they were damp and curiously earthy smelling.  Now, John would rather be barefoot than shod any day of the week, and even if he were wearing socks, he wouldn’t go tromping around in the mud with them.  Not long after this, his leather gloves (a perennial favorite of Cleo’s) disappeared from the coffee table.  We looked in her usual hiding places, but found nothing.  A quick scan of the backyard likewise turned up zilch, but later that afternoon, I heard Cleo rustling around in the narrow passage between our shed and fence.  Not long after that, she came through the dog door with a single glove in her mouth and a guilty expression on her face.  So I know where her hiding place is, but let me tell you, I am not planning to explore it!  Here there be spiders!  Besides, she usually returns whatever she’s stolen.  Maybe it’s guilt or maybe she’s bragging, I don’t know.  The second glove showed up a couple days later, wet and muddy. 

Sometimes we don’t even realize that something is missing until she brings it back.  It’s always been her penchant to steal socks in pairs; when there isn’t a lone survivor to call attention to its solitude, it’s pretty easy to overlook missing socks.  Luckily, she almost always returns them in pairs, too.  I was a little resentful when she spat my favorite underpants at my feet last week.  At least this time we were home alone rather than having dinner with friends.  Nothing says “Welcome!” like your dog bearing your unmentionables to the dining table.

At the moment, we’re waiting for the return of our bathroom doorstop.  As we brush our teeth at night, the door swings quietly closed, always stopping at just the right angle so that I bang an elbow into it as I reach for the floss.  “Where’s the damn doorstop?” I ask Cleo, who snoozes happily on, stretched out on our bed. 

And really, what’s a little blowback compared to a contented puppy dog?

Friday, October 5, 2012

Wishing You a Happy Voyage Home

“I didn’t really know much about military personnel.  I didn’t know much about their lives… I don’t think I appreciated them to the level that they deserved.  And that has changed…. I border on embarrassed at how little thought I gave military service until I got to know service members.”

Wow.  Stephen Colbert and I think alike.  Not the character Stephen Colbert, the real Stephen Colbert.  He said those words to Terry Gross during a recent interview on Fresh Air.  Of course, we came to the same realization from two different angles.  Colbert was talking about what he had learned from doing his show for the last several years.  In 2009, he spent a week in Iraq performing for the troops.  Since then, he and his staff have supported several charities which raise funds to help military personnel and their families.  My awakening was on a much smaller, though possibly more personal, scale.

Last week, John and I left Cleo in the care of friends and flew to Great Lakes, Illinois, to see our son (by blood, his son, by childrearing, ours) Jackson graduate from Recruit Training Command, the Navy’s basic training.

This past year has been a taxing one for our family.  Sometimes adolescents experience a gentle, constantly ascending arc of growth from childhood to adulthood.  At other times, the path can be a little rockier with lots of ups and downs.  And then there are the times when the path is not so much rocky as boulder-strewn, less up and down than veering straight over the cliff into a freefall tumble to the valley floor below.  It can be difficult or impossible to pinpoint any reason why one person’s adolescence is more fraught than another’s.  I’ve known young men far less capable, less socially intelligent and less kind than Jackson who sailed through their teens and twenties with nary a blip on the radar screen of distress.  John and I aren’t perfect parents, but I’ve seen kids fare better with far worse ones.  Suffice it to say that a year ago, we reached crisis point, and after much consultation and deliberation, John and I did the hardest thing we have ever had to do.  We gave Jackson a month to find somewhere else to live.

It’s a tribute to a resourcefulness he didn’t know he possessed, and to his emotional intelligence, that he pretty quickly lined up a couple places with friends.  He also parlayed a part-time job at a failing bike shop into a full-time position as a bike repairman for a thriving string of rental shops for tourists.  And for the first time, he started thinking about his future.   John and I were floored when Jackson called to say he had enlisted in the Navy.  “Why the Navy?!” I whined to John.  “If he had to enlist, why not the Coast Guard?”  When my oldest sister’s college boyfriend drew a number so low that he knew he would be drafted into the war in Vietnam, he enlisted in the Coast Guard as a safer choice.  That made a big impression on my fifteen-year-old mind, though these days, what with the war on drugs and the Coast Guard’s deployment to Iraq in the early days of that war, I don’t know that the “Coast-Guard-is-safe” canard holds water anymore.

Growing up during the Vietnam War, I never thought of the military as a career choice.  Don’t misunderstand: I was never one of those people who shouted epithets at soldiers in uniform or who went to the airport to yell “Baby killer” at returning veterans.  For one thing, I was too young to drive and my parents never would have given me permission to go.  For another, even as a callous teenager, I saw that these protesters were yelling at the wrong people.  So many of the boys returning home were barely older than we, and they would bear scars for the rest of their lives.  Yet even though I have nieces, nephews, students, friends and colleagues who enlisted in one branch of the service or another, I still thought of military service as something one would have to be required to do, rather than something one would chose to do.

We had six months to get used to the idea.  Recruitment was so high when Jackson enlisted that the Navy had no room for him until August.  And so it was that last week, John and I turned our faces towards Lake Michigan.  The graduation hall opened at 6:30 AM for a ceremony that started at 9:00.  We couldn’t imagine why we would need to be there so early, so we slept in till 5:30, had breakfast, hopped in the car and made the hour drive to the base.  Traffic was fairly heavy the whole way, but when we turned the corner onto the street leading to the main gate, with a mile and a half to go, it seemed to get even worse.  Avoiding the badly backed up right lane, we pulled over into the left where the going was a bit clearer.  “Man, that is just bumper-to-bumper over there,” I commented.  “They are not even moving.”

Silence.  We looked at each other.  Uh-oh.  “Naw!” I waved my hand to dismiss the idea.  We scanned the line of cars.  “Every one of those cars,” John stated ominously, “has what looks like a family in it.”  I tried to peer into the car next to us.  Dad, Mom, Grandpa, Sister?  By now we were a quarter mile farther along the road.  Clearly we were not the only ones taken by surprise.  Cars ahead of us were slowing and merging with the right hand lane.  John put on his signal and eased into the long line of graduation-goers, waving a thank you to the car behind us.  We sat, not moving.  Five minutes passed.  We sat.  Cars flashed past us on the left.  We sat.  In ten minutes, we had not moved a single car length.  Up ahead, every time some space opened up, a car from the left lane merged into it.  It was almost 8:00; the Navy had been very clear that the doors to the graduation hall would close at 8:45.  “We’re never going to get through this line in time,” I fretted.

“There is no way we’re going to miss this,” John vowed in his best Dirty Harry style.  He peeled out of the line and into the left lane. 

“What are we going to do?” I asked, a little quavery.

“Think outside the box.”  He gave me a grin.  “How are those shoes for walking?”

About a half mile from the gate, we dove into a residential side street, found a perfect parking place, stretched out the kinks in our legs and started a very pleasant trek.  We were the only pedestrians, and the two sailors detailed to check IDs at the walk-in gate looked thrilled to have something to do.  By 8:25, we were crammed onto the bleachers with the majority of what would ultimately become a crowd of over five thousand.  It turns out that Jackson was one of 1001 graduating Sailor Recruits, the second largest class of the year.

Flag corps
The Navy puts on one of these graduation ceremonies just about every Friday of the year, and it is quite the show.  There are videos (“We know in just a little while, your recruit will have plenty of stories to tell you from the last eight weeks.  Before that happens, we want to show you our side of the story!”), speeches, special awards and honors, a totally hip drum corps, several tunes from the marching band, a chorus, and lots of impressive marching (the Navy has such a relaxed style of marching—very chill and self-possessed).  At the outset of the ceremony, before the divisions of recruits arrive, a flag corps displays each of the fifty state flags arranged in order of entry into the union.  As the state’s name is announced, the corps member dips the flag and the attendees from that state cheer and applaud.  “Delaware!”  One lone voice from the far left of the audience lets out a whoop.  A similarly small contingent from Rhode Island.  Giant cheers from Illinois, Texas, California.  Some states may have had more recruits than others, but in this graduating class, every state in the union was represented.

Honestly, I don’t know if I would necessarily call myself patriotic.  I’m not sure I know exactly what that word is intended to mean anymore, not as it’s commonly used, anyway.  I do know that I love my country.  Despite its flaws, I believe it affords more opportunities than any other country currently on Earth.  I love Americans.  We are an ornery bunch, but we are also resilient, brave, inventive, imaginative and caring.  I also love our national anthem.  Yes, some people object to it because they claim it’s war-mongering.  It’s not; it’s about surviving.  One night, when Jackson was five or six, John and I were getting ready to read him to sleep.  Jackson sat between us, his warm little head leaning against my arm.  For some reason, I started telling him the story of our national anthem.  An exhausted soldier, embattled and besieged by enemy attacks that have gone on all night, looks up to the ramparts.  In the light of exploding shells, he sees his country’s flag, tattered and smoke-stained, but still flying, still in place.  From that sight, he gathers the strength to press on to the end, to survive.  I’ve never been able to hear that part of the song without tearing up a little.

“And the rockets’ red glare,
The bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof, through the night
That our flag was still there.”

As we sang the national anthem at Jackson’s graduation, I pretended it was the stratospherically high range of the melody that kept me from singing those lines, but the truth is, I was too choked up to get the words out. 

By the time the ceremony was over and the newly hatched sailors were granted liberty, we had about five hours with Jackson before he had to be back to stand watch.  Plus, he was leaving for his “A” school in South Carolina at 1:00 the next morning.  We decided to drive down to Chicago so that he could see the city he’d been an hour away from for the last two months.  As we walked across the base and back to the car, as we drove, as we walked the streets of Chicago, as we ate lunch, as we explored the Skydeck at Sears Tower, this formerly monosyllabic young man talked.  He told us stories, he described his division-mates, he explained terms and drills and the lessons he had learned.  These things mattered to him.  He had an adult perspective on why he was expected to set his cap just so, why it was regulation to take ladders one rung at a time, why it was important that he had learned to fold his clothes precisely: Attention to detail could save his life, and the lives of everyone around him, one day.   He understood why recruits are not permitted to say thank you, why this reflex instilled in kids every day by their parents is actively discouraged.  Thoughtless words, wasted words, can, quite literally, get you sunk.  You better mean everything you say.

It was a fascinating thing to see, everywhere we went, people openly gazing at him.  Granted he is a good-lookin’ boy (I can say that; my genes aren’t involved).  And he is impressive-looking at six-two clad in his sailor’s whites, carrying himself with an ease and a confidence we’d never seen from him before.   There was a lovely, sweet humility about him as he returned their looks with a quiet smile.

On our way into Chicago, we stopped off at a Starbucks to caffeine up.  We each ordered a cup of one kind or another.  At the last moment, I grabbed a little tube of trail mix.  “That’ll be a buck seventy-nine,” said the bepaunched man behind the counter.

John looked confused.  “For the nuts.  What about the rest of it?”

“Whaddabat the rest of it?” returned the cashier, somewhat defensively.  “Lemme tell you a story,” he went on.  “When I was a kid, a recruit, I went into a bar.  The bartender hands me and my buddies a drink and says, ‘The guy at the end of the bar bought you this.’  So I look at the guy and I say, ‘How come you bought us a drink?’  And the guy says to me, ‘When I was a recruit, some guy bought me a drink.  I’m returning the favor.  I’m only goin’ to ask you this: When you’re in your fifties, buy some recruit a drink.’  So here I am.  I’m in my fifties and I’m buyin’ you a drink.  I’m just gonna ask you one thing.  When you’re in your fifties, buy some recruit a drink.”

Jackson and the cashier looked at each other, sharing a moment of reflection that John and I were not, never could be, a part of.  Then Jackson reached out a hand and with grave sincerity said, “Thank you, sir.”

But that wasn’t my favorite moment.  My favorite moment was in the parking lot when we had taken Jackson back to the base and it was time to say goodbye.  I reached out to him and he folded me into a hug, wrapping his arms tightly around me, and held on.  And he did not let go first.

In his interview with Terry Gross, Stephen Colbert said, “I work hard to keep [a consideration of military personnel] in mind without fetishizing military service.  I think there are great ways to serve the country that are not military service.  It’s not the only thing you can do.”  The path that Jackson has chosen is not right for everyone, but for him, it’s something that he is committed to and believes in.  The transformation in him didn’t all happen in an eight week period.  It was taking place over the last year, a year when all three of us had time to reflect, learn about ourselves and grow.  I know there will still be ups and downs as the years go by.  There are in every life and in every relationship.  But when the ties are strong, we can weather a few rough seas.

Jackson on the Skydeck