Saturday, December 11, 2010

Steppin' Up

When I met Sam he was recently widowed. His son was in college back in Rhode Island and his daughter was a junior in high school. And, oh yeah, he had a dog. I easily moved into the role of step-mom to Tom and Kristen, long before Sam and I were actually married. During Kristen's senior year of college I planned, and then accompanied them on a college visit trip up and down the East coast. I went to ballet recitals and choir concerts - parents' meetings and banquets. There was one evening at an Honor Society banquet that I sat in tears listening to Kristen play the piano and kept thinking that it wasn't right that her mom could not be there - I was humbled to sit in her place and then I was overwhelmed with her presence. It was as if this woman I had never known was telling me that it was ok to be there representing her. The feeling was so powerful and I knew that Susan knew that her kids were going to be loved.

And all the time there was Rocky, the overly-large Corgi.
Rocky had been Susan's constant companion as her brain cancer progressed and in the last weeks he spent his days and nights laying full-body length along Susan's side in bed. Rocky was 4 when I came into his life. For a long time I was competition for him. Sam referred to us as "litter mates," in Rocky's mind. In bed, Rocky would get between us and use his legs to push against Sam so that his back would push me further away from Sam. Many mornings I woke to find Rocky's head next to mine on the pillow, with his back pushing against me. He was always moving to be sure that he came between my body and Sam's.

I like dogs, but I am not a "dog person." I was disgusted by dog hair in my bed and found nothing cute about him sleeping on my pillow. I walked him, but having grown up in the country where our dogs ran free, the idea of carrying a bag and picking up his poop, was annoying. I was not as patient with him as I might have been as I would wait, and wait, and wait, while he sniffed every last plant and rock and stick. I had never known that dogs could have significant gas issues, and his barking could drive me crazy. But as time passed and my own kids and step-kids needed me less and less I seem to have transferred my nurturing needs to Rocky. I have now been his "mom" twice as long as his first mom was and he clearly adores me.

Fortunately, as a dog of limited height, jumping on the bed was one of the first things to go for Rocky. The day he could not get on the bed we bought him his own bed and since then he has slept happily on the floor of our room and I no longer wake up with dog hair stuck on my lips! This change was probably the most significant turning point for me. He trusts me, he depends on me for calm and routine. Sam is still the alpha male, but I am the one that most frequently has the dog sleeping on my feet while I read or eat or work on the computer, and I get nudged if we forget to give him his 5:00 "scoop." I take him on walks when the weather is nice, and I talk to him constantly.

Recently my step-son suggested that Rocky needed his own Facebook page. Tom now lives in Ohio but he has remained Rocky's number one fan from afar. For kicks I created a Facebook page for Rocky. I did not think about the weird, but deep connection that would result from channeling the dog's thoughts as I update his "status" every few days. Tom has noted that Rocky's status reveals not only how Rocky is doing, but also how I am thinking or feeling. I get a ridiculous kick out of putting into human words what I imagine Rocky to be thinking or feeling. And it gets really weird when I find myself commenting, as Rocky's Facebook "friend" on something that Rocky has posted on his own page.

Rocky is twelve now and he is slowing down. His back left leg is weak and often trails behind the other three as he moves about the house. He is stiff when he gets up and most of the time he gets stuck half way up the stairs and needs to be carried the rest of the way. And the mother in me is more attached than ever. There is something about his vulnerability that has reached into my soul and grabbed it hard. I don't know how much longer Rocky will live. He seems to be in good health, but the life expectancy of a Corgi is eleven to twelve years. I used to think only of how much simpler life will be when we don't have a kid, I mean, DOG at home. But now I can get sad just imagining how much I'll miss his presence. When I cook he is at my feet hoping for something to drop on the floor for him to eat. When we watch TV he has made a nest for himself under the lamp table where he hangs out just to be near. He has a large vocabulary and understands my emotions with or without words. He knows swear words and will run downstairs when he hears one, alerting us to what we just said. And perhaps more than anything I'll miss being his mouthpiece on Facebook where he currently has 17 "friends."

Rocky Converse
Basic info
Gender: Male
Relationship Status: It's complicated
Interested in: Women and Men
Looking for: Friendship
Current location: Salem, Oregon
Hometown: Salem, Oregon
Political Views: I am a raging, bleeding heart liberal. Healthcare for all (except squirrels!)
Religious views:I believe that all life begins in the bottom of the yogurt bowl. Praise Yoplait.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Autumn's Call

This post is my response to autumn's beckoning. I am privileged to have the months of September and October off from work each year and, here in Oregon, those are often lovely, extended-summer-like months. But as the calendar pages flip to the date of my return to work I am lifted by the colors that mean fall has come to the Northwest and that there is still brightness around me.

The visual images that lead me back to work include brilliant yellows in the vineyards of the Willamette Valley, radiant red leaves on the blueberry fields that dot the landscape, both commercial crops and backyard patches, and finally the red and oranges of the trees in our own backyard. There is such beauty in plants as they go into their shut-down phase... I hope that I can also maintain some of that brightness through my return-to-work transition next week!

Sunday, August 15, 2010


I have concluded that the most difficult stage of parenting is not the terrible two's, not the first day of kindergarten, not the angst-ridden years of adolescence, not even the first year after they get their driver's license...the most difficult stage is when they move from dependent child/student to independent adult.

At this moment we have four "kids" going through this stage. In ways one of them has already passed through, although her choices continue to baffle us and we know that at any moment we could be faced with financial obligations we had hoped to be done with. Kristen graduated from college in 2008 and moved to Boston where she managed to find a great job in a successful company.
She was earning good money, had great benefits and we were relieved to have one launched. We continued to cover some expenses, but for the most part she was off. All that changed recently when she quit her job and moved to Phoenix to be with her boyfriend. She has a job lined up but it pays $20,000 less than the one she left and the benefits are not clear yet. But we are pushing more of her expenses south to Arizona and hoping she will make it. When she called yesterday to announce that she had gone jet skiing and bought a new video game, our desire to help-out financially faded!

Andrew graduated from college in 2009 and spent a year working in a lab for $10 an hour. He is the super-responsible one and frankly, it has been an easy year for us as parents. He has picked up his own car and health insurance and student loan payments and managed to cover all of his expenses. He is off to start a PhD program in a couple weeks and the next 5 years look set for him. He earns a salary and gets free tuition and health insurance. The challenge for/with him right now revolves around a girlfriend - uncertainty flows throughout that situation and there has been more than one night when he has plopped his 6'3" frame in front of us seeking advice...we shall see how that plays out.

Heather graduated this past May. That for me was an unsettling time. For the first time since my kids were born I had no defined role. While they were in school and college I knew where they were, knew they had a roof over their heads and food on the table. I made editing suggestions on a paper now and then, but mostly I just lurked on the edges of their lives. When Heather graduated I felt more responsibility than in years, but no defined right to impose. It has been an interesting summer. When things are going well she is an adult and my suggestions receive an eye roll; when everything seems to be falling a part I get a frantic, tearful phone call. I am trying to just hold on to the very tip of the kite that is Heather and watch as she rides the currents. She has ideas and dreams that seem ungrounded, but then I watch as she makes them happen. Nevertheless I am worrying more during the wee hours of the morning than I have since the first time Andrew had bronchitis as an infant.

And then there is Tom.
Tom completed his PhD in Math 4 days ago. He is 27 and has been in school since he was 3. I only came into his life during his junior year of college, but he has tested every reserve that his dad and I have. Tom is impulsive and we experience that with daily phone calls. He feels the need to tell us everything, before he tries to resolve it - he calls and stresses us out. He is just back from 3 weeks in England. The boy presented a lecture at Cambridge - he can solve the most challenging math problem on earth, but he calls us for the simplest concern. On Tuesday he starts a teaching job at the University of Toledo in Ohio. Because of time constraints we worked with him and made arrangements to have his car shipped to Toledo, we bought a plane ticket for him, paid for a hotel for the first few nights - even gave him money for the taxi from the airport to his hotel. He was to fly there tomorrow. Today at about 1:00 PM he decided to drive rather than fly. We have been discussing this for the past 36 hours and discouraging it every way possible, but he called at 4:00 and he is in Arizona. It takes 35 hours of driving to get from San Diego to Toledo. He has just about that before he starts his job. If he drives without stops. If his ten-year old car doesn't break down. The car transport company already charged our card and we are now stuck with an airplane ticket - changeable, but not refundable. We are exhausted and frustrated.

But, I think that every kid needs to find their time and their method of disengaging from their parents. And we need to step back when that time comes. This is Tom's time and our challenge is to wait for his call and then to ask, "gee, what are you going to do about that?" rather than continuing to anticipate his needs and pay his way.

Wish us luck....

PS: I have just re-read this and am reminded, again, that we are blessed. These challenges are enviable in many ways but I need to take a step back to remember that!

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Back again

Writing is a treat. I imagine myself hiding away with no distractions - a glass of wine, and some cheese and crackers to sustain me, and then I get to indulge in a piece of writing. For this reason I rarely allow myself to do it. I am in the last few hours of a two week vacation - the top thing on my list for this vacation was to write a blog entry, so here I am! I had some very focused thoughts for this return to blogging, but my mind is now bouncing around looking for something to land on.

I will begin with the start of my vacation. No, I'll begin with the end. My mother-in-law, Margie, just called. Margie lives in Las Vegas and she called to report that she just got home from the casino. She had a $15 credit to use on the slots so she drove to the casino and applied her credit to the penny machine. She walked away with One Thousand, Two Hundred Dollars. This woman never loses on the slots, I played beside her once and in the time it took me to throw away my fifteen dollars, she pocketed five hundred dollars. But, that is not why this is remarkable. The stunning thing in this story is that exactly two weeks ago tonight Sam, his sister from New York, and I stood around Margie's hospital bed. We had been summoned because this time she really was dying. Blockages in her arteries...barely able to move or breathe...can't-go-on-just-take-me-home-so-I-can-die-on-my-couch...We were attentive, we held her hands, we encouraged her and tolerated her complaints about her roommate, the nurses, her doctors and the food....I started my vacation dutifully at her bedside and endured the 113 degree heat outside to be there.

But tonight she drove to the casino and won $1200! Oh well, good for her! Margie is 85 years old with a mind sharper than any 20 year old I know (and I know many since I work in a college). She is stubborn and vain - she has left a path strewn with discarded men (and children, but that is another story)- she can get down on the floor and back up again faster than I can and she will die with her hair fixed and her lipstick perfect. She is amazing and enraging. We love her.

There is so much more to say but it is now 10:00 and I need to go to bed so I can make it to work on time in the morning...I hope to treat myself with more writing soon.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010


"In forgiveness the victim forgoes the right to vengeance."

I am reading a book called Amish Grace - How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy. It is about the murder of 5 Amish girls in the one room schoolhouse in Pennsylvania in October of 2006. I first heard about the murders while checking my e-mail in an internet cafe in Peschici, Italy. I logged onto Yahoo and it was the lead story. "Deadly Shooting at Amish School." I was immediately disoriented. There have been times in my life when the ground seems to shift under me and I no longer know where to put my feet. This was one of those times.

I grew up just outside Lancaster, Pennsylvania. It was not uncommon during my childhood to ride on roads that carried as many horse-drawn buggies as cars. We had our kitchen cabinets built by an Amish man, sold one of our horses to an Amish girl, and bought pies from Amish women. I have been to the Amish communities of "Paradise," "Intercourse," and "Blue Ball." On summer Sundays our family would attend Meeting for Worship at the Quaker meetinghouse just down the road from the school where these girls were killed. I remember sitting in the silence, smelling the musty benches that had supported my ancestors for 200 years of worship - the cicadas were humming in the trees outside the open door and from time to time I would hear the clomp, clomp, clomp of a horse and buggy passing by the meetinghouse. Those memories of a world that seems unimaginable in my day-to-day life now, are precious to me.

On October 2, 2006 a father of three left suicide notes for his wife and kids, drove to the one room schoolhouse and entered with guns and the materials he needed to barricade the doors. He had the teacher and the male students leave before he bound up the girls hands and feet and barricaded the schoolhouse doors. Without any phone there was no way to call for help and the teacher ran across the fields to the nearest farm with a phone and help was summoned. By the time the police arrived the man had shot 10 girls, killing 5 and then himself. But that is not the story that I am carrying with me these past few days. The reaction of the Amish community is what has stirred me so much.

The same day of the killings, while the five surviving girls were fighting for their lives in hospitals, members of the Amish community were already visiting the wife and kids and parents of the man who had caused this tragedy. The Amish recognized that his family would be experiencing pain and loss and grief and they went to provide comfort and to express their forgiveness of the man. When thousands of dollars of donations arrived from around the world, the Amish decided to give half of the donations to the gunman's family to help with the financial burden of losing the income that he had provided. Nearly 50 Amish men and women attended the burial of the gunman in support of his family and to show their forgiveness.

Many have tried to uncover what motivated this response. Was it for show? Was it because the eyes of the world were on their community? Was it sincere? The Amish didn't really understand the questions. All they have ever known is a world where the first reaction when one is wronged is to forgive. They believe that only by forgiving will they ever be forgiven. They pray The Lord's Prayer numerous times each day. It is the only prayer that they say out loud because they believe it pretty much covers anything that needs to be said.

Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors

Each day is filled with numerous moments when the choice of whether or not to forgive is presented to us. Fortunately most offenses are minor, but even those can catch me up. I imagine what the world would be like if the impulse was to step towards the one who offends and to embrace them - if not literally, at least figuratively. We are a defensive society and too often my impulse is to interpret gestures as personal offenses. Someone cuts me off in traffic and I am enraged at the offense. If someone has spoken negatively about me I want to defend myself against them. But a reaction of defense, or anger, never diffuses a situation or eases the tension and anxiety.

I am inspired and encouraged by this book. I actually can imagine a world where the first reaction is one of calm, and peace, and forgiveness. I don't truly believe we will ever live in a world like that, but the Amish show that it can be done. Imagine the outcome if we all just stopped defending ourselves and fighting back. What might have happened if, after September 11, 2001 our country had reached out to the families of the men who flew the planes? What if we had gone to their countries and tried to understand why the attacks happened? Somehow I can't imagine that we would be any further behind than we currently are and maybe we would even be in a better place.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Vegetarian Chili

I like weekends because I have time to cook things that take more than 15 minutes to prepare. Today I made vegetarian chili. Sam is on a new diet and this is high in protein and low in fat.

First saute in 2 tablespoons of Canola oil:
Chopped red, yellow, and/or orange peppers

Next crumble extra firm tofu into pot and continue to saute:

Add about 1 tablespoon chili powder and one teaspoon crushed red pepper:

Add 2 cans of stewed tomatoes and 2 tablespoons of red wine vinegar:

Finally add 2 cans of beans - I like Garbanzo beans and kidney beans:

Let simmer for 20 minutes, pour glass of wine and enjoy the smells and then eat!