Timing Is Everything

We had a trip planned for next month, September (to Germany to visit good friends), but in late spring we cancelled it,* due to everything that we had on our plates. I was already exhausted (the holidays, work, illness, family things), and we hadn’t even made an itinerary yet.

The village of Maulbronn. Picturesque! (From Wikipedia. Attribution: Gregorini Demetrio.)

Gerry had been suggesting we postpone, actually, for weeks, and I’d resisted, because our friends had set aside the time. But finally I realized he was right. When we made the decision, it was like a weight lifted.

Within a week of this decision, we heard from Gerry’s brother that he and his wife needed to reschedule (due to unforseen family events) their trip to visit us from October … to September, the very time we’d have been gone. It freed me up to spend three weeks with my son and his wife during the birth of their daughter in May/June.

And you know, those weren’t the only serendipitous things. If we still had a flight on September 10th, we’d be in trouble right now, because Gerry no longer has a passport he could enter this country with (he could leave … but not reenter). He’s a citizen now, but we haven’t even started the process to obtain his American passport (it’s only been a week, after all, and I’ve been sick working).

Timing, as they say, is everything.

• • •

*Posponed, really.

Laddie, the Extraordinarily Good-Natured Cat

We let Laddie go today. He held on hard to life in spite of his increasing age (he was 18) and growing infirmity (arthritis in his rear legs). He’d brought two squirrels, two birds, and a vole inside as love offerings in the last two months. He patrolled the neighborhood every morning; he kept to his routine of chewing lemongrass after breakfast, which required getting up on the deck rail. He was still going over the six-foot fence a couple times a day until yesterday. This morning he declined to get out of bed, and I understood. He died in my arms at 8:50 am. To say we are heartbroken doesn’t begin to describe it.

• • •

That this is a much shorter obituary than Bean’s means nothing other than I am so sad I can’t bear this pain. Laddie was a spectacular cat, beloved by anyone who knew him. And many did, because he never met a stranger.

He was always eager to please.

Oh, the Humanity

I love this: “to be peopled at all was a high-order gift, but to find people beyond your people was nothing short of miraculous” (emphasis mine). Yes, indeed.

And now he was here, in her house, in Oak Park. She should go check on him, sequestered in the living room with the men, but she knew if she rose she would subject herself to more ridicule. Her sisters—with her at the table, fighting about someone she’d never heard of—were delighting in the amount of teasing there was to be done about Grace’s first boyfriend-holiday, ignoring her protests that he wasn’t her boyfriend.

“He’s just my person,” she’d insisted to Wendy, earlier. “Or, not, like—just a person.”

“Careful,” Wendy said. “You’ll flatter him to death.”

But he was in her house, among her family—her other people—and this was emboldening, somehow. Her life had always been abundantly peopled—by her doting parents, by her indulgent sisters—but she now felt accompanied in a way she never had before, by a person who was choosing to feel beholden to her instead of simply scooting up the built-in rope of familial obligation. And it was striking, how much less alone that could make you feel, because of course to be peopled at all was a high-order gift, but to find people beyond your people was nothing short of miraculous, finding a person away from home who felt like home and shifted, subsequently, the very notion of home, widening its borders.

—from The Most Fun We Ever Had (Doubleday, 2019) by Claire Lombardo

Who Dat? Old Family Photos

One is reminded (when looking at old family photos) that back in the day, you took a photo and couldn’t be sure what you had snapped until days or weeks later when the film was developed. Was the lighting OK? Was it fuzzy? You just didn’t know. And film wasn’t cheap, so you didn’t take three (or ten!) photos of the same thing to make sure you got a good one. Most of my father’s photos are in focus but he didn’t throw out the bad ones, either.

I have no idea who the adults in this photo are. 🙂

My parents kept a little 3×5 metal file box of addresses (for the Christmas card list) because their air force friends became family to them—and they kept in touch, year after year after year. They kept in touch if they moved away but they hung out if they were stationed together.

This couple appears in several of the family slides; I can’t remember their names but I know we were close to them. He was a pilot. I seem to recall a story of airplane hijinks (flying under bridges? flying under something, something the US Air Force frowns on). He met her while he was stationed in Italy and married her. That’s me* in his lap, Jill in hers (probably early 1957). What intrigues me about this photo, though, is that marvelous carved wooden partition. That sure wasn’t our house!

*Notice I’m wearing a dress. Until I got older, I was always in a dress. Ninety percent of these slides, I’m in a dress, a dress sewn by my mother.

Working on a Detox

Four years ago, in early November, I drove out to my brother’s house to chat about family Thanksgiving plans, as I do every year. (Our parents are deceased; our sister lives far from here.) When I got there and walked into the living room, my brother was angry—at me, sort of.

(I should stop here and say I am the oldest child; my brother is the youngest, four years younger than me. He is a farmer, a kind and gentle man who loves animals, has stayed married to the same woman for forty-two years, raised a great kid. He served four years in the Marines. I’ve never heard him raise his voice to man or beast. He is a Republican, just like our father was. We agree to disagree on that last bit. My life philosophy was formed in the ’60s, and though many decades have passed, I am still that woman. I have not changed.)

But my brother was hopping mad … about the recent reelection of the American president, Barack Obama. He lit into me—a convenient liberal voter he felt safe blaming—with the litany of complaints that had been making the rounds: the country was going to go into a massive depression, in fact it was going to go broke, since there were “more takers than makers”; Obama was going to take away legally owned guns; and on and on. When I tried to speak (though not to argue with him), he shouted me down: “Just you wait! You’ll see!” (Collectively, this reaction has been called in the press the Great Right-Wing Freakout of 2012.)

It scared me. I stood up and said, “Maybe I should leave. We can talk about Thanksgiving another time.” And immediately all his anger drained away. “No, no, sit down, don’t go.” And we did talk a little (his wife sat silently by), but eventually his anger level rose again, and I left, shaking and disturbed. When I got home, I called my ex-husband.

(Here I’ll say that my ex-husband and I are on good terms; I like his second wife and his second set of kids, and we do a lot of holidays together. When I married him—the little girl with flowers woven in her hair—he was a long-haired hippie himself, threatening to run away to Canada if the draft didn’t go his way. I am not sure what happened to that guy, but his politics align with my brother’s now; they are buddies, in fact. I don’t discuss politics with either of them, and generally we just don’t anyway—we talk culture, not politics. Luis always tries to make nice; he knows I don’t like to argue.)

So I called Luis, since he and his family would be sitting at my dining room table on Thanksgiving too. I was shaken and upset, and as I started to tell him what happened, I began to sob uncontrollably, something I never do, certainly not to my ex-husband. “Please help me; please don’t bring up the election or politics,” I said. He agreed to “not go there,” and Thanksgiving plans proceeded.

On the night, my brother and his wife were running late. Something locally newsworthy had happened that day, and Luis turned on the television while we waited. But he turned automatically to Fox, which I consider to be … well, not news. Bill O’Reilly et al annoy and offend me. I waited—nervously; what if my brother got here?—until we had the update on the event, then quietly, calmly, asked Luis to turn the TV off or switch the channel. He rose up from the couch and moved into the kitchen in seconds, screaming, until he was face to face with me. “Don’t tell ME what to do! I’ll watch television if I WANT to!” (Should I remind you that this was in my house?) It was like he’d gone insane. Had a psychotic break.

I put my hands up around my face, because I actually thought he might hit me. When I did that, he stopped, and all the anger seemed to leave him. He turned around, lifted the foil covering the turkey. And nothing was ever said again, about any of it.

I have often wondered what happened on those two occasions.

Now, of course, we’re in the middle of an unbelievable, ugly election (again). My brother joined Facebook about a year ago, and he’s posted a lot of nasty right-wing memes. My husband says, “Just ignore him,” but it bothers me. He’s my brother, but I don’t recognize this person. He and my ex-husband share these ugly things back and forth. Demands to repeal “Obamacare” the minute the GOP retakes the country (even though my brother’s wife uses the government’s low-income subsidies to the Affordable Care Act to get health insurance*), and support for closing our borders and not letting immigrants in (even though both of my husbands have been immigrants**; even though my sister’s daughter married a Mexican immigrant, a lovely man). I don’t recognize them anymore, this bit of my family.

It’s not just them, of course. I live in a red state. But … the anger. The hatred! Sometimes I leave a comment for my brother—“Actually, that’s not true”—with a link to good information, but he responds with a repetition of talking points (propaganda), not actual facts. In fact, a lot of people on that side of the fence do the same in public forums, and it has the effect of shutting down conversation. It is a losing battle. The amount of bad, untruthful, twisted information being slung around here is disheartening. Where is this coming from? I’ve tried to remain calm, I’ve tried to educate myself—but it has done nothing but upset and unsettle me and keep me from sleep.

Until I found this: The Brainwashing of My Dad. It’s a documentary. The New York Times says it is “Jen Senko’s documentary about how right-wing news programs, talk shows and Internet sites turned her once reasonable father into a raging embodiment of intolerance and suspicion.”

As I watched, I found Senko’s story sounding more and more familiar:

When I was growing up in the ‘60s, I remember that my parents were really nice to everybody. They had a good time with lots of other grown-up friends and relatives; they were always laughing and joking. They didn’t even gossip, whereas I remember other friends’ parents doing so quite a bit. And later, with the dawn of the hippies and the new mores, I remember feeling proud of them—they already were open-minded and accepting. … My father was huge on education. He had his master’s degree in engineering, so it was his idea for us to read an hour before bed each night. … There were times he showed extraordinary acts of kindness. I recount this one story in the film: Since we lived close to New York in New Jersey, my parents would often take us into the city to go to a museum or Radio City Music Hall. Once, when we got out of Port Authority, an African-American homeless man asked my dad for some money. My dad called him “Sir!” and gave him some money. That memory is indelible for me. He treated everyone around him with respect at a time when that was not always the norm.

This sounds similar to my childhood, the one my brother was raised in too. Then Senko notes that her family moved and her father’s commute changed. Instead of carpooling, he was driving alone, and he was driving farther. He started listening to talk radio. First he listened to Bob Grant. Then he started listening to Rush Limbaugh. Later he began watching Fox [Not] News. Senko says:

And that’s when my Dad became angry all the time, argumentative, and hateful of particular groups of people. Of all things, he began lashing out against gay people. … He railed against “liberal universities.” He railed against illegal immigrants and Mexicans, and literally started telling my mother she should wait on him because he was the man of the house. … In time, it became obvious to me that the same mantras were being trotted out on various right-wing platforms. And I could see this in the few friends I had that “turned.” They would form identical arguments, repeating the exact same talking points and phrases around the same time as my Dad. One read The Drudge Report, while my Dad listened to Limbaugh.

Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, Drudge, and others of that ilk fabricate and distort routinely; they are entertainers, not journalists, and certainly not academic experts. They are looking to drive up viewership ratings (which drive up advertising rates). But in terms of actual facts, these outlets are more like the National Enquirer than they are like USA Today. Senko discovered that a lot of those nasty right-wing emails (which have become shared Facebook posts or memes in the era of social media) with stories from “regular folks” who just wanted the recipient “to know” what liberals are up to were “written by a bunch of guys sitting in a room at some right-wing think tank, made to sound as if an ‘average Joe’ wrote them.”

Gosh, it all sounded so familiar. Senko described it as a nightmare for the family; it was like Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The Senkos no longer recognized ther dad.

In the documentary, Senko goes on to explain the historical reasons for the rise of propaganda in politics (it really got a leg up in Nixon’s presidential campaign) and how the players of that game manipulate the talking points you hear across the board from Limbaugh to Fox to Breitbart and on and on. It’s a concerted effort to mislead; that “vast right-wing conspiracy” really is a thing. When Ronald Reagan killed the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, it opened the floodgate of poison that the moneyed right-wing spews. (And make no mistake, money is always the issue.)

Senko explains this history in detail, interviewing several experts, including including Noam Chomsky, CNN’s Reese Schonfeld, progressive talk radio host Thom Hartmann, media critic Jeff Cohen, Media Matters founder David Brock, and Republican political consultant Frank Luntz. The Daily Beast notes,

It’s also a densely packed, sometimes overstuffed examination of how shrewd strategists engineered a long-term takeover of the media on behalf of the GOP, arguing that right-wing think tanks, advocacy groups, and media outlets together achieved what the left has always refused, or been unable, to do: manipulate the minds of America.

With decades of ground to cover, Senko nails some choice sound bites from her interviewees. Luntz, the spin doctor who helped Newt Gingrich twist estate tax into “death tax” and the Bush administration turn global warming into “climate change,” unabashedly reveals how he polls plebes for keywords that frighten them the most and points out how Fox News anchors use hand gestures to subliminally connect with their viewers.

Senko also explains the neurology of brainwashing in general and of the negative talking points phenomenon specifically: alarm is addictive, and repetition of the same messages transform the hearer’s brain.

The whole thing was shocking. I was raised to be fair, tell the truth, to treat others the way I would want to be treated (with kindness and respect, among other things). I was raised to be competitive, to go after the things I wanted, but that winning in and of itself was not the goal. “Winning at all costs” is not the sort of human being I was raised to be.

Nor was my brother. And yet …

Watching this documentary gave me some peace of mind and allowed me to sleep for the first time in days. I like research. I like logic and facts. And here, at last, was a reason that my once friendly, gentle, kind brother has turned into an angry repeater of lies. Senko reports that hundreds of people have gotten in touch with her with their own stories. I could be one of them.

Instead, I’m writing about it. I finally decided that if I don’t get this out of my system, it will poison me. I have been journaling, writing, blogging my whole life, trying to make sense of life, so this is nothing new. As I’ve said before about this blog, it’s a lot about travel, but really it’s about my good life, my fortunate life. This is a part of it. Watching this video helped me, and if you are worried and upset about these issues, it might help you too.

(I’ll note here that I no longer engage with my brother; I no longer try to direct him to factual information. You’ve heard that old Robert Heinlein quote, yes? “Never try to teach a pig to sing. It wastes your time and annoys the pig.” That’s where I’m at.)

* Note: A previous version of this essay indicated both were insured by the ACA, but only my brother’s wife is.

** My husband Gerry’s frail eighty-six-year-old mother is worried that if Trump wins, Gerry will be deported to Ireland. She shouldn’t have to worry about things like this and we’re surprised this level of detail has made it across the Atlantic, but such is the state of affairs right now.

It’s a Dog’s Life

We got a dog.


Suzy. (Note: you can enlarge any photo by clicking on it, and clicking again.)

We’d known we were going to get a dog (that is, rescue one, of course): Gerry’d had to leave his dog, Cleo, behind in Dublin, and, as he has been telling my felines Laddie, Spot, and Bean for the last fourteen years, he’s “a dog man.” So it was always a plan. Gerry and I both grew up with dogs (in my case, dogs and cats); it had only been since I was divorced that my pet roster narrowed to cats only.

The cats ignored Gerry’s “I’m a dog man” line and climbed into his lap all the same. Bean, in particular, is quite fond of him, and his lap is the only one Spot will sit in. The cats weren’t concerned about our dogged plans.

But Gerry began to follow a dog rescue group based in Cookeville, and that’s how we found our Suzy in the last week of March. She’d been abandoned by her male owner (a backyard breeder, apparently) just two weeks before we adopted her. We don’t know much about her past, other than he’d bred her very young, twice (she’s about three). We think he may have been mean to her. She was frightened when we picked her up at a meet-and-greet at Petco in Cookeville—timid, resigned, and anxious. Before we left the store we bought food and a bowl, a collar and leash, a crate and nice pad for it.

In those first days, she retreated to her crate a lot.

Suzy, first week, in her crate.

Suzy, first week, in her crate. It’s her safe place, of course … but she looks so sad.

She was (and is) very well-behaved, but so, so sad. I used to tell people if you looked up the definition of hangdog in the dictionary, you’d see a picture of Suzy. It was heartbreaking. She was OK … but so sorrowful. We’ll probably never know why.

Gerry started taking her on a long nice walk every day. And she got to know the cats. Spot was the first to come around, within hours. He could tell she wasn’t a threat. It took Laddie four or five days; he swatted her the first time she got too close, and after that she averted her face every time she saw him. Bean—our frail, sometimes cranky female—was a little harder nut to crack, but now even she is fine with Suzy.

The ongoing familiarization process with Suzy and Bean. Gerry is so patient.

The ongoing familiarization process with Suzy and Bean. Gerry is so patient.

Gerry spent plenty of time with Suzy, telling her how much we appreciated her. They watched a lot of TV in the man cave.

Well, one of them watched.

Well, one of them watched.

She fell into the routine of our household … feeding, walks, the cats’ habits, hanging out with Gerry, going for rides in the car (she loves that). We saw that she was comfortable with visitors—any friend of ours is a friend of Suzy’s—but she doesn’t jump up on anyone or otherwise invade a human’s personal space. She is a Lab, obviously, and we learned that she is a “yellow Dudley” Lab (that brown nose, her pale eyes). It was clear that she was getting comfortable, less worried.

Gerry spent a lot of time bonding with her.

Gerry spent a lot of time bonding with her.

He plays with her, talks with her.

He played with her, talked with her.

She hangs pretty close to him. She likes me OK—but Gerry she loves.

She hangs pretty close to him. She likes me OK—but Gerry she loves.

She even hung out in the office when we were working. (Actually, when Gerry was working there. My presence was immaterial.) 🙂

Suzy in the office with Laddie and Bean.

Suzy in the office with Laddie and Bean. 

But I kept hoping she was happy, that she would quit worrying the other shoe was about to drop and relax into a home that was all hers. I kept hoping for a “smile” from Suzy. And finally … she did.

Yeah, we think she’s happy.

Yeah, we think she’s happy.

We’ve learned Labs are always hungry. Suzy scours the floors every day for crumbs that might have fallen. She doesn’t miss a trick: I dropped a raw egg once and it was gone in a second. I didn’t even know she was close by, but there she was, slurping it up before I could tear off a paper towel. She ate a big hunk of dropped watermelon not too long ago. That said, she seems to be trustworthy around food. We don’t give her too much temptation but she hasn’t shown any inclination to put her paws on the counter or table. She is well-mannered, though I fear it may be that those manners come at a price paid to someone else who wasn’t very nice about it.

She’s a very quiet dog, doesn’t vocalize much. But she does bark when she sees a stranger on the front porch or a dog walking by on the street with one of our neighbors (there are windows by the front door, and she enjoys looking out). She doesn’t play—doesn’t chase balls or Frisbees, doesn’t play tug-o-war. We can only imagine that she doesn’t know how, or that play was discouraged. Gerry tries, every so often. The tennis ball just sits forlornly where it landed until one of us picks it up and stores it in the garage until the next moment we get hopeful.

Suzy does chase squirrels, though, and patrols the backyard constantly on the lookout for them. She sees them from inside and goes right to the back door, on high alert.

Squirrels, beware! Suzy is determined!

Squirrels, beware! Suzy is determined!

Earlier this year—and early in her tenure with us—she got out of the house, loose without a leash … the gate left open once, slipped out the front door once. In both cases, she was easily corralled; she only was running around with glee, playing chase with us in the yard next door. I don’t think she wants to get too far away; she just likes to run, to blow it out. She runs every morning in the backyard too. She does her business, and then she just revs up her motor and runs back and forth across the yard a few times.

Suzy also loves riding in the car. Window open.

Car selfie with Suzy.

Car selfie with Suzy.

When the weather was cooler we took her with us all the time, because she could hang out in the car. Now it’s too hot for that but we do take her for a ride every Friday morning, before 7am, to the farmers market, which is on a nice piece of land with a pond. This started simply as a leashed walk in a different place, but then we wondered … could we let her off the leash?

Why, yes, yes, we can let her off the leash. She runs, yes, but she stays in our orbit. She has no interest in being separated from us.

Why, yes, yes, we can let her off the leash. She runs, yes, but she stays in our orbit. She has no interest in being separated from us.

She found the pond in no time, and when we took her back the next Friday, it was like she couldn’t believe her good fortune. What? The pond again? Her joy was palpable; she ran back and forth along the wet edge, getting faster and faster.

This is not a great photo but you can see her speed: those are splashes behind her, where she has just been.

This is not a great photo but you can see her speed: those are splashes behind her, where she has just been.

It was only later that she took a dip.

It was only later that she took a dip.

Now we travel with towels.

Getting dried off.

Getting dried off.

This dog. She delights us. And perhaps the sweetest thing is her friendship with Spot the cat. Spot was a feral rescue (yes, truly feral, not stray: there is a difference), and though he has tried, he has never truly integrated with our other two cats. His body language is all wrong; he doesn’t “speak” cat, at least not the dialect of cat that Laddie and Bean speak. But with Suzy—who we suspect may have never had an animal friend, either—he can just be himself. Remember, he accepted her the very first day.

Now they have each other, these outsiders. They are friends. They play. They walk around the yard together. Spot has figured out the time and duration of Gerry and Suzy’s morning walk, and when they return to the house, he is waiting (having been fed and allowed out about sixty minutes earlier) on the porch to greet them.

Sometimes he comes out to greet her, sometimes he waits for her to come to him.

Sometimes Spot comes out to greet her, sometimes he waits for her to come to him. Here she pulls Gerry in her haste to see her buddy.

They bump noses.

They bump noses.

It’s very sweet, this friendship. They often find each other in the backyard. Sometimes they play (Suzy on her elbows with her butt in the air).

This is the beginning of play action. It may not look like much, but …

This is the beginning of play action. It may not look like much, but …

… maybe this photo tells a little more of the story. :)

… maybe this photo tells a little more of the story. 🙂

More often, though, it’s just a quiet stroll around the yard. Spotty usually leads the way, with Suzy following alongside.

“Fancy meeting you here,” she says, her tail wagging.

“Fancy meeting you here,” she says, her tail wagging.

This was the last photo in a series in which they started under the tree and walk all the way around the yard.

This was the last photo in a series in which they started under the tree and walked all the way around the yard. Side by side.

We got Suzy on March 27th, so we haven’t quite had her four months. But you can see in the later photos how her facial expressions and demeanor have changed. She is more doglike, alert. Alive. We pray that she has forgotten her horrible beginning, that the peace and pleasure of her life now is all she thinks of, though we’ll never know for sure. We’re so glad she is ours. Our good dog.

Suzy watching television with Gerry. (You think she’s sleeping but look again at the tail.)

Suzy watching television with Gerry. (You think she’s sleeping but look again at the tail.)


The Christmas Ornament (Part 1 of 3)

I’ve always had a thing for Christmas ornaments. (And decorations, but that’s another story entirely. Nothing that moves, sings, or must be blown up or otherwise requires a generator, thankyouverymuch.) Over the years I’ve collected all manner of ornaments (and things I’ve turned into ornaments), but I know my delight in special ornaments and the traditions related to them was … well, born with me.

That is, my parents had an ornament tradition before I came along. They were DIY people, and for their very first Christmas (1951)—my father was a college student at the time, and money was tight—my father made three ornaments with names on them.


(Beau was the dog.)

To do this, Daddy dipped a quarter-inch paintbrush in glue, hand-lettered each name in block letters (he’d studied as a draftsman; his printing was beautiful) on a large gold glass ornament, then sprinkled silver glitter over it. When I was born, he made another: JAMIE.

It doesn’t look like much now, I know. But I do treasure it.

It doesn’t look like much now, I know. But I do treasure it.

Sister Jill and brother Jon each got an ornament in due time. My father enlisted with the United States Air Force not long after his and Mom’s first Christmas; he was sent to Officers’ Candidate School (OCS), learned to fly both fixed-wing and rotary-operated aircraft, and was subsequently moved all over the country (and into Canada).

Things get broken in moves like these. One by one, all the other name ornaments were broken—but not mine. When I left the house at eighteen, I took it with me.

I still have it. I no longer hang it on a tree, but I do display it. Carefully. 🙂