Monday, October 29, 2007

On the roof

This guy leaves his household in the care of a petsitter, and half-way through his vacation, he gets an email. The subject is:
"Your cat's dead."
The guy is so upset, he emails back and says: "You can't break news to me like that! You should break it to me gently...first tell me that my cat's on the roof and you can't get him down, and then the next day tell me that the cat ran away, and then, only then, tell me that the cat is dead. I loved that cat, I raised it from a kitten."
He gets no reply for a few days, and then a response that says:
"Sorry about that last email. By the way, your dad's on the roof and I can't get him down."


We've returned from Copenhagen for the first and probably last time. It's hard to tell this story without the whole of it. It's hard to make sense of the ending without the backstory - and the backstory is ugly: many players, many years, many drunken, violent nights, many hungry, fearful days.

How is a death so good as this? A man dies painlessly while doing something that he enjoyed, surrounded by friends and a loving second wife of twenty years, by children who were not his own, by step-grandchildren whom he taught to make palachinkas? We arrived and were so gracious, so sympathetic to his widow and his sister. They, suffering the loss of the everyday contact - the caring phone calls, and the loving embraces, the pleasant strolls - their tears are hot and insistent.

On this side, it's stranger and more twisted. Why them? Why did we rush across the ocean and sleep in exorbitant Danish hotels like guilty schoolchildren running in after last bell? Why did we pretend their pain was more important than ours? They'd had him. All those years that he was a nasty jackass, a distant, bad connection in a distant, bad accent, it turns out he was having birthday picnics on the Danish seaside with a little girl he claimed as grandaughter. Turns out he was spending the evening in pleasant conversation with an extended family of people we really liked and who really liked us. Did we miss some vital clue? How do you trust when one line is: "I'll take the children and hide them in Croatia, and you'll never, ever see them again," and the next is: "Eh, girls, come to Europe for summer vacation." When one line is: "Vlado, the fucking Americans are calling for money again," and the next is: "Will you help carry your father's coffin?"

The Polish priest welcomed us specifically in deliberate English, and we sat silent and apart during the never-ending Danish hymns, and Sarah and Alexis carried the middle - right and left - stumbling shuffling slowly with old men, and then he was gone, and then the bell tolled, and then we had terrible Danish coffee and heard how loving he'd been, how supportive, and we smiled and nodded and thought:

But you see, it's not my story. I mean it's really not my story, and it's not my question. I wonder it from the third person, I ask like it's one of those interesting family mysteries, and I hurt - not from the empty, final wonder of it, but from the shrapnel, the fallout, the mushroom cloud of shit that this man let fly over my own heart. I sit and bear witness, and I hold aloft in warm water, I listen, cheeks flushed with congenial drink to conversation around a dinner table, I kiss (three times) and hug and wave and wave to windows, but I know the story's not mine.


So, the joke goes like this:

A young man goes away to school, and he meets a beautiful American girl with china skin. He woos her and gets her and they have two tiny daughters, sharp as tacks. The girls know lots of things, right from the beginning. Things like when to call the police, when to hide the wine, and when to call overseas and beg for grocery money. The father is gone, and the children are hungry and they are scared, but they grow anyway - they're afraid, but they're capable, and they make lives for themselves that are stable and safe. It takes years and years, but they are finally able to reach out, to try and find some thread of connection with this man, this father. They see the value in facing the pain of this history - these daughters are so smart and so brave, they visit, and he's an old man already. Too weak to hurt again. They think this is the start of something, not what they wanted, but enough.

But it's not the start, it's the end. The thing is, you don't recognize the end when it comes - it looks and feels like some new thing, like a second chance.

The end feels just like a beginning, and the beginning like the end...that's the joke.

Funny, right?

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

But what about our joy de vivre?

Vladimir Gustav, aka "Alexis and Sarah's dad" suffered a massive heart attack on October 16th, Alexis's birthday. He was brought to the hospital where they resuscitated and cooled him, but when they warmed him up his brain function just wasn't there. The funeral is on Friday in Copenhagen, we're flying out tomorrow.

We saw him one year ago exactly...stayed with him in Zagreb, in his childhood home. He was a brilliant jackass, the embarrassing uncle, a man who made inappropriate jokes at the table and then sat smiling, smoking, and drinking - pleased with himself - while we rolled our eyes and shifted uncomfortably. He was a nonchalant father, taking Alexis on strange drunken camping trips, and letting her ride clinging to the top of the car on the way home. He was so hard and mean for most of his life...but by the time I really met him last year, he was soft and bleached and unintimidating - hopping on and off the city trams and gesturing with his pipe in annoyance.

How do you feel when this happens? You don't mourn the man, really, you mourn what the man could have been. I had planned to make Alexis make him drag us through Denmark, through France again, through more of his Croatian haunts. Who knew that you really do run out of time.

Who knew?

Sunday, October 07, 2007

No, your other left...

You probably know already that I have no innate conception of left and right. I mean, I understand the basic premise and, with some thought, can often come up with the correct answer; but in stressful situations - driving, giving directions, etc - I usually start off with the wrong option.

As you might imagine, this leads to great hilarity in busy intersections and at the end of drives (I once sent my sister the wrong way on my street after an 11-hour drive from Minneapolis, luckily she is both smart and suspicious enough to have questioned my assertion).

It turns out, Alexis has a similar block at airports. There's always been this thing about Arriving and Departing that we get into just as the road is splitting and we're blocked in by speeding rental car shuttles:

"We're arriving at the airport."

"No, you're departing."

"That's ridiculous, we are just getting here."

Now, this makes sense in a sort of literal interpretation of dialectic and temporal issues...perhaps things need to be more carefully described as if acknowledging the complex interplay of actors where A=arrive, and D=depart:

The dropper-offer = A(airport), D(for home)
The flyer-upper = A(airport), D(for afar)

and later...

The picker-upper = A(airport), D(for home)
The flyer-downer = A(airport), D(for home)

You know, it is more complicated than I'd originally suspected, all the routes save one are identical...yet the experience of each party at each moment is vastly different. This requires some sort of phenomenological, rather than discursive interpretation.

What I didn't suspect is that this alternative definition of arrive/depart would skew all further communication as the trip progressed. On the way back, standing in the airport, the good doctor was asked:

"Is Denver your final destination?"

"No, no," pause and slightly increased volume for clarity, since luggage was delayed on the first leg "I'm going to San Diego!"

All heads in the San Diego airport turn in confusion.

"I mean Detroit. Sorry."


See, it's at these moments of juncture, when fast response is needed, that we're knocked slightly off the firm base of what we know we're supposed to think or say, and what's revealed is the fact that we haven't got a firm grasp of these modern conventions. Not a firm grasp at all.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Lookit my gorgeous sis!

...and the No-bo traveling upright like a big kid! (Well, maybe not so big or so upright...he's listing considerably.)

It just ain't right...

I volunteered to help with an event coming up that will pay for PhD applicants from underrepresented groups to come spend a few days checking out our program in the hope that they'll apply. Somehow I ended up on the team evaluating the 28+ people who're applying to attend this thing, and one of the criteria I'm evaluating is their GRE scores.

Let me repeat...I'm evaluating these poor folk's GRE scores when I myself *refused*, yes, *refused* to repeat the test-taking process. This doesn't seem fair.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

This isn't news to my sister,

but the resemblance is quite surprising.

He has extremely kissable cheeks. When I kiss them, he turns his head, narrows his eyes, and looks at me sideways and suspiciously. It is v. cute.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Our little kitty

We are so terribly sad, and it lifts our hearts to know that Stoat was so well-loved.

We found her baby pictures:

(Do you see why she was called Sad-sad? Look at her eyes!)

(Caught on the couch chewing her own white tail tip.)

Coop kitten!
(Bethany used to communicate with Sad-sad using tiny kitten was the only thing that made her come out from under the bed!)

(She loved Cy's giant, stinky, twisted Birkenstocks.)

We miss you, you sweet and loving fuzzy funny thing.

And then there were five.

Stoatle was hit by a car this morning. I looked out to see if there were painters in the driveway and saw her body and her white-tipped tail in the road directly in front of our driveway...she was headed home from some great adventure, no doubt. I wish we had photos.

We knew this, we've always known that animals die when you let them outside - we've discussed it and we knew. During the summer, Stoat refuses to stay in for any longer than she had to...she'd quack to come in, eat, then quack insistently to go out. She had grubbling to do in the driveways, she had pooping to do in the neighbor's flowerpots, she was her own cat.

We had her from a baby - Alexis heard her one afternoon while walking down State street. She was squeeking and beeping from under a bush, calling out, and when Alexis gave chase, Stoat ran directly into traffic...and Alexis ran directly after her. We brought her home and she slept in the collar of my nightgown for weeks. We named her Sad-sad, and she was a total hit - everybody at the Co-op wanted snuggle time. We had her from the beginning, and maybe this is why she's always been so happy, so self-assured, so purry and batty and rubby and loving.

We buried her in the vegetable patch I'd dug by the garage, in a nest of straw and with notes from us. We wanted to give her a toy, but she didn't play with toys really. The whole world was her playground, she didn't need toys.

This is the story of Sad-sad McGraw,
The saddest kitty you ever saw.
She lost her maw, she hurt her paw...
Went on a bender and broke the law.

You will be missed, my Strudle.