Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Shitty Kitty Solutions

“Hey, you could sell that.”  It was my niece, Olivia, speaking.   She was up for the weekend before heading off to Nottingham, and had come to drop off Dr. Linus Blueberry, an athletic tabby with a penchant for bullying cats, dogs and the occasional llama. 

We were both considering the finished product sitting on the sawdust-strewn garage floor.  About the size of a case of wine, I had built it out of lumber scraps and some cedar tongue and groove I had lying around. 
It was, for better or worse, a litter box and I’d build 20 more of them before finally calling it quits and closing up shop last week.
“On Etsy,” she continued.
“Oh,” I said. 
I’m not going to lie.  I knew what Etsy was.  I’d bought a beautiful cable-knit hot water bottle cover from the site last Christmas for Catherine.  It had been made by blind women, knitting in the warm light of the whale oil lamp, on a bleak and storm-ravaged islet of the Outer Hebrides. 
I wasn’t sure Etsy was the place for me. 
And if it was, I was reluctant to admit it.
But she had a point.  The litter box was, well, pretty cool.

I know.  Most normal people buy their litter boxes.  Only lunatics spend hours cutting, gluing and sanding their own, custom-made, kitty-shit boxes.  And I do realize that what you are reading right now only adds to the considerable weight of evidence that I have lost my mind…that I have pitched my tent in the lunatic camp.  I mean, when it comes to proof of being crazy, what is the difference between a shit-ton and a preponderance, anyway?  In this one instance, however, I’m not nuts.  Really.  I’m serious.

You need proof?
Have you met Indy?
Well, Indy is THE REASON.

Situated at the end of the long trail of chewed up remotes, cereal boxes, headphones, LEGO, tampons, or anything else you’ve baked, saved, wanted, loved or have been looking for all week, there’s our devilishly handsome springer spaniel.  He’s gone through every screen and dug every hole.  This dog’s no stranger to the cops either, having been picked up by the Greenwich, Cambridge, Niskayuna, Ithaca and New York State police.  Over the course of one week, he managed to kill, maim or disappear ALL of our neighbor’s chickens.  They found him trapped in their coop.  That crime spree got him a place, with distinction, on the county list of dangerous dogs.  There was the time he gobbled down two pounds of pizza dough, which transformed the dog into a stumbling, fumbling, four-legged whiskey still.  Had to get his stomach pumped like a goddamn college kid!  He’s into the garbage, the laundry and loves the new sofa (especially when he’s wet).  Don’t leave candy wrappers in your jacket or Indy will reduce that high-tech Patagonia, Marmot or NorthFace shell to so many brightly-colored Gore-Tex ribbons! 

But if there’s one thing that Indy likes best of all, it’s litter-breaded cat turds.  So, while many of us are introduced to the concept of responsibility through the chore of litter box cleaning, our kids remained blissfully deprived.  That chore never needed doing.  Ever.  Thanks to Indy, it was always clean.  I’ll confess that I probably wouldn’t have minded except for the fact that he’d celebrate his vice by shuffling around the house with a little kitty poo cigar dangling from his lip.  He looked like a canine Winston Churchill.

So when our aged and humorless cat, Natalie, finally kicked the bucket (with a little help from Dr. Gray), we maintained a brief but respectful period of catlessness.  But then the kids began dropping 40-megaton hints about a replacement.  We were, they argued, engaged in a simmering ground war against a small but persistent force of rodents and a kitty surge, as they called it, was just what we needed.  But it was the image of Indy snarfing down kitty McNuggets that dulled this argument and drew a tepid response from us parents.  If we were going to upgrade to kitty 2.0, we had to figure out a way to keep Indy from burgling turds.  And when an online search produced a litter box from Milan promising to foil Fido AND look remarkably like a Ferrari, there was a brief moment of consideration before the price was discovered.  Catherine got no argument from me when she said, sweetly, “No way are we spending two hundred dollars on a litter box.”

Instead, I built one, myself, took its picture and sold it on Etsy for two hundred and fifty dollars.

They sold but, thankfully, they didn’t sell that well.  Thankfully because I needed some off-the-books cash for a Boston Whaler I’d recently acquired.  And thankfully because a part of me worried that this was it.  That my ship would come in and I would owe everything; my condo in Vail, studio in Paris, flat in London, yurt on the Mongolian steppe, my fleet of tasteless cars and boats…to cat shit.  A fortune built on the sale of litter boxes to sad, lonely cat people who need an intervention more than my overpriced feline paraphernalia.  I’m sure I’d rather toil in obscurity.  I’m quite happy doing that, after all.  I never heard Sisyphus whine or moan about his day at the office, after all.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Jane Garrett Deathe, 1943 - 2012

The following is the eulogy delivered at the service held in Jane's memory at Sage Chapel on Cornell's campus, Ithaca, New York, on November 24, 2012.  Although I am uncomfortable with the idea of posting eulogies online, the idea of sharing the memory of my mother-in-law, my wife's mother and my children's grandmother gives me such comfort.
A Eulogy for Jane Garrett Deathe
When Catherine first brought me to Ithaca, it was to meet her parents.  We hadn’t known each other long.  Murray, for his part, regarded me with the appropriate amount of skepticism due any ponytailed, Subaru-driving hippie-type with designs on his daughter.  But Jane, from the first hug, took me in.  From that moment on, I was part of the family as far as she was concerned.   She made me feel so special, so loved.  So, so loved.
But that was how it was with Jane.  She loved people.  She took them in.  She took them in to her family and she loved them. 
And we loved her.
Almost twenty years have passed since then and I, like you, am having an enormous amount of trouble just believing that this is real.  That this has happened. 
And I, like you, am made sad by her passing.
But it is a great comfort to be here with you.  It’s a comfort because it affirms with a force greater than her death, the reality of Jane’s love.  You are all the proof.  It is Jane’s love that binds us permanently, indelibly together in a vast and diverse network.  And it is again a comfort to know that here and now, although Jane’s life may have ended, her love will continue on.  It is here, now.
Jane loved Murray.  He thanks the alphabet for bringing them together, quite literally.  There being no one in grade eleven French with a last name beginning with an E or an F, Garret followed Death in the seating chart.  And so Jane sat directly behind Murray. 
She couldn’t ignore me, Murray always says but anyone who has seen pictures of Murray and Jane from those days knows that they made a stunning couple.  They learned very little French but they made a stunning couple.
That was the fall of 1961. 
And that is when their adventure began. 
Jane loved Murray.  And when he along with more than a handful of Canadian boys left for The States in 1963 to play hockey at Cornell, she followed him, driving a Volkswagen Bug that her father had given her down to Ithaca whenever she could.  It was here that she met Robin and Jay, who, like Jane, had Canadian boyfriends playing for the Big Red.
Things happen.  Murray and Jane married in 1965 and the doctors’ suspicions were confirmed with the birth of the twins, Catherine and Barbara, that following year. 
Jane became a mother.
A mom. 
And Jay and Robin became Aunt Jay and Aunt Robin. 
Their boyfriends, David and Errol, became uncles too. 
Murray and Jane became Mom and Dad. 
Jane, with every cell and sinew, every beat of her heart, became Mom.
And the Volkswagen Bug was sold and became a Dune Buggy.
But that wasn’t enough.  Jane wasn’t done.  She was only beginning.  In fall of 1971 Sandra was born and along with the twins, they, Jane, Catherine, Barb and Sandra, became “The Girls”.
Barb and Catherine grew up and went to college.  Sandra, five years younger, stayed home and made sure that Jane kept very busy.
Catherine met me and Sandra met Jason and we, Jason and I, became her boys.  She loved us.  We were her sons.
Then Mom became Grandma Jane.  First, to Chloe and then Jesse, Marcus and another Jane Frances.  This new incarnation of Jane threw herself into her role as grandmother with the energy of a teenager and, again, a love that was boundless.
All the while, Jane had been lacing a multi-spoked and rolling wheel of friendships, too.  The other mothers she met had become the dinner group.  And Jane and Murray’s house became a refuge, a home away from home, for all manner of people.  A warm bed for a week, a home-cooked meal on a Thursday night or a room for a month or two, it didn’t matter what you needed, what your politics were, Jane took you in.  Gave you a ride.  Jane loved you and gave you a pillow and a blanket and shared a glass of wine, a cup of coffee, a homemade cookie or maybe five or six.  Jessica and Kevin, Julia and Andy, and still unnamed others, she listened to your stories, the longer the better, and left a light on for you if you were coming home late.
She loved you, too.
She loved stories.  But it was her story we all enjoyed so much.  It was a story of love.  It was a love story.  A great and wonderful love story.
But as with any great love story with each page that turns you know you are closer to the end.  But still you can’t put it down.  And then you come to the end and you are changed.
And we are all changed. 
Because of her life story. 
Because of her love story.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Una selva selvaggia

Una selva selvaggia. 

Translation: a savage forest.  It’s from Danté Aligheri’s Divine Comedy.  My understanding of it is hazy at best having struggled through layer after layer of The Inferno as a freshman studying Italian.  No doubt my professor’s idea of a little joke.  Ha, ha!
What I got out of it besides a shoe box containing 16,737 vocabulary flash cards and a well-worn Italian-English dictionary was that Danté had it all figured out; life is Hell and there’s plenty more where that came from.
Una selva selvaggia.  I love to say it.  Such a beautiful language.
I have been wondering what happens to students if they can’t make it in the alternative program.  Is it like The Inferno?  Different levels of Hell arranged in succession further and further away from the good place, wherever or whatever that is?  If you can’t handle it here, then where do you go?  Misbehave in class and you sit in the hall.  Do it enough and you sit in the office.  If that’s not enough, then the principal explains the meaning of life to you through the sports analogies that you may or may not understand; yellow cards, penalty box, infield fly rule.  Too many men on the ice.  Three-second violation.  Offsides.
But if you threaten a teacher?
Well, we had a student.  A skinny kid who moved like a villainous shadow.  Unsettled.  He liked to hum so he sounded like an electrical transformer.  Lots of current ran through that boy.  Dangerous voltage.  But tell him he couldn’t sit here or not to do that and he exploded in a shower of sparks.
He snapped on me one day.  Said he was going to pummel me.  Huffed around the class.  Left.  Returned.  Left again.
He had to meet with the superintendent but he was back after spending a week downstairs sitting in the corner.  He did his work.  Best work I’ve ever seen out of him.
But he snapped again with an aide.  Then again with another teacher.
Then what happens?  I mean, there’s not much you can do.
I tend to think he should be sent to someplace where he might find out what it is to be tired, very tired.  To know tired intimately.  To explore all the kinds of tired.  A potato farm upstate.   A lumber camp in the Maine woods.  Another level of Hell that will make all the others seem downright comfy.  I forget who it was who said it but she thought it might actually be a waste of time to put middle school-aged boys in a classroom.  I forget but she was a famous educator.  It was someone well-respected.  Someone who wrote books on education.
Send them to a farm, she said. 
We got word that he was out.  That he had officially been labeled ‘unteachable.”  I didn’t know there was such a label.  I didn’t know there was such a thing.
What was going to happen to him?  The 3-5 program was a possibility.  He would sit with a tutor for two hours a day at the town library.  Then again, he might go back to the regular middle school although I found it difficult to believe.
But on Monday, there he was hopping out of his father’s car as though nothing had happened.  Had a long talk leaning through the window of his father’s Kia .  Dad assured me his son was ready to come back.
“He’s going to do good, now,” he said, pausing to take a long pull on a cigarette.  “I explained to him that he needs to just do what he’s supposed to do.  Say he’s sorry and he won’t do it again.”
I said my good-byes, made my way down the hall and poked my head inside a classroom to see how this kid was getting on with turning over that new leaf.
“That is such bullshit,” he was saying.  “I didn’t do hardly nothing and I got four days suspension.”
Some things get lost in translation.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Lifeboat

This was the one where the ship, after striking an iceberg, went down leaving thirty survivors adrift on the arctic sea in a lifeboat designed for a third that number.
In order to weather the oncoming storm, so the story went, the captain ordered most of the survivors overboard.
His reasoning? Better sacrifice some in order that others may survive. The curveball was that the captain kept the strongest while the weak went into the drink.
I don’t know if he had tryouts but there was a long row ahead for the survivors so he chose the ones he thought were up to the task.
It’s a moral dilemma. We presented the choice, one teacher and I, to a class of seventh-graders.
“Have you ever heard of a choice ‘between a rock and a hard place’,” my co-teacher asked. “Or 'the lesser of two evils', 'between the devil and the deep blue sea', 'between Scylla and Charybdis'?” The students’ expressions ranged from blank to confusion.
“Hobson’s choice?” I added unhelpfully.
On Friday, we do this kind of thing, weather permitting. We call it ‘Peer Relations Friday’. Cooperative games, mock trials, anything that might help these kids learn how to work together instead of tear each other down day after day.
“What would you do?” We asked. “Was the captain right?”
Many students refused to accept the choice. One suggested that the extra survivors could be tied together and hung overboard. We had a lengthy discussion about hypothermia and of how long a person could survive in frigid water. Immediately afterward, another student proposed the survivors take turns swimming. Again, an explanation of hypothermia. But the students had made up their minds and that hypothermia stuff is just more mumbo-jumbo from a grownup’s lips.
“But I can swim mad long in cold water,” another student insisted to cheers from the rest.
Much of what adults tell them is viewed with suspicion. It’s all a plot. A diabolical trick to get them to become old and ugly like us. It’s not time that makes you an old fart, it’s information punctuated by regular punishment for no apparent reason that makes your hair grow gray and fall out, makes your breasts, buttocks and jowels succumb to cruel gravity, makes you groan when you get up from a chair.
Their view, not mine.
But they may have a point.
Another student, the small one wearing impossibly tight clothes said, “I’d punch the captain in the mouth!” She knotted her tiny fist and punched an imaginary captain to emphasize her point.
I began to rethink the value of these ‘Peer Relations Fridays’...

“I have the list right here,” my co-teacher said in the teacher meeting the next morning. “But you all know who’s on it.” Yes, we did. We had our own lifeboat dilemma and the list represented the students we were giving up on. There was no hope for them and their presence in the classroom reduced everybody’s chance for survival; students and teachers alike.
So we made a class of the cast-offs.  Castaways.
We consigned them to a fate of being with each other so that the other kids, the ones willing to do a little work, to sit in their seats, to keep to themselves and allow the educational process to have a fighting chance. We ordered them overboard.
In the lifeboat dilemma, the captain was right. At least he was right in that the remaining people, the ones he chose, survived. Unfortunately, the story they told landed the captain in court charged with 20 counts of murder. The real dilemma wasn’t the captain’s. It was the jury’s in the courtroom.
Was he or was he not guilty of murder?

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Are you really shocked?

First Sandusky at Penn State, then Bernie Fine at Syracuse.  People are shocked.  I just asked the man on the street.  He said, “I’m shocked.”
It feels like deja-vu to me.
Anybody remember Ted Washburn?  I didn’t think so.  He taught seventh- and eighth-grade English at Buckingham, Browne and Nichols.
My school.
Amazing teacher.
He had these assignments called Slide-Tapes.  Students were allowed to pick a slide, choose music to go with it, write a blank verse poem and record the whole thing in his a recording studio to be mixed and then played for the class on Fridays over the awesome stereo.  There were different rules for different Slide-Tapes.  In one, you couldn't use the verb; to be in any form.  It was straight description.  Mr. Washburn wrote his own textbook.  We read Lord of the Flies and Dandelion Wine.
He also molested some of the boys and maybe the girls, I don’t know.  Gave them Penthouse and Hustler to read.  Got them all hot and bothered and suggested ways he could help them feel better.
It went on for years.  Twenty years.
The reason it’s deja-vu is that Ted Washburn also coached the Freshman Crew at Harvard.  Perhaps it’s not Division I football but in Cambridge, Massachusetts, rowing is a big deal and Harvard rowing is bigger by a magnitude of about ten.
What happened?
It was buried.  My school swept it under the rug in the principal’s office.  The Boston Globe ran some articles on it but mostly what they reported was the story of a man who raped little boys and got away with it because his father was famous (Brad Washburn mapped the Grand Canyon, Everest and, more or less, started the Boston Museum of Science).  Mike Barnicle’s column was the exception, sort of.
What I remember of Ted Washburn was that he was a really gifted teacher but I have mentioned that already.
What I also remember was that I was invisible to him.  At the end of the year he gave out awards.  The El Toro Award, given to the boy whose voice had dropped the most (Seth) consisted of a plastic bull standing about eight inches tall with a shriveled balloon dangling between its legs.  The Land O’ Lakes Award was given to the girl whose breasts developed the most.  Did you know that you can cut around the little box held by the Land O’ Lakes Indian girl to make a little flap, then cut out her bare knees and paste them behind the flap so when you look behind the butter it looks like she’s baring her boobs?  Well, that was the trophy.  Valerie won.  She seemed thrilled at the time.  I found out later that she was anything but.
There were lots more awards.  But not one for every kid.  Of course, being the paragon of mediocrity that I was in seventh-grade, I didn’t even get an honorable mention.  Nothing.
So I lied.  I was good at that.  I came home and proudly announced to my parents that I had won the Bullshit Award.  The fact that I did not have the trophy, a spray can with the word Bullshit stenciled on the side, did not keep them from buying the lie hook, line and sinker.  Problem was, they were not impressed.  My father particularly.  I don’t remember how many times that lie came back to bite me as it would take years for me to live down the bullshitter label.
Which is worse: to be a bullshitter or to win the award?  Although Mr. Washburn didn’t know it, I was probably the most deserving student he had.
But here’s the thing.  When the news about Ted Washburn finally dribbled out, I was, unlike the man in the street, not shocked.  Although I had no idea what was going on, there was still something off about Mr. Washburn.  The emotion I felt was very complicated.  You see, Mr. Washburn did horrible things and ruined several boys’ late childhood or early adulthood.  But Mr. Washburn chose the popular boys, the smart boys, the good-looking boys.  In some strange way, hearing the news that Mr. Washburn was a pedophile wasn’t as hurtful as knowing that I was not one of the boys that he wanted.
Saved by mediocrity.  It’s about as mixed a blessing as there ever was.