1928 Part 1: Renaissance man

My dad was born 89 years ago today, April 2, in Catania, a small village on the isle of Sicily. Inocenzo (Enzo) Viola was the third child of Giuseppe and Concetina Viola and followed a long line of ancestors who were born, lived, and died on the island. In the early family history, there was a Baron who owned a castle, but he lost his fortune and his castle centuries ago and the castle, that had been turned over to an orphanage, is long gone. The Viola’s of my father’s generation were of modest means. Giuseppe owned a deli and was able to provide for his family that eventually grew to 5: three sons and two daughters.

My father was right in the middle with an older brother and sister and a younger brother and sister. I often thought of him as the “fulcrum,” though others might say the “monkey in the middle.” Not my dad. He was the support, the focus for stability and balance, a fulcrum. Throughout his life, reason, education, and compassion guided his actions. Of course, he had a temper (he was Sicilian after all), but it never got him in trouble and I can’t remember a story or a time where he had serious regrets. Sure, there were times he regretted his anger. One time he got into an argument with a friend at school that led to a broken nose. Another time he became so angry with my brother that he punched a hole in a door rather than hitting his son. He never let his anger take control to the point where he would hurt another person. Raison somehow prevailed.

Most of us identify as being right-brained or left-brained. Dad was both; a true renaissance man of many talents. He was an engineer by trade and earned the moniker “watch-maker” because of his extreme attention to detail and perfection. He could visualize any situation and offer practical solutions that escaped others. His engineering designs were more like works of art than diagrams for oil refineries. This was all before computers. He designed on Mylar paper using colored drafting pencils on a wooden table that tilted to a custom angle. His desk drawer had rulers, protractors, angles…I saw his drawings. If he had erased and redrawn any lines, I couldn’t tell. No smudge marks. No wavy lines. Just perfection.

He had a passion and talent for music, opera specifically, and played the accordion, could sing or hum any tune, and could talk at length about music from a technical or artistic perspective. Do you want to learn about scales, or pitch, or tempos? How about creating harmonies? Let’s talk Beethoven versus Salieri or what about the societal commentaries in operas like “Madame Butterfly” or “The Barber of Seville”?

As for the engineering skills, that was essentially self-taught. By the early 1950’s, Dad had made his way to Brazil where a friend asked him to translate a complete set of engineering volumes (think old-school Encyclopedia Britannica) from Portuguese to English. He did not use computer-aided machine translation, and there was no Google. When he finished the job two years later, he was an expert on the content. That’s how it was done. You learned the material in the source language and rewrote the same concepts and ideas into the target language. The friend offered my dad a job in the U.S. and that’s how he came to America. I’ll get back to that in another chapter.

So, yes, the Sicilian successfully translated highly technical material from Portuguese to English. No, Dad did not attend University to learn either language, nor did he have a degree as a linguist, though he should have been given an honorary degree from somewhere. Dad was fluent in many languages: Italian (of course), Spanish, Portuguese, French, and English…and he could get by in German. I also developed a love for languages, in my case French, and many times we had long discussions on language and etymology and compared French and Italian grammar. His proficiency in English not only landed him a ticket to America, but it also got him married…to my mom.

When he lived in Sao Paulo, he was an English teacher. On one average day in 1956, my dad walked into a class of new students. Poor man never had a chance. He had no idea how his life was about to change. Until that morning, he was living the life a happy-go-lucky Italian bachelor enjoying the Brazilian life and the beautiful women that followed him. Yeah, dad was handsome. Not tall, dark, and handsome, he was only 5’6. But dark, handsome, and sensitive. I think he had three or four girlfriends at the time.

My mom, on the other hand, knew exactly what was to come. In her words, “I took one look at him and knew, he was my man.” Mom was only 17 and attended a private school. She was the daughter of Hans Georg and Marie Louise Stubing, a strict German family who had remained in Brazil to escape the Nazis. Again, that’s another chapter with strange parallels to the world today.

Needless to say, Mom became the best student in the class and Dad, 28 at the time, found himself falling for this fair-haired young lady. Five-foot-two, blue eyes, blond hair, and freckles. Though physically opposite from the olive-skinned, black-haired Italian, with dark eyes that hinted at deep emotion as well as intelligence, these two were perfect for each other. Two souls who collided from different continents in a dingy meeting room on a Saturday morning.

Souls or not, my grandmother was not so sure of this “Italian Stallion” courting her daughter. Until they were almost married two years later, my mother’s younger sister accompanied them on all their dates. Being the clever people they are, little sister was never a problem. They would give her a bag of candy, sit her on a park bench, and off they went. And don’t freak out. This a fairy tale love story worthy of a Disney rating. Above all else, my father honored my mother, so nothing “happened” until they were married. In today’s world, that seems really strange. In Brazil circa 1957, not so much.

Over time, they became one person. They made each other whole. They completed one another. It’s the kind of love story little girls dream about. I often told Mom that she and Dad were a horrible example of a married couple because they existed on a plane that no other couple could possibly attain. Mom would blush and smile. She knew I was right. They were unique. They lived and breathed for each other. I always believed I had one parent, an odd mother/father entity divided into two bodies. Remember the old game we played as kids? If Dad says no, ask Mom? That never worked for me. They were always, ALWAYS on the same team. Right or wrong. They stuck together.

Back in high school I had to clear the dishes from the table every night. One night, I put a spoon back in drawer because no one used it. No need to wash it, right? Wrong.

Dad saw me. “Why are you putting that back? You need to wash it.”

“Why?” I said. “She puts it back in the drawer without washing it.” Oh man. That was the biggest mistake of my young life and it wasn’t about the spoon.

“She? Who is ‘She’?” The vein in his forehead started to swell. “Are you referring to your mother?!” Now that damn thing was throbbing. “Your mother is not a ‘she’ and you do not refer to your mother in the third person. I can’t talk to someone who disrespects her mother.” The Italian temper and love for mother combined with the linguist to form a perfect storm of anger and disgust.

When he left, Mom said I had to apologize. Uh, no. The spoon was not dirty; I was following protocol; “she” in place of “mother” is grammatically correct. No need to apologize, on my part, that is.

During the two weeks that Dad and I didn’t talk, Mom was caught in the middle. “You know,” she said. “I can’t talk to you once he’s home.” Of course, not. I knew that and it was okay. How funny that she could not associate with the “enemy.” I don’t know how it all ended. Did I apologize? Probably. Or maybe Dad just got tired of being angry and splitting the family? Could be. He was a peacemaker, the fulcrum that supported the whole.

They did everything together whenever they could. Of course, dad worked, mom stayed home with us. Business travel was infrequent and when possible, Mom went along. They always vacationed together and the only time Mom went out with friends was when Dad was at work or perhaps on a rare business trip. Retirement can be tough on couples, especially when each has developed their own routines. One has their routines erased and the other finds an intruder. I think my Dad’s retirement was what they had been waiting for since they met. They could now spend every moment of every day together. Their constant companionship was well know in many places from the supermarkets to doctors’ offices and a restaurant at the beach. The owner called them Mr. and Mrs. Wednesday.

In any case, they always stuck together, until August 27, 2016, 11: 15 a.m. Cancer is a terrible and powerful destroyer. It seemed to be the only thing capable of breaking apart these two souls that had been united for 60 years. They survived so much, so much tragedy from World War II to personal tragedies like losing a father at 12, dodging bombs in Genoa, and saying good-bye to a granddaughter they didn’t have enough time to love.

Two souls that existed but for each, who put aside all else, who loved each other in a way that others can only dream about. One day Dad said, “Your mother is in the rose garden and I can’t tell which one is a rose and which one is your mother.” Another time, he looked across the dinner table at Mom and said, “Isn’t she adorable?” (He had mellowed by that time.) They always held hands when they walked together. He always opened the car door for her.

And now, it seems, I have one parent for the first time in my life. The Mother/Father entity has been split. I talk to Mom. I see Mom. But where’s Dad?

I think, I hope, the souls are still as one. That cancer only took the body. Because, how can it separate that which exists in a single plane?

Perhaps, cancer is not the destroyer it pretends to be. Perhaps there is a thing it cannot destroy. That “thing” is the Soul that emerged when a 17-year-old girl said to herself, “He’s my man.”

Is. Not was.

Is.

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Bodge: The best dog I never wanted

I’ve written a few posts about Ty, but it’s time to give the Bodge some time in the spotlight. He is an eight-year-old, 22-pound terrier mix and he’s the dog I never wanted.

His odd name came before we adopted him. Several years back, we had two German Shorthaired Points, Zar and Puma, and because Zar was getting older, we started talking about the need for another dog so Puma wouldn’t be lonely. About that time, my husband and I were walking through Newport Beach, Ca, when I saw a shiney new car.

“Wow, is that the new Dodge? It’s beautiful,” I said.

My husband, a total car guy, cringed and looked around. “Are you crazy? That’s a Bentley!”

“Fine. Whatever. It’s a Bodge,” I said. We looked at each other and  in that moment we had the perfect name for our next dog, whenever that would happen and whatever it would be.

Sadly, Zar crossed the rainbow bridge less than a year later from liver cancer. He lived a long happy life, but left behind a very sad and lonley Puma. After Zar died, she became very anti-social (so not normal for a GSP). She developed separation anxiety so bad that if I went upstairs without her, she would yelp and cry. Essentially, her personality disappeared.

About six months after Zar’s death, we still hadn’t decided on a new puppy, and whether or not we were ready to endure training a puppy and all that goes with it.

But life continued and we tried to keep Puma engaged by taking her with us places as often as possible. One such outing was a trip to the local pet store to buy food. My teenage daughter was with us and, as luck would have it, there was an adoption event that day. In one of the cages were three little puppies, siblings from a German Shorthair mom who had given birth after being abandoned at the shelter. The father was unknown, but looking at the puppies it was likely a terrier of some kind.

They were so cute and their estimated adult size was about 20-25 pounds. Perfect! And I wanted a male. Perfect, there was a male puppy available. His name then, was Spot. Lame. But he was incredibly cute and holding him in my arms was a bit overwhelming.

What would Puma think? Would she like this little guy as her new brother?

I held the puppy in front her. She truned her head toward him, gave him a sniff, and looked at me. “He’ll do fine, Mom.” I could see the tension in her shoulders disappear.

Now I have to call the husband.

“Hi, it’s me. We’re at the pet store.”

Silence.

“We found a puppy.”

Silence.

“Puma seems to like him and he’s a GSP mix. You can say ‘No’ now.”

Sigh from the other end.

“You can say ‘No’ right now.”

“I’m on my way,” was all he said.

When my husband arrived he saw me holding the puppy and my daughter with stars in her eyes. He looked at the puppy’s teeth and said, “He’ll be okay.” He grimaced; I cried.

“You could have said no over the phone,” I said.

“Are you kidding? What chance do I have against you and her?” He’s got a point.

We brought him home and he just fell in love with Puma immediately. As for me, well…I woke up in a panic two nights later. “Oh geez, I have a terrier. I can’t believe I brought home a terrier.”

I never liked terriers. They were small, and yippy, and hyper, and small.

I told my husband he has to go back. I don’t want a terrier. His response was simple. “He’s not a piece of furniture. He’s part of the family now.”

Eight years later and Bodge, of course, is still here. He’s not a yippy little terrier, but the terrier in him can jump six feet straight up when he’s excited. What a guy.

He’s my little Bodgey-wodgey and I wuv him…and so does Ty.

 

 

 

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Ty’s journey has been a bumpy road

The last time I wrote about Ty and his journey with a digestive disorder called EPI was two years ago! We’re in a good place now, as this photo shows, but it has not been an easy road.

Ty at 3.5 years old


Ty

In January 2016, he was diagnosed with epilepsy.

I wish I could say it came without warning, but the truth is he had a few seizures in the middle of the night and we had no idea what had happened. At the time, we only knew that he would wake up in the wee hours of the morning in a panic. Dazed. Confused. Desperate to be held in our arms. (Note: His big brother is a 24-pound terrier, so Ty has no clue how big he really is.)

We thought he’d had a nightmare or dreamed of his girlfriend. Seriously. It was the only explanation we could come up with. Until, of course, I witnessed a full-on grand mal seizure. I was on the phone upstairs in my office when I heard an odd sound. I hung up and looked over the railing to see him having a seizure. When he came out of it 30 seconds later, the crazy behavior started: panic, confusion, and an attempt to jump in my arms. Ouch. The seizures continued all day and he was admitted to the emergency vet overnight for mega doses of phenobarbital to stop the seizures.

He came home the following day, seizure-free but tripped out on drugs like a crack addict. The vets assured us this would wear off in a week or two, but it was tough. And kinda funny in a sad way.

Ty forgot how to do everything. He  wandered until he bumped into something and then  stood there staring at the wall. At night, he needed a crate so he wouldn’t get hurt. He would eat, but the first time we showed him his water bowl, he was surprised when his nose hit the water and jumped back. I knew he was exhaused, but he continued pacing until I physcially put him in a down (he forgot all his commands). Once on the ground, he  slept for hours.

Outside, he was just as confused and looked at us with those big brown eyes asking for help. The first few days, his ball meant nothing. He’d look at it. Watch me throw it. Then look at me, Huh? Poor guy. A few days later, he responded to a “sit” command and when I threw the ball, he chased it a few steps, then wandered off. Progress! Ty was coming out of the fog. Little by little, his memory returned along with his energetic personality and love for his tennis ball. Watching him slowly return was like watching a toddler learn to walk, then run, then talk in quick succession.

Flash-forward to October 2016. If you met Ty today, you would never know the path he’s walked. From January to May he continued with intermittent seizures until we got the dose correct. He has been seizure-free since May (knock on wood) and he is a healthy 110 pounds.  He’s a happy guy and lucky for him, he has no memory of the struggles and I don’t plan on reminding him.

What’s next for Ty? We’re getting him ready to be a visiting therapy dog to comfort people dealing with dimensia and althzeimer’s. He’s big, gentle, and loves being the center of attention. I had other plans for Ty, like agility competition, but given his medical needs, it’s too risky. So, I’m changing course to give Ty a job perfectly suited for him that will also benefit others.

I often think back to the day we adopted Ty. My Puma (a German shorthaired pointer) died the week before. We were heartbroken. My husband picked Ty from a litter of 7 other pups because Ty was the quiet one watching from a corner. We settled on the name Ty in honor of a friend of my husband’s from his military days: Thai. The original Thai (a nickname) was really big, 6’5 and at least 300 pounds of muscle. He was a Pacific Islander who cared about family more than his own skin and didn’t belong in the military. We don’t know what happened to Thai, but we hope he is home with the family he loves.

As for our Ty, he will honor Thai by sharing his goodwill with others.

I am truly so lucky to have Ty in our family.

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22. What could have happened to you in high school that would have altered the course of your life?*

When I think back to high school, my first thought is that I’d like to forget all four years. I didn’t enjoy high school; it wasn’t the highlight of my life; I didn’t cry when I graduated. I was glad to move on and start my life. There is, however, one moment which could have altered the course of my life had I followed my instincts.

Given my disdain for high school memories, you won’t be surprised to learn that I wasn’t too popular and didn’t hang with the cool kids. Fortunately, it was a large school (700+ in my graduating class), so I could hide and make do with my small group of close friends. I was in the choir, drama and was known as the brainy kid, especially in my language classes. Kids would fight to sit behind me for tests so they could copy my answers. I let them copy, not by showing my paper, but by not trying too hard to cover it up. After they turned in their tests, I stayed behind and changed my answers. At first they didn’t understand why I got better grades, then they gave up sitting behind me. Even in high school, I put ethics above being cool or whatever. I’m still like that today and maybe that ethics thing is why I didn’t do what I probably should have done so many years ago that would have changed me and perhaps my life.

I may have been a dork and a brainy kid, but I wasn’t too shabby looking either. I was a petite gymnast with long dark hair and could fetch my share of cat-calls when I went to the mall where people didn’t know me. Kids at school knew me and constantly picked on me. In today’s world, we call that bullying. And I was bullied a lot to the point where in middle school, I was often afraid to walk home alone fearing that the kids would be waiting for me. One day in 7th grade that happened. A girl named Valerie, who had been after me since first grade, finally ambushed me on my way home. After some taunting and shoving me to the ground, she turned her back and walked away. I guess I wasn’t as much fun to beat-up as she had hoped. Who knows? She left me alone after that to my relief. Still, I made sure to stay out of her way.

As I mentioned, I was in the choir and for one concert we decided to play a prank on our choir director. I can’t remember why. Anyway, I was to hop out of a box dressed as a Playboy bunny. You know, white, low-cut leotard, bunny ears, little fuzzy tail, spiked heels. At the last minute I backed out. It didn’t seem right and I felt “too sexy,” even at 16. (See Mom, I did listen to you.) Most kids brushed off my last-minute retreat except one guy who was known as a real jerk. His dad worked with my dad and his dad had the same reputation at the office. When that guy learned that I had bailed on the plan, he sought me out in the empty choir practice room and began to verbally assault me at close range.

It must have made a pretty strange picture. There I was, 4’11” tall, 95 pounds, and dressed as a Mademoiselle Bunny. The guy was at least 5’10 and 160 lbs of ugly, chubby anger. His dirty blond hair was unkempt and, as usual, he was sweating like the pig he was.

I was angry too. After several minutes of his belligerent tirade, I raised my fist to punch him…where ever I could reach. His face froze and he jumped back oh-so-slightly. In that instant I saw fear for the first time. Someone was afraid of me, rather than me being afraid of them.

I didn’t follow with the punch. I put my fist down and walked away. Nice girls–even those dressed as Playboy bunnies–don’t hit other people. Ethics. Morals. Mom’s voice in my head.

I should have punched that bastard. He had earned it many times over and that night in the practice room he pushed my last button.

I think if I had punched him, it would have sown the seeds of confidence and the ability to stand up for myself that I am still lacking thirty years later.

 

 

*22 of 642 Things to Write About, SF Writer’s Grotto

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21. Describe the most recent moment when you couldn’t think of anything to say…*

Were you having a hard time making conversation, or were you simply dumbfounded?

The idea of me not having anything to say would set anyone who knows me into a tailspin of laughter. However, there was a moment several months ago when I was completely shut down. Not only could I not utter a word, but my interal voice was choked as well.

It was last April toward the end of my graduation party for a master’s degree I had waited decades to earn. After getting a bachelor’s degree eons ago, I raised a family, put two kids through college and built a solid career in technical writing. Two years ago  I plunged into a commitment to pursue a degree while working full time. And during that time I said goodbye to a beloved pet after a painful illness, got a puppy and my husband changed careers. Crazy. But the more you do the more you get done, right? (Kudos to my hubby for putting up with me coming home late after class and locking myself in my office to study, and for doing the housework and cooking dinner).

So, back to the party. As the evening settled down, the reality of my accomplishment and the support of my family and friends began to sink it. A few of us, my parents included, were sitting around the fire pit in the back yard. It was dark and quiet except for the crackle and sparks from the fire. My husband had just refilled my class of wine when my mom handed me a box. It wasn’t gift wrapped, but looked like the kind of box you get in the mail from some online retailer. It was about five inches square. I shook the box and made some smart-ass comment—as usual. My mom just stared at me and smiled.

I opened the box to find another box inside; the kind of box that holds a ring. I held my breath and cupped the smaller box in hands. I was afraid to open it, but open it I did. It was The Ring. That was the only thought in my mind as I stared at the diamond solitaire picking up the light from the fire.

Okay, it’s a diamond solitaire ring. Certianly not anything unique in this world. It’s not a 1-karat blue diamond and anyone looking at would agree that it is pretty. But like most diamonds, it’s the story and meaning behind the diamond that creates its beauty.

This particular ring has seen three continents, two world wars, and four generations. I’m number four. As the eldest daughter of the eldest daughter, I knew that someday it would be passed on to me, but I never knew when. My mother is youthful and healthy and she would wear the ring often, so I associated me getting the ring with her dying. Not a happy thought.

So when my mom presented The Ring to me as a graduation present I was totally blown away. (Okay, not very literary as language goes, but apt for the occaision.)

When she gave it me, I could see tears in her eyes. She said, “I wanted to wait for a special occaision to give this to you and we are so proud of you that I knew this was the right time. I hope you wear it often.”

I wear it all the time time. And each time I wear it and see my parents, Mom checks my hand to see if I’m wearing The Ring and when she sees it, she smiles. In those moments, I don’t need words because my mother’s smile connects me with three generations who wore The Ring before me.

 

*21 of 642 Things to Write About, SF Writer’s Grotto

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20. Write a short story that is set in Argentina in 1932, in which a teacup plays a crucial role.*

It was a long day, and Enrique tried everything he could do to make it longer.

To pass the morning, he sat by the fountain in the town square watching pigeons and people flutter about. The sound of the church bells ringing in mid day awoke in him a desire for food he had not anticipated. He walked to the little cafe down one of the side streets that led into the square. His favorite table for two was vacant and he took a seat facing the door from which he could see people pass on the sidewalk out front. He removed his cap and placed it on the table. The waitress brought two cups of tea and empanadas on a tray that she balanced with the skill of a circus acrobat. When she arrived at the table, Enrique looked up at the tray, then shifted his gaze to the the waitress. He opened his mouth as if to say something, but looked away instead. She set only one of the cups and the empanadas on the table and walked away. The noon hour came and went and with it a tide of people who, like Enrique, frequented the little cafe like coming home for lunch. Enrique strained to listen to the conversations around him. Did you see the goal I made? Ha! Not even La Fiera could have made that shot!I’m telling you, if you pick the fruit the morning after a full moon, it is much sweeter… He preferred their conversations to the thoughts in his head, to the conversation with himself he did not want to hear. In pairs and in threes, the patrons finished their meals and went back to their daily lives, taking with them their conversations. Enrique found himself alone in the cafe except for the waitress who stood by the window that opened to the kitchen. She was whispering with cook. The noise of Enrique pushing back his chair to stand caught her attention. She turned her head, smiled at him and made a motion with her hand as if to say, “Go, don’t worry about the bill. Not today.” Enrique smiled, though his eyes told a different story. He picked up his cap and left the cafe to wander the streets.

By sunset Enrique found himself back on the street where he had spent the lunch hour listening to conversations. Across the street from the cafe, he walked into a bar where he stayed long into the night. When all the customers had gone and the chairs had been placed upside down on their tables, the bartender grabbed Enrique by the arm.

“You cannot stay here, my friend,” he said.

Enrique nodded, took his cap from the bar and left.

Outside, he welcomed the darkness and the chill in the air. He pulled the cap low over his brow to avoid the possibility of making eye contact with anyone else who might be wandering the streets of the village. He made his way home through the quiet, not looking where he was going, but keeping his head down, his pace slow and steady. He knew these streets. He knew every crack in the sidewalks and every tree whose branches hung too low. Without missing a step, he ducked or side-stepped to avoid a branch.

His journey took him past the butcher where he picked up their weekly order. The butcher, not much older than Enrique, knew him so well, there was no longer any need to place orders. The butcher always knew which cuts of meat to supply. A smile began to appear on Enrique’s lips, but quickly faded.

After rounding the town square—taking the counter-clockwise route as was his custom–he stopped in front of the church. For the first time on his journey, he raised his head and looked at the weathered, ornate wooden doors that were a sense of pride for the everyone in the village. They were, they said, the most beautiful doors of any church in Argentina. Perhaps that was true, but for Enrique, the memory of these doors was what made them so beautiful for him. Through the darkness he could see himself, a young man of 19, standing next to his bride. The church bells were clanking the joy that he felt in his heart as he looked down on the woman he would cherish and care for, the woman who would give him three beautiful children and a life that any man would envy. On that day, the doors were open and behind them the entire village had filled the church in celebration.

As the memory faded, the doors became somber and foreboding and in that instant he hated those doors. They were ugly and oppressive. The heavy wood and ornate carvings were like every other church door he had ever seen. He turned away and continued on his journey.

Finally, he turned down the narrow street where he lived. Halfway down the block, he entered a doorway and began climbing the stairs to the apartment. His knees resisted the climbed so he leaned on the handrail to help him, remembering the days when he used to run up these stairs after work, taking two or three steps at a time to reach the woman who would be waiting. Except for the occasional squeaky tread, the stairwell was silent. His neighbors were hardworking people; they had long since turned in for the night. On any other day, he, too, would have been asleep. But not today. Today was a long day.

On the landing of the fifth floor, he turned to the left and put his hand on the doorknob to apartment number 543. He stood there for several minutes with his hand on the doorknob trying to steady his breath before going inside.

The apartment was as he had left it, even the light in the kitchen was on. He  removed his cap and placed it on a hook next to the door. A second hook was there, too, and it held a wool shawl whose ends were frayed.

He shuffled into the kitchen where there was a table for two up against one wall. It seemed staged, as if for a scene in a play. Two plates were set opposite one another, each with pieces of toast only partially eaten. The butter and honey were in the center of the table and a knife that had fallen was on the floor under a chair that was pushed far from the table to the  point where it had hit the stove. One mate (pronounced mat-ay), and its bombilla, was overturned and no one had mopped up the tea that had spilled onto the table and had finished in a puddle on the floor.

mate_bombillaThe other mate sat upright, still half-full with strong, unsweetened tea. Enrique saw the dark stains of red lipstick on the bombilla. He reached out and touched the silver rim of the mate. It was cold, of course, but he was hoping to find some warmth, some comfort. He looked around the apartment. What a palace it had been despite the faded rug that lay before a sofa whose rose-covered fabric was once the center piece of the sitting room. They had talked often about recovering it, but over the years, the beauty of the fabric was replaced with the comfort and familiarity you feel with a longtime friend. Now the sofa just looked old, like something that belonged in a second-hand shop.

Enrique picked up the mate and touched the red-stained bombilla to his lips. In the distance he heard the church bells announcing the midnight hour. The long day ended and with it, everything changed.

 

 

*20 of 642 Things to Write About, SF Writer’s Grotto

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Ty’s journey becomes a journey in patience

In July, I wrote a post about Ty’s diagnosis with EPI, a lifelong condition where his body does not produce the enzymes needed to digest and absorb nutrients from food. 

The last two months have seen quite a few ups and downs as we try to find the optimal combination of medication and food. It’s also been a challenge with our vet who cares and is quite knowledgeable, but is unfamiliar with how to treat a dog with EPI. We are all learning together. Aside from learning how to manage this complicated disease, I’m getting a lesson in patience, as well. 

I’m not a very patient person and I’ll blame that on my burning curiosity to know things. The downside to that curiosity is that it takes time to “know things.” What kinds of things? Well, anything. Like plans to go places or plan a vacation. Where are we going? How will we get there? How long will it take? The same is true at work. I like to have all the details laid out for a project to minimize surprises and researching a topic is the ultimate joy. I get to know a lot of things. For my master’s degree final paper, which was only 32 pages, I had over 70 references, not counting the 30 other articles that didn’t exactly fit my thesis. You get the idea. My husband, on the other hand, takes a different approach. He is much more patient and can adopt a we’ll-see-when-we-get-there approach. A total 180 degrees from me. It would be easy for me to say my way is best, but that would not be 100% true. There are times when not planning, or not OVER planning, can help with developing the patience needed to know things. This is so true with Ty’s condition. 

Treating EPI is not a straightforward process like painting a bedroom. You pick the paint (okay, that part is hard); you buy the paint; you get some rollers and brushes; and within a day or so, you have a freshly painted bedroom. A treatment plan for EPI is not linear or universal. On the EPI forum I follow, the mantra is, “Whatever works for your dog.” There is no one treatment plan that works for everyone. It takes time and patience to find the right combination of medication, food, supplements, vitamins, etc., to find a balance so that Ty can strive. And each time we make a change, we need the patience to see the results. Nothing happens immediately or overnight. It could take days or weeks to see a change. If the change is not for the good, we have to try again…and wait!

Ugh! I want to know now if the change is going to work and that isn’t going to happen. So I’m forced to be patient. The good news is that patience seems to be paying off like the old adage, “Good things come to those who wait.” Ty has gained a little over 10 pounds (he’s at 95-ish) and we seem to have found a food that a) he loves and b) his digestive system tolerates. I think we’ve also learned his ideal dose of medication and for now he is what any dog should be: an energetic and happy eat-poop factory. 

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Know your dog. Know your reader.

I’ve spent too much time away from the writing life and as I get back into good habits, it’s harder than I thought. First, I’m learning that I’m really out of shape–like too much time away from the gym. The Little Grey Cells don’t want to concentrate and instead run after random thoughts like a kid chasing fireflies. Second, and thanks to the internet, competition is crazy. I suppose that doesn’t worry me too much, but the Little Grey Cells have gotten a bit lazy and resist. Do we have to?  Yes. Yes we do. While there are lots of great resources and sites to promote yourself as a writer, there are lots of great resources and sites to promote yourself as a writer! Where to start? How do I market myself? The Little Grey Cells would rather play with the dogs.

Like the billions of others who visit writer websites, I check out the resources and read the blogs, articles and newsletters. Truly, very helpful. But some things haven’t changed. Like 20 years ago when I began my career, you can find a plethora (I’m an experienced wordsmith and qualified to use such a word; novices beware) of writing basics like “know your reader” and “grammar is important.” Oh my. For now, I’ll stick with “know your reader.”

Okay, so what exactly does that mean? Most people will say, “Of course I know my reader!” Sure. They know age, sex, job title, likes, why they want/need to read what you’re writing and other demographic-like stats that don’t offer much other than a good, old-fashioned marketing persona. Don’t get me wrong, personas are important and you should know who they are. But they only tell part of the story. You need to know more and this is where the dogs come in.

Let me tell you about Ty. He’s my puppy, my baby, my little Ty-guy. At 20 months old, he’s as sweet as they come. He just wants to play and get lots of belly rubs. He has no problems with food and I can take his food or anything else from him without complaint. He obeys much better than my teenagers did, waits patiently for permission to go through doors, never jumps on people who visit and walks like an angel on the leash when we go for walks.

Going for walks. That’s a different story. Ty keeps pace with me and never pulls or lunges. At crosswalks, he sits patiently until I move forward. You see, our story doesn’t change from my point of view. He’s still my little Ty-guy. The story changes from someone else’s point of view. When most people see us coming down the sidewalk, they generally cross the street, pick up their little doggie if they have one or watch us intently, ready for any sudden move. Is your mental image of Ty starting to change? How did you imagine him? A Labrador puppy with floppy ears and bright eyes? Maybe a little terrier who can jump higher than most cars?

Ty, in fact, is a 95-pound, purebred German Shepherd who stands nearly 36 inches at the shoulders. I, on the other hand, am 5 feet tall on a good day and as for my weight…well, Ty is much more than half of mine.

We don’t see the same dog. I see my baby; they see a potential monster.

German Shepherd puppy

What I see.

Close-up of German Shepherd Dog

What they see.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Let’s get back to writing and knowing your reader. Your persona is an important first step, but you need to go beyond that and get inside their head. What are they thinking? How are they going to interpret what you write? What is their perception?

Easier written than done. How do you get inside the head of a fictional person? There is no one approach, and I would guess that different writers use different approaches that rely on personal and professional experiences in addition to connecting with real people who represent your persona.

For the example with Ty, I am not surprised or bothered by people’s reaction. In some ways, I expect it, even though Ty is my first German Shepherd Dog (GSD). I was attacked and bitten by a GSD when I was 10 years old. I, too, am leery when a see a GSD I don’t know. I also watch people’s reactions. In writer’s terms, this is doing my research on who my reader is and how they will perceive the story I am telling.

Ty will always be my baby and I understand that few people will see him the way that I do. And when I sit down to write, I try to remember that my readers may come away with a story different from the one I’m trying to tell.

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Ty’s new journey

This totally sucks. I’m not complaining, really, but I know you’ll agree. This sucks.

A week ago, Ty, my 19-month-old German Shepherd Dog (GSD), was diagnosed with EPI, exocrine pancreatic insufficiency. EPI is a chronic condition where the pancreas does not make the enzymes necessary to digest food properly. Without treatment, the dog (or cat) starves to death despite a good appetite. The body simply cannot absorb the fats, proteins and other nutrients needed and this “malfunction” leads to severe weight loss, malnutrition and related infections to their intestines.

However, with the right treatment, dogs can live long and full lives. The key here is the “right treatment.” Like most chronic conditions, the “right treatment” depends and varies from one patient to another and can change over time.

When Ty was diagnosed and I started reading up and researching what EPI was and how it’s managed, I felt like I was sucked into a time warp. I was back in 1987, State College, PA, when my new born daughter Dana was diagnosed with diabetes. My world focused on monitoring how well she ate and how much, monitoring blood glucose levels, giving injections and performing a host of other nurse-like duties. There were days it was really hard to just be a mom.

Now, 27 years later, my baby Ty needs similar care. Like Dana, his first symptom was “failure to thrive,” aka he was losing weight and wasn’t eating well. It took about 5 months to get Ty’s diagnosis and with it came a flood of emotions: what-the-fuck?? anger, fear, sadness and resolve. They came in that order and just as quickly as you read them.

Dana’s journey with diabetes was certainly a struggle, but it was a short one. She past away from other complications just 3 days shy of her 4-month birthday. As sad as that is, I have always been grateful for her and what we learned along our path. In so many ways, she helped me be the best mom I could be to her brother and sister. And now, she is going to help me take care of Ty.

I expect Ty’s journey to be longer than hers…I hope! Like 27 years ago, I have re-adapted to the medical terminology and needs of my very special GSD. I’m settling into the routine of how to administer his meds and how to feed him; weekly trips to the vet and hopping on the scale are just part of our normal routine.

More than the pseudo-nursing skills (real nurses are angels on earth) I learned 27 years ago, Dana’s journey reminds me to enjoy every moment. Yes, getting up at 5:30 a.m. to prepare Ty’s food, let it incubate for 20 minutes, give meds and then hope that he eats everything sucks. I don’t like mornings. I don’t like having to perform so many tasks before my cup of coffee…

BUT! I love my Ty so much more. The 5:30 a.m. thing is our new normal. After a while, it will suck less. Because when I stumble down the stairs, I am greeted by two big brown eyes staring up a me; the ears, like radars, point right at me; and the swoosh of that 2-foot-long tail saying, “MOM! You’re up! Yay! Let’s play!”

And that, does NOT suck.

 

 

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19. Write a scene in which a woman is fired after only a week on the job…*

…Just a week earlier, the same person who is now firing her was very persuasive in convincing her to take the job.*

When Amy got the email asking her to report to HR, she didn’t think anything of it. After all, she’d only been on the job a week and it’s likely there were some more forms to sign or something she forgot to include somewhere. What she found odd was that the email had been sent last night at about 6:30 p.m., asking her to go to HR as soon as she got to work or, if she happened to check email from home, to stop by HR before going to her office. She had, in fact, checked work email from her cellphone while she was drinking her morning coffee.

Now, as she walked toward HR, that old friend Paranoia started whispering in her head. Report to HR before you start your work day?  Amy countered, it’s nothing. They just want to make sure whatever needs to be signed gets signed before I get too busy. Really? And on a Friday?? Amy ignored Paranoia and walked into HR with a smile on her face.

“Hi, I’m…”

“Yes, Marjorie will be with you in a minute,” said the receptionist. “Take a seat.”

Not very welcoming if you ask me. I didn’t ask you!

Despite her efforts to ignore Paranoia, Amy was a bit nervous. The receptionist didn’t make eye contact or offer her water or coffee like she did just a week ago. Maybe something was up. Her stomach began to tighten. She took a deep breath and told Paranoia to let go. Paranoia stopped squeezing, but Amy could still feel the slightest pressure, like a rope around her waist that could be pulled tight at any moment.

The conference room door opened and Marjorie, the senior HR manager, poked her head out. “Amy, would you please come in?”

I don’t like her tone of voice. In fact, I don’t…Stop it!

Amy walked into the conference room to find her new manager, Krista, sitting at the conference table, looking down at her hands. Amy took a seat opposite Krista and Marjorie, after closing the door, took a seat next to Krista. Two against one. This isn’t going well. And what’s in that envelope? Amy hadn’t noticed the envelope on the table until Paranoia mentioned it. If she was supposed to sign forms, wouldn’t they be in a folder? Any why was Krista here?

“Uh, so what’s up?” Amy said. “Was there a problem with how I filled out my forms or something?” Amy tried to be calm, but she just couldn’t control the tremor in her voice. Paranoia gave a tug on the rope around Amy’s waist.

“Amy…” Marjorie said. She looked down at the envelope and pushed it across the table. “Here is your pay up to and including yesterday. We wish you the best of luck in your next career move.”

“What? You’re letting me go? It’s only been a week!”

“It’s just not going to work out and Krista said that you are not going to be a good employee for our company,” Marjorie said.

Amy looked directly at Krista.

“How can you say that? You were the one who talked me into this job when I didn’t think I could manage the analytics. You encouraged me! You didn’t even give me fair chance!” Amy was shaking and she was breathing hard. “Two days ago you said you liked my ideas for how we could change the reports, and now this?”

Krista opened her mouth to respond, but before she could get a word out, Marjorie threw her arms down on the table in front of Krista and leaned as far forward as she could. Except for her wide-eyed expression, she looked more ridiculous than fearful laying across the table with her arms spread out in front of her. If not for the table, Amy thought Marjorie would have grabbed her.

“We are not going to discuss that!” Marjorie said. “We have made our decision. So you can be upset or leave it in the past and move on. It’s your choice.” Marjorie picked up the envelope and held it out to Amy.

Amy looked at the two people sitting across from her. Not the same people from a week ago. Or maybe this is who they really are and they completely snowballed her into thinking they actually cared about helping her grow her career in a new direction.

Amy took the check from Marjorie and walked out of the conference room and out to her car. She held the tears back until the car door closed. With her hands and her head resting on the steering wheel, she sobbed and heaved and cried until she thought she was going to throw up. As she wiped away the tears, she heard a familiar voice in her head.

You don’t need those bitches. 

Paranoia?

Let’s get out of here. We can do better.

I was expecting an “I-told-you-so.”

Let’s be clear. I’m not Paranoia. I’m Instinct. And next time, listen to me.

Amy smiled and started the engine.

 

 

*19 of 642 Things to Write About, SF Writer’s Grotto

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