Thoughts of my father

Today would have been my father’s birthday. Were he still alive today he would be 86 years old. Most of the men in my family never make it that far. I’m hoping to be the first; my personal goal is 87. I don’t remember why I settled on that number, but whatever.

I have outlived him. Actually I passed that point back in July of last summer. He died at the age of 56. I’ll be turning 57 is just under a month. And for some reason I asked myself what he would think about the world of today.

My father probably wouldn’t like the world of today. I suspect he wouldn’t have made it through the G.W. Bush administration. The frustration and general stupidity of that era would have killed him. He had very little use for people who could see reality in front of their face and still miss it. He had even less use for people who could see reality and deliberately ignore it.

The Trump administration would have probably killed him within the first month. People who ignore obvious facts because some charismatic blowhard tells them to were, in his mind, the worst type of people the human race can produce. He had a rather humorous name for them: it took their genetic lineage and compared it to the excrement of a boar.

Dad, you’re probably fortunate that you haven’t seen what the world has become. Perhaps if things improve over the next year or two, your spirit may find some more peace.

Defining grief

Little Washington, Virginia

In the weeks following Michael’s death, many people tried to empathize, and reach out to help us deal with the grief. The support was greatly appreciated, though one question that came up was how would I describe what I was feeling? What exactly is grief?

There are dictionary definitions, of course, and the literary works on the subject are too numerous to list. The funny thing is that grief, by nature, is unique for every person who experiences it. And each occurrence will be unique. For example, the grief I felt when my mother died was entirely different from what I felt when Michael died. What Lisa experienced was very different from what Caitlin or I did.

One book that we were directed to was by C.S. Lewis, called A grief observed. Lewis is best known, of course, for his Chronicles of Narnia cycle. But he also wrote numerous religious and philosophical works. In this particular work, he describes the grief that he felt after the death of his wife, and the healing process he went through along the way. But nowhere does he claim that his experience was typical, or that anyone else would feel the same way he did under similar circumstances. He described his experience as best he could, hoping that it might help future readers to describe their own grief.

That being said, how would I define my particular experience? The most obvious word would be emptiness. I felt that I was thrust into an emotional and spiritual void, where every possible emotion was being balanced, and cancelled out, by the sheer sea of nothingness that surrounded me. The only thing that could fill that immense void was the smiling face of my son, which is something I will never see again. (At least not in this existence.) It was a very lonesome and often hopeless feeling that would linger for days and weeks at a time. Even now, after over a year, I still haven’t fully come to terms with what happened. I can only hope that with time I will.

But then, death is inherently hard to deal with, though there are many approaches that one can use. Writers, philosophers and theologians have explored the subject for centuries, and one recurring notion is that everyone has “their time.” The exact way in which they leave this world doesn’t really matter. When it is time for us to die, we die. It usually doesn’t make sense to those effected. It is especially hard to fathom the notion of a six year old boy having reached “his time.”

But it isn’t altogether impossible. The Buddhist and Hindu traditions use the image of a universal network of gears, springs and balance wheels, representing how every person (or soul, or spirit) is connected to many others. It is rather like a giant clock.[1] Everyone of us has a role to perform within this system, and for every person it is different. For some people, their designated role may take many, many years. But for others, it may only require a few.

At Michael’s memorial service, a wide variety of people came to pay their respect. Many of them were from the school system, or were otherwise connected with the special education programs within the regional system. Many of them spoke of how Michael affected them, how much they learned by working with him, and how it changed the way they worked with similar children. That got me thinking in new and different ways. Michael apparently had a positive effect on how many of his teachers work with special needs children. Many of his teachers will be in the profession for many more years, and the lessons he provided may have a positive effect on other children in the future. Michael may have set some important things in motion, and the benefits may not be visible for some time. But he appears to have had an effect on that universal clock.

Truth be told, I prefer this clockwork idea over the more nihilistic notion that we live for a time, then just die, with absolutely no rhyme or reason. Within the universal clockwork metaphor, it could be that Michael’s role only required a few short years. If Michael was put into this world to initiate a chain of events, which could lead to greater things in the future, then it looks like his mission was successfully completed. I can take some comfort in that.

  1. The Judaeo-Christian tradition supports a similar idea of creation being a giant, interconnected machine. It is a major part of the Deist tradition, for example. But it doesn’t use the great metaphor of a giant clock.

Travel during a pandemic

The Covid-19 pandemic has had a major effect on many aspects of everyday life. One thing that has been particularly hard hit is travel. The virus moves wherever people are in large groups, and the more groups people move in or through, the more vectors the virus has. So, travel has been actively discouraged across the board. On many occasions the government, CDC, or both, have advised citizens to cancel or postpone whatever travel plans they may have. Some areas have actively prevented travel for all but emergency respondents, and even they have restrictions. Regions of the USA, especially California and New York City, are in full scale quarantine. Simply put, traveling is a pain these days.

Even so, on this holiday season, my family did elect to travel, specifically to Louisiana, where much of Lisa’s family lives. Still we had to ask ourselves, did we really need to travel? In this particular case, I think we did. We had just started to recover from the loss of Michael when this pandemic kicked in. We have been trapped in our house, which was full of memories and associations. We needed a change of venue, and needed to get away from home for a little while. Speaking only for myself, I needed to step out of my routine for a few days so as to finally put the past year into perspective, and try to decide what to do next. So, when the opportunity to travel presented itself, we elected to take it. Fortunately, when the time to travel arrived, we were not in a state of national lock down.

Even so, we had to take some precautions. Wearing a face mask at all times it just the beginning. We also had to maintain the recommended six foot distance, avoid large groups where possible, not make extended small talk, and so forth. All of those things can give the virus opportunities to spread. So, as we waited for our flight in the Charlottesville airport, we kept our masks on and stayed in one place, largely away from others. The airport was largely empty anyway, and our flight was one quarter capacity at best.

Then had a near four hour layover in Atlanta. Being stuck at Atlanta international airport for four hours is a trying situation under the best of circumstances, but with social distancing practices in place, it was worse. Again, we stayed away from other groups of people, kept our masks on, and didn’t interact with others unless we had to. The flight from Atlanta to New Orleans was about two thirds full, but was uneventful. Everyone kept their masks on and kept to themselves. I dozed the whole time.

When we finally arrived in New Orleans, we were quickly picked up by my father in law. Once we arrived at their house, we immediately changed clothes. In Louisiana at least, that is recommended of travelers. The assumption is that if the virus is hiding in your clothes, the sooner they get into the washing machine, the better. So throughout our trip to Louisiana, we continued to exercise caution and obeyed local recommendations.

Then I made the mistake of mentioning our trip on Facebook. A few people scolded me for traveling, and said that my selfish choices could result in people dying. Our emotional health wasn’t as important as the health risk we were creating, and we should have stayed right where we were.

Even as we visit with family, we still keep our masks on and maintain the six foot distance where possible. When we visited one of Lisa’s sisters, we had the gathering on the patio, picnic style. The six foot separation and face masks were an inconvenience, but nothing more. Following these guidelines isn’t difficult, and I can’t think of a good reason not to follow them.

To my surprise however, roughly half the population of New Orleans did find an excuse! We made a day trip to the
Audubon Aquarium of the Americas[1] in downtown New Orleans, and then to Cafe du Monde for their famous beignets. The visitors in the aquarium were OK about masks and distancing, but many of the people in and around Jackson Square were not wearing masks, were congregating in tight groups, and generally throwing all social distancing guidelines out the proverbial window. New Orleans is famous for its food and drink, and it’s one of those cities where “what happens here, stays here.” But that doesn’t really apply to a highly contagious virus!

I was not amused, and my daughter was noticeably upset.

Anyway, we played by the rules, and still enjoyed our trip. We we returned Virginia, we again wore masks all day, avoided crowds, maintained a six foot distance, and started doing laundry when we got home. We’re also looking into where we can be tested.

So I can safely say that it is possible to travel these days, and that the social distancing guidelines are not a serious buzzkill. But if you’re going to travel, you should be socially responsible and follow the pandemic related guidelines.

As a final note, regarding those people who get upset about having to wear a mask, and claiming it’s a violation of personal rights and liberties? (Like roughly half the people we saw in New Orleans?) These people really need to calm down, pull in a deep breath, and consider taking a break. Perhaps even a vacation.

  1. I strongly recommend visiting this place if you like sea creatures and other things oceanic. The Audubon Institute also operates a very good zoo in New Orleans, which I also recommend. We only had time to do one of them on this particular trip, but if your time and budget permits, try seeing both.

Image credit: Megson Fitzpatrick.

I am a cat.

Natsume of the Funky Ear

In the weeks following Michael’s death, the house seemed oddly empty. So after a time we decided to start searching for a new pet.  One of our counselors even suggested getting a pet as part of the healing process, especially for Caitlin.

We started looking at the local shelters and animal rescue centers to see what they had to offer. Initially we looked for a dog, but weren’t able to find a suitable one. Regulations for adopting a dog can be very rigid in this area, and misunderstandings seemed to be common.

So we expanded our search to include cats. I have always considered myself a dog person, but I have no real issues with cats. Especially since my cat allergy reduced. For me it really depends on the character of the cat. Some cats are insufferably aloof, even snooty. But others are great company. Both of the cats I have lived with had good personalities. Catfael was a very reserved girl, and was often suspicious of people.  She and I had a rocky start, but eventually became good friends. Nigel was a very outgoing cat to most everyone he met. He was very fond of Caitlin, and enjoyed hanging out with people.

So for me, the primary criteria for a cat was the character of the animal. That and it had to be a short hair. I still have a cat allergy, but it only seems to come out around the long hair varieties, like Himalayans or Persians. I suspect living with Catfael and Nigel gave me some resistance.

There was another criteria we had: Caitlin wanted a calico (if possible). One of her favorite programs is an anime called Bungo Stray Dogs, which is a metahuman adventure serial with a decidedly art deco appearance and film noir story style. It’s actually quite good, though it takes time to get into, given the complex backstory. Anyway, there is a calico cat that figures prominently in the setting, and his name is Natsume. Most of the characters in the show are named for writers, including Natsume.

In early December we learned of three calico cats that were up for adoption in nearby Orange county. So Lisa and I went to look at them. All three of them had good personalities and could have worked out. But one in particular stood out. Remember how I said I have always considered myself a dog person? Well one petite girl just mobbed me! She was purring like a motorboat and snuggling like she had never been petted in her entire life. I actually had to work at keeping her tail away from my eyes (the allergy thing again). Then she went over to Lisa and started doing the same stuff. I’ve been told that the pet chooses the master just as much as the master chooses the pet. As with Watson, it was clear that this petite calico had made her choice.

Just to be sure, we went back later that day with Caitlin. Not surprisingly, the cat approved of Caitlin with the same gusto she had shown Lisa and I earlier. We adopted her then and there, and by late afternoon she was at her new home, and sporting her new name, Natsume.

She was reported to be four years old, which we doubted given her small size. However, after a steady diet she put on weight and now falls into the normal weight range for an American short-hair. She lived with other cats, and we think she was bullied by larger ones (including, apparently, her own brother). According to the shelter report, she was surrendered because her owner could no longer care for her. We suspect an older person who moved into a nursing home and couldn’t bring their cats.

We sometimes call her Natsume of the Funky Ear, because one her ears sports an odd curl. We understand this is the result of a sunburn from when she was a kitten.  Her favorite activities include attacking piles of laundry, and batting at my boot laces when I get ready for work in the morning.

When we adopted her, we weren’t thinking in terms of a therapy animal. But in many ways she has become one. Her cheerful sounding meow, frequent purring, and regular snuggling have had a very positive impact on the atmosphere of the house. She will never replace Michael, obviously. But her calm, quiet yet cheerful presence has eased some of the pain of loss.  I am very glad we adopted her, and I hope she is able to live with us for many years to come.

Regarding the writer for whom she is named, Natsume Sōseki, he was a novelist who was active in the late 19th and early 20th century Japan. He spent two years in England, and many of his works were inspired from his time there. Which is strange, because he absolutely hated the place.

One of his most famous works, if not his most famous, is a satire called I am a cat. In this, he made comments on the behavior of certain high society types of 1905-era Japan, told from the perspective of a house cat. I understand it can be dark and biting, but also very funny. It has been compared to a political cartoon, biting newspaper editorial, or even a sarcastic monologue from late night television. I have not yet read his material, and I understand that it doesn’t translate very well. Satire often doesn’t. But even so, I am a cat is on my to-read list.

Natsume sleeping