The Angry Ibis

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(Yes, this is a beautiful, if not cantankerous crow, but the ibis is skittish and I don’t have a long telephoto anymore…)

Taking up work at home has interesting advantages, as well as obvious drawbacks.  The munchkin, a two-year-old ginger girl with a heart of gold, weeps openly when I go upstairs to the office.  As you might imagine, this rends my heart.  The minion, a seven-year-old, decries the fact that I don’t take him fishing every seven minutes whilst I am home.  As you might imagine, this gets old.  Nevertheless, I love them both, and having the opportunity to see them more often has been a blessing.

My sleep schedule has not changed too radically, as I still wake up in the wee hours of the morning to write.  What has changed, is my company.  Instead of the irritable Vietnamese cleaning lady and the security guard that we all refer to as “Lurch” or the “Parking Nazi,” I have been visited daily by a beautiful, but very skittish, brown ibis that perches in the birch tree outside the office window come about 3:00.  He is either terribly lonely, horny, angry as hell, or schizophrenic.  I haven’t quite figured out which it is.  I have a sneaking suspicion that he is not lonely—though he might just be a racist—because he chased a white ibis away when I was walking Deacon yesterday.

His calls are monotone and shrill.  They sound like, as I imagine, a professional mourner may have sounded in an ancient Roman funeral.  “Aye-e, Aye-e, Aye-e.”  How this hasn’t woken up the minion who is highly sound-sensitive is beyond me.  He let me and the munchkin (duly muzzled for the endeavor) get a bit closer to him the other day while he was on the bank of the lake, and I think that he is more comfortable on dry land than he is perched in a tree.  I never took an ibis, a wading bird, as a tree-mourner, but there you have it.

I think it’s a fairly perfect metaphor, however, for where I am right now.  I am in a whole new roost in the converted “office” upstairs, which doubles as a guest bedroom, a TV room, a hermitage, and an observatory.  Like the ibis, I find myself disgruntled in the morning, and I often wonder whether he has been displaced by the virus, too.  Similarly, like the ibis, I find myself isolated, but not necessarily by anyone’s fault but my own.  I am enjoying this social distancing so far, but even I, an inveterate introvert, miss my people.  Perhaps the ibis is calling to a friend at the other end of the lake, and the two are masters in social distancing.  Lord knows I have the time to figure this out from my perch in the observatory.

 

Social Distancing from an Expert

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It is that brief interval of time at 4:37 AM, between laconically tossing a peanut butter pretzel in my mouth and the first satisfying, ultimately ephemeral crunch, the mysteries of the world unfold themselves to me.  Sadly (for purposes of my own enlightenment), this reflectory period lasts but an instant before I nosh the pretzel into the verisimilitude of mastication and metaphor.

I wrote yesterday about my partner, my wife, an extrovert in exile during this period of revelatory self-distancing.  It is with great patience, a master’s degree in early childhood development and developmental risks, two years of teaching early childhood special ed, five years of teaching elementary ed, and two years of being at home raising the munchkin, that Anna finally reached the point of taking a razor blade to her bumper and the sticker that said “My child is an positive citizen.”  I cannot say that I blame her.

Children, on the whole, are enigmas.  Take for example, my firstborn.  Although I graduated from college, law school, and a post-doctorate program with pomp and circumstance, this little imp is smarter, by measure, then I ever was.  If and when he discovers nuclear fission, I pray that he uses it for good and not to get back at the three-year-old girl who dared to challenge his story that he discovered gold in North Carolina.

Our mayor has issued a conditional lockdown order, that those who could work from home must work from home.  Eager to initiate my obedient, pajama-clad workdays, I was soon informed by the Man that, much to my disappointment, I was not “dispensable” to the team.  Given my history with law firm politics, the fact that I am indispensable  should give me the ultimate reassurance.  Nevertheless, I found myself seeking out the hypochondriacal assistant who works at the other end of the office, in order that I might expectorate (with some gusto and propinquity to her) the post-nasal drip that has developed from all of this damn oak pollen.  Sadly, she had heeded the order, and was working from home.  My throat is tickly, and my spirit is spurred to action—which action, I might add, inevitably culminates (in my mind) victoriously, whilst I am in my pajamas.

Never one to be considered in apparatchik, I find myself in an uncomfortable situation.  On the one hand, I want to continue at work until the City shuts the power off (a threat that the Jacksonville Mayor actually voiced).  Yet, on the other hand, which hand I have carefully and diligently weighed, I want a good, long, peaceful nap.  I am not sure whether I am better served to try to sleep under the hollow in my desk at work, or in the loft at home.  Something, well, two things (children) really, tell me that the hollow was good enough for Mr. Toad and is good enough for me.

I hope everyone here in America and across the pond is doing well and are happy and healthy, albeit malcontent and ever so slightly disgruntled.  (For my Yorkshire readers, I am not quite sure of the kind antonym for “well chuffed,” but I imagine that is where you are right now.)

Good luck, Godspeed, and if you need lessons on social distancing, I am offering a master class tomorrow evening with a concentration on using biting sarcasm to establish a safe personal distance between you and your antagonist.  Attendance, as you may imagine, is severely limited.

The Extrovert in Exile

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I saw a funny Facebook post the other day about how self-quarantining and social distancing was, for introverts, the culmination of their life’s work.  I saw one today that said, “Check on your extrovert friends; we are not OK.”

For a self-described hermit, who has been practicing social distancing since at least the age of twelve, I have a lot of extroverted friends.  It’s not my fault.  I am like a magnet for social people.  I have tried valiantly to wear my scorn and antipathy on my sleeve, but they all brush it of as bluster and introverted bravado and then want to talk about how funny it is that I pretend that I am a hermit.  An hour later, when they are done talking at me, I have already crawled into my mental hole, and they tell me what a good listener I am…a vicious cycle, indeed.

I even happened to marry one – a kind, beautiful, chatty-Cathy of an extrovert.  Before amiable-Anna stayed home with the munchkin, she had been a professional extrovert, paid to talk to little people and to teach them how to become social butterflies, themselves.  She was an elementary school teacher.  If you sit down and think about it for a minute (any longer and the already impish introvert in you will get really steamed), elementary school is a not-so-subtle indoctrination into extroversion and general gregariousness.  The few of us who resist, and resist with some steadfast conviction, make it out relatively unscathed…only to be substantially scathed by middle school…

So, it comes to pass that my dearest, chatty-Cathy wife was thrust back into the teaching fray in the midst of the pandemic.  She is home, stir-crazy, with the munchkin and the minion, the dog, two cats (one of which is delightfully antisocial and crotchety and a bit of a spirit animal of mine, though I won’t readily admit it), and 17 goldfish.  Interestingly, the term “stir-crazy” likely originated as a slang term for “Start-crazy,” referring to the notorious 19th century British prison of Start Newgate in London where prisoners were isolated as a form of punishment.

So here she finds herself, committed to house arrest for the greater good, in the hacienda de hoosegow, an extrovert in exile, which is, perhaps, the most apt term.  Like Napoleon in Elba, she is so close—yet so far from her social network of moms and coffee dates and general social frivolity.

I cannot understand her angst and longing for social interaction.  Apparently talking to me is not enough for her, even though talking to her is often more than enough for me…  I don’t pretend to understand how the extroverted mind works, but even though I am loath find comfort in a flock (the very root of “gregarious”), I understand that chatty-Cathy, amiable-Anna needs socialization.  Therefore, I arranged a playdate on Saturday with my assistant and paralegal, the only two people I can stand and who, likely, did not have the plague.  This playdate for Anna was a tacit understanding that I understood, and, I dare say, even condoned her socially-accepted, normative, “friendly” tendencies.

She enjoyed herself thoroughly.

It is Tuesday, and I am still recovering and recharging.

So, hug your extrovert in exile.  Let them know that this too shall pass.  And then, gird your loins, because they are going to want to talk about it…

What Fishing Has to Do With Selfishness

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There is a line from the musical Wicked that goes, “Something has changed within me.  Something is not the same.”  I love the musical now, but the first time we saw it up in Richmond, Anna had to drag me to it.

Selfishness is a funny thing, and it is something that I’ve been dealing with in the latter half of my life.

When reflecting on the demise of Elphaba (the Wicked Witch of the West), Glinda (the good witch) wonders, “Are we born wicked, or do we have wickedness thrust upon us?”  I can safely say I wasn’t born selfish, no more than anyone else is born selfish from a purely evolutionary, survival of the fittest standpoint.  I had a generally selfless mien as a child.  I was affable and kind, funny and sweet, too smart for my own good, and generally a good kid.  Then I wasn’t.

I cannot pinpoint the exact moment the shift happened, but I can recall episodes where my selflessness was chipped away.  Over indulgences, bad relationships, weight gain, stress, disappointment, guilt, shame, self-loathing—they all chipped away at this rock of selflessness that I had prided myself on possessing until it was nothing more than a pebble.

My mother-in-law wondered where her daughter’s happy-go-lucky spouse went.  My mother, who is never one to beat around the bush, told me on the phone that I had become, in a word, selfish.  I did not receive these observations well at the time, though I now see that they were completely accurate.  My distorted notions of self-preservation and keeping everyone else on the outside of the chaos within drove the selfishness like an engine.  When I began to let myself heal, however, I recognized in some small part the change that had taken place so insidiously.

Even when I emerged from my darker days, before Nora was born, I did not shed every negative habit.  I slept a lot.  I did not want to be “social.”  I hid behind my self-diagnosis of introversion with fierce conviction.  I joked about my general misanthropy.  Once again, I was using humor to defray attention from the insecurities, but this time, I was also using it to distract from my selfishness.

Then, just as quickly as it had come, it left.  No warning.  No lead up.  No working at it in earnest.  I cannot say precisely when it happened, but I can point to the exact moment that I recognized that something was awry (in a good way).  We were in North Carolina, perhaps the second day of our trip, and Kemper wanted to go fishing.  Hit wanted to go fishing the moment we stepped foot on the property, but once again, I was tired, and I promise to take him later.

I was always promising to take him fishing later.  The trouble was that later seldom came.  Finally, I had had enough of his incessant entreaties, and I knuckled under, and we went fishing.  It was cold.  It was raining.  I was grumpy.  And he was having the time of his life.  Something clicked, though I didn’t recognize it at the time, and I just went with the flow.  We fished for about two hours in the rain, because that’s what my dad would’ve done.

This post goes hand-in-hand with my gratitude post of a couple of weeks ago, because gratitude and selflessness go hand in hand.  I took for granted the time with my kids, my wife, my family, and even with Zoe.  When I found Deacon online and read his back story — about how he had been taken for granted, left out on a chain, and neglected — I thought back to Sadie, our rescued Golden retriever I had as a kid, when I wasn’t selfish, and when I didn’t take anyone or anything for granted.  She had been abused and neglected, and she was the sweetest most grateful dog I have ever known.

I know we gave Zoe a good life, and I am comforted by the fact that she was loved, despite my selfishness and ingratitude.  But I wonder what our connection would’ve been like had I had this epiphany earlier.

Anna looked at me on Monday, three days after we headed taken Deacon home, and acknowledged the change.  She didn’t say that I had been less selfish lately, or that I had been a better husband because of it.  She said that she noticed that I had taken Kemper fishing the first time he asked.  I didn’t say it do it later.  I got up from the ground, where I was petting Deacon, and I took him fishing.  Because he enjoyed it, I enjoyed it.  That, I think, is the opposite of selfishness.

 

View from the Top

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For whatever reason, I am drawn magnetically to people who have had a rough go of it, and who have come out the other side.  Some people coast through life, while others of us have traveled a bit more of a rocky road.  The same is true for animals.  Growing up, we rescued a golden retriever who was severely abused.  It took Sadie years to trust, but when she did, it was that much more rewarding.  In many ways, the love she gave was more unconditional and genuine than any other dog I have ever known, even Zoe.

When we lost Zoe six months ago, I wasn’t sure that we would ever find another dog that fit our family as well as she did.  She was great with the kids and the cats, and she was an absolute love.  Still, she hadn’t come from a bad life.  Though she was a rescue, her family gave her up because she had outgrown the apartment they lived in.  They gave her up for a better life, and we gave that life to her for ten years.

There was no question that we would rescue a dog if we were to get another one.  So, when Anna told me that she was ready to start looking, I eagerly began looking for lab or golden to fill the void left by Zoe’s passing.  When I read the profile for “Smokey,” I knew he was the one.  Though he was only 18 months old, he had spent most of his life on a 2-foot-long chain, being fed every other day.  Though he was still a puppy, he already had gray on his chin, a sign of his tough life.

The amazing people at WAGS rescued him, treated him for heartworms, and saved his life.  When I spoke with Kathy, the head of WAGS, I knew immediately that he was the right fit for our family.  It wasn’t until I met him, though, that I realized that I needed him as much as he needed me.  My life has changed inexorably in the past five years, but I have a long way to go yet.  Now, I have someone to share that journey with, to heal with, and to thrive with.

By 3:30 this morning, Deacon and I had already walked 2 ½ miles.  It was dark, frigid (by Florida standards), and nothing could have compelled me to put on my sneakers and go for a walk.  When I got up from bed, I heard his tail thumping in the crate, and my mind was already made up.  For him, I would brave the 37 degree morning.

People (and dogs) come into your life for reason.  Some challenge you, while others enrich you.  I’ll always have a fondness for Zoe.  She was our baby before our real babies came.  She loved unconditionally, and was the sweetest dog that we could’ve asked for.  Like Sadie, however, Deacon is damaged goods.  Perhaps that is why, in the three days he has been in my life, I have grown so very fond of him as quickly as I have.  We’re cut from the same cloth, and I think he knows that he needs me as much as I need him.

If you’re looking for a pet, please rescue.

I cannot recommend the WAGS organization enough.  Go to https://wags-rescue.org/ to see their available animals.

Ushering in a New Era

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There is a fair bit of irony in this photograph.

With all of the money I have spent on fancy cameras and lenses, this was shot on an old Olympus point-and-shoot back before I ever took photography seriously.  This photograph is actually seven shots merged together.  I took the photograph without any knowledge of how to stitch the photos together, and I only rediscovered them about a year ago when I was going through my photographs of England in 2007.

There are very few photographs that I can point to in my collection that shaped me as a photographer.  One is The Man at Rocky Point, and the other is this one.  This one triggered my utter fascination with landscape photography.  How could it not?

This is a sweeping view of the Lake District in England, more specifically around Lake Ullswater.  The bracken ferns, which look like small hedges, were taller than I was, and the sheep roamed freely under their canopy.

I long to go back, this time with proper gear, and capture all that the Lake District has to offer.  Until then, I will always have this photograph and the memories it brings back.  That is a large part of what photography is for me—a prompt for memories—and, what good memories this brings back!

Wander/Wonder

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As I have aged, especially recently, I have found my once immitigable fuse has shortened significantly.  Patience, it seems, is wont to abandon me with greater swiftness than just about any other of my more respectable traits.  I can generally keep my composure at work, and in most instances at home, but when the screws are tightened just that extra bit by a six-year-old who has an answer to every question—especially those which have not been asked—my patience dissolves.

Patience, I am coming to find, is inextricably linked to gratitude, as I posted about last week.  Without gratitude, why even bother being patient.  Take for example, the minion.  He received a gift card for Christmas and bought a building block marble maze kit.  Anna showed him the basics of how the blocks fit together, and we told him to have at it.  Ultimately, I broke down and helped him build a towering plastic edifice that clicked and clacked as the marbles careened around the corners.

At the outset, I couldn’t be bothered to build this with him.  I wanted him to figure out how the blocks fit together.  It was a classic, teach a man to fish moment.  If I built the maze for him, he’d never learn…  In reality, I was tired, and I wanted to close my eyes for a minute or thirty.

But I realized that had I asked my dad to sit down and build with me, he wouldn’t have balked for a moment at the suggestion.  He would have been down on the ground before I finished asking him.  Why wouldn’t I do the same thing?

“Because I am tired,” means nothing to a six-year-old with unspeakable reserves of energy, and I knew that building the maze with him had the potential to be a memory that lasted for longer than I would ever think it would.  I don’t remember everything that my dad and I built in the garage, but I remember bits and pieces of being out there with him.  What if this maze building moment was one of the bits that Kemp remembers?  I don’t want him to remember me taking a nap, or never having the time to build with him.

Yes, I was tired.  I still am.  In a sense, though, I am far more energized by the bond that the thirty minutes it took to build that unstable tower of marble glory instilled.  I am energized by the thought that when he’s my age, writing a blog, or thinking about building something with his own children, he might—just might—look back on that Sunday afternoon to the example that I set, just as I looked back at the example my dad set for me.

I would not have reached this point if I had not reminded myself to be grateful for what I have been given—a family who loves me, whom I love in return.  If I keep that gratitude in mind, the choice between building and napping becomes a no brainer.