Thursday, September 30, 2004

You can't always get what you want 

Sasha has spent a lot of time recently on this radiator, making tiny sounds of yearning directed at the black stuffed puppydog on the bookshelf. (It's the large black blob in the photo.) The puppy is on the shelf to prevent Sasha's dragging it around by its fuzzy shearling ear. We give the cats lots of furry toys for their hunting games, but the pup is an order of magnitude larger than the largest of those. The bookshelf in question is overflowing with sheet music, architecture books and magazines, some random clutter... and one very attractive shearling puppy. I did not think that there was enough space on the shelves for a 13-lb. cat, nor did I think that Sasha (the clumsiest of our fur family) could make that leap.

And? ->

Sunday, September 26, 2004

Bird watching with Sasha 

Sasha loves to watch birds, and seem to particularly like watching them with me. He lets me know when he wants to be picked up for bird viewing: he finds me, looks up at me and mews in his tiny voice, walks away when I reach for him, and stops next to the nearest window, arching his back fetchingly until I gather him up in my arms. He begins to purr when my hand reaches under his chest, then goes limp as a rag doll as I scoop up his hind legs. I clasp my hands together under his belly, and he lets his front legs and one hind leg drape over my arms. He keeps one hind paw on my arm, either for balance or some sense of control. He rests his large head in the crook of my elbow, and purrs. We're ready to go.

I walk from window to window, stopping at each to see if any birds are visible. If, after a few moments, no bird has appeared, Sasha makes a half-hearted cackling sound, as if to ask where the damn birds are. We continue on to the next window, and the next. When Sasha spots birds, the commentary starts. He cackles, in that funny jerky-jawed way that cats have; his chin does not leave my elbow, so his cackling is for me as much physical sensation as sound. His long, bushy tail twitches, then beats a rhythm against my side, then slows to a lazy wave. And through all of this, he purrs. He is content to watch, and talk to me about the birds he sees, for minutes on end. I am quite content to oblige him, holding his warm, soft, rumbling body until my arms tire or the birds fly away.

Friday morning was cool, cloudy and damp. It looked and felt like rain. When I went down to the kitchen to make coffee, I looked out the window to see northern flickers, sparrows, robins, and a few others that I couldn't identify. They were fluttering about, pecking at insects or seeds on the ground. Did I finish making my coffee, and take it back upstairs to drink while getting dressed? No, I did not. Instead, I went to find Sasha. I gently picked him up, and carried him, half asleep, to the window in the back door. "Look, Sasha. Birds," I whispered against his fur. He caught sight of a bird; I felt the purring start in his chest. Cackackackackackack. Thwap, thwap, thwap. Cackackack. I smiled, and kissed the top of his furry head.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Flying home at sunset 

Of all of the cities in which I have lived, my favorite to fly into is Seattle. I love the views of mountain, forest, water and city that make up the approach into SeaTac. As a native of the wide, flat, barely-above-sea-level Texas Gulf Coast, I am fascinated by mountains. When I plan a plane trip, I carefully select seats for the flight back to Seattle on the side of the airplane with the best mountain views. On flights from Houston, seats on the left side of the airplane afford a spectacular eye-level reach-out-and-touch-it view of Mt. Rainier. Flights from the San Francisco Bay Area call for seats on the right side of the plane, from which one can count off the volcanic peaks - Shasta, Hood, St. Helens, Rainier, and others - that mark this edge of the Ring of Fire.

Yesterday, my late afternoon flight home to Seattle from Oakland was delayed. I was tired, so once on the plane I dozed, pillow against the window, for the first hour of the flight. When I woke, I looked out the window, hoping to see a recognizable peak. What I saw instead were scattered mounds of billowing cumulus clouds. The sun was low enough in the sky that only the tops of the clouds were illuminated; they glowed a warm, soft coral pink. The lower parts of the clouds were a soft silver gray. Far below was a town, surrounded by a dark, rolling patchwork of farmland and forest. The western windows of the buildings below reflected the sun's orangey evening rays. Forehead resting against the glass, I stared out at the show. Mt. Hood came into view, a snowy peak in the clouds, bathed in a rosy glow. The ragged top of St. Helens was barely visible through the clouds, but caught a few of the setting sun's rays. And then came Rainier, towering and craggy, shining in the low, warm light. As the sun continued to set, the color moved to the undersides of the clouds, then began to fade.

As we reached the south end of Puget Sound, the sky cleared; the trees and water below were distinguishable more as changes in texture than in color. The airplane banked to begin a large, looping descent. We briefly flew westward; the line of the horizon stretched across my field of view, shading from burning gold in the west to fuschia and blue-violet in the east. As we turned north again, Seattle came into view, and I picked out landmarks: SeaTac (our destination, after a final sightseeing jaunt), the Fauntleroy ferry, the container cranes on the docks, downtown buildings, the Space Needle. North of downtown, the plane banked in a tighter curve; I pressed my nose to the glass, looking down. As we flew south, I picked out Queen Anne Avenue, then followed it ahead to spot the old high school, the water towers, the apartment building next to our house. I couldn't see the roof of our house in the dark, but knew when we were directly overheard. Hello, gatos, I thought. See you soon.

Half an hour later, I was on the ground, hugging Paul. An hour after that, the cats were gathered around us on our bed, sniffing all the scents of California and marking me as their own again. It's good to be home.

Thursday, September 16, 2004

Why I love my work 

On every project, I have weeks like this one, when all I do is get up, go to work, come home for dinner, go back to work, come home, sleep too little, get up and do it again. During these weeks, I sometimes have to remind myself why I love my work.

At those times, I look at photos like this one, of an affordable housing development in Tacoma. It was my baby for two years. I'm not going to overwork the creative endeavor as pregnancy and childbirth metaphor here; I'll just say that this project did not come into being easily. But now, there are 67 families, some previously homeless, who are living in this place and its sibling a couple of blocks down the street. I was in this courtyard doing final building inspections the week that the first residents moved in. I remember the excitement on their faces. So when I look at this photo, I see not only the buildings that I helped to create, but the hope that those buildings represent for the families who live in then. And that's worth a few late nights at work.

Monday, September 13, 2004

A late-night scolding 

I was awakened at 4:45 this morning by the sound of a cat yowling in the house. Paul was getting out of bed as I woke up. The sounds continued, each yyeeoooowwrrr louder, more drawn out and more plaintive than the last. These were not it's-morning-servants-you-shall-bring-me-food sounds; it sounded like someone was hurt.

I was a few steps behind Paul as he left our bedroom. We were calling to the cats; the horrible sounds continued. Paul reached the head of the stairs, then stopped short, laughing. On the landing halfway down the stairs was the cats' newest toy, the hexapus. (It's a rabbit fur toy, and would be an octopus but that it has only six arms. It came that way. Given some time with our cats, however, it will become a pentapus, then a quadrapus, etc.) A few inches away sat Lyra, pretty as a picture, staring intently at it and yowling her little head off. She wanted it to run, or play, or just do something! Naughty toy! she yowled. Bad, lazy, stupid hexapus! The boy cats were watching to see if her scolding could, perhaps, convince the damn toy to move already. The hexapus wasn't going anywhere.

Our laughter startled the cats; they skittered down the rest of the stairs and out of sight. I picked up the very naughty hexapus, and found it a safe, quiet place for the rest of the night.

Sunday, September 12, 2004


b4b.jpgThis is my entry for Blogging for Books #3. The theme for this month is Adaptation; Jay asked folks to "write about a time when you struggled to adapt to a major change in your life."

The doctor walks into the waiting room. He looks worried. He sits down next to me, and tells me that the tissue from today’s biopsy is almost certainly cancer. I close my eyes. Oh god, not again. I realize I’ve said this aloud. I open my eyes, breath deeply. The doctor tells me what appointments to make, and is off to another surgery. And so, a short while later, I am the one to tell my husband Paul that, 22 years after his first cancer diagnosis, he has cancer for the second time.

Then we are sucked into the whirlwind of pathology reports, CAT scans, treatment and physician options, second opinions. We grab onto the facts as they whirl around us: oral squamous cell carcinoma, base of the tongue, perhaps secondary tumor due to earlier radiation, surgery the best chance of cure. Six weeks later, the whirlwind drops Paul into an operating room; he is there for 12 hours. His doctors remove the tumor and adjacent lymph nodes, reconstruct his tongue with tissue from his arm, graft skin from his thigh over the hole in his arm. He gets a tracheotomy and a feeding tube. When the swelling goes down enough, they remove the trach. After 10 days in the hospital, Paul is sent home to finish recuperating. The surgeons believe that they have gotten all of the cancer. There are clear margins around the tumor. The lymph nodes are negative for cancerous cells. Now he just has to heal.

Through all of this, I do not learn that I am stronger than I thought I was, or capable of handling more than I thought I could. I know, and have known, that I am strong, and extremely competent. I do learn about this cancer, and the mechanics of swallowing. I learn some new skills: being my husband’s advocate in the hospital, dressing surgical wounds, analyzing medical billing. I learn enough that trained medical professionals with whom I speak sometimes assume that I am one of them. I do not think of this as adapting. I am simply doing what I need to do to take care of Paul.

A short while – or is it forever? – later, seven months have gone by. While Paul is still learning how to swallow again, he is able to take care of himself. His most recent CAT scan, from the end of June, is clear. I am back at work full-time, but I find that I am struggling. I cry every day. I feel exhausted, and find it hard to concentrate on work that I once loved.

I’ve been in therapy before, and decide that I need to see someone again. During our second session, my new therapist asks me a number of questions. I have a psychology degree, and by the third question I recognize that he’s giving me a standard depression screening. I know the classic symptoms, but is has not occurred to me until this moment that I am seriously depressed.

I bear no physical scars from this experience with cancer. My body has not been cut, reconstructed, left aching or numb or discomfortingly unfamiliar. But cancer, and its treatment, do not wreak these changes only on bodies, but on psyches and on relationships.

My life is not as I knew it. Paul is changed. I am changed. Our marriage is changed. I do not know, cannot quite imagine, what our lives will be six months from now, or two years, or ten. It is not the cancer to which I must adapt, but its aftermath. Part of the aftermath is my depression, and the realization I’ve come to that, right now, I’m really not doing OK. I’m getting the help that I need, and I know that, eventually, I will be OK again.

Friday, September 10, 2004

Fay Jones' Thorncrown Chapel 

The buildings that I most love are spiritual places, those that recognize and nurture the soul. While I am not, at this point in my life, conventionally religious, I am drawn to religious architecture.

In the woods near Eureka Springs, Arkansas, stands my favorite building in this country, if not the world. This chapel, called Thorncrown, is spare and elegant, rich and warm. It is simultaneously grounding and uplifting. It is a masterpiece. Fay Jones, architect of Thorncrown, died on August 30. The following words are those of his biographer, Robert Ivy, and his own on receiving the American Institute of Architects' Gold Medal in 1990.

"Fay Jones' architecture begins in order and ends in mystery. His role can perhaps best be understood as a mediator, a human consciousness that has arisen from the Arkansas soil and scoured the cosmos, then spoken through the voices of stone and wood, glass and steel. Art, philosophy, craft, and human aspiration coalesce in his masterworks, transformed from acts of will into harmonies: Jones lets space sing." Robert Adams Ivy, Jr.

"In the future - in a changing world - whatever the sources of our creativity - whatever stirs our imagination - whatever architectural language we choose to speak - as architects, we have the potential to build well-composed places, large and small, that will not only accommodate our functional needs, but will stand as models which represent the best of our ideas. We have the power - and the responsibility - to shape new forms in the landscape - physical and spatial forms that will illuminate - and nourish - and poetically express - our human qualities at their spiritual best."
E. Fay Jones

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

We make ourselves laugh 

One of the running jokes around our house is that I am unable to use the espresso maker. It’s not that Paul has never shown me how. He has - more than once - demonstrated all of the steps involved in transforming coffee beans and cold milk into a delicious, foamy, caffeinated treat. And, once upon a time, I did make a latte or two for myself. But I’ve never learned to make a really good coffee drink. My lattes were too weak, too bitter, too… made by me. We joke, on occasion, that I must have sustained some sort of brain injury. He marvels that the only lasting effect of my brain damage is an inability to properly tamp grounds and steam milk; I nod, and remark that the brain is truly amazing and mysterious.

Since Paul is much more of a morning person than I, and a sweetheart to boot, he has, most mornings of the past several years, brought me a coffee drink in bed. One of the lovely little pleasures in my life is hearing my husband coming down the hall to deliver a freshly-made latte to my bedside table, singing his own special coffee delivery song:
Coffee drink delivery service
Coffee drink, if you are nervous
About how you’re going to wake
Have yourself a coffee break.
When Paul went into the hospital for surgery in February, he asked what I was going to do about coffee in the morning. I told him that I could buy coffee drinks, or get my caffeine in diet Cokes, and that’s what I did. The UW Medical Center has an espresso stand (this is Seattle, after all), and there are several coffee places within blocks of our house. There were more important things on my mind than coffee. I coped. And, within a month or so, Paul was making coffee drinks for me again.

Summer arrived, bringing more than the usual heat. I did not want hot coffee drinks, so Paul brought me cold lattes. At some point, he realized that he could set up the espresso maker at night, so that it was ready to go at the flip of a switch. Then I could flip that switch! Because he’d set up the machine, the espresso would be good! And you don’t steam milk for a cold latte… just pour in the cold stuff! This I could do, even with that brain injury. It worked fine for a couple of weeks.

This morning, when I went downstairs to feed the cats, I saw that Paul had not refilled the espresso maker for my morning coffee drink. I faced a dilemma: to forego my morning coffee, or to make it myself? And, if I made it myself, how could I explain that to Paul? This morning I really needed the coffee. I looked in the coffee grinder, hoping there might be some beans ground that I could use. Alas, the grinder was empty. There was no way that this would be a stealth espresso. But I needed coffee. So I ground, and measured, and tamped, and poured, and pushed the magic switch... and there was espresso. I added some milk, and it was... good enough.

Heading back upstairs, I found Paul still in bed, but awake. He looked at the mug in my hand. He knew.

K (straightfaced, setting mug on bedside table): "Guess what just happened. I went down to the kitchen to feed the cats, and somehow, magically, there was coffee in the machine."

P (amused, faking puzzled): "Did I set the machine up and forget I'd done it?"

K (crawling back into bed, trying not to laugh): "No, it wasn’t set up when I went into the kitchen. I don’t know what happened."

P (still faking, but smiling): "I thought I heard the coffee grinder, but I wasn’t sure. You didn’t make that coffee?"

K (pulling covers up, sliding over next to P): "Well, I don’t see how I could’ve, with my brain injury and all."

P (not quite laughing yet): "You know, sometimes the brain heals itself. Maybe your brain’s making new neural pathways..."

K (playing footsie with P, starting to giggle): "But if that were the case, you’d think I’d remember it. I must’ve been in some sort of a fugue state, because I can’t remember anything."

P (chuckling, hooking arm through mine): "A fugue state? You’re losing time? This could be serious..."

Snuggled in our bed, bantering and laughing... what a lovely way to start the morning.

Sunday, September 05, 2004

Filling the cellar 

We bought our 1908 house for many reasons, among them a great neighborhood, wide front porch, oak floors, and leaded glass windows. That the house has a full basement was not one of those reasons, but the basement - specifically the part that I think of as the cellar - now has a special place in my life.

When we bought the house, our basement was largely original construction. There had been some electrical and plumbing improvements, but the basement still had the original asbestos-covered boiler (converted from coal to natural gas at some point) and huge concrete utility sink.

In the northwest corner of the basement, there was a small room, obviously constructed of the odds and ends of wood left over from building the rest of the house. The walls were built of wide boards, of the same sort used for the subfloors. The room was lined on three sides with wooden shelves, constructed of an assortment of planks, beadboard and moldings. The door was built in the style of a gate, planks nailed onto two horizontal crosspieces and a diagonal brace, its only hardware some hinges and a hasp for a lock.

We moved to Seattle from northern California, so when I walked into this small room, I thought, not surprisingly, wine cellar! And so it was for the first two years that we owned the house. We brought back wine and port from a trip to Napa Valley. We experimented with Washington and Oregon wines. Our wine cellar was small, but we enjoyed it.

After a couple of years in Seattle, I grew more attuned to the seasons. In an attempt to eat locally, we bought a share in a local CSA farm. We ate salmon and halibut fresh in season. We bought cherries from the farm truck that appeared in our neighborhood for 4 weeks in June and July, and berries and peaches later in the summer.

However, the seasons for the local fruits were just too short. I wanted that luscious sweetness to last. And so three summers ago, expressing some long-dormant gene from my southern grandmothers, I bought canning equipment, jars, flats of fruit, and a huge sack of sugar. Because the knowledge of exactly what to do with these supplies was not encoded, I also bought a book or two on preserving.

I had never made preserves. The results of my first attempts were not great: gummy jelly, overly sweet jam. I kept trying. I decided that I did not like to use prepared pectin, preferring the tradition method of cooking the preserves until they set naturally. I now spend several days each summer and fall "putting up" local cherries, berries, peaches, apples and pears. Sometimes I followed recipes; other times I vary them to suit my tastes, or experiment with flavor combinations of my own.

The small wooden-shelf-lined room in our basement has been transformed from a wine cellar into the traditional storage cellar that I imagine it was built to be. Our port collection still has its shelf in the back of the cellar; the bottles sport an authentic-looking layer of dust and a cobweb or two. However, the products of my canning now occupy a much larger portion of the shelf space in the cellar; at present count, there are seven dozen jars of jams, preserves and chutneys on the shelves. Recently, as I carried a box of freshly-made jam into the cellar, I imagined how the room might have looked at the end of summer, 90 years ago. The cellar, I believe, would have been filled with jars much like the ones that I placed on its shelves. Now, as it would have been then, our cellar is full of the flavors, memories and sunshine of summer, just waiting to brighten a rainy winter morning.

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

a big yellow rubber band 

This morning, Paul couldn't find his Live Strong wristband. He had placed it on his nightstand before going to sleep, along with his watch and Medic-Alert bracelet. As he was on his way out the door, I handed him my band, and set out to recover his.

(We both wear the bright yellow bracelets, would wear them even were they not, according to the NY Times, the fashion accessory of the season. When I met Paul, he was a long-distance cyclist. He has followed the Tour de France for years. We knew of Lance Armstrong, and his battle with cancer, before his became a household name. Lance is a remarkable man, who is doing wonderful work for cancer survivors.)

When something small goes missing in our house, it's usually down to one of the boys. Not surprisingly, they have their individual preferences. As befits his tuxedo, Sergei likes bling-bling: nail clippers, earrings, the metallic clips on pens. Sasha, for no reason that I can fathom, has a thing about fasteners. He loves hairbands, and twist-ties... and rubber bands. He collects fasteners from around the house, and caches them under the edges of the living room rug. As a Live Strong bracelet looks pretty much like a big yellow rubber band, I guessed that Sasha was the culprit... and I thought that I might know where to find the purloined wristband.

I headed downstairs. I imagined Sasha trotting down the same stairs in the dark, plume of tail held high (as he is wont to do when carrying a prize), yellow wristband dangling from his teeth. I could visualize him batting the band around for a while, then trying to lift the edge of the rug to nudge it underneath. As I walked into the living room, I spotted the Live Strong band. It lay half on, half off the rug, near Sasha's favorite spot in front of the armoire. I inspected it for toothmarks, and was strangely saddened to see that there were none.