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Friday
May272011

PJ

You never really know how things are going to go from day to day. I didn't know on the October day in 2002 that I was going to meet a friend who would touch my life in so many ways.

We had talked about getting a second cat. We didn't want our girl, Cleopatra, to be lonely. So when my wife's best friend (a Memphis DVM) told us she had a boy kitten for us, we decided to go have a look. He was a big boy, even at 8 months old, with big paws. My first view of PJ was behind a piano where he was hiding to avoid the other cats. I pulled him out and held him. As I petted him, I discovered little scabs under his fur: his sister, Muffin, had a habit of beating him up. Well, there would be no more of that. PJ came home with us, sleeping on his back in the pet-carrier.

When we got him home, we set him down and introduced him to Cleopatra. She hissed at him, and they became frenemies for life. Poor boy, never had very good luck with the ladies cats.

That first day, PJ came and curled up in Ginger's lap. She was the first to experience the "purr motor." So loud and strong. The more he was petted, the louder it got. Ginger proclaimed right then, "This is the kitten I always wanted." PJ loved Ginger and she adored him, holding him while sitting on the couch, or cuddling with him on the bed.

PJ loved food. He would jump up on the bed on Saturday mornings and paw Ginger until she got up and fed him a can. Oh, he could eat, nudging into anybody else's bowl and hogging the treats.

He was a good boy, loving and affectionate. PJ would jump up on your lap, and turn on that purr motor. It didn't matter what you were doing. When he wanted attention, everything else got put on hold. He loved to be petted and scratched. He loved to have his chest rubbed. He would stretch his body out, extending his arms. I would tease him, saying he was wanting to fly. Sometimes, he would come to me when I napped, pulled himself close to me and slept.

When we brought home Pepper, at first he didn't like her. He hid under the bed, refusing to come out, barely eating. Did he feel betrayed? Did he think he was being replaced. I took a while, but our little spunky black kitty won him over. They became best buds, snuggling together and play-fighting on another.

PJ had his way of playing. He rarely ran (except to chase Cleopatra), but scampered all of the place: chasing a mouse, or a ball. He is happy and as I watched him, I too was happy.

Boy never met a stranger. He come up to anyone who visited. He liked friends. And people adored him: He was the "Proper Cat," the "Big Fella." My best friend Ardist would house-sit for us while we vacationed. He and PJ became fast friend, sharing treat time--Ardist with his pork skins, PJ with his little treats. One time, Ardist got mixed, and PJ got the pork skin and Ardist, well, he got the cat treat.

PJ made us happy just be being himself. He was a pretty boy who loved to be loved most of all.

You never know how things will go from day to day. After a week of illness, we expected to take PJ home with some changes to his routine--medicines to take and new food to eat. But I did not expect the news I got. When we decided painfully to put him to sleep yesterday, we cried over our decision. We loved him so, but we could not put him through anymore pain. He was strong, a fighter. But we knew he would never have a happy day. He would never scamper and play like he did before.We could not let him suffer anymore pain.

I stood with him. I petted him and kissed him. I told him how much I loved him, and how happy he had made us, and that we would forever miss him. I kissed his head once more. Then he was gone. My boy, my friend, was gone.

I cannot express how much my soul aches. I am happy that PJ is no longer in pain, but I miss him so. As the months go by, and the years fall away, I know I will still feel an ache in my heart for him. I know for some, it is unconceivable to imagine my feelings and why I feel as I do. To them, I can say nothing. I loved my friend, and he loved me. That is all I know.

My boy sleeps beyond the stars. He is happy and playful, and free. If no where else but in my mind, I know when I want to see PJ, he will be there for me.

Goodbye, my friend. 2002-2011

Saturday
Mar132010

A Forgotten Way...

I went to go see Tim Burton's Alice In Wonderland. I must recommend it to you, and you must see it in 3-D. It is a remarkable and apt interpretation of Lewis Carroll's characters and story, with a twist: this Alice In Wonderland is a hero adventure for girls.

As always, I am a bit late on seeing movies as they come out, so most of my readers have seen the new Alice movie, so I'll dispense with delicacy and not hide the plot: A young Alice has a remarkable experience in "Wonderland," only to believe (or she has been told to believe) it was a dream. Fast-forward 13 years, and our young but troubled heroine is on the way, unbeknownst to her, to her engagement party. Feeling the pressure of polite society in guiding her into a life she is unsure about, she runs away to chase a white rabbit. Into the rabbit hole Alice falls and our story really begins.

Looking into an uncertain and confusing future, Alice follows her curiousity.

I think the story (by the excellent screenwriter Linda Woolverton), like Carroll's original, is both a social critique and a psychological play. The social mores of 19th Century England are masked in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass. In the same way, Tim Burton lifts the same mirror to society to ask questions about destiny, free-will and ambition.

Alice must parse this world out without the benefit of her protector, her father. Mr. Kingsley is a bit of a dreamer, with big plans that other see as mad or crazy. Alice, confused and anguished by her "dreams" of Wonderland is indulged and supported by her father, who tells his young daughter when she questions her sanity, "yes, you are mad. But the best people are." At 19, Alice is unconventional, bright and very caustic about the role society has chosen for her. I have written elsewhere that it is an incredible indictment of sorts that the women--in this case mother and older sister--choose to push their daughters into stifling, ordinary lives, devoid of choice, creativity and (god forbid) love. In Victorian England, women of a certain social group were better educated and given more opportunity for expression, but still they were expected to be subjugated to their husbands and put their own ambitions aside.

Alice knows she does not want a life like that, but she must find the courage to slay the idea of convention in her own life, her doubts about whether her dreams are real, and stand resolute and alone. Along the way, we meet and get reacquainted with the marvelous characters in "Underland:" the hookah-smoking caterpillar, the March Hare, Dormouse, Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, the Red Queen and her sister the White Queen, and of course, the Mad Hatter. Johnny Depp's Hatter plays a more prominent role in this adaptation, acting as a supporter, believing in Alice to be the true one, and acts as a key to Alice's inner self.

The Hatter is mad, his world is skewed, internally defined, with fits of garden-path thoughts, daisy-chains of images, past glories and present fears. But it is Alice's act of validation in passing on the words of her father to the Hatter that provided an interesting clue to me to the story.

I was reminded of Peter Brook's adaptation of The Mahabharata. In a scene where his brothers have all been struck down by an unseen force by a lake, the king Yudhisthira is forced to answer question posed to him by Dharma, his father who had disguised himself. One of the questions was this: "What is madness?" Yudhisthira replies: "It is a forgotten way."

As children, we are free to dream. The world is open and wide, and we interpret it creatively and freely associate and apply our dreams to reality. Our playfulness works out the world. But our lives do not stay that way. As adults, we are expected to face facts, deal with it, face reality and conform to the roles set for us. We are told to forget the childish ways. It is interesting to note that in the 19th Century there was more of a push in polite society to value children's creativity and let them play. Alice is a child of that polite society that, when the society expects conformity, rebels against convention. Doing so, makes her alone and distant from others, an oddball and misfit.

It is in (W)Underland that she must step forward and slay the Jabberwocky. To me, the Jabberwocky is the monster of conformity that flattens the dreams and ambitions of the individual through fear. It is society, the "polite" society of Victorian England and the culture of our own time, making one doubt oneself, relying on others for our value and worth. Through the caterpillar's cajoling, Alice remembers her previous adventure and that it was not a dream. In killing the Jabberwocky, Alice finds her original strength, she has found her way to stand in the world, alone and apart on her own terms. And so she returns to her world, turns down the marriage proposal, and starts carving out her own way, a way her father knew that will now be her's alone.

There are other interesting symbols: The White Queen and Red Queen, their armies of chess pieces and playing cards. The White Queen is purposeful, thoughtful and all her actions are lovely and ethical. The Red Queen is vain, insecure and forceful, her actions are selfish and destructive. Are they not the Superego and Id respectively? Isn't Alice caught between these two? As to the chess pieces and playing cards: both refer to games of skill, but in different ways--chess is an intellectual, deliberate and open exercise of wits, while the game of cards is just as skillful and deliberate, but the players must use deception, or bluffs, in order to win.

In finding her way, Alice finds the forgotten way: she is "mad" in society's terms for passing up the security and comfort of being a wife. But she is following a dream, playing a deliberate and skillful game of both heart and mind, choosing to negotiate the world on her own terms rather than on another's.

I have met several "Alice's" over the years. I once had a friend who told me that she called off her wedding 5 days before it was to be, because she did not want to be in marriage with someone who did not respect her or see her as an equal partner. I get encouraged when I hear of women who want to be taken seriously and that they want more than just a supporting role in someone else's life. Even in our modern time with all the talk of post-feminism, it is important that girls and women see their own value, seek out their own lives. If the men who love them see these women as equals worthy of building a life together, what a remarkable world we would find ourselves in.

Thanks for reading.

Monday
Dec072009

Winged Victory of Samothrace

Imagine you are in the Aegean Sea on the small Greek island of Samothrace. You are at the Sanctuary of The Great Gods, a temple complex dedicated to various gods.

The faithful took these places seriously and with great devotion, but I also can imagine a theme park-like atmosphere at this site and the many others that dotted the Mediterranean at the time.  There was reverence, yes. But the gods were alive, the stories we now call myths were real in their daily experience. There was a great suspension of disbelief among the faithful, such as there is today. The rites and initiations to the gods performed here brought you closer to them and in so being you shared in their mysteries.

You're walking south, past the great temple dedicated to the Great Mother, through the amphitheater and up to the reflecting pool. There, jutting out from the far end is a dramatic figure. It is the Winged Goddess of Victory, Nike, poised lightly on the stone prow. She is a stunning figure, life-like with almost fluid motion, as if she has just descending for the sky proclaiming triumph.  The statue commemorates a sea battle, you forget which one. It is more interesting watching Nike's reflection in the mirror-smooth pool in the fading light of day.

Winged Victory at the Lourve

Winged Victory is in the Louvre. It has aged now, and is incomplete, missing her arms and that exquisite face. But it is no less splendid. The graceful curves and clinging folds of her dress bare witness to the strong headwind she plunged into to lead her devotees to victory. It is still stunning.


The Greeks lived with idea of arête—the concept that people could live good, decent lives and strive toward excellence. As one would expect, they personified this ideal in a goddess. But theology aside, the idea that life should be lived not in an ordinary way, but as an inspired action, is sublime and timely. I am reminded often that the word inspiration means the very act of breathing in, literally taking in the world, to be alive in it.  What is it in our stories, beliefs, our hopes and fears for this time and place that can be beautiful, good, excellent? What will we make of our situation? 

Thanks for reading.

Friday
Dec042009

Snowflakes

 

 

It's a tradition every year to make and hang snowflakes in the Monitor Room for Christmas. With a piece of paper, scissors and some imagination, we create our own Winter Wonderland. Add some colored lights and we're good to go to celebrate the season.
Anyone who makes a snowflake gets to hang it up. We get some interesting ones, and it's fun to watch my colleague's reactions to their creations--it's an ameoba, a hockey mask, a I don't know what. All of them are the unique, creative expressions of the best we offer this season.
I admit, I love making snowflakes. It is a gentle madness that inhabits my brain. Folding the paper and cutting the shapes is a meditation for me. Out of these simple things and the odd abstract clipping, a strange, unique and sometime beautiful thing emerges.
Early New Years Day morning, another tradition happens: the snowflakes are torn down and thrown away. Just like the Winter snow, our snowflakes must melt away. Another meditation, the impermenance of things, the neccesity of change in life.
Have a happy holiday. Thanks for reading.

Monday
Nov022009

A Visit to the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center Air & Space Museum, Dulles Int'l Airport

The day started off with rain as we headed out to Dulles Airport to the Air & Space Museum. My sister Pam, her husband Tim and their two boys Chris and Matt, came along. The museum is really a large aircraft hanger. Every kind of plane you could imagine was either parked on the floor or hanging from the ceiling. The whole history of flight, from the Wright Brothers to the Space Shuttle, was presented in this very large space. We lingered, reading the plaques and commenting on these amazing planes.

I paused for a moment at the Enola Gay. On August 6th, 1945 this B-29 Super-fortress dropped the first Atomic Bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. History changed in that moment of blinding light. As I looked at this plane, I wondered: did the crew know they were going to change the world? Looking at this aircraft, remarkable and beautiful in silver-gray, you can easily forget that this plane was both a harbinger of doom and a savior to thousands of American soldiers. The Enola Gay is at one of those corners in history.

The fastest plane in the world is the SR-71 Blackbird. Used for reconnaissance flights over the former Soviet Union, and more recently Iraq and Afghanistan, its published top speed is Mach 3.3. Its real speed is classified. It is another beautiful feat of engineering, and one of my favorites.

I remember when I first heard about the Shuttle program. I was young, and the thought of space flight excited and intrigued me. I loved that the first of the Shuttle fleet was named Enterprise. I imagined that Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock might be on board, blasting away in the far reaches of space. The Shuttle program was closer to home, restricted to earth's atmosphere, launching and repairing satellites and ferrying crew and supplies to the International Space Station.

The Enterprise never made it to the launchpad. It was used for landing tests and crew training. The Shuttle program will end soon, the fleet grounded forever. But nothing will take away from the most complex flying machine ever built.


Thanks for reading.

See more photos here: http://gallery.me…henacaldwell/100060