November 22, 2005

Thanksgiving and other holiday memories

It has been at least 15 years since I was home for Thanksgiving. Maybe even more. It's sad, but I can't remember the last time I was there. Most likely, I was living in Milwaukee at the time, so if I went home it was because I was missing the family Thanksgiving and had enough for a quick plane ticket.

Each of the holidays at home had a different feel. One reason for this is that my family divvies up the holidays between our various houses. Thanksgiving is celebrated at Aunt Pauline and Uncle Rusty's house. They have a ranch style house in town with a nicely manicured back lawn and flowers around the borders along the fence, as well as a nice patio in back. But, we usually celebrated the holiday indoors. Their large dining room table would get the insertion of extra leaves so that all the adults and a good number of children could settle around it and dig into turkey, mashed potatoes with gravy, stuffing, Aunt Betty's bean casserole, potato salad, jello salad, fruit salad, some strange salad with coconut and marshmallows in it, and desserts like pumpkin pie and mincemeat pie.

Dinner always took about three hours. The courses would just keep coming. Of course, there were always the ones who stood out with their eating habits. A couple of my cousins, and at least one person who married a cousin, always astounded everyone by their exploits. You would never imagine that they could put it away like they could. These people often earned accolades or at least respect for their efforts -- but they were always men. Women were a different story. Often, my sister's eating habits were commented upon. She was (and remains) bulimic and loaded up her plate quite a bit before disappearing for a little while. However, her eating habits always earned some comment or at least the feeling that she was being watched. Others ate very little, which always earned expressions of concern from the older folks -- "Are you not feeling good, honey?"

The holidays were often the time that the trials and travails of family life, the secrets, lies and jealousies came bubbling to the surface like bad smelling swamp gas. None of our families were safe. I think that the worst thing was that whenever a family had something going wrong, they tried to keep it secret. But everyone knew something, if not exactly what, was happening. Protecting my elderly grandmother, the matriarch of the family, was always first priority. Yet she always somehow knew that things were wrong -- you couldn't keep much from Granny.

After pies, the poker table always got rolled out. It didn't matter whether the holiday was Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years, Mothers Day or Easter, there was always a poker game. And what poker it was! No penny ante in my family. We played for a dollar limit on raises. The pot would often rise to $70 or $80. On one end, Uncle Rusty, a little tipsy from a couple of highballs, would make some ill advised raises and curse his unlucky cards. Uncle Elwin was the master of building a large stake, going on winning streaks that made little towers of chips in front of him. Aunt Betty would be hot and cold. My mom, usually sitting at the end of the table, was inscrutable, the great stone face. She didn't drink, and often came home the big winner and rarely seemed to come away with a loss. The poker games would last until 1 or 2 in the morning. In the old days, it was 5 card draw, 5 card stud, and 7 card stud. Later, someone was introduced to Texas Hold-em, and introduced it into our family games. The only wild-card was a joker, good only with aces, straights and flushes. "We play according to Hoyle," my mother often declared. Occasionally, someone would come in and try to play night baseball or some other game with a billion wild cards. My mother would leave her chips at that point, only coming back when Hoyle was back in force. Once in awhile, a young buck like myself would sit in, only to lose $20 in 15 minutes and be forced back to the couch to watch some comedy show, or play some type of board game with the cousins. Poker was serious business in the family.

Sadly, with my cousins, siblings and myself being grown and moved away, the holiday gatherings have grown smaller and smaller. This year, only six people celebrated Thanksgiving at the family gathering; Aunt Betty and Uncle Elwin, Aunt Pauline and Uncle Rusty, my mother, and Aunt Betty's almost 100 year old father, Papa John. My mother said that no poker game was played, because there weren't enough people. Though Megan and I are going to my hometown for Christmas this year, many of the faces I grew up with will be absent. Others will be like strangers to me -- the kids of my cousins whom I barely know. But some Christmas traditions will continue. If there are kids, most likely a pinata will make an appearance, though I'm not sure how that tradition first started in our family. If five people are up for it, the poker table will come out. The feast will begin at my Aunt Betty and Uncle Elwin's place at about 2:00 p.m. Of course, we'll be late as my family always is. Ten lottery scratch off tickets will be on everyone's plate, a gift of my aunt and uncle. Usually someone wins ten dollars or so. And life will go on.

November 15, 2005

Hannibal Pics now up

You can now see Hannibal pics that span his 15 years of life. Click on title to go there.

November 13, 2005

Hannibal turns 15

On Tuesday, Hannibal reaches the ripe old age of 15. The last year has been a difficult one for him. As most of you know, in January he had kidney stones, which really took it out of him for quite a while. Over the past two years, a neurological problem caused by arthritis has left him hobbled -- his back legs cannot support him long and he ends up sinking down the longer he stands. He can still walk, but very very slowly, and he tends to drag the tops of his back paws on the pavement, which can cause him to bleed unless we wrap a bandage around the paw that drags the most. He has trouble getting up off of the hardwood floors because of his weak back legs and the lack of purchase on the slick wood. He has bladder control problems, necessitating the use of a diaper while he is in the house.

Just this last week, I was working on the dissertation when I heard him trying to get up out in the living room. I immediately noticed something was wrong. When I helped him get up, he was listless and breathing very rapidly. I took him over to his bed, and laid him down. Usually he fights me when I try to lay him down, but this time he just let me, no questions asked. Megan came home at my request, and I called the vet. When she arrived, she took his temperature and found that it was 104.8 (a dog's normal is between 101 and 102). She took some blood to send out for testing, and she gave him intravenous antibiotics and fluids, and asked us to monitor his temperature.

After three hours, it had gone up to 105.4. After I called her, she instructed us to get Hannibal to the Urgent Care Clinic. They put him on antibiotics and fluids for the night. The next day he went to a veterinary clinic to continue the fluids and antibiotics. His temperature went down during the day but spiked up again at night, necessitating another overnight stay at the Urgent Care Clinic. Finally, the next day, we were able to bring him home after his temperature went down and seemed to be holding steady. The blood test was negative, but a urine sample they took yielded a ton of bacteria. It turns out the old boy had a massive bladder infection, probably due in part because of his inability to control his bladder -- bacteria can just waltz right up in there. He's back home now, and recovering. He wants to sleep a lot, and isn't eating properly.

Some have asked us why we spend all this money on a 15 year old dog? Why not just put him to his rest and move on? Isn't it cruel to keep a dog alive that has so many problems? I would agree that when a dog is in chronic, unmanageable pain, or has lost interest in life, then it might be time to make that decision. However, we weren't going to put Hannibal down because of a bladder infection. In addition, until last week, Hannibal was walking almost a mile every day (although very slowly), and was quite interested in life. He was eating well. We hope that he regains that interest again.

The upshot is that Hannibal is our friend, and has given us a lot. Sure we spent a lot of money on him this last week, but that's what you do with dear friends. You spare no expense to keep them comfortable. If sometime in the future, Hannibal appears to be in pain that can't be managed, we may have to make a hard decision. But for now, we are doing what we can to keep our friend happy, if not healthy, in his golden years. And for now, we'll celebrate his 15th year with us with gratitude.


I will have some pictures or a slideshow or something up of Hannibal to celebrate his 15 years of life. I will post a link when I get them up. Otherwise, go here to see Hannibal's tribute pages.

November 05, 2005

Food Insecurities

I like to think that I'm a pretty smart and accomplished guy. I've graduated from high school. I received an undergraduate degree in English, a Master's in International Relations, and hopefully next year I will receive a Ph.d in Political Science. I've been the executive director of two not-for-profit organizations. I've also worked a number of labor-style occupations -- I loaded lumber trucks in high school and was a security guard in college. I even washed dishes in a restaurant when I was 16.

So why is it that this new part-time catering job that I took to bring in some extra money has me so flustered? Why is it that every time I go into work, I feel that no matter how much I check and double check details that something will be wrong in the end? Why do I end up leaving the job feeling like such a dumbass?

The latest calamity in my catering misadventures happened yesterday. I arrived at the restaurant at 5:00 a.m. for a breakfast catering. It wasn't a big catering -- about 35 people having French toast and breakfast burritos. I had worked the day before for an hour and got all the materials ready, the two chafers, the plasticware and napkins, the paper plates, the serving utensils. The caterer, Albert, a short and slight but animated man of Italian heritage, told me to find a container for syrup, and a carafe seemed to fit the need to both carry the syrup and keep it warm. So I arrived on the day of the catering very certain that no stone was left uncovered. I assisted in getting the food ready, amusing and annoying Albert with my apparent clumsiness in burrito wrapping (I had never gotten the hang of wrapping burritos despite the fact that I lived in San Antonio, Texas for five years and now in Albuquerque, where Mexican style food is very commonplace).

When the food was ready, we loaded it into the hotbox and Albert and I left in the van for the catering gig. As we drove, I went over the details in my mind. I had checked and double checked the materials. I was certain that it would go fine.

We arrived and began to set up. I opened the large reinforced plastic box with all of our materials to find an unholy mess. Syrup had spilled out of the carafe and into the plastic bag that I had wrapped the carafe in. From the plastic bag it had spilled out into the box. Luckily I had put other materials in Ziplock bags. But, the result was there was no syrup, and a big mess. Albert kept his cool. But I was extremely flustered by this point. We set it up as best we could. I was really embarassed, flustered, and in my haste to get out of there I didn't secure the materials on the dolly, with the result that as we exited the building, the hotbox fell off the cart. This prompted a tonguelashing from Albert who had warned me about properly securing food.

"What would have happened had the hotbox been filled with food?" he growled.

All I could do was hang my head, secure the box, and continue pushing the cart.

We got into the van, and Albert said "Let this be a hard lesson about properly securing food. Wrap everything in plastic. The carafe seemed to be cracked, so wrapping it probably wouldn't have mattered. But you should exercise extreme caution on everything. The lucky thing was that this was an understanding customer I've worked with before. But if this had been someone's house, it would have been a major disaster."

I asked Albert how they responded to mistakes in chef school. "They wouldn't be talking to you like I am right now," he responded. "If something like that happened there, it wouldn't be uncommon for them to make you lick all the syrup out of the box. If you screw up a batch of Super Sauce and it tastes like shit, you would end up drinking the batch."

"How did you survive?" I asked, conjuring up images of Nazi-like prison camps run run by vicious-looking men in chef hats.

"I excelled," he replied.

When we got back to the restaurant, I raced in, grabbed a container of syrup, raced out and drove back to the catering to leave it with them. The woman who ordered the catering, Deanna, was extremely nice and told me not to worry about it, that accidents happen. "Don't worry about Albert," she said. "He's such a perfectionist. He'll get over it."

"How did it go?" asked Albert after I returned from delivering the replacement syrup. "Did you apologize 150,000 times? Did you wipe up any spilled syrup we missed?"

I told Albert what Deanna had said. "She knows me," he replied with a slight smile.

The hard thing for me about this is that I'm 41 years old, and possessed of reasonable ability. I've excelled at many things. Yet this catering thing seems to get me completely unglued. I can count on one hand the days I've done something without an mistake, and I need two to count the days where there have been mistakes. I feel like I am methodical, yet plates have been left behind, napkins have been left behind, not enough garnish has accompanied me.

Perhaps it's the "be thorough but be fast" atmosphere. Every day we are against a deadline, and a lot of the food has to be ready to go at the last minute. In the rush to get everything out the door and set up on time, I have to also be aware of all those things that I may forget. Ordinarily, when I'm methodical, I'm slow and I take lots of time. Here I don't have the luxury of time. I have to be a rapid perfectionist.

I suppose that at my age, new challenges are good. Yet I don't like feeling like a dumbass. These experiences are dredging up all the old tapes that play in my head about my inadequacies. These tapes were instilled during my childhood and adolescence, when my father's alcoholism got progressively worse. He did a lot of the skilled things he was good at by himself. When he wasn't drunk, it was because he thought I should be a kid and play. When he was drunk, and decided he wanted to teach me, he would get impatient with me and berate me for my lack of ability and send me away. Sometimes he would call me a dumbass. My mother compensated for his alcoholic behavior that she couldn't control by maintaining tight control over her household. She asked for me to help with chores, but would often belittle my efforts because they didn't meet her standards. As a result, I developed a lazy attitude in spite of them, acting like I didn't really care how it reflected on me.

I had thought that I had shed myself of many of those old feelings. However, I find that this part-time job has dredged them up again. Only this time, I do care how it reflects on me. I don't want to be that dumbass. I would like to do my job quietly, efficiently and effectively. However, I find myself increasingly doubting my ability to do that. And I find that I am holding on to these failures in this job as if they are defining my current existence.

"Are you sure that you really want me in this position?" I asked Albert, after I had broken the catering down and brought the materials back in to the restaurant.

"Mike, you're my project." he responded. "I suppose I could resort to kicking your ass -- a little pain reinforcement."

"Yeah, I suppose you could," I replied. "Look, I'm sorry about the screwups today."

"It didn't do any real damage to our reputation," he answered. "Are you available Sunday afternoon?"

November 02, 2005

Remembering My Foster Parents

Yesterday as I was talking to my mom on the phone, she said “Guess who called me.” Since it could have been one of any of the world’s 6 billion people, I said “You have to give me a better clue than that.” After a couple of minutes of whittling down, I said “Pam?”

“Isn’t that interesting?” my mom asked.

It was. Pam is the daughter of my foster parents, Laurence and Thelma Wills. Or Tia and Pop, as I knew them. I had once had Pam’s phone number and address, but the information got lost with the data from my old computer.

Many of you may know that I was adopted. I was lucky. At the time I was adopted I was 2½ years old, well past the usual window of opportunity. From my birth, when I was taken by Children’s Home Society of Oakland, California from my birth mother, until I was adopted I was placed in foster homes. I know of only two of them though I only very dimly remember one. I know that I lived with a woman I called “Mama Joyce” for a time. She was eager to adopt me, but she and her husband struggled with the question of adoption versus having children of their own. Eventually, having their own children won out, and I was placed with Tia and Pop, who lived in San Leandro, California.

I am troubled by how little I really know of Tia and Pop. They were really a part of my life when I was growing up, so I didn’t really pay attention to pertinent information. I believe that Tia was Hawaiian. I’m not sure where Pop was from. Pop worked in construction. He was a small man, probably about 5’5” or so, but he was strong. I believe he used to haul bags of cement and other building materials up ladders on high rise construction projects. He had a high pitched voice, but he was well liked and respected by his friends and peers. He was a member of the union, and I believe he was even part of their leadership for a long time. I do know that he was an avid golf aficionado. Tia mostly stayed at home, but she kept a good household, and she was involved in many women’s groups. She was also a golfer. They lived in a small house on a small street in San Leandro about 1½ blocks from I-550.

I remember the exact address because they made me as a two year old memorize it in case I got lost. Pop never tired of telling the story about how they would ask me what I was supposed to do if I could not find them. I was to find a policeman and as Pop related it, I would say “I yost. 1536 151st Street, San Yeandro, California.” He got a great kick out of that.

I wasn’t the only one in their household. After Pam left the home, the Wills took in over 80 children. At times they would have a couple of infants and a toddler to care for at the same time. Usually these were children who were in transition from institutional care to adoptive homes. My understanding is that some of these other children overlapped with me. They eventually stopped when it became too difficult to part with the children. The agency discouraged attachments to the children, especially for kids that were being moved into permanent adoptive homes. But it was hard. I remember Tia telling me that it was easier with the children that were with them for a few days, or even a week or two. But the longer term children, such as myself, they would grow attached to even though they knew they shouldn’t.

Out of those 80-some kids, I was one of only three that they continued to keep contact with. Usually the agency frowned on continued contact, but my adoptive parents felt that since I was old enough to remember them, I should continue to know them. Over the time of the adoptive process, my parents and the Wills’ became friends, and no trip down to the Bay Area was complete without visiting Tia and Pop. Tia and Pop also came up to my home in Fort Bragg on occasion to visit us, though as they got older their trips became less frequent. They would visit with me, marvel on my progress, and play golf with my parents.

To them, I really was a marvel. I remember when I was 13 or 14, I was playing football outside with some friends when they were visiting. I came back inside after our game, and Pop said that he was amazed. I asked why and he said that he never thought I would ever be able to do such kinds of activities.

When Tia and Pop first started caring for me, I was a real mess. You can imagine. I had been taken from my mother and birth and had been raised by an institution. I later had been placed in a foster home, Mama Joyce’s. She cared for me, but because of my supposedly fragile state she had insisted on doing things for me that I probably should have been learning to do myself. I was coddled. By the time I came to Tia and Pop, I didn’t talk and I didn’t eat for myself. I would point at food and say “uh, uh” so that someone would feed me.

But Tia wouldn’t let me take the easy way out. She simply said “When he’s hungry he’ll eat.” And eventually, when my entreaties went unmet, I ate though I wasn’t happy about it. Tia also encouraged me to talk. She talked to me all the time, asked me questions and made me think. She told me once that the first word she heard me say came when I was watching a kid’s game show on television. From the other room, she heard me say “Bingo!”

Tia wouldn’t let the “experts” take the easy way out with me either. The going opinion was that I was retarded because I wasn’t talking and didn’t seem too interested in the world. Tia was convinced through her daily contact with me that I was actually a pretty smart little kid who was adept at manipulation, despite what the experts thought. She worked with me to rid me of my bad habits and to teach me useful knowledge like letters and numbers, not really sure if she was getting through to me. One day when she took me shopping, I was sitting in the cart as she moved down the cereal aisle. I pointed at a box of cereal and stated “K-E-L-L-O-G-G-S.” The next time we visited a doctor, Tia demonstrated my talent to a doctor who had seen me before and was not too hopeful about my prospects. His jaw nearly dropped to the floor, according to her story.

There are many firsts that Tia and Pop were a part of, some pleasant and some unpleasant. Tia gave me my first spanking. In fact, I believe it is the earliest memory I have. I can still remember being taken into the bathroom, my pants being pulled down and getting a couple of sharp swats with a paddle (all perfectly accepted treatment of unruly children back then). Tia and Pop were present when I first became a member of an actual family. Knowing my fascination for airplanes, Tia and Pop took me on a helicopter, although I don't remember it now. And Tia and Pop remained present through my life. It was Pop who took me to my first ever baseball game, at Oakland-Alameda County Stadium to see the A’s.

Tia and Pop were products of their time, which is to say that they had their weaknesses, as all great people do. They were conservative Democrats, in the sense that they were socially conservative but supported unions and various other Democratic policies. They supported what we today would call “family values.” When my adoptive mother and father got divorced, they shook their head and called it a shame, despite their knowledge of my father’s alcoholism. Like many Americans of their generation, the huge social and cultural changes that started in the 60s did not come easily for them. Tia once chastised my sister, one year when my family visited them, when she wandered over to a “hippie” in a park who gave her peanuts to feed the squirrels. Issues of race were especially difficult. They referred to African-Americans as “colored” and resisted the newer, more “politically correct” labels. Like many whites, they harbored a distrust of the greater black community in the Bay Area, which they viewed as violent and hostile to whites like them. I learned this in college in the 80s when I stopped in to see them on my way down to college after driving through downtown Oakland to see what it looked like. They were quick to tell me how stupid they thought that was, and that I could have been shot and killed just by being white. In high school and college, I got into some political debates and arguments with them over racial issues. However, they did commingle with individual African-Americans and were close to those they knew. When Tia had appointments where she could not take me with her, she would leave me (and other children if she had them) with black woman who she employed for domestic help. Years later, when I was a teenager and visiting Tia and Pop, Tia took me to see this woman, who by this time was elderly and retired. She remembered me as if it were yesterday and relived stories with Tia about me. My point is, Tia and Pop were probably like a lot of their friends and peers, and had the same attitudes. These attitudes were relatively widespread and normal at the time. Regardless of what we might think of those attitudes today, Tia and Pop did great things for children in need.

I would like to say that Tia and Pop lived and passed on in the dignity that befitted the effort that they put into easing the lives of the children that they harbored. However, in their later years they ran into a series of setbacks. Pop developed Parkinson’s disease. I think there was some exploration into whether it might have been brought on by his work in construction. As he declined Tia, whose health was always marred by diabetes, was also beset by high blood pressure. I believe she had a mild stroke at one point, and her continued health problems and the difficulties of caring for Pop began to affect her. She developed depression. She ended up leaving this world before Pop, who entered an institutional setting where he could be better cared for. The last time I saw Pop he was in this institution, unable to hold his head up and barely understandable. He had trouble maintaining focus, but when he saw me his eyes lit up. Though he didn’t say much, he chimed in from time to time with a snippet or anecdote from my past. He died a few months later.

Though we are products of our choices, sometimes we are also products of those things beyond our control where someone or something exerts a profound effect on our future. I was lucky. Tia and Pop were instrumental in setting the path of my life. They believed that there was something in me that needed to be nurtured, and advocated for me against doctors and agency officials who didn’t believe I would amount to anything. They also battled the habits that I developed which could have made me unadoptable. Without them, I may have remained in an institution until I was released as an adult, and who knows what might have happened to me? For their belief and support, they have become heroes in my life, and despite the difficult circumstances of their later years, they shine in my memory untouched and unsullied by age or life’s infirmities.

It happens that if and when my wife and I do have children, we will most surely adopt. I can only hope that if a child we adopt has been in foster care, it will have received the same kind of care and love that Tia and Pop gave to so many children.

Michael L. Hess