Thursday, March 29, 2012

A Dog's Life


I had somebody in tears again today.  They weren’t tears of sorrow or frustration or joy, in fact I think they were tears of anger.  I sat next to, and asked what I’d done, said, or wrote that set it all off and like a dog sitting next to an angry master – waited for absolution, or at least a tossed Frisbee.

Neither was granted me and the language that came forth was received much as a dog would hear it, not actual words but emotions.  I tried whining, wagging my tail, even chortling out a warm “woof” but none of them had the desired affect.  When my master left the room, I was left to hear only the silence and the best I could do with it was to put my head on my paws and wait till he came back.

There are days when I “do it all wrong”; I’m Peter with the sword, Jonah headed the wrong way, I’m a combination of Anita Bryant and Dan Quale – standing up for something and then being eviscerated by popular thought as being “an irrelevant idiot”.  I do far more wrong than right and like the dog, am left to wonder and wait with my muzzle on my paws.

When I was a kid I wanted to be a dog.  I recalled running around thinking that if I took a Dixie cup and a rubber band I could put the cup over my nose and upper lip and I’d have a muzzle.  Figured with my Princeton haircut, that my ears already had a floppy-like existence so the only thing hindering me was the forward kant of my knees and the lack of a suitable tail.  I knew I couldn’t change those issues so I simply dismissed the shortcomings and ran off, barking at cars.

Perhaps it was the hero image I’d grown to love from watching “Lassie”, perhaps it was just the need to be something I wasn’t – all I know now is that the dog I’ve become; I wish I were less of.  My anger with Bethany, my anger with work, my anger with myself – good dogs don’t seem to be bothered by such things, they forgive and move on, rarely displaying anger of any sort.  Bad dogs usually end up on the news or in the pound.  I fear my bite has become newsworthy and my value as a pet, diminished.

In my prayers last night, I prayed that the Lord would scratch my ears, pat my head and say “good boy, good boy”, offering me the solace that I needed so I could start to bring joy to lives again.  I know he did but for some reason I’ve just not felt the freedom of absolution to the point of wanting to go out front of the building and bark at cars. 

Then again, its nearly lunchtime – perhaps today I’ll get a Dixie cup from the cafeteria and give it a whirl.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Attentive Eyes and a Dispassionate Heart


In frustration I grabbed her by the wrists and dragged her partway off the sofa.  She weighs fully over a hundred pounds so I could only get her so far and I needed to stop for breath.  To be honest, I’m at the point in life where I was more worried about throwing my back out than I was for her safety and welfare.  “She’s young, she’ll heal” was my thought.

She clearly didn’t feel well and had no intention of leaving the respite house.  I felt like I needed to get her out as I was way over that allotted time generously given me by the State of Michigan and the local community health organization.  I waited till the last minute to get her and now felt the need to make a hasty departure.

She began the seizure just before I arrived – in fact it was the first time I’d ever come to pick her up here and found her to not to be in some sort of manic phase – kicking doors, screaming, punching, ripping knapsacks from the hands of the staff.

The staff always looks like a tired sparring partner; they roll from one “client” to the next, and giving of their soul and body in the hope that something makes a difference in someone’s life.  They take the beating and grow from it in their own private ways.

Bethany refused to comply, refused (or was unable) to stand and walk out on her own so I resorted to the drag.  It reminded me of the images of non-violent resistance during the protests of the 60’s; stiff-armed kids being dragged off to the paddy wagon just prior to arrest.  As I dragged her out the door and trough the parking lot, I was thankful that there were few cars going by.  Most people think of the typical behavior in this place, as “freakish” and this spectacle would likely confirm their suspicions.  I dragged her and did my best to maintain dignity.

Once I got her to the car the next problem surfaces how do I get her in?  No way to lift her as she intentionally resisted, rolled, folded and twisted.  Finally, I braced myself, grabbed her by the belt and by the collar of her hooded sweatshirt and dragged her up onto the back seat.  It’s a small VW so there’s not much room and I got her in up to the belt, her legs dangling down across the parking lot.  I grabbed her calves and lifted them up, folding her at the waist and effectively “halving” her so that I could get her into the car.  I slammed the door on her butt, ensuring that it was locked; I casually looked at the staff and asked, “did you need paperwork signed”? as if this was an everyday action.  She looked at me and said, “uh, no…I think its ok…”

On the drive home, she decided that the paper clip, fold job I’d done was uncomfortable and with her feet flat on the passenger window she began to kick.  On the third kick I thought she was going through the glass – those German engineers must have anticipated small Koran girls kicking on glass because the window held till I could safely reach in the back and drag her across the seat.  Her breathing relaxed a bit and she quick kicking.

We pulled in to the driveway at home and I rolled the car up to the house, turned it off and sat quietly listening to the radio.  Rich Mullins singing a song about Jesus:

“Do you who live in radiance, hear the prayers of those of us
 who live on earth…did you forget about us after you’d flown away?” 

I just shook my head.  I sat there for an awfully long time…Bethany just whined.  I got out and tried to get her into the house as it was getting cold and dark but she’d have none of it.  I brought all of her school materials into the house and got myself a drink of water while looking out the window at the car.  The back door was swung wide open but there was no movement.  I finished the water, cursed under my breath and headed out the door.

 I dragged her into the house the same way that I’d dragged her to the car.  I dumped her in the door, lifted her feet to shut the back door, locked it, chained it and headed to the bathroom for a long, hot shower.  It’s a calculated risk, doing anything with Bethany unattended but I figured with the door locked and chained, the refrigerator chained and all the kitchen cupboard doors locked – I was relatively safe.  I needed the hot shower for the simple reason that no one sees you cry there.

Somehow, little by little, you make it through the rest of the evening.  Through the medications, through the post-seizure, manic phase, through the final joust with toothbrushes and up the stairs for the final “kiss-and-punch-in-the-face” of the night.  I made it through all of it with an emotional numbness brought by on by a combination of the Holy Spirit and the Absolut vodka martini that he’d supplied me with.  She was quiet by 10:30pm and I soon followed.

Today at work, it’s quiet and introspective.  Lives go on around me; everyone has their own “Bethany” story that they drag along with them everyday but today, for me…I listen to them with fixed and attentive eyes but a dispassionate and hardened heart.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Quintessential Bethany


I sit in the rocking chair looking down on Bethany as she quietly plays with a ball near the big glass windows.  The sunlight through her jet-black hair makes it look more red than black and it makes her brown eyes appear more clear than they really are.  She’s having a quiet moment, gently tapping the ball against her teeth as she stares out the window. 

Times like this, I can see her, the sunlight, and the dust in the air all gently mixing together to make a living ray of hope that washes over her being, right into my soul.  It’s a calming sight; it’s an infrequent sight.  She sighs, shifts the ball to the other hand and resumes the tapping pattern, all without moving her gaze even so much as a millimeter. 

Its times like this that I realize how big she’s grown.  She’ll be 16 years old soon and her size and voice are taking on a more commanding presence while her demeanor becomes more harsh, her demands more insistent.   As I stare at all this I hear the ball drop to the ground as she, squatted down comfortably on her heels, stops all motion.  There in that rich sunlight I see the beginning of the end.

With a loud and instant crash, I hear her head smash into the window – I hear it before I see it and I’m staring directly at it; its as if I’m in such denial that I can only hear and not see the action.  The entire window wobbles in recoil and for this hit, remains intact.  I know it’s only a matter of math before her head makes it all the way through the glass.  She slams into the window a second time and then rises to her feet, turns her back towards the window and leans her back against it.  Calm again but staring straight ahead I can only wonder what’s next.  I know I need to move her away from the glass but she was so calm, is still so calm and I hate to jinx the moment.  I hold my breath but it does no good – she gradually leans forward and then slams hard backwards into the glass and for the second time, the glass flexes to its breaking point – its frame creaking and its full length in a violent wobble.

I instinctively yell “no”!  at her as I jump up out of my chair, she on the other hand loads up for another hit.  I grab her arm and shove her away from the door opening, an act that makes her laugh her delightfully throaty laugh...  Getting a rise out of me is the first step.  It can take the form of smashing the window, slamming a door, pulling on your elbow while drinking hot coffee, or pinching your boobs if you happen to we wearing a pair.  Nothing is sacred, everything is in play.

So many times this scenario plays itself out; so many times I’ve played along allowing my patience to take the brunt of the affront.  So many times I’ve wondered how my wife manages this abuse after all, she’s the one wearing the boobs, not me.

On the other hand, that deep, throaty laugh has become the trademark of a few cycling friends when they pass me while biking.  I’ve told them of Bethany’s devious laugh when she’s up to no good and they latched right onto that little tid-bit.  Now every time I get passed, just before they blast by I’ll hear a loud, deep, “heh, he, he, he, haw….” and in a whirl of gears and spandex they flash by me.  I can’t help but smile as they go by; again, Bethany holds more impact on the lives of people than I do.

Her obsessions have become the delight of many.  She takes great pride in the ball she wears on her head, the dishrag that’s carefully threaded over her index finger is worn like a regal gown over her hand.  The tattered, bumpy ball clutched tightly in that same hand is an equally valued ornament.  Her denim vest is worn over the fleece top, and the purple coat (that for so long was worn 24/7) has been replaced by Sherry’s hooded sweatshirt.  The logo “LAKERS” on the front is always good for a laugh and a smile from her.  “Bethany, are you a Laker or a faker”? I’ll ask her, she’ll close her eyes in a big toothy grin and tap the Laker’s logo and yell “Hraker”.

All of these vestments are part of the Bethany experience and people who know her seem to light up with delight when she comes along.  Her lazy flat-footed “fwop, fwop, fwop” and painfully, high pitch squeal combine to announce her coming.  Those moments of delight, when people see her, recognize her and welcome her are a brief Godsend for us.  Its momentary of course, most everyone knows that the next few seconds could be simply a hand holding moment for them or a full, cross-check with no time spent in the penalty box for it.  Instinctively their arms cross to block a potential hit to the face, the groin and the breasts – somehow they manage this protection to all three regions in one pass.  When she’s done with them, she gives a high-pitched “heeeeeee”, done through inhaled breath that hurts me to even think about trying.  This squeal and a flurry of left hand turns and “poof”, she’s gone and off to the next person. 

The look we get is one of amazement, joy and confusion all scumbled into one contorted facial expression.  Few people understand the depth of what just occurred and most just wonder how we “do it”.  They have no idea really.  They just met a “typical” teenaged girl, albeit an “unplugged” teenaged girl.  She’s moody, loving, playful, crabby and confusedly complex…

It’s the quintessential Bethany, just as God created her.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Design and the Value of Education


I was speaking with a designer the other day, a peer in my world of architecture; I was explaining the design logic behind a particular solution I was offering.  I went through the discussion of design “form language”, the elements of design such as shape, scale, mass and plane.  I was speaking of convexities and concavities and how human perception is affected by each of these elements.  His response was “I don’t know what you’re speaking of, this language is new to me”.  My chin nearly hit the floor as this was about like telling your doctor that your “thrombosis was likely caused by restricted bloodflow through lower Ischial tuberosities” and he looks at you with a blank stare and says, “what’s that?”

I didn’t realize how training in the classical arts would become the basis for how I convey crazy ideas, how I articulate concepts and how I nearly bust out laughing every time I think of the shading on the edge of a pear.

The pear I was forced to draw was in reality a human, female breast and I think the only reason I think of it as a pear is through the act of repression.  I know I saw a boob but in my mind all I can see is a pear.  Many a time when the model in the life drawing class took a break, those pears would pass right before me, floating as if somehow elevated by a mystical force.  She was a beautiful woman and when she took her 10 minute break after a long pose she’d usually light up a cigarette, forget the robe and wander around the drawing ponies looking at how others saw her.  She’d lean over and look at the composition, comment on the articulation of the arm, the over-emphasis on the calf, stare in astonishment at the scale that her rump had taken on in someone’s perception – in realty, her observations were quite keen but all I could ever think of as she stopped by me was how dangerously close to my right ear her nipple was.

All those year of drawing naked people…”nipples, nuts and navels” we’d say.  I wasn’t sure if it was voyeurism, hedonism, or some other "ism" that kept us glued to the newsprint but we stayed.  Extra “free model” time on Tuesday nights was a bonus.  You’d think it a thrill but after the first 15 hours of drawing, the thrill mellows and you look forward to funny things of levity – like a loud fart by the fat guy holding a long pose.  “Will he say ‘excuse me’” becomes the bet across the classroom.

At any rate – all those years of drawing taught me the relationship of the human form.  Of proportion, and scale, of light and dark, of skin, tones and hair.  They taught me to see why some people can make you laugh, some can make you cry, some can make you lonely, all without ever opening their mouths.  Their physical form does all the talking when proportions are off or hyper-on.  Colors are mismatched…all the beauty of diversity come alive before you and you little know that one day you’ll critique building design based on those same features.  I’ve learned how to spot the true beauty of people in a way that transcends the outward appearance, its their bone structure that begins the fascination.  Drawing taught me how see.

The time spent in sculpture taught me complexity, taught me structure and planning.  It taught me how to work all ends towards the middle and to have faith that the chaotic mess before you is not yet finished.  It also taught me how to lift with my legs.  I learned this not by any brilliance of my own but in helping one of my professors move his show from one gallery to the next.  Somewhere in between the granite sculpture and the steel multi-media, Joe managed to give himself a hernia.  I still recall the pained expression on his face.  Not quite like that of the drawing model who was suspecting that her rump was indeed that big, but a close second for sure.  Scale and mass…It’ll get you every time.

Photography taught me how to compose, how to see beyond things and how to describe light.  It taught me to love the book of Genesis, the way God described to Moses how he brought the world in to being…classic art language.  “Void, great nothing, separated, light dark, waters beneath”…all great art language, all deeply describing in fine and accurate detail the reality of what was happening.  I think God created all this just so he could talk photo language to someone.  Photography taught me how to see the “whole” of something.  My prof. used to make us shoot “full frame”.  You couldn’t pull a thing over him either as he could smell a lab-worked image from a mile away (unless of course you were smart enough to bring a six-pack of Dr. Pepper, his big weakness, along to your monthly critique).

Lastly, the paint studio taught me about how that beauty of light and color all came together in the smell of terrazzo, covered in oil paint and linseed.  It taught me how to be patient as there was no way to rush paint – it comes due only when ready.  It caused me to be fearless as nothing is more intimidating than spending hours stretching and prepping a huge canvas and then being scared to death of touching it.  It taught me tolerance as well as in the late 70’s the drinking age was 18 and there was no age limit on pot.  Both flowed freely, mingled with marginal talent, bored minds and university-softened moral codes.  You’d have been far better off mentioning to this crowd that you’d been arrested for child neglect than mentioning that you were a Christian.  Tolerance at the university has it limits you know…

All these skills worked to give me a vocabulary that was precise in describing what was being done.  It didn’t matter if you could paint or sculpt or draw, but you had damn-well better be able to describe what and why you did what you did.

I got the impression from my designer friend that his lessons were aimed at something other than description and the more I investigate this, the more I find that few in this field can articulate with any conviction why it is they offer what they do.  I’m amazed, ashamed, and wondering how this could be.  Perhaps for them, being near me when I discuss these things is as awkward as when the model’s “pear” moved so close to my ear.  Perhaps each time I begin to discuss “why”, they get the same butterflies in their stomach that I got the first day the model walked in an undressed right in front of me.  Perhaps my words are as foreign as were her privates, all on display with me to evaluate not as objects of desire or beauty or lust, but merely as objects of shape, diffusion, reflection and juxtaposition.

I value those learnings, as ambiguous as they were at the time, I now see the timeless value of each hour spent and they’ve given me a bold confidence that seems so absent in the world of design.  Most important though is the profound beauty and understanding I have the design of the world around me.  Each leaf, each person, each object is a miraculous wonder to me and best of all, I can tell you exactly why.