The Cat and the Brain Surgeon

Like many other critters of his kind, Steve was a mischievous cat. Slender and black, except for two white hairs on his chest, he was a stray camping around with his siblings outside the building where I worked. His feline family was discovered one November day by the office manager, Peg, while she was outside on break having a smoke.

Peg was quite fond of cats. She had two in her high-rise condominium in downtown Chicago. She was so fond of them that she lost both friends and service people because of their antics. At a dinner party one evening, one of the cats leapt into the center of the dining table, where Peg had placed the gourmet pizza she had ordered for her guests. She described to me later the scene of the cat, kneading the stringy mozzarella, and the horrified reactions and quick departure of her guests. On another occasion, she told me how the other cat drove away an appliance repairman by dive-bombing him from its perch on the kitchen ceiling fan. Clearly, her cats ruled her life.

So when Peg saw the family of strays outside our office building, she took it as her mission to find them a good home, and I was one of her prospects.

Never mind that I already had one cat. Matilda was a gorgeous tabby, her thick gray fur accentuated by stunning green eyes and a snow-white bib and paws.  She had been with me for several years and as many moves, from her original home in a double-wide trailer in south Texas with Confederate flags taped over the windows, to steamy Mississippi, where the cockroaches were large and fun to chase, and now to gray and frigid Chicago. Although she was a beauty to behold, her personality was not so attractive.  She was a lazy cat. An ornery cat. And most of all, a gluttonous cat.

After one weekend away, I learned not to leave my apartment without first carefully securing the lid of the plastic tub of cat food and tightly closing the door to the pantry, where the tub sat on the floor. If I did not do so, Matilda would paw open the pantry door, push aside the loose lid, and gorge herself on kibble.  It was no wonder she weighed 13 pounds.

Although I am a dog person at heart, if I were to have any pet at this stage of my life, it had to be an animal suited to my itinerant lifestyle. Besides traveling, I sometimes worked long hours and felt guilty about leaving Matilda at home alone. So when Peg began her assault on me in an attempt to place the strays, I was an easy target.

The Cat Comes Home

I held myself to taking only one of the strays, the pure black kitten, whom I christened Steve, and our period of mutual adjustment was brief. I quickly learned to close Steve out of my bedroom at night or he would claim my pillow for himself. I didn’t mind when he perched behind me on a chair, front paws on my shoulder, watching as I read the Sunday paper at my kitchen table. I was even amused the day I came home to find the stream of toilet paper flowing from the bathroom down the hall into the living room.

I worried for awhile about Matilda’s adjustment to her new roommate. The two of them didn’t seem to get along, often fighting over who got to sit in my lap while I watched TV. Matilda had never shown any interest in my lap before. I stopped worrying, though, when I came home early one day to find Steve and Matilda cuddled together in a chair. “Ah, you silly kitties,” I thought. “I’m on to you now!”

I did mind, however, when Steve took to leaping on my kitchen counters, and scattering crumbs of litter down the hallway after using the box. And I was disgruntled when he would pick fights with Matilda outside my bedroom door at 5 a.m.  But I got really irked when he turned my new couch into his personal scratching post.

And so, ignoring all the recommendations of animal welfare groups everywhere, a few weeks after I brought him home, I took him to the vet to have his front claws removed. It was uneventful. I drove him to the vet’s office one Friday morning, and brought him home later that day, offending claws removed and one of those plastic cones around his neck to keep him from chewing out the stitches.

He got along well for the rest of the day, but the next morning, he figured out how to wrest himself out of the collar and gnawed out the stitches in his right paw. I came home from

mid-morning errands to see pools of blood at intervals down the hall to the living room and Steve, frantically running around the room, flinging blood from his paw onto every surface, especially the white couch. In a panic now myself, I dropped my bags, grabbed a towel, and snatched the cat up, wrapping his paw in the towel.  Then I called the vet, raced to the car, and drove through Christmas-season traffic as quickly as I could, holding Steve on my lap with one hand and driving with the other. Meanwhile, trying to rid himself of the strange feeling, Steve continued flinging his paw about, spattering the interior of my car with blood.

After the vet sedated the cat and repaired the damage, I drove home with a sense of relief, puzzling over how to get dried blood off wood floors and out of a white couch. Those tasks were easy, though, compared to getting red blood out of the red upholstery of my car.  I had parked in the garage and, to see better for the job, flipped on the dome light inside the car. Twenty minutes later, task complete, I headed back inside to a peaceful afternoon and a quiet weekend.

The Dilemma

On Monday morning, in a rush (as always) to get to work, I turned the key in the car’s ignition, only to hear that distinctive “ffffffft” that signals a dead battery.

Dammit. I’d forgotten to turn off the dome light.

Fortunately, my landlord was home and gave me a jump with the cables I carried in my trunk. So off I went to my office, to continue work on a manuscript I was editing for Dr. M, my boss in the neurosurgery department at the university. I parked my car in one of the last open spots on the fourth level of the parking garage, hoping I’d have enough juice in the battery to get to an auto parts store at the end of the day.

The Good Doctor

Arthur C. Guyton Research Center

Image by / // / via Flickr

Dr. M and I had met a few years before in Mississippi quite by accident. I had been looking for jobs and had applied at the University medical center for a secretarial position in the EMT department.  But someone processing the application made a mistake and sent my resume to the ENT department. There, it caught the eye of a doctor who noticed my degrees in English. He sent the resume on to his friend, Dr. M, who was looking for an editor.

Dr. M was a native of Syria, and had come to the US, like thousands of immigrants before him, looking for more professional opportunity and a better standard of living.  After finishing his training in West Virginia, he gave up a private practice for the chance to work at the premier medical institution in Saudi Arabia, as a way of paying the debt he felt he owed to his Arabic culture. But after 4 years there in Riyadh, his American wife grew tired of the restricted life and the abaya, and he came to Mississippi with an ambition to climb the academic ladder, his ultimate goal being the chairmanship of a neurosurgery department.  Along with him came a large, late-model Mercedes, which he had received as a gift from a patient in Saudi Arabia.

My ambitions were not so grand as his. I had come to M’sippi to follow a boyfriend and to look for a steady teaching job. The city where I’d been living in my native Ohio had long been saturated with college-level English teachers. I had applied at the medical center to tide me over till the proverbial “something better” came along.

And that something better did, indeed, appear.

I was at home one Friday afternoon when the phone rang. I picked it up, expecting it to be the boyfriend calling, but heard instead a strangely accented voice asking to speak to “Joo-leee.”

“That’s me,” I said, puzzled.

Dr. M told me his name and then said he wanted to hire me to be his editor. Having never met the man, I thought it best to arrange an interview. That interview eventually lead to a fulltime job as a medical editor, and over the years, we have collaborated on four books, two dozen book chapters, and many more journal articles. Even at that early stage of his career, Dr. M was gaining a worldwide reputation as a skilled skull-base surgeon.

Dr. M was a not an imposing man. Of medium build, in his early 40s, he had thinning dark hair, wire-rimmed aviator glasses, and a prominent nose fringed below by a mustache. Whenever he wasn’t in the operating room, he smoked incessantly, and his desk was littered with papers and cigarette ash, which he would paw through whenever he was looking for something. He was more than hospitable; he was generous, with a natural charm that he used to manipulate reality into what he wanted. Others would say of him, “There’s the real world, and then there’s Sam’s world.”

I was glad to be part of Sam’s world. He taught me much about the publication process and opened for me a professional opportunity I had never even considered. He brought me exquisite gifts from his many trips to academic meetings around the world, and supported my travel to professional meetings of my own.

Just How Good is the Doctor?

Wrecked bicycle wheel

Image by Tom Lawrence via Flickr

One evening, while out riding my bike, I hit a patch of loose gravel and fell, hitting my head on the pavement. I awoke in the ER to find Dr. M hovering over me. He was the neurosurgeon on call that night and he tended to me immediately, alternately scolding and teasing me about the accident, saying there were better ways to avoid coming to work the next day. He stitched up the gash in my head, kept me in the hospital for a couple of days, and then arranged for his wife to take me home and call my parents to assure them that I was OK.

A week later, when it was time for the stitches to come out, Dr. M came to my office with a package of sterile instruments. As I sat typing at my desk, he ripped the sutures out, all the while telling me a story of the first time he had removed stitches from someone.

It had been while he was in medical school back in Syria. His chairman had had a wound that had been stitched up and he chose Dr. M to remove the stitches. Sam gathered the necessary tray and instruments and, to compensate for his nervousness, took special care to sterilize the tools by pouring alcohol over them as they lay on the tray. Then, wanting to be especially careful not to endanger his chairman with infection, he decided to sterilize the instruments further. And so, he lit a match, and dropped it onto the tray.

Dr. M laughed as he told me the story. As demanding as he could be in his work, he also knew how to poke fun at himself. Despite the conflagration in his chairman’s office that day, Dr. M had gone on to a successful career in neurosurgery.

I once asked Dr. M why he became a brain surgeon.  He answered, laughing, “It’s the only thing I could do well.”

One Evening in Chicago

For his part, Sam was very happy to have me be part of his world. I made his English sparkle, and eased his climb up the professional ladder. When his ambition outgrew his position and he was hired at a university in Chicago, he arranged to take me with him. I couldn’t resist. It was a step up in status and salary and a grand leap out of the South, with its oppressive humidity and laconic pace.

So in that chilly late November in Chicago, I left the office in the darkness of early evening to find that, once again, I needed an electrical bailout to get my car started. I walked all the way back to the office, cursing Steve the cat, to look for one of the residents-in-training, whom I knew was still at the hospital and would be glad to help me out of my predicament.  Instead, I came across Dr. M, still at his messy desk (he’d given up the cigarettes by then), reviewing his mail and other papers.

“Joo-lee,” he said in that lilting accent I’d become familiar with, “what are you doing here?  I thought you’d have gone home by now.”

Old: Banks of conventional lead-acid car batte...

Image via Wikipedia

“I’m looking for Andrew,” I replied. “My battery died and I can’t get my car started. He told me to come find him if I needed help.”

“Oh!” Dr. M said, looking concerned and starting to get up from his desk. I noticed the glint come into his eye. “Don’t worry. I will help you! Where is your car?”

I froze for a moment, wide-eyed in the doorway, trying to think fast.  Here was a man of generous spirit and superb surgical skill, but one who was not so adept with problems outside the operating room. Not long before, his wife had had to take him to the emergency room when he cut his foot while trying to mow his lawn. On another occasion, he ended up in the ER after he injured his ankle trying to play basketball with his son. I really didn’t think it wise to accept his help now, but he was insistent.

“Let me take you to your car,” he said. “I will help you.”

“No, really, Dr. M, that’s OK. Andrew said that I should come look for him if I had any trouble.  I’ll just go find him.”

“No, no” he said, smiling and chuckling. “I will help you.”

Another Dilemma

It was clear that he would, in fact, help me, whether I wanted it or not. And so I acquiesced, and dutifully waited while he gathered his coat and briefcase and turned off the lights in his office. And dutifully I walked beside him, down the hall, down the stairs, and out to the physician’s parking lot in front of the building, where we climbed in his big old Mercedes, the one he’d had shipped back from Saudi Arabia and was still driving through the frozen streets of Chicago. He fired up the engine, and we lumbered out of the parking lot and back toward the garage where my little hand-me-down Oldsmobile sat on the 4th floor.

Up each ramp we rolled in the huge car. Enveloped in the smooth leather of the passenger seat, gliding through the darkness with only the glow from the dashboard instruments, I felt like a little girl in my father’s big car, feet not able to reach the floor, head barely touching the headrest. The car was cavernous, and comforting. We talked about the weather and other superficial things. I felt a little awkward being out of the usual confines and prescribed behaviors of the work world.

Finally we came to the stall where my car was parked, and Dr. M pulled the Mercedes up alongside and got out, leaving the engine running.  I pulled out my keys and climbed into the driver’s seat of my car to open the hood. Then I went to the trunk and brought out the cables the landlord had used that morning. Meanwhile, Dr. M opened the hood of his car and came around to peer at my battery. He took the cables from me and clamped one end of each onto the battery posts of his car, talking both to me and to himself as he did so. We could see our breath in the cold night air.

I sat down in the driver’s seat of my car, leaving the door open, and watched through the windshield, beneath the edge of the raised hood, while Dr. M placed the clamps on my car. He opened one clamp and attached it to one battery post; then he placed the second clamp on the other post.

I couldn’t help myself.

“Um, Dr. M, shouldn’t one of the clamps go on the frame of the car?”

“Oh, no, no!” he said. “Don’t worry! I’ve done this before. Now, start the car!”

OK, I thought, perhaps he knew what he was doing. Maybe there was a chance this would work. I turned the key.

The starter ground; the car wouldn’t start. I turned the key off. Through the windshield, I watched as Dr. M adjusted the clamps.

“Dr. M, are you sure the clamps are in the right place?”

“Yes, yes!” he said cheerfully. “Try again!”

I turned the key again, and again, the starter ground. Nothing. I turned the key off.

“Um, Dr. M, I don’t think this is going to work.”

He readjusted the clamps.

“Try again!” he said brightly.

On the third try, the battery began to smoke.  I sat there, amused and alarmed, watching the tendrils of smoke drift up from the battery.  I could see his form hunched over the side of the car.  I could see his surgeon’s hands repositioning the clamps as the smoke drifted over them.

On the fourth try, there were sparks.

I clapped a hand over my mouth and closed my eyes firmly against the blue and white points of light leaping off the battery and around his hands. Those hands, which were so adept, so skillful when working inside a human skull, and so inept under the hood of my car. My eyes squeezed closed, I sat there thinking, my God, I’ve ruined this man’s career. And all because of a silly cat.

Where There’s Smoke…


Image by arbyreed via Flickr

On the fifth try, one of the clamps melted off the cable, and Dr. M had to give up. Relieved, I turned the ignition off and got out of the car.

“Maybe we should call a tow truck,” I proposed. What other solution could there be?

“No, no!” Dr. M said, still cheerful, and chuckling a little. “I have some cables in my trunk.”

He wandered around to the back end of the Mercedes and opened the trunk.  Fishing around among the rags and other junk, he hauled out a pair of old battery cables. As he raised them high over the trunk, we both noticed it. One of the clamps was missing.

Yes, indeed, he’d done this before.

He turned to me, still holding the cables up, laughing at himself, and I laughed too.

“We’ll call a tow truck,” he said, still chuckling, and a little red in the face.  Perhaps it was from the cold. I had begun to shiver.

He put his cables back in the trunk and slammed it shut. Then he closed the hood of his car.  We disconnected my cables and put them away with the loose clamp, and I closed up my car.  I was shivering harder.

We climbed back into the Mercedes and he used his car’s phone to call a tow truck, all the while running the engine to keep the heater on. I tried to convince him to go on his way, that I would be OK waiting there for the tow truck to come.  But again, he insisted.  We sat in his car for half an hour, waiting for the truck, making light conversation to pass the time. He kept the engine running and the heater going.

Finally, we heard the loud motor of the truck as it entered the garage and climbed the same way we had come an hour earlier.  The truck pulled up behind my car and the driver got out. At that point, I again encouraged Dr. M to go home, telling him that the driver would take care of things now. But again he insisted on staying.

And not just staying, but escorting me to the service station in his Mercedes. He didn’t want me to have to ride in the truck cab with the driver, so he followed the truck with me in his car. And he stayed with me at the service station until the new battery was in and I was on my way home to the cats.

Matilda Goes On… For a Little While

In the crush of daily life, too often our best moments and relationships slip away. By a year or so later, my relationship with Dr. M had begun to deteriorate. He was not happy in Chicago. In the Deep South, he had made up his own rules. The folks in Chicago wanted him to follow theirs. And he was still looking for the chance to run his own department. I found him increasingly difficult to work with and began to doubt my place in his world. I eventually left Chicago to take a job in Minnesota. Shortly after I left, Dr. M got his chairmanship and returned to the Deep South, where he still presides over the department he’s ruled for 15 years.

When I moved to Minnesota, I decided to take only one cat with me. I had grown tired of Steve’s nighttime mischief and staged spats with Matilda. I left him behind with the landlord’s children, who were thrilled with his antics and energy.

As for Matilda, well, with another move, she just became grumpier and fatter. After too many mornings of hearing her beg for food at 5 a.m., I found her a good home elsewhere and got myself a dog.


Would You Like Some Clam Chowder with Those Breasts?

Because I own a couple of them, I feel entitled to say it:  I’m tired of seeing women’s breasts.

Low cut, clingy, see through, what-have-you.  Too many articles of women’s clothing feature the exposure of breasts.  And unfortunately, too many women have signed on to these styles because they are the latest fashion (Thankfully there are a few hold-outs; just ask Dear Abby.)

There’s not much I can do to influence fashion trends other than buying from companies that don’t cater to the barest common denominator.  But I do think I have the right to complain when the social focus on women’s cleavage interferes with my lunch.

It was a quiet weekday when my parents were visiting from the Midwest. We stopped at a popular local seafood restaurant near the water to have a leisurely lunch.  The restaurant wasn’t particularly busy, so we took our time ordering and chatting, enjoying the afternoon.  It was my parents’ first visit to town and I was trying to show them the sights and culture.

As we ate and chatted, I couldn’t help but notice the arrival of a couple at the table across the aisle.  The man was tan, buff and wore a leather jacket.  The woman was also tan and was wearing something of the current fashion with her bleached hair.  They were neither young nor old, but they chatted enthusiastically in that way a couple does when they’re on a date. He fawned over her, she over him, and my dad (in his 80-some years) and I couldn’t help but glance repeatedly at their table. It seemed an ideal tableau — a not-quite-middle-aged couple enjoying each other over lunch.  I was almost envious.

Then I noticed the man pull a package out of his bag and hand it across the table to the woman.  It was a gift, brightly colored paper with a pretty ribbon.  Ah, I thought — they must be celebrating something.  Her birthday perhaps?  An anniversary of some sort?  They didn’t sport any obvious wedding jewelry but you can’t assume anything based on the presence or absence of rings.

The woman was enthusiastic as she opened the package.  From the box, she removed a narrow booklet. Chirping happily, she leafed through the booklet while he pointed at different pages and commented on what each held.  Curious, I looked long enough to discern what the booklet was about.  A cruise perhaps, or a weekend away?  All sorts of romantic visions swam in my head.

But as I looked, the images on the pages of the booklet became clear.  This was not a promise of a Caribbean cruise to a romantic island, but a sample of breasts from a plastic surgery clinic that specialized in enhancement. I choked back an incredulous outburst and nodded my head for Dad to size up the situation.  As you might imagine, we spent a good part of the rest of that lunch making wisecracks about the couple: “Gee, which sample d’ya suppose he likes best?” and “Hm. Wonder what she’ll give *him* for their next celebration.”

Geez, do I have to say it?

Ladies:  If the guy you’re with wants to pick out body parts for you, run, run as fast as you can as far away from him as you can get.

And guys (I’d say gentlemen, but I think the gentlemen among us already know this):  It is NEVER appropriate to indicate any sort of dissatisfaction with the breasts of the woman you’re with. They are hers, not yours.

The Art of the Gift

Note: A version of this column appeared in The Olympian, December 12, 2007.

The strangest gift I ever received was a single slice of bread.

I was on my bike at a street corner in Japan, waiting for the light to change. An elderly woman pedaled up next to me and stopped to wait too. Noticing me, she got off her bike and rooted in the bags in her basket, muttering all the while. Then she came over, muttering still, and placed something in my basket. I stood puzzled as the light changed and she rode off. The item she gave me was a single, individually packaged slice of bread.

I think of this woman now that it’s, once again, the season of gifts.

With stores opening at 4 a.m. after Thanksgiving, holiday shopping is a frenzy, and the mounds of stuff under our trees are positively obscene. So it is in our capitalist country. Gotta keep that ol’ economy growing!

But I have some fond memories of gifts of Christmas past.

The weirdest present I received was as a child, when my mom gave my sisters and me matching plastic-molded wigs – one gold, one silver, one black.  In a photo that could be used for blackmail, there we stand, the three sisters (two of us missing front teeth), grinning foolishly in our plastic wigs.

The best Christmas present I received was my daughter, who decided to be born two weeks early, on her grandpa’s birthday, so I wouldn’t have to spend Christmas in the maternity ward. Her first Christmas gift was a trip to meet that grandfather whose day she shares.

My mother says she can’t give someone a gift she doesn’t like herself. (Maybe she wanted one of those wigs?) My son thinks the same way, but a problem arises when he wants to keep the gift himself.

Ideally, all gifts are free – of cost as well as emotional strings. Suppose your daughter asks for books, but you’d really like her to have, say, a canopy bed, just because you think she should have one or you never had one yourself.

Give the books. If nothing else, they’re cheaper and easier to wrap.

The rules for gifts grow more complex every year. So many things to consider. Too many expectations.  Gift cards.  Re-gifting. Perhaps it’s cliché to say, but the best presents aren’t usually things.

The most important point in giving is that the gift is not about you. (Yes guys, we all know who those Victoria’s Secrets items are really for.)  Choosing an appropriate gift means you must pay attention to the one who receives it. If you can’t find a thing, you can always give your time, affection or appreciation. But that’s so much harder to give.

In any gift exchange, the chances are good you’ll receive something you don’t really want. When that happens, it’s just good manners to recognize the sincere effort of the giver. As Mick Jagger sang it, you can’t always get what you want. And we all have to learn to live with disappointment.

I have no idea what motivated the woman in Japan that day, but I appreciate her gesture.

What do you do when someone gives you a slice of bread?

Make toast.

I Never Meant to Be a Pilot

Note: A version of this column first appeared in The Olympian, April 25, 2007.

Once upon a time, before I had children, I was home awaiting a visit from a friend, who brought along her 8-month-old son. I hadn’t seen this friend in months and was glad for the chance to visit. But my excitement quickly turned into annoyance, for as we were talking, my friend kept interrupting our conversation to turn to her child, who was happily playing on his own, to call out “Hey, Bud!” or “Whatcha doin’, baby?” The baby would then turn toward his mom looking slightly alarmed.

Now that I have children, I recognize that interruption is a constant of parenthood (though it’s usually the child interrupting the parent). Still, I remember my friend’s explanation for why she was interrupting our conversation and her child’s play. She wanted to stimulate his brain to form as many synapses as possible, giving him a jump on life.

Science has proven that the first three years of a child’s life are critical for brain development. But science has not yet recognized the creature arising from this research: the Helicopter Parent – one who hovers over a child directing every activity, well beyond those first 3 years. As a parent, I recognize the temptation to give a child every advantage. I’ve also started to notice the comic side of that tendency.

How do you know if you’re a Helicopter Parent? To borrow a page from Jeff Foxworthy (since he’s busy with 5th graders), you might be a helicopter if you…

  • Never put your infant down, even during nap time (yours or hers)
  • Marvel at the contents of your child’s diaper while changing it
  • Insist on walking your second-grader to the school crosswalk, which is just across your backyard
  • Videotape all your child’s activities, including visits to other children’s birthday parties
  • Never allow your 10-year-old to play at a friend’s house without being there to supervise
  • Constantly use that computer connection that lets you monitor your child’s activities at junior high
  • Fill out your child’s college applications
  • Distribute your child’s resume at job fairs
  • Consider it a privilege to do your adult child’s laundry

I’m not making these up. They are real-life examples from people I’ve met or heard about. Perhaps you recognize a dad or mom in this list. Perhaps you see me there. (Though my students stared at me wide-eyed when I described having my first-grader pack his own lunch for school.)

Most parents have the best intentions in guiding their children, and that’s what parenthood should be — guiding, not controlling. But some children of helicopters may end up thinking they’re the center of the world because that’s the position they’ve grown accustomed to. Others, given some free time, panic because freedom scares them. Some have told me they’re embarrassed by their parents’ actions. Others admit to rebelling against them. Perhaps the greatest danger is that these children might morph into helicopters themselves.

In those moments when I find myself preparing for take-off, I chant aloud the words of George Carlin: “Parents, leave your kids alone!”  And if that doesn’t work, there’s always a chapter of Confessions of a Slacker Mom, by Muffy Mead-Ferro. It works for dads too.

Travels from the Comfort of the Couch

Note: A version of this column appeared in The Olympian, February 7, 2007.

Recently, I took a couple of trips while sitting in my living room. No chemicals involved. Just the help of some magazines.

I assure you there’s no Travel & Leisure at my house — I have young children — but these magazines took me places I don’t usually go.

My first stop was in the land of American Handgunner magazine. I’m one of those who thinks guns should be controlled, so I opened the cover of the magazine (passed along by a student) expecting tales and politics, written by and for men, promoting the ownership of guns regardless of their danger.

But as I looked through the magazine, I was surprised. The magazine has women on the editorial board and a Japanese photographer. Several letters to the editor were from women, one of whom fights her husband for the newest issue when it arrives in their mailbox. An enlightening letter from an American civilian described the conditions of working in Iraq. The articles included a quote from Shakespeare, ideas for writing a journal, and a curious tale of hunting hippos in Africa. (Why someone would try that with a handgun is beyond me.) But most of the articles, including one by a man who accidentally shot his bedroom mirror, stressed the responsibility that comes with owning a gun and using it safely.

My second trip was through the vistas of Men’s Health, published by Rodale Press, which publishes other mainstream magazines such as Prevention. In its pages I expected a wholesome view of men’s lives but again was surprised at what I found. Lots of slick photos of buff guys, of course, and diet, exercise and nutrition tips. Recipes. (Nice to see those in a guy’s magazine.) Sex tips, of course. There’s even an advice column. Change the sex of the bodies in the photos and it starts to look like Cosmopolitan.

Unfortunately, I was left with that familiar view of women as objects, something to be had, like a car or a house. To its credit, the magazine had human interest stories – a doctor writing about everyday experiences with patients, a guy writing about marriage in terms male readers understand. (That’s the October 2006 issue, ladies.) But overall the magazine reinforces the same narcissism that many women’s magazines are guilty of. Not surprising, but definitely disappointing.

It’s not that I prefer handguns to buff guys. Frankly, I don’t need either one. It’s that reviewing these magazines from the comfort of my couch showed the value of “crossing over” – looking at how others live and think about the world. Imagine magnifying this investigation to a societal level, where everyone steps outside their comfort zone to see the world as others do. It might forever change how we see ourselves. Expand this plan to a global level – say, Americans living outside mainstream culture (easy to do within our borders) — and it might profoundly change how we think. It just might also change how citizens of other countries see us.

There is wisdom in turning as often as possible from the familiar to the unfamiliar: it keeps the mind nimble, it kills prejudice, and it fosters humor.

— George Santayana, philosopher (1863-1952)

In the Middle of the Night

Note: A version of this column appeared in The Olympian, November 22, 2006.

From ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggity beasties, and all things that go bump in the night, Good Lord, deliver us.

— Ancient Scottish prayer

So here it is, 2:30 in the morning and I’m still awake an hour after helping my 6-year-old stanch his bleeding nose, which left his sheets looking like they were used in someone’s murder. Meanwhile, Janis Joplin’s “Me and Bobby McGee” plays in my head. (At least my insomnia comes with music.) As happens all too often, everyone else in the house, including the dog, slumbers on — some of them, including the dog, snoring gently. Years of marriage and parenting wreak havoc on those recommended 8 hours and, to me, R.E.M. is just a rock band.

So what do we all contemplate in the wee small hours of such a morning?  Well, I’ve noticed that thoughts loom large and things rarely look better in the dark.

This night, I’m contemplating my recent birthday, which has firmly embedded me in the trenches of middle age, with perhaps more of my life behind me than ahead. I’m not at all where I thought I’d be back when I was the age my writing students are now.  Then, I could see only into the next week and had no clue how the real world works. As I tell my students now, adulthood is highly over-rated.

As we go through life, we take our fears with us, moving forward not out of choice but of necessity. (On the other hand, Janis Joplin never made it to middle age and people like Tom Cruise seem to stride fearlessly through midlife, wagging their crises behind them.) By this age, I’ve realized that fears have a way of compounding and are often aided and abetted by our own institutions. Many of these fears have led us to become a nation of neurotics, flinching at the statistics from the latest health and education reports.

My recent fear has been about returning to work outside my home. I am one of those women starting the next sequence of life, leaving my comfort zone where I have some control. Home — where I can pretend I’m queen of the castle and my children, when not dripping blood on the sheets in the night, are pretty loyal subjects.

To change your path in life is a courageous thing. In the years I’ve been away from classroom teaching, the path has changed considerably, mostly becoming overgrown with technology and educational theories, which are not always good things. Fortunately, the core skills I teach remain the same and I have enough enthusiasm to make up for what I’ve missed.

So, in this week of Thanksgiving, I want to say thanks to St. Martin’s University for bringing me back on the path, and to my students for easing that transition (and their input on this column). As we head on through to the end of the year, let’s all make a point of defying our fears and go happily into this holiday season.

The Land of Eternal Dog Days

Note: A version of this column appeared in The Olympian, July 26, 2006.

I’ve read that folks in the Pacific Northwest have more dogs than children. If this is true, I should probably update my first impressions of our new home here to include those of Copper, our 2-year-old Aussie.  This being dog country and the dog days approaching, his opinion of Olympia should count too.

Last fall, as Copper started investigating his new neighborhood, he discovered the fun of snitching gloves and shoes from neighbors, an activity we cut short with an invisible fence. Next, he learned to pick blackberries, nosing his snout in among the vines.

His first real adventures, however, began with the seal. One morning, descending with Copper and my son to the beach, I spotted a log lying above the tideline. Not unusual, except this log had flippers. Quickly, I hustled boy and dog back to the house and went looking for someone to help me with a dead seal. Eventually, I found someone at Cascadia Research, who took some blubber from the seal and anchored it at the water line for the tide to carry out.

The next morning, Copper disappeared from the yard, which was unusual since the electric fence went in. He reappeared shortly after I called, ecstasy in his eye, red streaks down his white chest — reeking. After hosing him down, I spent the rest of the morning, rake in hand, trying to shove that seal back out into the tide.

A month later, as I was walking with my children on the beach, Copper had his first-ever vision of his reason for being. We were collecting a caché of golf balls that had washed up, and a friendly dog came down to sniff Copper out. A moment later, I noticed three more dogs meandering down, and I stood trying to puzzle out why these dogs looked so angular. Then they began to bleat. Copper’s instinct went off, an instant before mine, and no more did he care about his doggie playmate. He was after the goats. There we were, me, my two children, two dogs, three goats, the owner of the goats and his wife, chasing Copper round and round, trying to nab him before he nabbed the goats.  (My thanks to the owner and his wife, who graciously understood a dog fulfilling his mission.)

But it wasn’t just goats. Besides herding seagulls, sandpipers, and an otter, one evening Copper flushed a deer from a thicket and was in hot pursuit.  I was no match for him in my yard shoes. Thankfully, he was no match for the deer. Still, he disappeared down the beach and, after searching and calling till twilight, I turned sadly homeward. Trudging up the steps to the yard, heart heavy, I wondered how to tell my children I had lost their dog. When I reached the top, there he stood in the yard — tongue lolling, eyes sparkling, looking at me as if to say, “Hey, where ya been?”

Oh, doggie.

If I have any skills at interpreting a dog’s mind, I’d say Copper loves this place. His home here sure beats the fenced-in postage stamp of yard he used to know.