Nov. 8, 2016

I’m still working out how to cogently express what I’m feeling. I’m hoping a few days will give me the perspective (and sleep quality) I need to put into words just how profoundly troubling I find the election of Donald Trump.

For now, I’ll subsist with this: this was a mistake that says truly worrisome things about our values. Among many other duties, I’ve always seen our President as our Citizen-in-Chief. We are trading in hope for hate, reason for aggression, and compassion for vileness. Until about 9 pm last night, I was confident we were on a path to improving life for all. It was a rough path that was far from smooth travel, but we were solemnly facing the right way. I no longer feel that confidence.

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March 14, 2001 – July 20, 2016

After 15 beautiful years of companionship, we said goodbye to our sweet old man tonight. Through him I know devotion, friendship, and love better than I have any right.

Rest well, Monty. You have surely earned it.

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10 Years Gone

On May 11th 2006, I received a phone call from my mother. Recalling the moment in an email to a friend a few years later, I explained:

She started getting dizzy and experiencing vision loss in her left eye. She went to an ophthalmologist who determined there was a mass behind her left eye.  She tried to tell me she was sure it was nothing, but my head has never swam like that…  She said the words “mass behind my eye” and I literally had to sit down.  I’ve never been filled with such dread in my life … Deep inside, I knew she was already lost. From there it happened extremely fast. She started getting sicker and we eventually learned she had masses all throughout her body and that it almost certainly started as mass never found in one of her breasts.

She was moved from Johns Hopkins to a hospice at 6:30pm on July 14th. Just before midnight on that same night in 2006, my mother passed away. It stands still as the single most determinant moment of my life thus far.

With the benefit of hindsight, I think now I had a fairly typical reaction to her passing, but it was hard. For a few years, I was angry at the loss, ashamed of my perceived neglect to our relationship, and unable to incorporate it into my experiences as anything other than a capital-T Tragedy. I simultaneously wanted to make everything in my life about her death, but also wanted life to be like the death had never happened. After months of Jessica’s abiding compassion and support, and with a bittersweet poetry, one of Mom’s long-time foundational lessons eventually took hold and righted my ship. I determined that it was fair to let the moment have its due on my life, but that I was to be defined by how I reacted to it – how I grew from it– not just that it happened. Now I’ve come to the point where in the past few years, it has actually been Jessica’s kind check-ins preceding the 14th that have alerted me to its approach and reminded me of its significance.

I’ve come to accept a few truths about living in the wake of Mom’s passing, especially having lost her so early in my life. I know these lessons aren’t revelatory, but they bear repeating for the benefit of those who have recently lost a parent, or who may face that challenge sooner than they expect. I hope these words help someone now, or float to the surface in a future I wished no one would ever again face:

  • You’ll have difficulty going back to regular life. The irrational part of you will want the whole world to register just how significant an event this is. Some people will reach out to you. You’ll find support from unexpected sympathy. Others still will distance themselves from you, uncomfortable with so significant a reminder of their own parents’ mortality. But regular life will resume, mostly because you’ll soon come to a place where you need it to.
  • You will think about them constantly. That is okay. Let that in. You’ll become a bit more used to it eventually, and you will think about them less and less often.
  • You will also have that one day when you will realize you can’t remember the last time you did think about them. That is probably the worst moment of all. You will simultaneously know then that you are moving on, and you will mourn their loss all over again. You’ll hate that you forgot them, and hate that you could be so self-involved.
  • You will regret. Everything. The smallest slight you caused them once years ago will stand equal with your greatest disappointments. Keep in sight that just as you loved them for everything they were, so did they you.
  • You will miss their advice, but remember that you can see the world through their eyes. Use that. Just because you are denied their real-time consul, you still possess the wisdom they spent years imparting to you on all matters great and small. You’ll want more, but it’s enough.
  • You will 1, 5, 10, and I assume 20 years later, dream about them. Sometimes you’ll keep your wits and know it for a dream at first sight. Sometimes you’ll be lost in it almost completely. Those will be worse days when you wake up, but those are also the days you know they still live in your heart as fiercely as they ever did in life.

Above all, I think it may help to think of the process like suffering a badly broken bone. At first you can’t imagine a worse pain is possible in all the world and you’ll wonder how anyone can make it through. You’ll be certain you aren’t strong enough, and yes, acting like it’s not broken is the first step to making the injury worse. It will mend, however, and with attention and mindfulness to what’s happened, you can eventually rebuild it to be just about as strong and resilient to everyday life as it was before. But there will be days where the weather conditions of life are just right, or even for no reason you can identify, that the bone will throb with almost equal pain as the initial break. You won’t be able to put it out of your mind for a little while, but that will pass. You do get better, but you will never actually fully heal. Understand that distinction and you will see within the space between that you can live and be truly happy once again.

I’d like to think these are words my mother would read and find true, resonant with her own experiences having lost her own parents and a sister before she fell ill, but that’s one of the little things I realized too late I was denied by her sudden passing (at 27, I’d not even begun thinking of talking through those losses with her). A decade of July 14ths later, my conclusion is one I draw carefully, both to avoid cliché and to not belie the fact I would of course prefer a different history: I think I would now be somewhere very different if not for Mom’s death in 2006. I emerged from the initial grieving process, ugly as it was, much more focused on getting my until-then directionless life under control. Since then, Mom has been with me in pretty much all I do, even if I do sometimes go weeks without thinking about her. It’s not so simple as living in a way that would make her proud of me, although I think she would be. It’s just about living. She got me far enough, and made me strong enough to be able to truly live when she was gone, even though that day was far earlier than either of us anticipated. That strength of living, even though it coalesced when it did as a direct result of her death, is the most precious gift she ever gave me.

Thank you, Mom. While what happened to us on the 14th at one time haunted me greatly, you also helped me get to a place where now… it’s almost just another day in July.

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Probably Cats: Monty’s Malady

IMG_2236I again have a heavy heart. For the second time since our arrival in Atlanta, one of my feline companions is facing down a major illness, and for the second time, the outlook is grim. Apparently, when I wrote a gushing post on this blog for Monty’s 15th birthday in March, I unknowingly jumped the gun on his eulogy by only a few short months.

Over the past weekend, we took a trip back to Michigan. As always with weekend holiday trips home, we packed everything possible into a few short days, making a point to meet up and spend time with as many friends and family as we possibly could. We left Michigan on Tuesday morning feeling genuinely happy with the great visits we had. Unfortunately, only a couple hours into the drive, we learned from our cat sitter that Monty had withdrawn to a back bedroom in the corner. He’s always been a meek cat around casual acquaintances, but videos of his demeanor showed him looking a bit sad and glassy-eyed. Most importantly, Monty was disinterested in food and cat treats. After 15 years, we know that if Monty doesn’t want treats, something is wrong.

Over the course of the drive we marked increasingly grim updates alongside the miles: just south of Toledo, we learned of his condition and decided to send him off to the vet with our cat sitter, figuring it was a relapse of pancreatitis he had suffered before during a longer vacation; near Dayton, we heard from the vet that he was in, but they were holding off on an exam until he was more comfortable; somewhere around Cincinnati, we learned that he had a substantial mass in his abdomen that measured at least 60 mm wide (I remember sitting behind the steering wheel, conceptualizing it in terms of the eyewear frame measurements I’d take during my years of optical work: it was scantly smaller than the distance between my own pupils, 66 mm). Somewhere in Kentucky, we made arrangements to have the mass biopsied with an ultrasound at a specialist’s office the next afternoon. By the time we reached Tennessee, we were beginning the sober, unavoidable conversations caretakers must have when they hear the words “large mass” and “biopsy.” Yesterday morning back home in Smyrna, when I picked Monty up prior to his specialist visit, we learned he was running a 104° fever.

The ultrasound/biopsy visit did not go well. While we are still waiting on results to confirm exactly what type, the radiologist vet was confident we are looking at cancer. We wait now to learn if it is lymphoma, which has the possible treatment plan of steroids and chemo to shrink the tumor to improve the odds of surgical removal, or if it’s the more likely carcinoma, for which the treatment plan is immediate surgery, but with very poor long-term survival rates and a high likelihood of relapse. Further complicating the carcinoma plan is that the mass is so big; measured at 4 x 6 centimeters, there are very poor surgical margins with several important landmarks in his intestines, like the duodenum and ducts from the pancreas and liver. On top of all of this, this thing is big enough that it’s pressing on his intestines and suppressing his desire to eat, which means that either way, we may need to go right to surgery sooner rather than later.

Jesus. Typing it all out brings the real question into focus: do we even try? Monty’s 15. We always knew with each year that passes after 9 or 10, a cat’s risk of catastrophic illness increased significantly, and of cancer especially. So we’re at a similar crossroads I faced with a 3-year-old Dexter, but with a completely different set of inputs. Before, Dex had already been through so much over the course of 3 months and pressing forward offered poor chance of success with a great chance of pain. Now, we’re barely 3 days into Monty’s ordeal and already at that same question. Even assuming we get the “better” of the two outcomes, lymphoma, I fear the path ahead is more difficult and painful than is fair to ask of Monty.

Right now, Monty’s … okay. He’s not eating still, but we’re hoping the appetite stimulant we started this morning prevents us from moving forward with the force feeding deadline the vet set for this evening. We’re standing by with his preferred cat food, treats, kitten food, tuna, and baby food in hopes that something will tempt him. We’re told the type, location, and involvement of this mass is not painful to cats, but he’s also taking buprenorphine to manage any collateral pain. He’s alert (enough) and engaged (enough) that he’s still responding positively to affection and petting, and he’s seeking Jess out for all the affection and petting he can take. So we’re in a holding pattern until we hear the results of the biopsy tomorrow. I guess we can put the question off a bit longer, but it’s out there. I fear this is going to be another dark weekend in Georgia.

Damn it.

Probably Cats: Monty, Magnificent

IMG_3044Anyone who read this blog in 2012-13 may have encountered posts concerning Dexter: my grief over his impending loss, and my later satisfaction regarding his memorial tattoo. In the former of the two, I remarked that I was regretful that I had neglected to get around to fulfilling the “And probably cats” part of this blog’s tagline before being faced with Dexter’s passing. It’s been quite some time and today I’m in a much better place, and this day marks an event that seems perfect for the next Probably Cats.

So meet Monty, the feline bedrock of our household. Today he turns 15.

Monty was our first kitten, and from day one, he’s been a font of lessons. His first was that the nouveau riche of Okemos, Michigan will actually charge 20 bucks for a plain brown tabby kitten with no vaccinations. The lessons continued after that: one should not arrive to adopt a kitten without an appropriate transport vessel, and thus one should definitely not expect to effectively hold onto the same squirmy, razor-clawed kitten in a car while their girlfriend shops for a litter box and kitten food in Target; internet videos of kittens abruptly falling over into sleep are not staged; kittens are evidently comprised of 85% rubber, being able to drop, flop, smash, and crash into every conceivable surface, in any possible posture, and run off without a second thought; don’t accidentally block the entrance of your three-year-old cat’s kittenhood cardboard house, for he will tell you in a pathetic voiceless meow just how that distresses him; the bold left hook of an 11-year-old cat, even if clawless (something we’ve come to regret), can so startle all 60 pounds of a too-curious greyhound, that she’ll yelp and promptly back off.

Monty has also taught us the value of simply adapting to change, and in knowing very clearly what you can control and what you cannot. Monty’s moved with us through seven different residences, including the 10-hour drive between Michigan and Georgia. Monty’s the first to retreat into a glowering silence during a move, but he’s also the first to emerge back into a purring, contented cuddle only a couple of hours after leaving his carrier.

Monty has been fantastic as a source of these goofy, sweet, and heartwarming lessons about playtime, catnip addiction, the odd neuroses of domesticated cats, and the general uselessness of getting too upset about the small things. But the deepest well of Monty’s lessons lay in the complexity and fulfillment of companion animal bonding. In that, my dear Monty has taught a master’s class.

Monty has had a total of five pet siblings: the elder Thacker when he was first adopted, the kitten Dexter shortly after Thacker’s passing, and now the significantly younger Miles (almost 8), Eve (3), and Penny (5). He learned the great patience of the elder cat from Thacker, who begrudgingly indulged him every day of the eight years they spent as brothers, and he has deployed that same unflappable patience with his juniors ever since. Monty learned the magic tranquilizing powers of grooming uppity kittens, soothing a bitey Dexter or calming a fidgety Eve when he’d rather sleep, creating two snuggly sleep pals in the process.

But it is with Jessica that Monty is himself at his purest. In my life I have known many dogs and cats in the families of friends and relatives, but I have never witnessed a devotion and bond as deep and abiding as Monty’s with Jessica. For about ten years now, Jessica has been Monty’s everything: the sun in his day and the stars in his night. Whenever she sits still, he finds her lap; whenever she’s sad, he purrs in her arms; whenever he’s uncertain, he seeks her comforting hugs; whenever she’s gone, he arranges offerings of numerous cat toys on her side of the bed to barter for her safe return. And when she tries to comprehend just how he can be so magnificently loving, he doubles down with gazes that can only be described as worshipful, and seals it with gently returned pets of his paw upon her cheek.

I’ve long since abandoned any hope of achieving a tenth of Jessica’s standing in Monty’s eyes. I’ve come to accept that any time I begin petting Monty in hopes of negotiating some lap time, it’ll last only a few moments until his purr huffs into a grunt as he heaves to his feet to find Jessica, as if to say, “Ya know, that’s a really great idea! Let me go find Mom.” Yet I never begrudge him when I hear how loud and deep that purr grows when he arrives in her waiting arms. Still, this wonderful old man’s capacity for affection is so great that he tosses me a fantastic, sustaining scrap every now and then.

Whatever his preference, I know we can equally depend on him when we need him most. Monty has accompanied Jess and I through virtually all of our adult lives, amplifying our happiness in our best moments, and consoling us like nothing else as we each have faced our worst challenges or losses. For his part, Monty’s endured ultrasounds during kidney disease scares, extractions of skin growths that left him bare-skinned, radiation treatment for an over-active thyroid, and tooth extractions that have left him with only 75% of his fangs.

At 15, he’s tough, he’s healthy, and he still wants the same things from life he has for years. Some are bare necessities: a water fountain to lap from, a big bowl of dry food to crunch, and a steady supply of high potency catnip toys. Some are intermittent indulgences: tuna to eat (mostly juice from the can), wheat grass to gnaw (and later barf if I let him have it for more than 2 minutes), and a thorough brushing (accompanied, oddly enough, by a silicone dish brush we’ve kept around because he absolutely loves rubbing his face and gums over it during a brushing). Still, I suspect that these are trivialities to Monty, because what endures in between all these small details is a lap to curl up on and a hand to give pets. Over 15 years, Monty’s sweetness endures. Monty’s patience with his siblings endures. Monty’s status as the catriarch of the household endures. Monty’s boundless affection endures.

Monty endures.

Happy birthday, old man. I marvel at the 15 years I’ve known you, and I marvel at you.

Soundscape Analysis: The Best Sleep of My Life

Introduction

This soundcape represents one of my most unexpected auditory experiences in recent memory. While I have lived the majority of my life within 1-2 hour access to oceans (or the ocean-like Great Lakes), and have several times stayed in oceanside towns/resorts on the Atlantic and Carribbean, a trip to Miami in 2011 was an unexpectedly enjoyable aural experience.

The conference that brought me to Miami that November, the National Conference on Peer Tutoring in Writing, reserved rooms at a resort hotel on the beach in the north end of the city. Situated on a narrow isthmus between Dumfoundling Bay and Sunny Isles Beach, I experienced what I now feel to be the perfect balance of nature and man-made ambient noise. From the 9th floor, I was close enough to the waves to hear the Atlantic’s continual ebb and flow, but far enough to only occasionally hear the traffic from Collins Avenue/A1A, the major arterial highway that runs the length of the coast from Ft. Lauderdale to South Beach.

I happily slept each night with my balcony door open, but one evening in particular ensconced me in the most soothing, calming sleep soundscape I have ever experienced: the Atlantic churning implacably in the distance; the almost imperceptible rumble of a distant storm’s thunder; and occasional, unobtrusive and fleeting reminders that I wasn’t alone amidst several hundred thousand of my fellow man.

This soundscape attempts to relate the balanced, connected peace of that night.

Analysis

The keynote sound of the soundscape is clearly the omnipresent Atlantic Ocean, rising and crashing on the beach several hundred feet away. Every other distinguishable sound, even the similarly powerful and natural thunder, must share the stage with the waves. It’s easy to let the ocean waves haze out into a constant hiss, becoming a nearly featureless white noise, but the separate crashes of hundreds of waves can be isolated with focused listening. Admittedly, the imperfect recording hardware used is more to blame for this sound haze than the actual soundscape.

This soundscape isn’t complex, but it is interesting. The signal sounds come principally from three events: a passing car’s horn, the rumble of thunder, and what is possibly a distant heavy truck’s softly squealing brakes. Of those, the passing car’s horn is interesting because of its identifiable pattern of attack and decay. The Doppler effect of the blaring horn approaching, passing, and receding is evocative both of the spatial proximity and because listeners may be able to identify a time when they have either received or dispensed a similar honk.

The thunder is faintly present throughout the recording, but due to the storm’s significant distance, only once steps forward for a few seconds of recognizable low-frequency power of a close rumble. Even then, the thunder isn’t startling or even particularly loud. It recedes once more, again a soft, barely perceptible knocking on the edge of awareness.

The final sound that is identifiably different from its ocean surf background is more enigmatic: a spectral rise and fall of high-pitched whine sounds mechanical and but is simultaneously reminiscent of whale song or another large animal’s call. A listener may find this sound an appropriate fusing of the soundscape’s distinct natural and artificial inputs.

Only the car’s horn and perhaps the thunder stand out as potential soundmarks. Miami, like many large cities, experiences a great degree of traffic and therefore a great potential for aggressive driving. The highway nearby, Collins Avenue/A1A, is essentially the highway that will guide vehicles down to and from South Beach, Miami’s most-visited public beaches, hotels, shopping, and water access to Biscayne Bay, among other destinations. It is therefore easy to imagine this car horn, while superficially identical to any other car horn in the world, may represent a sonic community touchstone. The distant thunderstorms, which are again the same as any other storm in Florida or elsewhere in the world, may again be an authentic soundmark for Miami residents, who experience a fairly active weather system.

I feel fairly confident that this particular evening’s aural performance isn’t abnormal for the southern end of Florida, but I can speak only to how I personally perceived the psychoacoustics of the sounds I experienced. I’ve always found wind and water to be a calming and centering experience, even in the midst of storms or choppy seas. I prefer to sleep with a background of white noise, so this was a no-brainer once I realized just how close my room was to the sea. What I didn’t expect was the comfort I drew, traveling alone as I was, from the reminders of human activity that were just as close as the water.

As a result of my brief few nights in Miami, it has become a personal desire to see that Jessica and I find a similar place to live some day – specifically as close to the sea as I experienced at the hotel. I don’t know if we’ll ever follow the grand Michigan “snowbird” tradition of living out the cold northern months in southern Florida once we retire, but I know I would be an extremely content man to fall asleep to this soundscape every night if we did.

How I produced this soundscape – SPOILERS

During my trip, I didn’t have the foresight to simply turn on my phone’s audio recorder and lay it on my bed to soak in what I personally found so enjoyable. If I had done so, I would almost certainly have had a perfect excerpt of the soundscape in need of little or no editing. As it happens, all I had was the audio from a few short videos I took of the view from my balcony – outside. Anyone who has ever recorded in such an environment knows what dominated the recording: wind. The iPhone 4 was a great video recorder, but like any other phone, had no way to block out the wind noise.

After extracting the audio track, I ended up with about two minutes of sound from two separate recordings at sunset and at night, each peppered with periods of intense wind hammers that blew out the sound levels. I tried several methods to extract or mask the wind, but the result was always noticeable distortion of the waves and ambient noise left behind. My only choice was to simply delete the portions of the audio that featured these wind punches, doing my best to keep the wavelines roughly similar on either end. It was an inelegant kludge, but it worked. I had about 50 seconds of usable, roughly wind-free waves and city ambiance.

The spectral truck sound at the end of the recording is an original part of what I actually recorded one night. I still have no idea what it was for certain, but I am extremely grateful it survived in one of the moments the iPhone’s mic was shielded from the wind. The car horn is an addition, but it is a pitch-perfect match to my memory of the same night I awoke briefly to the sounds of the rumbling storm and traffic outside.

That brings us to the storm. I didn’t want to have to make my own storm sounds, but the recordings were unfortunately from a night when the weather was clear. I had decided I’d leave the sound out because I couldn’t think of how to accurately portray it. I discovered a happy accident of my earlier wind deletion, however: I kinda botched it. The wavelines when I was editing the tracks matched, but I didn’t think to take a few tenths of a second on either side because I was trying to conserve as much usable sound as I could. The result is that each deletion left behind fractions of a second before and after the wind punches that were lower-frequency, but still a bit of a rumble. As a happy accident of novice audio editing, I had my thunder almost perfectly as I recalled it from that night: barely audible and distant. From there, it seemed more acceptable to add a single louder rumble to tie the unintentional editing boon in to the rest of the track, and to accurately portray the occasional breakthrough rumble of the night I was attempting to reproduce.

Before undertaking this reproduction project, I’d though of that night as aurally defined by just the surf. While I gained no great rhetorical insight from the soundscape I chose because it was a passively-experienced event, it made me consider just a little bit more the component sounds of an aural experience.

Sonic Rhetoric: Public Resonance

Jacqueline Waldock’s critique of the rise of sound mapping sites was interesting to me as a longtime listener to public radio stations, which have been a principal driver of the trend. This also revisits a blog post from October 2012, written only two months after I had moved from Michigan and was in the grips of homesickness. I had returned to Michigan Radio’s Sounds of the State page, selecting

a lone blue dot in East Lansing titled “MSU Medley.” My ears drank in ducks on the babbling Red Cedar River, Beaumont Tower’s distant carillon bells, and the route announcement of a CATA bus. I was immediately resituated from my desk here in Smyrna to the riverside between the Hannah Administration building and Wells Hall, my feet dangling over the water and ducks pulling at my shoelaces because I was too slow in crumbling up the stale bread I’d taken from Brody Hall’s cafeteria earlier that morning.

That soundscape has become part of my experience, and will always be one of the places I can situate myself. I was there. That has meaning to me.

Waldock takes some issue with the predisposition of these sound map projects to focus on “public” sounds rather than private:

A large majority of the recordings are of something else or at least are tagged as something other and are always tagged in the impersonal: ‘Church bells’, ‘Frankie and Bennies’, and not: ‘my dog’, ‘my front room’, ‘my church bells’. The sounds are tagged as observations of something else. This creates a tension between the personal and the other, as the act of recording and the choice to record are inextricable from the personal.

I would argue quite the opposite. Sound maps, to varying degrees of success, are meant to reproduce sounds of public significance and provide routes to experiential resonance. Mission drift invariably strikes these sound collections, but these sounds are intended to draw power from common experience. I know that the person who recorded that MSU soundscape heard something within it that powerfully conjured the aural umwelt of that location, and they knew that it would do the same for others. It says a lot about the private meaning of this public sound space that I decided to include it in my own sonic memoir earlier this month, completely forgetting until now its significance when I had visited the Sounds of the State page.

Waldock suggests the trend toward exclusion of private sound experiences is missing the greater experiential significance of personal moments that, if I can extrapolate for the author, are potentially just as powerful in their revelation of similarity in our intimate lives.  I don’t think Waldock is wrong, exactly, but I do believe the nobility of best intentions are quickly sabotaged by human tendency toward narcissism. That the prevailing expectation of sound maps is to upload publically significant sounds keeps people honest; otherwise, we’d be quickly overwhelmed by sounds that may be accessible only to a relative few. Waldock intends to show the value of a personally-aware, private recording by providing a sample taken from two speakers who are directly aware of and address the recorder in the room as they attempt to have a conversation. The effect is they end up doing neither very well; their conversation is stilted and overly expositional like poorly-written movie dialogue, and the listener thus gets no sense of what their home life is really like. Recordings like these lack both the opportunity for experiential resonance and the insight of truly candid expression.