Three and a Half Years Here

As of this week, we’ve lived in our home for 3.5 years. Coincidentally, by week’s end we’ll have lived here longer than we lived in our previous residence – meaning that this house is where Owen has lived longer than anywhere else.

Anyway, as I’ve done semi-annually since we moved in, I will hereby provide an update on improvements we made to our home in the past six months.

By the way, if you’re interested, here’s the blog post detailing what we did during the six months prior to these most recent six months.

OWEN’S ROOM

-Nothing

ISLA’S ROOM

-Installed quarter-round to complete the trim.

-Installed a doorknob!

Yes, finally, Isla has a doorknob. Or, rather, she has it again, as her door did originally have a doorknob, but I took it off to clean it and, in doing so, ruined it. So I took it to an architectural salvage shop to have it refurbished. Now it’s as good as new.

ADULTS’ ROOM

-Nothing

UPSTAIRS BATHROOM

-Nothing

UPPER STAIRWELL

-Nothing

LIVING ROOM

-Replaced final window with honeycomb blind.

If you read the last post about updates to our home, you’ll recall that I had only replaced three of the four windows’ treatments by taking out the old miniblinds and putting in honeycomb blinds. So one of the windows didn’t match the others. Now it does.

-Mudded over the big hold in the corner.

Shortly after we moved in, I ripped out the ugly, defunct home alarm. In the living room, this left an unsightly hole in the corner. Well, the corner is still unsightly, but now Jennifer has mudded it up. Maybe one day we’ll get around to sanding and painting over it.

OFFICE / TOY ROOM

-Nothing.

DINING ROOM

-Nothing

KITCHEN

-Nothing.

MUD ROOM

-Nothing.

LOWER STAIR WELL

-Nothing.

BASEMENT COMMONS AREA

-Nothing.

DOWNSTAIRS BATHROOM

-Nothing.

DOWNSTAIRS SPARE ROOM

-Nothing.

YARD

-Tilled up the whole back/side yard and reseeded.

GARAGE

-Nothing.

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Regina

My friend, Regina Ciaccio, passed away on Sunday. She was 64 years old. (Here is her Caring Bridge page with information about her troubles, and here is her obituary.)

Regina’s family and my family go back several decades. Her mother, in fact, was best friends with my grandmother. In the mid-1970s, when hordes of New Yorkers moved to Minnesota – my mom’s family and my dad’s family included – Regina’s brother and other relatives were among them. But Regina stayed in New York through the 70s, and I only knew of her and her mother through stories my grandmother told. My grandmother even insisted she was “Italian by association,” attributing her gregarious nature and love of pasta, I presume, on the influence of Regina and her mom.

But in the early 1980s, recently divorced, Regina and her two sons finally joined the rest of her family in Minnesota. I recall my family being very excited to have her in town, and it was at a dinner party back then when I first my her sons. My Dad was so happy to have his childhood friend living so close, he introduced her to me with his arm around her and giddily noted that she was – to the day – exactly one year older than he was. That evening, her younger son Joel tied a necktie on me so tight I couldn’t breathe, so I ran to her older son Henry (who, like the rest of us kids, was banished to play in the basement, but was too old to play and so just sat on the couch and watched TV). Thankfully, Henry loosened the tie in time and I’m still taking in oxygen as of today.

At the other end of the decade, Regina invited my grandparents over for dinner. It was just another in a series of get-togethers they’d enjoyed over the decade, but this time, Regina called my parents and invited them, too. My parents, being the social butterflies that they were, declined the offer, but Regina called back to see if maybe I could come over with my grandparents – I could entertain Joel, she said. And so, one evening in October 1989, I traveled the hour-long car ride out to the small town where Regina, her sons, and her roommate Val lived. The house smelled wonderful – they had prepared some sort of Italian dish that I had never heard of, and there was Billy Joel, Tony Bennett, and Frank Sinatra music playing on the stereo. Having not seen each other in probably half a decade, Joel and I became fast friends that evening – discovering our mutual love of old movies, rock music, and laughing at our families.

A month later, having nothing special to do during the Thanksgiving break, Regina again called my parents and asked if I wanted to spend the long weekend at her home. I was so excited to go! A week later, on the Wednesday night after school let out for the Thanksgiving break, my family drove me to a parking lot in Shakopee, where we met up with Regina’s family (it was a good mid-way meeting point).

I spent an even longer time at Regina’s during the Xmas break.

And over the summer, I probably spent a total of two weeks at her home.

And for the next four or five years, I went out there as often as I could.

And here the thing I want to note specially: When I was there, I wasn’t just there to be with Joel, I was there as a guest of the whole family. At nearly all my other friends’ homes, we’d play down in their basement, or we’d go off by ourselves to the movie theaters, the malls, or the restaurants. But at Regina’s, it was different. Joel and I played board games with Regina and Val. We ate all our meals with them, and when Joel and I decided we were going to see a movie, Regina said, “Sounds like fun, I’m coming too.” A few times, Joel and I rented movies and his mom would request that we not watch them until she got home from work because she wanted to watch them, too. And I don’t mean that she did those things because she was trying to keep an eye on us, she did them because she genuinely enjoyed spending time with her son and with her son’s friends. We talked about all manner of concerns – and she really wanted to know how I was feeling or what I was thinking about certain issues in life.

I even went grocery shopping with them, she expected me to help put away the groceries, and I had to help Joel with the dishes every evening – and Regina even hollered to me one evening to come back in the kitchen and “fix” the cups, which I had placed upside down in the cabinets. I argued that upside down was better – because then dust didn’t settle in them. She argued that right-side up was better, because then they’d dry thoroughly and, anyway, no cup was going to languish in their cabinet long enough to get dusty. Regina had no qualms about fixing my hair or telling me to straighten my shirt before we went out. And in the car, we all sung along to Billy Joel tunes. And every time we passed under the “Noel” sign that hung in town during the holidays, Regina shouted “Leon” – because that’s what it looked like as you drove away from it and she thought my ability to talk backwards was hilarious.

She was so outgoing and so friendly, I never knew what to expect next. One day I walked in the door and she introduced me to another person who was living with them for a while, and every time I came over there were new people I’d never met before that she, Val, Henry, and Joel declared to be their best friends. Honestly, this sometimes annoyed me, because I just wanted them all to myself, but now I see that they were just extremely hospitible – they opened their home and their hearts to everyone they met. Another time, I walked in the door and everyone was dancing…there just happened to be a great song on the record player and, even though some unpronounceable Italian meal was getting cold on the table, how could they resist? Even once I had my driver’s license and was free to go where ever whenever, I still loved going to their house for a few days to “get away from it all” – Regina’s house was my vacation.

Of course, in time, I really was too old to sleep over at their place. Once I was married, Jennifer and I got together with them a few times, but not often. Joel’s ever-expanding circle of friends left me behind as I was comfortable with my same small repertoire of buddies. Still, it was always a treat to see Regina. At every religious convention, every family gathering, every wedding, we greeted each other with a hug, and she asked, “How’s my boy?” as if she viewed me as her kin.

The last time I saw Regina was completely fortuitously – Jennifer, Owen, and I were about to board an airplane to visit my Dad in Florida. There, in the terminal, was Regina. It was odd to see her alone…I hardly recognized her without a group of friends or family in her vicinity. She was just sitting there, reading quietly. In the hustle to get on the plane, Jennifer and I decided not to approach her until we boarded. There was an empty seat next to us and so, once the seat belt sign shut off, I walked over to Regina. I placed my hand on her shoulder and I said, “Hello Regina, would you like to come keep us company?” She looked up from her magazine and breathed in surprise. Her face lit up and her eyes became watery, it was almost as if this Italian New Yorker was positively suffering without having anyone to talk with, and she heartily accepted my offer. She came and sat by us and, for the next two hours we talked…about baby Owen, about her grandchildren, about Val, about the trip to Florida, and other things. As we got off the plane, Regina phoned Val to say she’d arrived safely and she said, “Guess who I was with on the plane?” And then she told Val that we were an answer to her prayer – we gave her comfort and distraction from an otherwise nervous, lonely time on an airplane.

So I say she was my friend – even though she was a quarter-century older than me – and not merely my friend’s mom. Uniquely, Regina alone was the one parent I looked forward to visiting just as much as my peer. She was both an extroverted, gruff New Yorker, and a warm, sensitive human being. She treated everyone – including her son’s 12-year-old friend, with respect and dignity. The idea of being both a parent and a friend to one’s children is, I know, not universally held by all moms and dads. But I try – only try, not succeed – to keep that in mind with my kids: they’re not tenants rooming in my house or little servants to boss around, but real people with their own opinions, hopes, and needs. And I hope, someday, they’ll look back on me as both their parent and their friend.

Thanks to Regina, I know it’s possible.

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Denali?

I still want to change my middle name.

I’ve written about this before. Over four years ago, I wrote a blog explaining that seeing my middle name in print was becoming a bit jarring. (Click here for that post, and scroll down to the subheading “June 16, 2010″.) I wrote about it again in early 2012, writing that I was trying to decide on a replacement middle name.

So here’s what I’m thinking: I will change my middle name, legally, to Denali.

Here are the pros:

*It starts with a D. My current middle name likewise starts with a D, so my initials will remain unchanged. I like my initials – JDZ – so I’d hate to see them change.

*I once read a book about Denali National Park. It was a great book, filled with amazing photos of the park. I decided then (this was back in 2002) that I would like to visit there someday. So…Denali has been a goal of mine for some 12 years.

*It sounds cool. At least, I think so. I don’t know anyone else with that name. All too often, unique names equal weird names, but I don’t think so in this case. This time, unique seems really cool.

*It has three syllables. This is good because that means it fits well with my monosyllabic first name. It also means that I’ll have a grand total of 7 syllables in my name, which is what my wife and all three kids have. So…yay! We’ll match.

Okay, now here are cons…

*It sounds feminine. You know, because it ends with a vowel sound. Like Rosa…or Mimi…or Netanyahu. I know that in some languages, adding a vowel sound almost automatically feminizes a name or term but, thankfully, no habla españo. And, anyway, Denali ends with an “ee” sound, not an “a” or “ia” sound.

*It’s appropriating Native American culture. Okay…actually I’m mixed about this one. In the book Neither Wolf Nor Dog, the author noted how anyone who has the slightest bit of Native American ancestry makes a big deal over how great that is. People say things like, “Did you know I’m 1/16 Cherokee?” or “My great great grandfather was 1/8 Lakota.” So, it’s with great hesitation that I say…my great grandmother was a Blackfoot Indian. But since “Denali” is Koyukon and not Blackfoot, I certainly don’t have any more claim to the culture than I do to Greek, just because one of my other great grandmothers was German. To me, the bigger issue is…so what? We gave our first child a Scottish middle name even though we are not Scottish. I don’t think my choice of names should be limited only to those cultures that I, or my recent ancestors, have haled from.

So, I’m looking for some feedback. What do you think?

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Emmaline

Our cat, Emmaline, passed away recently. She went peacefully, in my arms. This, I am sure, was one of her favorite places to be.

In the beginning, I didn’t want cats. My wife liked them; she’d had several while growing up. I, meanwhile, grew up in a house with parents who disliked cats, in part due to my mom’s extreme allergies to them. More than once, we had to leave people’s homes early or not even attend at all, due to her allergies. Throughout my first 25 years, the animal companions in my life included dogs, cockatiels, parakeets, love birds, fish, fiddler crabs, lizards, mice, and even an ant farm…but no cats.

So I whined to Jennifer that I was allergic to cats, too. Being at my parents-in-laws’ house led to sneezing and a stuffed up nose, and I didn’t want that to happen in my own house.

I’m not even sure why I acquiesced. When my coworker told me her two cats had each given birth to a small litter of kittens (3 in one litter, 2 in another) only a day apart…I figured we might as well go take a look at them – a gift, I figured, for Jennifer’s efforts in helping me get through college. Jennifer immediately fell in love with the long haired, rambunctious kitten that was bigger than his litter mates and was, at the time, named Pudge. I admit, he was a handsome devil (we even gave him the middle name “Dickens”), but he looked like a big, walking allergen. I, instead, liked the short-haired plain-looking cat who was curled up on the seat of a riding lawnmower. I picked her up, flipped her onto her back, and pet her tummy. Then I set her down, but she walked up to my ankle, rubbed against my pant leg and purred. I picked her up again. “Are you my kitty?” I asked. I tried to persuade Jennifer toward this cat – named Baby Wonder on account of her having already survived a very severe eye infection – but it’s pretty much impossible to persuade Jennifer of anything. “Maybe we can get both,” I said, completely flummoxed that those words were coming out of my mouth.

Three weeks later, on September 29, 2002, my coworker brought Pudge and Baby Wonder over to our townhome. Pudge scampered right back out the door and I had to run after him. Baby Wonder just kind of sat there in the foyer until her half-brother scooted up the steps. She followed suit, and they spent most of the day hiding under the couch, until Pudge came out for a look around. That evening, Baby Wonder came and sat on my lap. “Jennifer,” I said, “there’s a kitty on me.” Jennifer offered to take the little allergen off me, but I said it was probably fine if she just sat there. I scratched her head carefully, with one finger.

And sat there she did. Every evening, watching movies, she sat on me, and her brother sat on Jennifer. In time, we renamed them Oliver and Emmaline and, in time, they grew into two large cats. Sometimes they sat on us, sometimes they sat on each other, sometimes they sat in front of the fireplace, sometimes they sat on each other in front of the fireplace, and sometimes they lounged on the floor, slowly inching their way across the carpet to track the sunlight across the room. Oliver was calm, unfazed, and moved around the house slowly. Emmaline was finnicky, intense, and more prone to meow in protest over being moved or handled. We gave Oliver a deep, dopey man’s voice, and we gave Emmaline the voice of a snippy middle-aged lady. Oliver, in short, was a Rastafarian, and Emmaline was a Born-Again Christian. We could never prove this, of course, but they seemed to have the requisite personalities.Both 2

We tried to be responsible pet owners. We had them fixed, microchipped, and vaccinated. We didn’t declaw them. Instead, a friend helped me construct a scratching post for them that included wood, cecil rope, and carpeting. When they were too big for that scratching post, we purchased one even taller than me, paying the cashier at the pet store extra money to deliver it to our home. Oliver always sat on the top of the post, and Emmaline sat on the next level down.

Both 4 Both 5

We made a point of fawning over them every time we came home, too. So often, I’ve heard people joke that cats don’t care about their owners, and I’ve seen stuff online that insinuates that cats – in opposition to dogs – couldn’t care less if you lived or died. But we greeted our cats enthusiastically, petting them, picking them up, even walking over to the scratching post and pretending to scratch with them. This encouraged them to greet us, and I loved coming home to two cats – and then some kids – eagerly awaiting me. 10_06_06[1]This followed (with variying degrees) throughout their lives and, even as recently as last week, Emmaline met Owen and me at the door when we came home. In the midst of taking off our boots and jackets, I reminded Owen, “say hi to your kitty, she’s happy to see you!”

I remember holding Emmaline in my arms – she let me, and only me, lay her on her back while I rubber her belly and her neck. She absolutely wouldn’t let anyone else to this but, for some reason, she was fine with me doing it. She didn’t just tolerate it, she loved it; she began purring before I even began petting her.

When we moved from our townhome, I fretted that our cats would be upset with the change, but Jennifer assured me that they would like the bigger area and the large window in the living room. WindowWhen, the next year, we brought Owen home from the hospital, the first thing we videotaped was the cats’ reaction to this new resident. I tried to pay attention to the cats every night after our new baby went to sleep, and I felt positively terrible when we realized we’d have to keep the cats’ food and water dishes in the basement lest a crawling boy find and eat their food. But, in time, the cats came to love Owen, too.

When Owen was 14-months old, we ventured to Rochester for our final attendance at a religious convention and, despite dealing with a cranky toddler, an anxious wife, and all my doubts and concerns about theology and friendships, the one thing that I felt completely terrible about that night we got back home was that I had accidentally locked Oliver in a room for those four days. It was the room we kept our four pet birds in, and so I closed the door to ensure the cats stayed out. Despite the fact that the only food in the room were living birds, Oliver never touched them. I think he was happy we never went to another convention after that. I remember holding both of them throughout the long nights when Jennifer and I talked endlessly about leaving our religion in favor of reality – the cats, I knew, would likely be the only two friends, among dozens, that wouldn’t abandon us once we annoucned we were following our consciences.

When we moved again, I again worried about the cats. In an apartment, we wouldn’t have room for them – I didn’t even know where to put the litter box (it ended up in the entryway closet, and I hated it there). Alas, the apartment afforded the cats an opportunity to be outside – we had a deck up there on the third story, and they both went out and laid in the sun.

When Oliver’s quality of life was no more, Jennifer took him in to the vet late one night. I stayed home – awake, in the living room – with a sleeping boy in the bedroom. Emmaline sat on my lap and we consoled each other. The next morning, we discovered Emmaline, for the first time, sleeping on Owen’s bed (a spot previously owned exclusively by Oliver). She soon started hanging out on the top rung of the scratching post, too.

When Jennifer was pregnant for the second time, Emmaline took a liking to Jennifer’s lap, wrapping her paws around the growing belly, and we joked that Emmaline was excited for the new “kittens” and that she was willing to help Jennifer find a nice warm place under the sink on some newspaper where she could deliver the litter.Emmaline in box

We moved again, and this time our lone cat had the biggest house yet. Once Isla graduated to her own bed, Emmaline seemed to split her time between sleeping on Owen’s bed, and sleeping on Emmaline’s bed. We once again had a fireplace, and she loved it. Jennifer was pregnant once again, and Emmaline loved that, too. During the final minutes before Emmett’s birth, I ran downstairs, found my kitty slumbering on the top rung of the scratching post, and snapped her picture. That way, a few weeks later, I was able to tell Jennifer, this is what our cat was doing while you were birthing a baby.

Through all of this, we tried to keep the cats as part of our family. So many times I know pets get pushed aside when children come, but we worked to keep them as our companions. We included them in family pictures, and Owen and Isla consistently counted Emmaline as one of the girls in our family. While most of my coworkers have pictures hanging up at their desks of either their pets (if they are childless) or their kids, I have both.

Here's the spot on my wall at work where a picture of my cats has been hanging for years.

Here’s the spot on my wall at work where a picture of my cats has been hanging for years.

When I submitted bios for essays I had published, I made sure to list Emmaline as a member of the family (my bio in the back of the current issue of The Saint Paul Almanac reads, in part, “James lives in St. Paul with his wife, children, and cat…”).

Emmett just started noticing Emmaline. He flapped his arms and stared at her intently whenever she walked through the room. “There’s the kitty!” we’d say, and he’d get even more excited.

The other night, Emmaline was too weak to climb down the scratching post. I carried her to her food dish, but she wasn’t interested. I carried her to her litter box, and she managed to go for the first time in 12 hours. The she cried at the stairwell, so I brought her upstairs and held her. She climbed out of my lap and hobbled to the fireplace. I grabbed a pillow and blanket and laid down beside her, reaching into her bed to pet her. Later, we took her picture alone, and one with Owen and Isla. Then she hobbled back downstairs, and I watched her carefully, fully expecting her to topple over.

Em1

We insisted the kids say goodnight to Emmaline before going to bed. “She’s probably not going to make it until the morning,” we told them. Owen insisted we have Emmett say goodnight to her, too, so when Emmett inevitably woke up hours after going to bed, we brought a sleepy, cranky baby downstairs to see Emmaline once more. I held Isla up to the top of the scratching post, and Jennifer encouraged her to say anything she felt important to say. “Kitties and hearts,” Isla said as she gently stroked Emmaline’s dehydrated, tired back. We all cried. Owen pet her, too. He said very little; he was too upset to speak. Then we went upstairs. Then Isla wanted to go downstairs one more time. So we did. We all cried again.

An hour later, after all three kids were alseep in bed, Jennifer and I wrapped up thin, arthritic Emmaline in her carrier, complete with two hot water bottles, a towel, and two blankets to keep her warm in the -20 degree night.

I held Emmaline (on her back, of course) in the comfort room at the vet for about 20 minutes. Then I called in the vet. We spoke for a few minutes, but then the vet realized she’d forgotten something, so she left the room. In that brief time, Emmaline and I made eye contact, and I said, “Are you my kitty? You’re my kitty, aren’t you? You’re a good girl. I love you.”

The vet returned and sat down next to me. I continued to hold Emmaline and, less than five minutes later, I was – for the first time since March 1, 1986 – a human without an animal companion.

Em2

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Property 13

Here’s the latest offering from Zimmerscope Filmlets:

I created the film for a college class at Hamline University during this recent fall semester. The assignment called for demonstrating how images create meaning. Basically, we could do just about anything for the project except writing a standard paper. Most students made Powerpoint Presentations or storyboards. Four of us created short films. Mine is titled Property 13, and if you decide to watch it, be sure to stay tuned after the credits for an outtakes reel (I did not include the outtakes when I turned it in to my professor, but I appended it onto the ending for your viewing pleasure).

If the filmlet seems outside my norm, or if there are odd bits in it that don’t seem to make sense, just know that these things are included in the film due to my efforts to meet the assignment’s criteria.

See, with this project, I intended to demonstrate three primary ways in which visual imagery creates meaning.

First, I wanted to demonstrate that a film can land in the horror genre using very little horrific imagery. Hardly any frame of my filmlet is truly horrific; instead, many visuals simply create unease or creepiness.

Second, my project demonstrates how visual media can create meaning by lying to the viewers. This is done in two ways: by editing the film together so that viewers connect images that, in reality, are untrue; and by suggesting actions that appear off-screen. For example, just as there really is not a large industrial complex under the shack in Cabin in the Woods, my film lies to viewers by editing images so that Zelda’s home appears to have a fireplace, and so that Orville appears to have an office in a skyscraper. And just as many horror films imply some of their horrific elements, my film demonstrates that lying on film can cause viewers to create images in their minds more horrific than what is depicted. Specifically, no one is shown being murdered, but viewers will (I believe) claim that my film includes three murders.

Third, many films we viewed in class included camera movements, angles, and zooms that were not essential to the story, but that increased tension and disorientation. Most notable was the opening scene of Halloween. The Shining and Blair Witch likewise included extensive camera movements. So I attempt to create meaning by including camera movements that, while not necessary, lend an aura of horror to the film. I tried to demonstrate unusual camera movements and angles that create a violation of the boundaries we experience in real-life and in non-horror cinema. Property 13, then, also disrupts our expectations for the narrative by violating how we normally expect to view people and events.

Finally, I attempted to include several tropes that pervade to the horror genre. This includes: foreshadowing, humor, religious iconography, coldness, disruption of the body, excessive – or even campy – imagery, the suggestion of a history and repetition of the horrors, an affirmation of conservative mores (specifically: hanky-panky leads to punishment), and a slide whistle.

I received an A on the project, with my professor saying (in part):

“A ridiculously fun, ambitious film project — full of moments I enjoyed, maybe most particularly the stroking of the mannequin head.  It was clear you were having fun, but as clearly you know your way around techniques and with an incisive wit can enact and parody and amplify those techniques to tease out how and why they work.  The film was really just a delight.  The moustache after 20 days (and hours and …) was a nice touch, too.”

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