Cleaning Out My Closet
Juliette has made cleaning out the office closet one of her summer projects, which meant that this past weekend I had the opportunity to go through some boxes that I haven't opened in probably five years.
I always love these little trips down memory lane, rediscovering all the little treasures from my past. Being able to touch them, having a physical connection, always brings back the associated memories much more strongly than just thinking about them.
For example, there's the rocks that I found under the deck at the cabin my family used to rent in Tahoe every year. Turning them over in my hands, I remember how fascinated I was by the flat orange color on the top and the clear, ice-like crystal structure on the bottom. More, I remember the bite of the cold air in my nose, the crunch of snow under my feet, and the layer of pine needles and fir cones that littered the ground under the deck.
I especially enjoy it when these little forays into my "treasure boxes" turn up things I thought I'd lost. I actually let out a little cry of joy when I found a big stack of old RPG manuals and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles graphic novels that I thought had been lost or donated years ago.
On the other hand, there's also a certain embarassment that comes with some of the things I find. I have a tendency toward being a packrat, and why I save some things baffles even me. A selection of some of the useless or forgotten things I don't know why I saved:
- A mostly full box of perfectly good staples, tucked in between some old harmonicas instead of, you know, being put into a stapler.
- My "Intro to Systems Engineering" notebook, completely blank.
- Ten or twelve rolls of old Pez, most of which weren't even still packaged with their dispensers.
- An old micro-butane torch I bought for a project for my high school physics class, long since empty and broken.
- A bunch of empty cigarette lighters.
- A giant pile of old homework, some of which dated back to my freshman year of high school.
- A 1985 nickel.
- A green permanent marker that looked like it was about 15 years old, completely dry.
I started having flashes of those hoarder interventions you see on TV, with the host aghast at the piles of garbage and the hoarder breaking down in tears saying "I don't know why I kept it!" I shuddered and made a silent vow never to become one of those people. Not that Juliette would ever let that happen, anyway. But still.
Anything I found that I couldn't remember at all and had no immediate use, I tossed. I actually even got rid of some stuff I did remember, deciding that I didn't really need it or wasn't going to use it. By the time I was done, I'd cut my pile of stuff by almost half.
This is a big step, people. I may actually turn into a grown-up yet.
My Latest at Life As A Human: Youthful Dreams
There’s a memory I have from high school, of my best friend and I staying up late one night conversing. It must have been one or two in the morning, and we were sitting on the floor of my cramped little bedroom, talking about the future, and our plans for it. We spoke in hushed tones because it was late and the walls were very thin, but even so, if my parents had been awake they would have been able to hear the excitement in our voices. Everything was so clear; we knew in the way that only 17-year-olds can that we were going to change the world.
The other day it came up in a conversation Juliette and I were having that when I was a kid I would sometimes hollow out dill pickles and drink soda out of them. Usually Vernor's, if memory serves. You might be wondering what sort of conversation we were having that this would be a relevant bit of information to add. Unfortunately, I don't remember. And, of course, the larger and more obvious question would be, "Why did I do that?"
Now, I could try to explain it in a way that made sense, something about the flavors or convenience or something, but we both know that that would be a load of horse puckey. Really, it just seemed like a good idea at the time. For whatever reason, I really liked pickles when I was a kid. And I liked drinking soda. And when I visited my dad's house, he always had plenty of both. I was probably eating a pickle one Saturday afternoon and noticed that I could eat some of the seeds out of the middle of the pickle without breaking the surrounding skin, making a cup-like shape, and from there it probably just didn't seem like much of a leap to see if I could hollow out the whole pickle, and then see if it would hold liquids. It's probably the same sort of impulse that led me to try biting the ends off of a Red Vine and using it as a straw. Or maybe not--I know a lot more people that did the Red Vine straw thing than the pickle soda cup thing. (I suppose it was really more like a pickle shot glass, but this is a silly enough story as it is.)
OK, yes, I did a lot of weird things when I was a kid. But what I think is so great about little stories like this are that everybody has at least one. Everybody can remember themselves or their younger siblings or their friends doing stuff just as weird as drinking ginger ale out of a hollowed-out pickle. Probably weirder. And there's something wonderful about that universality, something that makes me feel a little closer to someone when I hear about their childhood quirks. Or even their present-day quirks, really. I think we could all use a little more of that, or at least a good chuckle.
So, tell me: what's your story?
For some inexplicable reason, the other day I found myself thinking about the 1994 season of MTV's The Real World--the one with Pedro and Puck. If you didn't watch that show, then this observation may not mean anything to you, but it occurred to me that if a person were going to pick his nose and then use the same finger to scoop up and eat some communal condiment, peanut butter may be among the more sanitary choices. Most or all of the peanut butter that actually touched the booger-y finger will have come up on the finger, and the high viscosity of the peanut butter means that there will have been very little opportunity for the germs to spread into the rest of the jar.
It's still gross, of course.
I keep putting off writing in this section. My ten-year high school reunion was about a month ago; I intended to write a whole piece about it but for one reason or another I've kept putting it off. This past weekend I rejoined a gym for the first time in five years and I had meant to write about that as well, but it just keeps slipping out. But this one I can't put off--my grandfather, Roy Sakasegawa, died this week.
I don't think it's really sunk in for any of us just yet, as it all happened so quickly. On Tuesday night he was apparently fine--he ate his dinner, did his normal evening stuff, and went to bed as usual. When he woke up on Wednesday morning, though, he couldn't get out of bed, and when they got him to the hospital they told him he was having a heart attack. Apparently, he'd had some severe blockage in his arteries for some time now and had only one clear artery left. They tried to put a stent in and even though it didn't look good at first--he developed fluid in his lungs and his kidneys also looked bad--we had some hope because he was alert and seemed in good spirits. Later his lungs started to clear and he urinated, which seemed good signs, but later that night he crashed a couple of times and he had to be put on life support. The doctors said there wasn't any use at that point, that three-quarters of his heart was basically gone, so they decided to take the tubes out. My grandmother said that they gave him a lot of painkillers, that he didn't seem to be suffering at all, and that he kept repeating that he'd had a good life and that he loved us all. My dad said that it only took about five minutes for him to pass after they took him off the machines.
When I think about my grandfather I have to admit that I didn't know him very well. He wasn't an easy person to know, I think--he never did say much, and for my whole life his low, sort of mumbling, gravelly voice was kind of hard to understand. Though, he was always clear in how proud he was of me and my brothers and cousins.
One thing I know about him is how proud he was of his military service. My grandfather served in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team in World War II. The 442 was an all-Japanese-American unit, and for its size and length of service it remains the most highly decorated unit in the history of the United States. It's always astonished me how the men of that regiment could have done so much for a country that didn't take care of them, that they fought and died while at the same time their relatives were rounded up and placed in internment camps. It's something that always made me proud of my grandfather.
What he actually did in the war has remained a mystery to me, though, and to the rest of the family. Like so many veterans, he was always reticent to speak about it, and what little he did say generally played down his part in it. I remember when I interviewed him for my high school history class, he spoke about his friend who always dug really square foxholes, or the time he spent resting in Nice. He would say that he only ever fired his weapon a few times, and mostly war was about jumping into foxholes. And yet, the accounts I've read of the 442--indeed of his company's actions--make it clear that he must have been involved in some intense fighting. Among the medals he was awarded were the Combat Infantryman Badge, the Purple Heart, and the Bronze Star, but when you'd ask him about them he'd just wave off the question, saying that they gave those to everyone. I know he was involved in the action rescuing the Lost Battalion (1st Battalion, 141st Infantry Regiment, 36th Division) in the Vosges mountains in France--for which he and the rest of the 442 were made honorary citizens of Texas--and that he was wounded in Livorno, Italy. (Coincidentally, my mother was born in Livorno nearly 10 years later, when her own father was stationed there.) From what I can piece together by tracking his company's actions, he must have done a lot more, as well.
What else do I know about him? Like most Japanese-Americans I've known, he valued hard work and family. He had eight brothers and sisters--consequently, Sakasegawa family reunions have been impressively huge. He was married to my grandmother for 57 years. He owned a farm when I was little--some of my earliest memories are of the hayrides he would take us on.
There's more, but when you add it all up it doesn't seem like much. I suppose that it may not be possible to truly know someone else but what's really coming home to me is that there's a lot I don't know about the people who are close to me, and that the time I have to learn it is limited. I hope that I'll take this opportunity to find out more about my family's story, that I don't let it slide by like I've done so far. I guess we'll see. But in the end, I suppose it is some comfort to me that I knew him at all, that some piece of him remains in my mind and in the memories of those around him.
Rest in peace, Grandpa.
I Should Write More Often
Why is it that I only write about the bad stuff? I guess that's not really accurate. Looking back over the archives I only see a few negative ones. It kind of feels that way right now, though. I mean, I didn't write about it when we bought our house five months ago or when we brought our puppy home four weeks ago. I haven't written anything in over six months. And what finally gets me to start again is the email I got from my mom yesterday, telling me that another one of her cats died over the weekend.
When I saw the subject line--"We are down to one cat..."--I figured that this time it was the oldest one, Leon, the one who I found as a kitten in our back yard when I was a kid, the one I had grown up with and who was now crotchety and arthritic and going blind and senile. But no, it was Bill, a stray that my parents took in while I was in college.
Because I was already moved out when Bill came on the scene I never really got to know him all that well. He was sweet-natured and had a very cute face. My mom says that he always got along well with the other neighborhood cats; which was unusual in our house because the other cats were always either extremely timid or ferociously territorial. Once, a friend of my stepdad's brought his two-year-old daughter over and she was quite taken with him. She couldn't pronounce "kitty cat," though, and it instead came out as "diggy dat." From then on he had the nickname "Diggy."
Last year, not too long after my parents moved to Virginia, Bill was hit by a car. One of his hind legs was shattered and he had to have steel rod installed in his leg. When we came to visit last spring he was still recovering; the incision from his surgery hadn't healed completely and from time to time the tip of the rod would poke through. He limped a lot, but he seemed in good spirits even though my mom says he never completely got better.
This past weekend Bill's kidneys began to fail. The vet said that there wasn't anything they could do for a cat of his age--he was 12 or 13 by then--and on Sunday my parents decided to put him down. They were pretty upset about it, especially my stepdad. Meanwhile, their remaining cat, who is 16 years old now, has been looking like he's had one foot in the grave for a while now, but he still eats like a horse and even catches the occasional bird or squirrel. Hopefully, Leon will last at least long enough for me to see him when we go visit my parents this summer. Up until just recently he was the pet that I most thought of as my own and I have a lot of good memories of that cat.
I was sad for my parents but not being very attached to Bill myself, I didn't feel much personal loss. What really struck me was that someday my puppy is going to get old and die. I've got 10 years, maybe 15 if I'm lucky, but it'll happen and that thought does make me sad. When I stop and think about it, it's kind of weird that I've become so attached to Cooper in so short a time. A month ago I'd never ever set eyes on him, and I was even a little resistant to the idea of getting a dog. Now I find that I think about him all the time and I really love the time I spend with him, whether it's taking him for walks or playing in the yard or just having him sit with me while I watch TV. It's a really weird phenomenon, that a person could feel such a strong bond with a creature, but I do.\nIn the absence of a real conclusion for this entry, I'll just end with a cute picture:
My mom and stepdad have a habit of taking in stray cats. The older one of the two they have I found as a kitten in our back yard about fifteen years ago. The younger wandered away from his owner, who didn't feed him enough--I think he's eight or nine now. A third cat, in between the other two, died this morning. Her name was Sweetie.
I must have been in about the eighth grade when we got Sweetie. My stepdad was working at a local restaurant and noticed that a family of feral cats was living underneath the building. He liked the black and grey bullseye pattern that one of them had on its sides, so he caught it and brought it home.
It became apparent pretty rapidly that our new cat had some problems. She was runty and cross-eyed and extremely stupid. It was kind of exasperating at first, because she kept forgetting who we were. Every time you wanted to pet her you'd have to ease up to her very gently or she would run away. My mom was always best at that. "It's OK, sweetie," she'd say, using the same words and reassuring tone that she would with a frightened child. The name stuck, although it took her several years to adjust to being around people.
My mom related the story of her last moments in an email this morning:
I have some sad news to relate. This morning around 4:45 we were awakened by loud cat meowing, which isn't that unusual...often Bill will wake us early to be fed, and in fact we usually keep our door closed to avoid that morning surprise. We are greeted with waiting cats when we open the door every morning. Anyway, last night we left the door open because we kept the attic fan on all night, and I guess it was a good thing because otherwise we might have missed her last minutes.
When we finally turned the light on and checked, it turned out to be Sweetie, and she was on her side, crying loudly and panting. We got down on the floor with her and could tell that she was really frightened, which I guess is why she came into the room with us. She always came to us when she was scared.
A couple of times she managed to get to her feet and stumbled toward the kitchen...we think she was trying to get downstairs so she could get under the couch, which is where she spent most of her time. She made it as far as the doorway of the kitchen where she laid down and never got up again. Her breathing became shallower and shallower until she gave one last stretch and then passed away.
It hit me harder than I would have expected. I think that part of it is that, while I've been expecting them to lose one of their pets pretty soon, I thought it would be the older one, Leon, that would go first. I just got back from a visit to my parents' place and Leon was looking pretty old and crotchety. He's had a fair number of health problems over the past couple of years, and he's gotten all bony and arthritic. I even took a little time to say goodbye to him on this trip. Sweetie, though, was her normal self: dumb as a brick, but fat and happy. I guess I figured I'd have a few more chances to see her.
Maybe another part of it is how descriptive my mom was. I keep seeing the scene in my mind and thinking about how scared Sweetie must have been--even more so because she was so dumb. Maybe that's anthropomorphizing a bit too much. I'm sad about it anyway.
It's a little strange, when I stop to think about it, to be so emotionally involved with an animal. I wouldn't have thought I'd ever have to hold back tears thinking about that cat, but I do. I am. I can hear the strange little chirping noises she'd make and see the sort of vacant, sometimes loving, sometimes wary look in her eyes. I'm going to miss her.
Danish Butter Cookies
As I am typing this, there is a tin of Danish butter cookies in my office's kitchen. This is not the first time there have been Danish butter cookies in the kitchen. Every so often, our company secretary restocks the snacks, and for the past few months this has included a tin of cookies. They never last very long--a week, tops--which is unsurprising because they are tasty and conveniently bite-sized. Everyone loves them. I have an especially hard time avoiding them because in addition to loving their crumbly, buttery goodness, they also remind me of Christmases during my childhood.
Every year when I was a kid, my dad's family would take a trip to Lake Tahoe for the week between Christmas and New Year's. My grandparents, my dad, an aunt and uncle, my brothers, and my cousins would all crowd into a cabin we'd rent and have a week of playing in the snow. It doesn't often snow where I'm from, so it was a big treat for me and the rest of the kids. My older brother usually brought friends and went skiing a lot; the rest of the kids only skied the last day. The rest of the time we'd go sledding or just play in the back yard, making snow forts, digging snow tunnels, and generally running around like crazy people in the snow. If we felt like staying inside, sometimes we'd play card games (my grandma knew about six million different games) or hide and seek, or play video games on the living room TV, which was next to a wood-burning stove that was kept going for more or less the entire week.
What does all of that have to do with cookies? Well, every time we went to that cabin, we brought the same snacks with us. One of those big tins with three kinds of popcorn in it (plain, caramel, and cheddar) and a tin of Danish butter cookies. That was pretty much the only time of the year I ever saw either of those, so now whenever I taste one of those cookies, I picture a scene from one of our Tahoe trips. Like my cousins and I playing with the little toy voice recorder one of us had gotten for Christmas, which let you speed up or slow down whatever you recorded. Or the time I found a rock that looked like ice under the deck. (I still have it.) Or knocking icicles off the roof with rocks and watching them crash on the ground below--and, of course, having my dad or aunt yell at us to knock it off before we broke a window.
Of course, back then I was still energetic and growing, so cookies and popcorn were no big deal. Nowadays, on the other hand, with my sedentary lifestyle and general laziness, I do everything I can to distract myself from the knowledge that rich, sugary nostalgia is just down the hall. My only hope is hoping that the other engineers will have eaten them all before I crack, giving me a few weeks of reprieve. Unfortunately, having written this piece has brought the cookies to my attention, and the new tin just showed up on Friday.
Ah, screw it. Isn't this why I bought an elliptical trainer, anyway?
Over the past eight years I've been slowly but steadily saying goodbye to all the pieces of my childhood. I left for college in 1997 and started getting a taste for living on my own. It was an exhilarating time, and will continue to be one I look back on fondly, but at the same time it managed to be a confusing, lonely time. I felt a little lost, a little adrift. I didn't quite feel like I belonged anywhere. I felt homeless. In 2001, I graduated and got my first job, my first apartment. I started providing for myself. I valued my freedom at the same time that I rankled against my responsibilities. By the time I got married in 2003, I felt like more or less grown up. But I guess there's always a bit of the child left; when I found out that my mom and stepdad were going to be selling the house I grew up in and moving to a different state, it hit me harder than I would have expected.
I've never felt completely at home in my new surroundings. I still haven't figured out yet where I see myself ending up in ten years, whether I'll still be in the city or if I'll make it back to my small town roots. There was comfort, though, in knowing that, even if I didn't live there anymore, even if it wasn't my home anymore, I could still visit the place where I spent so much time as a child.
So many things about my town and neighborhood are different already. My friends have all moved away. Even some of their parents have. My mom's house isn't the same, either; the yard's changed several times, as has the paint. There aren't even the same number of rooms. It's not the same place where I used to live. Despite all that, whenever I went back I felt a sense of belonging, a feeling of comfort.
It's strange to realize that if the house sells soon enough I might never have a reason to go back to my old neighborhood. I find my mind flooding with images from the past. Like the swimming hole at the end of the street with the chalk shelf that extended out into the water, or the huge bay laurel my friends and I used to climb in the park across the river. The time my stepdad set up a treasure hunt all over the neighborhood for my birthday, which I might have missed because I didn't feel like going outside that morning. Finding a tiny kitten with a broken tail under the bench in our back yard--our cat Leon, who is old and arthritic now but still full of personality. Oakworms falling out of the tree in the front yard, stick-fighting in the driveway, frantically riding our bikes away from overly territorial neighborhood dogs. The sound of little league games, the bite in the morning air in the wintertime, the way the tap water always tasted like rust in the summer.
I'm happy for my mom, that she's going to be able to make the changes in her life that she needs. I'm sure that in time, the whole thing won't bother me at all. I'll be used to having family on both coasts. This is just another part of growing up. People get older, things change. I wish I could end this piece with something profound, some little piece of wisdom, but for now I just don't have the perspective that time will eventually bring.