Thursday, February 18, 2021

Mid-Term School Update: What's Working, What's Not

 Here we are, roughly 6 months into our school term, and I thought it would be good for posterity (or even just me) to look at what's working this year for home school and what isn't. 

The Good

Our Charlotte Mason-Inspired Bible Memory Boxes are far and away the most successful program I implemented this year. They are really working well. I mean, I might even be learning the verses if I was using a box like the kids. ;) But seriously, James recited 22 passages on our review day at the beginning of the month. He's always been a strong memorizer, but finally having a formal system for practice and review has taken him to the next level. It's working reasonably well for the girls too.

There are things that have been found difficult and skipped, or found difficult and tweaked. First, I don't find that most of the kids will actually review their even / day-of-week / day-of-month verses without a reminder. Which I don't always remember to give.  Neither of the girls are going to be able to recite as many of the verses as James either. Second, I am still not insisting very strongly on getting the passage memorized along with the verses, so mostly the kids have the verses in their heads without a good way to find it again in the Bible. Except for a search box. So I really don't waste much time worrying here! Finally, managing the box with all the moving around of papers and dividers every week is a little much for Lucy and even Grace. Probably I should be doing it for Lucy. We reached the end of the box a couple weeks ago and need to start doubling up verses for certain days of the month. I don't think she's figured this out, and when I do get into her box I suspect there's going to be a bit of a mess.  Anyway, no biggie. We'll definitely be sticking with this method for the school years to come. 

Using Life of Fred as our core for math is working better this year. James is using it exclusively and independently. The girls are using it with me reading the chapters out loud and working through most of the "time to play" problems, and it's happening about twice a week on a good week. Other days they practice with old fashioned drill-and-kill worksheets from TheMathWorksheetSite.com.

James technically completed fractions and decimals last year using Master Books curriculum, but had never done the Fred books between H and M. He tore through those in double-time, and then slowed way down when he got to Fractions and Decimals. Turns out those subjects were not really mastered last year. So while I was looking forward to him starting Pre-Algebra early this school year, it looks like we won't be there for another few weeks - say, around Spring Break. I'm trying not to be frustrated about this, because it Feels like he could go faster, but it really would not be the right thing to push him. Decimals really need to be internalized. 

Grace is struggling in math, period. She is still fighting her multiplication tables tooth and nail, with lots of stress and angst. It's not that she can't cough out the 7's and 8's with enough time (and calming techniques), it's that when it comes time to apply them, she really doesn't know them out of order and continues to confuse division and multiplication... it's a mess. There may be some intervention we need to do eventually. For the moment Fred is still a mostly bright point in her math lessons. We did immediately re-start "Honey" instead of moving on to "Ice Cream" because I really don't feel the topics are mastered. The next problem is that Lucy is nearly done with "Goldfish"...

The All About Spelling program is working very nicely for both girls. We are doing it together, and have reached the 4th or 5th lesson in Level 3. That's moving far faster than we would have if we'd started it when either of them was a 1st grader, but so far I feel like they're handling it. 

We are definitely NOT using the program exactly as written. First off, we've ditched the flash cards and the review box. I know that's technically a huge part of the program, but so far they simply have seemed unnecessary and a drag on our time and emotional resources. So we quit. I did not even buy the student kit for level 3.
I am open to reconsidering this for level 4 or 5, though, as I know things get trickier.
We also are doing less than half of the spelling with magnetic tiles recommended by the book. Again, it gets tedious. We have not tossed it out entirely (again, it's a big part of the program!), but no-one is eager to spend lots of time on it and I am not seeing enough benefit to force it.
Instead we are spending our spelling time with sentences. We use the AAS book to teach the concept. We build a few words on the board, and talk about exceptions. Most of the week's words are copied into their notebooks. And then we make up lots and lots of silly sentences. Grace loves to illustrate them. Lucy is perhaps a little out of her league - there's a real chance I will need to separate them next school year - but still mostly keeps up.


The Bad

I am afraid that I will be back to hunting for science programs next year. I am only OK with Crosswired Science. As suspected, though, the primary problem for us is that I hate using videos for school. As soon as the screen goes on, all attention is sucked into that little black hole, and it's nearly impossible to transition to a new subject afterwords. This is true for me as much as any of them, but it makes me understand I have got to go for a traditional book next year.  We are usually only getting to science once a week at this point. 
Anyway, content-wise there's some good stuff in Crosswired, but the presentation is only So/So, with a moderately difficult to navigate site and very few experiments that I am willing to exert myself to perform. So we will definitely come away this year with a foundation in fluid dynamics and sound, but it's not a program I think we will repeat. 

As mentioned in a previous post, The Tuttle Twins didn't work out for us. Too young. James is enjoying "What Ever Happened to Penny Candy," a book on similar themes. 

The So-So

I tried out a "Beautiful Feet" geography / literature program that is built around the Holling C. Holling books from the late 40's. I, personally, am in love with these books, and I think they deserve a place in nearly any curriculum even if they are just read once or twice independently. The lesson plans built around the books are easy to use and - I feel - not too overwhelming. But I've gotten a lot of grief from the kids on the subject. No-one seems eager or, often, even willing to fill out the maps. This seems crazy to me, as it really isn't difficult per-say, but it's a sore point. They also don't love keeping a glossary / dictionary or most of the other ancillary stuff.
This is one of those places where I don't really care what they think. They aren't going to find a more interesting history and geo program anywhere, is my guess. I really like it and am learning a lot. 

We are alternating the Holling books with a variety of read alouds and associated lesson plans from SchoolHouseTeachers.com. So far we have read "Call it Courage," "The Year of Miss Agnes," and are in the middle of "Strawberry Girl."
At no point am I even pretending to use more than about 25-50% of the lesson plan. We are limiting ourselves to discussion and narration, vocabulary, and a little analysis of plot (identifying rising action, inciting incidents, climax, etc.)  Every once in a while we throw in a few coloring sheets, verbal research projects on an interesting tidbit, etc. Right now both Grace and James are building a "double pen dog-run plank Cracker house" in Minecraft. 

Once again I get a little grief on these. James isn't eager for the read-aloud time for some reason, but usually ends up engaged in the end. I plan to stick with this general plan for the next school year, even if he ends up reading things alone. I am running out of books though. I wasn't willing to do a tear-jerker like Where the Red Fern Grows or even Island of the Blue Dolphins, and we've already done Narnia outside of school. There aren't a lot left on my site. Hopefully someone will add more this year, or I will have to go out on my own!

Friday, January 22, 2021

Movie Log, Winter and Spring 2020/21

 With all the enforced home time this winter we've been doing quite a few movie nights lately. For the most part we've focused on movies David and I remember from our growing up years, so these are mostly movies from the 80s and 90s. I thought it might be fun to keep notes on which ones we watched and whether we enjoyed them. 

For reference, James is 11, Grace is 10, and Lucy is 7

Short Circuit (1986) 

Short Circuit was either the first or second movie I saw in the theater. Dad was inspired to take the family when it made it to the Hood theater because it was filmed in Astoria (OR) and parts were even filmed at some Corps of Engineers properties near Bonneville Dam. But I hadn't seen it in 25 years, and all I could have told you was that it involved a live robot named Number 5. 

I was pleasantly surprised at how well it had stood up to time. It was funny, sweet, well paced, and kept everyone's interest up. It was full of one-liners too: the kids were especially taken with "Wouldn't you like to be a Pepper too?" I liked "Life is not a malfunction." That said, the robot out-acted everyone else on screen. Easily. 

Family Friendly Factor: Brief, vaguely suggestive scene with Stephanie in the bathtub, but nothing shown. Quite a number of things were blown up at the beginning of the movie, but it was not in anger. 

Batteries Not Included (1987) 

This was another one I was confident I'd seen, but again all I could tell you was that it was about some robot-like little aliens. I thought it was a more or less pure kids' movie - I imagined I even recalled a kid as co-star. It was actually about a group of mostly older New Yorkers who were being forced out of their apartment building by a unscrupulous property developer and his honchos. The aliens showed up needing power, and paid for it by repairing the damage caused by the bad guys with magical precision. Echos of "The Elf and the Shoemaker." Although it wasn't at all what I had been expecting, it was another sweet and often funny ensemble movie that all five of us enjoyed. 

Family Friendly Factor: One brief view of a nude painting. Not much in the way of language or suggestive behavior. A scary moment or two with a fire.

Star Trek IV (1986) 

I've seen this one 1/2 a dozen times or more. David and I got to talking about the various ST movies one night at dinner and we agreed this would be a fun one to start with. Of course, I hadn't seen it in 15 years. And the kids have never seen anything else Star Trek. This was more of a barrier than I had anticipated, but in truth it's a purely funny movie. I think Lucy was the only one bored by it.

Family Friendly Factor: Somehow I'd forgotten all the "colorful metaphors." In other words, Kirk and even Spock swear routinely if mildly, albeit for comic effect. There isn't anything else suggestive or even terribly violent though.

The Rocketeer (1991) 

Once again, I know I watched this when it was new-ish, but remembered nearly nothing about it. It's a comic book origin story set a few years before WWII and centered around a pilot who comes into possession of a one-man rocket pack. This one looked way better on paper than it did in real life. I felt like it dragged quite a bit, and was more than ready for it to be over 2/3 of the way though. The best scenes were near the beginning, and things flagged after that.
Grace says that she enjoyed it, and James certainly did, but Lucy and I were both bored.
I wouldn't watch this one again.

Family Friendly Factor: Some surprisingly scary fire scenes during the climax on the burning dirigible. Some mildly suggestive behavior between the lead lady and the bad guy. Not much swearing though.

Elf (2003) [Watched 12 '20]

This one is forever showing up on family friendly must-watch Christmas movies, so - having already watched "Home Alone" and the animated "Grinch" - we decided it was finally time to give it a try.  I'm giving it a big, fat "Meh." Yes, it had a handful of funny moments. But there was a serious flinch-factor to most of them. Watching a 6 foot tall adult in tights make an utter fool of himself over and over again got - uninteresting - pretty quickly. Maybe worth it for that scene where he fights with the dwarf... or throws snowballs at 80 mph? The climax was not very satisfying, although the epilogue was sweet. All in all, you'll have to try hard to get me to re-watch. 
 
Family Friendly Factor: Some potty humor, some drinking humor, some mildly suggestive bits with the girl Buddy finds himself sweet on - not in itself a reason to avoid, but taken as a package, why bother? 

Home Alone I (1990) [Re-watched 12 '20] 

The kids love this one, of course. Well, James and Lucy do. It's very slapstick and there's a lot of truly cringe-worthy moments during the climactic home invasion. The thieves would have been disabled, if not simply dead, 4 or 5 times over, but in true cartoon style they keep on, just so they can step on something else sharp. I enjoyed it more last year than this, and I'm not all that eager to add it to our must-watch-every-December list.
In its defense, the scenes between Kevin and the next-door-neighbor all the kids are so scared of are really sweet and well played. The Christmas Message here was better than in a lot of holiday movies. 

Family Friendly Factor: Ouch. So Much Destruction and Slapstick Violence. Kevin is in actual danger for much of the movie. His family, especially brother Buzz, is pretty awful, and Kevin says pretty awful things back.

The Grinch (2018) [Re-watched 12 '20]

We have carefully not watched any of the other Grinch movies, including the original classic TV special. That said, we all enjoyed this animated version. It goes well off the plot line - inevitable given the brevity of the source material, I suppose - and innovates wildly as to character backstories. But the spirit is reasonably close to Seuss' book. And the movie is quite fun as well as visually stunning in true Seussian fasion. My favorite scene is one that appears in the trailers: the Who carolers essentially pursuing the poor Grinch through the streets of Whoville to the tune of Pentatonix's "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen."  I will willingly watch this one in future holiday seasons.
PS: I consider myself a (slightly guilty) Cumberbatch fan, so imagine my embarrassment when I actually didn't realize he voiced the Grinch on my first viewing. Wow. Take away a guy's British accent and he's not Quite so cool, I guess!
 
Family Friendly Factor: Not much to complain about here. Nothing, really.  

Superman II (1976 / 2006 Director's Cut) 

David's memory was that Superman I wasn't worth watching, so we went straight to #2. We checked out the original director's cut from 2006, which included significant reworking of the ending among other things from the theatrical release. Fascinating stuff of course. But Oh How It Dragged. Again, the older two kids will tell you they enjoyed it, but I was bored stiff at the half-way point. I've gotten used to the pace and witty banter of the more recent Marvel movies, and this could not compare, Christoper Reeve or not. (At least the kids now understand the Lego Batman reference to "The Phantom Zone!")

Family Friendly Factor: Lots of mayhem and violence. No swearing. One awfully suggestive scene where Superman and Lois are clearly in bed together at the Fortress of Solitude. 

Back to the Future I (1985) and III (1990)

We watched these two several months ago. I've seen them any number of times, and they are just as much fun as I remembered - just don't bother with II! 

Family Friendly Factor: Some very suggestive (not to mention uncomfortable) flirting between Loraine and Marty in #1. He and Jennifer kiss. Marty does use some words my kids are not allowed to use. #3 is the cleaner movie from this perspective.

Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) 

We screened this one several months ago, in mid 2020, and I spent a good portion of the movie wincing and wondering why I had thought this was a good idea for the kids to watch. Don't get me wrong, it's a good movie in a fun franchise, but there is tons of violence, injury, and scary stuff - not to mention the whole face melting thing. No-one seems to have been too traumatized, thankfully. (Oh, and we did have a number of conversations about the Biblical accuracy, or rather lack thereof. But oh well!) 
The Last Crusade is by far the best movie of the series, but I'm holding off on it for now. I realize that I shut my own eyes for a lot of the action scenes and maybe the kids don't need to deal with those for now.

The Wizard (1989) [watched Feb '21]

In a well-intentioned but sorely misguided attempt to keep his little half-brother out of an institution, 13 year old Corey (Fred Savage) kidnaps 9 year old Jimmy and sets out cross-country with no more goal in mind than "California:" the place withdrawn, uncommunicative Jimmy is always trying to reach. Along the way Corey discovers that Jimmy is a video game wizard, able to master practically any title he plays the first time.  
You might be tempted to pass this one off as a bought-and-paid-for Nintendo advertisement: the "maguffin" the protagonists end up pursuing is a spot in the Nintendo "Video Armageddon" championship of course, and they stop to bone up on Nintendo titles at every arcade they pass. Even the yet-to-be-released Power Glove got a drool-inducing 5 minute scene. But they wrapped a really good, fun, and rather sweet movie around it that our whole family enjoyed - even David, who had not seen it when it came out. 
I had a few memories about this one: the cross-country chase, and a video-game champion nemesis named Lucas. And of course Fred Savage, who I've always kind of liked even though I didn't watch The Wonder Years as a kid. But I'd forgotten the pith of the story, which was - like I said - really pretty good.

Family Friendly Factor: The kids stop in Reno for a video game cram session, and we get to see much more of scantily clad waitresses and the like than I personally wanted to. Grace wanted to know why they couldn't wear just a bit more than that.
There are verbal fights between the dad and older brother, and a few (pretty slapstick) actual fights with the bounty hunter, but nothing really cringe-worthy.
I found the final scene very nearly a tear-jerker, but it was in a good way. Really, aside from the utterly unnecessary lightly-clad female flesh, there isn't much to complain about.  

Flight of the Navigator (1986) [watched Feb '21]

This is one neither of us had seen. The action starts in 1978, but quickly shifts to 1986 with our protagonist, a 12 year old boy, utterly unable to explain his disappearance in 1978 nor why he is obviously Still 12. Turns out that he'd been kidnapped by an alien drone ship and taken at light-speed to its home planet, examined, and then returned. Then said ship managed to crash into a power line and fry itself on the way out, and needs the maps it stuck in the kid's head to get home. At this point it devolves into a Short Circuit-like chase, especially after the ship regrettably downloads a fair bit of 12-year-old-boy humor along with the maps. (I eventually figured out the ship was voiced by Paul Rubens, aka PeeWee Herman. This explains a lot, perhaps especially why I found it pretty irritating.) Much of the action takes place just between this kid and the ship, and we'll just say that Joey Crammer isn't quite as good an actor as Fred Savage.

Family Friendly Factor: Overall it was pretty tame and unobjectionable - they even wrap it up with a neat little bow just in case you were going to feel too sorry for this poor kid stranded 8 years later in time than he was meant to be. But that's all I can say for it. There was very little more to the plot than "boy gets to play with magical spaceship, but discovers knowing the way to its home planet isn't very helpful when he just wants to go to Fort Lauderdale." It's clear the kids enjoyed it, but it was a little too pablum for me to rate it very highly. 

Cool Runnings (1993) [Watched Feb 21]

The "based on actual events" story of the 1986 Jamaica bobsled team. The kids did not have high expectations for this one. Sports movie, based on a true story, and - most critically - not sci fi, fantasy, or even action adventure. I wish I could say that it entirely exceeded their expectations in all possible ways, but I think they were only moderately impressed. (Grace says she liked it.) They did sit through it and laugh at the right places. For my part, though, I enjoyed it. I'd seen it once, maybe twice before, but long enough ago that I'd forgotten all but the high points. I really don't consider myself a sports movie person - certainly, outside of the Olympics I never watch sports on TV - but the end of the movie came closer to jerking a few years than anything I've watched lately. 
 
Family Friendly Factor: Nothing to complain about here. OK, there is a minor bar fight, but there's no language, no skimpy female costumes... I really think the only thing you could fuss about here is a appreciate statement about the main character's back-side.

Mystery Men (1999) [Watched Feb '21]

This one was a whole lot funnier in my memory than it was when we re-watched it. I mentioned this analysis to a friend and he said he thinks this is one that was always funniest when remembered and re-quoted with friends. In other words, it's a movie with a fair number of funny quotes and amusing situations, but they're not stitched together well enough to be a truly great watch.
It was very much an ensemble cast, full of big names, and I think a lot of such movies don't live up to their promise. Also, Peewee Herman. 'Nuff said.
Grace says "It's kind of like Elf. People running around being idiots."
 
Family Friendly Factor: Lots of potty humor. And a surprising face-melting-fairly-main-character-blowing-up scene that you don't really expect and don't prepare the kids not to watch. Would not re-watch.

Explorers (1985) [Watched April '21]

Neither David nor I saw this one when it came out. I'm not sure either one of us can really say we've seen it now. :) It would appear to be notable primarily because it featured both the very young Ethan Hawke and River Phoenix. Not that I could tell you anything else either of them were in. Anyway, it's based on the same general theme as Flight of the Navigator (1986). A young, sci-fi obsessed, ostracized-at-school teen has recurring dreams of flying through a Tron-like environment, and gives the circuit diagrams he draws upon waking to his best friend, who just happens to be a tech wizard. He inputs them into his computer and "a miracle occurs." Suddenly the three guys (another misfit dropped in at the right moment) are in possession of a force bubble which can travel through its environment without gravity or friction. Between the three of them they manage to construct a reasonably air-tight vessel which they use to buzz the local drive-in movie theater. 
At this point I had to leave to pick up Grace and missed most of the last 45 minutes of the film, but it would appear that the aliens who actually sent them the tech specs have plans for them: they go on a fantastic interstellar adventure, part on good terms with the ETs, and come back home without raising any particular suspicions with parents or other authorities. It ends on a high note with our little team - plus the beautiful girl the main guy had a crush on - in another Tron-ish dreamscape. (Tron, 1982, is on our list to watch.)
Look, it's a lot better than "Flight of the Navigator" if only because it lacks Pee Wee Herman. The actors were a little better too, and maybe even the plot - although I can't fully speak to that. But it's not in the same league as "Back of the Future" (also 1985) or "Short Circuit" (1986), let alone ET (1982) which would have been aimed at effectively the same audience. 
Still, James and Lucy appeared to enjoy it. There was nothing that I saw in the first half of the movie that was in the least offensive in terms of language or sexual innuendo, so it's fairly safe.

Malcolm in the Middle (Seasons 1-2, 2000/2001) 

We've been watching a couple of episodes of the sitcom "Malcolm in the Middle" each week after dinner. Malcolm, an otherwise ordinary kid, is "diagnosed" with a genius level IQ early in the season. The stories center around him (I personally appreciate his shtick of addressing the camera a couple of times per episode), his immediate family of 2 other boys and parents, and his big brother Francis who begins the series away at military school. 
I'll be honest, this one is hard to justify. Hal and Lois frequently end up largely unclothed in cringe-worthy scenes. They are frequently very suggestive (although since they're married, I can let some of it pass! Also, most of it frankly goes well over the kids heads.) The boys are awful to one another. Craig is creepy. Hal is a stereotypical idiotic sitcom-dad. And it's Hilarious.
OK, it's more than just that. I was talking to an older friend about what we both like so much, and there are a couple of redeeming factors. One is that Hal and Lois really do love each other. They are deeply committed to each other and their family, even when sacrifices are required. (The season 2 finale was practically inspiring!) And (possibly excepting Reese) the kids are really not That bad: they're just kids. Malcolm is a genius, but he just wants to be accepted by his peers and maybe get a girlfriend like everyone else. Francis is a unrepentant screw-up, but he has considerable strength of character. Dewey is devious, but also pretty sweet. The side characters are works of art in themselves - Stevie is everyone's favorite, but many of the "Krelboyns" are nearly as funny, and then there's Spangler, and Lavernia... honestly, the writers are brilliant.
Grace (who is taking an acting class) is grumpy about the fact that no-one ever learns anything and no-one ever wins. She loves to point out the over-acting. I try to explain that this is a sitcom, and that's how they work. But it violates her understanding of good storytelling. Somehow I expect we'll keep watching it anyway, at least for a few seasons.  

PS: I watched this initially when it was new. I had no kids, I had no husband. I was WAY too hard on Lois. I am So much more sympathetic to the poor woman this time through! 

PPS: I think this may be the only sitcom (excepting The Simpsons, which is arguably in that category) that I actually like. I am neutral at best on all the ones we watched growing up like "Home Improvement." Those all had the same stupid dads that I object to in principle (yes, Hal absolutely falls into this category), but also felt this deep need to tie every episode up with a neat little bow. Usually a cringe-worthy one. Ugh.

Current(ish) Movies

Captain America (2011) [Watched Dec 2020]

We watched this one without Grace, who has no love for Superhero movies. I really enjoy this particular entry in the Marvel / Avengers canon, but am not eager to explore the others with the kids. 

Family Friendly Factor: There is lots of WWII violence in the movie, plenty of scary moments, and lots of other stuff the younger kids might not be good with. 

Lego Batman (2017) 

Purely fun. Much more fun than Superman II. There are even some good life lessons in there. 

Pete's Dragon (2016) 

Better than I thought it would be, and Grace (the resident dragon expert) accepted the highly mammalian dragon despite his fur. Shockingly, contains a bit of environmental preaching and casts the loggers as bad-guys. Par for the course, but always a bit irritating. 

Family Friendly Factor: Pete loses his parents at the beginning of the movie. It's handled fairly gently - we certainly don't see anything graphic - but it's obviously traumatic. Nothing else terribly concerning here unless, like us, you are annoyed by the continued vilification of loggers. 

Spiderman: Far From Home (2019), watched April '21 

James really, really, wants to watch Marvel movies right now. A lot. I am not nearly as excited about them, Lucy is neutral, and Grace would much rather chose something else. She's not sure what, but not Superhero movies. She - like me - finds them a bit exhausting with their constant chases, fights, and explosions.
I was really pretty OK with "Far From Home." (Even though I have not seen any of the Avengers movies after Civil War.) Peter Parker is a high school student, really really needs to guard his secret identity, and would really, really, really love to date whats-her-name. But Nick Fury needs him to help track down and neutralize some really nasty elementals threatening - well - everything. He tries to get out of it, but neither Fury nor the elementals will take "No" for an answer. So, of course, he fights them, makes some new friends, exposes his secret identity to whats-her-name, and is an unwilling participant in the destruction of some seriously historic European architecture. 

From a family friendly standpoint, there's a very suggestive and utterly unnecessary scene where a beautiful S.H.I.E.L.D. agent commands Peter to strip and try on the new costume she is delivering. Of course a classmate walks in on the and draws all the wrong conclusions. Aside from that there's just the question of how desensitized we wish to be to violence and things exploding all over the place...

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), watched May '21

Another one that James insisted upon pretty strongly, and we gave in because it was his birthday weekend. He needed it to fill in the blanks between Captain America and Age of Ultron. I'd seen it, probably in the theater when it was new, but couldn't tell him much about it. Didn't even remember good ol' Redford was the betrayer. Nothing really wrong with the movie, and it did move the whole Hydra plot forward quite a bit, but for all its explosions, close calls, and frantic, adrenaline-pumping battles, it did little to engage me. Yes, there were the the heart-strings tugged with the miraculous reappearance of poor, mind-slaved Bucky.  But that was about it. Plenty of witty banter, plus The Falcon's origin story, but I really do find these sorts of movies overstimulating and exhausting.

 

After Hours TV Time

My insomniac (Grace) keeps showing up after bedtime while I am watching my own comfort-TV. This month that's

Due South (1994-1999)

This Police Dramady was a huge favorite of mine when it was on TV, and I actually acquired the DVDs and pull them out perhaps ever 5 years. Grace is scandalized that I had a crush on Frazier. 

Anyway, the series is about a Mountie (Frazier) who "first came to Chicago on the trail of his father's killer, and for reasons that don't bear exploring at this juncture, remained attached as liaison to the Chicago PD."  It's part fish-out-of-water, part Odd-Couple as the straight as an arrow, boy-scout like Frazier solves cases with the considerably more morally flexible Detective Ray Vecchio.  And then there's his dead father who Will keep interfering with things at the most inconvenient of times...

Grace loves this one, especially because as it is Not a sitcom, things Do go right for the characters from time to time, and they get to learn and grow to some degree. 

Family Friendly Factor: There's plenty of violence. Guns, fists, whatever. There's wince-creating tension between Frazier and his female CO, and Frazier and his partners' sister - both of whom are pursuing him, not vice versa. Every once in a while Frazier actually behaves in a less monk-like manner than we have come to expect. Not much in the way of language, although Ray is very brash.

Last month it was 

NCIS (Seasons 1-5, 2003-2008). 

We won't talk too much about the family friendlieness of this one, as all of the complaints about violence, murders, and generally bad behavior apply, but Grace loves Abby a lot. And Gibbs, although not as much as Abby.
This is my second time through, and I decided that I was done with it for a while after season 5. I know there are 12(!) more, but it was getting intense and not the relaxing escapist fare I was wanting. 

Before that it was 

Person of Interest (2011-2016), aka "Jesus Saves." 

One of my own personal favorites. Mr. Finch, a reclusive billionaire, recruits homeless veteran John Reese (Jim Caviezel, thus the "Jesus Saves" joke) to help him save people who's "numbers are up" according to his all-seeing computer known as "The Machine." There are elements of Quantum Leap especially in the first couple of seasons, and it's quite enjoyable. Of course by the end they're in a fight for their very lives against another, rather more evil computer program, but it's one I really enjoyed watching both times through. Not really family friendly, though. Typical levels of violence and murders and occasional suggestive behavior.

Top Tips for Sewing Plushies

Most of those who know me IRL also know I've been sewing plushies (aka plushy, stuffies, aka stuffed animals, or whatever you wish to call them) for a couple of years now. Many of you have even been recipients of one. I've also made reference to the hobby here on this blog, but it occurred to me that I haven't published a list of tips for those who want to take the plunge into some plushie sewing of their own. 

I do not want to re-invent the wheel here by simply repeating what the pattern designers put in their instructions, so this should be brief. I hope. But you know me! 

Pattern Selection

Save yourself a lot of trouble and expense and simply start with the free patterns from cholyknight.com.
Choly is my favorite pattern designer, hands down, and 9 out of 10 plushies I've sewn are from her collection. She has for several years released one free pattern per month, so you have lots of chose from. Many of them are of licensed characters such as Pikachu, Baby Yoda, or Jiji the cat, but there are also generic bears, cats, and even the occasional llama or hedgehog.  

What sets her patterns apart from the herd (aside from the large free library) are the beautiful, clear instructions. Lots of photos, lots of explanation, very readable and easy to follow. 

Choly also sells patterns through Etsy, and I have purchased several. I do not, however, suggest that you start here: her paid patterns are, as a class, considerably more detailed and therefore complicated. Save them for after you've gained some experience and confidence. 

Choly Knight's (paid) Wyvern / Dragon pattern

Printing tip: For the instruction booklet, I like to print two pages to one sheet of paper. Saves a good deal of ink, and it's still plenty big enough to read.

Materials Selection

Choly goes into plenty of detail on materials, which I will summarize as "don't use felt; do use things that stretch and do not ravel."  Read it. It's good stuff. 

As a new sewist, I strongly suggest starting with anti-pill fleece from Joann Fabrics or similar. You don't need much: rarely as much as a quarter yard per pattern in the base color. So even at full price you won't be out a lot of dough. That said, watch the sales, as this fabric is usually at least 40% off a couple of weeks per month. 
The cheaper "blizzard" fleece really does pill, which I find annoying. 
There are plenty of more expensive options out there. Of them minky, a short piled polyester, is the next easiest to work with after fleece. I am using this more and more, as the added expense isn't much and it really looks great on the finished product. I frequently get a fat quarter of a fun color or pattern at Craft Warehouse for under $5. But nearly everything is more slippery than fleece, and this can cause problems when you're not prepared for it. 
Faux furs can be tricky as well as expensive. I once had a whole "Jiji" pattern traced and half cut before I realized that my faux fur was not stretchy enough for the tight curves and narrow spaces. That was irritating. It's also messy to cut and slippery even more than minky, and depending on what you're sewing, you may end up really hating it by the end. So again, save it for when you've gotten some confidence. (I have used it most on my owls. It works because the body is large and uncomplicated. You usually can't get much detail in the wings or "ears," but that's a fair compromise in my opinion.) 

And for a bonus tip: shop the remnants bin at JoAnn every time you visit. It's a great way to save on fabric you don't need in quantity (and you don't need Any of it in quantity), and sometimes you can find some real treasures. 

3. Pattern Transfer

Unless you pay through the nose for a professionally published pattern at the craft store, you are going to printing your patterns out at home on regular paper, not soft, flexible tissue. What this means to you is that you will be cutting out your pattern pieces first, and then tracing them onto your fabric. If you try to pin and cut, you will almost certainly regret it. And carbon paper is not a great choice with the heavy fabrics you'll be using either. 

 

You can pay a lot for a fancy disappearing ink fabric marker made especially for this task. I suggest that you do not. The last thing you want is for a pattern you spent an hour tracing to disappear before you get the chance to cut it out.
9 times in 10 I use a Sharpie. Yes, a full on permanent marker. You'll want the standard size for fleece, but an ultra-thin will work on Minky. Although I try to use the lightest color pen that will show, even light colors of fleece are fairly opaque, and the markings will be on the wrong side and inside the seam allowance anyway. I have almost never regretted using a Sharpie. 
The more difficult situation is when your fabric is too dark colored for a Sharpie to show. Again, there are specifically designed transfer markers available, but I found that raiding my kid's pen box for her Crayola Gel Markers has worked best. They're not a perfect solution, especially as they take a few seconds to "bloom" on many fabrics, so you may initially think they're not working. But they work better than anything else I've tried. 

Pay close attention to stretch and nap markings on the pattern pieces. (Note: fleece does not have a nap; minky and faux fur does.)  

Quick tip: When tracing your pattern pieces, do not forget that when you need two of something, the second one needs to be a mirror image! (In other words, flip the pattern piece upside down.) I wish I could say I've never made that mistake, but that would be untrue! :) 

Next tip: Choly mentions this, but it's important, so I will again. Many pieces can be quite intricate (wings, toes, etc.) It is almost certainly worth your time to make your fancy pattern shapes "hollow" by cutting around the seam allowance line. Then you can trace these lines onto your fabric piece. Having them to follow is critical on anything with intricate curves.

4. Eyes, mouths, and noses

The face of your creature is the most critical part to get right. (And also usually where you should start.) You can have ears that don't quite match, crooked seams in the head, and all sorts of other minor problems and no one is ever going to notice. Screw up the face, though, and you go from cute to creepy in second. Choly's fantastic "kawaii" face design also sets her apart from the herd in a big way, so if you're using one of her patterns, be prepared to spend some time getting it right. 

I assume that you, like me, do not own an embroidery machine. This means you are going to need to applique your faces.

Do this step before you sew anything. Trust me!  

As far as materials, go ahead and use felt.* It is cheap and easy to pick up in tons of colors. And it looks just fine when you're done. It's also Fine to use the same plush or fleece you are using for the rest of the project, but beware of nap. The pile on minky can also be troublesome around the edges.

Choly suggests that you use heat activated applique paper for this task, and I wholeheartedly agree. Trying to trace the intricate shapes onto fleece or felt is a recipe for disaster, and holding pieces in place while you hand sew is also a great way to make very visible mistakes.   

I have used two brands, Pellon's EZ-Steam II and Steam-a-Seam. ** The process is the same for both types. 

Here is a TL;DR for success with fusible web

DO: Use the steam setting on your iron
DO: Use a cotton pressing cloth
DO: Press for at least an entire 30 seconds
DO: Press from both sides
DON'T: Be surprised if you end up having to sew it down by hand anyway. 

Now, Way More Detail than you want on cutting and pasting your faces

a. Do not cut out the pattern. Just trace it!

b. Using a narrow permanent marker, carefully trace your pattern onto the semi-transparent fusible web sheet. You could use a window or light box to make this easier; I often also use a narrow Sharpie to go around the lines on the pattern page so that I can still see them when I flip the pattern for a mirror image. 
(I have used carbon paper with Some success, but it really doesn't make as crisp and heavy a mark as I want, so I always go back to Sharpies.) 


c. Note the color and orientation of each piece inside of it. It is surprisingly hard to "put the puzzle together" sometimes. 
d. Do a rough cut on your fusible web, leaving a comfortable margin around your pieces. Then carefully remove the backing paper on the side *without* your markings, and press it onto your felt or fleece. 



e. Very carefully cut out your pieces with good, sharp, small scissors. This is harder than you think it will be, but you don't need to obsess. It needs to be very close, but not perfect. 
f. Build your eye sandwich carefully, removing the second layer of backing paper and pressing down firmly. Use the master "face" pattern piece for placement of the eyes and noses: Choly goes into good detail here and I won't repeat her. 
g. Iron for 20+ seconds on the highest safe heat for your fabric and using steam. Always use a pressing cloth. I have had a couple of disasters or near disasters when something I was ironing was a little more meltable than I thought it was. 

h. And now,  resign yourself to hand-sewing those eyes on after all. 
Look, you might get away with just the adhesive if you are planning to display your finished plush on your bed. If you are planning to give it to a small kid, though, those eyes are going to come right off.  The product Just Isn't That Great. So I always back up my fusible web with at least a few hand stitches. You can leave this step for last, though. I like to do it in front of the TV myself!

All ready to be ironed

* Except when the applique might end up inside a seam allowance and have to be flipped inside out. Specifically, when I made Choly's Pikachu, I used brown felt at the base of the tail. Then I sewed the two pieces of the tail together and tried to turn the finished piece. Not happening. Felt doesn't stretch at all. I should have used fleece, and I will next time! 

** Which fusible web to choose? I don't have a strong preference. The end results are about the same, and like I said, you have to hand-sew in both cases.
 Pellon is a little more opaque and the backing paper tends to have a few bubbles. This makes it harder to trace on. And it's hard to get the right piece of backing off sometimes. 
Steam-a-Seam is much easier during the tracing stage, but you will quickly learn that it has the opposite problem from Pellon: the backing is hard to keep on when cutting out tiny pieces. In fact, the smaller the piece, the less likely you will be able to keep both sides of the backing paper attached during either the rough cut or the final cut. It takes a lot of diligence.   
So pick up whichever one the fabric store has. Just beware it's not a perfect product and this will be the tedious part of the project! 

I think that's where I will stop, as I find Choly's directions more than adequate on the sewing side of things. Take it slow and steady, check against the directions frequently, and don't skip the pins. You'll do fine! 

Friday, January 1, 2021

Ode to Nettle

Dear Nettle, 

You and I have sure been through some interesting times in the last 16 years, starting with how you came to me. Apparently you were born out in the wild, somewhere in Washington state. My friend Stephanie’s mom, or possibly her grandma, found you and decided to take you in. But neither really wanted a cat. So you made your way to Stephanie and Ben. But it turns out they didn’t really want a cat either. Enter me. 

I already had a pet, though: a small cockatiel, about 5 or 6 years old, named Reepicheep. But Reep and I were struggling. Birds need a lot more company and attention than I was able to give as a single woman with a full time job. He wasn’t very happy, and when he wasn’t happy, he screeched. A lot. I had to hide him under a blanket to shut him up, and then I felt guilty. Here’s the funny thing: Stephanie’s grandma wanted a cockatiel. A second cockatiel, specifically, to keep hers company. And they didn’t want this cat. So a trade was arranged: a cat for a bird. The deal was transacted sometime in May of 2004. You were estimated to be about 4 to 8 weeks old, so I split the distance and assigned you the arbitrary (but easy to recall) birthdate of April 15. 

I’d never owned a cat before. Dad was no great fan: the last cat they’d owned took off when I was born, and he was never willing to acquire another, no matter how much we begged. So this kitten thing was new and exciting to 27-year-old me. I quickly acquired the basics - litter box, food dishes, and the like - and learned that you Loved chasing and pouncing on things made from string and feathers. And of course I got to name you. Ben and Stephanie were calling you "Puma" or something like that, but I wanted an interesting, creative, maybe just a little unusual, obscure, and geeky name. I remember brainstorming lists of them during a meeting at work. Eventually I settled upon a name (of a human) from a book in the "Assassin's Apprentice" series I was currently reading. A nettle plant is prickly and hard to work with, but also has valuable healing properties. And while you never were very prickly outside of an occasional accident with your claws, you most certainly did prove to have healing properties. So I feel like I chose well.

 At the time I was living in an apartment in the slums of Lake Oswego. I was on a house hunt, thanks to Bowler’s prodding, and didn’t figure I’d be there much longer. But the apartment complex required a deposit on cats. The fact that they did not require one for birds simply shows how little they knew: birds don’t potty train, and they do chew on windowsills. Just ask my father! Cats, on the other hand, can be pretty light on a place - especially if the carpet already needs replacing. So I convinced myself that it was OK not to announce your presence to the management during the couple of months you were there. And you repaid me by not doing anything too awfully terrible to the carpets!  

We were out of there in July as I embarked on the American Dream of home ownership, signing papers for a house on Bingo Lane on my 28th birthday. I need to confess something here: buying a home on my own felt a little like admitting defeat. Homes are for families. And all I had was a cat. Well, at least I had a cat. That made it a little better anyway.

     And besides, you and I weren’t on our own there for long. There was, in fact, quite a succession of roommates. Kim was the first. But after a few months she departed to marry our mutual friend Kyle, leaving her red couch behind her in lieu of her last month’s rent. I am sure that the fact you and Simon had very efficiently shredded the left side of it didn’t figure in at all! 

Oh yes, Simon joined our household that first year too. Bowler had owned him 2 or 3 years by that time, but was beginning to suspect that he was allergic. He loaned him to me for a couple of weeks to see if his symptoms abated. Well, they did, and Simon stayed - like any number of other things Bowler loaned me over the years, I might add!  I didn’t mind. Sleek, and of that silvery-grey color they call “blue” in cats, he was reasonably affectionate in his own way, and the two of you mostly got along. Well, when you weren’t chasing each other around the house trying to kill one another, that is! Or passively aggressively objecting to the presence of a second cat sharing your litter box by refusing to go #2 in it. I’ll choose to remember the sweet times when you would cuddle up together on Kim’s red couch instead! 

At the time, you were definitely both indoor cats. I got you fixed, you poor thing, not long after your first and last experience with “heat.” You weren’t quite a year old yet, if I recall. I’m sure you wouldn’t put that high on your list of great experiences. In fact, you developed an infection within days of the procedure and had to be given antibiotics - another low point in our relationship. I suppose I cannot truly blame you for peeing on my favorite body pillow. Or my bed. We learned a lot about cleaning that first year too. 

Anyway, sometime after that but still during that first year on Bingo, you managed to slip out when the door was open. I think this was before Simon joined us. This was not in my plan, and I was very worried. I looked all through the neighborhood. I called the animal shelter, even though you were never chipped. But I turned up neither hide nor hair of you for two solid weeks. I was pretty much resigned to a new period of petlessness, when you suddenly appeared - sleek and happy - on my porch.  Eventually I chalked it up to an adolescent cat’s need for a vacation. It was a stunt you never repeated, even after you became an indoor/outdoor cat a few years later. 

Your “vacation” was hardly your only quirk, though. In fact, “quirky” is a good descriptor for you. Where shall we start? How about your insatiable love for tape? Yes, tape! The clear cellophane kind. You desperately want to eat it. Licking it is good too, but if you can get it into your mouth, that’s the best. And it’s not just Scotch tape: nothing with adhesive is safe - stickers will do in a pinch. And if there are no stickers? A printed photograph will do. Really. I have caught you numerous times licking at pictures either left carelessly on a table, or pinned on the wall. This is Weird, Nettle. None of my friends’ cats do this - although I see from the all-knowing Google that you are not the first with this strange attraction.
    Anyway, this made it harder to keep you from things you weren’t supposed to be on, like the top of the fridge. Online forums suggested putting loops of tape all over the item your cat wasn’t supposed to explore because they would not like stepping on it. Well, that solution was right out! I think we just squirted you whenever we caught you. Eventually you didn’t go up there - as much! 

Tauna was the next roommate on Bingo Lane, and like Kim, she didn’t stay long. In fact, she and Aaron tied the knot on the last day of 2005 if memory serves. (I guess It might have been 2004, but that doesn’t seem like enough time if I only moved into the house in July of that year.) Anyway, funny thing is that I don’t remember interacting much with any of the various roommates, even though we were friends. They had busy social lives - boyfriends and such! I had... well, I had plenty of friends, but I was also home most evenings, and that worked out well for you cats. 

Not long after Tauna left, Katy joined us, and she brought her pet Fido. In direct (and no doubt intentional) contradiction to his name, Fido was a tuxedo cat, not a dog of any stripe. Much older than you and Simon, he didn’t do a lot of bonding during his stay. Neither did he do a lot of fighting, so it all worked out! Unlike Kim and Tauna, Katy had no boyfriend on the horizon when she joined the household, but like them the situation was understood to be temporary from the beginning. She intended to go to Romania as a missionary within the year, but wasn’t eager to move back in with Dad in Hillsboro in the few months that remained.  Well, a lot happened in those few months, not least of which was a “chance” encounter with Zach at City’s Edge that quickly turned into something rather more than simple friendship. 

I might have been jealous. The third time was supposed to be the charm - for ME!  But after much prompting, much soul searching, and many lonely nights, I finally joined eHarmony sometime in 2005. It didn’t work right away: I had to attend that Christmas U2 concert on my own after all. But in February of 2006, I met David. By July - about the time Katy left for Romania - we were engaged. In January of 2007, we were married, and I was no longer a single-lady-with-cats. Not that there’s anything wrong with that of course! 

For 18 more months we were a “family” of four, and then - wham - James was born. I’m afraid that must have been a bit of a traumatic experience for you and Simon. But you handled it as if you were old pros: you especially almost immediately adopted James as your own. 

(Photos from October 2009 and January 2010). Oddly, I cannot find any photographic evidence that Simon adopted anyone. He simply wasn’t ever as affectionate. 

Sometime around this time we noticed evidence of rodents in the garage. Not at all pleased, we tried the sonic alarms that were supposed to discourage them, but it wasn’t perfect. And then we asked ourselves “We have cats. Why shouldn’t the cats be part of the solution? So we made the decision to let you guys out of the house. I’m sure it was just the garage at first, but then we decided that it was time to go whole hog. We installed a kitty door in the garage and let you go. And it worked out just fine. Unlike when you were an adolescent, you never felt the need to disappear on me for days at a time. You went out, you controlled the rodents, and you showed back up at home in time for meals. 

Although we did learn not to feed you out on the deck. It wasn’t just other cats (like Bella, who was firmly convinced that she belonged to us for a few months there), it was the racoons. One time we caught one all the way up on the deck in broad daylight - and it was huge! David actually grabbed his sword and rushed at it, yelling “Deus Volt!” It made itself very scarce, very quickly, and we never saw it again! 

You had a great time that first year out in the wild. Every once in a while you would bring “gifts” to our doorstep - a mouse or two, even once a vole! David typically disposed of them using a shovel, but believe me, they were appreciated. Well, perhaps not by Jackie, the next door neighbor. She - at least we assume it was she - eventually left us an anonymous note complaining about the “piles of mice” that you were leaving on her doorstep! Not seeing anything we could do about it - not sure we wanted to even if we could - we ignored her. Eventually you stopped bringing quite so many home. Not sure Jackie ever really made friends with you, though! 

Grace came along in 2010, and you adopted her too.  In September 2012 we moved out of the Bingo Lane home into our new place on Bartley Ct. Bingo was great - for a small family with kids who didn’t need a place to be outside and unsupervised. For a family of (almost) five with kids who definitely needed a place to stretch their legs and ride their bikes, the cul-de-sac of NW Bartley Ct was eminently more suitable. 

I say “we,” but unfortunately Simon was no longer with us to make that move. Photographic evidence is spotty and I don’t remember precisely when it happened, but we’d been on a trip to Florida, and when we returned we couldn’t find him. We hunted and called and posted pictures on the mailboxes - and eventually a neighbor let us know that they were pretty sure he was the one hit by a car the week we were out of town. It was a sad time, but the kids were both too young to really understand what had happened. And as much as we liked Simon, it was you who was Our cat. He had always remained comparatively aloof - more of a roommate than actual family.  

In April of 2013 Lucy joined us in a rather more dramatic fashion than her siblings. Thankfully she was fine, I was fine, and our little family was finally complete. Just like the other two, you quickly learned to accept her as your own, and were soon getting affectionate (but always very gentle) petting from yet another toddler. 

Certainly you didn’t become any less “quirky” as you aged. You stopped spending much time attacking my furniture, thank goodness, but from time to time you’d go through a phase of targeting our bath mats - with pee! That made none of us happy, least of all me who always ended up cleaning up the mess. Thankfully it was a phase that passed after a couple of months each time, because none of our interventions (stinky essential oils, cat calming “pheromones”) ever did much. We just had to keep the mats off the floor.  

If that was your worst habit, thankfully you made up for it with many good ones. By the time Grace was 4 or 5, you had pretty obviously chosen her as “yours.” All the kids loved you - and had been trained from their earliest time to be very gentle with you, never picking you up or forcing you to do anything you weren’t eager to do. But Grace was your favorite: it was her bed you would sleep on, and her you would comfort with your purring when she had trouble falling asleep. You really permitted those kids quite a few liberties. Not that they ever abused you, but you always seemed quite willing to accept their affection. You only ever really made yourself scarce when there was quite a lot of company. You made exceptions for some company, though: both “Grandmas” were very welcome guests and you usually ended up on their laps before the visit was over. 

You were also willing to play. Not always - you were no longer a young cat by the time the kids came along. But the laser pointer nearly always captured your attention, even when the strings and ribbons ceased to be very exciting. And every once in a while you’d “protect” the family from something, occasionally even something we were happy to be protected from like a daddy long legs or other bug. And there was that memorable occasion last winter when you violently attacked the glittery red Santa hat someone left in the hallway. We were sure glad you were there to keep us safe from that! 

But the best protection story of all was the time last year when the little bat got into the girls’ room while Lucy was trying to sleep. I’d barely ever seen a bat before this incident, but there it was, hiding up behind the curtains, obviously wanting to be anywhere but where it was. David and I couldn’t figure out what to do. We managed to knock or scare it down onto the floor, but it immediately got itself behind the big, heavy dresser. We were trying to figure out how to move it, or tip it, or do Something to allow us to get back there when you arrived on the scene to investigate the commotion. What was that? A rodent in Your house? This required even more investigation! You reached out a paw and batted at it. Quickly you had it flushed out into the open where David could easily finish the job with a box lid. Soon the bat was back outside where it belonged and we were safe once again from the threat of winged intruders! 

Most of the time you are just a nice ordinary cat, with most of the ordinary quirks of the feline species. There’s your extraordinary pickiness about your water, for instance. You really prefer to have it straight out of the faucet - the height of the counter was no barrier to this plan in your younger days. And often we just gave in and let you drink out of the trickle. You are not the least bit reasonable about such things, though. If you can’t find a human to let you drink from the faucet, or at Least fill your bowl right in front of you while you’re watching, other water sources will do. For instance, the toilet. (Ewww!) Or, maybe that nice fountain in the backyard that hasn’t run in years? Lots of algae and mosquito eggs. A perfect alternative to the ever-so-slightly-less-than-fresh bowl in the bathroom! One year I got the bright idea to get you a constantly recirculating fountain dish. Surely that would be as good as a faucet, right? No. Not even close. Clearly, it was trying to kill you! Eventually we gave up and turned it off. It’s still sitting there, gently mouldering, in the garage. 

Perhaps because you are such a fixture of the household, it took us a while to realize that you were getting - well - old. Not that you were showing it, much. Maybe a few more gray hairs each year, maybe a little less willingness to leap to the top of the 8 foot fence. Maybe a bit more predilection to sleep all day, maybe a few more quirks, like your increasing pickiness about your water dish. But you were always very healthy. The only real scare we had was back in winter 2018 when I suddenly noticed you limping, keeping a front leg off the floor as much as you could. I investigated and found a very scary lump on your elbow (or whatever they call the joint of the front legs in a cat.) We immediately took you to the vet, fearing the worst, but thankfully it was “just” an abscess. They wanted to do more tests - of course! - but in the end were willing to do a minimal intervention of draining and treating the wound with antibiotics. You were back to your old self in days - although you absolutely despised the “cone of shame” you had to keep on for a week to prevent you from ripping out the stitches. Poor kitty! We were so grateful to have you healthy again, though. 

For the next two years you remained very much yourself. You hid in paper bags, you demanded your water dish Just So, you clearly communicated your desire to go out to the garage for a snack - often before 5 am. You had favorite nesting places, like James’ clothing drawer, the end of our bed, a bucket of laundry - one time the inside of the dryer! You sat on papers and anything that crinkled. If a human was trying to read that paper, so much the better. You eagerly attacked your scratching post (the cardboard kind, not the custom bulky cat furniture we got for you a few years back!) You didn’t venture out into the neighborhood much (at one time you used to follow us at least a block or so on our walks), but you enjoyed hanging out on the porch swing or patrolling the backyard for squirrels. (Remember, you only have to get lucky once: they have to get lucky every time!) Every once in a while I, with my penchant for worrying, got anxious when you didn’t show up for a morning meal, but there was always some good reason, like already being out in the garage, or shut in a kid’s bedroom. 

Then came the massive disruption of The Great Pandemic of 2020. By March it felt like the whole world had shut down. David was working from the living room. The kids’ outside classes were cancelled. Parks had scary signs telling you to stay off the equipment. Going to church felt like civil disobedience. We renamed our Sunday evening gathering “The Speakeasy.” Everyone was stressed and on edge. But not you, as far as we could tell. Your humans were home a Lot more than usual, but this just made for more laps. In April we celebrated your 16th birthday and made jokes about taking you to get your driver’s license. And still everything was normal and fine - until the morning of November 23rd. 

I hadn’t seen much of you the day before, but as it had been a Sunday with the commensurate gathering in the evening, this was not unusual. But then you did not wake me up for your morning meal at 5 am. Or at 6. Or 7. I told myself there was bound to be a good explanation like the last several times, but something else told me this wasn’t the case. When James came down he mentioned that you were sitting in the hallway on his coat. Again, not too weird, but when Grace brought you downstairs it became very clear that you were ailing. You were panting, even coughing occasionally, crouching in an awkward manner, and obviously not willing to move around much. Your “meows” sounded hoarse. You didn’t want food or water. There was definitely no purring. Something was wrong. 

Our vet couldn’t see you until almost 5 pm, and I was concerned enough that I called around a couple of other places looking for an earlier appointment. That failed, so we crossed our fingers and waited for late afternoon. Grace insisted that she needed to come too, so we bundled you into your carrier and made the short drive to the Rock Creek VCA. Because of COVID we couldn’t come into the exam room with you, or even the lobby. I handed you off to a tech at the side door and waited in the car, trying to stay occupied with my book while Grace played Pokemon. 

Soon enough, though, Dr. Movius called us with the bad news. As far as she could tell, the best odds were on heart failure, leading to a build-up of fluid in the lungs. There was also a chance that you could “just” have pneumonia, but there were several arguments against it. First, pneumonia usually manifests with a fever, but you were running several degrees cool. Second, it usually comes on more slowly, and finally it is far more likely in older cats when they have a history of respiratory complaints. Expensive X-rays would possibly help nail down pneumonia vs. heart failure, but the fact of the matter is, there’s no actual treatment for the latter, just a few things they could do to make you more comfortable. It was the doctor’s opinion that it would be better just to put you down.

Well, I knew I couldn’t do that. Not on my own without consulting the rest of your family. I got David on the phone and he agreed: everyone needed an opportunity to say goodby. So after consultation with the doctor we decided that she would give you a shot of a drug to relieve the symptoms of heart failure (i.e. help the lungs drain) along with an injectable antibiotic on the outside chance it was pneumonia. She cautioned us, however, that the shot might only buy us 12 hours; there was a good chance you would not make it through the night. Really, she said, bringing you back Tuesday to be put to sleep would be the humane thing to do - assuming you made it that long. 

There were a lot of tears that evening, from all five of us.  I tried to explain that euthenasia was permitted for animals, and that it might be the right thing to do, but James especially would have none of it. So we cried and mourned and prayed and petted you and made sure you had food and water where you could reach it, and left the girls to sleep in the box room, which you’d claimed as your own that evening. Grace couldn’t do it, though: she eventually came upstairs and slept on the floor of our room. 

And on Tuesday morning, you were still with us. In fact, you were at least a tad bit better: you did a little purring when the kids petted you, and you took a little water. Clearly I could not make a euthanasia appointment when you were purring at us. I tried not to let anyone’s hopes get up, of course. This might be a very temporary improvement, and there were still plenty of symptoms. You were still crouching in an awkward manner rather than making a comfortable nest. You complained if anyone tried to lift you. You were only eating when strongly coaxed. 

But you were still with us on Wednesday, and on Thanksgiving day. We knew by then that we would be letting nature take its course - or more properly, that we would be leaving you in God’s hands rather than taking matters into our own. 


It is now the 6th of December, just about 2 weeks after your initial symptoms. You’re definitely not your normal self, but you have stabilized. You’re sounding pretty normal when you meow, and don’t seem to be breathing with much difficulty. After spending those first few days in make-shift nests in corners behind doors or in a bathroom, you’ve taken up residence behind the futon in the box room - in a proper nest, and quite near a heating vent. Every once in a while you rouse yourself to use the litter box, although our noses tell us you’re often dispensing with that formality. Really, you aren’t stirring much, but you are accepting visitors. The kids check in several times a day with tempting tidbits of chicken, a bowl of milk, or just some petting. Sometimes you follow me to the attached bathroom for a fresh bowl of water, and I even see you grooming a bit. You continue to purr, and you are even permitting yourself to be picked up for a little lap time when Grace insists. 

(Photo: Dec 6) 

We don’t know how long you’ll be with us. We’re grateful the vet was wrong about the 12 hours, although we still don’t know if you are recovering from pneumonia, or rallying from incipient heart failure. You’re skinny and a little ragged, and it’s winter.

I don’t know, but God does. He gifted me 16 years ago with about the best pet I could have hoped for, and I could not have guessed at the time that you were also the perfect pet for the family that I didn’t even have yet. That I had nearly given up hope would even exist. And I hadn’t even been looking for a cat! But you’ve been Exactly what we wanted and needed: affectionate, soothing, fun, quirky but largely predictable, and low drama. A companion and honorary family member. We continue to pray for you daily - David jokes that you are probably benefiting from more prayers than the average human in your age bracket - and are actively thankful for each day that we get with you. 

And really, who’s to say that we won’t get more days with you in Heaven - that you, too, might receive some sort of reward? George MacDonald thought so. In “Castle Warlock,” Mr. Simon finds his student Cosmo in deep distress over the death of his horse Linty. After comforting him for some time, he ends by saying

 “...If I have any power to read the truth of things, the life that’s given is not taken; and whatever come of the creature, the love it wakened in a human breast will be no more lost than the object of the same. That a thing can love and be loved - and that’s your bonnie mare, Cosmo - is just all one to saying that it’s immortal, for God is love, and whatever partakes of the essence of God can’t die, but must go on loving til it please him to say hold, and that he’ll never say.” (Chapter 11) 

I hope “Mr. Simon” is right. It’s all a bit extra-Biblical. But I do know that you are loved, and that you seem to love us about as much as a feline can be said to love anyone. So ‘though we don’t know when you’ll leave us, or if we’ll meet again, we’ll leave you right where you always have been - where we all are: in the hands of he who made us, and loves us, and sees the sparrow fall. 

Epilogue


(Photo: Dec 29) 


Nettle, you passed along with 2020. You enjoyed 38 more days with our family after your initial symptoms, which was exactly 37 more than we were given any hope for. For much of that time you seemed to be nearly your old self, affectionate and cuddly. You’d given up hiding in dark corners and had recovered much of your appetite. 

By the time you left, we had adopted Darth Vader and Bartholomew. Mew is just 3 months old, an active, affectionate silver tabby. Darth, like you, is all black. At 10 months of age, he reminds us a lot of you in your younger days: sleek, confident, and curious. Unlike you, he’s just a little surly at times. But while you and he were never terribly friendly, you made a peace of sorts within the first week or so, sharing food dishes without drama and failing to make a fuss when you passed each other in the halls. On your last evening with our family you and Mew shared a blanket on Grace’s lap, Mew cuddling your tail, and both Lucy and James offering affection from time to time. 

On your last day, Grace noticed that you had not cleaned yourself after your last poo, and I suspected things were heading south quickly, despite the lack of the acute respiratory difficulties you’d had a month ago. I gave you what I am sure was a very unwelcome bath, but then made you as comfortable as possible in the warm den you’d made in the garage, next to the furnace. We checked in on you from time to time during the afternoon, and you roused yourself to purr when Grace petted you. But all things considered, I was not surprised when we found you had left us some time before our return from a small and subdued Hogmanay at my parents’ place. Not surprised, but definitely very saddened. All five of us cried. I’m sure there will be interrupted sleep tonight and more tears tomorrow when we lay you to rest. 

But there will also be much thankfulness for your life and legacy, and the extra 5 weeks we were given to enjoy your company and get ready to say goodbye. Goodbye sweet kitty. You are very, very loved.