Monday, August 30, 2004

The Olympics And Ridiculous Dreams Of Childhood

Tonight we watched the closing ceremonies of the 2004 Summer Olympics in Greece.

The opening ceremonies were simply stunning. We were so enthralled by both the show and what this small country had managed to accomplish that all three of us had sat there watching the teams enter the stadium, the flame lit, the theatrical performances. We were so engrossed, trying to impart the historical importance of the Olympics returning to their birthplace to my four year old daughter that we quite frankly allowed her bedtime to come and go.

Over the last two weeks we tried to sample many different events to watch--NBC got smart and spread various events over their many NBC-owned stations so there was a MUCH wider variety of options--not just the same old mega-popular events. N. did pretty well and was genuinely interested in a lot of it, but I don't know how much of this she'll remember.

Tonight, I mostly watched the closing ceremonies by myself--N. had been put to bed at a sensible hour for a change and J. had wandered off to take a shower, nursing a probable broken toe courtesy of a late-night foray into the darkened kitchen and an unexpected greeting by the immovable kitchen island last night.

As I watched I was surprised to feel myself choking up a bit as they showed scenes of the many amazing victories, failures and strain that the athletes endured. Then it hit me as to why I tried so hard to get my daughter interested in the games, why I got so absorbed myself: I remembered watching the 1972 Olympics from Munich when I was 11.

Still, quiet summertime in Norco, with no air conditioning and the house opened up to every possible breath of fresh air, fans running at high speed. My Dad mostly asleep on the couch as I watched the events. Surprisingly, while the terrible murder of the Israeli athletes towards the end was the prevailing memory of that year, it was also the year that had really fired my every-kid's-wish to somehow, someday, be on that Olympic medal podium myself.

When you are 11 you know that certainly you can do it!

...if only you didn't have to wait until you were older. The problems of being short in height, never having been on a real sports team before and being the youngest child of a large family with admittedly modest means doesn't even enter into it. In my family I learned by watching the older kids--and learned pretty quick not to even dream of playing little league or go out for expensive school sports. My folks couldn't afford it, and what they were able to give us came with a lot of hard work and sacrifice on their part. I think we kids decided privately to ourselves to appreciate what we had, enjoy our family and not whine.

My personal ambition was to be able to compete in the high jump and it had hit me hard. I had seen Dwight Stones in the Olympics and what he was able to do amazed me. Again, never mind that I was lamentably short--even as an adult I don't exactly tower at 5 foot 2--and the high jump bar loomed overhead like a damned skyscraper. I was determined to try. Surprisingly--especially to me--I actually did pretty well and was looking forward to taking the first step along the Olympic road. To me, anyway.

I had been practicing the high jump during P.E. and was screwing up my nerve to ask the coach if I could get at it seriously when--

we moved away.

Not only moved away, but moved FAR away, to a tiny country town where the high school student body numbered exactly 100--for grades 9 through 12. Needless to say, they had no such thing as high jump equipment. When my dad told us of the move I could practically feel any chance of competing draining away from me. Heck, they barely even had a football field, and no track and field program at all. The sports choices for the girls were basketball, volleyball and softball.

I even asked the one girls' sports coach about starting up a track and field team, complete with high jump, and was given a gentle but firm lecture on the small-time budgets of small-town schools.

For a while I tried to practice on my own in the sagebrush-and-fire-ant-infested area up behind our barn. I built two poles with nails every 1/2 inch to hold the bar and marked the measurements on them. My problem was the pit. When you high jump, ya need something large and soft to land in. This is where I was stymied. That town wasn't even big enough to collect old mattresses from. From somewhere I obtained some miserably thin foam padding, cut into weird shapes that was obviously scrap material. There was precious little of it and I had to arrange it juuuuust right to keep from breaking my head. Even then it was woefully thin and eventually, sadly, I had to give up that particular dream. All I was doing was pissing off the fire ants. It's probably just as well and saved me many injuries, failures and disappointments when my lack of height would eventually put a stop to my dream. But I did watch Dwight Stones again in the 1976 Olympics, feeling a kind of kinship with him. We were lucky to even see the Olympics since in our remote area we had three TV stations, and only one was semi-reliable.

Tonight, I was shocked to have that childhood memory and dream of the high jump come roaring back so strongly. I haven't even thought of it in years. It's been filed away I guess, waiting for the chance to pop up. Now that I carry an extra pound or two of scrap metal in my left ankle and have had to give up running in any form I am reduced to watching others strive for that dream. I don't often feel sorry for myself for what has happened to me--heck, if it's the worst thing I'll be lucky--but tonight I do, and it's because I had a huge flashback--being 11 years old and having any possibility in the world open to me. Not only having that door closed, but having it welded shut, still jumps up to bite me at unexpected moments.

I guess that's why it was so important to me to explain to my daughter what the Olympics mean--it's the best of the best, and she won't see them again until she's nearly 9. I hope she remembers something of what she saw this time, and gets to experience that same amazing, breathless, wide-eyed epiphany of possibilities when she gets older. I hope that she trusts me enough to come to me and say, "Mom, can I...?" without any barriers.

When she does, I hope I can remember how I felt in 1972.

Saturday, August 7, 2004

Goodbye, Jack...

Well, just to keep the depression going, we unexpectedly lost Jack, our 8 year old Barred Rock rooster last night. He and Wild Child were a couple, the grand old couple of the flock. He died suddenly but quietly in his sleep less than 24 hours after Wild Child went, and we buried him right next to Wild Child in a bed of roses just like hers.  He had been clearly distressed and depressed, searching for her...I think if it's possible to die from a broken heart, Jack just may have.

The rest of the flock is mostly standing around staring at each other or wandering aimlessly about the yard in clumps. They look at each other as if to say, "Well, what do we do now?" In two short days they have lost their father, protector and lover in Jack, and their mother, matriarch and guardian in Wild Child. The flock dynamic has been thrown into turmoil with no clear successors to either the Head Roo or Head Hen posts.

We are trying to keep them company as much as we can. When we go out into the yard they group around us more than they normally do, even the normally more standoffish birds. I'm trying to adjust to the loss of two long-time and well-loved pets. Anyone who has ever had an older pet, no matter what kind, knows how incredibly cool and laid-back they are to have around. I also can't help but look at the others and wonder who is next. Several of our chickens are older and recent events have left me gun-shy, trying to steel myself to finding another dead bird. It's no fun.

Jack was our household symbol. We use his image and his name in our email, our Internet dealings...so many things. Emotionally I'm a train wreck, but that is, indeed, the cost of keeping pets. It's just hard when such a big bill comes due all at once.

This has not been a good week.

Thursday, August 5, 2004

Wild Child Passes

Well, we have lost another one.

This time it was our flock's Head Hen, a lovely Silver Laced Wyandotte with the clunky and graceless name of Wild Child. She gained that name nearly ten years ago when we brought her and her two sisters home from the feed store. Then they were tiny, day and a half old baby chicks with their egg tooth still attached. For those that don't know, on birds the egg tooth is the small, hard tip of their beaks that assists them in breaking out of their shells when they hatch. It falls off within the first three days of life.

The reason she was named Wild Child was because we had given the three chicks temporary names to help us tell the new arrivals apart from each other. We figured that we would come up with real names for the chicks shortly. 'Wild Child' was what we called her since she was a very boisterous chick, running around and jumping on her sisters' heads when they weren't looking.

Unfortunately for her, the name stuck. So Wild Child she became for good and all.

Wild Child naturally took on the position of Head Hen--she can peck everyone else but no one pecks her, she is leader of the flock. She is the one in my previous posts that climbed up on top of the coop, couldn't get down and had to call us out in the yard to rescue her. She was the one who would call out and alert us to trouble in the yard.

The day before yesterday we noticed that Wild Child was refusing food and simply standing, eyes closed, in the shade under her favorite bush. Yesterday was the same, so we knew that something was up and strongly suspected that she was making her exit. She wasn't sick, just old.

I brought her into the house around 3PM and offered her a small dish of goodies, which she looked at but politely shook her head, refusing. Now when a chicken won't eat, something is wrong. Her body temperature had also fallen. I wrapped her in a bath towel and sat with her on my lap for the next 5 1/2 hours, gently stroking her head and talking to her as she slept. I had mixed up a small amount of baby bird handfeeding formula with some other things, and this I gave her with an eyedropper every 45 minutes to keep her comfortable and hydrated. Around 7PM I had gotten up to stretch my legs and as I walked by the back door, I noticed that every single chicken of our flock had crammed themselves up onto the back porch, something they had never done.  Jack, our Head Roo, was in front, looking at me and waiting.  I knew what they wanted and opened the back door so that they could come in and visit Wild Child, which they did quietly and one at a time before filing out again.

Over the final several hours Wild Child got quieter and quieter and we knew the time was near. Finally it was 8PM and my daughter's bedtime. She gently petted Wild Child and told her goodnight and goodbye.

Not two minutes later Wild Child gave a single flap of her wings and died.

We'll miss her. Today the other chickens are wandering about looking lost, Jack is especially distressed. She would have been 10 years old this coming April and was the cornerstone, guardian, mother, flock representative, disciplinarian and matriarch of the flock. She led the group out of the coop in the morning and called them to roost in the evening.

When you have a pet for that many years they are a member of your family, no matter what kind of animal they are. They become as much a part as your personality and entangled in your family history as any other member of your household.

Our most affectionate farewell to Wild Child.