Tuesday, December 25, 2012

My Favorite Christmas Carol

Merry Christmas everybody!

I've always had a bit of a precarious relationship with Christmas, being raised as an atheist, it was always a bit confusing for me as a child.

And then there's the consumerism, and the obligatory family stuff, yadda yadda yadda.

But one thing I have always loved about Christmas is the Christmas carols. I didn't always understand the lyrics as a child, but I've never been one to pass up an opportunity to sing.

Anyhow, I spent a year in Norway as an exchange student - I was studying music, so I got to learn a number of wonderful Norwegian songs, and this carol wormed it's little way into my heart.

Here's my translation:

Lovely is the earth
Splendid is God’s heaven
Beautiful is the soul’s pilgrimage
Through the fair riches of the earth
We go to paradise with song

The time shall come
And the time shall pass
We shall follow in the path of our forefathers
But the melodies from heaven
Shall never fall silent
The soul’s happy pilgrim’s song

The angels sang it
First for the shepherds in the field
From soul to soul it sounded
Peace on Earth, Joy to men
Unto us an eternal savior is born

For some reason, this carol has always been a great source of comfort for me. I realize this is gonna sound a tad bit crazy, but the part about going to paradise with song has always conjured up stories of people holding hands and singing in the Nazi concentration camps as they were being exterminated in the gas chambers. It's a terrible thought, I know, and not exactly a "Christmassy" one, but somehow it always calms me - no matter what horrors one faces, we always have the choice to hold hands, comfort each other, and sing our way to the other side.

Peace Everybody!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Kitty Update and My Struggle to Focus on the Present

Well... I know you're all sitting there on pins and needles waiting to hear how Sputnik is doing.

So here's the deal, the lab report on the fine needle aspiration of his bladder tumor came back showing that it is likely (but not certainly) benign... more like a polyp than a tumor.

Soooo... hooray.... sorta, kinda, maybe.

I'll spare you all the gory details, but the long and the short of it is that surgery is not an option (at least not a good one) and there's really no way to tell how fast the thing is growing. This all means that he could be fine for a year or more, or I could be faced with having to make the decision to put him to sleep tomorrow - and there's just no way to know.

For the moment we've got him on several medications including Prednisone in an attempt to shrink or at least stabilize the size of it, and we've just got to wait and see. Thank God he likes pill pockets!

On the one hand, I am relieved and delighted that we're no longer in "no hope" territory, on the other hand, he's not out of the woods... not by a long shot.

So all of this leaves me struggling with my emotions. While I can talk a good game when it comes to being all Zen and living in the moment, the reality is that I'm swinging wildly between feeling like everything is OK, and fits of both panic and sadness.

I know that eventually I'm gonna lose him, and it's gonna be sooner rather than later. I mean, he is 15 after all...  And somehow that part I can deal with... that part is just sadness, loss and grief. Not that it will be easy, but I have some sense that I can handle that.

The part I'm having real trouble with is the awesome responsibility - I'm just so afraid that I'll make the "wrong" decision. I guess it also brings up all sorts of emotions about death and suffering in general. I'm finding it really hard not to catastrophize about all of the possible scenarios that could arise, and how horrible each might be.

I know that approach helps neither Sputnik nor me, but somehow that's just where my psyche tends to go. CatMan thinks it's my way of avoiding the emotions that I'm feeling right now... and I suppose he may be right. I think it also has to do with life altering events that came out of left field when I was a small child, and my subsequent determination never to be caught off guard again - a hopeless endeavor if ever there was one.

I also have to remind myself that it's OK for me to live, even though my cat may be dying. Somehow, this makes me feel terribly guilty. But not eating, sleeping, exercising  or doing pretty much anything except worrying about my cat really isn't helping the situation.

I guess it's like the old quote:

Life's like a roller coaster. Sometimes you've just got to hang on and try not to puke!

So, how do you deal with the stress of uncertainty? Anybody have any suggestions for me on how to stay focused on the here and now?

Thursday, December 6, 2012

How My Cat Helped Me Achieve Financial Independence and Changed my Life Forever

With everything that's going on right now, this seemed like a good time to tell this chapter in my "How I Escaped from the Rat Race" series - which I fear I have sorely neglected. To read the series from the beginning, click here.

It was early 2006 and I was tired. I was heading into my 16th year at the non-profit music school, and while I still loved both the music and the organization, the truth is I was starting to get really burned out. The long days, the battles with idiot members of the board of directors, and the constant stress of working for an organization that was chronically under-funded and in a seemingly endless state of crisis were taking their toll.

To top it off, the Executive Director had announced that he would be retiring, and the board had decided that they wanted to take the organization in a direction which had proved to be disastrous in the past. It started to become abundantly clear that I needed an exit strategy.

To tell the truth, I'd been testing the waters of various ways to make a living without my job for a number of years. I'd done some freelance work as a database designer, and tried my hand at selling things online. I knew that if push came to shove I could probably support myself with either of those endeavors, but honestly, I wasn't terribly excited about it.

Then CatMan read an article about internet advertising, which was still a relatively new phenomenon at the time. The thing that was really interesting was that Google had developed a platform that would allow just about anybody with a web page to host internet ads simply and easily. And all you needed was a website that got a reasonable amount of traffic - you didn't have to deal with clients or customers, you just needed a web page that was interesting enough to attract a decent amount of people.

Of course, at the time I knew absolutely nothing about web design. So I decided that the first step was to set up a web page... ANY web page, just to learn about how it all worked.

I didn't really have a great idea for something that would attract a lot of visitors, but at the moment that wasn't terribly important - I just needed material that I could post online so I could learn about HTML and see for myself how Google ads worked.

Since I already owned a copy of Microsoft Front Page, I used it to create a little website. I wrote a bunch of random articles about cooking and frugal living, I posted some photographs, and I even decided to write about my cat, Mr. Sputnik VonWhiskars.

I had heard about the concept of "blogging" but was totally unaware that there was software out there designed to make it easier to do, so I created a blog written by Sputnik - all coded by hand. Oy!

Anyhow, one day I was chatting with a friend at work who was also hatching an escape plan. She was an artist and was trying to come up with low cost ways of promoting herself. She mentioned that she had set up a page on something called MySpace where she was posting some of her work and trying to make a bit of a name for herself as an artist.

I didn't really know much about MySpace, but the idea was intriguing. And if it was a place that you could advertise art, maybe it was also a place that you could advertise a cute blog written by a cat!

Soooo, in all my cat lady craziness, I decided to set up a MySpace page for Sputnik. Lo and behold, I soon discovered that there were a ton of other crazy cat people out there who had also set up pages for their cats. Within a few weeks, Sputnik had over 300 friends!

At this point I had visions of creating Sputnik calendars and mugs and T-shirts, and working to create a big readership for his blog. But, to tell the truth, I was having a hard time both keeping up with all of the MySpace friend requests & keeping his blog up to date. I decided it would be nice to send all of his new friends a cute picture of Sputnik with is sister Daisy, but I wasn't sure how to embed an image into a MySpace comment.

I finally got it all figured out - you had to upload the image to some computer that was connected to the internet, and then you had to write some HTML code to go get the image and display it in the comment section. Geez, I thought - that was rather complicated even for me, and I've been studying HTML for the past few months... and most people don't have access to a computer where they can host the image... how's the average Joe supposed to figure this all out?

Suddenly, I had a brainstorm! What if I created a website that did all of the geeky stuff for you. I could design a bunch of cute little dingbats, and post them on a website that would allow people to easily grab the pre-written HTML codes to plunk down the image as a MySpace comment. I could even include a link back to the site so people would know where to come to get more dingbats... it was a stroke of genius!

Of course, I didn't know the first thing about graphic design, but when has a little thing like that ever stopped me? So I cobbled together a few little graphic dingbats (which were admittedly a bit primitive) and set up a new section on my little website.

The response was incredible! It was overwhelming in fact. The thing pretty much took off like wildfire, and the next 6 months were a rather dizzying combination of setting up a new web site, figuring out how to deal with having my own server, navigating my way through the dark and twisty passages of Linux and Apache software systems, designing and posting dingbats, all the while working 60-70 hours per week at the music school!

By the fall of that year, I was earning as much via my web page as I was at my real job, so I gave notice and left at the end of the year. The next few years were rather amazing. I learned more than I ever imagined I would about web design, web programming & graphic design, and got thoroughly immersed in the glittery world of the teenage MySpace princess. Pretty soon I was developing MySpace layouts & cursors & backgrounds, and I used by database skills to manage the web page. I ended up doubling my income.

Of course, the MySpace craze ended, and so did my reign as a glitter princess. But along the way I hatched numerous new web sites. While none have equaled the wild success of the MySpace glitter site, I make more than enough money to live on, and I've got about a zillion ideas for new sites if I ever get the inclination to get them going.

And it all started with Sputnik's little blog. In a very real sense I owe my livelihood to my sweet furry friend, and I'm sure gonna miss him.

p.s. Sputnik was diagnosed with a bladder tumor in early December of 2012, and given only a few weeks to live, but his indomitable little spirit carried him through for more than a year. I sure do miss him. If you'd like to read more about his story you can find that post here.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Sad News on the Kitty Front

Well, today was the big ultra-sound day to try to figure out what's been going on with my sweet kitty Mr. Sputnik VonWiskars.

Unfortunately, the results were not good. He has a large mass in his bladder - we're sending off a sample for biopsy, on the off chance it isn't malignant, but I'm not holding out much hope for that.

I haz a sad... a very big sad.

Anyhow, just wanted to let you know that I'll probably be a bit scarce for the next few weeks - the vet says he doesn't have long and I want to spend as much quality time with my sweet boy as possible.

It the meantime, if you're a sucker for kitty stories & pictures, here are some links to some stuff that Sputnik helped me write years ago.

Here's the story of how Sputnik came to live with me.

And here are some photos of him helping out around the house.

I was just learning about how to design web pages and this was my "test site." I pretty much just needed material of any kind so I could learn, and Sputty was of great help.

Heavy, heavy sigh. I think I'm gonna need some cattitude to get through this one...

Friday, November 30, 2012

My Fantasy Life in the Witness Protection Program

One of the ways I survived my crazy dysfunctional childhood was by escaping into a fantasy world of my own creation.

Now, lest you start to worry, I didn't suffer actual breaks from reality or anything - these were more like carefully crafted daydreams or "thought vacations."

I had fantasies of every stripe and variety. There were the Please Rescue Me fantasies of my younger days, which usually involved being adopted by some loving teacher, neighbor or family. These easily morphed into the Prince Charming fantasies of my adolescence which grew ever steamier and complex as I got older.

Then, of course, there were the I am SO Good Enough fantasies, which generally involved Olympic medals, hit songs and Academy Awards.

But when things got really bad, I could always resort to one of my Leave Me the Fuck Alone fantasies, which included things like being marooned in a tropical paradise, or the darker more nihilistic kind where I would awake in some sort of post apocalyptic world to discover that I was the only human left on the planet earth.

But of all of my fantasies, one of the most enduring and flexible has been the Witness Protection Program fantasy.

I still catch myself drifting off there now and then whenever life starts to feel a bit overwhelming (like, say, when I'm faced with the illness of a beloved pet.)

So here's the scenario:

Through some quirk of fate I happen to witness some sort of Mafia transaction - one which will surely result in my being "rubbed out" in short order, until the FBI sweeps in and takes matters into their own hands. I'm left with no choice but to testify against the bad guys, abandon my life (the FBI fixes it so everyone thinks I'm dead) and enter the witness protection program.

Now, depending on how badly I want to escape from myself, the fantasy sometimes involves plastic surgery, amnesia, and/or the mysterious disappearance of several inches of height - but none of that is really a necessary component.

At first blush one might think this fantasy is simply a convenient way to escape from a painful past and an uncertain present. A unique opportunity to finally have what I always wanted... to "be normal" (whatever the fuck that means.)

But the interesting thing is that the sort of life that my witness protection self always seems to create is generally a very small and quiet life. I mean, if the mob is after you, the last thing you want is to draw attention to yourself, right?

So in this little dream, I've given myself permission to simply melt into the fabric of society... to be ordinary... to stop trying so frickin' hard... and it's always such an incredible relief.

And when I look back and compare the reality of my daily life to the life of my younger self, it is rather remarkable how much like the witness protection fantasy my actual life has become.

No... I didn't disappear, or change my name (well - except for the purposes of this blog) or move to a different city, or anything like that. But my life is certainly quieter and smaller. There are fewer people in my life now, and I don't spend nearly as much time worrying about what they think.

Once I stopped working, I learned pretty quickly that my "big important job" wasn't really all that important after all. And while there are plenty of issues that I care deeply about, I've sort of given up on the idea that my purpose in life is to fix everything. In a real sense, I guess I've stopped trying to "matter" so much.

To my former self, all of this would have been unthinkable. If I wasn't striving, and working, and suffering, and achieving, and proving something to someone all the time, I honestly felt like I didn't have the right to exist.

I'm not entirely sure where I'm going with this... I mean, it's not like I've got everything figured out now, and that my life is totally peachy keen. But there is a certain peace in surrender, and it's sorta nice not to need the threat of mafia hit men in order to allow myself to let go a little bit.

So, I guess I'll just leave it at that, and offer up one of my very favorite songs from back in my younger days. Yes... I was  HUGE John Denver fan, and he was the object of many-a Prince Charming fantasy!

So how about you? How does your fantasy world compare with reality?