Monday, February 28, 2011

Of kittens, buzzards, bees and flowers

Our Carolina jasmine bush

Tomorrow is March, and although I know very well that in Texas March can do anything to you that February can, Mother Nature seems to have graced us with spring. 

Every sign is here.

This morning when Jerry left the house just as the sun was coming up, he went a few feet toward his cart and then stepped back into the house.  "Come here a second," he called.  I went outside and he shushed me, saying, "Listen."

It sounded like the vuvuzela drone in the World Soccer Championship last summer--thousands of tiny bees hovering around the Carolina jasmine bush, which this year, as last, is covered with so many yellow blossoms I wonder it doesn't just topple over from the weight of them.

Then after lunch I noticed that my ginger root, which I keep in a basket on the top of my kitchen counter, had sprouted.  How the heck does ginger root sitting in the dark kitchen know it's spring? I wondered. 

Jerry preparing his spring garden
As an experiment I took it out and buried it in the deep warm soil of our kitchen garden, just to see what happens.

I headed for my office in the Granny Charger and stopped to say hi to Anita, who was just turning into the Village Circle.  I asked her about the baby kittens born three weeks ago during the ice storm when we just had to let the skittish little gray stray mama in from the bitter cold.

"Come on and see them," she said, so I turned around and followed her back to Teresa House.

Anita, not a cat person, holds the babies
The moment she opened the door, mama kitty shot through it as though pursued by a pack of coyotes.
"Looks like mama needs a little break from motherhood," laughed Anita.

How well I remember that feeling!

The kitties were nestled in their little box under the bed in the weekend staff room (so far no complaints from the weekend staff over this novelty).

After I headed back toward the office, I noticed the buzzards were back hanging around the dry pond across from the pool area.  There were about 20 that I counted, which is just a whole lot of buzzards. 

As an aside here I naturally had to go google, trying to find out how to denominate a "whole lot" of buzzards--you know, like an "exaltation" of larks or a "gaggle" of geese.  Didn't find anything for buzzards.  This will have to be pursued in due course.

Buzzards hanging out by the pond

St. Austin's volunteers
At the office I saw some volunteers working in the community garden, and dropped by to meet several 8th graders from St. Austin's Catholic School in Austin (fittingly enough).  I thanked them for helping out, and walked through the cool spring air back to my office.

Let me know if you're in the market for a kitty.  They'll be ready to go in about five weeks.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Sock Hop!

Melanie paints a drag strip
Okay, I about threw my back out showing the Ranchers how to do the Bunny Hop. 

But I was the only person present who actually went to high school in the 50s and knew how to do it!

It's time for a grand celebration of the first anniversary of the Down Home Ranch fun and fitness program HE-HAW! which stands for High Energy Health and Wellness.

Jerry thought that up.

HE-HAW started exactly a year ago.  Casey, Marci and the rest of the Day Program staff get all the credit for following through, with reward charts, endless fun things to do that involve getting off the couch, and celebration parties and overnights with prizes.

In June we started workplace Weight Watchers, and will finish our last on-site meeting this Thursday.  We will miss our friends Ann and Rebecca, but promise to keep on counting our points and weighing-in (however grim that prospect sometimes becomes).

We have a leaner menu and a fitter bunch, and it shows.

So back to the Sock Hop, coming up Tuesday March 1.  (Remember how we had to take our shoes off to dance because of the wooden gym floor?)

Naturally, there have to be posters all over the "gym," and poodle skirts to make.

Kyle is proud of his poster

Kara stitches up a poodle skirt with Lori's help


Kyle & Sterling show how "cool cats" acted in the 50s

First a chest bump

And then smoothin' down the ducktail!

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

5 Piggies, 3 Cowboys, and 1 Executive Director

Five little pigs looking for food or adventure

Most new moms will tell you about a strange phenomenon, which is that when the baby finally goes to sleep long enough for you to grab a bite to eat, he or she will stay asleep right up until the time you are ready to take that first bite.

And then comes the wail from the nursery.

Happens every time!  How do they know?

Well, we have no babies in Benedict House, but we have five young pigs happily eating their way through adolescence over at the Spur barn, and they cleverly time their escapes to coincide with the very moment I have set food on the table for supper. And so it happened a few nights ago.

We sat down, unfolded our napkins, and the phone rang.

Cowboys live at Joseph House
It was John, the RA at Joseph House over at the Spur.

"Tell Jerry the pigs are out," he said tersely.

I sighed and turned to Jerry.  "The pigs are out," I said tersely. 

Jerry disappeared.  Supper went back on the warmer.

Forty-five minutes later Jerry came back, looking half peeved, half exhilirated.

"Well, I had three hard-working ranch hands to help me round 'em up," he said, meaning Sterling, Travis, and Kyle, the three cowboys who live at Joseph House.

3 Cowboys: Sterling, Travis, & Kyle
I imagined Jerry, Sterling, Travis and Kyle tearing about inside and outside of the Spur barn, with five pigs serving as highly uncontrolled variables in the process.  In fact, though, only three pigs had gotten out and were now wandering about in the paddocks amid donkeys, cattle, calves--with four humans in pursuit, none having much luck.

"It was hard for the guys to understand what I wanted to get them to do," said Jerry, "plus it was dark, and we could hear the little buggers but we couldn't see them, so I wasn't sure what I even wanted the guys to do."

But, as Jerry knew, the pigs wanted to be back in their safe pen almost as much as he wanted them to, so after a while the guys got them from outside the barn to inside--and quickly secured all the doors.

"But," said Jerry, "our large hay wagon, full of square bales, was taking up the middle of the barn, right next to the pig pen door and the one-bulb light meant we couldn't really see whether the pigs were secured or not." 

During the recount two of the escapees bolted into the pen, leaving but one at large.
Joseph House Cowboys model their pig-catching technique

"I put Travis in one corner of the barn, Sterling to his right about 20'. Kyle I had guarding the gate, arms akimbo to block a bolting piggie. I went around looking under the wagon and around a bunch of those old desks stored in the barn," continued Jerry.

No pig to be seen.

"Then I went outside and turned on the barn's outside lights, thinking he'd gotten outside somehow. But, no pig. I went back inside the barn and was about to declare and end to the hunt when I took another look inside the pig pen and, viola! all five pigs!

"I don't know, I guess the last little last stinker slipped in while we were out running around trying to find him."

Needless to say, the Great Pig Chase has now entered Ranch lore, with Jerry having nothing but good to say about the cowboys who let their supper get cold to do their job and help the boss.

And the four of them did it! 
None of them really knows how they did it, but they're all proud anyway.

Soon the pigs will have a new home especially designed for them, close to the chickens, near the new Community Garden.

Well confined, I hope.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Valentine Day

Kelly and Sterling on Valentine's Day
About a month ago Jerry told me he'd ordered tickets to the Valentine's Day Willie Nelson concert at the new Austin City Limits in the new W Hotel in downtown Austin.

Jerry knows I'm not a great fan of such, but even I agreed we'd best go see Willie while we still can, before he or one of us shuffles off the mortal coil.  So far so good.

But then the week before Valentine's Day, Kelly asked me about having a "Valentine's Double Date."  She was crushed when I told her we had plans.  You see, about seven years ago or so we took her and the boyfriend Sterling out on Valentine's Day, and as every parent of a kid with Down syndrome should understand by now, having done something once and liked it means you are now committed to a tradition that stretches to infinity and beyond.

So I asked Jer how about taking them out Sunday evening for dinner.  I called Martha House to see a) if they were available and b) if they wanted to go.

Is the Pope Catholic!?  Of course they wanted to go, and Sunday was even way better, it turned out, because the real Valentine's Day fell on Monday this year, and everybody knows Monday is Walmart Day, and you don't mess with Walmart Day.

When we went to pick Sterling up at the Spur, his parents were just finishing installing his new TV.  We chatted a while and then headed to Elgin to a Mexican restaurant.  Kelly and Sterling were their ususal irrepressible selves, goofing off and turning serious by turns.

Halfway to Elgin Kelly said, "We're almost done with the question book, Mom."  She was referring to 101 Questions to Ask Yourself Before Becoming Engaged, which she and Sterling have been working through with Casey the case manager and, on occasion, Casey's patient prince of a husband, Matt.

Kelly is in a fever to get married.  Sterling is rarin' to go some days but on others says, "I'm not ready yet."  Time will tell. 

After we'd dropped them off, Jerry and I reminisced about that first Valentine's Day double date.

Sterling at the time was still living at home with his mom and brothers in a rural area outside Elgin.  He and Kelly were in what I called the "Bambi-Filene" stage.  They'd been friends since childhood, and had always had a great time playing together.  Then adolescence came along and they weren't sure what to do with each other.  They got awkward and Kelly had no idea how to relate to Sterling anymore.  Sometimes she would not even look at him.

But later, when Sterling came to work in the day program of the Ranch following his graduation, their relationship cemented as they were able to spend time together on a daily basis. 

They broke up once, which caused a seismic wave to roll through all the counselors from camp who knew them, one of whom emailed in anguish, "I can't live in a universe where Kelly and Sterling aren't together!"

It didn't last long.

Last night they were discussing being together on the work team with Miss Naomi.  "We are professionals," said Kelly.  "No kissing until after five o'clock."

"That's right," chimed in Sterling.  "We kiss after five o'clock."

Sterling was happy to get back to his new TV and had plans for writing about our evening together.  Kelly was happy to get back to Martha House.  As we dropped her off, she turned to me and said, "Thanks for doing this, Mom."

"My pleasure, daughter," I said.  "I love you."

And I do.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Salt and Light

Well, last Saturday I wrote about the appropriations process and the unimaginably hard decisions our legislators face regarding tax dollars that pay for care for the poor, the homeless, the old, and the disabled. 

They must reconcile a dearth of funds with a world of need.

And then I mentioned a question someone had asked me recently about whether it really is the taxpayer who should be required to care for those in need after all.  I scratched my head and wondered, too.

Comes Fr. Larry Sunday morning to shed light (he brought a salt shaker with him) and discourse on the matter.  The readings were from Isaiah 58:7-10 and Matthew 5:13-16.  Fr. Larry said that Isaiah is telling us what we should do, and Jesus is reminding us who we should be.

We are to share with the hungry, shelter the oppressed and the homeless, clothe the naked "when you see them," and not turn our back on our own.

As for the role of salt in all this, Fr. Larry reminded us that salt was once a precious commodity for its properties of making food taste better and preserving it from spoilage--so precious it was offered up as a sacrifice in the temple ceremonies.  Our bodies absolutely must have it to live.

Likewise light.  I try to imagine night time in the Middle East during the time of Jesus, the enveloping darkness held at bay for only a few hours in the evening by a small oil lamp.

We are salt, called to make things better.  We are light, called to carry the truth to the dark recesses of the human soul.  Formidable callings.

I recall arguing once with a conservative friend who was angered by the Church's stance toward undocumented Mexicans, its insistence on providing assistance to those within our borders illegally.  I quite agreed that yes, as a society we face serious problems resulting from the huge disparities in opportunity and freedom that drive people to come into our country at almost any cost.

But the Church, represented in this case by the Bishop of Los Angeles, is doing exactly what it is called to do and in fact, cannot do otherwise and remain faithful to its calling.  That phrase from Isaiah--when you see them--put things in stark relief.

I wrote the other day about the yes, buts that overtake me when I ponder how best to deal with social issues that set conservatives and liberals at each other's throats.  If there's one thing I've learned in life it's that you get more of whatever behavior you reward, which leads to some serious problems for society as a whole over time (and for the individual, too, and pretty darned quick).

Some people who work with the homeless beg us not to give money to panhandlers because we're enabling them, and I suspect they're right: If the panhandlers got no reward for their behavior, they'd move on to something else, maybe even something better.

But we see them, standing there on the corner.  Usually I pass them by, making a mental note to send a check to St. Vincent de Paul or Mary House Catholic Worker.  But this week, the cold has been so extreme, so bitter, when I encountered one old man on a corner, his eyes streaming from the north wind, I couldn't believe he was out there, and I really didn't care what he'd done or not done to wind up there.

I was incapable of driving past him as though I did not see him.  I whipped out a ten dollar bill and handed it to him. 

"God bless you, ma'm!" he said to me.  "I'm off this corner for tonight!  God bless you, ma'm!"

Maybe I did it for the right reasons, maybe for the wrong reasons.  If it was more to appease my conscience than concern for my fellow man, I ask God to use it for good anyway. 

And blame Fr. Larry.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Death 2, Life 3 The rest of the story

Michael and Zsa Zsa, RIP
Well, Sunday wasn't over after our sad experience with the hawk and our beautiful hen.  Jerry confessed that something (probably the same hawk) had also killed sweet Zsa Zsa, our sweetest and tamest hen, and said he hadn't wanted to tell me at the time. 

I think the hawk must have struck and wounded her and she sought refuge in the nesting box and died there.  We'll never know, though.  Not a speck of blood or any obvious wound.

However, we went home after getting everybody tucked inside the Chicken Hilton and Jerry made ready for his grand experiment: chocolate covered pecans.  He's talked about them for years, and we bought some on our recent trip to Fredericksburg and they disappeared suspiciously fast (not that I had anything to do with it). 

Jerry making chocolate covered pecans
Anyway, the afternoon was given over to cracking and shelling and melting and dipping.  In the midst of it all, the phone rang.  It was Anita.

"Well, guess what?" she said, "We have a little kitty."

"One?" I replied.

Yes.  It turned out that Skitty Kitty (as I call her), whom I had divined  might be in the family way, had delivered herself of a baby at 1:00 AM that morning, under the bed of a brand new weekend resident assistant staying over at the Ranch for the first time by the name of Diana.

"I heard noises under the bed, and then I heard this tiny baby kitty sound, and looked under the bed and the mama kitty was cleaning it off and it was just crying and crying," said Diana.

Skitty with her baby
Skitty appeared several months ago, emaciated and scared, and although we've all been feeding her, she was not allowed into a house because we don't have cats in the houses.  For months she wouldn't let anyone near her, and lived in the culverts of the Village.  She made the rounds of the houses at mealtimes and we all fed her.  I was amazed she'd eluded the coyotes for so long, but she was agile and wary, and those traits served her well.

When the temperature fell to the teens however, Anita asked if she could bring her inside and I said of course, if she'd go.  To leave her outside would be inhumane.  She's really bonded with the girls of Teresa House, so that was the logical house anyway.

Baby kitty seemed exceptionally large and vigorous to me.  I didn't try to pick him or her up.  I examined mama and felt two more in there, and sure enough last night they were born.  Natalie and Crystal are ecstatic.

Jerry's chocolate covered pecans

Back to the chocolate covered pecans.  They are delicious! 

But I had to tell Jerry the truth:  They look distressingly like large bugs. 

He huffed, but you can judge for yourself.

So at this point on Super Bowl Sunday the score stands at Death: 2   Life: 3.  Be not proud indeed!

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Death Comes to the Chicken Hilton

Jerry holds hen just killed by hawk
It had to happen sooner or later.

I'd just walked out of the barn to go get my camera in the car, and saw a large hawk standing on the ground just the other side of one of the garden beds.  A blizzard of tiny feathers were streaming away from his feet, caught up on the brisk southern breeze.

Jerry was over by the Chicken Hilton.

"Hawk!" I yelled, and ran toward the predator, which quickly took to the air and settled on a nearby bush. 

The audacity of that bird!  I thought. 

He'd struck not 20 feet from where Jerry was working.

Not only that, he showed no signs of leaving his kill, either.  I finally ran after him and shooed him further away, but I know where he lives--over in Sara's Garden--and I know he'll soon be back.

I hoped against hope that maybe the large buff hen I saw lying on the ground was just stunned, but no such luck.  Hawks probably don't make mistakes like that too often.

I picked her up. She was so warm.  Her pretty head drooped loosely, the neck neatly snapped.  If only I'd come out of the barn 30 seconds before!

I walked over to the Hilton, put the hen on the back of Jerry's cart, and helped him coop up the rest of the chickens.  They were rattled and skittish, and it took a while to get them in.

Guess we'll have to have a chicken shepherd from now on when we let them out to roam.  A new job description to write!

It's a little death, I guess, but Jerry and I were talking just yesterday about how much sheer fun the chickens are, what joy they bring, and how much joy they seem to get from their simple little lives.

Not to mention the eggs.

Well, if He knows when the sparrows fall, He knows when the chickens fall, too.  He cares about the hawk no less, and in the end we shall all be delivered into a mightier hand.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Appropriations Time

We're living through parlous times at the Ranch. 

The Texas Legislature is in session, something that happens every other year, and is usually a target of political cartoonists and an occasion for jokes about lawyers and politicians.

The mood's a bit more somber this year, however.  Like other states, we have our tail in a crack, and since we're a really big state, it's a really big tail, and it really hurts.

Senate Bill 1 was revealed about a week ago, and some of its provisions suggested cuts to human services, including those with IDDs, in the realm of 29-47%.  Oh no, Mr. Bill!  (Specifically, SB1)

For most providers, if things were to settle out there, it would answer the question of, "How do I cope?"  The answer would be, "I don't.  I go out of business and do something else with my life."

Jerry and I wrote testimony to be delivered at the SB 1 hearings having to do with programs and agencies that serve people with IDDs.  I walked into the hearing and immediately recognized half the room--parents of kids we've known forever, providers, advocates, support group representatives, and lots and lots of people currently receiving services, many in wheelchairs.

As I walk in, I recognize the woman giving testimony.  She's the mom of a young man who was brutally damaged in infancy by a babysitter.  I have known this woman for years, not well, but aware from a distance of her struggles in the disastrous period following her baby's injury, through her divorce and her ex-husband's suicide.  Through the legal proceedings, and eventually the perpetrator's suicide.  I have long marveled from afar at the sheer courage it took for her to build a noble and honorable life for herself and her boy out of the splinters and shards of what remained.

Now her son is grown.  She depends upon a government program to help her care for him.  It has made the difference between simply going on living and having a good life.

Someone asked me recently, "Why should the government be responsible for your daughter?"  It wasn't asked in a hostile manner.  It's a good question.  Why, indeed?

And it's the question at the very heart of many of our political Gordian knots.  You think you have a firm grip on an opinion, and you tease out a strand, and you follow it back, and you realize, "Whoa!  I didn't know this was going to wind up there!"

I at least seem invariably to wind up in a maze of yes, buts.  I can only imagine being a legislator and having to reconcile reality with the testimony given by my friend.  Whatever whoever did that wound us up in this pickle may be important to know, but it doesn't help figure out what to do now.

What then shall we do?

Friday, February 4, 2011

Someplace Warm Like Texas!

Teresa House early this morning
Jerry keeps threatening to move "someplace warm, like Texas!" 

We're having a snow day here at the Ranch, after three days of highs under freezing (including two in the 20s for heaven's sake!)

Mike on his way to the Pavilion
The Ranchers love it, of course, as long as it's inside and involves movies and, hopefully, hot chocolate. 

This morning there was about an inch of snow on the ground, with ice underneath.  The wind was still blowing strong from the north, and the temperature was in the teens, so we told the staff to stay home and the Ranchers, too.

Casey came in anyway.  "What if my Virginia friends discovered I'd stayed home because of an inch of snow?" she said.

Jerry and I were up at 5:30 this morning and anxious as kids to see how much snow we'd gotten.  Jerry hustled off to check on the various animals and I made coffee and ate breakfast, then wrapped myself in my Mrs. Beaver greatcoat and headed out to take pictures of this amazing event at first light.

First I needed to check the chicks.  They were still in the coop.  Usually when the little little door is opened they come charging out, ready to take on the day.  Today, though, they stood perplexed, clearly baffled by that white stuff.

Now this is something new!
Finally a couple of hens ventured out, slipping on the snow and flapping their wings, looking for all the world like we do when we're about to take a tumble.  That was that!  Back they headed into the warmth of the coop.

I went back to the house and busied myself making chili for tonight's supper.  Now the sun is shining and the snow is melting fast.  I try to remind myself that just last Saturday we were all soaking up the rays on the beach in Cozumel.  Changes in latitude, but hopefully no changes in attitude.

Jerry's already planting seeds right and left in anticipation of spring.  We'll have a few more cold snaps, maybe even another deep freeze, but soon enough winter 2011 will be a thing of the past, and we'll be bracing for the summer heat. 

In Texas, we've got it all.  Enjoy the pictures taken this morning before the thaw.

Fancy Pants & Friends

Lodge Road

The Learning Center

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Day 2: A Day at Sea

Well, we got settled into our cabins.  This year the luggage arrived quickly at our cabins, so we did not have to spend arrival day explaining where it was.  The Ranchers do not like to be separated from their possessions!

Unfortunately, I was not assigned seating with our main group, who were far away in another section of the dining room.  Poor Ashley was assigned a different time and a completely different dining room, and no amount of cajoling or explaining that she was responsible for four handicapped ladies resulted in any changes.  Fortunately, at least one member of our assigned table failed to show up each sitting, so she camped out against the rules, causing a bit of consernation to the staff, but not enough to get us ejected from the dining room!

Dancing on the Deck
In the morning I hung out with Kelly and Sterling, and a spontaneous dance party broke out on the stage of the Lido deck. 

Julia, Suzanne, and Brent take a whirl
Chris dances with mom, Heidi