Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Welcome back Nana and Grampa Bill!

It feels like ages since our last visitor. In truth, it's been at least six months. We know that spring and summer are the best times to visit Scotland. But c'mon, people, spread out your love!

Anyway, a hearty welcome to Nana and Grampa Bill, who will arrive after flights from North Carolina. They should be here within hours. We've been anxiously awaiting their visit for weeks, and are looking forward to some quality parent and grandparent time.

I'm so far behind in my posting that I've never gotten around to writing about their last visit, this past September. I've yet to write posts about our travels with them, such as to the Isle of Skye, or the ruins of Melrose Abbey.

Never free from his many responsibilities, Jack takes a call at the ruins of Melrose Abbey.
Dinner in Portree on the Isle of Skye.
Indeed, I have dozens of travel posts still to write. And now we'll be generating more material, with travels in Scotland and a trip to Paris. Damn. It's a tough life.

Not that I've been particularly active in posting recently, but as you might imagine, having house guests and sightseeing likely will slow me even further. I'll do my best to get a little bit written, however.

Recently, Jackson has decided he prefers his momma over boring Dad. The baby books tell me this is a normal phase, and eventually the pendulum will swing toward me. For now, though, Kate is his first, second, and third choice for waking him up, getting food, going to the playground, going to bed, and so on. {Ed.'s note: This has some advantages for Dad.} Currently, I'm a distant afterthought, unless she's not around, in which case I am deemed acceptable. With the arrival of Grampa Bill and Nana -- two of his favorite people, along with Grammar, his other grandmother -- I'm certain my rank on the totem pole will slip even further.

Calvin and Hobbes, the greatest comic there ever was, or ever will be.
Will the grandparents eclipse even Kate? We'll see . . . .

I hope the neighbors enjoyed his marching and drumming phase.
Giggles with Grampa Bill.

Monday, April 28, 2014

A boy and his cat

Jackson is not pleased with Ellington lying on the train tracks.
Blood. Tears. Mayhem. That's how it would end.

They were across the room. I could see Jack's windup. He wasn't moving in slow-motion life's not a genre of fanboy stylized violence, like a Tarantino film but in real time. Even if I had foreseen the danger, I'm not fast enough to stop a blow from 30 feet away.

He's two. He possesses neither impulse control, nor judgment, nor proportion. Although he is learning the rules of life, of civility, gentleness, kindness, affection, consequences, he's not mastered any of them. (Do any of us?) This tabula rasa has only faint etchings.

We draw boundaries and Jack scribbles right over them. It's not that he's naughty; he's quite well-behaved, for a toddler. But most lessons are absorbed by doing and experiencing.

Caution him against standing on the edge of the couch? He won't believe you until he slips off.

Warn him of the dangers of sipping Mommy's extra hot tea? He'll taste it to see how hot.

Discuss the perils of holding Mattie's leash and then trying to get her to run? Faceplant.

Jackson knows he's supposed to be gentle with our dog and cat. Light petting. Hug them but not too tightly. They don't like it when their tails are yanked. Nope, not even one time. Giving them a ~boop~ on the nose will not be well received. Our cat won't appreciate you trying to lift his back feet while he's drinking. Fastballing a treat at the exuberant dog is not how we reward her for coming inside from the rain.

He knows to be gentle. And he is, nearly all the time. Which is why this incident would be so upsetting, so hard to help him understand why Ellington would lash out. Jackson likes to remark that Ellington is his "baby." Ellington has grown accustomed to the full-body embrace, endures the weight of Jackson's head and torso as the boy uses the cat as a pillow. He puts up with more than his fair share of clumsy toddler love.

Cat pillow.
Some contact, though, is just too hard, too startling, too emasculating for a cat especially a slightly crazy cat to endure. How do you explain to a two year old that the streaming blood from gashes on his face was a somewhat foreseeable outcome of his thunderous blow?

If you believe the paradigm of fight or flight, Ellington eschews the flight option. Oh, how we'd love it if Ellington would learn to . . . well, we know he won't flee, but at least stride huffily from the room. His brother, Montgomery, who died a year ago, was all flight, at barely a hint of a possibility of danger. Incongruously, Monty had no worries about Ellington. If they wrestled, or had an exceedingly rare spat, Monty invariably triumphed over his sibling. Those triumphs were fleeting, however, because Ellington is too dim stubborn to accept defeat.

Monty, the wimpy cat, is pleased with having defeated Ellington's assault on the top level of the cat tree.
I think stubbornness is Ellington's defining character trait. He can't accept defeat. He'll meow for food even when confronted with a full bowl. Every night he gets shooed away from Kate's water glass on the bedside table, undeterred. Arm bar him from getting into your lap and he'll try another angle, and another, and another, and damn it he'll jump to the top of the couch and walk down your chest. Ellington could flee danger, but he's too stubborn. So he must endure or fight.

Before Jackson was born, I gave serious thought to an exit plan for Ellington. I knew he'd struggle to adjust to a baby. A newborn who sleeps a lot and lacks locomotion? Not a problem. But a baby who squeals and crawls and grabs, that's a gamechanger. Accordingly, in my game planning, I thought perhaps Jack's grandparents would take one for the team and accept the cat to protect the baby. Or failing that, we have some crazy cat lady cat-loving friends you know who you are who might've been willing to take on an extra furball.

Kate wouldn't deign to entertain the thought, of course. Ellington would have to learn and adjust. But I had some doubts about how safe a baby would be with Ellington around. A short-fused bomb, just awaiting ignition.

This is a cat that won't only hiss or swipe at a dog he doesn't know. He doesn't merely fight back in self defense. No, he goes on the offensive. Catches sight of the dog as his prey, locks on target, and launches himself. A full frontal attack, with teeth and claws. One time my apologies to our friends Erin and Mickey he leaped onto a dog's back, held on with four clawed feet, and tried to bite the dog's neck. If I hadn't been nearby to tear Ellington off, I'm not quite sure how it might've ended.

After that incident, we've kept all dogs out of the house, or at least locked Ellington into an upstairs room if a dog came to visit. We've had dogs in the backyard, and Ellington has crashed repeatedly against glass doors trying to vanquish the intruders.


We know some folks look askance at our getting a purebred dog. But we already had a rescued bird, an Australian rainbow lorikeet. And we rescued Ellington and Monty as kittens from a cat hoarder. When we decided to get a dog, we knew we wanted a double-coated breed that would have a better chance at surviving any attack by Ellington. We also wanted to raise a puppy from a very young age, so the puppy would be trained to be cautious and respectful around cats, especially Ellington. As a bonus, Mattie was born into a household with cats and from her birth was already accustomed to careful interaction with cats.

How could Ellington not love this new puppy?
The rainbow lorikeet, Fruit Loop.
Mattie's introduction to our household was exceedingly cautious. We let the cats get acquainted to her smell for a night before they ever saw her. Then we let the calm cat, Monty, meet the new puppy, and then Ellington had a chance to sniff Monty. In the first meeting between new puppy and Ellington, they were both locked in crates a short distance apart. Then we would let one out to sniff. The exuberant puppy was too excited to meet Ellington, of course, and Ellington's response, of course, was to try to lash out (but blocked by the crate door, of course).

Over time, we would let them both out in the house, but separated by a baby gate. And slowly but surely, as Ellington grew acclimated, he mellowed toward Mattie. For a long time, whenever we left the house, we'd place Mattie in a large dog crate in a corner, so that if need be she could cower out of reach of any attack by Ellington.

For all our worry, Ellington tried to swipe at Mattie only a couple of times. (At least, to our knowledge.) He came away with nothing more than a few tufts of hair score one for the double-coated dog! After a year or two, we felt confident enough to leave Mattie out in the house alone with Ellington, and have never had any suspicion of an altercation.

To our great relief, Ellington is wonderful with Jackson. It helped, we think, that he first learned to adjust to Mattie. A young dog and a toddler have many similarities energy, playfulness, sudden movement and volume, inquisitiveness, and so on and as Jackson progressed from a stationary infant to an exploring baby to a mobile toddler, Ellington didn't have as much fear or worry as he might have had otherwise. For a while, Ellington kept his distance. We'd have to pick him and plop him down in front of the baby to let Jack have a look and grab a chubby handful of hair. Now, Ellington is so accustomed to the cacophony of toddler life that he doesn't even stir. If a stray ball bounces on him he meows but doesn't move. He'll allow Jackson to stack items on him, like stuffed animals or hats.

Just for good measure, even a hairband on the ear.
How many hats does your cat wear?
Still, the violence in Ellington lies latent. We don't let him encounter many dogs, so it's hard to judge whether, at age 14, he'd still go on the attack. But we're always mindful and cautious. On a couple of occasions, when pushed to his limits, Ellington has uttered a grumpy meow and very slowly tapped Jackson on the cheek with a soft paw. For his part, Jackson dutifully obeys these warnings.

And then came the blow to the head.

As a rule, getting hit in the head with an orange Little Tikes dump truck will not be gentle. When the deliverer of the blow doesn't have quite the coordination to control the force, it's going to hurt more. Combined with a stumble forward and loss of balance, the impact goes from a bonk to a thwack.

It was mostly an innocent strike. Jackson was excited. He wanted to show his "baby" his truck: "See this truck, Ellington? It goes vroom!"

The truck smashed Ellington's head, pounded it down and to the side. I heard the thump. Felt it, from a distance. Jackson's momentum carried him face-to-face with Ellington. Retaliation would be swift, a perfunctory hiss followed by multiple slashes with claws. In a flash, I envisioned Ellington jumping onto Jackson's back and going for his neck.

<<< Blood. The scream. Tears. The second strike. More blood . . . >>>

But Ellington didn't flinch. Didn't flick his tail. Didn't make a sound.

Instead, he started purring. Purring.

What the f---?

The cognitive dissonance was too strong for me. I couldn't believe it. I waited, thinking the strike had been so fast that Jackson didn't notice at first. Any moment now. Here come the tears.

And then, slowly, came the realization that Ellington would endure almost anything from Jackson. Perhaps Ellington realized it was an accident. Possibly he has relaxed in old age. Or maybe the impact threw him for a loop.

No bloody gashes. No tears.

Whatever his reasons, Ellington acquiesces to all of Jackson's ministrations, whether gentle or rough, loud or soft. Jackson gets a free pass. Not only does he permit Jack to bother him, he seeks out the kid for attention. Pushes himself into the toddler chaos, ready to endure a bonk if it means getting affection, too.

I did not foresee this.

The aforementioned orange dump truck.
I still have my occasional misgivings. Flashes of worry. But I no longer rush to the scene of an encounter between them. The bond between the boy and his cat is so strong that knock on wood I don't think an instance of blood, tears, and mayhem would rip it asunder.

Not even an orange dump truck.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Coquettish spring

Spring has sprung, at last.

Although flowers have been blooming for more than a month, the trees are just now sprouting leaves. Temperatures during the day are warming into the upper 50s, which in Scotland means coats are off and some folks are even wearing shorts. Four of our last five days have had sunshine for most or all of the day and daylight lasts more than 14 hours.

I shouldn't say spring has sprung. That implies it's suddenly springlike, which isn't right. Springtime here is a slow burn, teasing, tempting, flashing a smile and demurely lowering her eyes. Spring has been tantalizing us, seducing us, for weeks now. Until the last few days, she's mostly been raising her petticoat and exposing her ankles. Now, it seems, she's ready for her miniskirt.

Kelvingrove Museum on Monday.
Accordingly, we've been spending a lot more time outdoors. Long walks with the dog, multiple daily visits to playgrounds, kicking footballs {Ed.'s note: that's "soccer balls" to you 'Muricans}, in and out of the backyard twenty or thirty times per afternoon. Other folks are behaving similarly; parks and playgrounds are overrun.

Jack and I weren't the only ones who thought it would be a nice day to visit the park.
This past weekend we spent a couple of hours at the veterinary school's annual "rodeo," an event for the public to come onto its grounds for animal performances, charity tents, pony rides, animal rescue groups, petting zoos, and so on. Which animal did Jackson like best, the horses, dogs, ferrets, birds, rats, or alpacas? The guy in a horse costume, of course.

Not pleased by the crowd of onlookers.
Your favorite one? Really?
A couple of weeks ago I wrote about our local swans on the Forth & Clyde canal. Kate's excellent walk to work research reveals the momma swan has nine nine! eggs for this clutch.

That's a whole lotta eggs.
Our upcoming docket is getting crowded. If the weather stays nice and we've got energy, we plan to take a day trip this Friday to the nearby Isle of Bute. Two weeks from today, my parents will arrive for a three week visit, during which time we'll all make a trip to Paris. And a few weeks after they leave one of Kate's sisters, Rachel, and her family will arrive for a visit.

Our chilly spring probably seems amusing to those of you in warmer climes. I've been hearing about temperatures on the East Coast of the States this week in the 80s Fahrenheit. It's all about your perspective. Here's Jackson yesterday evening, with the temperature in the upper 40s:

Spring construction has begun.
Your spring, apparently, is a harlot. Ours, a coquette.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Sagrada Família — Passion Facade

Passion Facade of the Sagrada Familia
Passion Facade of the Sagrada Família.
Where the Nativity Facade's exuberance and profusion seeks to charm the viewer, the severe and barren Passion Facade offers misery. Six bone-like columns support a sharply angular pediment. Four stark bell towers rise toward the sky, marked with emaciated apostles. Recessed within the shadowy archivolts beneath the pediment are austere statues depicting the betrayal, torture, and crucifixion of Jesus.

Repairs of the Passion Facade of the Sagrada Familia
The facade is undergoing repairs.
Architect Antoni Gaudí knew he wouldn't live to see the Passion Facade built, much less the cathedral as a whole. Though he provided detailed blueprints and sketches for the completion of the cathedral, some were lost in fires during the Spanish Civil War. Today's architects, builders, and artists have proceeded since Gaudí's death by trying to honor his vision for the building, but controversy erupts periodically when elements of the cathedral are revealed. Of course, even Gaudí's vision for the building evolved over the decades he spent working on the building, so who can really know what Gaudí might envision with today's technological capability?

Gaudí's sketch for the Passion Facade
Gaudí's sketch for the Passion Facade.
Part of the vibrancy of a visit to the Sagrada Família cathedral comes from the bustle of construction. Stones are carved, cranes are swinging, and workers are clambering. This is not an ancient project. It is a monument one of the modern world's wonders being built right now. You visit in the midst of an historic achievement, not decades or centuries later. Imagine Paris, in 1889, for the erection of the Eiffel Tower. Or Istanbul, from 532 to 537, as the Hagia Sophia went up. Or Athens, from 447 BC to 432 BC, as the Parthenon was completed.

Stone cutting machine at the Sagrada Familia
Stones now are precisely cut by machines, vastly speeding up the building process. I kinda wish they were still carved by hammer and chisel.
Cranes rising above the apse of the Sagrada Familia
Cranes rise above the apse of the cathedral.
Crypt of the Sagrada Família
The crypt houses an extensive museum about the cathedral.
Plaster model of the Sagrada Familia
A craftsman works on the painstaking details for a plaster model of the cathedral.
The Sagrada Família will become has become the building for which Barcelona is known. Just as the iconic Eiffel Tower and Parthenon represent France and Greece to the world, I think the Sagrada Família will represent all of Spain.

Eventually, the cathedral's main entrance will be the Glory Facade on the south side of the building. A nine-story apartment building across the street will be torn down to allow a grander entrance and better view. The Glory Facade is still under construction. If all goes according to plan, the facade and the entire cathedral will be completed in 2026, the hundredth anniversary of Gaudí's death.

For now, visitors to the cathedral enter through the Passion Facade. Construction began in 1954. The four bell towers were finished in 1976. Catalan sculptor Josep Maria Subirachs started work on the facade's sculptures in 1986; he completed them in 2005.

As with the Nativity Facade and the (future) Glory Facade, each of the Passion Facade's four bell towers bears an apostle. The statues reflect the nature of this facade. They are severe; gaunt; tortured physically, mentally, emotionally. Here are two of the four:

Carving of Apostle Bartholomew on Passion Facade, Sagrada Familia
The apostle Bartholomew is often depicted with a knife because, according to one tradition, he was skinned alive and then beheaded. This Bartholomew appears to lack skin, as well.
Carving of Doubting Thomas on the Passion Facade, Sagrada Família
Doubting Thomas is depicted pointing to his palm. Thomas questioned Jesus's resurrection until he saw the crucifixion wounds.
Echoing the figures on the bell towers, at the bottom center of the facade is a statue of Jesus tied to a pillar for whipping.

Carving of Jesus's flagellation, Passion Facade, Sagrada Familia
The pain from flagellation. The bronze doors, with 8,000 letters, bear text from the New Testament about the Passion.
Unlike the Nativity Facade, where each of the three portals tells its own story, the portals of the Passion Facade are united by a version of the Via Crucis. Starting at the bottom left and proceeding upward in an S-shape, Subirach's sculptures tell the story of Jesus's path from the Last Supper through to being taken down from the cross and buried. Subirach's version of these "Stations of the Cross" is his own and does not strictly follow either the medieval or modern versions of the Via Crucis.

Unfortunately, during our visit, part of the Passion Facade was covered by nets and scaffolding, so we couldn't see some of the sculptures. {Ed.'s note: A good reason to go back for another visit!} But here are scenes we could see:

Carving of Judas's kiss on the Passion Facade, Sagrada Familia
Judas's kiss; note the serpent behind Judas. The number grid always adds up to 33, the age of Jesus when he died rows left to right; columns top to bottom; diagonals; four corners; four middle squares; four quadrants; middle squares on top row with middle squares on bottom row; middle squares on left column with middle squares on right column. Can you find any more permutations?
Carvings of Peter's denial on Passion Facade
Peter's denial. The women symbolize Peter's denials about knowing Jesus, made to a serving girl and others. Jesus wears a shroud, a metaphor for denial.
Jesus with a crown of thorns, Passion Facade, Sagrada Familia
Ecce homo ("Behold the man"). Jesus is presented to the crowd with a crown of thorns. Note the column in the background that says "Tiberius," the name of the Roman emperor when Jesus was crucified.
Carving of Pontius Pilate washing his hands
Pontius Pilate washes his hands to signify to the crowd that he is innocent of spilling Jesus's blood and not responsible for his execution.
Three Marys and Simon of Cyrene, Passion Facade
The Three Marys and Simon. When Jesus collapses while carrying the cross, Simon of Cyrene is told to carry the cross for him.
In the next scene, Subirachs pays homage to Gaudí's own sculptural style. A famous Modernisme building Gaudí designed, Casa Milà, has its rooftop punctuated with chimney tops that look like soldiers standing guard:

Helmeted sentinels on the rooftop of Casa Milà
Helmeted sentinels stand guard on the rooftop of Casa Milà.
Compare those chimneys with Subirach's Roman soldiers depicted below:

Veronica and the hollow-face image of Jesus, Passion Facade, Sagrada Familia
Veronica wipes the brow of Jesus. Touched by pity, Veronica offers her veil to Jesus. When he wipes his face, an imprint of his face is left on the veil. (Sculpted here as a hollow-face image.) The figure on the far left is a/the Evangelist who will tell the story of Jesus, which Subirachs carved in the likeness of Antoni Gaudí in old age.
Carving of crucifixion and death of Jesus, Passion Facade, Sagrada Família
Crucifixion and death. The iron cross protrudes parallel to the ground, to accentuate the hanging stature for the view from below. Jesus's head is presented as the pages of a book, representing the word of God. The painted red "I" symbolizes the Latin acronym INRI (Iēsus Nazarēnus, Rēx Iūdaeōrum, "Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews"). The orb in the top right is a moon, and the skull at bottom center represents Golgotha (Aramaic for "skull"), also known as Calvary (Latin calva means "bald head" or skull).
Jesus is prepared for burial by Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus on the Passion Facade
Jesus is prepared for burial by Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus.
Golden soul of Jesus ascends to heaven on the Passion Facade, Sagrada Familia
The golden soul of Jesus ascends to heaven between the towers. Despite weighing several thousand pounds.
The central portal of the Passion Facade on the Sagrada Familia
The central portal. Between the doors (above the pillar with Jesus) is an alpha and omega.
The facade's pediment and supporting arches are designed to cast afternoon shadows on the portals below it. My pictures were taken in the morning, with the sun on the opposite (i.e., eastern) side of the building, so they don't do justice to the light/dark dichotomy some say chiaroscuro of the facade.

The Passion Facade is a grim aspect of the cathedral, a foil to the profusion and (mostly) happy scenes on the Nativity Facade. This facade reflects its subject matter and takes its job seriously. No gargoyles or fanciful beasts lighten the mood. The actions depicted are those of men. The pain is human. Gaudí was a devout Catholic who wanted to portray the angst and misery of the Passion without flinching.

On a lighter note, across the street from the Passion Facade is a tree-filled square with benches and a playground. If you're stuck in a long line to get into the cathedral even in November, the hour-long line stretched halfway around the building you might be able to occupy wee ones in the playground while you wait. Or, like us, it's a great place to pause and unwind after serious touristing within the cathedral.

View of the Passion Facade of the Sagrada Familia from the playground
A playground with a view.
Climbing set in the playground
A climbing set for the older kids.
Another view of the Passion Facade on the Sagrada Família
Kid, go play. We'll sit here and marvel at the cathedral.
Happy on the swing

In an upcoming post, I'll finally show you the inside of this amazing cathedral.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Morning at the Loch Lomond aquarium

Jackson and I spent our Monday morning at a little aquarium on the shore of Loch Lomond. Run by a company (Sea Life) that owns 35 aquariums in Europe and the United States, the Loch Lomond aquarium is worth a visit only if you're a local. As a tourist, you wouldn't bother it's small and has no real draw or attraction that would merit your time. And if you want to visit an aquarium in Scotland, your first choice likely would be the national aquarium, Deep Sea World, in Edinburgh.

That said, the Loch Lomond aquarium is pleasant and friendly. While their collection of species is unimpressive, they've worked hard to present it well and show it in the best light possible. They have a short ocean tunnel to wander through, some otters to watch play, and a rooftop view of the lake. It's worth a couple of hours of time for your kid(s), and the outdoor mall surrounding the aquarium offers tourist shops and some pleasant cafes. Make sure to buy your tickets online, which are 30% cheaper than at the door (and kids under age 3 are free).

Entrance to the aquarium.
The aquarium sits on the shore of Loch Lomond.
Jackson was so excited to visit he ran in without taking off his coat.
Fish from the loch.
The aquarium has three otters.
We spent more time at the otters than anywhere else.
Jackson loved this view.
I have to admit, I crawled in and looked around, too.
Not so much from you.
Jellyfish again! We stopped at this tank multiple times.
The aquarium's cafe and rooftop terrace look over the lake.
As a family, we're big fans of aquariums. Our visit to the Loch Lomond aquarium was underwhelming, partly because of its small size and partly because its offerings aren't all that exciting. Moreover, the last aquarium we visited, in Barcelona, was one of Europe's best; just about any aquarium was going to pale in comparison.

But it was a nice way to spend a rainy morning. It's less than 30 minutes from our house in Glasgow. This summer we'll be spending some days on the loch, picnicking, hiking, and taking a tour boat to some of the islands. The aquarium will be a fun and quick stop during a day at the loch.