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Chapter 16: The Handkerchief

Are we ever going to get a bed and a table to eat at and chairs around the table? Coyote laughs at us, the cheeky bastard, for putting our money down what he considers a rathole. But tomorrow, September first, we're going to exercise my entire stock option, at approximately the same moment that the company's 10-Q report is filed with the SEC detailing, among other things, ``significant corporate developments'', and we, the Xylogen team, load five tons of polyterephthalate pellets on a common carrier for shipment to a fabric mill. Three vats have the new bugs now and they've been busy, particularly after I ran a hydrodynamic simulation and discovered why the carbon dioxide wasn't bubbling through the oobleck evenly. We lions are also going to buy Xylogen shares on the open market. We won't make the profit we did on the stock we got in lieu of pay, during college, but we're guessing that when the institutional fund managers read the 10-Q, during the day, Xylogen stock will go up at least thirty percent.

Me: Hey, Coyote, does your madre know how to cook a turkey? I feel like having an end of summer celebration.

Coyote: Sure, Madre can cook turkey. You want a lesson from her? Do we get some? I'm turning into a skeleton on one chicken leg a week.

That last comment is purely to solicit sympathy; Coyote has put on noticeable mass over the summer. Maria comes over to our house and we get the lesson. Coyote staggers back from the grocery store with a frozen bird (on our budget) while Mariposa carries the rest of the fixings, including a fat acorn squash to make pie, which the kids cook, while Tiger, Maria and I prepare the bird. We roast it at our place, on our energy bill, but when it's done we carry it over to the Solano apartment, and we also invite Mrs. Fisher. It's crowded but at least there's a table.

Tiger: Hey, Coyote, don't forget the bones. You kids should be able to chew up the rib bones. Simba, you want to split the breast bone with me? Let me get my face in there and bite it off. I promise not to drip saliva on the meat.

Coyote: Wow, that's good! I'd almost forgotten what meat tastes like. Tiger, you have turkey bits on your muzzle.

Mariposa: Didn't Madre make the stuffing good?

Tiger: Yes, that's real lion food.

Maria coughs and discreetly spits it out in her paper napkin, folding it. But my sharp eyes spot bright red.

Coyote: You know what this reminds me of? The meal they feed to a guy just before they put him in the chair. I'm thinking about school.

Me: I think both you kids are doing pretty well on the lion disc. If you don't mind talking about bad news... What's different about human school that gave you so much trouble?

Coyote: Everything! Don't glare at me. First, when I don't understand something I can go back and do it again or have the machine give me more problems like it. In school if you miss it it's gone, and you have to go on to the next thing which of course you can't do because you missed the first one. The teacher probably will do it again the next day, over and over, boring, but by then you've forgotten and I'm sick of looking like an idiot anyway, so I mouth off and get punished. At least I look good to my friends. Wait, there's more. We have lots of interaction with the teacher. That means he makes you screw up a problem with the whole class listening and laughing, and then you get to listen to the next kid screw up, which is entertaining but you don't learn the math or whatever it is, and even the smarter kids get only a little bit each day, and the rest is spent listening to the dumb Mexicans make themselves look like dumb Mexicans. I know I'm doing lion lessons in math that probably the second graders have just finished, but I can do them all the time, and I can finish them without everyone laughing at me, and maybe next month I'll be doing third grade.

Maria: Do finish school, Javier. Please, really try, for your Madre. It's the only way out of the kinds of jobs your padre and I have to do. Promise me?

Coyote: Yeah. Really, I'm doing the best I can. With the lion disc maybe I can get from F's to D's. Thanks, Simba, for telling me where we could buy the computer.

Mariposa: I like the lion disc because they never yell at you, and they tell you how to do things. Nobody ever told me how to read. I just went along with what the other kids were doing, and I kind of got the idea, but reading the lion lessons was really hard for me and I had to go over them again and again slow, until you showed us the lesson list and I started doing the reading lessons. I want to be able to just look at the words and know what they say, and I'm working on that in the reading lessons, but even without that I can read a lot better now. Maybe I'll do better next year in school. I hope so.

Me: If you two keep working on the lion lessons, certainly it will transfer to human school work. And I'm very proud of what the Lion Foundation, including the lion people, have done on that disc.

Mrs. Fisher: I'm glad to see young people getting themselves an education. So much energy is wasted, sometimes. I'm just about done with my turkey. I've never had squash pie; I'm looking forward to trying it.

Me: Sure you've had it: pumpkin pie. It's not the season for pumpkins and this is just with a different kind of squash. Has everyone stuffed as much turkey as they want? Then let's eat the pie.

Even with two hungry kids attacking the bird, we've finished only about half of it. After we eat the pie I slice up the remaining turkey into sandwich meat and press it on Mrs. Fisher and Maria, keeping only a small amount for ourselves since we take only a little meat at each meal. Maria also gets the bones that we and the kids didn't eat, because there are a lot of little bits of meat still on them and she can turn them into a nutritious soup. The kids begin washing the eating plates, while we will take the turkey platter and pie pan back to our house, where the other cooking pots and mixing bowls await cleaning. But before leaving I need to talk with Maria.

Me: Thanks so much, Maria, for letting us eat at your place. We still haven't been able to work a table and chairs into our budget.

Maria: Oh, I should be thanking you! Did you see how the kids enjoyed the food? I think they're going to burst.

Me: Sometimes I regret that lion people can't stuff like that. I'm happy for them. But there's something I noticed that I'd like to bring up. How long have you been coughing blood?

Maria: You noticed? I'm, I'm... It's been for about a month now. I'm worried about it.

Me: So am I. I worked at the hospital to pay for my college. I'm not a doctor but I learned some stuff. I think you should get medical attention.

Maria: But how could I pay? And I'd have to take time off work. I'm paid hourly: no hours, no pay.

Me: You have a small reserve left over from selling El Oso's truck, and you've been putting a little of your surplus into reserves each month. Medical problems are what reserves are for. I believe the county provides low cost health service for poor people. Let's put Coyote and Mariposa to work finding out how to get that. They can use my machine; it's high time they learned to surf the internet. Will you see a doctor? I can go with you.

Maria: But I don't want you to take time off work just for me.

Me: My work schedule is flexible; some of my job can be done any time, so I won't actually be taking time off. Deal?

Maria: OK. Thank you, Simba, you're a good friend.

The first is a big day for me, and both Maria and I want to notify our bosses that we will be out for the clinic visit, so the doctor visit will be on the second. Starting just before six, we probe the Xylogen web site for the updated 10-Q. The automatic program at the SEC web site posts their copy less than a minute after Xylogen does, and that's constructive notice of our ``significant corporate development''. I mail in my option exercise order together with an electronic check for the discount price, while Tiger logs in to our brokerage and places the market order, although it won't be filled until the market opens in about an hour. Then we do our regular exercises, chattering greedily (as we shouldn't) about hoped-for profit. We eat promptly and make it to work only a few minutes late.

In the afternoon I hunt up Coyote and Mariposa and ask them to come over to our house.

Me: Tomorrow your madre and I are going to the county clinic.

Coyote: Yeah, what's wrong with her? She complains about aches and pains, but she seems OK.

Mariposa: I've seen blood on her handkerchief. Is she sick?

Me: When you're spitting up blood, it's not good. I don't want to guess what's wrong with no data beyond the blood. What I wanted to talk to you about is this. When we come home from the clinic tomorrow, she may or may not know what the problem is. Don't make it harder for her. Don't jump on her and say, Madre, Madre, are you going to die? Let her tell you when she's ready, in her own way. OK?

Coyote: Sure, I'm not dumb. What's this about dying?

Me: I was just using that as an example. But I have to tell you, some diseases can't be cured. Think about it.

Coyote: I am thinking and I don't like the answer I'm getting. What would happen to us?

Me: You can use my machine to hunt for an answer like you two did yesterday to find the health clinic. You want to do it now?

It takes some digging to figure out the right question to ask and to follow the county's links to the answer, but what it boils down to is, unless there were relatives who would take them in, which Coyote says there aren't, Coyote and Mariposa would most likely be placed with a foster family, likely separately. They wouldn't be dumped out in the street to starve, but Coyote has some pungent words for the alternative, and Mariposa is looking very worried as they go home for dinner, promising to keep their mouths shut about issues of health and future. While preparation is important, and they've done some of the preparation, there's no point in responding to trouble that hasn't arrived yet and making matters worse in advance.

On the second we're on the bus at seven for a ride across town to the county hospital. This is Maria's normal morning time but I get up half an hour early to do my complete exercise and eat my proper breakfast. I bring along my laptop so possibly I can get some work done during the inevitable waiting. And both Maria and I bring lunch, not to pay ridiculous prices for inedible food. Arriving just before the public health clinic opens at eight, we get an early appointment, at nine. Quite a few people wander in as we sit, who will have to sit longer.

Maria: What will the doctor do? What do I do? I've never been to a doctor.

Me: Most of my experience was with trauma, that's people who got hurt, but your case probably will be pretty similar. The doctor will ask what's wrong, and you tell him clearly and don't hide anything. Coughing blood, and your hip, and anything else I haven't spotted.

Maria: Suppose it's, you know, woman things?

Me: Tell him. Remember when Javier and Guadalupe wanted to go on the water slide but didn't have any swim clothes? I told them it was their choice: covered and no fun, or uncovered and fun; they could choose one or the other. I think they made the right choice though others might disagree. Did disagree. Now you have a similar choice: health, or hiding woman things, whatever those are. I'm not going to force you, but I think you should force yourself: don't hide anything.

Maria: I'll try. What happens then?

Me: He or she will probably ask more questions. They might not seem related, but do your best to answer completely. I'll help you on things you don't understand.

Maria: Do you think my hip has something to do with the blood? I don't breathe with my hip.

Me: It could. The doctor really needs to know about both at the same time. Then he'll examine you. I don't know all the steps, but he certainly will listen to your breathing and he'll feel around in your belly. For me that's not fun; it tickles, and sometimes it hurts when he tries to feel all the way on the back side. Another test that I think likely is a pelvic exam, and I hope you won't be shy about that. You know your vagina, where the babies come out of?

Maria: He's going to look at my...

Me: There's a serious disease that can develop in your uterus, and if you've never seen a doctor it certainly should be checked. Tiger has that inspection every year, same as human females are supposed to. He'll stick a viewing tube up your vagina and see if your uterus is OK, and take a sample of the mucus there, which can be examined for signs of disease.

Maria: I lead a clean life. There's no need for that!

Me: We're not talking about sexually transmitted diseases. Any human female can get it. We don't know about lion females. Really, it's very important, particularly for you.

Maria: You have an idea what's happening to me?

Me: I haven't done the examination, and I'm not a doctor anyway, but I have a short list of diseases you might have. I don't want to alarm you with guesses, but one of the diseases on that list is the one that the pelvic exam detects.

Receptionist: Mrs. Solano, would you come this way please?

A nurse takes vital signs. Maria's heart rate and blood pressure are high, from nerves. We wait some more in an examining room. There's a travel poster for Deutschland on the wall with a picture of a fairy tale castle. After about fifteen minutes the doctor comes in. Despite the warning my sharp ears hear the nurse give her, she does a double take on seeing me.

Doctor: Good morning, Mrs. Solano; I'm Dr. Heather Hopkins. And your name is... ?

Me: I'm Simba Leones. Call me Simba. I'm a friend of the family, and Mrs. Solano asked me to come along and help her in an unfamiliar situation. In college I worked in a hospital emergency room.

Dr. Hopkins: Well, that will be helpful. Now, Mrs. Solano, what brings you in to the clinic?

Maria: I heard that women could be doctors, but... I've been coughing up blood, which worries me a lot. Simba told me I needed to see a doctor. My hip also pains me; Simba said to mention that. I have a pain in my belly, and much blood at certain times of the month.

Dr. Hopkins: I see. Let's start with the coughing. Here's a paper cup; could you cough something into it for me? There you go. Oh, yes, definitely blood. I'll just put a sticker on that... Now, I need to listen to your lungs. Could you lift your blouse so I can get my stethoscope under it?

Maria: Simba, I'm sorry, but... No, don't leave, just kind of turn around.

I sit on the chair backwards with my face to the wall, and I try to keep my tail curled so it won't be stepped on. Stupid human customs! But Maria has enough problems without me adding to them. She breathes. It sounds pretty normal to me.

Dr. Hopkins: Now which hip is it? Slide your dress down a little so I can feel the bones.

Maria: Ouch! It hurts there too, and there.

Dr. Hopkins: Yes, I'm afraid it does. Now lie on your back please. I'm going to palpate your internal organs. Tell me if I hit anything tender. Hmmm. Here, is this where your belly pain is?

Maria: Ow! You found it.

Dr. Hopkins: Have you ever had a pelvic exam?

Maria: No, Doctor. Simba explained it to me. It's not the kind of thing we do. My people, you know. Simba says it's important...

Dr. Hopkins: Yes, it is. In your case there's an alternative; we'd use a long needle into your belly to get a sample of tissue. That hurts more, while the pelvic exam bothers your modesty. I recommend the pelvic exam, but if you really want, we can do the biopsy.

Maria: I'll do as you and Simba say: the pelvic exam. Simba, please, you just stay facing the wall. Now, Doctor, what do I do?

They get the job done with an admirably small amount of fuss on Maria's part. I'm proud of her, and I'm sad that her reward will be very bad news. If the doctor was talking about a biopsy there has to be a target, and it has to be so big she can't possibly miss. Not good. I'm going to stonewall, to put on a show that I don't know what the doctor found.

Dr. Hopkins: OK, Mrs. Solano, that's it for the examination. You can put your clothes back on. I'd like you to have a set of X-rays and I'd also like a bone scan.

Maria: Will I have to come back tomorrow?

Me: Mrs. Solano is the sole support of two kids. Time off work means hungry bellies.

Dr. Hopkins: I'm familiar with the problem. It's early, and I think I can get you in for the bone scan and get the report back this afternoon. Let me make some calls for you. I'll be back in a moment.

So she doesn't want the patient overhearing her instructions or arguments with the radiology department. But she's back quickly.

Dr. Hopkins: I've signed you up for X-rays at eleven, and the bone scan at ten o'clock. It will take time to interpret the results, and also I want the reports on the samples I took. Could you come back at 4:30? All the reports should be in by then.

Maria: The bus is so slow. The children's dinners...

Me: Remember, Tiger and the kids will make dinner and they'll wait for us. 4:30 won't be a problem.

The bone scan begins with an injection of radioactive technetium-99m. Disturbed bone takes it up. After a short wait Maria lies on a table, moving as little as possible, for fifteen minutes while a radiation sensor tracks where the technetium went. I stay with her, and from my angle I get a good view of the computer screen. Her hip is all white, and there are also spots on her spine and on her ribs. I really don't want the kids getting split up in foster homes. By the time the sensor gets down to Maria's toes it's almost time for the X-rays, next door. There are a lot of them covering Maria's whole body, but they go faster than the bone scan. That done, we eat our sack lunches in the hospital cafeteria, then hang out until the afternoon appointment. Maria doesn't want to talk much, nor read even though I point out a Spanish magazine to her. I believe she's praying. Using my laptop machine I make some progress on analyzing data we collected on process variations in the oobleck, comparing the old and new bugs. Oops, battery's nearly empty! I put in my spare and keep working.

Receptionist: Mrs. Solano, the doctor will see you now.

In the same room Dr. Hopkins is waiting for us with the X-ray printouts, bone scan and lab reports spread out on the small writing desk.

Dr. Hopkins: Good afternoon, Mrs. Solano and Simba. Take a seat please. I'm afraid the news isn't good.

Maria, quietly: I'm going to die, aren't I? What will happen to Javier and Guadalupe?

Dr. Hopkins: There's a representative from the Department of Social Services in the building. It would be a wise and loving action to discuss your children's future with her. But I'm afraid that would have to be on another day because she closes at five. What I'd like to discuss with you now are your own treatment options.

Maria: If I'm going to die, what difference does treatment make?

Dr. Hopkins: You have metastatic cervical carcinoma. Starting from your stage, without treatment ninety percent of the patients have between two and six months left. With treatment the survival time is doubled.

Maria: If I had the treatment could I provide for my children? Would I be able to work?

Dr. Hopkins: The treatment I'm going to propose is a combination of radiation and chemotherapy. Both would make you feel sick, and likely you wouldn't feel like working. Also you would need to come in to the hospital frequently to take the treatments. The county would pay for it.

Maria: And without the treatment I wouldn't be sick, but the pain would just get worse until I died of it? It's been getting worse gradually for some time now.

Dr. Hopkins: Yes, the disease would progress. In either case there is medication that can significantly relieve your pain, and I'll give you a prescription for it today.

Maria: May I think a moment?

Dr. Hopkins and I wait patiently. A tear rolls down Maria's cheek. Then she pulls herself together in a decision.

Maria: I'm not going to lie at home sick. I'm going to continue to work as long as I can, and I'll do my best to prepare my babies to take care of themselves after I'm gone. Is that all right, Doctor?

Dr. Hopkins: I think you're very brave. Few patients decline treatment, but you're certainly not the only one.

Me: On the preparation issue, I had the kids checking the Social Services web site last night, just in case. They already know that the situation might end up bad, but I told them not to bother you until you're ready to talk to them. Also, there are some legal issues and I think the Lion Foundation's lawyer would be willing to help out.

Maria: Simba, how can I thank you? You're like a father to them. Poor Oso!

Dr. Hopkins: I'm happy to see a patient with good support, even if from an unusual source. Mrs. Solano, here's the prescription. Each pill has a small amount so you can raise the dosage gradually as the pain becomes more severe. I'm sorry the news couldn't have been better.

Maria: Thank you, Doctor. At least I know now.

Poor Maria. We get her drug at the hospital pharmacy and board the bus for the long ride home. She and the kids go to their apartment and we give them a few minutes lead time before bringing over the food, burritos and chicken legs and steamed zucchini, which have been staying warm in our microwave. They are drying their tears when we arrive.

Mariposa: Tiger and Simba, do you know what will happen to us after Madre is gone? I'm afraid.

Tiger: I'm sorry, Mariposa, but I don't know. Maybe Simba mentioned this to you already, but the Lion Foundation has a lawyer who might be able to help us find out. I'm going to send a message to her tonight. But there's something else. Did you know that there are ten lion people?

Coyote: I thought you said eight.

Tiger: I did say eight. Two died, one from an assembly error which the checking failed to catch, and one was poisoned by an antibiotic that we thought was safe for us. We've always wondered which one of us would be next, and we asked our supervisors what to do if we had to die, or if one of the other lions were dying. They showed us videos of how they handled the two kittens' death. Basically you try to be as normal as possible as long as possible. Your Madre is setting a good example for you, bravely. Now you kids shouldn't go around thinking, Madre is dying, Madre is dying; that just spoils your life and she isn't going to like that. You continue to grow, and do happy things. Understand, you don't have to be happy that your Madre is dying, but it's unbalanced to take away all your happiness because of it, and happy kids will make a happy Madre. Isn't that right?

Maria: Yes. You explain it well.

Tiger: So you're going to start the next year of school soon. Do your best, and show your Madre what you accomplish. Good and bad, just like normally. Since you've been working with the lion discs I expect you'll do better this year than last.

Coyote: Yeah, F to D like I told you. But that's an improvement and it's worth working for.

Tiger: And I expect to see good appetites for tonight's dinner, not gloomy pussies. OK?

The next Monday is the first day of school for the kids. Coyote's academic classes are all remedial, and had diagnostic tests, which Coyote says he did well at, he thinks. In phys ed his coach criticized his ill-fitting shoes, but praised him for his new physical ability and made him the temporary class leader until the class could elect one. He's proud of that, though he expects he won't win the coming popularity contest. Mariposa reports that her teacher had them write about what they did over the summer. I wish I could see the essay but that's not going to happen. A few weeks ago I showed the kids the basics of writing and how to use the writing analyzer program, and their output is better than at the start, though every day the writing analyzer complains about more than they can fix in that one day. Lion kids write every day, as apparently do Coyote and Mariposa, so fixes that don't get done the same day never get done, and it's a big milestone when we can consistently write essays that we can fully fix. That milestone is a long way off for the kids.

On Tuesday Mariposa comes home smiling while Coyote is steaming. They show up at our place before going to their own home.

Coyote: I'm so pissed! I don't want to show this face to Madre.

Me: Well, well. It looks like Mariposa has better news. Do you mind if she tells first?

Mariposa: I did two math problems at the board, correctly, which I've never done before, and the story we wrote yesterday, my teacher read it to the class and said it was very good! And! At recess some of the mean kids teased me about it and tried to poke me, and I did the defense moves you taught us, and one of them even fell down. And then I dared them to run with me and I ran them all into the ground, boys too! I like being a lion person! They don't practice and I do.

Me: That's very good! I'm so proud of you, and I'm proud of myself for teaching you. OK, Coyote, what went wrong?

Coyote: That frigging bastard! I hope he bends over and a forklift hits him and rams the fork up his ass and it comes out his mouth! You remember the test we had in math; I told you I thought I did well on it? He says the highest score in the class was 64. Then he says he wants to see me after class, so I'll be late to the next class and get in trouble there too. The asshole says I cheated! I saw my paper on his desk; the score was 72. That's a C. I've never gotten a C in math, ever, and he says I cheated! I wish I had claws; I'd hold him down and use one claw and first, very slowly, go around his balls...

Me: Really a bastard! You have a right to be angry. I'm curious; what did you say then?

Coyote: I told you what I wanted to do, but after El Oso died you talked to me about doing smart things when you're mad. So I changed my style on him; I stood up real dignified. Some of my friends were watching from the door and they said I looked really funny, not like me at all. And I said to him, Mr. Butthead -- I called him by his right name, Butchard -- I didn't cheat. And then I just looked at him. He said there's no way I could have gotten that score and he's putting it down in his gradebook as a zero. I said go ahead, but that doesn't change what I did. And I walked out on him. No wise remarks, no threats, I just walked out. He yelled at me to come back but I ignored him, and in front of my friends I just treated it like it was nothing, you know, the usual getting in trouble. But it burns me up! I'm going to make a big picture of him and borrow someone's dart set and throw darts at it. I didn't like him last year and I like him even less now.

Me: Wow, I'm as proud of you as I am of Mariposa. You're learning to be a lion, too. Hey Tiger, Tiger, in here! You just came back in time to hear what the kids did in school today.

I hug Coyote, then Mariposa. They repeat their stories for Tiger; Coyote creatively varies the ways he plans to mutilate Mr. Butthead.

Tiger: You kids did very well. And Coyote, you're smart to blow off your anger before seeing your Madre. I really don't like that your Mr. Butthead accused you of cheating when you didn't.

Coyote: Right. I told my friends that it's fair to punish me when I cheat, but not when I don't.

Tiger: I don't think your Madre is up to talking to Mr. Butthead, but suppose one of us did? I'm going to volunteer Simba, since it's easier for him to jigger his work schedule.

Coyote: You'd do that, Simba? That would scare the shit out of him!

Me: Sure. You're my friend and I'll stand up for you. He'd be gone by now, but suppose I show up tomorrow at three, in front of the school, and you show me where he is. OK? Now go on and tell your Madre, leaving off the anger. You too, Mariposa; your news is all good.

Minus the kids, Tiger gives me her news.

Tiger: First, Xylogen stock is up to 88 1/2. So far we've made five thousand virtual profit on what we invested last week and it's still rising fast. I don't even want to think about how much we made on the base stock.

Me: Almost a million virtual. This is so unreal! I can't think of actually having that much money.

Tiger: Me neither; it makes my head spin. Coyote would go out and buy his gold chain, or ten gold chains. I'm going to just go by the actual money, and buy our table and beds when we have actual funds to pay for them, which if nothing comes up will be next month. I'm getting a little tired of sitting on the floor to eat.

Me: We allocated the whole Xylogen dividend to reserves, but let's kind of recognize a little of our profit. This weekend let's buy an area rug, which will be a little softer under our butts. What do you think?

Tiger: Sure; maybe I'm being a little too anally retentive on the reserve situation. We'll get a nice rug. Next item, Ms. Donegal finally sent the details she promised about legal issues for Maria. Speaking for the Lion Foundation, she's willing to get involved, but Maria has to pay the Lion Foundation market rates for her time, which is $150 per hour. Jeez! She says that's the lowest she can charge and still get through an audit. But she says it's probably a lot better use of everyone's time and money if we do the job ourselves, and she'll look over the final product under the table and not charge us. Maria has to write a will, and Ms. Donegal pointed out several web sites with will forms that would be suitable. Even if you're broke, it's a lot better to have an explicit will than to go with the legal default. She should also write a power of attorney for health care; Ms. Donegal says she could just copy ours. Ms. Donegal suggests that we buy this book on probate, and make sure all the documents and records are ready before Maria croaks, rather than after, when we couldn't ask her stuff or get her to sign papers. Now for her last paragraph Ms. Donegal goes, if you kids are thinking about being heroes and adopting her children, give me a call for some negative advice.

Me: Are we thinking about being heroes?

Tiger: I wasn't thinking about being a hero. Generally that gets you killed.

Me: Do you think she's trying to feed us a message of some kind?

Tiger: I told her how lousy the kids' chances were, and I said I didn't like the idea that they would be stuck in some foster home or orphanage. I told her we liked them a lot, and that they were doing lion lessons with our help. Maybe she thought that implied that we planned to take them over. Her message is that she doesn't like it.

Me: I wonder why.

Tiger: So you are thinking about being a hero.

Me: I didn't say that. I can be curious without committing. But I'm going to be really sad when they go. I feel so shitty; we just made a million in the stock market...

Tiger: And I seriously doubt that money is going to solve their problem. Sure, forty bucks would buy Coyote a pair of shoes that fit, but what they need is parents who are going to be committed to them.

Me: Like in the foster family. Well... Look, I think we need to know more about what this foster business really is. The county says we place the kid with a trained and inspected loving family, while you hear rumors that are pretty bad. Probably the reality is somewhere between. Coyote and I are going to do some more web surfing tonight.

Tiger: Hold it right there! I think you're sliding into action before you have the goals and issues straight. Ms. Donegal says, or doesn't say but would say if we called, that Coyote and Mariposa are nice kids but they Aren't. Our. Problem. If you think differently I want to hear about it, before the web surfing and before anyone says a word to Coyote.

Me: You're pushing me to think stuff that maybe I shouldn't be thinking. Suppose we find that foster families are just wonderful; then obviously that's what the kids should do, and we'll be sorry to see them go, but they'll have a good life ahead of them. But suppose the foster situation isn't so hot, or even suppose it turns out to be downright bad. Let's do a little psychodrama. Maria is laying in her bed like this with her tongue sticking out, and the kids call us over, and we tell Coyote, too bad your Madre kicked off, go call the Social Services people to take you away to the foster home. I'd feel like, you know, in stories they make the villain so evil and vicious with a heart of flint, and that's exactly like I'd feel, and I really don't want to feel like that. You know scenario 53b? The awful one? None of the males ever figured a way out of that one that didn't involve shooting one or the other of the lions we were supposed to rescue, and I never heard that you beat it either. I lost weight for that scenario. I'm being reminded of 53b right now.

Tiger: I didn't say I agreed with Ms. Donegal. I'm glad to have all this out on the table, because I didn't like the situation before and I couldn't quite put my finger on why. 53b here we come. But I think we should do the research, not Coyote.

Me: It's his life; he has a right to know what he's getting into.

Tiger: Do you think you can avoid planting in his head, or Mariposa who's going to be right there watching, the idea of latching onto us? What if one of them says, oh please, Simba, please take us in?

Me: I passed 53b; we all did. I'll tell him our lawyer said it's out of the question for lions to adopt humans.

Tiger: Look, this has me all upset. After this is all over Ms. Donegal is going to have a big laugh that the sentence that was supposed to head us off, actually got us headed toward the idea of researching whether it was necessary for us to adopt the kids. I'm not hungry for dinner. Let's get Coyote over here now and get started. Tell Maria we'll feed him when we eat.

So I call up Coyote and tell him we got a reply from our lawyer, and we really need to find out more about foster homes. He comes right over, with Mariposa. Each one has a plate of burritos and Coyote has already started nibbling.

Coyote: So what did the lawyer say?

Me: It's what she didn't say that got me wondering. She didn't say anything about what goes on in foster homes. There's got to be a newsgroup or chat forum or something where foster clients talk about their experiences, and I'd like to find it. If you avoid getting crumbs or beans in my keyboard, you can eat while we work.

Coyote works the keyboard; his typing skill seems to improve each day. With my guidance he locates a relevant newsgroup, and its archive site. We download the last three hundred articles, three months worth. Tiger and Mariposa can then get into the act.

Mariposa: What are we supposed to do with all this stuff?

Me: Coyote, make a first cut at a plan, and then I'll improve it. Unless it's perfect, of course.

Coyote: Of course. Let's count the articles where the person says the foster home is bad, and compare with the ones that say it's good.

Me: Good idea, but let's improve on it. Read each article as quick as you can and categorize it by good, bad or other, and also some simple keyword saying what the main theme is. We'll have to go through ten or fifteen articles each to choose the keywords. We'll make an index file to match article numbers with keywords. Example: in article 4500 the guy says thanks to his foster family he kicked a drug habit, so we write ``4500 good anti-drug''. How about that?

Coyote: It's going to take a long time.

Tiger: Your life is going to last a long time too.

Coyote: Yeah. Let's cut the crap and get started.

The pattern is interesting. About two thirds of the articles are ongoing arguments, which we are able to categorize in about ten seconds. In two cases we locate the participants' first articles, and one says he had a bad experience and one says it was good, and then they start jumping on each other. We don't bother tracing any further flame wars. There are a number of questions, like one of my foster children keeps picking on another, and I'm dealing with it like this, and does anyone have a better way. There are questions from foster clients about how to deal with various situations, and we tag most of these as bad testimonials. About ten percent of the articles are mainly statements that foster care is wonderful or is horrible, about equal numbers of each. It takes almost two hours for us to go through the whole collection. The kids' burritos are long gone.

Coyote: What I'm seeing here is hype. When they say it's wonderful, it couldn't be that good, and when they say it's bad, well, I know that when something's bad and I tell someone, I make it sound really, really bad.

Tiger: I have the same impression on our set of articles, but the ones that really caught my attention are the plain questions, both from the parents and the kids. My foster buggers me, my social worker won't believe me, so what do I do? Coyote, I don't know what bugger means; do you?

Coyote: Fuck in the asshole. You're not supposed to do that, particularly to a kid. I don't like to hear about that.

Tiger: Oh. Then there was one where the parent was at his or her wits end trying to get one kid to follow rules, particularly not breaking the other kids' stuff.

Coyote: I have stuff that I wouldn't like broken. There was one article where the parent actually described the food she made the kids eat and asked why they gave her so much trouble. I thought about replying, but someone else did, and it started a flame war. It was funny. But there's a lot going on in those foster homes that I want to stay as far away from as possible.

Me: You do have to consider selection bias. If a foster parent or kid is doing OK, he or she isn't going to post a message saying everything's fine, nothing to report. The ones without problems are less likely to even read this newsgroup. We only see the bad situations, plus a few ``it's so wonderful'' postings, most of which sound a little unbalanced to me, particularly when you see how the people respond if a flame war breaks out. What's the ratio of bad to good?

Coyote: Explain to me what a ratio is.

Me: We have ten or fifteen wonderful postings, and ten or fifteen awful postings, say fifteen to fifteen. That's the ratio. Now we've seen, I'm estimating here, thirty or forty different people posting stuff. Of people who have internet connections and could have posted but didn't because they were in good shape, how many are there? Another forty? Four hundred? Four thousand? If the latter, Coyote and Mariposa could go to a foster home and be pretty sure it would work out.

Coyote: Whereas forty to forty is pretty rotten odds. Suppose we post a message asking everyone who isn't having a problem to say so.

Tiger: Suppose we use the search engine on the archive site to try to find a similar posting in the archives. Mariposa, get on the archive site, that's its URL, right, and hit search. Now what keywords? Ask it for survey or compare or comparison. Slow, slow, there must be a lot of articles. Three groups of hits; now which tells the results? This one is from fifteen years ago, and the question was, was your foster care experience positive or negative overall. Very vague. About a third said negative, whatever that means. The next one is nine years ago and asked specifically about beatings and sexual abuse. Two percent reported trouble, and the author notes that responses are more likely from abused kids than non-abused ones. The last one is from five years ago and asks how people are doing in high school or college. I like the success measure, but the author says that people who didn't go to college aren't likely to have an internet connection, hence won't see the survey request nor be able to respond. Anyway, foster kids have significantly lower grades than what he claims is a comparable general population sample. He also says that there's a major confounding variable, in that people with rotten parents are more likely to end up in foster homes, and less likely to be well prepared for school.

Coyote: So what does that all mean? I hear vaguely bad. I hear a few beatings and buggerings, but rare. I hope. I think you're saying the last survey really didn't mean much.

Mariposa: Tiger, tell him about the one you saw, the one whose parents died.

Tiger: Yes, good point. I put it under... Here it is. When my parents were alive they really cared about me, and helped me do well in school, and everything a child could hope for. My foster parents were good, and I really appreciate their taking care of me, but the fact is, I'm not their child and they didn't put the kind of effort into raising me that my real parents did. I did OK on my own and got into college, but I always had this feeling that I didn't have anyone that really cared about me. I think that wasn't good for me.

Mariposa: When Madre is gone, nobody will care about us. I'm going to learn everything on the lion disc so I'll be able to take care of myself, like that kid.

Me: Good for you, Mariposa.

Tiger: Coyote's right; most of these articles don't tell us much. And I think Mariposa picked the key message in the collection. I think we're done here; now everyone needs time to think. Kids, let's have some hot chocolate and then you go home to sleep.

The situation of our own dinner has not escaped me. I hated ambiguous scenarios in weapons training, and the foster care issue is going to rank right up there with the nightmares. I don't feel hungry and apparently neither does Tiger. I fly the simulator and botch a bomb run, crashing into the target. At least I get credit for a kill. Then I misread the markings on a tank I'm destroying, which is actually friendly. I give up in disgust. Tiger seems to be faring no better on whatever she's doing.

Me: Hey, Tiger. Let's try to settle our nerves with a run.

We run over to the park on infrared; the street lights are a joke. We run back and forth for half an hour. A cop checks the area and is puzzled by our shape, and tries to investigate. We change course to run past a lamp so he can see us clearly, then return to our area-covering route. It takes an hour of running for both of us to be calm, more or less, and by then it's late. We walk back to the house to let our hearts slow down. We treat ourselves to bananas, brush our teeth, and go to sleep.

The next day is not smooth. At five, the night operator phones me (waking up Tiger too) and says that there's an alarm on vat eight. I log in and find that the water valve is open and the water level is 100%. This is Three Mile Island all over again. I copy the control system's status to a file, then shut the vat down. The computer claims the water valve is now closed, but I have my doubts. Anyway, the oobleck is ruined, whatever part is still in the vat. Duty calls; I walk over to the brewery. Indeed, the floor is awash in rotten-smelling slime. I wade through it and verify manually that the water valve is closed. I phone the county sanitation district and report that we're going to exceed our discharge limit, and the check for the fine is in the mail. The operator and I set up a pump from the floor's catchbasin directly into the sewer, and we get busy with hoses coaxing the oobleck in the right direction. Thank goodness I put the computers and electrical connections high up, in water resistant enclosures. It takes about two hours to get the floor clean, and I'm thoroughly bespattered with slimy oobleck, so I just turn the hose on myself, as does the operator. We meet Mike and the day operator coming in; I brief them on the problem and tell them to watch the water valves like a hawk. Then I return home. I shower with soap and fur conditioner to get out the reek of oobleck, then I blow dry and brush dusting sulfur through my fur. I feel a lot better. I take a short nap, then do my regular exercise, omitting the running, and have breakfast, and return to work.

It's a trivial programming error which only appears if water has to be let in twice within one ten minute analysis cycle, which should never happen. I feel like an ass. I calm myself down and report the problem to Mike, who of course is far from pleased. I fix the simple error, and verify that no similar problems are hiding elsewhere in the program or in the one that controls the butyrate vats, and test it, and get it installed, which is tricky on the machines that are trying to manage vats six and seven, the other ones with the new bug. I help the day operator put a partial charge of wood chips and nutrients into vat eight so the content can regenerate itself into proper oobleck. Now it's close to three o'clock.

Me: Hey Mike, we got eight back on line. I'm kind of embarrassed to ask this right now, but I promised a kid I'd talk to his teacher about some test scores, and the appointment is at three.

Mike: Damn! If it isn't one thing, it's another. Aw, crap, you screwed up, but you busted your butt straightening out the mess. What time did you come in, five? Go on, you've worked hard enough for today.

Me: Thanks, Mike.

I'd much rather not have made that mistake, but I'm happy that Mike seems to have recognized my efforts to recover. Both the middle school and Mariposa's elementary school are within walking distance of Casa Serena, but I'll have to run if I'm going to make my appointment. There's Coyote out front waiting for me. Milling students stop and stare at me; I ignore them.

Coyote: Oh, there you are. I was worried you might not come.

Me: What a day! One of the vats overflowed at five AM, and I've been straightening out the mess since then.

Coyote: All over the floor? I'd have liked to have seen that.

Me: And smelled it. Do I smell OK? My nose is anesthetized. Sulfur is normal, but the oobleck smells rotten, because it is, and it got all over me.

Coyote: Yeah, I can smell something that's not normal for you people. It's not that noticeable; don't worry about it. Let's get this meeting over with. His room is this way; take the hall to the right.

The classrooms were much nicer at Stanford. Also cleaner, and lighter. The room is packed with empty wooden and metal chairs with uncomfortable looking writing arms. Mr. Butthead inhabits a cramped, scarred desk of fake wood, backed up to the chalkboard. He is marking papers when we come in, and produces the usual double take on first seeing a lion. I delay a few seconds, using my claw to scrape an imaginary bit of flesh off one of my fangs.

Me: Good afternoon, Mr. Butchard. I'm a friend of the Solano family. I understand you gave a diagnostic test on Monday and Javier had some kind of problem with it.

Mr. Butchard: Right, I caught him cheating.

Me: Hmm, I expected him to do fairly well on the test. I've been giving him a little help in math over the summer.

Mr. Butchard: 72 points, for him? No way. I had him last year, and he'd be lucky to get 22.

Me: When I was in college I applied for a job in the hospital emergency room. They were afraid I'd scare the patients, but they also didn't want to throw me out and be accused of racism. Someone came up with a plan: let me work a shift, and see how the patients actually reacted. I got the job. Let's do something similar with Javier: throw some problems at him and see what he does when watched.

Mr. Butchard: I could give him the alternate form of the test, but it takes a full class period to do, and then it has to be marked.

Me: In a matter of honor, I think it's worthwhile to put in some effort to get the matter resolved at the local level.

Coyote rolls his eyeballs at me. Butthead gives the implied threats some thought. Then:

Mr. Butchard: OK, Javier, sit, let's see, right there. Here's the test form; same instructions as the other one. You're done at 4:05.

He goes back to grading papers, dismissing me. Cheeky bastard! I sit patiently in one of the hard chairs, a few rows behind Coyote so he can't see me. Fortunately the back is open and I can stick my tail through. I lash it around, keeping time to remembered music. Butthead can see me well enough, and the moving tail must be distracting. I do it long enough to make him uncomfortable; then I smile beatifically, giving him a good view of my dental apparatus, and cut out the sillies. OK, let's make this time useful. The program failed because water was let in twice in ten minutes. The vat loses water by evaporation into the excess carbon dioxide which is released to the atmosphere, but I've watched the program's performance carefully and normally the vat needs to be topped up only every two or three hours. If there was a leak, it's not leaking now, so why suddenly at five AM did it need a double jolt of water? Wave action might make the water level seem low, but only for a moment. I specifically average out waves. I wish we could see inside the vat. Hmm, maybe there's a way. On the overflow line if we put a tee, and covered the through end with a piece of Pyrex glass, we would have a narrow viewport right at the water line. It wouldn't take too much work.

Coyote: I'm done, Mr. Butchard.

Mr. Butchard: Well, let's see how we did this time.

I could see that Coyote was checking his answers; even so he finished a few minutes ahead. Coyote looks back at me and does the video of a giggle, silently. I lash my tail again and then, Butthead having looked up, I scratch an imaginary itch with my claw. Butthead does not look pleased with the result he's getting. Apparently he's scoring the test a second time.

Coyote: So how did I do, Mr. Butchard?

Mr. Butchard, frowning: You got 76.

Coyote: I thought I would. I had some trouble on the test with some of the multiplying problems, and I looked up the lesson on that and found what I was supposed to be doing. Could I have a list of what I made mistakes on? Of course division is a joke; you can leave that off because I have to be able to multiply before I can divide.

Mr. Butchard, frowning more: We'll be going over problem areas in class tomorrow.

Me: So, Javier turned in two good scores, 72 and 76. Don't you think he deserves some congratulation? Over the summer he's worked hard on math, among other things.

Mr. Butchard: OK, Javier, you did well on the test.

Me: Good afternoon, Mr. Butchard. We'll let you get back to grading papers now.

We hie ourselves between the rows of chairs and out of the room, struggling to keep a straight face. Coyote runs a few meters down the hallway, then bursts out laughing.

Coyote: Did you see the look on his face? Did you see it? It's like we made him eat his own shit! Don't you think he deserves some congratulation? Mother of God, you stuck it to him; you rubbed his face in it! Nobody messes with lions!

Me: I should go into theater. Or politics. I kept it real low key; just ignored his cheating crap, but I didn't keep it secret that the key could be twisted up if I felt like it. That was fun; let's do it again sometime. Maybe to Mr. Butthead.

We skip down the hall a few doors. A teacher is closing up her room and going home; she notices us.

Teacher: Well, hello, Javier. Is this one of the lion people you wrote about? Introduce me, please!

Coyote: This is Simba Leones. Simba, this is my remedial English teacher, Ms. Ramirez.

Me: How do you do. He didn't tell me about the essay. What you did over the summer, I presume.

Ms. Ramirez: Right, the traditional essay. He's improved quite a bit since last year, and I gather you have something to do with that.

Me: There was a surplus vendor with a pallet full of laptops that he couldn't sell, and I sent Javier and his sister down there to buy two of them cheap. My mate and I got them going on the lion disc. We answer their questions and give them encouragement, but of course they've done all the work. They've been practicing writing, using the lions' writing analyzer.

Ms. Ramirez: I've heard about the lion disc. What exactly is the relation with you people?

Me: I'm as much a product of my training as of genetic engineering. My creators wrote the lessons to teach the lion people. Since we learned how, we've also been adding to the lessons and improving them, because our own kittens will need teaching and we want them to have as good an education as we got, or better. The disc is just as good for human kids, and some of the project staff say that the lion disc is the most important product of the lion project.

Ms. Ramirez: I wish all my students had the opportunity Javier does. Nice meeting you, Mr. Leones, and Javier, I'll see you in class tomorrow.

Me: Nice meeting you, and call me Simba. All lion people have the nomen of Leones.

Ms. Ramirez: Oh, how strange. Bye.

We walk to Coyote's house, where Maria is happy to hear that the cheating business has been turned into a high score. Then I return home to Tiger.

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