PETS

Hitting ‘publish’ on Cracker a few days ago left me positively giddy, not unlike a horse led out of the barn for the first time, after five months confined to its stall. There was no bridling my enthusiasm for the rest of the day. This surprised me. It seems my need for writing has surpassed my need for running, which historically, was responsible for that burst of joy.

However, sitting down to write since, anxiety is what bubbles to the surface. My enthusiasm is chain-shanked by the sentry at the point of entry. Known as procrastination, he is a surly, sweaty, slug of a soldier. As soon as I sit, suddenly, I need to pee. Then my glass needs more water, before I sit down yet again. I check my email, click the news on, click it off, check Twitter, blow my nose, by now I have to pee again. On the way to the bathroom I notice the peace lily needs trimming, so I go back to the kitchen, get the scissors, walk back to the bedroom, trim the dead leaves, return the scissors, go pee, sit down again, get up and adjust the blinds–the light is in my face after all, and sit back down. I adjust the cushion, pick up a book, scroll until I find something I’ve underlined, read it, glean inspiration, scroll for another underlined passage, get more inspiration, and put the book down. By now I need to pee again, and adjust the thermostat, but it’s lunchtime, so I’m hungry, What’s the election doing? I flip on the TV, sit down, and now I’m tired and need a break. Procrastination is the writer’s cocaine–highly addictive, but not a lot of fun. It’s just a line of pure misery, the writer’s main currency, with no ending.

Like most Americans (at least some Americans), I’ve been glued to the television this week, with brief interludes of reading to calibrate my thoughts. I picked up Anne Lamott’s Stitches from my pile under the coffee table, reserved for books already read, but kept close for handiness. She is a sensible choice when faced with an existential crossroad, the chicken-soup bandaid for a soul traversing the quagmire. Her words made me laugh when I read, “It would be great if we could shop, sleep or date our way out of this.” Ha! That might work for a lot of predicaments, but not this one.

I listened to a fantastic episode of Sway this morning. The host, Kara Swisher, interviewed author Jeff VanderMeer. A writer of fantasy, I am not familiar with him. This is an unfortunate consequence of my shallow scope and lack of depth within literature. VanderMeer is an award-winning writer. The New Yorker has referred to him as “The Weird Thoreau” or “The King of Weird Fiction.” He gives credence to the power of words, the good and the bad of it, and has a wonderful perspective about life and our current state of being. He is drawn to animals and nature, drawing tremendous inspiration from them.

Growing up as a kid in New Jersey, we spent a lot of time outdoors in nature. Dark summer nights were spent running across the lawn, a glass jar clutched tight against the ribs under our shirts. The grass cool under our feet, we chased the tiny lighthouses circling the air, full of magic, the impossible transformed into reality by the natural world. Like a herd of young gazelles, we leapt into the night, wrapping our hands around each small wonder, placing them carefully into the jars with the others. For a moment, their magic swirled together before our own eyes. How did they do it? Their mystery captivated us for hours.

Ladybugs were also unsurprising ambassadors of the natural world with their round little bodies, shiny shells shellacked orange, and trimmed black with polkadots. Landing on my arm, I laid a finger in their path, inviting them to board a railway with no end, traveling from finger to finger, until they flew to wherever they were headed next.

We had animals in the house too. My parents had dogs before they had kids, so growing up, I accepted they were part of the family, like eggs were a part of breakfast and cursive was a part of school. My first recollection of a family pet is Tigger. She was some version of a black Labrador acquired from a neighbor. A lot of my memories involve her being loose, perpetually evading capture while stealing golf balls from the course, forever outrunning the best of us. She was caught, eventually, by the only thing that could keep up with her… a car. The car won that confrontation and Tigger lost a hind leg out of the deal, but pretty soon, she was back to running, being loose, and still no one could catch her, not even the golfers, not even with golf carts.

Before I had a pet to call my own, I borrowed one. Our local church needed a place for the resident guinea pig to go for the summer while pre-school was on break. I didn’t realise it then (nor my parents), but that guinea pig was the gateway pet to the string of small, furry pets that followed for the next decade. I wonder if the story would have turned out differently had the church been home to a turtle instead.

As it was, I took my case to my parents, when the borrowed pet resumed duties in his classroom. We soon found ourselves in a stranger’s basement after consulting the classifieds of the local paper. A single lightbulb hung from the ceiling illuminating three rows of shelves built around the perimeter of the room. They were high-rise corrals, where the guinea pigs were separated by group, the criteria of which I knew nothing. You’d probably call it a pig mill today, but back then, it was just a 4-H project growing in the basement, that got a little out of hand.

The whole thing was scary, but exciting too. I was choosing my first pet, from the pig-palooza of all paloozas. It was like picking a flavor of ice-cream, at the precise moment the sales person asks what you’d like to order, while staring at the long list of flavors swimming in and around each other on the board in front. Only this was a serious decision in my short kid life, probably my first one ever. Swallowing my nerves, I plunged my arms over the panel fence, scooping up a young Abyssinian, a rough coat of mostly black with patches of brown. I called him Sweetie.

There were a slew of other guinea pigs after Sweetie, including a couple hand-me-downs bequeathed to me by my older sister, who had moved on to other things in her own kid life (either tennis or boys, or both). I learned early, taking care of two rodents was no different than taking care of one, but it was more fun. Much later, this epiphany evolved into the steely argument I often used to convince myself one more horse was a good idea. That got me in trouble plenty, but it never stopped me.

All the guinea pigs, and subsequent hamsters, lived out their natural lives, confined by their indentured domestication within the household. With every passing, a shoebox was scrounged from the closet, a Bible located, and my best friend Heather was rounded-up as witness. The two of us walked in silence, single file, out the front door and down the steps to the brick walkway. Heather stayed behind me as I cradled the shoebox with the Bible on top. We were a solemn processional, heads bowed, slowly rounding the house, back to the steps where we began. A couple of passages were read, we had a little cry, before handing the box off to Dad. Somewhere in New Jersey, next to the vegetable garden in the back yard, is a small cemetery, full of one kid’s pets.

Another guinea pig, Harry, had the misfortune of passing in the winter. After performing the same death ritual all bundled up, we wiped our faces dry, turning away as Dad took the box from my hands. A couple weeks later when the snow subsided, I took the shortcut to Heather’s house. It went through our backyard, across the golf course, into a couple of other backyards, before crossing the street to her driveway. As I headed out, I noticed a bright wedge of color peeking through the pile of monotonous debris in the compost, constructed with chicken wire next to the garden. Edging closer to get a better look, I stopped a few feet away after confirming it was indeed Harry’s box. I was horrified my dad could toss Harry into the compost, like trash, without a second thought…that would later nourish the vegetables we ate?? The rest of the afternoon I stewed about how to broach this betrayal to Harry’s dignity. That evening, I demanded an explanation. Sitting in his big comfy chair following dinner, Dad looked at me over the evening newspaper, nonplussed. Flipping a page, he said, “The ground is frozen. Can’t bury him. He’ll be alright there until Spring.” It was hard to argue against this, as much as I was insulted on Harry’s behalf. I gave the garden a wide berth after that, all through the spring and summer too, not wanting to know whether the vegetables on my plate were fertilised by Harry or not.

The guinea pigs morphed into hamsters, and like Tigger, they also spent a lot of time on the run, just indoors. However, it was at this time, Tigger got a friend. My lobbying was bolstered by a classmate’s poodle, who unexpectedly found herself knocked up. Bonnie Belle, named by my sister, cost me $5. My mom just reminded me of that detail. I thought she was free. Mom shook her head and said, “No, your classmate’s mother talked about the puppies being ‘somewhat well bred.'” However, framing it like a proper transaction was a clever tactic on the mom’s part to ensure the puppies were never returned. Many years later, I would buy a horse for $5, for the same reason the mother charged for the puppy, and also to ensure against the possibility I might sue them down the road, but that’s another story.

Back then, “Doodles” didn’t exist. When people asked her breed, Dad would puff up, holding her leash proudly and say, “She’s a Miniature Wolfhound!” They bought it every time–hook, line and sinker. “Miniature Wolfhound” still sounds much more distinguished than “Doodle,” but I suppose she was technically a “Doodle 57” when you get down to it. When our family moved to Texas from Jersey, I no longer took our furry family for granted. In Texas, Bonnie and Tigger were my only friends for a long time. I had grown out of the rodents by then, into tropical fish, but they too faded, until there were none. Eventually there would be horses, but before then, it was just Bonnie and Tigger.

I recently flew to Texas to visit my family and check on our parents. A lot of things happened while I was there. A neighbor living alone needed help after hip replacement surgery. Another neighbor ended up in the hospital, leaving her elderly father home alone. I was glad I landed when people really needed help getting through a rough patch. Two days before returning to DC, my parents took their cat Leroy to the vet. He had looked puny for a couple days. The vet told them Leroy was in kidney failure. His days were numbered. I think she really wanted to say “Today is as good a day as any,” but she didn’t, and after giving him fluids, my parents brought him home. He felt a little better after that, giving my parents a couple days to spoil him, and prepare themselves for the inevitable.

Leroy was the first of many strays my parents adopted. All told, they’ve taken in five over the last few years, not counting the feral ones who they still feed outdoors, or the ones my sister and I “gifted” to them. I “borrowed” my first pet, but my parents “inherited” their first cats from their kids. They started adopting the strays that showed up soon after and haven’t stopped.

The day I flew home was the day my parents took Leroy back to the vet to say good-bye. We’ve done this dance many times over the years, but it never gets any easier. This time was made worse by the fact my parents couldn’t accompany Leroy inside the clinic. They had to wait in the car. I’ve thought about this a lot. What if Cracker had passed this year, instead of 2018? I’d have been in the same situation. It makes my heart hurt just thinking about it. All we want to do is provide comfort in the moments when they pass to the next world. It’s the least we can do after all the comfort they’ve provided to us in this one. I said to my dad:

You gave Leroy a great life, a life full of love and comfort he would never have known, had it not been for you.

That includes taking care of him at the very end.

You gave Leroy the most any of us can hope for.

You gave him a death with dignity.

Cracking Open the Mollusk

Wow. It’s been five months since I’ve blogged. Since my birthday. Not that I haven’t written anything at all, but it’s been brief synapses of thoughts, left undone, like splinters of driftwood splayed haphazardly across index cards, floating in and around each other, tethered to nothing. To date, the highlight of my writing this year is a doggie dating profile for a poodle.

In the meanwhile, I’ve taken a couple of Section4 Sprints, the ed-tech branding house built by Prof. Scott Galloway. I am now a TA for the final session of the year. This segue from writing was an attempt to dislodge my glazed-over thoughts from their corset, like taking a screwdriver to the hardened butterscotch, chiseling it from the dashboard, after a summer of relentless sun. Painful, but necessary.

This year has sucked the oxygen straight from my gills. We’ve all experienced it differently, some a lot worse than others. I don’t have much to complain about when considering the pain I’ve seen others endure. But the year isn’t over, let alone the coronavirus. However, every time I sat at my desk, fingers poised above the keyboard, one prevailing thought popped in my head: “What makes you think you have anything useful to say?” It’s a fair question. In On Writing, Stephen King summed up this feeling best. He said, “I didn’t want to write [in a way] that would leave me feeling like either a literary gasbag or a transcendental asshole.” With that in mind, I didn’t write anything. Rather, I wore out the content on Prime Video, before plowing through free trials of HBO and Hulu, eventually settling on a subscription to Netflix. I’m currently immersed in Weeds, so a lot of catching up to do.

Swaths of others have had plenty to say in 2020. I’ve questioned many times this year what part of the human condition is it that wants so badly to be heard, that needs to be acknowledged, at any cost? The Presidential Election certainly amplified this trend, but it’s had a global mic for a while, paved smooth by the digital runway it travels. All this serrated rhetoric takes a toll smearing past our eyes. Scrolling on is as helpful as driving past the crumpled vehicle in flames on the other side of the interstate without looking. Momentary acknowledgement is all that is necessary to flicker existential dread.

I’ve been stuck between this existential dread, or becoming the transcendental asshole who writes about it. Today, on Election Day, my choice is clear. Time to wedge the knife between the seam, cracking open my salty mollusk, in search of that proverbial pearl of wisdom. Borrowing a gem from SK (again) [On Writing] he says, “Sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position.” Ahh, the comfort of familiarity. One doesn’t always get to choose the metaphor that resonates close to the bone and inspires confidence. Sometimes a shit sandwich is all it takes.

I admit, I like all things Prof. Galloway. His brain is the spark plug of the circuit board, delivering the electrical juice of information, to the combustion engine of our world. He teaches Brand Strategy and Digital Marketing at the Stern School of Business at NYU, among many other enterprises. I can’t say I’ve ever been interested in either, but curiosity is kindling, so here is where I find myself. The classes are packed with bright minds, and polished CV’s, and the discussions are interesting and engaging. I’ve realised how much I’ve missed the intellectual rigor. Usually my writing helps satisfy this appetite, along with prolific reading, and attending as much theatre as my slush fund will accomodate. The mild temperatures of late have me thinking more often of Broadway. I have really missed it, and I still do.

No one really knows how today will end, despite each of our personal convictions of how we’d like it to play out. As much as I detest the fallacious logic of common platitudes, today might not be the day to venture too far out of the weeds. Some thoughts to remember throughout the day: Prof. Galloway said, “Nothing is ever as bad or as good as it seems. Market dynamics trump individual performance–your successes and failures aren’t entirely your fault” (excerpt from Algebra of Happiness, tweeted 7/6/19). I voted, so I’ve done what I can to contribute to the collective, and I will remember these words, whatever the outcome. After the dust settles, I’m going to take a page out of On Writing for my own playbook. SK said, “As a reader, I’m a lot more interested in what’s going to happen than what already did.”

The past is already written.

Each of us has the chance to write the future, even our own small part of it.

It matters.

Just like your vote.

 

6.1.20

I pulled on my running pants and laced my shoes tight. I removed my wedding rings, the only jewelry I wear, and left them on the counter. This is how I get ready to run in the morning, except I wasn’t going running. I was headed to the office. I grabbed my I.D., leaving all credit cards behind, and picked-up my mace.

I was ready, just in case.

Today is my birthday. Four years ago, I found myself eating at a Chinese buffet and drinking shitty wine, with someone I didn’t want to be with, on a work trip in the middle of nowhere, which was exactly where I didn’t want to be. That was a crappy birthday, but I think this counts as the most surreal one.

Humans tend only to remember the really good times, and the really bad times, and not much in between. When I try and think back to the last great birthday I’ve celebrated, the only ones that surface are the ones I most want to forget. I have to look at the photo of myself sitting on a pony in a Sunday dress, wearing stockings and white patent shoes, as a reminder they used to be fun. That was a long time ago. 

When I woke up the day I turned 40, I was in complete shock I had made it this far. The surprise and wonder quickly evaporated, leaving the stickiness of weltschmertz behind. What had I been doing this whole time, peddling my little legs as fast as they could go, and not getting anywhere like a hamster on a wheel? 

 I need to either up my game plan for birthdays, or cut my expectations by two-thirds. 

Usually I spend birthdays reflecting on my previous year, a little bit like New Year’s Day, just the 2.0 version for this Gemini. This year I haven’t thought so much about my own journey around the sun, but more about the mothership’s, who carries all 7.8 billion of us like a cosmic sherpa. The thought leaves me overwhelmed and fraught. This morning, I woke to helicopters and police sirens in the dark, then stepped out to witness a city, shattered. I will experience a mandated curfew this evening for the first time in my life.

How did we end up here? (Rhetorical…)

If I think about it too long, it makes my head hurt, and yanks at my heart.

I am grateful my family and friends are alive and well today, and every day this holds true. I’m grateful for Russ. He makes my life a lot better, and more fun, and sweeter with cake. For this birthday, that’s enough.

Below are photos taken today, June 1, 2020, in Washington DC.

 

 

 

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**These last two photos show this man’s shelter, and what’s left of it now: Nothing.

Stones of Hope

The car climbed and climbed and climbed. Up we went, our weight pressed against the seatbacks. The engine shifted down with a low whir, stirring beneath the hood to meet the rising pitch of the road. Russ pressed his foot firmly against the pedal, urging the car not to fall behind.

The road was quintessential Virginia, a long labyrinth of gentle curves, crossing a pastoral landscape. As we ascended the peak, the trees thickened on either side, joining ranks, loyal foot-soldiers called to order. Saluting us, they stood tall and proud, robust with spring coursing through their veins, enfolding us into the comfort of the forest’s bosom as we drove past.

The branches, heavy with leaves, formed a canopy, shading the road and cradling the blue sky above it. Long rays of sunshine pierced the gaps in between, like shiny swords electrified all the way down to the tips of their blades. Slivers of homes, beautifully crafted to complement the surrounding landscape, emerged amidst the sweeping canvas of green. Looking at them whooshing past, I wondered if they weren’t bolted to the hillside, in order not to slide off the edge.

We were halfway up the mountain, still climbing, when the forest bowed to the sky. Like the center of a clear blue diamond, it exploded across the horizon, dipping into the valley, unabashedly naked and free, a brazen display of its prowess.  I reached out the window, my hand parting the drag as it rushed past the hood of the car. We were closer to Heaven’s door than not.

After another mile, Russ slowed the car, braking before turning right onto a gravel road. It pulled the headlights down hard, as if its fingers were clenched around our throats. Small grey stones were embedded flat, the rough edges fitting around each other gracefully like a mosaic, full of hope. Rolling out from under our wheels, the road beckoned to us, like a treasure hunt waiting to be discovered.

I couldn’t wait to get outside.

In anticipation, I said to Russ, “We should just hike up the road when we get to the bottom.”

“Jenn,” he said, “We are here to go hiking, not do a work-out.”

I rolled my eyes and made a mental note to put this location on our list for further exploration at a later date.

“We could bring our bikes back here,” I said. “This would be a great place to ride.”

This time Russ rolled his eyes.

Why? So you can ride your handbrake all the way to the bottom?”

I twisted my face in disapproval.

BLAH!”

We parked along the gravel off to the side, along with several other cars. The trail invited us in, starting gently, before it turned, heading straight up. It didn’t take long to shake our cobwebs loose. We picked up the rhythm, despite the terrain, swinging our limbs in newfound freedom. A brook babbled close by, the only sound to counter the scuff of our treads against the dirt, hard as bone, what is left after a lifetime of erosion.

As we dug into the climb, I reminded myself it would be easier on the way back. This was an empty consolation I fed my inner critic to supplicate its whine. It was a cheap incentive, but somehow stretching the truth always provides the necessary comfort, when facing a formidable challenge.

Sweating now, we looked down, watching our feet. Russ and I wound ourselves between the patches of rocks and over the roots; long, thick bands of muscle that crisscrossed the trail. The sound of the bubbling water faded into the distance, overshadowed by the swirling air pressed from our lungs. We climbed and turned, digging our toes in and leaning back when the trail changed tack, descending into the belly of the valley. After an hour and a half of a good clip, not convinced we were making a loop, but straying further from the start, we decided to turn around.

I ripped open a bag of trail mix, grabbing a fistful. The local bakery calls it “Magic Bus.” It’s a favorite treat of mine. Throwing my head back on the trail, I filled my gullet.  As I chewed the crunchy peanuts, tempered by the dark chocolate chips, it dawned on me why I loved hiking so much.

It’s not just the amazing scenery. I love hiking because it requires a certain level of concentration to do it well, in addition to the physical toll it takes. Picking up each foot, holding it a fraction longer at the top of its arc, before considering where to place each step, lures my thoughts closer to my chest. Hiking creates a protective cocoon from distracting thoughts, a flickering space on the move, almost sacred. Moments like these, strung together, are like shells on a rope necklace, when footfalls and thoughts are aligned, long-lost best friends who have finally found each other’s hand.

I wanted to keep going forever.

After we finished hiking, Russ and I returned to DC. I picked up a book I’ve been reading for a while, We Were the Mulvaneys, by Joyce Carol Oats. Taking this long to get through a book is usually a sign there is no love affair between us. I’ve read a lot of other books in the meantime, putting this one on the back burner again and again.

In an effort to finish, I hatched a new plan. I started skimming. I justified this tactic looking at my growing pile of books, each its own racehorse boxed in its stall, waiting patiently to be led to the gate next. This is breaking a cardinal rule for me, like combing against the grain, or cutting the proverbial corner. Besides, I have a sweet tooth and like to fall into a story, savoring every word, as if it’s dessert.

But I’m reading We Were the Mulvaneys with as much depth as a lawn mower, flying along, trimming the edges off, not cutting into the shaggy locks below. Despite this, the book has become more interesting. I’ve skated over thick passages of details and description, grabbing only the nuts and bolts, where the real movement of the story lies. In essence, I’ve sped the story up to my liking.

It seems novels, like people, contain kinetic energy. Some are best approached as leisurely walks through the garden. Savoring the sweet fragrance of the honeysuckle, appreciating the vibrant blooms of the tulips, or being inspired by the flames of the setting sun, is more important than where the journey goes, or where it ends. Other books thrive when sprinted, such as anything by Stephen King, where the adventure always leaves the reader sweaty and wide-eyed. Then there are those, such as No Country for Old Men (C. McCarthy), The Emissary (Y. Tawada), or The Friend (S. Nunez) . Stories like these are best tackled with a “hiking” mindset, as the words lean into the story, pushing back against it, not unlike a trail’s cascade of rocks and intricate web of roots to a hiker’s foot. These skillfully crafted stories are my favorite, their prose succulent and nourishing, a banquet for the soul.

Consummate readers understand the phenomena of “reading the right book at the right time.” How does a book find us, when we most need to read it, when it is likely to leave the greatest impression, acting as a key and opening the door to possibility, like a talisman, hidden?

I don’t know how, but it does. They do. Bending back the cover with my hands, the “right” story inhales as if waking from its sleep, the characters coming alive off the page, hands outstretched.

I don’t want the story to end.

It’s too good to be over any time soon.

Just like a great hike…

“…when footfalls and thoughts are aligned, long-lost best friends who have finally found each other’s hand.”

I want it to last forever.

 

Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope…”

—Martin Luther King, Jr.

 

 

 

Celebrating Apart

I started this post a week ago. It’s been simmering on the asphalt like flattened roadkill waiting to be laid to rest in the weeds where the road ends. It’s published twice on Cracker, the whole entire paragraph of it, and a few of you were even kind enough to like it. I set the publish date a few days out, confident of my ability to finish it, only to shriek an obscenity when I received notification of its release. I forgot. Twice. Both times I felt like I had just walked outdoors with pink foam-curlers in my hair, wearing nothing but a shabby bathrobe, and a face full of stale make-up from the night before, all of which is odd, since I’ve never used curlers in my entire life, don’t own a bathrobe, and rarely wear make-up, and never the kind in the horror show that flashed vividly before my eyes.

Usually I start my writing on a PDF. Often I open a second PDF and drag sections of writing to it, creating a more streamlined, hopefully organized, work. Other times, I move the draft to WordPress and keep writing from there. In a weird way, this is like changing rooms or locations in order to lure inspiration to the page when writing. Changing platforms, the words become clearer, or at the least, what isn’t working stands up, like a naughty child on the verge of a temper-tantrum, ready to be plucked from the others sitting quietly knee-to-knee in a circle at story time.
Often my final edit takes place on my phone after the piece is published on Cracker. While the timing might not be perfect, this has proved the best method for finding the little mistakes that writers know are the biggest, most troubling ones of all, like finding a small turd on a Persian rug once you’ve invited your guests inside the house.

Last Tuesday I bought a plane ticket home to Houston to see my parents. This was not an easy decision. I went back and forth between driving the 21-plus hours to get there, versus spending five to six hours in a public place, one of them being an airplane. I considered all of the possible implications to both routes of travel and the precautions I would take to mitigate risk. The next day Russ informed me his workplace had mandated a quarantine policy for anyone, spouses included, from traveling to certain states, Texas being one. If I went, I would have to quarantine for two weeks elsewhere upon returning.

I cancelled the ticket. I’m sure this is a blessing in disguise, but I would be lying if I didn’t admit it was gutting as well. To know I am separated from them for the foreseeable future feels horrible and helpless. I worry incessantly. The reality of the situation knocked the wind out of my sails. Once again this week, since the pandemic started, I found myself with no words to put to paper, only with sadness romancing despair.

Today is Mother’s Day and I’m attempting to right the shipwreck on the beach. I can’t be there, but I am grateful my parents are both healthy and hanging in. I’d say they are doing a good job making the best of it, like the rest of us, all of us clinging to the hope our family and friends will fly under the radar of COVID-19. I have a lot to be thankful for, despite the current conditions.

This is just one of many quarantine experiences, but by far the most profound. The others are ancillary at best. This Cinco de Mayo, Russ and I ordered Indian food instead of the standard order of tacos and tequila. The day marked much more than the need for a “normal” ritual.  We celebrated the re-opening of my favorite restaurant after the doors were shut for seven weeks, a true acknowledgment of their resilience and determination to survive the odds.

I have also fully embraced the “Quarantini” during the shutdown. I usually have a martini every night, which was not the case before. Martinis were usually reserved for weekends or special occasions. My excuse now is every day feels like a special occasion, so no time like the present. I would like to add that when we do return to eating in a restaurant, it will be difficult to order a $15-20 cocktail after Russ has been mixing them for the last eight weeks. The other evening he handed me a martini and watched me take the first sip. “Too strong?” he asked I swallowed slowly, savoring a drink well mixed.

I responded, “Seriously, is there even such a thing?”

I’m not convinced my tolerance will ever return to “PC” levels (pre-coronavirus) at this point. Some behaviors are difficult to turn the clock back on, alcohol just being one metaphor for the much bigger life-changing events that have affected so many people, changing their lives forever.

Last week I mailed a package requiring weighing for postage. I walked down to the post office two blocks from my office. As I neared the front doors, I realized I had failed to tie my mask around my neck. I had left home without the bandanna I use to cover my face. I trudged back to the office to find a makeshift alternative, combing through my desk and cupboards. I found running shoes and clothes I keep at the office in the off-chance I have an opportunity to use them. I unrolled my running pants. They crinkled like wrapping paper. I wrapped the stale pants around my face, tying the legs in a knot  under my chin. Walking back to the post office with them over my face, I had tears in my eyes. There isn’t anything quite like having the crotch of your pants pulled across your own face. Yes, it could be worse. It could have been someone else’s pants I suppose.

This will probably be the funniest memory that happened during the shutdown in the Spring of 2020. I cling to it because the others are harsh. Watching the homeless mill around DC displaced, lost, angrier is difficult and painful. The landscape of beautiful architecture lining the streets is a vast contradiction to the colorful tents dotting the parks, now spreading to corners of intersections downtown, one-man islands, sprung up like potted plants waiting to bloom.

This blog entry doesn’t feel finished, but it’s enough for now. Better than a paragraph, a draft published too soon, twice. I would love to hear quarantine experiences from others. What has changed for you, maybe for good? What experiences have you had, both frustrating and funny? What does this uncertainty bring to the forefront of your mind?

I went home in February, last minute, after I had just been there for the holidays. 

Looking back now, I’m so glad I did.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom, and to all the mothers out there, both past and present. 

I can’t wait until we break bread again, together. 

This time, we’ll wash it down with a martini.

 

 

 

My Poodledemic

**PHOTO: As seen in downtown DC. This guy’s set-up is pretty ingenuous. 

It all started with TikTok. And a dog. A poodle to be exact. His name is Pierre. He came to live with us three weeks ago, a foster dog awaiting his forever home, at the age of thirteen. It would be easy to demonize his former family for dropping him off at the shelter, but you never know what someone is going through, and this is even truer during a pandemic. We are all responsible for our choices in life, but we don’t always see what is coming down the pike headed straight for us. Anyone can get blindsided, even with the best of preparations, and a history of good decisions behind them.

It’s important not to lose sight of this.

I haven’t written anything since COVID-19 handed out its calling card, a wrecking ball of havoc and despair. Just recently, I managed to eek out a short dating profile for Pierre, which I naturally called “Rin Tin Tinder.” For a writer, all of this sudden gratis time, free from shackles, is a dream come true. But watching my city roll up its carpets, turn off the lights, and lock the doors has left an indelible constriction under the confines of my skin. What does anything I have to say, matter, in light of everything else? My voice deserted me and my hand no longer dances with its pen (a “pendemic,” if you will).

Headline: COVID CRUSHES CREATIVITY.

Instead, I’ve been reading a lot, exercising some, and making sure to have a martini every night. I’m making do in the pinch of the pandemic, loosely stacking a few routines into a delicate web of normalcy. It starts with coffee, ends with a martini, and everything in the middle is jumbled together, work and leisure alike.

Washington DC is a delight to move around in at the moment, words I usually don’t attribute to the nation’s capital. It no longer takes any time to get somewhere—by car, bike, or even by foot, all of which are currently my modi operandi. Imagine crossing Constitution or Pennsylvania Ave, anywhere, at any time, while jogging, without worrying about dodging traffic. With so few cars on the streets, road rage among drivers has all but ceased to exist. Then imagine walking down the sidewalk without being bombarded by loud conversations and layers of bodies surrounding you. People are actually looking where they are walking and not down at their phones.

It feels like a small town here.

Intellectually I know for every visible benefit, there is a deficit that far exceeds it. Besides the locked doors lining the sidewalks, I’ve noticed the many new tents dotting the landscape in the parks, and the numerous homeless on the move. This is all fallout from the true catastrophe taking place inside the hospitals, where the first responders are working to triage an overwhelming situation. Most of us don’t face this reality and it’s easy to subscribe to “out of sight, out of mind.”

This pandemic blindsided me to the fact there are populations of people who don’t merely benefit from a cataclysmic event, but actually thrive as a result. Naïvely, I assumed when something this massive, this universal, happened, we would all be in the same boat, together. I’ve quickly learned, there are two boats. You are either bailing as fast as you can in the boat with the hole in the floor, or you are cruising miles ahead in your fiberglass hull with an outboard.  To be fair, I’m in the latter boat, and so is every single person I know.

I exist within the padded bubble of privilege.

Many moons ago, in another lifetime, I overheard a brief exchange between a patron and her horse trainer. Standing next to her car, I didn’t hear what he mumbled to his owner, but she punched the air with her hands in exasperation, snapping back, “You have no idea how hard it is to have everyone around you asking you for something! Everybody has their hands out these days. It’s exhausting!”

At that point in my life, I was exercising racehorses. I got paid like $9/hour. It was just about enough to put the gas in my truck, to get there and back, and that’s about it. I walked past them, looking straight ahead, as the conversation hashed out before me. I continued on, carrying my flimsy race saddle to a different barn, to get on another two-year old.  I remember thinking to myself, “Hey Lady, you should really try the flip side of that equation.” I marveled at how wonderful it must be to find yourself in a position where you could help others, one I had never experienced. Even then, I thought she was missing the opportunity poised in the palm of her hand.

Decades later, in a pandemic, the divide between the “haves” and “have nots” has shifted with the tide. I know now, we are not in the ark, rather we are divided into one of two boats. For the first time in people’s lives, they might have their “hand out,” but maybe, some are also experiencing the opportunity of  “putting their hand out,”  extending an olive branch of generosity to others. What I truly hope is no one finds themselves sitting on their hands.

If a pandemic doesn’t inspire others to action, then truly, we are fucked.

Back to the dog squatter in my house (and that’s not a euphemism for bathroom humor, you dirty birds), and back to TikTok. Since I have only managed to scribble a doggie-dating profile in the last six weeks, I decided I should gloss-up Pierre’s “Rin Tin Tinder” narrative by adding a short video. I checked out TikTok, but the app isn’t for combining existing media. (TikTok is hilarious and addicting, by the way.) I  finally figured out how to create a video of Pierre and the first one took me hours. So many hours, for a showcase two minutes long. (What does that sound like? For the horsemen out there, it starts with the letter “d.”) I’ve created three videos, and I am truly inspired by the process.

I’m so inspired, in fact, I’ve purchased a ton of software geared towards digital media and a MacBook to go with it. I’m all in. I am currently immersed in tutorials, and while completely frustrated at my lack of comprehension, I am also determined to figure it out. I haven’t felt this push/pull of creative tension in a long time. Riding the wave,  I formed a new business, Cracker Media, and am in the process of building-out a website, also a new endeavor for my skillset. All of my creative work will be housed collectively under one roof. This will be a side gig offering services ranging from writing and editing, grant proposals, content creation, to advertising and media services.

So it’s not just writing anymore, but a few creative pursuits. I hope, and believe, one will help the other, and vice versa. It seems the pandemic I am experiencing has whittled itself into the shape of a poodle. Leave it to a dog to open the door. This is proof inspiration comes when you least expect it and from where you least expect it. It’s important to seek the silver linings amidst the destruction, whatever that might mean to you. Finding the gumption to make your morning coffee and your evening martini is plenty, so no need to aim high. That’s enough. (If your timeline is reversed, we should probably talk.) It’s a good time to practice gratitude and compassion, with yourself, and with others.

Remember, if you’re not sitting on your hands, you’re basically doing really great.

And if you are, well, you’re just an asshat.

(And asshats who sit on their hands can’t  be TikTok sensations either…)

 

 

 

 

 

Death by Martini

My year of austerity has come to an abrupt end. How can I compete with the likes of COVID-19? It’s a tsunami. In truth, I bailed before the virus made its dramatic entrance.

No-Coffee-January was easier than I thought. I missed it, but I didn’t pine for it. This was surprising. On the first day of February, I successfully circumvented sugar, but quickly spiraled out of control after that. The more I thought about avoiding it, the more it seemed to appear, and even worse, the more I sought it out. I suppose this is the definition of a true addict. I knew I liked sugar, I just didn’t realize we were more than friends. March was supposed to be alcohol-free, but the pandemic squelched the mission. The evening martini helps sooth my nerves.

(This is about the only thing the government and I agree on: Liquor is essential.)

The last ten days has really rocked me. As Russ said in response to my angst, “It’s a good thing we’re not on the Titanic!” [because of my hysteria]. I shot back, “How do you know we’re not?!” 

DC is a ghost town. When I run, I don’t stop at road crossings, regardless of whether the light is green or red. There’s no traffic, car or pedestrian. A runner’s paradise, the silver lining to a cataclysm.

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Empty streets of DC

Only the construction workers lend a thread of normalcy to a city otherwise closed for business. I’m sure they are grateful for the continuity of their livelihood. It’s the current juxtaposition between choosing wealth over health, or not. They have the option. A lot of people don’t. I’m trying to support locally what is “open”, such as South Block, A Baked Joint, and Karma Modern Indian, which isn’t open, but offers gift cards as a way to support them. Small business needs our loyalty and support, two antiquated qualities in short supply.

I know of a few businesses personally, all different sizes, who are taking care of their employees during this crisis. Just announced, transport company J.B. Hunt,  will award $13-14 million in bonuses to roughly 23,000 employees, to support the drivers moving freight.

But more businesses won’t then will. Big Biz mavericks, Marriott and MGM Resorts, have furloughed tens of thousands of employees. Airlines have fired contract workers, who provide services such as baggage handling and security for their organization.  Sadly, Compass Coffee, started and based in DC with many locations, laid off 80% of its staff,  a total of 150 of its 189 members. Those are the ones big enough to make the news. It doesn’t account for all of the others, who have let people go, and who are most likely not to survive when the shutdown lifts.

Big business will ultimately be fine. They are resuscitated by the recent $2 trillion stimulus plan. That’s the biggest federal slush-fund handed out on record. But profit margins roll down hill, just like shit, getting thinner as it nears street level. Small businesses will be hit hard, and the individual will be hit even harder.  

I’m working from home as of this week. My company asked me if I had a laptop I could use. I said I did, but it was so old, I didn’t trust it from malware and other security breaches. My laptop was used-to-me, back in 2011, when I got it. I estimate its age at fourteen years.

It’s gotten crankier the last couple years. It freezes up and the cursor jumps around like a hungry flea on a hound dog, but it limps along dutifully. As of January fourteenth, my laptop alerts me every day that support for Windows 7 has ended. Troubled by inevitable security risks and viruses, it suggests I invest in an upgrade.

Sick of the nagging reminder, I cracked and threw a martini in its face last night. Scowling, my cocktail soaking between the keys like surf retreating from rocks at low tide, I said, “If you want to go, then fine, just leave I tell you!” 

After nine years together, my laptop sucked its last breath, and succumbed not to a virus, but to a martini.

How ironic.

My temporary laptop arrived just in time.

Postscript:

It’s possible I accidentally spilled my martini, because it moonlighted as a coaster in the evenings. Not only that, it served as a charging station also, strategically placed in the middle of the coffee table. There is also a chance I was handing my cell phone to Russ, to check out the reading glasses I just ordered, when the cord unceremoniously clothes-lined the short tumbler, sending it skidding across the keys.

There are a few takeaways here. First, I finally need reading glasses. Like Old Ironsides (my clunky, old laptop), I held out for as long as I could, which was pretty long. Secondly, it’s worth noting I really got my money’s worth, and then some, from that laptop (not unlike my first used Honda that miraculously kept running, despite getting an oil change once a year). Third, they’re Burberry, so they’re pretty! I didn’t know this would be important, but it is.

And now you know…the rest of the story.

#buylocal

#supportsmallbusiness

#workersfirst

#community

 

 

 

 

Until Further Notice

Four nights ago, I went to my favorite restaurant for dinner. There have been so many changes in just a few days, I worried if I didn’t patronize them then, I wouldn’t have another chance for a while.

(It turns out I was right.)

The owner was at the restaurant. He is always at the restaurant, dressed in a well-cut suit and tie. When I saw him Sunday, my heart sank. He smiled, but the pain and anxiety was chiseled into the lines on his face. For the first time, he was dressed in jeans and a t-shirt.

One waiter worked the dining room, and the bar was closed. I wondered about my favorite bartender. Is he okay? I knew he was going to college full-time as well as bartending.

That night, they sat three tables, including us. I asked the owner what he might do as things progressed. Shaking his head, he said they didn’t do enough take-out or delivery business to consider it. His customers dined in. He was going to cut hours, and staff, and see what the week brought. Walking past the next day, I saw the sign on the door.

CLOSED.

Until Further Notice.

These are the words taped to the front door of most businesses, a new mantra, the preemtive response to what is yet to be revealed.  Every day brings new changes, new rules, and new statistics. Considering the 1918 flu pandemic, experts have some ideas of what to expect. The Imperial College COVID-19 ResponseTeam’s Report states infections will likely peak in mid-June (March 16, 2020).

It’s important to note it will get worse before it gets better.

The Washington Post stated, “Like the bumpy hills some foresee in coming months, the 1918 pandemic hit America in three waves–a mild one that spring, the deadliest wave in fall and a final one that winter”  (William Wan, Joel Achenbach, Carolyn Y. Johnson and Ben Guarino; March 12, 2020).

This could last  a long time, much longer than the two to four week shutdown currently in place for businesses, or the rest of the semester closed for University students.

The Imperial College COVID-19 ResponseTeam’s Report went on to say, “To avoid a rebound in transmission, these policies [social distancing, with home isolation of cases, and school and university closure] will need to be maintained untl large stocks of vaccine are available to immunise the population–which could be 18 months or more” (March 16, 2020).

We have a long road ahead of us. In The Washington Post on March 19th, an article by Heather Long and Abha Bhattarai in the business section stated, “’More than a million workers are expected to lose their jobs by the end of March,’ economists say. ‘Small businesses could run out of money before emergency federal loans arrive.’ ‘In mere weeks, the pandemic is on track to usher in a magnitude of unemployment that took months to reach during the Great Recession.’”

We are still in the honeymoon phase of a pandemic.

I read a comment on social media, “This should show us how lucky we are to live in America where we never run out of anything.”

I wondered, Do we even live in the same country?

We do.

I can only assume this person has not had any trouble purchasing toilet paper…or fresh vegetables, meat, milk, canned beans, rice, sugar, or even frozen pizza, like we have. Maybe his gym hasn’t closed, or his favorite restaurant. Maybe he still retains a sense of normalcy in his everyday life.

But scarcity is about to become the new majority.

Good luck finding Tylenol.

Did you know we don’t make penicillin in this country? China makes penecillin. And only last year was penecillin moved to the “resolved shortage status” (cdc.gov).

“Antibiotics, antidepressants, birth control pills, blood pressure medicine, among many others are made in China and sold in the United States. Millions of Americans are taking prescription drugs made in China and don’t know it” (Corporate Crime Reporter, August 27, 2018).

The pandemic just came full circle.

Four years ago I visited Nicaragua with my cousins. All surfers, Nica is where they’ve chased down the biggest waves. It was my first time to a “developing” country. I loved it. Nicaragua is wild. The rainforest breathes a life of its own, concealed by a tangle of green, gatekeeper of ocean and sand. Breaking through the brush, the ocean roars. Like a symphony, the waves pull at the chords, their faces shimmering like glass blown, hearts cracked open, the adagio crashing into the final crescendo.

I didn’t surf, and I didn’t SUP, like I intended. My first attempt at entering the water ended in a mad scrabble with a mouth full of water and sand in every crack, crevice and orifice. Once I made it past the breakers, I was fine. Getting in, and getting out, was a test of resilience and determination. It surprised me, but it shouldn’t have. It went with the culture. Raw and  primitive, rough, it invogorated my senses.

Stretching our comfort zone is the biggest gift traveling gives us.

It stretched my limits in many ways. I drank a lot of margaritas with lime juice squeezed by hand, but I also wiped my ass and threw the dirty tissue into the plastic pail in the corner, like everyone else. No bathroom tissue, of any kind, went into the toilet. The pipes couldn’t handle any paper products, intended for it, or otherwise.

I said to Russ last weekend, when he came home from the store with kitchen napkins instead of toilet paper (because he couldn’t find any at three grocery stores), “Oh my God, we have turned into Nicaragua. I’ll be throwing shitty table napkins in the garbage can, so I don’t clog our pipes, just like I did there!”

He said, “Yeah, but at least Nicaragua had toilet paper.”

What does anyone say to that?

America has taken a hard turn. We are closer to being a developing nation than a global leader. Scarcity will become the new majority. Your, my, neighbors will go hungry. Even if it’s not right in front of your face, like it is for me, it’s still happening, regardless of whether you acknowledge it or not. What will you do? Will you turn a blind eye and pretend it’s not happening in your backyard? Or, will you be like a beautiful wave in Nicaragua and face it, shimmering, with an open heart?

Recently, my mom bought Everclear at the liquor store, in place of the elusive hand sanitizer. (Never thought I’d use “Mom” and “Everclear” in the same sentence.) Remarking about the turn of events, she said, “What a tsunami!”

She’s right.

It’s a shit show alright. 

Until further notice.

 

THIS IS THE LIFE

**The historic Uline Arena was restored and is now home to REI. The Uline Arena hosted the first Beatles concert in the USA in 1964.

COMMUTING

This morning, I fell in behind a smoker walking to work. He was smoking a cigarette, which is unusual these days. As a frequent pedestrian in DC, I’ve noticed the trend leans toward vaping or smoking weed. There’s no in between. Cigarettes are passé, like greenbacks. If a Washingtonian is not in possession of Apple Pay or plastic, his or her nutritional capabilities quickly dissolve into attritional liabilities.

In short, they will starve.

The man held the cigarette between his thumb and forefinger, his arm long, swinging by his side. The thin line of smoke snaked back and forth, as if his fingertips smoldered, like an evening campfire recently extinguished. He raised his hand to his face for a moment, before the arm resumed its tick-tock, a thick plume of smoke trailing behind him.

The guy walked just fast enough to stay ahead. The mushroom hung in the air behind him, dispersing like ash. I drifted, first to one side and then to the other, but it was no use.

I was reminded of all the times stuck behind  eighteen wheelers on the interstate, in the pouring rain, driving the truck and horse trailer, which wasn’t as easy to maneuver in traffic. Sheets of water sprayed from underneath their multiple tires, churning at the pavement, their mouths wide open like the writhing snakes adorning Medusa’s crown. My windshield reduced to that of frosted glass, before the blades wiped it clean, an erasure across a blackboard, cycling continuously for as long as the rain.

Commuting is a bitch sometimes, regardless if you’re a wayfarer, or behind the wheel.

DEMICS

The news just reported awards of $4,600 to volunteers willing to undergo injections of the coronavirus. They are seeking human guinea pigs.  After taxes, that’s roughly $3,400 in your pocket to be a specimen. Russ put his hand up and said, “Me! Me! Me!” I shook my head.

How much is a body worth?

The coronavirus feels oddly similar to the government shutdown of 2018/19. This is a pandemic, where the other was more of a…paleoendemic. Regardless of whether you fell victim to a forfeited income, or not, or whether you fall ill now (God forbid, die), or not, the trickle down effect is real, and it affects all of us.

Washington, like other urban areas, is pulling the shutters together and latching its doors. Cancelling plans is the name of the game, and teleworking is the  latest cultural movement. When the Houston Livestock Show and rodeo is cancelled, not to mention SXSW, we are up to our neck in the weeds. Living concealed, in complex life-support systems on Mars, the artificial environments necessary  to sustain life, is no longer a remote concept. We are moving ever closer, complete obligatory participation looming, here on Earth.

SERENDIPITY

A new book arrived yesterday, Writing Down The Bones, by Natalie Goldberg. This is her most popular work, the one that first put her name on the board. I ordered both of her books on the same day, but Wild Mind arrived two weeks ago. I buy my books from Amazon, but usually from third-party sellers, used. Any purchases I make elsewhere, using my Amazon Visa, accumulates a nice sum of points I then exchange for books ordered. The books feel free, which abates my guilt for ordering so many.

I cracked open Writing Down The Bones to find an inscription on the title page. It said, “Kelly, Happy 14th Birthday! Wishing you a life filled with writing! Best Wishes, Ruth and Michael O.” It made me smile. I thought to myself, “Kelly, you are one lucky kid, and Ruth and Michael, if you don’t know it yet, you are awesome!” 

Flipping through it, I found a bookmark on page 119. It’s from Provincetown Bookshop in Provincetown, MA.  My curiosity piqued, I pulled up the invoice, reviewing its tracking route. The book originated in Dallas/Fort Worth, TX. From there, it shipped to Glendale Heights, IL.  The next leg of it’s journey took it to York, PA. It hopped over to Annapolis Junction, MD., before jumping to Washington, DC. Then it arrived to its new home.

I wonder, where in the copy’s travels did Provincetown fit in, and where else did it go?

I don’t know why Writing Down The Bones took the scenic route, but I’m glad it did. Wild Mind read with a quick rhythm. So far, Bones has not. It’s a tougher slice to chew. Reading a lot of different books is not unlike riding a lot of different horses.

Toward the end of my equestrian career, I had clocked enough hours and experience in the tack to look back and understand the serendipity of timing. I earned an appreciation for why certain horses showed up in the barn and when.

They seemed to appear at just the right time. They were progressively more talented as time went on, but a few were exponentially more difficult too. The degree of difficulty presented was slightly beyond my proficiency. This challenged me, stretched my limits,  and took me to the next level, right along with them.

My own story would not read so well had some of them arrived much earlier in my career. Others wouldn’t have made such an impact on my riding if they had showed up much later than they did. It’s the same with books. They possess the same mystical talent, to surface at just the right time, when you need them most.

STRANGERDANGER

I picked up my new bike today. It’s been a year, and three and a half months, since I’ve ridden a bike or owned one. Not since Go Go Girl was stolen. It took that long to save up, especially in the midst of the unexpected medical bills last year, a brief chronicle of the times we find ourselves living in.

I picked it up at REI, the same place I purchased Go Go Girl. It wasn’t quite ready, so I went next door and ordered a beer at the local brewpub. I was nervous after not having ridden in so long. I thought a beer might help.

It did.

The tech tried to point out some of my bike’s features, such as the fact it only has one set of gears, versus two, like most bikes. (This supposedly equals efficiency).

White noise filled my head, drowning his words. This natural reaction occurs when someone directs tech-speak my way. Standing in REI, listening to this guy drone on (bless him), I thought back to the time a friend asked me a million questions about the car I had just purchased.

Does it come with GPS installed?” she asked.

“Umm, I don’t know…

It blew her mind. I knew nothing about the car I bought. What I did know was the car was small, it was diesel, super efficient, and it was fast.

All of my criteria were met. 

Just like the bike. It’s orange, comfortable, and has fat tires. That’s everything I need to know.

Boom, sold!

After the beer, I rode my bike home, my new Cannondale trail bike. I smiled the entire time, just like someone who drank a beer on an empty stomach, and was riding her new bike for the first time. It’s been so long. I forgot how much I missed the wind in my face, the freedom. I can’t wait for our biking adventures to start this spring. It’s one of the things Russ and I love doing together.

Russ asked me when I got home, “So what did you name the bike?”

Without missing a beat, I sang, “StrangerDanger!!

Some things are just meant to be.

 

Going Home

I’m reading Natalie Goldberg’s Wild Mind. She says beginning writers are literal, logical in their writing. In her words, “They need to loosen up.” She hit the nail on the head.  This is the crux of many challenges for me. I’ve always been literal in my thinking, my problem-solving, my speaking, my writing.

I take what someone says, or what they’ve written, exactly as it’s imparted. This can get complicated when someone speaks generally, makes a joke, or throws in some irony, just to spice things up. I can be very gullible, as much as I keep my radar switched on. This limit exists in my writing. So…Natalie suggests writing from a different perspective. Perhaps your dog’s.

So this one is for the dogs. 

This one is for Cracker.

Going Home

I was born last. You said when you first laid eyes on me, we were all nursing, lined up like Easter Peeps, one marshmallow pressed against another. We passed out sporadically, our bellies full,  before waking up to nurse again. This is how it went.

I was the smallest by far, even smaller than my two sisters. It was easy to tell who was who, even though we were the same black with the hint of a tan mask, tan toes. My brother was twice the size of us all. The strong one. The two sisters were petite, like twins. Then there was me.

My life was perfect. My mom loved us, and her mom who took care of us, loved us too. As we grew, we spent our time eating, then sleeping, playing, eating some more, playing some more, and sleeping yet again.

One day, she carried us outdoors, two in each hand. She knelt down and set us in the cool grass. The world was much bigger than I had ever imagined. My legs buckled at the vastness. Sitting there, the sun warmed my face for the first time. Eventually I slid apart until my belly rested against the smooth blades. I flipped over, scratching my back. A tiny growl erupted as I jerked back and forth, my belly poking one way, my legs kicking the other.

There are some things a dog is just born knowing how to do.

One day, the mom picked me up and carried me to her car. I curled up on her lap and went to sleep. I didn’t know what we were doing. When the car stopped, she unbuckled her seat belt and picked me up, opening the door. She had tears running down her face. I was scared. Why was she crying?

She held me up and handed me over, wiping away her tears. You put both of your hands out, scooping me up, holding me high on your chest.  Burying your face in the scruff of my neck, you soaked up my scent, that earthy, sweet smell all puppies have.

You spoke your first words to me. You said, “You were the last puppy. Everyone was spoken for, but you. I don’t know why it happened like this. It’s as if God saved you just for me, like it was written in the stars.”

Of course, you didn’t say those things out loud. I heard it in your heart, beating close to your skin, as you held me to your chest.

That was the day I became your dog.

It was the beginning of our journey together. You climbed back in the car, placing me on your lap, and wiped the corner of your eyes before the tears broke loose. I didn’t understand humans at all. They cried when they were sad, and they cried when they were happy. Confused and exhausted from the day’s events, I closed my eyes and went to sleep.

When we got home, I met the other dog who lived there. Another terrier, you called him “The Bad Terrier.” He wasn’t very nice, but I quickly learned you would protect me. That’s how I got the pass to sleep in bed at night, because “The Bad Terrier” couldn’t be trusted, even then.  Every night you picked me up and placed me on the bed. I dove under the covers and crawled all the way to the bottom. I slept there all night, stretched out against your leg, or tucked behind the crook of your knee.

We drove to the farm every day. Luckily, “The Bad Terrier” didn’t go with us. There were a lot of horses there. You spent all of your time talking to them. They weren’t very smart. Stupid horses.  I never understood, but you looked at them the same way you looked at me, your eyes glazed over in happiness, your heart brimming with love. This, when they were about as loyal as the leaves on a tree!

I realized then, this was a dog’s job in life, my job in life, to go where you went, on your journey, by your side, without understanding the why of it all. Humans hardly know why they do the things they do, so it’s impossible for us to know. It’s our job to shepherd you, to love and protect you, no matter what stupid things you do. Such as spending time with horses.

Only this is a dog’s job.

So you messed with those horses all day long, and I waited. A couple of cats lived at the barn. They were a lot better to spend time with than “The Bad Terrier,” not as contrarian. Both yellow and striped, they helped pass the time.

One day, you came around the corner and I was clutched around the older one. It was new for me to be in charge of something, even if they were twice the size of me, instead of “The Bad Terrier,” who bossed me around endlessly. Finally, I was the one in charge! Plus, I was horny all of the time. I couldn’t stop. You called it my “teenage years.”

One day, we got in the car, at this point I could jump in myself, and we drove not to the barn, but to another place. You picked me up and took me inside and left me there. Pretty soon I fell asleep. When I woke up, something was stinging me. I looked around, but I was by myself in a small cage, and I didn’t know where I was. I was so scared I started screaming, and crying, and howling. It was terrible. Eventually, someone showed up.

Shaking her head, she said, “How can such a little dog make so much noise.”

The audacity of it all!

She picked me up, I was still stinging, and handed me to a girl sitting at a desk. I wondered where you were and I decided I was going to ignore you when you showed up. I curled up on her lap and went to sleep. When you got there, they woke me. I was so happy to see you, I forgot I was mad. I decided to put it behind us. It was my job, as a good dog, to forgive you. Despite your good heart, I’ve got to tell you, you were a real lesson in patience sometimes.

I forgave you a lot.

Now standing behind the desk, the girl laughed, telling you the story of how I had demanded their attention. Such a big voice for a little dog! Secretly, she loved me, even if she was complaining about me. Humans are complicated like that, just like the crying. I didn’t tell her, the feeling was not mutual.

Who puts a dog in a cage?!

You chuckled, then said, “No dog belongs in a cage, especially not a puppy, especially not Cracker, and if you hadn’t picked him up, and I had shown up and he was screaming in the back, you’d have wished you had never met me!”

Of course, you didn’t actually say those words out loud, but I heard them in your heart, as you held me against your chest.

This is a dog’s greatest superpower.

I was a sore for a couple of days, but I was young and bounced back. It didn’t take long before you found me with the cats again. You were disappointed. That little operation hadn’t changed a thing. It takes more to change a terrier’s mind, and mine was set on those cats. My teenage years never quite ended. They just slowed down and lost traction as the years went by. I began to mellow.

We moved around a lot. The cats went with us, and the horses, but luckily, that was the end of “The Bad Terrier.” He stayed parked in the rear view mirror where he belonged. There were new farms, new horses, other dogs, other people, but it was the same everywhere we went. We followed those damn horses where they took us. I never could understand it. They ran through fences, ran down the middle of the road, routinely dumped you, broke each other’s legs in the field, and got upset tummys as sure as the sun would set.

What did you see in them?

How are they not extinct?

Horses are a losing proposition. The only time they were useful was when we went to a show. I jumped out of the truck and off I went. All the new dogs I met, new people patting me on the head. I checked everything out for a while taking my time. Eventually I narrowed down where the kitchen was. There was always one somewhere.

The smell of hot bubbly grease and steaming meat, hamburgers and hot dogs to be exact, was the best smell in the world. I usually made out with leftovers of some kind. I never worried about where you were while I was scouting. You were busy messing with those horses. You said you weren’t worried about me either because you’d hear “Oh my God, who’s that? Is that Cracker?! Oh my God, you are the cutest thing ever! Cracker!!” and then you’d know exactly where I was.

Sometimes, when the kitchen was far away from where the horses were set-up, I’d get nabbed by a trickster. They’d bend over petting me, tell me how cute I was, and then they’d whisk me off to jail. I was easily seduced and never saw it coming. I didn’t mind it though. I was always with someone, and they were happy to have me around. You  sent the girls to collect me, convinced they wouldn’t ask a poor working student to post bail. Sometimes it worked. Most of the time they had to pull the checkbook out of their back pocket, the check already marked with your signature.

It got a little expensive there for a while.

I loved the group walk we always did on these weekends. All of us going along for hours, up and down the hills. You silly people would stop now and then, scratching your heads, talking low, looking serious. Sometimes you’d take off your shoes and socks, rolling up your jeans, to walk through the pond. Being a dog is so much easier. We just run through the water. It was as simple as that.

Occasionally a couple of the groups would collide. I’d use the opportunity for a detour and head off with the others. You were always offended, accusing me of “shopping around for a better deal,” but it wasn’t that. Usually I knew someone, or someone’s dog, and it was purely a social opportunity.

It couldn’t be all about the horses, all of the time, sheesh.

I networked my way across hill n’ dale at the horse shows. It didn’t hurt any to keep you on your toes, make sure you didn’t take me for granted, which I knew, sometimes you did.

(To be honest, I knew everyone at these things. I’m just trying to not rub it in. Detours were happy accidents for the both of us, you just didn’t know it.)

We always packed up at the end of a weekend and went back home, horses in tow, though sometimes home changed as well. We’d land at a new barn, with new dogs, new people, and maybe a different cat, except for that one long dry spell when there were no cats. You held out hope I would forget the dirty dance I did with them, and truth be told, I almost did.

But then you got Kitten, who wasn’t yellow, but black and white this time, and it all came right back. All those years and the cats never fussed, proof of a terrier’s superiority. In case you don’t know, the hierarchy went like this:

#1) You.

#2) Me.

#3) Terriers.

#4) The Dogs.

#5) The Cats.

#6) The Horses.

#7) “The Bad Terrier.”

One time, I heard someone say, “Terriers are shaped like a football for a reason.” I think this was in reference to me. They didn’t understand there are two types of terriers: good terriers and bad terriers, just like there are two types of people: smart ones and dumb ones.

Guess which group that person belonged to?

I wanted to do him a favor and pinch him on the ankle to get the blood flowing back to his brain, but I decided, there are some people you just can’t help. Besides, trying to save you from yourself every single day was taxing enough.

As I got older, I slowed down. Spending time outdoors in the winter became harder. I slept late and lingered longer under the covers. Some days you dove in and chased me, grabbing for a spare leg, before carrying me to the car. At least you had the decency to leave it running with the heat on after we arrived. You’d peek through the window every couple of hours to check on me, but I’d curl up tighter and close my eyes pretending I didn’t see you. People just shook their heads.

They asked, “How much is all that gas costing you?”

You just smiled and never said a word.

By noon, the chill would have parted for the sunbeams, and I’d stand up and stretch, standing on the door handle, my wet nose pressed against the glass. You’d open the door, sometimes leaning over from the back of a horse, already thick in your day. Jumping down, my day was just getting started.

One day you brought an electric blanket to the tack room, which helped on the coldest days. That was the same winter the barn and house were next to each other, so it made more sense to trot back home after morning constitutions around the farm. I stood on the front steps, staring at the door. I’d growl and back up a couple of steps, before throwing my head back in full yip, one after the other, my front toes popping off the ground every time. You accused me of being old and confused, thinking you were magically in the house, and not at the barn where I left you.

Silly girl, I knew you were at the barn, but it got you to the house, didn’t it?

Soon after, there were no more horses. We didn’t go to the barn anymore, which was fine by me. I liked being in the house where the temperature was always just right. The hardest part during that time, besides you being a nervous wreck, was not having Darby.

She was my best friend.

I remember when she came to live with us.

You said, “Cracker, I got you a girlfriend. She’s really tall, so there will  be no competition for my lap. Only you get to sleep there.”

I did not think this was a good idea. At all. But she showed up nonetheless, and I taught her the ropes. Imagine, a sighthound loose on hundreds of acres! But she came when you called her, because I always came no matter whose name you were bellowing, and she followed me everywhere.

(You’re welcome.)

Every now and then she’d get a little full of her britches and take off running back to the barn from the arena. The barn sat up high on the hill and the driveway was long to get there. That bitch was fast. I hate to say, it’s the only time I envied her, that silly looking dog covered in stripes with her needle nose, legs like a praying mantis, her body long and thin.

One time we were standing by the barn when Darby took off down the hill towards the arena, so naturally,  I took off after her. Before I knew it, the sighthound was out of sight. You said later we both disappeared over the hill before you saw Darby come back up the other side. You spotted the deer she was after.

The deer leaped through the air easy-breezy before they realized that sighthound was on them. (I was still nowhere to be seen). Then those deer got stupid because they got scared. She ran on their heels pretty good before their senseless zigzagging ended with them darting over the fence line. Darby doubled back when she reached the end of the property, loping along, tongue wagging off the side. That’s when you saw me, yip yippin’, running up the hill as fast as I could, which was pretty fast I have to say, just not Darby fast.

She was spectacular across the countryside.

Then there was the time you piled all this stuff on the couch and pushed the coffee table against its edge to keep Darby off while you were gone for a few hours. You came home to cushions strewn across the floor, and claw marks every which way, like a bad abstract pencil sketch, across the top of the coffee table. You were pissed, but honestly, you should have seen it. She had all four feet on the table before she discovered it was slick. All of those long legs scrambling, like a cartoon character, slip sliding everywhere.

Another time you left to do something in the barn and came home to find the entire lasagna eaten out of the pan sitting on the counter. Nothing else was out of place. The pan was in the exact spot you left it, licked clean. You looked at both of us like, “Which one of you did this???,” hands on your hips, but really, was there ever any question?

Darby made me look good.

(That was hard to do, I was already really good, especially for a terrier.)

Remember the time she thought it was a good idea to jump on the roof of the barn from the deck? Once again, she scribbled an abstract sketch with her claws, this time using chalk, as the roof was covered in a thin layer of frost.

You hit the bottle after that one. Who could blame you? I thought she was a goner too, but she wasn’t. She was just fine.

Yep, Darby made me look even better than I was already.

She could run really fast, and she could reach the lasagna, but she couldn’t fit on your lap, or in the front seat, or under the covers. As it turns out, you were right. I was grateful for the spaces where only I could fit, and I was grateful for Darby’s friendship, too.

With no horses around anymore, I became an indoor dog. I had long given up the cats, and other dogs too. If they weren’t my size and my age…well…I just looked the other way. I socialized with dogs who moved the same speed and that’s it. I had been rolled pretty hard a couple years before by a stranger. I stood up quivering and scared, confused. The young pup hit me like a cyclone. I didn’t know what happened.

As a Jack Russell, I got rolled plenty in my time by other dogs, including Darby when she ran over the top of me. They found it good sport. Until I got back on my feet, anyway. No one could fathom a twelve pound Cujo, but that’s what happened.

The youngster didn’t mean any harm, but it was a turning point in our relationship, you and me. When you scooped me up, you were shaking too. You held me firmly against your chest, to steady the both of us, I think. You didn’t cry, but I heard your heart break into a million little pieces. You whispered in my ear, “That will never, ever, happen again, my little friend. I am so sorry. I will never let any dog hurt you ever again.”

And you didn’t. We had switched places then. Now it was you who shepherded me. You became my eyes, my ears. When I slowed down, you slowed down too, matching my step. People were always in a hurry on the sidewalks and you shielded me when I stopped, which I did a lot.

You made them go around. 

I started to sleep more during the week, while you were at work, which was fine by me. On the weekends, you carried me around, either in your arms or in a backpack. This was an improvement to the bags I was zipped in countless times, going in and out of hotels at the horse shows.

One day, you found a lump. It was on my neck, not a little one, but a big one. It made my collar tight. The vet called it a “Mast Cell Tumor.” He said it wasn’t exactly cancer, but kind of. You went home, of course, and consulted Dr. Google. You learned Mast Cells are the Delta Force of Operation Cancer. These highly-skilled soldiers swarm their target, ruthless and undetected. No one knows they’re there, until they start shooting.

In two weeks, it went from bad to worse. Not only were The Mast Cells winning the battle, but they were winning the war too. You cried a lot those two weeks.

We ended up right where we began.

You lifted me carefully into your arms, only the tears streamed down your face this time, twisted in anguish.  You wailed. The pain sapped the marrow from deep inside your bones, washing over the blood in your veins. I was in pain, too, and you knew it.

I want you to know:

The heart sings this song of pain and suffering as a reminder.

It was real.

It happened.

You.

Me.

The path we walked. 

Ram Dass said, “We’re just walking each other home.”

He’s right.

We are.

Humans are complicated. They need many teachers along the way. This is why our lives are so short and yours are so long. We do our best, and then we must leave, making room.

You’ll have another dog, someday, when you’re ready. In fact, you’ll probably have a few at once, because let’s face it, I was like three dogs bundled together.

That’s going to be hard to replace.

I’m home now.

But I want you to know something else.

When I walked alongside you…

Home was wherever you were.

—Cracker