Today, I am thankful for anal sphincters. As we learned in my Anatomy & Physiology class this week, we all have two of them–an internal and an external–and relaxation of both is [usually] required for defecation. The internal anal sphincter is made of smooth muscle and relaxes involuntarily in response to signals from the parasympathetic nervous system. Even if your brain decides it’s time to poop, you won’t until you consciously relax the skeletal muscle of the external anal sphincter. Since potty training, we’ve all relied on this two-step method to keep us tidy. And boy, do we take it for granted!
Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh has this bit about a toothache, how when you have a toothache, happiness = not having a toothache. But during all the other moments in our lives, when we do not have a toothache, do we equate this state with happiness?
At 5 AM this morning, I came to appreciate Hanh’s wisdom in a new way, when I awoke with tremendous intestinal distress. I never realized the beauty of those little sphincters and the happiness I enjoy when everything works flawlessly. What a flood they can contain!
Until they can’t.
This morning I shit my own bed. Just a little, but still. It was awful and humiliating and just a fraction of the malevolence my body experienced in the grip of this…food poisoning, norovirus, or whatever. I will never take those sphincters for granted again.
I ended up spending Thanksgiving Day in bed with my dog. It made me sad, watching friends post photos of Turkey Trots and get-togethers on Facebook. I was supposed to be at my sister’s house, where the presence of her fun in-laws would have provided a buffer for our usual family nonsense. And I wanted to hang with my niece, who has finally become a consistent and loving part of my life now that she’s old enough for me to communicate with directly. I eat all but a handful of meals alone every month, and I was really looking forward to a collective dinner experience. Plus I’m a shit cook, so I was psyched about eating a really great meal.
Instead, my “Thanksgiving dinner” was an egg and some applesauce when I finally felt like I could keep something down. Or rather…in.
In some ways, though, I am grateful for the intestinal intervention. My sister terrifies me, and it was a virtual certainty that I would do or say, or not do or not say, something that would incur her wrath–if not now, then passive aggressively months in the future. I was nervous about the day going well, which probably did not help my digestion–or the terrible food choices I made yesterday, when I was stress eating. This GI situation was a blessing in disguise.
A very, very clever toilet-paper disguise.
I am acutely aware that, even with poop on my sheets, this year’s Thanksgiving was better than last year’s. Last year, in the middle of dinner, my nephew made a fat joke at my expense. His comment hurt less than the fact that it was met with stony silence from the four adults–his parents and my parents–who also heard it. Not one of them stood up for me or took him to task in any way. There was just a slight pause, then everyone went back to eating. When I consider how my sister and I were reared, and the emphasis our parents placed on manners and deference to adults, their silence was shocking. Essentially, the message delivered to my nephew that day was, “Even though you are a child, you are not obliged to respect your aunt. Say whatever cruel things you want, we don’t care. She does not have our respect, and she doesn’t merit yours.”
It was humiliating. More humiliating, even, than being sick and getting poop on my sheets and having no one to help me clean it up.
So, this Thanksgiving will not go down as the worst in my life, because there is more to holidays than dress-up clothes and savory dishes and white linen tablecloths.
Just like there is more to dignity than successfully containing your poop. Not much more, but more: I took care of myself, I took care of my dog, and I didn’t hurt anyone. I did the best I could in a shitty (!) situation, just like those little sphincters. We’ll bounce back, all of us, and contain the flood another day.
This story is the perfect metaphor for our time, because it is inherently ironic. As Paul Fussell argues in The Great War & Modern Memory, irony is the “dominant form of modern understanding.” Even more so now, because: hipsters. Of war, Fussell writes, “Irony is the attendant of hope, and the fuel of hope is innocence.” But he could just as easily have been talking about polar bears. People saw the original post and thought, “Awww.” (Hope) And then we learned, “Oh, actually, a polar bear ate a helpless dog trapped on a chain, and the dude has been charged with a crime.” (Irony)
This story is the perfect metaphor for our time, because people saw the original post and thought, “Awww.” Because dogs are cute! Polar bears are cute! Polar bears petting dogs: SOOO CUTE! People reacted in an emotional way to something that made them feel good. And it made them feel good because it affirmed their preexisting ideas about the world: that the aforementioned animals are cute, that life is like a Disney movie, that everything is going to be effortlessly ok. It is easy and convenient to think that way. Questioning the wisdom that’s before you, figuring out what’s missing, factoring in context, deferring to experts–that’s hard. Why exert so much effort when you can just anthropomorphize a polar bear and pretend that domesticated animals like to be stroked by apex predators!
This story is the perfect metaphor for our time, because people know nothing about nature. Nature is beautiful, but it is also cruel. And the cruelty is, in its own way, beautiful. Predators are relentlessly singleminded: they think primarily about food. The only thing that might take their minds off food is fucking. If you’re a predator, and it’s not fucking time, then it’s food time. That’s pretty much it. There is no such thing as “Predator Netflix & Chill.”
This story is a perfect metaphor for our time, because people know nothing about animal behavior–not polar bear behavior, not even dog behavior. The polar bear wasn’t “petting” the dog; it was sizing up the dog to see whether it was food. And the dog clearly wasn’t enjoying the experience. The dog was trying to remain small and then move slowly away from the bear, being careful not to behave like prey, which would trigger the bear’s prey instinct. I’ve seen my own dog do this around bigger dogs. The owner of the dog sanctuary claimed that the dogs were left out to provide protection, but that is epically stupid, because the dogs were tied up. Dogs are vulnerable when leashed, and they know it. Anyone who has walked a dog, let alone mushed with one, ought to know that too. This guy basically set up an All-Bears-Can-Eat Canine Buffet. My first reaction when I saw the video was, “OMG!” Followed by: “Whoever is responsible for leaving dogs out in polar bear country, and taking away their ability to run or fight, ought to be brought up on charges of animal cruelty.”
This story is a perfect metaphor for our time, because the guy responsible was, in fact, brought up on charges–in Canada. Thankfully, there are still some places in the world where laws are designed to protect nature, and you get called out for being a moron. Unfortunately, the United States is not one of those places.
This story is the perfect metaphor for our time, because global warming is affecting northern latitudes profoundly, bringing bears and people (and their dogs) more frequently into contact with one another. The polar bears in this story were struggling to feed themselves, as evidenced by the dog sanctuary owner leaving food out for the bears. He was kind-hearted, but dim-witted. The bears do need help, but not help that desensitizes them to being around people, which will only cause them to be relocated or killed when (not if) they hurt someone while acting like predators (see above). The bears don’t need food. What they need is legislation to protect wild areas from human encroachment and to limit carbon dioxide emissions that warm the planet, melt the ice caps, limit the bears’ mobility, and imperil their non-dog food supply.
This story is the perfect metaphor for our time, because it exposes how most Americans consume information: without a second’s thought. The original video went shooting across the Internet like a comet seen by millions of people. The grisly epilogue trails along behind, like dimly lit space garbage, seen mostly by grumpy liberals who like being right more than they like feeling good.
This story is the perfect metaphor for our time, because it ends with a helpless dog getting eaten by a vicious predator. And then the predator dies, because its habitat is ruined. And then all the people that ruined its habitat go get dinner at the Arctic Circle’s first-ever Red Lobster, serving “fresh” shrimp from Thailand with cheddar biscuits and a side of mercury dipping sauce. It will be sunny and 65F at the North Pole, so we can all sit on the patio and tilt our faces to the light. Someone will say, “Remember when it used to get cold and Santa had to wear a fur-trimmed coat?” And someone else will say, “I can’t even remember the last time I saw a polar bear.” And some little kid will ask, “What’s a polar bear?” And no one will answer, because we’re all dead. (Apologies to Tim O’Brien.)
This story is the perfect metaphor for our time, because it means nothing, changes nothing.
I was so worried about the possible return of my dad’s melanoma (biopsy result: negative) that I never saw it coming: the routine, outpatient cataract surgery.
It’s never good when your sister calls, and the first thing she says is, “Dad is still alive.” Because if that’s the metric by which you’re measuring good news, then the news is gonna suck.
My dad is a cardiac patient–never had a heart attack, but his brother has had two. My dad takes a blood thinner, blood pressure medication, and a statin for cholesterol. I learned recently that he walks around with nitroglycerin pills. A doctor I went on a first-date with described my dad’s complex of pathologies as a “ticking time bomb.”
The bomb didn’t go off, but it did start hissing and steaming right on the operating table. My dad’s BP spiked partway through the procedure, and a blood vessel burst in the back of his eye, forcing the eyeball forward and causing a bunch of delicate tissues to shift and collapse. The surgeon did something, and then he did something else, and then he had to snip some teeny ligament and stitch his eyelid closed. I can’t quite recall all the details. They packed the eye with gauze and put a big clear plastic bandage over it, like a window, so you can see the swelling and bruising peeking out behind the gauze. As I rushed to the hospital (I was on second shift, supposed to spend the night with my parents and drive them to the routine followup appointment tomorrow), I texted my sister to see if she’d seen him and find out how he looked.
“Like hell,” was her answer. She was not exaggerating.
They admitted him, and he slept most of the day. While he was sleeping, my sister mentioned that she thought no one had actually told him his prognosis. She had been there since 6:30 AM, so she left after about 13 hours, and I did the late shift with my mom. She had a million questions, and every time we told her, it was emotionally wrenching because the Alzheimer’s wiped her memory clean every goddam time.
And then my dad finally woke up, and I fed him grapes and jello, and he started asking questions too.
Today I had to tell my father that he is very likely blind in one eye and may never drive a car again. I only had to tell him once. I must have told my mom 20 times.
This is my new baseline for a shitty day, I think.
J* told me once that hospitals are full of families who never thought they would be there when they woke up that morning. Today that family was us. I am grateful my dad is cognitively ok, that he did not have a heart attack or stroke, and that he still has one good eye. That is not the standard by which I originally planned to measure this day, but I suppose it’s good enough going forward.
Hello there, faithful readers. I apologize for my silence these last few weeks. My attentions have been focused on:
Logistics for travel to my cousin’s funeral. Must remember to rent second car! And cancel backup rooms! And figure out rides for my crazy, maddeningly incompetent uncle!
Helping my bestie prepare for her wedding, which unfortunately takes place the day after my cousin’s funeral. Flowers! Favors! It’s fun, and I’m loving the time I’ve spent with her. Plus I am getting REALLY good at zipping naked ladies into wedding gowns.
WORK, but not enough WORK. I am terribly stressed about WORK.
Anatomy & Physiology II, which is proving very, very tough. I currently have a C average, but not for lack of trying. The instructor’s competence does not extend much beyond the material itself. She cannot use PowerPoint effectively, her lectures lack discipline and focus, we are so far behind that she has had to dramatically revise the syllabus, and she is getting pwned by the students when she goes over test answers. I can’t blame them–the lady can’t write a coherent test question to save her life. The entire class is frustrated and demoralized. As my mom would say, “HISS, BOO.”
My own illness… a little upper respiratory thing that has laid me low. Like the last two colds I have had, it is sinking into my chest, which makes me wonder about the health and resilience of my immune system. Getting older sucks, you know? At least now I know that my lymphocytes and basophils are the problem.
My dad’s health. I am on tenterhooks today waiting to learn if his cancer (malignant melanoma) has returned, and he has cataract surgery later this week. We need him healthy for his own sake, but also because my mother’s quality of life will decline dramatically–as in, have to move into assisted living, dramatically–if he isn’t able to care for himself and for her. I am… worried.
Lots of little things. Just life in middle age, I guess. I wish I had someone to go buy me more kleenex. Or snake my bathtub drain. Or ask me how it’s going at the end of the day.
Because it’s hard keeping all these plates spinning, as I am sure you know from your own life.
Someone impugned my “independence” recently, implying that I am not an independent woman. Um, to that person, see above, because that’s just a sample of the plates I am spinning. And when one breaks, I sweep up the pieces and save them for craft projects! So, FUCK YOU, frenemy who confuses needing help with dependency. If I didn’t have a bad cold and lingering depression, I would rule this world!
I am thinking about jumping into the Wayback Machine. No, not the Internet Archive, more like the WABAC Machine from Rocky & Bullwinkle. “Jumping into the Wayback Machine” is what I call “using the Internet to reconnect with people from your past.” In any case, I’ve been thinking about an ex boyfriend. He is much younger than me, and I have no (nor ever had any) illusions about a future for us. So I am not looking to rekindle anything. But I am curious how he’s doing, and I don’t like how we left things.
Also, I’m bored.
The Wayback Machine is a funny thing. Jumping in usually leads to disaster and humiliation, like when I travelled to visit a high school crush a few years ago and got so drunk from drinking in a hot tub for six hours that I was hungover for two days. I know, I know, you’re not supposed to drink in a hot tub! How did every single person in the world get this memo except for me? The hangover wasn’t even the worst of it. The tears! The drunken tears!! It is mortifying in retrospect. I unfriended him on Facebook a year later, after we got into an email pissing contest over whether Sarah Palin was qualified to be president. During our Wayback Rendezvous, I accidentally peed his bed, then lied about it, and I’m kind of glad, because honestly. There’s more, but I think I’ve made my case:
The Wayback Machine is a threat to basic human dignity.
On the other hand, I have a friend who met her husband that way. She got in touch, out of the blue, with her old college boyfriend twenty years on. They flirted, he traveled to meet her, he booked a hotel room that he never used. They dated long distance, he moved here, he moved his children here, and they made a family. They’ve been married a year, and by all accounts seem blissfully happy. In fact, they write each other a love poem every day. It’s kind of nauseating. And amazing!
I haven’t yet reached out, but through the miracle of Facebook, I was able to glean a little of my ex’s life, namely that he still likes hockey and that he’s lost all his hair. Clicking on “Message” brought up our last correspondence, which ended abruptly in August 2010. He was back in town for the summer, and I tried to get together, but he blew me off a couple of times, then returned to law school without ever seeing me. I called him out on it, it didn’t go well, and then I cheerfully and abruptly unfriended him.
I regret it. He was fun and funny and a good person. There was no reason not to keep him on as a friend. But my feelings were hurt that he didn’t want to see me, and I was disappointed that when I nearly died (truly), all he could muster was a two-word text: “Be well.” I wish I had handled the whole thing better, but I suppose I did my best. I could do better now.
I haven’t decided whether to write to him, but scrolling back through our last few exchanges in the Facebook Message app, something curious caught my eye.
It was a year before I was up for tenure, and I was working furiously on my book, which was moving through the publication process at a glacial pace. I was worried I wouldn’t make it–that the book wouldn’t be far enough along, that I was creating an argument for my colleagues to vote against me. No tenure means you’re fired, I had just assumed a mortgage, I was nearly broke, and I had never had a grownup job outside of academia. I was scared.
Meanwhile, my ex was struggling to find his first job after law school and had suggested, only half-joking, that he might become a bike messenger. In commiseration with his frustration at an uncertain future, I wrote:
Sorry to hear about the lousy job market. If law school doesn’t pan out, I suggest nursing. That’s my Plan B.
I have no recollection of thinking about nursing at the time, though much of that year is a blur due to some major health problems that landed me in the hospital a few months later. I don’t know, in retrospect, if I was kidding about nursing, or serious, or both. I had long joked that my Plan B was to join the Army, and I paid attention to the maximum age for enlistment, making note a few years ago when I aged past it. Nursing has for years been in the news because of the anticipated shortage, so I’m sure I was aware–and envious–of the choices nurses have for employment. I have also thought about second careers in social work (not enough money) or police work (not enough patience). If I were a social worker, I would likely lose my house. And if I were a cop, I would definitely lose my temper–and then probably get shot with my own gun.
Even if I was kidding about it, I was thinking about it. Because there it is in a message I typed at 11:21 PM on October 10, 2009.
It wasn’t meeting J* in 2014, who also turned to nursing late in life, or reconnecting with my friend from high school, who graduated with her BSN last year before returning to her previous profession. (Unfortunately, that’s not an option in academia. Leaving the professoriate is a one-way trip–what a friend likened to leaving a parking lot by driving over the tire spikes. You can get out, but you are FUCKED.) No, those friends didn’t give me the idea of becoming a nurse as a second career. They just demonstrated that it was possible.
To an extent I didn’t realize, until I saw that old message in my personal Wayback Machine, I have been thinking about this for a long, long time.
If you’ve been watching the Democratic convention this week, you’ve seen a lot of women in the audience with tears streaming down their faces. On my Facebook page, several female friends have commented that they have been crying too. I’ve lost it a few times. In fact, last weekend, sitting in a theater watching the “Ghostbusters” reboot with my niece and nephew–who were enjoying it immensely, totally oblivious to the transgressive nature of an all-female cast–it happened again.
What is going on?? We can’t all be on our periods!
At the same time, I’ve noticed in public discourse, and especially among my students, a distinct ennui. I think Hillary Clinton has been in the public eye so long, and women have come so far, that many people–especially young people–regard her candidacy as an inevitability. I thought about pointing out the historical significance of her nomination in my own classroom this afternoon, and trying to explain all the tears. As a humanities professor, it would be mostly within bounds. But in the end, I didn’t want to incur the heavy sighs, eye rolls, and negative online comments that would surely result. I kept silent.
This is what I would have told them:
When my mother went to college in 1959, she had three career options reasonably available to her: secretary, nurse, or teacher. Back then, college for women was regarded as a fall-back in case they didn’t get married. My mother became a teacher. I wonder what she might have done if she’d had more choices.
When my sister was a little girl, her class took a field trip to the local firehouse. The boys were allowed to climb on the big red truck and sit in the cab, but the girls were not. Because, the little girls were told as they watched the boys play, you can’t become firemen when you grow up. (Not firefighters, firemen.)
When I was in fourth grade, our class did a big unit on the Middle Ages. There were many assignments and academic opportunities to earn points. The student with the highest number of points would become “king,” which conferred certain privileges in the class. I worked my ass off, and I bested the nearest competitor–a boy, Jim J*********i, whose name I will never forget–by 10 or 15 points. On the verge of me–a girl–becoming “king” of the class, my teacher decided that a leader should also be able to demonstrate strength–physical strength. The entire class was marched down to the gym, where we all had to demonstrate how many pull-ups we could do. I did 2 or 3 (I was not an athlete). Jim did over 20. With each additional pull-up, the class cheered him, and I watched the value of my academic success diminish. Jim became king, not me. I felt betrayed and bereft. I can’t imagine how the girl in my class with cerebral palsy, who couldn’t even reach for the bar, must have felt.
When I was a junior in high school, I had a picture of Janis Joplin–a famous nude that I cut out of an anniversary edition of Rolling Stone magazine–in my locker. Some boys broke into my locker, tore up the picture, and scrawled “dyke” all over the door. My friend Alicia saw them do it, and she told me their names. I reported them to the disciplinary officer, who did nothing.
Also in high school, my health teacher–a man charged by our state with teaching young people about sex and relationships–announced on the first day of class that he would be assigning seats. He said, out loud, to a room full of boys and girls, that he would be putting all the pretty girls in the front row. And he did it. (Yes, I sat in the back.)
My senior year, I was repeatedly and aggressively groped by a hulking sack of shit named Kurt F*****n as I walked in the crowded halls of my high school. I did not report it, because why would I? In fact, at the time, I didn’t really understand that there was something wrong with what he did–that my body was mine, and no one had a right to touch it without my consent.
In college in the early ’90s, I was the only woman in a class in a male-dominated field. One woman, in a class of ninety. I had two majors and took a million credits, and yet I only had 7 or 8 female professors in four years of college. At present, I am part of a faculty in which women are well represented, but I have also worked on a faculty in which women were just five of forty.
(There is no way, in an age when a majority of doctorates in my field go to women, that that number is not the result of systemic discrimination. Two years after leaving there, I was approached by a female faculty member who was considering a lawsuit over equal pay.)
In the workplace, I have dealt with harassment in a few contexts, including my present job. Every time my former dean inquired about my dating life, discussed pornography, talked about my body, stared at my breasts, or patted my head like a dog, I felt angry, humiliated, and powerless.
I once took an inventory of my friends and realized that the number of girls and women I know who had been sexually assaulted ran into the double digits. Eighteen months ago, I added myself to that list. Only one of all those cases was reported to the police, and none of them resulted in prosecution, let alone someone being convicted of a crime.
This is my inventory, after just 44 years. When I think back on it, I feel sad and angry, but mostly just weary. I and my mother and sister and most of my friends–we are middle-class white ladies. Women decades older than me, poor women, women of color–I can’t imagine the inventories they must have, the indignities they must have endured.
Why are all the ladies crying?
We are crying because we are thinking about all the times we felt afraid, objectified, degraded, diminished, and powerless–because we were women.
And we are thinking back to the girls we once were, and to the women who came before us. We are crying because we thought we might never live to see this day.
And we are so fucking proud–politics aside–to finally see a woman standing up there.
Last weekend I made another trip back to my old stomping grounds, the college town where I went to graduate school. For a variety of reasons, I decided to stay over Monday night too. My friend & hostess suggested we could go tubing that evening when she was done with work, but we hemmed and hawed about it all day long. Then I decided: fuck it, we should go. Just go.
Forty-minute drive to the parking area. Wait a few minutes for some other friends. Short walk to the put-in. Compulsory discussion of how to get my fat ass in a tube. Unceremonious leaping. Some selfies in the lagoon. Drifting and spinning, drifting and spinning. The languorous pace of the current was initially frustrating to my city-girl need to go-go-go, but I eventually settled in. Slow but steady progress down the river.
Drifting, spinning. The river takes control. You don’t fight it, unless you get hung up on the rocks, which is usually your own damn fault for picking a bad line. Then your ass drags the bottom in a punishingly undignified metaphor that perfectly encapsulates the folly of your error. Go where the water runs deepest. That is the path. The river knows.
We saw a lot of wildlife. A doe and her shy fawn trotted parallel to the bank. A fisher or mink darted into the overgrowth. Kingfishers swooped back and forth across the water. A great blue heron stood still as a sentry in the shallows.
And then, in front of us, on a narrow stretch of river in which the hill on one side and the tall trees on the other created the feeling of a canyon, we saw it: a bald eagle.
The eagle swooped in from the left, turned towards us, and followed the river’s path right over our heads. Its wingspan was huge, intimidating. The yellow beak and dark eye pressed against the white of that distinctive head–it was like something out of a painting. Sure, one of those terrible, bellicose, patriotic meme-paintings, but a painting nonetheless. We were so close, perhaps only 30 or 40 feet below, that we could make out individual feathers as it passed by. It was stunning.
“Epic,” said my friend.
The encounter lasted eights seconds, ten tops. The eagle flew upstream and veered right, disappearing around the bend. We all agreed, it was an awesome sight. Rare. A true gift.
And, as I realized on the long drive home yesterday, a miracle of timing.
If the river were running a little faster. If the rocks had hung us up a little longer. If our friends arrived before us. If we had stopped off to buy beer. If I had gone home instead of staying over. If I hadn’t come to town at all. If my friend and I had never met.
The encounter with the eagle–brief, powerful, and random–made me think of everyone I have known and all the people I have loved. There is probably a sacred math to explain all the vectors and intersections that allow us to find and know and love one another.
If I had used a different exit. If I had sat in a different seat. If I had gone to a different school. If there hadn’t been a war that delayed my parents’ marriage. If I had swiped left instead of right. If he had swiped right instead of left. The smallest variable can make all the difference.
I am grateful for the love I have, but I wonder where other choices might have led me. We saw an eagle fly right over our heads. Who knows? Perhaps if we had been a minute earlier, we might have seen a bear. Or a minute later… and nothing at all.
I hope wherever you are, you are celebrating your independence with friends and family!
As for me, I am parked on the couch listening to Chopin and doing everything I can to delay wading into a lake of email that’s a mile wide and a thousand miles deep. The Fourth of July is one of those holidays I love (along with New Year’s and Halloween) that also makes me a little sad. Because I have nowhere to go! My social network is rather like a sprawling fishing net–vast, durable, but with a very loose weave. I have several good friends here and there, and over there again, but most of them do not know one another, and the majority do not live nearby. I listen to the sounds of festive gatherings when I walk my dog around the neighborhood, we both drool over the smell of barbecue, and it feels a bit like I am missing out.
I would like to be independent from this feeling! And from the work that is piling up, and the weeds in the garden, and the grime that sullies my carpet. I suspect today’s Big Treat will be renting a carpet steam-cleaner (first time ever!) at the hardware store. MY LIFE IS EPIC.
I have had a few memorable Fourths of July, and I’m sure there will be more someday. Since the alternative is soul-crushing email, I’ll share the good ones here with you.
Decades and decades ago, I visited friends in Washington, DC, which hosts a phenomenal series of free public entertainments around the Fourth. On a whim, we decided to try for fireworks on the National Mall and set off late and without provisions to join the enormous crowd. We ended up right at the base of the Washington Monument–prime real estate–where we nestled into the gaps between blankets to watch the Blind Boys of Alabama, who put on a great show. People all around us had set up nearly permanent encampments, with coolers of booze and bags and bags of food. And at this point, with less than an hour to fireworks, they were starting to realize that everything they didn’t consume would have to be carted home. Plus everyone was super drunk and friendly, so my group ended up eating and drinking for free, as our sunburned blanket-neighbors sought to eat and drink down their provisions. Then the fireworks started, and as I recall, they were awesome–a fully choreographed show that featured the voices of Ronald Reagan and John Wayne. We looked up into the night sky, mouths agape, as fireworks splashed behind the Washington Monument like a postcard come to life.
I’ve also attended Columbus, Ohio’s “Red, White, and Boom!” Fourth of July celebration. For some reason–maybe my young age at the time, maybe my deep inebriation–that crowd was much scarier than Washington, DC’s. Then again, there is something vaguely menacing about the potent mix of corn, obesity, and evangelism that is the Midwest.
I spent three summers in Wyoming in my youth, but I don’t recall any Fourth of July celebrations–probably because every night out there involved a keg party and a barbecue, usually on a lake with mountains in the distance. Plus fireworks were banned in the national park where I lived.
In grad school, I lived in a small town where everyone had their secret spot to watch fireworks from afar. I definitely enjoyed some heteronormative Fourth potlucks when I was in a long-term relationship there. These events always culminated in camp chairs, mosquitos, and a radio finely tuned to the music accompanying the distant show.
After I was single, the Fourth became the lonelier, hit-or-miss affair it is today. I used to live in a little house along a creek, where the shooshing water and the din of the frogs kept me company all summer long. My first Fourth there, I figured out that I was able to see and hear fireworks from my living room window, and I could simulcast the local TV station’s broadcast of the event. One year, I was watching the fireworks on TV, but nothing was happening out the window. Turns out, the fireworks were cancelled due to technical difficulties, but the TV station couldn’t have dead air. So they just broadcast an old version and called it live!
Another year, a close friend was in the process of moving out of state over the long weekend, and she was eager to get the security deposit back on her apartment. She never focused too keenly on housekeeping, though, so cleaning her kitchen proved a mighty task. After her other friends bailed to attend various Fourth parties, I stayed–and spent several hours scraping melted soap and wax off the interior of her range top (from making soap and candles; we’re crafty!). I was vaguely mad about this, because that year I was invited to two parties, one of which had a band, plus it was my last summer in that town. But I also loved spending time with my friend and knowing that we were the kinds of friends who could know each other’s secrets–really dirty secrets, like what’s living under the refrigerator–without judgment. We finally quit working on the kitchen at dusk and drove out to a lonely ridge to watch the town fireworks, with the music piped in on the car radio. The display was a few miles away, like watching fireworks on a postage stamp. But it was beautiful.
Years ago, when I was in Peak Happy at my job, I convened with some work friends at their home in the country to celebrate the Fourth. We had a fabulous meal that stretched out over hours, then we popped our adult beverages into opaque containers and strolled a few blocks into “town” to watch the fireworks. It was a modest display, not that long, not super fancy or expensive. But I think of all the fireworks I’ve seen, it was my favorite. Here’s why:
Impressiveness of Display ÷ Hassle of Getting There = Fireworks Success
One should always judge fireworks using this formula. Sure, the Big Apple’s fireworks are mind-blowing. But is it really worth 9 hours squatting in Central Park, getting sunburned and having to wait in line an hour to buy weed (or pee), followed by an Incredible Journey-type trek with 500,000 of your closest friends just to get home? In the end, the Fourth should be about feeling free, from hassle, obligation, and especially disappointment. Basically, two yahoos with some M-80s is fucking awesome if your only investment is a three-minute walk with your friends and your beer!
It’s a good reminder, of the importance of managing expectations. Sure, the Fourth of July celebrates a revolutionary idea, that a rag-tag bunch of extremely wealthy slaveholders who ran their colonies could fight a war for the rights of a bunch of extremely wealthy slaveholders to run their new country. The ideals inscribed in the Declaration of Independence have yet to be ratified, is what I’m saying. Emancipation, female suffrage, a black president, followed by a lady president–those are a good start, but the project of creating freedom and equality for all remains ongoing. So if anything, the Fourth of July is celebration of a promise to be kept, a check to be cashed, a bell, if you will, that, once rung keeps on ringing. Until everyone has tinnitus and says, “Enough already, let’s do this equality thing, because fireworks are starting soon, and those burgers aren’t going to flip themselves.”
Yes, the American Revolution was the good-enough revolution, so I think it’s ok to give the Fourth the good-enough celebration it deserves. For me, this year anyway, celebrating the Spirit of ’76 means a blog post, some email, pay the bills, pet the dog, and steam-clean the fuck out of this carpet. No fireworks, but still a good day.
The driver in front of me was uncertain and plodding as he or she cautiously navigated a windy, two-lane road strewn with potholes and slicked with rain. As we approached the light, I hoped I would be the only car to go straight, the only driver undeterred by the rain, flash flooding, and an unlit road. Sure enough, the other cars broke right and left, and I forged ahead into the darkness: a rural, wooded stretch that I love to drive for its twists and turns, its clever delivery at the far side of the city in record time, and, sure, I admit it, its potential for mayhem.
I was perhaps only two hundred yards into my shortcut when I saw something light-colored dart in front of me. My mind flashed on, then eliminated, the possibilities: fox, cat, giant rat. Too furry, too clumsy, too big.
It was a dog.
I slammed on the breaks. As my car fishtailed to a stop, I saw that it was a 15-20 pound mix from what I call the “bedroom slipper” family of breeds–Bichon, Shih Tzu, Pekingnese, Maltese, etc. Its light-colored fur had grown completely over its eyes, and it looked altogether like a frazzled mop or unkempt wig skittering across the road.
But no, it was a terrified dog trotting in that way new strays do–a quick, nervous gate designed to create the appearance of having someplace to go, when really, they have no idea what to do next–the doggy equivalent of fronting. The fact that this dog was out in the rain crossing a road after 10 PM suggested to me that it was new to being alone in the elements. My own dog, a shelter mutt, survived for weeks in the woods as an abandoned puppy, and even now she retains vestigial traces of what she learned there: sunset is the time to find a place to hide, and pure darkness is the time to stay there.
In the seconds it took for the car to skid to a stop, I reconnected briefly with a former version of myself–the bleeding heart, the rescuer. I opened my door as the dog darted back into the oncoming lane, oblivious as to whether there were more cars behind us. Thank god there weren’t, or I might have gotten us all killed.
“Hey puppy,” I called in my sweet, doggy-come-hither voice.
It kept on going. Then there was a fraction of a second’s pause, when I had to decide my next move.
I ditch the car in the middle of the road. I step into the rain and continue to call out. The dog looks over its shoulder at me, then keeps on going. I go back to the car, move it to the shoulder, and grab some of my dog’s treats. I chase the stray into the waist-high weeds, where it lets me get a little closer, but not close enough. I draw it into the tall grass by the side of the road. I keep calling, it keeps slowing. We do this dance for half an hour. Cold and soaked and filthy, we eventually connect, I eventually win its trust to pick it up, I take it back to my car where–oh, shit, that’s right, I have my dog in the car. Holding the stray in one arm, I move my dog to the front seat, make a training lead out of my dog’s leash, and clip the stray to the back seat, hoping it won’t strangle itself to death on the drive to… Right. Where am I taking this dog again???
I knew what would happen, that by pursuing the dog I was committing myself to potentially days of hassle, as I tried to find its owner or get it situated in a no-kill shelter. I didn’t have it in me. I got back in the car and drove away.
I tried, but only a little. The old me would never have given up. My heart used to be so full and tender that I would never let an animal go. But over the last 20 years, it’s happened more and more.
The mewling I maybe heard, but didn’t investigate, because the last thing I needed was a basement full of feral kittens to re-home.
The dog I maybe saw at 70 MPH on the highway that I might have chased for an hour while my own dog sweltered in the car.
The wounded bird I surely saw as I was on my way to meet friends. I calculated: put my dog back in the house, find a box, find the bird, collect the bird, find a wildlife rehabilitator on a Sunday, deliver the bird… I had theater tickets. People were waiting on me.
“Yes, a cat or car will get the bird tonight,” I reasoned. “But we’re not going to run out of robins any time soon.”
Old Me would be appalled. Time, mud, theater tickets, standing people up, the maddening complexity and hassle of trying to resolve the intractable problem of the stray–I used to be undeterred. I didn’t care what it cost, how long it took, who else was inconvenienced.
There have been many easy saves–dogs with tags that you can return within a day–over the years. And many hard ones too.
There’s the kitten my friend and I lured out from under a shed at a garden party, then re-homed after a lengthy campaign of signs on bulletin boards in literally every vet’s office and pet store in town.
There’s the 9 feral cats I TNR’d after I failed to rescue 4 kittens from under my porch. It wasn’t my fault–their mama moved them, and we didn’t know where to until it was too late: two kittens splayed lifelessly in the gutter after being hit by cars. A neighbor took in one of the survivors, and I managed to trap and neuter the fourth, along with 8 other ferals in the neighborhood. I am very good at trapping wild cats, by the way, and accidental possums too!
There were the two dogs I picked up at the side of the interstate as my friend John and I returned home from a road trip to Branson, Missouri, where we practically invented hipster irony in the summer of 1994. John was furious. I nearly killed us, then I brought two elated but flea- and tick-infested dogs into my Civic hatchback, then I delayed us further by procuring pet supplies and making phone calls to shelters–not easy, in the days before cell phones and the Internet. A few days later, I delivered the dogs to the Humane Society in my home town, where I made a hefty donation (for me, anyway) with the understanding that the dogs would be quarantined, then put up for adoption. A week later, when I learned they had been destroyed, I was devastated beyond description.
And then there was Jessie. Sometimes I rescued people too, especially elderly people in distress. They are unlikely to murder you if you give them rides, and doing so on very hot days might save their lives. I was staying with my sister after my first year of grad school, and my summer career plans–barista and professional dog walker–had fallen through. During the day, I would bum around the city, then I would pick my sister up at the train and drive us both home. If I didn’t show, she would have to walk a long, hot mile in her work clothes. She appreciated it when I made it. She did not appreciate it when I didn’t. And since I was living in a group house for very little money at her invitation, I felt obliged to accommodate her needs.
That day, it was about 1000 degrees and humid, so I spent the afternoon cooling off in an airy, downtown art museum. Just before closing, I used the restroom near the lockers. As I came out, there was an old, old woman fussing with the security guard. She was in her 80s, stooped from osteoporosis, and dressed tidily in the flowing layers of a lady artist. As I recall, she was wearing a floppy sunhat that, like her, must have been fabulous back in the day.
It quickly became apparent that Jessie had lost the key to her locker, which contained her purse, which contained her wallet, and she had no way to get home until she found them. The security guard was not-so-patiently opening every single locker in search of her belongings. It was a fascinating little drama, because the guard was clearly unconvinced that her purse was in any of the lockers. Suspenseful! I decided to see how it played out.
I was also acutely aware that it was hotter than blazes outside, and this old woman did not seem capable of making her way to the exit, let alone to an outer suburb. I was worried for her.
Eventually they did find her purse, and the guard took his leave. I followed her out of the building and into the harsh sunlight, where she looked around as uncertainly as any stray. She had no idea which way to go. I approached and asked if she needed help.
Over the course of the next hour, Jessie and I got to know one another as I addressed her immediate needs and tried to figure out where she lived. She was a widow and an artist and had painted President Franklin D. Roosevelt from life, she said, though years later I could discover no concrete evidence to support such an astounding claim. She was also hungry (that I could believe) and dehydrated, so I procured snacks and water. As we sat in some shade, I tried to make a plan to get her home. Since I was unfamiliar with the buses, I suggested we take the train to my stop, fetch my car (and pick up & drop off my sister), then I could drive Jessie the rest of the way. But she was reluctant to go with me, and she could not remember her exact address, just the name of the complex she lived in. She preferred the bus, and I demurred, being 23 and reluctant to impose my will on an actual adult. We wandered around from bus stop to bus stop trying to find one that seemed right to her. Eventually we found what she surmised was the correct bus, and I waited with her until it came. I helped her board, I paid her fare, then I asked the driver if he could make sure she got off at the right stop.
“On or off,” he charged dismissively.
“What?” I said, completely flustered.
“On or off?” he said again. I realized he meant me.
“Ok, but can you just make sure she…”
“On or OFF!” He was nearly yelling as he cut me off.
The driver was clearly a no-go, so I quickly turned my attention to the sweaty commuters spread before me. “Could somebody please make sure this lady gets off at [such-and-such stop]?” I pleaded.
“ON OR OFF!” the driver bellowed once again.
I quickly did the math: If I stayed on, I would end up in a far flung part of the city with this old lady, entirely unsure of where we were going. If I ever did get her home, I would then have to find my way home as well. I didn’t have enough cash for a cab. And with every passing minute, my ability to retrieve my sister from the train station receded as a possibility. I could only imagine her wrath if I failed her on such a miserably hot day.
I got off the bus.
My sister was home already, and furious, by the time I arrived. I was desperately worried about Jessie, that she might collapse in the heat and die because I had abandoned her on the wrong bus. (I would search her name in the obituaries for weeks after, but I never found it.) I was so upset, I poured out the whole story to my sister. She listened but was unmoved–only exasperated with me for making her walk home.
In a way that’s inconveniently trite for this essay, my sister settled firmly on dogs as her metaphor du jour. Old people who can’t take care of themselves should not be venturing into the city, she lectured me. Because “it’s a dog eat dog world out there.”
And then, with a patronizing weariness that was tremendously unflattering to her 26 years, my sister concluded:
“You can’t save every stray dog in the world.”
She said this, without irony, about an 80-something year old human woman. I think about that statement now, as we argue over how best to serve our mother, an old woman who has lost all independence and who–if she ever starts to wander–will require the kindness of strangers to find her way home again. But that night, in the summer of 1995, my mother’s illness, our parents’ mortality, even our own middle-age seemed further in the future than jet packs and time travel. The issue at hand was this: a selfish, naive, hopelessly idealistic little sister needed a lesson in what mattered.
I left that conversation horrified–and certain. Jessie might not have painted Franklin D. Roosevelt from life, but she certainly drew a clear line between my sister and me. “Maybe you can’t save every stray dog,” I told myself. “But you can try.” I quietly vowed that I would never give up on my impulse to care, to help, to save; that I would never privilege propriety and deadlines above service to vulnerable creatures of all kinds; that I would never be like my sister.
And yet here I am. I let a sad, scared, soaked little dog run off into the night, because its fear of my gentle hand was convenient to me:
It was late.
My primary commitment was to my own dog.
I just had my car cleaned.
I couldn’t be less a person I respected when I was 23 if I supported legislation to legalize recreational whale torture. I look back on that girl and marvel at how strong and dumb and powerful she was, at how little she knew and how much she cared. She thought she could change the world, even just a little. Now, two decades on, the world remains all aleak, as though no one lifted a finger, ever. She’s tired and tied-down, but not by things that matter: a mortgage, work deadlines, and unsavory obligations that keep her tethered like a yard dog. Yet, with no kids, no husband, no boyfriend, not even an Internet date on the horizon, and a family tangle of sadness and recrimination–in her relationships, she’s untethered like a stray, trotting nervously at the social margins in order to create the appearance of direction and purpose.
“I have a life,” says the stray.
I have people, I’m not out here all alone.
I don’t need to be rescued.
It’s the lie stray creatures tell themselves when they are too scared to accept the lifeline right in front of them. That dog slipped into the darkness as though it never existed. Jessie waved to me from the bus window before disappearing without a trace. Marie looked over her shoulder one last time before she left for good.
Every minute of this life, we perch uneasily on the brink of catastrophe and at the cusp of salvation. We are all rescuers and rescued alike. Somehow I knew the world at 23, but now I am learning it all over again. There is no line between saving and being saved.