Story Time

It is the longest night of the year. Our planet leans away from the light, and we lean with it.

At the same time, it’s THE HOLIDAYS, an inescapable set of events, obligations, rituals, colors, sites, sounds, smells, and stories. As I’ve explained before, I don’t love it. With the year drawing to a close, it is time to look back, I suppose.

And forward.

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The Atlantic examined our tendency to anthropomorphize the year in a recent story.

People have been complaining about how awful 2016 was, and I don’t disagree. But in many ways, I found 2015 much harder. Lots of bad things happened in 2016, sure, but I was just a witness. In 2015, bad things happened to me. This year, not much happened to me at all. Which is, in its own way, a problem. Sometimes I feel like I am in a story that has no plot.

Here is what happened:

I taught two classes in the spring and another in summer. One went well, one went ok, and one was a disaster. I continued my administrative responsibilities and managed to negotiate a pay increase for my troubles. Unfortunately, that means I have to keep doing it, which exposes me to the toxic hysteria of academia-in-decline. I took a few short trips, one to an academic conference, one to an invited speaking engagement, and a few to my grad school home town to visit friends and enjoy the pace of country life.

This fall, I was on “research leave,” which has been unproductive in the traditional sense, but very productive in other ways. Basically, I figured out definitively that I do not have a second book in me. I had all the time in the world, but I just couldn’t do it. I don’t know why, and it doesn’t matter. For the time being, I will continue to pretend to colleagues and supervisors that I am making progress, but now I can stop lying to myself. That’s something!

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How beautiful is that!

This year, I picked up three more nursing prerequisites and had a wonderful time doing it! I got to dissect a fetal sheep brain, a fetal sheep kidney, a fetal pig, and a cow’s eye. Tapetum lucidum, the blue-green shimmer coating that allows animals to see at dusk, is possibly the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. I remain confused as hell about my path forward: Stay in academia and find a way to make it work? Quit my job and go to nursing school full-time? Split the difference and go part-time? Find a different job altogether? With just three more classes to go, 2017 will deliver me to a crossroads.

My personal life is pretty dull. My friend got married, which was wonderful, and I have enjoyed getting closer to her and her husband as a couple. They are family to me. Other relationships have proved challenging, with four friends doing the friend equivalent of taking a shit in my purse. The common denominator is me, I know. But it’s also my ability to pick friends. I am hardwired to put up with other people’s shit. Figuring that out took 40 years. It will probably take another 40 for me to put a stop to it.

My family drives me crazy. That’s really all there is to say about that.

The last date I went on was back in January. I am just…done.

In terms of what happened to me this year, probably the worst thing is that I sprained my ankle. That phrase really doesn’t do justice it, though. The initial injury was excruciating, and I still question whether I don’t actually have an avulsion fracture. The night it happened was beyond depressing. I could not walk, and efforts to find someone to help me gather my things and go to urgent care were fruitless. A neighbor I barely know finally came over and helped me into an Uber. I spent a Saturday night at urgent care, getting wheeled around by various medical personnel who parked me in a series of empty rooms. The room where I waited for the radiology tech contained enormous trash cans for medical waste, compounding the feeling that I had been discarded. The next day was better, so much better, as two friends helped out with groceries, meals, and comfort. But it was a hard two weeks, carefully planning each trip up and down the stairs and timing the long, arduous trek to the toilet. I contemplated peeing in a jar in my kitchen but cut back on my water consumption instead. Almost seven weeks later, I am still in pain and wonder if it will every fully heal.

Probably not.

But I am lucky, right? Because that is the worst thing that happened to me this year. On the other hand, I bore witness to a lot of bad shit.

My dad’s eye exploded during a “routine” cataract surgery, leaving him partially blind and unable to take care of my mother for several weeks. My sister and I filled in, and we have decided to take a more assertive role with their medical care (to the extent my dad, who has serious control issues, will let us). Smash cut to me, my dad, and my mom conversing with a very frustrated gastroenterology nurse practitioner about the consistency of my mom’s poops. (My mother cannot effectively participate in her own medical care, but she rages if we treat her like she can’t. It’s tricky.) My father also recently purchased his first smart phone and a new laptop, and I am his on-demand tech support. It has not escaped my notice that my sister’s interactions with my parents consist of game nights and apple picking, while mine consist of Apple tech support and discussions of my mother’s bowels.

It’s fine.

I also went to four funerals in 2016, which kind of seems like a lot for someone in their 40s. One was for an old friend’s young son, hit by a car while riding his bicycle. One was for my friend who died of cancer the year before. One was for my neighbor/friend, who died of an accidental overdose. And one was for my cousin, who killed himself. I felt tremendous grief this year, but witnessed even more.

When someone dies, all that’s left are memories, stories. The story lives as long as there is someone to tell it. My friend’s son was just 10 when he died last April, and the story of his story is that it ended too soon. His parents have done an incredible job of hanging on to life, attending concerts, taking trips, and talking enthusiastically about their boy. Almost every day, my friend posts a “memory” on Facebook that features her son. I wonder, What will happen next year, when there are no new stories, when all she has to post are memories of the memories?

I will never understand this story.

My friend who died of cancer–there were stories at his Memorial Day service too. I learned so much about him that weekend, as friends and family swapped tales and jokes that gave me a glimpse into private facets of his life. A narrative emerged: after years of unhappiness in our shared workplace, and then a year of professional humiliation (he was denied tenure, which is like dangling from a cliff for 12 months and then falling anyway), he had one good year before he got sick, a year in which he was content and hopeful. That made the nine months of dying not so bad, I guess?

I will never understand this story.

In August, my neighbor Damon died of an accidental overdose–prescription drugs, booze, and maybe spice–in another neighbor’s house down the block. He was getting high there because he wasn’t allowed to be altered at home. A story emerged at his funeral that Damon was never the same after his mother died in 2014. The story gave his senseless death a patina of romance–a young man who loved his mother so much he sought to join her in the afterlife. But he was troubled long before she died: he had a baby at 16 that he did nothing for, and he was a high school dropout, in and out of jail, unemployed, disengaged, high all the damn time. I suspected years ago that he suffered from depression and self-medicated with drugs and alcohol. Still, he was a sweet guy, and he was always kind to me. I helped him get out of jail the last time. He was my friend. His family never acknowledged how troubled he was, so they could never really help him. The silences of his life were profound. At his funeral, a born-again Christian pastor presided over his coffin, but Damon was a muslim.

I will never understand this story.

My cousin died two days after Damon. The story at his funeral was that he suddenly died of Crohn’s disease. The truth is that he had Crohn’s, but he died of depression. He was suicidal, and he owned guns, and his wife thought she had hidden the key to the gun case. At her urging, he voluntarily committed himself to a mental health treatment facility, then snowed the clinicians into thinking his suicidal ideation was just a side-effect of medications prescribed for the Crohn’s. Once the drugs cleared his system, they released him, and maybe legally they had no choice. But they didn’t even tell his wife. He drove home, found the key to the gun case, and blew his head off. His wife found him hours later when she got home from work. In her remarks at his funeral, she shared the fiction that he dropped dead of Crohn’s. That’s her choice, and those of us who knew the truth abided by it. But the lie is not without consequence. The stigma of depression intensifies its effects and prevents other people from getting help. How powerful it would have been to attribute the death of this beautiful, successful, winning-at-life man to suicide. Who might have been helped by that? And then there’s the boy. My cousin’s young grandson has Crohn’s and plaintively asked if he might die suddenly too. But on the other hand, how do you explain suicide to children?

I will never understand this story.

I tell stories too: I am writing a second book, I am going to quit the job I hate, I am going to be a nurse, so-and-so loved me or even just liked me a little. The truth is, I don’t have anything more to say, let alone write, as an academic. The truth is, I buy new clothes at Target to avoid doing laundry, so it’s highly unlikely I will get it together to change jobs. The truth is, I have two FWBs who aren’t very nice to me. The truth is, J* replaced my friendship with podcasts, which makes me wonder whether he ever cared for me. When we broke up as a couple, I had the same feeling: Was any of it real? Some people, when they are done with you–it’s not enough to withdraw their love or friendship. They have to take your memories too.

The truth is, stories are so much better than the truth.

Even so, 2016 was better than 2015, for sure. And 2017 will be better still! This long, dark night will end, and we will lean towards the light once more. That’s my story, anyway, and I’m sticking to it.

Spinning Plates: An Update

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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!

 

 

There Is No Pain, You Are Receding

I had a little revelation today, while sitting in traffic at an epically tangled intersection, where construction and driver nit-wittery turned a 7-mile toot into an hour-long odyssey. I realized as I sat, inching forward, what my problem is: I am terribly lonely.

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The world’s longest traffic jam took place in China and lasted 12 days!

It is not for lack of friends or human contact, though I could do better on both counts. It’s that there is no one in this world who knows my whole life, or at least as much of a person’s life as can be known. The solitary nature of my work, my social awkwardness, strained relations within my family, having wonderful friendships with individuals but not being part of a friend-group, even the difficulty of navigating the city I live in–for all of these reasons and probably others, most of my life is lived silently…unobserved and unasked after. And, well, when a tree falls in a forest…

Sometimes I wonder if I even exist.

Social media adds another layer of complexity to this vanilla slice of dysfunction cake. Like all of us, I have many online personas. Each of them is simultaneously true and also a thundering lie–but only a lie of omission.

On Instagram, I am relentlessly optimistic, taking pleasure in my dog and the small beauties I encounter on our walks together. That is where I “practice”gratitude and mindfulness, and boy, does it sometimes feel like work!

On Snapchat, which I only do with my teenage niece, I am goofy as fuck. I had no idea I would love looking at myself with dog ears so much, or that sending 4-second movies as a maniacal squirrel could be so fun!

Facebook offers perhaps the greatest insight into my life, but only if you consider the silences. Most of my Facebook “friends” are acquaintances who cannot see anything beyond the basics. I try to remain hidden from the public (especially my students), and I routinely ignore or delete friend requests without a second thought. My own sister unfriended me almost two years ago, and we pretend not to belong to the same family on Facebook. Yet we coordinate via email who will accompany my parents to the next parental doctor appointment or share information about our mother’s newest cognitive deficit. It’s weird (but her choice). Due to my family’s predilection for gossip and judgement, just last month I had to wall off my parents, brother-in-law, and some family friends from seeing anything except photos of my dog. As a grown-ass woman, I just couldn’t take another stern lecture from my father about “how I use Facebook.” They probably haven’t even noticed. As for my “close friends,” they read acerbic observations about teaching or politics or my own foibles–nothing of import, nothing worth remembering. I used to whitewash my Facebook wall–delete literally everything in my newsfeed–but I stopped after a friend died a year ago. I realized that I might someday want to read those silly exchanges again, after my friends stop being my friends, after I stop being me.

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R.E.M. used the collective loneliness of the traffic jam to great effect in the video for “Everybody Hurts.”

This blog offers yet another perspective on my life. Here, I think, we see process more than results. These essays are the literal act of remembering, but they are also effort and strain, grasping and sputtering. Through writing, I search for meaning, understanding, and hope–not from you, but within me. With each shared reflection, I grope the darkness for a way forward, or at least a switch to turn on the light. If I could just get some clarity, I could finally find the exit!

I have friends IRL too. My longest friendship dates to 7th grade. Thanks to Facebook–truly, thank you, Facebook!–I have reconnected with a few friends from high school that I see every now and then. For some reason, I am not connected with anyone from college, which I approached with an “I’m not here to make friends” work ethic–and I didn’t. Well done! But since I endured a sea change during graduate school, I have invested mightily in friendships, and I have five close friends who date from 1999-2000. There are other friendships, forged through work connections, that also mean the world to me. And there is J*, to whom Tinder owes its redemption. All of these people–wonderful people–are my friends, and I love them, and I would wrestle alligators for them. But I wonder sometimes whether the feeling is mutual, and also whether they really know me. Even J*, who has seen me naked in every respect, has never witnessed me laughing with people who love me. And the people who love me and make me laugh, well, there are dark corners J* has wandered into that I will never show them.

We are probably all unknowable to some degree, so these musings and frustrations aren’t particular to me or even to singletons. But I look at my friend L*, who is planning her wedding and future with a man she loves, who loves her back. And I think, “That must be nice, to be someone’s priority. To have someone who wants to know as much of you as can be known. To have everyone who loves you meet one afternoon under the same tent to share their collective hope for you. Because they all know you, the one and only you, the person that you are.” I don’t begrudge her a second of this happiness, because she well and truly deserves it. But it makes me wistful just the same.

Of course, I thought of all of this today, while I was stuck for 20 minutes at a single intersection, inching forward but going nowhere, besieged by panhandlers and post-brunch ennui, with Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” on autorepeat the whole time. That could fuck with anyone’s head. So, you know… take it with a grain of salt.

 

 

 

The Spirit of 1776

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Happy (American) Independence Day!

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.

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The one time I saw fireworks in the nation’s capital, it looked just like this!

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!

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This broken bell symbolizes freedom, and also my country’s crumbling infrastructure!

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 Stray

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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!

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Apparently it’s a perennial question, but at least now the Internet can help. Shelters are overloaded, though, so PREVENTION is the best option: Please spay/neuter your pets!

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.

Silence.

“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.

 

 

Road Trip

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The last few weeks have been exhausting for a variety of reasons, good and bad.

For Memorial Day, I attended an actual memorial, for a friend who died of cancer last year. It was an educational, weird, but ultimately affirming experience. I was often reminded that weekend of something my dad always says: “Visiting family is not a vacation.” It is doubly true if you’re visiting someone else’s family, and triply true if that family is kinda dysfunctional. But it is also triply true that I loved spending time with my friend’s widow, who is also my friend, and a dear one at that. And I got to meet my dead friend’s best friend, who told me stories that brought my friend to life in my imagination. I felt his presence in the cabin where we stayed, looking at the gorgeous lake he used to paddle on, and in the epic mound of pulled-pork barbecue I ate to the point of meat intoxication. I could hear his laughter again, and I am so grateful to have been there.

After flying all night, I landed, retrieved my car, and went to class, where I crushed an Intro to Nutrition midterm. Then I fetched my dog from my parents and gave my dad another computer tutorial. I finally arrived home at 4 PM, a full 27 hours after departing the site of the memorial service. I lay down for a quick nap… and awoke at 2 AM. A few hours later, I met another friend at a surgical center, where she was having her lady business removed. It made me nothing but happy to be there for her, as she has so often been there for me.

Eventually, I got a full night’s sleep that actually happened at night. But since then, I have pulled several all- or near-all-nighters, to complete a paper for the class I am taking, to prepare for the class I just started teaching, and to provide material to a publisher for a project I agreed to write. I am tired.

This past weekend, I retreated to a friend’s house in the town where I went to graduate school. There was a brisk breeze that cooled the whole house, and a verdant lawn with a shady hammock. Three dogs slept soundly on the floor beside me, hypersensitive to my every move. Going to the bathroom was a crazy, collective endeavor! I love going there, because my dog has so much fun being part of a pack, because my friend takes such good care of me, and because time slows down–no traffic, no demands, no one to disappoint.

As I made the long drive to and from, I thought a lot about my last post, my current relationships, and how I feel about myself. I spent 11 years in that town, as long as I have lived anywhere, and though I was in my 20s and early 30s, it was the most formative period of my life. Most of my closest friendships were forged there, and I think I was the happiest I have ever been when we all lived near one another. For the last three years, as my friendship with my host bloomed anew, I have returned every couple of months. I find myself wishing that people who know me in other contexts–work friends, city friends, boyfriends–could know me there. With each passing mile of the drive, I become a better version of myself.

The last post was also about traveling, and burning bridges as I go. I am very good at it. But in fairness, I can be ok at mending them too. I try to recognize my part in a conflict and to render an apology that matters. It’s hard, though, because I have a history of being too quick to apologize–I said the words “I’m sorry” more than any other during my longest, most fraught relationship–and I can be too slow to stand up for myself. I tend to go from zero to “Release the Kraken” when standing up for others, or when I am just losing my shit. There is a tension there that I am only beginning to understand, but I think I’ve almost got it:

Not setting boundaries and articulating my concerns when I should leads to toxic levels of resentment that then seep out as vicious and deeply unproductive anger.

Basically, to borrow some language from my Introduction to Nutrition class, my consumption of other people’s bullshit often exceeds not just the Recommended Daily Allowance, calibrated to meet the needs of 97.5 percent of the population, but also the Tolerable Upper Intake Level, which is the highest dose that will not lead to toxicity in a human being. I have to accept responsibility for what I put in my body. Just because Tootsie Roll Industries makes Tootsie Pops doesn’t mean I have to have one (or five) in my purse at all times, and I certainly don’t have to eat them. And, just because people spew bullshit–and let’s face it, we all spew bullshit–doesn’t mean I have to consume it. I’m allowed to close my eyes and mouth. I can pull out an umbrella instead of a spoon.

With my recent conflicts, I am doing ok. I continue to protect my time and interests with that publisher, in order to disrupt my usual self-destructive spiral: hiding >> blowing deadlines >> imperiling other people’s work >> feeling horrible about it >> more hiding >> more blown deadlines >> Repeat Until Fired.

Negotiations with my Friend With Benefits have yielded no benefits, but we are still friends. No one in my family has spoken to me in days, and there are no plans on the horizon to see my sister and her kids. I fear that I have crossed some kind of Rubicon, with no bridge behind me for the retreat. I just have to trust that it will all work out ok. On the plus side, not seeing my family has dramatically reduced the frequency with which I feel like a worthless piece of shit. I am learning, slowly, to chart my course towards people who appreciate me.

As for my fight with J*, I think we did ok. We are both volatile people, and we are both learning relationship behaviors that other people seem to have mastered long ago. In the hours and days after my outburst and then his, we texted and talked, sorted and shared. It was good. Nothing changed in our dynamic, except that we demonstrated the ability to work through conflict. If nothing else, we are practicing productive communication for when we meet the people who will be our people. In the meantime, all I can do is try to be a good friend to him, though I often wonder what that means. I can’t tell where we are headed or for how long, and I don’t know what kind of snacks to pack for the trip.

This is true of all of my relationships, I suppose. Should I bring a sweater? Should I jump from the car? Who is driving, anyway? Did I leave the oven on?* Where is there a safe place to pee? And who will I be when I get there?

I know the answers to these questions when I make the long drive back to my grad school hometown, because I have traveled that road many times. But for the other journeys I am on, who knows? I guess I’ll just look out the window and enjoy the ride.

 

*I did not leave the oven on, because my oven hasn’t worked for nearly two years. To repair or replace? The issues associated with that decision created such a renovation conundrum that I simply set it aside. Not having an oven has not really been a problem, because as it turns out, the only thing I bake is frozen pizza. And now I know how to cook frozen pizza using a microwave and a skillet. Like so many facets of my life, the process isn’t pretty or efficient, but the end result is good enough. It’s not how you get there, but that you get there, at least as far as frozen pizza is concerned. And I really shouldn’t be eating frozen pizza anyway.

The Bridge

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Bridges have so much poetic potential, and yet they terrify me. I do not fear falling; I fear jumping. This impulse is common enough that it has a name, “The Call of the Void,” which sounds real and literary but also a bit like a high school metal band. My fear extends a little past the usual uneasiness, however, because the times in my life when I have been suicidal, it was the height and accessibility of bridges that romanced me. When I felt that pull, it was such a relief to realize that I could simply avoid them.

At present, though, I live in a city that requires me to cross a bridge frequently. It bothers me not a whit and, in fact, I am very good at navigating the complex merge that devastates the flow of traffic. For now, anyway, bridges have ceased being an imminent threat and are usually just a means of conveyance.

I am here, I want to be there. The bridge allows me to make the journey.

Bridges connect. Musically, the bridge allows us to return from the chorus for another verse. In paintings and photographs, bridges provide focal points and perspective. And they make great metaphors. Thornton Wilder won a Pulitzer for writing about a bridge, in the novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey. I love that book, and that bridge, so much that I quoted its last lines, in a nod to my mother’s dementia, during my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary toast:

Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead, and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.

Fundamentally, a bridge of any kind spans a divide. We build them, we connect. We burn them, we sever ties that cannot be resurrected.

All my life, I have tried to build bridges, to connect, to make friends and find love. And yet here I sit, on my little island, sullen and resentful as I toil in my lonely job and return home to an empty house each night. And, truth be told, I am pissed off that I didn’t stand up for myself when I should have, that I allowed other people to dictate my terms, that I appeased when I should have fought, that I lingered when I should have walked away. I was so conditioned in childhood to “choose my battles wisely,” so concerned about “dying on the wrong hill,” that I gave up the fight long ago or directed my enmity at the wrong people altogether.

Now, I have arrived at midlife, tired and foolish and well stocked with matches.

In the last ten days, and for what reason I’m not sure, bridges have been crossed, terms set, matches struck. I threatened to walk off a project–and away from a much needed paycheck–because the editor was pressuring me too hard about a deadline. I threatened to cut ties with my FWB for creating a dynamic that no longer works for me. I put my father and sister on notice that my participation at family gatherings is optional and dependent on respectful treatment. And just today, I told J* off for insulting me.

How did it all work out? Mixed results!

The editor caved and offered reassurances that I am indispensable to the project. My FWB called me for the first time ever (we only text or meet in person) to apologize for his behavior. Time will tell if anything is truly going to change with him. My sister wrote me to apologize for her mistake, but there’s been no word from my dad, who has always quoted John Wayne in “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” on the subject of apologies: “Never apologize. It is a sign of weakness.” And my sister’s apology doesn’t change the fact that I feel the need to disentangle myself from my family as a whole in order to preserve a shred of self-esteem. I can already tell, the holidays are going to suck extra hard this year.

And what about J*? I did a fantastic job of calling him out, except that he didn’t actually insult me; I insulted him. I manufactured a conflict and lobbed some grenades because I was angry and hurt at something he told me about another woman, in a conversation the night before. They dated, and it didn’t work out, but they are still friends, and he is going to visit her later this summer. She’s 18 years younger than me, with doe eyes, creamy skin, and a tender heart that makes him want to protect her.

“I have to remember that I hurt her,” he said gallantly. “So I need to be sensitive about her feelings.”

He could fuck this girl into the next century, and all her hot young friends too, on a bedspread emblazoned with my ugly mug at its ugliest, and it wouldn’t bother me as much as that statement. Because he also hurt me, repeatedly, and yet he exercises no similar sensitivity about my feelings. In fact, he shamed me brutally for wanting to cut ties after he rejected me, talking me out of my own efforts to spare further injury to my broken heart. This girl is beautiful and desirable, vulnerable and valuable, and no one wants her feelings hurt–including me. And I guess I am some swamp rat garbage callus held together with barbed wire and toenail clippings, like the glob you leave at the bottom of the trashcan for the sun to burn off, or an object of strange familiarity you slow down to ogle and then blow past on the highway. Nothing that warrants special handling, that’s for sure.

I was not exactly thrilled with this realization, so I picked a fight about something else the next time we spoke on the phone. I was driving across a bridge at the time, doing my best to navigate the merge. I hit him where it hurt, touching off our usual cycle of vitriol, self-recrimination, ultimatum, and apology.

There was nothing but flames in the rearview mirror by the time I was finished. And I felt nothing but sadness as I approached the far side of the bridge, more alone than ever.