Sunday, July 29, 2012

Lightening up with Beckett

A friend of mine recently posted the above picture on my Facebook wall.  While he and I saw each other evey day in highschool, it is only through the power of social media that we managed to reconnect after almost twenty years of lost contact.  Even so, this photograph reminded me that although many of us now choose to communicate our daily thoughts and actions in the form of posts and threads and tags and tweets, we often convey so much more than the standard "140 characters or less" restrictions allow us to type into tiny internet boxes.

The whole truth is, my recent journey through pet adoption has proven to be my greatest "Lighten Up" challenge to date -- and I have shared the daily details on Facebook.  Last fall, I wasn't sure I was ready for a puppy or could care for one by myself, so I debated and made my customary pro/con lists and researched and talked to other pet owners.  My allergies made the hypoallergenic poodle breed a wise and necessary choice, even though poodles, from what I was hearing, were "energetic" at best, "fiercely destructive" at worst.  But none of that seemed to matter the moment I saw my puppy on -- I instantly knew I was going to bring him home.

Listed under the name "Aruba," the adorable little Schnoodle (Schnauzer/Poodle mix) I decided to name Beckett, after my favorite writer, was a rescue at a shelter about an hour from my home.  Although I expected him to have the customary tapeworms and fleas and hyper energy of most rescue dogs living in close quarters and fighting with other animals for food and attention, I had no idea what I was in for.  Beckett had hookworm.  Tapeworm.  Roundworm.  He suffered from what I would later learn was chronic Giardia, a nasty, hard to cure intestional parasite that led to a refusal to eat or sleep and caused frequent vomitting and diarrhea. He had difficulty with housetraining, a hatred of the crate I struggled to convince myself was not, in fact, abusive captivity, and more than anything, he was completely aware of my refusal to bond with him, so he seemed to take absolute pleasure in destroying our surroundings for sport.  I cried almost daily as his health deteriorated, his weight dropped, his energy came and went - mostly went - and my bank account reduced itself by hundreds of dollars every week.  At one point, my kitchen counter held seven bottles of prescription meds, only one of them mine.  (And therefore, only one of them covered by insurance.)  Basically, my attempt to lighten up, to rescue a beautiful animal and give him a loving home, to find companionship for myself, and to prove that I could unconditionally love and be loved by another living being, seemed to be failing.  I seemed to be failing.  And I was filled with regret and sadness. Yet no matter how often I thought about returning Beckett to the rescue, or how hard I tried to convince myself that he would be better off with a family of four in a huge home with a huge yard and a huge bank account, he was mine and I couldn't imagine giving up on him.  Or myself.

And then something happened.  Not to Beckett, but to me. It wasn't an "all of a sudden" sort of thing, more like a gradual shift that I only noticed once in awhile, when I stopped to realize I hadn't cried or indulged in one of my signature germophobic freak-outs in days. In the absence of lightening up, I was actually starting to grow up.  Even if only a little.  I began to look at my decision to adopt Beckett as a conscious choice I made, rather than something that was thrust upon me by an unidentifiable, unknown force. Before I got Beckett, I had fully intended for him to share my life, but when the four-legged reality actually walked into my house, I turned into a three year-old who refused to share her toys.  Her snacks.  Her space.  I gated him out of rooms, confined him to linoleum floors only, and structured his time in ways that would force the military to retaliate. I realized, after awhile, that my behavior was not likely to encourage better puppy behavior, and that, more than anything, Beckett's health crisis could not be all about me.  Not if I wanted us both to be stronger, happier, more peaceful beings. He was in pain and he wasn't getting better.  So I did more research.  I found a new, more proactive vet.  I started Beckett on a special diet and put him through seven rounds of Giardia meds (the last of which finally seems to have "taken" as his most recent tests were negative). I enrolled him in doggie daycare and made socializing him at the local park a priority of every weekend and most evenings. 

Sure, I did some crazy things, too, like resorting to puppy pampers to spare my carpets and furniture until the worst of the Giardia ran its course. 

And I learned my lesson the hard way about whether or not Beckett "really needed to be crated" while I was at work. 

But ultimately, I have learned - and am continuing to learn each day - that Beckett, like all puppies, craves boundaries. He does not want to make the rules, he wants to follow them. And, understandably, when left to his own devices, he will do whatever feels good in that moment, whether eating my walls or using my couch as his own personal bathroom

Today marks ten months since Beckett came into my life, and though I continue to grow up, Beckett has actually started to lighten me up as well.  He is a loving, tail-wagging example of how far we have both come, and of how much potential we both have to continue going forward together.  He effortlessly returns the unconditional love I now have for him, and he fancies himself my 25-pound bodyguard whether we are being approached by a 6-foot man in the park or ... a leaf.  Most of all, Beckett makes me laugh.  He makes me smile.  He makes me remember that I am capable and strong and full of love and compassion.

I am thankful every day for the faith I had in both of us, and for my determination to bring this little boy home.  Sharing my life is not so hard after all, and it is actually more rewarding than I ever imagined.

Do you have a funny or frustrating pet story?  How has your pet made your life better, crazier, more rewarding, more exhausting?   Share it all!

Until next time,
~~ Hasky


Friday, July 20, 2012

We must go on, we can't go on, we'll go on.

Samuel Beckett

In his novel The Unnamable, Samuel Beckett never discloses whether the interaction between his protagonist and the other "characters" is, in fact, a dialogue between the various aspects of the protagonist himself.  Through a disconnected sort of interior monologue, Beckett frees his narrative from the confines of conventional setting and plot elements as he explores  - among other things - the human will to survive.  I have read The Unnamable three times, at three very different points in my life, in search of answers.  And  each reading, though different from the ones before and always within the context of my life at that moment, always delivers a familiar sense of relief as I arrive at the end, once again remembering not only what draws me to this book, but what compels me to turn to Beckett during difficult times. 

With Beckett, the meaning is always in the ending.  That crisp, precious, all-too-brief release after pages and pages of tension followed by longing followed by grief.  And The Unnamable is a perfect example.  In fact, I would argue it is Beckett's most successful climb out of the depths of despair toward hope.  After he intensifies the ending's pace with brilliantly drawn run-on sentences that build upon one another and layer themselves on top of the solid foundation he has spent almost two-hundredn pages developing, he stops.  Abruptly.  As if taking a final breath before delivering his message, the point of the journey.  All of a sudden, it's as if he simply hands us the clarity and light we have been seeking:

 "You must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on."

I realize this seems a strange topic for Lighten Up, since even in its attempt to trace a darkness-to-light/despair-to-hope/can't-go-on to will-go-on trajectory like Beckett's, it is heavy.  But when I woke this morning to the story of the mass shooting in Colorado, I thought of The Unnamable, of Beckett's strategic ability to pull us up through tragedy and into some sense of resolution, and I felt that this could be my only response to an experience for which there really are no words.  My head, like Beckett's protagonist, is filled with an endless, spinning reel of interior monologue.  I hear what I feel: sadness for the lives that have been ruined, for the ones that have been taken away, for the ones that have been forced to watch human brutality adopt a life-sized persona as it invades our living rooms and our car radios and our internet homepages.  To turn away is indulgent and convenient, but to look is painful.  And talking about it seems overwhelming in its simultaneous longing for and lack of answers.

I rarely go silent on issues like this.  I have my opinions about gun legislation, the stigma of mental illness, even about the ways in which movies glorifiy violence to the point that it takes a mass shooting in a small-town cinema to get our attention.  We are desensitized to the slaps and the shoves and the verbal putdowns, the sexist comments, the racist jokes, the national conversations about whether two consenting human beings should be legally able to marry simply because they are of the same gender.  These forms of violence surround us so constantly that we no longer see them, we simply respond to them with more violence, never really knowing whether we are hurting each other, or ourselves.  Whether we are talking to each other, or to the various aspects of ourselves. The aspect that seeks peace or the one that acts violently. The aspect that wants to love or the aspect whose speech is laced with hatred.  The aspect that needs hope, or the one that gives in to despair.  I know nothing about the young man who took so many lives away from us this morning, and I have decided that I do not want to know.  Surely, I will be bombarded with media clips and nearby conversations, and against my will he will become a real flesh-and-bones human being with needs and wants and fears of his own.   Not unlike Beckett's protagonist, this shooter will present me with that aching conflict - Is he a person? Is he a dark representative of the human condition?  Does the concept of captivity, of life in prison, mean anything to him?

I don't want answers to these questions.  At least not yet.  Instead, I want to know who the victims were.  And what their lives looked like.  What they dreamed and what they hoped for.  Who their families were.  I want those people to replace the claustrophobic conversations erupting around me and I want to somehow believe that there is an end to this universal sense of grief and confusion and longing that we all feel.  And I want to wish that this conversation had a last page, an ending I could count on every time I held it in my hands.  And that at that end, Samuel Beckett would be waiting for me with his signature smirk and his penetrating eyes insisting that we must go on.  And that, somehow, we will go on.

~~ Peace

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Reality, Perspective, and Primo Levi.

For this semester's Craft Essay component of my MFA in creative nonfiction, I have decided to focus on the role of the Afterwords in memoir. As part of my reading list, I just finished Primo Levi's Survival in Auschwitz  - both the book and the Afterwords. And even though I see no value in comparative pain - what hurts us hurts us, regardless of the pain someone else may be experiencing - I also think that perspective is a great teacher.

Oppressive heat, a couple of challenging coworkers, trouble breathing, a demonic puppy -- my today includes all of these things (most of them, I suspect, are actually because of the oppressive heat).  Yet I am free to have these things, and what's more, most of them are within my control, not because I can stop them from happening, but because I can choose to see them for what they are: annoying, upsetting, exhausting ... luxuries.

So here's what I think:

A bad day is carrying 200 pounds of metal on one's back all day, every day, as punishment for simply being born. An argument with a coworker? Nuisance.

A bad day is bunking with a roomfull of strangers in a freezing camp while listening to their stomachs growl with starvation. A bland lunch? Bummer that it's bland, blessing that it's lunch.

A bad day is knowing you could die at any moment - and sometimes hoping that the moment is now. A bad mood? A fleeting thing, and nothing that will cost me my life.

Reality.  Perspective.  And Primo Levi.

"Hello. My name is Heather, and I am socially awkward."

Today, I decided that I must now approach all potential conversations with the official disclaimer: "Hello. My name is Heather, and I am socially awkward.  It's best you know that upfront, for both our sakes." 

That way, when I kick off a sandal while tripping over that invisible nothing in the office carpet, or accidentally pick up my all-purpose purse/lunch bag/personal life catch-all tote by the bottom and empty its contents all over the lobby floor, or choke on the oatmeal husk that refuses to reveal itself until the precise moment I try - and fail - to say "Good morning" to a suited-up professional in our shared office kitchen, there will be no surprises.  As you might imagine based on detail alone, each of these experiences happened quite recently, and represent three in a long line of similar socially awkward moments that should no longer surprise or embarass me. And quite honestly, they neither surprise nor embarass me -- until I see the faces of the shocked/horrified/concerned/confused bystanders doing their best to look without staring or assist without panicking.  Or ask if I am okay ... without laughing.  And that is when it sinks in and the shame hits - at that precise moment when a public official in a business suit stands in front of me debating whether to perform the Heimlich or simply let the oatmeal war of 2012 play itself out. That is when I realize I need the kind of help that basic First Aid cannot provide.

So here's the thing about social awkwardness: I think it should be recognized among the medical community as a diagnosable (and marginally treatable, if detected early) medical condition.   As a point of clarification, I am all too familiar with social anxiety.  Generalized anxiety disorder is my own particular brand of suffering.  But that's not quite what I'm talking about here.  This isn't about fear of death in a public place (or, if you are anxious enough, in any place) and it's not about feeling absolutely sure that the nervousness you are experiencing is the beginning of a massive heart attack that will inevitably require a triple bypass likely to go horribly wrong and and result in lifelong debilitation and severely reduced quality of life.  No, this is about awkwardness.  Pure and simple.  And though it seems less severe than the paralysis of a true anxiety disorder, it is equally threatening to one's ability to navigate the world and live a semi-normal life.  And here's why.

After this morning's oatmeal situation in the shared office kitchen with the slightly frightened, slightly worried, impeccably suited-up man, I assumed that the event was over once I finally hacked the oatmeal husk into my hand, apologized profusely for my disgraceful - though totally unexpected and uncontrollable - display, and left through the opposite door so as to avoid putting either one of us through unnecessary, prolonged eye contact.  Sure, the Assemblyperson - whose name I do not know and whose face I had never seen until today- was gracious and kind, even when I capped the world's most indelicate performance off with a "Wow!  Oatmeal husk!" explanation.  (Because the true mark of social awkwardness is never knowing when to go silent.  When to stop sharing non-essential, unwanted information.)  Yet based on 38 years of experience, I should have known that this morning's kindness came with a price tag, the cost of which I would later learn, when I entered the kitchen once again, to heat up my afternoon coffee at the scene of the crime.

As I stood literally waiting for water to boil, the kitchen door opened and in walked the very same man.  Now, if I were at all able to cope with my social awkwardness, I probably would have nodded casually, said "Hi there" and moved on, regardless of the uncomfortable oatmeal elephant in the room.  But instead, I felt shame.  And some embarassment.  What must this person think of me, standing here in the kitchen yet again?  Maybe the only thought was "I can't believe she's back for more."  Or maybe, I decided in a rare moment of non-narcissistic reframing, the only thought was "I have to get to my 3:00 meeting."  And just as I decided that yes, that's it, this person, this stranger is thinking about meetings or legislation or deadlines that need to be met, I heard them.  Five words that landed in the air between us like a great big "SOCIAL AWKWARDNESS" diagnosis.  "Hey, Oatmeal. How's it going?"

So now, it appears - at least on the 11th floor of this building - I am known, quite simply as "Oatmeal." A moniker that will undoubtedly follow me through these halls until one day, after much time has passed, and finally someone asks "How did she ever get the name 'Oatmeal' anyway"? the only response will be "I don't know.  She's just always had it."  Like the husk itself, the name will attach to me until it gets lodged in the folds of my identity as a forever reminder of this one, undeniable truth: My name is Heather, and I am socially awkward.

Yours in awkward affection and genuine embarassment,

Sunday, July 15, 2012

This week's blog challenge: "Out of Rehab"

The task: In 200 words, substitute the silhouette below with a character or someone you know or yourself.

When I first read this week's challenge, I immediately pictured an endless list of celebrity names ranging from Judy Garland to Michael Jackson.  But how to write about a single celebrity among the massive numbers who have been institutionalized for everything from life threatening addiction to "exhaustion and dehydration"?  Rehab has become a buzz word that dilutes the seriousness of true physical and psychological addiction with stories of the rich and famous who sign themselves in to medically supervised spas and "lodges" for a few weeks of catering and manicures.

What's more, rehab among the celebrity set has become a criminal justice diversion, where starlets like Lindsay Lohan can avoid jail by agreeing to treatment for any number of alleged problems.  After they sign themselves in and let the media generate a little career-boosting publicity, these self-proclaimed addicts walk out of their treatment facilities with their perfectly coiffed heads held high for the cameras.  Regardless of the fact that they will continue life as usual on the outside, they have rehabbed their careers.  Recovered their popularity.  Even the conservative fans who may not be fond of the drinking and drugs often warmly embrace the humble and the reformed celebrity, because everyone loves a comeback. Even a comeback that minimizes true human suffering.

In a world where image is everything and popularity is fleeting, the creation of a compelling human interest story can rescue a Hollywood career overnight.  But really, whose fault is that?

Friday, July 6, 2012

Pot Shots

Today I’d like to talk about marijuana.  I’ve never smoked it.  Never sold or purchased it. Never had the desire to be around anyone who used it.  Still, over the years, it has often intrigued me that we have more words to describe this odd substance than we have for love.  Or happiness.  Or friendship.  But whatever you call it –  pot, muggles, bash, dope or giggle smoke – it is what it is.  It is a drug.  An illegal drug.  Hardly a vice-less prude, I generally have no interest in or issues with people who make unhealthy choices for themselves.  It’s really none of my business.  As long as the effects of such stupidity don’t impact me in any way.  So you see where I’m going here, right?  How often do we say or do anything without somehow impacting another human being?  Yeah, my point exactly.  And all this to say that, despite my utter lack of interest in pot and all things pot-adjacent, after reading the news this week, I realized that I hold some pretty strong opinions about our friend, the Grim Reefer. 

My first anti-pot crusade came at the beginning of the week, when I took to Facebook with an angry post about the California Grandma whose pot laced cookies almost killed her three year-old grandson.  After the child’s family was unable to wake him following an unusually long night’s sleep, they began to suspect that the child “got into his grandmother’s stash of chocolate-chip pot cookies, tucked away in a garage refrigerator.”  Grandma’s best defense was a cancer diagnosis and “a doctor’s recommendation for medical marijuana to treat her pain and help her sleep.” But as with all stoner responses, Grandma’s explanation left a few gaping holes for me.  Like, exactly what kind of “doctor” recommended that this woman manage a terminal illness by obtaining an illegal substance?  Did adding criminal charges to her list of obstacles seem like a useful antidote to fatigue and nausea? I mean, come on. Lots of people call themselves doctors these days, and a certificate of completion from the local Ganja Hut isn’t exactly going to hold up in court.  And if all these “home study, magical tonic-selling” doctors were truly curing anything, I am sure the Associated Press would have put out an article or two about that by now.
I think what really amazes and horrifies me about this particular situation is this single, unchanging reality:  kids are sweets-seeking missiles.  They will sniff out --and immediately stuff into their mouths - absolutely anything that resembles a cake, a pastry, a piece of candy.  Or a cookie.  A chocolate chip cookie. The sweet of all sweets. And the fact that these particular cookies were “hidden” only increased the likelihood that this little boy would consume them.  Because kids love a challenge. They love anything that seems forbidden. Or off-limits.  Or designated for someone else.  I often think if you prohibited kids from touching the vacuum cleaner and the washing machine you would come home to an immaculate carpet and neatly folded piles of freshly washed clothing every day of the week. Anyway, I digress. Though I encourage you to put my suspicion to the test – just for kicks - and let me know if it works.  You can thank me later.

Now as for this little boy, how was it not a given that he would intuitively know that the fridge in the back of the garage was where all the good stuff lived?  The big people food.  The sugary treats that are sometimes allowed, in small quantities, but only after dinner or on special occasions.  Imagine being a three year old and finding such a pot of gold.  Imagine realizing you could plunk your little body down on the cool garage floor and cram forbidden cookie after forbidden cookie into your tiny mouth without having to eat all your broccoli and peas first.  Hell, I’m 38 and even I want in on this deal.  Well, minus Grandma’s secret, leafy ingredient, of course. The secret ingredient that this barely-out-of-toddlerhood child, left unsupervised in a garage long enough to get stoned out of his mind, consumed until he fell asleep. 

That said, not everyone agreed with me when I assigned a rather offensive adjective to Granny Ganja, and even I admit that cancer is a pretty compelling excuse for just about any behavior that brings about relief.  Still, not a good enough one.  Not in this case. Even so, in the spirit of lightening up, of not battling my way through every situation with some relentless determination to be “right” all the time, I let my unpopular characterization of this elderly woman go.  And yet, something about the situation still weighed on me.  Something that seemed related to the pot and the endangering of this child, but that ran deeper and that I couldn't quite identify. 

Then I saw this morning’s headline: “Illegal Marijuana Dispensary Found Selling ‘Baked’ Goods in Restaurant Back Room,” and suddenly, it clicked.  A much different scenario than the innocent child falling victim to his doobie-rolling grandmother’s crime-chip cookies, this article spotlighted the Farmer’s Daughter restaurant in Sacramento, California, an establishment known for its friendly service, its menu variety, and the 80 pounds of marijuana in its back-room dispensary. 

Wait, it gets better. 
After eating their “perfectly normal” meals, patrons of the Farmer’s Daughter knew to ask for “the house baked goods, which consisted of cannabis-prepared desserts, lollipops, pastry balls, an assortment of things you'd eat."  I realized, as I kept reading, that it wasn’t necessarily the pot that was throwing me off.  After all, people talk about it like it’s the “legal illegal drug” these days, using phrases like “It’s only a joint” and “He used to do drugs, now he just rides the yellow submarine once in awhile.”  I’ve learned to live with what has become a pretty universal pot desensitization, since I sense that my aversion to it places me in the minority. 
But what was eating at me was precisely the fact that this whole marijuana situation wasn’t really about marijuana at all.  It was all about … eating.  Cookies and brownies and lollipops and assorted baked goods.  Forbidden foods and hidden foods and sneaking food and hoarding food.  Gone are the days when people simply hid in bathroom stalls rolling joints, sucking the reeking substance into their bodies, filling their lungs and holding their breath before blowing the stuff out into my no-longer-fresh air.  (At this point, my asthma and I would like to insert a retroactive “you suck” to everyone who did that in the 80s and 90s.)

In this fat/calorie/carb/weight/size/measurement/pound-obsessed culture where we starve all day and binge all night and log endless hours on the treadmill or sink into days-long depression on the couch, where we make enemies of our mirrors, enemies of our bathroom scales, enemies of our own bodies … why in the hell are we throwing pot, the drug known to cause cravings and those oh so famous “munchies” into the most fattening trigger foods on Earth?  On the one hand, I admire the entrepreneurial idea of saving time by providing the munchies-inducer and the munchie in a single item.  On the other, aren’t cookies and cakes already hard enough to eat in moderation?  Aren’t we just asking for trouble by filling them with the one addictive ingredient guaranteed to make us want more and more?

Anyway, this is where my point seems to end.  Maybe I need to think about it longer. I know I won’t change my position on drugs of any kind.  Ever.  For any reason.  I know I will always land hard on anyone who endangers a child – intentional or not, you don’t get to make avoidable, life-threatening mistakes with children and wipe them away with an apology.  But maybe pot-filled foods are the wave of the future.  I’m not just talking about the “pot brownies” that have been around since the 60’s, here. I’m talking about a whole new wave of trendy Food Network shows dedicated to the cause – A Ganja Thanksgiving feast, A Blow Bruch, A Roll Your Own Taco Joint party.  Where will it end?  And how will we explain to our children why it is that Grandma and Grandpa always moan “I love you, man” after a plateful of “happy pancakes,” or why great-aunt Mary’s potholders aren’t used to hold the pot full of potatoes on the stove? Or why, every time daddy goes to the local "burger joint" for dinner, he comes home hungrier than when he left? 

Just some thoughts ...

What do you think?

Full link to the Granny article:
Full link to the Farmer’s Daughter restaurant article: