Tuesday, January 24, 2012

A Birthday Cake for Grandpa (From last night's Memoir Project/Bookmarks reading)

Last night, I was honored to read alongside several other local writers at the Arts Center of the Capitol Region's Memoir Project/Bookmarks event.  Curated by Robyn Ringler, a local writer, bookseller, and owner of Eastline Books in Clifton Park, NY,  the topic for this submission was "Food."  Seemed basic and daunting at the same time.  So I began sifting through some ideas - my food allergies and sensitivities?  Too common.  Eating disorders?  Too overdone.  My vegetarianism? Too trendy.  Finally, my memory took me back to age 13, where I found myself trapped in afternoon of cake baking with my little brother, Rick.  It was too wonderful not to write and submit.  So that was what I did.  And I was happy that others saw it as worthy of sharing last night.  The evening was wonderful, filled with so many diverse experiences and stories about food and its impact on our lives, from sad to nostaligic to funny.  And what we all had in common, regardless of our age or our topic or our tone, was our love of food in some form or another, as a vehicle into relationships with our loved ones, ourselves, our surroundings, our memories. 

To my friends and family who have supported my writing, many thanks.  I know you would have been there last night if at all possible, so I have decided to share the piece here. And I want to thank my brother, Rick, who read (and laughed) at the piece and admitted that it was as true as he could recall (a rareity for memoir writers to hear!). Rick inspires me in countless ways, and he literally inspired this story by living through the memoirable experience with me.  It is for him, and for the happy childhood memories we shared, that I wrote this piece.

A Birthday Cake for Grandpa
 “We’re making grandpa a birthday cake with peanut butter frosting,” I announced.
“We?” my grandmother replied.
“Yes.  We.  Rick and me.”
“Do you know how to bake a cake?” Grandma asked.   
“Of course,” I lied.  “Mom lets me bake all the time.”
I was thirteen. My brother Rick was six.  And our combined baking resume at that point consisted of popcorn, oatmeal, and Duncan Hines Double Fudge box mix brownies. But since Grandpa’s birthday fell during our summer visit that year, it was the perfect opportunity to surprise him. 
How hard could it be to make a cake?  And some frosting? 
Maybe my mother didn’t let me bake all the time, but I had certainly watched her mix flour and sugar and eggs together enough to know the process.  And what I hadn’t learned from my mother I had seen on the cooking shows at Grandma’s house.
“Do you think Grandpa would take you grocery shopping?” I asked. “For like … two hours?”  I aimed straight for Grandma’s Achilles: her love of shopping.  And since Grandma didn’t drive, Grandpa took her everywhere she wanted to go.
By the time Grandma and Grandpa backed out of their gravel driveway thirty minutes later, I was already churning a giant mountain of flour from the Hoosier cabinet into the largest bowl I could find while Rick gathered the last four eggs from the refrigerator.
“Four people equals four eggs,” he reasoned.
“Right,” I replied, handing him a small ceramic dish.  “Here, crack them into this.”
But as Rick cradled the eggs in his left arm to reach for the dish, the first egg fell.
Within seconds, egg number two followed. 
I stopped churning, grabbed Grandma’s favorite dish towel, and began chasing and wiping the yolk puddle fanning across the kitchen floor.
 Rick’s face sank. “Now we don’t have enough eggs for the cake.”    
“Two eggs are plenty,” I promised. 
Rick recovered and began cracking the remaining eggs into the designated bowl. “Now what?”
“We should start the frosting,” I instructed. “We need to boil Karo Syrup and sugar first.  That’s what mom does. After that, we can add peanut butter.” 
I threw some granulated sugar into a saucepan and added half a jar of Karo Syrup. Then I slapped the pan on a burner and cranked the temperature to “High.”
“High temperature will make it boil faster so we can finish in time.” 
Unaware that the frosting was already in its initial burning stage, I grabbed the remaining eggs, a handful of sugar, and a pinch of baking powder and tossed everything on top of the flour mountain. 
Finally, it was time to mix.  Easier said than done, since Grandma and Grandpa’s old, four-story house was an electrical maze.  We couldn’t plug anything into the outlet by the pantry if the dining room lamp was on.  We couldn’t use the outlet by the front door if the television was playing.  We risked shrouding the entire house in darkness if we used the toaster or blender before turning off all the lights on the second floor.  And since Grandma had started a load of laundry before she left, we couldn’t plug anything into the kitchen outlet nearest the utility room without blowing all the circuits on the left side of the house.
I handed Rick the bowl and electric mixer and pointed toward the bathroom.  “Go mix this. Use the outlet by the toothbrushes.”
Rick hobbled away hugging the bowl in his arms, the mixer tucked between his chin and chest.
As I turned my attention back toward the stove, it was the crackling I heard first. 
Then, I smelled … something.
Then I saw the thick cloud of smoke rising from the front burner. 
I lunged for the saucepan, gripped the handle, and dumped the bubbling black substance into the sink. Evidently, Karo Syrup turns to granite the second it hits cold enamel.
 “What happened?” Rick ran into the kitchen.
“I burned the frosting and ruined the sink!”
We stared helplessly at the hardening mass until a low buzzing interrupted the silence.
 “Rick!  Did you leave the beaters on?” I sprinted toward the bathroom while Rick followed.
“Oh SHIT!” I screamed as I entered the centrifuge of batter leaping from the beaters and splattering the walls. The mirrors.  The claw foot tub. I ran to the mixer and slammed the “off” button.
 “I think we still have enough batter for a small cake,” I persevered. Then I scooped the beaters and the much lighter batter bowl and headed back to the kitchen.  Finally, I emptied the mixture into two metal cake tins and popped them into a 400-degree oven.
Then I turned my attention back to the marbleized mess in the sink. 
“Find a hammer,” I ordered. “And a screwdriver.” 
While Rick searched, I grabbed the bucket of peanut butter and began spooning thick blobs into one of the few mixing bowls that wasn’t covered in batter. Or egg. Or white powder.  Peanut butter is pretty perfect on its own.  I’ll just dump some sugar into this and call it frosting.  Not only was I unaware of the difference between granulated and powdered sugar, I was also unaware that peanut butter frosting required the latter.   
“Frosting’s done,” I announced as Rick reentered with a hammer in one hand and a Philip’s flathead in the other. 
I motioned him toward the sink and positioned the screwdriver in his right hand, lining it up with the solid black substance now embedded into enamel. 
“Hold it tight,” I instructed as I raised the hammer and let it fall on top of the screwdriver with such force that my arms vibrated and Rick winced.
Our victorious, boiled opponent refused to budge. 
“Forget it,” I heaved.  "We’re running out of time.  And we still have to frost the cake.”  I threw the hammer to the floor and proceeded to pull the tins out of the oven.
At that point, I noticed that one layer was shallower and darker than the other.  And after several failed attempts to pry the smaller piece from its pan, I decided that Grandpa would be celebrating this year’s birthday with half of a one-layer cake.  Resigned, I gently cut the thicker layer from its pan and pieced it together on one of Grandma’s antique serving platters before slapping thick piles of sugary peanut butter all over its top and sides. The only thing left to do was set the thing inside Grandma’s domed cake holder and snap the lid shut.  I imagined everyone’s shock as I removed the enormous cover to reveal the tiny little disaster that appeared so large, so normal, so edible from the outside. 
At that moment, I heard what I dreaded most: the sound of my grandparents’ car crunching up the driveway.
“SHIT!” I yelled one last time before shoving the cake into my brother’s arms. “Hide this somewhere.”
As Rick bolted from the room and my grandparents entered, dropping their grocery bags and cases of soda to the floor, I summoned my most cheerful voice:
“Surprise!  You’ll never guess what we did while you were out!”
No truer words were ever spoken.


Friday, January 20, 2012

Here is the news as I see it ...

It isn't enough to simply "follow" the news. One must actually engage with the news.  One must think critically, and read between the lines, and process the information for oneself.  That being said, here is my take on a few of the more recent "breaking" stories:

1.  Elton John has publicly dissed Madonna for something.  I'm not sure what he's upset about, but my reaction to the feud went something like this: "Awwww, it's so cute when old people bicker."

2.  The Captain of the recently sunken cruise ship off the coast of Italy apparently jumped into a life boat and abandoned the 40,000 people whose lives he knowingly jeopardized by driving too close to shore.  When asked why he did something so cowardly and self-serving before refusing to obey the Coastguard and return to his sinking ship, he responded: "I tripped and fell into a lifeboat and accidentally ended up on shore."  I suspect he is one of those people who also believes in "accidental pregnancy" and "inexplicable weight gain."

3.  Casey Anthony has adopted a rescue dog, effectively erasing any concerns I had about my ability to provide my new puppy with a safe, loving, stable home. 

4.  In related news, Casey Anthony also appears to have started a blog as a way of sharing her plight and her perspective on life, thereby erasing my concerns that my blog is the most narcissistic bit of gibberish currently living online.

5. Anthony Bourdain has labelled Food Network star Paula Dean "the worst, most dangerous person to America."  At the risk of indulging in redundancy, allow me to recap numbers 3 and 4 above: I repeat, Casey Anthony has adopted a dog and is now blogging from her home.  Where she lives.  In freedom.  Near children.  Possibly even near you.  Now, could someone please pass the butter?

6.   A Georgia woman was arrested this week for allowing her 10 year-old son to get a tattoo on his arm. The tattoo, which says "Rest in Peace," was the 10 year-old's way of remembering his older brother, who recently died in a car accident.  When questioned, the child's mother stated: "What do I say to a child ... that wants to remember his brother?"  She went on to insist: "I always thought that if a parent give consent, then it's fine."  Apparently, however, Georgia state law forbids anyone but a doctor to tattoo a child under the age of 18.  Makes sense, since 18 is the age at which other forms of self-mutiliation typically become legal - i.e. driving alone after dark, voting for president, etc.  What I really want to know is, how many Georgia doctor's offices have garages full of tattoo equipment and beer kegs to distract patients from the fact that they are running two hours behind schedule?  Suddenly, my doctor's 1995 magazines and perpetually empty water cooler just became a whole lot less tolerable.

7.  Tiger Woods is upset that his former swing coach, Hank Haney,  has written a book about the six years he spent working with Woods.  Calling the book "Unprofessional and Disappointing," Tiger stated "I'm not going to waste my time reading it."  And why should he, when there are affairs to be had, and games to be lost?  After all, in the time it would take Woods to sound out all the big words, his mother could read it for him and tell him it was a story all about what a good little boy he is. 

8.  President Obama made an appearance at Disney World this week.  While Obama announced initiatives aimed at making it easier for citizens of China and Brazil to visit the United States, Mitt Romney hid inside the Goofy costume pointing and laughing. See, even in the absence of jobs and in the midst of a struggling economy, Disney really is the most delusional place on Earth.

9. And the "Occupy" movement rages on. According to the Associated Press, "protesters plan to 'occupy' courthouses in more than 100 cities across the U.S. on Friday to protest a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that removed most limits on corporate and labor spending in federal elections ... to gain support for a constitutional amendment that would overturn Citizens United v. FEC, a 2010 court ruling that allowed private groups to spend huge amounts on political campaigns with few restrictions." Translation:  It's winter: Let's Occupy an inside venue.

10. I thoroughly enjoyed last night's Republican debate in South Carolina. The debate's host opened by asking Newt Gingrich about his ex-wife's claims that Gingrich wanted an open marriage.  Evidently, pro-life and pro-wife do not always go hand in hand.  Other debate highlights: Gingrich wore a stunning red tie, while Mitt Romney appeared to have gotten a haircut for the occassion.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Reflections on Dr. Martin Luther King: Freedom, Dreams, and Dental Work.

Nothing sheds light on the relativity of life like a little reflection on Martin Luther King. While his immeasurable gifts shed hope for many -- and still incite anger in some -- they continue to inspire and intrigue me. I often wonder how Dr. King managed such compassion in the face of such adversity and hatred.  I wonder how he found the strength to face violence with peace and meet ignorance with words.  His glorious speeches and graceful delivery of concepts so simple, so basic - love one another - move me every time I read something he wrote.  Or, better yet, hear a recording of his resonant tenor voice sailing high above earthly distractions and stating something real and true and incredibly brave.  And always, let us not forget, risking his own life for the possibility of a better, stronger, more peaceful world.

After the manic commercialism of Christmas and the relentless resolution-obsessed New Years (Hello crash diets and weight loss goals, won't you come in?) it is comforting to have this day, Martin Luther King Day, as one of reflection. I try to dedicate it to thoughts about issues other than my own microsocmic happenings and to an examination of struggles bigger than my daily difficulties.  That is not to say I believe in dimishing my own reality simply because Dr. King's seemed more worldy.  Neither do I practice "comparative pain" because perhaps my problems aren't likely to lead to assassination attempts or threats of global violence.

I just try to put things in perspective - and I think that is always a useful - albeit challenging - endeavor.

I am always inspired by those brave men and women who have risked their own individual lives to save the lives of others.  Who have taken action in order to save the life of a whole country.  I have never done either.  At least not to my knowledge.  It doesn't make the fact that I am facing deadlines and health concerns and family worries any less real, but it does give me the perspective I need to place each of my challenges in its own category and remind myself that as long as I am alive, as long as I am a thinking, feeling, functional being, I am ok.  And, as Sharon Salzberg so wonderfully insists, whether or not I worry, or persevere, or  give up entirely, "Something will happen."  I don't use Sharon's wonderful mantra-esque message to avoid responsibility  - after all, inert objects will certainly not "happen" without some diligence and movement on my part -- but when worry and struggle and self-inflicted pain begin to usurp the things and events and needs they pretend to be about, I think it's time to let go of the things themselves, let the feelings detach and wash away, and then reengage with the moments, and the people, and the meanings of things, rather than the day-to-day administrative functions we often confuse with living our lives.  It is time to stop.  Look.  Listen.  And dream.  And if anything, I am now starting to think, after 38 years, that it is the dreaming that makes us big. And brave. And unstoppable in the face of adversity and conflict.  The dreams Dr. King allowed himself changed the world, even though, when he dreamed them, they seemed larger than life to some, laughable to others, and impossible to all.

In addition to the power of Dr. King's vision and the strength of his spirit, Martin Luther King Day has always had a secondary meaning for me -  on this day in 1987, my othodontist removed my braces.  I was 14 years old, in ninth grade, and had had my braces (which I referred to with the dramatic hyperbole of a typical teenager as "dental shackles") for two years.  My parents, ever diligent about my school attendance, scheduled the orthodontist appointment to cooincide with a day off from school - "a holiday that wasn't really a holiday" to me.  Not back then, anyway.  While any other day at the dentist would have filled me with the typical angst that only a day off school would even begin to assuage, this particular appointment was a welcome visit, any day, any time.  A ceremonial separation from the wires and brackets of my junior highschool years and an unveiling of a new smile.  A straighter mouth.  A changed version of myself.

I have always been a little embarassed to associate the magnificence of Dr. King with something as banal as my highschool orthodontics.  But now, of course, I see the symbolism of freedom and change, the discomfort I had to endure in my tiny little microcosmic sphere in order to reach the end of a journey (in my case, two years of mouth sores and jaw pain).  And this is where the relativity factor comes in - some would argue that a teenager living through braces has nothing to do with civil rights and slavery and assassination, and I wholeheartedly agree.  But, boiled down to its most basic premise - the dream of a different, better world (whatever that means for every individual within the larger whole) -- there is a connection.  And I no longer believe I am diluting the enormity of Dr. King's message or his work by drawing it clearly here:

"I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream."  (Dr. Martin Luther King's  "I Have a Dream" speech, Aug. 28, 1963 at the Lincoln Memorial for the March on Washington, Washington, DC.) 

Below is the framed picture of Martin Luther King that sits beside his "I Have a Dream" speech at the top of my stairs.  I look at it every morning and every night, and it certainly gives me hope for better today and a brighter tomorrow:

In freedom and peace - whatever that means for you,
~~ Hasky

Monday, January 9, 2012

Some days just won't lighten ...

Every now and then, I like to remind myself why I started this blog in the first place.  Initially, I just wanted a place to write.  An unregulated space without word limits or formatting requirements.  A place where I could drone on and trail off if I wanted.  Sort of a "fast food" of writing - where I could indulge a little, outside of my actual writing and my more focused work.  I guess I saw it as a modern day version of Virginia Woolf's belief that every woman (I would argue every person) needs a place to write - a room of one's own.  I always thought Woolf was talking about so much more than a four-walled area inside a building.  And regardless of her inability to imagine the birth of "the blog" (though I somehow think she would be intrigued by the blogosphere, and I would certainly be her most obsessive follower), I do think she was referring to a room in the universe, in the writerly sphere, in the mind, where words happened organically, without restraint of time or convention or life itself.  And that is what I have always intended this blog to be.  For me.

But in spite of activey avoiding "rules" per se, I did want this "place" to have a theme.  A  feel.  And that was when I decided on the phrase "Lighten Up" as a perfect title for this collection of experiences and thoughts and reactions that, while sometimes painful and always challenging, could certainly be seen from many angles -- so why not choose the lighter side?  Perhaps even the funny one?  Because I do believe that humor lives in every experience - sometimes it just hides more creatively than others.  And since my exploration of this possibility came about at the precise moment that someone suggested I 'lighten up" a little - not deny or ignore or dismiss the darker, more painful realities of life, simply turn down the intensity a tad -- I thought the suggestion was perfect, as both an approah to life and a blog title.

Yet now, I am sitting here in Cambridge, feeling weary.  I am at the second of four 10-day creative writing residencies for my MFA at Lesley University. And my energy is absent.  I arrived here last Friday, having done minimal readng, made almost no notes, and generated very few thoughts about the material others had (I was convinced) absorbed from beginning to end like real writers.  I expected to sit side-by-side with peers who had over-prepared (as I did last time) and who had contemplated and pontificated and engaged in all kinds of cerebral actvities that "people like us" are expected to do.

But ... alas ... I am not alone in my fatigue or my disappointment.  And part of me thinks it's less about the dull seminars and lecture-based, discussion-less presentations and more about the inability to recreate a dynamic that existed once, in a time and place, as a foundation rather than a replicable experience.  June's residency was June's residency ... and now is now.  And there is no "repeat" cycle, only forward movement.

So here I am, bummed that I have to drag myself to campus "early" tomorrow morning at 9am instead of 10:30.  For someone who is up by 4am every day (even here) working out, writing, and getting ready for endless work days that usually bleed into afterwork, evening committments, I am finding it difficult to sit in a chair for a few hours in the late morning, then again in the early afternoon, before rushing back to my hotel to write and rest.  Rest and write.  And simply retreat.

Part of the challenge of being here (or of being anywhere) is always food.  But since I arrived here, I have yet to find a "normal" grocery store anywhere near me.  I have been unable to buy a case of bottled water - to the point that I wonder what the prize is for selling everything in individual units at inflated prices; I imagine it's a really cool prize.  Even on campus, I struggle to explain to people that "brocolli" is "brocolli" and I absolutely do not appreciate the "courtesy" marinade or the "you're thin enough to eat cheese sauce on that" comments.  I refuse to see said comments as anything other than invasive, ignorant, and, quite frankly, intentionally off putting and offensive.  But, like I said, I'm weary.  And my weariness tends to permeate every facet of my reactions and responses at times like these.    Add to all that the fact that my little Beckett got very sick twelve hours before I headed here last week.  After some desperate pleas and perhaps a few watery eyed moments, I finally got my vet to board Beckett in isolation (since he hasn't been able to tolerate any vaccinations and can't be exposed to other animals yet).  So Thursday night found me cancelling my pet-friendly hotel reservations, switching to a cheaper Cambridge hotel, and forking over several hundred dollars to board my sick little guy in the hopes that we would both feel ok with my decision to leave him behind.  Incidentally, Beckett is doing well without me - yet his cough lingers on and another antibiotic, a fifth one, has now begun it's slow crawl through his system in an effort to kill the bad stuff and bring him some wellness.  But his Giardia and worm RE-infection should be cleared once again, and going home to him means finding different, more creative ways of keeping him well -- even in the absence of knowing how he managed to get so sick.  Again.

My point, I guess, is that I am having a hard time seeing the lighter side this week.  I see mounting bills, I see a lack of real writing happening, I see a disappointing residency and a lack of food, I see a lot of alone time that I usually only indulge in at home.  I see a lot of heavy, and not much light. 

And that's ok.  Because I realize now that rough days, rough weeks, come ... and eventually go.  And sometimes all I can do is look at them, recognize them, not invest in making them catastrophic dramas capable of destroying me. Instead, I can see them as annoying interruptions in the energy that was moving me forward, and that will move me forward once again.  And I can be grateful -- grateful for my amazing mentor who I believe will guide and support and really help me improve my work over the next five months.  Grateful for the people I have reconnected with from the last residency, and the new people I have met - whether we are all feeling the discouragement and the energy drain, whether we are dealing with it similarly or differently, we are all writers when we sit in a room together.  We are a roomful of writers, owning, admitting, confessing, annoucing that we are writers. 

I guess, more than anything, I can be grateful to be a writer.  Because at the end of the day, when I land in bed at 7pm with a bowl of oatmeal and my laptop, I can at least write my way through the bad day and into the realization that I am writing, in this room of my own, where everyone is invited to read and feel and laugh and cry. Because in this room, there are no rules. In this room, the only bad writing is no writing.

Here's to a lighter tomorrow -- for all of us.

~~ Hasky

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

I am a writer.

In less than forty-eight hours, I will be at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts for the second of four MFA creative writing residencies.  After my first residency this past June, I am feeling a little better about this one, partly because I enjoy familiar environments with familiar people, and partly because I am finally starting to identify as a writer.  A writer who belongs in the company of other writers.  And I guess I kinda like the idea of feeling like I belong in a place that is familiar and comfortable.  I'm pretty sure that that is the very definition of security.

The difference between last June's residency and this upcoming one, of course, revolves around Beckett the wonder dog.  He will be accompanying me on this journey and staying with me at the pet-friendly Marlowe hotel.  I thought about boarding him, but decided against it once I realized it would simply be too long a stretch and we could lose too much ground with a separation of such length.  Then, of course, Beckett's ongoing cough (and resulting lack of vaccinations) finalized my decision by rendering him "un-boardable" - both for his health and safety and the health and safety of the other animals.  And it's ok.  And we will be fine.  And quite frankly, I didn't take too kindly to the suggestion of Beckett's "un-board-ability" -- so the protective (somewhat in denial) petmom in me decided he was too good to be anywhere other than at the center of my world.  And that is where he will be.

But for a pleasantly unexpected change, Beckett is the least of my worries.  In fact, given how dramatically panicked I was about this residency a week ago, I am happy (and surprised) to report that I don't really have many worries.  At least not about the writing part of the thing.  And my lack of worries tends to worry me.  And that, dear friends, is the very definition of anxiety.  I worry about everything.  All the time.  And in the absence of worry, I worry that I am not worried.  Because what if constant worry is what actually keeps all my worries from transforming into realities?

You see where I'm going with this?

The thing about anxiety - my anxiety - is that I tend to joke about it.  A lot.  I find myself ridiculous most of the time, especially when I am frantically Googling symptoms of various terminal illnesses and deciding that I have every one of them ("Hello typhoid.  Won't you come in?" ). And I certainly snicker at the futility of my obsessive money worries -- the way I check my bank account for the sole purpose of convincing myself that I cannot possibly live on my salary and secure my retirement and continue to pursue my MFA and, scariest (but most necessary) of all, switch careers in the middle of my life.

Well, not switch careers as much as return to my original plan. 

Because, you see, I am a writer.  On some level, I have always been a writer.  I have been an academic writer.  A teaching writer.  A closeted writer.  And now, I am just a writer. A writer who isn't writing enough.  A writer who is working in a makeshift career of politics and policies and election campaigns.  A writer who depends on domestic violence - other people's domestic violence - to pay the bills and further distract and exhaust me until I have no energy and no time and no desire to write something meaningful.  Something that could actually touch other human beings.  Or help them.  Or simply engage and entertain them.  And, most of all, something that could compel me to return to it again and again because I simply have to.

And that doesn't feel ok to me anymore.

I've never deluded myself into thinking that I was causing or perpetuating domestic violence simply by working in a field that, on its surface, claims to prevent (or at least attempt to prevent) it.  First of all, I don't have that much power or influence.  What's more, I believe it when I say that abuse of another is a conscious decision the abuser makes, and no amount of law enforcement or human services interventions will stop (or even temporatily dissuade) someone who is dedicated to exerting power and control over another.

Even so, my work is depressing.  It is thankless.  It is daunting.  And I suck at it.  Because in my little piece of the domestic violence puzzle, a "good day" means that a law was passed.  Or a document was promulgated.  Or a power point went off without a hitch.  Nothing but passive language to describe nameless, faceless generalities. When I had more spirit and energy (read: naivete)  for this work, I was able to see the "big picture"  successes and imagine the trickle down effect of federal dollars designed to provide services and safety to abuse victims and their children.  The tear-filled tirades of the justifiably irate women living in shelters often called and asked me (rhetorically, of course) how I could sleep at night with the knowledge that I was living comfortably on a "domestic violence paycheck."  Even though I hated their assumptions about my life ... their assumptions were correct.  And the ability to pay my rent and my college loans and my grocery bills because I was able to write policies about their lives ... well, it felt like shit.  But of course, I never told them that.  It wouldn't have been professional -- pure, uncensored honesty rarely is.

When I look at the efforts and the positive changes happening around domestic violence these days, I am encouraged.  Many people care.  Many people try and work and fight for justice and human rights.  Many people take positive action and make positive change and spend millions of dollars to do what seems like the right thing.  Or at least the right thing, right now.  And as wonderful as this is, it isn't enough.  Not for me.  Not anymore.  For many years, I have convinced myself that THIS was practical work.  Stable money.  Job security.  And so much more admirable and "grown up" and focused than a writing career.  Even as a writer of memoir, I led myself to believe that writing was nothing more than a release from reality and an escape into the unachievable fantasy of doing whatever I wanted, in my voice, on my terms, with my words.

And then I met an abuser who hurt someone close to me and shook the foundation of everything I thought I knew.  Whose actions exposed the futility of every helpful effort I thought I was making day after day.  And I realized that the only way to make any of my knowledge and work mean anything at all was to step out of this politicized world, perhaps not right away, and perhaps not completely, but to inch my way out one footfall at a time and speak for myself.  Certainly, it would be arrogant not to acknowledge all I have learned in my work. But I can no longer sit in meetings and on conference calls and allow research and faceless data and nameless statistics tell a generic story.Writing is about shedding the euphamisms and stripping away the metaphor and simply telling the truth.  As I see it.  Recall it.  Experienced it.  Live it.

So as I pack 9 days worth of clothing and workout gear and Beckett-related essentials, I am thinking about my next chapter.  Knowing that the words landing on the pages will fall from my fingers and fit into one another in my voice eases the anxiety a bit.  Because in spite of all the unknowns - Will the hotel be alright?  Will I find foods I can tolerate for 9 days?  Will travelling with Beckett officially break my malleable barrier between sanity and insanity?  Will I forget anything essential in my frenzied packing ritual? -- I know one thing:  I am a writer.  And when I finally get to where I am going, I will be able to look around me and confidently declare: "I belong here."

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Much Ado About Beckett: The Anti-romantic Puppy Adoption

It has been a few weeks since I have written anything substantial, and I confess that today's post doesn't feel like much more than a list of justifications about why I haven't written.  But here goes:
  • The first week of December, I adopted a new puppy;
  • The second week of December, after several hundred dollars and four trips to the vet, I returned said parasite/worm/bacteria-infested puppy to the rescue from whence he came, believing I lacked both the financial and emotional stability to adequately care for him;
  • The third week of December, I missed my puppy, who I had named Beckett (after the writer I most admire, not the athlete everyone else knows)  I maintained daily contact with the rescue, who was rehabbing him round the clock with medications and feeding and attention I couldn't provide while at work; 
  • The fourth week of December, I brought Beckett back home.  New stool samples and blood work confirmed that he was infested even worse than before I'd brought him back to the rescue.  Once again, he was put on more parasite/worm medications - which I found out he should have been given the first time around.  Needless to say, I took the meds, paid my latest $135 bill, and switched vets. 
  • I spent the next few days bowing to the god of germophobia by Cloroxing my house, my things, and on one occasion (and accidentally, of course) my SELF (Note: Breathing straight Clorox for an hour in a poorly ventilated room can be toxic.  Just FYI.) 
  • I maintained my 4am workouts, my 9-5 workdays, Beckett's frequent walking and feeding and medication and bathing needs.  And I started and finished my Christmas shopping, baked what I could, wrote as much as possible (which wasn't much) and did my best to prepare for my upcoming 10-day January writing residency in Cambridge, MA.
And I was exhausted.

In fact, by Christmas Eve, Beckett and I were both exhausted.  We were weary.  We were annoyed with each other as we failed to bond much beyond his need for food and my ability to provide it.  Even on Christmas Eve, as I threw the last remaining Christmas gifts into my car and finally pulled out of my driveway to head to my parents' for the weekend, I cursed this little guy who had not only turned my world, my anxiety issues, and my bank account inside out and upside down, but who had (I believed at the time) made me leave for my parents' two hours later than I had planned.  It was only 11am and I was already eagerly awaiting sleep.  And nervous that my family would be as annoyed by Beckett as I was.

And then my cell phone rang.

I had just pulled out of the Dunkin Donuts parking lot and was getting onto the Northway for the two-hour drive to Plattsburgh when my new vet's phone number appeared on my cell phone screen.  I knew why they were calling - Beckett's latest stool sample results had come in as expected.  Since the three before had all tested positive in spite of the meds, I wasn't feeling very hopeful this time around.  I was anticipating another few days of anxiety and Clorox and worrying about everyone "catching" something from Beckett -- and I was ready for it.  I am always on standby for such things, even when such things don't exist.

I hesitated as I pressed 'answer' on my cell phone.  My reluctant "hello" was met by a cheerful vet tech "just wondering how the sweet little guy was doing."  What a lovely person, I thought, wishing I could see this little bundle in my back seat in the same loving way.

"He's fine," I said, still angry every time I glanced at the clock and wondered why I had assigned myself an arbitrary ETA, anyway.  There was nothing planned at my parents' that morning, no reason I needed to be there before 6:00 mass that evening.  Even so, I had made a plan and then lost control of it.  Next to germs, losing control (whether perceived or not) of my own pointless rigidity was the thing I most feared.  And most resented.  

"He ate better this morning," I informed the waiting vet tech, hoping the increase in appetite meant Beckett's belly was healing even a little, and that his hunger was adapting to a workable schedule that would suit my needs regardless of whether it met his.

"That's wonderful," the tech responded.  She seemed genuinely happy.  Happier than I.  I was simply annoyed.  And I realized there hadn't been a single moment of "happy" since I had met Beckett.  Sure, I had missed him while he was gone, but I think, even now, that that was more about my failure.  Or my perception of failure over my inability (or unwillingness) to rehab him myself.  What if he had been a child in need of extra care?  I can barely force myself to ask such questions, mostly because the best answer I can come up with, if I am being honest, is my standard "I don't know."  And honestly, I don't.

As I sat thinking about this vet tech and fearing what felt like a terrifying inability to love this dog I had committed to for the next 16 to 18 years of my life, I remembered the parasites.  The worms.  The stool sample. 
The test results. I almost yelled into the phone, fearing the tech would hang up before I had a chance to ask. My ability to simply redial her number failed to register at that moment.

"OH!" I interrupted the silence. ‘His stool.  What's happening with the worms and the Giardia?!"  I waited for her to tell me it was, once again, worse than ever. That there would be more medication. That everyone around him "should exercise caution" (which for most people means thorough hand washing in warm, soapy water, but for me consisted of an exhausting, OCD-laced decontamination ritual that had me dreading myself at the moment).

 "All negative!" She cheerily replied.  "No worms. The parasite is gone.  He's all clear!  Well done - you finally knocked it out of him."

And just like that -- literally, just like that -- life changed.  I won't be so dramatic as to say that everything turned a lovely shade of pink while singing angels handed me unlimited amounts of cotton candy.  But instantly, I loved us -   Beckett and myself.  I was proud of us.  I was in awe of us.  And, quite frankly, I was surprised and inspired by us. 

Beckett had an illness. 
I had a fear. 
Beckett had a need. 
I had an obligation. 

Even in the absence of putting his emotional needs before my irrational fears, I did what I had to do - and I had to do it because he would likely have died otherwise, both from the infections and from the reality that no one else would knowingly adopt such a sick, costly, absolutely beautiful little boy.  Wasn't it possible that I had faced one of my greatest fears - I knowingly brought infectious germs into my home -- because deep down, I was already attached to him?  Because I knew, if I just stuck by him, and stuck by myself, I could get him over his condition and I could certainly make some progress with my own?  I think yes, on both counts.

Yet on some disturbing level, my euphoric reaction to the vet tech's news felt like conditional love.  It felt like arrogant, narcissistic, self-serving love.  It felt like I could finally bond with Beckett because he was "clean" now.  And I invested in how awful such a realization felt for about ten minutes before I decided that it didn't matter what emotions were behind the reality: We were going to be ok.  And I was going to make sure we were ok.  Because I could.  And because "ok" was clearly within reach for both of us.

By the time we pulled into my parents' driveway, I had transformed from the pissed off woman two hours behind schedule to the elated woman who had done something potentially lifesaving for Beckett and at one time impossible for me.  I believed (and still do) that I had done something necessary. 

I gave Beckett his first real hug that day.  Sure, I had been playing with him and petting him and treating him well up to that point, but my tone and my approach had been that of an owner.  A master.  A ... dare I say it ... parent (and not one who believed in compassionate parenting or unconditional love).  But when I finally pulled Beckett from his travel carrier in my parents' driveway, I embraced him.  I didn't have to try to love him, I already loved him.  It was as simple as that.  And it had been there all along.  Whether I had feared loving him because I feared losing him, or because I simply feared loving at all, I realized I could no longer avoid the truth - in spite of myself, I had connected with this strong, resilient, incredibly affectionate little guy for a reason. His needs had usurped my own for awhile, forcing me to acknowledge that my needs were really just the neurotic dysfunctions and self-deprecating habits of a woman who never had to put anyone or anything else first.  Not until Beckett arrived.

Since Christmas, life has continued pretty much the same, minus the parasites and the worms.  Beckett is still on antibiotics for a cough that seems resistant to all meds - he may have to be put under anesthesia so the vet can collect a sample of the infection.  Since the cough is making vaccinations impossible right now, we can't yet enroll in obedience classes or doggy day care, as contact with other animals could compromise his health and the health of the other animals.  So it's just the two of us, for now, figuring out each other's cues, navigating the chewing and the house training and the various barks that all mean something different.  He often shifts his head from side to side while staring at me, as if to say "Yeah, you're kinda weird and annoying, too, lady" and reminds me that I am just as foreign to him as he is to me.  My house is a mess.  My washer and dryer seem to run constantly.  My lips and hands are chapped from the 2am walks in bitter cold weather (with a dog whose "shy bladder" works when it feels like it - sometimes right away, sometimes 20 minutes later).  And yes, I am still exhausted.

But today, as I walked out the door and looked back at his little face watching me leave, I actually said "Bye, buddy.  See you soon," as if he could understand me.  As if I expected him to respond with an "Ok, then."  He did whine a little, but I assume he settled quickly, since by the time I reached my car, no barks erupted from my apartment. 

A few weeks ago, when the Beckett journey began, I couldn't have imagined that such an experience would have ever taught me to lighten up.  The germs and his constant level of need and the financial and emotional burdens this little guy brought into my life inspired nothing but tears and anger and fear and loneliness.  But gradually, I have learned that I am going to be ok.  And that Beckett is going to be ok.  Because, for better or worse, it is up to me to take care of us both -- and I realize now that I wouldn't have it any other way.

Getting Real with Resolutions

For the past few years, my New Year's Resolution has consisted of a single promise to myself:

No New Year's Resolutions!

Maybe it's lame, but I am usually the only person I know who actually sticks to my resolution beyond January 3rd, while the rest of my friends curse their failed diets, impulse buys, continued smoking habits.  As if there is a prize for setting the most unachievable goal and then sinking into a dark depression when the goal simply vanishes, along with the energy that inspired it.

Seriously, am I the only one who is completely bored with this game?

I realize that my "No New Year's Resolutions" seems a flip response to what I see as an antiquated, pointless tradition of self-fulfilling failure, but I still think there are some possible alternatives to the standard "drastic weight loss/unlikely health improvements" most people expect of themselves simply because they have opened a new calendar (which was likely a free gift with purchase from Avon or Dunkin Donuts anyway). So, in the interest of providing solutions to the identified problem, I am sharing my list of much more sensible (and, I believe, achievable) Resolution alternatives. 

Feel free to use one or more of these whenever you would like -- and remember, reward your successes and refuse to dwell on your failures.  After all, Robert Allen insisted that "There is no failure.  Only feedback," while Buddha believed that "The only real failure in life is not to be true to the best one knows." I simply think it's ridiculous to set oneself up for inevitable failure when the path to success lies waiting, with plenty of room, and open arms, and infinite rewards.  So, here are my thoughts for some sensible, achievable, logical 2012 goals (phrased as affirmations, for ease of adaptation):

1.    I will not wear pajama jeans, or pajama pants, or any article of clothing containing the word "pajama" unless I am in bed. 
2.    I will not walk and text; it may not be as deadly as driving and texting, but it is twice as annoying to those who have to navigate around me.
3.    I will prioritize healthy eating and exercise without constantly recruiting everyone around me to jump on my temporary (let's be honest here) fanatical bandwagon.
4.    I will make 2012 "The Year of Honesty" by simply admitting that I intend to keep overeating.  And smoking.  And indulging in a little wine now and then.
5.    I will remember the importance of kindness toward strangers, but will succeed at being kinder to the people I actually know, too.
6.    I will listen.  With my mouth closed.
7.    I will remember that just because something looks "too awesome to pass up," very few things on infomercials are actually worth the three payments of $19.95.  Plus the shipping and handling.  And sales tax.  And the hidden fees.  And the broken/missing pieces.
8.    I will focus on developing a new hobby just as soon as I unearth the never-used treadmill hidden under piles of clothes, and hunt down the rollerblades and the golf clubs and the kayak and the hiking gear scattered around the basement.  Oh, and has anyone seen my ballroom dancing costume or my "Build-It-Yourself" Backyard Shed kit?
9.    I will write the first few words of the opening line of Chapter 1 of the next great American Novel. 
10. I will use make-up, metaphor, and meat products as Nature intended: sparingly and only when necessary.

Should any or all of these work for you, no need to thank me.  It's what I do. 
I wish you a happy, healthy, resolved 2012!

Try again.  Fail again.  Fail better.  ~Samuel Beckett

~~ Hasky