Down the Drain

I survived Dry January. Full disclosure: I cheated twice. The first time was a glass of Prosecco at a wake for a family friend. That was a no brainer. Then I went to a writing conference and ended up taking the weekend off of the wagon. I can’t really justify that one except to say writers+social time+a successful agent pitch which resulted in a request for my full manuscript=celebration ÷ wine³. I regret nothing.

But then…

The first Sunday of February Matt invited some friends over for the Superbowl. I do not care about football but I was celebrating the end of January (both dry January and January as a broad concept). I was feeling awkward and under pressure, as I always do when people I don’t know well are in my house. I was settling in but then I managed to embarrass myself. It was one of those Superbowl commercials where they get as many famous football players they can on camera and they throw the ball around and create mayhem, and Matt and his friends were excitedly shouting out the names of the people they recognized. They were having a great time. Then, suddenly, I saw someone I thought I recognized and before I could stop myself I said, “Ooh, ohh! That’s Idris Elba!”

Everyone stopped and looked over at me with that expression people give you when they need to tell you that you are an asshole but they don’t actually want to. “No,” Matt said, gently. “That’s [yet another football star I’ve never heard of].”

At first I was still certain I was right. “He looks just like him!” I said.

Then one of Matt’s friends said, “Yeah, he does. Like… he looks like a black man in an expensive suit…”

And I realized I did it again. I was accidentally racist. Goddammit. I hear people (cough, Republicans) on TV and podcasts and such insisting that there is no such thing as “implicit bias” (Richard Lowry, I’m looking at you) and that they DEFINITELY aren’t racist (despite supporting Trump “because of economic reasons; I disagree with him on many things!” [PS: fuck you]). Meanwhile, I genuinely do NOT want to be a racist and I’m accidentally racist ALL THE TIME! It’s the fucking WORST!

Matt was worried that I wouldn’t know what to do with myself during the game, so he sweetly set me up with a puzzle of a kitten that I could work on while everyone else watched sportsball. But after my gaffe, I couldn’t sit still and do my adorable puzzle. I was embarrassed and racist and stupid and I needed to DO something. So I went upstairs to work on the dishes. The bad part of that plan was that upstairs was where the booze was. And not just the can of wine that I bought to enjoy for my return to drinking (1 can = two drinks. 1 bottle = five). There were many bottles of whiskey that Matt’s friends brought to sample. And also a large bottle of home-made cider, that Matt’s friends so kindly brought, just for me!

I was cleaning and drinking and had, what seemed in the moment, a very funny thought. “My basement is full of people watching football, but I’m upstairs cleaning. I’m like a real Mormon!” Nothing like whiskey to make one feel hilarious. I shared this thought on Facebook and a former co-worker (also an ex-Mormon) chimed in with a dig at the Mo’s.  “Donate your money to a very rich multi-national corporation that doesn’t help the poor and your transformation will be complete!” I realize that if you aren’t Mormon or Mormon adjacent, this will sound like (sorry to mix sportsball metaphors) inside baseball. But suffice it to say, it’s funny. I replied to say as much.

As I was cleaning, however, my phone started sending chimes in rapid succession that said something to the effect of:

[Chime] That super Mormon uncle you never talk to and forgot you were friends with on Facebook as replied to your former coworker.

[Another chime] Your coworker is responding to you your uncle.

[Another chime] Your mother is joining in.

[Another chime] Your coworker has broken into a sweat.

[Another chime] Your uncle has more to say.

[Another chime] Your coworker has sent you an IM asking for some cover fire.

[Another chime] This is the only thing that your Mormon relatives are talking about, other than the half-naked half-time show.

[Internal Monologue] Fuuuuuuuck. (Pours more whiskey.)

Scene.

Everyone left after the game and Matt was not pleased that I drank as much as I did. It started out well! I had my can of wine and a puzzle and lots of good intentions! But I didn’t stick the landing hopping out of the wagon. I whiffed it into the mud on the side of the road and got multiple pints of sludge on my face.

So… taking a break for Dry January was good but not a cure for anxiety and/or binge drinking tendencies. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. I wish I could say that I have a plan for what happens next, but I’m still figuring it out. I’m avoiding Facebook. And Mormons. And people in general. Maybe that will help.

Meanwhile, can we talk about when they will come out with the next season of Luther? It’s been too long. The accidentally racist winos want more Luther! At least, this one does. I’ll be waiting in the basement. Checking my phone for updates.

 

 

 

Animal Encounters

Wensleydale has had a rough time this winter. His arthritis is acting up. He had some teeth pulled. And once the snow came he started peeing in a corner of the kitchen rather than asking to go out in the cold.

He’ll be 16 years old in March, which for Yorkshire terriers (the internet tells me), is the equivalent of 80 human years. The site only went up to 17 which made my heart stutter. I had to google “oldest Yorkie” to get some sense of what I could hope for. I found this article about a 26 year old Yorkie who died in a dog attack, which was helpful but distressing at the same time. 26 years is a lot, even for a natural death. I decided to focus on that fact and not the grizzly details of his demise.

We spent the holidays in California with Matt’s family. It worked out that a friend needed a house and pet sitter for our exact days, and they agreed to give us the keys in exchange for keeping their three-legged chihuahua with broken ribs and nerve damage alive. They also have a parakeet-like bird (technically, he is a green cheeked conure) and a half-dozen chickens.

We drove from Utah to California (a 12 hour drive) with Wensley in tow. He’s usually a pretty good traveler, but this time he struggled. Here he is resting comfortably early on in the trip.

Later in the day, he seemed like he couldn’t stay still for mor that a minute or two. He was on my lap as we traversed Donner’s Pass (location of the infamous Donner Party disaster) when Wensley emptied the contents of his bladder directly into my crotch. He peed on me several more times before we reached our destination outside Sacramento. Once I got him inside and he peed on the light tiled floor (and not on my dark jeans) I saw that he was peeing blood. I got him back in the car and rushed him to a 24 hour pet hospital, making an already long day insanely longer.

Wensley had a mild urinary tract infection and the veterinarian gave us antibiotics, but it was well after midnight when we finally went to bed. I changed clothes and went to sleep, leaving the pee soaked laundry in a pile for later.

I stayed behind the next morning when Matt and Ethan joined up with the fam for holiday bonding. I started the washer, gave Wensley a bath, and tried to get the chihuahua to eat something without success. I put the clothes in the drier and turned my attention to the bird, who was shrieking for attention.

I was told I could let him out of his cage and, while he couldn’t fly, he could climb to the top of the cage and see what the people were up to. I decided to try that and it did quiet him. Then I thought I might befriend him with food, even if it didn’t work on the chihuahua who seemed to hate me with an unnatural fire. I cut up a pear and offered a small bite to the little green bird, but instead of taking it, he hopped on my hand, ran up my arm and disappeared in my freshly washed hair. I reached up to move him back to his perch, but every time my fingers got close to him he bit me. Hard.

I took a selfie and sent it to Matt, explaining what happened. “I can’t get him off so I guess he lives here now.”

Not sure what else to do, I sat on the couch and waited for the drier to buzz. I pulled up a podcast and tried to forget that I had allowed my body to become a bird house and tree combo. Once I settled on the couch, however, the bird decided to explore my branches.

He ran back and forth across my clavicle a few times. Then he stepped down onto my right breast and, after a cautious few steps, began to bounce on it, like it was a double mattress at a Motel 6. I reached up to make him stop and he bit me and ran back into my hair.

“Asshole,” I said. “I just got #metooed by a goddamn parrot. Worst. Christmas. Ever!”

The clothes finished and Matt came back to rescue me. Together we got the mean little bird back in his cage and I was free. The rest of the pet sitting part of the trip was uneventful. I gave the animals their space and they gave me mine. Wensley didn’t befriend anyone, either. But he has completely recovered from his UTI.

That’s really the end of the story, but just for fun here are some photos I took from a separate animal encounter, back in Utah, shortly after New Year’s. It was Owl Day at the Bear River Bird Refuge and I got to meet these two cuties.

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Then we took a drive around the refuge and I took pictures of hawks. These two turned out the best.

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I have always loved raptors and have a fantasy of getting into falconry some day, maybe when I’m retired. I’m sure having a bird of prey would be completely different than having a flightless conure or parakeet, but this one experience has left me less excited about my fantasy. After all, if a red tail hawk decided to trampoline my tits, I might bleed to death!

Might be best to invest in a longer lens and stick with photography. That way I can stay in my car, where it is safe.

Yoga Poser

We were standing in Warrior II (never one of my favorite poses as it forces me to look at my body in the studio mirror at an unflattering side angle), posed with our back legs straight, our front legs bent at a 90° angle, and arms outstretched in both directions, one over each leg.

“What is the significance of looking forward over your bent leg in this pose?” Judd asked the class as he walked down a row of rubber mats, correcting postures as he went.  Someone said something in response, but I didn’t catch it over the music. But Judd did.

“Yes!” he said. “We are reaching back into our past and forward into the future, but our our Drishti – our gaze – is focused on the future. On what comes next.” He gave another direction moving us into the next pose and picked up the thought. “Remember, this doesn’t mean that we are alluding our pasts. We have one arm in that, as well. Your past has brought you to where you are today. We embrace all that is there, and we take it with us into the future.”

I suppose that most people would hear this and it would sound like basic and banal yogi-banter. I didn’t hear it that way, though. It lodged in my throat like a hot stone and its heat radiated up toward my eyes, threatening to convert its heat to tears. I managed to keep my composure until Shavasana (the end of the class where you lay on your back, which I use to catch my breath), when I allowed the tears to slip from my eyes and into my ears. But that’s the great thing about hot yoga; tears look just like sweat and no one notices.

My entire adult life, I have struggled with my relationship to my own past. I once joked to a therapist that when I look back on my life, it looks to me like a long chain of choices, and at every decision point it is clear in retrospect that there were only two possibilities: a) the correct choice and b) the choice I made.

This is completely false, of course. There are rarely only two choices, for one thing. And for the most part, there are no correct or incorrect choices.  You do your best (you choose a college, a major, a partner, a job…) and you live with the consequences, good and bad. It’s possible that another choice may have yielded fewer negative consequences, but probably not. At any rate, you’ll never know.

I used to imagine there was an alternative version of me in some parallel universe who made all the “right” decisions and was living a better and more productive, healthier, more fulfilling life. She was also taller, for some reason. Probably because she ate all of her vegetables as a child.

If I wasn’t imagining Better Rachel, I was pining for a blank slate, free of marks and chalk dust. I desperately wanted a do-over life on a pristine white page without all those cross outs and scribbles and misspelled words. “Could I just rewrite the whole thing, knowing what I know now? Is that so unreasonable?”

Maybe not, but it was impossible. So I made peace with my past in the only way I knew how, growing up Mormon in Utah: as passive-aggressively as fuck. Don’t think about it. Don’t talk about it. Don’t look at old pictures, and definitely don’t go back and listen to 90s music! That will bring up memories and totally suck me into a mire of sadness. I can’t listen to any music I have owned for more than a few years, in fact. There is just something about music that can take me back to different chapters of my life, like a time machine to one of my former selves. I can’t do it. Something inside me jumps up and says, “We gotta get out of here! I don’t want to visit this person! Back to the future! Run for the DeLorean!”

Side note: I recently rewatched that movie. It wasn’t quite as cute as I remembered. It’s actually kind of rapey. Just sayin’.

After my Dry January post last week, I got a message from a friend. (I heard from several of you; thank you all for that.) She told me not to miss last week’s My Favorite Murder, one of our favorite podcasts. “Georgia is also doing Dry January!” I downloaded it and listened. I have to say, I was not expecting her to be as positive as she was about her break from drinking. She is often drinking cans of wine while she records the podcast and I thought she would say something about it being hard to take a long break. But then she said something to the effect of, “I just like waking up and not feeling all of the guilt!” but it would have had the f-word in it. Georgia can’t say a whole sentence without at least two f bombs. But whatever she said, I was nodding.

I’m seventeen days into Dry January now and I feel good. I’m sleeping well. My head feels clear. I’m not feeling as positive as Georgia sounded because I still miss wine. Life is really damn long and just a lot to take in general. Wine helps with that. But I’m not feeling guilty about drinking at that is really nice.

How often have I been feeling bad about something I did so I drank, and then I felt bad about that, so I ate a casserole of comfort food and then I felt bad about that… and on and on it stacks into a multilayered mess. Like a deep dish lasagna made of shame and cottage cheese. Why cottage cheese? Because that is how my mother made it when I was a kid, either because we couldn’t afford Ricotta or because you couldn’t get it in suburban Utah in the 80s, or possibly both. And it was gross.

Georgia was saying that she feels great and might give up drinking all together. I’m not there, I have to be honest. But I don’t want to feel all that guilt any more. If only I could actually fully embrace my past and let that shit go, instead of just pretending it was a past life that didn’t have all that much to do with me, maybe it wouldn’t feel so heavy a burden to carry sometimes. And in that vein, maybe if I could accept my decisions as me doing my best, then the next morning I won’t wake up feeling like cold cottage cheese lasagna. (If I keep pushing it, this metaphor will work! I can feel it!)

I got a new planner for 2020 to keep track of appointments and to-do lists. Yes, I have a smartphone, but I am also a Luddite. I opened it up and the first page had a space for a personal mission statement for the year of 2020. My first response was “yuck! I’m not doing that!” But as I’ve been working through all of these thoughts about where I am in life right now, I ended up taking a stab at it. It’s a little clunky, but it gets the point across. It says, “In 2020, as part of my continued efforts to live a full and well examined life, I will focus of self-acceptance (especially where my physical self and my career goals are concerned) and letting go of guilt and regret.”

I’m also going to do more yoga. And it just so happens that I was looking through storage for some stationary and I stumbled over Everything But the Girl’s album Amplified Heart on CD, which I think I purchased in 1996. I pulled it out and I’m going to listen to it this weekend. But I’m not going to drink while I listen to it. Maybe in a couple of weeks, I’ll have some wine. Not because my inner wine gremlin wants some. But if I choose to, then I’ll have some. And then I will let that shit go.

 

 

Dry January

Oh, January. You suck so much. You are like a cold wet dirty grey blanket left in the gutter, frozen at the corners, and covered in the needles of a discarded Christmas tree. Every year, I make plans for you – such grand plans – you wouldn’t believe. And every year, somehow you get me. You end up around my shoulders, weighing me down with your dirt and ice, and I can’t throw you off. It’s mean. And I don’t like it.

I have the Januwearies. In my last post, I was planning to spend January reading novels in a cozy corner while drinking loose leaf tea. I was also going to exercise along with a Jillian Michaels DVD, and then write for an hour, every day. I haven’t done those things. I have mourned the end of the holidays and I have sat on my butt eating leftover candy and feeling like a giant sack of “meh.”

My one promise kept, however, is that in the last eight days, I have not had a drink.

This is something that I don’t like to write about, because it is hard and not funny. But here is the thing: I struggle with binge drinking. Most of the time, I can have a single drink of wine at dinner and not need any more and I’m fine. I can go on for months like that. But sooner or later, I’ll “need” a binge and I’ll drink and drink until I blackout. God, that’s hard to write, but there it is.

I heard about the “Dry January” trend, where people take a month off from drinking to reset and detox a bit. I thought, “Yeah. That’s a good idea.” I wasn’t really thinking I needed to, because I’ve been in a pretty good place with the drinking lately. I was actually thinking it might help me loose a few pounds and/or inches.

However, once I decided (back before the holidays) I was going to do this, my inner addict, or as I unaffectionately like to call her, The Wine Gremlin, started to freak the fuck out. It’s like that voice that tells you that you need to eat an entire bag of Cheetos the day before you start a diet. Or is that only me? My binging isn’t limited to drinking, I should concede.

We traveled to California to visit my boyfriend Matt’s family. His brother and sister-in-law have a toddler and a new baby, so it made sense to bring Christmas to them. I struggle with social anxiety and being with people I don’t know well is hard for me. Also, I associate Christmas with drinking. But I was doing well… until the day after Christmas (or Boxing Day, as I like to call it, because I’ve been willing myself to be British for as long as I can remember).

There was most of a bottle of wine in the fridge left over from Christmas dinner, and it was calling my name. It was mine after all; I bought it. The day after Christmas was dull and deflated. The men folk went off to have a nerf gun fight in the park. Matt’s sister-in-law had gone out for lunch with her parents. It was just me and Matt’s mom at the house, and she was on the phone. I was waiting for the boys to come back so we could have our annual sword fight with the spent rolls of wrapping paper (I hauled them from Utah to California, I was so determined to make this happen). “May as well have some wine while I wait,” I decided. I finished the bottle by the end of the night, before we went back to our AirB&B to sleep. I snuck a little bit and then a little bit more. Finally, after dinner, I emptied the rest into a glass and drank it in the open while I did the dishes.

Then, before we left, Matt’s sister in law suggested we leave the kids with the grandparents and go check out some wine tasting bars in town, because California. We were leaving first thing in the morning and we had over 12 hours to drive, so we said, “Sorry, but we’ll do that next time we are in town!” I didn’t add, “I can’t take your drinking because I’m drunk!”

Her face sunk and I realized she had been planning this for a while. It was her chance to escape the new baby for an hour and have some adult talk. If I hadn’t been sneaking drinks all day, I could have taken her out and maybe had some bonding time just the two of us, helping me get over the anxiety I feel around her because she’s amazing and I want her to like me, but that didn’t happen. Worst of all, I knew after we left there was a possibility she would go to the fridge for a glass of what was a nearly full bottle of wine and it would be gone. God, It’s so embarrassing!

Just in case you are doing the math and thinking, “It was only four glasses of wine, stop giving yourself such a hard time!” I need to do some more confessing. There was also a matter of the mini-bottles of very cheap wine that I picked up at the grocery store in town earlier that day when picking up some snacks for our road trip home. I squirreled them away in the bottom of my purse and was nipping off of those, also. So, it wasn’t four drinks. It was more like nine. And Matt saw the mini bottles and I totally got caught.

The drive the next day was fairly miserable. It was 12 hours through blah Nevada countryside with a mild hangover, made worse by Matt’s quiet disapproval from the driver’s seat.

Fast forward to now, a week into this Dry January experiment. It’s going well. I do feel lighter, both physically and mentally. That said, it hasn’t been perfect. I saw my family last Friday for our regular family dinner. My sister offered me a glass of wine and didn’t react when I told her I was back on the wagon. Again. The evening was fine… fun even.  But I did notice a few things.

I don’t get drunk with my family (at least, not with my parents), but I do usually have a glass or two of wine on these evenings. Rachel a few glasses of wine in her is chatty and laughs loudly. Rachel with no wine is quiet. She’ll participate in a conversation, but she won’t start one. That was fine – no one seemed to notice. But the other thing is that Two Drink Rachel is uninhibited enough to show emotion. Sober Rachel doesn’t really do that. I was reminded of this when, on two separate occasions that night, two members of my family did two separate and very nice things for me. Thoughtful, effortful, genuinely nice things. And I said thank you. A distant part of me thought about moving in for a hug, but I didn’t. I felt like my mute button was on. Maybe it wasn’t real, but I feel like I saw disappointment or confusion on their faces, not getting the reaction that they were expecting from me.

At the risk of sounding like a cliché drunk feeling sorry for herself, I’m feeling a bit sorry for myself. I feel like I’m doomed to fail no matter what I do. I’m feeling guilty for not leaving some wine for my boyfriend’s sister-in-law and I’m feeling guilty for screwing up these moments with my family. I can’t win. Boo hoo. Might as well drink a barrel of wine, right?

No… not right. I’m not going there. I committed to a month and I’m doing the month. Even though Matt is going out of town in a few weeks and I’ll have the house to myself and I could spend that time binging on wine, Netflix, and Cheetos, I’m not going to do it. I’m going to see this through. And then, at the end, I’ll do some serious evaluation of the pros and cons. Meanwhile I’m going to give myself a little slack. If I don’t read and write and sweat and kick-ass every day this month, that’s okay. I’m giving my body a break from alcohol, and that’s enough. It’s got to be.

My Year in Books

(Please note: This post contains affiliate links.)

I had an epic reading year in 2019. I set a goal in Goodreads to read a book a month. I’m not a fast reader, but I do read a lot. Still I don’t usually set a reading goal so I wanted it to be attainable. I got a message half way through March that I had met my goal. I slowed down a little after the weather warmed up, but I still finished 30 books over the last twelve months. And so many of them were amazing, I need to recommend a few of my favorites here.  I also got a bunch of books for Christmas and I’m ready to snuggle in for my version of Jolabokaflod, which I’m calling “Janubokaflod” (instead of a one day Icelandic readathon, it’s a month of tea and snuggling with books).

Okay, here are my year’s most notables, divided by fiction and nonfiction but in no particular order.

Fiction

The Goldfinch
The Line of Beauty
White Teeth*
Invisible
Less

Nonfiction

The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just Nation
Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country
The Glass Castle*

And, a bit of both:
Lincoln in the Bardo

*Full disclosure: I don’t want to imply that I read more than I do. I actually I listen to a look of books through the Overdrive App that I have connected to my public library. The asterisks indicate books I listened to.

If you are interested in my thoughts on any of these titles, I’m going to list a few below. Feel free to take the titles and run, however. And if you have any book recommendations for me, please leave them in the comments! I’m always looking for my next book fix.

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt.  Probably silly to recommend a book that won the Pulitzer Prize, as most have already heard of it. But I’m doing it because this was my companion on a summer trip to the Oregon coast and it was everything I wanted it to be. There are ways that this book feels like a trilogy stuffed into one book, as it unfolds over three distinct chapters of a young man’s life. It’s a great beach or plane book. I haven’t seen the film that came out this year, but I’m not planning on it, as it didn’t get good reviews.

The Line of Beauty: A Novel, by Alan Hollinghurst. This was, hands down, one of the best books I have ever read. I got it from my favorite uncle for Christmas last year and I just devoured it. I will admit, I was a bit shocked by the sex scenes (not because of the gay sex but because the writing was explicit, and I’m from Utah and it is easy to shock us), but I was over it after the first quarter of the book. Not long after I finished it, Fareed Zakaria recommended it on GPS as one of his books of the week and that made me feel quite brainy and Cosmopolitan.

White Teeth, by Zadie Smith. People were raving about this book back in 2000 when it came out and I was still working as a bookseller. I have been meaning to read it ever since. I saw it on the Overdrive App and downloaded it to listen to on my daily walks and it was perfection. I’m even glad that I didn’t read it and waited to listen because the performances of the voice actors are superb. I don’t want to try to summarize it (because it would be impossible in a few sentences), but the thing I keep coming back to when I think about it was how many cultures and families and historical events are explored in loving depth the pages. It’s so ambitious and the execution is flawless. The fact that Smith wrote it her early twenties as a college student and published it when she was 25 seems astounding and unfair to me as a writer, but she is a Goddess and deserves all the rave reviews she gets.

Invisible, by Paul Auster. This was my introduction to Paul Auster. It was sent to my by my college friend, Demetria, and her recommendations never fail. The story structure is nontraditional. There are multiple narrators and there is a feel of cutting and pasting of slightly over-lapping narratives, but it worked in the end for me. I have a theory about the title and the way the pieces come together, but I can’t explain it and it would be a bit of a spoiler, so I’ll keep it to myself. Just know that this book does not follow a formula. If you are like me, you will find that refreshing.

Less, by Andrew Sean Greer. I bought this book because I went to a see David Sedaris read and he told me to. Well, he was talking to an audience crammed with people. But I was there. And he was right. This book also won a Pulitzer Prize and is just a delight. Also, it is the perfect length for a long flight. I don’t know why I just wrote that, as I read it on the couch over several nights, as slowly as possible, savoring it. But it seems like it would be good on a flight, too.

On to nonfiction…

The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just Nation, by Brenda Wineapple. This probably sounds like a snore, but it is well paced and interesting to read this in the current moment. Though there was one moment where Andrew Johnson started referring to himself in the third person and it was too much for me. I had to put it down and go for a walk. As much as I liked it, I will admit that you don’t really need to read it. You could just listed to one of the great interviews that Wineapple has done this year promoting the book. I heard one with Chris Hayes (where I first learned about the book) and a more recent one with Ezra Klein. She will tell you all you need to know about the parallels. I did have one interesting thought while watching Fiona Hill’s testimony last month when I was still reading this book and that was this: The impeachment of Andrew Johnson was an attempt to prevent the president from limiting the impact of the loss of the Civil War on the South. They failed. In many ways, the impeachment of the current president is an attempt to prevent Trump from reversing the impact of the loss of the Cold War on Russia. And we are set to fail. So… that sucks.

Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country by Pam Houston. I’ve written about this book before, but that was when I hadn’t yet read it. There is stunning writing in this book. The type where every once in a while you read a sentence that hits you so hard you have  to put the book down on your chest for a minute while you take it in. I think it would be particularly enjoyable to my creative nonfiction friends.

The Glass Castle: A Memoir by Jeannette Walls. I realize I am probably the last person on earth to read this book, so there is no point in recommending it. But damn. This book. Was intense. Here is the one thing I want to say about it. If I had read this book before I became a stepparent, I would have been jealous of Walls insane childhood and the perfect book it provided. But I read it as a stepparent, and it made me want to murder one or both of her parents on every other page. “I know they had birth control in the seventies!” I yelled at these people as I listened to the book in my kitchen while cooking one night.  “Go back in time and get some!”

Lincoln at the Bardo, by George Saunders. This weird and crazy book is the first novel by Saunders, who is a well known poet (or so I’ve read; I hadn’t heard of him before I picked this up at BookPeople in Austin because I flew out for a conference and accidentally finished the book I packed while still on the plane). I tried to bring it up in my creative nonfiction writing group because, while this is a work of fiction, there is a significant nonfiction component. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to start the discussion I wanted to have because as soon as I said, “I just read Lincoln at the…” the middle aged lawyer in the group shouted, “THAT BOOK WAS SO STUPID!” and I lost the floor. Here is the thing – this book is not for everyone. It’s quite nuts in general and there are a number of scenes centered around absurdly horny ghosts. Saunders seems particularly concerned with the idea of spirit boners. (Stiffs with stiffies, if you will.) BUT! What I found so interesting, was that book was inspired by a story about Abraham Lincoln becoming so grieved by the death of his son Willie, that he went to the crypt to hold his corpse. (I’ve tried to find out if this is true (not hard, but I tried). According to this article in the New Yorker, he did go to the crypt “but did not handle the body.”) Saunders starts with this detail but then he takes snips and quotes from letters, diaries and historical documents and weaves them together with his fictional ghosts to create a strange Edward Gorey meets Salvidor Dali world and wandering through it is a total trip.

 

Okay – that’s the end of that. Time to go pick the book that I want to read next, to kick off 2020. Happy New Year, everyone!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

He is Pretty Orange

Wensleydale got a shot at the vet this morning. When I brought him home I tried to make him a special treat by combining his two favorite things: peanut butter and carrots. Only something weird happened.

Maybe I’m just watching too much political coverage these days, but do you see what I see?

I swear, I cannot get away from that man!

Wensleydale did not notice. He is now napping with his lobster, Pinchy.

Meanwhile, the carrot is currently being impeached in Wensley’s stomach. He will convict sometime tomorrow.

Does Your Christmas Need Some Krampus?

Mine did, but I didn’t know it! Not until I took a shortcut through a little neighborhood trying to avoid shopping traffic last weekend and saw this:

Do you see it?

One of these things is not like the others, right?

What? The? Holy? Fuck?!

It has plastic hands but that is fur of some kind. I took a friend by the next day in the rain and it looked even crazier when it was soaked.

It reminds me of Ethan’s books on extinct Ice Age animals, so I’ve been calling it a sloth.

But my friend Gina was like, “That’s a Krampus!”

Neither is quite right. I’m just going to call it the Christmas Beast and thank my lucky stars that I turned left on that street!

Thanksgiving Crafting

Growing up, Thanksgiving was spent with my large extended family and, while food was the main event, football was also central. If my uncles didn’t get into a fight about something (it’s not just drinking families that argue; Mormons do it, too), like which of them loved Ronald Reagan the most, then they would hunker down around TV and the children (and there were oodles of us) needed to stay quiet. If not quiet, then in the basement. Preferably both.

One year we did a craft around the kitchen table while the menfolk watched football and talked politics. And I loved it! I couldn’t figure out while we weren’t doing that all along! Granted, you can’t do elaborate crafts with babies and toddlers, so I guess there is my answer. But it was so great to have my mind and hands occupied and not be endlessly shushed for a change.

I’ve made the post dinner craft a part of my Thanksgiving traditions. I think the adults enjoy it… some more than others. But the kids always get really into it. A few years ago I brought a roll of butcher paper and gave everyone a large sheet to decorate as wrapping paper. The great thing about that one was that the end product was used up by Christmas and no long term storage was needed. Last year we made ornaments, which require minimal space.

I googled ideas for this year, but didn’t really find what I was looking for. Not that I didn’t find any…. there are tons of them! But, heavens to Betsy, there a lot of crap out there! Too many materials, too much mess, and then what do you do with it when Christmas ends? Also, who are these people who give children glitter? And why do they hate themselves so much?

Though, I will admit this glittered tampon garland caught my eye. Not only would it horrify my mother (my favorite!), but it would finally give me a way to use that Costco size box of tampons that I bought before switching to a silicone cup (Yahtzee!)!!!

But no. Maybe if I save them and trade them for bullets and vodka during the zombie apocalypse.

Instead we settled on Sculpey Clay ornaments. I didn’t want to do the same thing as last year, but I also love to compare the kid made ornaments over the developmental years, so I got over it. I got a pound of white clay and a bunch of other colors for around $20 with a Joann’s coupon. (I also brought screw eyes to make them easy to hang.)

It was perfect. Not too messy, easy to make, and they bake quickly. The kids had a blast and they made a bunch of ornaments. We made some for our own trees and a few to send home with the grandparents for their trees, also.

Here are the three I made:

Best of all, the kids were entertained for over an hour! Maybe that is second best, if you consider that no one glitter-glued a tampon to anyone’s forehead. Depends on how you look at it.

Either way; there is much to be thankful for.

In the Pink

I was recently reminded that I am a NEW stepparent, and as such I have MUCH to learn. It was a weird “off” moment that I’m still trying to make sense of, but here are the basics:

It was a Monday a few weeks ago and Ethan (seven) had the day off from school, but was a regular workday for us. My work has been slow so I took the day off. He has a friend in his second grade class who’s mother has kindly watched Ethan a few times this year when school got out early, so I volunteered to take her son, also. Let’s call him Chad.

Chad is a good kid. I sometimes get a little annoyed with him because he is obsessed with what is cool and what is not. The last time I had him in my car I was listening to the Beatles and he wasn’t sure what he was supposed to think about them, so he asked me how many followers they had. I remember how important that stuff felt when I was in grade school, so I get it. I just wish I could protect Ethan from that crap

Ethan asked to go to a trampoline park and I got permission from Chad’s parents to take him. I don’t know if this is a thing everywhere but trampoline parks are big in Salt Lake City right now. It’s basically a warehouse with a raised floor made of a series of trampolines and play equipment that pairs well with trampolines, such as basketball hoops and zip lines. The kids love it. (I actually tried to bounce for a minute once, but quickly realized that my spine is too old for that kind of jarring action, and that my bra was not designed for anti gravitational maneuvers. I managed to get back on to solid ground without doing permanent damage to my body and then got myself tucked back in without breaking any decency laws, but lessons were learned.)

I got the boys buckled in the car and pulled up the address on my phone. As soon as Siri’s voice came up, however, the boys groaned and launched into throwing shade at my phone, which basically consisted of repeating the tirades they have heard from their fathers about Siri. I have personally witnessed several arguments between Ethan’s dad and GPS technology and mostly have found myself taking Siri’s side. Of course it won’t work if you follow every other thing she says, then decide she doesn’t know what she was talking about to begin with, make an abrupt turn in a nonsensical direction, and get yourself lost. Remember the good old days where men just wouldn’t ask for directions? Now we foist directions on them, leading them to mansplain to a robot who can’t pick up on the passive aggression or sarcasm, and the result is the same: arriving dismally late and frustrated to a place you only sorta wanted to go to anyway. Which isn’t to say the old way was better. I just remember it being quieter.

I was ignoring the boys posturing and focusing instead in Siri’s helpful and completely correct directions when I heard this from the back seat:

“Siri is a girl and Alexa is a boy,” Chad said. “Alexa can multiply in the thousands and Siri can’t even add one plus one.” This was followed by laughter.

Before I could stop myself I interjected, “Siri and Alexa are BOTH girls.”

As if that was remotely germane. I should have said that neither are girls! They are both robots! Their developers gave them female voices because it feels natural to give a woman the bitch work of timing your abdominal crunches, reminding you to pick up the dry-cleaning, and to “find out if Burt Reynolds is still alive and report back to me.” (Yes, these are examples of my recent Siri activity. Burt Reynolds died, by the way.)

The boys didn’t respond to my inane interjection. They seemed to be surprised to discover that I was still in the car and heard this conversation. Nothing like being made to feel like a chauffer driving two little lords around in my own goddamned car.

What the fuck? I thought. I know Chad’s mom and she is a badass. She’s an athlete and she teaches advanced education techniques at the university. Does he say crap like that around her? He certainly seems comfortable saying it in front of me.

We parked at the place and I signed them up for three hours of bouncing. Then the guy at the front desk told me that I’d have to buy them each a pair of anti-slip socks if I didn’t bring some from home, so he threw that on the total, which came to around $60. I tried to hide my reaction to the number, but I could hear my mother’s voice in my head saying, “Good gracious; for that price they should leave with a framed degree in bouncing!” I handed over my credit card and the man gave me two pairs of socks. They were black, with little pink ribbons printed all over them. The boys looked at them in horror. Before anyone could ask, the man at the desk said, “October is breast cancer awareness month.”

The boys took them with frowns but they put them on and skittered off to bounce. This time I didn’t bother to hide my reaction, which was a wide smile and a thought bubble that said, Thanks for the justice, Karma! Totally worth the $60.

 I happily settled in with my Real Simple magazine and a coconut La Croix and waited for the three hours to pass, which it did uneventfully. By then, the boys were bounced out and ready for lunch. It wasn’t until they went to the lockers to get their shoes that they remembered the pink ribbons on their socks.

“Gross! I HATE pink!” Chad yelled. “He peeled them off and kicked them away from him. “Pink is the WORST color! I’m throwing these in the trash.” He pinched them between his thumb and index finger like a bag full of dog shit and threw them into the trash with a dramatic gesture.

Ethan laughed. “Me too!” he said. “I HATE pink!” He had already given the socks to me to hold while he changed back into his (oh so masculine) Pikachu socks and I had dropped them into my purse. He dove into my bag (which is oversized and full of odds and ends; I call it my Mary Poppins bag) and started rooting around for them.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“I want to throw mine away, too!”

“Well, too bad. I didn’t spend good money on those just so that you could wear them a few hours and then throw them away. If you don’t want them just because they are pink I’m sure some other kid at Goodwill would be happy to have them.” I knew even as I said this that you can’t donate used socks to Goodwill, and that my refusal to allow him to follow Chad’s lead had nothing to do with the wastefulness of the action, but yet again, it was the best response that came to my mind. “Reduce, reuse, recycle!” won out over calling two second graders “a couple of chauvinistic-shit-for-brains-assholes!” in public.

We got to the car and the boys buckled in. It was quiet for a minute and then Ethan said, “Rachel, I don’t have to like pink. It’s just a color.”

I took a deep breath. “That’s true,” I said, starting the car. “But is that all it is about? Just the way you feel about a particular color? Or does it have to do with the fact that you are both boys, and pink is a ‘girl’s’ color?”

I couldn’t take my eyes off to road to check the rearview mirror as I pulled out of the parking lot and merged onto the busy road, but I imagined them exchanging a glance that said, How did she know? I thought that was our thing! We didn’t even mention girls! In that way that every generation thinks it is completely original and paving its own path. But I don’t know what they did. Probably just stare at their shoes. It was only the long pause between the question and Ethan’s answer, “No…” with an implied ellipsis or even a faint question mark at the end that told me I hit home.

“Oh, okay,” I said. “I guess I misunderstood. But I want to talk to you more about this later.” My mom never hesitated to blast me with a correction when my friends around, but I always told myself I wouldn’t do that if I became a parent.

We got home and I got them set up downstairs with food and a movie and then I went out to rake leaves. I had dozens of thoughts and emotions pushing down on me and I needed to get some space to try to manage my oversized reaction. Maybe, if I had given birth to the child and spent every day since with him, this little exchange wouldn’t have bothered me. Maybe I would have picked up on that point, years ago, when he started pre-school and began taking his cues and values from the other children. He would have started the process early – the process of learning that boys were the best and the things they like is cool and girls are bad and the things they like is shit. Maybe he would have bought into it so gradually I wouldn’t have noticed it. Or maybe I would heard some of these statements before and thought, Oh, this is normal. This is the way it goes. The girls say the same things about the boys and how they hate… blue? Maybe?

But I’ve known Ethan for three years now and I haven’t heard anything like that from him. And it wasn’t just showing a preference. The thing that shocked me was the hatred. The disgust in Chad’s voice and his forceful declaration of male supremacy with the Siri thing, and then the way he threw those socks in the trash. It was boastful, actually. “Look at how much I can hate this!” he seemed to say. And it was so infectious. Ethan wanted to be just like that; hateful and cool! Clearly they were trying to impress one another and that was leading to some gleeful one-upmanship. But still. The HATE!

I realize, of course, that I’m primed to be triggered by something like this. The last few years have been focused on stories of the systematic misogyny that women experience in this “developed” country and I’ve spent countless hours thinking about my own stories and what we have learned and how I want our culture to change as a result of all this difficult work that has been done bringing about a reckoning. One question in particular that I have been meditating on is, “Where does it start? Who plants the seed?”

I grew up in a decidedly patriarchal religion that made it clear to me from an early age that being female limited me in the role I could play in the world. I remember being told that women will always be paying for the sins of Eve. That is not official Mormon church doctrine, but it sure seems to be a precious grudge for a lot of Christian folks. Then, when I was a teenager, I had my first experience dealing with a boy who was too hopped up on hormones to take my sweet and ladylike “no, thank you” for an answer. Like me, he was raised on stories about how ‘boys will be boys’ and that it is the girl’s responsibility to save both parties with her own clear headed dedication to her own chastity, so I knew that was “my job.” But damn, no one had prepared me for how many times the hand will reach out to be smacked away, or how many times “no” won’t be taken for a final answer. Finally, before he could wear me down, I managed to escape. As I drove home in the dark I suddenly thought about Eve. Am I really supposed to believe that Eve pressured Adam into this? Because there is no way. I bet Adam bit into ALL the apples, wore Eve down until she ate one or two, and then asked her to take the blame. And when she hesitated he told her she was pretty and then she lost all ability to resist because she was a damn fool and no one prepared her for this bullshit.

But I digress.

Growing up, I was told I couldn’t do certain things and simply not encouraged to do others. At university, I experienced the way men pursued women and then viciously retaliated if their advances were denied. I sought help from university resources and got shrugs. What do you want us to do about it? They seemed to say. I heard stories about women at parties being taken advantage of while unable to consent to sex and the event being witnessed by other male party attendants who did nothing. Because, Bros before hos? I guess? Finally, my senior year, a friend of mine was murdered by a sexual predator who decided he needed what he needed more than he thought my friend deserved to have the rest of her life.

That was twenty years ago. Last year, a student at the same university was murdered on campus by a boy she dated briefly and then rejected. She reported his stalking behavior to campus police, but nothing was done. What do you want us to do about it? They seemed to say.

That’s when I realized that this world is no more safe for my nieces than is was twenty years ago when I was a young woman being told that I should always be nice and likable and respectful of the priesthood, but also to avoid short skirts and walk home in the dark with my keys in my hand in “ready position.”

Again, I ask: where does it start? When do men learn that their needs come first? Obviously the murderers in these examples are the extreme cases. But if you walk into a room at a frat party and you see an unconscious woman being raped and you back out slowly and go get more beer instead of intervening, what is going on in your mind? At the risk of making an oversimplification of the matter, it seems to me that you do not see the two people in that scenario as equals. That there is some port in your mind harboring the belief that a woman is less than a man. Maybe a 70% person.

It probably seems completely insane to suggest that the seed of that belief was planted by little boys on playgrounds, repeating what they have heard from older brothers and fathers, reassuring each other that they are, in fact, the best! Boys rule! Girls drool! But what if that is where it starts? What if that is the genesis of the darkness? What if those shitty little kid thoughts take root and you don’t even think about it, and then you grow up and one day you are that ex of mine (who totally thought he was a feminist) who told me that it didn’t think it made sense to force companies to fix the gender pay gap because it would be difficult and expensive. Then, when I asked him, “what if it were a racial pay gap?” he said, “Oh, that would be different!” Because somewhere deep in the brain he thought that a woman is only 70% of a person! (And no, that is not the day we broke up, because I was lonely and probably had just bought tickets to something and didn’t want to go alone.)

Maybe I’m totally off on this one, but I gotta tell you… the Mormons I knew as a kid who told me that men had special God given powers but a woman’s job was to make babies and do what they were told were not much more articulate than a couple of grade-school-aged boys.

All these thoughts were hitting me like hail stones as I raked leaves and cried freely behind my sunglasses. I thought with sudden sympathy about the deadbeat parents that claim to be going out for some cigarettes and then drive into the sunset, never to return. Which is when I remembered that all this anguish started over a pair of socks, and I had to stop and laugh.

I took a deep breath and told myself that the lifetime’s worth of shit that this incident brought up for me was not about Ethan and that I was not going to put that on him. But I was genuinely upset, and I needed him to understand at least a small part of why.

Later in the evening, after Chad went home, I was in the kitchen making dinner when Ethan came in and asked for a snack. I got him settled and then I asked if we could talk for a minute.

“I’m a little upset,” I said. “I’m wondering if you can guess why?”

He looked down at his snack and deflated by about 20% as he said, “the pink.”

“Yeah, that’s part of it,” I said. I don’t know how to have heavy conversations with children, but back when I was a boss with 10 or so people reporting to me, I read a book about keeping disciplinary messages short. Get to it, make the point, move on by turning the page onto another topic. So that was what I decided to do.

“I’m glad that you and Chad are friends,” I said, “but he has some stupid ideas.” I waited for him to remind me that we aren’t supposed to say ‘stupid,’ which is his rule not ours, but he didn’t. “That thing about Siri being a girl and not being able to do math? That’s not okay. And like I said today, you don’t have to like pink. But you didn’t say ‘I don’t like pink,’ you said, ‘I hate pink!’ And I’m not stupid. I know what that means. You know that?”

He didn’t try to argue; he just nodded this time.

“It’s not okay to believe that boys are better than girls, just like it is not okay to believe that white people are better than Asian people, or black people, or anyone.” Ethan is one quarter Korean so I knew that would get his attention.

“You know, there are things that I am better at than your dad, and there are things that your dad is better at than I am. I’m better at fixing things, which is something that typically people think of as a boy thing. And you know your dad is a brilliant teacher. Did you know that, not that long ago, public school teachers were all women? It’s true; that was something people thought of as a woman’s job.”

The boisterous kid who was showing off for his friend was completely gone. He was looking down at the counter taking his punishment until I said this bit about school teachers and then he looked up, surprised. I knew I’d managed to get something across to him and started to wrap up the lecture.

“Look, like I said. I like Chad and I’m glad you are friends. But I think I can speak for both myself and your mom when I say that there is no way we are raising a boy who doesn’t treat girls as equals. So whenever I hear your friends telling you to hate girls and things associated with girls and I don’t hear you respond and say, ‘no you are wrong,’ then you can expect to hear from me at some point after because my job is to make sure that you aren’t getting bad programing like that.”

Ethan nodded. After a pause, maybe once he realized I wasn’t going to say any more, he said, “I’m sorry, Rachel.”

“Thank you,” I said. “I accept your apology.” Then it was time to turn the page. I asked him I needed help deciding on a dessert. “I have ice cream or frozen chocolate chip cookies that I can throw in the oven. What do you think?”

I didn’t typically reward my employees with fresh baked cookies to bribe them into liking me again after I told them off, but I wanted Ethan to know we were fine after our first memorable disagreement. And anyway, I was the boss. It was their job to give me cookies. My motto as a boss was: Make me like you, if you can!

I know it wasn’t perfect, but I’m proud of that conversation. I think I handled it well. And I haven’t decided that misogyny begins on the playground. I’m sure it is more complicated than that, but honestly, it’s as convincing an origin story as any other I have heard. But working through my reaction to this incident, I did have a thought that, as I have been given the gift of becoming a stepparent after years of thinking I would never have a child in my life, I am not going to squander this opportunity. I am not going to tell my nieces to watch their hem length or carry their keys at the ready. I’m going to tell my little boy that pink is beautiful and that girls are badasses, who grow up to be badass women like his mom and me.

When he is older, I’ll tell him that “no” means “no” and “yes” means “yes” and that boys are feminists who look out for others. But not yet; that conversation is a few years off yet. I’ll have to make a note, once we get there, to stock up on cookie dough. We’ll need a lot of cookies for that.

Knitting Weather

I finished a baby blanket and put in in the mail for a friend who is expecting a baby girl in the next month. As soon as I walked out of the post office I realized I forgot to take a photo of the finished blanket. Doh!

Here is a photo of the first quarter:

I love this pattern. It’s called the Llyr Baby Blanket and you can find the pattern here:

https://www.ravelry.com/patterns/library/llyr-baby-blanket

I think of it as The Dragon Scales pattern. I’m using Malbrigo yarn. The color is Whales Road but I forget the weight.

Of course I started another blanket right away, because God Forbid I should watch TV without doing something with my hands at the same time. This one is called Tiny Ripples. The pattern is here:

http://www.leeleeknits.com/tiny-ripples-free-baby-blanket-knitting-pattern/

And here is how it is coming along:

This one is for a cousin who is expecting a baby after the holidays. I am not as pressed for time so hopefully this go around I’ll remember to take a photo of the finished product!