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!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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