Improvising

If everything had gone according to plan, I would be in southern Utah tonight with all my boys, celebrating Wensley’ fifteenth birthday. But Wensley’s kidneys gave out in February. I kept the trip on the books because I’ve been so sad without him and I thought it would be good to get away. Then last week I experienced both my first pandemic and my first earthquake. It was like a biathlon of terror.

After Wensley died, I had been saying that maybe we would get another dog for Christmas, after a good long grieving break. Then school was canceled and Matt, Ethan, and I have been stuck at home getting on each other’s nerves all day. Then I said that if school was canceled for more than the two weeks they originally announced, we would get a dog for Easter. Something to distract us. Then I woke up to a 5.7 earthquake and stumbled through hours of aftershocks as I tried unsuccessfully to focus on work. I went for a walk to calm my nerves and found myself tempted to steal every dog I saw.

So, yeah. We got a puppy on Friday. Nothing is going according to plan right now so I said “fuck it.”

Meet Murphy, the 10 week old Goldendoodle that I found through a friend. He’s a sweetheart and a good monster and sometimes he makes me cry because I still miss my dog terribly and I feel like an unfaithful A hole for getting a new dog less than six weeks after I lost my Wensleydale.

I told my therapist about it yesterday. He was kind and said he was surprised I lasted this long. Then we talked about Murphy as a new chapter, and not a replacement. That reminded me of something I read in a David Sedalia essay once, about the way the lifespan of our pets put a tidy parentheses around eras in our lives. It’s so true. I like thinking of it that way.

This morning I was sad because I realized that today is Wensley’s birthday. Murphy was being adorable and I was resisting his charm, feeling a longing that is unfair to him but articulated itself as a rebuke that said “you aren’t my dog.”

Then he did something that Wensley used to do that I had completely forgotten about. He ran over to his food bowl which I had just filled, took one bit of kibble in his mouth, then ran back to the carpeted area of the room and ate it there. Then he did it again, and again. I don’t know how common that is with puppies, but I always thought it was hilarious when Wensley did it. “Does it taste better when your paws are cushioned?” I used to ask him.

Wensley was my dog. But Murphy is our dog. This new era is off to a weird and wonky start, but it has begun. And Murphy is not a replacement. He’s a new member of the family that belongs in this era. But if he helps remember some joy from the last era, that’s fine too. It wasn’t the plan, but as I’m learning… nothing goes according to plan.

Incompetent Stepmother

This is from last week.

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Today is Friday the 13th and we are now also out of rice, pasta and name-brand frozen pizza. Next week doesn’t have the time change or the other stuff, but I’m not looking forward to it. This COVID19 panic is getting all real n’ shit.

We have been trying not to talk about it around Ethan because he can get a bit anxious and we don’t want him to worry. He knows the basics but he honestly doesn’t seem that interested. He’s seven. He has other things to think about.

This morning, I was trying to rush him out to the car so I could take him to school when he suddenly started dashing around looking for something. “Where’s my coat?” he asked.

I picked it up of the wall hanger and said, “it’s right here!”

“No, not that one. Mom bought me a new one. I KNOW I took it to school yesterday!”

“Oh,” I said. Handing him the one that is suddenly no longer “the new one.” I searched through my memory bank of images from the day before. “You weren’t wearing a coat when you got out of your dad’s car, I remember that. Was it IN the car?”

“Maybe.”

We got belted in and started toward school. The radio was reporting on The Virus so I quickly turned it off and put on some music. My car is a 2007 Toyota and plays CDs, which Ethan finds a bit fascinating. He was asking me about it and wanted to know how many CDs it held. I told him it holds six. “What is the most a CD player can hold? Like, six hundred?”

“If it had six hundred CDs there wouldn’t be room for the engine!” I said, and he laughed.

We got to school and I noticed right away that there wasn’t the usual throng of people and cars. I’ve heard that a lot of people are keeping their kids home so I didn’t think much about it. I parked and hopped out of the car. Ethan is at that age where he still likes being walked in to class and I like to take advantage while that lasts. I will be the totally uncool stepmom before I know it. “And another thing,” I can almost hear his tweenaged voice telling his future friends. “She still listens to CDs!”

We walked into the school and again I noticed just how empty it was. One of Ethan’s teachers called out to him and said something to that might have been just to him or to both of us, but he was across the corridor and I couldn’t make it out, so we just waved. We walked to the vestibule where the they keep the lost and found items. It was overflowing with coats. It usually is full, but now that the spring weather is cool in the mornings but warm in the afternoons, kids have apparently been forgetting coats left and right. He looked and looked but didn’t find it. Ethan gave me a side hug and started to walk off to class but I decided to walk him all the way to the door so I could check his locker.

As we walked past Ethan’s old first grade classroom, his Spanish teacher from last year said something to us with a somewhat exasperated expression. I couldn’t make it out. I actually wasn’t sure if she had spoken in English or Spanish. I asked Ethan, “what did she say?” He just shrugged. As we walked past I smiled and said, “Hola!”

We were almost to the lockers when Ethan’s current teacher walked toward me and said, “We are asking parents not to enter the school because of the new restrictions. You should just drop him off outside.”

I stopped and looked around again. Yes, that was what was different! I was the only parent in the building! Suddenly I noticed all these little eyes staring at me. Ethan’s school is majority minority and Ethan is one of the whitest students, even though he is one quarter Korean. One little girl in particular was glaring at me and I felt like I could read the thought bubbles above her little head. “There goes one of those white ladies who thinks the rules don’t apply to her!”

“I’m so sorry!” I said, clutching my Kate Spade bag closer to my chest. “I didn’t know…”

“It’s okay,” Ethan’s teacher told me, but she was pointing at the door and it didn’t feel okay.

I bounced so quickly I forgot to ask her about the coat. (Dammit!) I felt like yelling over my shoulder as I left, my germ cloud trailing behind me, “Steps don’t get the emails; it isn’t my fault.”

The worst part is: right before I was stopped by the teacher, I asked Ethan, “what does the coat even looked like?”

“White camo,” he said. What? What even is that? I can’t picture it, but am still certain that if rednecks had a flag (a new flag, I know they have the stars and bars), it would be made of white camouflage.

I’m actually relieved to think that they will probably close the school soon so I won’t have to show my face there in the near future. My white white face with the bright red cheeks. I will be keeping all of those (and my germs) at home.

 

 

Wicked Stepmother

Ethan (seven) has been having a little trouble at school. He’s bright and motivated and his teachers love him. He has lots of friends. AND (I’m deliberately not saying “but”) he has really big feelings. He gets frustrated when something happens out of the usual order and he doesn’t feel prepared, for instance. We (both our family unit and the family unit of his mother’s and stepfather’s house) have always made sure he knows that it is okay to cry. We set the example; we show our emotions and encourage him to check in with and express his own. Unfortunately, some of his fellow classmates (you couldn’t hear it but I just sneezed and it sounded just like ‘dumb boys.’ It was weird) have started calling him “cry baby.”

We talked about it a lot over the weekend. His school is supposed to have a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to bullying, which seems nice. When I was in school in the 80s, bullying was a perfectly acceptable hobby for a lot of kids, encouraged by parents and gym teachers alike. But really there’s zero-tolerance for bullying that happens directly in front of an un-distracted authority figure, which typically isn’t the setting the these little butt holes choose. So we discussed some strategies that he could try, such as going to a teacher if the issue persists, and gave him some reassurance that he’s fine, just the way he is.

I hate this stuff because it brings up my own childhood crap. But also because I HATE the way school breaks our kids. I see it with my nieces and nephews and my friend’s children. Everyone starts out confident and quirky and excited about school and then they get dumped into the sausage machine and the shitty little kids who need everyone to be the same will appoint themselves the gatekeepers of what is allowed and beat the quirks to a pulp. It makes me so sad.

In response, I did something bad. I knew it was bad, and I did it anyway. I was driving Ethan to school so it was just the two of us and I brought up the situation. I waited so that I could get him to myself and not have his Dad hear me and have to correct me for my terrible advice.

“You know,” I said, stopping at a traffic light. “I was thinking of something you could say to [Kid’s Name].”

“What?” Ethan asked.

“Next time he calls you a crybaby, say ‘yeah, but I can stop crying and you will still be ugly.”

“Oh, Rachel!” Ethan said, his eyes bright with a smile, but shaking his splayed hands in front of him, as if refusing another slice of cake. “I would get in so much trouble!”

This is the problem with zero-tolerance policies. The kids who don’t care about following the rules won’t be dissuaded, but the kids who just want to do the right thing won’t even defend themselves.

“You could tell your teacher that I told you to say it,” I said. “I will take the blame!”

“Actually, I thought of something else I could say,” he said.

“What is that?”

“I’m just going to say, ‘how would you feel if someone said that to you?’ And then they will realize it isn’t nice.”

I made myself say, “Yeah… that’s good… too.” I checked the rear-view mirror. “But you could still think about my response. It might make you laugh.”

I got a good smile and a little chuckle then. “Yeah,” he said. “It is funny.”

We don’t get him again until the weekend so I won’t get to check in with him for a few days. I feel so much pressure to enjoy him now, while he is cute and sweet and small. And as purely him as he will be again. Every day those shitty little dumb-asses change him a little more. This is the price we pay for being social animals, I guess. Now I understand why people choose to home-school. I wouldn’t go that far, however. At the risk of offending someone, I’ve met home-schooled kids and some of them could stand having some weirdness smoothed down in the sausage machine.

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