A Prayer to the Kiln Gods

Dearest Kiln Gods,

Oyez, oyez, oyez! I am a person having business before thou, oh honorable though oft merciless deities. I draw near to ask for thy attention, oh Wrathful Ones, to beg for thy protection, even as I know I am undeserving of thy charity.

I tremble before this alter to proclaim a sacrifice was made in thy honor, oh great Scary Beasties of the Furnace of Stoneware. It was not made intentionally, I do confess. But it was given and it’s destruction did make me wretched.

Please, please, oh Fiery Gods of Loam and Ash, I ask thou to accept this sacrifice to thy glory. And in doing, thus allow these other unworthy creations to pass through your domain unharmed and into the state of whole and completed items of crockery.

I am but a humble servant, grateful for the scraps of thy consideration, and yet I beg thou for the favor of this Holy Pantheon. If my wish is granted this day, I swear upon the life of Brent, who is my best pottery wheel, that I will not bother thou again… at least not before the holidays.

Signed, your unworthiest devotee,

Rachel

Here’s to You, Birthday Blues

When I married into a Chinese family, I learned that the number four is very unlucky. I thought it was maybe just my in-laws, or maybe it was just a Cantonese thing, but it wasn’t. I learned this one day when I wrote a check (it was the 90s, we still did that back then) at my local Chinese restaurant (Chop Suey Louie’s) and the guy almost didn’t take it because it was check number 444. The problem is that the Chinese word for “four” is a homophone for the word for “death.” I wrote a death death death check.

I’ve been thinking about this because I just had my 44th birthday. My death death birthday. I feel like it’s a good excuse to have a midlife crisis. Because honestly, I don’t want to live beyond 88. That’s when I assume shit just goes to hell. (I reserve the right to change my mind when I am 87.)

My therapist asked me why I hate birthdays so much. She wondered if it was because so many women have such a hard time celebrating themselves or being the center of attention. I don’t like those things as a rule, either, but I don’t think that is it. I think it makes me confront my mortality. It makes me take stock of what I have, and – more to the point – have NOT, accomplished. It makes me scrutinize my skin and lament my sagging jawline.

No, that last one was a lie. I lament my jawline every morning; I don’t need a birthday.

Most of all, however, I hate the let down of birthdays. It is just like New Year’s Eve, except worse, because when the last midnight of December strikes and nothing really happens and you just have to pretend you got some magical satisfaction from closing a calendar year, you are all in it together. When your birthday arrives full of promise and cake shaped joy, it’s just you that has to celebrate the let down. You have to put on a show for everyone who showed up and pretend you wouldn’t rather be crying in a dark room while listening to cello music.

God I’m such a downer.

Since my therapist asked, I have been thinking about the reason I do this to myself every year. The fact that I have all this time to sit around and sulk over my jowls and all of the things I want to do but probably won’t have time to check off my list tells me I don’t have any real problems; I understand that. I’ve accomplished enough. I’ve traveled a bit, I made a lot of art, I’ve loved and been loved. I had a turn with a trim jawline and there are photos to prove it. My turn is over, but I had it! I’m good, I really am. I could focus on being grateful for that.

Meditating on the question, however, I did remember a story. A birthday story that started it all, setting me up for a lifetime of disappointing birthdays.

It was August, the end of summer in the year 1982, and “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor was the #1 song in America. It was a Monday, my first day of kindergarten, and my fifth birthday. I hadn’t seen any of the Rocky movies, but I like to think that I was as pumped to go kick ass. Just in a painfully shy little girl kind of way.

The night before, my mom got my outfit ready and we talked about what school would be like. They probably had preschool back then, but I never went. This was going to be my first time being away from my mom for more than a few hours and I felt so grown up, I couldn’t believe it.

“And it’s going to be your birthday!” my mom was saying. “Kindergarten birthdays are the best because all the other kids will sing to you and make you a birthday card… and there will be snacks and games…” Suffice it to say there were big promises made. I. Could. Not. Wait.

Only it didn’t go down like that. First of all, I think I cried when my mom left me at school. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one, but I wasn’t happy about this freedom when it came to reality and I was watching my mom walk away. But, as directed, I took my spot on the strip masking tape on the carpet as class started and my teacher, Mrs. Robinson, called us to attention.

“Boys and girls,” she said, “welcome to my class! I’m so excited about all the things we are going to do this year! But that’s not the only reason today is a special day! Today is a very special day indeed for one of you in particular! Let’s all join together and say a very happy birthday to… JAY!”

If you were still hearing “Eye of the Tiger” in your head then maybe this is a good moment to end it with the sound of a record scratch.

I knew not to interrupt. I sat there quietly like the other kids, trying to figure out which one was Jay. Then we sang to him and later we made cards with crayons and construction paper, just like Mom said we would. It took some time to work up the courage and then find a moment where I could walk up to Mrs. Robinson when she wasn’t talking to the class or someone else.

“Mrs. Robinson,” I whispered, pulling on her pink polyester pant leg, “It’s my birthday, too!”

“Now, Rachel,” she said, leading me by the shoulder back to my tiny chair with the orange plastic seat atop shinny steel legs. “You don’t have to make up stories to get attention. We will celebrate your birthday when it comes.” Then she went back to passing out graham crackers and juice.

When I got home, Mom gave me a big hug and asked if everyone sang to me like she predicted. I told her about Jay and that Mrs. Robinson didn’t believe me it was my birthday. Then I went off to play with my sisters and the my presents while my mother made a phone call to the elementary school.

The next day, we were back in our seats on the masking taped rectangle on the carpet and Mrs. Robinson jumped in right away. “Boys and girls!” she began. “We made a mistake yesterday!” As if she and the entire room full of crayon eating thumb suckers were equally culpable. Then they sang and there were cards and more graham crackers. And I played along, pretending to be fine with it, pretending to accept Mrs. Robinson’s non-apology for having accused me of lying. But it wasn’t my birthday. My birthday was over. And even at five I couldn’t pretend otherwise.

You know the worst part? This was back when they would actually hold kids back when they were struggling and Jay ended up repeating kindergarten. So I never got a real kindergarten birthday, and that little dunce got two! I might as well have been born in the middle of the summer, making sure I never had a school birthday! (Those poor tragic dears.)

It’s a funny story, and maybe Mrs. Robinson did feel bad. Maybe in the 80s they taught you never to apologize to your students because that would hand them too much power and then you’d have an “inmates running the asylum” situation, which could get ugly. I bet they teach how to make a proper apology in school now, what with all that equity / safe space stuff we have these days.

And yet, it seems to have left me with some cognitive wiring that connects birthdays to disappointment and reluctance. I feel like I’ve spent 39 years trying to lower my expectations to avoid another let down. It doesn’t really work, though. A jawline always has further to sag. That’s the thing with gravity. It stalks it’s prey at night (and morning… and afternoon) and it’s watching us all… with they eye of the tiger.

PS how great would it have been if the #1 song that year was Mrs. Robinson? I would have to be ten years older and would basically be storing nuts and small wheels of cheese in my jowls by now… but that would have been comedy gold!

Working Gals

A few years ago, I was dining alone in a nice restaurant in Irvine that had a cool hipster name like Figs & Branches or Peas & Bacon. I don’t know what it was. I was traveling for work (remember traveling? remember restaurants? *sigh*) and my boss recommended the spot. I got their early in the evening and had no trouble getting a table for one, but by the time I was finishing my meal the waiting area was packed with hungry foodies.

Suddenly, three Indian women appeared at my table. One confidently sat down and the other two hovered for a moment, watching my face for my reaction. The confident one said, “you don’t mind, do you? It’s too long of a wait and you look like you need company.” I was shocked, but also delighted. As an extreme introvert it can be refreshing (if startling) to have someone take all of the “let’s become friends” stuff away and just start an interesting small-talk-free conversation with you. I smiled and introduced myself and the other two women sat down.

They were younger than I was. I’m guessing mid to late twenties to my late thirties. Very quickly, we were discussing our parents expectations of marriage and children. The leader of the group (as far as getting them a table was concerned) was grousing about her mother’s bullying phone calls on the subject. Her sense of humor was wry and she didn’t seem to mind sharing details, so I told them about things my mom has said, as well as some of the questions I have been asked as a childless woman living in Utah. “I wonder who is worse about applying pressure to get married and have kids,” I asked, finishing my wine. “Mormons or Indians?”

“Oh, Indians, definitely,” the confident girl, who was unsurprisingly also the chattiest, said without hesitation. “If your parents are from India, not only to you have to get married and have children, you also have to become a doctor or a lawyer.” The other girls laughed but nodded in agreement.

This blew my mind. “You’re right,” I said. “That is different.”

My parents expected me to go to college, of course. And there was always pressure to do well in school. But I don’t remember there being pressure for me to take on a serious career. In fact, I remember once telling my dad that I wanted to be a veterinarian and he discouraged me. He thought it would be too much science and math and that I wouldn’t be able to handle destroying animals. He wasn’t wrong, but Jesus. I think I was 12. Another time, I was watching Who’s the Boss and I was mesmerized by the character of Angela and the idea that she was so independent and that she made enough money to have both a housekeeper AND and drive a Jaguar! I told my mom I was going to go into advertising. She told me that was a bad idea because it was too competitive. Again, probably not wrong, but I was a kid. Would it have hurt to say, “okay honey, just work hard and I’m sure you will do well!” or something like that.

As I have said before, my parents were actually the most progressive ones I knew in this arena. I knew another girl who, even with a 4.0, was discouraged by her parents to go to college as it would just be “a waste of money” when she didn’t need a degree to be a mom.

This popped into my head this weekend when I read this article from Newsweek. It’s about an early childhood education bill that was defeated in Idaho last week. One Republican representative quoted in the article explained his vote against the bill thusly: “I don’t think anybody does a better job than mothers in the home, and any bill that makes it easier or more convenient for mothers to come out of the home and let others raise their child, I don’t think that’s a good direction for us to be going.” He soon apologized, basically chalking up the speech to stage fright.

I admit that I don’t know what religion this man belongs to, but Idaho and Utah are very similar places, culturally. And anyway, this isn’t a Mormon problem. It is cultural problem. In my experience, growing up in this culture, there is little value placed on women who work and even less encouragement for women to find rewarding work. I hope it is better than when I was a kid, but it is still a problem. Utah has the second-worst pay gap between men and women right now. The worst state on this metric is Wyomming, another Mountain West state.

The most frustrating part of the article is it seems the representatives who are interviewed view women working outside the home as a tragic CHOICE that is a product of pressure from feminists, when fewer and fewer women have any choice about working for a paycheck. How out of touch are you, not to understand that?

Back at the Twig & Apricot (or whatever), I signed my check and got up to leave. The women asked me to stay. They even offered to buy me another glass of wine to thank me for the table, but I was ready to go. The manager stopped me on my way out and asked if those women just did what he thought they just did and if he should do anything to make it right, gesturing to my already settled check. “Oh no,” I said, waiving my hand limply for emphasis. “It’s fine. They are friends of mine. From work.”

As I went back to my hotel, I thought about how lucky I am to have found a good fit with my career. I like what a do, and every once in a while, they put me in a nice hotel, pay for a lovely meal, thereby creating an opportunities to meet new people who give me something to think about. I parked my rental car and went up to my room to do a little work before bed.

Hit Me with Your Best Shot

I think I wrote a few months back that I participated in the Pfizer COVID-19 study. If not, surprise! That was me! (And 29,999 other people.) I was “unblinded” last week and learned that I received the placebo. Good thing that I told myself to pretend I KNEW I got the placebo all along!

The researchers brought me in for a shot of the real stuff yesterday, which was very nice of them. While I was sitting in the clinic waiting for my dose to thaw I got a breaking news alert that the US officially passed 500k deaths. It was a surreal moment, taking that in while in the process of getting my first vaccine. So heartbreaking and also crazy at how routine this has all become.

I’m grateful I had this opportunity to participate in this research and soooo grateful to have my first shot for realz!

Side note: I was given the shot by a girl named Joy. Could that be more perfect?

The Gatekeepers

I was in the 7th grade, sitting in class, when I heard my name called out over the intercom, directing me to go to the counselor’s office. I probably went either white or red, I don’t know. I just remember being paralytically shy in those years, and I remember the horror of having this attention directed toward me.

The school counselor, Mr. Larsen, asked me to sit down in his office and he got straight to the point. “I called you down because you made an error on your class registration form for next year. You signed up for shop instead of home-ec. Here, I just need you to fix it on the form…”

He knew it wasn’t a mistake. I knew he knew, because he had the same conversation with my older sister, Sarah, the year before, when she signed up for wood shop.

“No, that’s right,” I said, standing to go, but he wasn’t done with me. He argued that it wasn’t appropriate for me to take this masculine class, reflected on the wonderful experiences I would have in home-ec, and did I even know I would be the only girl? Yes, I did. I assumed I would be. Sarah was also the only girl in her shop class.

The conversation ended with an unsubtle threat. “Fine,” Mr. Larsen said, “but don’t bother coming to me in the fall when you realize you have made a terrible mistake and you need me to save you. This is your last chance to change your schedule.” I nodded to show I understood and left his office with my schedule unchanged.

It would take me years to realize just how crazy that conversation was. This would have been in the early 90s. (As in 1990s, not 1890s, just in case you were wondering.) But I grew up in an aggressively conservative county in Utah, where 99% of my classmates were Mormon. Gender roles are very important in the Mormon church, even to this day. Though I doubt a counselor would be so blatantly sexist to a student now, even in Utah County.

My first class of every day of 8th grade was shop. The class was divided into three sections and all the student rotated through each unit. Our class started with wood shop. Then we had a different teacher in a different space for a unit just called “tech,” which was never clearly defined (We did things like watch movies on the Wright brothers and designed and built balsa wood planes, if you are trying to picture it. Perhaps it should have been called “low tech.”). The last section of the year was metal shop.

I wish I could say this about the experience: It was tough in the beginning because I knew the boys didn’t want me there, but I stuck it out and I earned their respect and by the end of the year no one noticed I was a girl. Or even better: The last day of class they carried me out on their shoulders in appreciation and/or apology, just like in the movie Rudy, but cheering “Rachel! Rachel!” Instead of “Rudy! Rudy!”

That didn’t happen. I had a much harder time than my older sister had. She was already friends with a few of the boys in her class, so I’m sure that helped. She has also always been more emotionally aerodynamic than me, so maybe she got some nasty comments, but didn’t notice or care. I, on the other hand, was stuck in a class of 20 of the meanest 13-year-old boys in the school. A pre-teen boy can be naturally mean, I suppose. But this is the year I learned that year that a group of 13-year-old boys trying to impress one another, one upping each other, and feeding off the combined energy? That’s a special kind of mean. (I also learned a lot of really bad words from those nasty pimply good Mormon boys.)

It was mostly verbal abuse, which I learned to ignore in the moment and process later, at home. I was ugly and probably a lesbian. I was too dumb to know I had signed up for the “wrong” class. Once, I decided to part my hair on the other side at some pre-teen attempt to reinvent myself. That gave them a week’s worth of fuel. I was informed that could change my hair or my clothes but I was still ugly and stupid and always would be. Got it guys, thanks. Mostly I remember the peals of mean laughter, and the grubby nail-bitten fingers pointing at me. So much laughter.

There was some physical abuse. It was mostly getting shoved or tripped, but one time they pushed the spot welder behind me when I was working on some riveting and I didn’t noticed until they set it off and the resulting sparks burned the back of my neck and arms. There was also one time that might have qualified as sexual abuse, but I was the secondary victim in that one. There was a mousey boy in the class who was also teased mercilessly. One day, the boys waited until I walked through door and then one of them grabbed onto the waist band of his sweatpants and pulled them down to his ankles, exposing his underpants. Then, on cue, another boy shoved the “pantsed” boy into my body, nearly knocking both of us to the ground. I felt so bad for that poor kid, but I was also embarrassed and uncomfortable and I burned with shame and humiliation. As you can image, the boys in the class thought this was hilarious. It got a laugh any time someone referenced the incident through the end of the year.

I never complained about any of it; it never even occurred to me. At that age I had the “snitches get stiches” lesson well ingrained. There was no way I was going to speak to one of the teachers and earn even more derision for “narking,” or by proving that I couldn’t handle it. I don’t remember ever wishing I had taken the counselor’s advice, or even considering going to him to beg him to get me out of my situation despite his threat. Part of that was my stubbornness. If Sarah could do it, I no doubt told myself, by God so could I.

I think the lowest moment, however, didn’t involve my classmates. I was in the “tech” unit of the class, which was taught by a student teacher from BYU. The regular teacher was around occasionally, but not often. On the first day of the trimester, the student teacher pulled me aside and told me that I needed to know I was on my own. “Don’t even bother asking me questions,” he said, his blue eyes flashing disgust. “I know what you are up to; I’m not stupid. You are just here to meet boys. I’m not going to help you if you get stuck on a project.”

Yet another conversation that seemed normal at the time that would, in time, stun me with the blatantness of the discrimination. He held to it, also. It was the one and only “conversation” we had. It was the only time he ever made eye contact with me. For the rest of that section, it was like I didn’t exist as far as he was concerned. How could he think I was trying to get a boy’s attention? Has he met these boys? I thought on more than one occasion. Gross.

There were only two people that I interacted with in shop who actually knew what the hell they were doing – the wood shop teacher and the metal shop teacher – and both of them liked me. The first assignment in wood shop was to make a pen set. I carved a small bear – about the size of a tennis ball – and mounted it and a pen holder on a board I routed. I used different types of wood and different stains to make the bear stand out. The wood shop teacher gave me 100% and a compliment on the woodwork. Ten or so minutes passed when he called me away from my worktable and asked me to come back to his desk. I thought I was in trouble (I always reflexively think I’m in trouble) when he told me he had reconsidered my grade. He decided to give me 200% because I made a three-dimensional object, when the assignment only required two dimensions.

The metal shop teacher gave me high marks on my projects, also. I don’t know if he was impressed with my comfort around the shop tools, or just impressed that I survived all the way to the end with those boys, but the last month of the year, he nominated me for Student Citizen of the Month, and I won.

That’s what bothered me, in the end. I knew that I was breaking tradition and pushing back against the predominant culture by taking that class. But I wasn’t trying to upset the apple cart. I was sincerely more interested in the curriculum. I guess I thought, eventually, I would be given a chance to prove myself and that the people who discounted me offhand would see that they were wrong; that I could handle it. I was the one who was wrong. It never mattered if I was talented or skilled. I had stepped out of the chalk circle designating as where I “belonged,” and I was punished for it every day for an entire school year.

After that, I was done with wood working. I shifted my focus to music. I learned to play a couple of instruments and joined the choir. In high school, I auditioned for some plays and I got a talent scholarship to the University of Utah for acting. These were spaces where girls “belonged,” and I stayed safely ensconced in them.

Over the years, I have reflected on my shop experience a great deal. It was the first truly hard thing that I did. I made it through the year and that fact has steeled me when facing other hard things in years since. I am glad I did it, even if I never went near a band saw again. I used to harbor some anger toward the counselor and the student teacher, who were adults at work and should have treated me with professionalism, if not respect. These days, I write that off as just part of the culture I grew up in. I don’t feel anger anymore. What I feel is shame.

Sure, I made it through the year, but I also “learned my lesson.” I never again tried to push into a “male space.” My sister, Sarah, never gave up on the fight. She became Utah’s first female State Sterling Scholor for Science and is a field biologist professor with a PhD now. Yes, her shop experience wasn’t as rough as mine, but she’s endured discrimination and disregard her entire career and never backed down. This is the kind of woman I always wanted to be, and the person I thought I was when I signed up for that class. Then, I got discouraged and I retreated with my tail between my legs.

I’ve had a conversation several times over the past twenty years or so, always with a white Christian cis gendered male. At the heart of this conversation is an argument over affirmative action. The men say some version of, “it’s been long enough. This isn’t the 1920s or even the 1950s. Everyone has a chance to succeed, nowadays. Maybe it isn’t perfectly equal, but if we believe in a meritocracy, the best candidates should get the scholarships and prized spots at the universities/ internships/ clerkships/ jobs, etcetera, and if it is a white man then give it to the white man.” One man said to me, “how long do you expect us (white men) to give you all (women and minorities) a head start in the race?”

Then I try to make a point about the extra challenges that women and minorities face, yes, even now, but I have just received eye rolls in response. I realize that some white men get this. That mousey kid from shop was right there in hell, burning next to me. But I think for most of them, the idea that talent is not enough… intelligence is not enough… the tenacity to work through medical school or law school or bootcamp is not enough… is foreign. The fact is, none of it is enough if you can’t walk in a room where you aren’t wanted – or openly despised – and refuse to leave, no matter what they put you through.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg embodied this brand of endurance in her career. Michelle Obama has this kind of grit. So does Vice President Kamala Harris. I do not. I suspect most people don’t, but only some of us are asked to prove that we could handle it, and most of the white men I know don’t know what that feels like.

I don’t mind being asked to be talented. I’m fine with proving that I can handle the work. I love the idea of living in a meritocracy, where the most talented and relentless achieve the most elite laurels. But a true meritocracy requires gatekeepers with merit. What if the problem with meritocracy isn’t with the candidates competing for a chance to actualize a dream, and what opportunities they had (or didn’t have) access to? What if the problem is the gatekeepers? What if brilliance gets choked out in middle school because the wrong people took it upon themselves to steal its oxygen? The gatekeepers deciding my worth were a bunch of little boys who felt empowered to enforce the gender rules they learned at home and in church. There was also an elderly school counselor nearing retirement, and one sexist twat with half a degree in education from BYU keeping those gates, but the teachers (who should have been the gatekeepers) saw my work gave me encouragement. It just couldn’t compete with the downpour of vitriol from the multitudes who appointed themselves officers in maintaining the established order. Affirmative action isn’t a perfect solution, but it can create a correction. One more chance for someone sidelined for the wrong reason, before it is too late.

Think of all the voices and visions and insights we have missed out on for centuries because only one type of person mattered. It’s more tragic than the burning of the library in Alexandria, which is something I literally cried over when I first learned about it. It’s a colossal loss for all of us, whether we see it or not.

I was thinking about these things as I sobbed, watching the inauguration on Wednesday. A woman of color was sworn in to the second highest office in the land (by the first Latina Supreme Court Justice, I might add). I was weeping with joy and pride, as well as a great deal of relief. And yet, I thought about the men that I have argued with in the past. What is going through their heads, I wonder? Is Kamala the first because she was the first who earned it? The first woman talented, hardworking, and eloquent enough to belong on the dais? Or maybe they don’t see her qualifications. Maybe they think Joe Biden picked her out of a sense of obligation, and women have yet to earn this distinction. That if white men represent 31% of the U.S. population, yet still hold 65% of elected offices, it is because they were the best sprinters in their foot races, head starts be damned. That any woman in this country who is truly talented enough, smart enough, relentless enough, and not Hillary Clinton, could have done it before now, but that woman simply hasn’t come along.

I wonder.

I’m reading Michelle Obama’s Becoming right now. I’ve had it in my stack for a while, but I am really glad I saved it for this moment. Here is a quote from the Becoming documentary. “I am coming down from the mountaintop to tell every young person that is poor and working class, and has been told regardless of the color of your skin that you don’t belong, don’t listen to them. They don’t even know how they got at those seats.” (Leave it to Mrs. Obama to say in under 50 words what it took me most of 3,000 to say.) That would have been so great to hear as a 13-year-old girl who thought that anyone who told me their opinion stated it as fact, even another 13-year-old, must know something I don’t know. Still, it is good to hear it as a 43-year-old woman. I will make a point of repeating it whenever I can to help the kids I know to ignore the self-appointed gatekeepers. If you show them what you can do and it makes no difference, just move on. Keep going; if you want it, go out and get it. Maybe some of us didn’t think they had what it took, but every woman and/or minority who manages to endure the gauntlet and climb out the other side may prove to be a worthy gatekeeper for those coming up behind them, the new meritocracy. In the words of VP Kamala Harris, “I may be the first woman to hold this office. But I won’t be the last.”

Breaking Tradition

I love Christmas. I love Christmas so freaking much. It surprises people because I am loudly atheist and I guess that seems like a big disconnect. I don’t notice because I always forget that Christmas is about Jesus. I get excited about finding memorable gifts and knitting scarves and baking pies. I had to make a rule that I couldn’t start Christmas shopping until after Labor Day (a rule I have frequently broken in the past) but to make up for it I am allowed to MAKE gifts all year round. (Not pies, obviously.)

The sad this is that I love Christmas so much I usually ruin it. I realized some time ago that I have this habit of trying to recreate the perfect Christmas, which doesn’t exist. Or rather, in my mind, is actually a combination of memories from several Christmases from my 43 years with all the bad parts snipped out. Nothing could ever live up to my expectations. My family would come and I would be waiting for the magic to start, but their excitement didn’t match mine. Which made me anxious. They aren’t having fun! I’m doing it wrong! So then I’d open up some wine to try to “fix” it. After an hour or so I’d be drunk and go to bed, and then next morning I would realize I had ruined it yet again.

This year, my 43rd Christmas, was supposed to be one of the *good* Christmases. Those are the ones where my sister and her husband and their two children come out from Seattle and we have a big Christmas with our entire family all together in one house. But this is not going to be one of the *good* Christmases. This is going to be a COVID Christmas (hopefully it will be “The” COVID Christmas), and no one is going to gather, much less travel from Washington. I’m feeling cheated and sad about the whole thing. But maybe it is a good thing? I can’t ruin anyone’s Christmas this year but my own. And Matt’s. Sorry, Matt!

I can’t say I’ve been dreading this weekend. I’ve just been pretending it’s not coming up. And then, when I couldn’t do that anymore, I’ve been pretending it isn’t a big deal. I’ve been feeling this pull to do the complete opposite of ruining Christmas with my insane enthusiasm. I’ve been wanting to ruin it in a new way, by skipping Christmas altogether and stay in bed with a book. Like a readathon in grade school! Those were the only times I felt safe as a bullied kid in public elementary school: double-insulated by hiding inside a book, under a metal legged desk. I grew up in the 80s when they still did they occasional “hide under your desk, it might save you from having your cells liquified by an atomic weapon!” drill. I didn’t worry about that so much. That was just a faint possibility. Other children were my Cold War, and they showed up every goddamned day.

I was thinking about this great episode of This American Life from many years ago, where they tackle the issue of the repetitive side of the holidays, where people do the same twelve things every year because they are traditions and because it brings up those memories of years past. It’s a fraught enterprise, I have decided. It’s comfortable, sure. Like settling in to your own well worn butt grove in your favorite chair. But it is also a high pressure delusion. You HAVE to get it just right, or you BLEW IT! And if you DO get it just right, you will never truly be sure which Christmas you are remembering when looking back on it, because you went to the same performance of The Nutcracker for 35 years in row.

With that in mind, this year, I’m blowing off the traditions and trying to do some new things. We can’t do the traditions, anyway, so why not? Matt and I sat down and planned the Christmas Eve and Christmas morning menus, choosing new recipes we have never made before. We drove to the Salt Flats, west of Salt Lake City, to see “the great conjunction” of Jupiter and Saturn, which cannot be repeated for another 60 years, so no traditions there!

The hope is that it will help me to miss everyone less, because I’m not eating our family’s traditional Christmas oyster stew and looking around my table at all the people who aren’t there. Which, frankly, is a bonus because I don’t like oysters. I usually just eat the potatoes and the bacon and fling the little oyster bits into potted plants or dog’s mouths when no one is looking.

Besides going to see “The Christmas Star,” as people are calling it (I suppose because it has a more romantic ring than “The Planetary Alignment Which Happened to Occur on Earth’s Winter Solstice”), I also made my first Yule log. I’ve been doing some research on Pagan traditions and I read that the old custom was to throw a large log on the fire to celebrate the return of the longer days and the sunshine. In the 19th century, it became a cake that looks like a log. I’ve seen pictures before but it always looked too difficult and time consuming. This year, I decided to make one to celebrate solstice, and because what the hell else am I going to do?

It was easier than I thought it would be. There is this great recipe online that has videos showing the rolling part, which was great, because I couldn’t picture it at all. (Don’t skimp on the powdered sugar on that step! It will save you and your dishtowel some stress!) More than that, it was fun! Something completely new. And, if I do say so myself, it was damn yummy.

This is my strategy for the next week. Don’t try to make it perfect. Don’t try to make it terrible in revenge for the fact that it won’t be perfect. Just let it be what it is and find some adventure as a distraction from the fact that I won’t get to see my sisters or hug their kids.

Happy holidays, everyone. I hope they are either perfectly mediocre or memorable in a good way.

R

When You Get a Divorce…

But the rest of the sticker still applies!

The Many Sploots of Murphy McGee

The world is kicking my ass this month. I know there is a lot of that going around, and I’m feeling powerless to help anyone or improve life in general. So… Here are some cute pictures of a puppy.

I learned the word “sploot” recently from some fellow dog lovers. It’s a stretch that some dogs do that looks like a spread eagle splat on the floor. I’d never seen it before we got Murphy but apparently it’s really common with corgis.

It’s so delightful that I find myself taking the same photo of my dog over and over again. Now that we have learned the term, we have started to categorize the types of sploots Murphy tends to land in. Here are a few of my favorites.

The Full Sploot, aka “The Cinnamon Bear Rug”
The Sphinx Sploot
Side Sploot
Posh Sploot
The Look Back
And my favorite, The Burrowing Sploot

Hope you are all hanging in and that you enjoyed this diversion from the clusterfuck that is 2020!

Crafters vs COVID

I really didn’t want to write about COVID19. I know it’s impossible to escape right now.   But honestly, it is all I think about. Maybe in another week or two this will just be my new life and I’ll be back to worrying about things other than how quickly my household is going through toilet paper.

Because I am lucky enough to have a job, my health, and family, this is an example of how the virus is affecting me:

Last week, I got an email from work which, at first glance, appeared to indicate that I had made a large mistake. Before I could register what I was reading or go back and look into the matter, Matt called to me from the other room in a panic. He needed help tuning Ethan’s violin before his online lesson started in three minutes. I do not know how to tune a violin, but I was needed so I shot off an email to my coworkers, apologizing profusely for being an idiot, and dashed off to learn about tuning pegs. Between Matt and I, we made the violin much worse. But once Ethan’s lesson started, his instructor was able to talk us through it and most of his lesson wasn’t wasted. I returned to my computer, re-read the email and opened up a few files to see what had happened. Turned out that everything was fine. There was no mistake in action on my part, only a small mistake in communication on someone else’s part, and I had leaped onto my sword in my apology email for no reason.

I’m not sure, but I think my blood-pressure broke a record high in that 15 minute interval.

This is what I am going through, because as I said, I am very lucky. My sisters and most of my friends have full time jobs and multiple children to home school, also full time. And I don’t know anyone who is sick! I can’t even imagine what those folks are going through.

I’m just trying to keep on top of things at work and home, but it is tricky. I feel like a big part of living with this pandemic is like playing a multi week long scavenger hunt. I’m finding out what I need to collect just a little too late, however. First it was toilet paper, then paper towels, eggs, flour, then paper towels again. Then, a few days ago, we got the “order” (a gentle request from our Republican governor with zero consequences for ignoring it) to wear homemade masks while in stores.

The homemade part is important because they want to save all the medical supplies for health care workers. I have heard just how important this is multiple times on NPR. And that matters NPR is the closest thing that I have to a religion now. It used to be the second closest but brunch has been cancelled until further notice.

I set about making masks and again, I am very lucky here. I have a sewing machine. I can sew. Not well, but I can. It occurred to me that I was being called to use my least favorite crafting skill for my country and I was a little irritated by this fact. If this were a knitting crisis, I would be kicking ass. I would be the equivalent of the mom in the Incredibles at knitting the country back together. But no. It had to be sewing.

I have plenty of fabric laying around, so that wasn’t a problem. This is when I realized I missed out on another important item from the scavenger hunt list: elastic. I saw people online using hair elastics but I was concerned about making that work if the mask was either a little too big or a little too small. I decided to go to Joann’s Fabric and see what I could find. The only elastic they had was for waistbands, which was much too wide. I found a lot of ribbon though, so I decided to use that and just tie the damn thing.

As I was poking around looking at ribbon and thread, I noticed that everyone else in the store was already wearing a homemade mask, and they were all perfectly executed. Hang on! I said in my mind. I’m working on it! 

I heard on NPR that it takes about five minutes to sew one of these masks. I knew that it would take me longer, but it took about one hour and forty five minutes longer. I found a free pattern online and immediately had to start improvising with it because it was so large it would have covered my entire face. You remember that kid from So I Married an Axe Murderer? The one that has a head “like an orange on a toothpick”?  I have the opposite problem. I am more of the pin on a tangerine shaped human.

I messed with it and messed with it. I had to add several more pleats than the pattern called for. It did not look like the perfect masks on the ladies of Joann’s. For one thing, it was still too big. But I got it done.

img_0771

The next time I braved the grocery store, I put on my mask with some pride. I made this for my country! I thought. It’s like a tiny victory garden, right on my face!

But the grocery store patrons were quite different from the serious crafters of Joann’s. First, I was one of the only people wearing a mask, (as I said, it wasn’t required) and second, the other masked people were all wearing the medical looking ones that we weren’t supposed to buy. The feeling that I got at Joann’s was something like shame that I hadn’t done this already. The feeling I got in the deli aisle was something like embarrassment for being the goody-two shoes who listens to NPR and our governor’s gentle suggestions. Both felt like high school, all over again.

Oh well. I made it and I’m wearing it. I may take crack at sewing a new one. I still have a ton of fabric and I found a pattern that might fit on my face (and stay on my nose!) much better. If I’m too busy with work or violin triage, however, then I’ll make do with this.

In that same address, our governor asked everyone to try to help local businesses by getting take-out three times a week. This was the best news I received since this whole thing started. Get take out for my country? Hell yes! I’m suddenly patriotic AF!

If there is a knitting need that arises, by all means let me know. I’m ready to help! Meanwhile, I’ve got some noodles and tacos to attend to. U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!

 

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.

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