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.

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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.

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.

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.

 

 

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!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.