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.

A Sad Farewell

I never really allowed myself to believe that my dog might die one day. Wensley always looked like a puppy, so even when he started limping from arthritis and sleeping most of the day I thought we would still have years together. I was wrong.

Wensleydale Danger McDoggiepants, my partner in crime and Netflix binging, passed away on Sunday. No, that’s a lie. I called a veterinarian and asked him to come to my house to give my dog a life ending shot and he died. It was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do. Maybe the hardest.

The only kindness in this is that it happened so fast. He lost interest in eating so I made an appointment with the vet. Last Wednesday I got the diagnosis: Chronic Kidney Disease. I read several articles on the internet and thought, “Okay, this is bad, but I don’t know what phase of the disease he is in. We are just learning about it so maybe it is early?”

Nope. I put him in an animal hospital and they tried to flush the toxins that his kidneys were no longer dealing with, but he didn’t respond to treatment. We brought him home on Friday and made him as comfortable as possible. On Saturday he rested but could still walk around outside and even ate a little. But on Sunday he threw up everything he ate the day before and couldn’t even stand when I took him outside. He was shaking as if he were freezing but when I wrapped and spooned him it didn’t let up, which meant that he wasn’t cold, he was in pain. The moment I knew it was over when when I got up to get some pain medication for him and his eyes didn’t follow me as I walked across the room. Matt’s Dad always joked that Wensley was “my shadow” because he padded after me everywhere, and even if he was to tired or sore to follow me on foot he followed me with his eyes.

I’ll spare you the rest. Or rather, I’ll spare myself having to write down the rest. I’m sure you can imagine.

Wensley was a small dog. (Only twelve pounds for most of his life, but significantly less by the last day.) And yet, the hole he has left is unfathomable to me. I’ve always said that we were codependent, but it was more true than I realized. This entire week I’ve been struggling just to feel like I’m still myself without him. I feel pain at every meal because I don’t have the soundtrack of whimpering at my feet, begging for a bite, that I have had at every meal for nearly fifteen years. I don’t have anyone putting their paws on my leg in the morning reminding me to make breakfast because he knew I’d let him lick the bowl of oatmeal glue when I was done. I always remembered to give Wensley his pills, even though I could never remember to take my own.  So we took them together. I haven’t had breakfast or my meds all week. Every time I come home, there is no wagging tail or urgent whine of a dog needing to go out to pee. I don’t have a first order of business any more, so I just stand in the kitchen not sure what to do.

Then there is everything else. By which I mean, the crazy thoughts. Like the fact that I feel cheated every time my neighbor’s dog barks because why does she get to be alive? And how is it possible that everything that has eyes reminds me of Wensley? People, birds, stuffed animals – in person or in a two dimensional image – all of it hurts me because I can never gaze in those deep brown eyes again. He would sit at the top of the stairs and I would lay on the steps so we could be eye to eye and we would stare at each other. It made me feel so calm and connected. Everyone, stop having eyes! And then there is the guilt for every bit of human food I gave him. I should never have done that! And also all the guilt for everything – all the Cheetos and fries – I denied him. I should have given him everything he ever asked for!

God fucking damn this hurts. I now understand why people go straight out and buy another dog after a loss like this. The void is crushing. Only I don’t want a new dog. I want a new house. One that doesn’t remind me of Wensley everywhere I look. Part of me keeps waiting for him to walk into every room I am in, his black nails clattering on the wood floor.

I’m not going to buy a new house. If I were obscenely rich, I might not be able to stop myself. Is that why rich people have so many houses? One for every beloved pet they have lost? I wonder.

There is nothing to do but let it hurt. I need to give myself time to grieve, and time to build some post-Wensley memories in this new house. It’s unbearable to think of still, but that is what has to happen.

I’m sure I sound like a crazy person, but Wensley was a once in a lifetime dog. He was with me through the most difficult years of my life. I was only 26 when I got him; it’s crazy to think of that! He was there through a divorce, multiple moves, countless loses and heartbreaks, and stressful shake-ups at work. For more than ten years, it was just Wensley and me, and he got me through. He was a the life raft that delivered me safely through the dangers and into the hands of my new family, Matt and Ethan.

They have been amazingly supportive, by the way. (All of my friends and family have been.) I broke down doing dishes the other night because there was a little chunk of celery left on someone’s plate that Wensley would have LOVED and I couldn’t give it to him. Ethan (who is seven) jumped up from his homework and ran over and wrapped his arms around my waist, telling me how much he loved me and how glad he is that we are a family. That made me cry harder but with gratitude.

I guess that is where I start. There is one new memory I have made in this “after Wensley” period. I guess I’m creating another one right now, as I’m writing in my too quiet house, and I’m feeling grief and gratitude at the same time, and I’m having a big sloppy cry as I get through this entry. Baby steps.

There are few things that have been running through my mind all week.  One is this song by Holcombe Waller called Hardliners. Maybe listen, but don’t watch? It’s not a terrible video but I worry that the cheesiness distracts from the lyrics. I’m trying to figure out why it keeps popping into my head, other than the line that goes, “you’re so sad you just might die” which feels apt. I think it is because I need to be reminded that I have permission to feel all of this grief that is washing over me, but I don’t have permission to stop loving. It’s been exhausting to be a member of my family this week when I really wanted to be in bed with the blinds drawn, but my life raft didn’t get me all this way just so I could throw myself back in the rapids and go under.

This is the other brain worm that has been whispering in my ear. It’s a quote from Jamie Anderson (who according to the internet wrote Dr. Who).

Grief-no-place-to-go.

That is so spot on, I think. Grief and love are just two sides of the same doggie biscuit, or similar.

This morning I dropped Ethan off and school and turned the car back toward home. My first thought was about going to a Starbucks that I know of near that area, but with a sharp sting I decided not to, because it is so close to Wensley’s Veterinarian’s office.  My second thought was about Ethan. I started thinking about his breakfast routine and wondering if he is getting enough protein. I have a few ideas about what he might like, but I want to talk to Matt about it.  Then I realized with a smile that I’m transferring my grief for my dog into anxiety for my stepson. Where else is all that worry going to go? So I suppose the healing has begun. Which is painful, but natural.

I don’t have a great ending and I’ve reached that point where I might start singing “The Circle of Life,” and no one needs that. Instead, here are a few favorite pics of Wensley, including one of both of us from 2005 when he was about five months old.

img_0490img_0492img_0488

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.

Stepparent of the Year?

This is the kind of stepparent I am:

Last summer, we went to a wedding for one of Matt’s cousins. Ethan, then six, looked dashing in his suit. We accepted that he would play in it and get it dirty, so there was only one problem: the clip on tie.

Apparently the metal of the clip was touching his neck and irritating him. We made it as comfortable as possible but it’s not like we could loosen it.

After the pictures were taken, I got an idea. I told him, “you know, if you clipped it to your back buckle loop, it wouldn’t touch your skin. And it would look like a tail!”

Ethan was delighted and he wore it on his butt the rest of the wedding, which delighted others as well. But Matt was not pleased. I’m not sure his parents approved either, though usually Ethan can do no wrong.

“He’s wearing it!” I protested. “I’m a genius!”

No more was said about it, but next time I guess I need to go through Matt before I make any more of my costuming compromises.

Bad Trip

Not that long ago, I often traveled for work. This was when I was single and lived alone. Traveling for work became routine after a while. I would even say I got to the point where I enjoyed traveling solo. I remember one conference in particular. It was in San Diego and I didn’t know anyone at the conference or in the city, but I explored and found fun things to do. I even blew off the “networking” session of the conference because I saw a sandwich board advertising, “One Night Only: John Cleese Live!” It was a great choice; he was hilarious! I just wish I would have bought one of the t-shirts that read, “I saw John Cleese perform RIGHT before he DIED!” (This was in 2008, by the way. He is still alive.)

This was also the trip where I accidentally ordered veal because I thought “scallopini” meant “little scallops.” I felt terrible once I realized what I had done, but it wasn’t like I could give the little guy CPR once it was on the plate. So I ate it. (And goddamn it was delicious.) Then there was the supposedly haunted restaurant in Old Town with the margaritas the size of bird baths. Well, the first one is a bird bath. The second one threatens to become a facial. But I wasn’t driving, and I was without a companion to judge me, so I enjoyed both, completely.

As I said, this was 2008, over ten years ago. Many things have changed. I’m in a relationship. I have a stepson.  I had Wensley in 2008, but now he is an older dog with some health issues. (He will be fourteen years old this month.) That’s a lot of comfort and responsibility to leave behind, especially when I haven’t traveled on my own in years. It didn’t actually occur to me that I hadn’t exercised those muscles and therefore had lost all the tone until I went to Austin by myself last weekend.

I made a New Year’s goal to do more with my blog and I searched for learning opportunities. I found an online community of blogging women with a conference coming up in Texas and I bought tickets and booked a flight. I was anxious about the trip, but I have acute anxiety. I am anxious about everything.

The morning of the flight, Ethan (who is six) told me he was worried that I might get lonely on my trip and asked if I would like to take one of his soft friends (his word for stuffed animals) with me. It was such a sweet gesture and it touched me. I even took out an extra top to make space for the soft friend he selected, which was a black bear featuring a radio collar because it was purchased at a national park where bears are tagged and studied.

As soon as I buckled in for the flight, my anxiety went to work. “Why are you doing this?” It asked. “Can you even afford it? What if something happens to your extremely old dog while you are gone and you aren’t there to comfort him?” Tears welled up behind my eyes. I fought them back, but they pretty much stayed right there for the rest of the weekend.

I want to be completely clear: the conference was great and the ladies I met were lovely. I might even go again next year. That said, it was a hard experience for me. From the moment I entered the first event (a cocktail party on Friday evening), women were reaching out to me to help me feel welcome. Obviously they picked up my introvert vibe and reacted by inviting me into their conversations, metaphorically putting an arm around my shoulders and saying, “You’re good; We got you!” But I was not prepared for what a room full of female Texas bloggers (who refer to themselves as “influencers” and “momtrepreneurs” would be like.

These women are poised and glamourous. They are fit and fashionable, and they wear lipstick and high heels on Saturdays. Where I come from, Saturdays are for skiing, or biking, or hiking (depending on the weather). There are definitely no high heels. There may be tinted chapstick, but it has to be SPF 15 or higher.

They sell their makeup and outfits and home décor ideas on their feeds and they make serious money doing it. They have class and style and they will help you have it, too. All you have to do is click and add to cart. And that is exactly what thousands of people on Instagram do, every day. You have to see the photos of their picture perfect lives to understand it. I felt like a fraud sitting with them and taking notes on what makes the perfect Pinterest board.

I know what you are thinking. “Oh, Rachel, we all feel that way! I’m sure half of them thought you were the one that had it together! It’s just a bad case of imposter syndrome, that’s all!” No. Wrong. I can prove it. Here is a photo I found on the photographer’s site (@mandiroachphotography) in a collection of pics from the event.

Thrive_MandiRoachPhotography_4756

In case I have to explain, I’m the one in the center dealing with, I don’t know, an entire chicken wing or similar stuck in my back teeth. If you could zoom out you would see one hundred more women just like the ones surrounding me here. Lovely, lovely, stinkin’ lovely. Not one giving themselves dental work.

Feeling out of place just made me feel even more homesick. And then, the last day of the conference, I made the mistake of checking my email and discovering that the coverage I had set up for my day off to go to the conference hadn’t been adequate. I realized that I was in some trouble with my boss and that sent me into minor crisis mode. I felt like the whole trip had been a mistake. This was just before the smaller focus group session where we discussed questions and takeaways. I had been conspicuously quiet, so the group leader asked me to share my thoughts.

“I’m totally overwhelmed,” I blubbered, the tears that I had been holding back breaking forth in a torrent and hitting the floor. “I don’t even know what an ‘instagram story’ is!”

Again, the lovely ladies enveloped me and told me I was okay. They reminded me I just needed to get one actionable thing out of the conference and hold on to that. And someone else told me something that did stick with me. It isn’t about followers, it is about authenticity. What is your “why?” That is, why do you blog? What are you bringing to this space?

So I went to the loo and washed my face. Then I went back to the table and sat down with my notebook to draft a mission statement. I didn’t figure out exactly what it was, but I realized that I do have a “why” (aside from needing a place to write and hoping someone who likes my sense of humor will read it). I want to live an examined life. Writing helps me do that examining. My hope is that sharing what I unearth will help others, too.

Whew! I got my one thing, just before the conference ended! But then it was over, and all the ladies headed off for home. I, however, headed back to my hotel. I wasn’t able to find a non-red-eye flight, and my red-eye days are behind me.

Or so I said when I bought my tickets. My hotel had a spa and a gym, surely I would be able to find something to do that last evening before catching a reasonable morning flight, right? But then I was in the hotel with sixteen hours to kill, completely stressed out about work and needing a cuddle from each of my boys, human and canine alike. As good as it would have been for me, I wasn’t going to go to the gym.

I went down to the hotel bar and started texting a friend to ask her how she got 10k Instagram followers, but we ended up talking about the conference instead. The tears came back and I couldn’t make them stop, not even when my amazing mac and cheese with brisket tips arrived. My poor waitress probably thought my best friend died. I snapped a tearful selfie and sent it to my friend, but I’m sharing it here also in the spirit of authenticity.

IMG_6231

And the mac and cheese… (that’s cornbread and bacon butter in the background)

DCC686A1-EF4C-4075-A583-DA921F785F76

Throughout the trip, I kept an eye out for good spots to pose Black Bear so that I could send photos home to Ethan. I looked through them back in my hotel room and realized that, based on the photos, the bear was on the trip that I hoped to have. It seemed significant and apropos of the conference and the idea of sharing an authentic experience, versus and idea of perfection. I can’t do what those other ladies do. I am not here to tell you how to have the perfect vacation because I don’t know how to do that. I’m here to tell stories about why I spent last Sunday ugly crying in public places. I’m here to talk about how living with acute anxiety is hard. I have learned that it is possible to live a full life with anxiety, but you have to work at it. It won’t always go according to plan, and sometimes you have to force yourself to get out and do it. Luckily, there are also stuffed bears to cuddle while waiting for planes, and there is love and kindness waiting to reassure us on both ends of the trip.

IMG_6160IMG_6175IMG_6184IMG_6186IMG_6185IMG_6234

AlpenGLOW

Our little family joined up with friends at an Airbnb in Colorado last weekend. We decided to leave our cold mountain and go to a higher colder mountain to celebrate President’s Day because who doesn’t love a long car ride to go to someplace similar but worse?

Actually, I can’t explain why. We are mountain people and it was a different mountain. We went. We looked at it. We sledded down a part of it. And we explored some of it’s microbreweries while the children sampled the mac-n-cheese each establishment had to offer. Mountain people stuff. You just have to trust me, it was fun.

Monday morning, I got up early to get a shower before the line formed and to begin packing up before the long ride home. Check out was 10 AM which I thought was too early for a place that specifically advertised for families, but I can’t help following rules, even when they are nearly impossible.

I was packing up the kitchen while Ethan (age 6) ate breakfast and Matt went up to take his turn in the shower. That’s when the fight broke out. The very near next door neighbors began to shout at one another over who (the man, apparently) is lazy and who (the woman, eventually) should leave. I looked over at Ethan to see if he noticed anything but he looked untroubled. It got louder and louder and until each were daring one another to call the cops.

Of course, Wensley chose this moment to ask to go out for a wee, as the back yard was directly adjacent to the situation. I gave in before having to clean up a mess and risk losing the cleaning deposit that we had managed to retain all weekend. I opened the door and each word became as clear as if the conversation were happening there in the kitchen.  “I do every-%$^@ing-thing around here! Why don’t you &(%*ing *$@# yourself? You $*&^@ing @&%$@#er!” Or something like that.  Meanwhile, Wensley sniffed the snow, being particularly particular about picking a spot for a 15° morning.

Ethan walked over to stand by me and peered out the door to see who was yelling.

It was clear that I wouldn’t be able to just ignore the fight at that point, so I said, “Well, I’m glad I’m not in that family. They don’t speak very nicely to one another.”

Ethan considered this for a moment and then said, “At least there hasn’t been any contact, I don’t think.”

I was stunned by this statement. I wondered if he even meant what I heard when he said the word “contact.”

“Yes,” I hedged. “That is good.”

“Because the only people who should make contact are professional wrestlers,” he added, sagely. “That’s pretty much the only time it’s okay.”

“I agree,” I said, biting the inside of my cheek to keep from smiling. “Leave it to the professionals.” Wensley came back inside and Ethan went back to his cereal and that was the end of the conversation.

Oh my goodness, I love that kid. Where does the kid get this stuff?

Adulting

None Shall Pass… Without Cake!

When I asked Ethan what he wanted his 6th birthday party theme to be and he said “knights,” I had to double check that I understood.  After all, it wasn’t that long ago that I asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up and he responded, “Nocturnal.”

“Knights? Like, Knights of the Round Table?” I asked, knowing there was a better way to phrase this to a kindergartner.

“No,” Ethan said.  “Like knights that fight.”

“Okay,” I said.  “I got it.”

I was a little concerned that I wouldn’t be able to find good decorations easily.  At least, not as easily as if he said, “Starwars,” for instance.  But it wasn’t a problem.  I ordered a dragon pinata, foam swords for a melee, and foil crowns and stick on plastic gems for a craft station.  Easy peasy.

There were about 40 people on the guest list, so we had the party at a park in the neighborhood.  This took care of seating and shade.  Also, I thought if no one wanted to sword fight or decorate a crown, there was a playground.

I’ve never thrown a child’s birthday party before, and I admit I stressed over it more than I should have.  I didn’t sleep much the night before and then I went to the park early and claimed some tables (they don’t take reservations).  I did my best to plan for all contingencies, but there are always things beyond one’s control.  For example, a block away, a sewer pipe burst and each time the breeze shifted there was a distinct barn-yard smell.  I could have been upset, but I decided that it gave the medieval theme an air (pun intended) of authenticity.  Hopefully the guests felt the same.  (They did not, but they were very polite about it.)

The final touch were two figurines to decorate the cake – a knight and a dragon.  Once everything was set up and we were waiting for the guests to arrive, there was nothing to do but sit and wait.

“You know,” Matt – my history teacher boyfriend – said, pointing at the cake, “there is a historical problem there.”

“Oh yeah?” I asked.  “What’s that?”

“Yes, I think the knight should have a sword.  I was just reading that knights, who usually came from the aristocracy, actually looked down on archery.  Archers were from the lower classes.”

“That’s interesting,” I said.  “Also, there’s a dragon.”

“True,” Matt said.  “Very true.”

IMG_4241