Dogged Adventures: No Complaints About Rainy Days

The best that Irma could muster

When it’s cold-ish, rainy, and a bit blustery on vacation, you spend a fair amount of time in your cheap hotel room doing mainly nothing. Or riding shotgun around town with your twenty-something while he shows you new stuff and changed stuff and plain missing stuff. Five years is long enough for the landscape to morph so dramatically in some places it’s no longer recognizable, five years of freeze and thaw cycles, stormy seasons, and a recovering economy. Midday Monday found me sitting with the boy in the drive-through lane at his favorite eatery, idling over the same pavement where I clocked so many hours with him snapped into the back seat booster, tired, hungry, a peanut-sized malcontent who never really met the world’s expectations from a tender age. This was a better scenario.

My whole life has been a lie, observed the twenty-something about the fake towels at the pricey department store

We can deal with boredom, content merely to be off the clock for a few days. My ex-sister-in-law-but-still-my-sister has had a much rougher go of it in Charleston. I hate that we missed our visit, but hate it more that she and Waco-the-Lab are dealing with what they are. And there is that fickle José doing dog-knows-what out there in the Atlantic, a bit too close to Charleston.

Meanwhile the eternally agreeable and exercise-deprived Scout-the-Lab was positively giddy for his four-miler in a beloved city park in Knoxville, Tennessee Monday morning, a romp squeezed in before Irma arrived in these parts (she threw some cold rain and wind our way, and then moved on). HCB did eight miles in about the same amount of time it took me to cover four. The paved trail in the park was new, seems like yesterday. Now it is broken up in places, marbled with root incursion (a visual nightmare for somebody like myself with no depth perception); running in this case was a euphemism for playing hopscotch along the serpentine and hilly path. Scout explored every nook and cranny with the joie de vivre only a dog possesses; we should watch and learn.

Southern vacation requisite and best ever post-run carbs

Lakeshore Park was once the sprawling campus of a large residential mental hospital, the ‘loony bin’ as insensitive locals sometimes called it. In the late 19th century it was named the Eastern Hospital for Insane officially, then in the 1920s the more sanitized sounding Eastern State Psychiatric Hospital replaced it. And true to a trend, the residential services in the hospital came offline in pieces starting in 1990. For a time the grand old 19th century brick structures remained, some of them anyway, where patients continued to receive outpatient care. Then many of those services fell by the wayside, too, and the big, empty buildings served only as a snapshot of history, what was once a self-sufficient operation with its own dairy now a thing of the past. By June of 2012 the hospital was officially a hospital no more, replaced by legions of city athletic fields, and the new pathway around it filled with stroller-pushing moms and now hopscotching middle aged folks and their shy doggies. I halfway thought I’d bump into somebody I once knew and then it dawned on me most of these folks were mere children the last time I made this circuit. Time marches on.

In the space of only a few days Scout learned this truth: sleeping in a huge, soft bed with your humans is divine. He does not enjoy this luxury back home in Vermont because a vexation known as spiral stairs makes it impossible.

Scout’s most amazing discovery: the joy of sleeping in bed with the humans
Sometimes you find beauty in unexpected places, even near a nondescript hotel
Monet writ small in Knoxville
Found somebody pretty busy in a clump of honeysuckle near the hotel

Scout meets Prometheus, the Shiloh Shepherd who lives with the boy

Funny that a 60-pound dog could scare the bejeebus out of a much larger shepherd, but that is precisely what happened when Scout-the-Lab invited a skeptical fraidy cat to play.

The culinary highlight of our time in Knoxville was authentic Cuban fare eaten on our laps from Styrofoam takeout boxes, since doggies are no bueno inside a restaurant with no patio. We also caught up with my dad for a happy couple of hours and obligatory family photos with lots of chiding dad about his ancient phone technology. He insisted the groovy clicky noise and the animated shutter on his phone trumps the benefits of a smartphone any day, but HCB’s missing head suggests otherwise.

Authentic Cuban sandwich
Meat-filled empanada
Needs empanadas
Twenty-something with his granddad and mama
Family portrait
Family photo with headless chef

Scout-the-Lab is not only the Most Agreeable Traveling Canine Ever, but can now also claim expertise as a city dog. I had reservations about this, mainly about folks wanting to approach and touch him. But when we spent an evening in downtown Knoxville they came at us fast and furious—I could not run interference on every single encounter, nor did I need to as it happened: Scout seemed to get it. He was happy to be approached and petted and in fact enjoyed the attention. Urban night life proved a treasure trove of delicious new experiences for a dog keen to take it all in.

City Dogs
Expert at city sidewalk dining
You can still spot the work of the ‘cathedral guy’ in downtown Knoxville; many thanks to the boy for a much better photo than I got
Nekkid ladies hold up the old Miller’s Department Store building in downtown Knoxville

When I was a young student at the University of Tennessee, I routinely stepped over the busts of naked ladies in the basement of the McClung Museum on campus, where they sat in storage when they were salvaged from a beloved downtown department store after its conversion to Something Better. In the last couple of decades as Knoxville came to its senses they were restored to their rightful places. I caught them hard at work as they should be, from our sidewalk table at this little eatery, where earlier we bumped into a pair of dear friends, and were waited on by the daughter of another. It was the perfect finale to our time in Knoxville.

With apologies to friends, family, and one beloved professor and a couple others I could not see this time around, more soon from the mountains of Asheville, NC.

Dogged Adventures: Where the South Begins

Stoic and Resolute

Just a few yards past mile marker 152 and nine tenths on Virginia’s southbound Interstate 81 stands a tall clump of vegetation completely engulfed in kudzu—fully involved, the fire department would say—like some unfortunate character from Middle Earth awaiting release from a centuries-long curse, or maybe more like the creatures the White Witch turned to stone in Narnia. There they stand by the side of the busy highway, and there is where the South begins, because I say so.

We passed that milestone a little while ago, road-weary, none the worse for wear, looking forward to reaching our first destination tomorrow with the stoic and resolute Scout-the-Lab in tow. The last couple of hours always drag on to eternity. That’s when I started a game I called ‘Name the Contents of That Trailer.’ For example, I told HCB, that one is full of Pampers and Pullups headed down to clothe the hurricane babies in Texas and Florida.

How do you know? he quipped.

Because I said so (see the South above), and you are not the boss of my trailer story game. Your turn: what’s in that one up ahead?

Mattresses And Trampolines, And Onions, he said.

What?

Yep, he continued: look on the back. It says ‘MATO.’

Well okay, but you must instead say ‘Mattresses and Trampolines, Onions,’ because if you are using the ‘A’ for ‘And,’ then you can’t invent ‘And’ if it does not exist before ‘Onions.’

He then changed his mind to invent an acronym that included ‘Massachusetts’ and some other words you can’t say in polite company.

Hurricane Irma would not leave us alone, starting this morning when we confirmed with my ex-sister-in-law-but-still-my-sister that we did not have the constitution to come see her down in Charleston as planned, even though she is sitting out this still-unknown event, because it will still be bad in spite of the spaghetti models, and because of this miscreant known as a Predecessor Rain Event, and I am not making that up—she texted it to me last night, and she is smart. In short, the wind and rain will be horrid, there will be flooding, and the last thing she needs is a house full of dogs and people and no power.

Earlier today standing in line at Arby’s to get HCB some vacation curly fries, I listened to the truckers around me warning each other to stay safe on the road. It was clear these folks belong to a special brotherhood, strangers united in a singular mission to drive trailers full of supplies into dangerous and needy territory. We passed and were passed by a squadron of cherry picker utility trucks from New Jersey all day long, each one flying an American flag, and one besmeared with a homemade ‘#IRMA.’ These guys need a special prize for the work they’re doing.

I hope everybody stays safe, but know some will not.

And I hope they get something useful like food and water instead of pens and racing skis, as HCB suggested one truck was carrying.

What?

Yep, he said. Look—it’s a Penske truck.

It’s how we roll. More soon from our Way Down South Trip, Part the Third.

Might Be a Good Jumpin’ Bed

 

Family Vacations: The Summers of My Discontent

Family vacations are dumb.

Nothing sends me into a tailspin faster than a technological mishap: this would include power outages and car problems, to say nothing of broken laptops. I’ve been in a tailspin since the first week in August, the week my shiny new laptop failed catastrophically on a Saturday morning, an incident that prompted a series of irritating phone calls and remote sessions with tech support, and no fewer than five trips in the car over an hour one way to try to deal, because we are underserved in Vermont. That’s more than a tank of gas and five days I’ll never get back again. This coming Saturday will mark the sixth. I remain skeptical at best, even with another new laptop in the offing: an evil vortex has settled in over me, ready to stir up trouble with any device I bring into this house, I am sure of it.

New equipment should not fail, tech support should be smart, and people on the other side of the planet who are enlisted to ‘remote’ into your computer, with your personal stuff on it and all, should not be loading weirdo media players in another language onto your laptop without your permission. I submit these are the folks who refused to do their third grade homework but still walked away with ‘participation’ ribbons, never learned manners but were coddled in the name of self-esteem boosting, and possess not one shred of respect for personal property, because if it’s broke you just buy a new one. I bet they leave crusty bowls of half-eaten ramen noodles sitting around at home. And now here they are inside my electronics doing god-knows-what, but failing miserably at fixing the problem I invited them in to fix to begin with. (You need more RAM. Wait—how could that be the case on a new laptop?)

How do these folks even get these jobs in the first place?

See? Tailspin. But I digress.

On a recent day trip over to neighboring Upstate New York to meet again with the homework slackers, HCB and I got to talking in the car as we are wont to do. We came around a twisty bend in a sleepy rural highway and crossed another busier highway to continue our trek, which took us past a lake dotted with docks where small watercraft are moored at the edge of unassuming vacation home properties; a single golf cart was sitting idle on a patch of asphalt near the edge of the lake, a beacon of leisure on this sunny summer afternoon. This tiny lake’s more or less a poor man’s paradise, cheerful nonetheless.

I never had the kind of camping experience you had growing up, I said aloud to HCB. I vaguely recall one summer when I was barely beyond my toddler years (maybe three) when my parents and I visited with my grandparents—my dad’s folks—at a place near Chattanooga called Camp Ocoee. I’m not sure we even spent the night. What remains in my head after all these years are washed out memories of rustic board-and-batten structures with wraparound screen porches and creaky screen doors. And my grandmother’s crafty ceramics class in one building. And dusty pathways, possibly a swingset, and a boy called Chris Cunningham who accepted my heartfelt passions only reluctantly. That is all I remember, and probably the only reason I remember any of it at all is the legacy of a few photos and some family folklore. (Chris: where are you now? Did you do your third grade homework, or did you get participation awards?)

I did not have cooties.

Camping was big in my family, said HCB, and he went on to describe it. The girls had better games, he said—they were more complicated and involved and fun. The boys were just idiots. Playing with the girls was your best bet.

I remember long car trips in the summer, I said, and always asking to get out of the car when we stopped at a scenic overlook or passed some landmark or monument. No, came the answer always.

I know why, I went on: it was my brother’s fault. He was a pain in the ass to travel with. We never made short trips—we were either eastward bound for Knoxville and Chattanooga all the way across the length of our squished parallelogram state from Memphis to visit family, or worse—to a remote Texas destination for a family convention tied to my dad’s work, which meant two solid days in a hot car to get there: the crayons always, always melted, and my brother always, always Crossed The Line in the back seat to my side, to purposely detonate the big sister bomb and then sit back and enjoy the explosion. This was to be expected of a seven-years-younger brother, but of course I could not appreciate that. If I were my parents, I’d want to get there, too.

Here is the truth about my brother in those days: he simply could not shut up. He sang to himself, talked to himself, and ran out of breath mimicking the noises of choo choo trains. Trains, for god’s sake. They were his everything.

The Talker

One time on the way home from a Texas vacation, my brother drove my mom to the brink of insanity with his ‘prattling,’ as she called it. We were in Arkansas, with Memphis squarely in the crosshairs by then, so close to home we could almost taste it. My mom had cleverly outfitted the back seat of the car with two vinyl shoe racks hung over the front seat headrests—one for my brother and one for me, a strategy she’d read about in a parenting tome. Mine was still fairly organized by the end of our vacation, stocked with a few new treasures acquired along the way, but his was chaos. Long weary of his toys, he busied himself with jabbering. The kid simply could not. shut. up.

THOMAS! snapped my mama about an hour away from our suburban home. SHUT YOUR MOUTH.

He complied, but continued to make all kinds of creative sounds with closed lips, including weird gurgling noises that required lots of spit.

HCB erupted in giggles when I told him this story, and then started making his own version of close-lipped noises. Two peas in a pod, I imagined, while agonizing at the thought of traveling with not one, but three siblings in a closed space. Perish the thought.

For my part, I yearned for my bicycle and my neighborhood friends about a second after we reached our vacation destination. That bicycle meant autonomy and freedom, from boredom, from a brother who followed me around like my shadow, from tiresome grown-ups. You can’t escape any of those things on a hot summer vacation with your family.

But no, we never camped as a family, and we did not get out of the car much, because dad was hell bent on getting from point A to point B. The upshot of this for me is, I have no interest in camping, never have as an adult and never did as a parent myself, but I do love me a good road trip, especially off-the-beaten path trips into the American countryside, the kind that put you in the back yards of farmers, and take you down remote highways dotted with derelict billboards, leaving your imagination to reinvent a place that is no more, and anyway what happened to it and to the people who once worked there or patronized it? I can entertain myself in silence for a long time making up a story. Lately I’ve fabricated one closer to home, about some goings-on on the rural road where I often run: in short, I have invented an entire narrative to explain the activity I have observed on a particular property for the past few weeks. It involves tawdry behavior and a messy divorce and a property dispute and unhappy children.

You don’t have evidence for any of your assumptions, HCB tells me.

What’s your point? I ask. Give me my story: I am not hurting anybody.

He smacks his hand over his face and shakes it in disbelief.

Family vacations with a younger brother are bothersome and that is all. On that very trip—the one where my brother made the gurgling noises—he also spat out his chewing gum in my long, silky ballerina hair right as we were crossing the Mississippi River from West Memphis, Arkansas, into downtown Memphis, Tennessee.

I howled in agony, ruing the day he was born, gnashing my teeth and wishing I could tear out my hair.

My mom was at once horrified and delighted: she knew just what to do to get it out, and it involved peanut butter—she’d read it in that damned book, the same one with the vinyl shoe caddy tip.

Little brother, your sister has a blog: it’s payback time at long last.

I wish I had a laptop. Because I like laptops.

Nota bene: My brother is enjoying a long and successful career in the railroad industry. He is a hard worker and a problem solver, character traits for which he is beloved in the workplace. He also holds a patent for a piece of machinery that is helping revolutionize the modern locomotive engine.

Literary Devices

Literary Devices

About a year or so ago my sister-in-law back ‘home’ in Tennessee observed an endearing habit in my brother. From an adjoining room she could hear him plunking out something on a computer keyboard. Only he was not typing the way somebody, you know, normal, would: his technique was more like firing off a weapon with each keystroke, with a final cannon shot for each period: pow! pow! pow! BOOM! It made her giggle.

Yep, I said, it comes from dad. I don’t know how I know this: I don’t have an explicit memory of dad typing this way, but he must’ve at some point. He has hands you could describe as athletic, I think, long, muscular digits with rounded fingertips. My brother has the same hands, and so do I. And not long after my sister-in-law observed my brother’s explosive typing habit, I realized I possess precisely the same disposition when it comes to typing. Nature or nurture—who knows? It’s clear the proverbial apples did not fall far from the tree.

I’m hard on keyboards, but I figure that falls comfortably and justifiably within the domain of a writer. I’m already on my second one in a tenure just under three years at the digital marketing agency where I work, which is also where I confirmed the typing technique lineage I already suspected: on a quiet afternoon (you could hear a pin drop) I realized the loudest noise in our becubicled open space was the sound coming from my fingertips. Bam-bam-bam-bam-BAM-bam-bam-bam! Over time I also realized the most percussive keystrokes occurred when I was trying hard to make a point—in a piece of correspondence, in content I was writing for a client, even in mere frustration after making the same stupid typo three times in a row—CAPITAL G, dammit! Pow! Somehow banging the keyboard extra hard seems meaningful and necessary, or cathartic at least. Maybe it’s simply passive aggression, I don’t know.

The reader can discern no proof of emphatic typing at the other end of an email, nor can the e-commerce consumer parsing through a product description or blog post. Once upon a time, gentle reader, the typewritten page might indeed have revealed the vigor of a keystroke, with inky letters imprinted deeply on a fibrous page like some ancient rune in bas relief. You could flip the page over and feel the words through the other side; I remember this phenomenon from any number of prep school papers I churned out in my youth.

The Anthropology Department at the University of Tennessee lies within the bowels of Neyland Stadium, in a long, curvilinear corridor that follows the exact contours of the stadium itself. It was still the men’s athletic dorm when my dad was a student there in the 1960s; the tiny dorm rooms were later pressed into service as anthropology professors’ offices, classrooms, and even laboratories. On any fall weekday afternoon during class one could hear the muted sounds of the Pride of the Southland Marching Band practicing on the field above

When I was clocking countless hours as an anthropology major there in the 1990s (and even a few a bit later as a graduate student in city planning), one could also hear the telltale percussive strikes of a manual typewriter issuing forth from a particular office filled to the brim with books, journals, files, and stacks upon stacks of papers: the beloved professor and mentor who sat behind the old desk in that office stubbornly refused to transition to the digital age when most of his colleagues had long abandoned the analog world (more recently he has relented)—I found this tenacity one of his most endearing habits among many when I was his student. That loud clackety-clack-clack reverberating through the department was reassuring: Dr. Faulkner is in the house.

I can’t say I miss the typewriter, however romantic it may seem as viewed through the lens of nostalgia, at least not in the way I sometimes miss the old-fashioned vinyl LPs that digital music plowed under decades ago. I could easily hop back on that bandwagon, as others have. But the typewriter’s limitations are simply too dramatic as held up against the word processor, and that gap widens all the time. I’d even wager our advancing digital devices may hasten our evolution as a species, outpacing any decent interval Darwin himself could have imagined (it’s a shaky assertion, I know).

Underscoring an important point—in the era of the typewriter and now—demands a classical command of the language, though, with judicious use of italics or bold-face type thrown in for good measure: doesn’t make a difference how hard you bang out your thoughts on the keyboard, as I am doing now. Either you know how to express them on ‘paper,’ or you don’t.

My devices at home are failing. My old Gateway laptop I procured just after I came to Vermont in 2012 is falling apart a piece at a time: it has given me almost five years of excellent service, and I paid nothing for it—old credit card thank-you points stepped in during a crisis, no complaints here. Back in the winter I bought a wireless mouse to make working from home a little easier (lots of tabs open at once, lots of clicking back and forth between them, but without the luxury of the two large desktop monitors I have at the office). And after I made that leap, my laptop mouse pad quietly died, almost as if it had withered from neglect before finally giving up. I felt a little bad about that.

More recently I realized the keyboard itself was on its last leg when the spring under the space bar broke on one end (the end that bears a visible thumb-shaped dip in the black plastic); the action on the other end remained intact, forcing me somehow into another quadrant of my brain when I typed. It was an awkward transition at best, but I made it work. A couple of other keys—important ones—threatened to fail, too: one simply cannot live without the commanding and affirming delete, backspace, and enter keys. And then last weekend the space bar finally gave up the ghost completely. I could lightly tap it and it still responded, sort of, but I worried it might decide to just keep on going when I touched it, reducing my writing to infinite empty space and no way to stop it. (In space, no one can hear you scream.) So I found a wireless keyboard to use for the time being, until I have time to browse for the perfect replacement laptop. This means my laptop is now effectively a desktop: I’m tethered to my desk if I want to write, just like I was in the analog age. (And anyway, my battery’s shot, too: I must stay plugged in all the time now.)

My shiny, new wireless keyboard is compact but fully loaded; I kicked the tires when I was looking, and the ad suggested it was made for people like me, slackers trying to squeeze blood out of a turnip. I paid almost nothing for it, which makes it sweeter still, of course. I think this proclivity to keep on going with the same old equipment fairly aligns me with my beloved anthropology professor.

Best of all, though, the keys are springy and loud, almost like an old typewriter keyboard—a very smart typewriter. BOOM! Anything for a good literary device.

This one’s for you, Dr. Faulkner.

Live Your Life: A Mother’s Reflection

A Mother’s Life

Live your life, live your life, live your life.—Maurice Sendak

It’s Mother’s Day, a Hallmark-y holiday. Flowers will be dispensed, brunches eaten, and everywhere priests will stand at the pulpit and spin out sermons on the importance of mothers for the umpteenth time; they’ll repeat them next month but insert the word “fathers.”

I had a call from my twenty-something man-child early, early this morning—a video chat, because that’s how it’s done these days. He couldn’t sleep last night, he said. He is carless at the moment, and so he had spent hours looking at ads on craigslist. He was so tired he could lick the walls, he told me, but still could not fall asleep this morning. I said I had no idea what that expression means and we both giggled. And anyway, he went on, if I fall asleep now I’ll be wide awake at ten tonight. It’s no good. I just need to go find food.

Off you go, then, I told him.

Happy mother’s day—I love you, he said.

We’ll probably chat a couple more times before the day is over, unless he sleeps it away.

We are thick as thieves in spite of some mountains and valleys between us. He has figured out with impressive exactitude the instant I’m likely to pull into the driveway on weekdays—it’s almost like he can sense it somehow, even when my schedule is a little off. The phone on the passenger seat next to me lights up and chirps its familiar chirp, the one that says Hey-from-a-thousand-miles, pick up already.

And we are thick as thieves now in spite of the uncertain landscape five years ago, when I lived alone for a final difficult year in our big, old, Tudor Revival-style house in Knoxville, the house where he grew up, and where our family was coming unglued before our eyes. When the new world order emerged at the start of that year, I explained to my then-teenager he needed to go and live with his dad in a neighborhood just down the road, for so many complicated reasons: I tried to make them clear. It was late, I was tucked into bed (still on my side of it, the other side only recently empty); he was sitting cross-legged at the foot of it practically on my feet, like he might have done when he was five. We had a hard conversation.

During those long, empty nights the Blackberry sometimes chirped on my nightstand and often at odd hours. It was never bad news, just a heads up at an inappropriate moment: hey mom, I’m coming over to the house to get <thing>. <Person> is with me, but he’ll wait in the car so the dog won’t freak out.

Soon the car—his late grandparents’ Caddy that was his for the time being—would idle in the driveway just below the master bedroom window, and not long after I’d smell the stink, the secondhand tobacco smoke he now carried around with him on his clothing and person, and hear the death-rattle cough in a kid too young to sound so old. No telling where he had been nor where he was going in the late-night or pre-dawn hours. There was so much profound sadness wrapped up in these occasions I can still feel it now. (And I will forever associate the Blackberry ringtone with it.)

A few years earlier there was still a palpable tether between us. MOM! came crackling from a high-again low-again adolescent male voice, often followed by Where is my—, more a demand than a question.

And before that: Mommy! I need—, always delivered with a sense of urgency. I could not have imagined a time would come when I’d simply have to give in to worry and grief about the life choices this child was making; I could feel my bones beginning to age.

A day many years earlier found me sitting comfortably cross-legged on the floor with a toddler in my lap, in a playroom loft that would delight any child—a long, narrow, cocoon-like room with sloping cornmeal yellow walls meeting its flat ceiling, walls that follow the contours of the steeply pitched roof on the other side of it, a room warmed by the radiant heat in the slate roof tiles, a Hobbit-like space proportioned and cheerfully outfitted for a little person. The toddler surveys the raised highway we’ve built from an exquisite wood block set my Uncle Stan sent us, Matchbox cars in mid-commute, a few highway tragedies piled below it, while across town some cars are parked in front of the ice cream parlor, blissfully unaware of the carnage.

Our minuscule village is awash in the dappled sunlight filtering through tall trees just outside the big window on the gable end of the house. The toddler has a pacifier in his mouth—a “binky,” which he’s sucking furiously—loudly—deep in thought with furrowed brow, clutching a second binky in his tiny toddler hand which is lifted to rub against the tip of his nose. It is an endearing habit he will retain for a long time. If one of three big dogs happens to saunter through the room and upset the highway, the toddler will bellow gleefully at the calamity.

Meanwhile he tumbles out of my lap to improve some bit of highway infrastructure, muttering an observation through the binky still held tightly in his teeth in language sometimes only I can understand. Standing in the checkout line of a big box retailer a cheeky old woman will soon lecture me about allowing the little boy on my hip to suck on one of those things, they’re terrible for teeth, she should know, her husband’s a dentist. For once words will not escape me: I’ll square my shoulders and quip, Well you and he should be thankful for ignorant moms like me who send generations of business your way.

My child is clean-scrubbed; I’ve plunked him into a soapy bath for a half-hour of calming water play after his sticky, spinach-y lunch, which he was wearing on his face and in his hair a little earlier. Freshly dressed in a stretchy cotton outfit that smells of Dreft, he’ll sit in my lap again while I rock him in the sunny yellow bedroom three steps down from the Matchbox highway loft. Town improvements must wait until we’ve gone exploring with the Wild Things, supplying words for wordless pages—howling at the moon, swinging through the trees, tromping through the woods. There might be a nap set to sweet Celtic lullabies, but I know this child: he will fight sleep and probably win.

The irony of this does not escape me after our earlier conversation today. I was not “finished” with this young man when I left Tennessee for good. But I was also weary—nay, exhausted—and ineffective as a parent near the end: there were not enough restorative naps, for him or for me, to fix our big problems. I was powerless to put him in the tub, or to wash the stale cigarette smoke out of his skin and hair, or scrub the filth under his nails: he had to do it for himself, or not.

Parenting never ends. And sometimes I think I’ve been most effective as a long-distance mom: being available only at the end of an electronic device is a game changer, after all, and underscores the reality that I’m more than a door mat, or a lunch fixer, a changer of diapers, or a supplier of spare change, even though I have been all of those things and continue to be some of them. For too long these things defined most of me while I allowed what remained of me to languish. The day I opened the doors of my small ballet school in Knoxville a wise friend observed, Not a moment too soon. But really, that day actually came several years too late—putting my life on the back burner helped nobody.

The only piece of advice I ever give any new mom is simply this: being a good parent to your child is profoundly important, but never more important than being a good steward to yourself. We finally do what we can for our children, and sometimes that has to be enough.

Battle Cry of the Middle-Aged Bullied

The Bully List
The Bully List

How much bully-induced rage does it take to finally push a person over the precipice?

Schoolyard bullies have enjoyed too much press for the last twenty or so years: there is nothing new under the sun to report about that, except possibly its lightning fast delivery through time and space thanks in no small part to sophisticated electronics and the ‘net. I don’t have a thing to add to that conversation.

But I might have something to say about this phenomenon dressed in its grown-up clothing—you could call it passive aggression, but make no mistake: what I’m talking about is bullying. This mom blogger did it way more justice in her 2010 post-gone-viral than I can hope to here. I understand her, even if my own child’s circumstances were a tad different, because I witnessed the kind of grown-up pushing and shoving she describes too many times during my parenting years. Its more benign version occurred every single day in the guise of compulsive parent volunteers who not only “selflessly” signed up to serve on every school committee or volunteer at every event, but also made sure the rest of the world (read: the parents who did not sign up) knew all about it. Call it magnanimity and self-sacrifice if you will, but it is needful superiority, plain and simple, practically oozing from the pores of parents who knew they were better than you because they stepped up to the plate more often.

I can think of distinctly more sinister examples of grown-up bullying, like a particular weekday morning in 2004 when I dropped my challenging child in the fourth grade classroom at the pressure-cooker private school he attended at the time. It was the worst school year to date—his, and by extension ours—and proved to be his worst ever school year when everything was said and done, as measured by how bloodied my family’s collective noses were at the end of it. For the umpteenth time I stood there just outside the classroom talking to my kid’s teacher, probably about his latest infraction, and probably also scheduling still another round of meetings with school admins and outside professionals in the eternal and exhausting attempt to give this kid a fighting chance for a normal existence at school. These efforts were futile for a multitude of reasons, but I lacked the wisdom to recognize this truth at that moment because of my own relative youth and inexperience. And hope springs eternal, after all.

But mainly I persisted for this: when your compromised kid has faced all kinds of challenges since preschool—some you already know about, others you’ll learn about later—it is your responsibility as his parent to advocate for him. The “system” never will, whether it’s a public or private one, and that is a fact. That much I knew at least, and that alone was reason enough to stand there and talk to this difficult, tough as nails woman about my difficult child. I probably had not gotten much sleep the night before, the shower still awaited me back at home, and also the coffee pot: I am sure I looked like Ish Kabbible, as my mom would say. In short, my general deportment did not give me much credibility.

Then I heard the unmistakable clackety-clack-clack of heels on the deck outside the classroom, recognized the silhouette of Professional Mom in her pencil skirt and suit jacket who also needed to bend the teacher’s ear about something or other to do with her wunderkind: the kid who had skipped a grade and landed here in the same classroom with my kid who had already repeated a grade. She was in a hurry, because, Professional Mom.

She glanced condescendingly at me and without missing a beat interrupted my sentence and started an impromptu meeting of her own. What’s more, the teacher allowed it to happen (see self-advocacy above). I struggled the rest of the day to find an appropriate lightning rod for my anger. Ish Kabibble stepped aside for Pencil Skirt on that morning in 2004. She could not possibly have known the monumental undertaking it was to convince my anxious kid to get up, get dressed and to eat at least a little something—especially important because the meds he needed to simply get through the academic day with a modicum of focus and calm had the unfortunate side effect of killing his appetite for the duration—and to get him out the door for our half-hour commute to school. It was a complicated ritual we practiced five mornings a week.

I think I know why women, especially Southern ones, are accused of gathering bitchiness in middle age: it’s got nothing to do with hormones (okay, maybe some) but more to do with politesse and tolerating grown up bullying, sometimes for decades, to the point of exploding. I get it now.

It could be worse than sounding off to superior parents in your kid’s fourth grade classroom: the beauty pageant scene in Little Miss Sunshine, for example. You know the one, where the pageant director with an acorn up her ass has her comeuppance at the end, where the parents finally reveal the truth about beauty pageants on the stage in support of their distinctly un-pageant like child.

When you’re a kid who bullies other kids, adults and sometimes institutions dole out the consequences. But adults who bully other adults, or their kids, suffer more “organic” consequences, if you like. I’m less likely to put up with women in pencil skirts and high heels these days, or aggressive fuel truck drivers on icy Vermont roads, or really anybody who is wont to push me around: the way I see it, I’ve done my time in those trenches. Call me bitchy if you want, and I’ll wear that moniker with pride.

My kid is still struggling to find his way, no thanks to some of his school experiences that should have been so much better. He did not turn out to be any of the nefarious characters as predicted by “professionals” at various times during his childhood—cruel to animals, a sexual deviant, a violent ne’er do well—not even close: the ignorant folk who made those calls got him so, so wrong. Quite the contrary, my “problem” kid as a young man is well spoken, loved and admired by his peers, and more often than not will make you pee yourself laughing with his comedic timing. He has a long road to travel yet towards being “whole,” for lack of a better word, continuing to wrestle with depression and anxiety that may have been there all along but certainly were not helped by some of the adults in his life who should have known better, people quick to marginalize others, who assumed they or their children were better or more deserving than we, or who assumed whatever misinformed thing they may have assumed about us—these are the same people about whom that mom blogger opined nearly a decade ago, who are more than happy to judge you for your apparent failure as a parent. They deserve to be called out for bad behavior, then and now.

I’ll never understand the “no regrets” ethos to which many folks so stubbornly cleave. I have regrets upon regrets, a multitude of tapes I’d like to rewind. (That morning outside the fourth grade classroom comes to mind.) I did finally blow my lid the day we were given the boot from that school, with enough pent-up frustration by then I could have spewed a much bigger volcano of rancor than what ultimately spilled out, and I’d be plenty justified. But there were some beautiful teachers on that campus, and are still, who did care about my kid and helped him learn: to those people I owe a great debt.

And as for my parenting skills, go ahead and judge: That fourth-grade teacher happened to drive through the line at a fast-food eatery where my kid was working the cash window a few years back. She did not recognize him after so many years, but he recognized her right away. He engaged her in friendly conversation, pointed out his beloved car in the parking lot, and invited her to sit down over lunch with him some time.

Stretching Dollars, Counting Blessings

Sunny Day Squirrel Vigil
Sunny Day Squirrel Vigil

Winter was kind enough last week to gift us its annual January thaw, which means the schmutz on the ground—an unpleasant casserole of crusty, gritty snow with a menacing bottom layer of ice—retreated obediently into atmosphere and earth. We have frost heaves already, a phenomenon more typical in early spring. Extreme cold temperatures arrived in December, followed by thawing, and then more cold, and more thawing. You should see our back yard right now: if you didn’t know better you might suspect a bustling community of Hobbits thrives there, creating urban sprawl in every direction, its massive network of tunnels and trenches stretching into the woods willy-nilly without the slightest regard for a plan. You’ll twist an ankle on the peaks and valleys in the darkness. Hobbits.

But January thaw also means mini mud season and messy dog walking. Friday and Saturday the temperatures plummeted, leaving frozen tundra in their wake—perfect for dog walking, nay, running. Yesterday Scout and I had our first real run, a couple of miles in bracing twenty-something-degree air. I had enough sense to quit before anything was torn, pulled, or otherwise damaged. Scout showed me a glimpse of who he really is, the dog inside him, the dog who yearns to play. In a single comical, cartoon-like moment he sprinted ahead of me on his 20-foot lead with so much zeal he face- and shoulder-planted directly into the frosty ground when he reached the end of it. Not to worry, he said, bouncing up and sprinting back again, play gesturing right and left, running in tight circles around me before we continued on our way.

Naps are important, too.
Naps are important, too.

Home again, Scout retreated to the safety of his quiet demeanor, his Boo Radley-like shy ways, but the jig is up: now I know what’s coming ultimately, and it is joyous.

Yesterday I felt like making soup, inspired by the season. That got me thinking about a particular soup, one that was handed to me in a pickle jar across the threshold of my erstwhile home in Tennessee. The young woman standing there with two little people peeking around from behind her explained it was still warm, but not too hot to handle. She also handed me a loaf of bread.

A few weeks earlier, in the late summer of 2006 but also the official start of fall term at my small ballet school, she’d enrolled her tiny and beautiful six-year-old daughter, who looked for all the world like a ballerina in the make. The child sprouted goosebumps and shivered at the start of her first-ever ballet class; when I later mentioned this to her mom she explained their small apartment was not air-conditioned, so her children were unaccustomed to refrigerated air—this happens all the time, she reassured me.

We chatted for a long while that day, this sinewy, athletic woman narrating her family’s journey to Knoxville, her background in Outward Bound programs, her husband’s postdoctoral fellowship in medical ethics at the University of Tennessee, conceding that they were only passing through ’til he finished. Eventually we would go on to talk about ballet schools in the Pacific Northwest where they expected to land, in case her daughter decided she wanted to continue her ballet classes.

Turns out we were neighbors. They lived in a groovy little mid-century modern apartment complex in the same historic neighborhood where I lived with my family; but whatever charm that building possessed—a building that housed many other families of their ilk—it lacked in amenities. If nothing else, it was most assuredly affordable, and its location was ideal for university folk.

Not only did we live in the same neighborhood, we lived on the same street separated by just three blocks. Hence the front door soup delivery, a gesture of kindness on an afternoon when I cancelled classes because a virus had left me hacking and coughing and without a teaching voice. This is the soup I always make when one of us gets sick, she explained.

Later when I was sharing the story of this woman’s charity with a mutual friend, she opined, Oh, yes: she is wonderful, and she really knows how to stretch a dollar. The memory of that remark has nudged me through the worst of times, evoking a skill my own mom fostered in me during some thin years growing up under her roof.

Three Dollar Chicken
Three Dollar Chicken

HCB and I have practiced dollar stretching, doing without extras, making things work these last four years. He put a three-dollar chicken in the oven yesterday morning; some of the meat would go into the soup I planned to make later in the day, the rest into the fridge. The carcass would serve as the foundation for made-from-scratch stock which boiled down on the stove all day yesterday, encouraging a certain dog to wander around with his nose pointed skyward—that, and the tender bits of just-roasted chicken he was hand fed earlier, still hopeful for manna from heaven. (Life is indeed good.)

I know there be chicken.
I know there be chicken.

The stock would become soup together with whole coconut milk, fresh lime juice, red pepper flakes, cilantro, green  onion, and seasoning: precisely the same soup a huge-hearted mother of two handed me on a summer’s day ten years ago in Knoxville, called again into service on a winter’s day in Vermont, and for pennies. Dollar stretched, check.

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And then there was stock.
Almost souped.
Almost souped.

The magical recipe, a blessing in disguise, is scrawled on a small index card in a frugal mom’s hand, held fast to the door of our fridge by magnet, dog-eared and stained. In short, the soup is amazing. Every time I make it I think of that family and I swear I still feel the love. Hope they are doing well, wherever they are.

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Hope and the Human Spirit: Postcard from Home

Hope and the Human Spirit: Postcard from Home
Market Square in Knoxville, TN, circa 1910

Knoxville’s downtown Market Square once held an imposing masonry building that served as a center for thriving commerce, including a beloved farmer’s market that purveyed meat, poultry, dairy, produce, and flowers trucked in from the city’s rural outskirts. A 14-year-old boy set it ablaze lighting a cigarette in the late 1950s, goes the story, gutting most of the building and sparking a controversy that would persist ‘til the city finally demolished what remained of it in 1960.

So ended an institution that began in 1854, and which never fully recovered. Sure, the square was revitalized in recent years in the same way so many downtowns have undergone renewal, but the demolition of that building marked the end of an era. Nowadays there’s an outdoor farmer’s market a couple of days a week during the season, set against the backdrop of hipster shops and restaurants that dot the square; for better or worse, life goes on.

There is no formula for grief: everybody grieves uniquely, and that is the truth. I’ve written about it before, how I wiped away the fog from my mirror after horrific losses: family, home, my hard-won business—some of them gone instantly, the rest in a matter of weeks or months. Loss takes no prisoners: it surely knocked the wind out of me, leaving me coughing and sputtering, blue in the face, bent double with my hands on my knees.

After what seemed an eternity I drew in a long breath and stood erect again, but sifting through smoldering ruins for surviving bits found only unpleasant epiphanies to keep me company. Your life has been a train wreck for years, they jeered. Worse still, they continued, you’ve become ugly; there is much work to do, and it’s getting late.

Loss continued to follow me down a new path. It persisted in the shadows behind me for a thousand miles, across time and space, and stubbornly insinuated itself in horrifying ways. What choice does one have, except to soldier on?

And just when I imagined I might not survive, there was hope, in the guise of a beautiful outstretched hand that insisted otherwise. I was more fortunate than most.

How much can the human spirit bear before it’s damaged for good, though? This question has troubled me all week while East Tennessee burned, with stories of unrelenting devastation and human suffering unfolding all around. It’s an epic tragedy long familiar to others, but this time struck close to home: the foothills and mountains where my ancestors settled a century and a half ago—is everything gone now? The kitschy hamlet where my family vacationed in the summers lay in ruins, its citizenry shell-shocked, livelihoods snatched away in minutes, wildlife and livestock wiped out, officials standing dumbfounded before the press to tick off names of the missing and the dead. We will rebuild, they insist while volunteers pour in. I know this refrain, and it is exhausting—the ruins will smolder for a long time, forever for some.

Monumental losses still haunt me like the drone of bagpipes, always there no matter how ardently one wishes to silence them, even in the subconscious: but then life’s melody unfolds on top of the drone, sometimes majestic in its tenor, rich with texture and beauty and joy, and occasionally hope.

Tragedy defies reason always, discriminates never. But every exhausted, beleaguered life in this world needs hope, because the alternative is unthinkable. And life will go on.

Talk to Me, Dammit: A Lamentation

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Disconnected

A wise friend once observed she could live life without ever, or at least rarely, leaving her house if she chose. She could buy groceries and other goods and have them delivered to her, arrange for her car to be serviced, set up play dates for her children, and manage countless other tasks from the privacy and convenience of her home. And for this woman in particular a “shut-in” kind of existence might have held a special appeal: she was mama to young triplets, two girls and a boy. And she was terminally ill.

Her life held so many challenges when I knew her, the logistics of getting everybody where they needed to be—on time and prepared—second only to taking care of herself. Helping her wrangle children and belongings one sunny morning only a couple of days after her routine chemotherapy, I mused what a monumental challenge parenting her brood must be—I don’t know how you do it so seamlessly, I said. Sweeping a gorgeous curly lock from her tired face, she quipped in her endearing deadpan, You’ve gotta have a lot of bags.

I found that so comically reductionist, but it made perfect sense at that moment when we were shuffling towels and children and floaties from our cars to the neighborhood pool for a playdate. Beyond clever life strategies, though, my friend possessed a disposition that eschewed a cloistered life: she longed to be part of a community of people. She made it a point to leave the house and do everything the conventional way, with face-to-face encounters in all our neighborhood venues and beyond. And when she could not leave she brought the community to her home in weekly morning gatherings.

She’s gone now and her children are grown. She made that important observation about community more than a decade ago, when the web had already facilitated so much for so many, and when the emerging smartphone technology was changing how we communicate with each other. In her obituary my friend opined that we’re put on this planet to help each other; when I reflect on her words now, I believe they were prophetic. We pay a heavy toll for crawling inside ourselves and forgetting the real, three-dimensional world all around us. I don’t mean nature, or even the built environment, but the world of people.

Are we losing our ability to talk to each other? My own Millennial grew up with a multitude of devices at his fingertips; they are a fluid extension of him. But there are times I want to reach through the ether, grab him by the collar, and shake the stew out of him. In our almost-daily video chats, despite the magical technology that truncates the thousand miles separating us to two feet, there is sometimes more dead air time than talk. While the line is open he simultaneously texts or messages friends (and even people he does not know) from various platforms; sometimes he says “hang on,” other times he engages without telling me, so I’m confused as to whom he is speaking at that moment. Once in a while I hand him some tough love: I’ll hang up and you can call me back when you’re ready to talk to me <click>. That feels so mom-ish and old fashioned, but still: I can’t imagine indulging him this way helps him develop the skills he needs to become a responsible adult, a road he’s still navigating. Or maybe it does; maybe the mere “presence” of his mom means as much to him now as it did when he was a child, even if there is no meaningful exchange of ideas.

Still, it’s a disquieting habit. I helped raise this kid and therefore presumably own it, along with his dad. He represents others of his ilk, a generation for whom the communication game has changed, and the rules are no longer recognizable, at least not to me. Being brushed off by someone less familiar to you than a member of your own family, when they owed you at least a modicum of decorum or civility but failed to disengage from a piece of hardware, is more difficult to wave off; these people feel damaged to me.

But I also wonder whether our fantastic modern devices are damaging the rest of us, who were not born wearing earbuds. Handsome Chef Boyfriend and I recently observed another couple at a local eatery who were each buried in a device for nearly their entire meal. They did not speak, coming up for air only long enough to shovel down bites of food, then turning back to whatever important thing held their rapt attention. We grinned and shook our heads.

I admit to drinking the Kool-Aid, too, as a compulsive user of small electronics. And I produce digital marketing content for a living, working in an industry that has grown up around this technology and helped shape it: you could say I’m part of the problem on a global scale. But our devices are intoxicating: they deliver the world to us in the palm of our hand. Who can resist that Siren? And paradoxically they’ve disconnected us, I think. To be sure, there are times when that is the better alternative—in a crowded doctor’s waiting room or on a jetliner, for example, when the need to create a barrier is important and real. On more than one occasion I’ve buried myself in a device to avoid an encounter with an undesirable; a book would have stepped up to the plate years ago, still a willing companion from time to time when you remembered to bring it. The phone, though, is small, powerful, and it’s always there. And when you live in the middle of nowhere as I have in recent years, it can actually help you feel connected, that is assuming you can find a signal.

Our devices make us feel evolved, but I question that condition when they appear to isolate us from each other instead of drawing us together. Look at me when I’m talking to you, your mom once insisted. Wouldn’t it be something if this one familiar refrain, forgotten in some circles, may finally be so important it saves us as a species? After all, maybe we really were put here to help each other.

Tail of the Dog, in Which Warden Prepares to Play the Wrong Piano Concerto

This was not what I had on my calendar for this date.
This was not what I had on my calendar for this date.

In 1999 the Portuguese virtuosa Maria Joao Pires famously sat at the piano with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, conductor Riccardo Chailly  at the podiumawaiting the first bar of the piano concerto she expected to play for this lunchtime concert. Imagine her surprise when the orchestra began playing a different piece of music—the Mozart Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor—instead of what she had come prepared to play. That moment is captured on video, the sick feeling in her gut written all over her face, which she places in the palm of her hand as the reality of this horrible epiphany slowly unfolds before a crowd of expectant concertgoers. There are only a couple of minutes of music before the piano begins. As the concerto continues, Chailly surmises what has happened, there is an exchange between the two of them, she insists she had something else in her calendar, she is not sure she can do this without preparation. There are a few reassuring words from Chailly, as he continues to move his baton without missing a beat, a smile on his face: the proverbial band plays on.

I can only guess this must be akin to how Warden felt this week in his new digs: surprise! We are the wrong people in the wrong house, these new rules and routines are wrong, wrong, wrong: this bowl is unfamiliar, this collar, this leash—a leash!—nothing is right.

warden-at-the-park-2

Meanwhile, we’ve smiled and continued to move the baton to the time signature of life in this family. And how has Warden responded to this? Like a boss, that’s how.

The last week has been one of discovery for Warden and for us (living with a dog is in my muscle memory but unpracticed; it is awakening now with lighting speed). Warden regarded us with suspicion in the beginning, most especially one adolescent human who is a part-timer here. This is not just about displacement, I think, but is a character trait of the breed: shepherds are discriminating. Now at the start of our second week together I think I can fairly say he has imprinted on me, regards the tall chef with equal parts affection and suspicion (although hand-fed pieces of succulent baked chicken and beautifully seared salmon must be considered in this assessment). We’ll see how things go with the adolescent later today.

Mother Nature has not been especially helpful in this trial-by-fire week: first time since I’ve lived in Vermont we’ve had snowfall in October, only here in the valley-ish area where we live it was more of an icy, bone-chilling mess with high winds thrown in for good measure. Did we shrink from this hellish weather? Heck no. Warden discovered the neighborhood park with me this week on a day that left us soaked through and muddy, ditto the back seat of the Subi; second time around it was not so awful outside.

warden-at-the-park-1

And yesterday we had a bigger adventure at this place, which is a bit further afield from home, but happens to be very close to work, where I expect Warden will go with me most days eventually. (Baby steps.) So there was a lot of trust building and plenty of fun to be had yesterday, with one tired dog and a couple of worn-out humans at the end of it all. Warden is champing at the bit to play off-leash; for now he will remain tethered, and stay that way ’til we know beyond the shadow of a doubt the trust is firmly established.

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Brush Burning Against Beautiful Vista at Mile-Around Woods

playful_warden_mile_around_woods

warden_david_running_mile_around_woods

warden_head_tilt_mile_around_woods
You-Need-To-Catch-Up Head Tilt

There was adventure to be had at home this week, too. Fun fact about this tiny house: there are skylights.

Sky Lights Up There
Huh.

Who knew? Also, it is possible to lock yourself in the bathroom without opposable thumbs; the best time to do this is right after ralphing up kibble eaten with too much gusto, and whilst HCB is phoning to announce he is stuck in an October snow storm behind several disabled vehicles on the mountain between the bakery and home. (I explained I had to go because the dog was locked in the bathroom and there was a pile of vomit on the floor, sorry you’re stuck on the mountain—good luck with that.) And also the basement is questionable; best to bark at it occasionally for good measure, which you can do conveniently whilst slurping and dribbling.

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Basement, i vous considère.

I think it is fair to say we had a good first week together. It ended peacefully, and last night, as Warden snuggled on the sofa between the two humans, this happened:

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The Chef is okay.

As for Ms. Pires, she played that concerto bumper to bumper without missing a note, the consummate professional. I’ve had the great privilege of hearing the Concertgebouw Orchestra live in concert—I’m such a huge fan I frankly would not care about unrehearsed Mozart or muffed notes. I’m also a huge fan of Warden-the-Shepherd. Here’s a short clip of that Pires concert, with some narrative by Maestro Chailly; he is talking about the Mozart, and about Pires, but may as well be talking about us. Take a peek at 2:48—it is the perfect musical metaphor for Warden’s quiet start to life in his new family.