I don’t know what frustrates me more about writing—struggling to start or struggling to finish. Maybe it’s all that floundering in the murky middle.
I’ve been proofreading a book about teaching middle and high school students to write. The advice therein for students with writer’s block provides little solace and no end of entertainment for me. That said, here I am typing away. At last! A topic! It took me twenty-eight minutes to get creaking along on this trajectory after three false starts in completely different directions: one about missing my kids, one about lies I’ve told them, and one about the sound of snowfall. Each of those ideas petered out before I had two complete sentences.
Now look: I am actually writing about not being able to write. (stops. has a few swigs of coffee and readjusts the seating situation.) (Googles genetic splicing for a story that refuses to be finished, then watches a fascinating YouTube video about CRISPR.) (sits and stares at screen. has more coffee.)
One suggestion for writer’s block is to use a thesaurus. Has the author tried this? (types several unfriendly comments about this advice. erases them.) (sits and swigs coffee.) (recalls a sixth grade writing assignment, for which the thesaurus was a major crutch. shudders at the misguided use of the word “prestidigitator” and so many other poor choices. remembers the severe scolding received in the margins.)
Perhaps the problem is that I am looking for ideas about character motivation—or an actual plot—not for words. I love words. I can think about words all day. Case in point: crestfallen. Is that not the most poetic term? (looks it up.) I have always assumed that it simply meant disappointed, but turns out it includes an element of shame. News to me. (looks around in the Os with no purpose. just likes Os.) There’s odoriferous, which not only is a delight to say aloud, but also can be used to mean morally offensive. That could come in handy. (thinks about people and things that would like to call odoriferous.)
I’m old school, so in addition to online resources, I have the eleventh edition of Merriam-Webster’s next to me at all times. We are good friends. Merriam often opens to the page with “chowderhead” at the top left, just to bait me. True. This has happened at least twenty-five times. She reminds me that there is such a thing as “couch grass” and “funk hole;” that cats can be “fubsy.” We laugh a lot about these sorts of things. Imagine if someone like me also had a thesaurus sitting by my side. I would never get around to writing!
(sips lukewarm coffee. stares at screen.) (looks at meme about pronouncing certain words as if they were the names of Greek heroes: Articles. Tentacles. Barnacles.)
But the one suggestion on the list that I keep coming back to is this: Lower your expectations.
I’m still digesting that one.
That advice is so terrible, it is genius. So wrong and so right at the same time.
My expectation, unfortunately, is that I will not finish this.
Remember last Saturday? Back when we were seriously concerned, but could still buy pasta and milk at the supermarket? Back then, I was relatively unfazed.
On March 14, a blanket of toxic fog erupted from all sides of our decrepit station wagon, and the world around me disappeared. I steered toward what I hoped was the side of the road to call the spouse. “The wagon died,” I said, in exactly the same way I would have said, “It’s March fourteenth,” or “We need more broccoli.”
Back then, I was still in shock.
I’d already had the kids home for over a week, and though I knew I’d have them home for three more, that seemed doable.
“Maybe we can have a quiet little spring break in Tahoe,” I thought. But then we were ordered to “shelter in place.”
“Now I’ll have plenty of time to find more work,” I thought. And then the economy tanked.
“Okay. This is a great opportunity to reconnect as a family,” I thought. But then the governor announced that schools may remainclosed through the summer—which seems less like reconnecting and more like the tenth circle of hell.
“All right. I can catch up on some house projects I’ve been avoiding, like staining the handrail to the basement…” By that point, I’d downgraded from Hopeful to Resigned, but I was still looking for silver linings. “Maybe we can find some cool art or yoga online…or something.”
BUT THEN, THE WASHING MACHINE BROKE DOWN.
Though embarrassing to admit, that’s the moment when the enormity of the current public health crisis hit me full force. While I’ve been following the news and the new rules, I’ve been operating as if I were gathering information for an ethnographic study: “Wow. Look at how people are behaving during this moment of historical significance.” It just didn’t feel real.
But now? Now I’d like to curl up in a corner and sob into a gigantic glass of wine. Someone please crank up my dosage of memes, adorable animals, and McSweeney’s.
*Thanks to Ellen Schatz for the post title and for being smart and funny even while the world is falling apart.
Have you ever spent all morning cleaning the house and gotten very hungry all of a sudden, and started craving those Trader Joe’s cauliflower pancakes you had in the freezer, but ALSO in the freezer was an overenthusiastic ice maker, which spewed ice over the kitchen floor whenever you opened it, and then, when you closed it and went into the fridge for another tasty and necessary item, you stepped on a piece of ice and started to slip, so you reached down to pick it up, and the fridge attacked you with GUSTO, and the collision it had with your shoulder dislodged the shelving on the side of the fridge door, and everything heavy and full and glass fell and shattered on the kitchen tiles, including that GIGANTIC bottle of gluten-free tamari sauce you bought because it was so much cheaper to buy that way, and then had to spend the next hour trying to mop it all up without cutting yourself too badly, and that damn soy sauce was everywhere. and THEN you remembered how you made this new year’s resolution that when you caught yourself having negative thoughts, you should say, “And this is good because—?” and found yourself thinking, “This is good because now I can feel a little bit sorry for myself without feeling ashamed?” I have.
As a die-hard cat person, I was surprised and confused to find myself adopting a dog. Not just any dog, mind you: an adult rescue dog with junkyard genes and a sordid past. How did this happen? Granted, there had been ten years of ceaseless begging, topped off with a couple of family crises, a PowerPoint presentation by household teens, and a stream of seemingly sincere promises to love, walk, and care for said canine.
But somehow Millie and I have successfully co-existed for an entire calendar year. Proof: we are both still alive. Millie still rolls in dirt and dead things. She still scares the bejeezus out of the UPS guy. She’s been kicked out of dog parks and behavior classes and boarding. Though we’ve made a little progress, I don’t have any successful training tips to share. All I can offer is a little help navigating expectations during the first year of adoption.
What follows is a sneak peek from my upcoming imaginary book: Why This Past Year Felt Like Seven.
Chapter One: The Honeymoon
What a pleasure to be greeted at the door with tail wags instead of the eye rolls and requests for money to which I’ve grown accustomed. For forty-eight hours straight, I was promoted from uber-driving ATM into a beloved human comrade.
Chapter Two: Grieving the Dog You Thought You Had
Rescue dogs know just how to act in order to get adopted. Then—once you and your progeny are completely besotted—many, many other facets of the dog’s vivid personality become apparent. Diarrhea, destruction, and unexplained maniacal barking ensue.
Chapter Three: The Mighty, Mighty Prey Drive
Bad news. Prey drive is a thing. The first time the new pet met the incumbent, the cat’s hindquarters wound up in the dog’s jaws in three second flat. Millie would not, could not let go. Our beleaguered Elsie endures, but she is quarantined in the basement for eternity. If and when the two beasts catch sight of each other in the yard, I end up on a rickety ladder, begging and lurching precariously in the treetops for the neighbors’ entertainment.
Chapter Four: When and Where to Walk Your Barmy Dog
Short answer: at night, wherever mortals fear to tread. The good news is, those lurky back alleys don’t seem so intimidating when you’re walking Cujo. To prevent shoulder dislocation, keep constant vigilance for the following: brooms, hoodies, hats, men, garage doors, shadows, ominous-looking recycling bins, and the existence of all other mammals. Be especially wary of the quadruple threat: mammals wearing hoodies while sweeping the garage. Helpful tools: two fingers of scotch for post-walk therapy.
Chapter Five: Predatory Drift, or Why Your Dog Should Never, Ever Play with Snack-Sized Dogs Named Doris
Doris lived—and nobody sued—but our dog’s name and photo were shared amongst dog walkers and owners. Millie was a community pariah for the majority of the past year.
Me too, for that matter.
Chapter Six: Welcome to the World.
Having a dog like Millie means getting to know the city from new perspectives. Where are the best places to find poop and gophers? What’s under those dumpsters behind the grocery store? Do squirrels scream? (Yes. Yes, they do.) Bonus! Get up close and personal with raccoons, skunks, a dead seal, half a rabbit. It’s like living on the friggin’ nature channel.
Surprise upside: Since I can’t sip lattes and tootle around the neighborhood like a normal dog owner, my hiking boots are in heavy rotation. During the past twelve months, I’ve walked well over 1,200 miles in some of the most beautiful places in the Bay Area: parks, woods, canyons, beaches.
Plus dark alleys. Don’t forget dark alleys.
Chapter Seven: Sleep, or The Lack Thereof.
The plan was to crate the dog at night. I won’t bore you with the details surrounding the rapid demise of my principles. Suffice it to say that after a number of unforeseen circumstances, Millie wound up crying outside our bedroom door until I caved in.
Now imagine sleeping with a fifty-five-pound starfish who hogs the covers and insists on pushing against a human in all five directions.
On the bright side, unlike the majority of household residents, Millie is a morning creature. The moment I open my eyes, her tail starts thumping against that pillow she stole out from under my head. Such behavior stands in marked contrast to customary morning greetings from household teens.
Chapter Eight: Dances with Coyotes
Guess who wins? On her first run-in, Millie got a bite on the ass and—despite my attempts to convince her otherwise—went back for seconds. Since then, I’ve lost count of our coyote encounters, but luckily only the first rendezvous required a trip to the vet. Side note: it doesn’t hurt to carry bits of steak in your pocket and clear the waiting room of all mammals—especially those who look litigious.
Chapter Nine: Hot Spots: Dogs Who Self-Harm
That’s right. Crazy dogs can fixate on all sorts of behaviors: not only lunging, barking, and digging, but also fussing, licking, and nibbling on themselves until they need medical attention. Whoops. Should have hung onto that cone after the coyote wounds healed.
Chapter Ten: Less is More.
Besides your cat, your time, and your bed, you may need to give up your social life in order to accommodate a rescue dog’s special needs. We learned the hard way—after Millie cornered a thirteen-year-old boy, bit a hole in a man’s shorts, and caused multiple guests to flee through the basement window. We’re slow learners, I guess. Apologies if you visited before we knew better.
Chapter Eleven: Those Oddly Charming Behaviors May Indicate Medical Issues
It seems obvious now, but dogs don’t usually combat crawl around the house. And yes, they can get poison oak. Which reminds me…
Chapter Twelve: Advanced Lessons in Poison Oak: Swabbing Your Weeping Rash While Driving, Sleeping, and Cooking
Once Millie moved in, I started sporting a little poison oak at all times. Since we’re constantly out in nature, I suppose that’s no big surprise, and usually a little Tecnu does the trick. But recently I got a doozy of a rash that swelled and oozed through mountains of laundry. This rash required medical attention as well as some interesting fashion decisions. For the home office, I wore hoodies sideways, with the “bad” arm—i.e., the one swollen to thigh-size—zipped out the neck hole. If I had to leave the house, I wrapped my arm in a towel with binder clips, and brought spare towels to swap out when the previous one was soaked through. My advice: get whatever pharmaceuticals your doctor is willing to prescribe.
Epilogue. Why She Still Lives with Us
Excellent question. With all of the crazed barking, I’m having trouble formulating a coherent answer. Still, there are a few benefits of having a dog that come to my muddled mind.
For starters, no one could possibly break into our house and survive.
I’ve gotten to the beaches, trails, and forests more in the past year than in the past twenty combined.
The cat is a lot more sociable now that she is half neglected.
Even on the 366th day, a Millie greeting is pretty spectacular. It’s like getting a standing ovation every time I come in the door.
Besides, it’s hard to hold a grudge when she is just sitting there looking adorable.
I asked you once, twice, maybe a hundred times to teach me how to skip stones because—like the stick shift and softball and butterfly stroke—I never seemed to master the stance and feel, the order and ease with which you unfurl your hand and let it fly, each and every time erecting a bridge from here to halfway across the Pacific, yet no matter how patiently you loop your arms behind me and coach my grip, swinging my limbs just so, my stones fall from the sky like rocks.
I miss being able to be sick. Not being sick; that’s different. I get sick all the time.
But as a child, I could lie in bed all day while someone brought me soup, ginger ale, and Vick’s VapoRub. If home alone, I’d make a nest of afghans and crunch through long tubes of Saltines while watching the channel of my choice. As the youngest, that was a rare and relished opportunity. I could read books, write in a journal, or just lie there, thinking and dreaming. I do occasionally lie around and think as an adult, but only in the middle of the night–accompanied by the cold sweats.
These days, there is no binge-watching of Law & Order. Being sick means doing the usual crap while feeling terrible. It involves large quantities of DayQuil or ibuprofen–whatever might mask the problem at hand. It involves staring helplessly at the computer monitor, willing it to make sense to my throbbing medicine head, praying that my fingers are typing a grant proposal and not a cry for help. It includes packing lunches, grocery shopping, and–worst of all–driving carpools while pretending to be goddamned cheerful. Plus, maybe the teeniest, tiniest nugget of growing resentment.
Two days before the end of my vacation last year, I tore a calf muscle frolicking on the beach. I felt it snap as I jumped off a rock–realizing before I landed that my future held frozen peas and painkillers instead of the planned hikes and swimming. Here’s where we were:
But instead of enjoying the trip of a lifetime, I hobbled painfully through a blur of family obligations and endless airports, ecstatically relieved when we arrived home. I had forgotten that a relaxed convalescence was out of the question.
To add to the adventure, the kids started vomiting as soon as we got home, for which I blame the flight from Auckland. Unable to walk, I crawled up and down two flights of stairs, fetching rags and cleaners, cursing the fact that we had moved the laundry from the entry closet into the basement. You read that right: crawling.
I escaped briefly to a meeting, but returned soon with urgency. Grabbing a bucket and crawling up the stairs, I held my hair back and waited for the inevitable. Meanwhile, Miss 13 needed some attention. Her first day back at school had been tumultuous; she needed to debrief and hear some empathetic mom-isms.
Unable to hear over my own dry heaves, I had to keep asking her to repeat herself, and due to the aforementioned injury, I couldn’t kneel. I struggled to find a position which allowed me to hang properly over the side of the bucket while pretending to listen. I didn’t want to throw my back out while throwing up–again. This was absurd. Can’t I even focus on my own needs under these circumstances? But the girl did not stop talking until steaming jets flared repeatedly, at which point she just looked annoyed before retreating to her room in a huff.
Though my heart will break when my girls head to college–and though I will mourn their departure like the end of the world–I will embrace ordinary illness as a long-lost friend. I will take to the couch with a remote and a relish unseen since falling in love.
Nestled between a bout of off-season flu and an eight-day existential crisis, the scheduling gods aligned for one foggy day of freedom. I decided to spend it weaving amongst the clumps of rancid porta-potties and artisanal taco trucks we call a music festival.
Defying all common sense, I brought my 12-year-old along for the ride. My stomach bucked and bobbed along the snaking entrance lines, wondering at my foolishness. At last propelled through the narrow nozzle of security, my bladder was already at maximum capacity, my bag dragging at one shoulder to counterbalance forty pounds of water and snacks. Must. Not. Complain. My job was to have a friggin’ awesome time, and to make sure it was contagious. Otherwise, why were we here?
As expected, the park was chock full of twenty-nine-year-olds—the “new nineteen!”— popping molly and strolling in white spa robes, or dressed as Super Mario, or waving totems plastered with Bill Murray’s face. I looked at my own ensemble of ripped jeans, Vans, and flannel. What a bunch of overgrown children, I thought, eyeing my sensitive child anxiously and forcing a weak smile.
But Miss Twelve grabbed my hand and plowed into great clouds of marijuana, into 50,000 fans abuzz with bass and adrenaline, bumping and dragging me until the warm bodies became an impenetrable wall. There in the epicenter, one could sing along at full volume, shout and laugh and pogo with abandon, all without attracting attention or judgement. So we did.
At one point, half a dozen strangers hoisted a man in a wheelchair over their heads. He sang too, arms afloat, head thrown back, silhouetted by a blanket of bright fog. The crowd was delirious.
From punk-hip hop to jungle house to indie folk, throngs throbbed and bore us six miles back and forth through the urban forest, laced and lit with a thousand colored lights. Bare limbs stretched like Dementors’ arms, now bright pink, now glowing green. Spotlights pierced the fog, rays of rock band sun, and music shuddered through the shadows to reach our ringing ears, even as we stood in line for $6 gluten-free cupcakes. And for eight hours straight, there was no middle school drama, no teenage drinking, no job search, no overdue bills.
On the bus home, Miss Twelve asked, “Wouldn’t it be great if Outside Lands was every day?”
It has been three years since I wandered the hospital hallways, watching medical personnel fill out paperwork and answer calls, carrying on as if nothing had happened.
It is also one day short of another sort of anniversary: the discovery of a betrayal that left me so raw, I forgot to serve cupcakes for my youngest’s birthday. When I finally arrived–red and swollen–her teacher asked, “What happened to you?” There were no words.
Today is the anniversary of an anxiety attack I had while hosting the same child’s party several years later. To avoid making a scene, I hid in my closet as the guests arrived, giggling, downstairs—until I hyperventilated and passed out on top of my shoes.
I have witnessed life begin and end, graduated several times, ruined a relationship, lost a couple of pets and a friend. Even in years when nothing of much importance happens, early May is a time when issues of mortality, trust, achievement, love, and the great unknown hog pile me until I cry, “uncle.” It’s when my crust is thinnest.
For some reason–the gift of repression?–I’m blindsided each and every year. You’d think I’d have the foresight to write it on the calendar or something—though, what to call it?
This morning, the first thing I encountered was a short story which began: “I call my mom once a year, on the day she died.”
And that’s when I remembered–all at once, mid-way through my daily decaf. Life is short, people we love come, go, and disappoint, jobs are lost, goals may or may not be achieved. Somehow, it is possible to carry on despite this knowledge; that is what makes the sweet moments so very sweet, and the milestones achieved so precious. In the meantime, I will hold my loved ones close, listen more attentively, and stop worrying about things like jobs and dishes.
1:17 pm: “Despair.” With freedom still 118 minutes away, I looked longingly at the jellyfish in their watery castle. Nothing would have given me greater joy than to watch them float for the remainder of the afternoon. It behooved me to focus on the task at hand, however: herding hormonal preteens through the gift shop while keeping all breaking, licking, and stealing to a minimum.
I’ll start at the beginning.
9:00 – 10:30 am: “Mutual Tolerance.” To be honest, the first hour or two had not been terrible; everybody was reasonably focused and amenable back then. Students swarmed the exhibition halls, copying each other’s answers to worksheet questions while I relentlessly counted heads. Long ago, when I brought my kids here on a regular basis, I let the youngest wear her tap shoes. That way I could hear her footsteps and snag her before she disappeared into the kaleidoscopic crowds. But these kids were my size, with long legs and All-Stars and limited impulse control, so I wrangled to the best of my abilities.
10:45 am: “Loss.” Unable to locate either of the teachers or even the vast majority of the other students from our school, I was forced to swallow my pride and ask for assistance from museum personnel. They raised eyebrows in disdainful bewilderment, spoke agitatedly into headsets, and filed us in front of a packed auditorium–to the embarrassment of all currently in my charge. Note: Middle schoolers do not like to be embarrassed.
11:00 am: “Reprieve.” In the Planetarium, most of the tough kids dozed off, which was a nice turn of events. I guess it’s tiring to ride that pubescent roller coaster all day. Given a moment to relax and gather my thoughts, I might have gotten a few winks myself. Let’s call it meditating.
When I did manage to pay attention, I heard myself guffawing at the docent’s terrible jokes. How disappointing. What happens to humans when we reach middle age, anyway? And why isn’t there an exhibit at the Academy of Sciences that explains mid-life mysteries such as: how we hurt ourselves sleeping, or why pants become unbearably tight by 4 pm?
12:04 – 12:26 pm: “Lunch.” We desperately needed an airing out, but rain was dumping relentlessly. We sprawled on the floor of the cafeteria, where the noise level hovered around an impressive 140 decibels. I tried to keep the food fights to a minimum; failing that, pretended not to notice. Kids stole each other’s Cheetos, spilled a variety of contraband, and “group-chatted” with friends back at school, hooting and snorting until half-chewed food bits plastered their phones and friends. Several skirmishes were doused, and all cursing was ignored. Note: teachers occasionally adopt a Stepford Wife-type expression, perhaps because death and/or a partial frontal-lobotomy is necessary to avoid feeling pain in these circumstances. I adopted the same approach. It beats yelling.
12:46 pm: “Detonation.” All hell broke loose once we hit the touch pool. Due to some comment or action too small for the adult seismograph, Mia and Carmen were no longer speaking, so the other girls allied themselves accordingly. I had to choose: force all sides of the conflict to stay together and risk a full-on fight? Or give the aggrieved parties enough room to avoid bloodshed? Since only a few kids could torment sea stars at a time, I let my cranky quorum dissolve into disparate, dark caverns of tanks. I was lucky to know where five or six of them were at any given moment. The phones were out in force by then, no doubt broadcasting their social war to the larger middle school arena. I pretended not to notice—mostly so I could check my own and count the minutes to freedom.
2:10 – 2:29: “Education.” In the African Hall, I tried in vain to interest them in a replica of Lucy (the oldest human ancestor to walk upright) or in the adorable penguins that swam and pooped and watched the Nature Channel at the far end of the room. Instead, students gravitated to the diorama of stuffed dik-diks, doubling over as they read the explanatory signage loudly and repeatedly—a sign titled, “Dikdik Details,” and containing other unfortunate words and phrases such as: “sticky fluid.” Never mind that the fluid in question was produced by their under-eye glands. Hey, science experts! Couldn’t we have called this eye fluid tears, so that eleven-year-old boys might refrain from dry humping the nearby benches?
Oh, well. At least everyone temporarily forgot about World War III.
Note: the Dikdik is named for the alarm call it makes by blowing air through its nasal passages–often while lurching in a zig-zag pattern. I’m surprised they weren’t named “Drunken Idiots” or “Tween Boys.”
Another note: the Blue-Footed Booby is not on display at the Academy. I’d say I dodged a bullet there.
2:40 – 3:15 pm: “The Reemergence of Hope.” The schlep back to school was remarkably uneventful despite:
*a twenty-minute walk in the pouring rain
*100 wet, overstimulated sixth graders crammed onto a single city bus, and
*the fact that adults were outnumbered 25:1.
One of the teachers commented that this was a “great group of students” and that they were a “welcome relief” after last year’s cohort. I managed to maintain my new Stepford Wife expression while making a mental note not to volunteer for anything involving the current 7th graders.
3:15 pm and onward: “Dénouement.” I rewarded myself with vending machine coffee in a Styrofoam cup…and a big fat glass of wine with dinner.
What I learned: kids are great, but two is plenty. Also, we can’t possibly afford to pay our middle school teachers what they deserve.