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.
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.
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?”
I’ve had cats for most of my life–all short-haired, lithe creatures with dignity and self-control. I scoffed at other, substandard cats: the ones who binged and barfed, destroyed the furniture, and peed in the corner.
Then came Elsie.
At first she played endless games of fetch and slept on my neck like a tiny scarf. Such charm! Such genius! Once again, I felt pretty smug. Elsie had long hair, which which she deposited generously, and she developed odd habits that made me question her IQ–why would a black cat sleep on the floor right beside my bed, even after being stepped on thirty or forty nights in a row? I’m half-blind with a miniature bladder, and she’s nearly invisible in the dark. Think, cat, think! But then she’d bring her toys and purr in my ear, and all doubt would subside.
Now that her fetch days are over, however, I struggle to entice her with catnip mice, yarn, or even the laser pointer–a toy supposedly irresistible to our feline friends. If I’m lucky, Elsie will drag herself half a yard across the living room rug before flopping in a heap. She still sprawls on my head at night, though, kneading and purring, while dumping her ass-end on the spouse’s pillow. This explains his difficulty sleeping and my recent trips to the chiropractor.
“When did you trade your adorable cat for a giant mop?” a friend asked. A reasonable question, but I don’t really know. It must have happened infinitesimally slowly, in the midst of the chaos and clutter of daily life. We did nothing different with this one: topping up the kibble, checking the litter, letting her in and out ad nauseum. Isn’t that all you need to do with cats?
Recently, I woke in terror as an intruder ascended the stairs. “Calm down,” my bleary-eyed spouse advised. “I set the alarm; no one’s in the house.” Unconvinced, I went to investigate, but all I could find in the shaky circle of my flashlight was my beloved fur turkey. What was happening here? It took half an hour to get my heart rate down and admit that my cat made the stairs creak. Considering Carl Sandburg’s poetic line: “the fog comes on little cat feet,” it was time to do something about my corpulent pal. As a Bay Area resident, I’ve seen the fog roll in a bazillion times, and it never makes a ruckus.
Since Elsie’s unable to reach around her belly to groom herself properly, she has also developed a case of back dandruff and a small mat near her tail. I’ve tried to help. I now own a variety of supposedly life-changing tools—all with names like “The Furminator” and “The Unhairing”–but the only brushing Elsie will tolerate without retribution is on her cheeks. This doesn’t solve any of her developing issues, but man, oh man, are her sideburns soft and sleek.
As her mat grew and multiplied, I began to consider professional grooming services, which felt like some sort of personal failure. After all, I cut my kids’ hair—always have—and only recently graduated from Supercuts myself. How could I drop that kind of cash on a cat, especially since they’re supposed to groom themselves?
To make matters worse, the cat carrier scares the crap out of Elsie. Literally. Ever tried to remove diarrhea from the long fur of a pissy cat? I wasn’t about to shell out for a kitty day spa, only to arrive home with a fecal-crusted ball of claws. Not only did I need a groomer, then, I needed one to magically appear at my doorstep. Too ashamed to ask for recommendations, I rooted around on Yelp.
Apparently magic entails a lot of paperwork. After filling out four pages of disclaimers and waivers–basically assuring the legal team that I would pay for every scratch and tear my pet might inflict–I started to panic. Elsie’s not a fan of strangers, or being held, or grooming, or anything besides eating and hopping on my head in the middle of the night. But what choice did I have? So I continued. I answered all sorts of logistical questions and personal queries and checked a litany of boxes: dry shampoo, thank you very much. I’ve seen what a terror my cat is when she gets wet. Yes, yes. A thorough brushing. Nail clipping. Booty buzz. Extra fees for mats. Dang. This was adding up like a weekend in Napa.
Nine days later, help arrived in what looked like a Frito-Lay truck. Let’s call her Agatha. Agatha was friendly and fierce, with big, brawny arms. Immediately at ease, I handed Elsie over. “Please remove your cat’s claws from my flesh,” Agatha said calmly. She was so calm, in fact, that I thought I had misheard. Next, we reenacted an episode of the Three Stooges before prying my pal off because–let’s face it–Elsie has four paws, and I’ve only got two hands. She proceeded to glue herself to the exam table like a starfish. “Ah,” said Agatha. “The pancake defense.”
Agatha took this moment of paralysis to lecture extensively about reading food labels and calculating the proper caloric content for a cat of this stature. “Even an extra ¼ cup of kibble a day could have caused this,” she said sternly, pointing to Elsie’s swollen torso. She introduced me to the concept of “puzzle feeders,” devices designed to make my cat exercise in order to get her food, and gave me a pep talk about pet health and happiness. She advised me to start setting aside $2,000 for a deep dental cleaning when Elsie turns 10.
Then she went to work. Agatha was not a pushover like me; she gave Elsie a brushing to remember. “I call it ‘making kittens,” Agatha explained, “because there’s a ball of fur big enough to make another cat.” This was no exaggeration. “Look at all that fur you won’t have to eat today,” she said to an aggrieved Elsie, as the hairy mountain continued to grow. She brushed with the fur and against it. She hauled the cat up and brushed her belly, her legs, her tail, her hindquarters. “You need to check her lady parts frequently for foxtails,” she advised.
I’m pretty sure I’ll repress that advice—just like the vet’s recommendation to brush my cat’s teeth.
Agatha clipped claws, removed all mats, and shaved the butt of my yowling cat, even managing to fasten a purple bow-tie around her neck. Elsie looked great—maybe even a few pounds lighter—but she was mad as hell.
I tipped Agatha extremely well. I couldn’t have made kittens without losing a limb.
These days I’m brushing Elsie more regularly–on more than just the cheeks–as well as feeding her more conscientiously. She’s still quite large, but I’m not worried. I’ve got Agatha’s number, so help is just a paycheck away.
As I may have mentioned before, I do a boatload of driving.
In fact, I drive up and over one particular hill at least six times every day. Let’s not explore the reasons why. Suffice it to say that having two children in schools on opposite ends of the city can make a person do ridiculous things.
Over the past six months, I’ve developed a habit of pulling over and parking at the top of the hill. Maybe I’d feel a little embarrassed if it didn’t feel so dad-gum therapeutic.
It’s not the most spectacular view of San Francisco, but the sky is constantly changing there–like moods. I am always surprised by what I see.
Sometimes the clouds split and a ribbon of light rips across the horizon.
Sometimes I can see it raining one place, sunny in another.
And sometimes–like this morning–the hill is adrift in fog and I see nothing at all. I always look for a while anyway.
I might comb my hair or clean out my purse. I might eat breakfast, read a few pages, or listen to the inane commentary of morning talk shows.
Often I close my eyes and take ten breaths.
The neighbors must wonder about me–though I have taken to setting my alarm for seven minutes, so I don’t wallow indefinitely–but for that tiny envelope of time, there is nothing but the sky and me. It is strangely satisfying.
Yesterday I found one of our goldfish in the freezer, nestled between the breakfast sausages and a pint of mocha ice cream. She lay awaiting proper burial: a tiny coffin, a moment of silence, a cozy hole in the yard.
But Piranha has been stuck in purgatory for two or three weeks now, while her surviving compatriot circles the tank and gives me the stink eye.
I briefly consider her stiff corpse–recalling her five-year sentence of dry fish flakes and fake plants–before tossing her regretfully into the compost bin. Here’s hoping she doesn’t haunt me for too long.
Once upon a time, we had a lovely dining room table.
Then, we had a couple of kids.
They stuck their gooey hands all over it. They spilled Campbell’s chicken soup and milk and Elmer’s glue. They pressed into its shiny top with crayons and their fat pencils, carving lurching letters and smiley faces and names and dates and numbers. Granted, there was a piece of paper between the lead point and the table below, but still.
The finish wore off here and there in large, sticky, unappetizing patches. These I pretended not to notice for as long as humanly possible.
Eventually, the kids grew older–old enough to dream of our table from days of yore. For your edification, I here include a glimpse into our household refinishing process.
How to Refinish a Table in 43 Easy Steps:
Think about doing this project for a couple of years.
Realize that the table project would be preferable to fixing a leaky basement or cleaning out the garage.
Drag the gigantic table outside and sand it down to the bare wood.
Drag it back inside.
Think about finding some stain.
Eat sitting on the floor at the coffee table for several weeks.
Apply water-based stain.
Gasp at its hideous appearance.
Drag it outside to sand down again.
Do some research.
Buy a lovely espresso-colored oil-based stain.
Be disappointed in its overall rough and uneven appearance.
Sand it down.
Do more research.
Use mineral spirits in an attempt to remove the former wax finish, which has apparently sequestered deep into the grain.
Decide you can live with the mottled appearance. Decide to call this “character” or “visual interest” rather than “egregious error.”
Apply a high-end polyurethane and cross fingers.
Watch it bubble up like a fourth grade science project.
Sand the crap out of it.
Add a little stain to hide the worst of the bare patches.
Watch it bubble.
Pick out hairs and try not to weep.
Pick out hairs.
Lower expectations further.
Apply fourth and final coat of poly and pray.
Be pleasantly surprised.
Go out for a celebratory glass of wine.
Receive phone call from spouse: fat, hairy, horrible cat has been meandering around on the final, tacky coat of poly.
Consider “doctoring” kitty’s food.
Order another glass of wine instead. And cheese.
Arrive home and view carnage. Worse than imagined.
Realize it’s time to repeat the whole fun-filled cycle.
My mother arrives in a couple of days. I wonder if she will prefer eating on the floor or standing over the kitchen counter?
Recently, I have been wallowing in a little pocket of crankiness that seemed bottomless. Such moods often dog me at this time of year; though I live far from the cold and snow, I’ve always chalked it up to seasonal affective disorder. I thought the only cure was longer days. Or Hawaii.
Then I found myself with two healthy kids–at thesame time–and no freelance work for the day. So, after excavating two and a half months of neglected mail, I decided to take a short walk to clear my head.
What I saw so humbled me. How many days have drifted by without proper reverence?