Sunday, June 25, 2017

Dog Days of Summer

It's been something like eight months since I've written a post. For awhile there, I felt frozen by Trump. What could I possibly blog about that was both meaningful and relatable and not in some way about our country falling apart? The truth is, of course, that there are and always have been endless experiences worth writing about regardless of the state of the union. But for awhile there, I felt that whatever I had to say just didn't matter that much, especially if I wasn't making any observations about our country or our world. Stories about everyday life felt selfish and small - and you know, they still sort of do, but I've thawed out a bit. We kind of have to do that if we're going to keep going.

This May, I went to a writing conference put on by Grub Street, an independent creative writing center in Boston. The theme of the conference: "What's a writer for?" helped me power through my blogging block. Over and again, writers stood up to remind us that it doesn't really matter how dramatic or action-packed or politically driven a story is -- sometimes, the tiniest moment with the most imperceptible shifts make for the best ones. No matter what their content, stories connect us, give us insight or perspective, touch us in one way or another. Frankly, we're just damn lucky to be here to tell our stories, and read them and listen to them. Sometimes, often, I think that this is all life is about. Our shared experiences, or our independent experiences, shared. Either way, it's about human connection.

And also, canine connection.

This first post is mainly about our new dog whom none of us have ever met. I don't even really have a story to tell about him, not yet. Really, I just know that his name is about to be changed from   from Easton to Duncan Swing-Biscuit Damaske, that he's eight weeks old and seven big pounds, that his mom was part dachshund, and that he's a he. That's almost all we know, except that he's got the face of a (furry) angel and ears like the long, silk elephant lovies I used to give to my babies. I've seen three pictures of sweet (I hope) Duncan, which were all taken in immediate succession of one another, so I've essentially only seen him for one miniature moment in time. One moment, but enough.

Duncan, of course, is supposed to save me from my heartbreak when my Gracie heads off to full day kindergarten this fall. How entirely absurd of me. No matter how much I treat Duncaccino like my third kid, this pooping and peeing and crying and barking little mutt won't ever grow up into a human who chats about Noah with me and picks dandelion bouquets and checks my head for ticks after we've gone on a walk, as my girl has been doing these last couple of years. But, part of my thinking is, maybe a long morning walk and snuggle with a fluffy little monster will be just enough to get me going each day. And damn - the kids are ready for a dog. That's the other part, the more important part. They're pumped.

The truth is, I don't really know the first thing about dogs. I'm not really a dog person. I mean, if the question is cat person vs dog person, the answer is a resounding "dog! dog person!" But if the question is dog person vs not dog person, I'd have to go with the latter. Right now, anyway. And yet, I have to assume, barring some disastrous experience with Duncs, that by this time next month, I'll have swung (like a swing-biscuit) to the other side, the dog people side.

At this very moment in time, I find myself at a most peculiar precipice. The transition is to begin tomorrow at 4:00 pm. But right now, as I write this, I best relate to non dog people who think dogs are pretty cute and that is the extent of their thoughts about dogs. But tomorrow at this time, I will have dipped my (puppy licked) toe into a subculture that exists all around me, a giant part of the world that I have paid little to no attention to at all until about a week ago, when we decided Duncan was our boy and that this was happening.

I realize now that dog discourse has been happening all around me, all the time, everywhere, for all of my life and I have essentially tuned it out because it just didn't matter to me. Until now. If you are a non dog person who has dog person friends, it turns out that these people know a lot of shit about dogs. There's this whole giant pocket of information they have tucked away that they never bring up with you because you just don't get it and they know you don't care or are perhaps useless on the subject. So, I've been trying to catch up, cramming for the past six days. Crate training and housebreaking tips have been dumped like ice-bucket challenge water into my previous knowledge of dogs, which was, in its entirely, that dogs are fun to pet.

Dog people know that a dog's crate should only be big enough for a dog to turn around in and no bigger. This fact horrified me when I heard it because I'd hyperventilate if being put in quarters that small for hours on end. But dog people know that dogs grow to love it, thinking of it as their safe place. Also, dogs only get fed twice a day, sometimes only once. I found this preposterous, but to a dog person, it's just common knowledge. Also, as soon as dogs eat, they need to go out. Like within ten minutes. It goes through them that quickly. Dogs need tick collars. Dogs need to be registered in their hometown. Dogs yawn when they're afraid.

My first trip to Petco was entirely reminiscent of my first trip to Babies R Us, except this time in place of my dumbstruck husband ("Why are there so many kinds of diapers?") were my two kids giving each other fast carriage rides up and down the Petco aisles, reminding me that the dog needs toys, toys, toys!

I wanted to embrace the saleswoman (I might have if it weren't so hot), who handed me a puppy owners' checklist, took great pity on me, and then walked us through every single dog aisle and gave me the lowdown on all things canine. When I asked her, "So, what's, like, the standard dog food people  usually get?" she shook her head, looked at me kindly, and said, "Half of the store is dog food. See? That half of the store. Dog food. You want organic? Vegetarian? Red meat? Chicken? My dog likes salmon." Oh my God. I just want dog food. Is that not a thing? Just some effing dog food, medium to good quality so I don't have to spend a fortune on the fancy shit?

The saleslady was great, but she did convince me to buy a dental kit for my dog so I could brush his teeth once a week. Turns out, that's not really a thing. Dog people who are still reading this are undoubtedly rolling their eyes (right, guys? or… is it a thing?).

I have no shame in my naiveté, which has often worked to my advantage, so I hope my willingness to completely unmask the depths of my ignorance will serve me well in this case too. In the past few days, I have asked dog experts (aka, people who know dogs better than me) a number of questions that have been swirling in my head. Here is a smattering:

  • Is there a dog equivalent to 911? (Answer: Um… No.)
  • So… if a dog has diarrhea, I assume it doesn't tend to wait to go outside for that? (Answer: It's a dog. No.)
  • How often does a puppy need to go out again? And how early? (Answer: Uh, like a lot. And early early.)
  • Is having a puppy really like having an infant? (Answer: Yes, yes it is. Be prepared.)
  • How would I ever have know to register my dog in town if you hadn't told me? (Answer: Your vet knows this stuff. My answer: Ah… so I guess we should get a vet).
  • And a question for John (who had dogs growing up, but is maybe (definitely) *not* as pumped as the rest of us about now owning one: Hey John, Noah wants to walk the puppy in the morning on his own. Makes sense cause he likes to get up so early. Good plan? (John's answer: Do you want to deal with Noah's sorrow when the puppy gets loose in the woods? (My answer: So… kind of a good plan?)

    But the thing is, of course, that we're ready for this little guy. We love him already. I've been dreaming about him all week (though admittedly, some of the dreams involve me showing up too late for our puppy pick up time and being left with a large wolfy dog who the dog people are trying to convince is our new dog). There's two hand-drawn doggie-day countdowns on our fridge. I've got "Ten Perfect Puppies" and all of our other puppy picture books on display in the playroom right on top of his brand new crate, and my nighttime reading has become "The Art of Raising a Puppy." Oh, the control I have right now! A parody of our future. 

    My job this week is to simultaneously welcome Duncan to our little family and establish myself as the alpha male in the house so that the dog doesn't entirely take over my life from the moment it steps in the door. I've never been known for my alpha male skills in the canine or human circles, so really, this should go well. If I had any ability to regulate my own emotions tomorrow, I would keep my panic to a minimum, collect myself, and just do this thing. Like a doting alpha dog mom. 

    Dunkin's mom was rescued from a high kill shelter in Mississippi when she was abundantly pregnant. The rescue organization we've worked with (incredible), called Sweet Paws Rescue, has a team down there who saves these little guys and sends them up here in a truck so that they can find new homes and families with the help of the entirely dedicated and all volunteer team up here. This is not a political post, not even in the least, but it's worth pointing out the beauty of two very different parts of our country working together to make life better - or make life even a possibility - for members of our country who have no voice at all. If these pups could speak to us, such stories they would tell, all of these rescued four legged friends, stories from the south to the north, from their shelters to their crates. 

    Tomorrow, a new story will begin for us and for Dunkin, and it will take some twists and turns and trips outside in the middle of the night, and while I promise not to turn this blog into a dog blog, expect to see our new little family member/s face from time to time, because we're flipping the page to the next chapter… now.

    Monday, November 21, 2016

    Still with Her

    "Listen. Be Kind. Do Your Best." The simple motto quietly conveys the spirit of Gracie's cooperative nursery school, a lovely, loving community set right up on the hill in the bottom floor of the congregational church in our town center. Here is a place I couldn't have loved more over these past five years, where Noah attended two years before starting Kindergarten and Gracie is currently spending the last of her three preschool years. The school's ability to continually exemplify, stand by, and teach their message has never faltered to my knowledge, and while it is an active effort to practice these principles each day, this philosophy -- Listen, Be Kind, Do Your Best -- keeps our place humming and our hands clapping and our joy pure and present. It is not a challenge to jump from home to school to home because the priorities remain the same, in whichever place we are.

    Open your mind, welcome all into the circle, be your best you (effort required, some days more than others). Kindness surrounding.

    And then, I dare to look up from my tiny world.

    A simple message grows so complicated.

    I had Gracie's birthday blog all planned out over a month ago. The year she turned five would be the year our country was graced with the first woman president, but even better, a president who expressed, over and over ('…over a year… and in and out of weeks… and through a day…') the values we represent, the people we want to be and have our children become. So, to me, to so many of us, November 8th was to be the day that kindness prevailed and the momentum of tolerance continued, with perhaps a stronger wave than ever.

    Posting because COME ON!
    Look at him!

    In my mind, it would be not dissimilar to 2008-09, when Noah was born into this world and I cried with pride as I stood in my living room with my one month old baby and watched Barack Hussein Obama become our president. This would be like that, but perhaps even better.

    My kids, my little boy at least, has reached the point, I think -- I thought -- where we could talk more practically about what being a president signifies, and perhaps more importantly, what a real leader encompasses.

    Noah and I (and at times Gracie) discussed the plain and crazy truth that it has always been men who have held the highest position in our nation. And that President Obama was our first black president ever. We talked, perhaps too openly, of the facets of the other side of the campaign. That even though close to all of us are immigrants in some form, the other major political party selected a candidate who wants to deport the immigrants who are trying to start their lives here now, right where our ancestors started theirs (and therefore, ours) not so long ago (at all). I made it clear that this absurd person (who I never thought would be our president) consistently opposed the idea of people marrying the person they love because of their gender (though he has since "accepted" the supreme court's decision). My children are of the belief that if they fall in love with their best friend - whether boy or girl - and their best friend loves them back (unless their best friend is a cousin, mind you), then heck yeah, that is just a marriage made in heaven.

    My kids do not know this same person also mocks disabled people. It is beneath us to even discuss this.

    We talk about equality in our house, not because we are exposed to a whole lot of diversity in our lives, but perhaps in place of the fact that we lack many of the surroundings that would naturally teach these lessons. I will not deny we are living in a heavily glassed-in snow globe up here in our small and elite New England town.

    Above all the cruel and bigoted and vacant messages that were sent by Mr. Trump, I think I felt the worst about how he raised himself and his followers up by disparaging those who are different. I am sick about so many things about this terrifying new world (the sun will rise, but for how much longer?), but people being told they are unwanted and unwelcome and going to be added to a list - a LIST, for chrissakes - that is what kills me the most. That we are moving backwards, so rapidly and brazenly, when all this time I thought we were going to take leaps and bounds forward.

    I mean, it is not a stretch to say that as parents, whether we are bringing our kids up in the north, south, mid, or west, we do not hesitate to preach the aforementioned messages of kindness to our children, right? Listen. Be Kind. Do Your Best. We want that for our kids because these are the pillars of a good person, a successful person, a person that people want to be around and teach and learn from and connect to and respect.

    At what point does that message go haywire? When do priorities switch and a life that shuns difference in order to elevate one's self worth becomes more valued? At what point does kindness become white noise while efforts are instead directed at stomping on people who are smaller in order to win? I am talking about you, Donald Trump, a hell of a lot more than I am about the people who voted for you. Because you fed on desperation and targeted people who are vulnerable and weakened, diminutizing those who are trying to assimilate into lives they deserve to lead, and pretending that you care even the slightest about people who need work and actual opportunities for education.

    Oh my gosh, I just found this! I mean,
    I am apparently not the first one to
    make this comparison, ha! 
    You are not a leader, but a manipulator and caricature of a storybook villain who tries to dupe everyone into believing you should be the person with the most power. You are Gaston, chasing around the girls who would rather be reading anything at all, thinking your charm will win us over. You don't give a shit about unity or binding the wounds of division. If you cared about our nation and our necessary, dissipated unity, would you not do more than say a dispassionate "Stop it!" on 60 Minutes one night while your wife, who by the way is an immigrant, sits silently next to you?

    Yes, I am still angry, but that doesn't get my anywhere. And if I haven't been clear (I haven't been), it is this man and the uber-wealthy, ultra-conservative pricks who praise him that I do not comprehend. Because, why?? There are plenty of people who voted for him - by far, most of the people who voted for him - because they genuinely felt they had no other choice, not because they are racists or misogynists. But some just want white male power flaunted and secured. I fear these people and I fear for these people, but now I fear for all of us.

    In the last few weeks, my mind has opened up ten-fold to rediscover my own privileged life, my ability to prioritize what I choose (because I can) and to be surrounded by like-minded people who want to rise up and make a difference for the better.

    A family member who teaches in a more rural part of New York told me that in her school district, nobody is talking about the election. Most are pleased with the results. But she has twelve immigrants in her classroom. At parent-teacher conferences the day after the election, none of the parents of her immigrant students dared bring it up, none dared express their distress and fear, assuming they would not be supported. Instead they seemed to shrink into themselves that next day, as if they did not want to be noticed. Indeed, their children have since been harassed by other students, telling them to go back where they came from. And the parents of these bullies? Some of them have expressed pride and agreement. Again, when did human kindness just get flagrantly tossed aside? This is what fear looks like. Desperation.

    Truth be told, this blog was supposed to be about our birthday girl Gracie, even after the election happened. I thought I could just write about Gracie because I love to write about her and there is so much to celebrate about her. She turned five last week and I didn't mean to dump Trump on her and you like this, but it is tangled up. It didn't happen, but I wanted all the pieces to fall into place on November 8th. Tolerance and grace! Tolerance and Grace.

    Have you watched this yet?

    Listen.  To the people who fear their voices have been lost. To those who have left their families behind so that they can work and send them money to survive. And to the other brave people who have brought their families to our country to possibly give them a better life, some hope. Listen to the young man who is trying to accept who he is and who he loves. To the young woman who has knows she was never meant to be a woman. To the Muslims who worry about contempt and deportation. To the parents who have lost their children to gun violence. To the scientists who show us our earth is slipping away from us because of US. US. Because of our shit.

    But listen also, listen very carefully to the anger, shame, fear, and desperation that has put us in this position. It is real and it is out there and it is the motivating factor for why we are here now. People are poorer than they can handle being and angrier than they can manage on their own and desperate to be respected and too burdened with shame to see past it all. This is real and we need to start listening. Not just to ourselves talking about how to make our already wonderful communities better. But a dialogue with those who have something to teach us about the way they are living and how they feel like they are dying. Because we are a nation divided any way you fucking cut it. And we're not getting anywhere if we don't drop the angry rants (see above, apologies) and start listening, perhaps trying to understand, moving forward with a new awareness, another perspective, a fuller view of this picture.

    Be Kind.  If I learned anything in college, it was Maslow's hierarchy of needs. In just about every psych class I took, the prof found some way of incorporating it. I can't help but think of it now, the idea being that there are five levels of needs that motivate us as people, with the first, most basic and necessary, being survival at the very the bottom of the pyramid. Do I have food, shelter, warmth, the ability to rest? If these needs are met, we can move onto worrying about our safety, and if we are lucky enough to feel we can survive and be safe, we can enjoy the true privilege of belonging and love. With a secure sense of belonging, we can work towards self-esteem, with the top of the pyramid being self-actualization, the golden goal which, in a utopian society, we are all chipping away towards.

    My children - and yours, too, I have to assume - have been taught love in its deepest, more secure sense. They do not carry the burden of hunger or being too cold to think or to frightened to function. This is an indulgence that we should not overlook. We get to watch love take shape in its truest form.

    Pick three friends for the first activity," says Gracie's teacher on her special parent help day at school. "I….can't… I don't know who to choose." She waves her hand loosely over the crowd of friends and says "them".
    "What are the names of the friends you want to choose?" But she is quiet and unwilling to pick 3 out of the crowd of 11.
    She turns to me, "You choose, mommy!"

    Our kids - the kids of the folks who are reading this - start with belonging from the get-go, don't they? Not all children do, not at all. Some people never get past survival and perhaps all they have the capacity to worry about is themselves.

    Do Your Best.  Perhaps the only way to know what our actual best is these days is by taking steps that are larger than we're accustomed to taking. Love is not passive and cannot be spread to strangers in silence. I am attempting to step out of my comfort zone, getting more political than I have ever (ever) been, and  joining in groups for positive change that represent the values on which I am trying to build my family in a country I actually do still love. I don't know. We should do this kind of thing in a big way, all of us, really. Now. If not that, ask questions. Actually listen to the answers. Reach across the aisle if only for a quick exchange at first. At some point we have to stop shouting at each other or shouting about each other or we are all going to crumble. I need to start thinking outside my tiny little world while still living in my tiny little world.

    We started "daily acts of kindness" today in our house. I thought about doing it all through December, but then thought, why wait until December?

    If none of the above works for your family or your particular style, consider this incredible website my dear friend found and sent to me today:

    Click and find:
    • Picture books about bullying
    • Picture books to inspire gratitude
    • Picture books to celebrate diversity
    • Picture books that inspire kids to heal the earth
    • Picture books to celebrate love
    • Picture books about every day acts of kindness
    • Picture books to nurture emotional awareness
    • Picture books that celebrate seniors and aging
    • Picture books about conversation starters

    My friend's email came with perhaps the best suggestion I've heard in an extremely long time.

    Step 1: Read these to our own kids.
    Step 2: Package them up and send them to lots of local libraries in red states.

    I would suggest sending all of them to Mr. Trump, but he doesn't read stuff. Not a reader. He can read, mind you, he just doesn't.

    So many times, these days, I've begun to lose faith in our humanity, but the depth of this turmoil is so much further than this privileged eye can see. And so I go back to the principles that for the past five years - and the years before that without being said in so succinctly and simply - have always kept me grounded, empathic, and even hopeful - Listen. Be Kind. Do Your Best. So, I guess, let's brush ourselves off - it's been a blow - but now, it seems, all we can really do is collect ourselves and start making connections in whatever ways we know how.

    two cuties at Veterans Day parade