Friday, March 28, 2008

Home Sweat Home

Spring is coming. You know how I know? Because as it is really about to arrive, it feels as though it'll never get here. March is the longest month. Sixty days of wishing.

Right now, I'm under the gun. I'm pushed to the wall. Big changes afoot. The closet, both metaphoric and real, unloads its contents on my head when I open the door. I've got a real estate broker breathing down my neck, sending me articles on how to properly "stage" a house for sale, with such uplifting tips as "Don't neglect your cabinets! Be sure that all the mug handles are turned to face the same direction."

But wait. Maybe she was just trying to cheer me up by sending me a satire, and I didn't know to laugh. I told her I was just hanging on by my fingernails, and she soothingly told me everything was going to be all right. I think maybe I will use my imminent arrival at the snapping point on her--if she calls one more time to propose a visit to "just check in," or in other words, see how close I've come to transforming a house inhabited for eight years by two people of decidedly pack-rat-ish tendency into a vacant showroom. I have been smiling silently at everyone who asks, "So, how's it going?" or simply saying I don't want to talk about it. So unlike the normally over-voluble me, spilling my guts at the merest prompt by even vague acquaintances (one of them got it between the eyes last week in the library, when she innocently mouthed the pro forma question and got in return the full waterworks; you should have seen the dismayed look of shock on this near-stranger's face: Oh, my god, remind me never to say "How are you?" to a woman whose husband has recently left her!).

I'm just putting my shoulder to the wheel now, and in three days I'll allow myself to stop, look up, and see how far the cart has rolled. Halfway to the destination? Almost there? Only two feet out of a hundred? Who knows. But I assure you, I'm not arranging the mug handles.

At some point, I will have time to do my writing again. I will be able to comply with my assignments. I will resume delivery of the newspaper. I will phone back my friends. I will start internet dating. (That's just a joke. A very bad joke, OK?) I will walk Nelly--Sorry, my dear Nelly: You don't know what's going on here, do you?

Or maybe I just assume there's some "normalcy" to return to. Yet the economy falls to pieces while I pack books. Bats fall out of the sky as I scrub the bathtubs. (Indeed, I picked up a dead bat from the driveway yesterday, folded up as if lifted from a perfect sleep and deposited in the cold daylight of death.) I clear out the Augean stables of a utility closet, and a million more babies have been born so the balance of a sustainable population tips ever more precariously, if it hasn't already clattered to the floor.

What security do I imagine I will return to, once I have found a new home that will be mine, and not what I am coming to view as the rotted-out shell of a defunct dream that was both wrested from me mid-sleep, and
an untruth that I will be so happy to put me behind me, as the moving van takes us away. (See, it is both; two opposing truths: a violent theft, and a relieving gift of wonderful freedom. How strange.) We always think we can go home again, at least. At the end of the day, we know where we'll be.

So when you're about to leave your home forever, you posit a new one in your hopeful mind, so you can go there. I can't imagine it in every particular, but I assume when this is all over, I will have a place just for me, Nelly, and my son--and I hope it's not a trailer. Nothing against your home, if it happens to be a trailer; I'm just saying that. I hope it won't be a tar-paper shack. How's that?

The other night I cleared the table, then looked back to see that my son had just poured chocolate milk all over his face. Deliberately. My first impulse--bad Melissa!--was to say, "What the heck? Why'd you go and do that? And would you STOP IT?" But something caught me. Instead, I went to look in his eyes and lowered my voice. "Is it making you sad, honey, all the changes that are going on around you?" In a tiny voice, he said, "Yeah, it makes me sad." Then he was able to wipe his face and get up. My heart went, Crack.

His assumptions are different from mine. I have lived in six or eight places I've called home; he has only this one. His notions of something called "the future" are hazy. They are, in fact, based largely on what I tell him. And I've been spinning that, hard, let me tell you. Happy, happy, happy! So uncharacteristic of me. But maybe it's put a little spin on my outlook, too.

This, too, is Nelly's only home. So long as you don't count the plastic kiddie pool that was her birthplace, in a West Virginia basement. I wonder how long it will take her to know her new place as home, every curve and turn on the road to which she knows and anticipates, standing up on the console between the seats in the car so she can see where she's going. Soon, she won't know. I wonder how long it will take for me, too? --Before it becomes the chimera of security floating above the shifting insecurity that we have made of our world, this once solid place.

Well, I'll take the chimera. I need it. A place to which I hope I'll always return. I have some great decorating ideas. To dress change upon change.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Gratitudes III

It seems appropriate, on the eve of tomorrow, to resurrect the idea of thankfulness. (Also of idiotic humor.) There's a lot to feel happy about, even if the economy is tanking in a spectacularly frightening way; especially the idea of a second chance. There's always another one of those, isn't there?
Here are just a few of the things I'm grateful for.

  • black jelly beans
  • the rainbow of variety of dogs (as seen, say, by the hundreds in Prospect Park), the way nature persists in making her works of art with living beings, each mutt a one-off the likes of which will never exist again
  • green heads of daffodils emerging from the cold mud
  • the nice sheets on comfy beds offered with hospitality by dear friends
  • chocolate Easter bunnies (shared by a child)
  • a glass of pinot noir at the end of the day, with the newspaper
  • hope, and its gorgeous persistence
  • any day I don't have to pick either ticks or burrs off Nelly (or both)
  • e-mail (I admit it)
  • Netflix (ditto)
  • the Magic 8 ball, when it tells me exactly what I want to hear
  • mothers, the kind who still want to take care of you even though you're grown
  • a new season
  • karma--as exists in this lifetime, because that's enough
  • nostalgia: it brings me back to places and people I then find I don't have to leave behind
  • plastic eggs dotting a field, waiting for excited children to find

Saturday, March 15, 2008


In Patrick McDonnell's strip "Mutts," there's a character I can barely stand to look at. McDonnell intends this; he's picturing the untenable. The animal is just called Guard Dog. No name, of course. He strains at the end of a short chain, and only when he dreams is he ever free. This is his life. And this is the life of countless dogs. Solitary confinement, for no crime. No exercise or mental stimulation, no communication, no pleasure. What possesses us?

The organization Dogs Deserve Better (No Chains!) has a brochure that is equally painful to look at. On the front is an ill-kempt beast with a forlorn look in his eyes. And then you read: "You see me with your eyes . . . Now see me with your heart." By this point you're on the floor. I must leave it to the psychologists to explain the disconnect that permits us to do things like this.

Like, cage anything. Guinea pigs, rabbits, rats, or (as Blake contended put "heaven in a rage") birds. Every one of them is actively suffering under the unseeing gaze of their captors. Some of these captors, too, are otherwise good people; some of them are my friends. (And you should know that I do not exclude myself from the ranks of the hypocrite or the unheeding; I am, oh, I am. Just ask my shrink. Or my friends. Or the cows whose dairy products I eat even though they suffer for it. I'm a wicked hypocrite.) But I avert my eyes when I go to their homes, because seeing an animal in a cage--alone, lonely, bored--actually makes me hyperventilate. I can't look or I'm going to have a panic attack. Nor do I feel I can say anything: Who am I to judge? That is not an entirely rhetorical question, as I've just mentioned. And even if I were to say something, I already know the response: Oh, don't worry. He's very happy.

This answer veers from ignorance of animal behavior, I believe, into the precincts of denial. Or at least the convenience of wishful thinking. Plantation owners went a long way on the Happy Slaves myth, remember. We see what we want to see. We do not like to consider ourselves jailers, so we say they are not imprisoned. A simple solution.

I'm not sure if it's more generous to allow that willful ignorance is at play. The kind that permits a dog owner to aver, as his dog stands stiffly with hackles raised, tail erect and vibrating, and a hard stare--beyond any doubt the canine way of saying "Make my day"--"Oh, my dog's friendly. He's just playing."

A lot of dogs have gotten hurt because their people didn't intervene before it was too late with these types of "friendly" dogs.

Yet it is the dog on a chain who is probably the saddest creature on earth. And I am sorry to bring up this depressing subject, when all we want is to be happy and forget about sadness and banish people who harp on "negative" things. But I wonder, Whatever is the point? Imagine locking a child in a room for years. No playmates, no hugs. Food pushed past the doorway three times a day. How is it possible such a social creature could be happy, or even not entirely ruined in the mind as well as spirit? Not possible. So why is it legal for people to keep solitary dogs penned or chained for their entire lives? Why? Is it because we have no morals? I may note that the AKC takes no formal stand against this practice. Now you know what to think of them.

Of course, I'm enough of a nutcase to think we might consider legally requiring off-leash activity for our dogs as well. A dog who never gets off-leash is a little like a child who, yes, gets out of the room, but has to hold Mommy's hand while he does so.

Instead, at the moment, seemingly every community is facing ever more legislation toward keeping dogs leashed at all times. It's even happening in hippie (okay, "hippie-ish") Woodstock. If it can happen here, man, it can happen anywhere. I lay this at the feet of our stupidly expanding population--there are simply too many people, and thus too many eyes. You can't just slip under the radar anymore, do as you please so long as it doesn't hurt anyone. Now there is always someone to see you, and one of those someones is likely to be secretly afraid of dogs. So they get on the horn to the town council, and then the end is near for the mental and physical well-being of lots of dogs. And the owners who love them.

Now where am I going to go to give Nelly a run, listen to the burbling creek, and have some of those serendipitous meetings that begin in the parking lot in mutual admiration of corgis and setters, Aussies and mutts? Dog people really are more interesting than the usual run of human, you know that? What an opportunity lost. For everyone. But especially for a woman at, um, liberty.

I guess I'll have to go back to Prospect Park. Ironic, to have to go back to a city of eight million people in order to let my dog run free. But next week. A few days of irony never hurt anyone.

Saturday, March 8, 2008


I had a wonderful experience this week. I joined a writers group. Those two words used to make me itch; I'd avoided such things for a very long time, harboring all sorts of misconceptions about them (prime among these the idea that I didn't "need" one). But as I'm lately discovering about pretty much everything, we condescend to or sneer at only that which scares us. I had been frightened. But that night, in the company of some very smart, very fine writers (two of whose literary reputations and book sales both I would have to live to a hundred to ever hope to approach), I found some of what I'd been needing. Very badly. Also, some truly great photography; just a lagniappe.

But that's not the wonderful experience I wish to report. It's that I brought Nelly with me, and there were no disasters! She did not snark at the two resident pugs; she did not guard me--by sitting in my lap and making ugly faces, the doggy equivalent of sticking out your tongue or giving out a raspberry--against the two resident labs. Instead, she wandered around the house (must check to see where cat is), sniffed things, made a brief effort to see if she could get on top of the table to see if the fuss over hummus and Terra chips had any implications for her, and then fell calmly asleep on the rug by my feet as we all read from new work.

Hallelujah! Another longstanding dream of mine coming true. --To have a dog I can take places. A normal dog. (That's "normal" by the wishful standards of a person, that is.) You don't know how much I wanted this--or how impossible it seemed in the early years of Nelly's life. I believe I've informed you that Nelly is a screamer. All it took was going indoors (the effrontery!) somewhere new, and she'd start whining, whining, escalating all the way up to a piercing shriek that froze the room, all heads swiveling in stunned (and pained) silence to see whence such an unholy sound came.

Nelly, of course.

Once upon a time, Nelly was going to be a European dog. The kind that lies patiently under the cafe table, oblivious to the fact that butter-laden pastry products are being consumed by mouths other than hers right above her head. The kind that's content to move on whenever her family pays the bill and decides where to next, without consulting Rover. She would walk carefully down the Parisian sidewalk, minding her own business, no other agenda than to exist at the end of a six-foot lead. On occasion she could visit a hilly simulacrum of nature in one of the great city's estimable parks, and perhaps we'd let her off leash to discuss matters with squirrels. Of course, this means she might end up like the dog of the Parisian woman we met one dusk in a park, frantically searching for the dog we had seen five minutes earlier tear by us, personless, frantically looking for her. It didn't look good on either side. Of course, if it was Nelly, she wouldn't be looking for me. She would be desperately searching for baguette ends.

After thinking that Europe represented the dog-owning ideal--people took their dogs everywhere, into restaurants and public buildings and on the trains!--seeing the reality changed the fantasy perception. Dogs were entirely incidental to their people's lives: they stopped and stayed stopped when friends met on the street to chat; they lay under tables whether or not they were hungry themselves or would have preferred napping on something softer. Their needs did not rise above the visible horizon. I don't believe Paris has many dog parks.

So maybe it doesn't matter if I can't take Nelly with me when I go out for brunch. I must be careful not to bring her to friends' houses that also harbor cats or guinea pigs. Or low cocktail tables. Mustn't forget that. Yet she is a member of my family, and my heart always sinks to receive an invitation to go places that exclude her. My mother does not understand: she thinks my dog is an obligation that prevents me from going on vacations to spas (ha!) and by airplane. She thinks Nelly "holds me back." But I believe Nelly propels me forward, toward inclusion and togetherness and comprehending the nature of borders. I would rather be in those places, psychic and real, than staying back--"back" meaning the same place I've already been. Although I do admit that hot-stone treatments are quite something.

Any time I bring Nelly someplace where she does not scream, or launch herself like a stealth missile into unsuspecting diners' laps in order to be closer to the butter plates, or pin the resident pooch with a fearsome growl, I feel like we are one step closer to the world I want: anyplace that is not the past; anyplace that resembles an integrated Melissa-Nelly world. The cross-species, cross-purposes gap bridged by togetherness. In my dreams.

Nelly and Platypus in togetherness heaven: photo (c) Andrew Garn. Thanks, Andrew!

Saturday, March 1, 2008


Once, I knew a person who saw nothing to like in nature. There was nothing "of interest" there, and he could look out upon the world that made him and his kind and be utterly unmoved. Only the works of man gave him anything to consider. (But what are the works of man made of? A reworked fragment of the root and whole that is "nature," perhaps?) He would turn his face to a scene of such powerful beauty it could knock you cold, and not feel a thing.

I don't think I'd want to live inside that head for a minute--or, well, in the interest of science, maybe a second, to see what it feels like--especially on the days of winter like today. The snow is loving the earth. It falls and falls. I wish more of it. Outside is a rare privilege for the poor likes of us.

{Oh, I'm a little liar, grandly overstating my case. The shoveling does get tiresome. The plow guys have stopped coming, it seems, which I guess is okay since I can't pay them anyway. I rely on my shovel (excellent for an upper-body workout!) and the kindness of strangers and friends. I suppose I should be offended that some men in the neighborhood have been helping me out, but I'm not; I'm touched by the old-fashioned gallantry. And if I owned a truck with a plow, I'd be gallant too.
My neighbor spent a long time out in the sleet the other day clearing a space for my car at the end of the drive. Then I went out with my shovel and unburied the mailbox. I heaved some of the wet snow out into the roadway, where it would melt in short order. Later that night, I came home with a carload of groceries after dark, suddenly dismayed to remember that I'd have to carry them down the long drive by hand. But even more dismaying was the sight, illuminated in the headlights, of a four-foot mountain of wet snow that had been painstakingly constructed in the exact middle of my cleared space so I couldn't get in. I wanted to weep. Not only for the additional work it would cost, but for the meanness. Turns out it was the town road crew, who don't like it if you throw any snow in the road, and who retaliate the way a ten-year-old would.
But all this was redeemed, and then some, on Wednesday, when I took my son--and, as is frequently the case these days, a shovel--out to wait for the school bus. I used the time to dig out the gate so it would open, the end of the drive from the rill of road-plowed snow, the mailbox (again). The snow was wet, icy underneath, and heavy. My struggle must have been pretty visible--and audible. My son tried to take the shovel away from me to help, but I couldn't let him, because I needed to get it done, and I knew I'd be out there two hours at least. I looked up to see him turned away, head down. "Honey?" He looked at me, pain on his face. "I don't like to see you work so hard, Mom. It hurts me."
Compassion. The greatest of all virtues? It must be. Without it, how can one truly love? And my child, filled with it . . . }

Of course, I speak of winter as a citizen of the twenty-first century, which has provided me with electric power, a fuel oil burner, the delivery by truck (not personal saw and maul) of cordwood for the fire, teflon-coated snow shovels, ample supply of Trader Joe's excellent candles, and full cupboards courtesy of Hannaford (aka Cantafford). And when I venture out, I can wear a jacket branded Killy--remember Jean-Claude? oh, how we swooned when we were thirteen!--with more features than a 757 and made of fibers that came from a test tube to keep one impervious to sleet or north wind.

Do you not wonder how it is that our fur-covered friends can be perfectly comfortable indoors at 70 degrees and then outdoors at 20, with no change of costume? Puts that Killy to shame.

But I can go out and bathe in this peculiar beauty--it is deeply interesting, to me, at least--knowing that I will return to my artificially heated world. Such are the limitations of humans. The air is soft and the quiet has a presence, a weight, a sort of hum about it. It makes you want to close your eyes and fall over, in faith that the angel of snow will catch you. It makes you want to be a child again.

Nelly too returns to--what, exactly? Something in the snow, anyway. It gets her juices flowing. In a torrent. It sends her into paroxysms of craziness. She crouches, gets a wild look in her eye. Then she springs, springs again, like a demented child's toy. She boings all over the yard. Butt in the air, her nose goes like a shovel, submerged past her eyes in the white. Then up she pops, looking at you in surprise--Wha --? There is a little snocone perched on the end of her nose. Cute.

What is decidedly uncute is what happens when she becomes possessed by the snow demon and my child is out. Aha! she thinks: a full-size tug toy! She goes barreling toward him. No neophyte to this treacherous attack--because that's what it is to him, a tug-of-war to the death--he tries to arm himself with a snowball, but often it's too late. Nelly goes for his gloves, his hat, his jacket sleeve. Anything she can get in her teeth. And she goes into a frenzy the likes of which she only does in snow. He screams and pulls back, as a child is wont to do, which has the unfortunate effect on Nelly (Emeril in training that she is) of making her kick it up a notch: bam! By this point he is crying, and she has likely made tooth contact--though not on purpose--with his skin.

When your child is in distress, it unleashes something in a mother: that fabled power that will not stop at anything to save him, even if it requires removing a two-ton vehicle. Or a twenty-pound Nelly.

I have never hated her except in these icy moments.

The trainers among you are shaking your heads. And you are right to do so. I know what I need to do in order to manage this, or retrain a new behavior. It's more work than shoveling. But if I want to preserve my fantasy of our little family out enjoying the snow, I must.

I am reading the journals of Edward Abbey, which he aptly called "Confessions of a Barbarian." I do not think I would have liked him: a classic manic-depressive, like so many of the great writers, ensuring he's driven as an artist but pretty much of a self-serving shit as a person. But he was fearlessly connected to the larger world, I mean the world larger than man and his works. A writer to the last, he wrote, "There are, after all, several things more important than art. Like a pine tree on a mountainside. Like a juniper in the red desert. Like air and sunlight."

He said, "My concern for wilderness is not aesthetic but physical, sensual, empathic, spiritual, political, but above all moral: all beings are created equal, are all endowed by their Creator (whatever--God or Evolution or Nature) with certain inalienable rights. . . . Humanity has four billion desperate advocates, but how many has the mountain lion, the snail darter, the eagle, the bighorn, the ibex, the Siberian tiger, the eland and the elephant?"

His idea of "monkeywrenching" to destroy the destroyer's works is basically an adolescent dream of revenge: so alluring, vengeance against the powerful unjust, imagining the big kaboom in blowing up a dam that's laid waste to some holy beauty. But one can surely forgive him that. Among other things, he loved the snow.