I hate New Year’s resolutions. So much pressure. So much self-imposed anxiety. So much self-loathing and imaginary judgment from everyone else when the new habit reverts to the old habit. It’s just too much. If I’m going to change my behavior, my preference is to do it all stealth, on my own timetable, and not announce my plans to anyone. Then, if I fall off the wagon, no one’s the wiser, and if I succeed beyond my wildest dreams, then by the time people notice, I just look like a badass, and I can take a humble bow and go on.
So I typically don’t even mess with New Year’s resolutions. I give thanks for the people I love, I send some good thoughts out into the world, and I get on about my business. Simple, safe, no muss, no fuss.
This year, though, I’m making one resolution. I’ve finally hit on something simple enough that I think I can do it without stressing myself the heck out. It will improve my quality of life, and is, like most things I consider important in my world, about more than it seems to be about.
In 2013, I’m not buying any more crappy razors.
You know the ones I’m talking about? The featherweight pink disposables with hollow handles and a single blade, set at the precise angle needed to flay the skin from your entire ankle without removing a single hair? The yellow or blue disposables you get after you ruin three towels with the pink ones, which have two blades and maybe a strip of slime at the top, and they don’t slice your leg open, but they don’t slice anything else either? Or the non-disposables marketed to women, with the sexy brand names and curvy handles and matching shaving cream gel stuff and mail-in rebates, which still somehow only manage to lop off half a hair at a time?
I am so done with this entire cast of shady razor characters.
Part of this is because I’m still nursing the two sliced-open knees I received the weekend before Christmas at the evil hands of the egregious pink razor. Part of it is totally literal. Because slicing open your leg in soapy water stings like some things that would cause my family to stop reading my blog if I wrote them down, and because I know all of y’all reading who are of a leg-shaving persuasion totally know what I mean about the towels, and because kneeling to wrap Christmas presents is not cool with big scabs on your knees.
The other part, though, is that sometimes a cigar is not just a cigar. Taking care of myself is something I have not been a real champ at in my adult life, frankly, and I’ve finally started to get a handle on all the ways I short myself and pretend it’s something noble or helpful. I’m taking inventory of the little things I do that indicate that I’m not consciously trying to look out for my own best interests. I can’t change them all in one go, but I can decide, in little ways day by day, to be more aware and do a better job of being decent to myself, being kind, and not withholding good things from myself because I think it’s not justified or I’m somehow not worth it.
I am totally worth a decent razor. And other good things in my life that only I can give myself permission to take hold of. I’m working on those and will be working on them for a while, little by little. Right now, though, what I can handle is making sure I buy myself some razors that don’t suck. And every time I bite the bullet of paying for them, I’ll remember that taking care of myself is worth the short-term cost. When I shave and don’t injure myself and dry off and keep the towel white, I’ll remember the payoff of investing in myself.
Crappy pink razors, begone. 2013 will be my year.
As I guess y’all have gathered, it has been tough to write openly here the last few months while keeping the secret of our move to Tuscaloosa. Now that I’m moved and settling in, I don’t have to worry about what might come out if I open a new post, so I hope to be showing up more here in the days to come.
Right now, though, some vital information for your everyday life: we recently discovered the Origin of Sprocket.
Since we have yet to grace my mother-in-law with human grandchildren, she has a collection of Sprocket pictures on her phone to show off at events. Last weekend, when her friends brought out the prints of the little people who share their genes, she pulled up some familiar bared teeth and flailing legs for their viewing pleasure. During the ensuing conversation, she mentioned to a friend that Sprocket had been one of the litter the shelter staffed dubbed the “Alpine Pups,” after a historic church in the area, where the friend was a member.
The lady immediately became very excited. “I remember those puppies!” she said. She had, it turned out, been one of the church members who had found the little “mama dog” and her litter of four puppies near the church in December 2010. They had called the shelter because they couldn’t figure out how to remove the puppies from their hiding spot.
Which was in the church’s living Nativity scene.
This blog is on temporary carpal-tunnel-flare-up hiatus while I rest my hand for a few days. A post a day was probably a little too ambitious, especially during the busy time I’m having at work – it all adds up to 10 or 11 hours a day on a computer, and that’s just too much right now.
But I’ll be back on the writing wagon, albeit probably in a scaled-back format, in a few days. I’m thinking maybe 3 posts a week, and if I have more ideas than I have posting days during Lent, I’ll just keep writing longer. See y’all soon
“Eating out” with my grandparents has always involved starting about three hours early with a fanny pack and two Escapees RV Club water bottles per person. The fridge is stocked with store-brand soft drinks and a couple of six-packs of Old Milwaukee from the last grocery store you passed, two days ago, but for eating out, you bypass those and go straight for the bologna with its red plastic rind, and the real mayonnaise, not that Miracle Whip stuff your parents had in the nineties.
Your sandwich, crackers, sliced cheese, and cookies all go into the fanny pack, with a water bottle holder strapped on either side. And you have to check the indoor/outdoor thermometer on the wall before sliding the cover off the screen door latch and heading out, even though you are already dressed in layers and walking shoes. You will always be dressed in layers. If you are planning to eat out with my grandparents, you are either in the mountains or the desert. You have to be prepared. The thermometer check is just a ritual.
Once you’ve latched the door behind you, it is either off to the truck or down a trail, water bottles swaying. A few hours of exploring, either on foot or by road, await you before you unpack that sandwich. Dusty footpaths, prairie dogs, cactus flowers, stone arches, narrow switchbacks in the trail, grazing bison, flowing snowmelt streams, steaming fissures in the earth – the setting is always changing; the only thing you can predict is that it will be beautiful.
Often there is conversation, discussion of points of interest, stories someone knows about the landscape and its history. Many times there is also silence, appreciation for the sounds and smells, the rhythm of one’s breath and footfalls or the friction and curve of the road.
And after a while, my grandparents exchange a look that is not really a look, insofar as a look involves direct eye contact. They just incline their heads in each other’s direction, and my grandfather pulls the truck over or my grandmother strikes off the path a bit. There is always a picnic table that seems to rise out of the ground, unseen by all but my grandparents, and it always overlooks something beautiful or interesting or funny.
I vividly remember “eating out” this way with them alongside the Yellowstone River one summer when I was in middle school. It was June and finally sunny enough to allow me to shed my sweatshirt for a little while as I watched what had recently been snow making its foaming way around a bend in the river, headed downhill. The grass was greener than I have ever seen grass anywhere, and I’ve never tasted a bologna sandwich that good. I remember biting into it and feel like I had really made it in life.
I have heard it’s a saying among interior designers that if a person’s aesthetic taste is going to take after the taste of someone else in the family, it will most likely hearken back to their grandparents’ ideas of style rather than their parents’. I don’t know why that would be, or whether the theory holds water, or even if designers really say that or even care. My tastes at this point in life run generally more toward “free furniture” than “mid-century modern.” And my grandparents’ seem to consist largely of whether or not an item is made of a durable material. If we had world enough and time, I don’t know if we’d decorate our houses the same way.
Increasingly, though, it seems to me that in building our life as a couple, Lance and I are following much more in my grandparents’ footsteps than in those of either of our parents. My grandparents married right before my grandfather, Dick, shipped out for military service in Taiwan. My grandmother, Elaine, followed a few months afterward, traveling across the world alone at a time when overseas phone calls were strictly for emergency matters. It took my grandfather hours to find her when she finally landed in Taipei.
They made their first home together across an ocean and a continent from their families in upstate New York, inventing a life on ingenuity and a military paycheck. For their first Christmas, they made ornaments by spray-painting walnuts gold. My grandmother made almond cookies, a recipe I still make every Christmas, in an electric skillet because they didn’t have an oven.
My grandparents became parents young and had plenty of plans for their lives as empty-nesters. When I was in elementary school, they sold their house, moved the family heirlooms into storage, and moved themselves into a fifth-wheel RV. For most of my childhood, home was where they parked it – my parents’ or aunt and uncle’s backyard at Christmas, Big Bend National Park for the rest of the winter, up in the Rockies or New England during the summer. They visited every state, and more National Park sites than I even knew existed. That’s how I came to be “eating out” at Yellowstone with that bologna sandwich and the water bottle fanny pack – spending a month with them touring as many western sites of interest as we could, seeing the world from the pull-out bed in the RV’s living room.
The two things I always knew my grandparents had taught me are how to live frugally and how to appreciate nature. These, I am sure they instilled on purpose. I know I think of my Grandmama when I’m hiking on a shaded mountain trail, and of my Grandpapa when I find off-brand cola on sale for half-price. The new thing I’m realizing that they’ve taught me is the balance of prudence and adventurousness that I now find myself, along with my husband, trying to reach for.
They have never shied away from an opportunity to experience something new, and they have never let the social values around them dictate their actions. I’m sure their families thought they were nuts when they moved to Taipei, and again when their first daughter was born there. For them, each other’s opinions were the ones that mattered most; they set themselves together on a course and did what it took to make it happen. They still take this approach. They wrote in our memory book at our wedding that the secret to marriage was being best friends.
They make it work, and make what they want happen, by pairing their adventures with pragmatism. Lifelong frugality allowed them to travel freely, and choices like eating out in the great outdoors are emblematic of the lifestyle they’ve cultivated. It just seems natural to anyone who knows them. But I see, from talking to them now as an adult, and trying to make my own way in the world, that it is a product of conscious choice.
As their grandchild, I want to follow their way of taking on the world, doing things their own way, and working as a team. And I intend to pattern my choices after theirs to make it happen.
This is a short story of a time when someone met me where I was.
I didn’t date anybody until I was 17. The teenage dating world was a lot of pressure and just too damn much input.
Then I did, for about 8 months, and I was in the thing with both feet and up to my knees and probably at least eight of my fingers. And also it was made of wet concrete. But he was maybe in it with one and a half feet, and the idea of the thing was better than the reality of the thing, and it really shouldn’t have gone on even that long, and it came to a Very Dramatic Teenage End.
My cousin Ashley took me out to a bakery when I was able to quit crying long enough to drive up and meet her, and we talked about our future and leaving high school and about how we were going to be free. We had fancy chocolate somethings, maybe tiramisu, and felt very adult and sophisticated, and she told me that Dorothy Parker had said she always wrote better when she didn’t have a relationship to sap her energy and drag her down. I felt brave when I laughed at this instead of crying again.
Afterward, we drove back to her parents’ house, where we found her mom, my Aunt Penni, sitting in her home office tying up some loose ends from her day’s work. She had recently started her own business as an agent for bluegrass bands and was the only person I knew who worked in the creative sector like this. Her work was very glamorous to me, because she was always traveling to Nashville and New York and meeting Very Famous People, and very gutsy, because she had just gone out and done what she wanted to do and was living her dream.
I hadn’t seen Aunt Penni for a few months when we showed up that evening, so we sat in the office for a while to catch up. She knew what was going on with me, because I was 17 and pretty transparent, and maybe because Ashley had filled her mom in on the nature of our chocolatey mission, but also probably because of my chronically flooding eyes and wobbling lower lip. I found myself spilling my guts about how hurt I was, how humiliated to have been dumped when I’d been trying so hard at this whole relationship thing, how I was afraid now because I’d imagined my life going one way and here I was in uncharted territory, and how could I trust any plans I made from here on?
Now, by this point, a lot of people had done a lot of things to try to comfort me. And I knew they were doing it and I knew why, and I felt lucky to have so many people who cared enough to try to fix things for me. But there was a part of me that felt really alone in where I was. My parents had been high school sweethearts. My little sister was young enough not to have endured a breakup yet. Even Ashley was, at that time, already dating the guy she would eventually marry, if my memory doesn’t fail me. I knew intellectually that lots of people had had their hearts broken, but nobody yet had been able to speak directly to that experience for me, no matter how much empathy they could bring up.
Lots of people had told me very true things about the healing power of time and how nobody could take away who I was. My Aunt Penni, that night, did not tell me any of that. Instead, she got up from her desk and left the room, and came back holding an old photo album. When she opened it, I immediately recognized her teenage self in the pages – but the boy with her, standing outside in the summer heat, lounging around vintage cars, I didn’t know. He wasn’t my uncle, although I knew they, like my parents, had gone to school together.
He was her high school sweetheart, she told me. The boy she’d thought, at my age, she would spend the rest of her life with. And she hadn’t. It had fallen apart, even though they’d been in love. Even though she cared about that relationship. It just didn’t work out. Sometimes things don’t. Even things we care about.
We flipped through the book, the three of us, questioning and remembering and laughing. Nobody served up the lesson to me – by the time we finished the book, nobody was talking about my aunt’s teenage dating life. But I didn’t need more than the comparison to make the light come on.
Her two-dimensional smiling face on the page, laughing in her bathing suit from the summers of the seventies, and her real-life smile in the office she’d designed in her house, running her business with the sounds of her family life in the background. Her past, my present, her present, my future, none of it what we planned, but all of it good. All of it part of us. All of it worth honoring.
She didn’t tell me what to think or how I should feel. She let me be where I was. But she let me know that she’d been where I was, and that she was in another place now, and the journey had been worth it.
And before I left, she told me she was proud of me.
I don’t know if she remembers, but I have never forgotten that.
I didn’t grow up with dogs, but I got there as soon as I could.
Okay, that’s a lie. We asked for a dog, like all kids do, and we didn’t get one and eventually gave up and moved on. And then my dad stopped by the pet adoption fair on his way home and fell in love with this little brindled fluffball. Every life-changing event in my family, pretty much, has been precipitated by a literal or metaphorical impulse buy on my dad’s part. Nobody was thinking much about dogs, when we got Sydney, besides my dad, who was just impulsively in the right place at the right time. It was October 2000 and I was 14. My best friend Aynsley named her after the location of that year’s summer Olympics. And there we were.
It was pretty much the same thing ten years later when a little white fluffball showed up on the adoption site of my local shelter. In the throes of some kind of untreated seasonal depression, I had spent most of February trolling Petfinder in the fuzzy belief that a little creature with fur on would brighten up my life. I had no idea what I was doing. Lance had said he thought beagles were cute, so I started searching there, sent a few inquiries, heard from some seriously flaky animal people, and spent ridiculous amounts of time just staring at the pictures online, imagining Life With Dog.
It wasn’t that I didn’t know what to do with a dog – I was fairly confident I’d be a decent dog parent – I just couldn’t really define why I wanted one. I think I just needed a purpose beyond brooding about my own life. I couldn’t explain it, but when I saw the picture of a little white beagle mix, one of a litter of four three-month-old puppies at our local shelter, sitting in a crate with her eyes and mouth wide open and aimed straight at the camera, I knew she was who I’d been looking for. Lance agreed when he saw her. I brought her home later that week. She shit all over the car on the way and promptly fell asleep on the bathroom floor when we reached our destination.
The month after Sprocket came home, I cried every day with the sheer anxiety of being responsible for another creature’s life and well-being. I had overdone the online research on raising puppies and became convinced that everything I was and wasn’t doing was killing her. Now that I understand the world of Dog People On The Internet, I know I could have disregarded the mandates to walk twice a day, never leave her alone for more than 4 hours, use a variety of prescribed and often contradictory methods of discipline, train constantly while she was awake, not coddle her too much, not give her too little attention, keep everything consistent but provide plenty of stimulation… at the time, my head was swimming. I was sure I would make some awful mistake; leave her alone too soon; let her little bladder explode because I missed her signal; let her get too cold; warp her potential for attachment.
I’m not sure at what point it dawned on me that if I had not yet managed to inadvertently kill or ruin my dog, it was probably safe to assume I wasn’t going to in the foreseeable future. It was just so overwhelming at first, being in charge of something so fragile, and I didn’t remember Sydney being so breakable as a puppy. Really it was just that I was more aware with Sprocket. Sydney had been like my sister during my teenage years. I helped train her, but like an older sibling, not like a care provider. We played together and I taught her tricks to show off. I confided my secrets and worries to her, as late as summer breaks home from college. She was my retriever rock.
With my little hunting dog bundle of nerves, I was mommy. I had never been mommy before. I’d run my budget, my kitchen, my billpaying, my housecleaning. I had earned a degree. I maintained a job, a marriage, and, more or less, my own health. And I had no freaking idea what I was doing as mommy. But I figured all I could do was fake it til I made it. So I cried and held the dog for a month, quit trying, kept faking it, ignored most of the advice, and eventually learned that nobody could tell me how to handle my own dog nearly as well as I could infer how to do it.
Once I stopped listening to everyone else before I listened to myself, everything started to fall into place.
We broke all the rules. We let the dog on the furniture. When it stormed and she cried, we let her sleep in our bed. Eventually, we just let her sleep in our bed, full stop. When it was raining and she was shivering, we didn’t make her walk. The world didn’t stop turning. We used a spray water bottle instead of a clicker to deter her from dangerous situations. She completely failed to become fearful and cowering and all the other traits we were assured she would develop if subjected to our totally-not-canonical discipline.
I started reading adoption blogs, the kind about human kids, and learned about therapeutic parenting for kids with attachment issues. The techniques worked beautifully on my dog. We learned not to get in power struggles, but to do something unexpected to defuse the situation. We threw the whole “alpha dog” bit entirely out the window and started focusing on the emotions we thought were driving her wild behaviors. And she started to trust us, not just because we were In Charge, but because she was seeing that we could discern what was really going on with her and provide relief from her worries.
I understand my dog like I never would have if I had trained her the way I was “supposed to.” I have her number now. She knows I have it and she trusts that I’m going to deliver on what she needs. What’s not a big deal to her, but plenty valuable to me, is that she is a living reminder of what I can accomplish by listening to my instincts instead of The Rules. Our first year with Sprocket has been the first time I have thrown out everything I was told to do when it didn’t make intuitive sense to me, and gotten to watch how following my gut paid off.
I intend to be building on this lesson for a long time to come.
40 days of inspiration: every day of Lent, expect for weekends when I get too lazy, I profile someone who has helped make me what I am. Life comes at you with messy writing.
I know it has started to look like there is a logical progression of posts shaping up here, and now I am deviating from the sequence that the orderly people of the internet have started to predict. It turns out that another of the side effects of this profile-a-day format is that the short time frame I have to complete each post doesn’t leave me a lot of space for directing the process – the time constraint means it has to be a pretty organic thing.
In a format that leaves more time for thinking through my intent, I can determine what I’m going to write about, then wait to start typing until my thoughts have begun to jell. When I have such a small amount of time, there is no waiting. Whatever – or in this case, whoever – is on my mind in the hours before I sit down to write will become the subject. And whatever seemed like the next logical step in the series will crop back up another day, when the thought has resurfaced.
And today, the thoughts on my mind are of my brother-in-law, who has been one of the real surprises of my adult life, and one of the unexpected joys.
By that I don’t mean that I was surprised to find I enjoyed Eric’s company. I mean more that I had just never considered what it would be like to have in-laws, at least not to any realistic extent. When Lance and I began dating our freshman year of college, I knew and liked his parents, and knew that I would enjoy spending time with them in the years to come if our relationship took us down that road. And I met Eric, then a freshman in high school, at a time of life when personalities seem as mutable as the fashions trends he shifted through from month to month. I liked him and the whole family. But it didn’t occur to me at that time – and maybe in my superstition about my new relationship’s lasting potential, it would have made me nervous, like I would jinx things – to imagine all of us hanging out as adults, what that would look like.
Then time marched on and Lance and I got serious and finished college and started working and Eric went to college and branched out and one day he came home for a visit and there we were. We were all adults, hanging out, reaching that level playing field. And there was a little bit of when did this happen? and a little bit of how did this happen? and a lot of damn, this is kind of cool. Because suddenly there was a real give-and-take of ideas when we were all talking, and conversation was a lot easier than it had been when we had all occupied different worlds, and it was really pretty cool.
Also, we started all having things in common, and our conversations were not anymore all about the next family gathering and what Lance and Eric had gotten up to as kids. There is still plenty of that. But now there is also talk of cooking and food and gardening and yard maintenance, and Eric will text me to tell me about some new ingredient I should try the next time I go to World Market, and will try the salad we make when he stops by for dinner. He diagnosed the fungus I’d given our tomato plants by overzealous sprinkler use one year and helped me correct the problem. I’d hear him and Lance discussing the merits of adding a second major in Spanish to their respective degrees in English and golf course and turfgrass management.
It has just been really awesome to me, that my husband’s brother, who I met as a kid, really, has turned around and become a friend, someone who knows what’s up and with whom talk flows easily for hours. I’d just never thought about that happening – the shortsightedness of the firstborn child, I guess, not realizing that at some point everyone younger than you will also grow up and be people you can relate to.
Probably the coolest part is that all this eating and conversing and poring over mysteries of plantkind in our backyard has allowed me to get to know and respect someone I would never have connected with if I hadn’t been fortunate enough to marry his brother. My brother-in-law is awesome, y’all. He is laid-back enough to get along with almost anyone, but has a strong sense of who he is and what he’ll tolerate. Like the rest of his family, he can keep a conversation going all night, but you’ll know if you run afoul of his code of ethics.
Watching him flare up when someone has gone too far makes me laugh in recognition and respect, because he’s gonna let you know where you stand. And it really is a matter of where YOU stand, because he always stands in the same place, and that’s not a place he jumped to because it was easy or prescribed. Eric is the most mixed bag of opinions I’ve ever met, but over time I’ve seen that every one of them is reasoned out and deeply held. He’s sort of a different take on the proverbial still waters that run deep. Instead he’s the sociable guy who you just didn’t realize was doing all that thinking. You would never be able to sound this guy out and figure out who he’s going to vote for – but bygod he’s gonna have a good reason for how he votes.
Eric is just not into fitting a mold. He’ll laughingly take whatever label you want to put on him, at an age when friends are into labeling each other as frat boy, hipster, athlete, hippie, golfer. He collects them. And then he goes on and does whatever he was going to do anyway. If you’re down with that, you can come along.
It’s been fun to watch, this brother I never thought I’d have, not so much coming into his own as revealing who he was always going to be anyway. I think he’s great. I’m glad we get along and glad we’re family. And it’s cool to know now, when I’d never thought about it all those years before, that there will be so many more years of this, of everyone understanding each other and being comfortable together around the dinner table.
It’s a valuable thing to have, and I know I’m lucky to have it.