The Queen of Hearts – Kimmery Martin (February 2018)
Okay. Let’s just get this one out there: I watched the first six or seven seasons of ER like I was eating candy (with abandon) and fulfilling a religious obligation (with intense purpose) at the same time. Although I have only a small idea what these things mean, I can bark “pulse ox” and “CBC” and “V-fib” and “stat” like it’s no one’s business. This is a language I share with my husband, also an ER fanatic from the mid- to late-90s era. No joke: he once passed a nursing practice test based on his knowledge of ER terminology alone.
The best scenes in The Queen of Hearts, in my opinion, were the ones that brought me into the heart of the trauma, with the life or death decisions in the hands of medical students and their harried instructors. Absolutely gripping. This was also a friendship drama—two female doctors with established careers coming to terms with an event from their med school pasts. I liked the past drama and the present drama… although I wasn’t sure I bought the book’s conclusion. (Zadie as a character is a much more forgiving person than Paula as a human, TBH.) I’d be curious to hear what you think!
The Partly Cloudy Patriot - Sarah Vowell (2003)
I like Sarah Vowell, and she was a natural choice for my #yearofnonfiction, having devoured her work on NPR and having loved Assassination Vacation and having a physical copy of Lafayette and the Somewhat United States on my bookshelf, courtesy of a friend who once had Sarah as a student. I know what you’re thinking: two degrees of separation from Sarah Vowell? Paula lives a charmed life.
I listened to the audiobook, which Vowell narrates, and which also contains musical introductions by They Might Be Giants, and features a variety of guest narrators (including people no one has never heard of, like Conan O’Brien and Stephen Colbert) in bit roles.
The Partly Cloudy Patriot is part-road trip, part-history lesson, part-social commentary, part-personal quirks of the author—I know. That’s a lot of parts. Here I should mention that I’m a bad reader of collections (essays, short stories, etc.) since one of two things inevitably happens: I end up not seeing the forest for the trees, or I realize halfway through that I can only identify with a single tree in the entire forest.
Some of the essays here seem only loosely connected thematically (“Tom Cruise Makes Me Nervous” and “Wonder Twins”), but overall there’s a thread of fascination with history and the (mythology of the) Founding Fathers that’s pretty interesting. “Canada Haunts Me”—about the differences between American and Canadian viewpoints of the world—had me laughing out loud. There was a fascinating essay on the 2000 presidential debates held at Concord High School, with an explanation of an Al Gore “Love Canal” misquote that was heard around the world. And as someone whose childhood was filled with stops at brown historical markers all along I-80, I could relate to her visit to the Underground Lunchroom at Carlsbad Caverns, the battle fields of Gettysburg, the Salem of witch trial fame, and, just to prove a point—North Dakota.
Gotta say… I’m liking all this non-fiction.
What are you reading?
Special thanks to BookClubbish, which posted this essay on their website.
In the opening scene of my novel Here We Lie, a woman stands behind a podium, addressing a crowd of reporters. She takes a shaky breath and tells the story of a horrific assault that happened fourteen years earlier, at the hands of a man now running for US Senate.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
This scene was a regular occurrence in 2017— yeah, I’m looking at you, Moore, and Franken and Franks and Conyers and Fahrenhold, not to mention the disgraced men from movie and recording studios and news anchor desks. And there’s no reason to suspect that 2018 won’t bring fresh horrors, as the #MeToo movement gains momentum, and more people come forward, liberating themselves from decades-long shame and fear.
Advance reviews of Here We Lie have talked about its timeliness, its pertinence to a world that, ready or not, is finally listening to the stories of women.
As one reviewer on Goodreads asked, “Ms. DeBoard, do you have a crystal ball?”
But if you have any insight into the publishing world, you probably know that the finished (copyedited, proofread, etc.) manuscript was in the hands of my editor at Park Row Books in February 2017, and the bulk of the story was written during the summer of 2016. Maybe the world was listing in this direction as more and more of us said, “This is simply not okay.” But at the time I was digging into the narrative, I didn’t see what was on the horizon.
In 2016, when I was watching news clips about the election with an interest bordering on obsession, I wasn’t thinking of my latest work in progress as a book about sexual assault, although that’s certainly an aspect of Here We Lie that resonates now. I was more focused on female friendships, in the ways that women treat women, and the broader perception of what it means to be a woman in the public arena.
Yet real life—and a world where everyone was suddenly taking political sides—began encroaching on art. The more I wrote, the more it seemed that certain things were begging to be said, things I wasn’t even sure I wanted to say. Like anyone else, I hold political opinions, but I typically think of my fiction writing as an escape from current realities, rather than a dive into the deep end. But the outside world, with all its noise, was simply unavoidable. In my once-a-month writing group, we all had the same lament, regardless of political persuasion: It’s hard to create right now. It was hard not to let the world, a giant ball of tension, bump up against our creative instincts.
In the midst of imminent election craziness, a person I’d known for my entire adult life posted something on Facebook calling Hillary Clinton the c-word. Now, I hadn’t expected this person to be a Clinton supporter, mind you, but the level of vitriol was beyond rational—it was frightening. Clinton had dared to be a female with political aspirations in a public place, and for this she was attacked in crude terms that related to her own femininity. Suddenly, these kinds of slurs were everywhere, it seemed—in the comments sections, of course, but also, increasingly, in everyday life. One Saturday morning, as I rushed through the Walmart parking lot with a shopping list in hand, a man used the same epithet toward me in a profanity-laced rage. For not complying with his request for money, I was insulted. My own femininity was a weapon that could be used against me.
Around this time, in the revision phase with a deadline looming, I had been writing and rewriting one particular scene in Here We Lie. Megan and Lauren, the book’s main characters, are riding their bikes back to their college campus when a truck with three men pulls up beside them—the same men whose advances they have turned down earlier. I kept edging toward and pulling back from the vulnerability of these young women on the side of the road, with no witnesses in sight, the same way I might watch a Law & Order: SVU episode—wanting the story, not wanting the story. The scene was fictional, but it kept bringing back moments from my own life, and therefore moments I assume are universal, too—moments where you feel particularly defenseless and exposed, where you suddenly realize that things can go very, very badly, through no fault of your own.
Here We Lie isn’t my story; I’ve survived the casual, offhanded sort of misogyny that is linked with being a woman—things that shame and sting and quietly become part of the people that we are. But I found myself more and more wanting to write this particular story, to go to that dark place, to think about the challenges a woman might face when coming forward to publicly name an attacker.
I’m not sure when I made the decision to set the story during a senate campaign, and to make one of the characters a man of immense political power. But it’s fair to say that with the noise of the 2016 election season in the background, maybe I couldn’t separate my art from life. There’s a particular kind of power that comes with government—also, with movie moguls and entertainers—that makes them seem untouchable and beyond reproach. Like Goldman Sachs--too big to fail.
The #MeToo movement was everywhere, the hashtag popping up on my Facebook feed, mentioned in my students’ writing samples. Though I knew those stories were out there, this time, the issue wasn’t going away. This time, powerful men were proving they weren’t too big to fail. Looking back, #MeToo feels inevitable, like trying to keep a lid on a boiling pot.
Enough was finally enough.
In November, when Roy Moore’s accusers came forward, friends who had read advanced copies of Here We Lie began to reach out to me. Can you believe what’s in the news? and For a second there, I thought I was reading your book.
“I know,” I said, sick to my stomach in the way of déjà vu experiences and dreams where I felt trapped, feet too slow and cumbersome to move the body out of danger. ARCs of my novel had been shipped, and reviews were beginning to come in, and I sat in front of the television, paralyzed. I ached for the women as they told their stories, and then again as they faced skepticism and criticism. Over and over, it seemed, otherwise compassionate, decent people (including yes, women) asked: But why would they wait so long to come forward?
I submit one possible answer with my character in Here We Lie, but even though I was describing a fictional situation, that answer was still complex. Megan faces the shame of being a victim, the fear of not being believed in a world stacked in favor of her attacker, the misplaced self-doubt (did I somehow bring this on myself?), the loss of confidence and purpose. Every assault must result in some variation of these feelings, with the added complications of time, place, and people, not to mention the factors that can’t be fathomed peeking from the outside in.
From that outside vantage point, it seems there are always two choices: come forward or stay silent. From the comfortable position of “not me too,” it seems simple enough. But when I was writing these scenes for Megan, I knew it wasn’t an easy choice. And for far too many real women, there is no choice at all.
In Here We Lie, the women are complicated—not virginal or perfect, not the sort of victim we seem to demand in headlines, to propel our collective righteous sense of anger. It’s easy to use 1950s standards of decorum against the women of today--Look at that tight skirt. Why did she go to the party in the first place?—and for some reason more difficult to place the blame properly. Maybe we want an easy answer—a solution that seems within our grasp. But if women would only dress more modestly, or be careful not to put themselves into certain situations… if we didn’t have a drink and we kept away from traditionally male fields… if we didn’t smile so much (or smiled more), if we didn’t walk down the street alone… The temptation has been there, for generations, to blame the victims and shame the accusers, because we haven’t wanted to go to that other dark place. What causes some men to attack and violate women, strangers or acquaintances, subordinates or even spouses? How have we as a society allowed this, and now that we are staring it head-on, how can we affect real change?
Despite Here We Lie being set in the world of political players, I wasn’t intending to make a political statement. I’m sure there will be readers who encounter Here We Lie down the road, who believe that I was referencing a specific senator or trying to push an agenda. That’s probably inevitable, and in some ways, natural—doesn’t all of life right now seem to circle back to political views? But I’m hoping instead it can start a few discussions, and maybe elicit a bit of empathy. The characters in Here We Lie are the product of my own imagination, but far too many women—those who have come forward, and those who haven’t—live with this reality every day.
As I wrote in the afterward of the novel, this story is part of a much larger issue, and I’m humbled to submit one small piece.
A couple of years ago, I decided that I’m basically pretty stupid. (For many of you, the only surprise here will be that it took me so long to come to this realization.)
I’m a great lover of history, for example, but there are some serious gaps in my knowledge, and I seem to be reaching the age where a lot of the things I learned a long time ago have been… well, forgotten. Am I smarter than a fifth grader? I hope so, but fifth graders have been exposed to certain facts more recently than I have. So, this fiction lover set a goal: Half of what I read in 2018 will be non-fiction. (GULP. This has already been a challenge!)
Enter The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family by Annette Gordon-Reed. This book has been on by TBR list for ages (National Book Award winner, Pulitzer Prize winner…), and thanks to my SIL Heather, it was part of my Christmas haul. I’ve always been interested in the other side of history, the one that doesn’t make our textbooks. Winston Churchill: “History is always told by the victors.” (Also… by the important people. Who coincidentally were male.) This is the meticulously researched story of the Hemingses, a slave family intimately connected with the Jeffersons—and by intimately, yes, I do mean that Sally Hemings, Jefferson’s wife’s African American slave half-sister was in fact the mother of a number of his children.
What strikes me here, at about 60% through this 800-pager, is how much Annette Gordon-Reed has pieced together about the Hemingses, and yet ultimately how little we know about them. Sally Hemings is the shadow behind each of these passages, unseen and unheard in the larger narrative of Jefferson the statesman, the president, the national hero. I started this book with gusto in January, then had to back off for a few weeks, because—is this strange? I may have lost perspective—I found myself so emotionally attached and invested in Sally, in this girl (seventeen to Jefferson’s forty-seven, at this point in the story) who doesn’t even appear for entire chapters, that I had to step away. I’ve read quite a lot of fiction on the topic of slavery, sure, and seen some movies, but Gordon-Reed’s research has brought it to life for me in way that feels uncomfortable and therefore very necessary.
Thanks, Louise Penny—now I have another author’s name to recommend to my mom. And ten more books to buy.
And also, I’m reading:
The Woman in the Water by Charles Finch (February 2018), which is .5 in the Charles Lennox series. I always feel like the cool kid when I’m reading a book that is just out, but the truth is that I have Louise Penny’s recommendation to thank—I follow her FB page—and in a happy coincidence, the book was available in my library’s audio selection. Also, it turns out there are already ten books in the series, and I’m obviously not as sharp as I thought I was.
It’s a good, old-fashioned whodoneit detective story, with our hero Charles Lennox (an unlikely detective, since his background makes him a shoo-in for a seat in parliament), his valet Graham who has quite a knack for crime-solving himself, and an endearing cast of secondary characters.
If you’re new to this series, like me (… and let’s pause for a moment, to say that I’m really not good at reading a series, because THE COMMITMENT. There are ten other books in this series, and at this rate it will take me a few years to read them all IN ORDER, because I simply must read things in order…), it evokes everything I love about detective stories and true sleuthing, especially at a time period when the profession was new and forensic science was a long way in the future.
Thanks, Louise Penny—now I have another author’s name to recommend to my mom. And ten more books to buy.
I’ve started and stopped a lot of things.
Hello, baby sweater out of the softest purple yarn.
Hello, manuscripts abandoned after fifty pages.
Hello, any TV series with more than five seasons (… but not you, Criminal Minds. I would never).
But I could probably count on one hand the number of books I’ve started and abandoned, and even there, extenuating circumstances come into play. Once a book had to be returned to the library half-read, and by the time it was available again, I’d moved on to other books, other stories. And when I was a teenager, there was a pulpy novel in the McDonald’s break room where I worked, and I read it in fifteen minute increments all summer long, only to find out that the last twenty or so pages were missing when I got to that point.
I’m not just a reader, I’m a finisher. (You may now pin me with a special badge. Thank you.)
Here’s some of the latest:
The Michigan Murders by Edward Keyes, which I listened to on audiobook, my phone in my pocket, the volume turned all the way up, while I putzed around the backyard. The first 75% of this book I recommend without hesitation—even though I learned afterwards that Keyes had taken the somewhat bizarre step of changing the names of everyone involved, including the killer. Being obsessed with true crime, or fictional crimes that read like real crimes, I had to then read everything Google could tell me (which was really not quite enough). Anyway—this one fell into lap, so to speak. I was on Hoopla scanning audiobooks and accidentally clicked on it. I call serendipity.
Anyone have any true crime books to recommend?
That cover, though. Ouch.
Far From the Tree by Robin Benway. Technically young adult, a genre that of course didn’t exist when I was a young adult, this book was amazing in about fifteen different ways. I love it when someone can write teenagers well—without relying on stereotypes or well-worn tropes. I’m typically not someone who cries when I read, either, maybe because I don’t gravitate toward those kinds of stories—but I bawled reading this one. When a writer can make me feel for characters as if they are real people, and leave me feeling relieved that they’re going to be okay on their own, after the last page, that’s top-notch right there.
Also I met Robin Benway at an event in SoCal and she was lovely and unassuming and oh yeah, right after that she won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. I’m calling that my brush with royalty.
What are you reading?
I don't know about you, but I've been devouring everyone's "Best of 2017" reading lists and adding new titles to my TBR stack. So, I thought I'd do my own--except that I vet books carefully before I did into them, so I end up with dozens of "favorites."
Here, instead, is my "books that will stay with me" list:
1. The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah. I might literally have been the last person I know to read this book (and effusive praise for something typically makes me wary, TBH). If you're one of those people afraid to admit you haven't read this book yet, I completely understand. But you still probably should. ;)
2. Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. Sometimes you read a book and immediately decide that all the best people you know need to read this book, too. This one is dense, and I found myself referring back to the family tree at the front of the book every 10 minutes or so, but the story has become part of my heart. I'm even getting a little weepy, writing this
3. Dreamland Burning by Jennifer Latham. This is YA, which is not my go-to genre, but a place I like to visit when I have the chance. Not only are the characters compelling, but Latham sent me down a days-long rabbit hole researching the Tulsa Race Riots (when an angry white mob burned down the businesses and homes of their black neighbors). Highly recommended
4. News of the World by Paulette Jiles. I'm not sure who first recommended this to me, but I'm grateful because it's not the sort of thing I would have gravitated to on my own. But I found myself emotionally invested in the story of the Captain and Johanna, and I might even go so far as to say that the Captain is my new literary crush.
5. Underground Airlines by Ben Winters. The premise is simple: What if slavery was never abolished in the US, but continued to be policy and practice in some Southern states? The story takes some wild twists and turns here and there, but if you like The Man in the High Castle or The Plot Against America (which I loved), or even exploring the dark "what if" questions, this is a compelling book.
Today a weird thing happened.
I ended up with two-and-a-half hours with absolutely nothing to do.
And to be honest, it freaked the hell out of me.
Today is the last day of my spring semester—last two classes, last regularly-scheduled office hours (although I promised to make myself available one more time), last time my alarm goes off at 4:30 a.m. for what I hope is a very long time, last sad bagged lunch eaten between student visits, last time flossing in the tiny mirror in my office (until this fall, at least).
In five days, thirty-seven final portfolios are due, and I’ll be sitting in my yoga pants with my seventh cup of coffee googling “screen fatigue” and promising myself that I find a way to make it less painful in the future. But that’s a still-distant horror.
Right now I’m in the calm before the storm. Everything up to and besides those portfolios is graded, and for the moment I’ve escaped campus and 96-degree heat to freeze in a Starbucks with a venti black iced tea and wait for my final class.
The lack of immediate stresses is, frankly… stressful.
Maybe I don’t know how to fill my time anymore when I’m not reading or writing or teaching, when I don’t have a deadline staring me in the face or a stream of student emails.
Maybe I’ve forgotten how to relax.
I physically can’t sit in front of a television any more, without itching to get up and do something else. My husband considers this a sickness, especially during baseball season, but I’m too busy to follow the plot of anything. I’ve begun to watch exclusively HGTV, and preferably the first five minutes of a show (with the old house in disarray) and the last ten (the remodeled/new house in perfect gleaming condition). For the rest of the hour/half hour, I’ve muted the television to grade an essay, or I’ve wandered into another room to sort laundry.
Recently, getting a manicure (which is not a regular thing, but was a matter of dire necessity after heavy-duty yard work), I thought I might burst through my skin, I was that anxious.
“Hold still,” the manicurist said for the dozenth time, operating the tiny brush with patient strokes.
“Sorry,” I said.
She shook her head. “So tense. What do you do—you work in finance?”
This morning, I remembered the tiny spot on the band of my wedding ring where one of the small diamonds is missing. I first noticed this last July (the last time I felt fully relaxed) when I was on vacation in Oregon, and I forgot about it until today.
I added “visit jeweler” to my to-do list.
And then I added “make new to-do list,” because that would solve so many problems.
Today, I spent too much time on Facebook and used too many angry emojis. Maybe I’ve met some kind of quota, at least for the week.
I sent my husband a long rambling message, and he replied with an emoji, and that felt about right.
Then I rediscovered Pinterest, and my long-forgotten “someday, my kitchen” board. Off and on, I wished I had a tweezer in my purse.
The thing to do is ease into it, I know that. You never see marathoners cross the finish line and stop right there. (Well, maybe you do—I haven’t paid that close of attention, as marathoning is not my particular addiction.) But I have a feeling that stress can’t be ditched cold turkey.
Maybe I’ll work on the mother of all to-do lists (MOATDL) first.
And chase it with five new Pinterest boards.
Last week, I left home for my 8 a.m. doctor’s appointment—showered and dressed, my purse stuffed with my wallet and Kindle and a water bottle, my phone resting in the console, Morning Edition on the radio.
Everything was going fine, until I made it a few blocks from home and realize I had no idea where I was going.
Sure, it was a doctor’s appointment. I knew who I was going to see—Dr. K—and what I was seeing him about (ahem, patellar dislocation, the result of being chased by a tiger or falling off a ladder—you pick). I knew what was going to happen—Dr. K was going to reexamine my knee, which had recently been through four weeks of physical therapy, and fit me for a brace to that I could return, however slowly, to the treadmill.
The trouble was, I had no idea where I was going.
I pulled to the side of the road, suddenly sweating and scared. I felt this way once in an airport and another time when I took the wrong freeway exit on the way to San Francisco, but this time, I was literally a few blocks from my home, returning to a place I’d been only four weeks earlier. I could picture the inside of Dr. K’s office, but that wasn’t much help—a small rectangular room with an examination table and a blood pressure machine on the wall, its Velcro strap dangling, the desk with a monitor, the two chairs. I could remember, but only vaguely, Dr. K’s face. We’d only met once, and I’d classified him immediately as someone who would be the kindly older neighbor in a sitcom—pleasantly distracted, a wearer of khaki pants and a braided leather belt, comfortable walking shoes.
But where was his office?
I ran through the possibilities in my mind, based on places where I’d seen medical professionals in the past—near the hospital in the center of the city, by the Trader Joe’s near the freeway, in the massive complex where I’d gone for the MRI that had in fact determined that I wasn’t crazy, that my persistent limp wasn’t just “in my head”, that there was a reason I released a blood-curdling scream every time someone tapped me on the knee. I tried, parked on the side of the road, a sort of self-induced hypnosis. Picture yourself parking in the lot. Imagine walking through the entry doors.
I had no idea where I was going, and by this time, I had only a few minutes to get there. Thank goodness for technology and the near-constant stream of communication from my online health care service. I followed the link in an email, logged into my account (somehow I remembered that password), and learned that I was indeed headed, however unconsciously, in the right direction. My body knew something my mind hadn’t grasped, a sort of cerebral muscle memory.
Relax, I told myself. Just get there.
Later, I could figure out whether I was in fact losing my mind.
As it turned out, the parking lot near the doctor’s office was being resurfaced, so I had to park in an unfamiliar place and enter through the back of the building. This was probably the reason why I didn’t recognize the reception areas, and why I stood frozen in the middle of the lobby until a woman peered around the frosted glass partition and smiled at me. “You’re here for Dr. K, right?” she asked, and I broke into a relieved grin.
It was my Jason Bourne moment.
Wait! You remember me? I was here before?
As a side note:
In this Washington Post article on Alzheimer’s Disease, Fredrick Kunkle writes the following:
“ 'You shouldn’t automatically fret about dementia if your car keys go missing. It’s when you start forgetting truly important stuff that you should worry. It’s also not necessarily forgetting where your keys are — in fact, I don’t know where my keys are right now — it’s forgetting what keys are for. Or not knowing what a key is for until you put it in your freezer,' Snyder says. 'It’s that type of change in memory.' "
It’s unclear whether Kunkle would consider forgetting the location of a doctor’s office to be in the category of “truly important stuff’.
Here’s what happened (or here’s how I later rationalized all of this to myself):
I’d had my first visit with Dr. K on July 13 at eight in the morning, which was approximately eleven hours after returning from a day-long drive back from Lincoln City, Oregon, site of a long overdue family vacation complete with parents and sisters and brothers-in-law and nieces and nephews ranging from 3 to 23, complete with sun and sand and sunsets and bocce ball and jarts and margaritas and Moscow mules and two 1,000-piece puzzles. (Lincoln City is gorgeous, by the way, and it’s where you should go next.)
The morning after my visit with Dr. K, I started physical therapy, which I continued three times a week. The following Friday, I was supposed to fly to San Diego to speak on a panel at Comic Con. Southwest’s computer disaster happened, and we ended up flying to Los Angeles the following morning, renting a car to get to San Diego, rushing around the Convention Center with 100,000 other people, returning to the airport only a few hours later, then heading home bleary-eyed after our flight—well, let’s just say we were awake for 23 hours, and I slept on and off for the next 18.
During the month between visits to see Dr. K, I was in the middle of wrapping up the first draft of my next book, devoting about six hours a day to solid writing and another two or three to rereads and edits, sometimes arriving at Starbucks as the store was opening and returning later to write until it closed.
In short, it was a combination of travel brain and book brain, and that’s how I forgot all about my previous visit to Dr. K’s office.
Other things I have done on book brain:
I’d like to announce here that I have it all figured out, the way to juggle being a professional writer and an educator and a wife and a family member and a friend and a pet owner and a person who likes inane trivia and a person who likes complicated shoes and a person who needs to remember her bulky brace when she goes to the gym.
But of course, it would be a lie.
Only this morning, I left home for the seven millionth time without my cell phone.
This fall, for the first time since 2011, I’ll only be teaching on one campus, at one university. I now have only one “work-related” key on my keychain. I’m teaching 12 units, down from 18. I’m teaching two days per week, down from four, and a maximum of 60 students, down from 120.
I’m taking steps to simplify my life, to do the things I love with the people I love and say no to the rest.
I’ll let you know how it goes.
Or I’ll text you, and ask you to please remind me exactly where we said we would meet.
This is not a blog post about dresses.
This is a blog post about dogs.
Some background information, in the way of a story.
Three years ago, I came home from work via the grocery store and pulled into my driveway, and as I got out of my car, I noticed something unusual. My neighbor (and friend, truthfully) was across the street at the empty house, on his knees, his rear end facing me. I recognize an adventure when I see one, so I left my groceries to wilt and melt and fester, and I crossed the street to join him.
"It's that little dog," my neighbor explained, and at that same moment, said little dog appeared from the bushes--skinny, black with a white throat, giant ears angled downward. I recognized her immediately as a little dog who had been loose in our neighborhood for months. I'd first spotted her during the winter while walking Baxter, the world's most spoiled beagle, and she'd almost seemed like a mirage--a tiny black and white flash darting into an alley and then gone when I turned the corner.
The little black dog assessed the situation with its beady black eyes, and then darted directly between my neighbor and me, eluding our outstretched arms. We followed her on a mad tear throughout the neighborhood's hedges and bushes, and down to another empty property, where we tag-teamed her, trapping her in a bush. My neighbor got hold of her, and she went limp; later, I would realize that she had wanted to be caught, that maybe she had been wanting it for months, and that it was what she wanted more than anything.
She stared at us, and my neighbor and I stared at each other, and I imagine we were all asking ourselves the same question: What now?
"I already have four dogs," my neighbor pointed out. It was true--his brood even included a three-legged dog. He'd done his share for the desperate dogs of the world.
"I have a husband who will kill me," I pointed out. This wasn't true--kill was an exaggeration. Recently, we'd been at a party where everyone seemed to be announcing a pregnancy, and a bottle of wine in, I'd blurted out: "We're thinking about adopting another dog!" I hadn't cleared this announcement with W., who regarded me with raised eyebrows from across the room. At the time we had two cats, both horrible bullies to Baxter, and it was something I'd been thinking for quite a while. Baxter needed a friend. And I loved dogs.
I ended up taking the LBD to our backyard, setting out food and water bowls and then watching through the window as she sat on the concrete patio looking up at me. Honestly, I'd participated in the LBD rescue as a way to keep the dog safe, to get her off the streets, and to find her a home.
The only trouble was that five seconds into the process, I'd fallen in love with her.
W. tells the next part of the story to whomever will listen. He's probably told it to you already, but here it goes:
When he left for work, we had one dog. When he came home, we had two.
Actually, he came home to find a note from me, affixed from the doorframe.
There's a small dog in the backyard. I'll explain later.
My husband is not a cruel person. We once rescued two kittens from the middle of the road in the middle of the night, he's recently developed an affinity for our neighbor's giant black cat, and he simply can't watch ASPCA commercials. (Neither can I. When I hear the opening chords of Sarah MacLachlan's "Angel," my eyes start to water.) If I'd begged and coaxed and pleaded and brought him down to the animal shelter one day, he might have happily adopted another dog. Instead, I'd shocked him with it--leaving a note that informed him succinctly that our lives had changed, again, and then returning home with a new food bowl, a collar and a leash, clear signals of my intentions.
There was also the fact that this dog was tiny--not on the scale of dogs W. had ever been interested in, the golden retrievers and black labs and German Shepherds of the world. Our overweight beagle may have been the smallest dog to catch his attention. But this LBD? Its neck slipped loose from an extra small collar; its feet were skinny claws.
W. set out on a valiant quest to find the dog's owners. He knocked on doors. He stapled fliers to telephone poles. He posted on Facebook. He checked Craigslist and local lost dog websites. He mentioned the dog--our dog, by this time--to anyone who liked dogs or had ever shown the remotest interest in owning a pet. It was embarrassing, really.
I called the animal shelter, and was told to bring the dog in. This was how people found their lost dogs, the woman on the phone explained. In the background, I heard a high-pitched yipping. She asked me to describe the dog, and I guessed that it was some blend of chihuahua, judging by its size and feet. She hesitated, then told me that they were overrun with chihuahuas. "But it has seven days to be claimed before..." she trailed off.
I thanked her and ended the call. No freaking way.
Up until this point, the LBD had been living in our backyard, barely eating and rarely coming out of the Dogloo where I'd stashed a blanket. She was wary of me, and didn't know what to make of dear, blundering Baxter who must have thought it was a miracle that one day he had been an only dog, and the next day he had a sibling.
I loaded the dog into the cat carrier, and she huddled in a corner during our trip to the vet. This was where I learned that she wasn't a chihuahua at all, but a rat terrier--the toy version. At the front desk, I explained that we needed to check first of all for a microchip--there wasn't one--and then that she was going to need the works: a flea bath, worming, shots. I needed to know if she'd been spayed, and if she hadn't, we needed to schedule that, too.
The receptionist wrote this all down, faithfully. Then she looked up at me. "What's the dog's name?"
I hesitated. W. had specifically instructed me not to name her, and I'd resisted the urge myself, knowing the importance of a name to a pet and its owners. "She doesn't have a name," I said finally. "Not yet."
"Well, then," the receptionist said briskly, undeterred. "We'll just call her Little Girl DeBoard." She wrote the name in capital letters across the intake form, scooped up the tiny, shivering mass from the cat carrier, and headed off to the examination room.
And that, kids, is the story of how LG got her name.
W. came around, eventually.
It may have helped that I reminded him that in 2006, we'd traveled to Spain and I hadn't stopped him when he decided to run with the bulls in Pamplona, even though I hadn't been able to ascertain exactly how this was covered by our life insurance policy. At the time, he'd promised me a "get out of jail free card", and this seemed as good a time as any to cash it in.
When he came home that night, LG and I were snuggled together on the couch. This was, and is, her thing--she likes to sit directly next to or on top of the people in her life. Her favorite spot to perch these days is on the back of Will's neck when he sits on the couch. When we visit my parents, she claims my dad's lap.
We gave crate training a half-assed shot, and after three nights of listening to her whine, high-pitched and nonstop, we opened the door. She immediately ran into our bedroom and dove underneath the sheets to sleep in a tiny hump at the foot of the bed. Now I find it almost impossible to sleep without her, my furry friend, my footwarmer extraordinaire.
After a week of being scared and clingy, LG became our protector. When the mailman steps onto our porch in the late afternoons, LG is waiting with the fiercest bark that can possibly come from a seven-pound dog. When someone pushes a baby stroller down the street, LG lets them have it. When the neighbor recovering from a stroke inches his way past our house, LG reminds him that he has no business being in her territory. Don't even get me started on the neighbor's wandering cat.
She's fierce, and funny, and wonderful.
Recently, we spotted another LBD (this time a little brown dog) running through our neighborhood. It had a limp and a wary, watching eye, and this time, it was W. who fell hard for it.
(Part II... to come!)
In The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Marie Kondo recommends fully cleaning your own space (assorted knickknacks/pile of sweaters/thousands of spiral bound notebooks/office supplies/teaching files) rather than tackling your partner's space (concert t-shirts, crumbling paperbacks, reporter's notebooks). The idea is that if you set a good example, your partner will fall in line.
In theory, it's a beautiful idea.
On Saturday, W. helped me with the scary shelving unit at the back of the garage. A few short months ago, the shelving unit wasn't even visible--it was merely a dark shadow emerging from behind stacks of empty cardboard boxes, large Tupperware bins that serve as a sort of clothing hospice, and a heap of recycling we were going to bring in "next weekend".
Now the shelving unit is visible again, and it turns out for the last five years or so, while neither W. nor I has managed to venture back there, it has been quietly accumulating masses of cobwebs. They hardly resemble the shiny spiderwebs that occasionally appear on our front porch, spun overnight in what seems to be a burst of optimism. These webs are heavy with dust and thick as clumps of dryer lint.
In the dim lighting of the garage, they give us pause.
We begin with the paint cans, which I'd mostly identified already, in previous weeks--matching and labeling or drying and tossing. From the beginning, I try to establish order, designating: a keep pile, a donate pile and a trash pile. But whenever I find myself engrossed in one task or another--squirting down a dusty plastic bin with a half-gallon of all-purpose cleaner, say--I turn back to see that a new pile has appeared, one that defies the categorization of "keep, donate, trash."
"What's this?" I demand, after stubbing my toe on a giant container of windshield wiper fluid--one of three, each full to the top with a blue-blue liquid. "Keep or donate?"
"That's the undecided pile," W. says.
No, no, nonono, I interrupt. We're only touching things once. We're making a decision on the spot. My explanation is less eloquent than Marie Kondo's, and more practical, too--it leaves out the weirdness of things having feelings or the idea that something like windshield wiper fluid might "spark joy".
"I use the Will DeBoard method," W. explains. "Touch twenty times, move to a new spot, and make a decision three months later."
I can almost hear MK's gasp.
We uncover, in that back corner, enough dust to make us open the garage door, exposing our still considerable pile of junk to the neighborhood. Under the dust is a mini-hardware store of DIY supplies, purchased at a time when we had more manageable lives with defined "days off" each week. Sanding supplies, a tub of varnish that has leaked, spackle and wood filler that has hardened into cement, C clamps from a project I can't remember. It turns out that we have two cans of WD-40 and three tubs of Drano, as well as seventeen cans of black spray paint.
"What's that?" I ask, pointing to something on the third shelf, fully visible from my vantage point on the other side of the garage, but not to W., standing directly in front of the shelf. "There's something back there. It's kind of ghostly looking."
W. bends down for a closer look. It is ghostly-looking, whatever it is or was--wrapped in cobwebs, dust particles shining in the light from the open garage door. "I don't see anything," W. says, inching slowly backward. In the next moment, he decides something in the backyard needs his attention.
I wrap my arms up to the wrists in plastic bags and attack the third shelf. Wedged in the back is a crumpled pile of painter's sheeting and one of the giant floor sponges we used in the process of refinishing our old floors.
Marie Kondo references the way things feel when they aren't confined, but allowed to relax in a natural state. There's a particular passage about why socks should not be balled that is (unintentionally, I'm sure) one of the funniest things I've ever read.
[Here it is: The socks and stockings stored in your drawer are essentially on holiday. They take a brutal beating in their daily work, trapped between your foot and your shoe, enduring pressure and friction to protect your precious feet. The time they spend in your drawer is their only chance to rest. But if they are folded over, balled up, or tied, they are always in a state of tension, their fabric stretched and their elastic pulled.... Store the socks on edge, just as you did for clothing. You'll be amazed at how little space you need compared to your 'potato ball days,' and you'll notice your socks breathing a sigh of relief at being untied" (Kondo 81-83).]
But in that moment when I free the giant orange sponge from its trap of cobweb-covered sheeting and it seems to literally breath a sigh of relief, I think I finally understand.
W. pronounces us done rather early in the process, forgetting his new piles which are now scattered around the garage--a tub of Prestone, a mysterious item in an Old Navy bag, dried-up sticks of plant food. We've now created the problem of having numerous empty Tupperware containers, and for the moment I make a new stack along the back of the garage. It's safer to donate those as well, before they mysteriously fill with other crap we don't need--but that's a project for another Saturday.
In the end, we step back to look at our work, admiring the lack of cobwebs and the two empty shelves, and we feel pretty damn proud.
Also, I'm feeling optimistic. I know enough not to push it at this moment, although I feel strangely invigorated, like I could roll up my sleeves and empty the contents of an entire closet into the hallway and sort, sort, sort, Marie Kondo-style.
W. wraps a dirty arm around me, and I smile.
Maybe tonight we'll go through his concert t-shirts.
Paula Treick DeBoard