I left Toby in the room with my girls – his girls – to take care of the paper work before the vet came in to do the kind thing.
Between signing documents and receipts, a man brought in his exceptionally gravid English Bulldog in active labor. She was rushed in for a c-section. The exchange, the swapping of a worn out life for a brand new one, or maybe three or four, was tangible.
Toby was ready, and when we were, too, it was done. He fell asleep on my chest and woke up down the hall, or maybe under someone’s porch, or in a warm kitchen.
Swollen eyed and snotty, we emerged from the examination room. Before we left the twenty four hour vet clinic, I slipped the Bulldog man a napkin with my e-mail address and phone number. If he ended up with a puppy who needed a home, could he contact me? Please?
I hope he doesn’t call. I made Toby a promise. I’ll never adopt another dog until I can love it the way I’ve loved him in the last few weeks.
“I think I’m too old to try new things. ” She is 22. She was talking about butternut squash.
Maybe I was particularly sensitive to the sentiment because I’d recently had an argument with a travel article titled 30 Places to Visit Before You Are 30. If beer-bellies can yell at TV sports, dark-rims can raise their voices to a magazine. Only fair. I am post-30, and I can totally justify skipping Milan because I don’t own the wardrobe befitting their sidewalks. Besides, they have a Starbucks, so why bother? It’s practically Parsippany, now isn’t it? But do they mean to tell me Venice has nothing to offer now that the bloom is off my flower? At my age, is it so hard to believe that I might appreciate the history of Budapest a little more than I would have twenty years ago when my biggest struggle was keeping up with a scrunchy? Just kidding. Twenty years ago, I had a toddler and my first broken marriage to navigate. I will concede this article wasn’t written for me, or people like me at that age. Still, I think it was a little short-sighted to write a travel article that specifically excludes me, and people like me now, who – precisely because of age, have the time and disposable income to visit the boutique hotels being shilled in the glossy pages of this magazine. But that’s just me.
Through middle and high school, TallGirl’s friend was a frequent visitor to our dinner table. Scratch that. She wasn’t a visitor. She was family; there was always a chair for her. Without fail, every single meal, she ate something for the first time. When we knew she was coming, it became a game of mine to guess, while I was cooking, what would follow her, I’ve never had declaration. Sausage, chocolate chip pancakes, pork chops, broccoli with cheese. We aren’t talking exotic fare, here. After graduation, they chose different paths, and she is now a vestigial daughter, visiting only once or twice a year. We miss her, and I’d forgotten her sheltered culinary life. That she’d never had butternut squash before was only surprising in that I hadn’t even considered it before dinner was served.
But here’s my confession. I have passed the halfway mark in my forty-second year of life and last night, I ate capers for the first time. Ever. I was aware of capers. My first knowledge of them came from Heartburn, by Nora Ephron. I read it about two decades ago, during those tumultuous, family breaking years when apparently I should have been traipsing the globe instead of potty training my beautiful daughter. Between you and me, I made the wiser choice. My life is rich beyond measure because she is in it, and hers is measurably improved by being potty trained. You’re welcome, BooBoo.
Nora Ephron has been accused for years of steering women wrong by romanticizing the troubling character flaws of both women and their male counterparts in her romantic comedies. Forget that. Neuroses are funny to everyone (save for those closely related to the afflicted, and to a lesser extent, the afflicted themselves), and it is exceedingly difficult to move a plot along if everyone in the story behaves rationally. She did what she had to do as a writer, and I, for one, admire both her chops and the battles she fought to be allowed to flex them. Where I take issue with her though, God rest her soul, is the terrible advice she gave in Heartburn. “…The truth is that any dish that tastes good with capers in it tastes even better with capers not in it.”
Living in the homogeneous suburbs of the south-east, it’s not like I had to go out of my way to avoid capers. They were always something that existed in the world but that I would likely never try, not unlike puffer fish or haggis. And equally, I assumed I wasn’t missing anything special; possibly, I was saving my own life by not trying them.
By the laws established by the governing body of dieters everywhere, I think I am required to tell you that I am starting the Whole30 Program. I am probably breaking some cardinal rule by not posting Insta pictures of every meal, or talking incessantly about what I am obsessing about eating, or not eating, next. But that’s just not who I am. I am only telling you this now because I have a cookbook that tells me exactly what to make to stay compliant and last night’s dinner involved capers. I considered leaving them out because Nora Ephron didn’t like them. The ghost of Nora Ephron wasn’t even invited to dinner, so is that nuts, or what?
Nuts, by the way, are allowed on the Whole 30, but not a wise nutritional choice. Now you know.
And you know what? I loved them. I loved them so much that I want to invite TallGirl’s friend over for dinner, even though TallGirl is still away at school, and make her eat them with me.
Last spring I was in Rome. I don’t know if that is a city on that stupid 30 Before 30 list, but I can tell you, no matter how old you are, get there. Our apartment backed up to the Aurelian Walls, and there were lush, green cascades of vegetation with pretty, wispy, white flowers growing freely from the cracks in the ancient brick. I asked a local what they were, and she thought a moment as she consulted her English vocabulary. More like a question of her own than an answer to mine, she said, “Wild capers?”
Because of the way she wrinkled her nose when she said it, and because of my Ephron association with the little beasts, I agreed with her that yes, those must be wild capers. I probably even wrinkled my own nose in solidarity.
I consider myself to be adventurous, but just like TallGirl’s friend, even I sometimes forego new experiences due to preconceived notions, or have those intrusive thoughts that I might be too told to try a new thing. I’ll try harder to recognize them, and nip them in the bud.
We are never too old for wild capers.
As a cautionary side, Whole30 was a terrible time to try capers. They have the same effect on my breath as a pickled garlic-onion might, and gum – all gum – is forbidden. If I accidentally breathe on you this month, I apologize in advance.
A week ago we gathered family into the small veterinarian office to say our goodbyes. I explained that he’d perked up when friends visited and that by dinner time he’d accepted a nibble of chicken from my hand.
The whole time we spoke, Toby stood on the table. That morning, he couldn’t even lift his head.
I couldn’t do it.
We devised a plan and the vet administered some more antibiotics and pain meds. By the next morning, she told us, we’d know the right thing to do; he’d show more small improvement, or he wouldn’t.
All of this was coinciding, outside of our awareness, with the wearing off of a 24 hour anti nausea medication Toby had been given on Monday. Maybe that explains his convulsing and limpness, but not the fever, high white blood cells, or fluid in his lungs.
I’ve continued to give him antibiotics and pain meds and each day he has improved a little. On Thursday, he pooped for the first time in a week. On Friday, he walked himself to our back yard to spend some quality time in the sunshine. By Sunday, he began fighting back with enough strength that it now takes two people to administer his medication.
The fur hanging in his eyes made him look so sad and burdened, so I tried to give him a trim. I cannot be trusted with scissors, and the services of a professional were called in to clean up my mess. Now bald, I watch him waddle and I realize his back legs don’t always work like they should. There are some hard, jagged lumps under the skin over his upper torso. We will see the vet again at the end of this week, and I believe we’ll find out we’re treating an acute symptom of something much worse.
But that’s ok. I’ve had time to love him now, and I’ll keep doing it until he needs me to make the final, loving call. Last week, we weren’t there. Not even close. By needing me to keep him alive, Toby made me want him to live.
When he took his turn for the worse, I was in New York at a writer’s retreat. I got to hear the story of a woman who, in the final hours of her husband’s ex-wife’s life, was asked to do something extremely easy, yet personal to bring comfort to the woman who had been her natural enemy. She described that moment of care-taking beautifully, as it transformed years of animosity, not into pity, but forgiveness and humanity.
I was reminded of a quote by Benjamin Franklin. Just as last weekend, I am still paraphrasing, but the gist is this: If you want to make a friend of an enemy, ask them to do you a favor. Ask to borrow their book, or a cup of sugar. Ask them to apply your chapstick when your arms no longer work. Ask them to hold you down and squirt antibiotics into your throat when you are dying, but still non – compliant. Once your enemy has helped you, they are vested in your well-being. They are a part of your success. They will root for you.
And I know from experience, that hot-wired connect goes both ways.
If you’re being weighed down by your dislike or outright hatred of somebody and you’d like to stop feeling so crummy about it, quit waiting for them to change. Stop judging them and go help them.
I mean, if you tell me you like hating people, then carry on. I don’t buy it, and I’d love to bake you some cookies, or help you pull weeds, or something – but you keep doing you.
But for those – and there are many – who are genuinely in despair about the politics of nearly – half of the country, maybe we can try to find ways to help them out with their personal struggles – not so that their ideology wins, but so that our own peace and well-being does.
For a poor, little, naked shih-tzu who only knows two tricks, he sure is a wise and dedicated sensei.
Behind every good dog, there is a larger, quirky, more photogenic dog, and for years I’ve been using cheese to bribe Good Dog to get out of the frame so I can take my Woody Wednesday shots.
I’ve not been a good mama to Good Dog. I could have pet him more. He would have liked that; he isn’t touch averse like Woody is. But he is smaller and it’s a further reach to pat his head or tickle his chin. What’s two more feet? I wish I’d made the effort. I know he does, too.
He was a replacement for something we never should have let go. We lost Mushroom, TallGirl’s Siamese cat, to mental illness – the collective mental illness that was my marriage. That year, it was the mere existence of the cat that made Him unhappy, and I believed it was possible to fix someone else’s unhappiness. I wasn’t a very good mama to TallGirl, either. The cat – her cat – found a new home. Oh God, she was so sad. This fluffy, white puppy would surely stem the flow of sadness bleeding out of my eleven year old. He didn’t. He couldn’t. How could he? Especially from the laundry room, where he lived his first two years because he might pee on a carpet and there would be unhappiness again. Or still. Best not to find out. She still bleeds for Mushroom, and I am bleeding for her. And now for Toby.
I did not want a dog named Toby. Eleven and a half years ago, we drove home from the puppy mill that wanted to put him down because of his defect – the one blue eye – trying to guess what he wanted to be called. In hindsight, I don’t think he cared. We rejected names like Rex, Jared, Fluffy, DogDog, and Snowball. We couldn’t use Snowball because that’s what TallGirl wanted to name her little brother before he was born, and she might someday decide to use that name for her own child. I won’t stop her. TallGirl and her dad decided they were going to turn on the radio and name him after the next song we heard. Please don’t judge me for where the radio was tuned.
How Do You Like Me Now by Toby Keith sealed his fate. I was limited in how much I could protest. Toby was my shortest boyfriend, ever. He didn’t want me to wear heels to prom. In our photos, what you can’t see under my full length dress is that even in flats, I still had to bend my knees just a little so that the difference was not obvious. Embarrassingly, he was also my cousin. Somebody could have mentioned that sooner, and I feel they should have. Articulating my objection would not be worth the embarrassment. My suggestion that we name him Keith instead was voted down, and that was that.
Is that why we never bonded, Toby and I? He sure liked me. Have I subconsciously neglected the four legged one because of the shortcomings of the two legged one? It was benign neglect, I assure you. He had food and shelter and veterinary care. I gave him other people that would adore him. Mike thinks he’s the bee’s knees. But while I never wished him gone, I did sometimes wish he wasn’t here.
He likes wearing stinky things, noisily licking himself while we eat dinner, and snoring against my bedroom door late at night. He licks walls and appliances and scoots his butt on the hardwood floors. But he is a Good Dog. And he has been Woody’s companion animal for the last decade. They are the odd couple.
He’s not been feeling very good lately; vet trips, a couple of routine surgeries, and four different antibiotics. Last night I climbed into the bathtub with him. Did he trust me, or was he just too tired to fight? As the warm water enveloped him, he stopped shivering and relaxed into me. I rolled him onto his back, cradled in my lap. He looked me right in the eye and spoke to me in a language I know well.
Wheeze. I can’t breathe
Cough. I can’t breathe.
Whimper. Help me.
The vet – our kind, caring vet, says there is no amount of money we can spend to change what is now inevitable. There is also no end to the amount we could spend to delay it by a day – maybe two. Many times over the years, we have been prepared to lose Woody, but Toby? I can tell you we never imagined he would go first. Or at all. Toby was forever. There is a twenty-five year old notebook that says so in a box somewhere in our basement.
I made the appointment for seven o’clock tonight so that family can say goodbye. There will never be enough time for me to tell you how badly I wish I had been a better mama. There should have been Toby Tuesdays.
In hind site, nothing about today’s dogastrophe was unpredictable, except maybe the lifetime ban from the pet store. Did not see that coming when I left the house this morning.
Last week I stopped in to buy a replacement bottle of Woody’s special, $30 medicated shampoo. Instead of the clear, lavender gel I was expecting at the doggy boutique today, I squirted something that looked and smelled like Johnson’s Baby Lotion all down Woody’s back. In big, purple letters, the bottle confirmed my mistake. I bought conditioner, not shampoo.
I swear to you, I didn’t even know they made dog conditioner.
I used the gentlest shampoo the shop offers, and followed up with a thorough rub down and rinse with this new conditioner. At least he’ll still get the antibacterial, anti-allergy, anti-yeast, soothing medication, I figured. I just hoped the shampoo didn’t set off a new skin allergy. When we were finished, Woody left the beauty shop smelling fine and as soft as a freshly laundered baby bunny – which would terrify him if they ever crossed paths. He has an exceptionally low prey drive.
Per our bath day ritual, we walked down to the Mediterranean restaurant on the corner, where I ordered Woody a plate of lamb. We sat on the patio while he did tricks to earn every bite. The patrons always enjoy the Woody show, and he loves the attention almost as much as he does the people food.
Still feeling frisky from his bath, I kept him with me while running errands, eventually stopping at the pet store to buy the correct shampoo on the way home.
Woody loves this store, and in his advanced age and new found calm, I bet I could walk him around off leash.
Well, I would have. I’d have been dead wrong, but the outcome wouldn’t have been drastically different.
The one exception to his low prey drive is birds. I’ve watched him grab them right out of the air in our back yard. Madi employed him, regrettably, to help get a stuck bird out of her bedroom. Effective, but disgusting, as he vomited the poor starling onto her carpet.
Today, hunger wasn’t a contributing factor – his belly was full of lamb. I think it was just a case of the after bath friskies, combined with, obviously noticing for the first time, the pet store’s delectable selection of Parakeets. It was the perfect storm, really.
My mindless stroll to the grooming aisle was interrupted by a bark, a painful tug, and then sudden slackening of his leash. I looked up to see Woody in his signature trick, reaching for the sky. The full weight of a normally sedentary weimaraner fell against the middle case in a stack of glass bird tanks. It, and the one above crashed to the floor.
Woody forged into the broken glass, bird bedding, and feathers to pluck himself a chew toy from the flock; a beautiful Carolina Blue one.
The employees outnumbered the customers at that time by about 2.5 to 1, but everybody appeared at the scene of the crime in time to watch Woody take his first chomp of Tweety. When the bird squeaked, I knew he was done for. Woody mistook his cry for help and I said aloud, “Oh my God! He’s going for the squeaker!”
Each little birdy plea egged him on to chomp again until the guy I’m pretty sure was the manager told me to Get. That. Dog. Out. Now.
I tugged at Woody’s scruff – his collar lay broken at the other end of the leash I was still holding. It was then that he seemed to come out of his adrenaline trance. He stood, head cocked in confusion, with the front end of a feebly struggling parakeet hanging from the left side of his mouth.
I was probably in shock, too. “Do you want him to leave the bird?”
I think he told me to take it, but I wasn’t fully processing everything yet. I grabbed the top of Woody’s snout and told him to leave it.
He did. Begrudgingly.
I took him to my car and rolled down the back windows in silence. I do not know what you say to a dog who just ate an innocent parakeet in public. With no way to clip him to his car harness, I hoped for the best and went back inside to ask if I could help clean up.
No. I could not.
Could I at least pay for the bird?
Yes. Most certainly.
I was still dragging the broken collar on the end of Woody’s leash, I realized.
Can I just go look for a new collar, real quick?
As I was paying for the ABC bird and Woody’s bright, new collar, the presumed manager came to me to officially excommunicate my dog from the good graces of the pet store.
Sitting on the back deck, thinking I should really have a word with him about today’s events, but still unable to fathom what that word would be I suddenly realized – I forgot to get the shampoo.
I fumbled my mom’s old recipe box on the night before Thanksgiving. A hundred recipes fanned out on the kitchen floor and the box landed in two pieces. I ferreted out the pineapple casserole I was looking for, and shoved everything back in the box as best it would go, telling myself that I’d sort through it in the next couple of days, but knowing that was a lie.
Facing my third ice-bound day, this morning seemed like a good time to put recipes back in order. I settled in with my hot tea (Numi – Monkey King, if you must know), and got to work sorting the age yellowed, typed index cards and hand written, notebook paper recipes back to their proper section.
And then my phone rang. It was Donna, the friendly taxidermist calling me back. We had a lively discussion about pets we have loved and agreed that her daughter, Nora is a gem. When we got around to the business of why I’d left her a message – Woody – she was very tender in asking me the questions a taxidermist needs answered concerning a possible mount. I tried to let her know these discussions don’t bother me. When he’s gone I will miss him and grieve him terribly, but I can handle matters of his body with complete detachment. I told her I’ve already made arrangements for myself and stopped short of telling her I did the same for my mother just five years ago.
Five years ago, today.
She passed that morning before I could get back in to hospice to visit. When we left the night before, I think we all knew it was the last time. She talked about how heavy her ham was and I told her to put it down.
The thought of that, on the phone with Ms. Donna, kind of took my breath away. When we hung up, I returned to my recipe sorting, thinking that maybe I’d find a nice ham recipe to make for dinner tonight in her memory. And maybe I’d make the cherry chocolate cake my dad loved, too; in another two weeks he’ll have been gone 10 whole years.
When the jellies and breads and pickles and puddings were all tucked away in orderly fashion behind their tabbed labels, I noticed there wasn’t a single ham recipe. In fact, except for a magazine clipping of how to saute a chicken and what to do with it once you have, the whole meat section of her box was empty. I will attribute this to the thirty or so cook books I confiscated when my father passed away. Meat was his favorite genre and I’m guessing he didn’t give her much opportunity to collect any of her own recipes in that medium.
I ran across eight recipes for persimmons; bread, cake, cookies, pickled, pie, and three puddings. She took the time to type or tape each of these recipes onto index cards, I’m guessing, in the early 70’s. The paper has a scent I recognize from my childhood. But here’s my question – Did persimmons go extinct? I’ve never seen one and I can say with certainty that the stains on these recipes were not made during my lifetime.
If you know what and where a persimmon is, maybe you can send me one (a few). In return, I’ll share this recipe with you.
Here’s an exercise for people over the age of…let’s see…Thirty. Thirty is good. It could take a few minutes, but it will either be delightful or educational.
Get comfortable with your favorite beverage. I’ve got my coconut chai latte. I’ll wait for you to get yours.
Now close your eyes (but not until you’ve read all the way through), and imagine your fourteen year old self. Don’t imagine you, like you are right now, today, with every interesting thing that’s ever happened to you under your belt. Imagine the real 14 year old you – the one with zits or braces, or skinny arms and legs. Parents that just don’t understand, hormones like a mother fu…nevermind. I’m keeping this one clean. Fourteen. Remember fourteen.
Now imagine the most embarrassing thing that somebody revealed about you to the entire class. Maybe they made up a lie about you and spread around the school. It happened to every one of us. Can you remember what it was? Some of you won’t be able to because it is miraculous what your brain can forget when you don’t spend every single day of the last twenty five years thinking about it. That’s ok. Think about what would have embarrassed you to the point that you wanted to quit school, or pretend to be sick for two weeks, or maybe even kill yourself. Yes. I’m talking that serious. Imagine somebody’s attempt to cause you that much shame, and what your ability to handle that would have been at the age of fourteen – again, without the knowledge you have right now.
Next, imagine you are you now. This should be the easy part. For some, that will take a minute. Again, I’ll wait.
You are 30, or 42, or 56. You might even be in your 80s. All of your childhood pals and classmates are also their ages now, except for the ones that have passed. They’re still gone – and they deserve a moment of silence. Again, I’ll wait. I’ll bow my head with you.
Now, someone you have not seen since you were that fourteen year old, insecure, unknowing, inexperienced self has just told your whole class that deeply embarrassing secret or lie.
Not back then.
How do you react?
Are you amused? You’d forgotten that! Do you call your closest friends who missed the announcement and say, “Oh my God, you won’t believe this stupid thing I did when I was fourteen!” And then proceed to tell them with no shame and have a good chuckle? Do you end up in long conversation about how justlike you that sounds?
Congratulations! You survived some pretty horrific things for a kid your age. You are a bird – an Odd Bird – who can laugh about that time you had your mom’s poop on your egg shell.
Or, are you deeply ashamed? That secret – or that lie that everyone believed so it might as well have been true – it has haunted you through every college party, every job interview, every play group with your baby and her baby friend’s parents. You have been scared to death of what all of these people would think of you if they knew that thing you did, or might as well have done when you were fourteen years old. As the years have passed, the list of people you have to hide your embarrassing secret from has grown.
Are you mortified that someone has just brought it up all over again? Are you squirming in your chair and did you just lose interest in that beverage you poured yourself?
Great news! You can let that egg shell poop go! Today is the day you get to put that down and become an Odd Bird, too. If the loved ones in your life are just now finding out your deepest, darkest shame – they are going to be so relieved to find out you aren’t suffering by holding on to it anymore. Believe me, please – nobody else, since you were fourteen years old has been thinking about it, too.
Except, maybe, the person who brought it up again, 16, or 28, or 34, or 60 years later. Resist the urge to question the motives of that person. They aren’t your cross to bear. You are and Odd Bird now, too. You can fly.
And if you are fourteen and reading this, sweetheart, I know you feel hurt, betrayed, embarrassed, and maybe even worthless. But I primise you, you are not. Those icky feelings you have now are carving texture into an otherwise flat existence. They will be replaced with joy beyond measure, periods of boredom, different disappointments, and moments of tranquility. And you will miss every bit of it if you do not let go of the pain of this moment.
And then when life is humming along smoothly, predictably, and happily – lean in, this is the important part – be willing to let go of that, too. Sign up for the talent show, even if you’ve only ever sung into your hair brush. Apply to that university none of your friends are attending. Seek out the next challenging job. Pick up a hobby that leaves scars. Move to a place where you don’t know anyone and can’t pronounce the street names. Break up with any person who cannot allow you to grow, change, and become.
Because all of those things are adding dimensions to your very being. Without them, you will be a flat checkerboard in a Rubix Cube world.
And one day you’re going to run into some of those classmates again. You will have so many interesting things to tell each other. You could spend years comparing all that you’ve seen of this big, wide world.
Unless they never risked, never lost, never won, and never became. Those are the people who will recognize you as the Odd Bird that you are. They won’t be the first person to ever tell you this in your life, but they will say it with more bitterness than you ever knew someone could feel towards the avian species. They will resent you for not boarding up your windows and living your whole life in the same box full of hurt they believed you deserved at fourteen.
Jack’s fidgeting gets more frenetic, pacing back and forth between his big sister in the living room, and me in the kitchen. In my face he whispers desperately, “Is this really how I have to spend my last day of summer?”
I keep my voice low, but I won’t whisper back. “Yes. We are doing this for Madi. You can’t get out of it. None of us can. Go enjoy the next few hours.”
Despite an upbringing shunning such things, Madi fell in with a Baptist church earlier in the summer. They recruited her from table twelve at the Buffalo Wing restaurant where she waited tables the last three summers; invited her out to coffee, then lunch, then church on Sunday mornings and something they call small group on Thursday nights.
Small group is held in member’s homes and is made up of eighteen to twenty five year olds. Most of them are already married, something that surprised Madi, but not me. Sexual development and hormones don’t actually follow any indoctrination regarding premarital sex, and I remember vividly the pressure to give holy meaning to the weakness of the flesh. The most devout will marry young so as not to have sex out of wedlock, while the most human will have sex anyway, but assign some permanence or significance to the relationship for no other reason than to feel right, or righter, with God. I waited until she asked me to share my insights.
I admit I was leery when Madi made plans to meet the pastor and several of his assistants at a local bistro. She said they had to meet on Tuesday, because the pastor was going to Mississippi on Wednesday. My tongue struck quicker than my filter. “Why? Does he have to pick up more snakes?”
“How did you know?” she asked with eyes wide, like I was a palm reader telling her some deep, dark secret about herself.
I told her about the small sects of Baptist believers that routinely handle snakes to prove that God is protecting them. Most of the deaths by snakebite in this country come not from people who accidentally wander into a pit of vipers, but people who are intentionally handling snakes; religious zealots account for a large number of those.
Online, Madi found many pictures of the pastor holding snakes, and she showed me. Some were long and thick, some were short and striped. Others were bright green and small as pencils. Most were constrictors, but all were non venomous. Begrudgingly, I told her it appeared that he was not a snake handler, but a snake enthusiast. He does it for hobby, not for sacrament. Not unlike the difference, I learned when I got married, between an Elvis impersonator and an Elvis tribute artist.
One Sunday afternoon, Madi met us at the local brewery when church let out. We ate our carried-in burgers and drank our beer. She mentioned that she was surprised not to run into any church members doing the same; it’s a small town. Mike and I informed her that Baptists don’t condone drinking. Or dancing. Or cards. I recounted one lovely and lavish wedding I attended at my mother’s church when I was a teen. The reception was held in the church basement, with a long table of pot luck crocks and fold up chairs lining the walls for people to sit with their Styrofoam plates and eat off their own laps. No first dance, no toast, no cake cutting ceremony. Or maybe I’d already gone outside to hang out with the other bored teens by then, because I can’t think of any scriptural reason not to have a cake cutting ceremony – not even if you take or mistake everything quite literally. A few days later, Madi reported that she’d asked small group about drinking and everyone claimed that they personally would never drink, but didn’t see a problem if someone else wanted to on special occasions.
My biggest concern came one evening while I painted my son’s bedroom. Across the hall, I heard Madi listening to a podcast of the same hell fire and brimstone indoctrination my mother used to listen to on the radio and satellite television. As if channeling her dead grandmother, I found her sitting at her desk, sewing something. I listened quietly from the doorway, and only spoke up when I heard this man rail against ho-mo-sex-shuls and other despicable deviants. I could not be silent any more.
“Is this okay with you? This man is preaching hate and intolerance, and is precisely why I didn’t raise you in the church. This is not Christianity, and it’s not alright.”
She told me she didn’t agree with him, but she was listening because she wanted to know what the church she was attending really believed in. I took some comfort that if she was still listening and learning, it wouldn’t be long before she couldn’t stomach the lot, either.
Then about a month ago, Madi asked me if anything was on my schedule for August twenty eighth. It was the day before school started for Jack and Cate, but we had no specific festivities for Back-to-School Eve. And then she invited me to the river, where she planned to be baptized with about seventy other people on that evening. Their summer recruitment plan had been quite fruitful and I could not help but wonder if there was an award to the top proselytizer; a trip to Mississippi and two free snakes, perhaps?
I felt nothing but worriment last week when I realized that the day was quickly approaching. But man cannot live by dread alone, so I started planning ways I could take my sense of failure to instill my beliefs and anti-beliefs into my firstborn and turn them into something to look forward to. Also, I wanted to take some of the gravity and significance out of the day. I suggested that we tailgate the baptism; show up early with a bucket of chicken and some good tunes. Apparently my eleven herbs and spices are not that original. The event starts three hours before the actual dunking. There is live music and the church is ordering Papa Johns for the masses. I just hope that the pastor actually ordered pizza and, in the spirit of things, did not get carried away and order anchovies and crust in commemoration of the fishes and loaves.
I understood when she retook a philosophy class that she’d passed, but wanted to replace her grade to improve her GPA. I voiced my strong desire that she retake driver’s ed before getting her learner’s permit. It’s okay in my book to re-do things until you get them right, or right enough – but being born again? She did it perfectly the first time; forty-five minute labor with no complications. She was such a beautiful, easy child. I don’t understand why she wants to be born again. It’s like scoring a 1600 on the SAT and still wanting to take it over.
Jack is right to not want to spend his last day of summer freedom watching his sister sell herself into this church. But that’s what we’re doing, because she is family. And because I still hope that the steady, constant voice telling her that God is love, not judgement, not hatred, not damnation will come in louder and clearer than pulpit shouts of indictment and sentencing. And because if she decides one day to get married, there’s no way I’m letting her have a dry reception in a damp old basement.
Seventeen years ago today was a Monday. The Cleveland Browns returned to the field for the first time in four years and they beat the Dallas Cowboys by 3 points. My boyfriend, being from Pittsburgh, was a natural enemy of Cleveland anything. He was, by law, a Steelers fan, but I’ve always suspected that if he’d been born with free will, he’d have chosen them, anyway.
Being of somewhat average intelligence with a strong sense of right and wrong, I naturally detested the Cowboys. I grew up in a virtual football desert; The Carolina Panthers didn’t exist until I was an adult, which is probably why I don’t count them as a real team, even as they turn 21 this year. Wipe that look off your face, neighbor; it’s the same as when you couldn’t embrace green ketchup even though it tastes the same.
Carolina Panthers. Green Ketchup. There’s a choking metaphor in there somewhere.
Speaking of choking, Miami Dolphins. That was my team, I thought. Most of my school buddies chose to pull for the closest teams to our north or to our south – Redskins or Falcons. I chose my team by far more scientific methods; I thought Dan Marino was gorgeous. Years and years later I’d realize I was really only his fan. The rest of the team just didn’t interest me that much.
“I’m going to marry him. What’s his name?” I declared just moments before he lost the last Super Bowl he ever played. It’s possible, I bet, that I’m the jinx he could never shake.
But seventeen years ago today, he wasn’t playing, and neither were the Steelers. We were simply celebrating the return of Monday Night Football. We cooked several pots of chili and invited some friends over. The Browns emerged victorious and the bowls were all loaded into the dishwasher when we lay down to unwind on the couch before bed. I was not expecting what happened next. At least, not that moment.
See, I totally ignored that whole don’t get your meat from the same place you get your bread rule and started dating a co-worker. He had a goofy sense of humor and perfectly straight teeth; apparently the only standards I possessed at the time. One day he overheard as I was espousing to another co-worker the superiority of Dan Marino over every other human, living or dead. He stuck out his hand to shake and said, “Hi. I went to high school with Dan Marino.”
And that’s when I was sold.
I may as well have ordered a side of Brooklyn Bridge or beach front property in Arizona because as it turned out, he only went to the same high school as Dan Marino. Thirteen years later. But that’s another story.
A year and a half after his little white lie, I was laying on the couch with him in my apartment when I said, “Hey, you know what I really want?”
He said he thought he did, and told me to close my eyes. I complied and after a few seconds he told me I could open them.
He was still lying there, beside me.
“Where’s my chocolate?”
He looked confused.
“You said you had chocolate.”
“What? No I didn’t!”
I looked confused.
There, sitting on top of the afghan I’d thrown over us was a square box. It contained the thing I’d been anxiously avoiding for a couple of weeks.
On one occasion he’d asked if I ever looked through the jar of sand I kept on my kitchen counter. I saw the tip of the diamond and a couple of gold prongs poking out and said, “Why? It’s just sand,” before quickly leaving the room.
On another occasion he asked me to bring him something from the dresser drawer I’d designated as his. The box was right on top, but I moved it to the side and took him the item he requested.
If my memory serves me, there was another near miss, but I’ve forgotten the details. I definitely didn’t expect or want what he was trying to give me. Before him, I’d dated a guy who casually said he thought I’d look good in a dress he saw in a magazine. It was white. So I read between the lines and did the only proper thing; I waited a few days and told him I moved to Alaska.
But there I was, trapped between him and the sofa cushions with an afghan and two ton diamond ring on my chest. It was almost a karat, but the weight. Oh my God, the weight.
He asked the obvious question and I said yes. It would have been rude not to.
That sounds like bullshit, but it would have. I did not want marriage, but he did. And since it meant something to him, but not to me, it seemed a small price to pay for someone I had come to love.
Plus, I’d grown up a little bit since that time I didn’t actually move to Alaska.
Ten years later, I suspect to the day, Mr. I Didn’t Really, Actually, Truly Go to High School with Dan Marino went on a business trip and fell into the vagina of the co-worker he’d been making fun of on the way to the airport a few days earlier. At that time, Dan Marino had been retired nine years, and was hiding the illegitimate love child he’d created when he fell into a co-worker’s vagina. Be careful, guys. It is a va-jungle out there. Apparently.
I’ve gotten rid of both the Dolphins and the Dan Marino paraphernalia that’s been foisted on me, usually by in-laws, over the years. Except for a few pictures in each of the kid’s rooms (and the kids themselves), I’ve also rid the house of any ex-husband memorabilia.
I wouldn’t even bring this up, and anniversaries like this one would go completely unremembered if not for the Facebook Memories feature. But lest you think this is all depressing commentary, let me assure you this is actually very, very good news.
I don’t actually follow football anymore. My team was probably never really my team, my player let me down, and I have remarried a man who’s far more into soccer and is content to let me ignore that sport, too. But the laws of space and time dictate that if this is the seventeenth anniversary of a preseason football game, this – here, now – must also be football preseason, too!
Unless the laws of physics have completely broken, autumn is on the way, ya’ll! Here’s a recipe so you can celebrate, too. Leave out the karats.
2 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided
2 onions chopped
4 cloves garlic minced
3 pound brisket
1 pound spicy Italian sausage, no casing
2 pound butternut squash, diced.
3 (14.5 ounce) cans peeled and diced tomatoes with juice
3 bottles of Shiner Bock (pour the other three on your garden to kill slugs)
3 cups strong brewed coffee
4 (6 ounce) cans tomato paste
3 (14 ounce) can beef broth
3/4 cup chili powder
1/2 cup cocoa power
3 tablespoons ground cumin
3/4 cup brown sugar
3 teaspoon dried oregano
3 teaspoon cayenne pepper
3 teaspoon ground coriander
3 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoon wasabi paste (or to taste)
5 (15 ounce) cans kidney beans
5 Anaheim chili peppers, chopped
3 serrano pepper, chopped Directions Place brisket in large roasting pan. Brown Italian sausage and add to brisket pan.
Sautee onions and garlic in the grease from the sausage, add to brisket and sausage. Pour in the tomatoes, coffee, tomato paste, beans, and broth. Add all dry seasonings. Roast at 350 degrees for 1 hour.
In a large skillet over medium heat, heat oil. Cook Anaheim and serrano peppers, 5 to 10 minutes. Add to roasting pan, along with one Shiner Bock and return to oven. In one more hour, add another Shiner Bock. In another hour, add the last Shiner Bock and the diced butternut squash. Continue cooking until the brisket is easily pulled apart with a fork.
Remove from oven and do that, then stir all together. If you prefer more heat, you can add habanero to the skillet with Anaheim and serrano peppers. They make my teeth hurt, so I don’t use them.
Serve with your favorite toppings; we like sour cream, cheese, and fresh green onions.
Oh, and bread. Preferably homemade, but if you don’t live with Martha Stewart, use whatever you like.