Advent 12: At the Garage

That’s my mother, pushing up her glasses. It was, I think, at the very beginning of her very thin years. Her younger sister is looking over her shoulder at her. I remember my aunt’s hair, lush and wavy like a Hollywood star. My grandmother is holding something in her hands and studying it. If it was now, we’d think she was looking at her phone but the phone was in the house, sitting on a tiny phone table with a crocheted doily, black with a rotary dial and a thick cord. The cord didn’t coil. It hung like a lariat off the side of the table.

I remember my grandmother’s outfit even though I wasn’t born when this picture was taken. She kept her clothes a good long time. I remember how the fabric was soft but crinkled, permanently crinkled, not ironed that way and I know I felt that skirt with my own hands like I know I’ve run my hands on the paint of that garage door. I breathed that air. It was just many years later.

My father was there that day, too. Here he is sitting, leaning against the garage door, flashing his argyle socks, and he is his hip self. He worked a regular job during the day and played in dance bands at night and so that part of him, the part of him that could play a song if you hummed a few bars, was always gliding around him. He was a smooth character back then. You can tell by how he’s sitting. He had it going.

My parents before they were my parents. I love seeing them that way.

Advent 11: Also Ran

We got our new dog Punchy’s rap sheet in the mail today.

Included was a record of all of his shots since he was a pup in Alaska and his family tree. He was one of a litter that included brothers Baba Ganoush and Tramp. Of course, we were happy to see that his dad was from Joe Redington, Sr.’s kennel – Joe Redington is widely regarded as the father of the modern Iditarod. So we high-fived each other in the kitchen tonight, our little link to dog mushing royalty.

Punchy turned out to be 11, not 10, but you’d never know it watching him take the four back porch steps in one leap. He is slim, agile, and tireless, and adaptable, which is probably his greatest gift.

Included in all the info was a handwritten note that accompanied him when he came from his Alaska birthplace to Nature’s Kennel in the U.P. The note confirmed what we’d been told about Punchy – he was a great lead dog but didn’t know what he was doing and didn’t follow any commands.

Here’s the note:

Punchy – Baba Ganoush’s slower brother. He has great attitude, tough, runs lead – doesn’t know anything but does it fine at 10-11 mph. Usually runs in midteam back unless in lead on slower runs. VERY HEAT SENSITIVE. He has great feet, great eater, and easy keeper. If he is fast enough could be a good asset. I don’t know if he is fast enough or not.

So Punchy wasn’t a fabulous sled dog. He was never in the Iditarod but he pulled sleds for years. He has the look of a steel worker, that’s how sturdy and tough he is. He still seems uncertain that he is deserving of all the softness in his life now, although the people at Nature’s Kennel were plenty nice to him. But he didn’t sit in their kitchen while the people talked over their day or curl up on the big dog pillow next to their bed when they went to sleep. Those are things he is doing here with us and we are very glad.

Advent 10: Cruel Soup

I’ve spent so much time around really kind people in the past year or two that I’ve lost my edge. I’ve become a naive little flower in the poisonous garden of neighborhood politics.

So I was taken aback as the first, then the second, then the third speaker spoke against opening a warming room for homeless people in a local senior center. The warming room would operate when the senior center was closed – folks would come in at 7 pm and leave at 7 am, well before seniors showed up for tai chi or woodworking or for their morning social.

But because an alderman got busy stoking the flames of fear and loathing, the speakers were dripping with hostility, it ran off them like spring sap from a maple tree, just unabashed as if it was the most natural thing in the world.

“They’re filthy.”

“What about lice and bedbugs and diseases? They’ll make us all sick.”

“They’ll leave their needles laying around.”

So there are things that take your breath away and hatred is one of them. Now there’s a lot of hatred in the world, even in a nice town like Milwaukee, but usually people take some pains to cover it up. You know, like they might have a stain on their favorite shirt so they put a sweater on to hide it; they don’t want anyone to know they have a stained shirt. Yesterday, at this public meeting about the warming room, people were wearing their stained shirts with pride. It was truly breathtaking.

I am bothered by this for a lot of reasons. The first one is that it’s 17 degrees outside and supposed to get colder. The second is that there are a lot of homeless people sleeping outside very near this senior center. The third reason is that we had to have a public meeting about offering homeless people a place to not freeze to death. Experts told the crowd that bedbugs and lice and diseases weren’t issues – no more than with anyone you might meet. But the chorus had started on these notes and only got louder as the meeting progressed. No one knew how to change the tune.

So it is depressing.

I let the dogs out the back door and the cold air hits me in the face. I close the door because it’s too cold and I stand inside watching while they run around, disappear in the bushes and then leap back on to the porch. A few days ago, I would have gone out on the porch or in the yard to watch them but it’s too cold now. Too cold for me in my jeans and sweatshirt. My big socks. When they come in, I turn up the heat. Why? I don’t know. Because I can, I guess.

The warming room will open, sooner or later. I believe that. But there is still tonight and the 17 degrees and the hatred and the heat I can turn up if I want to. It’s a cruel soup.

Advent 8: Punch

Our new dog, Punchy, chomped on my hand today. I was holding a Milk-Bone at the time so I’m not entirely blameless here. Still, the chomp hit my upper thumb, sort of a jaws wide open grab whatever is meat kind of action like a shark gliding under feet dangling from a surfboard. Instinct doesn’t allow for the differentiation of treat from human flesh.

Despite the chomp or the chomp notwithstanding, either way, Punchy has made a remarkable adjustment to life inside. He sleeps in a bed. He follows the morning routine. He eats from his own bowl. He walks in a straight line instead of running in circles like he did the first week or so. He stands quietly for me to put his harness on. He stops doing bad stuff if we yell at him. And……biggest of all…..and amazing after two weeks. He comes when he’s called.

We’ve been working on this at the dog park every day for two weeks. Having him know we are his people now is the basis of everything. This goal comes after ten years of him having been a working sled dog that lived outside in a dog yard with 200 other dogs. We’re all about bringing him to a new pack – our little TV-watching, rum-drinking, truck driving pack. Big cultural shift, yes?

So the other day when Punchy punched through the fence and tore off after a squirrel or some such and we saw him halfway down the next block, across a busy street, we called his name and he looked up and ran right toward us while we yelled for a nice, concerned college student to stop traffic for him. He barrelled right to us, turned around and waited for us to rub his fanny and tell him that he was a good boy, a very good boy.

And he is a good boy. Amazingly so. Except for the Milk-Bone issue. We’re working on it.

Advent 7: Not Today

For seven years, I have been gathering donations of menstrual supplies for homeless people and dropping them off at emergency shelters. I started doing this because I was in a bad way. My hearing loss had become extreme and my career was tanking. So I needed a way to rebuild myself and I did it with tampons and pads.

Along the way, I got a cochlear implant which much improved my hearing but there was no way really to recapture my career at its height – once you slide, you slide – so I decided to be productive and amazing in other ways than the ways I had been for many years. Menstrual supplies continued to be a thing for me. No one else in town was doing it and it became my territory.

So this effort is both simple and complex. Getting people to donate supplies and cash requires effort, skill, and some charm. I’ve never been an especially charming person but I’ve developed. I’ve learned to appreciate people and celebrate their generosity and do it in a way that is from the heart which required, you might guess, finding my own heart.

For years, I’ve counted out donations and put them into pink garbage bags that I load on to our truck and deliver around town. People are usually happy to see me show up, sometimes they help me unload, they ask if I want a receipt and I say no, I just drive off like the Lone Ranger. But because it makes other people want to donate, I often take pictures and I post those pictures on social media. It’s part of showing donors where their investment is going – to this shelter, that one, to this outreach program, and so on.

This week I posted pictures on social media of a big donation at a local emergency shelter and within minutes I was accused of supporting a facility that discriminated against LGBTQ people. Having known the shelter and its staff for twenty years, I knew this accusation to be false. If anything, the shelter in question was exemplary in its welcoming, non-judgmental character and had often been the place that accepted people that other shelters were unable to serve. So, of course, I defended the facility.

Then ensued more criticism on social media, more accusations, on into the night. People uninformed about homelessness but intensely concerned about LGBTQ discrimination piled on. It was astonishing to me – my little good hearted self stuffing my pink bags with tampons and pads as a way to keep my footing in the world – I was getting lambasted.

So I went to bed and when I woke up I realized that I’d been bullied. By well-meaning people, maybe, but bullied nonetheless. Rat-a-tat-tatted by people who so thoroughly believe what they’re saying that they can’t, for a minute, countenance an alternative point of view. Barraged. Today, because of a comment someone made, I realized that I had been introduced to ‘call-out culture’ – a new name for ganging up on someone, not in person, but on social media for some offense, in my case, dropping off tampons and pads to an unacceptable place but it could have been for a poorly worded tweet or a dumb mistake or whatever.

I decided not to take it. It’s that simple. I deleted comments on social media that were offensive and I did it with no apology, violating my allegiance to free speech and just deciding that certain things weren’t going to take place in the social media space that I control. I felt a little close-minded about it, like I wasn’t willing to entertain different points of view, but the points of view weren’t just different, they were hostile and disparaging. And just like I wouldn’t stand in the middle of the street and have a gang of people yelling at me, I decided that I wouldn’t sit at my laptop and see one unpleasant comment after another in my feed. So I erased them.

But this is where we are now. We are in a new era of flame throwing, a not so brave new world of casting aspersions on people and institutions, assailing people’s intentions and integrity and when they respond, accusing them of being defensive, unable to ‘handle the truth.’ It’s so crummy and so dumb. But so tempting, especially now, when there is so much on social media that any one of us detests and could speak volumes to. Drop a Trump line in the water and I want to be on it like a blue shark. But I don’t, not anymore, not for a long while. If I really disagree with someone, really disagree with them, I move on, I don’t say anything. Unless it’s Senator Ron Johnson, then I let it rip. Otherwise, I’m Miss Manners.

I report all this tonight to get it off my chest. And to sort out what I think which is what writing is actually for, you know, like Joan Didion said and I’ve repeated a thousand times, “I don’t know what I think until I write it down.”