"With the certitude of a true believer, Vellya Paapen had assured the twins that there was no such thing in the world as a black cat. He said that there were only black, cat-shaped holes in the universe."
-- Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things

Friday, January 25, 2013

The End Of The World As We Know It

            Yesterday, I was reading Help! For Writers by Roy Peter Clark.  On page 180, the author describes his preferred tools for writing by hand: “my favorite Poynter Institute pen and spiral notebook”.  I found that very cute and also unforgivably wrong.  Obviously, the most superior writing tools in the world today are the Pentel RSVP pens (fine point or medium) and the Greenroom brand notebooks.  (My preference is the large composition book, but all sizes and varieties of their comp books and spirals are superb.)  I scoffed at Clark’s amateur taste in office supplies, but decided to continue reading his book anyway. 
            I couldn’t focus though.  As I daydreamed about the clean, defined point of the RSVP and how it comes in so many colors and rarely ever forms one of those nasty little bubbles on the tip, even when near the end of its ink, and as I ran my hand over the smooth, eggshell, faintly-lined surface of the Greenroom, which somehow—how is it possible?!—allows the RSVP’s ink to flow even more velvety across its easily-turned pages, I thought about my dad and how much he loves Ticonderoga pencils and Big Chief Tablets and how he laments their scarcity. 
            And that thought led me to contemplate the unthinkable possibility of Pentel and Greenroom ceasing the manufacture of my beloved instruments. 
            And that led me to the journal entry I wrote this morning:

A beautiful array of Greenroom products, in all their glory.
Though their original covers are always eye-appealing,
I sometimes make some minor adjustments of my own.

* What would happen if, all of a sudden, Pentel stopped making RSVP pens and Greenroom stopped making composition books?  

When a pen I really love runs out,
I make sure the last word it ever
writes is something pleasant.
Well, I’d go crazy.  We can skip right to that inevitable conclusion without pause.  I’m neurotic in my cute little way, slightly OCD.  I like things the way I like things.  I have spent all my life searching for the BEST pen and PERFECT paper.  I’ve tried the GTC and the Riverside Paper Company.  Putting a cute kitten or a unicorn on the cover of a Mead spiral doesn’t make the pages inside any less dry and inconsistently lined.  I’ve used Bics, Papermates, and Z-Grips.  I even tried gel pens for a while.  (Don’t judge—you’ll stoop to any low if you’re desperate enough.)  But rarely did I write a pen to its demise, always giving up on it, leaving off with ink half full, disappointment the last sentiment penned across the page. 
Now… now that I have finally found the promised land of creative construction… (It’s Target, by the way.)  …Now that I’ve finally found tools that never let me down, tools that I cheerfully purchase over and over and over again, I think it’s obvious that having that joy taken from me would drive me crazy.
The insanity would start slowly at first.  It would begin with denial—What?  No… They’re just out right now.  I’m sure they’ll be back in stock in July for back to school season… Right?  Then, after some ugly bouts with anger, bargaining, and depression, I would eventually accept the situation.  The grieving process would be complete, and I could move on to dealing with the problem (a.k.a going crazy).
Luckily, I have a back store of supplies.  Not enough, but some.  I’d have to ration.  No more tearing out a page just because it was too messy.  No more using a Pentel to write the grocery list.  That useless crud can be done in blood for all I care, it’s not getting the precious ink of my RSVP!  I’d install a lock on my office door.  Naturally.  Instead of carrying them unprotected in my purse, I’d strap my pens into a holster on my thigh—three on my body at all times:  black (of course), red (for when things get serious), and purple (for those whimsical moments). 
It wouldn’t be long until all that was left was purple.
Inferior products,
all of them.
As my stash dwindled, and I realized painfully that I was down to two pens—pink and green—and one poor comp book with a bent cover, I’d start getting desperate and bold.  By this time I wouldn’t be sleeping anymore, staying up all night reciting poems in my head, memorizing story ideas so as not to have to deplete my stores.  I’d start dropping by friends’ houses, asking to use the restroom, sneaking into the office instead, searching through drawers and piles and little ceramic holders that say “Keep Your Paws Off MY Pencils!” looking for the precious ink or pages.  I’d even steal a notebook that was filled up already.  Maybe I could write between the lines…
I’d be thrown out of schools, kicked out of Office Depot supply rooms, escorted away from the classroom donation box at Starbucks.  By this point, I would no longer be eating or drinking or showering, consumed entirely by my search, my need. 
When I was down to my last RSVP—the pink one—I’d open it up, inject the rosy liquid straight into my veins, hoping it would reproduce in my body, turn my blood into ink.  On the last space of my last Greenroom composition book, I would write—in my own ink-blood—tiny tiny letters explaining what I had done, and why.
Then the infection would set in.
Twenty-four hours later a librarian walking to her car would cringe in horror as I—ravenous, feverish, my eyes streaked with hot pink lines—would sink my teeth into her arm, mistaking her starfish tattoo for a blot of spilled ink from the Pentel RSVP I saw peeking out of the pocket of her laptop bag.
The cops would be called, but it would be too late.  She would be infected.
Within a month, mindless blood-ink crazed monsters would be loosed upon the world and the few who survived would be forced to document the fall of civilization with a cheap Papermate clicky-top on a Five Star spiral notebook that would never hold up through the end of days.
And they too, though uninfected, would go mad.

So there you have it.  The loss of my beloved writing tools would lead straight to the zombie apocalypse.  So… Pentel and Greenroom, do not stop making my favorite pens and composition books because you really don’t want the end of the world as we know it to be on your shoulders.

Scary, right?
And this is just a zombie finger-puppet sitting on my windowsill.
The real thing would be much more terrifying.

Consider yourselves warned.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

So Long to Rawhide

Keep movin', movin', movin',
Though they're disapprovin',
Keep them doggies movin' Rawhide!
Don't try to understand 'em,
Just rope and throw and grab 'em,
Soon we'll be living high and wide…”

No, not THAT Rawhide.  I am saying goodbye to the popular dog treats made of rawhide.

Ever since we got Uno, I have been leery of rawhide products.  Lots of people say they are fine and their dogs have eaten them for years with no problem, but others say the material does not digest properly and can be a choking hazard.  Even with the warnings though, it’s hard to avoid.  This is not some rare delicacy—there are aisles and aisles of pet stores dedicated to the stuff and it comes in every size, shape, and flavor imaginable.  Still, being overprotective, semi-hippie dog parents and since Uno was not picky about chew toys, we decided to stay on the safe side and avoid it.  Instead we went with Nylabones (I highly recommend them), rubber Kongs (also great), and stuffed friends of every variety (we tend to lean towards dragons, but that is probably more a reflection of our taste than Uno’s).

Nevertheless, rawhide seems to be quite insidious and it has wormed its way into our household three times, all with negative results.

Rawhide Infiltration the First:

When Uno was still a tiny yellow fuzzy bundle of clumsy big feet and baby teeth—(In my head, I just transitioned into my high-pitched, pouty-lipped baby talk voice.  It was unavoidable really.)—I bought him a pink egg-shaped treat that had chicken paste in the center.  I really don’t know why; I think it was on sale. When I bought it, I didn’t realize the outside was made of rawhide.  Then the hubby read the package and pointed out my error.  But… eh.  It was already in the house and Uno was so small, we figured it would take him a while to get into it anyway, so we decided to let him have it while monitored. 

It was love at first bite.  Uno grabbed that thing and wrapped his furry paws around it and went to town with a passion.  It did take him a long time to make a dent in it though and after a long chew session we decided he’d had enough for the day, so we reached to take the egg away.  And that’s when our sweet, adorable, three-month-old baby bared his teeth and GROWLED more ferociously than either of us thought possible. 

I searched all through PetSmart’s website and cannot find the egg toy, 
but here is a picture of Uno holding it. 
You can already see the rawhide-induced evil in his eyes.

As soon as we got over the shock of this eighteen-pound bag of bones threatening us, we took the treat away, put the pup in time out, and decided this was a situation that needed to be remedied quick.  Uno had never behaved that way with any of his other toys or treats before and never hesitated to let us take his food away from him, but he was SERIOUS about that egg.

So we used it as a training tool.  Once in a while, we gave the egg treat to him (it got slimier and slimier as the days went on) and let him chew on it for a few minutes before trying to take it away.  If he let us, he got praised and got the treat back.  If he didn’t let us, it was time out and no treat.  It took several attempts before he would behave with it.

Rawhide Infiltration the Second:

The egg treat obsession was weird, but we didn’t at that point connect any weirdness with the rawhide part.  We were still avoiding rawhide in general and were now also avoiding the pink egg toys because, in addition to making our puppy act feral, it was also just kind of gross.  Then, for Uno’s first Christmas, someone gave him a bag of small, thin rawhide chews.

We weren’t excited about them, but… they were small and they were a gift, so we decided to try them with supervision.  Well, to make a boring story shorter, he got choked on one of them.  I had to reach into his mouth and pull out the white, sticky mess that was blocking his throat.  Those went in the trash and the rawhide avoidance was back on.

Rawhide Infiltration the Last:

Like this, although I don't think
it was the Kong brand.
This Christmas, Uno got another rawhide chew, a big bone-shaped one this time.  At first we just put it away, intending to give it to someone else or donate it.  But… eventually we decided to give it a try, since Uno is bigger and older and healthier and we could monitor him with it. (Are you seeing a pattern yet in our parenting?)  So, we gave our sweet, gentle, sixty-five pound dog the rawhide.  And then we tried to take it away.  And then he growled at us.  Again.

Uno is almost two and he has NEVER acted possessive of ANYTHING else.  Toys, Nylabones, treats, food, Frisbees, stuffed animals… all are to be shared with mom and dad.  He may play keep away.  He may ignore our command to “drop it” and run around the yard instead.  But the only thing he has ever felt the need to defend by aggression is rawhide.  And I have no idea why.

We should have thrown the thing away immediately, but we are gluttons for punishment or at least for training opportunities, so we went back into time-out/reward mode. 

Until last night. 

This is just a yawn,
but you get the idea.
Quick background:  Uno is scared of our black cat, Gink.  Gink is declawed and fourteen years old, but he’s also scary and extremely “assertive” and really put Uno in his place when he was a baby.  Uno gives him a wide berth.  When they are less than three feet away from each other, Uno does not look Gink in the eye.  If Gink is in the kitchen when I put Uno’s food in his bowl, Uno will wait outside the gate and whine until I pick up the black menace and remove him from the area.  Uno is totally and completely cowed by that cat.

Last night, while Uno was chewing on his beloved rawhide, Gink jumped up on the couch near him, and Uno ROARED and LUNGED and GROWLED and SNAPPED and pretty much scared the crap out of everyone.  He did not touch Gink, but I fear that if the cat had been stupid enough to come any closer, he would have.

The dog got locked in the kitchen, the rawhide got thrown in the trash, the too-startled-to-move cat got comforted, and the husband and I decided—once and for all—that we will not allow any more rawhide into our home.  Period.  This time we’re serious.

I really don’t know what it is about this substance that turns our sweet boy into a rabid monster.  I realize this must not be a common side effect of rawhide because pretty much everyone else we know gives it to their dogs.  But for whatever reason, it brings out the devil in Uno, so we are done.

So, be forewarned that any Christmas, birthday, or Valentine gifts containing rawhide will be returned or donated elsewhere.  Thanks, but no thanks.

"Dear Santa, Please bring me a treat
that will not make me crazy."

Monday, January 7, 2013

You Haven’t Really Been Deathly Ill...

…Until You’ve Been Deathly Ill on a Train in a Foreign Country

Check out
The Bloggess's blog here.

I’m not sure if sharing this story makes me incredibly brave or incredibly stupid.   But I just finished reading Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by the brilliant bloggess, Jenny Lawson, and I have been inspired by her predilection for sharing too much.  I mean, she ratted out her own craziness and that of her family and got me to call her brilliant.  Of course, I don’t know how she feels now after millions of people read those stories.  Then again, she’s probably getting super rich, so I bet she feels pretty good.

But I digress. 

This is not about Jenny Lawson.  This is about me and one of the most humbling experiences of my life.  This is a story that I’ve been carrying around with me for years, and it’s time to get it out of my system.  (ß Not the best choice of words considering the subject matter.)

In the summer of 2001, I went on a sixteen-day tour of Peru.  The trip was amazing.  We hiked in the Amazon jungle, held baby sloths, explored Machu Picchu, participated in a curandera ceremony and much more.  Every single day was packed and we rarely stayed in the same place for more than a night.

[Oh yeah, I just remembered.  I already wrote about a different embarrassing experience in Peru.  You can read about that one here.  And just so you know, this one is WAY worse.]

One of the things I did not get to experience in Peru was the eating of the guinea pig.  No auto-correct happening here—you read that right.  One of our nights in the city of Cuzco was to be spent in the home of a local family where we were to eat a dinner consisting of some of the local fare, i.e. guinea pig.  In fact, we had already visited a home (just to see, not to dine) and I had seen live guinea pigs running around on the floor happily nibbling on alfalfa, as well as dead guinea pig carcasses—skinned—hanging up in the kitchen to dry. 

Guinea pigs alive and well... for now.

Above the guinea pigs-- a shrine containing
the skulls of the family's ancestors.

You may be thinking, She WANTED to eat guinea pig?!  Well, yeah.  See, I’d been getting ready for this trip for months and when I first heard about the eating of the rodent—(Are guinea pigs rodents?  I think for the purpose of this blog, they are.)—I was grossed out.  But then, everyone else that I told was grossed out too and eventually it turned around so that I ENJOYED grossing people out by telling them that I was going to eat guinea pig until I actually WAS excited to eat it.  (Moral:  Give me six months to get used to the idea and I’ll be excited to eat anything.)  My brother especially kept teasing me about it.  

One day he said, “You know what the worst part will be?” 

“What?” I asked, not sure I wanted to know.

He smirked.  “What if you like it?  Then what will you do when you get back to the states?  Go to PetSmart and ask, ‘How much for the fat one?’”

I laughed, but he kind of had a point.

Still, even with the possibility of torturing my future palate with an unattainable delicacy or of becoming that creepy person that gets banned from pet stores, I was still looking forward to the experience of trying guinea pig.  But I missed it.  And here’s why.

It’s not uncommon for people to get sick when they are traveling.  We’ve all heard of “Montezuma’s Revenge”.  Well, members of our tour group took turns coming down with what I called in my journal the “Peruvian Plague”.  Not everybody got it.  I was traveling with my friend Emily* from work, my friend Maggie who used to be my teacher, five of Maggie’s female high school students, one girl’s dad, and a couple of other women unrelated to us in any way.  As far as I know, none of the high school girls got sick, but I did and Emily did and the dad did and I think one other person did.  But—and I dare anyone to disagree—I had it the worst.

[*Emily and I had worked together for one year and we were becoming friends but still didn’t know each other well.  Then one day in the teacher’s lounge, I asked her out of the blue if she wanted to go on a trip to Peru with me and, without hesitation, she said yes.  I honestly have no idea why I asked an acquaintance to go to a foreign country with me, and I have no idea why she agreed.  But I am glad she did because we have been wonderful friends since.  Fishing for piranha with someone will bond you like that.]

Me standing proudly at
the Gate of the Sun
It was June 30th, halfway through our trip and our second day at the Inca ruins of Machu Picchu.  I was on my own, having chosen to hike a different path than most of the group and because my roommate Emily was back at the hotel sick with the plague.  At 9:40AM that day, I sat down at the “Gate of the Sun” and wrote in my journal about how proud I was that I had made that climb by myself and how beautiful and peaceful it was there.  I also wrote, “I am really sorry Emily is so sick.  I can’t imagine how horrible she must feel being so ill and so far from home…  I wish she was here and I hope I don’t get sick as well.”  My next journal entry was written thirty-six hours later in shaky handwriting and starts with the simple, but powerful, statement, “Ugh.”  Because at that point, I no longer had to imagine how Emily felt.

The twisty bus road up to Machu Picchu.
Who WOULDN'T get sick on this?
By the time we left the ruins for the day, I was already feeling a bit queasy.  I tried to pretend it was only from the bus ride down the mountain, but as soon as we started eating our late lunch, I knew that something wasn’t right.  I didn’t even make it all the way through my meal before I had to run to the bathroom and throw up.

Now, at this point, the worst part was not the puking.  The puking took a solid third place behind the fact that I was a big baby and the Thing That Was About to Happen.  By “big baby” I mean that I cry when I throw up.  I’m not exactly sure why—it’s probably some sort of depression brought on by my sudden loss of control or something.  I don’t know; you can analyze me all you want.  All I know is that it upsets me.  And it scares me a little.  And it makes me want my mommy.  So when I came out of the bathroom and joined the group at the table, not only was I desperately in need of a breath mint, but I was also sobbing, which really throws a wet blanket over other people’s vacation adventures, when they have to console a weepy twenty-four-year-old woman who has just vomited.

But even the embarrassment of crying in front of coworkers and former teachers and high school girls was nothing compared to my anxiety over the Thing That Was About to Happen.  Because the Thing That Was About to Happen was this:  Immediately after I threw up, I had to go on a four-hour train ride back to Cuzco.

You know that feeling when you drink a bunch of alcohol really fast and then you wish you hadn’t done that but there’s nothing you can really do now (at least nothing you want to do) and so you just have to sit there knowing that soon the sensation of drunkenness and queasiness and room-spinning-ness is going to hit and you’re going to have to deal with it?  [Note to my parents:  I don’t actually know this feeling, I’ve just read a lot of books.]  Well, this was kind of like that.  I had just thrown up for the first time.  And I knew, based on the experiences of my travel-mates, that I was in the first ten minutes of a devilish twenty-four-hour illness, and I knew that the next four hours of that illness were going to be the worst, and I knew that I was going to be on a train for the duration of them.

If I hadn’t already been crying, this is the point when I would have started.

When I got on the train, I blubbered out my desperate need to sit near the bathroom.  (Thank GOD there was a bathroom!)  I was told that our seats were way up at the front of the train and that they weren’t sure we could switch.  Then I pushed past everyone into the bathroom, threw up some more, and then stood outside the door, unmoving, staring at the people in the seats around me until our tour guide—an extremely sweet woman named AnnaMaria—said something in Spanish to the two gentlemen in the seats just in front of the bathroom and they got up and left.  I can only assume the English translation was, “You guys have to move right now or this girl is going to throw up on you.  Or worse.”

Then the group went to their seats in the front of the train, AnnaMaria sat down next to me in the back, and thus proceeded possibly the worst four hours of my life.  I won’t bore you with every disgusting detail, but be forewarned, because I will tell you more than you probably want to know.

Things You Hope Will Never Happen To You But Which All Totally Happened To Me:

This is a mummy in a museum in Lima,
but it could just as well be a photo
of me on June 30, 2001, because
that's pretty much how I felt.
* Having the phrase “coming out of both ends simultaneously” apply to you while you are on a moving vehicle in a foreign country with no family members at your side.
* Being unable to swallow even a sip of water without vomiting (or worse) so that you become so dehydrated that you lose feeling in your hands and arms up to the elbow.
* Being so loopy from dehydration that you can’t even make it to the bathroom that is two feet away from you in time without soiling your underpants.
* Throwing away your soiled underpants in the trash can of a bathroom on a train in Peru.
* Opening your eyes to see several worried/angry/arguing faces leaning over you, all speaking in a foreign language.  Even in your looped-out state, you understand the words ‘stop’ and ‘train’ and ‘hospital’.
* Waking up to find a tall blond beautiful female is asking you questions in English.  You are told she is a Swedish doctor who was on the train.  She smiles at you a lot and says you’ll be fine.  You argue, saying maybe you do need to go to a hospital.  She shakes her head and says, in what you can tell is a voice meant to sound reassuring, “No, you do not want to go to a hospital.  They just don’t want an American to die on their train.”  Then she smiles again and you think, Huh. I don’t either.  We have that in common.

All of this is true (why I would make this up is beyond me—honestly I don’t even know why I’m telling it in the first place) although when I mention this story to people who were there (which I don’t do often because I don’t like them picturing me like that) their eyes tend to gloss over when I refer to the beautiful Swedish doctor and I always think, They just didn’t see her because they were in the front of the train, but secretly I kind of wonder if I made her up in my dehydration haze or if maybe she existed but she was actually an elderly Peruvian man with bad teeth.

I do not remember the end of the train ride, but I do remember climbing the two flights of stairs up to my room in the elevator-less Hotel Don Carlos in Cuzco, one small step at a time, being helped by Maggie and AnnaMaria.  I remember being given some magic South American elixir of life, which I was finally able to keep down and which made me feel ten times stronger and which was probably nothing more than the Spanish version of Pedialyte.  I remember the moment when I knew that the worst was over and fell into a coma-like sleep for several hours.  I remember a whole day of eating crackers and drinking clear liquids and watching reruns on TV from my bed while the rest of the group went on a day trip without me.  And I remember the realization that I was missing the eating of the guinea pig and how utterly disappointed I was about such a loss.  But in the end, I did fully recover from the Peruvian Plague, and even though I’m bummed that I didn’t get to eat guinea pig, I guess I am sort of grateful that I didn’t throw it up either.

While the rest of the group was eating guinea pig,
I found the strength to document my day by taking a
picture of the view out my hotel window.

For twelve years, I have been searching for a moral to this story, and I haven’t really found one yet.  Instead of learning from it, or growing from it, I generally just use it as a way to one-up other people’s stories.  “Oh yeah?  You got food poisoning from eating at China Palace?  Try nearly dying from the plague on a train in Peru.”  For the record, no one appreciates this.

I guess if I had to learn a lesson from this experience, it would be something cheesy like, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”  And I’m not even talking about the explosive vomiting and diarrhea.  (ß Dang, I tried to get through the whole blog without using that word, but there it is.)  No, I’m talking about humility.  The fact that I did not die of embarrassment on that train has made me a stronger and more confident person in other facets of my life.  I mean, after a near stranger has held a bag for you to retch into after your arms have become too weak to hold it yourself, you’re not going to have an anxiety attack about accidentally farting in yoga. 

You gotta have some perspective, people.