What We Owe

What do we owe our animals? How can we say which relationship, animal or human, is more valuable? More necessary?  As I led him to the car and watched his legs quiver a bit before he hopped in, there were tears in my eyes because I knew what I’d have to do.

***

My dog, Gonzo, is a true mutt. A Heinz 57. He’s a stocky desert scavenger with thick, red-brown fur, white paws, ears that flop over, and a tail that curls up. The day I rescued him from a parking lot adoption event in Arizona, he was a scrappy-looking thing, just 3 months old, panting in the sun. It was 2001 or 2002, I’m not sure. I do remember that he rested his chin on my knee the whole way home. I had adopted him with my then-husband, but when we split up there was no question about who would get the dog. Gonzo was mine.

My post-divorce period was rough, but I was glad I had a faithful friend by my side. When I threw a glass down on the floor just to hear it smash, then slid down along the kitchen cabinets, plopped my butt on the cold tile and began to cry, Gonzo pushed himself onto my lap and licked my face. We lived for a while near a rocky preserve in Phoenix, and every day we’d hike it, sometimes stopping warily when a coyote trotted by. I never feared to live in this semi-rough neighborhood called “Sunnyslope,” the only place I could then afford, because Gonzo’s heavy growl and sharp, sudden bark hid his gentle, mama’s-boy nature.

Time passed. When I put on a record and sang along, Gonzo was there, too. He’d leap with me as I danced, thinking it was a new form of play. At night, he’d settle down on my feet or stretch out along the length of one of my legs, leaning his entire body against me. We vacationed together, driving from Phoenix to Mexico, from Austin to St. Louis, and back again. On the Mexican beach, Gonzo’s herding nature would take over. He’d nip at my ankles when I went toward the water. When that failed, and I unadvisedly dove into the waves, he’d whimper at the shore. Then, desperate, he’d paddle after me and nudge me with his snout. My favorite picture of us is on one of those beaches: I’m leaning down to scratch his head, and he’s smiling up at me with a doggy tongue hanging out one side of his mouth. Over a decade together, Gonzo became my little furry son. We were like Velcro.

***

After moving back to the Midwest, settling down, dating again, I met another dog-lover named Chad. We felt comfortable together. We wanted the same things. And so we began talking about cohabitation as we gradually fell in love. There was just one problem: He had a rescue dog, too. A big, lovable problem child named Braunschweiger.

Brauni was – is – a brindle-black Rottweiler mix. An irrepressible, slobbery, 95-pound love beast. The kind of pup who’ll throw both paws over your shoulders when you walk in the door, and then run for a stick or a rope or anything that you’ll throw for him.

When I first met this pair of gruff loners, I couldn’t approach Chad when Brauni was in the room. The minute I tried to hug or kiss my boyfriend in front of him, he’d leap between us and bark. It took quite a while for Brauni to get comfortable with me sitting on the couch next to his human.

The whole experience reminded me of the time, after months and months of sleeping alone, I brought a man back to my place. Gonzo tolerated this … this other creature in my bed. But he chewed up one of my most expensive bras to express his disapproval. Clearly, I’d been through this before. I figured I’d have to give Brauni time to warm up to the idea of another person in the house. Not to mention another dog!

Unfortunately, unlike Gonzo, Brauni wasn’t socialized or trained as a puppy. Chad was away at work too often to fully fix the problem when Brauni was young, but it didn’t really matter then! Brauni had a home, and love, with a single human he clearly adored. Then I came into the picture.

So. Two loners like us, and two very protective dogs. What to do?

We took it slow. After consulting a dog trainer, we began walking the two dogs, side-by-side, several times a week. Brauni would leer at Gonzo with the unsettling expression of a playground creep on his face.

“Does that look mean he wants to play with Gonzo, or kill him?” I asked.

The dog trainer introduced us to a halter-like device for the more-aggressive Brauni and gave us instructions that sounded hopeful. We figured the dogs would either fight it out once and then become fast friends, or simply tolerate each other in their golden years.

As weeks of this uncertainty dragged on and we doggedly (pun intended) walked our two grumpy old mutts, I started to sort-of move in. I brought over books, pictures, a comforter, a few towels. We both became rather impatient. I was tired of driving 25 minutes (40 with traffic) whenever I wanted to visit my boyfriend. It felt silly to leave his house at night when his home felt so much like mine – my art on his walls, a few pieces we’d both picked out waiting to be hung up behind the sofa, a new shelf for our shared bedroom… We helped each other mow the lawn. We wandered through Ikea, bickering mildly and then holding hands, like a comfortable, middle-aged married couple. We had become one another’s family.

But our pets were family, too. And whenever I thought of my 15-year-old best friend, I worried for his well-being. We could not reconcile our happiness with the incompatibility of these two furry stepbrothers. After all, what do we owe our animals? How can we say which relationship, animal or human, is more valuable? More necessary?

The day we decided to “get the dogs together” – that is, let them loose in Chad’s fenced backyard and hope for the best – we prepared. We called the dog trainer, a friendly man with years of experience. We wore Chad’s dog out, walking him around the block several times and pacifying him with treats. Then we walked him again, side-by-side with Gonz, like we’d done for weeks. Finally, we nervously led the leashed pups through the gate.

The trainer watched as Brauni strained on his leash, panting, his eyes fixed on Gonzo, his legs taut. As Gonzo sidled away from Brauni again and again – glancing at me, ducking his head – the trainer frowned. Finally, the man shook his head.

“You guys. This just won’t work. I’m sorry.”

He explained to us that Gonzo, at 15 or so, was too feeble – and Brauni too aggressive – for them to “fight it out” and eventually get used to one another.

“It would be like a really muscular 45-year-old beating up on a 100-year-old man,” he said. “I just can’t in good conscience recommend it.”

Chad mumbled a few sentences about the possibility of our families caring for Gonzo, and I looked down at my old friend who was, at that moment, biting at some grass and trembling a little. I interrupted the men.

“Well, I’m gonna take Gonzo home. Chad, I’ll call you.” Then I led my dog away, closing the gate behind us. As I guided Gonzo to the car and watched his legs quiver a bit before he hopped in, there were tears in my eyes because I knew what I’d have to do.

***

Gonzo and I sleep late on Sundays. My little full-size bed is pushed against a big window in this turn-of-the-century flat, and we open the curtains and look down on our neighbors. Gonzo growls low at the cats and wags his tail when I say, “what a good guard dog.”

I get tired of living here sometimes, in a rented apartment, while my sweetheart lives in a house that he actually owns, so far away. I left half my belongings there! My lonely place, with its bare walls, resembles a student’s garret. But my loyal doggy friend is happy. So, I try not to feel impatient or resentful, even when I’m driving across town to visit Chad. To be honest, I’ve always felt like a student anyhow.

I took Gonzo to the vet the other day and she told me that he has arthritis in his spine. There will come a day, probably in the next year or two, when his back legs will simply give out. Already, one leg spasms at times, which startles Gonzo more than anything else. I give him anti-inflammatory treats, special food for his joints, and lots of meat because he loves meat and I love him.

Sometimes, I swear, Gonzo knows. He looks steadily at me, and then licks my face when I start to cry.

There’s no question. I’ll be his friend until he’s gone. And then, after, I’ll have time to make a home with the human whom I also love.

What Teaching in St. Louis Means to Me

This morning, as I grabbed a quick coffee before meeting the onslaught of student needs that seems to greet me as soon as I walk in the door, I experienced something that first cheered — and then disturbed me.

My school, a refurbished bank building from the 1930s, sits next to a paint store, a dollar store, and — perhaps incongruously — a St. Louis Bread Company.  If you’re not familiar with St. Louis Bread Co., it’s sometimes called Panera and it’s one of those high-dollar coffee shops that serves pastries and sandwiches, and is usually filled with businessmen and women or grad students on laptops.

I hadn’t had my dose of liquid energy that morning, so I walked in, in a rush, and ran into a group of students that were probably mine. Since it’s the first week of school, I’m still getting to know the young people I’ll be spending time with this year. But they knew me, and they smiled and waved as we passed one another.

I continued to watch them through the plate-glass window as they jostled one another and giggled — God, was I ever that awake at 7 am? — on their way to our building a few doors down.

I should probably mention now that I am white and nearing 40, and I teach mostly African-American teenagers in St. Louis.

As I stood in line with the businessmen and women to get my coffee and blueberry muffin, my kids out the window were clowning.  Two of the girls made those silly duck-lip kissy faces and held up peace signs (held sideways, of course) to take a selfie, as teenagers do.  I watched them hold their phones up to their faces as they walked, and I, predictably, felt very old.

I’m sure I made a face, a fond, “oh, those goofballs” sort of face, as I watched them.  I’m sure I smiled ruefully.  Having grown up in the late 20th century, I didn’t quite understand the millennial urge to document every little walk to school.  But then, I caught eyes with a woman in front of me.  Her expression wasn’t fond, it was hostile.  She met my eye as if to say, “can you believe these kids!?”  Her disgust was unmistakable.  So unnecessarily negative, in fact, that I took a step back.

Now, I’m no angel.  When I’m off work, as my boyfriend will attest, I sometimes do everything I can to avoid the irritating behavior of teenagers.  I’ve grumbled plenty about my students’ narcissism and lack of self-control.  But — that woman’s anger!

I’m sensitive to that kind of prejudice, I guess.

When I taught in Phoenix, I took my students — first and second-generation Mexican immigrants — to a theater performance in Scottsdale, Arizona.  We arrived early, smiling and shaking hands with the volunteers.  But, although the theater was empty, they led us up to the balcony and seated us there.  As I led my eighth graders to their seats and filed in behind them, I exchanged glances with my fellow teachers.  “Can you believe this?” we mouthed at each other, as we watched white children take the front-row seats below us.

How much of this is so ingrained as to be automatic, I wondered.  How is this still happening?

My first few years in St. Louis have been tough.  I fled the Phoenix housing market crash only to arrive in south-side St. Louis right before the summer of protests that followed the death of Michael Brown, a St. Louis teenager who had just graduated from high school.  I remembered supporting my Latino students as they marched against laws (since overturned) that they believed were unfair.  And here I was, a few years later, navigating a brand-new (or, maybe not so new) civil rights uprising — while trying my best to understand and empathize with my students of color who were caught up in the middle of it.

I have a lot to learn.  I’m white, and I grew up in white suburbs, going to mostly white schools.  I am conscious of my difference, of my privilege, of my ignorance.  But I’ve developed enough, over my years of teaching, to feel a righteous sense of anger when I see the kind of reaction I saw in that gentrified coffee shop.  I mulled over it the rest of that day, cheeks burning.

What I should have said was:

How dare you look at children that way?  Don’t — please don’t — don’t be that bigot who makes assumptions about the kids that I teach.

The Way I Feel about James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain”

How should you feel when you learn that someone you love has tried, deliberately, to die? Has nearly died. Has cut himself and taken bottles of pills and waited patiently and hoped he would die.

You can’t feel angry, quite. You can’t feel overly relieved, either, when he fails – and feels the failure as another failure. You can only feel deeply, deeply sad.

This song is wrapped up, for me, in the weather of those few days.

Just before Thanksgiving, the sky was a steel gray that lightened, in the morning, to an enamel white and muted to soggy black in the evening. The trees were bare and seemed to seep ice.

My mother, sister, and I listened to a song about a suicide, driving through ugly Kansas City on an ugly night thinking about a suicide. It’s hard for me to drive through Kansas City now, when it rains. It’s also hard for me to hear this song.

Lord knows when the cold wind blows it’ll turn your head around.”

After that night spent waiting at the hospital, we spent some time at home, and then (at night again) drove to visit him in the mental ward. He had jaundice and would barely look at us. Despite his intentions, his stubborn liver had saved him.

He was my little brother. We always were–and still are, I think–very alike. Both intelligent, imaginative, and rather hard-headed.

He’d gone through several phases over the years. A cowboy phase, a criminal phase. He’d lost a fiancée and isolated himself. But he’d call me sometimes, late at night, and we’d talk about our troubled Midwestern family and other, loftier things. He’d tell me he’d been listening to a lot of ‘70s folk music.

Sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground

I almost want to thank him now. And, by thank him, I mean fall on my knees and kiss his feet. Because he didn’t die.

He has a month-old son now and a wonderful wife. I get to see the sharp jut of his jaw and hear his wry jokes and know that he’s still with us. Just like on that night, with that sweet lovely song on the radio, we clung to that phrase–he’s still with us–and waited, listening to soft guitar.

Note: working draft from a longer work about music, men, and memory.

They Call it Strategic Default

I need to find a way to be less emotional about money.

It’s payday, and I feel furious again—and ashamed—and furious that I feel ashamed.

I’m dutifully paying my gas, electric, and rent, and I’m budgeting for a trip I’ll take next month to meet my newborn nephew. Once again, I am weighing my ability to pay my student loan bill with another expense: this time, it’s the money I owe my allergist. Online, there’s a newly fueled debate about student loans. It knocks at the edge of my consciousness and injects a little more anxiety into my monthly financial justifications.

I have a master’s degree—so, why do I feel so dumb? I feel like a financial ping-pong. I feel like the joke’s on me.

For the record, here are the financial mistakes I’ve made:

  • I got a master’s degree.
  • I bought a house.
  • I got married, and then divorced.
  • I struggled with depression.
  • I chose a career that meant I would help others, but also meant that I would remain poor.
  • I neglected to pay Homeowner Association fees when my house was so far underwater that I was in despair.
  • I stopped going to the doctor and dentist when having health insurance was more costly than skipping it. Again: despair.
  • I went out to eat too much, I often bought bottles of wine, and I put gifts for and fellowship with friends and family ahead of long-term financial health. Gradually, I embraced irresponsibility because the responsibility route just wasn’t working out for me.

I understand Lee Siegel’s New York Times piece [need citation]. It fills me with resentment and anxiety, but I understand it. It hits awfully close to home.

There have been some happy days: the day I paid off my undergraduate loans. The day I paid off credit card debt. Those were the days I believed in our financial system and felt proud to be doing my part. I was financially responsible! Morally right! I belonged.

It felt good to realize that my worst day in an inner-city classroom was better than my best day in a soulless cubicle. It felt good when I began teaching at a university–one of my lifelong dreams!

Then there were these days: The day I learned, from a friend, that the real reason a fiancee left without a word was my debt. Or maybe my underwater house. What did it matter.

The day after I paid off my undergraduate loans, when I realized I hadn’t even started paying for the master’s degree. This may or may not have been the same day I learned, from my employer, that because my master’s degree wasn’t in exactly the same subject I was teaching, I wasn’t eligible for the next level in pay scale.

The day I realized that if I wanted job security, I’d better stop being a university professor and go back to teaching high school. And then began laughing hysterically because, really, the absurdity!

The day I looked up at my therapist (the one my father paid for, when I was at my lowest) and said tearfully, “but I did everything I was supposed to do!”

These days, when I think about money, I veer between nihilism and shame. Like most Americans, I make choices: I don’t order cable television because I’d rather eat out. I will pay for my asthma medication but I won’t get my eyes checked. If my loving, generous boyfriend buys me a gift or takes me out to dinner, I calculate how I can treat him next time and also pay for new brake lights. I do not expect to ever be able to afford children of my own, but I will splurge on gifts for my niece and nephew. After experiencing first-hand the Phoenix housing market crash, I have neither the credit nor the emotional stamina to be a homeowner.

I sometimes don’t pay my student loan bill. I mean, it will always be with me, right? It’s insurmountable. What’s more interest? Another cup of water in the ocean.

And I am one of the lucky ones!

You see, I haven’t faced catastrophic medical problems. I am not, like my sister, a single mother. I have not succumbed to alcoholism or worsening depression, like some dear friends. And I voluntarily jumped off what I fondly refer to as the adjunct poverty train. Although I sometimes feel envious of my younger coworkers who dodged the Great Recession, I do the best I can to keep a healthy perspective—and to keep my head above water.

They call it strategic default—a term I learned in 2009. It’s when walking away is a better option than drowning. And if a mostly responsible, mostly hard-working woman like me considers it, our country’s financial powers-that-be really ought to start worrying.