Everything’s different now

There’s a yellow Cannondale bicycle in my garage that belongs to the athlete that I used to be, about 20 years ago. When I was on the young side of middle age, I rode that bicycle from Oregon to New Hampshire. Now I am on the far side of middle age, and I struggle to remember what it felt like to be that fit, that strong, and that thin.

I’ve been challenged with some health problems for the past three years, in particular, that have sometimes had me on my knees and unable to do much of anything more physically taxing than walk my dog and do a little bit of gentle yoga—and not even that on many days. One of my greatest struggles has been with a startling variety of abdominal pains. Every day, something different. No physical cause has ever been identified by the myriad tests my doctors have ordered. So one day last spring, tired of hurting no matter what I ate or how much or when, I just stopped eating, for a full 48 hours. And to my astonishment, not only did my gut pains disappear, but so did all the other body pains that had nagged me for many months. I could not believe it was all gone, without medications or intervention of any kind except not eating.

This experience set me on the path of trying to determine what I was eating that could be causing my pains. Fasting is miraculous, and I still do it now and then when I feel like my body needs a rest, but obviously it’s not a long-term dietary strategy. So I worked out an elimination diet plan to remove the usual suspects—wheat, soy, corn, dairy, citrus, etc.—to see whether doing without them made me feel any better. The only unequivocal results from this trial were that gluten and sugar are akin to poison for me, so I eliminated gluten from my diet and limited my sugar intake to 2-3 teaspoons a day (the American Heart Association recommends a maximum daily sugar intake for women of 25g or about 6 teaspoons).

Without my even trying, my weight began to drop. After the first 20 pounds, I felt well enough to join a gym in September and start doing cardio a few days a week. Then I added strength training, and stopped eating meat or other animal proteins. At which point, the weight just started falling off. Last month I plummeted past the 200-lb mark that has always stopped me in the past, and have just kept going. I have no idea where my weight will end up. What I do know is that since I can’t go back to my old way of eating without risking complete debility, I am probably on a one-way trip to somewhere I have never been before as an adult. Another 10 pounds down and I will weigh less than I did the day I dipped the Cannondale’s wheels in the Pacific Ocean and prepared to ride east.

Me with the Cannondale on the beach in Astoria, 2001.

I kept all the riding gear I wore on that trip, folded neatly into a box and schlepped from house to house to house. All the jerseys and shorts and jackets are size medium or small, so very small compared to the clothes I have been wearing for most of the years since. I kept them for sentimental reasons and no other because it has seemed to me since 2001 that I could never hope to regain the body that pedaled across the country. It was the result not only of aggressive dieting but also near-constant daily workouts for months on end. It began to soften and spread essentially as soon as my plane touched down back home at the end of the tour. But since I have shrunk out of all the rest of my clothes, I got out that box of gear this past weekend and tried it all on.

I don’t see that athlete when I look in the mirror anymore. I do see a woman who is comfortably wearing her clothes, though, and I don’t quite know how to reconcile that yet. The clothes have not changed. The fact that they fit on my body at this time means my body has changed. It seems like it happened so fast, and yet, it took almost 20 years for me to get (back) here. I look in the mirror and just shake my head and marvel that this was me, once, and is now again. The impossible has been made manifest. Everything’s different now.

Me wearing the same tights and jacket, today.

In addition to the biking clothes, I have maintained in storage a rotating stock of clothing in several sizes, so I don’t have to go shopping when my weight goes up or down. Several bins in the garage hold whatever does not fit until I can wear it again. This pushing and pulling forward and back without ever making actual progress has been going on for, oh, about 20 years now. The time finally came to step off that track, so I purged my clothing this weekend in Marie Kondo style and removed every oversized, unflattering, and/or unloved garment from my house. There is nothing in my closets or bureau that does not fit me right now.

I don’t have any ambition to become that athlete again—once in a lifetime was plenty enough for me. I don’t know where this journey will take me, or even where I want it to go, really. I am just trying to make good choices day to day in what I eat and what I do, and I hope these choices will continue to create positive changes. Perhaps, at last, the best is yet to come.

 

Reconnecting

As I’ve reported a couple of times now, Reggie and I are still adjusting to being a pack of two since Rudy died. Some days it’s fine. Some days it’s not.

I’ve been thinking for awhile about finding a new dog as a pal for her, and an opportunity came up recently to rehome a dog that, his owner said, needed another dog for companionship. He’s a Bichon Frise mix, a little bigger than Reggie but still fun-sized. After some negotiating with the owner over her stiff “rehoming fee,” we arranged a meeting a few evenings ago at my house.

The dog, Sammy, seemed relaxed and friendly, unlike his uptight and neurotic owner. She brought him in while Reggie stayed out in the yard, and we chatted while he tried to sniff around my living room at the end of a short leash that she held in a white-knuckled grip. She said he’s a wonderful dog that checks all the boxes—neutered, house-trained, crate-trained, affectionate, friendly, healthy, etc.—but that she can’t “give him what he needs” in terms of human or canine affection because she lives alone and travels frequently. He is 15 months old and every bit the rambunctious puppy. She’s been trying to rehome him since February with more than 50 inquiries fielded but no luck because every prospective adopter has somehow fallen short. I knew before the dogs even met that I would also fall short.

But meet they did, and Sammy’s opening move was to try to mount Reggie. She instantly turned and snapped at him (no contact) to correct that assumption, and he backed off immediately. He did not attempt to “romp” with her, as his owner insisted that he did with every other dog he’s ever met in his life. Instead, they circled and sniffed each other cautiously and briefly before heading off to explore the yard independently. Reggie was more interested in the human visitor than the dog visitor, and the human was singularly unimpressed with her. She remarked on the stickery weeds on my lawn as a pet hazard, lamented that Sammy’s paws would get muddy if I turned on the hose to give them a drink, and so on. And our dogs failed to interact.

In Reggie’s defense, we have not had an unknown dog in the house for years, certainly not since Rudy died, so this was a novel experience for her. Also, she’s 10 years old this month, and the only dogs she has ever “romped” with are Rudy and that little Chihuahua we were so fond of awhile back. When we go to the dog park, she never plays with the other dogs; she follows me around and greets only the humans. She is a great companion for another dog, but at this stage of her life, perhaps not the best playmate.

reggie3

She’s not a puppy anymore.

When we all came back into the house to chat a bit more, Reggie stood at the door of my bedroom looking at us for a moment, then darted under my bed and would not come out. Sammy’s owner said we should both “think on it overnight” and took her leave. As she drove away, I was seized with sadness for all of us. For that woman who does not seem to enjoy living with the wonderful dog she has. For the pup that is constantly being boxed in and held back and reprimanded for being what he is. For me, knowing that she found neither my home nor my dog good enough for her precious pooch. And for Reggie, who was clearly profoundly put out by the whole experience.

My reasons for wanting another dog are twofold: to give Reggie a companion, and to give me a companion that actually wants to be in the same room with me. Rudy was a “Velcro dog” who followed me around all day long, and every time I looked around me, there he was looking back. Reggie usually went where he went. Now, she spends most of the day under my bed except for meals and walks, so it often feels as if the house is empty. When she comes to find me, I am either at my computer or have my phone in my hand, and I push her away or ignore her because I’m “busy.” She even sometimes attempts to bat the phone out of my hand, and sometimes I let her do that but other times I keep scrolling. We are missing each other even though we live in the same house.

What I realized, after Sammy left and his owner let me know by email the next day (as I knew she would) that she didn’t think they were “a good fit,” is that the dog I want and the dog I miss is the dog I have. I don’t want another dog so much as I want Reggie back with me, beside me, in my sight. I don’t know if she hides because she’s grieving or lonely or bored or tired or just doesn’t like me anymore, and I don’t know how to fix this for her—if it even can be fixed.

When I came in to get ready for bed the night after Sammy left, I found Reggie asleep on my pillow. She has not come up on the bed in weeks; she sleeps in her crate to contain any early-morning vomiting, which was becoming a real problem. As I looked at her there, I wondered, did she think I was trying to replace her with Sammy? Did she feel like her place in our house and my heart was not secure?

I let her sleep on the bed with me that night, and the next, because it seems like we haven’t been spending enough time actually being together. We need to reconnect beyond our daily walk and mealtimes, and do things we both enjoy, like going to the river. She needs to see other dogs once in awhile, so we can go to the dog park even if she doesn’t interact with them. And maybe, in time, we will add a third to our pack, when it feels right for both of us. It will probably have to be a puppy that will accept Reggie’s authority without challenge or resentment because she is, as she has always been, the alpha that runs our lives, and I don’t think either of us has any desire to change that.

reggie1.jpg

Forever the alpha.

Reggie is the dog of my heart, not just the dog that was left behind when Rudy died. I wish I could tell her that.

A small repair

Sorting through my linen closet the other day, I found an old plaid sheet that once covered the end of my bed where Rudy used to sleep at night and hang out during the day.

Rudy trying to keep cool, May 2015.

He had a habit of scraping a particular spot on the sheet with one paw before lying down, every day. Eventually he shredded a large hole in the sheet, which is why it was packed away in the back of the linen closet. As for why it was never discarded, well … let’s just say some of us are sentimental.

I got the sheet out and took a look at the hole, which could not feasibly be sewn back together because the center of it was entirely frayed away. It required a patch, something I have no experience or skill in making so I was not eager to try. It took a bit of sensible self-coaching to understand that I was attempting to repair a rag with a rag (an old t-shirt cut apart) and there was no way I could possibly make it any worse or “ruin it.” I have all the necessary tools and enough skill to sew a (mostly) straight line. The worst it could do was suck and I would throw the sheet away.

I admit that my repair was hardly professional looking, but it was solid and it got the job done. The sheet is usable again.

patched sheet

Gets the job done.

When I finished, Reggie came in to say hi and curled up on the floor in the late-winter sun. I quietly covered her with the sheet and snapped a pic. Looking at the image I’d made, I could not actually tell if it was Reggie or Rudy under there, given the way the light caught on her fur. It made me cry.

Is it a black dog or a gray dog?

I was powerfully reminded of another image I made of Rudy in the very same spot at nearly the same time of year.

Rudy in the sunbeams, February 2017.

I reflected on how similar my two Schnauzers are, and yet how different. How much joy they have brought me, each in his or her own way. I am grateful to have had Rudy in my life, and every day more grateful for Reggie as well. Wrapping her in Rudy’s sheet felt like pulling him back to us, just for a moment. It helped shrink, a tiny bit, the gaping hole in our lives he left when he died.

Grief, like growth, is a spiral and not a straight line. We advance and retreat in our recovery, circling back to the pain as many times as it takes to feel it enough to let it go. I am still circling with Rudy, still wrestling with my regrets and trying to make peace with the choices I made with him and for him. I work every day to ensure I will not have those same regrets when Reggie passes.

Fortunately for both of us, she and I are in an exceptionally sweet spot in our lives together right now. We are well synchronized, and our days together are peaceful.

That’s definitely Reggie, the goodest girl ever.

She has her own blanket on my bed now, a lovely green plush throw, but she prefers to cuddle up on my pillow.

Who’s bed is it, anyway, really?

Paradise, lost

Every summer when I was a child, my family would take a car trip from our home in Oregon down to California to visit my parents’ parents and siblings and their families. It was our annual ritual and only family vacation, one that we kids eagerly anticipated all year and which my parents probably dreaded more each year as our bodies grew and our luggage expanded to fill every square inch, it seemed, of our little Chevy Nova. My mother heroically held my sister on her lap for most of that trip when Terry was a baby, but eventually she had to move into the back seat with my brother and me, and oh man, was space tight. We struggled to entertain ourselves and not kill each other over the hours of driving through 100-degree heat with no air conditioning. We all got carsick if we tried to read in the car, so the entertainment options were few. The traveling was no treat. For us, it was all about the destination.

We would make the rounds from one family to the next over the course of a week or two, bedding down on their floors and couches, from San Francisco to Sacramento to Chico to Paradise and many other towns around and in between as our family members moved from year to year. We always saw my grandmothers, and my mother’s older brother on his ranch where we got to know our cousins Leo and Mike. We’d stay a few days and visit, then drive on to see the next family.

When I was born, my mother’s parents lived in Paradise. Heading south on Interstate 5, we’d exit at Red Bluff to head down Hwy 99, then turn left at Chico and take the Skyway out of the central valley through the brush and pines into the Sierra Nevada foothills. We thrilled to see that friendly wooden sign with all the badges of the local churches and civic groups welcoming us. It was then, as now, mostly a retirement community, quiet and safe and friendly. It was a beautiful little town.

“May you find Paradise to be all its name implies.”

My grandfather, a retired farmer, kept a little garden in their backyard that he would let me help him tend with a set of plastic toy gardening tools he bought for me when I was a toddler. I’d follow him around through the tomato plants and squash vines, doing whatever I could. Grandpa’s health did not hold very much longer, unfortunately. He went into care about the time I started grade school and he passed away when I was 10. Grandma moved away from Paradise after he moved to a nursing home, so my sister never knew their house in the pines.

My brother and me (I am the one waving) with our grandparents beneath a pine tree in Paradise, circa 1968.

Paradise was a woodsy town, woven tightly into the natural landscape. Every home and business, it seemed, was surrounded by pine trees. One of my earliest and deepest childhood memories is the smell of those trees, resinous in the summer heat.

Those trees proved to be the town’s ruin, however, when utility lines possibly sparked a brush fire northeast of town early on the morning of November 8. Within a matter of hours, it overran the city and is, as of this writing, uncontained and still burning over more than 100,000 acres.

The Camp Fire as seen from the Landsat 8 satellite on November 8, 2018. Image from Wikipedia.

Nobody in my family remembers where in Paradise my grandparents’ house was located. It is likely gone forever now, along with not only dozens of lives (and counting, sadly), but also the homes and businesses, schools and churches, gas stations and supermarkets, banks and hardware stores, medical clinics and car dealerships, offices and restaurants, parks and road signs, and everything else the people who lived there built and held dear. My uncle’s ranch just south of Chico is not, right now, at risk. My cousin Mike’s house in Magalia is perilously close to the northern edge of the fire; he and his family were forced to evacuate and have not yet been able to return. My other cousin Leo and his family are safely to the west in Orland. Other extended family members in Paradise have lost their homes. I cannot imagine how civic life can or will resume there given the scope of the devastation. Even for those whose houses still stand, what remains that makes a place worth living in?

Knowing I can never return to that place to feel the summer heat and smell the pine sap in the air, and feel like a child again, if only for a moment, is a small loss in the grand scheme of things, I know. But it is one I will feel for the rest of my life.

A design challenge

I’ve taken up a new thing recently … or, more accurately, retaken up an old thing that I have picked up and put down many, many times in my life: art.

I attended art school briefly in my youth, and left after 1.5 semesters because life happened. I had hoped art school would teach me how to draw and paint and design, but found that in fact, I was simply expected to do all those things in a classroom, for a grade, with guidelines and grading criteria provided along with a demo (sometimes), but almost no actual instruction.

Nevertheless, I did gain a bit of knowledge and skill, and amassed at that time a reasonably comprehensive set of art tools that I have been augmenting in fits and starts ever since. I especially enjoyed and excelled in the perspective drawing classes I took because first, they provided step-by-step instruction and second, because I could use my drafting tools—compass, t-square, triangles—to help me get the drawing exactly right. Freehand drawing is a skill to which I still can only aspire.

My latest artistic endeavor is drawing Celtic knot designs, which I can make using those drafting tools. Many of them are built on a grid, with simple combinations of angles and arcs. Easy enough for the novice, yes? I tried my hand at a couple of basic ones, and was pleased with my results.

The triquetra interlaced with a circle.

A stained glass window design incorporating a Celtic shield symbol.

Drafting tools can only take one so far, however. At some point one must have a deeper understanding of the underlying geometry of the design. Which brings me to my titular design challenge. I have been working for more than week to recreate from scratch the design shown on the right below.

On the right, the original design. On the left, a tracing I made of it on which I outlined the concentric squares in different colors.

For reasons I cannot understand, let alone explain, this bit of drafting completely eludes me. I cannot intuit or interpret the proper measurements to make in order to get the correct order of shapes.

The best I’ve been able to do, so far.

As you can see, those five concentric squares are not there, and I don’t know how to construct them. Every time I attempt to draw it again, the same problem stymies me. So I’m throwing this out to my readership to see if you have any suggestions on how to go about constructing this design. Which element should be drawn first? What is the correct order of construction? How should the divisions be measured? It looks as if the diagonal parallel lines are the same distance apart as the horizontal and vertical parallel lines, but somehow that does not seem to translate on graph paper. I am puzzled and perplexed. Any assistance would be appreciated.

The grieving road

As long as I have been blogging, I have been writing about my dogs. My boy, Rudy, and my girl, Reggie. The two of them have always been more than just my pets. They are my pack, my family, my identity. We are Team von Schnauzer Kraut.

Our first family portrait, December 2009.

When Rudy first came to me at the age of 5 in the spring of 2008, he had to have about a dozen teeth extracted that had rotted while he was in the care of his previous owner. I had to give him liquid pain medication from a syringe after the surgery, so I gathered him up in a towel on my lap, cradling him like a baby, and squeezed the medicine down his throat as he grumbled and groaned his displeasure with the whole arrangement. And I knew, even then, that the day would come for us when I would hold him just like that again, for the last time, because there was never a doubt in my mind from the very beginning that Rudy was my forever dog.

The first photograph I ever took of him, when he was still just my house guest, after he got caught in the rain. May 2008.

That day did come this past weekend, after nearly 10 wonderful years, when the vet tech wrapped him in a blanket and placed him in my arms over my heart. The sedative took hold and he slowly relaxed. And then he was gone.

I traveled the grieving road with Rudy for a long time, from the first time he failed to make the jump onto my bed until the last morning I took him out to pee and he could not stand up. He went downhill slowly, then all at once, navigating past one health problem after another and rallying again and again. I nearly lost him a couple summers ago to hemorrhagic gastroenteritis that I did not get him treated for promptly enough. He had chronic compromised liver function, so I gave him Denamarin every day. He had keratoconjunctivitis sicca (dry eye), so I put cyclosporine drops in his eyes before bed every night. In the past year or so, he stopped being able to jump onto the bed or into the car altogether, so I lifted him on and off and in and out every time. He was frail and shaky in his hind end, more so each week, and sometimes peed in the house almost involuntarily. He would restlessly shift and shudder at night, grumbling and coughing and flapping his ears repeatedly. He bumped into things in the dark. He was mostly deaf. He frequently refused to eat his breakfast, or would eat it and then vomit it, always on the carpet. He forgot his routines and had to be reminded what to do next all through the day.

With every one of these challenges and losses, he kept moving forward, as we all must. I would love to tell you that I was compassionate toward and supportive of him every step of the way, continually adapting to whatever came up and giving him whatever he needed. But I was not.

The grieving road begins in denial, of course. It’s a fluke, he’s fine, this is nothing to worry about, it will clear up. 

It progresses, or it did for me, through anger and impatience, and a great deal of frustration that he could never again be the dog he once was. The dog I never had to worry about. The dog that was happy and well. I regret to say, I spent too long there, and did too much yelling.

As I did with Reggie, albeit, to my shame, much too late, I finally came to a place of compassion for Rudy just a few weeks before he died. I was able to fully accept that he was doing the best he could, and that he never had done and never would do anything simply to annoy me.

So when he came in from the yard hitching on three legs last Thursday evening (after being, as far as I could tell, fine all day) and I could find nothing wrong with his paw or leg, I was concerned. He had always had a flair for drama and would gimp sometimes, it seemed to me, just for attention. But I could tell he was not doing that this time.

By Friday morning, he could not stand on his own. I picked him up and carried him to the yard, where he managed to stand up just long enough to do his chores before plopping down in a shaky heap. He then laid down in the yard and refused to get up, so I carried him back inside and called the vet. The diagnosis later that day did not have any specific name, but it was clear that Rudy’s back legs were no longer working, likely because his spine was somehow compromised. Perhaps a slipped disc, or just the degeneration that I had seen progressing for months. The only way to make a definitive diagnosis was an MRI, the vet said, and they would not do one unless I would commit to surgery to repair whatever they found. With or without treatment, recovery was highly unlikely. And that was it. Game over for my boy.

I sat on the couch with him all night on Friday, giving him tramadol when he started shifting and groaning, and squirting syringefuls of water into his mouth every few hours. He would not eat or drink on his own, he could not pee or poop, and he could not stand up long enough even to turn around, let alone walk. His paralysis was not going to kill him, but he was going to be miserable very soon for being unable to tend to his bodily functions. There was no mercy in letting him go on that way another night.

Rudy on the last day of his life, looking fierce. February 3, 2018.

That is how we came to be sitting in that cramped and dreary exam room at the vet clinic, his frail little body curled in a ball in my arms and his head under my chin where I could kiss it again and again and tell him how much I loved him as his heartbeat and breathing slowed, then stopped. The grieving road came, at last, to tears.

Reggie and I are both still adjusting to life without our lodestar, our namesake, our Little Dude, our Mister Man. The organizing forces of Reggie’s life have always been either following or competing with Rudy; she has not known one day in our home that he has not also been here, until now. I always joked that Reggie ran our lives, but now I wonder. Perhaps Rudy ruled by deferring. We both feel lost without him.

Our friends and neighbors have been exceedingly kind to us in our loss, and I am so grateful for all the love we have been shown.

Rudy was, of course, the best. He was one of a kind and loved by all who knew him. Every dog owner says the same, and we are all correct.

Eternal rest grant to him, O Lord; and let light perpetual shine upon him. May his soul, and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.
(Reposted from my Facebook page.)

Picking up the pieces

I had the good fortune recently to speak with a woman who is both profoundly kind and deeply wise. She told me a story of working with troubled youth in a previous chapter of her career, and an exercise she would do with them. She would buy a few mismatched plates from the thrift store and hold one up for the group to admire before dashing it to the floor and shattering it.

What can you do with the pieces of this plate now, she would ask the kids. You cannot make it whole again, so what other choices do you have? Some options to consider:

Sweep up the pieces, throw them away as garbage, and never own another plate.

Sit and cry about no longer having a plate

Get angry and demand that the world give you another plate that is not broken. Fight anyone who tells you that you can’t have it.

Use the shards as weapons against yourself and others.

Try to put the pieces back together as they were and try to return the plate as closely as possible to its original condition.

Reassemble the pieces into a new plate that you like even better—perhaps in a different order than they were originally.

Or you could go out and buy, beg, borrow, steal, or make another plate.

All of us have our broken plates. Maybe we threw them to the ground ourselves by making bad choices. Or maybe somebody else, by abusing or neglecting or shaming us when we could not defend ourselves, shattered our plates for us. Or maybe it was just life that did it, through loss and change and the stuff that happens when you’re busy making other plans. We try to repair the damage done with wire and glue and string, tears and prayers, imprecations and negotiations. We eat, or drink, or party, or fight, or withdraw, or cry, in our attempts to cover up and cope with the pain. Internally or externally, and sometimes both, we scar ourselves as we brush against the broken pieces.

My plate—several of my plates—were broken by other people when I was very young, and I’ve been walking barefoot across the shards ever since. I have learned how to go forward in spite of it, but the pain and rage that have resulted have leached away so much of my energy and potential in this life. The way I have responded to the losses has been, mostly, to pout and cry that the world owes me an unbroken plate. I want my original plate back, made whole again. I want to be, in a word, made innocent again.

This is not a productive position and it has surely done me no good. What’s true is that I was born innocent and I still am, despite all my flaws and all the mistakes I have made. I refuse to see myself as damned any longer because of other people’s choices.

With the help of the woman who told me the story, I am reconsidering my options with regard to broken pieces in my life, wondering what I can make with them using what I have now, where I am now, knowing what I know now that I did not know when the shattering was done.

Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack, a crack, in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.
~ Leonard Cohen, “Anthem

What I hope to do is take the materials I have at hand—including the love of all the good people (and dogs) I know—and forge myself an unbreakable heart into which the light of the universe shines and from which my own light shines back out to the world.