February 2014


Warts and all

On Sunday night, J and I put down Michael Angelo Dog, our 13-year-old yellow Lab whom we called MAD. Over the past six months, MAD had gradually become less mobile due to arthritis and degenerative myelopathy, and on Friday night he took a sudden and dramatic turn for the worse, his hindquarters becoming completely paralyzed after an otherwise normal trip to our backyard dog pen.

Visiting hours

MAD spent Friday night at the Angell Animal Medical Center, where we visited him on Saturday. He’d stabilized overnight: when we first brought him in, his heart was racing, his pulse was weak, and he had a fever. We eventually learned he had pneumonia, presumably caused by his impaired mobility, but you wouldn’t know it from how he acted on Saturday, as he was alert and sweet-tempered: still a “happy lab,” as the emergency vet described him, albeit one who couldn’t stand up, walk, or wag his tail.

Visiting hours

J and I had decided long ago that being able to walk would be the final factor in deciding when it was time to put MAD down. Whereas I could (and did) carry Reggie in his final months, I can’t carry a hundred-plus pound dog. On Saturday, we decided to give MAD one more night in the Intensive Care Unit to see if he would improve, but in the absence of a miracle cure, we both knew the end was near.

MAD and Rocco - Jan 28 / Day 28

On Saturday and Sunday I cried on and off: anticipatory grieving. I knew what I was in for, as both J and I have walked this road before. On Friday night, Rocco the cat, who had always enjoyed cuddling with MAD and was his “best bud” among our pets, slept by himself on MAD’s dog bed, as if waiting for his return. The emergency vet said it might be possible to get MAD well enough to come home for a few days before the end, but ultimately J and I decided that begging for more days isn’t worth it if they aren’t good days.

MAD and me

On Sunday, we went to Angell during the midday visiting hours, and MAD was moderately better, able to stagger to a wobbly standing position as we left, as if to prove he still could. I’m glad my final “happy” memory of MAD was one where he was being simultaneously goofy and valiant, refusing to let something as silly as paralysis daunt his boisterous spirit. But a dog who can (barely) stand but not walk is prone to all sorts of ailments—including pneumonia, urinary tract infections, and the humiliation of not being able to eliminate properly—so we made arrangements to return to Angell in the evening, when it would be quiet, to put MAD to sleep.

Best buds

In the end, MAD had to be wheeled out of the ICU on a low stretcher, his head up but his tail and legs motionless as he was maneuvered into the same euphemistically termed “meditation room” where we had said goodbye to Reggie: a quiet room where dim lighting, a couch, coffee table, and several boxes of tissues create a home-like environment for final goodbyes. If nothing else, the sight of MAD lying motionless on a stretcher confirmed we were making the right decision, as a dog as energetic and athletic as a Lab doesn’t deserve to be carted around, immobile.

Lip-smacking

MAD was a big, lovable lug until the end. My final memory of him is twofold: the sheer determination it took him to struggle to stand during our final visit, and the heavy, exhausted body they wheeled into the meditation room that night. If hearts were coupled with the bodies they deserve, MAD would live on in a youthful and exuberant frame; instead, the body they wheeled into the meditation room was thick, tired, and covered with the lipomas and benign warty growths MAD had acquired as he aged into a lumpy and lumbering old man.

Strange bedfellows

In the end we gave MAD all anyone could ask for: a peaceful passing with his loved ones present, and with it a long-deserved cessation of suffering. How much energy and effort had it taken to keep such a big body moving? Until the end, MAD remained both game and goofy, as if the force of sheer rambunctiousness could muscle him through any medical challenge. In the end, we had to help MAD die because his heart was too damn big to give up and die on its own.

MAD lounging

I remember when we put Reggie down—I was so relieved to know he was finally at rest—no longer struggling or suffering. Say what you might about not going gentle into that good night: there comes a time when raging against the dying of the light seems worse than futile and even cruel.

Having sat by MAD’s side as he breathed his last, stroking his face and telling him again and again how good a boy he was, I feel the same sense of comfort (even while my eyes blur with tears) that I felt when Reggie died. In the end, MAD is comfortable at last: a well-deserved rest for a body that tolerated so much. After his spirit left it, MAD’s body looked like it had been through a war: along with those aforementioned lumps and bumps, MAD’s body was marred with scars from surgeries to excise a tumorous spleen, remove a growth on his back, and fix a torn tendon in his leg. MAD bounced back from each of those procedures: at times, it seemed like he’d never stop bouncing. But arthritis, hypothyroidism, degenerative myelopathy, and who knows what other unknown, lurking ailments each made their irrevocable claim.

MAD in morning light

The most painful part of putting a dog down is the point where you walk away and leave him, a body bereft of spirit. At Angell you settle up your paperwork before the procedure, so you don’t have to endure the humiliation of walking teary-eyed and alone through a lobby where other people are waiting and pacing with leashed dogs and cat carriers. Instead, you exit through a door next to the meditation room—a door J and I have dubbed the Death Door—and you walk back to your car feeling alien and alone, a new arrival on the shore of the newly bereaved. As you pass outside the hospital lobby where strangers arrive to check in or out their beloved animals, you realize with a start that you are the only one in the entire place whose beloved animal is dead.

Once you settle into the comforting privacy of your car, however, the journey has just begun. Having helped yet another beloved pet to a calm and distant shore, now all you know to do with yourself is steer your way back home down a dark road you’ve taken too many times before.

Not yet hammock season

All the times J and I have passed this hammock on our way to or from our local T stop, I’ve never seen anyone lying in it. Still, there’s something soothing about the sight of an empty (and thus inviting) hammock hanging between two trees, even if it’s the middle of February and the snow is puddled with melt water.

Well-dressed

Today and yesterday have been mercifully mild: February thaw. The last looming glaciers of icy snow thundered from our roof on Friday, and there are bare patches of muddy ground beneath the towering pines that fringe our neighbor’s yard. Yesterday we had lunch in Jamaica Plain, where the sidewalks were thronged with window-shoppers, baby-strollers, dog-walkers, and more than a few people sitting outside eating ice cream: a defiant thumbing-of-one’s nose to Old Man Winter.

Dirty snow / buried bench

Old Man Winter isn’t done with us yet: there’s a chance of snow showers tonight, the possibility of more snow on Wednesday, and rumors of snow next weekend. Everyone knows March is a fickle month–in like a lion, out like a lamb–but that doesn’t matter right now, when the temperature is well above freezing and our ears thrill to the sound of bird calls and dripping melt water.

Afternoon commute

Today’s snowstorm arrived right on schedule, the flakes starting to fall at Framingham State around 10:30 am, while I was in my office conferencing with students from my morning class. By the time the college canceled afternoon classes and I left my office around 2:30 pm, the snow was already ankle-deep and still falling.

Snowy tree

This is the second time in a row that my afternoon Tuesday/Thursday class has been canceled because of an early dismissal, and it’s the third time this semester I’ve driven home through falling snow. In each case, my commute from Framingham to Newton has been slow, messy, but otherwise uneventful. I don’t really mind driving home in snow if I have the luxury of taking my time…and when work lets you out early, you have no real reason to hurry.

Driveway

On these snowy drives home from campus, I’ve been impressed at how calm my fellow commuters have been. When Atlanta saw three inches of snow several weeks ago, there was widespread panic, but New Englanders are well-practiced at winter driving. Here in Massachusetts, we joke about the obnoxious aggressiveness of so-called Massholes, but in a snowstorm even the most assertive drivers become calm and focused.

Whenever I’ve driven home in a snowstorm, I’ve been struck by a sense of cooperative camaraderie amongst my fellow commuters. We seem to share an unspoken understanding that we’re all trying to get home, and rushing or driving aggressively won’t help. Even in stop-and-go snarls, I find drivers maintaining a safe distance, calmly changing lanes, and letting cars merging from side streets or parking lots to go ahead: small courtesies offered in an attempt to keep a smooth traffic flow. There’s nothing like a snowstorm to (temporarily) cure a Masshole’s tendency to speed, tailgate, or cut off other motorists.

Snowy street

Although I’m always relieved to pull onto my own street at the end of a snowy drive, I don’t necessarily find these commutes to be stressful, just attention-intensive. Driving home in the midst of a snowstorm is a powerful form of mindfulness practice; you can’t hurry the journey, so you take each slow moment as it comes. The worst thing you can do when driving in snow is to make any sort of sudden movement, so everything you do slows to a calmly steady, sedate, and intentional pace. Whether you’re inching in stop-and-go traffic or cruising at 30 mph, the key is to stay steady: no jerking stops, no lurching starts, and no sudden swerves or turns. Instead, you spend a lot of time coasting, tapping your brakes to warn the car behind you as you gradually slow to an eventual stop. There’s no slamming of brakes in a snowstorm, just a patient tap, tap, tapping. Instead of tensing into a skid or swerve, you follow your breath, your secret mantra being “slow and steady all the way home.”

Buried patio furniture

Today was sunny in the aftermath of last week’s snowstorms, as so often happens. In Saturday’s storm, we got about five inches of new snow, which was less than we’d braced for…but that fell atop the eight inches we got last Thursday. Tomorrow, the forecast calls for another three to five inches, one storm layering atop the previous one. After so many storms, three, five, or even eight inches of new snow doesn’t sound like much: just add it to the pile.

Front door icicle curtain

Today, as I said, was sunny, but the temperature never rose above freezing. Still, the icicles that fringe our eaves and curtain our doorways dripped and elongated in the sun, and I found myself hoping the snow piles would sublime under the sun’s radiating glance, passing straight from solid to vapor: snow piles slipping away as mist. Although it’s true that snow piles sometimes shrink on dry and windy days, I can’t say we have any less snow tonight than we did this morning. Still, it’s cheering to see the sun baking exposed patches of road even though too many of our neighbors still haven’t cleared their sidewalks.

Buried birdbath

Later this week, the forecasters promise temperatures warm enough to melt some of the snow: anything to make an inroad on so much accumulation. Although J dutifully trudges through knee-deep snow to fill our backyard bird feeder, it will be a while before the sun sees the bottom of our backyard birdbath, and even longer (I suspect) before it’s warm enough for any brave bird to dip a tentative toe in its brisk bath.

The perfect man...on sale

Friday is my usual grocery day, so yesterday I took advantage of a one-day respite between snowstorms to stock up on provisions for the week. The grocery store parking lot was more crowded than usual, with enormous snow piles taking up a whole row of parking spaces. As I approached the store, a handful of college guys in sweatshirts and slouchy jeans poured out of a car and sauntered in ahead of me, making a bee-line for a colorful display of flowers, chocolates, and heart-shaped balloons. Obviously their girlfriends have trained them well.

A singing spot of color

In the produce section, an employee stood by a display of boxed strawberries and a chocolate fountain, a throng of women waiting in line to select the berries they’d dip. All over the store, lone men steered shopping carts laden with ingredients for a romantic meal, the pasta, salad, and garlic bread in their carts clearly indicating that Valentine’s Day is Dad’s turn to cook.

Icicles on a gray day

What I didn’t see at the grocery store yesterday were panicked people hoarding milk, eggs, and bread in advance of today’s snowstorm, as sometimes happens earlier in the season. This is the ninth snowstorm we’ve had this year: I know because we’ve kept a tally of “snow events” on our refrigerator, another mark added every time we get more than a broom-sweeping’s worth of snow. After eight snowstorms, we pretty much know the drill: we know to hunker down during the storm, dig out as soon as it stops, and return to usual the next day. After eight snowstorms, you might say that Mother Nature has us well-trained.

Snow on oak trees

I wrote today’s journal pages after dark, after finishing the day’s assortment of teaching tasks and teaching prep. During the school year, so much of my time and energy is focused on teaching–on my students’ writing–I sometimes wonder how I can ever manage to find the time, energy, and inspiration to devote to my own.

Snowblown

Ann Patchett references this reality in the introduction to her collection of nonfiction essays, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, which I finished reading last week. Writing, Patchett observes, is a challenging career because you typically have to do something else to support yourself while doing it: like music or acting or other arts, in most cases writing requires you to have a day job. Patchett explains that when she started out as a young and aspiring writer, she tried to support herself through the two things she knew how to do–teaching and waitressing–but neither one left her enough energy to write: teaching was too intellectually exhausting, and waitressing was too physically exhausting.

Snowy bench

For Patchett, there was a third option–writing freelance articles for magazines, which is what she did for years before experiencing commercial success as a novelist. But freelancing strikes me as being just as exhausting as either teaching or waiting tables: in addition to the effort and concentration required to research and write articles for Seventeen, Gourmet, or any of the other magazines Patchett contributed to, there is with freelancing the constant contingency of contract work. Writing is itself exhausting enough, and even more draining is the question of who will buy your next article, when exactly they will pay for it, and what you will do in the meantime, while the bills pile up without your next paycheck being anywhere in sight.

Frosted

I am, in other words, too risk-averse to thrive as a freelancer, as Ann Patchett did: I would spend too much time and mental energy fretting over clients and contracts and the need to drum up business. One benefit of teaching at the college level, after all, is the fact that the college is responsible for recruiting your “customers.” But Patchett is spot-on when she notes the intellectual demands of teaching. Although there are presumably instructors out there who merely put in the hours, collect their pay, and don’t give much of a damn whether their students learn anything in their classes, I am (for better or worse) an instructor who does give a damn, my day-job at times threatening to subsume every last ounce of my energy and attention.

Snowy seats

So how do you manage to have a creative life when your day-job consists of nurturing the intellectual lives of dozens of students, with all those lessons to plan and all those papers to grade? The short, honest answer is “I have no idea.” But part of me suspects that maintaining one’s own creative life is essential to good, quality teaching, that if your own intellectual fire isn’t kindled, you’ll never spark a fire in anyone else. When I turn off my laptop at the end of a long grading day in order to read anything other than my students, papers, I’d like to think I’m doing so for my students’ sake as much as my own.

Fruity snowman

One of the things that sometimes surprises folks who live outside New England is how quickly we dig out from snowstorms here. My mom in Ohio, for instance, will sometimes ask whether we’re still snowed in a week or so after a New England storm that’s grabbed national headlines, and she doesn’t seem to believe me when I insist that even after we’ve gotten a foot or so of snow, life in the greater Boston area typically returns to “winter normal” within a day.

Snowy patio

We got about a foot of dense, heavy snow in our latest storm, and although yesterday was a snow day for local schools, by afternoon, the roads were plowed and J had cleared our sidewalks and driveway. I don’t teach face-to-face classes on Wednesdays, so yesterday was a stay-at-home grading day for me, and the only time I ventured outside was in the morning, before much snow had accumulated, and in the evening, when I shoveled a patch of snow inside the entrance to our backyard dog pen so the dogs wouldn’t face a wall of snow when I opened the gate. By this morning, everything was back to normal, the dogs eagerly clambering into their snowy pen and the main roads being clear down to the pavement. Being “snowed in” for a day is pretty much all we allow ourselves here in New England, with everyone returning to work and their usual routines the morning after.

Snowy seats

I don’t know if there’s a meteorological basis for this, but it’s often brilliantly sunny the day after a snowstorm. This means you’ll be rewarded if you dig out quickly, as today’s sunshine will finish the work you started yesterday. After every snowfall, you’ll see an occasional “Masshole” driving with a foot of snow atop his vehicle, but anyone who isn’t either new to New England or a jerk knows not to inflict their roof-snow on the hapless driver stuck in traffic behind them. If you clear most of the snow from your car, sidewalks, and driveway the afternoon after a snowstorm, the next day those surfaces will be baked bare by the sun, even if it’s an otherwise cold day. But if you let snow accumulate from one snowstorm to the next, heaven help you when you do try to dig yourself out.

Snow topped

This morning I had to scrape about an inch of overnight ice and snow from my car before beginning my morning commute, and when I arrived on campus, I parked in a spot I knew would be sunny in the afternoon. When I return to my car tonight, I won’t have to clean it, and it will be ready for the weekend, when the forecast calls for yet another storm. Here in New England, we don’t take long to dig out from snowstorms because we know the next layer of winter precipitation is never far around the corner.

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