Monthly Archives: March 2014

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When I wrote the epilogue to Pets, Revisited (see last post) a few years ago, our goldfish Hobbes was still kicking it in his own private pond in our backyard. We had dug the little pond ourselves, put in a preformed liner, and stocked it with ten scrawny little 27 cent feeder fish. These are the fish that are sold as food for superior aquarium fish or pet turtles. They spend their last days on death row in ghastly, overcrowded cells teeming with their fellow inmates, both living and dead. Sadly, their reprieve in our pond was short-lived. The fish died with alarming rapidity one after the other until only one survivor named Hobbes was left.

Hobbes flourished and thrived year after year, eventually developing into a magnificent, brilliant red specimen. When last we saw him, he was about seven inches long. For seven years, our first Hobbes sighting of the year was cause for rejoicing. It meant that spring had finally arrived. Our affection for him grew with each winter he weathered. He even managed to survive The Great Olive Oil Catastrophe of 2011, when a little neighbor friend accidentally spilled an entire bottle of the stuff into the pond. However absurd it may seem, we loved that fish inordinately.

A couple years ago, we were crushed when he did not make his customary reappearance in the spring. We figured he was eaten by a cat or a raccoon, or that maybe he died of old age. We never restocked the pond again and since it didn’t have any fish left in it, we neglected it. It was full of leaves and mud. A few stones that had covered the edges of the liner fell into the water and we never bothered to pull them back out.

This past Friday morning I heard my daughter shouting that there were two baby fish that looked just like Hobbes swimming in the pond! I still don’t know how this is possible. But then again, in the depths of winter it’s hard to believe that the spare white landscape will one day melt to reveal a muddy, gaudy, exuberant display of life in all of its glory. This little miracle is just what I needed to reset after this endless winter. Miracles do happen, every single spring.

Pets, Revisited

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Hallooo! I’ve been away much longer than I expected to be. A couple of weeks ago, I was in Korea; this past week I’ve been dealing with jet lag, a freak storm that dropped six inches of snow, two sick kids, etc. I was desperately feeling the need for a “reset.” On Friday morning the most amazing, miraculous thing happened, which helped me do just that…I’ll write about this on Monday. Today I’m republishing one of the very first posts I put on this blog, because it will give you some background for Monday’s post.

(Oh, and if you want to read Part 1 of this post, you can find it here).

It would be reasonable to assume that given my long and checkered past with pet ownership, I might have taken a break from animal husbandry during my four years at Dartmouth College.  That logical assumption would be based on the faulty supposition that I myself am a rational human being.  When a friend of mine discovered an orphaned baby squirrel at the base of a tree and brought him over to my apartment, I was utterly entranced, and threw myself headlong into the project of rehabilitating him.  Basil the squirrel ate everything I fed him with great gusto.  To make sure he wasn’t eaten with great gusto by my roommate’s two enormous cats, I put him in a sock and took him to all my classes.  And thus Basil the squirrel not only received free room and board, he also received a free Ivy League education.

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I conscientiously supplemented the college lectures he attended on Russian literature with some more practical training.  Every day I would take him out to a tree and encourage him to climb it.  The first day I put him on the tree he remained frozen in place, trembling and peeing uncontrollably.  He was only too glad to come back home with me in his sock.  So that he could practice his tree climbing skills at home, I found a big branch and periodically put it and Basil out on our fire escape landing.  My roommates’ cats tracked his every move from the other side of the screened window with keen interest.

Once I glanced out the window to check on him and was horrified to discover that he had disappeared.  I ran down the stairs and checked all around for an injured baby squirrel on the ground underneath the fire escape.  He was nowhere to be found.  I could only assume that he had fallen to his death and was then eaten by one of the tribe of inbred, six-toed, cross-eyed feral cats that prowled around our parking lot.

With a heavy heart I climbed the stairs back to my apartment.  My upstairs neighbor met me in the stairwell.  “Is this your squirrel?!” she asked me, handing Basil over to me.

Unbeknownst to me at the time, squirrels are able to scale brick walls.  He had climbed up to the next fire escape.  My neighbor had stepped out of the shower and had gone to open her window, still wrapped in a towel.  As soon as Basil spotted her, he took a flying leap and landed in her cleavage.

Every day I took Basil to his tree.  Every day he climbed a little further up the trunk, and took a longer time to return when I called him.  One day I lost sight of him in the branches.  I craned my neck searching for him and called him over and over again.  Finally, blinking back tears, I decided this must be good-bye.

A few days later I sat wistfully at my desk by an open window.  “Born Free” was ringing in my ears.  Just as I was about to burst forth into lusty song to join my voice to the swelling internal chorus:  “..as free as the wind bl—“  I could hear someone urgently calling my name.  Another neighbor, who lived on the other side of the parking lot had just rescued Basil from the jaws of one of the wild cats.  I ran down.  As soon as Basil saw me coming towards him he streaked across the gravel lot, ran up my leg and torso until he reached my shoulder, and there he sat, boldly scolding and taunting the cats.  After a few days I let him go back to his tree, and it really was good-bye. I never saw him again.

From New Hampshire I moved to New York and for a few years I was surrounded by living creatures, who blossomed and thrived with absolutely no assistance from me.  For some reason, though, the teeming cockroaches and scuttling rats did nothing to fill the aching void I felt.  In my third year of graduate school I had just broken up with my fiancé, and after drawing a lousy number in the housing lottery, I had ended up in a derelict welfare hotel that had been bought up by Columbia University to gradually convert into graduate student housing.  There wasn’t much separating the poverty-stricken students from the grey-faced welfare residents who’d scrounge for their dinners in the hallway garbage cans.  In the depths of despair and loneliness I wandered into a pet store and found myself face to face with a little scamp of a dog, white with gleaming black button eyes and a glistening nose.  At the sight of me, he bounced joyfully all around his enclosure as if on springs.  The only thing, the obvious thing to do as a destitute graduate student living in a miniscule hovel was to whip out my credit card and go further into debt to bring home this little Maltese puppy:

This “nonsense piece of fluff,” as my dad called him, was so implausibly cute, the carapace of hardened New Yorkers would shatter the minute he pranced into sight.  It always amused me when some hulking, thuggish character I would ordinarily have crossed the street to avoid, would run up to my dog and start talking to him in a high-pitched, squeaky baby voice.  In Riverside Park we would sometimes sit with a white-haired lady in a wheelchair, who would take him onto her lap and stroke him and talk in a thick German accent about her own long-since deceased white poodle.  He was the star of Morningside Heights, recognized and beloved by all.

People were always stopping me to ask in all seriousness whether he was real or just a remarkably convincing mechanical toy.  He was so small he fit in the very large pockets of my coat and I was able to take him with me everywhere I went.  Once I took him to Butler Library stashed in my duffel bag.  When I took him for walks, his tiny legs would be a blur as they would rapidly pitter patter down the sidewalk.  He walked with absolute confidence, busily looking left and right as he surveyed his domain. You could almost hear the jaunty little jingle playing in his head as he walked:  “This is my neighborhood.  I’m going for a walk.”  Whenever people approached to pet him, he’d leap up on his hind legs and pirouette joyfully.  You could tell he was surprised, and just a little bit offended when people walked past him, without stopping to give him the adulation that was so obviously his due.  Princely as he was, he seemed unfazed by the squalor of my miserable, dingy roach motel room and I think it is only because of him that I scraped through that personal annus horribilis.

When my husband and I got married, our little dog made a cameo appearance atop our wedding cake.

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He began to lead a much quieter life when we moved to Charlottesville, Virginia.  Gone were the urban throngs of admirers he had grown accustomed to greeting benevolently on his daily royal walkabout.  And then, there was the arrival of a usurper to his throne.  In photographs of the shower for my first baby, you can see the dog glued to my side, looking a little wary.  Our son adored the dog, and found everything he did charming and amusing.  The feelings weren’t mutual, but the dog tolerated his presence.  What he couldn’t tolerate was being left at home by himself.  In Manhattan you could take a dog just about anywhere.  In the suburbs, there were very few places you could take a dog.  Worse still, my husband and I had to be away from home for long hours.  He chewed up all the door jambs and the carpets around the door through which we exited and entered the house.  Our kindly neighbors, most of them elderly retirees, would hear him barking all day long, and then gently report to us that he seemed a little upset when we went to work.  It was o.k., because we owned the house that he was slowly but surely gnawing to pieces, and because we had magnanimous neighbors.

It all went terribly awry when we moved to Princeton, New Jersey for my husband’s sabbatical year.  We rented out a cottage so tiny my mom refused to refer to it as anything other than “the dollhouse.”  Worried that the dog would chew the house to matchsticks, we had planned to put him in Otto’s old crate whenever we left the house.  We went out to dinner on the first day we arrived.  As we walked back to the house, a neighbor came running out to meet us.  I thought he was coming to introduce himself.  Instead, he launched into an apoplectic diatribe punctuated with flying spittle flecks about strict town ordinances governing nuisance barking.  We began to take the dog everywhere we could, but most of the time I was trapped at home with an antsy toddler and a dog that was growing more neurotic by the minute.  The few times we did leave, for an hour at the most, we would return to find that he had peed and pooped in his crate and had then rolled around in the mess.  I was in the first trimester of pregnancy with my second child at the time, and was already feeling generally queasy.  Cleaning diarrhea off the fur around my dog’s mouth was not helping the situation at all.  As the stress mounted in our excrement-filled dollhouse prison, Colin and I started bickering like a couple of fishwives.

When it became clear that the situation was untenable, we contacted a Maltese rescue society and working with those diligent matchmakers, we were put into contact with a couple who sounded too good to be true.  Ben had taken early retirement because he had MS and was more or less housebound.  He and his partner Darren already had a Maltese named Beauregard and they wanted to find a companion for him.  We agreed to bring our dog over to meet them at their apartment in the Flatiron District.

The men showed us around their apartment.  They opened the door to one of two bathrooms.  There was newspaper spread out all over the floor.

“This is Beau’s bathroom,” Ben explained.  “Do you think your dog could learn to use the paper?”

I thought he could, as he was already trained to use a domed kitty-litter box, but I expressed my concern that he still raised his leg to pee.

“Oh, that’s o.k.,” he responded lightly, “The housekeeper takes care of it.”  As we continued the tour of the apartment, we couldn’t help noticing that it was essentially a temple devoted to the worship of the very worthy, exquisitely lovely, becomingly modest and sedate Beauregard.  There were oil paintings and studio portraits of him everywhere.  Ben explained, “We don’t have to worry about college tuition, so this is how we like to spend our money.”  There were doggie stepstools around the beds and couch.  A groomer came once a week to the apartment to coif their pooch’s magnificent full coat.  They personally cooked chicken, rice, and the occasional vegetable for Beauregard every night.

I thought that maybe my overly bouncy, somewhat scraggly dog might not be what they were looking for, but they were so smitten with him that they wanted me to leave him with them right there and then.  I hesitated.  I thought this was just a blind date.  I hadn’t prepared myself.  Colin shot me a look, the kind of look you’d give to a beggar who just won the lottery and then decided not to take the money after all…I burst into ugly, racking, deeply embarrassing sobs.  Snot was running from my nose like water from a faucet.  They patted me on the back, promised I could visit whenever I wanted, as they hustled me out the door.

One year later I visited my little dog, who had been renamed Pookie.  That whole year I had been haunted by the worry that my poor dog was spending his endless days and nights pining for me.  I envisioned him waiting sadly by the door for me to return, his heart leaping and then falling every time the door opened and someone other than me walked in.  When I did finally walk into the apartment a year later he came over to greet me politely, but then rushed back to jump into Ben’s lap.  Slightly embarrassed by this less than ebullient reception on Pookie’s part, Ben brought him over to me and with sensitive generosity placed him in my own lap.  Pookie leaped off and right back onto his rightful master’s lap.  What Ben didn’t understand was that Pookie’s uncomplicated, total shift of loyalty was the best thing I could have hoped for.  We still visit him every once in a while.  He has reclaimed his title as Prince of All Manhattan, and is ensconced in a warm haven of luxury befitting his rank.  In Ben, Darren, and Beauregard he found his fairy-tale ending and his true family.

For many years after, we swore off all pets.  As my son got older, his pleas for a pet became more plaintive.  As a compromise, a couple years ago we dug a small pond in the backyard and stocked it with ten goldfish.  The first couple of weeks passed like a long nightmarish déjà vu from my Aquarium of Death days.  One after the other, day after day, the fish kept going belly-up.  The first five or six deaths were traumatic for my young son.  We gave each fish his or her own funeral service with all the pomp and circumstance due a 27 cent fish, who had been with us for all of a few days.  Every day, our sad funeral cortege would wind its way to the part of our backyard where lawn meets woods.  We would bow our heads and say a prayer for each of their departed souls, before giving them a proper Christian burial.  The next couple of fish I flung to the base of a tree while my son and his brother were at school.  As an afterthought I found a few dead leaves with which to hide the corpses so that the kids wouldn’t find them so heartlessly discarded.  Today only one hardy fish survives:  a now huge red comet, named Hobbes.  While all of his former fellow pond-dwellers had lives that were “nasty, brutish, and short,” Hobbes lives on, the king of his watery realm.

Which brings me, at long last, to the rabbits…Let me be honest.  Foolish as it must seem, given my history, what I was really hankering for was another dog.  But after all the sturm und drang with Pookie, my husband practically made me sign a contract in my own blood promising never again to have another dog.  I began to cast about for other options.  I happened to see a photograph of an inordinately cute bunny on some brochure.  A few idle moments (so dangerous!), a little innocent websurfing (in those vulnerable late-night hours), and the next thing I knew I was calling the nearest rabbit rescue organization about a funny-looking rabbit with a Groucho Marx mustache I had seen on their website.  So desperate is the rabbit rescue organization to find homes for the many rabbits they care for, a couple days later, before I had a chance to come to my senses, a representative drove three hours from Laurel, Maryland to Charlottesville, Virginia in the middle of the night to deliver the rabbit to us.  She arrived at eleven p.m. and immediately set to work constructing a cage with parts she had brought with her.  It was well past one a.m. when she was finally done.

She gathered the rabbit up into her arms, lovingly kissed the top of his head, whispered a benediction into his ear, and gently lowered him into his new digs.  And just like that, we were in possession of a black and white English Spot, we named Alasdair.  She turned to me with moist eyes and told me what a wonderful thing I had just done.  I was a little confused.  After all, I had merely sent an email enquiry in a moment of weakness and then sat by watching as this woman, who had just driven three hours, (stopping off to pick up food and litter for her charge), spent another two hours building a cage.  She was about to drive another three hours, not to return home until four am.  But she made it sound like I really was Mother Theresa, (hadn’t I suspected as much all those years ago when I had almost saved poor Charlene Tilton?).  My place in heaven was assured thanks to my enormous heart.

We went to bed that night with tears streaming down our faces.  No, it wasn’t the raw emotion of having performed such a noble act in opening up our hearth and home to a creature in need…It was our immune systems kicking into high gear, revving up for the full frontal assault of rabbit hair and dander flying through the house via the air ducts.  The next morning I bought an air purifier and parked it in front of the cage.  Seduced by all those YouTube videos, I had envisioned a rabbit who would give us bunny kisses, do a few binkies around the family room, and then flop down on the couch next to us to watch t.v.  I realized now that with our allergies, this was not to be.  We nevertheless mounted an intensive campaign to befriend Alasdair through the bars of his cage.  He wanted to have nothing to do with us.  He would skulk in a corner and when we reached in to pet him, he would hop post haste to the furthest reaches of his capacious four by four by four foot cage, where it was virtually impossible to reach him.

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Naturally, I couldn’t let things stand as they were.  Alasdair looked so pathetic and alone in his cage.  If he was determined to reject the company of humans, perhaps he might appreciate a fellow lagomorph roomie.  Enter Raphael, an orange Holland Lop:

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We kept them separated until both were neutered and then conscientiously followed the detailed bunny bonding techniques outlined in the instruction manual the rabbit rescue lady had left with us.  My heart was madly hammering as we introduced them to each other.  Fur flew and by the end of the bunny version of an ultimate, no-holds barred, smackdown, both rabbits were soaking wet from the water I had to squirt at them to separate them. After a few more catastrophic attempts to get them to tolerate each other, I resigned myself to having two lonely rabbits in two gigantic cages that took up almost all the floor space in our dining room.

Although the situation was not ideal, we had come to terms with it.  My husband very graciously refrained from giving me “I told you so” lectures.  I know it took every ounce of self-control he could muster. And then one day recently, I discovered that Raphael had suddenly sprouted tusks from his mouth.  As I looked more closely, I also noticed that his upper incisors were curling alarmingly backwards toward the roof of his mouth.  One of the things you hear about rabbits is that they are cheap pets compared to cats and dogs, who need regular immunizations.  What you don’t hear is that if they do require the services of a vet, you need to find one who specializes in “exotic animals.”  I had to search high and low for a vet who could treat my extremely exotic rabbit and finally found one a few towns over.  When I asked the vet to remove Raphael’s teeth, he demurred, telling me that if it were his pet, he would bring him in every couple of months to get the teeth filed down…to the tune of fifty bucks each time.  I didn’t state the obvious.  It wasn’t his pet.  If it were, he could file them down himself, for free.  The vet earned his fifty bucks, and I left his office reeling.

Less than one month later, I saw Raphael’s lower incisors emerging again from his mouth like tusks.  If I watched long enough, I could practically see them growing before my very eyes.  I called the vet and asked him to give me a referral to someone who would be willing to remove the teeth altogether.  In retrospect, I think he was punishing me for disregarding his professional recommendation by sending me to the Avian and Exotics Animal Hospital, where I sacrificed my kids’ college education so that Raphael could be liberated from his monstrous teeth.

When I arrived at the clinic, the first thing I noticed was the large, sleek, black flat screen t.v. hanging above the reception desk.  A slideshow of past veterinary patients played on a continuous loop.  There was a bearded dragon being treated with acupuncture.  A koi fish was lying on its side, hooked up to some kind of life support device breathing tube.  Someone was syringing water over him, while someone else burned a tumor off his flank.  I began to grow very uneasy.  What deep inner circle of  hell was this?

When we were ushered into the exam room, the very competent vet had a quick look at Raphael’s tusks, and immediately agreed that they had to come out.  She started briskly typing away at the computer to come up with an estimate for the surgery.  I blinked a little when I saw 750 at the bottom of the screen.  Surely this was some sort of mistake.  Seeing me blanch, she assured me that there were things she “might be able to do” to lower the total.  She went through the entire screen line by line until we reached the last item:  precautionary preoperative bloodwork…50 dollars.  “We could take this one off,” she offered.  “Take it off,” I managed to choke out.

When we returned to pick up Raphael after his surgery, the total had somehow become a cool 800 dollars.  I staggered out of the office with my three year old daughter and my now extremely valuable, toothless rabbit.  As we drove back home my daughter espied the Chinese restaurant, where we had gone for lunch a few times in more prosperous times.  From her carseat she piped up, “Let’s go the ‘nestwant’ and have sesame chicken!”

“We’re never going to eat at a ‘nestwant’ ever again, T.  We can’t afford ‘nestwants’ anymore.  We just spent 800 dollars on the bunny.  Let’s just eat lunch at home.”

We got home and after I syringed the first round of painkiller, antibiotic, and pulverized hay mush into Raphael’s mouth, I started making my little girl a peanut butter sandwich.  She slumped silently against the doorframe watching me, and then glumly said, “I don’t weally want to have two bunnies anymore…I weally like sesame chicken.”

And so the next generation of deeply flawed pet owners begins…

Epilogue…(Are you still with me?!):

Since writing this, our family has had many more short-lived fish, tiny shrimp in an “ecosphere”:

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some sea monkeys who liked to lounge around their tank in velour track suits watching reruns on t.v., (how I wish I had taken a picture when they were alive!) and two murderous Roborovski hamster sisters who had to be separated before they killed each other.

(Notice the knights my son set up by the temporary hamster jail we set up for the really aggressive one. And here I’d been imagining that they’d spend their lives chit chatting, doing each other’s hair, and exchanging makeup tips).

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Alasdair and Raphael found a new home with people who show rabbits on the county fair circuit. Pookie died at a ripe old age and is memorialized in Madison Square Park with a plaque on the bench where he spent many happy hours. We now have two adorable, good-natured but rotten dogs, who like to pee on my couch whenever I turn my back.

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Hobbes, the comet, is still going strong.

She Was (not) a Dancing Queen

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In my last post I wrote of my ignominious history with Physical Education, and in particular, about the kayaking debacle in which I almost killed my first college P.E. teacher. After three terrifying kayak sessions, I came to my senses and slunk back to where I belonged…a Beginner Aerobics class.

Don’t imagine for a moment that this aerobics class didn’t also hold its own challenges for me. It’s not something I like to talk about, but I suffer from S.K.I.: Severe Kinetic Ineptitude. I’m clumsy, prone to falling, and find it extremely challenging to mimic physical movements. Despite these serious limitations, I managed to plod and stumble my way through the first quarter of aerobics. I gazed with real satisfaction at that first CR (credit) on my report card.

Emboldened by this modest success, the next quarter I signed up for another aerobics class. In my overweening arrogance, I thought I could slack off a bit. I began to miss a class here or there. No big deal…until I missed one too many classes to earn my P.E. credit. I didn’t worry too much about this. I still had four years to take the two more classes I needed to fulfill the phys ed requirement. I figured the credit would simply not show up on my transcript. Imagine my surprise when I found an “F” for Beginner Aerobics on my report card. The shame of it was almost too much to bear. Despite the fact that the failing grade did not count towards my G.P.A., my mother was livid. I resolved to sign up for Jazz dance the following quarter. It would be so much fun, I wouldn’t want to miss a single class!

Have I ever mentioned that I am a spectacularly bad dancer? In high school I used to be in all the musicals. I could sing, I could sort of act, but I most definitely could not dance. For big dance numbers when the whole cast was on stage, the choreographer would hide me in the back row where my graceless flailing wouldn’t be so visible. Sometimes there would be others back there with me. We back row dancers never had to move our feet at all. Occasionally we would be assigned a dead-simple semaphore-like movement to perform with our arms to justify our presence on stage. The choreographer charitably dubbed us “the disco line.” During performances I would grimly fix my gaze into the distance as I performed my moves, pretending not to notice my family members in the audience, poking each other and pointing at me as they squirmed and gasped and yelped in paroxysms of helpless laughter.

I boldly showed up to my first jazz dance class ready to leave my sorry terpsichorean past behind me. I came wearing a ratty t-shirt, shorts, and sneakers and was slightly dismayed to see that everyone else was sporting leotards, leggings, and jazz shoes. The teacher began showing us some basic jazz moves. She eased into things by teaching us how to do “jazz hands.” I have to admit, I was pretty damn amazing at “jazz hands.” I actually kind of blew myself away. She taught us a few more moves. “Step touch” – a piece of cake! A “jazz square” was a little more complicated, but just about manageable. “Step, ball, change” – yes! Chassé – got it! She had us practice these basic moves for about half the class.

It was going pretty well, though she wouldn’t stop squawking at me.

“Adrienne! Relax your shoulders!…RELAX your shoulders.”

At one point, clearly exasperated, she stomped over to me and said as she forcefully pressed down on my shoulders, “Re-LAX your shoulders!”

Suddenly, a surprised expression dawned on her face, “Oh…you have really broad shoulders. Kind of like a football player.”

At that moment, a deeply suppressed memory from my high school days came flooding back into my mind. One day, my dad questioned me about what I wanted to do with my life. I had no answer for him, so I flippantly tossed off the most preposterous thing I could think of…

“I’m going to be a go-go dancer, Dad!”

A pained look passed over his face.

“Adrienne,” he said solemnly, gently, and with the utmost kindness, “to be a dancer, you have to have a fancy body. You don’t have a fancy body.”

Just as I had back then, I soldiered on.

“OK, class! Now we’re going to have some fun! We’re going to put these moves together into a dance sequence!”

The teacher shimmied and pirouetted, kicked and pranced across the gym floor as she called out the moves she was performing.

“It’s your turn now. Form a line and go one at a time. 5! 6! 7! 8! Jump lunge, hitch kick, chassé, cross, side kick, barrel turn, kick, ball change, step touch, step touch, soutane piqué, chaîné, aaaaaaaand jazz hands!”

This was, without a shadow of a doubt, even more horrifying than having to hang upside down in a kayak in the icy cold Connecticut River.

One by one my classmates strutted and danced across the floor with bored expressions on their faces, expertly executing the sequence like a whole chorus line of Bob Fosse protégés.

When it was my turn, I lumbered through the moves like a drunken ox. (I did finish strong, however, with my awesome “jazz hands”). The room grew silent. My classmates gazed intently at the ceiling, at a piece of lint they suddenly discovered on their leotard, at the floor…As for my teacher, she said nothing, but stood there with a thoughtful and slightly stunned expression on her face. Somehow or other, I managed to get through enough of these torture sessions to get another P.E. credit under my belt. Eventually, I got my third and final P.E. credit after one last round of Beginner Aerobics.

Hope you have a wonderful, wonderful weekend and week. I’m leaving today to go to Korea for work. My sister’s coming with me, so I’ll get to play too! I’ll be back in a week with photos and more stories…See you then!

Kayaking: or, How I almost killed my P.E. teacher

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I’ve had a long and chequered past with Physical Education, but I hit my nadir at Dartmouth. There were a couple phys ed requirements for graduation. First, every student had to pass a swimming test. On my first day on campus, I swam the required lap and promptly lost my contact lens in the pool. I fared no better at the second requirement, which was to take three P.E. classes.

The array of options was astounding. Sure, you could do something pedestrian like aerobics. But what kind of boob would choose to do something like that when you could do skiing, fencing, or water polo for P.E. credit?! My eyes lit up when I saw kayaking on the list of possible classes. Although I had never done any kayaking before, I was sure it couldn’t be difficult. In my mind, I envisioned myself peacefully floating down the Connecticut River, taking in the scenery as I gently rowed along, all while earning a P.E. credit with practically no effort on my part. It was the obvious choice for an out of shape, unathletic couch potato like myself.

I showed up at the docks on the first day of class wearing a wool sweater as I had been instructed. We got our kayaks into the water and the hour passed by just as I had imagined it. It was one of those perfect, crisp Fall days in New Hampshire. I couldn’t believe how lucky I was to be checking off a mandatory requirement in such a thoroughly pleasant way. As we rowed back to the river’s edge at the end of the class, I congratulated myself on having stayed upright in my kayak. I congratulated myself on so cleverly figuring out how to get P.E. credit without having to break a sweat.

And then one of the instructors announced that it was time to learn how to do a wet exit. I was horrified as I listened to him describe what this would entail and then watch as he actually demonstrated the technique himself. A wet exit meant that I would have to deliberately flip the kayak I had so proudly managed to keep upright for the whole class upside down. Hanging upside down in the water?! This was the stuff of my worst nightmares! I had to then pull open the spray skirt that had kept my bottom half nice and dry during my little jaunt down the river, and then swim out from the kayak into the icy cold river.

I managed to quell the panic attack induced by being upside down in water. (It’s also very possible that I was just stupefied by the freezing cold). When the instructor demonstrated the maneuver for us, he had swum out from his kayak like a sleek otter, his head serenely bobbing up out of the water. I pulled the spray skirt open and fell heavily onto the jagged rocks. I blindly scrabbled against the rocks with my eyes tightly shut (trying not to lose yet another contact lens) before finally getting my bearings. I made my way back to the surface, glugging, snorting, and choking in a most undignified manner. I staggered back to my dorm room trailing behind me: blood, river water, and my sorry, deflated delusions of an easy P.E. credit.

The wet exit had been traumatic, but I figured I could just about handle it. I’d done it once, I could do it again. The next class went by much as the first had, but this time the hour spent floating down the river was marred by the knowledge of what was to come. I braced myself as we rowed again to the river’s edge at the end of the class.

“Today we’re going to do C-rolls,” the instructor chirped. He proceeded to demonstrate how we would deliberately flip our kayaks sideways into the water and then right ourselves by using our torsos to propel ourselves out of the water. We did it multiple times on our left sides. And then to even things out, we did it multiple times on our right sides. Our instructor told us that we would work our way up to complete rolls in the water. When our torsos were completely soaked and numb, we finished the job on our lower halves by doing another wet exit.

I thought it could get no worse. I was wrong. On the third class the instructors informed us that we were going to learn how to do a rescue. They demonstrated this by having one of the instructors flip himself upside down in the water. He tapped with his hands against the hull of his boat to indicate that he needed help. The second instructor expertly maneuvered his kayak so that the front of it hit the upside down kayak close to the tapping hands. The upside down instructor placed his hands on the kayak and used it for leverage to right himself.

“Now it’s your turn,” the rescued instructor said. There were a dozen other people in that class, but he looked straight at me. “I’ll flip upside down again and when you see me tapping my hull, you’ll gently bump the front of your kayak as close to my hands as you can.”

Before I had a chance to demur, he flipped upside down in the water. He began tapping the side of his boat with his hands. I tried to maneuver my kayak to where he was. The tapping got faster. I still couldn’t manage to get my kayak to touch his. The tapping gained a distinctly frantic edge to it. I desperately tried, but failed again and again to get my kayak to touch his. Finally, the second instructor nosed his kayak into position and the upside down instructor righted himself. He no longer looked like a sleek, serene otter. He looked pretty pissed, in fact. He ended the class by grimly announcing that we would all be practicing rescues on each other next time.

I switched to aerobics that afternoon.

Vox clamantis in deserto

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I was scrolling through my emails on Friday when I noticed the name of one of my former Russian professors at Dartmouth. He was posting on SEELANGS: the Slavic and Eastern European Languages and Literature, a listserv for the rare breed of eccentric who makes a life of studying such things.

“Oh no!” I groaned out loud as I saw that it was an obituary he had written for Richard Sheldon, one of his colleagues and one of my beloved Russian professors. Lately, notices of their deaths have been coming with distressing frequency.

Vox clamantis in deserto is Dartmouth’s motto: A voice crying out in the wilderness. For four years, I was that voice crying out in the wilderness and I was crying, “WHAT THE HELL AM I DOING HERE?!” I was not white. My parents were not rich. I was not conservative. I was not athletic. I did not like being outdoors. I did not like to drink. I hated the cold weather. Further magnifying my sense of alienation was the fact that everybody else seemed to be delirious with joy to be there. Clearly, there must be something deeply wrong with me.

Here’s how I arrived:

It was September 1987 when my parents and I rolled into Hanover, New Hampshire for the first time like a raggedy tribe of Korean pimps in a grotesquely large, winged white Cadillac, vintage 1970. My parents had two daughters in college and a third about to start. There was not a dime to spare. Until very recently, my dad’s ride had been a brand new car, an unexciting, but eminently sensible, American-made beige sedan. It was the first new car he had in more than a decade. Shortly before I left for college, my sister got into a horrifying accident in which the car flipped multiple times and she was flung from the car into oncoming traffic on the highway. Miraculously, she walked away from the accident with a slight concussion. The car? Scrap metal. A friend of my dad who owned a body shop gave him the Cadillac to tide him over until he could get a new car.

It had been fun driving that car around Arlington, Virginia with my friends the summer before I left for college. They laughed out loud when they saw it for the first time and immediately christened it “The Batmobile.” It would take at least two or three 360 degree revolutions of the wheel to steer the car around a corner. When we finally did make the turn, everyone sitting in the bench seat would go sliding in slow motion for what seemed like an eternity until they ended in a scrunched up heap against the car door, laughing all the way. It was campy and fun then; now as my dad docked the hulking beast by the side of the pristine Dartmouth Green to consult a map, it made me feel glaringly, comically conspicuous. I may as well have landed on the Green in a space ship.

A white-haired gentleman dressed in a natty forest green blazer and a bow tie briskly walked up to our car to give us directions. I willed myself into oblivion, as I sank deeper into the depths of the car, which was lolling like a beached whale in that perfect New England landscape. I suppose it was fitting that I should arrive at this place in such an ignoble way. It was the first day of four of the most trying years of my life. I never felt more alienated, more like a fish out of water than I did at Dartmouth.

Eventually, I found my tribe. It turns out, they were all hanging out in the Russian Department. People who are attracted to Russian and Russian literature tend to be unconventional, maybe even slightly strange. THIS was where I belonged!

Professor Sheldon was one of the professors who made my four years in the wilderness bearable. His large eyes rimmed with thick lashes gave him an otherworldly, vaguely Dr. Seussian appearance. He habitually seemed to be staring off into some far distant shore. He was always slightly disheveled. His students would affectionately tease him for his sartorial choices, especially for his outlandish ties. He would smile bashfully and good-naturedly. We sensed that he returned our affection. We sensed that we were safe with him.

This is how I left Dartmouth:

On my last day at Dartmouth I processed across the Green. I walked flanked by classmates I didn’t know. The only thing we shared was that all of our names began with “K.” I knew my family was out there in the crowd somewhere, but I couldn’t see them. I walked with mixed emotions. I was elated to be finally graduating, but I also felt disappointed in myself for not having made more of my time there. I blinked back the tears that were forming in my eyes, feeling as lonely and vulnerable as I had that first day when I arrived with my parents. Suddenly, I heard my name being called. I turned my head to see all of my Russian professors standing in a cluster, benevolently smiling, waving, and cheering for me as I walked by.

I’m sad I never got the chance to tell those professors how much that meant to me at that moment. I never got a chance to say that because of them, I left that place feeling like I had belonged after all: to the very best, most civilized and humane corner of the wilderness.

Spasibo, Professor Sheldon, Professor Loseff, Nina Pavlovna, and Professor Scherr. You meant the world to me.

Frugality as an Olympic Sport

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In Lessons From My Mama I wrote about how frugality is an Olympic sport for my mother. In case you suspected that I might be exaggerating, I present into evidence this:

Obviously, the person who really deserves the gold medal around here is my dad, who wears these with nary a grumble.

Snow Days

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On Monday we woke up to a winter wonderland. Work: CANCELLED! School: CANCELLED! It was a gift that literally fell from the sky!

We began Monday morning with a conference.

“What we have here is an amazing opportunity to get a lot of things accomplished. We’re certainly not going to waste it by lazing about all day in our pjs, right? Right! So! Let’s brainstorm about what global problems or crises you’ll tackle today. I’d like your action plan by noon and the solution to the problem to be implemented by the end of the business day. T2! What problem will you be addressing?”

“Ummm…cancer?”

“Excellent! T1?”

“I’ll solve the problem of world hunger and deal with the crisis in Ukraine.”

“Love the enterprising attitude! Off you go! N?”

“My project will be…the reunification of the Koreas, I guess?”

“YES! Let’s get to work! Go, GO, GO!”

Here they are, toiling away industriously:

“Going the extra mile”:

And that’s the way we get things done around here!