Saturday, August 30, 2014

Dog People: Are They Nicer Than the Rest of Us?

By Mahlia Lindquist


There. I said it.  

Like a gay man who dates women or a light skinned person of mix race before integration, as an owner of two dogs I’ve had the credentials to “pass.”  By pass, I mean fitting into our dog obsessed society.  Even knowing I will be a reviled outcast, confession feels good. 

At last, I’m free to be me. I can admit I don’t like dogs on the furniture.That getting licked in the face is not charming and makes me want to vomit. 

Not so with Dog People. Dog People stop to admire random dogs on the street. They make blanket statements like “I love dogs.” 

I don’t.  For me, dogs are like people, not to be approached indiscriminately. Some I adore and for others the best I can muster is indifference. Others I find to be downright distasteful, such as my ex-mother in law’s Airedale. (Talk about a silver lining to that divorce! It was pure joy not to have to pretend to like that beast ever again.)

In My Defense

Just for the record:  I am not a dog hater.

I have two, Annie and Willow, and I love our pooches. 

I feed and walk them everyday. I rub their bellies and buy them treats. When Annie was attacked by a pack of coyotes, I paid thousands of dollars so that she might live. Now she is 16, howls in the wee hours, relieves herself inside exactly 5 minutes after her walk, and still I resist the temptation to toss her in the pool. I even fish her out when she stumbles in every few weeks. 

My ex-husband will confirm that while I have never called him weeping about our children, I have called him in tears about the dogs. Heck, a photo of Willow is my screen saver and I even wrote a blog post about him

If it isn't already obvious, I am defensive about not being a Dog Person. Is this sense of relief combined with the dread of public scorn what it feels like to come out of the closet?

Also for the record: Everything I’ve said so far about dogs mirrors my attitude about kids, especially the licking part. I have two girls and luckily I like them. When it comes to other children, it depends. 

What It Means to be a Dog Person

As a confessed “not a Dog Person” I wonder if, like a sociopath who cannot empathize, I lack something fundamental possessed by Dog People. I dated a self-proclaimed Dog Person, "Jack," who suggested as much. In retrospect, I think his point was that he, a Dog Person, is inherently a kinder, gentler, nicer human than I could ever be. 

Probably true. It's also true that while I adore Annie and Willow, I can't compete with his passion for dogs. But then, I don't know anyone who can.

The man wears his deceased dog’s ashes on a chain around his neck.  For real.  

When the dog died, Jack created a memorial shrine in his front foyer. The shrine included flowers, candles, photos, doggie toys, bones, and condolence cards. It's like what they do for Day of the Dead in Mexico, except in this case, it was more like Year of the Dead Dog. When Jack and I went our separate ways, fifteen months after the dog died, the altar was still there.  

Jack's heart hurts at the very thought of a dog in distress, so he was aghast when my family laughed the day Willow almost died. During our morning walk, a coyote made off with Willow. Horrified, I shouted, threw rocks, and chased the dog thief. If coyotes can laugh, this one certainly had one at my expense as he considered what would happen if I caught him. Happily, although I did not catch the coyote, it was not Willow's destiny to be dog meat that day and he escaped without a scratch.  

Willow's brush with death was a major family event and the girls and I replayed the scene many times. Always fanciful when it comes to our pets, we imagined Willow as the star of a Roadrunner episode and laughed at the juxtaposition of the two canines. Our fluffy, white, dog of privilege with his bandana and sparkly collar wriggling in the mouth of the scraggly,  wretched coyote who can't catch a break. 

Jack drove right over when he heard about Willow thinking, I suppose, we would be in need of comforting. Apparently, he did not expect to find laughter and goofy renditions of Willow in the jaws of death.

At first silent, he finally blurted, "it's not funny."  Confused, we looked at him blankly. As if we were cannibals who can't understand why humans shouldn't eat other humans, he tried to further explain,"this could have been Willow's last day on earth." 

We were still confused. 

Yes, it could have been Willow's last day, But, it wasn't. If he was hurt we would have been upset. But he wasn't.  If he died we would have been devastated. But he didn't. Willow was alive and well, and already back to his cheerful self. And so we were happy.

We all have close calls with disaster and even death.  At the time, we experience a jolt of fear, our heart skips a beat, a moment of gratitude and then, at least in my case, it's time to laugh. And then life goes on, until it doesn't.

Understandably, it was not long before Jack made an escape from our den of iniquity.

It has been a couple of years, but I still think about Jack. I'm curious if the shrine to his dog is still there. Jack is also a cat person, and I also wonder if when his cats pass Jack will wear those ashes too. Then there’s the question of what happens as other dogs and cats come and go in Jack's life. I imagine the menagerie of pet remains accumulating around Jack’s neck over the years as his various pets complete the circle of life.

I recently heard Jack got married, which got me to thinking. I wonder what he will do with his wife's remains if she predeceases him...

Why, oh why, am I cursed with such evil thoughts? I guess it's true, Dog People are kinder, gentler, nicer than I could ever hope to be.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Testosterone, Hardness and Book Covers

By Mahlia Lindquist

I’ve always assumed attributes like age, religion, political leanings, hobbies, intellect and sexual proclivities could be gleaned from a person’s choice of books.  A complete set of Robert Ludlam’s novels, and we’re talking a middle-aged, mainstream white guy. The Road Less Travelled suggests someone who has suffered a major personal crises. Books about  gardening, cooking and Blogging for Dummies are self-explanatory. 

At least, that’s what I thought until a humiliating incident at an Apple store changed my mind. 

It was at a tutorial taught by an Apple “Genius.” Like most of the Geniuses, mine was practically a baby. She sported sparkly red glasses, purple hair and a large tattoo of Einstein on her bicep. As usual when in the midst of computer talk, once class began, my mind wandered.

I wondered if the Genius’ mom approved of the tattoo… I decided that while I'm generally not keen on tattoos, it would be hard to argue with Einstein if one of my girls wanted one…. I envisioned the Genius’s bookshelf and saw titles such as Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and books about quantum physics…. My Genius was hip and competent and I contemplated whether she might have the same impression of me, my age and attendance at an iPad class notwithstanding. 

My reverie was interrupted when the Genius took my iPad to demonstrate the reader application. Given my own tendency to judge a person by his book covers, I was horrified when she clicked on the recently purchased titles:

                     The Testosterone Syndrome
                     The Hardness Factor

At that moment I was relieved the list didn’t include 50 Shades of Gray. My next thought was regret it didn’t at least include quality erotica. (Query: is there something like a Booker Prize or Pulitzer for erotica?)

I thought Apple Geniuses were trained to maintain a cheerful, neutral demeanor at all times. To not exhibit impatience while explaining the mute button to yet another technological simpleton insisting the audio is broken. To pretend not to see the flash of pornographic photos during iPhoto trainings.  Yet, I’m certain I detected a smirk from my Genius.

My first impulse was to point out the other books I had downloaded.  Ulysses, War and Peace — surely they suggest a passable intellect and depth of character, a certain retro cool intelligence? (Never mind that those novels represent lofty aspirations rather than ones I’ve actually read.) My second impulse was to explain why I was interested in the sexual desires of women, testosterone and hardness: “you see, I’m writing this book…you can be sure that don’t have those sorts of issues…purely research.”

I resisted such defensive maneuvers as demeaning. Also, almost certainly futile in any event. The Genius was not going to believe I was writing a book (even though I am, I am, I am!)  And she would never find me to be hip and competent. In fact, even if she and I were the same age, even if I had books about astrophysics rather than books suggesting sexual frustration, she is too cool for school to be inclined toward friendship with me. <Sigh>

But then again, maybe it’s best not to judge a book (or a person) by its cover (or tattoo.) Whose to say a girl with Einstein body art won’t find a technology challenged middle aged lady with books about testosterone and erections to be super cool?

Friday, August 15, 2014

Gyms, Nursing Homes and Sparkling Conversation

Nee-Nee in the Coveted Robe
By Mahlia Lindquist

Thanks to my baby daddy, a calamity of a spouse but a first rate ex, life is pleasant. 

Without a real job as of late and the girls almost grown, I seldom have to be anywhere. I am at a loss to say precisely what I do day to day, but basically I indulge in the type of endeavors working people fantasize about while stuck in traffic. One thing I know for sure is that I usually go to the gym. The other for sure thing is that whatever else I’m doing it’s better than what I used to do, practice law. 

My only gripe is people who insist on asking about my day. My kids and best friends always ask, knowing I can’t answer. I suppose their inquires are well-intentioned, but they feel like an indictment in comparison to easy-to-account-for days at work and school.   

This has been a vicious cycle since we moved to Miami last year. I ask the girls about their day and they have concrete responses related to classes and friends. Bob, a former colleague and close friend, calls most mornings on his way to work to tease about my non-schedule and chat about what's new at his official sounding job. When Bob asks me what I'm up to, all that comes to mind are tidbits from the world of Miami’s 24 Hour Fitness

One of my favorite topics is Ray, a gym regular who is repulsive and someone I generally try to avoid. At the same time, I have a weird fascination with him. He is one of few people on the planet who renders me speechless, which is no small feat. His modus operandi is to plop his plump self next to whatever machine I'm on and start chatting, oblivious to the head phones and pointed avoidance of eye contact. Once he noted my right arm in a sling and asked if I had a hard time wiping myself. Another morning Ray greeted me with a hearty, “good job,” which I thought was reference to my tremendous performance on the elliptical. It turns out he was congratulating me for having two “hot” daughters. Another time Ray approached my ex, also a gym member, and commented that our teenaged daughters have great asses. As my girls say... WAIT, WHAT?

Ray has a job, which I know because when he’s not otherwise making a stupendous ass of himself, he talks loudly into his cell phone about business. He mentioned having a wife and kids, which I find incredible, on account I can’t fathom anyone consenting to sex with him, much less marriage and children. My fascination with Ray is rooted in the simple fact that someone like him even exists outside of a sitcom. That he has a family, job and maybe even friends and goes through the world without getting his lights punched out is a small miracle.

Other examples of 24 Hour Fitness trivia shared with Bob:  the jerk who routinely pumps iron inches from the weight rack, blocking access to the weights (“Bob, can you believe he had the nerve to give me a dirty look when I said excuse me, as if I was the one committing a faux pas!”), the fit senior citizen couple who works out together  (“Bob, they are so inspirational!),  and the sweet guy with ginormous muscles and tattoos who wears lycra hot pink shorts (“Bob, you gotta see this, I’ll text you a photo.)

The gym wasn’t always my “go to” topic of conversation. It was just something I squeezed in on the way to or from an actual job or between kids’ naps and car pool.  However, these days most of my daily pursuits, though thoroughly enjoyable, are solitary. Even with a tendency toward embellishment, my day is impossible to describe without risk of being interrupted by a loving listener who just remembered an appointment to get a root canal.

My current limited conversation repertoire reminds me of visits with my grandmother, Nee-Nee, at the nursing home. For me, those visits initially vacillated between being profoundly sad, for obvious reasons, to profoundly irritating. The irritation stemmed from Nee-Nee's endless chatter about nursing home minutia: her roommate yells to turn down the TV, a woman across the hall covets Nee-Nee's leopard print robe, the handsome physical therapist swears she is his favorite client. Not only did I find it sad and irritating, it was depressing to see my future, when talk of the day will devolve even further than it already has, from 24 Hour Fitness to the nursing home Silver Sneakers club. 

But after many visits with Nee-Nee, I've realized that the nursing home is a source of amusement and curiosity for her, like my daily gym ritual is for me. Nee-Nee is aware that family members find it tedious to be on the receiving end of her nursing home monologues, but she just doesn't care. She is enormously entertained by whatever is happening around her and simply craves an audience, a witness to her experience. 

My grandmother deserves my attention. And so I practice patience, and listen with rapt attention to nursing home intrigues. Much to my chagrin, the more I listen to Nee-Nee, the more I relate. Like my grandmother, I am easily entertained and appreciate an audience. It must be genetic.

The only problem is that while I am not always successful, I still want to make sparkling conversation. I don't think I've earned the right to bore the tears out of family and friends -- yet. A hope for my senior citizen self is that by the time I'm 92, like Nee-Nee, I won't care.

Meanwhile, I'm working on expanding my conversational, "what I did today," repertoire beyond the gym. 

When I talk to Bob tomorrow, I think I'll tell him about what happened when I took the dogs to the Vet.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

School Shouldn't Suck

By Mahlia Lindquist

When my daughter Zoe was 15, we went to Mexico with plans to stay for a year. When people ask why, I explain we were taking a time out. 

While a “time out” conjures an image of a child  being punished, our time out was meant as anything but.  In general, I wanted space to examine whether we were living in accordance with our values. More specifically, I was concerned because Zoe was chronically stressed out. While it’s possible to press the reset button without moving to Mexico, it’s much easier to do from there.  Go to a place where you have no friends, work or school and can’t speak the language, and you can get a lot of soul searching accomplished. 

When asked if she wanted to go to Mexico, Zoe said yes. If  asked why, her answer had nothing to do with values or soul searching. She simply said that school sucked. 

She was at Boulder High from 8 AM until 3 PM, followed by several hours of homework and extracurricular activities. While she had plenty of friends, she found her classes dull and the teachers uninspiring and often sarcastic.  Given the number of hours spent there, if school sucked for Zoe, that meant the vast majority of her life was, well, sucky. 

By all objective measures Boulder High is considered to be a “good” school.  It boasts high standardized test scores and many graduates who “place well” when applying to colleges.  The problem is that impressive test scores and getting into a fancy university in and of themselves don’t mean much.  Call me crazy, but I don’t think high school should suck.

I described my concerns to a school counselor and asked if maybe the course load was too much for Zoe. She was in all advanced classes and the sciences were especially difficult for her; maybe a switch from honors to regular biology would alleviate some of the pressure?  Although knowing nothing about and having never met her, he noted Zoe’s high standardized test scores and grades, and cautioned dropping honors science could jeopardize her chances of going to a “selective” college. 

Suddenly I understood Zoe’s anxiety. In fact, I felt my own panic attack coming on as I contemplated whether I would ruin my daughter’s life by withdrawing her from 9th grade honors biology.

I explained that a high GPA notwithstanding, my daughter was not thriving and I worried her spirit was being crushed.   Unmoved by my handwringing over the state of Zoe’s spirit, the counselor assured me that soul sucking anxiety was to be expected in teenagers, glanced at his watch and sent me on my way. I was just another neurotic parent who needed to but out of the school’s business and let the system work its metrics magic.  

All I could think to do as the counselor escorted me out is mumble that school shouldn’t suck. 

Talk to the average college bound student, and the consensus is that high school is a necessary evil, to be endured until getting into a “good” school. None of the students I've spoken to have anything positive to say about high school. The disturbing part is that by most standards, these kids are successful products of the educational system in that they are all headed to “elite” colleges.

I wonder if educators know that most of their “success stories,” the student body presidents who earn a 4.6 GPA and are destined for Princeton, actually despise high school. My experience with the Boulder High School counselor shows that if they do know they don’t care.

In Mexico Zoe waitressed, volunteered with a local non profit, read, and took yoga, dance and spanish classes. At first, she worried that taking a year off would adversely impact her college prospects. But eventually, she was so busy doing, learning, engaging, and just being in the now that she couldn’t be bothered fretting about her future for any length of time.

When it was time to leave our free spirited stint in Mexico Zoe did not want to return to Boulder High. Much to my dismay, she had not sworn off the educational rat race. Instead, after much research she concluded most high schools suck, in which case she wanted to go to a prep school that would give her the best chance to be successful in the rat race. With no real prep schools in Boulder, we decided on Miami, my hometown and where her dad lives.  

It’s been a year, and I still have a hard time wrapping my mind around Zoe's choice of school ...
Carrollton School of the Sacred Heart. Carrollton is an all girls Catholic school attended by students from mostly wealthy, mostly conservative, mostly latin and, of course, mostly Catholic families. My girl grew up in a mostly middle-class, mostly liberal, mostly anglo, mostly atheist environment. 

Any day now I expect to receive a letter from Carrollton regretting to inform us that Zoe is no longer welcome at the school because we are frauds. I imagine an inquiry into what were we thinking allowing our daughter to apply there in the first place.

While I feel like an alien at Carrollton parent meetings, I also have a certain sense of familiarity in that, as at Boulder High, it’s all about test scores and college “placement.” Also, even though it’s a Sacred Heart school, I don’t get a sense that her teachers there care any more about her spirit than the counselor in Boulder. And, just like the students in Boulder, the overwhelming impression I get from the young women at Carrollton is that, for them, school sucks.

The main difference between the two schools is that Carrollton is more successful in what one documentary filmmaker describes as the “Race to Nowhere.” There’s no denying that most Carrollton girls get into impressive sounding colleges. So, if school is going to suck for my daughter, at least she will be able to put a good college on her resume, which she thinks will make her happy.

It doesn’t make me particularly happy. In fact, it breaks my heart to think of Zoe sacrificing her teenage years for the sake of an impressive resume. 

I wanted it to be different for my kids. I wanted them to love learning, to be supported by a cadre of positive, creative teachers who actually like kids. To that end, I went to great lengths to ensure my girls grew up with educational experiences that didn’t suck, including moving to Boulder, putting them in Waldorf Schools, homeschooling and the year in Mexico. What I’ve learned is that a good teacher, not to mention a good school, is hard to find. Our educational system, public and private, is focused on testing and getting into college at the expense of critical thinking, creativity, independence, mental health, heart and soul. 

Zoe is determined to take advantage of what Carrollton does best which, if she works hard, is offer a curriculum, structure and support that will put her near the top of most college application piles. She takes mostly advanced classes, has an “A” average, goes to Mass when required, and does as much yoga as possible to deal with the anxiety. She doesn’t complain when teachers talk down to her.  She is silent when classmates discuss the evils of “liberal environmentalists” and bemoan the quality of their domestic help.

For Zoe, high school is to be quietly endured until she starts her “real life.” 

As dismal as it is for Zoe, I know that her situation hurts me more than it does her. My only consolation is that Zoe is well aware current attitudes about what comprises a quality education are warped. Plus, I have to admire her fortitude and attitude. I continue to lament that school shouldn’t suck, resisting “what is.” In contrast, Zoe acknowledges what is and is dealing with reality in a practical way. Who am I to judge?

Besides, so far, her spirit and soul appear to be intact.