Grieving Through My Earrings

My earring collection caught my eye today when I was sorting laundry. It’s pretty extensive, and it’s also pretty. A particular pair of gold squares with asymetrical silver cross pieces and blue stones struck me. Like most of my earrings they were a gift, and while trying to remember when my mother gave me those earrings (they look like something she would have chosen), I realized they were in fact a gift from my spouse, the most recent earrings she has given me in our twenty four years together.

I first got my ears pierced with my best friend when I was eleven years old. Her mother took us to a jewelry store where they used the combination piercer/earring inserter that sounds just like a hole punch you’d use on paper. When I was eighteen, my older sister decided she finally wanted to get her ears pierced and I went along for moral support. That jewelry store was having a “buy two, get one free” piercing sale, and my sister only wanted the conventional two earrings, one per ear, so I used the free one to get a second hole in my left ear. A few years later at college, I got a third hole in my left ear from a friend in my apartment one night. I had one of my old pointy starter earrings, and he had ice and a history of piercing his own ears (I think he was up to 17 holes total by then), so he iced me up and stuck the earring through my earlobe. I remain intrigued by the fact that that is the only one of my 4 earring holes that has never had been infected.

For my whole life I have never been fashionable, knowledgeable about fashion, or really even dimly aware of what’s fashionable. I lean towards jeans and t-shirts, or very plain colors. A lot of black. A lot of blue. A lot of sage (to the point that my spouse once gently took a shirt out of my hands in a store and, hanging it back on the rack, said “I think we have enough sage”). I have always tended to match pieces by color and not so much by print. I might get away with wearing a paisley shirt with a similarly toned flowered skirt now – I am 50, and I could call it “power clashing” – but when I was in the sixth grade that outfit was not a winner among my peers.

What I have always done is accessorize interestingly with earrings. I may be wearing jeans and a plain sage shirt, but if you add in dangly purple-shading-to-pink titanium flamingos, you stand out just enough. I have a pair of broccoli earrings that my mother gave me during a period when mostly what I wanted to eat was broccoli, and I used to wear them almost as often as I ate the broccoli. My earrings are weird, beautiful, and funny, and sometimes all three at once. For decades now I have worn only tiny diamonds with gold posts in my two auxiliary holes, but my two original piercings have displayed the full variety of my earring collection.

Earrings are a great fall-back gift idea for anyone with pierced ears. I have been given many earrings over the years. There’s a wonderful book called Love, Loss, and What I Wore that is a memoir told through the outfits that the author wore for different events in her life. For me, earrings tell a story like that, only more to do with the people who gave me the earrings. One of my many inaccurate beliefs about relationships used to be that if someone knew how to pick earrings for me, it showed we were meant to be together. Lapses like that aside, earrings and memories of the friends who gave them to me are inextricably linked. And I have had no more prolific giver-of-earrings than my mother.

It is twelve years since my mother died. For the first few years after her death I rotated between a pair of subtly unmatched diamonds she once gave me that were made from two rings inherited from family members, and the first pair of earrings I bought for myself after she died. I had had the diamonds for close to twenty years, and somehow lost one of them. Perhaps down the shower drain; I never knew. I was upset, but not as much as I expected. It seemed somehow logical that the time for those earrings was past. Since then I have rarely worn earrings, aside from my two tiny auxiliary diamonds in my left ear, which never come out. My ears started to get infected when I did put on earrings, and I just drifted into not bothering.

Late this past summer I bought myself another pair of tiny diamonds with gold posts. I now wear them, along with my other two, all the time, day and night. Every so often I check to see if they are there, but mostly I don’t think about them. I viewed this as my first step toward becoming a wearer of earrings again. A way to reaccustom my ears, and my heart, to the idea.

That was several months ago, and today, my earring collection caught my eye. It is dusty, and many of the earrings are tarnished, but the gold and silver and blue of the earrings from my spouse shone an invitation. I think that after twelve years I am ready to go through them all again, deciding which to keep, cleaning and shining and sitting with the memories as I go.groovy

Truth Serum Horse

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I’ve been avoiding one of my horses.

If you look at how much I work with my horses (or don’t), you’d think I’m avoiding them all, but I’m not. It’s true that I can’t remember the last time I rode. It’s also true that somewhere along the line, riding stopped being the point of having horses for me. Maybe it never was.

One of my favorite horse books when I was a kid was called The Secret Horse. It was about two girls who stole a horse who was about to be euthanised from an animal shelter in the middle of Washington DC. They hid him away on a not quite abandoned property, without knowledge of or permission from either their families or the caretakers of the property. I grew up in DC, and in my mind I still know the exact houses in my neighborhood I pictured them living in, and I know the property, a whole city block square in my memory, where they kept the horse. They groomed the horse a lot, and fed him loads of cut grass they carried to the barn on sheets after it dried to hay in the sun, and at one point they took turns getting on him bareback with a halter and walking slowly around the barnyard. Despite the many, many books I read about girls winning unexpected ribbons at horse shows, The Secret Horse always stood out as my kind of horse story.

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I had my own secret horse eventually, though I bought her instead of stealing her, and I kept her at barns where the barn owners knew she was there. She was, however, a secret from my parents. I bought her from a farm where I was working before I left for college, and then had her transported several states away to join me in Vermont. I kept her for three of the years I was there, working odd jobs to pay her board, and borrowing cars and bicycles so I could get to the barn to see her. I eventually sold her, all without ever telling my parents I had owned a horse.

As things often turn out in my family, the real secret was that my mother knew about my secret horse almost the whole time. The barn I bought her from had called my parents’ house at some point after I left for college and before I had her trailered up to join me, and my mother had answered the phone. I don’t know what conversation took place, because it was one more thing we never discussed. The horse’s name, it may be relevant to note, was Stretch the Truth.

The horse I have been avoiding has a name, but we often refer to him as the Truth Serum Horse. He earned this nickname when I had him for sale once, for five or ten minutes. It was one of those times I didn’t feel like I was doing enough with him, and that maybe he should be in a barn where someone would ride him more. I ran an ad that more or less said “I have a big brown horse that I don’t want to sell. Call me if you have to.” One person must have been intrigued enough by the ambiguity of the ad to call. She came to see him, her best friend and husband in tow.

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I rode him first, and he started out really rough and feeling like he was about to blow – a not insignificant event in a horse as big and athletic as he is. I was up there feeling like here I am calling myself a horse trainer and he looks like he doesn’t know the very basic basics and I look like I can’t ride a carousel horse. I stopped and looked at these three strangers and said “I just quit one of my jobs today and it’s a job I thought I always wanted but it turned out to be terrible and now I’ve quit it and I’m relieved and sad at the same time and my brain is really distracted.” Then I took a breath, picked up the reins, and the horse moved off like an old schoolmaster and went beautifully through his paces.

The woman who was interested in buying him got on next and started off similarly, the horse looking awkward and the rider looking grim and miserable. Suddenly she said “I hate riding in front of people, even people I know – I’m so nervous that they think I’m incompetent and doing everything wrong that I don’t even remember to breathe.” Just as suddenly she and the horse clicked into a smooth, soft jog trot and the rest of her ride she was grinning from ear to ear.

Her friend and her husband rode the horse with almost identical patterns, the rough rides smoothing out as soon as they blurted out what was bothering them. I have no doubt that the horse made that happen – he needed everyone to get over how they were trying to look and to just be how they actually were.

Horses have varied tolerance for people whose insides and outsides don’t match. Some horses just tune it out. One horse I had would see me coming when I was in a certain mood and turn and walk away. “Nope. You are not getting on me today. Not with that attitude.” The Truth Serum Horse doesn’t have a low tolerance, he has zero tolerance for being around people who are out of integrity. I could insist, but only by shutting him down entirely, and I got out of the forcing-horses-into-a-mental-shutdown business years ago.

The Truth Serum Horse came to me with numerous issues from how he was trained in his first few years. While I have helped him to feel better physically, and about life in general, I have not really helped him to get past his problem areas. I mostly just avoid them, and if I don’t feel like that is working, I avoid him. It has only very recently come to my attention that this is pretty close to my own path of making some progress toward the way I say I want to be, but then avoiding meaningful, lasting change. No wonder I want to avoid the horse who insists that I not only look at the underlying thing, but admit it. Out loud.

Because I think of myself as a horse trainer with a specialty in “fixing” troubled horses, I tend to look at horses in terms of how I can help them be more comfortable with the things I want them to do. The Truth Serum Horse has made it clear he won’t be comfortable unless I become more comfortable with the things he wants me to do. It’s taken me a lot of years, and a horse who won’t accept anything less than the truth as good enough, to realize that the one I need to fix is me.

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Down Dog

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I would like to like yoga more than I do.

People talk about intention in yoga and meditation. I am full of intention. I intend to meditate. I intend to do yoga. I don’t actually do either, but I intend to.

I’m very impressed that the dogs do at least downward dog if not also upward dog every time they get off their beds. I tried that recently and wound up in something resembling child’s pose but more painful, face on the floor and unable to move for several minutes. I don’t recommend this as a motivator for beginning a daily practice.

Someone recently asked me if yoga speaks to me, and the truth is that it does not. The other truth is that I don’t know what does. Where exercise is concerned lately I feel like Tigger who says that Tiggers like everything but then with each attempt he finds that Tiggers do not in fact like honey, haycorns, thistles, or pretty much anything in Kanga’s cabinet. I don’t really like yoga, or any kind of group workout, or spin bikes which make me want to stab myself. I agree with Tigger that they may all be for heffalumps and woozles, but not for me.

BooBallet

Once upon a time I was a gymnast. I was flexible, and strong, and fearless. I was also 12 years old, which may be pertinent. But more recently I was a soccer player. I was fit and strong, if not flexible, and I was fearless enough to get hurt, at which point I became less fearless. The line between fearless and foolhardy has never been all that clear to me, and I’m not sure I like the side of it I’m on now, or the width it has grown to in the past few years.

I’ve ridden horses since I was eight years old and though I have almost always been foolhardy, I have almost never been fearless. I was terrified of horses when I started riding. My older sister remembers it that I was scared and she dragged me into it so she’d have company, and I remember it that I was scared and I did it anyway because I wanted to do what she did and what she wanted me to do. We are both probably right.

After the first time I fell off I lost my most paralyzing fear, and quickly moved into the realm of foolhardy with the help of the barn management. I don’t know what their source of horses was but in retrospect I’d guess they bought most of them out from under the kill buyers. They didn’t seem to know anything about any of the newly arrived horses and they liked to put me and my sister on them to see what would happen. I’m not sure if at 8 and 11 we were supposed to be the bravest, or if as little kids whose parents didn’t hover much we were the most expendable.

I certainly learned to stay on. More importantly, I learned that I COULD stay on. Much later in life I heard someone say that I could ride anything that had hair, and it’s true. I can’t say that I always wanted to, though. And after a while, especially with horses, the fear on the inside and the foolhardiness on the outside start to clash with one another. The horses at least can tell that you are out of integrity, even if the people think (and say) “wow, I wish I could ride like that.”

I haven’t been on a soccer field in four years now, since I tore my ACL in a pointless scrimmage, playing a position I don’t normally play and displaying an uncommon surge of competitiveness and determination to get to the ball first in 95 degree heat. I did, just as the other player’s knee got to the side of my knee. Some things are not worth the effort, I realized as I felt my knee blow apart right before I hit the turf.

BooScout

Hiding what’s going on in my insides from myself turns out to not be worth the effort, either, and I suspect some things have blown apart without my realizing it while I’ve been acting brave and feeling afraid. I have been on a horse maybe twice in those same four years. I have four horses standing around in my fields, and while I’m sure they don’t mind having to eat hay and grass for a living instead of working, I miss the connection of having a partnership with them. If I’m honest, I haven’t really had a partnership with any of these horses, not like the one I had with my old mare who died seven years ago now. That’s a long time of not letting anyone in again. Of not letting myself get hurt again. Of being fearful instead of foolhardy.

Maybe it’s ok that Tiggers don’t like haycorns, or yoga. What Tigger found he liked best, as I recall, was Strengthening Medicine. Maybe if I get back out there with the horses I will find me some of that.

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Reluctant Traveler: Perspectives in Albania

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When I first found out I would be traveling to Albania for work, I had to look it up on a map. When I arrived, I found that everyone I met but two people (who, relevantly or not, went to high school together back in the 80’s) pronounced it “All-BAHN-ya” and not “Al-BANE-eeya” as I have heard it (when I heard it, which is not all that often). When a trip starts with “I don’t know where it is and I don’t know how to say it” I know I’m in unfamiliar territory.

Normally when I travel for work it is for very specific tasks within my area of responsibility. I had a role in the conference I was attending, but a relatively minor one, and many of the sessions were out of my usual area. It gave me a chance to talk to more people, and listen to more people, and learn more things.

My two favorite things about working with an international nonprofit are the fact that I have colleagues all over the world, and the fact that they are all doing work to make their corner of the world a better place. I don’t often get excited about a week of meetings but I was looking forward to spending a few days with a good cross section of the organization. Finding a place where you can bring people from a wide range of countries keeps getting tougher. We would not have been able to have the attendance we had if we had the conference in, say, the U.S. Or England, or France, or most of Western Europe. And so: Albania.

Mostly I knew instead of seeing Albania I would be seeing the inside of the hotel, as usually happens when you go to a conference where the meetings take place in the same hotel where the attendees are staying. I planned one extra day to look around the area, but I didn’t make any specific plans to do anything. When I got there I found that some other people were also staying, either out of interest or due to flight schedules. We mentioned to our host that we would like his recommendation on what to do, and five minutes later he had organized a tour for us.

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So what I wound up doing on my free day was a tour with nine of my colleagues and a tour guide friend of our host. In that group of ten we had four from the U.S. (all different states), two from South Africa, and one each from Haiti, Afghanistan, Myanmar, and Australia. As I had experienced all week, every conversation – both work and non-work -generated some piece of unexpected information.

Some of my favorites:

A colleague in Turkey who told us that they were focused on the Syrian refugee crisis because a) there are 2.5 million (MILLION) Syrian refugees in Turkey, and b) it is the LEAST politically hot topic within their areas of focus in their country.

This good humored exchange between three colleagues, one of whom had lived for several years in West Africa:

C1: “You not only had a donkey, you had a donkey driver?”
C2: “Well, I couldn’t beat the donkey – you know, to make it go faster.”
C1: “So you hired someone else to beat the donkey?”
C3: “At the end of the day, the donkey still got beaten.”

This which I will file under “things I never expected to hear myself say,” in a conversation about national sports: “Just so I’m clear – is it the headless body of the goat that they drag from their horses, or the goat head?” (FYI it is the headless body of the goat and the sport is called Buzkashi)

This insight on Albanian agriculture, the parts of which I saw were all fully manual – cutting hay with a scythe, gathering crops into wheelbarrows, or at most into carts pulled by tiny donkeys, but sometimes pulled by the farmer on a bicycle: “The vegetables are all grown organically with no OMG.” (which is probably the right order in Albanian)

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On my one evening plus one day of touring I took a million photos and was dumbstruck by the beauty of the place. But it is the people and the stories that will stay with me, I think.

Most notably our very generous and funny tour guide, when one of our group asked him what it was like to live in Albania under Nver Hoxha, the communist leader of Albania from 1944 – 1985.

He spoke eloquently about having a vision at age 9 that Nver Hoxha held all of Albania in the palm of his hand, guiding and protecting them. He asked his father what would happen if Nver Hoxha died, and his father said “Nver Hoxha will never die!” Years later, after the end of communist rule, he asked his father why he said that. His father told him it was because he was afraid for his son, that if he said what he felt (“I wish Nver Hoxha would drop dead tomorrow”) and his son repeated it, in fairly short order he would have a father in jail, or no father at all. It was not at all uncommon for neighbors or even family members to inform on one another.

If you read current tourist reviews of Albania, many people mention that the roads are terrible or that the drivers are crazy. Few if any mention that until 1992, when the communist regime fell, there were no cars that were not state-owned. You did not go where you wanted to go, you went where you were sent. The entire population of Albania has been driving for 8 years fewer than I have had my driver’s license. There are reasons their driving infrastructure is new and not very developed.

It was not until he was in University that our guide first heard the word “dictator” applied to their leader, on a western radio broadcast. He participated in hunger strikes and otherwise became part of the student protests. Many of the communist structures – a strikingly ugly pyramid in the city of Tirana, the well over 150,000 mushroom shaped bunkers strewn throughout the country – are in a state of neglect and disrepair, though they remain standing. Our guide pointed out a huge formation on a mountain in view of Berat Castle. It used to say NVER, spelled out in white rocks. After the end of communism, it was changed to spell NEVER, as in never again.

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He also spoke of the current political climate in Albania, where the two main parties are fighting for fair elections (they reached an agreement while we were there, and there was much rejoicing when the election was finally scheduled). He said that many of the older citizens and politicians are still brainwashed by the 50 years of communist rule, and that “It doesn’t matter what it says on your lapel, if you write democrat there or whatever, if in your head you are still a communist, you are still a communist.”

Even on the tour, I learned a lot from my colleagues. The town of Berat where we visited and had lunch has an Orthodox side and a Muslim side. We were able to tour two mosques on the Muslim side, and having not only our tour guide but two practicing Muslims to explain what we were seeing was just one of many things I consider myself lucky to have experienced.

None of this sounds particularly earth-shattering, but something in me feels broken open in the best way following this trip. I can’t claim that anyone else’s experience of Albania will be anything like mine, but I’m awfully glad I had it.

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Young Pup

My dogs have come into my life at different ages (theirs, not mine, though mine too, as I have acquired them over the course of many years). My first dog was somewhere between two and three when we got her. Our current old dog was a year and a half. I thought he was quite grown up but he was a year younger then than our youngest dog is now, and I think our youngest dog is still a puppy. The youngest dog was a mere eleven weeks when he arrived.

As I have said before, I am not a dog person. I came to dogs later in life, and I hope I have evolved over time into a better dog owner. I was used to cats and a particular level of self sufficiency and independence. Dogs can be self sufficient and independent too, but it’s pretty irresponsible to let them just roam. I knew that in theory, but when my first dog would disappear from the yard for hours on end I didn’t worry about it nearly as much as I should have – enough to stop it from happening again, for instance.

Her wandering led to some amusing stories. The time, for instance, that she came home and had clearly been swimming in the neighbor’s pool one hot summer day. Or the fish filets she used to bring home and eat in the yard. I never did figure out if she was going through someone’s trash or if she was stealing someone’s dinner they had set out to defrost on the deck rail. And then there was the time I had a feeling she had headed to the road so I was walking down the driveway when a car pulled in, the back door opened, and my dog got out.

All of these are a lot like stories from my own younger days: they are funny to relate now, but as a grown up and as a parent, I am mildly horrified even at my own stories. I know some of my children’s stories, and I’m sure there are others they will tell me at some point in the distant future, and others they will never let me know about.

This week is the two year anniversary of the arrival of the youngest dog. Dogs, at least my dogs, seem to be the opposite of children in photograph quantity. Anyone who is a youngest child is familiar with the albums of photos of their siblings, especially the oldest, and the dearth of photos chronicling their own milestones. I have probably one roll of film (remember rolls of film?) of my current old dog in his first two years with us, and approximately 753,000 digital photos of the youngest one. Part of that is due to available technology, and part of it represents the different level of attention I give my dogs now.

This week is also the week my oldest child is moving away from home. My kids also came into my life at different ages (theirs, not mine – unlike the dogs I got all three kids at once). My youngest is now four years older than I was when I first met them. I suppose at this point saying “I’m not a dog person” is a lot like saying “I’m not a mother.” I may not have started out envisioning a life full of dogs and kids, but sometimes you get what you expect and sometimes you get lucky.

There have been a lot of milestones for my kids since the beginning of the dog years. Graduations, engagements, break-ups, marriage, first job, first more-grown-up-than-mine job, house purchases, house sale. They have all moved out of the house. One has moved out of the state. Two have moved back into the house. The oldest is now moving far away.

They get older and they do their own thing and they express themselves and their independence in their own ways. With each new step, I cheer them on and I’m excited for the next chapter in their lives and a part of me thinks “it’s about time” and gives them a little shove out of the nest.

But then there’s this other part. The part that sees the U-Haul my oldest child has rented to move 1,700 miles away sitting in the driveway as he begins to load up his stuff. The part of me that flashes back instantly to the first time I met him, when he was seven years old, telling me in great detail about his math homework, with his bowl haircut and his fashion sense and his extensive vocabulary. It’s the same part of me that spoke at my middle child’s wedding, when all I could remember was him at age three, fearlessly throwing himself at everything life put in his path, but wearing a helmet and knee and elbow pads just in case, because you never know when you might need a little protection. It’s the same part of me that sees my youngest child being more adult than I feel like I will ever be in her job and relationship and living space decisions and yet I hear her deep toddler voice chanting “Hode you mommy hode you mommy hode you mommy” when she wanted to be picked up and carried.

No matter how old or young they are when they take these big steps in their lives, no matter how ready they are, no matter how ready I am, I’m not ready. I still look at the adults they are and see the kids they were and I want to reach out past the U-Haul and snatch them back and make the time I wanted to go faster go just a little more slowly.

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Reluctant Traveler in Nairobi

One day last week while I was in Nairobi we had lunch with a Kenyan colleague who asked “When people from the U.S. talk about Africa, why do they only talk about the animals? When you go home, talk about the people.” I struggle with this, the same way I always (not just in Nairobi) struggle with photographing people. I am not comfortable with treating people like a tourist attraction, and even with their consent I can never seem to capture in a photograph what I see when I look at people.

I’ve been thinking about this for over a week and wondering why this post is so hard for me to construct. It finally dawned on me today that maybe the reason we don’t talk about the people is that to do so, we have to talk about race, and we really do not want to talk about race. I really do not want to talk about race.

Genetically I am a mix of European regions – the UK, eastern Europe, the Mediterranean. If I’m feeling uncomfortable with being identified as American, as long as I keep my mouth shut I can pass pretty much anywhere in Europe. Even in Africa the first thing people usually ask me is “European?” not “American?” I was amused by a multi-lingual person at a counter in the Brussels airport asking me loudly and slowly “DO YOU SPEAK ENGLISH?” One thing I always am, and it’s really noticeable in Africa, is white.

On our first trip to Nairobi we American travelers were four white and one black, all from the east coast, all ranging in age from 35 to 55, all fairly equal as to social and economic privilege in both our current lives and our growing up lives. The first shop we walked into in Nairobi, one of the employees asked if this was our first trip to Africa. We all said yes, and he turned to our one black colleague and said “Welcome back!”

So part of talking about what’s different in Nairobi necessarily involves talking about not how Nairobi is different, but how when I am in Nairobi, I am different. And I am not used to that. And I am not comfortable with how not used to that I am.

I also worry that when I talk about the people I met in Nairobi, I will fall into some weird cheerful-native trope if I generalize.

So, yeah. It’s easier to talk about the animals.

It is also true that in the entirety of my schooling I took exactly one African history class. The “familiar” things to me about Kenya are not from school or even the news, but from an embarrassing array of entertainment sources. I am sure I am not alone in this – if you have ever seen The Lion King I dare you to hear “asante sana” (“thank you”) and not follow it in your mind with “squash banana,” even if out loud you are more appropriately saying “karibu” (“you’re welcome”). I know about Karen Blixen because of Out of Africa. More than one person I have told about seeing the Karen Blixen house seems to genuinely have her confused with Meryl Streep, and her lover with Robert Redford.

Karen Blixen

I laughed the first time I heard someone respond to “How are you?” with “Hakuna matata” because, of course – the Lion King. But shortly after my first trip to Nairobi last fall, I saw an episode of the splendid snark-rom-com You’re the Worst in which one of the characters says “hakuna matata. ” His girlfriend asks him if he’s quoting the Lion King at her, and he has no idea what she is talking about but explains that it is a Swahili phrase and it means – and she interrupts him and says “Yeah, I know, it means ‘no worries’.” He says “It’s a bit more nuanced than that” and explains it really means “There is not a currently a problem.”

I find this to be a perfect description of the feeling I get when being greeted by a Kenyan – “Jambo! Welcome! There is not currently a problem!” Unlike “hello,” I don’t think it’s possible to say “jambo!” without an exclamation point. It is a very welcoming greeting. The only thing more welcoming is when you say it to someone who is not expecting a swahili greeting – the smiles you get in return feel like the sun coming out after a week of rain, which in turn means you can’t say “jambo!” without smiling.

One of the most noticeable things in the office was the laughter. In both our New York office and our Nairobi office, the organization provides lunch and everyone gathers in one room to eat. Admittedly the New York office is bigger, but still, people tend to gather in pairs or very small groups and huddle. In the Nairobi office the whole room is often involved in the same conversation. When you are not in the room you really notice the laughter coming from the lunch room, and when you are in the room, you are caught up in it along with everyone else.

My general impression of the Kenyans I have met in passing – drivers, hotel staff, people working in shops – is that they are friendly in a sweet and genuine way. I could guess that this is because they are in a service industry, but that has emphatically not been my experience of people in service in the U.S.

I don’t know. Trying to describe what Nairobi is like for me is like trying to describe a flavor, or a sound, or a feeling. This jumble of photos does a pretty good job of matching the jumble of images in my mind. 

The city skyline can be seen immediately beyond the safari area in the Nairobi National Park. Baboons cross the highway between the park on one side and the university on the other, and they beg for (or steal) food like squirrels do here, or pigeons. Driving into downtown you will pass roadside commerce of all kinds, on roads that have been dug up almost beyond recognition, with people walking on what would be sidewalk regardless. The flowers and foliage are lush in the rainy season and amazingly beautiful. You never know when you will see Masai driving their cattle along the road or across a gas station parking lot, moving to the next grazing area. Tour drivers always point out the enormous Kibera slum, the second largest in all of Africa. It looks like a jumble of corrugated tin, plywood, cardboard. Each shelter made of things leaning against other things, held up by the next group of leaning things that backs right up against it. It almost looks as if you moved any one piece the whole thing would crash to the ground, and at the same time it is so packed together it seems that nothing can move, making me wonder how people actually get around in the space, let alone live. Also very near to downtown is a forest with walking paths, caves, waterfalls, more wildlife. This is in the wealthy area, where the beautifully landscaped yards are surrounded by high walls topped with coils of what I always think of as prison wire, though there is probably another name for it. The plants used in that landscaping are sold in spectacular – well, garden centers, I suppose, though they look like fantastic gardens themselves, a little farther out of town. They have plants and huge brightly glazed and painted ceramic pots and piles of mulch in beautifully laid out sections, and they either go on for the equivalent of city blocks or they are one right after the other; I’m not sure which. In the daytime there is someone there and in the night time they are empty of people as far as I have seen, but they are just as open in any case. The traffic is legendary, with hardly any functioning traffic lights, and roundabouts everywhere. Everyone seems to know the exact dimensions of their car down to the millimeter, as they need to in order to squeeze into spaces that don’t seem they can possibly fit a car. In many, many places you see guards armed with impressively large rifles, but they seem to be part of the landscape for residents. There are security checkpoints for vehicles and pedestrians going into malls, a security checkpoint about a mile out from the airport, and vehicle checks or at least gates with guards going into most office buildings and hotels. The guards, armed or not, also often greet you with a cheerful “Jambo!”

I want to take all that and draw conclusions, and summarize, but I find I can’t. It all adds up to…Nairobi. I supposed I don’t have to explain it. I’m just glad I got to experience it, even a little, even around the edges.

Reluctant Traveler: Home Again

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The Accidental Tourist is my favorite Anne Tyler book. If you haven’t read it, it’s about a man who falls into writing travel books by way of writing a letter to the editor about going to an event in a nearby city and all the ways it was not like being at home. He becomes the guy who tells travelers how to travel without feeling like they are traveling. How to find the most familiar feeling hotels, restaurants, meals. It’s about comfort in some ways, but it’s also about being stuck. I can relate to both aspects of this.

When I left for my most recent work trip to Nairobi, Kenya, The Accidental Tourist is what kept coming up in my mind. Not because I want to travel without traveling – I actually really like the things that are different, and I think that is in fact the point of travel. Most of my travel is for work and I generally could be anywhere, as most of what I see is the inside of an office and the inside of a hotel. In the US, most of my work travel has been to suburbs of cities and frankly they all look pretty much the same. It’s an Accidental Tourist’s dream. And it’s boring.

I like the part about seeing new places and trying new things and meeting new people. I like the part about having where I go look and feel nothing like where I am from. My issue is more that I do not want to travel. The part where you put large distances between home and yourself, that’s what I don’t want to do. Unlike the accidental tourist who wants to go away without feeling away, I want to BE away without having to GO away.

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About twenty five years ago I had a friend (I use the term loosely). I was young and stupid, and when I worried about whether I should say something to him because of what he would think, he would say “what’s the worst thing I could say?” and I would say whatever I thought that would be, and then he would say “Come on, just tell me” and I would tell him, and then he would say the thing that I had said was the worst thing he could say. And then he would say, “See, that wasn’t so bad, was it?”

So last week when I was 5,500 miles away from home and 5 hours from my plane for home taking off to start 22 hours of travel and I started vomiting, getting dizzy, and my throat closed up and my arms started to tingle and go numb, I was right back there feeling like someone thought it would be funny to demonstrate the reality of what I had said would be the worst thing that could happen. A side note, but a relevant one: on the first day in the office on this trip, a mere 4 days earlier, we got word that the wife of a colleague in Nairobi had been taken to the hospital where she had died. She had not previously been ill. They have two young children. They are in their early 30’s. Sometimes worrying about the worst thing that can happen is catastrophizing. Sometimes it is just a possibility.

I wound up delaying my flight 24 hours and now I am home. There’s no suspense in this story, but I have to write this part out in order to get to the part where I can write about the interesting things about the travel, because there were and are many of those. More posts to come on those topics.

Once I took a management style test of some kind. You end up with a graph of your results with 4 points on it. Most of the graphs tend to trend upwards or downwards, as most people have aptitude in areas that are tied to each other and therefore adjacent on the graph. Mine was a near perfect parabola, where I was near the very top in the two extremes and nearly nonexistent in the middle. The facilitator put mine up on the board and then looked at me and said “Wow – you must be talking to yourself ALL THE TIME. Risk! Don’t risk! Risk! Don’t risk!”

This is exactly what happens in my head when I have the opportunity to travel for work. I want to go, but I don’t want to go. I try to make sure I take advantage of the things I would never get a chance to do or see otherwise, and I really enjoy doing them. I walk the streets (where I’m told by local people that it’s safe – I’m adventurous but I try not to be stupid), I talk to the people (including total strangers), I try to pick up some of the local language (while I’m there if not before),  I eat the food (I might want to rethink that a bit), and I try to see sights that are unique to the area. And I enjoy all of it, I really do.

But I am also doing it to distract myself from how far away from home I am. And despite the fact that I know I am going to do these amazing things, you can see my heel marks from digging them in all the way to the airport every time I have to leave home. I enjoy taking photos and I post them on facebook and my friends say “Oh, you’re so lucky, I wish I were there, I want your job” and I think “PLEASE, one of you please take my damn job!” I wish I enjoyed it more. I wish there was only the part of me that enjoyed it. I wish I did not spend any time wishing I was home.

But now I am home, and while in this particular instance at this particular moment I’d be hard pressed to say I’m glad I went, I am glad I got to see and do the things I did. More Reluctant Traveler travelogue to come.

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The Pack

 

12987170_10156904329045165_5451335982654072746_nWe have three dogs. I’m sure there are things that can be said about them based on birth order now that they are all in one household. We made a lot of mistakes and did a lot of learning on the oldest. The middle one is precocious and self-activating in the particular way of middle children. The youngest is spoiled but does not take advantage of it (much), and tries harder to please and to be noticed than the other two do. He likes to always be touching one of his dogs or humans, whether for comfort or to make sure we know he’s there, I’m not sure.I am also the youngest of three, so I may relate to him a little more than is good for me.

I have seen no evidence that our dogs fight with each other when we are not with them. I’m sure our kids also get along better when they laugh at us together in our absence then when they are with us and keeping an eye on who gets how much attention. Birth order behaviors and sibling rivalries and alliances aside, there is no getting around the fact that as long as parents are there they have a huge impact on the family dynamic, and for better or worse it changes when they are not.

Our human children are also three in number. They like to say we have replaced them, now that we have three dogs. This is a conversation they have had amongst themselves that at least one has reported back to us. I know the kinds of conversations my sisters and I have had about our parents, and I don’t have a lot of illusions that our kids sit around saying “you know what I love most about our parents?” They tell stories about when we’ve annoyed them, or infuriated them, or, if we are lucky, made them laugh.

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If our animals could talk I’m pretty sure all their stories about us would begin “Remember the time they thought it would be a good idea to…?” Come to think of it, our kids’ stories might start out just like that too. I wonder sometimes which stories they do tell when we are not around, and if those will be the same stories they will tell when we are gone.

The story I tell most often is about Rose’s first Thanksgiving with my family. The guests included my parents, my oldest sister, her husband, their three kids, me, Rose, and my father’s friend Stan. Stan was one of those family friends who has always been around, and since his wife died very young he had spent just about every holiday or birthday celebration with us.

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I don’t know if Stan was born a curmudgeon or if he had curmudgeonliness thrust upon him, but the level of it increased dramatically over the years. He and my father loved to debate loudly on the few points on which they agreed, and and on the many, many points on which they disagreed. They agreed about the state of the world (decaying), the state of politics (deplorable), the state of the newspaper industry (deteriorating). They did not agree on Stan’s feeling that life was generally being ruined by women: his woman boss was making his job miserable, movies were being destroyed by woman directors, and it was only a matter of time before woman politicians would bring about the downfall of society as he knew it.

My mother called me before Thanksgiving to give me a list of things not to talk about in an effort not to set Stanley off. On the list were (it was the early ’90’s) the movie The Piano (woman director), his job (woman boss), John and Lorena Bobbitt (woman run amok), the Bobbitt-inspired New Yorker cartoon where the nice looking elderly lady says to her nice looking elderly husband across the breakfast table “Pass the cream or I’ll cut off your penis,” and presumably (though not explicitly) the fact that I was bringing my girlfriend home for Thanksgiving.

Dinner was uneventful until my oldest sister excused her kids from the table. We had managed to avoid any untoward topics and we all enjoyed the customary combination of traditional Thanksgiving foods and tofu from a local Chinese takeout. My mother sat back and surveyed the table, and then said pleasantly to the room at large “Pass the cranberry sauce or I’ll cut off your penis.”

We all roared. Well, most of us. Stanley turned instantly red and sputtered “I suppose you all think that’s VERY FUNNY!”

My father turned just as red and yelled back “What, do you think we’re all assholes, Stan? There are seven people at the table! Six of them are laughing! WHO’S THE ASSHOLE, STAN?”

My mother looked at us all, a pleased smile on her lips.

I can only hope to provide stories to my own kids that get half the longevity that one has had for me. If I had only one story to tell about my family for the rest of my life, that would be the one I would tell. I told it to my sister who was not there that night, twelve years later as we sat around the same dining room table in my parents’ apartment. When I went to see my mother in the hospital bed in her bedroom, she wanted to know what had made us all laugh so hard, so I told it to her as well, and we laughed all over again.

The next morning she went into hospice. She died four days later, the windows open to the night air and the scent of cherry blossoms from the garden planted by other people’s children in memory of their parents who died there too.

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New Tricks

Boo Jump 2

My youngest dog loves to learn new tricks. He goes at everything he does with everything he has, and he happily offers every trick he knows if he thinks you might want something from him. Sit? Down? Roll over? I can do it! I can do it all! We have some agility obstacles set up in the yard and he may fly off to jump through the hoop and then run back to sit in front of me looking very pleased with himself. He also incorporates the obstacles into his zoomies, jumping the pole or zipping through the tunnel as he runs in crazy circles around the yard.

The older young dog is more targeted in his activities. He particulary loves to jump. He jumps the horse cavaletti. He jumps the agility bar. He jumps the hoop – he doesn’t jump THROUGH the hoop; he jumps the whole hoop. He jumps the tunnel. If you tell him “jump,” he just jumps. Into the air. With no obstacles anywhere nearby. He will obey other commands in slow motion. He has an excellent eventual sit, and a very good gradual down. But he will use what he knows for his own purposes: when he wants me to take him out, or when we are out and he wants to go somewhere else, he will run to my left hip and heel me.

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The old dog has never had any interest in leaving the ground, even when he was a young dog. If you try to lift him up he somehow makes himself three times as heavy. Jumping requires a lot of treats (and a very low jump), and climbing on anything is out of the question. One of the reasons his first owners gave him to us when he was a year and a half was that he was a “failed” agility dog. He is very obedient at sit, down, heel, stay – as long as you have treats and there is nothing more compelling in sight, hearing or sound. He is also the best tennis ball retriever I have ever known.

I went back to school as an old person. At 41 I had not thought of myself as old, but as soon as I sat in a classroom surrounded by kids half my age, the age of my youngest child, I felt a hundred and ten years old. I simultaneously felt twelve, in a new school, and very unsure of my welcome. My professors at least had the decency to be my age or older.

I was never much of a student, at any level. Like my middle dog, if something caught my interest I would do it very well and would work hard at it. Otherwise it was something of a crapshoot as to whether the teacher would grade me on my tests and papers, or on if I did the homework (or later, in college the first time, if I showed up to class). I might find that I got A’s on all the tests but wound up with a C or a D in the class due to lack of effort.

As an old person, I expected this to change. It did not. Part of why I left college the first time without finishing was my lack of interest in jumping through hoops. Now I was back and still being required to round out my education by taking the history and social science classes I never took the first time, and retaking classes that I had taken twenty years before. Biology they felt I needed to take again, but they assumed I would remember inorganic chemistry. They were mistaken.

By about my third semester I was really struggling with how I could be so sure that I wanted to be there, and that I wanted to be studying the field I was studying, and yet I had to take so many classes – even classes in my field of study – that I had no interest in.

At 19 I had begun college as a biology major. I tried a little of everything: in 3 years I majored in biology, political science, Russian, and philosophy. By the time I quit I was double majoring in biology and philosophy. Twenty years later, I went back to get a degree in animal science. My original thought was to take only the classes I needed for vet school, but then it became important to me to actually get a degree, and then I realized that if I was 110 now I would be about 217 by the time I finished vet school, which I realized I didn’t really want to do anyway. Clearly all those intervening years had done wonders for my abililty to make up my mind.

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Fortunately there were a few options in the animal science department, and I was able to find one that was more animaly and less sciencey. In my 40’s I found that either my brain could no longer retain information the same way it used to, or it had developed a filter that went something like “Nope, don’t need to memorize THAT just to prove that I can.” I was able to avoid taking physics again, and took what I can only call organic chemistry for dummies, which I somehow actually enjoyed.

I did graduate, and I even spoke at my graduation, and got to tell everyone else that if their parents ever gave them any grief about taking an extra year or two to get through school, they could say “Well, at least it took me less than TWENTY FIVE years!” I’m sure the parents loved me for that.

When I went back to school I envisioned that I would somehow become like my youngest dog, full of enthusiasm and desire to achieve. My youngest dog is now a year older than my oldest dog was when he came to us, and I can only conclude that some things really are just part of who we are. I may always be cranky about doing things I am required to do, I may only want practice the things I like to do, but I’m glad that even if it takes me approxomately forever to finish the things that are important to me, I do get around to it in the end.

Cody jump

Dog Fight

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A few months ago I watched two of my dogs get into the world’s most avoidable fight.

Dog fights are always terrifying, in my limited experience. There is a lot of noise and drama, and it’s hard to tell how serious it is, and it’s even harder to get the dogs apart once they are in it.

I watched the fight in question unfold in the moment, and if I really think about it, I watched it unfold over two years. Our old medium-sized dog had been “training” our young extra-large dog in his rules of the house, which mostly (but not entirely) line up with our rules of the house. This was our first experience with this kind of age difference (9 years) and our first experience with a puppy, and we were torn between putting a stop to it and trusting that Old Dog knew more that we did about dog behavior.

So there were warning signs. And in the moment, the fight went something like this: both dogs showed up at the gate at the same time. Old Dog said “back off” and Young Dog did – immediately. Old Dog followed after him and said “And STAY there!” Young Dog said “Stop talking to me about it.” Old Dog said “No back talk from you.” Young Dog paused for a few seconds and then said “I don’t have to take this from you ANY MORE!” and then he lunged.

Fight lite

An almost silent dog fight, in which one extra-large Young Dog has his jaws clamped around the neck of one medium-sized Old Dog who is on his back crying, is even more terrifying than a sound and fury dog fight, it turns out. There are any number of ways not to break up a dog fight and I tried most of them. By the time I remembered to grab the back legs of Young Dog, Old Dog was in need of a good few staples, a drainage tube, and a couple weeks of antibiotics.

Everyone is fine now. I have a PhD in “now we know how not to do that,” and we now manage our dogs differently in many ways.

It’s the unfolding of the world’s most avoidable fight that I keep coming back to. And what I come back to most is that I have not only watched that fight, I have been in it. I’ve never actually throttled anyone with my teeth, or been throttled, but verbally, I have been in that fight.

You know those times you feel your blood pressure rising, and you can hear the thing you are about to say, and you know you shouldn’t say it, and you pause – but then you say it anyway? That fight. The one if you could stand outside of you could see where one of you just can’t let it go and the other one of you just can’t turn around and walk away, and next thing you know, you’re trying to figure out how to put the pieces back together? That fight.

Sometimes I am Old Dog: “Don’t you walk away when I am talking to you!”

Sometimes I am Young Dog: “I do NOT have to take this from YOU!”

What do we do with the dogs? Separate them when they obviously aren’t in the mood for each other. Pay a lot more attention to their body language and distract or deflect or remove them from the situation. Give them time alone to do things they like to do. Recognize that they don’t like to do the same things all the time. Notice (and act on) that they like to have one on one snuggle time with their people.

It’s like all those things that people tell you to do to find balance in your relationships work on people too. Damn it. I HATE that.

Friends

Like most lessons in life, I hate the way I learned this one. I wish it had been easier on me, and on the dogs. I realize that the dogs probably forgot about it as soon as it was over, and that how to shake things off and walk away would not be the worst thing for me to learn from them.

Luckily I have them to remind me, every day, that if you get to hang out with your favorite buddy and can play together and work together, it doesn’t matter if you fight sometimes. The fact that you are together is enough.

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