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Wine & Words 2019 Comes to an End

Today Sara, Shannin, and I head home from our Wine & Words Writing Treat in Branson, Missouri. We’ve had a lovely and productive time since we arrived on Wednesday. Each of us tackled a range of writing and work related projects ranging from a scholarly article on “Pretty Little Liars” to freshman composition syllabuses.

We “pommed” religiously, more or less, in keeping with the practice we’ve established through our Facebook writing group called Write-ins for Academics. “Pomming” is the term we use to describe our way of keeping our butts in the chair when writing. It’s a tried and true method of increasing productivity and efficiency called the Pomodoro Technique. Essentially, you work in 25 minute increments, followed by 5 minute breaks. That’s one “pom.”

You’re not supposed to do more than 4 consecutive poms without taking at least a 30 minute break. As a purist, I stick to the 25/5 model for pomming though some in WIFA (Ha! Now we have an acronym so we’re officially official!) are known to work in 50/10 minute poms. I knew I was truly a control freak when, as the founder and administrator of the group, I had a quiet little meltdown in my head because people were breaking the “pom” rules of order. (I’m working on that tendency of mine, I promise.)

When I first heard about “pomming” I was skeptical. I was certain I’d lose my train of thought in the five minute breaks. On the contrary, however, those breaks keep me from going brain dead when writing. Rarely do I write to that horrid state of exhaustion where it seems that all the words in the world have been taken. Pomming has also taught me that if you spend even a short time on something most days of the week, you can actually produce something. On busy days, squeezing in one pom, or even a truncated pom (15/5–oh the horror!) yields more than a pomless day yields. I have been lax about my research of late, but I can’t blame it on lack of time.

Like everyone else, I have 24 hours a day to get things done. That means I have 168 hours a week to work with.  If I sleep 8 hours a night (56 /week), eat/cook 3 hours a day, , work 8 hours a day M-F , CrossFit 1 hour a day M-F, and do horse things 8 hours a week, I still have 38 hours a week left to do other things. Wow.

Now, I know of no academic who works only 40 hours a week. So, there’s that. Likewise, I do grocery shop and drive to and from school and CrossFit and so on. Still, that leaves a lot of hours just begging to be used productively.

 

I know lots of people aren’t fans of New Year Resolutions. I am a fan of them because I love beginnings and endings. I love fresh starts and invitations to take stock of how things are working or not working in some realm or other. That’s what beginnings and endings are; they’re opportunities to regroup and get back on track with things that are already priorities and set new ones.

So, as my friends and I prepare to head home from our few days of indulgence in wine and words, I’m reestablishing my personal priorities and planning how best to use those 38 hours that it is so easy to waste. At the top of my list of priorities is getting back on track with eating habits that are in line with my fitness goals. As Coach Ben says, “all the lemon squeezes in the world can’t make up for a crappy diet.” My showmanship pants, which have grown ridiculously snug, or rather I have grown and thus my pants are snug, support Ben’s claim. So it goes. That’s a fixable problem.

This morning we will restore the cabin to the state of neutralness in which we found it and head out. I’ll have about 6 hours to think about my priorities and I’m looking forward to that time. It’s a new year with no mistakes in it yet, more or less. I’ve decided it is going to be a good one.

 

 

Wine & Words Writing Retreat 2019

 

Wine and Words Writing Retreat 2019 is underway in Branson, Missouri! My friends/colleagues, Sara and Shannin, and I–English professors all–are snugly tucked away in a log cabin in the Ozarks for the next couple of days to write. What could be more delicious?

We arrived around 4:30 this afternoon. Each of us came from a different direction. After unloading food, luggage, books, and computers, we poured glasses of wine and spent a couple of hours catching up. Shannin and I are colleagues at the same university; Sara defected to another university a couple of years ago. Our loss, to be sure. 

While Shannin and Sara swapped book ideas for their young adult literature courses, I caught up with a few of my Cup & Quill clients. Then, we talked shop for a little while–topics included the job market for Phds in English, which is as dismal as ever, the peculiarities of department chairs, the politics on university campuses, and the challenges of teaching these days. Eventually, we found ourselves a bit peckish. Sara quickly whipped up a salad and heated some frozen pizzas. We sat down to dinner and continued our conversation.

Other than quick dashes to the store, we won’t leave the cabin much. We are well stocked with wine–Malbec for Shannin and CabSavs for Sara and me–coffee, healthy snacks, the ingredients for some nice meals, and some not-so-healthy snacks as well. No writer that I know can write anything of value without a little chocolate for fuel. 

 After dinner, we had an accountability planning session. Armed with our notebooks, we sat at the table and declared what we intended to focus on this evening and tomorrow morning. We have a mid-day check-in planned to make sure we’re sticking to our plans and making progress.

As I write this, a conversation about Alice Walker’s antisemitism is in progress. Should we still teach her work? What about Sherman Alexie?  These conversations remind me why we got into academia in the first place. We like asking hard questions to which there may not be answers. Such questions lead to more questions and more questions lead to more nuanced ways of seeing the world. That’s what academia is all about.  That’s why the next couple of days are going to be awesome. 

Topper & Blue

The Dance: Why the Pain of Losing a Pet Is Worth It

“Looking back on the memory of the dance we shared…”

Garth Brooks’ much-loved song “The Dance” reminds us that the best things in life sometimes lead to painful endings. The song is about a person who realizes what he would have had to miss in order to avoid pain that comes with the end of a relationship.

Today, the song was on my mind for other reasons. This morning, my s.o. Alan’s beloved Australian Shepherd/Border Collie cross, Topper, who’d worked his way into my heart to a degree I never imagined possible, crossed the rainbow bridge. He was 14, give or take.

“For a moment, all the world was right…”

Topper lived a good life. He spent many days working cattle with Alan. When the cattle work became less frequent as Alan’s attention became more focused on horses, Topper devoted himself to running around the outside of the round pen in the opposite direction of whatever horse was being worked. He’d run like the wind in his circles, determined to keep those horses in line.

In recent years, Topper ran less and trotted more, but still he circled. Just a couple of weeks ago, I saw him walking very slowly in the opposite direction of the horse Alan was working in the round pen.

Topper had a fierce sense of duty. If a young horse got out of line with Alan on his back, Topper would march himself into the arena and just stand there, staring at that horse, as if to say, “Don’t make me come out there.”

Once, Alan had a wreck on a young horse in the round pen. The steel bar was dented where Alan’s head hit it. Somehow, he managed to roll under the fence and had the wherewithal to call me to come get him. I found Alan, bloody, dirty, and dazed, with Topper sitting right beside him.

“Holding you, I had everything…”

In recent days, Reese, my white lab, and Baxter, the boxer who thinks he is mine, but is not, took turns watching over Topper as he slept the deep sleep of the aged dog. Sometimes, I’d find them sleeping beside Topper on one of the dog beds. Reese would position herself either on the bed with him, or on a bed adjacent to his. Often, we saw her with her head on Topper’s bed, or sometimes just a paw. Baxter, typically a boisterous boxer dog, who loved to lick Topper’s face rigorously to get him to play, changed his approach. He still licked, but ever so gently. Dogs are amazing.

Reese & Topper

“If I’d only known…I might have changed it all…”

By last night, we knew for sure that it was time. Topper’s heart had been failing for awhile and we’d been managing it with medication. By last night, though, he hadn’t eaten in nearly a week. His coat was rough and ugly. He seemed disoriented. The many drugs he was on were no longer giving him any quality of life.

This morning we rose early to take Topper for one last ride. I’m sure he knew what was happening because he resisted a little as we led him toward the truck. Reese tried to stop us from leaving by getting underfoot. They knew. We all knew. It sucked.

The vet agreed with us that it was time. Alan and I kept our hands on Topper’s back as Dr. Alexander shaved his front leg and gently inserted the needle. Lauren, the vet tech, cradled Topper’s head. He leaned into her. He’s always loved having his head held and stroked. I watched for his breathing to stop as Dr. A. started the injection; Topper was gone before the injection was complete.

Lauren gently laid Topper’s head on his front paws. I kissed the top of his head and closed his eyes.

Dr. Alexander took out his stethoscope and made sure Topper’s heart had fully stopped. He positioned the scope in a number of places. “He’s breathing just fine now,” he said softly, “I bet he’s running and playing with all the other dogs.” “Maybe,” I offered, “there’s a blond-headed boy with a quirky cowlick, playing with him.” “And Roper too,” Alan added, referring to the also-beloved Australian shepherd who had been Topper’s predecessor.

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“I’m glad I didn’t know the way it all would end, the way it all would go…”

This was a year of loss for Alan. Greater loss than any parent should have to endure. Four months ago today, his youngest son, Coleson, turned 17. He died five days later after a valiant battle with cancer.

In June, Midnight, Alan’s older-than-dirt, black Welsh pony passed while we were at the World show. He went down one night, rallied for a couple of days, and then died.

Later, Alan learned that a family friend, who didn’t even know Midnight had existed, dreamed that Coleson was in heaven feeding a dark blue pony. Alan shared that story with Dr. Alexander and Lauren; we all wondered if anyone would dream about Coleson and a dog. “Let me know if they do” Dr. Alexander said as we gave Topper a last kiss and pat.

In a few weeks, we will get Topper back. I suggested we sprinkle his ashes around the round pen. Alan thinks maybe he will take Topper to Coleson’s resting place. That seems right, I think. Dogs and their boys belong together.

“Life is better left to chance…”

Whenever an animal dies I find myself thinking about my first American Paint horse, Special Trouble. I bought Trouble in the spring of 1999. Eight months later, he died. A necropsy revealed that he’d had a 6 inch ulcer in his stomach, which ruptured.

At a show a few months later, an older gentleman, Mr. Lawrence Kupka, approached me. He’d heard about Trouble’s passing. In his gruff voice, thick with a Ukrainian accent, Mr Kupka said only this, “I haven’t lost a chicken in 20 years. But I haven’t owned any for 30.” Then, he turned and walked away.

It took a minute for the meaning of his words to register, but I’ve never forgotten them. What Mr. Kupka meant, of course, was that the only way not to experience the pain of losing a horse, or a chicken as it were, is never to own one. We can miss the pain, he was telling me, but only if we are also willing to miss the dance.

 

As hard as it is losing our pets, I cannot imagine a life without them. I will miss Topper terribly. As hard and sad as was today, though, I’m so thankful to have had this lovely dog as a “dance partner.”

Rest in peace, sweet boy.

Topper Shaw c2004–2018

Thank you for reading. I appreciate you.

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The Color Purple

This may not be the most profound thing anyone has ever written, but it is on my mind.
Be on the lookout for purple–in other people, in the things they do, and in the world around you. It’s there.

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Why Being Not Okay, is Okay

It is okay not to be okay. This I have learned from two friends and my significant other who have lost children to terrible diseases in the recent past. I don’t know that anyone can truly “get” the enormity of the grief that comes with losing a child unless one has actually lost a child. However, I believe my friends and partner when they talk about how heavy that grief is at times. It sounds unbearable and yet it must be borne.

People say the most insensitive things to parents who’ve lost children. More often than you’d imagine, people (and I’m willing to bet I’ve been one of them) say things that they intend to be comforting, but which feel like daggers to the heart of a grieving parent. For example, someone told one of my friends that, although it is a terrible thing to lose a child, it would have been worse if she’d lost her husband because then her other daughters wouldn’t have a dad. Evidently, the loss of sister didn’t rank as high on the scale of bad things that happen in that person’s eyes. Attempting to rank the significance of another’s loss is always a bad idea.

Time Does Not Heal All Wounds

My friends have taught me that time does not heal all wounds. In fact, when it comes to losing a child, the opposite may be true. That is, for many parents who’ve lost a child, grief actually intensifies over time. One friend shared that she’d expected her pain to be less acute once the first anniversary of the death of her daughter had passed. That was not the case. On the contrary, as the numbness that set in immediately after her daughter died wore off, the pain became more acute.

If that didn’t already suck enough, others sometimes assume that time has done its healing thing. They may expect the grieving parent to be ready to “move on.” It’s almost like there’s an unwritten statute of limitations about how long a grieving parent can take to settle into a new normal. Whether we like to admit it or not, many people secretly hope that the new normal will relieve others from having to tippy-toe around the discomfort of navigating another’s grief. Such hope, unspoken or not, conscious or not, risks making a grieving parent hide his or her grief, in the interest of others’ comfort. So begins an existence that may feel inauthentic to the person living it.

Sometimes asking how someone is doing is more about the asker than the askee. Maybe we ask because we want the other person to say “I’m okay.” After all, “I’m okay” signals that we don’t have to navigate an encounter with a grieving person. I’m not saying we don’t want our friends to be okay. Of course we do. Let’s be honest though. A friendship, or any relationship for that matter, is much easier when those pesky emotions like grief don’t get in the way of what is easy and comfortable.

My significant other just lost his son. I am seeing what that grief looks like up close. I want it to go away, but I know it is here to stay.

My goal is to resist any self-serving urge to try and move him into a “better” space where grief isn’t as visible and life is more fun. I know that a grieving person might not even be able to imagine such a space, let alone go there when invited. It’s important that I learn to be okay with his not-okayness.

This is new terrain for me. It’s hard to resist repeating the scripts that are supposed to make others feel better. They may work in some instances, but they have no impact on the pain of a grieving parent. When it comes to a parent’s grief over the loss of a child, nothing can or will fix what isn’t okay. Not now and not ever. That sucks.

I suspect there is a love language in which to communicate with grieving parents. I’m trying to learn what that language is and how to speak it. I know I’m going to fail often in my attempts. I’m going to try anyway. When you love someone, that’s just what you do.