Not So NaNoWriMo

I’m not doin’ so hot. In fact, I’m not doing much at all. The counter on my NaNoWriMo widget to the right on your screen may not say it all, but I think it does signal a departure of some kind. One week of novel writing to go, and I stopped writing almost the day I began, seven days into the month. Instead, when I attended write-ins, I wrote some memoir, did some journal writing, took notes toward a book review, and started my next major blog post draft about Argyll.

The National Novel Writing Month program, this event, continues to attract enthusiastic veteran participants: the imperative to write a novel, a story, a fictional narrative, 50,000 words of it in 30 days. Year after year, my friends dive in and sprint those fingers into victory. I, too, would run the race to the finish, understanding that everyone’s end point is as different as each story premise. But sometimes I wish we could just sit together and talk without working on a writing project. (Currently, my only nearby friends are writing friends.)

I have never finished a NaNoWriMo novel since I began participating in 2011. While that’s not unusual for participants, in October of this year, preparing for the mad dash, I told myself that this would be a good personal goal to pursue—to finish a story at last.

But maybe I’m discovering a different kind of finishing. I had almost no desire to participate this year, as much as I tried to brainstorm, read some previous years’ pep talks, and show up for our region’s kick-off and subsequent write-ins. I would say to myself and a select few others a line that was some variation of “I’m just not feelin’ it.” But I wasn’t really trying all that hard to feel it, either.

So, what’s going on? Am I bored with National Novel Writing Month? Perhaps. Was it a nice run while it lasted? I suppose. Am I just not made for novel writing? Quite possible. I do prefer writing essays and poetry most of the time. I also prefer reading novels to writing them. I finished another long book not on the classics book club reading list while also reading for the club. I thoroughly enjoyed John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. I also prefer facilitating, helping, and teaching others about writing over writing myself, but I haven’t been doing much more than the usual online tutoring in the way of teaching or guiding.

Some of that has to do with my wavering health this fall, some with my focus on the dog and my blog.

Health-wise, I went from limiting neck and back problems to exhausting abdominal pain from a medical procedure to annoying cold and sinus infection to worrisome gut destruction from the antibiotics. I think I might just be coming out of that now–maybe. I was able to enjoy Thanksgiving victuals but not much of the atmosphere and company that go with the food. My mother had to come over and help us clean to prepare for hosting Thanksgiving, which we do every year. With how I felt the day before the day, I was seriously considering cancelling or postponing. But in my weakened state, I had little strength to protest. We’d already bought the turkey and started thawing it. On with the show.

One thing I’ve noticed: When we think we’re getting better as an event comes into play, sometimes, we’re just rallying, rising to the occasion only to collapse all the more afterwards when our body reminds us we’re sick. That happened to my husband at the company Thanksgiving dinner the week before, and to me next.

So that’s the health side of retreat from NaNoWriMo. But what about the genuine disinterest and alternative priorities side?

Yes, those are real.

Priority: dog training. I took Thanksgiving week off from tutoring, but I threw myself off the couch and into the car for the dog’s agility class on Black Friday. I had not anticipated sleeping for so long that afternoon, having already slept in quite late to begin with. My husband was capitalizing on a Black Friday deal while I napped with the dog, and he had time only to shower upon his return. It wasn’t until 10 minutes before time to hit the road that he called to me.

The intervention was a word of awakening: Get up; it’s time to go. I looked at the clock, and it was literally the minute we should have been driving away, but I wasn’t dressed, hadn’t taken medication recently, and didn’t have a shower, and, oh my god, do I have to go? I could have slept through the evening and probably overnight.

Still, we went, and since hubby hasn’t been attending class, I was somehow able to be the handler, running Ethan through the training exercises at class. I had to break for the toilet only once and drank lots of Gatorade in between turns. My trainer reminded me to increase my probiotic intake as well, which I did. This was all happening in the transition from one antibiotic, Amoxicillin, to another, Cipro. I hoped the new one wouldn’t utterly obliterate my digestive tract, too. So far, it has been better, but stomach upset remains a risk, and I’m just feeling run down. And now we’re back to talking about sickness again.

The agility arena is a 35-minute drive eastward from our house, and class takes an hour and a half. No small investment of time, energy, and endurance of road bumps on an upset stomach. And the poor dog hasn’t had much exercise lately either. I haven’t yet gotten around to hiring a dog walker or sending him to periodic doggy day care visits. We had been going to the dog park rather frequently, but now it’s raining and still too cold for me to be willing to venture out while on the mend. That means running him inside the house or walking him around the neighborhood. With my husband back to work and night falling fast these days, it’s up to me.

I tried walking around the block yesterday with my boys, and although I made it home, the second half of the walk was rough on the tummy and a bit slower than the first. So despite feeling better today, I was reluctant to send myself into that zone again. Instead, I’m writing this, and the dog is getting into trouble, chewing on things he shouldn’t in his boredom. I’ve already run him up and down the stairs and across the 1st floor rooms for treats today and played tug of war with him a few minutes ago, but he needs an actual walk, too. He typically won’t do his solid business except on a walk, until he can’t hold it any longer and is forced to go in the yard.

Having a “soft” tempered, or sensitive, dog can be challenging. Even though he’s perfectly healthy and quite athletic otherwise, he has persnickety quirks about, among others, walking on wet ground and soiling his territory, so he doesn’t make deviations from the active routine a simple matter. Thankfully, his fearfulness has decreased dramatically over the past several months, and he’s actually comfortable receiving affection now. No small feats!

Priority: blog. But the dog takes up some time, and so does the blog. These are choices I have made, investments of time I have committed to. If I were gainfully employed part-time (tutoring is a fraction of that), my schedule could force me to make the time for things like NaNoWriMo, but my will and preferences wouldn’t stop resisting.

The truth is I’ve had misgivings about novel writing ever since I started to try it. And those misgivings feel like more than the typical doubt and fear of writer’s block or imposter syndrome. I just don’t like writing stories as much as my peers do. I prefer writing poems and essays. I often prefer reading nonfiction to reading novels. But it’s also true that novel writing is hard, and it doesn’t take much to deter non-devotees. The project is a larger undertaking with greater complexity than most poems or essays.

The spirit of NaNoWriMo is all about “writing with reckless abandon.” I’ve seen glimpses of myself doing this in previous Novembers, but I think it would take more than a month-long word sprint for me to embrace the spirit fully. And maybe I just don’t have that “more,” whatever it is. Or, maybe I’ll be more interested next year.

I hadn’t written much for a while leading up to November, and I didn’t really miss it. Writing is part of who I am, but it’s far from the whole picture, and my hesitations extend to making a career focused on writing. As frustrating as the tutoring can be at times, it’s currently one of only a few ways I can be an educator. My blog is another. What I am missing is the social interaction and speaking and energy of face-to-face teaching.

So, once healthy, my life could use further balancing out, but we all lose our balance sometimes. It may be time for a new adventure, a new chapter, a new focus, or a renewed one. I just hope my friends and I can make peace with whatever direction my relationship to NaNoWriMo ends up taking.

And to all those still working hard and happily on their novels this month, press on.

Book Review: Tess of the d’Urbervilles

Possible spoilers, explicit sexual terminology included

While I have yet to solidify, if possible, my knowledge and perception of the different versions of the novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy, and the controversy surrounding them over the course of 30 years of critics’ reactions and Hardy’s revisionist responses to those reactions starting in the late 1880s, I can unreservedly share some gems of beautiful writing to be found in one version or another. That, along with a brief summarizing book review, is the purpose of this post.
The Transatlantic Press (TAP) 2012 edition preserved or restored several paragraphs’ worth of text missing from the Penguin Classics edition (1998), which is based on a not-easily-identifiable mixture of previous editions. Whatever its sources, TAP 2012 includes the Chaseborough dance scene first restored, from Hardy’s drafting prior to the first 1891 publication, only in the 1912 edition, over 20 years later. Other aspects of TAP’s version preserve text from the 1891 publication, based on direct comparison after I purchased the Penguin Classics rendering of that version while reading the 2012 TAP edition.
That’s the barest tip of the tip of the iceberg that constitutes this novel’s textual history. Suffice it to say there were moral objections to several parts of the work from different quarters, stirring in Hardy different shades of both defiance and compliance to society’s sensibilities over a 30-year span. Amidst the intrigue, according to the Penguin editor, Tim Dolin, Hardy had the foresight, lament it though he would, to bowdlerize his own work in order to pre-empt unwanted excisions by publishers.

Tess was his second to last novel, followed by Jude the Obscure, after which, out of fatigue or frustration with critics’ and publishers’ opinions (the general public generally received the novel with enthusiasm) and the hassle of straddling between his own wishes and theirs, he swore off novels and spent the rest of his long life writing excellent poetry. An excerpt from his poem “The Darkling Thrush” kicks off my Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry series on this blog.
Setting that complicated history and the questions it raises aside, I center this post on a literary appreciation of Thomas Hardy’s controversial work in Tess of the d’Urbervilles.
Like most changes Hardy made, was asked to make, or purposely neglected to make, the deleted and restored scene provokes moral objections. Its palpably sensual tone and sexually suggestive content at the turn of the twentieth century was a challenge for a Western world barely recovered from the era of Victorian mores and not yet liberated by the sexual revolution of first the 1920s and then the 60s and 70s.
Leading up to the Chaseborough dance scene, Tess has been working for Alec d’Urberville’s blind mother, caring for her birds at their estate and journeying on summer Saturdays to fairs and other outings among fellow laborers in the vicinity of the fictitious town of Trantridge, real county Dorset. On one of these Saturdays, she comes upon a singular atmosphere. Alec is the instrument of her ruin which has yet to strike, and the scene serves not only as that event’s foreshadowing but also as perhaps a blend of frankness and lyrical abandon on Hardy’s part in its indirect comment and direct depiction of real society dressed warmly in Romantic and mythological allusions.
Once she reaches the source of the fiddler music unaccompanied by the sound of dancing feet, she peers through the doorway of the outhouse. The total portion of the scene represented in the TAP 2012 edition comprises some 15 paragraphs of variable length. From the second of these paragraphs, the reader shares Tess’s somewhat entranced gaze:
“It was a windowless erection used for storage, and from the open door there floated into the obscurity a mist of yellow radiance, which at first Tess thought to be illuminated smoke. But on drawing nearer she perceived that it was a cloud of dust, lit by candles within the outhouse, whose beams upon the haze carried forward the outline of the doorway into the wide night of the garden.”
“When she came close and looked in she beheld indistinct forms racing up and down to the figure of the dance…” (start of para. 3).
The residue making up the “yellow mist” had come from “the storage of peat and other products, the stirring of which by their turbulent feet created the nebulosity that involved the scene” (para. 3). And this “residuum,” or “scroff” as Hardy first labels it, accounts for the muffling of the sound of the dancers’ nonetheless very active feet.
Then, the energy rises with the number of sexual connotations, adding also some scientific tonality:
“Through this floating, fusty debris of peat and hay, mixed with the perspirations and warmth of the dancers, and forming together a sort of vegeto-human pollen, the muted fiddles feebly pushed their notes, in marked contrast to the spirit with which the measure was trodden out.”
As we zoom in, the Greek mythological allusions binding sex with music begin and pile on thickly. I include definitions and references for further reading following the passage:
“They coughed as they danced, and laughed as they coughed. Of the rushing couples there could barely be discerned more than high lights–the indistinctness shaping them to satyrs clasping nymphs–a multiplicity of Pans whirling a multiplicity of Syrinxes: Lotis attempting to elude Priapus, and always failing.”
satyr – “creatures of the wild, part man and part beast, who in Classical times were closely associated with the god Dionysus. Satyrs and Sileni were at first represented as uncouth men, each with a horse’s tail and ears and an erect phallus. In the Hellenistic age they were represented as men having a goat’s legs and tail. Rival theories differentiate silenis from satyrs.” – Britannica.com.
similar creatures: faun (Roman), minotaur, centaur, harpy, siren. – Wikipedia
nymph – “a minor female nature deity typically associated with a particular location or landform. Different from other goddesses, nymphs are generally regarded as divine spirits who animate nature, and are usually depicted as beautiful, young nubile maidens who love to dance and sing; their amorous freedom sets them apart from the restricted and chaste wives and daughters of the Greek polis. They are beloved by many and dwell in the mountainous regions and forests by lakes and streams.” forever young, can bear immortal children by gods, though not necessarily immortal themselves. examples: Charybdis and Scylla. similar creatures: mermaid, huldra, selkie, siren. the frequent target of satyrs – wikipedia
Pan – “god of nature, the wild, shepherds, flocks, of mountain wilds, rustic music and impromptus, and the companion of the nymph, often associated with sexuality” – Wikipedia
Syrinx – “a nymph and follower of Artemis, known for her chastity. Pursued by the amorous god Pan, she ran to a river’s edge and asked for assistance from the river nymphs. In answer, she was transformed into hollow water reeds that made a haunting sound when the god’s frustrated breath blew across them. Pan cut the reeds to fashion the first set of pan pipes, which were thenceforth known as syrinx.” – Wikipedia
Priapus – “a god fo animal and vegetable fertility whose originally Asian cult started in the Hellespontine regions, centring especially on Lampsacus. He was represented in a caricature of the human form, grotesquely misshapen, with an enormous phallus. Father was Dionysus, the wine god; mother either a nymph or Aphrodite, the goddess of love.” “in Hellenistic times . . . in the country adopted as a god of gardens . . .” – Britannica
– “a minor rustic fertility god, protector of livestock, fruit plants, gardens and male genitalia. Priapus is marked by his oversized, permanent erection, which gave rise to the medical term priapism.” – Wikipedia
priapism = “a persistent, painful erection of the penis unaccompanied by sexual excitation or desire” – Britannica
Lotis – “a nymph mentioned by Ovid. In his account, at the Liberalia festival, Priapus tried to rape her when everyone had fallen asleep, but she was awakened by a sudden cry of Silenus’s donkey and ran off, leaving Priapus in embarrassment as everyone else woke up too and became aware of his intentions. In another account, she was changed into a lotus tree to escape Priapus; later, Dryope picked a flower off the tree Lotis had become and was transformed into a black poplar.” “In Book 6 of the Fasti Ovid tells much the same story, but with the goddess Vesta rather than Lotis as the intended victim. According to some sources, Lotis was the daughter of Neptune or Nereus. Ovid suggests that Priapus later kills the donkey.” – Wikipedia
And, Pan and Syrinx are the parents of the satyrs and nymphs. Phew! Lots to unpack.

Paragraph 4 further emphasizes the sense of illusion and transformation:
“At intervals a couple would approach the doorway for air, and the haze no longer veiling their features, the demigods resolved themselves into the homely personalities of her own next-door neighbors. Could Trantridge in two or three short hours have metamorphosed itself thus madly!”
But it doesn’t stop there, and Tess interacts next with not one but two men who notice her nervous hope that the dance will end soon so her neighbors will leave and she won’t have to journey back in the dark alone. Each man is presented as a god- or saint-like figure in an ironic sense, as they are both drunken and make suggestive comments akin to Alec d’Urberville’s assuaging overtures to Tess up to this point.
The first is described as “one of [the] Sileni of the throng,” and the singular, a “Silenus,” is a particularly older, mentor-like figure in the company of the wine god Dionysus. “The plural sileni refers to the mythological figure as a type that is sometimes thought to be differentiated from a satyr by having the attributes of a horse rather than a goat.” – Wikipedia
After these exchanges, we return to the dance floor itself in paragraph 11 of this edition’s surplus Chaseborough scene:
“The movement grew more passionate: the fiddlers behind the luminous pillar of cloud now and then varied the air by playing on the wrong side of the bridge or with the back of the bow. But it did not matter; the panting shapes spun onwards.”
Here, the dancers are reduced to nebulous forms themselves, less sexual beings and more impressions of objects, like protons spinning around an atom’s nucleus. This lends the suggestion of inevitable, eminently natural movement, the essence of life and energy. Their identities are again obscured; they could be either animals or something else, but something either supra-human or subhuman.
Hardy then focuses on the dancers’ tendencies to stay with the partner they’re inclined to once begun, as if to point out the glue-like, intimate nature of these pairs, in contrast to traditional country dances of ever-changing partners and a communal sense of order and purpose and propriety. In the middle of that paragraph, number 12 of the passage, the theme of cosmic movement reaches a pinnacle:
“It was then that the ecstasy and the dream began, in which emotion was the matter of the universe, and matter but an adventitious intrusion likely to hinder you from spinning where you wanted to spin.”
The use of the pronoun “you” personalizes the described experience to the reader’s frame of reference while simultaneously bringing emotion and human intention into equality with the ultimate nature of the cosmos. This moment serves as the climax of the figurative sexual intercourse that is the dance.
The next description reiterates the sense of accomplished sexual union and orgasmic release. However, Hardy takes it one step further in continuing to emphasize the collective over an individual couple, suggesting with no great subtlety orgiastic abandon. Paragraph 13:
“Suddenly there was a dull thump on the ground: a couple had fallen, and lay in a mixed heap. The next couple, unable to check its progress, came toppling over the obstacle. An inner cloud of dust rose around the prostrate figures amid the general one of the room, in which a twitching entanglement of arms and legs was discernible.”
Again, Hardy returns to the medium of the dance: the “fusty” “yellow mist” operating even more now as a sexual fluid of semen or the mixed pool of male and female ejaculate fluids.
Even more scandalous in his day, however, must have been his final coup de grace at the end of paragraph 14:
“. . . female accents from the human heap–those of the unhappy partner of the man whose clumsiness had caused the mishap; she happened also to be his recently married wife, in which assortment there was nothing unusual in Trantridge as long as any affection remained between wedded couples; and, indeed, it was not uncustomary in their later lives, to avoid making odd lots of the single people between whom there might be a warm understanding.”
Translation:
The husband’s clumsiness with a partner other than his wife, resulting in their falling down together, led to his wife and her partner’s collision with the first couple. This arrangement of non-wedded pairs of dance partners was not unusual in Trantridge if there was affection between sets of couples and unwedded members of the opposite sex. Well into their married lives, it was not uncommon to switch partners so that single people did not feel left out in the mix either, and to make of the crowd a more unified whole of versatile dance partners, and, implicitly, sexual partners. Swingers, orgies, etc.
As if that weren’t enough discomfort for the die-hard Victorian or Puritan reader, later when the crowd departs, Hardy overtly attaches halos to their heads, as if their very sensuality and its shameless expression have made them somehow saintly or angelic.

Hardy had balls, that’s for sure.
One would think there might be a Chapter X general note in the Penguin Classics edition concerning this deleted scene, but they don’t give it such prominence. However, they do include a note marked at the specific location where the text is significantly different between versions:
“2 – When Hardy removed this chapter from Graphic [first publication in this magazine for serial form of the text] it included a long dance scene at this point. It was retained when the chapter was published separately [as Saturday Night in Arcady], but was not restored to Tess until 1912. Appendix V reproduces both versions.”
Spoilers ahead.
At this point in the story, an incident during the journey home directly precipitates Tess’s fatal decision to go with Alec d’Urberville, who takes her into the forest and in some versions rapes while in others seduces her, resulting in her birthing a daughter, prior to which one version replaces the rape/seduction scene with a duplicitous false marriage scene between Tess and Alec.
And the confusion about Tess’s character and morality only mounts with the increase of changes and counter-changes Hardy makes over the ensuing years, in everything from subtle actions taken to gestures and tears to comments on her thought processes. The same goes for other principal figures in the book, so that when the revisions have finally ended, the modern reader hardly knows what to make of it all.
Still, and amazingly, despite all the complications, Hardy manages to deliver into posterity a well-loved narrative and tragedy of Greek proportions in a captivating writing style. Its considerable length is buffered by a noticeable economy of language coupled with playful use of extraneously large, technical-sounding words, and some made-up ones, such as “vegeto-human.” This latter feature particularly irritated many critics, but as an incorrigible intellectual in love with big words, I love Hardy for it. The tale is epic and complete and the commentary on society’s moral hypocrisy not only discernible but memorable.
Hardy elevates our understanding of human complexity, not only in his carefully told tale but also in the vacillations of all that pre-emptive shaping, editing, redaction, and rewriting. Tim Dolin, editor of the Penguin Classics edition’s textual history section and end notes, remarks on the practical impossibility of identifying a definitive edition, and proposes there may really be no such thing.
Indeed, this notion may be the simple truth of most published writing; especially in hindsight, the author knows that more could have been done or done better, but at some point they pull the trigger or nothing ever gets published. For the reader as well as the writer, the work always remains to some degree unfinished, which only adds to the fascination of literature.

Tess of the d’Urbervilles has become a new favorite book of mine, and I am sorely tempted to eschew future plans on my to-read list to take another sensual spin full of rich, transporting description around Thomas Hardy’s d’Urberville universe and the magnificently complex and shape-shifting character of Tess Durbeyfield. All that remains is the tiny matter of which edition to choose next.

book on the grass

Photo by Kaboompics .com on Pexels.com

Croak

We might croak.

We might kick the bucket, we might shuffle off the mortal coil, or maybe even push up daisies and become food for worms. However we go, all of us, most certainly, will die.

Edward Young’s expression to “join the great majority” goes a long way toward erasing one’s sense of individuality. I prefer George Eliot’s approach, and would love to “join the choir invisible.” (Thank you, convenient Wikipedia.) I’ve always wanted to sing. Not like a frog, but sing nonetheless.

However, I have no interest in farms and would not care much to buy one.

To the degree that “sleeping with the fishes” implies being murdered and dumped in a body of water, I suppose there are worse ways to go. I don’t mind fish so much, nor sleeping.

“Kicking the bucket” actually derives from hanging, in which one kicks the bucket from under one’s feet so gravity can do its full work. Having a bucket list, therefore, might for some carry a dark undertone of the potential for suicide once everything’s crossed off your list.

My ass is somewhat large but relatively normal, so I suppose I should not be averse to kissing it good-bye, were I able to reach it.

But whether I find myself taking a dirt nap six feet under or riding the pale horse on the last train to glory, I know there is this final step I must take, whether of my own volition or not.

I’d almost rather be eaten by a large predatory animal–after, of course, being neatly and painlessly killed by the blow from a paw or the tonic of a poison–than to be reduced to ashes of lesser usefulness, or less heft. I seem to recall musical artist and singer Björk making a similar comment, that she wanted to die violently, by being eaten by a tiger or spattered with lava. (Icelanders . . . Björk.)

Diseases are pretty far down the list of most people’s preferred ways to die, but some diseases are more merciful than others.

A few years ago, a fellow writer and budding friend of mine died of cancer. She was my age, in her late thirties. Before we lost her, I had helped her refine her application essay to an MFA writing program, and she, as part of our writing group, had critiqued a nature poem of mine.

Now, every November, when my circle of friends and I participate in National Novel Writing Month, we commemorate her gift and passion, marking her departure from our lives with a day named for her, Anna’s Day, November 17th. On that day, in that week, and, for some of us, all month and intermittently throughout the year, we include her in our thoughts if not also somehow in our work. She also happened to die five days after my great aunt, who also died of cancer. It’s not easy for me to forget that week of the year.

Anna didn’t like how my poem ended. In fact, she hated it. And she did not hesitate to tell me so or attempt to soften her words to dampen her feelings, or spare mine. As I age and grow closer to death than any time since my birth (for all I know), I’m increasingly grateful for that. Useful feedback from others on a piece under construction should never be totally devoid of bold frankness or hard truths. We can’t grow without learning of our work’s flaws.

Comparatively with my other efforts, this poem was a bit of a disaster for several reasons. Yet, I felt strongly, even after receiving Anna’s notes, that the ending was far from the biggest problem. The rhythm was clunky, the lines too long. I used, as I often do, too many hyphenated phrases that become tongue twisters. In the space of one poem of 83 lines with an average of 8 or fewer words in each, there were too many different subjects and ideas competing for attention.

Perhaps above all, the themes and messages were too well concealed so that the whole became a mystery wrapped in an enigma trapped inside a puzzle pretending to be a solvable riddle. Too obscure, too obtuse, too evasive to connect with the reader. Smart writing group members couldn’t grasp my meaning. My mom understood, but she knows me very well and knows my writing, so she had an advantage. We don’t write just for Mom. When I’m apparently trying to be too clever, as in that poem, I suppose there is a dimness to my feelings or a cowardice that hides them from my readers.

At any rate, the poem, though couched in nature and wildlife appreciation, was most centrally about the persistent triumph of depression and a negative outlook over the struggle to feel alive and happy. That last line, the ending that Anna so despised, was “because when I said it I meant it, ‘Life sucks.'” Negative, true, but also inelegant.

Of course, Anna was dying of cancer at the time and doing her best to live for the moment, accomplish her goals, be her best self more than ever–in every way to rage against her dying light. How could anyone, perhaps especially a writer, a fellow poet, and someone she liked reasonably well, genuinely feel this way about the thing she desperately clung to with all her soul? Her response to such a statement might have been visceral, possibly even a kind of revulsion.

I don’t know whether she read the whole poem before starting her critique. If she did, it means she was probably a better person, a better beta reader, than I, because it means she tamped down her horror long enough to comment constructively on much more than just that nasty ending. Perhaps she was a better person than I in lots of ways. She was very likeable, friendly, and easygoing when I first met her. Clearly intelligent, astute, with a sense of humor and fellowship, she fought hard to live in spite of her death sentence.

But in truth, I didn’t know Anna all that well. Perhaps if I had, her indirect and sometimes direct message of carpe diem would have influenced me more strongly, made more of a difference. One time, in response to the question of what to do with feedback after a writing group discussion of her work sample, she said to a mixed crowd of some who knew her situation and some who had just met her, “I don’t believe in tomorrow, for lots of reasons.” She’ll take her feedback immediately, please and thank you.

I still put things off, I still take things for granted, I still undervalue my work, but I do think a lot about Anna. I think about her reaction to my autobiographical declaration in that final poetic line, and I marvel at how different people’s experiences of life, of its goodness, of its meaning, of our esteem and appreciation of it can be. I notice how even knowing that you’re going to die might not bring out a noble response in you, at least not all the time. Sometimes adversity just kicks our asses and wins the trophy.

Perhaps it was Anna’s sense of the permanence, the finality of committing that last contemptible line to print, and possibly posterity, that stood against everything she stood for. I could almost hear her: If you’re going to leave a legacy, make it encouraging, inspiring, life affirming. I’ll never know, but the poem was both. It both affirmed life and lamented the inability, the often extreme difficulty at least, to affirm it.

We wish across each other. She may have wished, in addition to not having to die, that her sense of the preciousness of life could be felt by all those around her, whether they knew they were dying soon or not, particularly in that moment when she read of someone’s opposite feeling. I wished I had had more time with her, to learn from her, to build a friendship. I often wish for that sense of imminent death, without death itself, that’s supposed to kick you in the pants and make you produce things, be better, live fully.

Maybe it’s my signals of ambivalence that so irritate the dying woman who knows she’s dying. Don’t whine. Either get it over with or get on with it. Don’t hem and haw. Pick a side and charge ahead. Irrevocably, we have so little time to lose.

As I age, my health seems to grow more precarious from different directions. I’m aware of some of the signs, if not all. I’ve got way too many medical specialist physicians.

“We interrupt this broadcast to bring you this special announcement,” that the writer has left the writing room so she can book a weekend getaway in Hocking Hills State Park to enjoy hiking, ziplining, and adventures with husband and dog. Carpe diem. . . .

And what did I do instead? I talked about my health with my husband, did some drug and physiological research, exorcised my fears a little–all useful activities, to a point. But when will I get around to a spontaneous leaping toward joy? Answering that, of course, would contradict the intention and fundamentally change the action’s nature.

Unless the answer is “never.” In that case, internal consistency prevails. I long ago compromised courage so as to avoid hypocrisy. Principles being principles, habits being habits, and all of these forming my identity, why would I pull the rug out now?

At bottom, I perceive one of my life’s purposes to be to earn, perpetually, the right to happiness. I don’t deserve it outright (does anyone really deserve anything, good or bad?), and I have trouble accepting it as a gift for fear of much harsher punishment as a direct response to its indulgence. In order to stave off the dropping of the other shoe, I walk around barefoot. Deprivation is my insurance policy.

The only trouble is, that doesn’t really work either. It leads exactly to the attitude expressed in my awe-filled and awful poem. And so it becomes a tug of war between, on one side, some kind of Catholic guilt-driven, Puritanical self-denial and, on the other, owning and claiming my truth while pursuing my passions. Between feeling just and feeling justified. Between “should” and “want.”

One half is always holding back the other; the other half is always straining to break free. Being locked in combat with myself like this, I envy as I compare others’ successes to my stagnation, and that comparison, and subsequent judgment, results in low self-esteem and depression.

This is why a psyche like mine can always use another dose of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way program. She talks a lot about giving oneself permission to try, to fail, to be oneself, to invest in one’s art, no matter what anybody else says or does. She describes the pitfalls of the virtue trap, the thinking that being virtuous somehow leads to happiness. It doesn’t inherently do so, no. She really tapped into a selling strategy by couching the artist’s way as “a spiritual journey to higher creativity,” guided by fate, destiny, God, or some other force that only wants the best for us and calls us to express ourselves.

I don’t believe in an active, anthropomorphic God or even in the supernatural more broadly, per se. But I have seen truth to the good that can come from believing in myself and focusing my energy where my deepest instincts and greatest loves reside. So much for intuition. As an introverted thinker, an incorrigible intellectual I suppose, I’ve always lived primarily in and through my mind. Thus, the philosophy degree and the sense that the whole spectrum of reality is to me merely theoretical. So much for intellect.

If nothing beyond that cerebrally weighted attention occurs, perhaps the effort is enough. Maybe that’s my way of embracing life. Just keep doing what you’re doing. The end is not all, but it’s coming. When it does, will you be able to say that at least you tried your best? Will you look back with a sense of restless bitterness or of peace and love? Will you remain open hearted and open minded, receptive to mystery, surprise, and wonder? Will you know transcendence beyond pain and pettiness? I suppose these are decent enough measures of life’s quality.

You thought this post was going to be about frogs, didn’t you? Well, according to my train wreck of a poem, indirectly, it is.

Ethan Builds Frustration Tolerance

You’re only supposed to say it once, but here I go: “Ethan, come!” * smooching, thigh slapping * “Ethan! Here, bud! Come!”

Every day, several times a day, a high-pitched, friendly beckoning call issues forth from my lips. And every day, a big-eared, brown-eyed, wiry-framed, red/tan, 11-month-old, Vizsla/hound-or-something mixed breed dog stands and stares in the direction of my call. The duration of that standing and staring depends on several dog-driven factors: location within the house, outdoor circumstances, time of day, number and type of distractions, degree of hunger, sound of a rustling kibble bag, how long he’s been awake, mood or degree of playfulness or fear, amount of time I’ve been gone, and others.

My dog doesn’t come when I call him, whether indoors or out. Well, that’s not entirely true. He does maybe one-third of the time, but more often outside than in. What can one do but shake one’s head?

Well, I’ll tell you. I’ve read at least half a dozen dog training and behavior books at this point and watched videos and demonstrations. We’ve worked with a personal dog trainer and taken a group obedience class. We’ve consulted a separation anxiety expert and our veterinarian. We train and condition our dog in obedience, agility, and anxiety-reducing socialization every day. We try our best to follow the rules of training, to ensure the behaviors we intend to instill are the ones taking hold. We set boundaries, rules, and limitations, in the spirit of “Dog Whisperer” Cesar Milan.

Although still young, Ethan’s quirks seem to make him a peculiar case, which adds an extra degree of confusion to many things we try to do with him. And we do a lot. He’s our baby, after all, so we keep trying.

I take Ethan for a walk of at least one mile, on a long lead so he can trot and run a bit, almost every day, including 24-degree Fahrenheit, 18-degree wind chill days. The three of us even took a walk on a day in 10 degrees, until Ethan’s frosty paw pads sent us back home. We exercise him indoors when it’s too cold outside. We’re working on getting him comfortable walking on a moving treadmill.

We feed him gradually and dynamically with treat- and kibble-dispensing toys and puzzles to keep his mind sharp and digestion even. I’ve taken him to half a dozen different metro parks, a few pet stores, and people’s houses, including the neighbor’s with their dog who is a vigorous playmate.

I rub under Ethan’s chin for encouragement as often as he’ll let me, praise him generously nearly every moment of correct, compliant behavior, play with him daily, let him sniff my face frequently and sometimes lick my ears, and then further intensify our bond with belly rubs and traces of human food from this plate or that bowl.

I love affectionate dogs, and I hope mine becomes more comfortable with me one day.

Ethan was introduced to us as a “shy” dog, but the label isn’t a perfect fit anymore. He’s afraid of certain things and people in certain circumstances; he’s a bit unpredictable in fear and trust. There are things and movements that make him “shy” away from us, his owners, but sometimes those things only make him stop or sit and look at us funny.

Trust is first, they say, which means that after seven months together, we still can’t take him anywhere off leash, including our unfenced yard, because he can’t be counted on to obey us more than he obeys his fear. Sure, he’s got a collar with tags, an embedded ID chip, and up-to-date shots. But when your dog doesn’t fully trust you and is easily scared by unanticipated stimuli, he’s easily put in danger.

When I take Ethan for a walk and let him wander ahead a bit on the longer leash, sometimes he responds to his name by turning around, at which point I praise him enthusiastically and reach in my pocket for the kibble reward. He trots slowly back to me, sits readily (he sat well from day one) without being asked, and gobbles up the treat. I release him with an “okay” to continue walking, and we’re back in the groove. Sometimes it works; other times it doesn’t.

We spent a lot of time teaching him to bound back to us at the sound of his name, excited for the goodies at the end. But if he’s too busy sniffing, which he often is, or he’s found something on the ground more exciting to nibble on, also not infrequent, or, he’s too wary of us to return, then he will not respond to his name or the “come” command, either by returning or even looking up.

His mind is intelligent and stubborn. However ill-founded, when dogs learn them young, preconceived notions of danger and survival die very, very hard, if at all. Whatever happened to him, he’s having trouble “forgetting” what it taught him. Or, and this is also likely a factor, fear is in his genes.

Even the walk itself is not a foregone conclusion. Before we can get him out the door, we have to corral him. We’ve had Ethan since mid-July 2017, but a few months ago, into his adolescence, when new behaviors sometimes form, he developed a mistrust of the harness, the leash, and us with either tool in our hands. You’d think a dog so eager and apparently happy during the walk would be rushing to go out the door rather than bolting to hide from us in the other room. Not so with this one.

As far as we know, we created no negative association with the harness or the leash. It’s possible he could dislike the feel of the harness or being led as a condition of being allowed to walk, being pulled on, etc. It seems more likely, though, that he just doesn’t like being reached for with a tool he knows will control him in some way, or just being reached for, full stop. He’s up and down on that one, too.

Many hours have passed—days, at this point—hours of coaxing, treat luring, patient waiting, sitting in a chair, standing, sitting on the floor, following slowly, approaching laterally, backpedaling encouragingly, exiting the doorway to the deck, corralling him in the bedroom, switching leashes, collar grab desensitization practice (incomplete, I admit), trapping, cornering, tricking, switching directly from tie-out to leash, and rearranging our order of steps so we get dressed last of all before the walk.

We’ve eliminated sudden movement and surprise grabbing from behind. It’s all slow and steady now. After a few tries of our offering food, letting him have some, using yummier food, and trying to reach for him, he decides he prefers not to eat after all. And this is one extremely food-driven dog; we use his kibble as his most common treat. He knows us, he knows we won’t harm him (I hope), and he’s been on dozens upon dozens of walks with us before. Still, and more than before, Ethan’s intractable mind dislikes something about getting ready for a walk.

His extreme skittishness can be quite maddening. He’ll dodge the leash very skillfully for half an hour, and avoid crossing certain thresholds because he knows I can corner him there. I’ll stop trying and ignore him, and then, not five minutes later, he’ll hit the chimes to go outside. Other times, the leash or harness avoidance episode will last so long, and so mentally tax us both, that he’ll take a nap afterwards. Sometimes I join him. That’s one confused puppy—and owner.

To desensitize him to the fear and counter-condition him with a happier response, it’s our job to pinpoint the exact what, how, where, when, with whom, and why of his fear. We must identify the trigger, every trigger, of his anxiety, eliminate it, and replace it with bliss and passionate joy.

We’ve found sample procedures to follow, broken out step by step into daily and weekly schedules. We just have to choose, commit and see it through. Some anxieties will take weeks to treat; others, we hope, will go more quickly. I’m not looking forward to this work, which we’ve already started doing informally, and which is looking more and more compulsory the more I read about it and study my dog.

That crazy feeling increases with his next moves before an attempted excursion–whether a walk or a car ride. Like a light switch flicking on, once he’s captured, Ethan submits, albeit sheepishly, and waits patiently by the door to be led outside. Even better, once we are outside, he quickly falls into walking as if he’s fallen out of bed—exploring, scent tracking, surveying, and exercising along the sidewalks, yards, devil strips, clearings, and playground of our neighborhood. He enjoys car rides just fine, too, though he can get a little car sick with excess hills or turns.

These days, Ethan’s fears are overpowering his desires. Ethan has taken the same Intro to Agility course twice. He loved it the first time and seemed to love it the second time, though he also seemed a bit more confused about what to do, even though we did practice in between course runs. However, when we were practicing focus forward today for agility, even when I upped the ante with a higher value food reward—chunks of dried beef roll—he still wasn’t sure he could trust me enough to grab his harness without killing and roasting him on a spit.

After a few successful runs, his suspicion began to outweigh his interest in the exercise, so I called it quits. I preferred not to find myself chasing an unleashed, untethered, unfenced-in chicken of a puppy across the neighborhood—no matter how delicious he’d be.

Early on in our relationship, I wondered if he was showing aggression, but he’s more nervous in his warnings. He seldom barks, unless frustrated, bored, or playful. He has never barked at other people or dogs outside, only at us and our dog sitters in the house when he wants something or doesn’t like what we’re doing or not doing. Usually, it’s when I’m gone, and others are left to fend for themselves with him.

After making some headway in our first few months together, between teaching him to trust and teaching him to obey, now we’re not getting far with either. Some results have plateaued while others seem to have eroded from the hill of progress.

I think he knows what many words mean, even if he doesn’t follow basic commands consistently. He understands “no” and “ah-ah-ah” as deterrents, and he shows respect when we’re eating after we tell him to “go lay down,” sometimes with a follow-up gesture, eye contact, or saying his name low and warningly. His powerful nose makes him rude while we cook, too, but with repetition, I can get him to lie down and stay put–for a while.

Ethan reluctantly gets that “all done” means no more food. He knows to go into his crate when I say “in your bed” in the bedroom. He has been exposed to “sit,” “come,” “stay,” “down,” “up,” “look,” “place,” “yes,” “wait,” and “okay,” but his understanding of these is unclear because his reactions are inconsistent. He may realize that “stairs” means we’re going to throw treats up and down them so he can run and eat at the same time. He has learned to nose the chimes on the sliding glass door handle when he wants to go outside—even when he doesn’t have to relieve himself. Sometimes he just does it out of boredom.

He’s clever and sensitive enough to learn what he wants to learn, in his own way.

Although rather mellow when not afraid, Ethan is definitely an athlete. When he does make it out the door, he climbs on boulders and flat rocks around the neighborhood, jumping up onto higher ones and down off them again. Sometimes, while playing the mountain goat, he looks for a treat right away. Other times, he just moves on to the next thing, needing no more reward than the climb itself.

He walks the ledge perimeter of raised flower beds at the playground and allotment entrance. He ascends and descends hills, crosses streets, and trudges through snow happily. He even has the athletic build of a deep-chested, sleek-legged racing hound. He’s pretty fast when he can stretch those legs.

He is more curious than nervous around people and dogs on the walk. He likes to crunch on acorns, despite our protests, and he prefers eating rabbit and deer scat to sniffing it. Thankfully, we can prevent his ingestion of dog poop . . . most of the time.

As good, brave and adventurous as he can be, Ethan has had to learn to tolerate boredom because his indoor fears often prevent us from doing things. He has mastered destroying toys, for one.

Gradually, we got him used to a more flexible schedule than he started with, but maybe he still needs old routine more than we think. He naps for good portions of both day and evening, though, and he doesn’t freak out when we don’t go for a walk first thing. His acceptance of the new patterns actually seems pretty strong.

He has been learning frustration tolerance gradually, learning that he can’t always get what he wants, at least when he’s not too afraid to want. When he is afraid, all he wants is to be left alone, to flee, to hide, to run away, to duck and cover.

I think it’s fair to say he’s teaching us more frustration tolerance than he’ll ever have to know. It’s deeper than being incorrigible. Ultimately, it’s his tolerance of fear that we really have to counter-condition. Only in our dreams can we afford to believe it’s just a phase.

As I’ve said, Ethan does have his moments. He loves to play, he’s learning not to bite during play, and, once guided, he’ll stop playing and settle down. He greets known guests happily now, he falls asleep readily day or night, and stays asleep all night, entering his crate without hesitation or verbal command.

He hasn’t peed or pooped in the house even once since the very few times last summer during his adjustment to his new home. He chews on nothing but his toys, and he chews a lot. He’s not so high energy as to be a constant barker or annoying jumper, humper, or counter surfer. He’s pretty chill, he can be totally hilarious, and he is, of course, the handsomest dog on Earth. These are not small victories. We’re grateful that the rescue organization, who gave him his name, chose us to care for Ethan.

But Ethan’s got a long way to go to be a happy, comfortable dog most of the time. It will probably take years if he ever gets there. Although he’s a sprinter, this will be a marathon for all of us. It’s not what I was hoping for, I’ll admit. I really didn’t want a special “pet” project this time, which we had with Elyse, our chronically ill first dog. For now, Ethan does have good physical health, but we’re already dosing him with anti-anxiety medication to support his behavior reshaping.

I’m beginning to think my dog trainer’s preference always to look for a good breeder is the right idea. Rescuers, God bless you, she says. The thing is, when you’ve done all your homework and still end up with piles of work beyond the already large amount that comes standard with raising a dog, it’s sometimes, well, intolerably frustrating. Then again, it’s life, not just how one acquires a pet dog, that’s like that proverbial chocolates box.

I just hope we get a chance to see the benefits of what will become substantial investments of focus, time, money, energy, and emotion. Ethan has great potential, after all. I hope it’s true that, if anyone can do it, we can. Meanwhile, we continue enjoying the good stuff and eagerly await the spring.


If you like this post, you may enjoy more canine-related content on this blog:

  1. Winter Warrior: Elyse the American Brittany – pooch in boots
  2. Spring cleaning – a photo
  3. Dog Blog: Don’t. Move. – stealth and a shape shifter
  4. Blogging 101: Dream Reader, the Irony in My Life – ouch
  5. The Perfect-Pooch Parade – dog shows and pets
  6. Wild Verses: Bits of Nature Poetry, 8 of 10 – a husky “battles” starlings
  7. Five-Phrase Friday (3): Pet Epithetic – nicknames for our dog
  8. Book Review: Rose in a Storm – fiction
  9. Five-Phrase Friday (33): Good Breeding – my canine aesthetic
  10. Elyse – a good-bye
  11. Book Review: The Dog Bible – nonfiction reference
  12. Letter to Elyse – in memory, looking ahead
  13. Our New Puppy Ethan – a photo
  14. Backyard Brief: Ethan’s Playground – collage on the jungle gym
  15. Ethan Builds Frustration Tolerance – in himself and in us
  16. #InternationalGuideDogDay: A Reblog – from On the Blink
  17. Dolphin spotting with Captain Casper the sea dog! (a reblog) – from Scotland with the Wee White Dug
  18. Helping Dogs that Fear Being Alone – separation anxiety treatment tips, resources
  19. Backyard Brief: Unearthed, Part 1 – Ethan digs in the yard, passes the thrill on to me
  20. Backyard Brief: Unearthed, Part  2 – our “digging” proves fruitful and rather gross
  21. Resolutions 2018, Kept and Keeping – insight into Ethan’s place in our lives
  22. National Dog Day 2018: Reminiscing – list of my dog-related posts sorted by category

21 Droughtlander Resolutions for 2018

So here it is, my resolutions list for the new year, something I haven’t done in years. I do set goals for myself periodically and keep a running task list, but like many, I have found that resolutions seem to be made to be broken. I think it helps to imbue the list with a focus on one’s passions, including, in my case, Outlander.

My best advice for both of us, then: When in drought or doubt, fill your life with what matters most, forgive yourself your failings, and strive to be your best version of yourself. And if there is no doubt–or drought–for you, charge ahead with gusto!

21 Droughtlander Resolutions for 2018

1. Keep working regularly on my writing, including novel, memoir, and poetry, along with my blog, and publish something.

2. Read the backlog of Outlander STARZ entertainment news articles, and watch the backlog of Outlander STARZ videos, including panels from Emerald City Comicon and San Diego Comicon.

3. Transition from my current work for pay to a new business arrangement in a fitting niche.

4. Finally sample the bonus features of Outlander STARZ Season 2’s DVD set that I’ve been saving for a Droughtlander such as this, including deleted scenes and Diana Gabaldon’s book excerpt.

5. Spend more time with loved ones: Visit some friends up north I’ve been neglecting, have more lunches with Dad, contact my nieces and nephews more often, and support my husband as we work on our goals together.

6. Wear and enjoy the Outlander- and Scotland-related gear I got for Christmas, including thistle pendant necklace with purple gemstone, triangular Celtic knot dangle earrings, and my Outlander Fraser tartan scarf. Thanks, Hubby!

7. Completely read more books next year than I did this year, focusing on those I want to read most, or release myself from the pressure to. After all, I did read War and Peace, a mighty tome, this year, and dipped into lots more books than I finished. Although I set my 2017 goal for 25, it was looking as if I would finish the year with only 6 under my belt, but I managed to bump it up to 9 before New Year’s.

8. Re-watch Outlander STARZ Season 1, in some ways the best of the three seasons so far.

9. Continue training my anxious dog Ethan to trust and obey, and desensitize and counter-condition his separation anxiety so I can have a life outside the house and so he can be a happier dog.

10. Read Outlander book #5 The Fiery Cross, my next volume in the series to tackle.

11. Train my athletic dog (same one) to walk/run on our treadmill so he can get more exercise in these frigid teens and single-digit temperatures, and start him on agility classes early in 2018.

12. Re-read Outlander book #4 Drums of Autumn in preparation for watching Season 4, hopefully to air by the end of 2018.

13. Stretch several times a day and do modified daily yoga to manage stress, reduce pain and inflammation, and strengthen my body.

14. Continue editing, printing and framing the best pictures from our Scotland trip for gifts and to display at home. Build my next home decorating around those enhancements.

15. Take the time to draw, color, paint, photograph, explore metroparks and urban areas with the dog, and generally enjoy life.

16. Improve my health by finding and implementing an elimination diet to uncover what foods I may be allergic to; then, reduce my intake of any culprits.

17. Plan and accomplish a trip to visit relatives in California, and return to Great Lakes Theater to see Shakespeare’s Macbeth in the spring (saw Hamlet last year).

18. Simplify my life with the help of a house cleaning service, thinning down/updating my wardrobe, and planning weekly meals for the freeze and re-heat approach—using our new pressure cooker!

19. Read classic Scottish authors and poets such as Burns, MacDiarmid, Stevenson, and Scott.

20. Expand my sense of what’s possible for myself and move forward boldly with that optimism.

21. Revise, or re-envision, my resolutions as needed to focus on my best, most realistic goals and most beloved activities.


Happy New Year (and Hogmanay!), one and all.

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#InternationalGuideDogDay: A Reblog

Happy International Guide Dog Day.

Image by C. L. Tangenberg – Our first family pet Elyse, an American Brittany (spaniel). Although not a certified guide dog, she taught us a lot and guided our hearts.

On the Blink

April 26 is International Guide Dog Day, a chance to celebrate the countless beautiful handler-guide dog teams around the world. It is a day to honor not only the hard work we do with our companions but the circle of loving support that makes this work possible. From the families that encourage us to go in for training to the trainers, volunteers, and administrators who get our pups ready to work with us, we are surrounded by a web of kindness and commitment.

No handler can reach for her guide dog’s harness without realizing the power of collaboration. None of us could do this alone.

So, to celebrate guide dogs, I’m sharing a few of my favorite posts about York. Some of these have only lived on the blog while others have gone far afield into literary journals. Each piece immortalizes the intense gratitude and love I have for my brown-eyed boy, and for everyone who helped bring him into my life.

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