Covid-19 Drinking Guidelines for Mother of Four

How do you know if your relationship to alcohol is problematic? 

Carl Svantje Hallbeck's Njommelsaska i Lappland, 1856 

Dear Emily,

How do you know if your relationship to alcohol is problematic?  Some people say that "if you are thinking about it, it's a problem for you.” Which might be true. But I also convince myself that I have every disease that I ever read or hear about (meningitis! tuberculosis! mumps!) so maybe I'm not the best judge.

I typically drink about 2-3 times a week. When I do drink, I have a hard time stopping after just one. I often have a hard time stopping after two, but 4 is my limit. 3 is typical. I've never blacked out, but I often feel shitty in the morning (granted, I'm in my 40s, so I feel shitty even if I just have 2 drinks). I feel healthier when I don't drink, I wake up earlier, get more done, have more energy for my young children .... but I sometimes really crave the celebration, the letting go, that sitting in the backyard having a glass of wine with my husband or friends gives me.

My mother has a problematic relationship with alcohol; I watch her and it makes me afraid that my habits will become something I can't control. She gets drunk every night. It feels like she uses alcohol to give herself permission to let out her emotions, which are mostly looping, self-pitying emotions and anger towards all the people who have wronged her. 

I don't get self-pitying or angry when I'm drunk, but I am aware that drinking sometimes allows me to let out larger emotions that I have kept inside for fear of them being too big for this world. Often those are beautiful emotions, like love or joy; sometimes I let out all of my confusion and questions, sometimes I am full of what feels like stunning clarity.  It's not the kind of emotions that I have while drinking that bother me, I don't become a different person ...  it's that I get a sort of "emotional itch" and 2 glasses of wine give me the permission to indulge the larger sides of myself, the parts that are harder to access when I am at work, or  -- now that I am furloughed due to COVID --  at home, washing dishes, cleaning baby butts, cooking, doing laundry, paying a mortgage, and all of the other shit that goes along with being a Very Responsible Adult.

Is my desire for alcohol just frustrated creative energy? What if I put all of those huge emotions into something big and beautiful that I create? Lately I feel like I'm in a cycle letting all of my hopes, feelings, and ambitions out over a bottle of wine, but then I'm too tired the next day to act on any of those hopes and ambitions.

Or is allowing myself a few glasses of wine 2-3 nights a week a perfectly acceptable way of dealing with the stresses of having several young children and living in a world that feels batshit crazy? Am I expecting too much of myself to think I should be able to write a play or a novel while so much of my creative energy is spent on the ongoing creative project that is your children's life? 

Signed, 

Am I overthinking?

Dear Am I overthinking,

You could totally write a play or a novel at night and early in the mornings, when your kids are in bed, if you could get yourself into a place where writing were fun for you and inspiring and got your juices flowing. Before getting yourself into the right mood, though, you might have to fake it for a few weeks. Limber up. Give it a try. Fool around. Let yourself get loose, you know? Not by drinking while writing, but by getting turned on while writing, by the fun of it. Or by being so optimistic that you let your first few weeks of writing produce nothing but weird or boring shit, which you wouldn’t let get you down because you know that soon enough, the good stuff will start to flow.

Don’t stop with just one night of writing, or even two, you know? Indulge yourself. Even overindulge yourself, because you’ve earned it.

Location, location, habits

I used to smoke around 15 cigarettes a day. Some days I’d smoke 25, other days 20, but probably never fewer than 8. On days when I couldn’t smoke any (because of a family funeral or bronchitis), I didn’t feel right; I felt scattered and irritable and lost.

I quit cold turkey eight years ago. It took a few months to stop obsessing about all the cigarettes I wasn’t getting to smoke. It took over a year for me to really not care and not crave them. It took me three or four years before cigarettes were really and truly dead to me and I realized that all the space they had taken up in my heart was pretend, a mirage. Cigarettes, it turned out, were empty. It was all me the whole time.

I feel your heart sinking.

Don’t worry! I am NOT saying wine is the same as cigarettes. I am not hinting that you should cut your ties completely. Cigarettes ruin your lungs and your whole cardiovascular system and give you cancer. Wine is beautiful. I’m not even saying you should never get super lit, after four big glasses of wine and the moon glowing in the sky above your back yard, and good friends there to talk with about the most important things in life.

(When you get a chance, check out this interesting book on drunkenness. Very antiquated, full of classist and sexist assumptions and other delicious bias, but fun to read. The author thinks that good singers are more apt to be “drunkards.”)

I just want to tell you a story, and you can look for where you are the same and where you are different.

I had a young child and a husband. I wore blazers to work, but sat in a cubicle and spent hours on end writing thank you letters to millionaires and billionaires—also proposals to ask them for more money, and magazine profiles about how generous and interesting they were. Like the magazine tidbit about a young Indian man whose wedding (to the daughter of one of the richest men in India) broke the record as the most expensive wedding ever thrown on Planet Earth (they rented Paris), and he gave $50K or so to the university to rename one of the small on-campus cafes, where undergraduates line up for oversized muffins and paper cups of coffee. It was so generous of him.

I wanted to be a novelist and live in the city again and be fabulous again. Or at least get a promotion.

After work, I’d walk home, smoking along the sidewalk that ran by the creek, and there my poor family would be waiting for me in the ugly little house we rented, with the tiny bathroom that was actually in the kitchen, the toilet less than a foot away from the kitchen sink, in a veritable Feng Shui bonanza of bad. When we had people over for dinner (it was an eat-in kitchen) and a guest left the table to go to the bathroom, I would tell loud and fascinating anecdotes to drown out the tinkle of the guest’s pee.

(I’m including these details to crack you up and because this was my perspective when I smoked. Like, life is a struggle and so a girl’s got to get a smoke break in.

But life is also gorgeous and amazing, and those moments were perfect for a smoke too!

When Marshall and I went on a late honeymoon, leaving our toddler at home with her grandmother, I smoked my face off in Italy. In Rome, in Siena. All my fantasy vacations involved smoking—on a mountaintop with a sky full of lights and whitewater river rapids roaring not twenty feet from where I sit on a cabin porch, or walking on a deserted stretch of winter beach with just my five best friends, good coats, and a pack of Winstons to share.

I’d been smoking since I was 14. People sometimes said, “I had no idea you smoked!” and I was flattered that I still gave the impression of a nonsmoker. But I was also a little proud of smoking maybe. Or defiant. Fuck scaredy-cat bourgeois health nut goodie-two-shoes! I think I put billionaires and nonsmokers in the same category. When I was in the Army, I’d had one friend who sometimes did PT with a lit cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth as he ran around the outdoor track. Pretty badass. I mean, he wasn’t a great runner, but …

Smoking was the one break I gave myself from parenting and earning money and cleaning. On my back porch, I could see into some of the neighbors’ houses as they moved about slowly, and I felt the breeze on my face as I watched the dark trees shifting in the cobalt night sky above me. Beautiful, I’d think, and I’d give some of the credit to the cigarette.

As a nonsmoker, you’re probably thinking: You could have done all of that without the stupid cancer stick, dumbass!

But I couldn’t, not right away.

I lost total interest in my backyard when I quit smoking. I quit smoking when it became ridiculous and unacceptable to me to be a smoker. It just didn’t compute for who I wanted to be.

After quitting, I discovered that I really didn’t have many self-soothing skills, which sucked because it seemed like I needed to be soothed more than a mature adult should need to be soothed! It turned out that over the past 20+ years, I’d trained myself to take a smoke break after every little task. So at first, instead of weaning myself off of breaks, I just swapped out the treat. Instead of a cigarette, a strand of Red Vine licorice or a fresh cup of coffee. It probably took a whole year before I could really enjoy sitting on a porch again. I had to disentangle porches from cigarettes. I actually had to disentangle a lot from cigarettes: beaches, solo car trips, writing, cartooning, morning coffee, extreme anger or sadness, celebrations, getting together with old friends, eating and sex, being down south, being alone, walking out of an airport into a blast of hot, dirty air at the ground transportation area …

Marshall has a smart theory. He says habits/drugs/drinking turn a dial inside you toward joy and comfort and excitement, but that your insides get messed up, so that when you don’t partake in the habit/substance, your inner dial is turned AWAY from joy and comfort and excitement to the exact same degree the substance amped it up.

If that’s true, then the 2-3 nights a week that you drink 2-4 glasses of wine (up to 48 glasses of wine a month) and feel your feelings and feel relaxed and happy could mean that you’ll be less able to do those same important things without the wine! You might slowly be training your brain chemistry and emotional self to use those drunken nights do some of the exalting and expressing and exploring you should be doing sober. That would suck.

Drinking a few glasses of wine a few nights a week during a pandemic and collapse of our economy is totally reasonable! But also, it’s bothering you.

You could have it all.

I think it would be completely doable (and fun) to explode out into the world through your writing (or acting, singing, painting, etc.), which can be as big for this world as you can manage. I think you can figure out ways to be loose and passionate and questioning and relaxed and happy without a drop of wine. Hey, would you even crave/need wine anymore?

Maybe if you limited your drinking to once or twice a month, instead of your current 8-12 times a month, you could have the best of both worlds—the delicious thrill of occasional intoxication, but also the freshness, alertness, and productivity of sobriety.

OMG, was that the longest way ever to say, “Cut back a tad, sis?”

Whatever you decide, do it because you want to and do it with a good attitude, expecting the best outcome possible.

Love,

Emily

Write to me at EmilyWritesBack@gmail.com.

How to boss your boss

Manage up in a pandemic (and anytime)

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Heyyo Emily,

I’m working through the pandemic and jumping over associated hurdles from my cozy queen sized “home office,” with my own two children along for the ride.

I have seemingly been promoted from school marm/head mistress to (now) summer camp counselor overnight. 😌 Cool!

Considering the heaps of grace that I have been exchanging with colleagues and collaborators—it’s been OK.

But now that I’m finally learning to “let go” and “complete the tasks, don’t worry about the hours” (hello, Sheryl Sandberg), the home-based work world is shifting back to hard deadlines and “business as usual.” I’m like, Hey!? I just got here you guys! And now I’m summer camp counseling. 🤔 

Remember when every email/zoom would start out with “How are YOU doing?” It got old, but it was a nod to the shared surrender we had to the complications of global pandemic. We were so supportive back then.

I can feel the expectations going back to pre-Covid levels, and meanwhile I’ve got these little cherubs to summer. I feel like I’m back in the self help/motivation section searching for the “How to appear normal during a Zoom meeting from your queen sized home office bed” manual. We’re not there yet!

Signed,

Still need grace

Dear Still need grace,

The last time I was a full-time employee for someone other than myself was at a large company. I had a big salary and I managed several people and was responsible for marketing decisions, some corporate-municipal relationships, recruiting writers, planning content for a national publication, hiring staff, training, etc.

In the interview, there were two women asking me questions— a younger woman I assumed would be reporting to me, and an older woman who had recruited me to apply. I didn’t much care for the younger woman—I found her manner patronizing a bit and I could tell she prided herself on being both hard-nosed and ultimately kind-hearted, which gave me the idea that she might pride herself on absolutely everything she did or said (an enviable attitude maybe)—but I figured I could manage her okay. I think of management duties as consisting mostly of appreciating, guiding, empowering, and protecting.

It wasn’t until I got the offer letter the next day that I realized the younger woman would be my boss. Suddenly, all my ideas about how I should encourage her, keep her out of my hair, and put her talents to good use flew out of my mind. Shit, my boss. I don’t like bosses. Bosses are the ones I think of as needing constant ego massages, reassurance, oversharing, outsized displays of enthusiasm for the job, endless deference and ass-kissing. Yuck.

To make a long story short, that job crashed and burned. Or rather, I did. No, it wasn’t completely my fault. But in the fullness of time, in hindsight, I see the seeds of my demise in the emotions I felt when I read that offer letter and realized who I’d be reporting to. I know today that there might something screwy about my relationship to bosses.

I also know that there is, thankfully, a remedy: I should never think of anyone as my boss. Had I only treated her as if I were her boss, things would have worked out so much better, because it’s a better look for me. From here on out, my bosses work for me. I will take good care of them, but they’ll have to obey the boundaries I set.

Where I’m going with this for you is that I think you need to choose a story that makes you shine, that makes your work better and makes you behave in a way that will get better results. Please do not choose the story of you being a misunderstood worker with too much parenting to do to live up to high standards.

Another example of the power of narrative: police

Police have learned to manage up. They consistently manage, abuse, and boss around the public: their actual employers! Mostly it’s the guns and the uniforms, but also have you ever heard a cop try to sound casual? “How ya doin’ today, buddy? Been drinking a little? Mind if I take a look in your trunk? Whatchya got there, Miss, something that’s not yours?” So unconvincing, but so powerful in eliciting certain reactions, reactions like a rush to babble helpful information. The way cops act puts the onus on YOU to calm and de-escalate the suddenly terrible situation that the cops themselves are causing!

They are pushing a certain narrative: You did something wrong. It’s up to you to pacify them, convince them, appease them fast.

Often, cops refuse to allow for the possibility of another narrative, like that they are overreacting or that they work for you or that you deserve respect and even deference from them.

Decide on your narrative.

You are an efficient, self-directed, highly expert worker/producer and you are working with people who totally know this about you and admire you for it! You have everything under control, but now that you also have to take care of young children all summer, with no summer camps (you badass!), you are rightfully being even more creative and ninja-like with your time. You are making smart decisions about what must be done now and what can wait and what should be taken on by someone other than you. Everyone looks up to you for this. They are lucky to have you on the team.

How will this narrative effect your behavior, your demeanor on calls?

I think it could stop you from being defensive or apologetic. It could throw your shoulders back and make you admire the way you look on the Zoom call—all multi tasking and lithe. It might imbue your voice with a certain charismatic timbre. It will also keep you from worrying about checking your shoulders or the timbre of your voice, because you could give a shit.

Last night we finally watched Ford vs. Ferrari, a movie I had been avoiding because it sounded like it was going to be about Ford vs. Ferrari. But the movie is really about the driver and car engineer vs. the vice presidents at Ford—the assholes in suits trying to grab control, take credit, and introduce unnecessary controls and interference. It’s the story of management messing things up for the real talent, the people who actually know how to build the car and drive it.

The funny thing was that the vice presidents were introducing the very obstacles getting in the way of the success they wanted! It would have been better if they had simply not existed. Or, barring that, the vice presidents should have simply had a better narrative: Our team is going to win because we are going to provide them with what they need to succeed. (Instead of, if I don’t police them hard enough, we won’t win.) The Ford team only won by pretending that the vice presidents had no authority over them.

Another idea: Remind everyone on your team that you will also be working as a camp counselor this summer, and so your office work will sometimes be done while they are enjoying a nice glass of rosé on their decks. How ya doing, Sheryl? Had a little bit to drink tonight?

Best of luck,

Emily


Please send a letter to me at EmilyWritesBack@gmail.com. I write back.

How to make kids do what you say?

(I have no idea.)

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Dear Emily,

Any secrets/tips for helping a 10-year old slooooow down? He goes way too fast at most things in life and gets frustrated.

He eats dinner in 3 min flat and then expects to be excused from the table. He does homework so fast that it’s all wrong despite him actually knowing how to do it. 

I ask him to wait before starting a task but he starts anyway and then can’t do it and worries that he’s an idiot when he simply needed some help, which is why I asked him to wait for me in the first place.

Signed,

In a hurry to help

Dear in a hurry to help,

He sounds wonderful. Energetic! Food is just fuel. Let’s move on! Homework is tedious—let’s be perfectly frank. Onward and upward to glory!

I mean, I’m glad I’m not his mother. Sounds exhausting. And I’m exhausted sometimes just mothering my own languid girl, who when given her druthers (what is a druther and why do I talk like this?) will spend an entire day in bed watching YouTube videos, reading fantasy novels, drawing pictures of characters from the books she reads, leafing through her favorite coffee table book about clothing from 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, and sort of moaning if I poke my head in and ask her if she’d like to eat or go for a walk.

I’ve tried everything to get her to be more interested in exercise and day trading. I bought her roller skates, elbow pads, knee pads, a helmet, and rainbow laces and she did go skating two times, wearing a long patterned scarf and short-shorts. She ditched the skates by the bank of the creek and climbed down into the water with her friend, where they moved rocks around and pointed their toes in the current. I carried their skates home for them and they walked back barefoot.

“She is never going to skate again,” Marshall predicted the other day, as I was begging her to come out on a walk with us, or to skate while we walked.

I worry that the more I beg her to come out and do stuff, the more firmly she gets it into her head that this is the true narrative: She, a beautiful young princess who only wanted to read and draw, is constantly nagged by her evil step-mother (I’m actually her real mother) to go do pointless calisthenics and cleaning.

“At least make your bed,” I said the other day as she lay in a soft nest of rumpled sheets.

“But it feels better this way,” she said, possibly truthfully.

At the “Decarcerate, Decriminalize, Demilitarize” rally downtown last week, one of the speakers was a bouncy, charismatic, vivacious young woman who shared that many of her teachers in school had always thought something was wrong with her because she had trouble concentrating. (And because they were white and she is black and they underestimated her potential.) “But really, I was usually just hungry,” she said with a laugh. She shared the story to illustrate that it is damaging to be thought of as a problem when you are little. She was grateful for the few teachers she had who saw the real her—an energetic, restless, unengaged child who needed to move and dance and have a snack and be thought well of.

Marshall, who is a very good father, has introduced the idea that the best parenting is basically just being a spotter, like in gymnastics. A good parent watches their toddler climb a jungle gym and anticipates where he might fall and so positions himself near enough to prevent the toddler’s head from smashing upon impact. A good adult keeps an eye out and says, “Hey, you hungry? Here’s a snack, honey.” Troubleshoot the basics—shelter, food, safety, supplies, opportunities.

Or with homework: Marshall discovered that no coaxing, advice, ideas, or pep talks really work. Instead, it is most helpful to bring her backpack to her, clean off her desk or hand her a nicely sharpened pencil. Clear the way for success.

Once when I was nagging her to do some small task, Marshall suggested that we start treating her less like a menial worker and more like the future C-suite executive. “We should train her to delegate effectively if she’s one day going to have a lot of people working for her.”

OMG, I realized. I myself was raised as a future incompetent secretary and delinquent lawn care specialist. The narrative was that I was lazy and dishonest and likely to become a truck driver, despite the fact that I was “gifted” and was being afforded every possible undeserved advantage. If only all the adults had acted less tragically disappointed by all the B-minuses and Cs I got in school, and maybe if everyone had seemed a little less personally anxious about my future. Looking back, I realize that almost no tough love, anxiety, yelling, or reprimands ever did me any good in childhood. They just hurt. The only thing that every helped or inspired me was calm understanding, a smiling hands-off approach, kind interest in me, swimming in ponds, laughter, food.

Is this true for every kid? I don’t know.

How DO you raise a future CEO? (And is that even a good goal?) Offer to get them coffee and ask what grand ideas you can help them realize by doing the actual work for them? No thank you! I am still turning this over in my mind, obviously. But I like the observation that being a good leader is not necessarily about being really good at picking up your clothes. It might be more about staying calm, having good ideas, not getting down on yourself. Barack Obama is a slob and still does not pick up his socks, according to Michelle. I have no idea if Joe Biden is tidy or not. I bet Mike Pence is very well-organized and conscientious. (I do know that Elizabeth Warren has an exceptionally clean house, according to journalists, but I don’t know how much help she gets.)

Yesterday, I was working for hours on the manuscript I am editing and I realized I hadn’t heard a peep from my girl. Then she called me upstairs to show me what she’d been working on: drawing portraits of K-pop stars. They were really good. Her room was still a mess and she hadn’t made us a dime on the stock market, but she was using her energy and focus on something she’s really interested in. Plus, it’s summer vacation. I had simply supplied her with pens and paper and left her alone.

One thing I find helpful is to remember that they will be gone soon, too soon. After they’ve gone, we would give anything to have them back, bouncing aimlessly around the house again, or lying in bed like a Kardashian on vacation during a housekeeper strike. We’d just kiss them and shower them with positivity, or just sit with them in silence, or just follow their crazy zig zags between projects, just to be with them.

And another thing so helpful it almost seems by design? I should mother her the way I would want to be mothered.

Marshall says everyone has their flavor and that flavor should never be argued or wrestled with. You’ve got a live wire. Enjoy!

Love,

Emily

Focus, people

Thou shalt not covet, but if you do, don't blame your mom

Dear Emily:

How best does a family with two mothers address a child’s confusion and anger with the world, and at her parents? She is angry that her family looks different than her friends’ families, because it does not have a mother and a father.

She is just beginning to notice that she is different and she is the “other” among her peer group. Her school peer group has no other families with same sex couples, although her closest friends do have same-sex parents.

We have validated her feelings. Talked about how confusing it is to be different and feeling different from your friends and from societal norms. We also reminded her that families come in all shapes and sizes by giving examples which was really helpful.

Signed,

The Other Mother

Dear Other Mother,

When our girls were little, like three or four, I had a friend who was engaged in emotionally fraught battles with her daughter at every meal. It was like an opera. I could feel the delicious/spiteful/panicked tension growing between them, stoked every time my friend urged the girl to accept another bite of carrot or another square of baked chicken, and every time the girl threw food or tensed her face angrily or argued or relented. This was their dance. This was how they said, “I love you,” and “I need you,” and “I WILL take care of you,” and “I AM my own person,” and “HOW much do you care?”

Meanwhile (I am very smug as I tell you this), our chubby daughter ate what she wanted and, when she didn’t want to eat, I didn’t say a word. Not my fight. Not my concern or focus.

No, my focus was on sleep! Bedtime! Reasonable hours! GO TO BED.

Today, our daughter is a tall glass of water—healthy, slim, loves food. And she regularly stays up until one in the morning, despite my tirades and pleas. Food is not a currency between us, except that I make her buttermilk pancakes way more often than is seemly.

My friend had a totally rational reason for focusing on feeding: Her daughter was born early and stayed underweight for a long time. Pickiness-induced malnutrition would be awful and was a real possibility. But as I watched their dynamic around food, I came to the conclusion that it wasn’t making the child eat more as much as it was making the child use eating as a weapon and bargaining chip against her mother. It also made mealtimes so long and stressful.

It’s a non-issue.

This example leapt to mind when I read your letter because I don’t want this issue of two moms vs. a mom and a dad to become a thing in your house. I don’t want you to nurture the notion that this is a difficult situation, having two mommies. Because it isn’t. Just as it’s not a difficult situation to live in a house with lots of wood furniture, which is a complaint my daughter has made about our household. When we visited the Park Avenue apartment of a wealthy friend a few years ago, Mary learned what a house could and should look like, in her opinion, and she immediately thought to hold it against me that our furniture isn’t sleeker and our surfaces more marble. I laughed it off.

“When you grow up, I bet you’ll have a gorgeous house that’s really modern and sleek like Eliza’s apartment,” I told her.

But I’m just not going to let our house be a thing I apologize for or compare or even entertain discussions about. Our house is lovely in its way, and it is ours. Had I spent more energy on discussing this with my daughter, it might have grown into a hardened resentment in her, plus a source of sadness or regret.

Which brings me to Marshall’s perspective.

When I read your letter to him, he said you could point out that families with one dad and one mom do not look at all alike. For instance, there are differences in age, careers, nationality, color, relationship style, rules, habits, traditions, number of children, etc.

And what about the very many kids who get to grow up with one mom, not two? These can be awesome families as well. My best friend is a single mother, and her family life with her son is so loving and fun and educational and special. It’s all about what you build together, am I right?

The dog trainer told us to ignore any and all behavior we didn’t want to see more of. Ignore, ignore, ignore. And to praise and facilitate all behavior we liked. Focus and thinking are behaviors too. I mean, I guess we shouldn’t totally ignore a complaint or an expression of feeling, but SHRUG. Smile and give a hug and pretty soon steer your daughter to better thinking, for instance to how much cooler and fun your family is than most other families.

I do believe in cultivating family chauvinism.

I think Mormons are really good at this. Foster a faint but persistent feeling of pity for all humans who are not lucky enough to be in your family. It just wasn’t in the cards for them, bless their hearts. And they might never know the singular pleasure of your buttered popcorn with oregano, your back tickles at night, your family jams on the keyboard and guitar, your long walks while singing rounds, your seashell collections, your dinnertime prayers, your library habit, your inside jokes.

It’s our duty to keep our eyes on what is important, what is good. Like, when someone on Facebook starts waxing indignant about looters, you just won’t be distracted away from the real deal: the peaceful uprising of millions of citizens around the country and around the world saying NO to police brutality. THAT is the issue we will focus on. Nice try, though.

Maybe your daughter is also expressing a desire to have a man around. That could be something you could accommodate, I bet, once this Covid-19 thing is over and you can have dinner parties with your friends and outings again. But again, the absence of men right now doesn’t have to be viewed as some tragic deficit. Men are just people, and all the qualities we can find in men we can also find in women. Also, families aren’t a buffet, where you get to partake in every single quality of personhood you like, right? That’s what TV is for, and one-night stands.

When I was little, our family drove a series of old diesel Mercedes that you could hear rattling down the street from a mile away.

I longed for an American car with sharp edges and cloth seats. My mother wore tight Calvin Klein jeans and no makeup and she packed me the worst lunches—bread like building material, homemade peanut butter, alfalfa sprouts, carrot and raisin salad. I wanted all-white chicken salad on Wonder bread, like my friend Krista’s mom—a former NBA cheerleader—made for her. When we lived in Hawaii when I was in kindergarten, I thought it might be nicer to be Japanese like so many of my friends, or Hawaiian, and to have my house smell like rice and fish. My step-father was shy and bearded. I sometimes wished for a gregarious, clean-shaven dad instead, a Marine maybe. When I was a teen, I hated being black and white and wished I were just one or the other, perhaps black like my friend Leigh, who was friends with Jesse Jackson’s son and who took me to house parties in D.C. where everyone was black and beautiful and cool and I knew I would never learn all their codes and inside jokes, what with my lame alfalfa sprout Salvation Army childhood. When I was fourteen or so, I longed with all of my heart to have a more religious family, one that would really pray long prayers at the dinner table and talk about salvation and believe in a beautiful cosmic plan for us all and understand redemption and would live life on that plane—looking always for the best in others and always striving to do good and make soul connections, instead of being distracted trial lawyers who didn’t believe in God and mostly just cared about our grades. In elementary school, I had a friend who had a real gum ball machine in her living room and I would have sold my parents and siblings in exchange for that. Kids are funny. These days, I’m grateful for all that my parents gave me, even the things that only made me yearn for something else for myself.

In short, your daughter is not suffering any deprivation, so don’t give any oxygen to the idea that she is.

Love,

Emily

Beyond "good dog"

Alberto Bear

Bear

My dog died early Friday evening during a thunderstorm. “I’m glad it’s raining,” I told Marshall as we knelt over Bear before the vet injected morphine into his hindquarter. She told me to hold his head, to keep him from biting her when she gave him the shot. I held his head and talked to him, but he wasn't fooled. When the needle pierced his leg, he struggled up and lunged out of my grip and bit the vet’s hand. (“You had one job.”) We heard the sharp snap, like a firecracker, but it was just him snapping her latex glove. Now the blue glove had a tear, showing the brown skin at her knuckle. She took it in stride.

“He got about half the medicine,” she said. “Let’s wait a bit before giving him the rest.”

Being Bear, he immediately felt contrite for biting her. (How many times had he bitten us over the years, all those times we clumsily stepped on his tail or clipped his foot as he was sleeping where we were walking? The bites were loud, showy—a whirl of guttural, outraged snarling that ended on a dime, the moment he fully woke up or realized it was just you, and the bites never hurt at all, if they even made contact. Marshall said Bear’s bites were like a Samuri in a movie who suddenly has a sword at your throat before recognizing you as a friend: “Ah, it’s you? Beg your pardon,” and he slides the sword back into its sheath.)

Bear bowed his head and walked up to the vet, leaning against her and saying he was sorry. He asked her to forgive him. The vet took his face her hands and kissed him. Then he came back to be with me, and like a lion shot with a tranquilizer dart, he began to stumble in slow motion, folding down to the carpet.

I don’t want this post to be about Bear, because I wouldn’t be able to do him justice and I won’t be able to do justice to how sad I am. I don’t want to tell the whole story of his death, which was witnessed by the vet and Marshall and me only. To describe it all and what I remember thinking and feeling would be a betrayal, maybe, of Marshall or of Bear. Sometimes, when you take a photograph or write down an account, that picture or that account supplant the memory. Writing is a way to capture something, save it pressed between the pages of a dictionary like a leaf, but there’s a price, too, something lost.

He was a love of my life.

Marshall said yesterday, “I was always aware of how lucky we were.” It’s true. He was a kingly dog—more beautiful and smarter, funnier, more patient and kind than most dogs. And he could have been with anyone. I could picture him being very happy with a single man with a big piece of land and a truck. Or with a family of sheep farmers. Or with a forest ranger. I could even picture him living in a small hot house with a little old lady who only took him on two walks a day. He would bide his time, sitting still between those precious walks. He would treat the old lady kindly, but he would leave her in an instant, given the chance to hop into the sheep farmer’s truck.

He loved some of our friends very much, maybe even enough to leave with them, I don’t know. He loved Marshall’s parents and sister. But I was his master. If Marshall or Mary offered to take him on a walk, he would check with me first. As he got older, I could walk him off leash and trust that I could stop him in his tracks with my voice. I was like a jailer he had fallen in love with, against the interests of his own freedom.

I like to think of the times he was free. Like when he ran away for four hours in deep snow, tracking deer. A kind snowmobiler, alerted to the fact that a black dog was on the loose, caught him for us and rode him back to us. Or all the times at the lake house when he would go on walkabouts in the upper fields and forest, returning to the dock happy and tired and full of burs.

He loved Mary. He was always, always aware that he was Mary’s elder and that she was the child of the house and needed to be indulged. She could paint his nails, pull him into her room (drag, really), engage him in a lively training session with treats (she taught him to spin), sit on him, hug him around the neck, use him as a pillow, ignore him. (He didn’t come when she called, though, unless she had treats.) He did not, maybe, appreciate enough the fact that she is almost 13, almost a young adult. To him, I think she would always be his little girl.

Anyway, I could write about him forever.

On some of the hard nights leading up to his death, I tried to pour love into him by massaging his neck, kissing him, holding his rough paw, telling him how good he was and how much we loved him. But he was miserable—fast, shallow breaths, eyes fixed ahead when not looking at me for help—and I knew that me telling him he was good was beyond the point. I told him that he would go to heaven, or that he would become 4,000 organisms in our yard and beyond, in trees and the sky. Right before the vet came, I told him that we would see each other again on the other side. I’ve never cared about an afterlife before. Now, suddenly, I do want there to be something later, a chance to see Bear again. If wishes were horses.

When it comes to the deaths of people, sometimes I’ve been struck by the weight of their lasts—last time she went to that restaurant, last time she saw her mother, last time she spoke, last thing she saw.

But with Bear, the thought occurred to me to mark a final something—last treat, last pee, last bark—but I was surprised by how easily I brushed the exercise aside as trivial. It doesn’t matter. I don’t need to drum up the specter of finite time.

Bear was a great being that we were lucky to be with for seven years. He was an important family member. We loved him. I hope to see him again.

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