The dark clouds keep hanging, don’t they? They have been in the city anyhow. The mood has not lifted for weeks, and as the marches and protests have lessened, there’s only the heavy feeling of resignation in their place.
For Thanksgiving, Z and I rode the bus to a friend’s house for a pleasant celebration and while we were there, the rain was pelting the house, some WWII big band music was on the radio, and I had this idea of what it must have been like in 1942 when Americans were fighting a war. What a great comfort that must have been to sit by a warm fire, listen to music, talk with good friends.
Then the evening was over and Z and I had to slog up a few blocks of a hill to get to the bus stop in a drenching rain, and as I walked past the little Craftsman bungalows with lights burning on dry interiors and where cars were parked in driveways and none of the inhabitants had to stand in the rain waiting for a bus, I thought some really uncharitable four-letter thoughts about those people.
So much for feeling gratitude.
Dogs and dog metaphors are my solace these days. My daily joy is when I leave the house between 5 and 6 in the evening to walk up to campus to meet Z. If you are a dog person who is without a dog, can I recommend walking in a city neighborhood between 4:30 and 6:30 when the dogs are being walked and all those tails are wagging?
You can have your sunrise or your sunset, but Dog Time is the best time.
A few weeks ago when I was feeling particularly blue, I ran into Higgins and his mom. Higgins is a Scottish terrier who reminds me of Mac. Like most Scotties, he’s not particularly interested in giving me more than a cursory greeting when there are bushes to sniff and vermin to patrol, so his mother and I say a couple of pleasantries to each other and then walk on. But the sight of him lifts my spirits just as much as a nuzzle from a more people-focused dog.
Z and I don’t have a dog for reasons that seem clear on some days and less so on others. This month it has seemed like a bad, bad idea to live a dogless life. I’ve followed so many dog groups and pages on Facebook that there are now more pictures of strangers’ dogs on my feed than there are of people I know.
The practical reasons we don’t have a dog for me are that we travel a lot and don’t have the disposable income right now to spend on a chic Seattle doggie retreat. The practical reasons for Z are that we have no yard and he suspects (probably rightly so) that I would not be the one popping up early in the morning to walk the dog in the rain. Also, Zimbabwean dogs are outside dogs and Z is not entirely on board with the way Americans push them around in strollers and dress them up like children. No matter how much I promise not to do these things, he doesn’t believe me.
We do have imaginary dogs: a Scottish terrier named Finley and an English bulldog, like the ones Z’s family raised when he was a kid, named Luigi. We have conversations about how we will train them, what our policies will be in off-leash dog parks, and whether or not we’ll let them eat table scraps. I do online searches about whether bulldogs and Scotties even like each other, but these dogs of ours, much like our imaginary children, are perfect: well behaved, best friends, come when called, and are terribly clever.
This next part is not a dog story, though it is about good behavior.
When I was an adolescent, Mom had one of those new-fangled decorative write-on-wipe-off memo boards on which she had written the Janis Joplin line, “Don’t compromise yourself. You’re all you’ve got.” I studied this for ages. All of those “yous” seemed inelegant to me, plus I wasn’t entirely sure what it meant or what my divorced, hard-working mother was warning herself against. Eleven-year-old me understood the concept of having to compromise between two ideas or two desires and settle on something in the middle that is mediocre. I understood having to compromise to get along with my gaggle of boy cousins, who always seemed to want to be outdoors when all I wanted to do was stay inside playing with our Six Million Dollar Man and Bionic Woman dolls. (That compromise usually looked like me doing what they wanted because there were more of them and I was the only girl until I was ten.)
But I wondered, how do you compromise yourself?
Because I’m from the Midwest, I am “nice.” Or I have a nice veneer anyhow. As I’ve written about before, to be Midwestern—at least from my perspective—is to get along with those you encounter, to smile when they say something you disagree with (or make a joke of it at the very least), to purposely not hear them when they say something rude or bigoted or misogynistic, to help someone move house with a smile on your face even though you’d rather be doing just about anything else with your Saturday, and periodically, you have to pretend that watching some truly untalented kids play T-ball in a cornfield on a sweltering evening is as good as life gets.
Is this a compromise, this good behavior? To tell these little lies, is that compromising myself?
I ask, because I’m heading to Indiana this weekend for the holidays. For the last few weeks, I’ve been walking around Seattle with the equivalent of an ACME safe hanging over my head, but it’s easy enough to feel a kinship with the people here whose paths I cross because I can see—sometimes almost literally because of their gender or skin color or disability—that they too have ACME safes over their heads as well. But I don’t know what I’m going to see or how I’m going to feel when I get home surrounded by people who don’t think they have ACME safes over their heads. Will the nice kick in? Will I growl at them? Will I hide in the house and go the Emily Dickinson route?
Once when I was a child I was at the Indianapolis Art Museum in the Impressionist gallery, and Mom and the adults we were with had moved ahead. I was hanging back, mesmerized by a small bronze sculpture, a figure of a person. I reached out and touched the toe. It was so beautiful and full of mystery. In an instant, a very businesslike (but not unkind) security guard walked past me and said, “Please don’t touch the art.” My hands snapped like I’d touched a hot stove, and I clutched them behind my back for the rest of the visit, afraid that I’d get mesmerized by another sculpture or painting. I was mortified that I’d misbehaved in this cathedral of culture. I didn’t even confess my sin to Mom.
I tell you this so you’ll know that I know how to behave in an art museum. I am quiet. I touch nothing. I keep my critical comments to myself if anyone is within earshot.
This fall while Mom was here, we made our way to the convention center, which has rotating artwork lining the halls of the open third floor. As luck would have it, it was my favorite exhibit that comes around yearly of children’s book illustrations.
The Washington State Convention Center is no art museum. It’s often full of tourists and conference goers or people like me who primarily use it because the escalators make a trip from downtown up to First Hill effortless. Most other people there are oblivious of the artwork as they crowd their way from one conference session to another. The day we went it was relatively empty, so we could linger where we wanted without bothering anyone or being bothered by others.
All of the art is easily accessible with the exception of two short sections where there is a ramp with handrails. The incline is almost non-existent and I suspect the handrails are there purely as decoration, in case there is a lawsuit should someone fall. On the one side of the floor, Mom and I both stepped behind the railing so we could look more closely at brushstrokes and signatures. On the other side, just as I popped behind the handrail, the security guard—who sits on a stool by the restroom to make sure only conference attendees use the toilets there—told me I wasn’t allowed behind the rail.
I popped out obediently, but I looked around the expanse of the third floor with an eyebrow raised and asked her why not. What was so special about these five pictures that I couldn’t get as up-close to them as I could the others? I happily follow rules if they make sense, but this was senseless.
She settled onto her stool to tell me in great detail why. Two sentences in, it dawned on me she wasn’t a docent and the longer she talked, the more apparent it became that everything she said was made-up. There was no logic involved, so I started to walk away. She raised her voice, calling me back sharply, “Do you want to know the reason or don’t you?” It was said in that voice that a couple of really officious teacher’s aides had used when I was in elementary school, as they tried to cow us into submission even though they knew (and we knew) they had no real authority over us.
I said, “Sure,” but I could NOT bring myself to turn my face or my attention back to her. What she was saying was boring and nonsensical. I let out a single non-committal noise, which she could interpret as understanding if she chose (but which secretly meant, “please shut up; you’re talking crap”). Finally, she was quiet and I moved on to the next set of rail-less illustrations.
Mom was ten paintings behind me, and I heard the woman say something to her like, “That’s okay. I get it all the time.” Later, Mom insisted the woman was responding to Mom’s “thank you” and that she had not apologized for me. To the best of my knowledge, Mom has only ever lied to me about Santa Clause, so I’m forced to believe her. But when I heard that woman speak to my mother in that tired, nobody-respects-me voice, my face flamed and I felt nauseous because I knew—regardless of what Mom had said or what the toilet monitor was referring to—that I had embarrassed Mom with my rudeness. The Beth she raised is a person who would nod her head, do as she was told, and smile politely even if she knew she was right and the speaker was wrong. That Beth was raised to bite her tongue while ill-behaved children mistreated her toys. That Beth was raised to be, above all else, polite. I didn’t have to perform song and dance numbers for people. I didn’t have to eat vegetables. I had next to no chores. My single job as I was growing up was to be well-behaved, a guide that until now has served me well.
Yet here I was, a middle-aged woman, being shirty with a woman whose job monitoring the public toilets of Seattle could not have been pleasant.
Later, I made some excuse for myself to Mom about how living in the city has started stripping away my manners. That when you are daily surrounded by so many people who want to talk over you, cut into a line in front of you, hoot their horns because they think they know best how you should be driving your car or crossing a street, you lose the nice.
But probably the stripping away began before I moved to Seattle.
Several years ago a friend told me I wasn’t as nice as I thought I was. I can’t remember what it was in reference to, but it took me aback. This was in the days before therapy when my default setting was “how can I be the person who will most please you?” instead of being myself. I never thought of myself then as “nice” but certainly as someone who tried to give people the version of me that they most seemed to want. Slowly, layers of façade came off over years of talking to a shrink. Some people didn’t notice. Others did and didn’t like it.
So here I stand at the tail end of my own annus horribilis. No, my palace didn’t burn down, but it has been a year full to the brim with medical bills I didn’t ask for, a family health crisis that was terrifying, dead celebrities I’m missing, humans being ungodly to each other across the globe, Native Americans having to withstand tear gas and rubber bullets to protect their own water, forest fires raging in one of my favorite spots in Appalachia, a country—my country—making my husband feel unwelcome and my brother feel unsafe, and a president-elect who demonstrates with his own mouth and fingers the worst human qualities on a daily basis. And what I’m finding because of this year is that the last layer of that Midwestern filter has been peeled away.
After having talked to other female friends, I’ve learned that I am not alone in this. One friend who rarely cusses can’t keep the profanity inside herself. Another told me she’s done being bossed around by people or forced to rise to their expectations of her as a woman. A third, who has never been a gun nut, is seriously thinking about buying a firearm because she’s tired of not being taken seriously and thinks her state’s open-carry law might make her words have more weight. Others felt rifts around their family Thanksgiving table that they aren’t sure will ever be repairable.
My friends and I are being gentle with each other, but to the outside world, we are less so. At the very least, we are wary and self-protective.
So this trip to the heartland is going to be interesting. I’ve never been in Indiana without the bit of “nice” jammed between my teeth. Will I growl at people? Nip at their hands? Stick my head under the sofa with my backend to the world? Or will I fall back into old patterns without meaning to? Who knows.
What I’m hoping for is to find some dogs to spend time with because the only real light I’ve gleaned from the world in the last three weeks (especially since the Gilmore Girls reunion was a little disappointing) is that dogs are always just 100% themselves. They don’t put on airs. They’re great judges of character. They are completely oblivious to politics. No one is their president.
They’re just content to be.
I’m going to try to be. To enjoy my mother who knows my heart and shares my sadness, who gave me the twin messages of the importance of good behavior and not compromising yourself, and now the two are duking it out.
There might be some misbehavior. There might not. But right now, it’s Dog Time.