Archive for November, 2013

…or into our house, or the grocery store, or our kids’ room, and usually not much happens. I am a vet and my husband, a lawyer. I don’t practice clinical medicine; I teach and I do research on wild birds. Dead wild birds mostly. So I am at a bit of a remove from day to day pet practice. But having a vet and a lawyer in our household does mean that we encounter the full spectrum of public opinion regarding our revered (mine) and reviled (his) professions. When I tell people I’m a vet, I usually get the standard, simpering grin with head tilt and squeaky voice saying, “Oh my God. That is SO great! You must love your job!” Most of the time, people say nothing to Christophe’s face about his profession, but of course, everyone’s got their favorite lawyer joke. Dirtbag, shark, vampire, snake, you know the drill. Veterinarians, on the other hand, usually skate along on public visions of them snuggling kittens and puppies all day.

Both of these are pretty far off the mark, of course, as stereotypes tend to be, but I have been watching with particular interest lately as my Facebook and blog feeds blew up with talk of a recent 20/20 segment asking, “Is your veterinarian being honest with you?” I watched it, and the actual message (though delivered in the usual 20/20 undertone of “look what incredibly hard-hitting journalism we’re doing–HA! caught you in the act, sneaky evil-doers!”) appeared to be, “Some vets may recommend procedures that may not be strictly necessary.” You can watch the segment and see for yourself, but I wouldn’t really argue with that take-away. Some vets are dishonest, some are panicked about losing their jobs if they don’t generate sufficient revenues, but other vets genuinely take a more proactive, preventative approach to medicine and may offer procedures that are not life and death at this moment. My very honest mechanic does that all the time, suggesting we might replace a somewhat bald tire now, or wait a little bit longer and assume the minor risk. He’s a businessman, and an honest one. Hopefully, your vet is the same. But there are bad vets just like there are bad lawyers and bad mechanics, and my peers in the profession would do well to remember that.

In reading most of the outcry about this segment from my fellow vets, many of them make good points. The foremost among these was well put on this blog, saying, “If someone enters veterinary school dreaming of the fortune they will make when they graduate, they are an idiot.” This is true. Unlike law, where money-making potential may indeed be a major or even the sole driver, vet school is exorbitantly expensive and vet jobs pay appallingly poorly in light of the debt we incur. Financially, we’re not doing very well. Therefore, I get where the particular indignation comes from when vets are charged with price gouging, or dishonest practices of other sorts.

UntitledWhat I find interesting is that much of the outcry from vets has been in articles, essays and blog posts all saying some variation of, “You don’t appreciate what we do. We love animals and we want to save them, and a lot of times we can’t and then we get yelled at by owners because we can’t save their dogs for free.” This post, for instance, gives a good window into a day in the life of an ER vet. It is stressful, and it is sad sometimes, and people do yell at you. There is an undercurrent in a lot of these pieces that echoes what I often heard from classmates in vet school: “I hate people. I wish I could just work with animals. People are my least favorite species.” Fault the empathy I gained as an English major, but I could never understand this. I love people, on the whole. Not every individual of course, but every single living thing I have loved most in the world has been a person. I’ve loved some animals very much, but never so much as I’ve loved some people. And I have practiced medicine on animals that don’t come with people. Wildlife medicine is like that. The animal gets dropped off, and most of the time, we can’t fix it. We euthanize animals all day long some days. It’s not that it isn’t sad or stressful, because it certainly can be. But the most heart-breaking moments I’ve ever seen in all my work with animals came not when a wild animal had to die, but when a child was there, patting her dead cat’s neck, or an old widower was whispering into his dying dog’s ear, “I’ll miss our walks, my beautiful girl.” When you practice on pets, it’s not the pet you treat, not the pet you are so driven to save. Or at least, not that alone. It’s the bond between the person and the pet that you’re working on. It stretches from you,  laboring in the surgical suite, out the door and into the waiting room, and that string is pulled so taut, and threatening to snap, and you may be forgetting that the other end is wrapped around the heart and the guts of the person that loves that creature more than anyone else in the world could.

When you must go out and deliver the news that it cannot be fixed, or worse, that it can, but for more money than that owner has, you have to remember that whatever screaming and raging they do at you has nothing to do with you. We, of all people, know the force that string between them can exert, and when they’re watching it fray, and especially if they know only money could fix it, you must imagine the fear, and the sadness, and the panic, and beyond that the pride, the guilt, and the shame all muddled up in their hearts at once.

Why have lawyers become so maligned? Because they must be there when people have their lowest, darkest moments. They are there because there is something very important that needs doing and we cannot do it ourselves. Someone’s in jail, or is getting a divorce, or losing a house, or losing a child. We need lawyers in those low places, and we feel the helplessness of not being able to fix it ourselves. We are feeling very bleak indeed, and here is someone we cannot do without, and she’s making money off it. That’s why lawyers are so derided and mocked. But many jobs and many professions have these moments. The mechanic who tells a woman her car can’t be fixed for less than a thousand dollars, and she hasn’t got it, and now she’ll be losing her job. The college instructor railed at by a failing student who’s just been told he won’t be graduating after all. The man from the bank who comes to give the news of a foreclosure. Anyone who has to be there when another person is down, anyone who is in control when another person is adrift, anyone who has to be the messenger will take some of the shrapnel from these explosions. To survive them, we must possess sufficient empathy, and sufficient understanding of human nature to know what the rage and sadness are really about.

To my colleagues who still say they hate people, best to take a lesson from the dogs; what we love most about them, their blind devotion, their inability to hold a grudge, their keen intuition about our moods and our quirks, all these come because there is nothing a dog loves so much in this world, as a person.

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Secret spaces

I love the website apartment therapy. On days when my own house is not just cozily cluttered and lived in, but is covered in oily fingerprints, and there’s urine sprayed on the bathroom floor and there’s a smell that comes and goes but whose source cannot be determined, I sometimes sit down at my computer and scroll through images on this virtual confection of a design website. Every room they feature is well lit, perfectly accessorized, and utterly escapist. I know the rooms are real, in that they physically exist, but the world they conjure is delightfully fantastical.

A recent post’s theme was “Kids’ closets used as reading nooks” and it was predictably appealing. The closet nooks were full of squashy pillows, and gallery walls of artworks in a restrained color scheme, and a pristine pallet on the floor. As with many images on apartment therapy, many of the examples of closet reading nooks allowed me to revel in the beauty while feeling pleasantly smug and derisive. The images hint at, or outright blurt out, all the worst things about a precious, upper middle-class American childhood these days. I’ve spent a lot of time looking at these images, trying to figure out what exactly was bothering me.

The first thing was a photo of a little girl reading on her pristine pallet under a framed picture reading “Mama Loves You.” Granted, this child is quite young, and at that age would not have an expansive life outside her small, home-playground-library story hour, sphere. But the placement of that picture, beaming sunshiny supervision down on the child’s head even whilst in her private nook seemed to emphasize surveillance. Mother as Big Brother, choosing the books, the paint, the pillows in fabrics that are just the perfect subtly zany mix match.

Photo: apartmenttherapy.com

 A reading nook via apartmenttherapy.com

In the written copy for this post, I came across this: “You can keep the door to make a secret reading hideaway.” You cannot. When you build and decorate your child a designated reading nook, you may be providing them with a cozy space, a beautiful setting, and the much needed message that reading matters in this house. But you cannot make it a secret. My kids are not babies anymore, and we’ve been through the earliest phases of childhood where the sequential separations between mother and child begin. The cords were cut. They moved from sleeping in my bed, where I contorted protectively around them, into cribs in a separate room. They weaned, they learned to walk, they learned defiance and strong opinions. They went to school. As they get older, the physical separations shift to internal ones. The school age child begins answering, “What did you do today?” with, “nothing.” You find out from some other mother that your kid had some playground altercation and didn’t tell you.

The fantasy that a designated closet nook could ever be “secret” may be part of the desire to keep kids safe, to control their environments. And kids do love secret spaces. They like claustrophobic, dark little cubby holes. These closet reading nooks are cute, but they’re not secret, and to a kid, they’re not even all that nook-like.

I had a secret reading nook when I was young, and it was a corner of the closet I shared with two of my sisters, so it was jammed with stuff. I had to shimmy under the lowest row of clothes, wedge myself behind the hangers and shove aside a pile of shoes. It was almost too dark to read there, and it smelled like winter boots stowed away for the season while still snow and sweat soaked. I only went in there if I knew no one could see me climb in, and if someone called for me while I was in there, I wouldn’t answer for fear of giving away the spot. It was dingy and dim and secret.

Poorly lit? Smells like feet? Doesn't photograph well? Now that's a nook.

Poorly lit? Smells like feet? Doesn’t photograph well? Now that’s a nook.

Being one of five children, I often sought my escape outside the house. We didn’t have a treehouse or playhouse, or any adult-built, adult-approved play place. My favorite place to go was a medium sized pine tree where I had laid a plank across two branches to make a sap-covered, grubby seat. I would sit there after school and read or look out over the lake down the hill. It was nothing much, and would make a very poor feature photo for apartment therapy. But apartment therapy is for grown-ups. The things kids like are gross.

For now, I know where my kids’ “secret” places are. At ages six and four, they play out in the woods by themselves a lot but they still excitedly volunteer instructions on how to cross the fallen hemlock tree to get to a tussock in the middle of the swamp. I know they climb around in the unfinished, unheated crawl space under the eaves in our house. It’s dark in there, and it’s sweltering in summer and freezing in winter. There’s certainly no pallet in there, but there is some exposed insulation and nails sticking out in unpredictable places. It’s unattractive and fairly uncomfortable, and it’s what kids like. These places are still not really a secret, but they’re outside the realm of adult decor and aesthetics. They’re a little bit risky, and if kids aren’t allowed to go there, to push out from their safe orbits, to do stupid things by themselves, then I fear they’ll grow up to be the sorts of people who are too nervous to crawl through a tight spot, or to quell their panic and push on through a dark place and see what’s on the other side. Because much as I love a well designed room, the world is not a lovely, purpose built nook.  It’s less brightly lit, but much more beautiful.


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By now, you may well have seen this Toys ‘R’ Us commercial:

and you may also have seen much of the blowback Toys ‘R’ Us has gotten for suggesting that kids prefer toys to “nature.” When I first saw this commercial, I felt a bit confused. Even if you’re not some tree hugging nature geek, why actively deride the whole concept of kids going outside? But something else was bothering me, and it didn’t occur to me what it was until I was outside myself watching my kids wedge themselves into a crack in a boulder and scream that they were being eaten by a giant whale.

What I dislike most about this commercial is not that it set up nature vs. toys and toys won, but that it set up a false equivalency, a dishonest thumb on the scale to send the message that nature is something boring adults inflict on kids because it’s good for them, and that the purest joy children can experience is actually through getting toys.

I’m a parent, and my children’s toy strewn bedroom floor is a testament to kids’ universal love of cheap, low-quality plastic toys. My kids salivate over catalogs and curate their Amazon wish lists with a disconcerting fervor. I get that. They love toys. They’d be screaming like idiots if you drove them to Toys ‘R’ Us and let them pick out anything they wanted too. But I am a parent, so I also know that no matter how amazing the toy, they’ve had surfeit of it within a few days. A couple weeks at the outside, for a truly spectacular item. They’re like junkies, and the warmth of that last hit is forgotten as the search begins for the next one.

IMG_4624My kids get to spend a lot of time in the woods too. They move from made up game to made up game, tiring of one thing quickly, yes, but inventing new ones continuously. Boulders, easy-to-climb trees, suspension bridges, old cabins, fallen logs bridging a mucky bog, all are drawn into the service of the game. It’s not one item, one toy they want, it’s to play.

What’s really wrong with the Toys ‘R’ Us ad is this: it sets up “nature” not as an actual forest where the kids are let loose to play, but as a bus ride and a dud of a park ranger quizzing them on leaf flashcards. If we were to offer the true equivalent of that, he should then offer not an actual trip to a toy store, not actual toys, but should instead read aloud from their instruction manuals. “What leaf is this on this flashcard?” is not equivalent to a forest field trip, it’s equivalent to reading “Snap the character selectors onto the top and bottom tracks of the large spacers.” Wow. What gets a kid’s blood pumping more than that? Huh?

You don’t teach your kids to play by reading them assembly manuals, and you don’t teach them to understand and love their environment by quizzing them on leaf shapes. The way you teach a kid to love something is to let them play with it, to play in it.

I realized why the commercial didn’t make me sad, or angry, or defensive.  It’s not really a battle between nature and toys, after all. Kids want to play. But if it must be a battle, as long as kids are allowed to go outside and play, I’m not worried about the outcome either–take that busload of kids to a tide pool, or a tent in the mountains, or let them paddle a kayak under a full moon, and nature’s gonna win, every time. Because a toy gets old, no matter how cool. But a tide pool, or the woods, or the mountains are different every time, and play itself is inexhaustible.

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Yesterday, I decided to run someplace new. I get predictably weary of my same old country roads, so on my way home from work, I stopped off at Georgetown-Rowley State Forest for a five mile trot along the trails. It was raining, standard issue for November, but quite warm at 60 degrees, so I set off in my shorts and t-shirt. Part of what I love about hiking, trail running, or otherwise venturing off the asphalt is the sensation, however mild, of taking one’s life in one’s hands. The risk was minot this particular day; the state forest is hemmed in by roads on all sides, so I would never be more than a mile or so from aid, and even if I got lost and night fell, the weather would make for an unpleasant but very likely survivable period until morning. Still, I had the faintly giddy feeling of wondering whether I were making the right turns, and assessing the various boulders and root overhangs as possible bivouacs.

It was this kind of day.

It was this kind of day.

When I was about halfway through my run, looping past the parking lot, I saw a pickup truck pull in. Pickup trucks always make me somewhat uneasy, and anyone pulling into a state forest in waning light and increasing rain also raises my alert level. I made a second loop of the trail, circling up behind so I can keep track of where the pickup truck’s occupants were. They were a pair of grimy looking men and they walked off into the woods, no packs or anything else with them, apparently out for a stroll in the woods on a damp, cool evening. Feeling comforted that I knew where they were, I headed off for a loop in the other direction.

I was somewhere fairly deep into the woods on a single track mountain bike trail when I came upon a pop-up, camouflage-print hunting blind tucked against a rock outcrop. The hair on the back of my neck rose as two things occurred to me: 1) There might be someone silently crouching inside that blind watching me, but I can’t tell and I’m not stopping; 2) It’s hunting season.

I’m usually fairly good about checking what hunting activities are permitted on various public lands before I venture onto them. But this time, I didn’t think of it. I did a quick inventory of my clothes as I flailed and pinwheeled down the trail, driven by a panicky desire to get away from the blind. I was wearing bright orange shorts and fluorescent orange and pink running shoes (good) and a white t-shirt and white cap (no good). Pleased that I at least had one main article of clothing in blaze orange, I nonetheless considered the fact that my torso and head, both portions of my body toward which I feel a good deal of affection, were the color of a deer’s hindquarters, and that I was, at that moment, crashing through the woods in a troublingly deer-like manner. I considered my options. Perhaps I could take off my shorts and wear them on my head, and fashion my white t-shirt into a crude sort of bloomers? That way, if I got shot, it might merely be in the rump and not the brain or chest.

These were good choices.

These were good choices,

but this is just asking to get shot.

but this is just asking to get shot.

I considered further that I was unsure which portion of hunting season it might be. I work in Massachusetts but live in New Hampshire. At home, it’s muzzleloader season. But in Massachusetts? What was I about to be struck by? An arrow? Shotgun blast? I began to imagine myself lying facedown in a pool of blood. Would I be found? Would the hunter panic and just leave me there? Most definitely, he would. There could be no question; I was about to be shot and left for dead.

The light was getting dimmer, and when I stopped to get my bearings at each trail junction, my glasses fogged up hopelessly. “So this is how it ends,” I thought, which I think at least once on every outdoor adventure, and it’s never yet ended. After seemingly endless turnings, I suddenly popped out at the gate by the parking lot. I stopped to read the notices at the info kiosk and found a wealth of information it would have been good to know at the outset of the adventure. IMG_5036

Catching my breath, I thought how I had just narrowly avoided being struck in the head by an arrow. As I walked back to the car, the conviction became less clear, and I began to think that the hunter would probably have come to my aid after shooting me after all. As I was putting away my things in the trunk, I remembered that I had, of course, been wearing orange, and so had really been quite safe. By the time I slipped into the driver’s seat and switched on my book on CD, the whole thing was patently ridiculous, and I drove away.

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In a little over a month, I will be bracing for the onslaught of Sandy Hook memorials. I’ll have to take a few days off social media, because I have never been able to look at the pictures of those kids, and do not expect to be able to now. I get my news from the radio, and that was hard enough. I saw two photos only: one of a smiling, dark-haired boy in a brown jacket who died, and one of a line of surviving kids crossing the school parking lot, each with one hand on the shoulder of the one ahead.

I know this massacre was so horrific that most everyone was laid low by it. Usually, at such times, I, like most people, sorrow and feel shock, feel the urge to help, feel the helplessness and maybe guilt of the unscathed. This time around, I was leveled. I spent a month at least in a semi-daze, crying unpredictably, struggling to focus, all of which felt ridiculous on some level since my kids were unharmed. What had done it though, was the exact age of my older son. He’s in second grade now, just as those kids would have been. All year, as we’ve passed Christmas, birthdays, summer vacation, boring school concerts, Halloween, it’s been in my mind that I have my boy still, and they don’t.

When I heard the stories of what happened in Sandy Hook last year, the jumbled bodies of those first graders huddled in a bathroom seemed to include my son. It was his body I could see torn up and bloody. And it was me I could see, waiting in the town’s firehouse until the last of the good news and the last of the living children had been delivered, and  the rest of the mothers went to their knees or began to vomit. A classroom like his, a teacher like his, boys like him–my boy there but for the grace of a couple hundred miles.

I dwelt in that horror for a long time. Seeing my son’s body in that terrible room, the empty hallways and cheery wallhangings. I stalked those hallways in my mind incessantly, peering into the side rooms to look again and again.

75505_10151945783846462_497693975_nFinally, I had to shake myself awake. I had to leave those hallways and bright classrooms turned into tombs, and turn back to my sons. For the parents who lost their children, they’ve had to do it too–to do, as the poet Marie Howe would put it, “what the living do.” Life will force its way through. There have been camping trips to plan, and books to read, and Halloween costumes to make. After a while, I watched my son climb up out of the pile of bodies and scramble away to play soccer, or plan spy missions, but I will see him forever with his small shadows–the classroom of his age matched cohorts who would have started middle school when he does, gotten a driver’s license, graduated high school at the same time. They will always be with us.

Tonight, we raced around gathering all the parts of their Halloween costumes for trick or treat. Simon, as Hedwig the owl, was howling about his talons and picking feathers off his tongue. Malcolm was vacillating, panicky, over whether to carry a wand or a Quidditch broom. Then, there was one still moment when I called him over so I could draw the lightning bolt scar in the middle of his forehead with lipstick. He looked up at me silently, his clear blue eyes fixed on my face. I finished, and turned him loose.

Harry Potter, The Boy Who Lived.

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