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The dog’s anxiety has escalated to self-harm. She’s not burning herself with cigarettes, although once her toes can work the lighter, all bets are off. For now, her injuries are of the indirect variety. Her daylong bouts of howling shred her throat, leaving her hoarse and coughing through the evening. Between yelps, she thrusts her head repeatedly against her crate, bending the bars and tearing strips of flesh off her snout and cheeks. We come home to bleeding gashes and hysteria.

The vet is tapering her off one prescription and starting her on another. We have the number of an animal behaviorist who specializes in unique temperaments. New approaches could take several weeks to sort out, and new behavior far longer to establish.

At the beginning of the highest pressure work month I’ve faced in five years, I’m now the proud owner of a dog that can’t be left alone.

My mother, the angel and savior who lives two miles down the road, has stepped up to pinch hit. The past two months, she’s been coming by every day to give Noodle a walk and an hour or two of company. Because panic balloons after visiting hours, Mom has now invited the pooch come squat at her house while I’m at work. This means my mother can’t run any errand more involved than a 15 minute jaunt to the supermarket. Even on those trips, she has to pack Noodle up and take her in the car. Fortunately, damage to self and vehicle is negligible (for now). Even so, we are reluctant to test the limits of her back seat self-control, to say nothing of the sub-freezing temperatures that show no signs of letting up.

Now the weekend is here. Bug and I are home. Again. We’ve already wasted too many hours on screens. We’re squirrely. The park is a field of ice. The streets are deserted and the neighbors are tucked away behind silent doors. The usual options — indoor pool, fitness center, roller skating, visiting friends — are dead ends. We simply can’t leave Noodle.

After 45 minutes with popsicle sticks and a glue gun followed by several rounds of chase-and-tickle (no glue gun), we’re at a loss. At 6:00pm, Bug collapses on the couch and begs for Minecraft.

“I’m so BORED.”

“Let’s make something,” I say.

“What?” He’s slouched on the cushions, petulant as the pubescent teen he will too soon become.

“Something we’ve never made before. Let’s cook something.”

“I don’t want to.”

“Well, we need dinner anyway, so let’s make something entirely new. What’s some meal we’ve never ever cooked ourselves before?”

He’s shooting a pokemon figure up and over, making explosion noises. He doesn’t bother responding.

“Okay,” I say. “Remember that cake we had at Cracker Barrel? The coca-cola and chocolate one?”

He cuts his eyes at me. “We’ve had that.”

I take a breath. “I know we’ve had it but we’ve never made it. Maybe think of something else we’ve — ”

“Corn dogs,” he says.

I stop. He smirks. His singsong voice is a straight up dare. “You said something we’ve never made. So, corn dogs.”

What does it even take to make a corn dog? It’s been a decade since I’ve eaten one and exactly never since I’ve cooked one. Do you bake them? What’s that outer coating even made of? For all I know, it could be akin to the lab reaction that forms Twinkies. Are we talking chemical processes? Nuclear fusion?

“Awesome,” I say. “Let’s do it.”

So now we’re looking up recipes. They all begin with something along the lines of, “In a dutch oven, heat 8 cups of vegetable oil to 375 degrees.” Oh, man. My granddaddy let me help him fry catfish in Crisco over the Coleman stove when I was about Bug’s age. Once. And I briefly worked in a cafe that had a fryolator for crisping up the herbed potatoes we served beside omelets. Those two experiences comprise the totality of my frying expertise.

Once I see the list of ingredients and check it against my larder, I’m in. We have a half pack of hot dogs in the freezer, a supply of both cornstarch and cornmeal, and a bunch of chopsticks my Mister encouraged me to keep from last week’s takeout. Buttermilk is not a staple here but it’s easy enough to make with milk and vinegar.

I refuse to let my lack of either a dutch oven or a cooking thermometer slow our momentum. Saucepan, bowls, cups, an apron. Bug slices fractions into smaller portions as we rearrange the recipe to accommodate our modestly sized family. Soon the oil is hot enough to pop the drops of water I flick into it. A coffee cup is full to the brim with batter. Bug pokes and dredges, the hot oil welcomes the concoction with an explosion of boiling noise. Within moments, the soggy slop puffs to a golden crust. Once it’s cooked all around, I pull it out and drop it on the heap of paper towels.

“How does it look?” I ask Bug. He is dipping dog #2.

He glances over and shrugs. “Good, I guess.”

“I mean, does it look like a corn dog? Does it look right?” I’m terribly impressed with the crisp, bronze orb.

“I don’t know,” he says. “I’ve never had one.”

I turn an look at him. He ignores me, spinning the chopstick in the yellow goop. “Wait a minute,” I say. “After all these years? The dining hall at camp? School lunch? You’ve never had a corn dog?”

“I tasted the bread part once.”

Amazing. Here we are destroying our kitchen for something unfamiliar and possibly unappealing to us both. At least Bug has no basis for comparison. I remind myself that this whole project is intended to kill time without us killing each other.

Once all four hot dogs are cooked and cooled, Bug breaks out the ketchup. We don’t even bother going to the table. Right there at the counter as the oil continues to brown the leftover batter into hush puppies, Bug dips a dog and takes a bite. His face opens into a grin.

“Oh, Mom, you gotta try it. This is so good.”

I do. It’s lucky I move fast. I only manage to grab one before he’s wolfed down the other three. He dances from foot to foot in his stained apron and chattering the whole time. Noodle trots around our feet, unsure what to make of this double indulgence of her pack’s proximity and a meal of homemade hush puppies.

Our little family is doing okay. Sure, every single member of it is nuts, but we groove as a trio. We have to keep feeding the source because each of us needs to plug into that synergy from time to time. For me, it’s the week ahead. If the extra logistical gymnastics don’t kick my butt, the task list looming at my office surely will.

As for Noodle, she surely needs more than her share of the collective strength right now. I don’t blame her for trying to escape her anxiety. Even if whatever is waiting on the other side of it is unknown and potentially more dangerous, being alone with fear is a reservation for one in a special room in hell.

So what do we do when all three of us are flagging and the source is running low?

We keep moving, keep adapting, keep each other company. Eventually, we admit we have no idea what we’re doing. We ask for help. We invite our circle to grow.

We make room.

We open the next door, whichever one presents itself.

We step through and say, “What can we cook up that we’ve never tried before?”

We say, “Let’s see what we have on hand.”

We say, “Let’s make this work.”

We say, “Yes.”

Is it
Honest mistake
or strategic play?
Miscalculation
or careful calculus?
Oversight
or bullseye?

Am I
Power
or pity?
Bristle
or breath?
Ram
or chump?

Will this
Knit
or expose?

Does it welcome
what expels?
Does it expedite
delivery?

The first page is one
then one
then one
stuck
together turning
no second
page, every possible
arc
and not a plot
in sight,
not for 17
hours
at least
when morning
will decide
what I can’t
know
no matter the torque
my thoughts apply

Here raise
the volume to 10
Resistance
to 20
Skin
to boil
Gaze
to black pane
and silver flash
boiling up
a roar

the only silence
for miles
this noise

is the clock
drowning in night

This is
the story
shelved

Wets:

  • 1 1/2 sticks butter
  • 1 cup sugar (plus a little extra for rolling)
  • 1/4 cup molasses
  • 1 egg

Dries:

  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 tsp. soda
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. each: cinnamon, cloves, ginger

Mix up all the wet stuff. Then mix up all the dry stuff. Add dries to wets and combine thoroughly. Shape into walnut-sized balls, roll in sugar, and place on an ungreased cookie sheet. Bake at 350 for 9-11 minutes.

Yum!

The note in his backpack says the students can bring valentines. Participation is not mandatory, but you must choose everyone or no one. Bug grabs the paper and gives it the once-over. “I don’t want to.” He starts to hand it back then notices the small postscript: Students may bring a small treat to share.

Now he’s interested.

“We could make teeny-tiny slices of chocolate cake,” he says. I picture his teacher trying to pass out 25 wobbling mounds of frosted pastry.

“That might be a little hard for Mrs. C to serve.”

“Cupcakes!” He says. “With icing!”

It is already 6 pm. We don’t have cupcake cups or a carrier. What we do have is reading, homework, dinner, bath. CVS sells sticker cards and the store is just two blocks from where we’re sitting in traffic. “How about just writing out valentines? We could go get some.” My offer is tepid and he knows it. He grunts. “Okay then,” I say. “Brownies. They’re just like chocolate cake, right?”

He sits on this. We’re turning onto our street and he’s in the back trying to get the dog to poke her nose out the window. Evening is sliding fast into night night and it’s been one hell of a week at work. “You know,” I say. “You don’t have to do anything. It did say no one — ”

“Oh! I know!” he cries, “GINGER SNAPS!”

I take a breath . . .The things I can. . .  and urge a smile into my voice. “Okay, ginger snaps.”

With this “yes,” I’ve signed the contract.

After dinner and reading and homework but before bath, we pull out our supplies. Bowls, flour, eggs, cookie sheets. Even from scratch, ginger snaps are the easy baking project, the one my mother used to leave to my sister and me when we were home after school. The butter would be out softening on the counter, the stained recipe card leaning against the floral tin box. Mix the “wets” with the “dries,” form into balls the size of walnuts and roll in sugar. When Bug outgrew a half dozen quasi-food allergies around age 4, he fell in love with ginger snaps. He used to call them the “black cookies,” for reasons I never figured out. We made them together every few weeks. Standing on a stool next to me, he would hit the sweet spot between creative focus and sugar mania, plunging himself elbow-deep in the mess.

I didn’t realize he held a fond memory — or any memory, for that matter — of ginger snaps. We have something of an unspoken cookie ban in this house. I haven’t eaten a cookie in over two years and haven’t made one in even longer.

Even so, this recipe is printed right into my hands.

And although the stool is no longer part of the set, Bug is as thrilled as that long-ago preschooler to bring this delicious idea to life.

The kid wants to measure, pushing brown sugar deep into the cup. He wants to crack the eggs, taking one careful whack at a time. I ask him if he remembers the spices that go into the recipe. “Cinnamon,” he says. “And, um. . . oh! Ginger!” I let him sniff at the cloves to identify the third, and he says, “I know that one from the botanical gardens.” In early winter, he and I wandered through the sunny spice exhibit together, trying to identify and describe cumin, onion, vanilla, fennel.

He fits the beaters into the mixer and whips up a tornado that melts into a pungent batter the color of café au lait. Because it’s only Thursday, we decide to refrigerate the sugary mush and bake it tomorrow so the cookies will be fresh on Friday. He unties his apron and bounces down the hall to his waiting bath.

It’s late now, well past bedtime. I’ll be grumpy in the morning. Even so, I leave the heap of dishes and follow him to the bathroom, rolling up my trousers so I can soak my feet as he jabbers away in the bubbles. He’s well past baking now and is on to square roots and number lines.

I pour water down his hair and back. He hums and curls into the cascade, head tilted back, eyes closed.

There’s a good chance this boy will someday have a sweetie. There’s a good chance that she or he will drive Bug bonkers as he tries to figure out how to do the love stuff. No doubt I’ll be cringing on the sidelines, complying with the semi-permanent gag order he will have issued at puberty.

Tonight, right here and now, may be my only chance to have a say.

On any given February 12th, when Bug smacks his head and realizes he didn’t make the reservations or buy the tickets, he can always take a deep breath. Wander into his kitchen. Open the cabinets. Begin.

The phone pings. Almost there. Come out and help.

He pushes his bare feet into sneakers and doesn’t bother to tie them. Outside, she pulls past in her father’s SUV, shoots a U in the street, and comes to a stop at the curb. The afternoon is warmer than it should be. The last crusted mounds of snow cling to the shadows under the eaves. Everything else is soft again. Somewhere close, a bird sings and sings.

“Help with what?” He calls. She steps out and goes around back to open the hatch. He squishes across the grass and down the driveway. Smirking a little out of the side of her face, she leans towards him without turning. She is busy shoving something sideways in the cargo area. He kisses the exposed cheek.

Inside the car, blue and brown plaid cushions flop forward. She tugs too hard at a wooden foot and one of the pillows escapes. He grabs it before it hits the damp street. The upholstered monstrosity is jammed up against the ceiling of the car. He stuffs the cushion in by the window and fits his hands around the back. She urges the front feet forward. It twists just enough and slides out in one smooth motion.

They stand there together holding the two ends of the chair and glance at each other. She cracks a grin. He begins walking backward up the driveway and she wobbles along.

“You bought me a chair?”

“No,” she huffs. “Hold on.” She sets down her end, adjusts her grip, and picks it back up. “I bought me a chair.”

“Shouldn’t I be meeting you at your house to do this, then?”

It is too wide for the door when they go through straight. They slow, back up, tilt the top. He guides it at an angle. The bottom corner catches on the door frame. He pulls without realizing it’s caught and she lets out a little yelp. The wooden foot has gashed the molding.

“Oh gosh, I’m sorry.”

He laughs. “You should be.” He steps over a pile of shoes and nudges aside a plastic bin of sports gear. The lid topples off and he almost slips on it. “You’ve comprised the integrity of this meticulously maintained home.” Once inside, they set the chair down in the narrow foyer. Reaching around, he pulls her into to the corner where he’s pinned and then folds her into a hug. Even though the sky has been clear, her hair smells like rain. “I’m on strike until you give me a clue. Am I storing this thing for you? What’s the deal?”

She leans back a little and warms her fingers on his bristled cheeks. She looks at him. “Hi,” she says.

He grins. “Hi.”

“Come here,” she says as she breaks free. She clambers over the chair and up the stairs. At the end of the hall, she clicks on the light to his room. The cat leaps up from a pile of laundry and darts past their legs. “It’s only me, dingbat,” she hollers. She walks around to the far side of his bed and pushes at the mattress. It scoots a few inches closer to the door. The she twists open the blinds on the small window behind her and muddy February light trickles into the room.

The corner breathes wider as she opens her arms into it.

“Here,” she says.

“You bought a chair for my room.”

“Yeah. But also, I bought a chair for my room.”

He shakes his head. Smiling but only halfway.

“This,” she says. She traces the small corner, its emptiness around her, with her hands. “This is my room.”

“And your chair.”

She shrugs and her face slides into and back out of one of its funhouse distortions, quick as a blink. She glances down and touches her fingers to the windowsill. A draft chills the wooden lip. “A place to write,” she says quickly. She hasn’t looked back up. “ReStore had this sort of side table, too. It’s really small and I’d like to sand it down. You wouldn’t believe how good a deal –”

“That’s so presumptuous,” he says. Now she looks up and her eyes register this blow. But he smiles. “I like it. I like that you presume. I want you to.” He starts to step around and stops a few feet short of her. “Can I come in?”

She lifts her hand from the windowsill and laces her fingers together. “Sure,” she says. “But take your shoes off. I just moved in and I want to keep things nice.”

He steps beside her and they stand leaning into each other, gazing out at the room. “It’s cozy in here,” he says.

“Isn’t it the perfect size for me? It took me a long time to find just the right place.”

His hand is on the small of her back. He feels her arch her spine into his touch. “How long do you think you’ll stay?”

She turns to to look up at him. His glasses are cocked a little on his nose and she straightens them. “The landlord hasn’t asked for a long-term lease. He’s letting me do this month-to-month.”

“He sounds like an idiot.”

“Oh, he is. But he’s good with a wrench.” She drops her voice. “Also, he’s sexy as shit.”

He groans and bends her back to kiss her once, hard. Then, into her hair, he whispers, “That is one ugly chair.”

She laughs and pulls away. “Well, good thing it’s not yours.”

“You’re crazy.” He takes her hand and leads her towards the hall. “Let’s see if we can make that monster fit.”

 

When you find $20 in your jeans you forgot was there, it’s win. Even if you don’t believe in karma, luck, or any other breed of metaphysical sentience, your rationality clocks out for its afternoon break. Someone out there has pinned a blue ribbon to your chest and given you a thump on the back. “Today, you get the prize.”

Why, you might ask?

“Oh, just because you’re you. And you deserve it. Let’s leave it at that.”

There’s a bounce in your bones when you stroll out the door.

Money is nice and all, but the company of Andrew Jackson isn’t the high. No, the high is the sweet but fleeting moment when you’re walking among the profligate. Hell, I didn’t need the cash to begin with and then I forgot I even had it. Maybe my prospects aren’t so bad after all.

Ah, yes. This must be what it feels like to be rich.

The buzz wears off as soon as you fold the bill in with all the others in your wallet. It’s not free cash. It was Plain Old You who had to work for it, and Plain Old You who put it in your pocket. Now Plain Old You will put it towards a grownup need like your heating bill or the busted garbage disposal you’ve been putting off replacing.

That said, it’s a relief to know you weren’t worried about money — at least not that money — from the moment you absently pocketed it all the way until now. The added bonus is that you didn’t need it in the meantime. Now you know you really can save a few bucks each month. You really can stash a little more in the someday-fund.

You really can dream.

This happy surprise happened right here in my kitchen today. Only it wasn’t jeans. It was an envelope that had landed at my parents’ house addressed to my previously married self. It was from a bank whose account I drained — or thought I had — when I patched together the 20% down payment on this condo. I sliced open the flap and pulled out one thin page. An end-of-year tax document told me I had earned $10.35 in interest in 2014.

Sure, $10 is a nice surprise.

But interest on what?

After rooting around for my old login and password, I discovered that the account is alive and well. It ain’t sending anyone on a cruise, but it’s there.

Is this what it feels like to be rich?

Maybe a little. Rich and lucky. Not roll-the-dice lucky. More like blessed-with-kindnesses-I-can’t-grasp lucky. It’s as if yesterday-me — with the support of the loving circle of family and guides and friends — offered up a gift to today-me. Because she had so much help and love, she didn’t need that bit of cash to survive the chaos of her life. And instead of treating herself to some luxury with it, she tucked it away for a future self she hadn’t even met yet.

Maybe she knew I’d need it eventually.

Maybe Plain Old She just wanted to provide Plain Old Me what little peace of mind she could.

Now I get to do the same for a someday-self. While I’m not sure yet what form this will take, I want her to find a stash of unexpected riches tucked into a forgotten fold. I want her to experience that buoyant moment of feeling rich. It’s unlikely she’ll be rolling in wealth, and for that moment, she’ll feel flush.

To some extent, she’ll be flush, because all her previous selves loved her enough to squirrel a little away for her to cultivate the life she wants for herself, her family, and her community.

Imagine all these iterations across the continuum of the self. Each finds a way to pay it forward, a few dollars at a time, one year to the next.

In a decade, maybe Plain Old Me will be looking out onto a garden in her own back yard. Maybe she’ll be packing her Plain Old Kiddo off to college debt-free.

Maybe she’ll find that she’d pocketed exactly what she needs.

Imagine.

 

Lunch is an hour. And it’s a break.

Sacred cows no more.

Lunch hour goes.

(Not the food part. I’m too fond of my fuel.)

Today the forecast was 47 degrees and wet. I trotted off to work in a thin sheath of a raincoat. At 5:30, I stepped out into wind that cut like knives. My neck shrieked. The puddles had turned to ice. Each dark step to the metro scoured my skin.

During the intervening 8-1/2 hours walled in by steel and focus, temperatures plummeted and dragged the sky down with them. I had no idea. Despite a window that can carry my gaze to where the National Cathedral rises on the hill, I didn’t see the dimming light. Despite a city outside my door where I can walk for miles through parks and neighborhoods, I didn’t feel the creeping frost.

This ignorance is the price of determination.

I shouldn’t be proud of giving up my lunch hour. An earlier me would have tsk-tsked today’s me for misplacing priorities and neglecting health. For the four years I’ve held this job, lunch hour meant walking, no matter the weather. My credenza drawer hides an iPod, running clothes, both sunhat and umbrella, both towel and soap (you never know). These feet memorized miles of concrete. Co-workers praised my dedication to fitness.

Truth is, lunch hour walks were my secret recipe for sanity.

All that walking was a way of holding on to my center while the world rushed and tilted around me. It’s easier to sprint across the wire, especially if you don’t look down. First was our imploding family and livelihood, then moving here, then divorce, then working and all that comes with doing that as a single mom trying to establish a home and a way forward. A leaden fear of financial and familial ruin saturated every moment. So I kept moving, walking, and peering anywhere but right here.

Meanwhile, something changed. Like that weather rolling in when I was facing the other way, the very world shifted into a new alignment.

The daily work — the professional this-and-that of making ends meet — began to propagate. Seeds I didn’t know had been germinating started to push through the surface.

Lunch hour used to be for air and breath and body. It was a standing date with my very own self.

Now lunch hour is for asking the next question.

(Which question, you ask? That one. The one dancing just out of reach. The one that barely has a shape yet.)

An opportunity emerged during a team meeting. My department needed someone to teach. I resisted until my Mister reminded me that I do, in fact, have most of what it takes and the resourcefulness to go find the stuff I don’t. So I agreed to it, and it ate up all my time, and I was exhausted, and the extra pay didn’t even begin to cover the hours committed.

I loved it, loved the exchange of ideas, loved making it up as we went.

Before the final class, an opportunity popped up on my voicemail. This one was even more impossible than the last. In a windowless classroom with a sputtering overhead projector — the kind that uses actual transparencies — someone had to guide the learning of 27 visiting faculty who could barely speak English.

With guidance from the dear ones, I agreed to it, and it ate up all my time, and I was exhausted, and the extra pay didn’t even begin to cover the hours committed.

I loved it, loved the students, loved the tangled and unmapped journey.

Before the final class, another opportunity strolled into my office. This was a role supporting our school’s search for a new dean. It would be a politically delicate, thankless, administrative nightmare on an accelerated timeline. I considered it, negotiating right up front with the school leadership while doing so.

I took it, or rather, it took me: It eats up all my time, and I’m exhausted, and the extra pay doesn’t even begin to cover the hours committed.

And I love it, insanity and all.

Something is growing here.

Maybe it’s just a calcification of the soul-jarring careerism that infects the Washington DC region. Maybe I’m turning into yet another stressed and stretched professional Director of (Insert Abstract Administrative Jargon Here) who’s just wearing the same grooves a little deeper into the city sidewalks.

Or maybe it’s the Powers That Be taking advantage of a semi-competent masochist with something to prove.

Secretly, though, I think it’s something else.

Whatever it is, it’s growing right here, in the place this woman inhabits.

Despite all my foolishness and self-inflicted handicaps, novel ways emerge to apply the skills I’ve been accumulating. Even though the tough spots make my head throb and my heart race, it’s thrilling to come upon a problem I simply cannot solve, yet I must solve it, and I somehow know I will solve it, even if it comes to jury-rigging a fix.

Every time I figure out some new mix of tools and techniques, new places to apply them appear. The marvel of this chapter in my too-much-of-a-life is that I keep bumbling into the outer limit of my talents and capabilities, only to find that it’s a membrane and I can push right through.

For the first time in years, I have more in my sights than just getting through the day upright.

Now I want to know what these hands can really do.

Lunch hour is a standing date with possibility.

Lunch hour is one more wide-open chance to ask the next question.

(What are the Things I Can?)

Where the unknown is unnamed, give it voice.

Where answers are missing, reach.