What my Cleo taught me about how to live & love

Named for a Queen. Owning it.

Named for a Queen. Owning it.

My sweet Cleopatra, named for a Queen, sister to a mastiff I never met named Brutus, died on Monday morning. I was working on something and she had been breathing hard all day and I was planning to take her to the vet on Monday first thing. I called after her and she came over, laid at my feet and stopped breathing.

She was somewhere between 8 years old and 11. She was a gift from a wonderful man I met through a good friend who worked at the newspaper where I used to work. Kurt had a brain tumor and needed to go into hospice so he wanted someone to treat his baby right. Brutus, unfortunately, ran away. Cleo, who had grown up with a cat and Kurt, had remained. As you can see, she was beautiful.

My joke about her was that she knew that she was named for a Queen. She was dainty, quiet and sweet. She was well-trained and reserved at first, but mostly she liked to lick people and puppies. On our walks around the neighborhood, she would point her muzzle at the angry-looking feral cats and wag her tail like, “Look, Mom, it’s the love of my life.”

I would gently pull her in the direction of our path. “Um, let’s stay away from animals that might maim you.”

She worked as protection from all kinds of people and stuff, but she did not bark.

Every now and then she would howl in this really unladylike way that was kind of scary. At nothing. Like the wind.It sounded like the creak of a door coming off its hinges.

She sighed with impatience while I tried to make deadlines and hated my computer.

She pressed her wet nose into my face in the mornings when she was feeling well, a reminder for me to get up and get at it. Because I had never had a dog before, I failed regularly to do anything that makes sense to dogs (and probably humans.) She loved me anyway.

For instance, she thoroughly hated thunderstorms and firecrackers (I hear this is typical for dogs). One night, around 2 in the morning, she kept pacing and shaking, so I got several copies of the Yellow Pages (don’t judge) and made a makeshift staircase so that she could use them to climb up on the bed. She walked away and continued to whimper from a couch that I kept just so she could have her own throne.

A few days later, I went to Ikea. When I came home, she had gotten herself nice and comfortable in my bed, sans Yellow Pages. All I could do was laugh.

It was less funny when the frat boys next door had a Fourth of July shindig and Cleo tore down the living room blinds and nearly ripped a few doors off their hinges.

But Cleo did teach me about living and loving in profound ways. The first thing she taught me is that you don’t have to choose a way to be. My story about myself was that I was a cat person (not a single cat lady) and not really a dog person. They were so much work. They were expensive. I didn’t have the time.  But really I was non-committal and afraid of intimacy. I didn’t want to love something other than myself so hard because I was deeply afraid of loss. I don’t care what people say about it’s better to have loved and lost than to never have loved. It is hard to lose the people and things that we love and the ache feels like it never ends. So I understand why people avoid it.

Tall and Proud.

Size does not matter. I affectionately called Cleo my mini-pony because she really was the size of a small horse. What I loved about her was that she truly adored little dogs. They would be barking and freaking out and running around and she would just look at them and sniff their bellies and if they stood still, she’d lick them until they calmed all the way down.  So I learned from her that sometimes things look and seem scary, but approaching them like you might totally be destroyed by an experience is not a good way to make friends at the dog park/in life.

Even when you’re shy, you find the people and things meant for you. Before I got Cleo, I think I thought that I needed to do a lot of work to date and network and circulate to convince any potential partners that I was worth it. But what I learned getting out and about with Cleo is that just by being her beautiful Cleo self, she drew really great people to her and into my life.

You never have to ask your real friends to be there for you. From a recommendation for a vet to a crate (that Cleo tried to sit in without complaint for our first few days together until I felt like a moron and stopped putting her in it) to giving her medication with peanut butter to having a place for her to crash while my mom was sick and I needed to be back East, Cleo taught me how to think first about how to help us take care of her and trust my friends enough to be part of our community. My friends Andrea and Todd went above and beyond, even though they have three other dogs and two adorable sons and plenty of other things they could be thinking about at any given time.

Nothing wrong with getting your snuggle on.

Forgiveness feels better than you think. I used to hold grudges. I still do, but less after Cleo. I have said this before but I like the saying that suggests that festering anger toward people is like holding a hot coal and expecting the other person to get burned. One of the greatest gifts of Cleo in my life was that even when I was annoyed with her or I raised my voice or something, she might cower a little bit and look at me before she stormed off, but a moment later, she would come wagging her tail when I came back to my senses. Then I would hang out with her on her throne and talk to her while I rubbed her belly, hoping I could get back in her good graces — but she had already forgiven me. Grace.

Check out my Striiipes.

When you are fully yourself, no matter how different, the people who are supposed to love you will adore you for it. Cleo was more famous in my neighborhood, especially around tiny children, as the tiger-striped mini-horse than I will ever be. People would always ask me about Cleo before they asked about me. Sometimes I would complain that I wish she had opposable thumbs so she could have done some work, but I actually loved how committed she was to just hanging out and pretending to tan her belly as opposed to needing to do work. She taught me how to take better care of myself and my heart. She hated water but she also hated the heat, so she spent a lot of her summer doing this version of downward facing dog.

Come and Take it! But you won’t! I’m too cute.

Being vulnerable is a beautiful, painful thing. While the people who know me best and have known me the longest know how intensely I love some people and things, the older I get the harder it is for me to pretend to be aloof. One of my best friends, the one who helped me take Cleo to the emergency vet in the middle of the night to be cremated, said that she learned from her puppy how to open up. I did, too. I was lucky to be a dog mom for a few years. Thanks, Miss Cleo, for teaching me how to howl when I needed to and how to walk and keep trying to live with grace. I already miss you so much.

Yes! The last of the holidays! I mean, Happy New Year!

Best holiday ever! Except most of my New Year’s Eves have been sort of odd. Like, the kind of odd that makes me feel like I should try to sleep through them all.

There was this one time when I was still a teenager that was kind of cool. My boyfriend and I were with a group of other rowdy New Yorkers on the observation deck of the Empire State Building, staring down at what looked like a street filled with moving confetti but was really just millions of people partying to welcome in the New Year.The security guard made us leave after the ball dropped in Times Square, the party pooper.

But that’s one night/early morning in three decades of weird New Year’s Eve stories. I have ushered in the New Year with my homegirl in Long Island as we trailed a Suge Knight look alike from his Watch Night visit at his grandma’s church (we met him at a tattoo parlor earlier that day and he invited us out. She looked at me like, “Abort mission!” and I couldn’t say no, and I’m pretty sure she almost stopped being my friend after that) to a really ridiculous house party that we left 10 minutes after we arrived. I think that was Y2K year, and we thought the world might end and we were both kind of sad there wasn’t more excitement either way.

The mid-twenties and thirties were not much better. There were lots of lonely texting streams and Dick Clark Rockin’ Eves. I’m pretty sure I slept through midnight at least three years in a row. Certainly, I was drunk at a New Year’s Eve shenanigans fest at my house before I made my way to a neighbor’s house to drink more before I had to get up and go to work three hours later.

Once, I let one of my favorite people drag me to the house of a couple in Brenham where we brought in the New Year with Scrabble. It wouldn’t have been so bad if we had been watching Dick Clark or Ryan Seacrest, but as it was, we ended up watching fireworks from around the world, wondering if the New Year had arrived in our part of the world yet or not and trying to avoid the gaze of their chihuahua, who had just had eye surgery.

In my relentless quest to have the Most Fun New Year’s Eve Ever, I dragged my bestie with me to the Driskill hotel for a champagne toast and pigs in a blanket, basically, for more than $40 a pop. We ended up at the Ginger Man, a local bar that I love, where we were serenaded by drunk men who could not, for the life of them, sing a lick. One of these guys was with his girlfriend at the time. But that was closer to what I envisioned for my New Year’s Eve fantasy.

Last year was even closer – I had a perfect date that included a little serenading and I ushered in the New Year listening to soul music, eating good food, surrounded by friends like family.

I mention this to you because that means that this New Year’s Eve is going to be amazing by comparison…but also because as much as I love being festive and all that, hallelujah, the celebrating will pause for most of us. (My birthday is approaching, so I’m just getting warmed up. Plus, there’s this book launch situation that’s coming in two weeks.)

I’ve mentioned before I think the holiday season can be alienating, especially for single folks. But just because you’re not with someone on New Year’s Eve doesn’t mean you can’t have a good time.

I hope that you have a safe, joyous Happy New Year.  See if you can’t get a little dancing in like this. Even if you have to pull a Billy Idol. I’ll be toasting to y’all at midnight.

Merry and bright: My friends are married

I love it when good people find each other and marry one another, if that’s what they want.

I went to a lovely wedding last week. I was told to get drunk and shag a groomsman. I did neither, but I still had a blast, made a few new friends and spent some time thinking about the verse from Ephesians my newly wed friend asked me to read at the wedding. There was some dancing. I attempted to learn the wobble and failed. I hope by the time I get to my family, complete with gregarious cousins, it’ll be much better.

Anyway, if you haven’t seen this Tumblr, I recommend it. It makes me laugh: http://myfriendsaremarried.tumblr.com/

Hope you’re having a merry and bright Monday!

Comic Emily Hartridge lies a little bit about loving the single life

(There’s a little profanity in it, folks. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. It’s probably only funny because it’s kind of true? Also, if I’m going to shoot video next year, and I think I might, don’t expect me to dance in my pajama pants. h/t The Good Men Project)

Stop Trying to Convince Your Critics – Psychology Today on child-free women

No one asked me during Thanksgiving why I am still single. Hallelujah.

That leaves the other question. Not, “Do you have children?” but, “What do you mean you don’t have kids?”

Christmas is really the most special for children and the rest of us kind of do it wrong. So maybe that’s why it comes up every now and then. In my twenties, I used to hear variations on the question of whether I would bear a child more often. I wrote a little about that for Bitch Magazine this summer, including the estimated figure that it costs over $200,000 to raise a child.

So I thought some of you might be able to relate to this Psychology Today post by Harriet Lerner:

Many women have been raised with the message that we should want to have children. But (to state the obvious) women differ from one another. To assume that women should all be mothers is like assuming that all men should be accountants if they have the brain for math. And child-free is a better term than childless when a woman makes a choice to not reproduce. (Now that I think of it, let’s delete the word “childless” from our vocabularies. Like  “spinster” and “old maid,” the word  carries too much negative power to define who we are. Certain words need to go by the wayside).

I had a couple of experiences recently that were all very different and I’m not sure I’ve changed my mind about having any of my own. And no one has ever called me childless, though I agree that it should probably be retired from our general lexicon.

On Thanksgiving, I was surrounded by three sweet little girls, including one who, at 2 years old, sounded like a little Lena Horne. They were brilliant, spunky and adorable. About a week before that, I was out with friends and a mother of three warned me not to have any if I was ambivalent. She leaned in and whispered, “And I certainly don’t like other people’s children.” It’s nice to know that there can be such a range of experiences without anyone having to feel bad about their choices to have or not have kids.

I think that people who try to make women feel bad for expressing what may be true and authentic for them when they say they don’t want to be mothers are narrow-minded cowards. So I agree with Lerner: don’t try to convince your critics that you’re still normal even if you don’t want kids. In fact, send them this perfect blog: An open letter to all parents from a non-parent (which my friends have confirmed is really what parenthood is like).

She refers to being childless, too, but you know what she really means.

Plus nobody: A primer for singles during the holidays

Because it doesn’t have to be a drag. (Photo by Chaz Wags)

I opened the wedding invitation with glee.

Finally, the day my sweet friend and her fiancée have been waiting for has arrived. Coming soon, in December!

As excited as I am for them, I had that moment of hesitation that comes from years of being invited out. You know the one, when you are emailed or asked by post if you will be bringing a guest. My answer has always been, “Nope, just me.”

And if we are on the phone, my answer is typically followed by a long pause or a cheerful, “Oh, just you is fine!”

Well, what a relief for “just you” to be fine. Nothing puts me in a party mood like someone calling me fine.

This time I added exclamation points to the postcard I returned. Maybe I was overcompensating because I had actually tried and failed to get a date to go with me to this wedding for almost a year. No dice.

But a delay is not a denial. Beyond that, when you try to push the river on the relationship/dating front, it usually makes you sorry you didn’t just go it alone.

Even though I don’t know all the reasons why it’s important for me to stay immersed in the angst-riddled but often exciting and unpredictable season of being single, I know that it’s impossible for me to force a relationship to work if the other party is unwilling. As much as I think I know about myself, there are a dozen things that I still have to learn about cultivating my relationship with myself.

But you know, the holidays make it pretty interesting to talk about being single when a lot of people are in coupleworld. Someimes, as this BBC article points out, couples are mean to single folks. Here are my suggestions, based on some personal experience:

Experiment with answers to questions from family and friends about why you’re still single: I am most defensive about this question because it assumes that there’s some way that I can get myself out of being single that is not completely ridiculous. “The person who is supposed to be in my life is clearly not ready for me yet,” is one answer. Or you can turn the question back on the interrogator. “Wow, did you get that question a lot before you were married? What did you say?” Mean-spirited answers include, “Why did you settle?” “Nunya” and “REALLY?” A brief survey of my friends delivered the following answers:

“Because no one is smart enough to know how fabulous I am.”

“Because you were already taken.” [Could be tricky if a relative.]

“My boyfriend (or girlfriend, for more impact) doesn’t get out for another 3 to 5 years.”

Treat yourself: I am extra kind to myself, bordering on hedonism, during the holiday season. I feel all my feelings about my family history and the baggage that comes with it. I take more naps. Chocolate Lindt truffles are on sale. I make extra time for meditation, running and prayer. Also, chocolate. Not everyone and everything is exhausting but a lot of the rituals and communal gatherings take a lot of out of me emotionally because I’m generally introverted with touches of extroversion that are mysterious to me. Remember that you don’t owe anyone an explanation for anything. It’s called being grown. And you should get snacks.

Enjoy being enough: It has taken me a lot of practice and a lot of years of feeling pretty crappy about myself for me to get to a point where I am willing to just say, confidently, that as much as I want a relationship, I am enough as I am. It doesn’t make for easy small talk at dinner parties or gatherings, but it is a way of being kind to myself.

Single folks, how do you deal with the inevitable question of your relationship status during the holiday season? Coupled folks, how did you deal with those questions?

Zen and the Art of Single Lady Car Maintenance

One of the things that makes me not that happy about single life is the sheer amount of panic that ensues when something goes wrong and a significant other could absolutely make everything so much better. At least in theory.


I think I have Car Attention Deficit Disorder. I grew up on subways and walking around New York. I do not get cars. I will not apologize for it.

I learned how to drive when I was already ancient in car driving years — 22. (I fondly remember my newspaper colleagues telling me stories about learning how to drive tractors when they were 12, and I didn’t know whether I should be impressed or depressed by that.) I had a driving instructor who had a face like Bill Clinton and wore tiny shorts like Richard Simmons.

You know, the kind of thing you can’t make up.

So, two weeks after I got my car, if that, I got into an accident. I rear ended a lady. I busted my front tail light and the hood of my Toyota Corolla was bent a little. I had to drive to East Texas and work for six months. I figured it would be fine.

And then, there was Tropical Storm Allison, and everything flooded. Including the car. And on my way to work one evening, the hood flipped up and cracked the windshield. My city editor, Jim, met me in a random parking lot to help me tie the thing down to the fender or whatever big metal piece was available for his boating rope.

The love of my life would have said, “You really need to get that fixed.” Or, “I can come pick you up when you drop it off to get fixed.”

A partner would have also dissuaded me from parking in front of a fire hydrant in Seattle, which is what I did after I drove there from East Texas in 2001. Again, I had no frame of reference for fire hydrants and cars and the fact that they did not go together.

Not long after I arrived in Seattle, I walked down the hill from my lower Queen Anne apartment into the Seattle P-I newsroom, bereft.

“Someone stole my car!” I was about to toss myself on the floor.

“Where did you park it?” One of my stoic editors asked.

“Right outside of my apartment, near the fire hydrant.”

They did not laugh openly at me. Someone suggested I check the nearest towing company.

Had I missed that in the driver’s handbook? Apparently, yes.

In California, I had the mother of all single lady car problems. On my way to work at the San Francisco Chronicle, a motorcycle cop pulled me over for…I’m not sure what. I had not updated the registration on my car for at least two years, because I’d been moving. I had not renewed my driver’s license within the allotted 10 days of arriving in the city. I did not have current insurance.

It was his dream come true. “I am going to have to impound this,” he said, asking for my keys.

A features editor loaned me the money it took for me to undo the $2,000 worth of neglect, to bring my car current. It would be about five years before I mangled that car and had to buy another used car. (Editors and co-workers have always come to my rescue during these things. It’s amazing.)

My biggest problem in my latest car are the tires. I feel like a jerk, but I am always in danger of a flat. I run over nails, I bang the tires against the curb. I am just generally not good at tire maintenance.

This summer, the issue is my battery. My car is old enough that it takes water in the top. Who knew? At this point, I will know more about my car than I do about relationships. Or maybe my car trouble is a huge metaphor for my relationships & tending to them and learning about them. It is all very mysterious. I do know that I no longer take it for granted when I get in my car that the thing is going to start. As my friend Pamay posted on Facebook not long ago: “It’s all fun and games until the check engine light comes on.” Welcome to my world.

Why standardized tests are a lot like being single

Seems like a stretch, I know. Bear with me, my brain is a little mushy from all those special triangles:

  • Arbitrary assessment of your human capacity/worth as a human being
  • You can study as much as you want, but you’re pretty much always going to perform the same way
  • People say the scores don’t matter, but schools require that you take them. It’s like when your married/coupled friends say they wish you could hang out more…but they only ever hang out with couples. So you better get on that if you want to see them again. (No pressure.)
  • Shocker! Race matters. Black people don’t do so great on these tests.
  • The test doesn’t test your ability to reason verbally or quantitatively as much as it measures your ability to take a test.

I took the GRE last week.  I got called an hour and a half early, answered the call, and went to the center clutching sharpened Number 2 pencils and my driver’s license like I was ready for the world.

I wore my favorite t-shirt. It bears the first names of black women writers. The first thing the guy at the desk said to me: “Zora, Toni, Alice & Octavia…” I nodded.

“Your kids?”

“Writers,” I responded, frowning.

Anyway. Three and a half hours later, I was done. Went and got a mani/pedi and a cheeseburger. Fell asleep at 9 p.m.

Like a boss.

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