Grief Counselors have Arrived and I Can't Focus
On the word "cremains," lumpy timing, my mind's tendency to wander, and a couple of puppies currently raging through the front hallway with what may be a sock
I got a call this morning from the veterinary hospital that Jett’s cremains were ready for me to pick up. My first thought was is cremains a word—Like a portmanteau of cremated and remains? My second thought was am I ready for another round of crying? I went silent. I am not. The timing is all off.
If there had been such a diagnosis as Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) when I was a kid, I’m pretty sure I’d have been medicated. I wan’t hyper and, as a life-long bookworm, I could definitely focus, but I have this thing where my brain just sort of independently wanders off the path to attend to a close analysis of a word, thought, detail, etc. It’s been a problem for me since forever. While I was generally regarded as a good kid, I found myself standing in the halloutside my classroom or in the principle’s office more than once for doodling, cutting intricate artistic borders into the pages of my math workbook, or just staring out the nearest window. Today, the topic was the word cremains.
I learned to force attentiveness, or at least the appearance thereof, near the end of college. Imagine my delight at my first grad school courses, where I discovered that what had been called “daydreaming” or “spacing out” my whole life was valued as “close reading.”
Academics were my people. I could confess without shame that a particular word—neologism! portmanteau!—had derailed my thought process and we could deconstruct and evaluate it together, and that was years before social media brought us brave new mash-ups like bromance, croissandwich, beardo, jorts, and turducken. I could lose the rhythm of a conversation or even a lecture and come back and say, “sorry, where was I?” and people assumed that I’d been having deep thoughts.
While most people are familiar with the first two parts of Jonathan Swift’s 18th-century satire Gulliver’s Travels, in which Gulliver finds himself in the land of the tiny Lilliputians and the giant Brobdingnagians, respectively, the third doesn’t get much attention. It’s basically a long metaphor about academics, Laputians, who inhabit the floating cloud island of Laputa where they wander about in a haze, thinking thoughts, with their heads cocked at odd angles. So consumed are these geniuses by their own thoughts that each employs a servant whose job is to follow the great thinker around and poke him with a rod-type apparatus when it is his turn to pay attention, listen, or respond.
The Laputians conduct idiotic experiments in which they try, for example, to extract sunlight from vegetables and meaning from their own poop. Modern readers struggle with the unfamiliar objects of the satireand occasionally find it frustrating and sad—thus, its relative lack of popularity. I, on the other hand, was delighted to learn that the trope of the absentminded professor had this history. Could I get one of those people to follow me around and poke me with a stick?
….which digression brings me back to my point about the phone conversation with the veterinary receptionist who’d called me about Jett’s cremains. Who knows how long I’d gone silent on her, but she stayed on the line. The word cremains seemed slangy and disrespectful. I told her I wasn’t ready yet.
On the job front, the timing is odd, too. The metaphor that comes to my mind is lumpy, the timing is lumpy—like straining gravy through a sieve and getting startled and stopped by unexpectedly solid chunks. For the past month or so I haven’t had a lot of editing work because the holidays are slow. To complicate my financial situation, I had made the decision to only teach one course this semester—the first time I’ve had fewer than three in 17 years—when the university in early December required all spring courses to be fully in-person, even those like mine which had been scheduled, listed, and enrolled as hybrid for a month at that time.
I’m great at catastrophizing and was envisioning myself working at Starbucks. And then suddenly in the past few weeks, I’ve had an influx of editing jobs and an opportunity to apply for a teaching gig that pays exactly double what I am currently paid for a single course.
So, I’m working as hard as I can to focus, not grieve over Jett, and not waste time obsessing over language mash-ups. You may find typos in my newsletter, but you won’t find them in application materials for a gig teaching writing and I get paid to catch and kill them in my editing work.
Oh, and did I mention that we have puppies?
I am overjoyed and profoundly distracted by the nine-month-old litter-mate sisters that we adopted on Friday, just a week after we lost Jett—another accident of timing. They are precious and silly and snuggly and I am already in love, but they are puppies. We’re still getting to know each other, but so far their hobbies include carrying individual shoes and socks to random places in the house and chewing baseboards. They require supervision.
I don’t know if there’s some kind of astrological weirdness happening right now; I have friends who talk about Mercury Retrograde from time to time and I don’t really know what that means, but I’m willing to learn and consider it. It’s not like everything is going wrong; it’s not. It’s more like the when video and audio on TV aren’t synched up and you can’t understand anything because you’re so distracted by the rhythm being off.
I haven’t had a puppy since 2005. That’s the year that my Rottweiler Dodger died. I’d been a Boston Terrier aficionado since my middle sistergot one from the shelter in Norman, Oklahoma, when she was in college. A literature major, she and her boyfriend had named their rescue Titania, after Shakespeare’s fairy queen. They called her Ani. She was so filthy when they got her that they drove her directly to a groomer. She emerged clean, perfumed, pedicured, and ready to rule her new home. She was sassy, hilarious, highly portable, and snored like a Yeti.
I fell in love with the breed and had my own within a year, a little male named Bucky that I loved beyond all reason. Middle sister and I gave another female puppy to our little sister, who was in high school at the time, without our parents’ permission, for Christmas. Surprise!Little sister named her Circe.
When my horrible ex and I were newly married and still had my Boston, we got a Rottweiler because he’d always wanted one. His name was Dodger and he was a big old baby who was afraid of rain and the vacuum cleaner. My horrible ex bailed out on me and my two preschoolers in 2004. A year and a half later, Dodger, who was only eight, was diagnosed with a painful bone cancer. A few days before Dodger’s final visit to the vet was scheduled, horrible ex, who’d initially offered to take him, called to say he’d chickened out and I’d have to do it. I was furious, but weaseling out was his signature move, so I rescheduled for after giving my last final exam in my new teaching job.
Horrible ex started blowing up my phone on the morning of the appointment. I ignored him. He left messages asking if he could come over afterward when the kids were home from preschool. We went several rounds of this over several hours before I finally answered and asked why the hell he was bothering me about this. He said he had something for the kids and that he really wanted to see them.
“It has to be today?”
“Yes, I just want to come by for a minute.”
“Ugh. Fine.” I was too exasperated to argue.
Giant Dodger sat his giant, almost 100 lb self in and on my lap while the vet administered the shot and the crying I’d been doing off and on since his diagnosis turned into keening that probably cleared the waiting room when his body went limp. Mikehad picked the kids up from school and was there when I returned. The kids were watching TV and I was sitting on the couch sobbing into Mike’s shoulder when horrible ex arrived. He stepped into the room and called out to the kids that he had something for them. He then reached into the front of his jacket and pulled out a Boston Terrier puppy, about the size of a large potato, who immediately commenced bounding around the room. The kids went nuts.
I was even angrier at horrible ex for leaving me with the hardest job and then showing up after the fact and getting to be the hero, but it’s hard to hold onto anger with a puppy hopping all over the place. That one was Sparky. He lived to be a grumpy old man who died just over a year ago.
I’ve had several other dogs over the years. Mike had a wonderful German Shepherd when we met and we inherited a beagle mix from one of his daughters. But, I am a Boston lover. They deserve their reputation for having lots of personality and being the comedians of the dog world. Their compact size and lack of shedding don’t hurt. I love their buggy eyes, short mugs, chain-smoker voices, and snaggly underbites, but I also know that breeding for these characteristics is not without problems. So, fostering and adopting is how I indulge my love for the breed.
So, here we are, despite my claims that I would never have puppies again. They’re sweet and snuggly and complete maniacs when they aren’t passed out and snoring. In between yelling at them things like “hey, what’ve you got there?” “Give me that,” and “Stop chewing the furniture” and telling them how cute they are, I finally got all of my application materials submitted for the teaching job. I have three big edits in the queue and another deliverable I owe a client. We are out of eggs.
I’m behind on everything and the grandchildren are coming on Friday. Oh, well. I’m going to go walk the puppies. Maybe it will wear them out. I hope it will help me clear my head and focus.
“Standing in the hall” was a major punishment when I was in elementary school and I regarded it as slightly less terrifying than a beheading, which was less terrifying than a trip to the Principal’s office. I would be in trouble again when I got home because I’d have to report that “I had to stand in the hall.” The takeaway here is that apparently little kids are gullible and easy to manipulate?
In my own defense, I can listen and fidget at the same time. Witness my inability to watch TV without knitting, embroidering, or working a crossword.
Turducken was one I had a hard time getting my head around and I had to have people explain it to me multiple times. It’s a chicken inside a duck inside a turkey? Why? It starts with “turd” and it’s food? I still don’t get it.
The objects of Swift’s ridicule were academics and scientists of his day and the Laputians are bad at just about everything but thinking thoughts. Their clothes are ill-fitting and their structures don’t work. The flappers whapping always reminds me of someone who said “There’s no such thing as listening; there’s talking and waiting to talk.” It might have been Fran Lebowitz, but she probably wasn’t the first.
Both of my sisters are exceptionally smart, cool people and I steal most of my good ideas from them.
As a parent now, myself, I am truly sorry for having done this, have apologized to my mother for it, and fully expect some karmic punishment.
Because, dammit, Dodger was, at least originally, his dog. I loved Dodger and cared for him, but I wanted to outsource this one thing.
We had only been dating for about a year at that point and he was already this awesome—picking up the kids, letting me snot-cry on his shirt, just generally being the world’s greatest guy.
Enjoy those sweet little puppies!
As a fellow Laputian I particularly love this blog Beth.