Saturday, March 28, 2015

Thanks for the Memories

The clock says 8:44 a.m. Why am I awake? This could be a highly unusual day. I should be sleeping after roaming the land all night long. As vampires do.

That's what she said I am. A vampire. An Emotional Vampire, to be exact. Well, she didn't say it outright, but she sent me a link to an Internet quiz, exhorting me to read it and change my ways before I destroy my life any further. She said it with such genuine concern. Clearly it would behoove me to oblige her request.

"She" being an old friend of mine. We haven't spoken in well over a year, and our last interactions weren't much in the way of friendly. They weren't outwardly ugly either, but then, Ugly has never been a master of disguise. We haven't spoken because, according to her by way of an Internet quiz (and who doesn't believe Internet quizzes are accurate gauges of the human psyche?), EVERYTHING IS MY FAULT. According to the author of the quiz, if I answered yes to half or more of the questions, I better drop everything, read on, and learn how to stop being such a miserable piece of shit. (Full disclosure: I did not answer yes to half, and I did answer honestly.)

As I write today, I find myself buried in bull manure so deep that I'm struggling to find the proper syllables to begin digging myself out. Do I start by accusing my former friend of being a total jerk? Tempting, but least-common-denominator retorts aren't my thing. Do I list the ways in which I don't fit the criteria for emotional vampirism? Likely at some point, since I am prone to providing supporting evidence. Do I skip writing and instead search for an Internet personality quiz to send her? Or buy her a set of emotional bifocals? Man. The possibilities. 

Here's why I'm waving in public the smelly socks of my personal life: Self-awareness. Be aware that when something goes wrong in a relationship, there are two parties involved. Believe this: You contributed to the dissolution of the relationship.The divvying up of blame can lead to a degree of self-pity, but in the end, only the one who feels hurt will care. Life doesn't dole out results according to our individual senses of justice. 

To be fair, I have to reveal that Former Friend did throw in "We both failed each other." Magnanimous, right. To be even more fair, after reading her fake-earnest attempt at helping me cure myself of being myself—via the Internet personality quiz—I wasn't without the ability to see some remnants of myself in there, not specifically listed in said quiz but in an overall sense: I can be difficult to deal with. I'm not incapable of recognizing this. However, I abide by this revolutionary idea: I expect a true friend to deal with it. In Former Friend's world view, I am self-destructive. This assessment befuddles me in relation to how I see myself. Or maybe we have differing ideas of what self-destruction entails. To me, if a person isn't abusing others, smoking crack, trading sex for money, neglecting the well being of children, or suffering from an untreated mental disorder, they're doing okay in life. To do that confessional thing I like to do: I surely haven't led a drama-free life, have a habit of talking my feelings to death, have been financially irresponsible at times, and have dated four poor choices, give or take one. I also have difficulty with intimacy, both romantic and platonic. Uh oh--maybe it is because I suck, literally. I suck dry the emotional reserves of those I selfishly expect to love me unconditionally. Or this: I've spent a large amount of my adulthood living alone and being single--largely enjoying my solitude, by the way--and in that time I've come to discover a myriad of contributing factors to my troubles with other people, which cannot be neatly packaged into a box labeled "Emotional Vampire." 

While I've spent the bulk of this blog mocking the total-crap effort of Former Friend to address with kindness or compassion the rift in our friendship, beneath it all lies a lot of hurt. I loved her. She was the first friend I made in a new city, and we had great times together. She said she hopes that I don't believe those times were in vain. I don't, but that doesn't erase or address the latter part of our friendship. She is convinced that part is my fault, because I'm flawed. Because I possess a victim mentality. The inanity of that accusation shows an incredible lack of insight into the woman that is me. If anything, I'm given to inordinate amounts of self-blame, or, in an objective, healthy way, I attempt to uncover my part in whatever is happening in my world. In the event I conclude that someone else has done wrong to me—and—gasp!—this actually happens—it doesn't diminish my own self-awareness. I assume FF takes as gospel the word of Internet quiz-writer, who asserts that Emotional Vampires are responsible for how people react to them, that they cause people to hurt them. This is incredibly irresponsible and downright terrible advice. It's true that humans can possess qualities that other humans find impossible to tolerate. No one is required to remain in anyone's life, not for reasons of history or blood relation or legal certificates. This doesn't diminish a simple truth: One person is never responsible for another person's behavior. We are each individually responsible for how we treat others. 

I'm well aware of the picture of my life. I don't make traditional choices or take the easy or practical path. I see those aspects of my personality as ones that make my life as charming as it is complicated. Part of me would like to encourage FF to practice some self-awareness herself: Look back, my former dear, and consider that your attitude is not often kind, that your approach is not often conducive to productive discourse. Part of me knows it doesn't matter. Because people only discover themselves if and when they're ready.

Why am I wasting valuable time justifying my own existence to a callous, cold somebody? I'm not. Her mind is already made up. I'm sharing because I need to vent and because maybe someone else can benefit from hearing it. 

There is nothing in my life that has altered my perspective like motherhood. Not motherhood in particular, but single motherhood. And not single motherhood in particular, but a situation that compelled me to pick up my life in one state—a life that had finally started to fall together—and start anew elsewhere. My past few years have been rife with challenges. I've had my meltdowns and my triumphs. I've dodged quite a few daggers of judgment all along the way. We all judge, by the way. I'm no less guilty of it. When judgment is placed upon us, it naturally becomes personal and perplexing. Infuriating. Insulting. Through this journey of my past few years, my mind has been opened. My capacity for compassion has matured. 

There's one person I always think of when I talk about how people treat each other. A girl I knew many years ago in college and with whom I became very close. She led a troubled life, and for most of our relationship I was the only person who seemed to stick around for her. Our friendship was volatile, ending abruptly a few times. Two of those times, I let us both down. I said hurtful things, lashed out. It's been a few years since our last earthquake, and in that time I've felt a great deal of guilt. I don't regret my feelings or thoughts about her, and I think that's important to recognize. It's equally important to own my behavior, and I do wish I'd taken a kinder approach to handling our problems. So last year I wrote her a letter of apology. She never replied. Maybe she didn't get it. Maybe she didn't care. That bothers me, but I continually remind myself that an apology is meant to live alone, stand on its own with no external affirmation. 

In the spirit of equity, I'll add that above-mentioned friend didn't treat me well at times either, finding what I saw as a troubling sense of enjoyment in pushing my buttons and taking it upon herself to re-assess my beliefs for me. Here is the point where it gets tricky. It's okay—and necessary, I believe—to recognize how others treat (or mistreat) us. However, we have to remember to redirect our thoughts, lest we forget our own end of the teeter totter of relationships. My friend's unsavory behavior did not excuse mine. We each did what we did, and we each must reconcile ourselves with it. Such a pretty centerpiece, that last sentence there. In reality it's put together with great toil and up close you can see the duct tape and cracking glue. But that's okay as long as you make it and put it out there.

I lost a friend this week. She was already gone, really, but this week it became stamped and pressed onto a page in the history of my life. I don't get the feeling she mourns the loss. I do. As cliches and Internet memes and common sense urge me to do, I'll have to let it go. I don't like to harbor anger, but sometimes it's more productive than pain. If I stay mad at her, I won't miss her. If I keep inhaling the putridity of the assertion that I'm fatally flawed, I won't want her in my life. Flawed I am. Even messy at times. Emotional and impractical. An ultimate act of self-destruction I am not. 

If you believe in yourself, if you know there's a method to the madness of your existence despite whatever obstacles and objections remain, don't let anyone take that from you. 

Sunday, March 15, 2015

To All The Dogs I've Loved.

"What kind of dog?"

I'm asked this question by many curious and friendly strangers on walks downtown, and I'm happy to oblige with an answer. Private Joker, ever the darling despite his odd nature, is equally receptive to unfamiliar hands reaching for his head and giving gentle pats on his rump.

"What kind of dog?"

When asked by a potential landlord, this question is the death knell of my housing dreams.

Normally an eloquent speaker, I find myself reduced to bungled phrases and stiff pauses: "Um, well, he's about 55 pounds...some kind of mix...some sort of bulldog...almost five years old." And then my attempt at a save: "I can provide a reference."

While my fumbling does me no favors, it's not an indication of brewing deceit. Truth is, I don't know what my Private Joker is. I was living in Memphis in 2010 when a friend called, asking if I'd foster a puppy his friend had rescued. A day later, Amanda, the rescuer, arrived at my house with a skinny, scabby, damaged boy she had been calling Jake.

Amanda came at me on my front lawn in an explosion of color: blue eyes against burnt caramel skin surely helped along by a bevy of bulbs or a spray booth and whitest-white teeth flashing each brief second between big smiles and bursts of Southern-drawl-dripped, light-speed syllables.

She was all caffeine to Jake's chamomile.

My boisterous new acquaintance and I walked my meek foster boy through the front door of my rental bungalow in the hip Cooper-Young neighborhood in Midtown Memphis to meet the rest of the family. Kaiser and Phaedra, my two "pit bull types" of a decade, greeted Joker with not too much interest, but not too little. Seamless, I'd call it.

"Jake" wasn't my style, so I christened him Private Joker and didn't do much in the way of getting him adopted. And it was seamless, the relationship between my three quadrupedal kids--that is, until the tumor in Phaedra's neck grew to the size of a grapefruit and rendered her intolerant and defensive. By that time, we'd moved back to my small hometown in West Virginia and were temporarily living with my parents. Unexpectedly, Kaiser beat Phaedra to the grave, in 2012, four months after my first child was born. My big brown love was the victim of cancer that had invaded his lungs and very suddenly erased him from our family portrait. Phaedra continued to fade. Could she have spoken a word, she wouldn't have uttered one in complaint; rather, her way was fierce independence. She fought for life for another year and a half. The death of my dogs, as death will do, branded my soul with an everlasting essence of our time together.

Seven months later, Private Joker, my son Zion, and I found our first home together: a two-bedroom apartment in a four-unit building. Our place was perfectly situated in my dream neighborhood in my second home, Morgantown, WV, only 40 miles from my hometown but light years ahead in culture and opportunity.

Since my college days at WVU,  Morgantown had become sadly inclined toward breed profiling, and my rental search had been long and arduous, littered--tainted is more like it--with that miserable telltale question:

"What kind of dog?"

Surprisingly--and beyond thankfully--I was able to acquire my apartment without much fanfare about Joker. The property manager was a dog person and previous owner of the much-maligned "pit bull." Mind you, the quotation marks aren't to express irony or disdain for the term; they're purely functional, because there is no such breed. "Pit bull" is a blanket term used to describe different breeds, such as American Pit Bull Terriers, American Staffordshire Terriers, Bull Terriers, Staffordshire Bull Terriers, and American Bulldogs. And these days, due to over-breeding and cross-breeding, it's hard to determine the breed legitimacy of any pit bull-looking dog, unless it comes from a reputable breeder, I suppose. It's my opinion that there are very few reputable breeders out there, so let's just scratch that last part.

Breed discrimination—like its racial- and gender-based counterparts—makes it hard for me to flow like water over a stone, to achieve that general state of transcendence that I desire. Instead, it makes me feel like a tiny volcano, capable of spitting fire and catapulting molten rocks in the direction of breed haters. Of course, like bigots and misogynists, breed discriminators don't see themselves in a negative light. Rather, they fancy themselves pragmatists and protectors. People like me—who are often denigrated as "crazy" animal advocates—know better, not because we believe differently but because we're armed with facts and experience.

While I have an obvious emotional stake in the plight of the pit bull-type dog (from here on called pit bull for brevity's sake), my defense of the dogs isn't limited to the confines of the left-hand side of my chest where my bleeding heart resides. One doesn't become a seasoned debater by making emotionally based arguments, after all. Making a solid case requires objectivity and perspicacity, and—despite that dormant volcano that resides within me—those qualities have permanent residency in my soul.

We crazies want to know this: Do lawmakers and insurance companies exercise provident thinking as they're drafting policy that aims to ban pit bulls? It seems impossible that they could, or else they'd realize the utter mess they're creating in the communities they purportedly want to support and protect.

There are so many layers to the issue. So many possibilities, and none of them good. What happens to these displaced pit bulls? Are they all euthanized? Who foots the bill and who houses them in the meantime? If animal control is the answer, that's laughable. County animal control departments already have their hands full from countless irresponsible, inhumane residents who neglect and drop off their pets. It's unlikely they have extra funds to take on another burden, which could range from a few pit bulls to hundreds. Will they ship the dogs to rescues? Again, laughable. Rescues too are overburdened because of the irresponsibility and inhumanity of humans.

Breed bans are not merely a local issue for individual communities. For one, breed bans aren't isolated occurrences—they're widespread and common—and their very existence indicates a desire for the breed to be eradicated entirely. So let's look at the big picture: There are millions of pit bulls in the United States. Now, lawmakers, insurance companies, and concerned citizens: What shall we do with them all? Millions of living creatures that you've deemed—hysterically, mind you—deserving of displacement, or, more accurately, death.

What, precisely, is pragmatic about disrupting the lives of not simply nameless, faceless dog owners but contributing members of communities in which these dogs are banned? Many owners would sooner move than give up their pets, which creates a host of problems like broken leases, displaced families, and loss of income. Do lawmakers want to lose residents? Do insurance companies want to lose customers? There is and will continue to be backlash, in the form of lawsuits, grassroots movements, and business opportunism—savvy insurance companies will see a gap and lure clients from pit bull-unfriendly providers. It's already happening.

Then there's the core issue with which we crazies are very familiar: the utter disregard for living creatures—both the dogs and the humans involved. We can't appeal to law or policy for leniency on this aspect, but we'll continue to make it known. Because that's what you do for love.

Those who support breed bans should spend some time researching the pit bull, particularly in respect to the sickeningly high number of abuse cases. Humans are harming these dogs far more than they're harming humans. Furthermore, these dogs are remarkably resilient and, to anthropomorphize, forgiving. Unlike humans, who often don't fare well following years of abuse and neglect, these dogs quite often go on to become wonderful pets.

The problem with pit bulls is not that they're innately dangerous. The problem is one created by humans: People have over-bred and cross-bred, abused and abandoned these dogs, leaving a massive population that requires rehab, re-training, and re-homing. People get pit bulls as status symbols instead of family pets, not giving them the attention and socialization due any dog, much less a type of dog that has added pressure to prove itself due to social stigma. In our current climate of pit bull fear mongering, these dogs can't afford to fail. Even so much as a growl from a pit bull is interpreted far differently than a growl from, say, a Golden Retriever.

It took me many years of raising pit bulls to build my understanding of these dogs. For the most part, I was on my own; I had no experienced owners to guide me. I made mistakes along the way, but none of my dogs failed while I learned. After becoming a mother three years ago, I found a new responsibility as a pit bull owner, which was to oversee and guide the relationship between my son and Private Joker. I'm devoted to giving them both a life filled with love and attention and boundaries.

I want this country to re-assess its attitude toward the pit bull. As my go-to pit bull resource, Pit Bull Rescue Central, says: Educate, Don't Legislate. Breed bans are more problem than solution.

I'm presently mid-search for a new rental home, and I fully expect the dreaded question to come up every time I make an inquiry to a potential landlord.

"What kind of dog?"

Next time, maybe I'll answer this way: The kind that makes me smile. The kind I naturally include in my life decisions. The kind I vow to protect. The kind that has been an invaluable companion. The kind that is a member of my family.