BRAAAAINS.

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Well, this blog has been dark for a bit because I have been fussed about my kid. This is nothing new. I am often fussed about my kids. I am a born fusser.

Two weeks ago, my daughter was downhill skiing – the last run at the end of a long day down a not-so-difficult slope. And she decided to jump on some kind of box or obstacle or whatever, because she felt like being a hot shot. It was a trick she’d done a hundred times. And she face planted on the ice. Hard. She was wearing a helmet, thank goodness, but brains are delicate. Ridiculously so.

My husband brought her home, gash-lipped and swollen-cheeked. The side of her face had swelled to the size of a softball. The cut across her lip was not infected, but it would be soon. And she had a concussion. And I went bananas. Like, I was so anguished at the injuries on my offspring, that I could hardly even see straight. Or think straight. Or even walk straight. I am only just recovering.

The brain is a funny thing – all mush and squish and water. The consistency of tofu. The color of porridge. And yet. It organizes the mechanization of the the organism – powering motion and control, balance and awareness, analysis, planning and synthesis. How is it that something that fragile is responsible for the miracle of thinking, wondering and imagination? How is it that it only takes three pounds of delicate goo to create Calculus? Or write the Divine Comedy? Or design the Forbidden City?

My kids are smart. Way smarter than I am or was. And their brains are precious to me. My daughter – math genius, painter, voracious reader, novel writer, aspiring engineer/comic book artist, opera singer – is at this moment in her life when her intelligence and talents are revealing themselves to her. Where she is seeing for the first time what her brain can do and where her brain can take her. Where she is taking ownership of all that she is. And the thought – the very thought – of a disruption in that was, frankly, frightening to me.

So I started learning about brains.

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Did you know, for example, that the brain is 70% water? Our thoughts are fish, I think. They are bright schools of flashing fin and scale and eye. They crowd the waves and plunge in the depths and strike out on their own. They have teeth. They have speed and agility. And sometimes they are sharks.

Did you know that the first sense that we develop in utero is not smell, as I have so very often erroneously told my students, but touch? We develop our sense of touch at eight weeks gestation, and the first place we experience touch is on our lips and on our cheeks. A kiss, I think. We are ready to kiss before we can kiss, we are ready to be kissed before we ever see another face. The first thing we kiss is water – just as our thoughts live in water. Our first moment of love and thought is experienced alone.

When awake, the human brain uses about the same amount of energy to power a light bulb. We don’t actually have to be particularly bright in order to do this. Dull and tiresome people are just as shiny. This is good to remember. Water and light, particle and wave. We are many things at once. 

When we learn something new, the structure of our brains changes. This change is visible on scans. We are flux. We are change. We are the tides of the ocean and the wandering river. We are water droplets in the air, dispersing and gathering and dispersing again. We are a gathering storm.

When a person is deprived of food, their neurons begin to eat themselves. This can happen very quickly. This is the reason why we become foggy and stupid when we accidentally miss lunch, and why it is a terrible idea to ever go on a diet. We are cannibals. We are insatiable. We are the Worm Ouroboros, devouring ourselves forever. 

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When I took my daughter to the doctor, he did his tests and pronounced a concussion. He gave her a serious look. “Concussions are no joke,” he said. “You need to let yourself turn off for a little while. No school. No homework. No reading. No screens. Just you and a dark room and your eyes on the wall, kiddo. You need to let that brain heal.” He explained what a concussion was and how they worked – how she had two bruises on her brain and not just one – a bruise on the front, and a bruise on the back. He explained that, just like a sprained ankle, the brain heals best in a state of rest.

“Brain rest,” he said. “That’s what they call it. And I’m not going to lie to you: it’s really, really boring. You just have to let yourself do nothing. All day.” She stared at him as though he had asked her to swallow a truck full of sand.

“Can’t I just get a new one?” she asked. “A brain, I mean. Surely you have extra brains in jars, sitting around somewhere.”

The doctor assured her that he did not, but Ella was skeptical. “What’s the point of science if we can’t put our brains in jars and swap them out when we feel like it?”

(She denies saying this, by the way. I assure you that she did. Plus she is an unreliable narrator of her life, currently, because of the concussion. Or, at least she was then. And anyway, this is my blog. So.)

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Fortunately, her teachers take concussions seriously, and were extremely amenable to flexibility. They like her brain, too, and were happy to have her stay home and rest. “Better to have her rest at home for an extra day,” one teacher said, “than to send her to school before she’s ready, and have her feel so lousy that she has to go home anyway.”

And so we did. But still I worry. I found out yesterday that she has been carrying her stuff around all week because she couldn’t remember her locker combination. And I notice that she is tired a lot more. I don’t want to foist my worries on her – she’s got enough worries of her own. And so I bite my tongue and fuss.

About three years ago, I was out for a run and slipped on the ice, knocking myself unconscious. I don’t think I was out for very long – in fact I know I was not, given that it was incredibly cold, and I hadn’t frozen yet. But it didn’t even occur to me to get myself checked out, nor did it occur to me that I might have a concussion. But I was super tired for weeks after. And I had atrocious headaches, the likes of which I had never experienced before or since. And I did find myself forgetting stuff. And three months later, I fell into one of the worst depressions of my life – and I’m only just now finding my feet.

Did I have a concussion? Did that concussion make me more prone to outsized sadness and anxious thinking? Would I have avoided later complications had I given myself space and time to heal when it was necessary to heal? Perhaps. All I know is that I will take no such risks with my child.

My daughter is now at her rehearsal at Project Opera (the youth training program at Minnesota Opera – a wondrous organization), and things are getting back to normal. I’m still encouraging her to limit her screen time, and to try to maximize her sleep every day. And she is very good at noticing that she is more tired than usual. She lays down for a little bit when she gets home from school. She turns in early. She is giving herself permission to relax. This is a good thing.

I hate it when my kids get hurt. I hate it. In the meantime, I’ll do what I can to protect that beautiful brain. It is ever so precious to me. Of course it is.

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In which I am called *that word*.

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Oh, don’t be coy with me. You know exactly which word I am talking about.

I called my husband right after it happened. I was in tears. “A man called me the baddest word,” I said, sniveling like a little child. Enraged at the outrage of it, and enraged at my own hurt as well.

It’s just a word, I fussed at myself.

No it isn’t, my hurt fussed back.

My husband paused. “Which bad word?” he asked carefully.

“The baddest one,” I said.

Silence.

I amended. “The baddest one for a lady,” I said primly.

What came from my husband’s mouth next was a series of “Oh.”

“Oh,” he said, uttering the “Oh” of comprehension.

Oh,” he said next, uttering the “Oh” of disbelief.

“OH!” he said finally, uttering the “Oh” of rage.

“Do you want me punch him?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said.

“I probably won’t punch him,” he said. “Plus, we don’t know who he is.”

This was true. It happened on the corner of 46th and Hiawatha, where I had walked through the wind and the cold to get medicine for my dog at the pharmacy. I had a green light and a walk sign. He nearly hit me as he tried to turn illegally through the crosswalk. I jumped backward, and he missed me by inches. I was too astonished to say anything, too terrified to register anything except relief that I wasn’t hurt. He rolled down his window, leaned across the passenger, his face was twisted and angry and hard.

“Get out of the way you stupid c***,” he said.

And then he sped away.

And I walked home, horrified.

I have been called bad names before. Sometimes deservedly so. Sometimes not. But I’ve never been as upset as I was this time around. Now, granted, I was having a rough day (my dog, my dog. everything returns to my dog). And there was the fact of my near-squishing as well. As a person of faith, I’m not particularly afraid of dying, but there is something gravely undignified in a Death By Squishing – by a horrible-looking van driven by a foul-mouthed man, no less. It wouldn’t be my preference is what I’m saying.

But why, though. Why insult the person you almost killed? I have been thinking about this for days, and I can’t figure it out. What is it about fear that makes it harder to be compassionate? What is it about doing something wrong that makes people have a harder time to show care? Why is it so damn hard to say “I’m sorry”?

It did not occur to the driver to check for pedestrians. I get that. It did not occur to the driver that there might be someone crossing in the crosswalk on so cold a day. It was very cold. And it was bright. I get it that mistakes can happen.

But why yell ‘stupid’. And why, why, why that other word. The baddest word. And why does that word hurt me so?

In the 30 Rock episode “The C-Word” Liz Lemon is called it by a petulant employee (the petulantest), and she tries to shake it off, but can’t. In the episode she says, “There isn’t an equivalent insult for a man,” and that isn’t entirely true – men get called “dicks” all the time, which feels like it should be the same, but strangely it is not. Perhaps it is the venom withheld from one word and piled in the other. Perhaps it is our culture’s misogynistic distain for the female body – Francis Grose, in his 1785 A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, defined it as “a nasty word for a nasty thing.” Indeed, even though the word was in popular usage since the 1300’s, it didn’t even show up in any regular English dictionary until 1961, when Webster’s finally decided to use it, helpfully calling it obscene. 

It is that, for sure.

Now, it wasn’t always so. Chaucer uses the word playfully in the Cantebury Tales. And Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress”, plays with the word, substituting it with “quaint” and lets the reader fill in the blanks. So how did a playful turn on joyful sexuality become the ugliest of insults. Intention? Body hatred? Lady hatred? Maybe all of those things. Maybe we can blame the Puritans. Maybe we can blame mean men in vans.

And I know people who seek to reclaim that word. To use it powerfully, lovingly, playfully. To assert that the nastiness in the word is not emblematic of the thing described, but of the speaker himself. There is no part of me that is nasty, after all. Every part of me is a gift from my Creator, and has in it the spark of the Divine. And I can say that, and I can use that word in my own private conversations and it does not change the fact that the intention of that insult matters. And that ugly talk is ugly talk, no matter how we try to reframe the context of our vocabularies.

There are few words in our language with this much power to shock. And hurt.

Which brings me back to the near-squishing. There is no way this person could think he was in the right and I was in the wrong. There was no way that he could have thought that I actually was stupid for crossing the street. At a crosswalk. With a green light and a “walk” sign. So what is really going on?

He said that word to hurt me. He said that word to belittle me. He said that word to remove my humanity – to make me feel as though I did not have the right to occupy that space, to move across a street in safety in the winter. He said that word to make himself feel better. If my humanity is lessened than the potential harm is lessened too. He said that word to absolve himself. He said that word to remove me from the possibility of compassion. He said that word so as to relieve himself of the bother of caring. He said that word because his power of movement was more valuable to him than mine. He would not have said that word to a man. He likely would not have called him a d***, either. He likely would not have said anything at all. Men have the right to exist, right?

This all happened days ago. Friday, to be exact. And I’ve been stewing ever since. I have been thinking about the things I should have said, and the things I should have done.

“Did you get his license plate,” my mom asked. “Because that was illegal. You were on a crosswalk”

“No,” I said. “I didn’t even think of it. I could only be shocked.”

She shrugged. “I probably wouldn’t have either.”

And maybe that’s why. When words have the power to shock – they have more power than the word itself. They remove the impulse of action from the recipient. They pin us in place.

I hate that. I hate how powerless I felt. I hate that my instinct was to crumple up. I hate that my instinct was to flush and sputter. To feel less than. It is a crummy feeling. The crummiest.

I’m not sure what I want out of this post. Other than to pin this experience to the great bulletin board in the sky. “See,” I say. “This is what happened. This is how I felt. Make of it what you will.”

Update on the Ancient Dog

Well, the Vet came and went yesterday, but Harper, my one thousand year old beastie, still remains. He said to us, “You know? Every time I see your dog’s name on my patient list I think, ‘Oh, god. This is it.’ And every time I see her, I think, ‘You know what? Maybe not.'”

So that’s our answer right now. Maybe not. I’ll take it.

In the meantime, we’re managing her pain and giving her fluids, in hopes that she starts eating and drinking more regularly on her own. She’s sleeping a lot, but she’s not in any kind of visible distress, which is good news.

The Vet said to us yesterday, “So, outside of the last couple days, which have been admittedly terrible, how would you describe her quality of life?”

“Well,” we said, “she eats her food and drinks her water and is super excited when someone drops something on the ground so she can taste it. She loves her yard, and loves chasing the rabbits and the squirrels. When she can see them. Which isn’t very often. Sometimes she chases nothing because she thinks that there might be a squirrel there maybe. She likes it when one of the kids takes her for a walk, and she really likes going for a hike.”

“She hikes?” the Vet said.

“Sometimes,” we said. “Not as far as she used to go, but she went five miles this summer. Slowly. With breaks. But she made it.”

“And she’s twenty years old.”

“At least.”

He listened to her heart and listened to her lungs and felt her belly and looked in her mouth. He looked at us. “Honestly, it could go either way – you never know if a dog gets it in their head to circle the drain. She might have decided that this is it. Or maybe she just feels crummy, and this is her feeling crummy. The main thing is getting her through the next couple days. But, given all that? There’s a good chance she might rally.”

My husband thinks he has money on her. Maybe I should put money on her.

In any case, I really appreciate all the prayers and well-wishes from yesterday. I think she heard them and I think she felt them. She’s resting comfortably right now. Is that rallying? I don’t know. I’m just trying to get through the day. And that’s what it will be for a while. One day at a time.

I told my kids that every time we think, “This is it,” with our dog (and believe me, there have been lots of those), what we feel is relief. And we should feel relief. But we also have to remind ourselves that each time this happens, it brings us closer to the actual “this is it” moment. Our dog has lived longer than most dogs. She is older than my oldest child. She is older than my marriage. But she won’t live forever. None of us will.

And maybe that’s the point. Life is fragile, and fleeting. A dog’s life; a person’s life. We are precious because we are fragile, and because our time is brief. We mark the spot where we were and lived through our connection, our kindness, our affection, our love. Our dogs do not build cities or write policy or make war or give speeches or build bombs or write books. And yet they leave profound and lifelong impacts on the people who love them. And we treasure them forever.

“We may get to keep Harper for another day or another week or another year, but the way we remember her will be the same. She will be the bad-breathed beastie who loved you best and most. And we will hold ourselves lucky to know and have known her.”

And really, that’s what any of us hope to be known for. The one who loved best and most. The one who was kind. The one who cared. The one who was ever present with an open heart. So that is what I carry with me today. A bit of Harperishness in my heart.

Stay.

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My dog is bathed and dried and wrapped up and next to the heating vent. I got her to eat a little this morning. She drank some watered-down unsalted beef broth (organic, because she is worth it), and it felt like a miracle. I’m sitting next to her, my computer on my lap, pretending to write my book, but really I’m just looking at my dog. Keeping close.

“Stay,” I say.

She thumps her tail.

“Stay,” I say again. She closes her eyes and groans she pushes her nose against my leg with a sigh.

When we live with dogs, we have a set of words that our animals are trained to obey on cue. We say, “Sit”, and they sit. But that isn’t always what we mean. When Harper was young – a gnarly, snarly, scruffy little street dog, narrowly escaping Death By Dogcatcher – I would say “Sit” and it would mean something very specific. “Sit” meant “Oh My God Stop Being Such A Crazypants, You Crazypants.” Sit meant “No, You May NOT Remove The Mailman’s Leg!” or it meant, “Bashing Your Head Against The Door Doesn’t Actually Open The Door!” or it meant, “If You Don’t Stop Barking At That Squirrel, I Might Actually Explode The House And Then You Will Be Sorry.”

Later, when we had kids, “Sit” meant “Keep Close To The Baby,” or it meant, “Stop Pulling On The Leash Or I Might Accidentally Knock Over The Stroller,” or it meant, “No, You May Not Climb Up Onto The High Chair Tray; You Must Wait For The Baby’s Food To Fall.”

And later than that, “Sit” meant, “Yes I Know Our House Is Overrun With Crazy Boys; Sit And Lean On Me And Know You Are Safe.” “Sit” meant “Everything Is Fine, I Promise.”

Today, she is having trouble pulling herself into a sitting position. She did it for a little bit this morning. “Sit,” I said, and I meant, “Please.”

“Sit, honey,” I said. Please, oh please.

“You can do it,” I said. Oh please, oh please, oh please.

She did it. For a little while. But eventually, her legs splayed out in front of her and she pressed her belly to the ground. She sighed.

When she was young I used to tell her to stay. It took a while for that one to stick. She was a ranger – it’s how she came to us in the first place. And no matter how tightly we had our fences and how high, she managed to find her way out of them. Usually at night. She’d trick us into letting her out claiming she had to pee (what a trickster!) and two minutes later she’d be gone. We’d hear her scratching at the door in the middle of the night (she’d climb over the fence), and there she’d be – shiny coat, bright eyes, a wanderer’s grin about her mouth. Sometimes she’d have something with her – a ham bone or a squeaky toy. We figured she had regular folks that she’d pay visits to.

“Stay,” we told her. What we meant was, “We’re worried about you. We know you’re smart and savvy and no car would ever squish you and no street dog would ever best you in a fight. We know you’re street smart and gnarly and canny. We know you can take care of yourself. But we miss you when you’re gone. And we need you.”

“Stay,” we said again and again and again. And, finally, she stayed.

Now “Stay” means something else.

She is pressing her back against my leg. I am leaning against the bookshelf and it is uncomfortable. I should get a pillow but I don’t want to. I don’t want to leave her.

“Stay,” I say. She thumps her tail.

Don’t go, my heart says. Please don’t go.

She thumps her tail.

“Stay,” I say again. “Stay, stay, stay.” Don’t go, don’t go, don’t go.

I love you, thumps her tail.

“I love you, too,” I say. “Don’t go,” I say out loud.

She thumps her tail.

I might have to, she says.

The vet is coming at three. I’d appreciate a kind thought or a prayer, if you happen to have an extra one lying around. Harper would appreciate it too.