the year of the dog

This is my fifth blog post of 2018. There was a time when I wrote a post every day or two. Have I run out of things to say, or is my threshold for sharing higher? Maybe it’s both. Yet here we are.

For me, 2018 was the year of the dog. (It was also the year of the dog according to the Chinese zodiac, so I guess it was the same for millions of other people.) We said goodbye to Stella the rat dog and hello to Ripley the indefatigable. Even through the din of life with a very busy puppy, the rat dog’s presence is still sensed. In the middle of the night, I sometimes hear Stella readjusting herself in her bed, a toenail hitting the floor, the sigh of a blanket. It’s comforting rather than creepy, a trick of acoustics that I welcome.

I highly recommend the rat-dog-as-blanket for any napping-related activities.

Where Stella was an easy, laid back companion, Ripley is a part-time job. She needs to go to dog school. Attend dog socials. Go on at least one walk a day. One thing I love about walks with Ripley is the chance to notice the things you miss when hoofing it down the road for exercise or just to get somewhere.

Hold me closer, tiny family.

Waiting for Ripley to do her business gives me more time to notice the small stuff. To get gardening ideas. To judge people’s lawn art.

Notice I’m not sharing where you can find this. Otherwise, next time I pass by it, people with selfie sticks will be in the way of the view.

When on a hike with Ripley in Big Sur, waiting for her to pee, I noticed this shrine (above) just off the trail. I assumed it was a memorial, but then I saw the Sharpie marker, ultra fine–my favorite writing utensil. I thought perhaps there was a little notebook in that tin box on the bottom right that says Happy Holidays, a place to record the date and your thoughts upon finding this interesting collection in tall grass high above the ocean. So I opened the box. It was full of weed.

Road tripping Ripley.

Right before the mid-term elections, James, the dogs and I set off on a 4,000-plus-mile road trip from the West Coast to the Gulf Coast to meet my parents’ labradoodle puppy. Oh, and also see friends and family.

Crystal with Ripley the poodle-chihuahua-terrier, Steve with Bailey the labradoodle.

One thing I love about the road trips James and I take home is the randomness of our conversations. Not sure if it’s road weariness, extended close proximity or steady movement that knocks the interesting stuff out of the corners of our minds, but out it comes.

Ripley the pega-corn.

The best idea we came up with on this trip, which is also just the worst, was this: Doggie Trick or Treating. Halloween afternoon, before the kiddies go out to collect their loot, sad, childless people like us take their dogs door to door to gather dog treats. The dogs can be in costume or not, as can the people holding the leash. This is actually a slam dunk for the dog-centric place we live, but we’re not taking the idea to the finish line. Help yourself.

There’s just something about West Texas.

We took I-40 on the way to Texas and I-10 on the way back, so we passed through a good amount of four states. The parts next to the interstate, anyway, with short detours to Sedona and Tucumcari.

This pig has been hanging from my rearview for a decade. It also goes on road trips in rented mini-vans.

From California to Texas, the most bombed-out small towns had the biggest show of Trump support. Huge MAGA signs were tacked onto abandoned buildings with broken windows or propped up in yards next to cars with flat tires. Ahh, irony.

We are living in a Stephen King novel.

The president is a villain straight out of a Stephen King novel. The orange makeup. The ridiculous hair. The not having a dog. He’s Randall Flagg for the internet age. The Tweetin’ Dude. Guess we’re all waiting for a precocious child and his magical, elderly companion to save us–after numerous narrative detours sprinkled with quotes from classic rock songs.

Swing to the left.

I hope 2019 restores some balance. As the tide ebbs, it must also flow. When the pendulum reaches one extreme, it begins its journey back to the other. Where you find Hall, you will also find Oates.

Life is a circle.

My best wishes to you as we prepare to embark on a new trip around the sun. I hope we each receive the unconditional love of a dog, laugh often and hold each other close in spirit.

And happy birthday to my brother Mason, who is missed every day.

rest in love Stella the Rat Dog (7.25.2004 – 10.14.2018)

Once upon a time, James quite unexpectedly brought home a stray dog. We named her Dali in honor of her different-colored eyes (and, we later found out, craziness). For balance, I told James I’d bring home a dog of my choosing someday, and we’d all live together in a dog-centric version of the nuclear family.

Enter Stella

Six months to the day after James brought Dali home, I drove to Brenham to meet my mom in the Wal-Mart parking lot to choose Stella from a litter of three. They were curled up in a cardboard box in the back of a white PT Cruiser owned by a woman with the last name of Klaus. Mom spotted the puppies earlier that day and had a feeling one of them was mine. She was right.

Baby Stella with my grandfather Ted

Stella was so tiny when she joined our family, she fit in James’ shirt pocket. We thought we should make a few adjustments to keep her safe until she grew bigger. Out of fear I would step on her in the kitchen since she stuck to me like velcro, I wore an apron and placed her in the big pocket on front while cooking. To protect her from Dali, who was always a live wire, we put her in a child’s playpen at night. But maybe these things weren’t necessary as she was tougher than she looked.

Stella the puppy giving Dali the business

Size of a bag of sugar, heart of a lion

Though Stella stayed small, hence the “rat dog” nickname, she had the moxie of a much larger dog. She took no shit and made it clear how she felt if things weren’t going the way she wanted. Her big round eyes were infinitely expressive, as were her radar ears, which she moved like semaphore flags. Until the very end, she always dropped those ears in a sweet hello when I walked into the room. And I always felt myself soften at the sight.

 

Stella hated wearing clothes (as all dogs should), but she did wear this tutu from Grandma long enough for me to snap a pic

Stella was a dog, not a doll and refused to wear silly outfits or ride in a purse (though I tried both). I’m grateful she wasn’t that dog and didn’t let me become that person. It would have been off-brand for both of us.

She hated dancing, especially when I did the cabbage patch in her face, and adored the taste of warm chicken. She liked to lie on my dirty clothes in the bathroom while I took a shower and would dance on her hind legs in exchange for a treat or just some delighted laughter. She barked at the vacuum, panted when it thundered, had the worst breath you’ve ever smelled and gave little tiny kisses on your nose when presented the opportunity.

Stella on the drive to California

Not anti-social, just selective

Chihuahuas are notorious for only loving one or two people, and Stella the chihuahua-terrier was no exception. She loved me and James, tolerated a few others and ignored the rest of the world.

She was generally easy-going and the perfect travel companion, happy as long as she was in close proximity to her people. When I worked from home, she spent her days curled up in a bed under my desk in front of a tiny heater to keep her warm. The majority of my evenings over the past 14 years ended with me leaning back on the couch and Stella on my chest, over my heart.

The last photo of Stella from a few weeks ago and a good representation of our evenings for the past decade and a half–note her ears are still on alert

Though Stella was on a gradual, yet menacingly relentless decline over the past couple of years, her departure was still as surprising and painful as these things always are. We mourn the soul that we’ve lost, and we also mark the end of an era in our lives together. Stella was a bridge to people and places that are gone. She was firmly part of our later youth, and she left us firmly in our middle age. She was a happy spirit who in turn made us happier people, and I’ll always miss her.

Dogs are one of the best things about life, and I feel privileged to have had the time I did with Stella “Mrs. Jones” Jackson, aka Ratty, aka the Rat Dog, aka the only kid I ever had. Rest in love.

DOGS! DOGS! DOGS!

This is Ripley.

She’s four and a half months old, a new occupant in our house as of a week ago, and, as our vet put it, “a terrier through and through.” She has beautiful amber eyes, a scruffy coat and the sunniest disposition of any dog I’ve ever lived with. And true to her terrier nature, she’s tenacious and bright. And a total handful.

Though she ended up at an animal shelter with her mom and sisters, we believe she was well loved before we came into her life. She survived parvovirus, which required careful, potentially expensive care and some luck. She already knew how to fetch, doesn’t mind having her nails clipped and lets you reach in her mouth to take out the peanut shell she found in the yard and really wants to eat.

After taking her to the vet this week, we found out she has giardia, an intestinal parasite likely picked up at the shelter. Some dogs host the parasite with no ill effects, but since she’d already been through a serious health issue she was more susceptible. We’re in the middle of dealing with that–it’s highly contagious and a bitch to get rid of.

And then there’s Stella.

At the start of this year, Stella wasn’t doing well, and we thought we were on the downward slope with her. But she’s experienced a rebound of sorts. She’s still mobility challenged due to serious arthritis, but she’s eating like a champ and full of attitude. And not ready to go.

We didn’t come to the decision to get another dog easily. Stella has never been a fan of other dogs, considering herself closer to human status, and her inability to ambulate compounds that issue. But after nursing our dog Dali through an illness and then departure, then nursing Stella for the past year plus, we missed the simple joy of a young, happy dog. We decided to gamble and hope for the best.

Though Ripley doesn’t understand why Stella isn’t as excited to see her as she is to see Stella, she’s learning to leave her alone. Since Stella was never the outdoorsy type, she doesn’t seem to mind the ball throwing and walks Ripley gets to enjoy. In just one week, we’ve already reached a comfortable dynamic. I’m grateful.

Names are important.

We took our time deciding on a name for this dog, wanting to come up with something that a) reflected who she is and b) we wouldn’t mind yelling at the beach to get her to come to us. We settled on Ripley, named after Sigourney Weaver’s character in the Alien films. It fits.

It took us two days to make our decision. Here’s a small sampling of the options we, smartly, decided not to pursue:

  • Athena (great song by The Who, feel-like-a-jackass-when-yelling potential)
  • Whiskey (“they’ll think we’re alcoholics”)
  • Aja (yes, the Steely Dan album) (pronounced “Asia”) (not my suggestion)
  • Queso (obvious reasons)
  • Echo (interesting idea, but no)
  • Zelda (the dog, the myth, the legend)
  • Cookie (too cutesy for this scrappy dog)
  • Schotzie (cool dog from James’ childhood)
  • Rosé (why does it keep coming back to alcohol?)
  • Supertramp (my personal favorite from the reject pile) (mostly because I would love to see someone standing on the beach yelling SUPERTRAMP into the wind over and over)

Del Boca Vista, 2014

This is the sign that now graces our front porch. It’s the same design as the signs found on the historic homes around town–all pre-1926 dwellings (ours was built in 1929, so no dice).

We found the maker of the historic signs and commissioned this one. Only instead of it featuring the name of the family that built the house and the year of completion, we went a different direction.

It’s the motto we adopted soon after arriving here in 2014. We were fish out of Texas. No family nearby. No friends. No connections. No inside track. Just two people (and their dogs) having a productive mid-life crisis by trying something different.

There are a couple of ways you can approach being in a radically different scene. Go gently into the fray and hope you don’t bump into anyone, or say fuck it, we’re here. Let’s get a drink.

We chose option two. But it wasn’t always easy or comfortable. So we called upon the great Jerry Stiller (well, Frank Constanza) for a little encouragement. If you aren’t familiar with the Del Boca Vista storyline on Seinfeld from 1996, let me refresh your memory.

Jerry’s parents have just purchased a condo at Del Boca Vista in Florida. George’s parents make a casual comment about the condo and are quickly rebuffed by the Seinfelds, who tell them there are no condos left.

Though they weren’t even interested in moving to Del Boca Vista, the Costanzas decide no one’s going to keep them out. They’re moving in, baby.

I don’t remember which one of us said it first, but we both knew right away…this was it. Our mantra. Can’t keep us out of Del Boca Vista.

It doesn’t matter how supercalifragilistic things might get, we’re still going to be right in the thick of things. Lock, stock and barrel.

And irritating the people who have historic homes with our interloper sign? That’s just a bonus.

unrelenting relevance

Here’s a play I wrote for the 2014 Dallas One-Minute Play Festival at Kitchen Dog Theater.

BOULDER HOLDER
by Crystal Jackson

(GIRL is facing upstage with her shirt unbuttoned as MOM helps her fasten something underneath it.)

GIRL: I don’t want to wear this.

MOM: You’re starting middle school today. It’s time.

GIRL: But it hurts.

MOM: All your friends already wear one.

GIRL: It’s gonna rub a hole in my armpit.

MOM: Pretty soon you’ll feel naked without it. You might even sleep in it.

GIRL: I’ll never want to sleep in this.

MOM: It’s too early for you to say never about anything.

GIRL: I’m twelve. I think I know what I like.

MOM: Okay, all done. See? It doesn’t look so bad.

(GIRL turns downstage to face the mirror. She is wearing a shoulder holster with a gun secured inside.)

GIRL: I look stupid.

MOM: You look like a big girl who’s ready for sixth grade. Now go grab your Hello Kitty backpack and I’ll take you to school.

this is not another think piece about THE LAST JEDI

Christopher Reeve was my first movie star crush (and maybe my first crush in general). As I watched him in Superman, I desperately wanted to connect to Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane so I could pretend to be Superman/Clark Kent’s girlfriend. But I couldn’t. And not just because I always found Margot vaguely creepy. It’s because even as a young girl, I wanted to be the person doing the thing, not the person cheering on the person doing the thing.

I wanted to be brave enough to hunt down a great white shark, not be the scared wife on the marine radio calling to check in.

I wanted to help a cute, waddling alien get home, not be the cute, lisping little sister getting in the way.

I wanted to skip school and end up on a parade float in Chicago singing a song by The Beatles, not be the fringe-jacketed girlfriend looking on with love in her eyes.

It’s not that I wanted to be the guy. I simply wanted to be someone who was active instead of reactionary.

I didn’t want to be saved, I wanted to do the saving.

But the movies I watched as a kid (and until last week, actually) featured women who were relegated to the sidelines or only defined by their relationships with men. The hot girlfriend, doting mother, bitchy ex-wife, ditzy coworker, fat and sexless best friend, hooker with a heart of gold.

Even badass Sigourney Weaver in Alien still had to walk around in her drawers. Teeny panties and a thin white tank top. She got to play a role where she was the hero, but she had to show a little T&A in exchange.

And in the decades since, that’s been a pretty consistent exchange rate. “We’ll let you kick some ass, but you have to wear shorty shorts and a half shirt while doing it. And make sure you’re always slightly nippy.”

As I watched the female characters in The Last Jedi do the saving, some dressed in drab but sporty clothes and others in more refined (but not tit-tastic) garb, I felt elated. I thought of my niece Molly and how much I wanted her to see this movie. I thought of my nephew Rowan and how much I wanted him to see this movie. I thought of 10-year-old me and how much I wish she could have seen this movie.

Hey, 10-year-old Crystal, just wait until December of 2017. You’ll see a movie where a woman kicks ass but doesn’t have to show her tits. For real. What? Yeah, you’ll be 47 at the time. Sorry it’s going to take so long. Um, I’m not sure how to ask this, but, uh, how can a little girl look so judgmental?

The female characters in The Last Jedi aren’t women “acting” like men, whatever that means. They express their emotions. They shed tears. They show love. They’re nurturing and protective and strong. They aren’t completely unfettered from relationships with men, and nor should they be, but they aren’t defined by them either.

At my ripe middle age, it was incredibly gratifying to see female characters who are fully formed, completely human and capable of not only saving themselves but saving others as well. If I had a daughter, I would take her to see this film.

May the force be with you.

quality of life

Relaxing = lying in a hammock with a rat dog sleeping on your chest.

We had to take our 13.5-year-old dog Stella to the vet yesterday. A white spot appeared in her left eye a couple of weeks ago. We assumed it was related to her encroaching blindness, which we learned about at her last vet visit a few months ago. Or maybe she’d scratched her cornea on a blade of dry grass since she’s unstable on her feet these days and often falls face-forward if we’re not holding onto her. When the eye started weeping and the white spot appeared to have a tiny hole (!) in the center, medical intervention became necessary.

At the end of our visit, the vet asked the question I’ve been dreading for months. “How’s Stella’s quality of life?”

How do you answer that question, knowing what the vet is really asking? Her quality of life is kind of shitty. She can barely walk because she has musculoskeletal issues that make it hard for her brain to tell her front legs what to do. She spends the majority of her time in her doggie bed or on a blanket on the couch, only getting up with assistance. We feed and water her by hand because she can’t reach her doggie bowls on her own.

But.

When she’s outside and she sees the neighbor’s cat, she still barks at him and tries to chase him in her ungainly gait. She still happily greets us when we get home from work or a quick trip to the grocery store–she’s just on her side instead of her feet. Her radar ears still stand at attention when she hears us talking about her–or chicken. She’s still fully in the room. It’s just the machine that’s breaking down.

I tried to say all of this to the vet, sounding sad, scared and defensive, I’m sure. But I also said I didn’t want to prolong her life out of my own emotional greediness. The vet, who was non-judgmental, kind and understanding, suggested hospice care. That we make Stella’s end of life as comfortable as possible, acknowledging what’s coming for her (and us all), but not suggesting we hasten the end with a definitive action.

So now, Stella is taking pain meds once a day (plus we have to apply ointment to her eyeball twice a day to heal that up–the spot and subsequent hole were caused by fat or calcium deposits in her eye, and she has the same thing brewing in the other eye). Physically she’s more invalid than dog, but mentally and spiritually she’s still Stella. And as long as that’s the case–and she’s not in pain–we’ll continue the journey we began together September 1, 2004.

the end of the no-pants era (or, how I stopped telecommuting and learned to love the office)

I telecommuted 1,865 miles to work, full-time, for three years, three months and three weeks before starting a new (in-person) gig at a place that’s 2.5 miles from my house.

My transition to telecommuting coincided with an even bigger experiment: moving from a big city in Texas to a small town in California. I was lucky to be able to keep my job of three years when we moved, going from being the person who cracked inappropriate jokes IN the office to the person who cracked inappropriate jokes on conference calls WITH the office.

Though I consider both experiments to have been successful, I learned some valuable lessons about telecommuting that I’ll keep in mind if I go down that road again. If you’re considering making the transition, maybe something here will help you.

  • Stay in the same general location as your employer. That way, you can pop into the office for important meetings, meet new coworkers in person and attend the occasional boozy after-work function (the cornerstone of any successful team-building effort).
  • Lean on your friends. Whether you like your coworkers or not, you’re still getting a certain amount of human interaction from being around them 40 hours or more a week. Once you’re working alone in your home office, you can quickly feel isolated. Hit your friends up for the occasional coffee, lunch or happy hour so you don’t go full-hermit.
  • Break for lunch. Though you might have fantasies that your at-home lunches will be a rainbow of healthy foods, freshly prepared, the reality is you’ll probably grab whatever’s easiest to munch on and eat it at your desk while continuing to work. Regardless of what’s on your plate (or, more likely, wrapped in a napkin), taking a real, 30-minute lunch break is important for your mental health. You don’t have to leave your house–just get far enough away from your desk that the crumbs that fall from your mouth don’t land in your keyboard.
  • Ignore the haters. No matter how much work you crank out, there will always be someone in the office who thinks you roll out of bed around 11AM, smoke a bowl, watch cartoons and occasionally call in for meetings in your underwear. Because that’s probably how they’d do things. As long as the person who signs your paycheck knows how much work you’re doing (and you never miss a deadline), you’re good.
  • Take a shower. Though being able to go an entire week without putting on “real” clothes can be wonderfully freeing (you’ll be surprised at how quickly you grow comfortable having calls with your coworkers while wearing a startling lack of clothing), keep up your commitment to your morning toilette. If you don’t, you’ll find yourself on the back end of a long, busy day feeling gross that you haven’t gotten around to bathing yet.
  • Find safety in numbers. The more telecommuters at your workplace, the more comfortable everyone feels. If there are a handful (or more) of you, the people tethered to the office get more used to the idea and roll with it. Your telecommuting coworkers are facing similar challenges, so check in with them to lend and gather support.
  • Keep it professional from the waist up. If you have video calls on the regular, you don’t have to go full-professional. A nice shirt and clean face can pair just fine with shorts. Just remember not to stand up in the middle of your call.
  • Hide your desk/computer. Your office is part of your house, which means your job is always just kind of there. Lurking in the background. If there’s a way to put work to sleep for the night and weekend, like shutting the door to your home office or covering up your computer, do it. The stronger the division between work and personal life, the happier you are with both.

There are some great perks to working from home, from the mundane (not having to take time off when the cable guy is scheduled to show up) to the meaningful (being able to take good care of an elderly, ill dog). I did the best work of my career so far working at a cramped table in my kitchen nook, and I’d absolutely consider telecommuting in the future. But for now, I’m enjoying the ebb and flow of in-person officing. Surprising even myself, I like being part of a team.

I’d love for this to be a resource to future telecommuters, so if you have experiences you’d like to share, please leave a comment.

I’ve become a Dead fan, I guess

Before James and I got together, I only had a passing acquaintance with the Grateful Dead. I didn’t own any of their music, but I could sing along with a few songs. I remember the day Jerry died, mostly because I was bartending back then and had a regular who I knew would be devastated and probably come have a few drinks that night. He was, and he did. I think I bought him a round.

Fast forward a few years, and James and I moved in together. As he unpacked box after box of cassette tapes filled with homemade recordings of live shows from all over the country/all over the past few decades, I realized his love for the band was extensive. Like, more than I loved Duran Duran in junior high (and for completely different reasons).

We listen to music a lot in our house. So it makes sense that over the past decade and a half, I’ve heard a lot of Grateful Dead music. And over time, my relationship with the music has changed.

Initially tolerated with a few eye rolls (and questions like, “How long is this song? Twenty minutes?”), the music became ubiquitous–and then unnoticed. Then at some point in the last handful of years, after seeing what remains of the band half a dozen times (in The Dead or Dead and Company iterations), I finally got it.

Grateful Dead songs, specifically of the live variety, are aural comfort food. Much like theatre, no performance is exactly the same. But there’s still plenty to ground you to other experiences with the music. Plenty to give you that sense of familiarity and togetherness.

Sold-out, tie-dyed, pot-smoking house for the Dead show at Shoreline Amphitheatre, across the street from Google, June 3, 2017.

I’ve seen a lot of live music in my life. A lot. And I’ve never experienced the kind of crowd that has consistently appeared for Dead shows in the aughts and teens of the 21st century (I can’t imagine what the crowds were like in the ’60s and ’70s).

The shows we saw in California last decade, before we moved out here, featured a vibrant parking lot scene. People selling “pizza” made on hotplates powered by a battery resting under their rusted-out VW van. (The pizza being a tortilla topped with watery pizza sauce, a sprinkle of pre-shredded cheese and a few slices of pepperoni.) Thin bed sheets spread on the ground and covered with beaded necklaces, glass pipes and crystals for sale. Stinky, barefoot children running around barely supervised. The dress code for old and young veering past the obvious tie-dye and into crocheted tops and jeans with patches sewn on. All worn un-ironically.

Dancing bear ears on a headband. A somewhat subtle nod.

The parking lot scene has been killed for the most part, but the fashions are still pretty amazing. And the lack of self-consciousness is part of the charm. Where so many people try so hard to be “separate” while being in a crowd (“Yeah, I’m at this Backstreet Boys reunion, but only to make fun of it.”), Dead Heads are all in. They love the scene, they love the songs, and they fucking love you, dude.

The guy in the blue and white cap had the best time of his life. All night.

I’ve never seen anyone get in a fight at a Dead show. If you ever have to lose your wallet, phone or keys at a concert, do it at a Dead show because you’ll quickly find a free beer, borrowed phone or ride home from a perhaps chemically compromised but big-hearted stranger.

The guy sitting next to us printed up his own buttons (two styles) with the date of the show on them and gave us each one.

There’s a dedicated music-nerd army of people at every Dead show who livestream the audio or even provide a video feed. You can go on a couch tour and follow the Dead from show to show, and there are plenty of forums online that share set lists and bets on what they’ll play next. Before we went to see the band last Saturday, I reviewed the set lists from the first few shows of the tour and was disappointed they’d already played a couple of my favorites. Which is when I realized–I have favorite songs by this band.

A little hard to read, this guy’s shirt says, “Mayer is Dead to me.” John “Your Body is a Wonderland” Mayer is touring with The Dead on guitar. Nicknamed “Mayernnaise” by non-fans, he actually works pretty well in the mix. And I know enough about the band at this point to have seen that shirt and chuckled. Life is funny.

The saying is “familiarity breeds contempt,” but that’s not aways the case. There are many things we dismiss out of hand that, upon closer inspection, actually have something to offer. They grow on you slowly, like the frog in the pot of water that’s gradually being heated, and next thing you know you’re boiling to death to the sound of Terrapin Station. And you realize there are worse ways to go.

Half the guys on this stage may be in their 70s, but they can still get thousands of people on their feet and keep them that way the entire show. And if they tour again next summer, we’ll be there, on our feet, all night.