Guinea Pig Island

1It’s been hot here the last few days. Spence said when he walked past the pigs a few days ago, Penny was all sprawled out in the cage, belly flat on the ground, legs in every direction. He took this to mean she was hot and suggested we move the pen downstairs where it’s cooler. I loved this idea because I prefer all the critters to be together anyway and in our general vicinity. The only reason the pigs were upstairs was because they’re in an enormous cage that had to go on the floor and since we have two terriers, we knew we had to keep them all separated.

When it came time to actually bring the pig house downstairs and set it up, it turned out to be a total pain in the ass. The cage they live in is huge and unruly. Four feet by two feet. And I never have a clear appreciation for how much space that takes up until I try to fit the cage somewhere.

Also, to add to the pain, we live in a state of unsettledness. We live surrounded by unpacked boxes. It’s such a drag. We’re looking for a house without a lot of luck—it’s definitely a seller’s market. So we’re not thrilled with our living arrangements anyway. So many unpacked boxes.

I come down with the pig cage and I’m fumbling around with where I think it’s going to go—on top of the coffee table. Well, it’s not wide enough to securely hold the cage. If both pigs run to one side, it would likely tip over. I got frustrated quickly. I had no idea where else the cage could go and was about to just take it back upstairs and put a fan in the room or something.

That’s when Spence jumped into action. He started pulling the various coffee tables together to try and create a solid base for the cage. When we thought we had something together, we realized it was in the middle of the room and Spence sat on the couch to see if we could see the television over the cage. “We can’t see the tv over guinea pig island,” he said, which cracked me up. Then he had the bright idea to set the tables up against the opposite wall, pushing them against the wall to make them even more sturdy. Brilliant. The location and set up was perfect. However, he then proceeded to stack boxes and painting around guinea pig island so that there was no way for the dogs to get access to the pigs.

As we were working on relocating the pigs, I said, “Spence, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate you helping me bring the pigs downstairs.” He brushed it off as no big deal. 

But, seriously, he reconfigured the entire living space so the guinea pigs could be in a cooler area and he doesn’t care that the pigs are taking up a quarter of our living room. 

There’s all these memes about “Find a man who looks at you like you’re the only person on earth,” etc. etc. Those are great, but I would suggest, “Find a man who will give up a huge part of his living room to guinea pig island and also happily help you create the island.” 

Best life or bust

Why, yes, I did eat a Klondike bar nearly every day this week.


I hate to admit it but…I’m not living my best life.

I’m pretty content with how things are, but I’m not creating the life I imagine.

And I don’t mean that I feel like I should be walking the Appalachian Trail or climbing Mt. Everest, though both would be pretty cool. (Parts of the Appalachian Trail go right through this area, so I could spend a day hiking it.)

I’m talking smaller things.

For example:

• I want to eat better. I’ve been eating shit food lately. I’m talking ice cream, French fries, candy bars. (Good food, but shit food for the body.) There’s no reason to be eating like this so often, particularly when I WANT to eat better. It’s not like I don’t care. I do care. And still.

• I want to become a better cook. But am I cooking anything lately? No. Do I go out to eat constantly for lunch? Yes. Do I buy meals that I could have made at home? Yes. Does it irritate me? Sometimes. Could I change this? Yes. Have I? Not so far this week.

• I want to read more. I take my book everywhere I go and I still haven’t made it past page nine. And it’s a good book. Because I fall asleep in bed. Because I get distracted by news alerts. Because I start playing Words With Friends. Because there’s an episode of Handmaid’s Tale to watch. If I want to read more books, I need to prioritize. Is that within my control? Of course it is. Have I made the change? Not so far. But I’m honestly trying.

• I want to make more time for sketching. Have I? Not really. Part of it is because I draw a blank when I open the book. I scribble a few inconsequential lines and decide I don’t know what to draw. All I have to do is let the pen drift around the page and do what it wants. Have I done that? Not yet. But I will.

• I want to walk to work more. Have I lately? No. I’ve opted to sleep in instead.

The commencement speaker at school (Chimamanda Adichie) told the audience to “put the damn phones down. Go read a book. Go talk to some people.” I appreciated this command, though it was a little awkward because I was uploading her photo to Instagram on my phone as she was saying it. I do spend too much time in front of screens. It’s part of my job and it’s become a bit of a reflex in my personal life. I’ll go into the bathroom to get ready for work and will stand around for 20 minutes, soaking in the warmth of the bathroom heater, reading headlines, checking Facebook, etc. Maybe if I got in and out of the shower faster I could walk to work. I’m hoping to try two things. One is to put down the damn phone after 5pm and not look at it again until right before bedtime. I do have to think about work and keep an eye on issues coming through. The other is when I go on my next vacation, I may try to take a hiatus completely and let work know I will not be available at all during that time. I think that would be a real challenge, to not look at the phone at all for five days or so.

I remember being in Dublin way back in 2007 with no phone. There was no way for anyone to reach me if I didn’t reach out to them. I had to go to a computer coffee shop twice that week and pay to get on the internet to check my email. It’s hard to imagine being that disconnected today.

And back to living my best life. The thing that I find frustrating is that the goals above are not so lofty—they are perfectly realistic and achievable and yet here I am, not really doing them though there’s nothing stopping me. I don’t know if it’s a lack of initiative, poor time management or what, but it bums me out. I need to get this shit together.

Mirror mirror

I’ve been crafting a post in my head regarding two distinctive thoughts that crossed my mind about my appearance in the past couple of weeks, and then I clicked on this story from Ravishly, and I couldn’t believe the timeliness of it.

After a teenage life that made me self-conscious about my weight, my skin color, my thick lips and broad nose, I’d like to think I’m more comfortable in my skin than I’ve ever been. However, there are always moments. Like last week when I glanced at my reflection in a window I was passing and thought, “god, I am really unattractive.” Or earlier this week, when a member of Toastmasters asked to take my picture for the Facebook page and when he showed it to me and I looked at my moon-pie face and thought “jeezus, I need to lose weight.”

My mom is guilty of making these proclamations against herself, too. She grew up with her own grandmother telling her she was ugly, her uncle telling her she had skinny stick legs—the woman never wears anything but pants because she believes her legs are too skinny (as if that’s a thing (coming from a woman who has always struggled with weight))…that’s the kind of damage criticism can do to a young person—and she always hated having her photo taken. My mom was (is) crazy gorgeous. I mean stunning. And I think she’s starting to see that now when she looks back on photos of herself, but she lived her young adulthood believing otherwise. Even still today, when she sees a photo of herself, she immediately recoils and names off all the reasons she doesn’t like how she looks.

It was on my drive home from Toastmasters, when I thought about how quickly I recoiled from a photo of myself that reveals something I don’t like to see and immediately noted to myself a need to fix it.  And if that’s how I look, why not embrace it, imperfections and all? What good comes from viewing oneself negatively? I also wondered if men have the same sort of thought processes about their place/appearance in the world.

The next morning, when Spence was drinking his coffee and reading the paper, I entered the living room and said, “I have a question to ask you.” He put the paper down. I continued: “Do you ever pass your reflection in a window while walking down the street and think, god I’m ugly?” The look of confusion was answer enough. I continued, “Or do you ever see a photo of yourself and think, gosh, I should lose some weight.” I won’t get into the specifics of his answer, only that it had me in hysterics, but suffice it to say, the answer is generally no. (And I clarified immediately that he shouldn’t be thinking these things, obviously, but neither should the women who do think these things. That’s the rub.)

But I do have a hard time imagining a man passing a reflection of himself and making much judgment on it one way or the other.

So back to the essay at the start. Is it possible for women to wipe out the inner critic? Or is the goal to simply quiet her so that she doesn’t override all the beautiful, fun, fleeting, remarkable things happening around us all the time in this life? Because while I have ideas in my mind of how I’d like to age and what I want to look likeand what I want to be able to physically do, I can’t (no one should) allow the disparities between what I want and what I have determine my outlook/mood from day to day. Particularly when what I have is good health, good friends, a loving husband, a great job and what I wish for deals almost solely in issues of vanity. Who knew vanity could be so pervasive? I wouldn’t describe myself as particularly vain, yet here we are. (Another post coming soon about this with an interesting story about madre!)

Cleanliness/godliness/nature/nurture

Holy shit, I have a high tolerance for uncleanliness. Not with myself–I shower daily, wear clean clothes and wash them regularly. And not with food related things–I always put dirty dishes in the dishwasher and clean the table after I eat. But everything else. I have a shit ton of stuff on the dining room table (that’s in the kitchen because we don’t have space for it in the dining room of our too small house). Papers, cards, pens, unopened mail, untouched magazine, my bamboo flute I want to practice, etc. There is dog hair all over the shit brown carpeting in the living room. (Honestly, who the fuck puts dark brown carpeting in their house?) There are throw blankets hanging off all the furniture because it’s always cold in this house right now since we turned off the heat. (It’s spring after all.) Sometimes the blankets are on the floor. There is a stack of New York Times sitting next to me that takes up nearly all the space on the small end table. There is incense ash, dust, cat hair, dog hair, aspen wood chips on the floor upstairs as well as Timothy hay pieces (that’s where the guinea pigs live, obviously). Some days it makes me crazy, but generally it doesn’t. 

Part of that is the shithole we live in. Now, I try to remain grateful for having a roof over our head. I don’t want to take that for granted and the fact that it’s so close to work I can walk there, which is really nice. However. We have literally unpacked maybe 15% of our boxes. There are boxes stacked throughout this house. One entire room is being used as storage. The house is old (built in the 1870s); it has brown fucking carpeting; it is small. And cleaning it doesn’t seem to make a huge difference because you still have brown carpeting, it still feels dark and depressing, and there are still packed boxes lining most of the walls. We have framed photos and paintings leaning against walls, our queen box spring for the guest room is leaning against the wall behind the television in the living room. Basically, we live in a storage unit.

(On a side note, I have come to hate carpeting with a white hot intensity. I would be happy to never have it another of my homes. I don’t know if that will be possible, but I’m trying to weed out carpeted homes as often as I can during our current house search.)

In our Illinois home, a house I loved, I enjoyed cleaning because I loved the house and making sure it looked great. I didn’t clean it daily or weekly even (though with dogs and cats, I probably should), but it was a beautiful house that only looked better when the papers were recycled and the dust bunnies were swept away. 

When I look around my current rental, I think, “My mother would die if she saw the state of this place.” My beloved mom is a clean freak. She has lessened her militancy about cleaning as she’s gotten older and dealt with health issues, but she is still more militant than I have ever been. She grew up with a strict cleaning regime–there was to be no sitting or resting until all the house was cleaned and all the chores complete. This routine has lasted her entire life and she told me during our most recent visit that she literally cannot sit and relax if there is work to be done. My stepdad has no problem sitting for hours reading a book or watching a tv show while my mom is literally breaking a sweat while mopping the floor or doing the laundry or cleaning the closets or sewing new curtains. He’ll reprimand her for working too much and tell her to sit down and relax and she simply cannot do it. The only thing that sidelines her from keeping up this habit on occasion is her health. Sometimes she hurts too much or is dealing with chemo side effects so that moving around the house becomes difficult. But the moment she’s feeling even a bit better, she’s up and cleaning. It’s not until 7:30pm or so, when everything is done, that she’s ready to relax with the newspaper and television. Often she falls asleep while trying to enjoy these two things.

She was like this when I was a kid too, of course, more so because she was in the prime of her health, but once she left my dad, and I moved in with him and my brother, cleanliness of the house took a backseat. Not that it was terrible. I do recall the bathroom getting a bit disgusting (because no one wanted to clean the bathroom…ick) and I recall the place where my dad would stack the firewood left all sorts of small wood pieces behind that no one bothered picking up. I suppose part of this is laziness, too. 

And then I spent a lot of time at my grandmother’s house, who lived just down the hill from me. She had a house full of dogs and the fleas that went along with them. For a long, long time, I thought fleas were an inevitable part of having dogs, and they did not bother me at all when I was at her house, even when they landed on me or when I saw a them crawling around on the snout of one of the dogs with white fur. (Today, I would lose my shit if we got fleas–happily we’ve never had them in the house, knock on wood, but we always treat our dogs for them.) There were cobwebs and dust bunnies in grandma’s house and dust and dog hair and ashtrays with cigarette butts and ash. And the counter that was in her dining room was overflowing with papers–so much mail, so many magazines…just everything. It all got stacked on that counter until it was mountainous. I look back on it now and I’m perplexed at how I absorbed that stacking method of “organization” as my own without even realizing it. Osmosis.

I don’t know why I didn’t become more like my mom with her inability to sit still if the house wasn’t clean–I witnessed that throughout my life. Perhaps since she was doing the work, she allowed me to go have fun, allowing me to disassociate the need for a clean house before relaxation. She didn’t have that luxury growing up and she wanted me and my brother to have a very different childhood than she did.

And also, I take after my grandmother in many, many ways. From the way my body is built, to my love of statement jewelry, to me my efforts of developing an eye-catching personal style (my grandmother once wore a fantastic yellow suit and slayed it…not many people would wear yellow from head to toe. And she probably got the outfit from Goodwill.), to my love of dogs and my love of naps. So perhaps it’s not surprising that I would start stacking all sorts of crap on the dining room table.

But this is something I need to work against, for my own sanity. This is where I need to ask, What Would Mom Do? And I already know, the answer is not Take A Nap.

Atonement

“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” Maya Angelou

Rebecca surrounded by our cats. The cats never bothered her. And she liked eating grass.

This quote is everything to me. It’s a way to forgive myself and to aspire to improve. I’m really, really fortunate that I’ve had a fairly drama-free, tragedy-free, trauma-free life and I can say the same about my childhood. There is little I would want to change in my life.

One thing I do regret, deeply. Deeply. The way animals were treated in the area I grew up. Dogs were mostly kept outside, tied to dog boxes, even our two dogs. They received food/hay/water, but not the companionship they should have had. Of course, I was a kid and had little control over this, and my parents lived in a culture where this was the norm, and I didn’t question it much until I became a teenager, and the dogs had passed away. I can feel forlorn over these memories at times, but I remember the quote above. When I worked at a vet clinic in Illinois, I told my friend and colleague about my regret and she reminded me that this was a common living condition for dogs in the country during the 1970s and 80s and that, at any given time, we can only do our best, and to not look back with regret but to look back remembering we were doing the best we could at the time. A corollary of the Angelou quote.

And so I live my adult life atoning for actions I wish had been better when I was a kid. One of those include my first guinea pig.

Her name was Rebecca. I named her after my friend. I remember so clearly everything about adopting her. She was in the pet section at Meijer and she had a bite taken out of her ear, likely from another guinea pig. I implored my mom to allow me to adopt it and she said okay (which is surprising when I think about it now). She lived in my bedroom. And I have all sorts of memories of her being out and about with me (I have a photo I love of me sitting in a chair, striking a pose, ribbon in my hair and Rebecca on my lap). However, I also know she was terribly neglected. She was kept in a fish tank for the first few years of her life (a big no-no) and I HATED cleaning her cage and avoided it for as long as I possibly could. The filth in her cage would build and build until mom threatened me with a punishment of some kind, and I would take the aquarium out to the edge of the woods to dump it and I did it with such attitude that I broke the acquarium at least twice. Thinking back on how I let her live in such filth literally makes me cry today (as I write this). 

Eventually I think my mom took over taking care of Rebecca as I become a preoccupied teenager, too busy thinking about other things and trying to (unsuccessfully) fit in. Surprisingly, Rebecca lived for five years…a decent lifespan for a guinea pig that didn’t receive any sort of vet care. I was in Texas with my mom when Rebecca died. My stepdad was with her and her discomfort during her death brought tears to his eyes as he kept her company. I’m actually embarrassed and ashamed when I think about it all today.

In my twenties, I adopted two guinea pigs (at two different times) knowing how to be a better caregiver. They both lived shorter life spans–one for three years and the last for only one and half years–in spite of having better care.

Now, as a 41-year-old pet owner, I have added a guinea pig to the mix and plan to add another (as early as tomorrow, depending on how things go this weekend). I’ve learned you can rescue guinea pigs rather than buying them from pet stores, so that’s the only way I will bring them into my life. I’ve learned they are incredibly social animals, so I’m hoping to adopt a second one so Penny (my current pig) will have company; I’ve learned they shouldn’t live in cedar chips or wood chips because of the dust (prior to this, all my pigs lived in chips) so instead I use recyclable fluff and I’m trying to figure out how to change over to fleece blankets; I’ve learned they shouldn’t eat iceberg lettuce (poor Rebecca ate ONLY iceberg lettuce) because it can give them diarrhea. 

I learn. And I try to do better.