Betty Duffy

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Suffering from Anthropomorphism (or Dead Puppies Aren't Much Fun)

My brother’s wife once said, “Dog people are nice people, so if I were an animal person, I’d like to be a dog person.” I might not be a nice person though, because I never paid much attention to the dogs growing up. My dad still teases me that I resented our dog for being the alpha female in the house. When I complain that his dogs are hogging the porch, he says, “You’re just jealous.” When I tell my kids to wash their hands after handling the dogs, my dad tells the dogs they need to wash up after being touched by my kids. There’s just no end to the laughs.

One of my dad’s dogs recently had a litter of pups, and my husband and kids, all being dog people themselves, are convinced we’re keeping one.

I know how this goes. We got a dog from the shelter several years ago, and I resented it because she was skittish, weird and racist, and our next door neighbor at the time was black. It didn’t go well. We ultimately had to part company, because of her weirdness, but mostly because I didn’t want to take care of her and train her in addition to my kids.

When my husband says, “We should keep a pup,” I immediately begin to act put upon. “How could you think it? We are not a good dog family. We ruin dogs. I know how this goes. Who’s going to shovel poop? Who’s going to vacuum the hair out of the carpet? I know who. It’s going to be me, and I’m not going to like it.”

But the other day when I was telling Pedge about getting a dog, it occurred to me that people might get tired of me saying, “Well my husband wants a dog, so here we go again—it’s going to be awful, but I’m strong.” What a boring old hag, the constant martyr. No more. If we are getting a dog, I’m going to like it for once. I’m going to train the damn thing, let it in the house, buy name brand dog food, and drive it around with me in the car. I’m going to become a dog person.

We recently watched my sister-in-law become a dog person, when she decided to get a pair of Beagles. She talked to a lady over the phone, drove to St Louis, and picked up what she thought were two Beagles, only they were Basset Hounds. To this day, she gets angry if you call them Basset Hounds, because the lady on the phone said they were Beagles. She subscribes to Beagle Magazine, has a t-shirt that says “Beagler.” She sleeps with her dogs and leaves every place she visits early in order to get home to them. She drives my husband crazy, because once she started treating her dogs like people, she ceased to be a fun person.

“Our dog is going to be a dog,” he says.

When my parents went out of town recently, they asked if we could take care of the puppies and their mother for awhile. I thought it would be good for the kids, and good for the dogs to get a little socialization. But mostly, I thought that the kids could prove their incompetence in taking care of dogs, and I could say to my husband “See, this is a bad idea.”

I let my eldest son take care of the feedings, until one of the pups turned up dead. He was alive and well before his meal, not breathing afterwards. It was a mystery. Did one of the kids drop it? Did it choke? Did the mother get after him? No one had an answer. We spent a somber Sunday morning burying a puppy before Mass in the rain. I was sad, mostly for my son, because he was sad and mystified, and I knew it wasn’t his fault.

This would have been my moment to say, “I told you so.” But instead, I felt guilty. What a burden to put on my son. I went out to the barn and sat there in a lawn chair for the better part of a week. I oversaw the puppy feedings. I watched how they played. They chewed on my pants and slept on my toes. I began to pick favorites.

A friend of mine wanted a pup, and I thought about which one might be a good dog for her. As soon as I’d picked a pup for her, I began to feel possessive of that sociable, energetic dog. But I didn’t want to share the quiet, gentle one either. Each dog had his merits, and each one I wanted to keep. I talked about it with my husband late into the evening. I talked about it after my husband fell asleep next to me. I talked about it after he rolled over and sighed and told me he had to be up at 5 am in the morning, and would I please stop talking about it.

My next door neighbor (a different one) decided he wanted a dog, and I began to feel stressed out about that. What if he doesn’t treat my dog well and I can see it across the lawn? He’s an 80 something-year-old man who has 80 year old ideas about how to treat a dog. How could I convince him he doesn’t need one of my dogs?

By this time, my parents had been home for over a week, but I was still taking care of the pups and their mother, because I wanted to. After the death of the puppy, life suddenly felt so fragile. I’ve never had any young thriving creature die on me like that. I thought puppies were indestructible, that my children are invincible—that nothing bad can happen to the young. So maybe, I became a little obsessive about spending time with them.

Husband: “Don’t you want to come to bed?”

Me: “Just a minute, I’m going to go check on the pups.”

If I wanted to cure my husband of wanting a dog, I have found the answer.

Only now I might want two, or five. And maybe they can sleep in our room so I can keep a closer eye on them.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

My Cousin Rachel: Doesn't Everybody Have One?

My cousin Rachel is more like my sister than a cousin. We’re the same age and equally obnoxious, hence we were often thrown together, growing up, and sent off to play so that everyone else could get some peace. We made up dances. We dressed up like floozies. We snuck into my grandmother’s make-up drawer. Then we would appear before the crowd of grown-ups ready to perform, or annoy.

We received the same presents for Christmas every year, which made me mad—because I was six months older than she, and twice as snotty, and I always wanted to prove my superiority. Plus, she was allowed to wear halter tops and Dr Scholls sandals, and I was not. (“Bitch”—a term of endearment for us.) Never mind that her Dr. Scholls somehow made their way into my suitcase after a visit to her house in Texas--just accidentally packed them with my things.

We planned out what our weddings would look like, around the fifth grade—essentially a model of the kissing scene (right around 4:40) in the movie “A Room with a View”—lots of Edwardian lace, linen, flowers, and over-the-top romanticism. My own wedding didn’t quite match my fifth grade vision—mostly because my tastes, by then, had changed. Rachel’s wedding, well, it hasn’t happened yet.

And so we find ourselves ensconced in our thirties, on very different life paths, while remaining invariably enmeshed. She now lives nearby, and most Sundays she comes for dinner; the Maiden Aunt, endowed with the authority to discipline my kids, love them, and go home when she gets sick of them. When I want to complain about duty to children and spouse, she can put my thoughts in perspective with a note on her empty womb. She would love to get married and have her own family.

Last night, Rachel called me with an urgent request. She’s had her house on the market, trying to move back to Texas after spending a number of years here in the Midwest. To date, she has not had a single showing, and so she let the housework slip. But her realtor called, and let her know that someone wanted to see her place early this morning. She needed help cleaning—and could I get away?

I was annoyed by her request. She’s responsible for cleaning up after one person after all, while I trail after seven. How hard can it be for her? And is she going to baby-sit my kids Friday night in return? I groaned into the phone, and Rachel said, “Well don’t come if you’re just going to whine the whole time.”

Now she’s calling me a whiner? I wanted to say, “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you,” but I had not yet committed my helping hand. I was racing through my catalog of excuses: it’s late, I’m tired, it’s Monday. And let’s not forget that I am the weak and frazzled mother in need of assistance, not the strong single woman capable of providing it. But a little voice in my head said: “Why not?” Why not just go over there after the kids are in bed and help her clean?

So I went, not a cheerful giver in the least, but my body was en route to help. I wonder if this is what it’s like to go to Confession with only a partially contrite soul. I’ve heard that God will honor your attempt at contrition and provide the grace to pull you to complete contrition. By the time I arrived at Rachel’s house, I was ready to get to work—not quite smiling—but free of expectation that she might return the favor.

She put on some crybaby music—our old favorites—when we couldn’t survive a day without listening to The Cure and The Smiths. We dried dishes to “Girlfriend in a Coma,” swept the floor to “Pictures of You.” Went through her closet and found a pair of Wranglers she’d worn when we first turned 18 and made a bee-line to Billy Bobs in Fort Worth. The jeans were so tight then, we hooked a hangar on the zipper to pull them up—“Any reason you’re keeping these?” I asked.

“I’m going to fit into them again and then we’re going Two-stepping,” she said. Back in the day, we danced and swung with each other until the cowboys cut in.

Har Har—not very likely—I thought, folding them and putting them on her shelf. But there it was again: my default position—always “No.” Her default position—always optimistic.

“I refuse to grow up,” she said. “I don’t care if I’m old and I look stupid. I’m not going to quit dancing.” And again, in my head, charity fails me, “Well you haven’t had to grow up, have you?” But I know how the sight of my family and children has twisted like a knife in her gut. She has told me as much, how she has resented me with each subsequent pregnancy, and my occasional failure to muster early enthusiasm for the cultivation of new life in me. Everyone around her is doing what she longs to be doing, but can’t. Her friends have all married, so she must draw from a pool of younger single comrades in arms. One must stay young. One must remain optimistic, or one gets very, very sad.

Around one a.m. we completed our work, sat on her porch and smoked a cigarette. I was surprised to find that I had enjoyed myself, surprised that I still had energy. I remembered the nights when my husband and I were engaged, when we stayed up until one or two every night just to be in each other’s presence. I taught high school English then, and had to be up again at 5:30 to get to school on time. But I lived like that for over a year, on minute amounts of sleep. Before that, when I lived in Rhode Island, I used to drive home, a sixteen hour drive, in one night, fueled on caffeine, nicotine, and music. It’s not that I want to go back to those times, per say, but when did I become such a wimp? When did I become the one who is always in need, the one who never gives? When did my default position become “No?”

Kids figure into the picture, of course. Sleep is necessary and important. Receiving help sometimes is also necessary and important. But so is giving it.

I have taken this relationship with my cousin for granted. We didn’t choose each other after all—we are family. But look at this history we have: a shared life since we were babies, the freedom to slap each other around a bit and call each other out. We can eat at each other’s table without question or insecurity. I have been the hand that feeds her from time to time, but she has been my right hand since just about the beginning of time. And she’s keeping me young.

Here we are, thick in the 80's, way too young to be immitating Debbie Harry (I'm on the right):

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

A Little Bit of Evil

(Journal excerpt, this day, last year)

“We think that evil is basically good. We think we need it, at least a little, in order to experience the fullness of being.” --Pope Benedict XVI, “Benedictus” p288

Like the devil “I will not serve.” If I give myself entirely to God, reject evil completely, he might ask me to serve people who are perfectly capable of serving themselves (my children, my husband), people who are not weak and helpless, but actually flawed. I do not wish to expend my energy, which could be spent on my interests or on garnering the undemanding love of other people. This is the failure of my love.

“The closer a person is to God, the closer he is to people.” (p288)

If I have surrendered completely to God, I can love the fallible people I have been given to love. I can love anyone. I can love my children who are on the verge of sin awareness, who as they grow will bear the signs of my failure to love them well, who will make mistakes, who may hurt others in ways I have hurt them, who may hurt others in completely irrational ways. If I have surrendered completely to God, I can love without fear. I can serve without fear that my efforts will be squandered. I can serve people who do not reciprocate with like service.

If I ask God to remove this remaining chip of evil in my heart, this lump of which I’ve been ignorant because I have disguised it in a cloak of good intention, if I give my own desire to BE loved to God, I can become a perfect lover. With the assistance of God I can love like God, and not like the petty, violent lover I am on my own. I won’t withhold my love from anyone. I won’t regret the love I don’t receive.

Monday, September 21, 2009

A Few Items I Can't Live Without

Family and Friends from high school and college, may see this post and think, "Has the woman not been shopping since 1994?" But I have. I have shopped plenty, and found nothing I like so well as these few items. As the years march on, my appreciation for these items only grows, as they stand up to repeated washings and wears.

Can you imagine a more amiable and accommodating tag?

Of all the reasons to shop thrift, this may beat all: the chance of finding one of these relics from the late 70s-early 80s; vintage Lacoste; Cut close to the body, but long enough to cover the stomach; A longish short sleeve; and the ever vibrant, indestructible poly/cotton blend.

Somewhere along the way, we were conditioned to think that 100% pima cotton is some sort of luxury, in spite of the fact that it gets nubby and threadbare after a couple washings. I'm not too proud to admit that I miss my polyester--especially in things like sheets--how they were cool and slick when you first climbed into them.

A sweater is a different matter, however. Wool or cotton for me. This one's finally falling apart, and I'm not sure what I'll do. Abercrombie and Fitch cotton cable knit circa 1992. My conscience no longer allows me to shop A and F.

Some things never go out of style, because they were never really in style: navy blue, zip front, hooded sweatshirt. Too practical to be labeled "hoodie."

About five years ago my cousin saw these sandals still on my feet, and asked "Don't you think it's time to replace those? They look like they would smell bad."

So, I had them resoled, which didn't do much for the hypothetical odor, but added another 10 years to their lifespan. I paid a lot for these, once upon a time, and when I went back to the cobbler who made them (yes, cobbler), I told him, "You'd make more money if these shoes were not so indestructible." But he didn't seem to mind, toiling away in a little backroad hut, making good shoes because it's the right thing to do.

And if we ever have a famine, the leather on these sandals is so soft now, I could probably eat them.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Sex, Shame and Self-Control

Around second or third grade, I wore one of my mother’s tweed blazers to school: leather buttons, suede patches on the elbows. It was a perfect Annie Hall blazer, though I didn’t realize it at the time. All I knew is that when I arrived after school at my friend Marcy’s house, her mother said, “That’s a spiffy jacket you’ve got on.” She said the word “spiffy” in that “I’m a Midwesterner speaking to children” accent—a tiny bit of a lisp, a very short emphasis on the “-y.”

Marcy’s mom was a department store clerk by day and a sad clown by night, entertaining at birthday parties, hospitals and nursing homes. I was terrified of her. And her father too, an army guy who wore cammos, made a lot of trips to Guam, had a gun, and stacks of Playboys by his bed, in the garage, and in the closet. He apparently couldn’t bear to throw out a picture of a naked lady. He too, was terrifying.

But both of them, in fact everything about Marcy’s family and her home has left an indelible mark on my psyche. It was with Marcy that I clandestinely flipped through those stacks of Playboys and felt my first inklings of a latent sexuality, and all the customary shame that goes with it. And because of the inherent shame associated with that time, I still have an abhorrence of pornography, a fear of sad clowns, and an aversion to the word “Guam.” For many years, I also had an aversion to blazers because of that incident with those people and the odd interweaving of memory.

My own parents’ approach to childhood sexuality was liberal: Mom, helping me out of the bathtub, gently and calmly asking me about the incident Marcy’s mom reported to her. Yet even her gentle question felt like an accusation and condemnation at once. I had been caught, in my most private of discoveries, witnessed by an adult, discussed with my mother, and now addressed personally and asked to elaborate on my crime. My young sexuality had caused adult controversy, and I felt the indictment painfully, no matter how gently my mother posed the question.

There were no particularly Christian reasons to feel shame at that time in my upbringing, as God-talk was scarce in my family’s early days. Sexual shame, especially during childhood, is pretty much a universal, which leads me to believe that it is not Churches which instill this feeling in us, or parents, or other Christians. If it were not written in the Gospel, it would still be written in our hearts, because so many people who are not Christians still have shame at their early sexual experience.

This is the message I want to give my kids: Jesus has no use for perfect people. He knows we will sin and that’s why he came. But we don’t get around guilt or shame by redefining sin or redirecting the blame. Just because almost every kid goes through something similar does not mean that sexual experimentation should be encouraged. And just because shame makes us feel bad about ourselves does not mean we should do everything humanly possible to disarm the power of shame. We get around guilt and shame through the goodness, mercy, and forgiveness of God.

My children have now reached the age of curiosity and experimentalism that will more than likely provide for them some shameful cargo of their own to carry into adulthood. My mean outbursts, “Privates stay private!” have surely instilled a thought in their minds about the primacy of sexual sin. It’s the Catholic plague, but in my mind, not a terrible sickness to have, if it aids in the development of self-control. The counterpoint to “Keep your hands off the merchandise,” however, must be “Ask God to help you.”

I am always amazed by how inextricably spirituality and sexuality are tied together. There was a time in my life when this fact was to my chagrin as my sexuality had a tendency to manifest itself in behaviors best classified as sin. Marriage and Sacrament allows some sexual behavior to fall under the classification of Divine, which makes sexual immorality less an opportunity to exercise our Catholic guilt and more a falling short of delight and full purpose.

My husband and I are too easily a disinterested Adam and curious Eve, rather than an ever-chaste Joseph and self-giving Mary. Our gender and sexuality is in need of a Redeemer, still. Marriage and the practice of Natural Family Planning (or even not practicing it, and being ever open to life) are not a free pass against mortal sin. We screw up in loving generously, in abstaining prudently, in respecting one another appropriately. It can be a pesky nuisance, the body, rearing its head just when we have cause to think that all is clear.

In my early twenties at my General Confession, I was formally absolved of the sexual sins of my youth. I was too embarrassed to confess them at my first Reconciliation, and I had not thought of them in subsequent ones. The General Confession looks back over one’s life from the age of awareness up to this current day. And there, after two hours in the Confessional, I felt the release, the freedom to turn my back on all sexual sin, the childhood experimentation, the high school petting, the college transgressions, all squelched in a liberating Sacramental smack-down.

Except that it wasn’t the end of sexual sin. Developing the virtue of chastity begins in childhood, but it is a life-long apprenticeship in self-mastery. Confession provides grace to progress in the apprenticeship as long as we retain hope in the infinite, and I mean infinite, mercy of God.

More on this topic here. The really meaty stuff is in the comments section.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Local Profiles

My sister started a blog recently, and discussing what pictures to put on it, I began wondering if I should put up a profile picture on this blog.

Pedge got after me the other day for referring to myself as "near middle-aged." Interiorly, I do feel almost exactly the same as I did at 21. Young, a spring chicken, a little lost puppy.

But on the outside, well, I have nursed a lot of children.

I'm not ready to give in to the lethargy, stuff my skin into the jumpers and generous jeans and start acting as tired as my body sometimes feels, though.

The converse of yielding to middle age, then, is trying to stay young, be the man-eater.

The one who preys on green young suitors

sees them stalking across the yard and pounces on them,

has her way, then chews them up in her iron mandibles.

Pretty lady she may be, but the concept of the man-eating older woman is not very becoming, in my opinion, nor very Catholic, nor am I quite old enough to pull it off. I'm stuck in the middle--battling pimples while the wrinkles set in.

Pedge made the point, that we will never refer to ourselves as middle aged, because we're never going to allow ourselves to embody that dumpy stereotype, nor the classless cougar one. It doesn't matter how old we get, or which way the scales tip, the goal is to be classy and ageless, like dessert wine in filigreed stemware.

In other news, we took the kids downtown last week to the Canal Walk in Indianapolis. A bridge on this walk has been transformed into a sculpture garden. I don't know if it's just the state of things in Indianapolis, or my failure to fully appreciate modern art, but what do you make of this?

How exactly is this different from the stack of 2x4s down the street at Carter Lumber?

Oh, wait, maybe this plaque will shed some light on it:

That shed no light whatsoever.

And finally, the weather is so nice around here, I want to spend all my free time in the hammock.

But a wise man once said, "Never hang your hammock under a walnut tree."

It's more dangerous than hanging out on a golf course.

Monday, September 14, 2009

This is What a Seratonin High Looks Like

I'm not sure what's gotten into me, if it's Fall or the smell of cinnamon and stewed apples, but the very fact that there are stewed apples in this house means something very rare is taking place in the Duffy home. The matriarch is on a seratonin high, and things are getting done.

It started with the good china--the Blue Italian Spode dinnerware was used not once, but twice yesterday--after a ten year hiatus. When my daughter wanted to tie up the silverware in a napkin with some of her hairbands, I got out the engraved pewter napkin rings--a wedding gift that had never been used. And as of yet, I have not put the blue dishes away. Here, Spode teapot sits brewing a pot of tea. It sits on a tablecloth, yet another indicator that someone feels ambitious today. So, here's a still life of my morning--and yes, that is an alien doodled out of hearts in the margin of my journal.

What's this? The industrial mop bucket. It appears as though someone has used it to mop the floor with an actual mop and cleaning solvent, rather than dirty washcloths on their way to the laundry.

Witness the moderately clean desk, the computer on screen saver, the sun like a God-light on my place of worship...I mean, work.

And the Pièce de résistance: The Ironing Board, the starch, and my husband's pants.

What to do now?

Friday, September 11, 2009

Meet My Pet Spider

It's not a small planet. It's an orb weaver egg sack. It's by my front door. On my house. Near a crack in the door jamb.

But the mother is absolutely bewitching.

I sort of like spiders.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Hole in My Heart (All the Way to China)

It seems I have a hole in my heart. The internist said, "I did not expect to see this," as he read me the results of my Echocardiogram, "A rather large hole with a left to right shunt. I'm going to refer you to a cardiologist."

Unfortunately I could not remember the clinical name for my hole as I clicked around the internet that night looking for my prognosis. Before long, I was duly convinced of my need for open heart surgery. The hole must be addressed. The doctor said as much. A cardiologist friend confirmed. But I had to wait a week for my referral.

During that week, my mother called the entire family to alert them to my health concern. I stoically requested that she not put my name on any prayer chains, as I did not want to be the poor lady on the prayer chain. No, I would suffer silently this meeting with my mortality. Only tell my closest friends.

I met with Pedge and Irene as I am wont to do on a Thursday morning, and after Pedge dared to voice her discontent with an ongoing renovation project in her home, I decided it was the right time to make her feel like shit. "Well, since we're dishing, I guess I should fill you in on my latest thing. It seems I have a hole in my heart..."

"Do NOT tell me you are dying," said Pedge.

"Let's hear it for open heart surgery!" said I.

"Shut Up!"

"No really..." and I filled her and Irene in on the many recent tests, the outcome of which pointed to the immimency of surgery. It was a "Beaches" moment; tears, laughter, poking fun at one another's mortality.

"You're going to die, and I'm complaining about my window...but what a great story this will be when you write it."

"It's perfect."

On the homefront, I made a selection for my husband's second wife, and put her number on speed dial on his Blackberry. "Just in case I croak, you'll know what to do."

"What did you say?" looking up from the Drudge Report.

I held up his phone, "Monica...I put her number on here, for when I'm dead next week."

"You're dying?"

"Yeah, next week, probably."


Next up was getting rid of baby clothes. Heart condition plus gestational diabetes yields "A GRAVE REASON" to avoid future pregnancies. "Be careful what you wish for," I thought to myself, suddenly saddened by the thought that my nine-month-old would be the baby of the family forever. I packed up the jolly jumper, the layettes and receiving blankets.

Then I began to see the other side of child rearing. Where it once seemed I'd been in this baby phase for a long time, it suddenly seemed too short, and indeed, nearly over. In just a few short years I'd have more independence, yes, but where would the kids be? On their way out the door. Then what would I do? A hint of fear twisted in my gut.

I took walks in the park at dusk, listening to moody music, looking up at the Heavens and contemplating my failure to prove invincible. I thanked God for this opportunity to suffer, though with honesty, I couldn't remember the last time my life was as easy as it currently is. And my ease felt intensified and enlivened by the intrigue of a medical dilemma, future doctor's appointments, the thought of my mother coming to take care of me.

Yes, there was a part of me that did want to be that poor lady on the prayer chain.

But it wasn't meant to be. My meeting with the cardiologist revealed that I'd done my internet research on a different kind of hole than the one I have in my heart. My shunt is right to left rather than left to right, an abnormality rather than a congenital defect. No surgery required.

There's a reason for medical specialists. There's a reason not to self diagnose on the internet. And there must have been some reason I needed to go through the motions of thinking I was going to have a near-death experience.

It is humbling to eat one's words, "Remember how I told you I was going to have open heart surgery? Well, just kidding. Turns out, I'm just a hypochondriac." And as cliche as it's become to get in touch with genuine feelings of gratitude at the thought of imminent death, I did just that.

What a good life I have. I can take heart in the little things, just like my little brother wrote in a recent email: "Glad to hear (as we've always believed) that you're just abnormal, rather than defective."