The Infuriating Thing About Un-Readiness

“Excuse me, how’s the book coming?”

The idea of grad school is to fine tune your education. When you apply, you do so because you’ve found the thing. Your thing. The path you want to follow. When I finally decided I wanted to be a writer, I found a program, and people, who would teach me, and they did. I learned, and am still learning, how to write.

I’ve been finished with graduate school for several months now. I have a few publications scheduled in the next half-year, but most days are quiet. Most writing days are solitary, and they end on a cliffhanger: will she finish this book? Will Varmints be worth revisiting tomorrow?

Cliffhangers suck. Nobody likes them, and yet they keep the audience coming back for more. When a television show ends in a cliffhanger, the cast and crew have to come back for the next season. The audience is waiting because they know the plot–they’re invested in it. They watched the buildup, the climax, and the abrupt ending. Not so with writers. Nobody gives a crap if I come back tomorrow, because nobody has any idea that I’m here today. Nobody can see me on this Sunday morning, sitting here in my unicorn onesie with mismatched socks and hair that looks like I just crawled out of a badger hole because cooking Thanksgiving dinner wore me out.

“What do you mean by not done?”

I can tweet the hastag #amwriting until the cows come home, but now, nobody cares until I produce a publication. Nobody is waiting for my draft. Nobody wants to know about the essays I start that fail, or the extensive amount of time it’s taking me to find the proper voice for a middle-aged possum who’s trying to fill out an eHarmony profile in what is starting to feel like the most ridiculous thing I have ever written.

And this leads me to the ever-growing worry that occupies a larger and larger chunk of my brain: What if I’m just not ready?

To my left sits a metal bookshelf I bought at a consignment store for $20. It’s seafoam green and it holds every book I’ve read in the past two years of school. Forty or fifty. Each book bears an author’s name and a publisher’s imprint. Those people did it. They wrote the damn book, they published the damn book.

They were ready. I do not think that I am. And the infuriating thing about un-readiness is that it won’t be moved by force. And while I agree that a writer must, simply, shut the door and write, every single day, the practice of writing may or may not nudge the ready-meter to the left or right. Readiness comes when it will.

“Stop pushing my butt, lady.”

Ever try to move a dog who doesn’t want to? Nugget is a collie-doodle, according to the mutt genetic test. I’ve never thought of either breed as being especially strong-willed, and she’s not, unless I push her butt. Applying force to Nugget’s rump causes her to plant her front paws and push back against me, even when I push her away from things like a knife-wielding Benjamin or a clawed-feline looking to snag a chunk of fluffy tail. And likewise, pulling on Nugget has an equal and opposite reaction: she instinctively pulls away from me. No matter which direction I try to force my doodle to go, she resists me. And yet, it takes only the slightest patience, a brief hint of a kind word (“Come ‘ere, Nuggie”) to move collie-mountains.

If I’m interpreting my own metaphor correctly (and I’m not sure that I am), it would seem that I need to stop pushing my own butt. To be kind to my hindquarters. But also to continually nudge. (And offer treats.)

The book I’m writing has taken several iterations. I have big decisions to make about it, not the least of which revolve around genre. This book doesn’t yet have a home on any shelf, but it will, someday, and at the moment, I’ve written some truths and I’ve written some (fun) lies. I don’t know if those two states of honesty can coexist on a publisher’s desk, on a bookstore shelf. Thus, on any given day, I pick a direction and push myself. A week later I might reverse my course and pull myself another way. And all the while, my inner doodle is planting her feet.

Here, I lose the metaphor. Is the doodle my writing? Is the doodle me? Is the doodle the universe?

Hell if I know. And so I’m forced to wait, to get comfortable with un-readiness while friends around me finish manuscripts and win awards and remove the collars from their necks. And no matter how many essays I read about writers who also were not ready, I find no comfort in this perpetual state of uncertainty.

“We’ll just wait here while you finish the book.”

It’s Schrodinger’s varmint. Until I open the box, the book is both fiction and nonfiction. The book is both complete and incomplete.

And yet, I’m not sitting alone all day, every day, wringing my hands. I’m doing things I’ve wanted to do for two years. I’m out of my office more than I’m in it. I’m having the experiences I need to have, being with people rather than with a computer screen. Until I go out, I’ll have nothing about which to come back and write. My kids missed me when I was in school. Weekend trips were postponed. Walks in the woods put off. Finally, I can and will do these things, despite the fact that they limit my writing time. I’m finding joy in a more open schedule.

Still, the unreadiness clings to me like the scent of wet dog. I get whiffs of it even when I’m out and about, but I can’t seem to wash it off with a definitive end-date. I try to scrub myself clean with pep talks and mindfulness, but these are like the candles I burn to cover up the scent of the foyer carpeting where Nugget poops on rainy days.

I’m not ready to finish the book. I’m not ready to finish anything, today. I’m kind of thinking about chewing a sneaker, though.

Riprap

Note to readers: I wrote this blog on Monday, the day before the election, but didn’t finish editing it until Friday. I won’t be addressing the election because this is a nature blog, a sacred place.

When I began this blog, I did so for a class called Nature Writing that I took my second semester of graduate school. I loved that class because one of the requirements was to keep this nature blog. We had to choose a spot in nature and visit it every other week. What we wrote about was up to us. Naturally, I chose Piedmont Lake, though everyone else was a lot smarter, choosing a spot close to home. I had to drive an hour each way. Totally worth it though. That’s how Piedmont Peace, The Blog was born. And though I didn’t know exactly what revelations would come to me as I visited the lake by myself, over and over again, in the winter months, I was pleasantly surprised to have more than enough to write and think about every time I went. And it made me wish I’d been blogging for decades rather than weeks because I’d have a Piedmont book written by now. No place in my life is more deserving.

November weenie roast on Fall Chore Day.

I was at the lake, the cabin, yesterday for the annual fall cleanup day. As a child I hated fall chore day. It signaled the finish line for fun. While an adult with a boat can entertain herself via fall fishing well into October (and thanks to climate change, now November), a kid loses at least 50% of his interest as soon as the water becomes too cold for swimming. Fall cleanup day means putting the porch furniture in the house, blowing the leaves out of the gutters and off the roof, hiding beadspreads from mice in Rubbermain containers, and winterizeing the dock. That means Dad has to put on his hip waders and enter the 60-degree water (and this is a warm year) to take the float off the end. The rest of the dock is supported and will sit quietly above the sand when the conservancy lets down the lake, but the float has to find its way to the shoreline for the winter.

The dock moves out.

This year, though, the dock ritual incorporated much more detailed efforts. Some months ago, Dad received a letter from the Muskingum Conservancy Watershed District (henceforth MCWD or “the bastards”) telling him that he and every other resident of Goodrich Road had to have their docks out of the water by the end of December. Completely out, at our own expense and effort. The reason? MCWD has aerially visualized shoreline erosion in the vicinity of our docks. That means somebody went up in a plane and saw muddy water flowing out from our cove, most specifically from our dock and a few other docks. The letter went on to say that the Conservancy will be riprapping the shoreline in January to combat this problem.

Riprap at the dam

You’ve seen riprap. It’s a wall of rock piled upon the shoreline to stabilize and prevent erosion. I’ve seen it in the ocean as well as in fresh water. I’ve seen it on riverbanks. It prevents erosion from both wave action (of which there is very little in Piedmont due to the 9.9 horsepower limit) and runoff. It’s not a new concept. Robert E. Lee was assigned to an island riprapping project when he was in the Army Corps of Engineers. The poet and nature writer Gary Snyder spent time in his younger days as a trail crew member in the Sierra Nevada riprapping mountain trails for horse travel; in 1965 he published a book of poetry called Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems.

November on the lake

The titular poem, Riprap:


Lay down these words


Before your mind like rocks.


             placed solid, by hands   


In choice of place, set


Before the body of the mind


             in space and time:


Solidity of bark, leaf, or wall


             riprap of things:


Cobble of milky way,


             straying planets,


These poems, people,


             lost ponies with


Dragging saddles —


             and rocky sure-foot trails.   


The worlds like an endless   


             four-dimensional


Game of Go.


             ants and pebbles


In the thin loam, each rock a word   


             a creek-washed stone


Granite: ingrained


             with torment of fire and weight   


Crystal and sediment linked hot


             all change, in thoughts,   


As well as things.

Snyder’s riprap comes together, rock by rock, word by word, to form a beautiful trail of language leading us to a higher state. When we read it we actually ooze metaphor out of our pores: poetry is a riprap of words, carefully constructed for maximum strength and impact.

But the reaction to the MCWD’s decision to riprap our shoreline wasn’t poetic in my family at all; it was a real shit show. In fact, the whole of Goodrich Road rose up in angry protest. First of all, people just plain hate to be ordered around. Life at Piedmont Lake is good, but life at Piedmont Lake is also tremendously frustrating because the residents don’t own the land. You can’t cut down a tree without permission. Houses may be olive green or dark brown or gray, only. When you get a letter ordering you to paint the concrete blocks of your foundation, you do it. When you build a deck and forget to ask permission first, you pay a fine. Swimmers may not swim past the end of their docks, nor may they jump off their boats or rocks. We all do it anyway (because screw MCWD), but there have been times when the ranger has busted us and ordered us to behave ourselves. You can enjoy yourself at an MCWD lake, but actual fun isn’t encouraged. We go out of our way to project the appearance of compliance while at the same time doing all kinds of rotten things like diving off the boat at the dam and paddling an unlicensed kayak. And sometimes I’ve had to pay for it. But eff the Conservancy.

This time, though, we don’t have a choice. On January 1, the riprapping begins.

The shoreline in mid-spring.

Let me take a moment to describe our shoreline. The Eastern deciduous forest gives way to a gentle slope of grass about 15 feet wide. My father has encouraged small trees to take hold along the embankment, offering gentle privacy from passing fishermen and dappled shade in the heat of the day. Canada geese rest on the grass in the morning sun and, in May and June, cattails emerge and yellow water iris spring from the water’s edge, drawing bees and butterflies. The lake’s gentle waves lap the faces of small boulders, some overgrown with tree roots where thin water snakes make their summer homes. A rock sits just offshore, waiting to teach little children to jump and swim, a perch where I once counted dragonflies and dangled my toes in the lake, where my sons now practice their circus leaps. Leafy water plants begin to grow in the shallows as the water warms, and minnows and shiners dart to safety whenever a largemouth bass passes by. The mother bass spawn in the shade of the forest, endlessly guarding their nests until the fry hatch and move to the weed beds in the shadow of the saplings on the shore. In deeper water, bluegill and sunfish hide under the dock, guarding their own nests in the sub-aquatic vegetation, and even further out, saugeye lurk near the bottom and patrol the edge of the underwater forest.

In two months those bulldozers are going to roll up and maul the ever-loving shit out of our shoreline. Viva la riprap!

The MCWD agreed to send an engineer to a Goodrich Road meeting of the minds, and to his credit, he came prepared and he came in peace. I did not attend, but Dad did, and he reported back that this young professional truly listened to the concerns of the residents. In fact, he took a fair amount of abuse from an angry group of old men. He explained that the erosion had become a problem, but he took to heart the concerns of the dock owners. Someone had already riprapped his own shoreline with natural-looking boulders many years ago, and this engineer conceded that it was as good a job as any engineer could do. He agreed not to riprap that man’s shoreline. Moreover, he went back to the Conservancy and presented the Goodrich Road residents’ cases so successfully that MCWD decided not to riprap the entire shoreline of the cove. The new plan involves riprapping only some areas. Alas, our shoreline is the one in greatest need of reinforcement, due in part to a neighbor who ripped all of his trees out of the embankment several years ago in order to improve his view. One can hardly blame him for wanting a nice view, but the consequences have been direct and severe.

Yellow Iris and the jump rock

Bring in the bulldozers. If only I had had the forethought to dig up those water iris when I could still
find their bulbs, I could have overwintered them in my fish pond and replanted them in the spring.

But the shoreline won’t be the same in the spring–where would I plant them? It’ll be a massive wall of rocks, and any vegetation that had grown in the mud or in the water will have been crushed by the machinery. Forget for a moment the fact that we had to take apart the dock yesterday so Dad could walk it through the water and anchor it on a nearby shoreline where it can sit, undisturbed, for the winter. Forget for a moment that when we reassemble the dock it will have to be rebuilt to go up and over the riprap. Forget for a moment that no adult, dog, or child will be able to access the water without breaking a leg or an ankle. I don’t love those components of this process, but I can live with them. We can use ladders. The dogs will find a way.

My biggest concerns revolve around the riparian zone. What is going to happen to the shoreline habitat? The sub- and emergent-aquatic vegetation? The animals like turtles who may be trapped as they try to enter the water?

That’s a real question that’s milling around in my head. I don’t know the answer. What will happen? Thus far I’ve written this piece with a rather dour tone, haven’t I? Research into other states’ DNR pages indicates that riprap isn’t going to be the end of the world. If done properly, it will stop the erosion and still provide fish habitat. If erosion due to runoff is reduced, so too will be pollutants carried in that runoff, thereby reducing algae blooms. Additionally, riprap may protect wetlands by preventing floating vegetation from being stripped away.

Still, I don’t look forward to the riprapping.

Enter the marital disagreement. My husband, the fisherman, is whoop-whooping the incoming riprap with boundless enthusiasm.

“You know how many fish we catch at the dam,” he always reminds me. “Have you not read about the smallmouth and largemouth populations that gather around a rock wall?” I have read about them, and he’s right. Craw love a rock wall. Where there are craw, there will be smallies. Where there are cracks and holes, fish will hide and spawn. This project has the potential to create bountiful fishing opportunities if they do it right. Algae grows on rocks. Small fish eat algae. Big fish eat small fish. Bigger fish patrol the shoreline.

Bass magazines back this up. Anglers never pass up a good stretch of riprap.

If they do it right.

Thus, the family remains a hung jury. My father mourns the swift death of his shoreline, of his trees, and of the way it’s been for 40-some years. Shawn is eager to reap the benefits of a bouldered habitat. And I find myself torn, both hoping for the best and expecting the worst. It’s difficult to find ourselves “in the way” of a judgment that’s already been passed. Might we have been able to bring in more natural rocks? To plant shrubbery and more trees? I think I’d have more faith in the engineers were they not working for the organization that sold its soul to Antero, the frackers, for $95 million dollars.

Passing our dock around the neighbor’s.

“We’re doing this for you for free,” they told the residents at the Goodrich Road meeting. You don’t have to pay a dime. We’re fixing things for you.”

Fixing. I’m suspicious of that word when it comes to environmental engineering.

I know that in this world we have to trust some people and suspect others. But only hindsight reveals how we did with our gut feeling, if we chose wisely or poorly. I find myself fighting the urge to cling to the way it’s always been, to rebel against riprap simply because it’s a change. Change is not a bad thing, usually. Nature herself is not static. But riprap isn’t nature. Show me a time when man tinkered with nature that ended with a result better than one nature could have achieved itself.

Then again, the whole lake is manmade, the fish dumped in out of the backs of trucks, the water levels raised and lowered by a set of steel doors. Perhaps this entire experiment is just one wild adventure in commerce. As of the posting of this blog, I remain doubtfully hopeful.


The future, for now, looks rocky.

*Roy Blount Jr., Robert E. Lee

The Pee Problem: Making a Mockery of My Horror

It may be time to admit that I have a problem on my hands. Admitting is the first step, they say. One can go on for years and years with a problem, but until they acknowledge its existence, it’s hard to find the impetus to make a change.

So here goes: I’ve got a cat pee problem.

For about a year now, I’ve been trying to tell myself that I don’t have a cat pee problem. Cat pee problems, after all, are for lunatic collectors of felines. Hoarders. People who don’t take care of their cats. People who adopt and adopt and become so nose-blind to the smell in their houses that they no longer notice any odor at all, when in fact the stink is wafting up the street and dropping joggers on the pavement. Cat-pee houses sometimes have to be torn down. When my dad bought the building for his law practice, one room had been inhabited by a crazy cat lady whose cats thoroughly saturated the carpet. I don’t know how they got the smell out of the wood but I know it was time-consuming and expensive. I’ve dealt with my share of dog pee, and it’s benign and downright fragrant compared to cat pee. Cat pee is no joke.

And here I want to stop and scream, “I’m a dog person anyway! I can’t have a cat pee problem if I’m a dog person!” There’s a stigma associated with the smell of cat urine. I’m loath to even bring it up because the scent itself conjures an image of a raving woman in a house dress standing on her porch with hair curlers and a shotgun. Tidy people–people who have their shit together–don’t have cat pee problems. Dog people don’t have cat pee problems.

But of course, they do. I’ve been very quietly reaching out to the cat people I know. Growing up, we never really had cats, and even though I’ve been a cat-owning adult for some time now, I still feel like a newbie. My inexperience reveals the fact that I’ve never really gone all-in with cats; I just sort of have them around, and until now, the cats have held up their end of the bargain. They’ve used a litterbox, slept on our furniture, and tripped us every few days. I’m pretty sure those are the three main things expected of them.

The cat friends have assured me that they’ve all had a pee-er at one time or another. Cats who’ve peed on chairs, on curtains. My mother-in-law had one who peed in only one corner, and when the corner was unavailable because a piece of furniture covered it, he was fine. What the hell, cats? My obsessive Googling indicates that the reasons a cat will pee boil down to two categories: a physical problem or a behavioral problem. A physical problem is simple to treat. A behavioral problem, not so much.

The cat in question is Putter (pronounced “put-her”), an 11-year-old tortoiseshell female we adopted the day before I found out I was pregnant with Andy. At the time we had a Doberman and a business of ferrets–four, to be exact. She was a tiny kitten and she took her share of abuse from the weasels who thought she was one of them. Ferrets have tough skin and bite each other hard, and they used to drag her around by the scruff of her neck. They toughened her up. Then Andy arrived and rocked her world. The dobie died, we adopted Nugget, our collie mix, and Gimli came along as a stray kitten shortly thereafter. And then–Heaven help her–Ben was born. A few months after Ben came along we rescued Maya, our German shepherd. Now, Panther has moved in too, and through it all Putter has been more tolerant than I’d have expected a cat to be. She does seem to try. She bonded with Gimli, ignores Nugget, hates Benjamin, and hides from Maya. She despises Panther and adores both Shawn and my electric blanket.

Needless to say, the cat has endured a lifetime of inconsistency. Animals, children, and chaos all coming and going. It’s not ideal. But the urinating is only a recent development. She’s hung on for a long time. Like all female cats, Putter’s been under the impression that this is her house and that she’s the monarch. At times she appeared so stately that we were convinced the urinator was Gimli. I’d yell at him and run him off and grumble about selling him down the river, and I feel pretty bad about this, in hindsight. Only in the last year did we figure out who the real culprit was.

Our first visit to the vet revealed a raging urinary tract infection. Poor Putter, we all exclaimed. No wonder she was peeing on the rug. She’s been sick for months and nobody thought to have her examined. What terrible humans we are. We got her feeling better, but after a brief hiatus the peeing returned. Grimly, the vet told me that the problem was behavioral and would be a challenge to treat.

Cat urine is perhaps the most offensive substance in the domestic human-animal world. Give me yak, give me hairballs. Give me a dog rolling in a dead fish. Anything but cat pee.

Felinine

See this amino acid? It’s Felinine. The S in there is sulfur. While the cat urine takes its sweet time soaking into Benjamin’s bedroom carpet, the molecules begin to break down. As they do, the sulfur cleaves off. So now sulfur is just down there, rolling around in the pile, and the longer the urine sits, the worse it smells. Fresh cat pee isn’t easy to find. Day-old cat pee is unmistakable. Week-old cat pee? Might as well head down to the ol’ bunker and dig out the gas masks.

There’s always a reason for an animal’s physical attributes, and evolution had a plan for cat pee. Unneutered male cats have a high concentration of Felinine in their urine so that when they mark a tree in the wild, the scent can power through rain and still act as a stinking, blinking beacon in the yard for any other dude who decides to wander through. Nature, you sly genius. However, Putter’s girly urine still contains more than enough Felinine to ruin my carpet.

The pet stores are happy to sell me a variety of cat pee products. Off. Dumb Cat. Anti-Icky-Poo. Things that crystallize. Things that de-funkify. Things that repel. The Nature’s Miracle people would have me believe that their enzyme formula is the way to go, that enzymes are really the only tool for combating the smell. I’m not so sure. I’ve spent several hundred dollars on big gallon jugs of Nature’s Miracle, saturating the carpet over and over again. The smell always remains. And if I can smell it, Putter can smell it. That stink is a big flashing cat sign: Liked it the first time? Come on back! 

While I’m fighting this battle with the world’s rudest amino acid, I’m also going slowly insane. The pee has gotten into my head. In the first few months, I could easily detect the smell of cat pee. I’d walk up the stairs and get a whiff. I’d announce to Shawn that there was fresh cat pee somewhere. He’d never be able to smell it, but I’d get down on my hands and knees and crawl around with my schnoz smashed into the carpet until I found the wet spot. Then, like a pointer, I’d tense and alert the family. Pee! I found pee!

But after a few months, I guess I went a little nose-blind. In Pavlovian style, I learned to associate the smell of Nature’s Miracle with the presence of feline urine, and the two scents blended together to form a ball of confused frustration in my sinuses. Had I or had I not treated that particular swatch of carpet? Was it damp because I had just cleaned it the day before or was it damp because Putter had peed on it again? I started spending more time on the floor, bloodhounding my way around the room, baying when I thought I found another wet spot.

Ba-WROOOOOO! 

These days, it goes like this: Walk up the stairs, stop in my tracks. Do I smell something? Is that cat pee? Enter Ben’s room, drop to my hands and knees. Smush my nostrils into the carpet and proceed to hoover around the room. Sniff. Fresh pee or old pee? Damp or dry? Felinine or Nature’s Miracle? Can’t decide. Get in the car and drive to Petco. Purchase a gallon of enzymatic cleaner for $42.99. Return to the room and pour the entire bottle into the corner. Sit and watch the puddle. Sniff the puddle. Sniff my pants. Ask myself if they smell, too. Remove my pants. Sniff the knees of the pant legs and decide they reek of pee. Wash the pants with enzymatic cleaner. Sit in Ben’s room with no pants and watch the puddle dry. Open a window. Air out the room. Sniff the cuff of my shirt. Imagine it smells like pee. Remove the shirt. Wash the shirt. Sit in Ben’s room in my underwear and watch the puddle dry. Leave the house in clean clothing to go to Ben’s Halloween party at school. Ask my friend if I smell like cat pee. When she says no, decide she’s wrong. Subtly remove myself from the group and retreat to the corner of the classroom so nobody can smell me. When Shawn arrives, ask him if he smells cat pee on me. Tell him he’s wrong when he says no. Go home. Notice the yard smells like cat pee. Take off my clothing again. Notice the dog smells like cat pee. Notice the shower smells like cat pee. Drive to Petco in clean clothing. Buy another gallon of enzymatic cleaner. Pour it on the rug and watch the puddle dry in my underwear. Sniff my hair. Wash my hair. Ask the mailman to come upstairs and tell me if he smells pee. Argue with him when he says no.

I bought Putter an expensive self-cleaning litterbox. She likes it. She uses it. There’s no evidence that she’s peed on the rug since I gave it to her. She seems to be happy.

But I still smell pee everywhere. On me, on you. It clings to the curtains, to the trees. It blows in on the wind. I smell pee in the car, on the kids. The plates come out of the dishwasher reeking of urine. When people come to the house I turn on fans and open windows. I light candles and flick on my Scentsy warmers. I bake a turkey so the house smells like roasting bird flesh rather than cat whiz. I ask Shawn and the children to smell the rugs, the wood, and my own body over and over again. I inhale until my lungs hurt and I get woozy.

And nobody else can smell it. Nobody believes me.

But I smell cat pee.

This morning, as I wrote this blog, I took a break between the seventh and eighth paragraphs to pour a gallon of vinegar on the carpet. I found the treatment on YouTube. I treated half of the area and left the other half untreated so that I can compare the two later, when the liquid dries. They say that if you can question your sanity, then you’re still sane, but I’m not sure if that applies to someone who spends half of the day on her stomach inhaling a faceful of ammonia.

This is my life, now. I’m Edgar Allen Poe’s tragic murderer, smelling the thump thump of cat pee under my floor boards.

Why will you say that I am mad? The disease has sharpened my senses–not destroyed–not dulled them. Above all was the sense of smell acute. I smelled all things in the heaven and in the earth. I smelled many things in hell. How, then, am I mad?