The Christmas Hangover

Kung Pao Christmas

Kung Pao Christmas

This morning, I am awake feeling a bit raw and numb from the Ukrainian and mine’s inability to pull off a successful Christmas that was deliberately devoid of all traditions and expectations. For weeks, I had been confused as to why all the women on Facebook were fraughting over whether or not they would get “everything” done in time for Christmas. What is there to get done? I wondered. You buy a tree, string some lights, hang some ornaments. And then you go buy some presents (which can be conveniently done at midnight from Amazon. Free shipping!!). On Christmas Day, you open the presents and cook a big meal. Voila! Christmas in America.

(Sure, some people add more stress to the holiday. They take holiday photos of their pets children, upload them to a photo site, and then send out hundreds of Christmas cards. Others volunteer at retirement homes. While still others spend the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas baking endless batches of Christmas cookies and candy. But all this sounded like too much work to me. How can people enjoy their holiday, if they spend the months weeks prior working for it.)

But my ideal of throwing together a simple, no-fuss, yet super-yummy Christmas had a few flaws:

1) The Ukrainian would spend the 1st 1/2 of December preparing for his final exams while I would be studying new technology for my job. So no time prepare.

2) The Ukrainian and I would be on a mad tour of the East Coast  from the moment he finished his final exams until 1:30 a.m. December 23rd.

3) My thought that I wouldn’t have to work on December 24th and could thus recover from our E. Coast trip, go grocery shopping for our luscious Christmas dinner menu and a few last-minute gifts for the Ukrainian was thwarted by the fact that I learned on the 23rd that I *did* have to work on the 24th.  My opportunity to make it so much to a grocery store before its traditional early closing on Christmas Eve looked highly doubtful.

So on the eve of Christmas eve, I made an executive family decision. We would simply pretend we were Jewish. Or rather, we would take into account of the fact that 1/2 of our family is a Russian Orthodox Christian who doesn’t celebrate Christmas until January 7. Even then, a Russian Orthodox Christmas is merely a religious holiday and all gift-exchanges happen on New Year’s Day.

“Chinese food or Haute cuisuine Francaise?” I IMed the Ukrainian on Christmas Eve’s eve.

“Oh, Chinese for sure.” he replied.

Our fabulous Christmas dinner from 2007

Our fabulous Christmas dinner from 2007

“Are you sure you don’t mind we won’t have the Christmas salmon and all the other lush foods we were planning to have?” I felt the need in our young marriage to establish some sort of tradition. And last year, we cooked up a divine menu of Salmon-tarragon, risotto with caramelized leeks and sweet red bell peppers, a salad of mixed greens cranberries Maytag Blue cheese and caramelized walnuts and chocolate pecan bourbon pie. It was our best meal ever and I thought for sure the menu was destined to become the basis for all our future Christmas menus.

“Oh, I’m sure,” he said almost too eagerly. I could imagine him being so happy that there’d be no dishes to wash or kitchen to clean on the holiday. I, in the meantime, was sad that we wouldn’t be using my grandmother’s Bavarian china or the Tiffany’s silver that had been given to us on our wedding day. Remember, I thought. Remember the goal is a stress-free Christmas. For as much work as we’ve been doing, there’s been a lot of fun too. Who said we had to have instant traditions? We’d find our way…

Christmas Morning

The stockings hadn’t been hung and I awoke Christmas morning already feeling down. My late afternoon forays on Christmas Eve to find a few perfect trinkets to fill the Ukrainian’s stocking had been met with a bust. It never occurred to the Ukrainian either to hang and fill a stocking for me. I could forgive him as I couldn’t expect him to know all the English/American Christmas traditions in only his 2nd Christmas. But still…I had little in sense of anticipation.

And there was something else missing…there were no little ones rushing to our bed urging us to get up! get up! It’s Christmas!!! Let’s open presents!!! No, it was just the Ukrainian and I nestled snug under our down-filled duvet with our two lazy dogs asleep on the floor by the bed. The hours ticked by. 7 a.m. 8 a.m. 9 a.m. There was no hint of the Ukrainian awakening. No whinging from the dogs to be let out. 10 am. And still everyone was asleep. I was getting a headache from laying about so long doing nothing on a day that was supposed to be day greeted with excitement and anticipation and lots of eating and rushing about celebrating seemingly the pure joy of being alive and being surrounded by such great friends and family.

Finally, at 1/2 past 10, the brown dog stared us straight in the face with her emphatic look that can only be translated as “Give me my breakfast NOW!” The Ukrainian and I quickly conversed over who exactly should be the one to do dog-duty on the holiday. He was too tired. I was too depressed. Finally, we agreed we would suffer through it together and then head over to our local Chinese restaurant, Wild Pepper, for our own Christmas breakfast brunch.

And it was then that we began the sort of marital argument that plagues all newly married couples:  the division of labor for household chores.

It all started innocently enough. I rationalized that since we were experiencing a rare San Francisco winter’s day without rain, we should take the dogs to the park. The dogs seemed to agree and took off racing down the street leading to Dolores Park. The Ukrainian, however, was not so enthused. “The park is muddy. They’ll get dirty.” He whinged. I didn’t care. And I didn’t care to put enough thought into my reply. “So wash them! They’re dogs. They get dirty!” In my mind, as long as the dogs didn’t smell of dead rat or the like, I didn’t care if they had a bit of mud on them. We have hardwood floors. They, too, wash. But in the Ukrainian’s mind, he already spent too much time — a total of 3 hours or so a week on housework/dogcare — that he had no desire to do anymore.  In my mind, 3 hours was nothing.

The argument was one where we both had perfectly legitimate views. The dogs *did* need exercise. The Ukrainian *was* the one who did wash them when they became too filthy to cohabitate with us and thus *should* have a say in their dirt-level. But the reality of the discussion was that we were both too tired from our Grand Year of Perpetual Life Changes to take on any more responsibilities and couldn’t even handle the basic task hanging and filling stockings for Christmas Day. What right did we have to want to add a child to the mix? If taking care of 2 dogs was a lot of work, what did we think taking care of a child would be?

And so, in that moment, all our hopes for a grand, tradition-free Christmas busted. One of us stormed off. Doors were slammed upon the return to the house. The idea for the MSG-ladened Chinese brunch became impossible. When time for lunch came, we each took out a selection from our respective supplies of frozen dinners and silently shared the microwave. Each attempt at conversation threatened to explode our relationship to the breaking point. And, so, silence seemed the only option. It was not a Christmas of Peace, but rather one of a renewed Cold War whose battle lines had been drawn across the middle of our kitchen table — the one that had been desperately needing an oil for the past 3 months. But neither of us had gotten around to doing it.

I took a nap in the living room. The Ukrainian claimed his space in the bedroom. From time-to-time, one would deliver a package to the other and then walk away while the recipient was left to ponder whether to open the gift or not. Suddenly, no present seemed like the right present. There was nothing that could be given that would bridge the gulf that had opened up on Christmas morning. The Gift of the Magi we certainly were not. Each gift from one to the other seemed to suggest a frantic Christmas Eve afternoon spent trying to find few trinkets that would please the other in the final few hours before the shops closed. Neither of us had spent much time to acquire anything the other truly wanted. No sacrifice had been made.

Blini mix

Blini mix

Darkness came. A public dinner was still out of the question. A trip downtown to the theatres seemed an even worse idea. We did nothing. There was no Christmas spirit. No bigger meaning to be learned. We started to be nice to each other simply because we needed each other. The Ukrainian needed help making his blinis on which he wanted to put the caviar I had thrust in his hands earlier in the day. I needed help with the food processor so I could make a traditional Christmas Cheese Ball in an attempt to salvage some bit of Midwestern American tradition of out of holiday.

And finally, 9:30 p.m. came and we did the only thing anyone could do when they’ve had a no good, very bad, terrible day: go to bed and hope for something better tomorrow.

Caviar for the blinis

Caviar for the blinis

And now, it’s tomorrow. We have no good lesson to be learned other than the fact  the Ukrainian are still getting to know each other. We are still trying to find our way in our nascent marriage. We can’t instantly create traditions. And our marriage is strong enough to surive all these trying-to-find-our-way bits.

And, oh yeah, we have a housekeeper coming tomorrow for a trial run. The best solution to a fight-over-work-that-never-ends? Outsource it. It’s much, much cheaper than a divorce. And much better than fighting.

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Do not Disturb

I’ve been sitting on my bed thinking about how melancholic I feel. There is no reason for my melancholy. Overall, I have great balance in my life.

This melancholic-for-no-reason feeling has been lingering for a few weeks. I have tried to stave it off by buying fancy new shoes, emailing Honda dealers to see who can give us the best deal on a new car (I am bored of that now and have lost my desire to purchase one), browsing CraigsList for a better apartment (there isn’t one for under $3000/month), browsing the Black Friday circulars for special holiday deals (all avoided), picking up books and movies and not getting through the first 5 minutes.

This is a common feeling in my life. As soon as everything is perfect, I start to look for something “more”. Something “different”. Something that will challenge me and make me grow and give me great adventurous tales to tell. But usually what happens is that when I make that change, I find that not only have I left something behind that I really loved, the stress of the adjustment almost leaves me too paralyzed to enjoy the change of which I dreamed. And then finally, I settle, only to find myself melancholic and longing for that something else.

Sometimes, I think, I am merely trying to avoid myself — trying to avoid the basic humdrummery and drudgery of life. Oh sure, there is always beauty. But when you see the beauty enough, it eventually becomes unobserved.

So I’ve been siting on the bed feeling melancholic, looking for an outlet. I tried to write, but it gave me a headache. I transferred the photos from the holiday weekend from the camera to the computer, but I could not find the motivation to upload them to the blog, flickr, or Facebook. I wondered if I should maybe put the laundry away and tidy things up before the week begins. But then I figured that my melancholic nothingness would still be there when I finished. So what good would that do? Only more things in my life would be in order.

My husband, the Ukrainian, thinks this melancholic endless searching for something all comes from the lack of a baby in our lives. Perhaps. Maybe I’ve done enough in my relatively-young life that it’s time to bring another into the world. But somehow, I feel like I will always want more.

Funny, I was only able to write this because the Ukrainian interrupted my melancholic thoughts. I was sitting alone on the bed when he entered the room to interrupt me. But my melancholy did not want to be interrupted. I told him to leave, to get back to work. I just wanted to be alone. I told him I would like a “Do Not Disturb” sign for our bedroom door as he had been interrupting me all day (I had to do some work for my job, which I did while sitting on the bed).

But now, I think of him interrupting me. He is so very cute. Not emotionally-distant at all. The perfect anecdote to my moody irrational self. That search for whatever it is that makes want something more will not go away, but with the Ukrainian at my side, perhaps I will find the tenaciousness necessary to figure out what it is without changing a thing.

Invitations from the past

Chicago in the winter -- from zachanderson.com

Chicago in the winter -- from zachanderson.com

It was lunchtime. I was browsing the Chicago Craigslist, drooling over the large beautiful apartments that could be had for much less than what the Ukrainian and I are paying for our 1 BR in San Franciso’s Noe Valley. The day before, I had calculated that Chicago has a 26% lower cost of living than the Bay Area, but only a 11% lower average salary rate. It is also significantly closer to my family in Iowa and only a 2 hour flight to friends in New York or family in Washington, D.C.

These are the thoughts that cross my mind when the Ukrainian and I talk about having a baby in such dismal economic times. A baby is something I really want, but I worry about how we will manage it all on our combined income — while not impoverished in the slightest, is very definitely middle class — when housing and childcare are both not only so expensive here, but also extremely difficult to find.

While browsing Craigslist, I was also listening to Alice 97.3 on ITunes Radio. The Smashing Pumpkins’ song “Tonight, Tonight” came on. I listened to the lyrics, waiting for the lines: and the embers never fade in your city by the lake the place where you were born. The city by the lake is Chicago. The place where I was born — well, really, it’s the suburbs of Chicago. But still…everytime I heard this song, it takes me back to the life I had before I first moved to California. Could it be a sign, I wondered, to hear this song while browsing the Chicago Craigslist? I dismissed the thought. Signs had not done much for me in the past.

I checked my email to get away from all thoughts of returning to the Windy City. I have a good job here and the Ukrainian is establishing his life here. It would be asinine to shake things up. And there, in my email, was a little mini-shake-up.

“We’ve received an invitation from E to his Halloween party on Saturday,” I IM the Ukrainian.

“Who’s E? Your ex-boyfriend?”

“Yeah…” E and I met in the midst of the breakup with the Bulgarian. We dated in the months I spent preparing to move to the Netherlands. We broke up while I was there. Got back together in a much more tentative way after I returned to San Francisco and then broke up once again in the spring of 2007. It was the demise — or rather never-success — of this relationship that made me post the ad on Craigslist to which the Ukrainian responded. While E and I never call each other up to say “How’re you doing?” we do end up on each other’s party invite list. I’m never sure why.

“So what do you think?” I asked the Ukrainian. I never mind a good house party (they’re much preferable to clubs these days, now that I’m in my 30s and married), but was there the need to keep putting my husband in the awkward spot of being paraded around in front of my exes? Besides, I have now learned from E’s last party — the first held since we were married — that the more interesting male guests no longer pay attention to me. It’s the ring on my 4th finger. It’s the husband whose eyes my eyes meet from across the room every 30 seconds or so. If the men are single, they have little to gain from much conversation with me. And if they’re not, it will only be moments before their significant other will find away to interrupt the conversation. It is moments like these I despise the more puritanical twists of American culture. Europe always seemed more relaxed. Indeed, at the dinner parties I attended there, significant others were always seated apart to shake things up a little. It was a chance to talk to someone besides the one person you talk to everyday.

I.E. in a bikini

I.E. in a bikini

“Well, I have to meet up with I.E. this weekend. She is in town for the weekend. But I have to be at a conference all day Saturday and I have a midterm due Tuesday.” Oh right. I.E. His childhood friend from his hometown in eastern Ukraine who now lives in Chicago. My inner puritan woke up started flashing:  red light! red light!! Where had I heard this story before? Oh right, the Bulgarian whose ex-girlfriend from Bulgaria so innocently reinserted herself into his life, apartment, and then bed. I needed more information about this I.E.

“Do you have a picture of her?” I IMed the Ukrainian.

“Check your email,” he responded after a moment’s pause.

And there it was. Right there in my email:  a picture of a beautiful, blond Russian woman in a bikini. She was the sort of Slavic beauty that so many American men fantasize about when they visit sites like russianwomen.com.

“Mr. Ukrainian, she’s hot!” I ferociously panicked-IM the Ukrainian. My mind raced back over the few slightly-heated discussions we’d had over the past few days about a few key issues regarding the future. Now was not the time for him to be finding solace in his childhood chum who happened to look like a swimsuit model. And who was she anyway to be sending my husband pictures of herself in a bikini?! Damn these East European women! They are so clever. These were not the sort of social skills we learned back in rural Iowa. My mind recalled the model-like build of the Bulgarian ex-girlfriend. Not again! I thought.

“Check your email again.” The Ukrainian wrote over IM.

I went back to my Google mail. And there is was. A snapshot of a nice-enough looking woman standing on a bridge in the night wearing a formal (bridesmaid?) gown. She was attractive enough, but so very much not the Ukrainian’s type. I relaxed with relief. And then I started laughing. My, did the Ukrainian know how to rile me up. He knew exactly what he was doing when he sent that swimsuit picture.

“Assehole!” I IMed back. He knew I was joking too.

Now that the threat was gone. I became more truly curious about this woman who came from where my husband comes from and now lives where I came from. Maybe, just maybe, I thought. She could be a key to get us back to where I though I might want to really be.

“So what does she do?” I asked.

“She’s a commercial financial analyst.”

My eyebrows raised. I didn’t need to write anything on the IM. The Ukrainian could hear my thoughts.

“Don’t worry,” he continued. “After I graduate and get more experience at my company, I will apply to hers too.”

Maybe there are signs. Maybe we will be in SF forever. Maybe a year from now, we will find ourselves in Chicago. Maybe life will take us yet elsewhere. But suddenly, all the crushing weight I was feeling about how to manage having a baby in SF lifted just a little. There just might be other options. The world and our future didn’t seem so locked in.

X-years ago, a meme

I read Sandier Pastures — a blog written by a Filipino woman living and working with her husband and young daughter in Dubai. Today, she blogged this meme and I am following suit.

15 years ago — I was 18 and in my first month of studying at the University of Chicago. Coming from such a small town in rural Iowa, I found the institution to be very intimidating. I was the coxswain on the women’s crew team (though I quit after gaining quite a lot of weight. 😦 ). My roommate was from Queens, New York. Her family had moved to New York from China when she was a child due to the fact that she was child #2, a clear violation of China’s one-child laws. In October 1993 (15 years ago), I was reading Adam Smith’s The Wealth Of Nations and Homer’s Illiad. I also studied Physics and Calculus. I did not own a computer, so I frequently could be found in Harper library’s computer lab until 3 a.m., trying to write 3-page papers. I really felt as if I had nothing to say about either texts. (It would not be long until I began to wonder how I would fit all that I had to say in only 20 pages.)

10 years ago — I had just started working my first “professional” job as a software engineer. My office was located on Chicago’s North Side across from Cabrini Green. The firm consisted of the owner, the secretary, myself and one other engineer. I had to answer sales calls as much as I had to write code. The job paid $27k per year. My food budget was limited to $5/day. I worked on the weekends at The Gap on Wabash Avenue across the street from Marshall Fields to supplement my income and be able to buy new clothes. I lived in a carriage house behind a decrepit mansion in Chicago’s North Kenwood neighborhood with 2 roommates. As soon as the autumn came, mice invaded the house.

5 years ago — I’d just left NYC after living there for 4 1/2 year to return to Chicago. I began studying at the Catholic Theological Union for a Master’s in Theology for Inter-religious dialogue between Catholics and Muslims. I was also telecommuting from Chicago into NYC and Dallas for my engineering job. I lived on W. Warner Ave. on Chicago’s North Side with a super-cool roomate that I met on Craig’s List. My dogs, Sophie and Anna came with me from New York. I felt very satisfied and content with the world and my place in it. I was reading Primary Readings in Philosophy for Understanding Theology. Despite my happiness, I felt very broke as I was still paying off my student loans from undergrad and was now paying my graduate tuition.  So, a few months later, I accepted a job transfer to San Franciso and left grad school.

3 years ago — I just moved from San Francisco to Haarlem, the Netherlands. I was working in Rotterdam. I was suffering a broken heart over the Bulgarian. I was still involved with someone else back in San Francisco. And I was falling in love with the Dutchman. I was having all sorts of problems with my legal paperwork with the Dutch authorities and general problems fitting in at my new job. My commute between Haarlem and Rotterdam was 1 1/2 hours long on a good day. I had no friends — just my 2 dogs that I had dragged with me. I also did not have telephone service or internet at home. I was lonely. I was reading Reading Lolita in Tehran: a Memoir in Books on the train back and forth between Rotterdam and Haarlem, grateful that I was even given the opportunity to live my life so much on my own — clearly the women in the book did not have that chance.

1 year ago — The Ukrainian had just moved in. We were spending a lot of time making multiple trips to Ikea to purchase a bed and other needs for our apartment. My sister and her husband had just come to visit. We held a massive party complete with a DJ to celebrate our living together. I was planning my 3 week trip to SE Asia, so I was reading travel websites rather than books. I also went to NYC for a week on a business trip. Felt like I had “come so far” from rural Iowa while in a business meeting at MTV headquarters. I felt very optimistic about my career. Still had no idea that the Ukrainian and I would soon be getting engaged, let alone married. And after that, I would leave MTV.

Yesterday — I walked with a friend from Noe Valley to Fort Mason to meet up with other friends to watch the Blue Angels. Afterwards, I walked to Union Square to meet up with the Ukrainian so we could go home together. While I had been relaxing in the sun with fighter jets doing tricks over my head, the Ukrainian had been studying. We browsed the shops of Union Square and found some things we liked for “the future” but nothing “for now”. We took BART back to 24th St. where he treated me to a “Let’s celebrate trying to make a baby!!” dinner at We Be Sushi on Valencia St.

Today — I regretted not eating raw fish at We Be Sushi last night as I received confirmation that we’re not yet successful in making our baby. I’m only slightly disappointed as we are just beginning our tries and I am not so young anymore. I spent the morning booking the Ukrainian and mine’s tickets to Iowa in November so that we can meet my sister’s new baby that was just born 2 weeks ago. In the early afternoon, we took our babies dogs around the Castro and to Dolores Park. I opted out of the festivities that were going on in Portrero and spent the rest of the afternoon at home catching up with friends on the E. Coast. Now, I’m testing some code for work for tomorrow.

Tomorrow — It’s Monday. Not much to say about that. I hope to either walk or ride my bike to work to enjoy this weather. And I also hope to wrap up this non-enjoyable project I’ve been on. Perhaps I will finish a blog entry I started  week ago. But I have not much to complain about as I am truly grateful I have a good job given these uncertain economic times. I will most likely be reading the NYTimes, keeping an eye on the Dow.

At the vet: Choices of economics and love

As soon as the veterinarian walked into our examination room at the SFSPCA (San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty of Animals), we could tell she was one of these modern vets who were totally into making dogs feel relaxed and loved before beginning and right through the examination. All the vets at the SFSPCA are like this, but this morning’s doctor was even more so. Almost immediately, she had Anna (our brown dog) lying on her back in position for a solid belly rub.

But the doctor wasn’t in the exam room for belly rubs. She meant business — even in her relaxed California, all-loving way. In lieu of a belly rub, Anna got a cold stethoscope stuck to her chest. But the vet did not find what she was looking for. Giving the sky a quizzical look, she moved the stethoscope around Anna’s chest several times before she settle on a spot for Anna’s heartbeat.

“What a mellow dog you are!” the vet exclaimed.

“Is everything ok?” I asked, slightly concerned.

“Yes, she just has a very, very low heart-rate for a dog.”

“Ah yes, she’s very relaxed. Quite lazy, actually.” I was relieved. After Anna’s prior year illness and surgery, I was paranoid that something else would become wrong with her.

From the moment I first picked Anna up out of her cage at the North Shore Animal League’s mobile shelter at the PetCo on 86th and Lex in Manhattan, she has wanted to do nothing but cuddle. And eat. Cuddle, eat, and sleep. That was my Anna. But it was ok. I brought her home from the shelter only a couple of weeks after September 11th. Every night, I would sleep with her in my arms, listening to the sirens of the Emergency Vehicles racing up and down the FDR (East Side Highway) as they rushed to and from Ground Zero. It was an emotional time. Far away from my family and completely and utterly single, I needed the comfort and love Anna offered.

But her weight….well, it was a problem. I took her to the dog park, but instead of running around, she would go from dog owner to dog owner hoping for a pet on the head — or, even better, a treat in her mouth. In the morning, just after sunrise, I would take her to Central Park where dogs were allowed off-leash until 9 a.m. I took a ball and one of those long plastic ball-throwers in hopes of making her play fetch. And she would, for a few moments. But inevitably, a groundskeeper would come along and Anna would run up to him, certain she could con some love out of him too.

So Anna got fat. Her vet in New York got angry at me more and more. Especially as her weight inched closer to 60 pounds. But, short of starving her, I didn’t know what I could do. She was a fat, happy dog.

Then, in the Summer of 2007, Anna developed a stomach blockage. The bills that piled up from the moment the Ukrainian and I rushed her to the emergency room at the San Francisco Veterinary Specialists (SFVS) until she was discharged almost a week later totaled $7000. I cleared out my savings to pay for what I could and then did what I didn’t want to do:  put the rest on my credit card which, at the time, had a $0 balance. I spent every penny I had for the next several months to pay off that balance.

The emotional, physical and financial impact of that death-scare with Anna made me hyper-vigilant regarding everything that went into Anna’s mouth. Not only did I not want her to develop another blockage, i also didn’t want her to suffer from pancreatitis or any other health problems to which fat dogs (and humans!) are prone. The Ukrainian and I went around and around about how much food Anna really did need. How many “treats” — both the doggy kind and leftovers from our plate — were appropriate.

“I know what we’ll do,” said the Ukrainian, seeking to resolve our canine consumption problem once and for all. “We’ll ask the vet!”

“If you want to ask her, then you can. I know what she’ll say:  Anna is fat and we feed her too much.” It was hard to resist Anna’s pleading eyes when she wanted a special treat. I was just as guilty as the Ukrainian, if not in proportion, then in frequency. Anna had a way of making you feel as if you didn’t love her if you didn’t feed her.

And so, on cue, when I called Anna “lazy” to the vet, the Ukrainian put his hand on my hard to signal, “Ok, that’s enough. It’s my turn now to talk to the vet” and proceeded to ask her:  “How much should we be feeding the dog. Because, see…we only give her 1/2 a cup of food in the morning and 1/2 a cup of food at night and maybe a few little treats during the day.”

The vet’s eyes popped out of her. Incredulous, she stared at the Ukrainian before looking down at Anna, shocked that so little food could produce such a fat dog.

“That’s not completely true, ” I countered. “That is all the dog food she eats, but we are always sharing little bits of our meals with her.”

And then came the lecture I didn’t want to hear:  “Dogs should not be eating people food,” began the vet in a friendly, helpful new-age California sort of way.

“Even chicken?” I challenged the vet. The Ukrainian is a huge fan of chicken and it’s quite often that Anna (and her sister Sophie) con him out of some. I wanted the vet to tell me how a little bit of white meat chicken breast could so some harm — because I really didn’t believe it could.

“Only if it’s boiled and there is no fat on it, nor any sauce or anything.” I didn’t bother explaining to her the Ukrainian’s careful examination of *any* chicken he buys as he doesn’t want any fat on it himself.

“And bananas?” I asked. “What about bananas? She gets very upset if we don’t share our bananas with her.”

Again, the vet looked incredulous. Your dog likes bananas? her face read. And then she recovered and returned to her peppy, positive bedside manner. “Ok! So you have a vegetarian doggie.” Yeah, a vegetarian doggie who eats chicken, I silently replied in my own head.

“But no grapes!?!” the vet asked hopefully.

“No, no grapes,” I replied knowing their toxicity to canines. Also no avocados nor anything else that has been considered dangerous to dogs. Google has been our friend every time we have introduced a new food into her diet.

“What I’d like to figure out, ” the vet said returning to her duty, “is why she’s so fat when she eats so little.”

“She’s lazy,” I answered. “She wants to do nothing but lay around and have her belly rubbed all day.” She’s also a pig, but I didn’t say that. Anna is a pig that will eat anything in her sight. She’d be fat if we didn’t feed her a single morsel of food ever. On many occasions, I’ve had to cut our trips to Dolores Park short and leash her up, because all she would do is seek out garbage to eat. This is what caused her stomach blockage the year before in the first place.

“How long has she been fat?” the vet asked, applying her best clinical skills.

“Since she was about a year old. Maybe younger.”

“Well, if she is eating so little, she could be hypothyroidic. But dogs usually don’t develop hypothyroidism until 3 to 5 years of age. If she’s been this fat since, she was one, she probably doesn’t. I’d still like to test her though.””

“How much is that?”

“$120.”

Ok, not so bad. It could be a (relatively) low-cost test to give our dog better and fuller life, I thought, weighing in my mind if such a test was truly necessary.

“And what happens if she tests positive for hypothyroidism?”

“She would have to take a pill twice a day for the rest of her life. But lots of people report their dogs being so much more energetic and active.”

If you want to see Anna energetic and active, simply open the refrigerator door. She will be by your side before the inside bulb lights.

“I don’t know. How much did you say she weighs again?”

“55.8 pounds.”

“That is actually much thinner than she’s ever been. At one point, she weighed in the low 60s. What do you think honey?”

I turned to the Ukrainian. Was I rejecting what could be a vital-test but didn’t seem all that necessary. I wanted some validation that I wasn’t neglecting our dog, or a wake-up call that I should just go ahead and give the test to Anna just to make sure.

But he was no help. “It’s up to you.”

I turned back to the vet…still undecided. $120 wasn’t so bad. But how many tests do you give a dog? And the vet said so herself that Anna didn’t fit the proper stereotype of a dog with hypothyroid.

“Here’s what we can do. We can wait until her next checkup and see if she’s lost any weight. If she has then great, but if not, we can do the test then.” The three of us humans in the room were satisfied with this answer.

“Ok then, now let’s have a look at her teeth!” The peppy vet put her hand into Anna’s mouth to open her lips for a close look. “Ohhhh….she has some tartar.”

Oh dear, I knew what was coming: the lecture on the importance of canine dentail care.

“Do you brush her teeth?” asked the vet.

“No.” I answered unabashedly. I love my dog. I’ve dragged her around the world on all my travels. I have broken up with men who didn’t love her as much as I. I feed her, walk her, lay down next to her and rub her belly, and share my bananas with her. Whenever we rent a car, we line the back seat with blankets and take both the dogs for a joyride — often to Ocean Beach. There is little we don’t do for the day-to-day care and love for our line.

But I draw the line at brushing their teeth. Half-the-time, at night, I am so tired I can barely drag myself to the bathroom sink to brush my own teeth before sleeping. The other half of time, I wake up at 1 a.m., realize I have fallen asleep with all my clothes on, my face unwashed, and my teeth unbrushed. And then I drag my sorry self off the sofa, put my pajamas on, and do my nightly hygiene regiment then, before finally joining the Ukrainian who is fast asleep in our bed.

No, I do not brush my dogs’ teeth.

“Does she need a cleaning?” I asked — this time trying to be proactive about my dog’s health. I tried to recall what, if anything, about any sickness a dog could get from dental neglect.

“She could use one.”

“How much is it? $300?”

“Actually, more than that. We’d have to sedate her and stuff.”

Ouch. We could be talking $500 for a dog’s teeth cleaning. $1000 if we did our other dog’s teeth too. I mentally went through our budget for Q4 2008. $1000 for anything but a true need or emergency simply wasn’t there.

“What would happen if we wait a few months? Is is truly necessary right now?” Again, I didn’t want to neglect my dog. I just wanted to keep a control over our budget. In these uncertain economic times, I’d be putting off my own dental care if I didn’t have dental insurance. I wondered how often the veterinarian clinic was seeing clients put off non-emergency medical care for their pets these days. Surely, I wasn’t the only one these days trying not to spend any money on anything that wasn’t essential.

“The amount of tartar is actually not bad for a 7 year-old dog. And there is no decay. So no, it’s not an emergency. The cleaning can wait.”

I didn’t even need to look at the Ukrainian. I knew he would think it’d be silly to spend so much money on a dog’s teeth cleaning. I’ve spent more money on the dogs than many people in the Former Soviet Union (oil-rich Moscow aside) have spent on their own care. It hadn’t even been a week since we argued over how much it would cost to hire a dog-sitter when we finally made the trip to Kiev to get married and have our Russian Orthodox wedding. I had calculated the cost to be close to $1000 if we were to have a dog-sitter for 2 full weeks for our 2 dogs.

“What? I have to work for a month to pay for dogcare?”

“No, no, I’ll pay for it. You don”t have to pay a thing.”

“It doesn’t matter. $1000 is too much for dogcare.”

I understood his concerns — both at the vet and in discussing dogcare for our future travels. According to him, in Kiev, if you can bring home $1500/month after taxes, you are doing very well. But also there, you can rent an apartment for $300/month. Also, after his mother retires in a more provincial part of Ukraine, she will be expected to survive on a $200/month pension plus whatever she’s managed to save over the years. Here, in San Francisco, she’d barely even be able to eat on that.

But I also knew there was a deeper issue:  We have not even conceived our theoretical baby yet. But already the idea of its existence is already affecting the choices we make. How can we spend less money so we can have more money to afford a baby? Can I give up my chocolate habit? Can the Ukrainian give up his Red Bull? Our subtle mental conception of a baby is already changing us.

I am aware of the stories of dogs being left at shelters after a baby is born. The attention and finances required for the dog are often too much for new parents. I had once considered adopting such a dog from the SPCA in New York before I finally decided on Sophie, our second dog.

But that will not be us. We often joke that any human baby we add to our family will be the 3rd baby, not the first. I intend to keep it that way. I know we will love a human baby more. But still, Anna and her sister Sophie have been my most loyal buds for the past 7 years. I could never abandon them — not just physically at the shelter, but nor in my heart and attention.

Making space for the not-yet-conceived baby

One night, early in the summer of 2007 before the brown doggie became sick or the Ukrainian began living at my — now our — house, the Ukrainian and I took my two dogs out for their late-night walk down Fair Oaks Street in San Francisco. Being so late, I was tired. I wanted the dogs to do their business and then quickly return home and go to bed. But the dogs did not sense my urgency. After taking care of their business, they wanted to sniff every leaf of every bush along the way.

“C’mon…” I chided at every bush. I tugged on their leashes, urging them — no, dragging them — towards 24th St, trying to reach our flat. My patience wore thin. Not now, I thought. Tomorrow morning, I wil take you for a nice walk. For now, LET’S GO!!! My chiding turned into whining. My words to the dogs became shorter, harsher. My tugs on the leash grew stronger.

“Here, let me walk them,” said the Ukrainian gently, reaching to take the leashes from my hands. “You are tired.” And with those words, I stopped in surprise. Here is a man who understands me. Here is a man who wants to make a situation better, not exacerbate it. There was no judgement in his voice. He was not looking for me to be the eternally ever-patient doggy mommy. I fell a little bit more in love with the Ukrainian at that moment.

**********

Anyone who has ever lived with me or spent much time with me in the off-hours of the night know that there is a point when my mind and body just stop. Like a two-year-old, I can keep going and going and doing and doing and talking and listening until BAM! my mind shuts down, my eyes close mid-sentence, and suddenly I cease to be. The fury/wrath suffered by he who dares to push me past my mental and physical limit is strong enough to deter the transgressor from ever wanting to push me gain. Nobody wants to deal with a 2 year-old in a grown woman’s body.

The greatest joys and challenges from marriage (or any sort of committed, domestic partnership) is being forced to look in the mirror and seeing your own weaknesses. Alone, you can let your quirks and nuances and varying neuroses play out however they will, or control your environment so much that these varying particulars to your personality can sleep as never challenged — but together with another’s putting up with yourself and altering your environment by their mere presence, suddenly you are forced to look in the mirror and say “My, don’t I look ridiculous!”

And so there I was on Saturday night. I was looking for the tweezers. They had been missing for a week and I had a couple of stray hairs I increasingly wanted to be rid of with each day that passed without the tweezers being found. I searched the medicine cabinet, of course. And moved on to the coffee table. And the computer desk in the living room. I left out the kitchen — for never in my life, could I remember, ever tweezing anything in the kitchen. I searched the bedroom. The bookshelves and the nightstand. Surely, they would be on the nightstand. I shifted the stacks of unread mail and NetFlix envelopes around and AHA! I found the opened tweezers case, but no tweezers. Inspired by this hopeful clue, I searched the nightstand more frantically for the tweezers, shoving aside the orchid plant that our Ukrainian florist had given us for our wedding (as a token, I’m sure, to make us feel better for spending so much on something as fragile as flowers) and had been sitting on our nightstand ever since…and that’s when I saw it. IT. The multi-circular water stains left by the pot from three months of twice-weekly waterings.

I lost it. It was 11:30 at night. Our house was cluttered. Dirty, even. Below me was a piece of furniture that was less than six months old that was already tarnished. I looked around the bedroom and saw the clothes that had been pulled off late-at-night strewn across the bookshelves. One leg of the bedframe had been gnawed on by our black dog in June. We had yet to repair it. In the living room, the center of the floor was taken up by an extra-large drying rack on which the clothes we washed the day before hung. I was certain there must be dirty dishes in the sink. Suddenly, our large 1 BR 19th century Victorian railroad-style flat seemed small enough to crush me. My inner control-freak unleashed by my year spent in the ever-so-tidy Netherlands wasn’t pleased.

I sat down on the floor. Collapsed, rather. The metaphysical, existential weight of our cluttered house had crushed me after all. I started crying in despair — where would I ever begin to make sense of this mess? Would there ever be an end to my cleaning once it began? Should I hire someone? No, I couldn’t hire someone. They wouldn’t know what to do with all the clothes, the mail, and all the other seemingly random tidbits to our lives, many of which weren’t even needed.

“Baby, what’s wrong?”

“This. This is wrong.” I spread my hands out so that he could see all the clutter I could see. “I can’t live like this.”

“Baby, it’s fine. It’s late. We’ll tidy up the house tomorrow. First thing in the morning. Now let’s go to bed.” The Ukrainian has sensed my inner two-year-old had woken up and his 33 year-old rational wife had gone to sleep.

“No, no. We need to start now. If we start in the morning, it will never get done.” With these words, I got up from the bedroom floor and went into the living room, determined to tackle the clean, dry clothes hangin on the drying rack that was taking up half our living room floor and was contributing to my claustrophobia. I folded until I reached shirt #4. I remembered then why there clothes everywhere in our house. My closet — which was just off the kitchen — had become the spot we put everything that didn’t have a spot. In recent weeks, it had become so full that I could no longer reach my clothing rack and drawers. Nor did the laundry basket have a spot in it any longer. The closet was the root of all our problems. I knew my limits enough not to begin such a large task so late at night.

I returned to the bedroom. The Ukrainian was curled up on our bed with the chewed-up leg. I laid down next to him, spooning his back. Our bodies lied perpendicular to the bed’s head so that our heads all but touched the bedroom’s wall. The time was pushing midnight. The Ukrainian was tired from working 2 jobs and going to school full-time. I was tired from my new job, traveling, a persistent two-week cough, and the feeling that I was supposed to keep it together. All. The. Time.

“I can’t live like this,” I said. My voice calmer than it had been a 1/2 hour before.

“I know,” he said. “We will fix it.”

“How can we be talking about having a baby when we can’t even keep our own lives together?”

And from that question, my two-year-old self went back to sleep and my grown up rational adult self re-emerged. The Ukrainian and I began to communicate as a couple — as hopeful-parents-to-be. How would we manage our lives so that our apartment is one where we could have a baby and keep it safe? How would we share the day-to-day housekeeping responsibilities between ourselves so that our house wouldn’t continue in its chaos? And what things could each of us do to make the other happy, so that any theoretical child we might have would grow up in a harmonious household and not be subject to histrionics. And where, oh where, would we put the baby?

I looked at the bookshelves hidden under a pile of clothes across from the bed. “I was thinking there…” I said pointing. “We could get rid of the shelves and everything on them and put the baby there. The crib. And maybe a changing table…” my voice trailed off…

“Next to the window?” the Ukrainian asked. “But that wouldn’t be…”

“That wouldn’t be healthy,” I finished his sentence for him. “It’ll be too cold.” (Our apartment lacks a proper heat source and the rainy San Francisco winters makes our bedroom extremely damp and chilly.)

“But where?” I asked. “I can’t think of any other place for it.”

The Ukrainian’s eyes skirted the room. He lifted his body up on his elbow and turned his head. “There. Between the bed and the closet, away from the window.”

And I looked. My eyes mentally measured the space he picked out. Yes, there would be room for a crib. A small one and we’d need to keep everything tidy. But there’d be room.

Green Card Update and other matters

Yesterday, we came home to a letter from the INS (USCIS), inviting us once again to come into their office for an interview for the Ukrainian’s green card on October 16. We are trying not to get too excited — given what happened last time (they changed our address to Brooklyn and canceled our interview). But maybe, hopefully…all will turn out well.

Also, in updates:  The Ukrainian received the raise he was lobbying for (you may have gathered that from the last post). This means he can quit the library job — which he did. I am hoping this means we will have more time to spend together, but I’m not so sure if it will work out that way. The extra time in his life will — rightfully — probably go towards his job and his studies.

Post-wedding denouement:  Definitely continues. Probably not helped by the fact that we get to spend so little time together. And my job involves spending 8+ hours alone in my cubicle. And the economy…the economy prevents me from engaging in fabulous retail therapy — like those $1200 Purple Patent leather Christian Louboutin boots I drool over? Nope. I can’t even entertain the thought. Sadly, there is no replacement in the <$200 category either.

Future children:  Yes, to clarify from the last post, we are having more concrete conversations about when to start trying for a family. Optimistic hopes puts at us beginning our efforts (should be fun!) in mid-December. That would allow us both to spend more time at the gym, dentist, etc. getting our bodies to prenatal perfection! (Is that even possible in our 30s?). The problem is that if we are successful, we wouldn’t be able to travel to Kiev in the Spring for our Russian Orthodox wedding. So…wedding or baby…baby or wedding…