Strong Woman Syndrome

People tell me I’m strong.  Powerful.  My therapist calls me a boot-strapper.  When the going gets tough I pull myself up by the boot-straps (whatever those are) and rise to the challenge.  I get it.  In general I tend to kick down roadblocks.  I’m comfortable discussing sex, politics, religion.  No trouble speaking up for myself or my family.

I’m also an extrovert.  This means I recharge by being with people.  I have the ability to clear my head in the eye of a social hurricane.  If I haven’t slept for three days and I’m given the choice between a quiet hotel room and a rave, I will most definitely choose the rave.  Always.  It’s what a person like me considers a little down time.

I have friends who are similarly strong, extroverted.  Ladies who get the job done.  It’s good.  We’ll probably be reasonably valuable in a zombie apocalypse.  In the meantime, we suffer a couple of drawbacks.  For one, we appear so capable, so in control, so in the driver’s seat, it never occurs to anyone to take the wheel.  (It’s OK, we’ll keep right on driving, God forbid we pull the car over).  Secondly, we’re so caught up in our self-reliance that we don’t recognize that we actually need help let alone know how to ask for it (this, a problem of extroverts and introverts alike).  See the pattern.

Sex therapists say it’s the reason why, if we’re honest with ourselves, many people who wield a lot of power in life are submissives/bottoms in the bedroom.  After being in charge at work, family, home, etc., etc., all we really want to do is relinquish our control, to forget everything else in the world for a few minutes, to be told what to do.  It’s not a very popular theory amongst feminists.

But this feminist couldn’t agree more.

At the end of the day I go down fighting.  Because the battle never ends.  There’s always more work.  Laundry.  Life.  But most of the time what I really want is for someone else to decide.  For someone else to carry me.  To tell me where to go.  It hardly ever happens.

Approaching a moving vehicle isn’t easy.  There’s risk.  One might crash.  Burn.  Hard.

But if I were the one making the approach, I might just come up on her slow.  I might take a fistful of hair at the back of her neck, let her feel my teeth against her ear, and say, “Slide over, Lover.  I’m driving now.”

But that’s just me.



Bosco, the love of my life, the puppy who saw me through some of the most brutal bullying I endured in childhood.  We moved to a new city after the murder of my uncle.  It was supposed to be a step up.  The city, I mean.  But it was hard.  New kid.  Head low.  Confused, unable to articulate my feelings.  Bosco saved me.  Distracted me from the bullet that killed my uncle, the grief that silenced my family, and the mean things kids said to me because I was new and weak and different.  My parents got Bosco from the animal rescue.  The label said Mixed Spaniel but he proved to be a gigantic black Newfie mix.  Beautiful, docile, strong, affectionate.  When he walked down the street people stepped aside.  Thirteen when he died.  Internal hemorrhage.  Frail.  Pained.  Ready.  The least I could do was stay with him.  Keep my arms around him.  Stroke his head.  Show him that there was nothing to be afraid of.  For so many years, elementary school through college, he’d done the same for me.  His head on my lap.  The cold, cold floor of the vet’s office.  Even then, as he left, he gave me something.  He taught me that I possessed an inner strength.  Probably one of the most important discoveries of my life.

When I was just out of college I got Bodhi, an American Eskimo pup from a breeder in the Berkshires.  People said I was crazy (that was nothing new).  I was a couple of months shy of having enough money to leave for the West Coast. Bodhi was the symbol of my independence.  My true companion.  A marshmallow puff with dainty legs and a curled up tail.  The pride of West Hollywood, a real dandy boy.  He could cross a room on his hind legs, balance a treat on his nose, shake, bark soft or loud, be cradled like a baby, play hide and seek.  We lived in a tiny studio with a mattress on the floor and at night we spooned and slept with our heads side by side on the pillow.  By the end of Bodhi’s twelve years we’d moved to Oregon, and I was married with two kids which really wasn’t Bodhi’s cup of tea, because, I hate to say it but, he was a narcissist.  He devoured the attention he got from Sunset Plaza to Santa Monica Boulevard and every block in between.  He would have loved it if we commissioned a wall-sized portrait of him to hang over his bed.  In the end, just a bag of bones.  Riddled with cancer.  He was as close to a first pet as my husband, TC, ever had.  When we put Bodhi to sleep TC was entirely unprepared for the grief that would hit.  Hole in his heart.  Cried for days.

Bodhi, West Hollywood, circa 1990's

Bodhi, West Hollywood, circa 1990′s

But during the Bodhi years, when we were still in Los Angeles, I longed for the big dog of my youth.  A dog I could wrap my arms around.  A dog who would make me feel safe – which is an impossible dream, recreating one’s youth and all.  I dragged TC out to a pet adoption day way out in the valley to snap up the black retriever puppy I found online.  We named him Simon after a character in the film, Henry Fool.  He was a dog-dog.  Fascinated with poop and bad breath.  Would sooner have you topple down a flight of stairs than move out of the way.  Sad, droopy yes.  He loved Portland, because frankly he never got Hollywood.  And Hollywood didn’t get him either.  All that emphasis on looks, charm, who you know.  Unlike Bodhi who lived for praise Simon wasn’t about to jump through hoops for anyone.  He barely knew how to sit.  Loved the babies though.  The mess of them, the stench.  Sat at our feet every time we burped D and Z, because his very favorite snack was spit-up.  Fourteen years together.  The day we put him down his tail was stronger than ever.  Same tail that knocked glasses off of tables, food off of plates, toddlers off their feet.  But he’d been barking every night for a week and he was disoriented and in pain.  His legs were giving out.  He was deaf.  And so tired.  Two of our kids, Z and T, decided to come with us.  We got Simon a DQ kids meal and a hot fudge sundae before we took him in.  In the vet’s office we rubbed his back, held his paws, kissed his head.  When the vet began to empty the fatal dose into Simon’s catheter T said, “Are you going to kill him now?”  The mouths of babes.  Hot tears onto Simon’s fur as his head came to rest slow on the floor.  All of us touching one another, touching Simon, so close, so silent, so still, until six-year-old T spoke low and serious.

T: “Did his heart stop beating?”

Vet: “Yes.”

T: “Will he still be able to dream?”

The vet and the technician cried with all of us.  But it was one of those moments when life became more beautiful than it had been just a few seconds before.  The adults knew that part of us would be in that room forever because of the boy and his words and the dog and his family and how transitory life is and how all of the sadness is worth it if you’re lucky enough to know love.

We said wouldn’t get another dog for a long time.  TC talked about a shelter dog down the line.  I had my sights set on one of those designer numbers.  The kind that doesn’t bark, shed, or smell.  A dog who walks itself.  And trains itself.  And can stay home alone for days at a time.  I scan the Humane Society online for this dog.  Same way real estate people troll for houses.  And I came across this one little guy, Beatle, while I was at my cousin’s house in San Jose.  A distraction from how sad I was about Simon.  Beatle stood out amid the abandoned pit bulls and chihuahuas.  He was funny-looking with his long fur and tangles.  And he had this crazy underbite that made him look like an ewok or a luck dragon or a muppet.  But his write up didn’t match our family.  Not that I was looking for a match.  Beatle, shy, older kids only, needs a quiet house and lots of patience.  Maybe I looked at him because his name was Beatle.  Even if it was a spelling error The Beatles happened to be a happy and an important part of my childhood.

A week later we had forty-five minutes until our reservation at a restaurant in Southwest Portland.  Not enough time to do anything really.  I knew there was a Humane Society nearby.  And I swear my intention was to see if the place was clean, see if the staff was knowledgeable, see if I might someday warm up to the idea of a shelter dog.  But when I mapped the address the first thing popped up was a pic of that funny-looking Beatle.  We asked to see him.  Just for practice.  He came into the room and it was an all out assault.  The children jumped on him.  He jumped on them.   He wagged his tail and dodged all four balls that all four kids threw at him at once.  He watched my eyes and followed my hand signals, and the next day when I went back alone he remembered me and was only too happy to sit and stay and come when I called.  TC dreamed a dream of poopless days and nights.  Days and nights which might last the summer.  But he never stood a chance.  And when my mother said she’d pay half, the deal was done.  Three days later Beatle was part of our family.  A friend said, “You realize if this dog lasts as long as your others, he’ll still be around when Daisy is out of college.”  No, I never would have realized that because it involves stacking numbers and adding them which is something I avoid at all costs.  But wow.

So Beatle has been with us for almost a month now and I can tell you this, he seems to have been tailor-made for my family.  And vise versa.  He hugs me when I come home.  He’s great on a leash.  He loves sitting in the passenger seat of the van.  He comes with me to drop-off and pick-up the kids.  He’s damn smart.  And funny.  Full of life and personality and affection.  A dream come true.  Seriously.  I can hardly believe he was marked for death at a shelter in Sacramento, California.  A staff member there thought he deserved a second chance and had him transferred him to Portland.  Severely underweight.  Flea-bitten.  Unneutered.  No tags.  No microchip.  He sat in the Oregon shelter for more than a week being seen but not adopted.  Crazy, crazy people, not knowing a little miracle dog when they saw one (could it have been the underbite?).  Turned out to be our great and most incredible good fortune.  We were so lucky to have found this dog.  He kind of reminds us of Bodhi.  He’s a tad vain.  And more than a touch of totally awesome.  xxoxo

Beatle, 2014

Beatle, Portland, 2014


Every New Year’s Day

Memories, colors, flashes from childhood that last a lifetime.  We just can’t predict what will imprint on us.  But standing here, three thousand miles and twenty some odd years away from it, I remember.  A friend’s house.  A place I could go as a teenager. With doors that were always open.  To me, to us.  A whole gang of goofy, gangly teens.  Boys and girls.  In good times and in bad.

Winter.  Twenty years ago.  On the phone…

S:  (with urgency)  Hello?  Mr. Carney?  It’s Shannon Brazil.

Mr. C:  Hi, Shannon.

S:   I need help.  I found this pregnant cat–

Click.  Dial tone.  

Redialing.  Then on the phone again…

S:  Mr. C, I think we got disconnected.

Mr. C:  Did you say you have a pregnant cat?

S:  Yes!  I need help–

Click.  Dial tone.

Mr. Carney hung up on me.  On purpose.  An hour before calling the Carney home I happened to be walking by a drug store where a pregnant calico cat had just been put out on the street.  She rubbed against my leg.  Purring.  I stopped Old Mr. Drug Store Man as he started up the stairs.

S:  Hey.  Who’s cat is this?

Old Mr. Drug Store Man:  She’s been living in the basement, but she can’t stay there anymore.

S:  This cat’s about to have babies.

Old Mr. Drug Store Man:  Yeah, exactly.

S:  (aghast) But it’s snowing!

Old Mr. Drug Store Man:  Go on and take her home then, kid.  Merry Christmas.

When my father saw the cat he nearly hit the roof.  This time he was putting his foot down.  For real.  No way, no how was he getting  roped into a pregnant cat situation no matter how I reasoned, argued, pleaded.  He reminded me of all the empty promises I’d made about not taking anymore lost animals home.  Cats.  Dogs.  Snakes.  Turtles.  Crows.  Enough.

S:  This is the last time!  I promise.

Dad:  You say that every time.  NO.  And that’s final.     

S:  If the cat goes, I go!

Dad:  (waving)  Goodbye.

Thrown out on the street during winter break from college.  I had no where else to turn but the Carneys.  There were three girls, plus the mom, plus me, and the cat – a persuasive bunch.  For most of high school and beyond there were dozens of us who were in and out of the Carney house.  Showing up at their door with a starving, meowing, hugely pregnant cat seemed kind of normal.  Mr. Carney shook his head when I arrived with the cat-in-a-box.  The pull-out sofa was made up.  The girls all gathered round, agreeing I did the right thing.  And the cat was set-up in another room upstairs, because at the time I was swollen-face allergic to cats.

Mr. Carney said I could stay for one night only, but I didn’t tell my father that.  I told my dad that Mr. C said I could stay as long as I like, because adding another cat to their two cats and two dogs (and maybe a couple of bunnies) was no big deal to him, because he was the nicer dad by far, and because he had a Coca-Cola fountain in the living room, and told jokes, and never yelled, and let us listen to music real loud, and had introduced all of us to Elvis.  I couldn’t believe my father let me back in the next day.  But I lived up to my end of the bargain and found a home for the cat before she delivered, and then found homes for her four kittens.  For years I joked with Mr. C about the time he hung up on me at the words pregnant cat.  

I flew back to Boston from Los Angeles years later to see my family and my long-distance boyfriend over the holidays.  Too many loved ones, too little time, but I was determined to introduce my boyfriend to the family that had meant so much to me when I was a teenager.  We sat at their dining room table laughing.  Played music, worked the old soda machine, shooed the dogs away.  It was terribly important that they meet.  I couldn’t say exactly why.  But a couple of days later after endless lay-overs and no cell phones I arrived at my apartment in West Hollywood to the phone ringing off the hook.  It was one a.m.  My boyfriend was on the other end.

One of the Carney dogs fell through the ice that day.  Mr. Carney died saving the dog’s life.  New Year’s Day, 1996.

It still seems unreal.  It still makes no sense.

On the days leading up to every new year I always think about Jimmy Carney.  I think how much he meant to all of us, how generous he was, how all of these strangers came out of the woodwork when he died to tell stories about the ways he’d helped them.  I think of how his three daughters grew to be amazing women.  And how their mom never for a single second stopped being his wife or stopped loving him even after all of these years.  I think of how proud he would have been of his eight grandchildren.  It makes me think that my own family won’t be here forever.  It makes me remember what’s important.

This time it was 3:30 a.m. when these thoughts returned to me.  I was on staycation with the kids at the Embassy Suits in Tigard, Oregon.  I couldn’t sleep.  And I had this song in my head: I Wonder by Rodrigues.  Which sent me back to those few short years when I was a curious teen, notebook in hand, my whole life ahead of me.  When I had a place I could go.  Where the doors were always open.  And Jimmy was still alive.  And suddenly in that hotel room in the middle of the night it became very important for me to write his name for all to see.  I couldn’t say exactly why.  But some of the old friends joined in.  And we posted to  Facebook.  We love you forever, Jimmy.  Thank you.