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Whose Influence is Thine and Born of Thee

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“Surprise me to the very brink of tears…” ~William Shakespeare (Timon of Athens, V, i)

As I sit here writing today I’m feeling a bit off – maybe a touch of stomach virus or something – but the blog must go on, as they say (helped along with a pot of ginger tea).  Plus, I have a really good story to tell you!  A story of true surprise, which is so rarely experienced as an adult isn’t it?

This story took root 27 years ago, in a barrack classroom at Manzano High School in Albuquerque NM.  I was a senior and for some unremembered reason, signed up to take a Shakespeare class as an elective in my final year.  Yes, all Shakespeare all the time, and no, I wasn’t the only student in the class…I think there were about 25 of us or so who took that brave plunge into the world of the Bard.  And I’m so glad I was part of that class, as it would open up new doors that I’m still walking through today.

Our teacher that year for that class was a woman named Clara Sanchez – Mrs. Sanchez to us.  And I’ll just apologize right now for not being able to adequately surmise or praise her teaching abilities…which were astounding, by the way.  It was obvious to me that she not only loved Shakespeare, but loved teaching it to us, and that made all the difference in the brain of a 17-year old struggling to understand what was basically a foreign language to us all.  Yes we did the typical high school classroom thing of taking turns reading different parts of different plays, trudging through the themes and trying to grasp why this character wanted revenge on that other character…  But the highlights for me were always when Mrs. Sanchez would then translate the scenes for us and reveal the hidden meanings behind the words – it was like a whole other world was there in those words if you just looked and worked hard enough to find and understand it.  A literary puzzle with meaningful rewards of learning and understanding.

I remember very well working on our year-end research project – I chose the topic of “The Dark Lady of the Sonnets.”  Which I absolutely cannot believe when I go back and read that research paper now – let’s just say the subject of The Dark Lady is more than a bit risqué and is one of Shakespeare’s most revealing pieces of work, both literally and figuratively.  But I remember at the time having tons of research and papers spread out all over my bedroom floor, pouring over every sonnet and reading everything I could get my hands on to help me understand why this character of his poetry was so intriguing.  Who was she, what was her purpose, why was Shakespeare writing about her?  (She was based on a real person, most literary scholars believe.)  It was my teacher who inspired me to go to these depths, to find the missing pieces of the puzzle.

At the end of that year, Mrs. Sanchez came to my high school graduation celebration at our house, and gave me a wonderful little book called ‘Shakespeare Soliloquies,’ with a lovely personal inscription inside.  I had a sonnet engraved on a thank-you plaque that I gave her as a token of my deep appreciation for her guidance and dedication.  I continued my Shakespeare education at my university that next year, getting special permission to take two senior-level Shakespeare courses as an incoming freshman.  A few years later, Mrs. Sanchez attended my first wedding as a guest.  A year or two after that, I paid her a surprise visit to her classroom when I was at the high school as part of my university recruiting job.  It’s ironic that this surprise visit was the last time we saw or talked to each other for the next 20 or so years.

My interest in Shakespeare came and went over the next few decades but it was always there in the background, like an old friend (you can read about my other blog posts on Shakespeare here if you’d like).  Life happened; I packed and unpacked several times in those next decades, moving into different apartments, houses, cities and countries.  But the little gray book of Shakespeare’s soliloquies always had a place on my bookshelf.  And when I decided on a whim during the summer of 2012 to fly to England for the World Shakespeare Festival that July, I took that little gray book with me.  It seemed only fitting to take with me a tangible reminder of the teacher who inspired me as I made my pilgrimage to Shakespeare’s birthplace.

I carried the book with me as I visited all of the sights in Stratford-upon-Avon.  Below you can see some pictures of me holding the book of Soliloquies at some of the town sights (and those of you who read this blog will know how extremely RARE it is for me to put pictures of myself in the blog, but this was one exception I’m glad to make) – one tourist who took my picture asked about the book, and I willingly told them the story of my inspirational high school Shakespeare teacher.  I’ve been back to Stratford since that time, but that initial visit will always stand out in my mind as a dream fulfilled, with one awestruck moment after another – seeing the room where Shakespeare was born, visiting his grave site, walking the cobblestones he used to walk.

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Me & my soliloquies in front of the famous Gower Shakespeare Memorial on a rainy day in Stratford-upon-Avon, July 2012.

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Me & my soliloquies with a sculpture representing The Tempest, found in the beautiful New Place Gardens, Stratford-upon-Avon, July 2012.

Ok, now for the rest of the story…after that 2012 visit to Stratford, I decided to try to find and re-establish communication with Mrs. Sanchez.  I wanted to tell her about my pilgrimage and show her the pictures with the book she gave me, and to thank her again for setting me on this journey that started so long ago but that was taking me to such wonderful places.  I had moved to Austin in 2009, and figured she was probably still in Albuquerque, but a thorough internet search didn’t turn up any location or contact info for her.

I called my old high school as well as the other high school after that where she taught (where I’d paid her the surprise classroom visit), but staff at both schools didn’t know how to find her.  I put a search query out on Twitter, and in a Facebook group called “Remember in Albuquerque When…”  No one came forward.  I messaged Mrs. Sanchez’s son Joseph through a high school reunion website (we had graduated together) but I knew it was a long shot that he would get the message and I never heard anything back (I looked for him too through other avenues but couldn’t find him either).  I began hesitantly checking obituary listings going back several years, but thankfully didn’t find anything through that route either.

In December 2012 I made a short trip back to Albuquerque for a few days to visit old haunts and eat the good food I miss so much, and I even went by Mrs. Sanchez’s old house; with my little gray book and printed England photos in hand, I knocked on the door, thinking it would be too good to be true if the door swung open with her standing there.  I knocked again and waited for a long time.  No one answered.  It was a cold snowy day, and as I got back into my car, a neighbor walked out of his house and flagged me down, offering to help – I told him who I was looking for, and he said yes he remembered them living there, but that they had moved away and no longer lived there.  As I drove away, I felt like that was my last shot at finding her.

Meanwhile, my horrible job got more horrible and as all of my energy and attention were sucked up by the negative environment in which I worked, I let my search for Mrs. Sanchez fall by the wayside.  I was sad but resigned to the fact that I probably would just not see or talk to her again.   I thought she probably moved away to another state. Every once in a while my parents would ask me if I’d every found Mrs. Sanchez and I’d say “still no.”

Fast forward another two years.  Life is happier, I’d quit that miserable job (the impetus for this blog by the way), the holidays were approaching.  I didn’t get the pots and pans I wanted for Christmas, but a Lego Shakespeare book set, a Star Trek hoody and new brakes for my car quite made up for that, thank you.  Then on Christmas morning, my mom gets all dramatic and says there is one more present I have to open – and then brings out THREE packages (my mom likes to go overboard at Christmas).  And then she says she has to videotape me opening them and tells me to not get annoyed – at which of course I immediately get annoyed.  (I’m one of those people who has always hated their voice and hearing mine on tape makes me cringe.)

I open the first one – and it’s a copy of the Albuquerque Journal newspaper from November 19th.  Huh?  It had a picture of boys sledding on the front with their Husky dog and a bunch of other random articles.  “Read it carefully, the clue is in the paper,” she says.  My annoyance level starts to go up – I’ve never been good at riddles and they make me feel stupid most of the time because I can never get them – but I scour and skim the articles for a clue.  I still have no idea what’s going on.  “I can’t believe you can’t get it from that,” she says and I finally get to move on to the second gift.

It’s two essays I wrote in my university Shakespeare class.  One of them was really bad; I got a B- and it was so marked up I could barely read it (the other received an A I’m proud to say, on the topic of Prince Hal’s SOLILOQUY no less [how’s that for foreshadowing]).  Hmmm.  I start to have an inkling of what’s going on, mostly because of Mom’s not-so-subtle Cheshire grin behind the rolling camera, but also from her card that she made me read out loud that talked about a “labor of love” and a surprise to equal the Paul McCartney tickets I gave her for Mother’s Day a year ago.  Mom was saying something as I start to open the third package but I don’t really remember what she was saying, as I was then starting to notice details – an Albuquerque return address on the box and an unfamiliar name of “C. Castillo.”  Castillo, I thought, what?  I had a sudden fear that it was someone related to Mrs. Sanchez that was sending me a memento in her memory, meaning the worst had happened.

I opened the card first that came with the third package.  “Read it out loud!” my mom directed.  I refused, asking for a little privacy.  I don’t think I could have read it out loud anyway; I was already on the verge of some pretty severe emotion (for me anyway) – because I had seen the name at the bottom of the before I saw anything else:

Clara.

It was her!  Little did I know that over the past year, someone else had also started looking for Mrs. Sanchez.  A very sneaky someone who goes by the name of Mom.  Yup, my mom had begun her own search when she learned that I couldn’t find Mrs. Sanchez.  My mom, who has a pretty hard time keeping a secret, kept a pretty monumental secret for many months as she did the impossible (ok, not impossible, just very difficult) and FOUND Mrs. Sanchez!  Except she’s been Clara Castillo for a while now, which is probably why I couldn’t ever find her.  A new name for a newfound old friend, it fits!

The card was written with love, and I read it several times before then opening the package that came with it.  Now let me say that I am not easily overwhelmed; I’m not overtly sentimental, I’m not a touchy-feely kind of person, and I don’t really show a lot of emotion.  I wish sometimes that I were more openly emotional, but I’ve just learned over many years that that is not who I am, and I’ve come to accept it for better or worse; maybe it stems from being so shy as a young girl, I’m not sure, but it’s just the way it is.  But what was in that box floored me emotionally and is one of the most meaningful, touching true gifts I’ve ever received (and yes I cried).

I opened the box and unwrapped Clara’s teaching copy of her Complete Works of Shakespeare.  A 34-year old treasure that she used during her entire teaching career in multiple schools and for affecting untold numbers of young lives.  It’s taped heavily to hold the well-worn bindings together, which I love, and page after page is filled with her handwritten teaching notes, research findings, and personal observations; for example, on the first page of Twelfth Night and the Duke’s famous “If music be the food of love” speech, she wrote “Violets = emblematic of: faithfulness” – a floriography note in a Shakespeare text, it’s a true melding of my worlds.

My new (old) favorite book

My new (old) favorite book

TwelfthNight

A wealth of info for Twelfth Night

And most meaningful:  on the title page of the book, a handwritten letter to me from my mentor, titled “Shakespeare: The Mirror Up to Nature” (from the mastery lines of Hamlet), recounting our meeting twenty-six years ago and bequeathing this marvel to me with love and affection. 

I know that I’ll use this as my main Shakespeare source for the rest of my life, and plan to spend the time it deserves to go through each play and sonnet again – only this time with the words of my teacher literally in my hands and mind, and perhaps daring to add my own notes here and there as I continue to learn.  It’s worth more to me than if I’d been given an actual First Folio, and I will keep it and guard it forever.  Thank you Clara.  You were the best teacher I ever had, and I value you.  I look forward to our in-person reunion this year!

I was apparently the only person in my family (and in central Texas) who had no idea what my mom was planning (she told a few people).  She didn’t give up on the search for Clara and when she finally did make contact (through an administrative assistant at third Albuquerque high school), she and Clara plotted this Christmas surprise for quite a while.  Thank you Mom.  I think you topped Sir Paul with this one.  What a special memory and friendship you’ve given back to me, and that’s beyond any value.

In closing, I’d like to encourage all of you reading this, if possible, to reach out to a former teacher.  If they inspired you, if they took extra time to help you, if they made you feel special and capable – let them know.  I could never be a teacher – I don’t have the patience or the guts or the germ-resistant immune system, quite frankly.  But those that do have those qualities can have a lifelong influence, as you’ve read here, and they deserve to know what an impact they had on your life.  Thank you to all the teachers out there that have made a difference!

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

Shoulda Gouda Woulda (A Cheesy Valentine’s Story)

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“He is deformed, crooked, old and sere, Ill-faced, worse bodied, shapeless everywhere; Vicious, ungentle, foolish, blunt, unkind; Stigmatical in making, worse in mind.” ~William Shakespeare (Comedy of Errors, IV, ii)

Some of you have heard this story before, but in honor of the year’s most sappy holiday, I thought it was time for a re-telling of the cheesiest Valentine’s Day ever.  So hunker down with your Havarti, get chummy with some cheddar, and be prepared for a Tillamook tale of Edam proportions.

I dated a few guys during college.  One of them was a geeky pre-med major who, although basically a nice guy, gave new meaning to the word dork.  When he enthusiastically introduced himself to my family for the first time as being “from the thumb of Michigan!” (complete with hand directional display), he gave them fodder for teasing me for years to come.  We dated for about a year before he nonchalantly broke up with me via a MESSAGE ON MY ANSWERING MACHINE.  To protect the identity of the daft, we shall hereafter refer to him in my story as The Cowardly Doofus (or just Doofus, for short).

(I can’t remember why I dated him for so long…ah, wait, he had a very hot older brother who lived with him, rode a motorcycle, had long hair, and wore lots of black leather, it’s all coming back to me now…)

This is the way I understand the story: we’d been dating for probably about 9 months or so when Doofus decided he would call my MOTHER for ideas on what to get me for Valentine’s Day.  Gee that’s romantic.  And incredibly uninspired – he couldn’t think of anything on his own?  I think my mother was just as bewildered when Doofus called her and started asking questions such as “What does Kristi like?”  The problem was (one of many), was that he didn’t tell her this was for a Valentine’s Day present, he just wanted to know what some of my favorite things were.  (We’d been dating for NINE MONTHS, he had no idea what I liked?  What a clod.)

Confused, my poor Mom told me later she just said the first thing that popped into her mind during that weird and cryptic conversation:  “Well, I know Kristi really likes cheese.  She especially likes those fancier kinds like Gouda and Edam I think.”

I don’t blame her (mostly).

About a week later, Valentine’s Day was upon us.  I lived in a big sorority house during college which housed 58 women.  It was a great place to spend my college years, but it left little room for privacy when it came to the details of one’s dating life.  In other words, everyone knew everything about the romantic relationships of everyone who lived in that house.  Unbeknownst to me, I was about to become an infamous urban legend for years to come whenever anyone in that house brought up Valentine’s Day.

I had been at class earlier that morning, and happened to arrive back at the house right at lunchtime – the most crowded time of the day usually (of course).  When I opened the doors and entered the foyer, I saw a large gathering of my housemates in a bunch, all looking at something.  “She’s here!” one of them said and the crowd parted to reveal a very large, gift-wrapped box.  It was about the size of a washing machine and it came up to waist-level.  A gift tag on the outside revealed to everyone that I was the lucky recipient of this enormous mystery and that Doofus was the enigmatic bestow-er.

For a few minutes, I was the envy of every girl in that room.  Other (normal) boyfriends had sent bouquets of pretty flowers, which sat waiting on the bench in the foyer, seemingly small change compared to this giant gift that had piqued everyone’s curiosity.  The air of romance in that room that day was palpable.  If I could only go back in time, I never would have opened that box.  But I did, in front of all those other girls, who would look at me very differently after that day (with pity, mostly).

So with the highest in-person Nielsen rating of any gift-opening in that house ever, I unwrapped and opened the large outer box.  I was just as excited as everyone else, and really had no idea what it could be.  What could be in a box that big?!  Inside was lots of crumpled up newspapers, cushioning another wrapped smaller box about the size of a microwave oven.  “Another box!”   Everyone was all smiles.

I unwrapped that box, inside of which was another wrapped smaller package the size of a shoebox.  By this point, everyone was getting pretty impatient.  Especially when inside the shoebox was one more wrapped package the size of a small brick.  At the sight of that one, all the eyes lit up a little more and everyone moved a little closer, anticipating the big reveal.  Every girl knows that the best gifts come in small boxes right?  And he’d put so much effort into this, it must be something really good!

My heart beat a little faster.  This was a serious relationship, after all (or so I thought).  I imagined a sparkly bracelet, or maybe a really nice watch.  A heart pendant, perhaps. The last thing I could have ever imagined that my boyfriend would give to me for Valentine’s Day – and make me work so hard to reveal IN FRONT OF EVERYONE – was the shrink-wrapped brick of smoked Gouda cheese in a poop-colored brown rind that lay under that last layer of wrapping paper.  (Yes, he went the extra centimeter to get the smoked variety instead of just plain unimaginative Gouda.)

(Source: Cheese.com)

(Source: Cheese.com, Photo Credit: Sulzberger Käserebellen Sennerei GmbH)

All I really remember about the next moments:  a stunned silence; shocked stares; a few sympathetic pats on the shoulder; a kind soul who started rummaging through the newspapers in the bigger boxes, mumbling “There has to be something else in here somewhere…”  I think someone used a few choice curse words, although whether they were aimed at Doofus or at the wasted time and outcome of the whole spectacle, I’m not sure.

I remember staring at the brown brick in my hands and reading the label very intently, hoping my devoted scrutiny of the ingredient list would allow me the time I needed to will my flushing red cheeks back to a normal tint.  Cheese?  He got me cheese?  For Valentine’s Day?  I forced myself to think of alternatives.  This couldn’t be it.  Was it the beginning clue to a romantic scavenger hunt that would lead to the real Valentine’s treasure?  Was there a message under the wrapper saying to bring the cheese to a nice romantic dinner that night at a fancy restaurant, where we’d pair it with strawberries and chocolate?

The answers were yes, yes, yes, no, and no.  After the disappointed crowd quietly faded into the background, I stumbled downstairs to my room and called The Cowardly Doofus, at which point he confirmed that he had proudly shopped for that Gouda himself (OH GOOD FOR YOU), knowing it was one of my favorite things.  He honestly thought it was the greatest gift ever.  I just sat in silent amazement on the other end of the line. 

I guess you could say that was the day I saw the light through the holes in the Swiss cheese.  He left his break-up phone message for me a few short months later.  Now that I reflect back on it, it was probably because I’d been treating him like a plate of stinky Gorgonzola after the V-Day debacle.  He deserved it, of course.  He’d burned a cruel and farcical Valentine’s Day memory on my brain that I can never forget or live down.  On the other hand, he set the bar so unbelievably low, that all Valentine’s gifts I ever got after that seemed like gold-plated gemstones in comparison. 

By the way, my mom wasn’t lying:  I do like cheese.  Not as a romantic Valentine’s Day present (ever), but I probably could live on baguettes and a nice Somerset cheddar for the rest of my life if I had to.  Give me some tangy goat cheese and a sourdough roll and I’ll be your friend forever.  And not one to let a good cheese go to waste, I did enjoy that Gouda that I got that day long ago, with some crackers and grapes if I remember correctly.  By myself in my room of course, so as to avoid the cackles of laughter that would’ve no doubt ensued if I’d shown it in public again.

And if you’re wondering whatever happened to The Cowardly Doofus: well, he is now Dr. Doofus, practicing as an emergency room physician after going to medical school back in Michigan.  Yup, the Gouda giver finally made the long trip home to the thumb motherland.  I guess he couldn’t Camembert it anywhere else.

Here’s wishing you & yours a very UNunhappy Valentine’s Valencay Day everyone!

Valencay cheese from France (Source: Cheese.com)

Valencay cheese from France (Source: Cheese.com, Credit: Creative Commons/DocteurCosmos)

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

I Miss the Smell of Popcorn Paws

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“Now the dog all this while sheds not a tear nor speaks a word; but see how I lay the dust with my tears.” ~ William Shakespeare (Two Gentlemen of Verona II, iii)

This is a tough post for me to write, and warning: may be tough to read. There have been some walloping events in the past few years that each made up the individual cogs of my emotional tailspin machine from which I’m now slowly emerging. A painful separation and divorce started it all. Less than a year after that, I lost my rambunctious four year-old dog Teddy too soon. One month later I left the hometown I’d known all my life and moved everything to Austin.

But what really shook me to the core, the final straw, was losing my remaining dog Foxy. A miniature poodle with the official AKC fancy-pants name of “Kristi’s Foxy Sox,” she was my faithful companion for 15 long years. She had one white back foot (hence the Sox part of the name), a white chest, and soft curly light red hair – just like a little fox. She was one of three in her litter, the only female and the only redhead. I picked her out when she was only 3 weeks old, and brought her home two weeks after that, the day before Thanksgiving 1995.

The day I brought Foxy home, 1995.

The day I brought Foxy home, 1995.

I’d been divorced for less than a year from my first disastrous marriage when I brought Foxy home to an apartment with green carpet but no yard. I taught her to use a litter box instead, which was weird but effective. For the first few months, I drove home 25 minutes one-way from work each day at lunch to let her out of her crate and play with her for ten minutes before driving back. She became everything to me that I needed: a distraction, a friend, a companion, a shoulder to cry on sometimes…something to love, that loved me back.

And she was so smart! She knew each of her toys by name and could fetch them when called for. She aced her puppy obedience classes with flying colors. She traveled with me on the road when I was recruiting for the university, and knew to be quiet in her crate when I was giving talks to groups of students. I hung a bell from the front door knob and she learned to ring it with her nose when she wanted to go outside.

"I'm posing for you in my snazzy red sweater."

“I’m posing for you in my snazzy red sweater.”

When she was six months old, we moved into a house with (finally) a big yard space for her and a doggy door. She was my impetus for even buying a home in the first place, and I picked the house with her in mind. When, three years later, I left to go to Africa as a Peace Corps volunteer, leaving her behind was by far the most emotional part of the journey. I’ll always be grateful to my family members for keeping her and taking care of her while I was gone during that time. My Dad told me that in the first few days and weeks after I left, Foxy would sleep upstairs in “my” room on the sweatshirt I’d left for her, and during the day would wait watching at the front window and door for me to come home. (I cried like a baby when I read that in his letters he sent to me in Africa.)

Waiting patiently.

Waiting patiently.

I never had (human) children of my own. And yes, I was one of those pet-owners that doted on their dogs as if they were kids. Time passed, and when Foxy was ten, I decided to get her a companion; I’d read that adding a puppy to a household with an older dog could help prolong their lives. So we got Teddy, a chocolate-brown miniature poodle who was seriously obsessed with tennis balls and pretty much drove poor Foxy crazy with her frenetic energy.

Foxy & Teddy

Foxy & Teddy

But in a cruel twist of fate, Teddy was the first to go; unbeknownst to us, she’d been born with an auto-immune disease that led to eventual kidney failure. I had four great years with her, but much of that time was spent taking care of her illness and watching her go in and out of remission. She was the first dog I ever had to euthanize, and it was incredibly difficult. I found myself hoping that Foxy would just go peacefully one day in her old age, but that didn’t happen either.

Less than a year after moving to Austin, I noticed a weird brown growth in the corner of Foxy’s eye as I was grooming her one day. Her regular vet referred us to a canine ophthalmologist (yes those exist) and after a biopsy result, confirmed that it was a rare type of optic cancer, in the lining of the eye socket. Over the next eight months, she would have four eye surgeries to remove the tumor that kept growing back. She was a trooper through it all, taking it in stride and seeming content to just lay on my lap as much as possible and continue to be my little shadow.

Back Camera

She was 15 now; she walked slower, ate less, slept more. She needed steps to get up on the bed that she once leapt on with ease, and started losing weight. She also went almost completely deaf. After the fourth surgery, the vet said there was no other option left other than to just take the eye completely out, and even that was not a guarantee that the cancer would not return. I waffled, knowing full well I was doing most of this for my selfish benefit; I didn’t want to let her go. At first I agreed to do the eye-removal surgery. Then feeling guilty, I cancelled it.

Two days after my birthday, and in the middle of the Tour de France while I was on a three-week vacation from work, I watched as Foxy no longer could go outside through her doggy door; it was too painful to her sutured and bruised eye to use her head to push the door open. She turned and looked at me with such a sad look on her face as if to say “I’m so sorry,” and it was then that I knew. My heart broke into a million pieces as I picked her up and carried her outside. While she stood there looking at me, I called her vet and somehow formed the words to ask if he’d meet us the next day at his practice. He said yes.

Foxy slept that night as she had for much of the past 15 years – curled up next to me on the bed, in the crook of my arm, under the blanket. She didn’t know it was her last night, but I did, and it was agony. I watched her for most of the night, remembering everything we’d been through over the past decade and a half. I cried an ocean of tears over those next twelve hours. I took a hundred pictures of her. I held her as we lounged on the swing outside, sitting in her favorite swath of sunshine.

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At the vet’s office, I apologized to her and thanked her, and held her tight on my lap as I told her how much I loved her. She looked at me with quiet eyes and leaned into me. Her soft ears were wet with my tears and our faces were touching as she went to sleep for the last time, just me and her together as we’d been for so long. I held my dog child in my arms as she died. It was peaceful for her, and her pain was gone. It was the most gut-wrenching experience of my life.

I slept on the couch for the next month. I dreamed of her, a lot, and she would appear to me so real that I’d reach out to touch her. A few times I woke up swearing I’d heard her collar tags jingling in the hallway. Her dog bowls and daytime sleeping bed remained in their places, empty, but comforting somehow. But how I ached. Physically, emotionally, I was just drained completely of everything. How can that be, one might ask – she was just a dog. She wasn’t human.

And yet it broke me. Losing her felt like losing the rest of everything.

Now, all of a sudden, it’s been two years. Last year on that day, I was in rainy England, and found myself sitting on a park bench outside the church where Shakespeare is buried. I sat under a weeping willow tree and gazed out at the rising river, and remembered Foxy. Leaving the riverbank, I wandered along the deserted wet roads and eventually found myself in a cluttered antique store. As I was looking through a case at a tray of silver charms all jumbled together, something caught my eye. Down in the right hand corner, looking up at me through the glass, sitting just above a heart-shaped charm: a little silver perfect poodle. Yes, of course I bought it. You don’t ignore a sign like that.

My view that day.

My view that day.

I wore that charm on a chain around my neck almost every day for the past year. Until today – when I looked down at my chain and the charm was gone. Inexplicably, sadly, just gone. The other charms are still there, but not that one. Another sign? It’s what prompted me to write this post today. I’d been thinking of writing it for cathartic reasons, but couldn’t bring myself to do it until now.

Many have asked why I haven’t gotten another dog yet. Sometimes I think I am ready, especially now that I have this extra time on my hands and am not away from the house ten or eleven hours at a time. I remember how fun it is to have a dog who loves you no matter what and is so happy to see you when you get home, no matter how long you’ve been gone. I remember the joy of having something to take care of and be responsible for, the comfort and the companionship. It’s definitely one of life’s UNunhappy experiences, when it’s good.

But it’s a lot of responsibility, having a dog. Vet bills, grooming, walks, training – it’s a commitment that takes a lot of work and for me, a lot of worry. And, the memory of the nearly-unbearable pain when you lose something that you love so much is still pretty fresh. Especially when we as owners have to make that choice to humanely take their pain away, it’s an indescribable heartache – and one I’m not sure I want to or can go through again. I don’t know what to do. Is Foxy is giving me a little nudge from wherever she is, saying it’s time for a new start…a new charm?

I just don’t know. I miss Foxy like crazy, including the little things like her prancy walk and the butter popcorn smell of the pads on her feet. She was such a good dog, and no other one could ever take her place. But – I’ll keep you updated if and when any wet noses and furry feet make their way into my life again. I’m starting to think it’s possible. And maybe I’ll look for another charm too, when the time is right.

Thanks for listening and reading. À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

Extreme Foxy close-up

Why I’m Still In Love With The Tour de France

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“Now for our mountain sport: up to yond hill; Your legs are young; I’ll tread these flats.” ~ William Shakespeare (Cymbeline III, 3)

One of the things that makes me the most UNunhappiest in the world is the Tour de France. Yes, the sport and race that is now most famous for cheating and doping and controversy is (still) my most favorite sport.  Over the past few years, the revelations, accusations and conflagrations within the cycling world have certainly been depressing and disappointing, but I can’t help it – I’m still in love with the Tour de France.

This Saturday June 29th, the 100th edition of the Tour kicks off on the island of Corsica before heading to mainland France.  Cycling fans around the world are converging on the roads of France, in front of their televisions and computers, and on social media sites like Twitter to bond over their common love and obsession for “la grande boucle” (“the big loop).  The world’s best riders from 22 teams will battle each other and an extremely unforgiving course of over 2,100 miles for three weeks during the world’s most difficult race, all in pursuit of a yellow piece of lycra (and legend).  It’s dangerous and incredible and dramatic and unbelievable and electric and beautiful.  There’s nothing else quite like it.  Count me among the obsessed.

2013 Tour De France route map

2013 Tour De France route map

For many years now, I’ve saved up all my vacation hours each year to take three weeks off in July to watch the Tour.  In 2010, after a year of organizing and saving and planning, I lived a dream and went to France to follow the race around the French Alps for 10 days and to celebrate my 40th birthday.  It was one of the most amazing and incredible experiences of my life!  I will never forget standing on top of the world, the famous Col de la Madeleine in the French Alps, on my birthday, watching the riders snake up the mountain road below our vantage point and then watching them labor by us towards the summit, threading the needle of the massive crowds.  There were thousands of people on that mountain, fans from all over the world, all out in the middle of nowhere screaming at the top of their lungs and having the times of their lives.  I still get emotional when I think about it.  It was pure joy for me.

Col de la Madeleine, 2010 Tour de France

Col de la Madeleine, 2010 Tour de France

Col de la Madeleine, 2010 Tour de France

Col de la Madeleine, 2010 Tour de France

I went with a French-organized official tour group and it was great;  we lodged near each day’s stage in beautiful areas, and transportation was provided from one day’s route to the next.  (The only downside was the lack of hotel air conditioning during one of France’s worst heat waves in history.)  I was the only non-native person in the tour group who was fluent in French, and most of the French guys running our tour didn’t speak English, so I ended up being an unofficial group translator between some of the clients and the French-speaking staff.  Sometimes they put me in one of the support cars instead of the bus and I was able to help the French staff provide assistance to those in our group who were cycling the routes ahead of the pro riders each day.  I loved it!  I felt at home and useful and just so happy to be in one of the most pristine, beautiful corners of the world I’d ever seen. 

Morzine, site of Stage 8 finish, 2010 Tour de France

Avoriaz, site of Stage 8 finish
2010 Tour de France

Morzine, site of Stage 9 depart, 2010 Tour de France

Morzine, site of Stage 9 depart
2010 Tour de France

Postcard-perfect town of Morzine, 2010 Tour de France

Postcard-perfect town of Morzine
2010 Tour de France

We had unrestricted access to behind-the-scenes start and finish areas, and it was amazing to see the massive sets, broadcast trucks and media areas up close.  It’s a traveling logistics miracle which boggles the mind.  An entire mini-city is set up and dismantled every single day of the race.  I’d love to actually work for the Tour one day, what a dream job that would be!

At the finish line of Stage 8 in Station des Rousses, 2010 Tour de France

At the finish line of Stage 7 in Station des Rousses, 2010 Tour de France

Waiting for the winners at the award podium at finish of Stage 8 in Avoriaz, 2010 Tour de France.

Waiting for the winners at the award podium at finish of Stage 8 in Avoriaz, 2010 Tour de France.

We got to see lots of crazy sights and even crazier people (the Dutch fans are literally insane).  People line the roads of each stage’s route hours (or sometimes even days) ahead of time to stake out the best spots.  A nice little old German lady cooking a pot of potatoes even let me use her RV bathroom in an intestinal emergency.  The Tour’s publicity caravan passes through on the road an hour or two ahead of the riders and hurls out free swag to the waiting throngs.  Blaring music, girls on roller blades who throw candy at you, and huge dancing yeti monsters all add to the carnival atmosphere.

The Pink Wig Guys - we saw them everywhere we went.  2010 Tour de France

The Pink Wig Guys – we saw them everywhere we went. 2010 Tour de France

Friendly families in their camper vans are on the side of every road. 2010 Tour de France

Friendly families in their camper vans are on the side of every road. 2010 Tour de France

Publicity Caravan - here, the yellow jersey sponsor. 2010 Tour de France

Publicity Caravan – here, the yellow jersey sponsor. 2010 Tour de France

Publicity Caravan - still not sure what this product is. 2010 Tour de France

Publicity Caravan – still not sure what this product is. 2010 Tour de France

I guiltily confess to being somewhat of a stalker during the 2010 Tour de France.  I was on a mission to get up close and personal with one of the most impressive specimens of athletic prowess (and just plain hotness) in all of sport:  the one, the only –  Spartacus.  For you non-cycling readers, that’s World Champion Fabian Cancellara, a Swiss rider of awe-inspiring talent with a jaw of steel and ham hocks for thighs (and pretty nice hair too).  On the rest day in Morzine, I found him (ok, tracked him down) at his team hotel just as he returned from a training ride:

Fabian Cancellara on Rest Day in Morzine, 2010 Tour de France.

Fabian Cancellara on Rest Day in Morzine, 2010 Tour de France.

I was just a few feet away from cycling brilliance, and as he walked inside the hotel, I summoned the courage to follow him and ask him to sign the Texas flag I’d brought with me.  He did and I fainted Just kidding, but my heart was pounding pretty hard. He was all sweaty and when I asked him if he’d take a picture with me, he leaned in and I swear I could smell just a whiff of Swiss chocolate.  🙂

As if that weren’t enough, when I went back outside to the hotel patio, Jens Voigt and Andy Schleck had also just returned from their rides, and they also talked to me and signed my flag!  Tour-tough-man Jens is also one of my all-time favorite riders (as he is for most cycling fans), such a funny and all-around nice guy, and Andy Schleck from Luxembourg – well, if you don’t know who he is, he only ended up winning the Tour that year.  Yup, I hung out with the champion for a while.  No big deal.

When I approached Jens, he jokingly asked “Is it even legal to sign a flag?  And before I do, do you even know who I am?”  I was so flustered the only thing I could think to say in response was “Of course, you almost died last year in that horrible crash!”  Oof.  He laughed and said, “Well, next to my signature I’m going to print my name so you can tell which one it is later.”  Which he did. 

Jens Voigt signs my flag. 2010 Tour de France

Jens Voigt signs my flag.
2010 Tour de France

Andy Schleck took a picture with me and asked me a few questions, then signed the flag as well. He was a very nice guy.  I wanted to feed him a double grilled cheese sandwich.

Andy Schleck on rest day in Morzine, 2010 Tour de France Winner

Andy Schleck on rest day in Morzine, 2010 Tour de France Winner

I also was able to talk to and get signatures from Sylvain Chavanel (France), also one of my favorites, as well as American sprinter Tyler Farrar, Kiwi lead-out man Julian Dean, and up-and-coming USA hopeful Taylor Phinney.  I didn’t set out to be an autograph hound, honest; but it ended up being a convenient vehicle to use to start talking to them.  That’s one of the great things about cycling events – they’re FREE (as long as you can get yourself there), and you can walk right up to your biggest crushes idols and just have a conversation with them!  It’s amazing and I hope it stays that way forever. 

I guess I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the helmeted gorilla in the room: the 2010 Tour was Lance Armstrong‘s last.  He’d made his much-touted comeback the year before, and the rumor was this would be his final attempt.  Sharing a hometown with the guy, and listening to many wax nostalgic about this being his last hurrah, I did feel a strange pull toward him at this Tour; heck, he was kind of the reason I’d even become a cycling fan in the first place.

Lance during the 2010 Tour de France. Source: Spencer Platt/Getty Images Europe

Lance during the 2010 Tour de France.
Source: Spencer Platt/Getty Images Europe

When I returned from the Peace Corps in 2001 and stopped in Austin on my way home to Albuquerque, I went to the huge outdoor celebration that the city threw for him on the lakeshores of downtown.  He’d just won his third Tour, and I attended more out of curiosity than true fandom.  I’d been in Africa for his first two victories; what I knew of him so far was just what I’d read in our agency-provided Newsweek magazines.  But, like so many others, I got caught up in the story, and from that point on I started following cycling much more closely. When I moved to Austin in 2009, the frenzy over his professional comeback ushered me into this city.

Everyone has their own opinion on Lance.  This story isn’t about him, although he is part of my memories of my trip to the Tour…

While we toured the area around the team buses prior to the stage start in Chambéry, one of the publicity guys from the RadioShack team noticed my Texas flag.  He interviewed me for a team video that they watched at the end of each day, just a few seconds of who I was, where I was from and why had I come to the Tour.  He then told me that if I stuck around, he’d talk to Lance about signing my flag.  A few minutes later, Lance descended the bus stairs, talked to the media for a few minutes (actually he got into a heated argument with a woman reporter who questioned him about doping), and then proceeded down a line of fans.  When he got to the end where I was, we talked for a minute about Austin, he thanked me for traveling all that way, and then he signed my Texas flag in the middle of the white star.

Lance signs my Texas flag. 2010 Tour de France

Lance signs my Texas flag.
2010 Tour de France

My 2010 Tour de France Texas flag.

My 2010 Tour de France Texas flag.

Stars burn out, as we’ve seen.  But memories last forever (hopefully).  Despite all the disappointments of recent past, I still love the Tour for the memories I have of it, and for the dogged determination of the human spirit that personifies the competition within the race.  I believe cycling is reinventing itself for the better, one pedal-stroke at a time.  If you are a fan of cycling and especially the Tour, you MUST get yourself to France one day to be a part of it.  It’s really impossible to accurately describe the atmosphere and the dedication that goes into every part of the Tour; you must see and experience it for yourself.  France is a spectacularly beautiful country, and I can see why they are so proud of their Tour; it shows off the best of what they have to offer.  

Back Camera

tdf8

I plan to go back – next year, in fact.  The 2014 Tour de France’s “Grand Depart” is going to be in England, the other place of my dreams and UNunhappiness – there’s no way I can pass up that opportunity.  I hope to see you there!

For now, I’m off to stock up on croissants and Camembert.  Vive le Tour!

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

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