Posts Tagged With: personal essay

What I Believe: 2016 Version


30261393871_ec4f69bd58_zNo doubt, for me, 2016 will go down as one of the most difficult ones I’ve endured. But, it ends with the hope that it is always darkest before the dawn.

Just like I did in 2015, I’m listing five things I know for sure:

  1. We Are A Nation of Systems. Two decades ago I sat in a courtroom listening as a judge admonished a gun-toting mayor, charged with dereliction of duty, saying, “We are a nation of laws, not men.” The oft-repeated Americanism, though, does not go far enough. We are not a nation of laws — we are a nation of systems. Political systems, religious systems, educational systems, legal systems and judicial systems, to name a few. They often have competing goals, leading to a perpetual gridlock that hampers the quality of life for its citizens. And, as I learned firsthand in 2016 — after my teenage daughter reported being the victim of a crime — when a system fails, getting answers is cumbersome because protecting the system becomes the priority.
  2. Evangelicals Lost Credibility In 2016. According to Jesus, only a handful of things are required to get into heaven (Matthew 25: 35-36), yet the Orange One’s ascent to power was, in large part, because of evangelicals voting for a man who does not embrace those beliefs. In American history, the evangelicals only ‘got it right’ for about 40 years when they accepted Jesus’ core message and embarked on the Social Gospel movement. In time, fear and ignorance crept back in, leading to the current revival in anti-intellectualism. If evangelicals want to regain their credibility, though, they could start by letting the Bible make them more liberal.
  3. 20160112_103030-EFFECTSA Good Dog Is Therapeutic. Dogs add something to life. Maybe because they sleep 12-16 hours a day. Maybe because they have the brain capacity of a toddler (an age when hero worship is common). Regardless of the reason, a good dog can make the worst of days a little better. They are excellent companions for long walks in the woods. They expect little, but deliver a lot of joy, smiles, happiness and loyalty. They can teach you how to live in the Now.
  4. Perception Is Reality. Dogs are also walking ‘Oprah moments.’ My dog is a mixed-breed female, but nearly everyone she meets calls her a him. Although this was solved with a pink collar, her pedigree identity can’t be fixed that easily. I’ve been told she ‘looks like a’ Catahoula, Boxer, Whippet and Pit Bull even though her paperwork lists her as a Border Collie/Lab mix. All this ‘knowing’ has taught me a lot about people and dogs. People are extremely inept at visually determining a dog’s breed and their overreliance on personal experience (i.e. I owned a Boxer) determines the breed they ‘see.’ The lesson applies to many things in life. What a person perceives as truth — is true — regardless of its basis in fact.
  5. Life Is As Easy — Or Difficult — As You Make It. Alan Watts compares our existence to a river and notes that when a river reaches a bank it does not beat against it or try to plow through. Instead it bends and finds an easier way. Some efforts just don’t pay off. Accept it and move on. Life is easier when you do.
Categories: Personal Essays, What I Know For Sure, Year In Review | Tags: , , ,

The Canine Gaze And Other Great Dog Mysteries

20160112_103030-EFFECTSI love reading books about dogs. I always have. One of my favorite childhood books included a dozen or so stories about dogs that protected their owners from bear attacks.

Of course, Old Yeller and Savage Sam were two stories that really pulled me in. The climax of Old Yeller is when teenager Travis Coates is forced to destroy Old Yeller. The dog, infected with rabies after protecting Travis’ younger Arliss from a rabid wolf, is now a danger to the family. As we watch the scene of Old Yeller’s death unfold — knowing in our hearts it’s the right thing to do — we still wish for a better way.

But it’s time for Travis to become a real man and overcome his personal affection for the dog and do what is right for his family.

Versa’s Flaws

When I began writing personal essays, my first attempt at a longer read (one-hour story) was about our dog, Versa. In some ways, Versa is like Old Yeller. When we adopted her, she was not overly likeable and a little rough around the edges — she had some flaws. The day we met, she did not impress me, partly because when my daughter, Molly, tried to interact with her, Versa was too timid — cowering with her tale between her legs, and quivering as Molly tried to pet her.

It wasn’t Versa’s fault.

She is a pound puppy and, as I wrote in Broken Spirit: Lessons From a Rescued Dog About the Politics of Life, she exhibits the traits of fear aggression — a tendency to be afraid of everything and everyone. It is a common trait of pound dogs. And, although, its grip on Versa is lessening, the trait is still noticeable after working with her for nearly three years.

In time Versa ‘grew on me’ and now she is part of my daily routine. As I wrote in Broken Spirit,

Versa and I have a daily ritual. I sit on a stool in my living room, start putting on my socks with my shoes beside me on the floor. Versa knows what this means: she is going for a walk. She wags her tail; prances over to our front door then back to me to check my progress. She nudges me with her nose as if to say, hurry up — let’s go.

True Companionship

Dogs provide a companionship that cannot be matched by any other domesticated animal. It is probably for this reason alone that so many books have been – and still are being – written about canines. We want to know how others interact with their four-legged family member.

contentA Useful Dog by Donald McCaig is a short-read — probably an hour or so — but by reading it you develop an deep appreciation for McCaig’s Border Collie sheep dogs. These dogs are energetic, bright and loyal, but as the author points out they can be difficult to train, control and work.

The book also includes snippets about the various jobs performed by other dogs, including sniffing out landmines in war-torn areas of the world. A deep bond grows between the dog and its partner in such adverse conditions, McCaig notes, but he says, this deep bond often exists in less dangerous situations.

He writes,

“On good days, I imagine humans are connected to our dogs on a primitive genetic level; that we don’t need to hear well because our dogs hear for us, that we don’t need good noses because our dogs sniff out danger, that we humans can dream because our dogs watch over us. On good days, I think dogs gave us our spiritual lives.”

The Gaze

packoftwoFor an even deeper look at the intricate dog-human relationship, read Pack of Two: The Intricate Bond Between People and Dogs. In the book’s opening, author Carolyn Knapp readily admits one reason she adopted Lucille, an eight-week-old Shepherd mix, from the local shelter was to fill the abundance of time Knapp acquired after becoming sober for the first time in her life. (She writes about her battle with alcoholism in Drinking: A Love Story).

Knapp fearlessly jumps headlong into issues only dog owners truly appreciate.

She speaks bluntly and honestly about dealing with other dogs and their owners, about condescending dog trainers with their various theories of control, and the hardest of all humans to understand – people who don’t like dogs. But one of the most intriguing passages is about the ‘canine gaze.’ If you own a dog, you’ve seen it. Often a dog’s gaze has a very definite meaning – I need to go outside, for example — but sometimes, we owners are clueless to what the dog is trying to communicate to us.

As Knapp notes, this non-understood gaze troubles us so when her dog launches into a gaze, Knapp, like all of us, concocts some really crazy ideas about what it means. She says,

In other words, I project. I project and I anthropomorphize and I make stuff up. I view her inner life through the filter of my own emotions and experiences, and the tendency to do this can make me crazy, for I can read anything into Lucille’s eyes. Anything. I can imagine that she’s mad at me, whether or not she is. I can imagine that she’s lonely or depressed, that’s she’s worried or chagrined or wistful, that I’m getting on her nerves.

It’s part of the Lassie Syndrome of life – we dog owners have come to believe that all looks, gazes and actions of our beloved canine friend holds some deep — often mystical — meaning.

Versa Knows

As I write this, Versa lies calmly on her bed beside my chair. She is always nearby. Whenever I walk to another part of the house, she follows. With her, I’m never alone.

And as she lies comfortably on her bed, she is a visual reminder that dogs are simple creatures. They are the embodiment of what life is meant to be — a pleasant process. Versa needs very little: Food, water, shelter and a daily walk. Once Versa’s daily walk is complete – meaning her work day is over – she is content to nap, relax, play with the cats or simply do nothing at all.

She has figured out the secret to a happy life.

And, maybe that’s what she’s been trying to tell me all along.

broken-spiritBroken Spirit: Lessons From a Rescued Dog About the Politics of Life

When a rescued, mix-breed mongrel with an ill-fitting name (Versa) and a behavioral problem (fear aggression) chose me as her sidekick, I reluctantly agreed. But as I helped Versa overcome her fears, she taught me about the secrets to work and life.

Categories: Books I have read, Dogs, Pets, Versa | Tags: ,

How One Decision My Dad Made Changed My Life

13458694463_103e1e9173_oMy earliest memories of my father (who would have been 84 today) are when I was four. We had moved in with his parents after his father, Charlie L. suffered a stroke. Mom went to work at a shirt factory in nearby Clinton County, Kentucky while Dad stayed home to ‘run the house’ for his parents.

In my first memory, I am sitting in the grass while Dad hoed in the small garden at the foot of the hill. All of the sudden, Dad said, “Don’t move.” He then proceeded to kill a copperhead snake slithering in the grass near me. I remember Dad showing off his kill to his sister, Anna, who lived a mile or so away and there was even talk of getting a photograph with the local newspaper. Oddly, enough, I do not remember seeing the snake — so I have no idea if it was photo worthy.

The second memory of my father is not as flattering.

It occurred around the same time and took place inside his mother’s kitchen. In this memory, my father is pouring each of his three children (my youngest sister had not been born yet) a shot of alcohol. Since I was four, my older brother and sister were 8 and 6, respectively.

I remember the incident well because of his mother’s reaction — her anger and irritation as she told her son not to give us the drink.

“Ah, it won’t hurt ’em,” Dad said.

Alcohol was a big part of my father’s life then, but it did not start out that way. In his early 20s, Dad volunteered to serve in the Korean War. When he left home, he was a well-respected, likeable young man who had never drank alcohol. Something he experienced during his war service dramatically changed him and when he returned home a few years later, he — by his own admission — drank too much.

And by the time I took that drink as a four-year-old boy, my father had been arrested for public intoxication, driving under the influence, been questioned about receiving stolen property — and had spent more than one night in the Cumberland County jail. In the years leading up to my birth his drinking escalated to the point that it almost destroyed his marriage.

But within a year of my first drink, my father had quit drinking altogether. It took the death of a co-worker and the near-death of a drinking buddy to change Dad’s life view. Of course, I was too young to understand the implications of his decision, but it changed the direction of my life — being the son of a former heavy drinker is vastly different than being the son of a heavy drinker.

It was the greatest gift he ever gave me.

Categories: Family History | Tags: , , , , , , ,