Thursday, October 16, 2014

Say Less

     Agility class on a cool April morning.  Ruby, a smart and focused Jack Russell Terrier, hears her person say, "Walk," trots up the Dog Walk and starts carefully across, a tiny canine gymnast on a balance beam.  Her human jogs beside her saying encouraging little things in a sweet Texas accent, Ruby glancing her way each time she speaks.
     "You don't need to talk to her as she goes across," the teacher comments when Ruby is safely down.
     "Really?" Ruby's person says, adding a few syllables to what you may think of as "really."
     "Every time you say something Ruby's looking at you and thinking 'Is this important?'  You gave the command and she was carrying it out, so any new conversation is causing her to kind of recalibrate and it can be very distracting.  In general we need to say less to our dogs."
     This same teacher has to remind me almost every class that I should say Ivy's name less, that I'm sucking the meaning from it by over-use.  I try but often fail to resist spewing sweet nothings to Ivy Ivy Ivy as she climbs the teeter or races up the A-frame.  Slow learner, me.
     Say less.
     Is this important?
     If I edit the non-important stuff out of my general conversation, here's roughly what's left:
     I love you.
     I love you, too.
     Dinner's ready, guys!
     Could one of you go let the chickens out?
     Thank you.
     Ivy, stay.
     Good girl.
     Are you hungry?
     Where's your other shoe?
     I miss you.
     Good boy!
     Leave it.
     Are you thirsty?
     Great game, kid.
     It's raining.
     Want me to read to you?
     Let's sit on the porch.
     Good night; have sweet dreams.
     You're a good dog.  You're a good dog, too.
        P.S. Want to laugh and cry and feel more literate while never leaving your laptop?  Read some blogs over at yeah write and vote for your faves on Thursday.

Throw the Ball

     One September morning in 2008, my friend Lou called to tell me that David Foster Wallace, my favorite living writer, had hanged himself.  Everything slowed, then stilled: tiny hexagons of porch screen filmed with dust, thirsty plants everywhere I looked.  Our garden emerging from a valiant August struggle, not pretty but still cranking out tomatoes.
     It took only an instant to understand that I would never again settle down with a new Wallace short story or novel opened before me like a feast.  It took longer to understand that his old work would now be read through the blurry, irritating filter of his suicide.
     Still two years away from getting my first dog, I understood this: when I had my first baby, I forfeited the right to climb Mt. Everest, skydive, and commit suicide.  I had signed up to keep myself alive and healthy for as long as possible, no matter how miserable I might be.
    He didn't have children.  But he had two dogs: Warner and Bella.  He had spoken about how he didn't like to leave them alone, even for a couple of hours.  He considered quitting writing and opening a dog shelter.
     I bounced from anger (Guess what, Mr. Wallace: you don't get to be my favorite dead writer!) to compassion: I can't imagine pain so great that you volunteer to leave this beautiful world one minute sooner than necessary.  It's a step beyond what we call "crippling pain" or "debilitating pain."  It's deadly pain.
     Now I have Ivy and Revel, whose needs are simple: give us some food and don't ever go away!  Unlike my children, they're never going to fire me.  So that contract I signed when my babies were born is more binding than ever.  Eat good food and drink lots of water. No extreme sports or texting while driving.  When I feel sad, get off my butt and do something for someone else.  Keep planting tomatoes, even though the hammer of August awaits.  Boys: I'll be here whenever you need me.  Dogs: I'll be here until you're not.  I'll throw the ball until I can't, and cheer when you bring it back.

P.S. Happy to be linking up with yeah write this week. 

Wanna Get High?

     On a warm spring night the parking lot of our baseball field is crowded with people walking down to the pool; with no tattoos and at least forty percent of my body covered in clothing, I feel dowdy and old, a ragged billboard flashing Spill Milk on Me!  Tell Me You're Hungry!  Give Me Something to Wash!  I've dropped off my boys and their baseball gear, have parked a few acres south and am making my way back to the field with my chair, my sewing bag full of small blue jeans with blown-out knees, my two panting Australian Shepherds, my insulated cooler bag full of snacks and water for my kids and extra water in case any of their teammates forgot to bring water, which someone always does.  Sherpa for Hire!  Responds Well to Employers Under Twelve! 
     "Hey," I hear from a bearded young guy sitting in the deep shade of a live oak.  "Wanna get high?" 
     A weird little vibe runs from his shade to my sunlight and I don't have to think at all about whether he's talking to me or someone else.  I don't say, "No thanks," nor do I say, "I'm on the Board of this Little League and I suggest you and your drugs move along before I call the cops!"  Nor do I sic my Aussies on him, "sic" meaning they would tear over to the dude, cover him in dog spit and so many colors of fur that there is no clothing combination on the planet immune from the ravages of said fur.  Instead I elevate my Dallas-bred nose just a bit and keep walking with a quicker, happier step.
     Because I'm already high. 
     I don't feel like a dowdy tattoo-less Sherpa any more.  I feel the sense of purpose that having a family gives.  I feel the glory of being the food-provider, the one who makes little people half-close their eyes and say, "That was sooooo good," the one who makes the man of the house say, "Mmmmmm."  I feel the high of a forever marriage.  I feel the buzz of a garden crammed with green tomatoes on the fast-track to red.  I remember that I love baseball, that I admire the way those ten-year-olds zip the ball around the field.  I feel the buoyant joy of good health.  And this: I have a lot of things to do.  I don't want to do some of them, but I'll take the most tedious one on the list over sitting on the ground in a city park chasing a flimsy buzz.
     Thanks for asking, Mister.  I needed that.

Old Yeller Lives

    We have a hen named Bob who is able to fly out of the chicken yard into the dangerous world beyond.  Bob feels terribly superior upon landing on the exotic side of the fence; she scratches vigorously, lording it over her penned-in sisters.
    About thirty seconds later, she is consumed with remorse.  She races up and down on her side of the fence, clucking frantically for the paradise of water, kitchen scraps and pricey organic chicken feed in which her buddies are happily wallowing.
    The more upset she gets, the less she is able to remember the way back in.  Mr. Coyote: please stay busy elsewhere until Bob calms down and flies back over!
    Yesterday Bob was still out doing her dance of regret when the dogs and I had to leave the ol' homestead to go pick up the boys from school and take the younger one to baseball practice.  At the field the older boy sat on the open tailgate of my truck and tried to be polite whenever someone spoke to him, that is, distracted him from his book.  The first to do this was Juree, the homeless man who often shares with us his particular mix of common sense, delusion and old-time religion. "Son, you know the definition of integrity?" he asked my boy.  "The Webster Dictionary definition?"
     "It means being your real self, not your fake self," the kid said after a moment of thought.
     "Pretty close!" Juree crowed.  "Integrity means you keep your dignities," he said.
     "Yes sir," the boy said, his eyes turning stealthily back to the page.
     The dogs lounged against us and I scratched behind their ears, silently thanking them for not trying to rush out to the field to herd ballplayers.  I realized that my dogs live a cushier life than Juree does; they'd soon be heading home with us to sleep on beds, breakfast a sure thing, plenty of love in between.  My chickens also live a more luxurious life, with steady food, water and shelter, as long as they stay around to enjoy it.
     On the field, the helmeted boys were lining up to hit.  "Be a hitter, you're a hitter," their coach said quietly but firmly to each kid.
    "It's like them animals on the ark," Juree was saying.  (Now there's a story to make you love your own bed: forty nights on a boat while your old world drowns outside, a sample of every part of your new world crammed in the boat with you.)  "The goose," he said, "the gander, the doe, the buck, the sheep and the ram, the mare, the stallion, and Old Yeller of course."
     I suddenly found something very interesting to look at behind Ivy's ear and thought of our impending taxes to calm the laugh forming like a tiny tsunami, unbidden, right behind my breastbone.  Strange, because I cried my young heart out over poor Old Yeller, years ago.  
     "Yes," I said, bald tax guy, hope we don't owe too much.  "Yes."  Was he referring to my dogs, or to the microcosm of life there at the ballpark: young and old, privileged and lacking, agile and broken-down, dignities intact and not?  I don't know.  One of the worst players on the team slammed a ball into left field.  The next struck out, sprinted stoically to the back of the line.      
    My own life is very certain; the biggest chance I take is making a new recipe for dinner, and I'm filled with regret and dread as I do it, sure my family won't like it, wishing I had made an old favorite instead.  Racing senselessly up and down on the wrong side of the fence, wondering why I ever flew out.
     When do we stop crying our eyes out over films and books?  When did I?  I miss the pure, untroubled sorrow of sobbing over a character I've known for a few hundred pages, or a couple of hours.  Too much to cry over in real life: there's my answer.  Of course Old Yeller was on the ark, because everything was.  Why didn't I think of that?   

P.S. Check out the great collection of blogs at this week's yeah write;  I'm happy to be among them.

The Power-Lick

     A certain determined young boy in my family likes to make charts of Ivy's and Revel's preferences, the main point of which is to prove that Ivy loves him best.
     "See, I'm up here," he begins. . .and then he digs his heels in and prepares to defend his claim at all costs.  The other two males in the family cannot help but refute him.  I keep right on cooking, Ivy at my feet (ahem); this is not the hill I'm going to die on.
     "Ivy definitely loves Bear best," the other boy says.
     "No, she loves me best," says Mr. Determination, "then Bear next.  Bear, doesn't Ivy love me best?"
     I roll out my sweet, neutral, possibly-maddening mama answer: "She loves us all dearly."
     Ivy is with me all the time, looks to me for instruction, and keeps very close tabs on me.  She sleeps next to me, is sad when I go and ecstatic when I return.  Her ideal situation is for the four of us to be in the same general area so she can keep tabs on all of us.  But if we split off in different directions, she chooses to go with me.  Is that love?  It's priceless, whatever name it goes by.  That said, she gets different things from each of us and she knows it.  The chart-making boy is the most generous belly-rubber, and Ivy will often flop down and offer her belly at the sight of him.  Both boys do things I will never do, like get down on Ivy's dog bed with her and roll around, or play hide-and-seek with yucky hiding places such as under the dog bed, the mere thought of which makes me sneeze.  They're much sweatier and tastier than I am.  They don't care if the dogs are filthy or if clouds of fur are floating off of them.  They bring a playfulness to both dogs that a forty-four year old woman cannot match.  They will also stretch out on the floor and let Revel do his "power lick" (intense and prolonged licking of the same spot, probably sweaty spot, on your body), which personally makes me itchy.  Both dogs love us all and regret the absence of any one of us.
     Love doesn't fit into a chart anyway, my dear; it's too big and beautiful and 3-D.  We're all loved passionately; life is practically power-licking us!  Let's enjoy it together, okay?

The Wave

     Just when the "Extreme Fire Danger" signs were starting to pop up again, three blessed inches of rain fell on Austin Tuesday night.  A real storm, complete with thunder and lightning and the magnificent sound of water slamming onto our metal roof; we caught about four thousand gallons in our rainwater collection system, and I'd rather have that water than any thing from any store in the whole wide world.  Ivy protected us from the storm by pacing back and forth across the bed, standing at alert and growling at the windows.  Revel slept straight through the whole thing like the good peaceful boy he is.
     Yesterday the yard was too muddy for the dogs to play in, so I took them on extra walks to make up for it.  At noon my neighborhood seemed absolutely deserted, of people that is. Almost every place we passed had a dog or two, left in the yard while the people worked, I suppose.  Almost all barked with a combination of joy (Something to do!) and menace (You're on my turf!).  Each time I told Ivy and Revel to "leave it" and kept them moving forward, and when they looked at me wonderingly I told them to be glad they were out on a walk, their third walk of the day, instead of left in a yard.  They seemed to sense their good fortune and they walked along regally, sniffing the rain-washed air and occasionally touching noses in a way that makes this mother's heart sing.
     I thought about all the ways in which my Aussies resemble human toddlers (nap a lot, bad at sharing, find value in a toy only when the other guy has it, don't like to be alone) and all the ways in which they don't (extremely fast, in Ivy's case, and strong in Revel's).  I thought about a house that used to be on my Meals on Wheels route, if the word "house" is even appropriate.  It was more like a junkyard, fenced in sagging chain link topped with barbed wire, with a structure at the back in which people lived.  The sheet I'd been given with notes on each client read, "Do NOT approach the house!  Dog will bite!  Client will come out to receive the meal.  Honk if necessary."  This was a year or two shy of my falling in love with Ivy, and at that point I was still terrified of most dogs.  But this dog was legitimately terrifying, almost a caricature of a junkyard dog, lunging and barking and hurling himself at the chain-link gate, in part because he had nothing else to do.  All I thought at the time was that I didn't like going to that particular house and looked forward to moving on to my next client, sweet Mr. Flores (R.I.P.) who was always delighted to see me and loved to talk baseball.  But walking through our lovely neighborhood with my
Lucky us.
spoiled dogs yesterday, I suddenly thought of that poor creature who had not a blade of grass to roll on, no toys, no training except perhaps to kill, no companionship and probably no love.  He was a living alarm system, bless his heart.  Then for two weeks in a row no one came out no matter how I honked and how the dog barked, in which case we're allowed to give the meal to a homeless person, and then the house got taken off my route.  I wonder what became of him.
     And now let's end with a dog at the opposite end of the spectrum, my parents' year-and-a-half-old Micajah.  He has had great training from a lady named Stacey who comes to my parents' house, patrols a deer-filled property but is protected from the road by an underground electric fence, entertains and is doted on by the residents at my grandma's nursing home and goes everywhere with my mother.  Here he is doing his "wave," tongue out in anticipation of his treat.  Life should be so delicious for every dog.

Mama Always Comes Back

      We were talking about the words Revel understands, apart from Sit and Down and other cues that go along with hand signals.  He clearly knows "breaklast," which we purposely mis-pronounce in honor of a certain little girl who used to say she wanted her breaklast, and "lunch" and "mush."  He also knows "treat" and "vitamins" and "let's go see the chickens."  He should know "handsome" and "such a sweet boy" because he's heard those words more often than breaklast, lunch and mush.  And who knows what he has learned from the confused jumble of my clumsy body language.  Just sit back and wait for the mush.
     I make a point to say "Let's go for a walk," when I put their harnesses on and get the leashes, and I wish Revel could somehow tell me right then that he would prefer not to go for a walk.  He acts enthusiastic about it as far as the trash—he loves to go down to the trash—but when we turn the corner and he realizes that he's in for more than a trash run, he sometimes plants himself and refuses to go any farther.  Oh, Ivy and I are annoyed; we desperately need exercise to stave off the anxiety (Ivy), fat and grumpiness (me).  When Revel decides he's not moving, he is unmovable.  He is a seventy-pound Aussie statue.  Unless we turn back in the direction of home, in which case he picks up the pace.  Put him in the yard, start over on what is now a girls' walk.  He waits for us happily, unfettered by our feminine needs.
     Since I read that dogs think in "thought pictures" I sometimes try to communicate with mine in a visual flash, usually when I'm leaving them behind.  I picture my truck leaving the driveway, then returning a little bit later, just as I used to tell my children, "Mama always comes back."  I haven't been leaving them much lately, because the weather is cool enough for them to wait in the car for a bit if necessary.  But now I am faced with the horror, oh the agony, of actually getting on an airplane and leaving my home from this Friday to Monday.  Without my Aussies.  Should I try to tell them somehow?  Should I expand my thought picture to demonstrate that they will be here with my husband, getting lots of affection and contraband snacks and getting to jump up and nip and be bad bad bad?  That I will come back, just a lot later than I usually do?
     I know I should try to be calm and happy and not let my anxiety free-float around the house, because Ivy is anxious enough without my help.  I know it will be a good trip.  The boys and I are going to Mississippi to my parents' beautiful, comfortable house where I will not be in charge of the cooking or the cleaning.  Woo-hoo!  I hope I'll get some good pictures of Micajah, my parents' Westie.  And I hope Ivy and Revel will forgive me.