Thursday, January 4, 2018

Two of my greatest lessons

"Don't you have anything positive in your life?"

It's a valid question. If you've followed ESE in the past year, then you'd be forgiven for asking it. The truth is, I have several positive presences in my life for which I am most grateful. Why don't I blog about them? Well, there are things that I want kept just for me and I don't necessarily like to place them in the public sphere. That might sound odd to you or even selfish. I will cop to the latter as these things are, as I've said, mine. Lately however, I feel compelled to share two of the biggest positive forces in my life.

I've mentioned my dogs from time to time, but I've never done a post exclusively about them. This is partly because I think there is already an inordinate amount of pet content on social media but also because, as previously mentioned, they are aspects of my life I want kept just for me. But I can no longer go on without mentioning two of the people who helped get me through the worst year of my life.

That's Butterscotch on the left. That's Chewie on the right. They are, believe it or not, litter-mates and the picture is actually rather deceptive. Chewie is at least twice his sister's size. Debbie and I got them 12 years ago when they were but seven months old. Earlier, you may have caught that I called them "people." That's because I think of them that way. They have their own distinct personalities and the past 12 years have convinced me they have their own souls, their own consciousness. I love them every bit as much as a human son and daughter. I would like to fully introduce them to you as such.

Butterscotch got her name because her coat resembled a burnt piece of butterscotch candy. The phrase "social butterfly" was invented for her. She wants to be friends with everyone she sees, be they human or other mammal...which can get particularly interesting if that other mammal happens to be a skunk. I find I can most clearly express her personality by describing her as if she were a human teenage girl, specifically one from the 1980s because,'s not like I have any sense of what it means to be a teen today.

She would have her hair tied in a ponytail off to the side. She would chatter in endless loops about all her friends at school and what they gossiped about that day. I'd be listening with half an ear, because I never liked that stuff even when I was that age. In this case however, it's my little girl so I would at least try to be interested. Her CD collection would feature Paula Abdul, Taylor Dayne, Pebbles, Janet Jackson, and others I would be forced to endure on family car rides. She has a deep interest in the culinary arts. I say this because she follows me into the kitchen and watches everything I do as I cook. It's almost as if she lived before and was chef in that lifetime, because her eyes sometimes seem to say, "Noooooo. That's not how you do it. Oh Papa..."

As testament to this, note this photo I took of a dish I made. Look closely. It was photobombed.

"Ummm,,,are you going to eat both of those? I noticed you seem more interested in that baseball game on TV, so I could just take one of those off your hands..."

In time, I could see her becoming someone like Giada de Laurentiis. Like her, Butterscotch is cute, personable, knowledgeable about cooking, and worthy of her own TV series. Which is nice. She could take care of the rest of us.

This is Chewie. My boy. I took this one while we were on one of our walks together, an activity he truly loves. Were he ever to get off leash, he would quite likely also love to chase the ducks and squirrels in the subdivision. Indoors, he likes to sit up and stretch out towards me with his front legs, a maneuver that makes him look like E.T.

In keeping with the same method of description as applied to his sister, I see a human version of him with longish black hair, wearing a t-shirt with the Van Halen logo on it. The sleeves are torn off, of course. He's in his room, plopped on his bed with loud music playing. I imagine our exchange going something like this:

Me: I'm going out to get dinner. What do you want?

Chewie: Arby's. Big roast beef.

Me: Okay, I'll...

Chewie: And curly fries.

Me: Sure, I'll...

Chewie: Dad, I want curly fries.

Me: I heard you.

He's much less social than his sister. I'd get calls at work, telling me he's been in a fight and they've placed him in detention. I feel safe in saying that because I've gotten the equivalent of such calls from the day camp at PetsMart. There was also a most frightening incident with a neighborhood child who got too close to Chewie's "territory."

Which is why he probably would grow up to be an Airborne Ranger. He wants to eat, fight, and f...well, you can figure it out. More than that though, his combative tendency comes from an overwhelming urge to protect what he loves. I have no doubt that if he could speak English...and the fact he can't is something I consider to be a great failure on my part...he would say, "Worst fight I ever got in? I was protecting my Mom and my sister." As much as he can be a fighter, he has an equal if not greater capacity for love, as evidenced in this photo...

Every stuffed animal in the house is completely intact. Why? Because Chewie is always gentle and kind with them.

As you may have guessed, I named him after Chewbacca in the Star Wars mythos, because it's what I always said I would name a dog if I ever had one. What I never counted on was just how much our relationship would actually be like that of Han Solo and Chewbacca. Chewie has all the strength, the blind love, and the loyalty of his namesake. George Lucas was a dog lover and it shows in the writing.

This thought spurred me to meditate on the subject of dogs and writing. I don't read fiction about dogs because fiction requires conflict and logic would dictate this means the dog protagonist would be in danger or worse. Think Call of the Wild or worse, Old Yeller. No thanks. I have about as much interest in that as parents of human children likely would in stories of kids getting kidnapped. Come to think of it, much nonfiction about dogs likewise comes to unpleasant ends (think Marley & Me). Consequently, I haven't consumed much dog literature.

Then what of dogs and the actual writer? Many writers had dogs or other such beloved pets. This pictorial from The Atlantic shows off a few of them. Writers can be, of course, solitary creatures and dogs allow for that. Remember the saying, "The more people I meet, the more I like my dog." The dog affords the writer companionship while allowing him or her the solitude to work. That's the theory, perhaps.

My two allow me to work for stretches at a time. Then they do the "sit and stare." I'll be typing and one of them (sometimes both) will walk over guessed it...sit and stare. Sometimes Chewie will give me an almost sotto voce "woof." This means they either need to go out or they just want to be active and engaged parts of my life. It doesn't always go over well with me. "You need to go out again?"

In times like these, and times when they've basically been misbehaved children, and unjustly, times when I've actually been angry about something else like...I don't know...a few people closing my college, I've lost my temper. I've yelled at them and, I am ashamed to say, I've frightened them. Despite this, they invariably forgive me and show me love beyond measure. In this sense, they may be the truest Christians I have ever known. I am embarrassed by this, not only because of my behavior but for the grace I seem to lack while they display their own so effortlessly.

I would think about this in the car on the way to work or somewhere else after I had time to calm down. "I shouldn't have yelled at them," I'd think. "I shouldn't have said the things I said. I could have handled that much better." In those moments, I found that I came to understand my own parents and perhaps parenting in the universal sense. Despite our weighty charge of caring for another sentient being, we are still human. As such we have failings. We are subject to stress, fatigue, and all the anger and irritability that comes with such conditions. Under such strain, we make mistakes.

Therefore, Chewie and Butterscotch have given me one of the greatest gifts a writer can be given: an understanding of what it means to be someone else.

This is in addition to being given quantities of love and loyalty that I just don't think I deserve.

So in the wake of the worst year of my life, I can give you at least two reasons why I keep going. I get up in the morning so I can give Chewie and Butterscotch their walks and their meals. In return I get love, loyalty, and a few lessons.

Because watching Chewie on his walk, I notice that he just keeps going forward, tongue out and smiling, looking for whatever fun thing might be ahead of him.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

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