Thursday, July 23, 2009

Doggie Playground

There's a wonderful facility near our house, part of John Rudy Park, we call the “doggie playground”. It's actually called Canine Meadows, I think, but it consists of 3 huge fenced in areas where dogs can run and play off leash. There's an area for the little, fuzz ball, under 30 pound dogs to play (the kind the late Chicago Tribune columnist Mike Royko said are for spraying with Endust and chasing under the bed where the mop won't reach) and a separate area for the over 30 pound real dogs. It's a great place to just chill on a bench or a rock while our dog runs, tumbles, chases and wrestles with the other dogs. Usually I have to chuckle at how dogs socialize, and the variety of very different “personalities”. Dogs don't know how silly they are- sniffing each other's butts as a greeting, obsessing over a stick or tennis ball, and pausing to pee or poop whenever the urge arises. They're raw and pure and uninhibited. On more than one occasion, while watching the dogs play, Lori and I have laughed at how funny it would be if people did some of the things dogs do. For example dogs will, whenever they run out of gas, just flop down and lay where ever they feel the need. Imagine people waiting in a long checkout line at Wal Mart laying on the floor until the line moves, or worse, sniffing the butts of the people nearby.
Tuesday evening we took Little Bear to the doggie playground about 7:00, poor guy had been in his pen most of the day and he needed to unload some energy. It was busier than usual-lots of dogs, lots of people. This trip I noticed less the funny things the dogs do, and more noticed how strange a species we humans are. First, the whole concept of one kind of animal owning, training, and nurturing another animal is weird when you stand back and look at it. We project imaginary personalities onto our dogs, and bond with them, often, more readily and deeply than others of our own species. It seems, at least sometimes, people have chosen a dog that reinforces an image they wish to project. The “biker” fellow at the doggie playground, the guy with the Sturgis T-shirt, a bandana, a long braid, and lots of tattoos was playing fetch with his Rottweiler. Would he be seen with, say, a toy poodle? Neither would he drive a pink VW Beetle, or smoke Virginia Slims. I noticed one girl watching her dog whose hair was striped-like a parfait. There was a couple inches of burgundy, a stripe of blonde, a stripe of brown, and so on. Now, far be it from me to decide if an approach to hair is good or bad, but if there were 25 people there, there were 25 different ways to arrange, color, and display hair-hers being the most original of the 25. But I'm fairly sure not a single dog there had hair color other than the ones they were genetically intended to have. Many of the dogs, ours included, had been trimmed or styled, but I doubt one single dog gave even a second's worth of thought to whether their hair looked nice, or their nails could use clipped, or whether their collar was the right color. It's, at least partly, so the other “Moms” will say, “Ahh, doesn't Fifi look nice pretty! Who does Fifi's hair?” Some of the dogs dive right in to the mix of other dogs, and run and play in groups. Others sort of watch the whirlwind of dogs from a slightly removed, safer perimeter and follow the pack just outside of the action. Others hang close to their people, watching but too shy to join in. Similarly, when people arrive some walk straight to the core cluster of people and engage them in dog-talk. “Say, is that a Blue Tipped Weimerheimer? I've always liked them. Mine's a Mongolian Boar Hound.” Others, me, smile but avoid real engagement, and quickly find a bench or rock slightly removed, at a safe perimeter from the mingling. Rarely, but once in a while, a dog is too aggressive and the snarls and teeth baring go beyond the pseudo violence of playing, and is “encouraged” to leave, at least temporarily banished from the park. And there's usually 1 or 2 dogs who aren't interested in getting the stick or ball, as is the object of the game, but are actually interested in humping every dog who inadvertently stops in front of them. Other owners are generally less than subtle with their displeasure, so the predators are reprimanded, but usually are repeat offenders. Now, I did not witness any parallel human behaviors to violent or sexual aggression while at the doggie playground, but a few minutes with the evening paper afterward certainly reveals that such behaviors are too common in the human playground, where we run off-leash. And the news is full of somebody taking the stick that belongs to some one else, and running off with it. So, we humans have learned to style our hair, resist sniffing butts, poop privately, and maybe slobber a little less, but we're more like our dogs than we may care to admit.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Deal or No Deal

I read today that 71 year old Bernie Madoff has begun his 150 year sentence at a low to medium security federal penitentiary in North Carolina. Unless you just emerged from a cryogenics chamber, you know he's the fellow who's fraudulent investment fund managed to evaporate 1.2 billion dollars of other people's wealth. His sentence does have some good behavior incentives built in which could allow him to drop as much as 20 years from his stretch.
So here's a question to toss around in your gray matter a bit: Suppose somehow or other (just play along, ok?) you were given the opportunity at, say 25 years old, to have unlimited wealth-a Visa debit card with a billion dollar balance. If you used up the billion, you can reload another billion. You can have a million dollar Park Ave. pad in Manhattan, a muti-million dollar Palm Beach, Florida home, a Gulfstream jet, a Ferrari, and a Mercedes SL. You can fly to Paris for lunch, then to Rodeo Drive to shop, and tan on the beach in Fiji. But at some predetermined age-say 65-it all went away, you would be penniless and alone, and you would spend your remaining years in a minimum security prison-would you take that deal? Would you trade 40 years of material Nirvana (or 30 years, or 20 years) for 10 or 15 years of shame, poverty, and imprisonment?
I posed this question to Lori, over salads at Marinos, the other evening, and she thought it was absurd-she asserted that no one would take that deal-it's a no brainer. I disagree. No, I don't mean I'd take the deal, no no no! But I think there's zillions of people who would trade anything for 40 years, or far less, of limitless wealth, comfort, and self indulgence. Very few people would admit it, but I think many people, like in the legend of 30's blues guitarist Robert Johnson who met the Devil at a crossroads in Mississippi and traded his soul for the ability to play guitar, would in fact sign that contract in a heartbeat!
What do you think? Would you make that deal? Or do you think Lori's right, that nobody would, that people are not short-sighted, self centered, greedy fools? Hmm?

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Little Bear

We were sitting on the porch this morning, Lori and I, enjoying coffee and Oreos and the pleasant, cool, blue-skied morning. As is usually the case on Thursdays, our days off coincided, so we were, as my friend Ty says, “getting up slow”. Joining us in this prelude to the day was our goofy dog Little Bear.
Little Bear is, as Lori often says, our gift from God. He was, when he moved in back in May, a five month old Labradoodle, that was in need of a home. The young couple who had originally gotten, and named, Little Bear was splitting up, and neither of them could, or would, keep their puppy. When the girl half of the couple shared their dilemma with Lori, we had just become dogless. Our precious baby girl Maddie had just died, so we happened to have a hole in our family approximately the size and shape of their puppy. For dog owners, or dog lovers more accurately, there is a symbiosis between a dog and his people. They, our dogs, are needy and almost helpless, and they fulfill the programmed need in some of us to be needed, to be depended on, and to receive wet-nosed kisses and wagging tails in appreciation. So the aching need for that special relationship with a dog was filled when Little Bear came to stay.
But he is funny looking. He has a bad perm, feet the size of oven-mits, his head is too big for his body, his snout is too wide for his head. He looks like a Sesame Street character, Snuffleupagus, or a cartoon caricature of a dog. I learned, through the magic of Google, that Labradoodles were “invented” in Australia by some guy whose goal was to create a service dog that folks with allergic reaction to dogs' shedding could use, as Labradoodles don't shed. Yeah, right. Despite what Wikipedia says, I think what really happened was, this fellow, Wally Conron, was sitting around the kennel one night with some buddies, having a few too many Fosters, and the conversation turned to “wouldn't it be funny if...” Next thing you know, Mrs. Fleeglehorn's Standard Poodle is in the pen with Mr. Goodermuth's Lab, and sixty days later there is a litter of cartoon puppies.
The internet also informed me our new child was intelligent and easily trainable. Well, after all the hours and effort invested in teaching LB to shake, he should have received a Bachelors Degree, rather than the training treat blob of synthetic liver he got. We're working on “Lay Down”, but he looks at us like we're asking him to do Logarithms. There is no way on this green Earth this dog could be trained to help someone cross the street. Also, listed among the traits typical of Labradoodles is “an affinity for water and strong swimming ability”. Just last week we were sitting by the Juniata River, throwing a stick in the water for Bear to retrieve. He did good, chasing the stick with enthusiasm, as long as he could touch. If he couldn't reach the stick on foot, Lori would have to wade out and get it for him. But that's o.k. We've told him he doesn't have to be a straight A student, just do his best. His real job, after all, is leaning against me so I'll rub his belly, licking my ear in the morning to tell me he's done sleeping now, and wanting to hang out with us as much as possible. He's excellent at those skills.

Friday, July 10, 2009

My Lord's Prayer

Father God, our Father in Heaven, my Father here beside me and all around me, Holy is your name. Hallowed is your name. Sacred, unique, the only real, true God, source of all truth and knowledge, Creator of all, the generous spring from which all the blessings and comforts and joys of this life flow-Holy is your name. Thy Kingdom come. Bring your rule, your perfect justice, your Kingship, to this broken, fallen world, and let your perfect will sweep over the whole world, here on earth, just as it is in the invisible realm where you are. You have been so very generous, showering us with abundance, and we want for nothing! You've allowed us lives of plenty. You've never failed to provide my family's daily bread, yet I am so often void of thanksgiving and praise, focusing on frivolous desires, and trusting in my own efforts and conniving instead of trusting you. So, Father God, give us this day, again,our daily bread, and hearts filled with thankfulness and praise. Father forgive us our trespasses-all the things we do that are disobedient and sinful. Forgive our evil, sinful thoughts, our coarse, foul language, our times of doubt, our persistent failure to love our neighbor, our idolatry, and our own unforgiveness. Teach us to forgive, as we seek to model Christ, And, Father God, be patient with us, as you have been, because we do these same things, these same failures, over and over again. Father, deliver us from evil. Protect us, wrap your arms around my family and keep them safe from the treachery and deceit and destruction that is all around us. Help us keep our eyes straight ahead-looking to You, and not at the temptations of this world that lead us away from you. Give us strength, help us make correct choices, remind us that many things that go on around us are not from You, that they dishonor You, they separate us from You, and lead to our harm. Deliver us from these evils. And, dear God, draw my precious sons to you, and make them yours. Renew them, save them, and deliver them from evil. For all we see, all we don't see, the beauty and complexity of this world, the infinite cosmos, the atoms and the galaxies, all of history, the present moment that unfolds around us, and the future as yet unrevealed are under Your Kingship. They all have come into being out of your perfect will. You, alone, orchestrate and direct all of reality yet You pause to hear us when we are lost, have run ourselves aground, and cry out, or whisper, for help. You are King. You are Power. You are Glory. And that will be so forever.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

The First Time I Saw Him, The Last Time I Saw Him

I have, for the greatest part of my adult life, managed to keep the subject of my biological father closed, out of mind, and buried. But like toxic waste, stored for decades, that eventually seeps out of its storage drums and bubbles to the surface, I find myself of late, and with increasing frequency, dwelling on various scenarios from the past that include him. Not sure why. It may be because when I look in the mirror, I see him. It may be that as I grow older there is an emerging, natural need to put personal history in order. It may be that as I look at my own life, the worst parts of me, the parts I don't like, especially my temper, are clearly echoes of my father. At night, when my head is on the pillow and sleep is evasive and my mind is in that free-form state where private hauntings that are daily drowned out by the minutiae of life float to the surface, revisiting memories of my father, some of them 50 years old, has been happening more and more often. There was a conscious, intentional decision long ago to drop all connection, all consideration of that aspect of my life, to acknowledge no influence, and to allow no false sentimentality. But like on a computer hard drive, deleting something doesn't mean it's gone.
My father was a bad man. He was dishonest. He was a con. He was lazy. He was irresponsible. He was a liar. And, most of the time, he was absent. As a child, though, none of this, except the absence, was apparent to me. In fact, my earliest memories of him are of a big, burly, coarse whiskered, flannel shirt with the sleeves rolled up, cowboy boot wearing, tractor trailer driver who would show up unexpectedly at our house, and immediately pick me up and put me on his shoulders. He was a larger than life super-hero to me. He drove fast, exciting cars, showed up on motorcycles, bought me cowboy hats, took me along in his truck, had real guns, talked about horses, knew how to shoot pool, and simply was everything a single mom in 1960 could not be for a 5 or 6 or 7 year old boy. I idolized him. I loved when people would say to my Dad, ''Who's your little helper? He looks just like you. Little Leon.” I longed deeply for him to stay. But he would only be around 2 or 3 days. I'd check in the mornings if he was still here, and when he was it was my dream come true. But after a few days, he'd leave in his truck, and tell me he'd be back next Saturday, or some such promise, but months would pass.
We all, no doubt, have particularly hurtful incidences stored away, things we have trouble looking squarely at ourselves, much less sharing frankly with others. One of mine is a time when my father told me, point blank, I'll pick you up Friday morning, and we'll go fishing. I got my tackle box and rod ready the day before. Friday morning I got up early and sat on the arm of the chair by the picture window where I could watch for him to pull up. He never came. Nobody said a word. Mom was at work, my Grandma was there with me, but what could she say? They surely knew he was unlikely to show, but I would never have accepted that. By about noon, I had given in to the reality, and was heartbroken. It still hurts today.
Like that particular day, all the conflicting emotions I felt regarding my Dad were mine alone to sort out and internalize. In our home, the subject of my father, why he didn't live with us and where he was, was off limits. It was simply not something we talked about. Even as a 5 or 6 year old, it was clear to me that Mom didn't share my adoration, and seemed dismayed and disapproving when he would show up. Often, in fact usually, when he was with us for a few days it would include a loud argument punctuated by swearing and door slamming. Sometimes police came. Once my grandfather hurried us out the front door and we all crouched behind the car in our driveway while my father wielded a rifle inside. The fights were always about money, child support I guess-or lack thereof-but in my naivete, I just put my pillow over my head, and wished it would pass so he wouldn't leave.Against that background, there was no point in expressing to Mom my deep desire for him to stay, or the embarrassment I endured with neighborhood kids, in scouts, and in school.
In, I think, 6th grade, after increasingly long gaps between appearances, my Mom told me she was finally going to seek a divorce. That was about 1968. The next time I saw him was Memorial Day weekend, 1976. My Mom called me at my apartment and said, “Your father just called. He's in York, if you want to see him he'll be in the North Mall parking lot in 1 hour.” When we met, he was driving a red and white GMC tractor trailer, now had white hair and a goatee, and in mere minutes my adulation had resumed .For the next few months, I saw him nearly everyday. He taught me to drive a truck. After all these years, I had a relationship with my father.
At twenty-one years old, I was only slightly less impressionable and willing to suspend disbelief than at 7 years old, but there began to be chinks in the armor. We had dozens of conversations about “the missing years”, and his version of the years he was married to my mother, and I spotted the occasional inconsistency or contradiction. Slowly, over weeks and months, the chinks in the armor became gaping holes. I met his other kids, not too much younger than me. I had asked him about “Shirley”, a mistress I heard fights about when I was 5 or 6. He told me she died of cancer. Then, a few weeks later, Shirley, mother of the other kids, dropped them off to visit their Dad! I learned from the oldest boy, Mike, that my Dad lived with them, in Camp Hill, all those years when I'd see him 6 or 7 days a year. I learned that he was not, as he had told me, living in Florida prior to returning to York in May. He actually lived on South Queen Street in York, and made no effort to contact me, or my sister, for more than 7 years, but had regular visits with the other kids. Like Dorothy and the Scarecrow, et al, seeing the pathetic little man behind the curtain pretending to be Oz, I suddenly, completely, definitively saw him for what he was. He was a habitual liar-about all things big and small. He was a fraud, who pretended to own things he didn't own. His “war stories” were made up. He'd make countless promises he'd not only fail to keep, but not even remember he'd made. For a time, I told myself this was my father, and after all those years of longing for his involvement in my life, I'd make the best of it, pretend I believed him when he manufactured facts, and maintain a civil, but arms length relationship. But, for the first time in my life, with opened eyes, I saw him.
The last time I saw him, a year or so after the reunion, he was living in a row house in a very bad part of the city-a house he told me he bought as an investment, and was renting out the other side. The house was actually owned by an Aunt I hadn't seen in 10 years, who left him live there. I went there with my girlfriend to show him the Harley I'd just gotten. I can see him now, sitting on the front stoop, telling tall tales about his motorcycles, and I knew, then, whatever bond I'd tried to maintain, or create, or imagine was gone. He was as irrelevant to my life now as he was when I was 5, only now I knew it. My Mom had it right. She knew he would only let you down, and she let me find that out for myself.
In 1988, I was mowing our lawn, and saw Lori standing on the side porch waving the phone at me. “It's your Mom”. She was calling to tell me my father had died. “Thanks for calling, but I need to finish the grass.” My father “passed away” a long time before.