Month: February 2019

Word Games: On Old Tricks for New Dogs.

“How are you feeling since your surgery?” I asked Michael.

Michael and Gloria are two fans-turning-friends around Atlanta, and have popped in on our concerts nearly every time we’ve been in the area.  Usually energetic, Michael sported a cane, fresh out of knee replacement replacement surgery.  A recall had been issued, and his was one of many unlucky caps that broke shortly after his surgery.  He’s spent the last few years with a bum knee replacement.  Though you’d never guess it.  He’s the first one to the stage after our last song, lugging our gear in the rain at 10 o’clock at night to our truck.

“Even better than it’s been!” he said.  Had he not had his cane, I would’ve forgotten entirely.  He’d already attempted to help me carry an accordion.

“He needs to use it,” Gloria said, “And he’s been doing so well.  He doesn’t even feel it anymore– not like before.  Even when he slept, it was bothering him.”

“How painful,” I said.

“No,” said Gloria.  “We don’t use that word.”

“What?”

“Not painful.  Uncomfortable.  He felt pressure.  Was ill at ease.  But we don’t like to use the word pain.  It colors your thoughts, you know?  To know that you are ‘in pain,’ it debilitates you.  Now a bit of pressure, that’s manageable.”

I smiled.

“But we are in a big case now with the manufacturer of his old knee,” she continued, “and the lawyer doesn’t like it.  If we don’t use the word ‘pain,’ we’re never going to get any money out of it.”

No pain, no gain, I guess.

000431620007My bad dog is turning good.  And it’s not because she’s stopped barking at people.  Or stopped accidentally nipping the ends of my fingers when she takes a treat.  Or even done anything I’ve asked of her in the last two months since we adopted her.  She’s turning into a good dog because it’s all that I call her, anymore.

We were at the end of our leash when we went to our free 30 minute training at the commercial pet store.  My Someone and I swished back and forth between feeling like martyrs and feeling like idiots, adopting this unruly 100 pound animal.

“She’s just so baaaaaaad!” I started crying.  “She’s just so terrible!  She’s never going to learn!”

My Someone listened to me, but he knew better.  This is the way of falling in love for me.  We just needed to figure out how to funnel all of these big bad feelings into loving ones.  And Magpie wasn’t helping.

“Well,” I said to him as we walked in the store, “I guess this is our last chance.”  We met our trainer.  And then I watched as she taught my big dumb animal two important tricks.  It wasn’t the second try that she learned– it was the first.

“You have such a good, smart dog,” she said.

“I have such a good, smart dog,” I repeated.  I felt relieved.  I had done nothing but say no for weeks.  Eight weeks of no, no, no, no, no, no, no.  The sound of yes swung like a broom through my gut, sweeping out the chaotic dust that no had laid down.  I tried again.

“What a good dog I have!” I said.

The trainer looked at me and my Someone, a surprised smile on her face.  My Someone started crying.

“Yes,” she repeated.  “She’s a very good dog.”

“You have given us a tremendous gift today,” I said slowly.

“Okay,” she said.  “Let’s try leash walking, then.”

My Someone and I followed the trainer and my dog happily around the industrially lit store.  Two big dumb animals following helplessly after their patient leaders.

000431620018“What are you going to do?” I asked Gloria, “about the case?”

“We aren’t sure, yet,” she said.  “But if we don’t say painful, what does it matter?  What about his quality of life?  Doesn’t that matter?  His sleepless nights?”

I thought of my good dog.  It had been a month since we’d last seen Gloria and Michael.  One month ago, I was restless, too, waking up to a bad dog growing only more bad.  I dreaded them meeting her then.  I dreaded taking her anywhere at all.  I had scolded her before she met Gloria the first time.  “No, Mags, stay down!” I’d said.  She jumped anyway.  I dug my heels in.

This time, I didn’t have that dread.  I wasn’t nervous as we approached them, knowing she would likely bark her head off anyway.   I didn’t feel the dread I’d felt the month before– the pain of judgment I gave myself and my just-learning dog.  Having a bad dog is painful.  Luckily, now I only have a good one.  Which means it’s only occasionally uncomfortable.

“Hello, dogs!” Gloria called through the window.  I winced a little, waiting for her to snarl.  I heard nothing.

“What good dogs I have!” I said.

“What good dogs you have!” Gloria said back.

I felt the remaining dust of no sweep its way outside of my heart.  We said goodnight to our friends and settled in for a long drive to Florida.

“That was painless,” I said.

“Super easy,” my Someone replied, petting our dog’s head.

“I guess everybody’s a good dog, now.”

“Yep,” he said, “everybody’s a good, good dog.”

Bark Your Head Off: On Being Blue (Together)

“She’s driving me binoculars!” I cried out.  Our new dog, Magpie, was cute, but never stopped barking.  She barked when the truck slowed down to pull into a gas station.  She barked when a new person walked into the room.  She barked randomly in the middle of the night when nothing was happening at all.  It had only been one week, but the sound– a combination of feedback and thunder in my ears– was digging a pit into my patience.

And everyone was watching my depletion.

On our near final trek of the year on I-40 East, we burned up our axle on our camper and found ourselves homeless with our brand new 110 pound dog, borrowing some Western North Carolina friends’ upstairs bedroom.  We attended a Christmas party and went to dinners between calling Billy, our repairman in a town two hours back.  And we waited.  All while our new dog wouldn’t stop barking.

I started with kindness, fancying myself a saintly dog trainer who would cure this minor setback with a few treats and a spirit of goodness.  But as we squeezed ourselves smaller, our Christmas Day deadline to make it to our family in Florida looked weaker by the hour.  “Billy,” I heard my Someone say into the phone, “what we are hoping for here is a Christmas miracle.”  I laughed.  Magpie barked.  I cried.  I yelled at her.

“We’ve made a mistake,” I said.

“It’s only been a week,” my Someone said.  We traded this call and response back and forth over the weekend.  But by Monday morning, I was despondent.  I sat in the kitchen chair of my friends’ home, staring.  We were packing it in, going to play the last show of the year three hours east, and hoping by the time we returned, we would have a home again and be moving.  We were going to get a hotel.  We were going to take some time to breathe.  I hadn’t slept a full night in weeks.  I couldn’t trudge through the thick well of anxiety that my pit of patience had succumbed to be.  I remember my friend entering the room.  I remember crying.  But I can’t remember a word we said.

Magpie barked.  I folded myself into the car and wept.  There was no end.

69860017“It’s a Christmas miracle!” Billy said the next morning.  We were driving back to our temporary stead.  The sun was bright behind us driving West, and it was enough to pull me from the depression.  We decided to get coffee to celebrate.

“We’re gonna be okay!” I said.

The car slowed into the parking lot.  Magpie barked.

“Maybe.”

000268790002We salvaged our stay with our friends with a big dinner, pouring generously and laughing at our misfortune.  I grew calmer, but still on edge.  I felt embarrassed of my despondency.  I felt judged being so hard on Magpie.  I felt tired.  We kept talking around our lives, dodging in and out of jokes until we finally called it quits.  We were shipping out tomorrow, we hoped.

In the morning we had coffee and tried to fit in a few last words.  I was ill at ease.  I tried to over explain myself, making amends for my out-of-ordinary behavior, and apologizing for my lack of mental health.  I prodded my friend to see if it landed.

“I just can’t be around other people’s anxiety,” my friend said. “I have enough anxiety of my own.  Other people’s stuff is just too much.”

It wasn’t pointed, and it wasn’t intentional, but it landed as a blow.

I’m just too much right now.

I looked down at my barks-her-head-off dog.

She looked at me, a little flinching.  Ah, there’s the empathy I’d been looking for.  She must know exactly how this feels.  I pet her big head, wrinkled up in anxiety.

000431640017Our home was on our back again, and we were heading south.  We tried our new freedom out, turning on the radio and scanning for a celebration.  LeAnn Rimes wailed from the speakers–

Bluuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuue, oh so lonesome for you–

We joined in, turning it up and singing our guts out.  Then behind me, Magpie picked up her head and lifted her chin, making a hound dog oh with her mouth.

Ooowwwww, oooooh, owowowow!

She sang along, with more gusto and less shame than I’d seen her all week.  We laughed and kept singing til the end.

Why can’t you be blue over me?

I turned the radio down and looked at my pitiful pooch.  She had a couple wrinkles fewer on the top of her head.  She sighed.  We weren’t so different.

“You aren’t too much,” I told her, “I can take all of you.”

She barked only twice the rest of the drive to Florida.

New Year, New You: On Baptism & Other Bullshit.

My friend Kristie is keeping her head down to avoid the New Year’s headlines.

New year, new you.

I decided to stick to the trench, too.  I think she might be right.  I’ve had plenty of new me’s, and I’m not convinced I’ve liked any of them.

I’m not against New Year’s goals.  I started my list mid-November, skating my eyes across the imaginary horizon of January 1st hopefully, with the same feeling I get after scrubbing the gross stuff from under the kitchen sink knobs.

I blame Jesus, of course, with all his old-made-new philosophy, scrubbed with blood and impossibly comes out clean.  After I was born, I had to be born again.  I’m afraid I jumped the shark, though.  Baptized at age 12 gave me a lot of time, as in the rest of my life, with no additional scrub downs.  At least not in an official capacity.  You don’t get a celebratory cake in the church basement for crying on your knees on the last night of Christian camp.  And the dirt seemed to keep accumulating, regardless.  And the quick fix to getting clean feels, well, glorious.  Addicting.

One of my sisters was baptized twice– a re-dedication.  She still shriveled into an unhappy woman who has committed near villainous proportions of relational crimes.  Maybe the double baptism had an inverse spiritual reaction.  Either way, I’m glad I didn’t go that route.  Getting two spiritual birthdays might mean twice the cake, but the responsibility for maintaining the clean new you is buckling.  But for that minute after she came up out of the swimming pool baptism– that moment that feels like New Year’s Day– I envied it.

000431620010The trouble with New Year, New You is that it wastes so much time.  The baptism, the diet, the programs, the memberships– they take at least a January’s worth to weed back down to the you that you are.  Which only gives eleven months to figure out why you felt you needed to be a new you.  And eleven months is not nearly enough time to get to the heart of any matter– especially when the heart of the matter is the human heart.  Because the heart doesn’t say “I want to lose 20 pounds.”  That’s what the New You says.  The heart says “I don’t feel good in my body.  I feel worthless at this weight because of social and personal experiences that have sculpted a belief that I need to take up less space, and that even if I meet their impossible standards, I will fail in some other way.  So maybe what I really want is to create better pathways in my brain to food and exercise, and quit disassociating it as the ’cause’ when my real cause is my lack of love for myself, and part of loving myself is taking care of myself and sometimes to eat cake, too.  But first I have to get to know me– oh!  Hello!  How are you feeling?  Are you hungry?  Tired? I want to know everything about you.”

New You doesn’t ask that shit.

Maybe it goes like this: that when Jesus invited us along, he didn’t mean “come as you are so I can fix you,” but rather, “come as you are because everyone else– including some dumbass theologians down the line– is going to try and make a new you, but I actually need us all to continue to be who we are as we are, but even more as we are, because the better we know ourselves, the better we can love ourselves, and the better we can love each other.”  Maybe Jesus is less about a New You, and more about You.  And maybe that doesn’t have anything to do with Jesus at all.

I’m with Kristie.  I like the old her.  Or rather, just her.  Which makes it likely that the old me is pretty good, too.  Clean isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, anyway.  I believe I am falling in love with this mess.