Thursday, February 21, 2013

Big Yellow Dog

Our dog is closing in on 16.  That's old for a lab.  We got her when our boys were little.  Now they are grown men.  And she is old.  As  a puppy she was cute and a terror.  Cuddly and maniacal.   Fun to play with - but you had to be careful.  Those little milk teeth were sharp.  She jumped on anything that fell on the floor.  She chewed, dug holes under the fence to escape, shredded her dog beds, destroyed new shoes and was the puppy that all labs of my acquaintance are.  

She mellowed at about 4 or 5.  She stopped chewing things she shouldn't and never makes much of an intentional mess.   Of course there is her hair which sheds constantly.  But for the last 10 years or so she has been the best dog a guy could have.  Loyal, loving, enjoys going out for a walk.  She greets me warmly, enthusiastically and hangs on my every word.  She lets me know that I am her best friend.  She hasn't gotten sick much and has only had a few traumatic accidents.  No, all in all she has been a truly good friend.

At this age, when I buy a big 40 pound bag of dog food, I seriously wonder if she'll be around to finish it.  I only buy a three month supply of flea and tick stuff now.  It's expensive.  This dog bed will most likely be her last.  Probably her last bottle of shampoo.

She has always been able to open the back door on her own to let herself out.  When she was a pup I put handles on the bottom of the screen doors.  In a single day I taught her to open them.  But now, when we let her out on the back porch, she looks at you as if to say, "You really want ME to get that door open?"  No, we usually open the door for her.  As a younger dog, she used to bound down the steps without thinking, sometimes leaping down all 5 steps at once.  Now I have built her a ramp so she can ease herself down slowly and deliberately.  Dangerously frisky as a young dog and a rude sniffer -  she is creaky now, stiff, has a difficult time getting up when she has been lying down for a while.  

But she still seems happy.  She loves her lovin' and her discomfort is outweighed by her delight at seeing us when we come home from work or when she takes us for a walk - now only to the corner and back instead of the regular 5 miles she used to run with me - pulling like mad the whole time.  Her time is almost up.  But she is still happy.  And when her pain outweighs her happiness, we'll put her to sleep.  Because we love that old thing.

As I write this late in the evening with Heidi asleep - Sasha is snoozing loudly on the floor next to me.  She is near me whenever she can be.  Who could ask for a more loyal friend?  Perhaps she is dreaming of her younger days, chasing rabbits or squirrels or playing with her puppyhood friends Tina or Buckley or Pepper - all gone now.  Her paws are twitching, so are her ears.  She seems to be sniffing.  

And I swear she is smiling.  

When she was a puppy, I wrote this silly blues song about her.  I expect I'll be singing this with a tear in my eye after she's gone.

Big Yellow Dog

I've got me a big yellow dog, and my dog she's got me too
There are some days when I work so hard
And I come home feeling restless and blue
But my big yellow dog she's sittin' there 
With that dog grin on her face
Her tails a waggin', she's comin' up to greet me
And I know I'm in the right place.

Now the time I spend with my big yellow dog
Might be considered wasteful to some
Sittin' on the porch, scratching her belly 
Getting licked by her big old tongue
She sniffin' all around trying to catch some smell
To try to make sense out of my day
And I'm sittin' here with a dozen things to do
And all she wants to do is play

I don't know if she'd rescue me from a burning building or not
But when I think of that pretty yellow dog
I know my love will never stop

Now my big yellow dog, she doesn't need much
Just some bowls with some water and some food
And a dusty rug at the bottom of the steps
Where she guards us when she's in the mood
And a bath sometimes when she's been a bad girl
And she's rolled in some stinky old thing
But the love she gives back in return
Is worth more than anything  (CHORUS)

The time I spend with my big yellow dog 
I don't grow any older it seems
I don't watch the news or answer emails
Or read any magazines
I don't pay the bills, I don't talk shop
I can't get much of nothin' done
But I can mow the grass and water the flowers
We like to hang out in the sun (CHORUS)


Now I can't say I haven't smacked that girl
When she's done some bad girl things
But I feel bad when she feels bad
And it comes back to haunt me it seems
And when her time to go has passed 
And she's buried at the bottom of the hill
I'll think of her and that big yellow face 
And I know I'll love her still  (CHORUS)

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Many Happy Returns

 This weekend Heidi has a birthday.  It’s not a big round one that we often make such a big deal of.  It doesn’t end with a 0.  No “Lordy, Lordy” attached.  It’s one of those in-between ones that people try not to notice and don’t really make you feel that much older.

But it is a birthday.

There was a time in our lives when birthdays were big things.  The young ones are cool.  

Like getting to be 10.  Double digits.  
12.  When you are sort of officially a preteen.  
13.  When you reach the magical teens.  
Sweet 16.  Driving. 
18.  You can vote.  Enlist.  Move away from home.  
21.  Adult.  Drinking.  Official independence. 

Others are more implied than official.  
25 – you are supposed to have you life pretty much together.  
29.  If you are not married by now…  
30.  Used to be over-the-hill.  
35.  The old biological clock is ticking.  
40.  Lordy, Lordy… Oficially really old to young people.  Middle age.  
45.  Really middle age.  
50.  REALLY middle age (not!).  The new 30 (whatever!). 

My family had a few birthday songs when I was a kid.  We started with the traditional one.  Then there was this crazy one – I’m not sure where it came from, but it wasn’t a birthday song at all (You sister Rose is dead and so is Uncle Fred, they found them in the shed, shot right through the head…).  I think one of my twin sisters made it up.  Finally there was this birthday dirge (…grief misery and despair, people dying everywhere, happy birthday, oh happy birthday). 

Heidi is officially a year older than me – for three months.  When we were still teenagers, that meant a lot.  And she turned 21 first.  And 30.  And 40.  I don’t look at birthdays the same now.  Now, for me it is a time set aside to reflect.  We are sort of past giving surprise parties (for now) and giving lavish gifts.  Let’s face it.  We have everything.  No, we are going to spend a quiet couple of days at the beach.  It will be cold.  Probably rain.  It doesn’t matter.

We’ll try to get in a couple walks in between showers.  Gaze out at the same ocean together.  Hold hands.  Hug a lot.  Be thankful for each other.  I mean we are thankful for each other most days.  But especially thankful. 

There is this second chance thing that looms large since Heidi’s brain surgery.  It points us toward gratitude and understanding that our days are necessarily numbered.  As we look out over that ocean together on this anniversary of her birth we will be looking forward as well as back.  We have far fewer days ahead than behind.  That is life.  And it is right.

But to know that I will be spending them with this beautiful, gentle, spirited, wise, fiery, brilliant, gracious, kind, spiritual, generous woman – makes me the happiest guy around.  To know that I have been touched by her and that I am a better dad, teacher, man – because of her – makes me truly blessed.  

Friday, February 8, 2013

Meetings Manners

I’ve never been great at meetings.  In most of our professional lives we must listen to our supervisors discuss schedules, routines, day-to-day business.   No matter if you are a firefighter, a doctor, a band director or a cop – we all have to attend meetings.  Organizational meetings are necessary to keep our well-oiled machines... running oily.  Most meetings are the least fun and engaging part of my job.

When I was much younger, I was cranky and contentious at meetings, fussing about the details, splitting hairs, never willing to give an inch.  Then for a long time, I tried to lighten meetings with humor.  OK, it may not have all been in good taste, but our faculty was small and we all got each other’s jokes.  It was the kind of one-upmanship where you keep trying to outdo the other person until the humor is ridiculous.  This didn’t do much for those running the meeting and trying to get through an agenda.  It had to have been annoying.

After one faculty meeting a couple of years ago, where I’d gotten off a couple of good ones (so I thought), a colleague of mine said something to the effect of Well, you are really full of yourself today.  Ouch.  Don’t get me wrong.  I can take it as well as I can dish it out.  But I thought, for the most part, that people enjoyed my humor, my attempts at lightening the mood, inserting a little humor into a rather humorless situation.  I must have thought wrong. 

During our first faculty meeting this year, when we were hammering out details of schedules, committees, lunch and recess, etc., I decided to change my ways in meetings.  While others were discussing who was going to the library when, I was making a list of Ways To Be (Act) At Faculty Meetings.  Perhaps I looked like I was seriously taking notes.  It is a work in progress.  Some are bland truisms.  Some are probably specific to me.  This isn't advice - merely a self-help guide.  No rocket science...

 Meetings, the practical alternative to work

Listen and be open to change

Be open to new ways to think, observe, consider

Seek to understand not judge

Be honest but not overbearing

Listen more/talk less

You don’t have to voice every opinion

Give credit where credit is due

Don’t constantly reveal your emotions through body language

Don’t get bent out of shape by the little crap

Listen actively and attentively

You are better than no one

Keep your eyes off your watch

Don’t disagree aloud unless it will make a difference

Sit by different people

Sit in different places

Don’t talk behind your hand

Change your mind

Sit up straight

Act like you’re paying attention - even if it is truly pretending

Don’t crack wise about everything

Here's a little dessert - I ran across this the other day and it gave me the motivation to write my own little piece...

1) Never arrive on time, or you will be stamped a beginner.
2) Don't say anything until the meeting is half over; this stamps you as being wise.
3) Be as vague as possible; this prevents irritating the others.
4) When in doubt, suggest that a subcommittee be appointed.
5) Be the first to move for adjournment; this will make you popular - it's what everyone is waiting for.

Monday, February 4, 2013

The Winds/First Snow

I am something of an archivist of old tunes.  I began playing guitar in my junior year of high school.  That would have been about 1973.  My first guitar was on used 3/4 sized TOYOTA.  Yep, TOYOTA made guitars.  It cost 60 bucks.  My old friend Joe Oceans bought it for me at a pawn shop and taught me my first few chords.  He taught me how to change strings.  He showed me my first song - "The Younger Generation Blues" by Jon Sebastian.  He taught me 12-bar blues - the universal guitarists' language.

I used to have notebook with hole-punched pages.  It was about half the size of regular notebook paper.  I wrote every song I ever learned on those small pages.  I always fit them onto exactly one page if I could, which made for some tiny handwriting for the long songs.  I still pull out those old tunes every once in a while.  Old Gordon Lightfoot, Simon and Garfunkel, John Prine, Cat Stevens, James Taylor.

I still have most of my old originals too.  Many are simply embarrassing.  One "love song" circa 1974 starts... Another night's homework goes undone - and as I hang up the telephone...  No Bob Dylan there.  And while some of those old tunes are sappy, and I would never play them for anyone but myself, they are placeholders.  Like all personal writing, those yellowed pages, that young handwriting is a window into my past.  More than an old Super 8 movie (for that was state of the art home movie making) when I read over these tattered pages I can see myself, almost inhabit my old self for a brief moment, feel that angst, those simple pleasures being alone in nature, see the sun setting behind Lake Michigan waves, feel my young heart racing in those days of young love, feel the anger of my old protest songs, the sadness of losing old friends.

I wander into the archive every few years to read over that trail of thoughts and emotions.  It's one of those old fashioned cardboard accordions with slots for different letters.  Alphabetical.  By author.  It's so worn out that I have to keep it in another cloth book bag to keep it from falling apart.  

I found an oldie the other day that I hadn't written the chords on.  Heidi was on the couch, Friday-night-sleepy.  It took a couple minutes but I remembered those chords, that finger-style pattern.  It reminded me of graduate school, in early winter.  It was rural southern Indiana.   There were these two different songs coming along.  One was a fast forward story of a relationship ("The Winds"), the other what it was like during the change of seasons in our mixed hardwood-scrubby pine forest ("First Snow").  When I put the songs together, alternating verses, I thought of it as a duet and I did perform it that way with my old band. 

The Winds/First Snow

Remember that springtime when we met
We didn't know we'd vow to stay forever
Never thinking about tomorrow or good byes
But I'd heard somewhere to never say never

Blue creeping over untouched fields of snow
In the twilight
Apples left hanging heavily and lazily 
On snowy branches

I guess it's not the same somehow
But I don't know why - we couldn't stay
No one's left to blame you know
There's no need for me to stand here in your way

The creek whispering secretly cold and swollen
Trickles down
Snow ticking gently on stubborn golden oak leaves
In the winterwood

Just like the winds we dance together
And like the winds, you know we drift apart
I guess it's really not surprising
After so much time for me to lose your heart

What could be more peaceful than this still moment
In the winterwoods
Water from melting snow
Dripping into mirror pools of itself

First snow
First snow of winter