A Dog’s Life

The vegan man, the ‘Meat is Murder’ guy on the boardwalk, scoffed when I let my dog pee on a lamppost. Under his breath he mumbled, “People used to be able to sit there.” And I wanted to ask, “Really? When? When did dogs not pee in Venice?” At the same time, I understood. I now look at all patches of grass as suspect, not as a place to roll around and allow the blades to tickle the undersides of your legs like I did as a child in blissful naiveté.

But what am I to do? Our condo association recently requested that residents not let their dogs pee in the front yard. As a dog owner I acknowledged that I couldn’t vote fairly on the matter. I like the convenience of strolling out the front door, dog off leash, and allowing him to use the front yard as his own. Yes, I come with baggie in hand and clean up, but I also understand that this doesn’t leave the grounds sanitary enough to allow for a barefoot journey over the small patch of grass.

In compliance with the new mandate of my neighbors, I now escort Speck down to the boardwalk for more than the midday walk. This pleases my neighbor, Mike, who assumed those of us who used the front yard were just lazy. I like Mike, so I concede to ‘occasionally lazy,’ but won’t wear the lazy hat for when I return home after 11:00 p.m. and don’t feel up for a walk in the less than tame parts of my neighborhood. And then there’s the early morning, before-school rush that falls on my son’s shoulders. Maybe a little lazy, but mostly just overextended.

But now the Meat is Murder guy, who puts up animal torture posters that force me to look away, gives me the evil eye, and I want to declare my vegetarian status, but I also want to say something about my questioning of how much he loves the animals. It’s kind of like anti-abortionists who drop the ball once the kid is born. You can’t have it both ways.

At the same time, he does force me to think. I wonder where we should allow our dogs to go, those of us who don’t have private yards to defile. In typical suburban neighborhoods you have that no man’s land patch of grass between sidewalk and curb, a stretch that could easily be renamed ‘public dog toilet.’ But my slice of Venice doesn’t have that. We have cement walkstreets where the dogs mark every wall announcing their daily walk to their peers, leaving little patchy stains on gates and entryways. I try to deter my dog from this practice and move him towards the generic lamppost, but it gets hard. I want him to be able to communicate with his friends.

But I also want to be a good neighbor and responsible pet owner, and I’m left not knowing how. When I lived in London for a spell for an editing job, I frequented Holland Park. There, amidst the loveliness of peacocks and sculptured landscapes, the city offered a patch of dirt officially labeled “Dog Toilet.” Taken by this act of civility, I snapped several photos to share with friends back home, and I would have had I not been mugged weeks before the end of the job resulting in the loss of not only my camera but a healthy chunk of change. So much for civility.

Perhaps I should have boldly asked Meat is Murder what I should do. I suspect he may have an opinion or two.


Above the Earth

The jagged edges of a scene, those who can leave and those trapped inside. You escape on horseback, and enter the desert, but looking back you see the others trapped, the perimeter of town like torn paper, jagged and irregular. The inhabitants gather at the edge, their eyes fixed on you far away. The proportions are unreal, you large and grown into giant status, the town shrunken like a playset upon a table.

And that becomes the perspective, the playset life, the stepping out of a scene undesirable.

You always run. The first hint of trouble, you run. You wonder if you should have run earlier, thinking of the times you didn’t escape soon enough, of the times when you were warned but didn’t pay attention. You shoulder it all beneath the weight of blame, believing you should have known. You see the root of ‘should’ in shoulder and wonder why you never saw that before, how the difference in sound masked this reality.

You can’t help thinking of how early influences are poisoning your life, and when you hear the words, “Maybe you should complain more,” you consider what that would be like. But you say nothing, only that you don’t like to complain. You remember your sister’s words about how there was no one to hear your complaints and you wonder if complaining has been bred out of you.

Your friend tells you you appear too strong, and you realize you’ve lost your voice of connection, how you can no longer speak of your reality, and how you’re drifting further and further away, that solitude has become the only place that feels familiar.

You tell no one.

You change your bed linens to pure white and start living in the world of no color. This is the land where your dreams are born, but you can’t be certain because none are remembered. You don’t know how to answer the question of how you spent your day because saying you floated above it would scare the questioner.

But you are floating because you can’t anchor in the world of hatred, in the world of divisions and rush rush rush. You float above because your perspective doesn’t allow you to be within, and you wonder when this shift happened, when you began to live above the earth, when parties and dinners and common interactions started to feel so foreign.

You remember once living with someone, only you don’t. It appears in your memory like a book you once read but that didn’t touch you deeply. All of life feels unfamiliar and that’s why you grow quiet because you know no ears could understand these words. You know you can’t explain what it means to be an alien in your native land.

Others smile, see your state as a phase, but you know it’s bigger than that. You know your idealism has been massacred by the news that seeps under your front door, through the little crack that allows outside in, the place where you forgot to lay down protection. You want to say that no matter what happens a week from Tuesday you will no longer be who you once were because you’ve been saddened beyond a place of redemption, that you’ve seen ugly where you never knew ugly existed in a way you never allowed to be imagined, in a form so disheartening that even if your candidate wins you know that you can never feel as you once did.

You want these ten days to pass because you hope that you’ll be able to breathe again with a gap in the airwaves, when news anchors and campaign leaders crawl home in exhaustion wondering how they weathered it all.

But then there’s the other half of you, the half that believes this will never be over because some story will linger. A dispute or thievery or something odd and unimaginable. The noise in your head has grown so loud that you no longer believe it can go away. You no longer can imagine calm and silence and a collective sigh of relief because, you see, you already fear the infighting.

You have been poisoned and you wonder what kind of purging can clean the soul. You wish a wave of burning sage could smudge your psyche, your heart, and reset both on the dial of idealism, of optimism, of hope.

Your trust in decency and good has been shattered and only a time machine can take you back to you.

The getting away. That is the consistent fantasy. A quiet life on a quiet island where no news matters, where society can only progress in teeny tiny increments, where slow is really slow. No alarm clock, no schedule, no questioning of why. Simple.

You’ve lost simple and only this fantasy gives you its glimpse.

Your life has been on the run ever since you had the ability to power your own two-wheeler. You hear tales of your early independence and you suspect all you were doing was trying to get away, trying to put a wall between you and the house you were born into. You seek to create family with friends so that you can learn what for others was a given, but with all the motion of life, without bloodlines it doesn’t work.

You go back to your room of white sheets and tan walls and wonder what color would do to the experience. You wonder if it could reintroduce feeling into your life, trump numb, and make you step outside for sunsets once again.

You start with a captured image and the link to a printer. And one by one you place two-dimensional replications of a moment in time on your walls, arranged and organized beside one another until you have a jigsaw puzzle of mismatched pieces. You see that red and blue are the dominant colors of your images and you wonder how that happened, how the colors of an election could become the colors of your memories. You select the image of the lemon to add yellow to the scene, but once on the wall you realize the background is a deep hue of red.

Finally you laugh. Finally.

Last year you bought a bracelet that said LAUGH as a mandate and to be a reminder to ride on your wrist, only it hasn’t worked, and now you want to trade it for another word, a word you could possibly access for real because wearing the bracelet and not laughing mocks your efforts. You want to feel successful.

Yes, that’s what it’s all about – wanting to feel successful in every version of what that word can mean. Successful in joy, in love, in honoring self and truth and dedication and feeling. And that’s what drifted away on the raft out to sea, bobbing over waves. Success. The ability to feel in your life rather than floating above it. It drifted away when you weren’t paying attention, and now you don’t know how to get it back, how to find satisfied and content in a world gone crazy, in a world gone ugly. Except when you’re on that island and the water taps the shore leaving little arches of wetness. That’s where you feel calm. That’s where all the madness falls away. That’s where you find quiet. Only you don’t know where the island is. You don’t know how to get there. You don’t know.

‡ ‡ ‡ ‡ ‡

Earlier today a friend told me to write about how this election is making me insane, how I’ve shut down, grown unable to speak. I said I didn’t want to go there, that all the rants have been written, that the smartest minds with the loudest voices are being ignored. I said I just want it all to be over. What I didn’t say is that I don’t know if it will get better.

And as I write this it sounds as if I don’t believe things can ever be good again, but what I mean to say is that even if things do get good, a part of me may remain sad. A part of me will never get over what it’s seen.


Existential crisis

[From a folder of pieces started and abandoned. I bring them forth now.]

My son climbed into my car yesterday, a look of sadness on his face. He said nothing was wrong, but I prodded him, clear that something was on his mind.

And he starts describing how he sees his life, how he doesn’t dislike school – he has no complaints against it – but he doesn’t exactly like it either. He just sees the days passing by, the time barely noticed. He says he doesn’t know why he’s learning what he’s learning.

I offer words about the complexity of the unforeseeable value in it all, but that isn’t the problem for him. He gets that.

“Let’s say I use what I learn in school, that I become a successful cartoonist, get married, have kids, everything. What’s the point?”

At thirteen, his existential crisis is a bit ahead of schedule.

I explain to my son that I struggle with how childhood is structured as a training ground for adulthood, that childhood should be enjoyed and appreciated as a unique and equally valuable phase of life, but that at the same time, we do need to learn and prepare for the future, that it comes down to balance. And he says that he understands and has been thinking about all that, but he then returns to his view of life overall, the existential crisis part.

I tell him that I completely understand his feelings, that I share them and even as an adult still think about all the things he has expressed. I explain that some people are wired to examine life in this way while others just march on with little thought to it all.

He and I fall into the first category.

And I can’t exactly answer his questions about the meaning of life since I have the same ones, but I tell him our discussion alone is important, that simply sharing the examination matters.

But it also pains me that he doesn’t just feel joy.

He asks if life is about being as happy as you can or about what you do. He believes in helping others, and sounds as if he feels guilty about seeking happiness. I answer by saying pursuing a happy life is an excellent goal, especially if you help others in the process.

I realize how much his questions are the ones I ask myself and wonder if that reveals how much alike we are or whether it reveals how much I’ve influenced him. And I wonder if he’s come to this place as a normal act of questioning or whether his life needs a shift, whether he would connect with more happiness at a less conventional school.

And I look to myself to see if I can inject more joy into our days, if I can focus less on where we’re headed, how we will get there, and what the impact of today will be on tomorrow. I think of ways to look for more frivolous fun. I don’t want to teach my son to be irresponsible, but I do want to allow him more laughter. And if I look for it for him, I suspect that along the way I’ll find it for myself.

It’s as if my son’s thoughts and questions have poked me in the ribs, stirred up the pot within, and forced me to reexamine my methods. It’s as if he is my wakeup call, and now I must aim to parent in a more joyous way. I must trust that I have already sufficiently grounded him and now it’s time to teach him to soar. It’s time to teach myself. My accomplishments will mean little if I can’t look upon them with a celebratory heart.

Be mindful of the future, but don’t live for it. Don’t count on your expectations and hopes coming true. Be open to the serendipity and the detours. Trust.


In Empty Spaces

I’m not sure who I am right now, whether words will return to me, whether I’ll find the desire to speak. So I dig down to what I’ve known before, the capturing, the offering of service, the one foot in front of the other.

This takes me to the dogs, the ones abandoned and homeless, the ones with large eyes of hope. I see myself in those eyes. I relate to the feelings of lost.

Or I project. Whatever it is doesn’t matter. I show up.

I take their photos trying to make them look as desirable as possible, to capture their essence in a tiny frame. I think of online dating and see the overlap from dog needing a home to person needing love. Neither wants to look desperate. Neither wants to seem needy. Both want to appear as an offering.

The dogs quickly grow tired of my prodding to look this way, to move left, to move right, to respond, to bend their faces into a smile. They realize I am not there to take them home. Their attention drifts off, their disinterest unmistakable.

I process and edit the photos, send them off, and eagerly await their posting online. My imagination decides a simple, happy photo will earn these dogs a home. Of course I know better. Of course I know how complicated it is.

Like online dating. Appearance counts for a moment, but then the other conditions fall into play. Size. Temperament. Style. Behavior. Plays well with others.

I have more in common with these dogs than I care to admit. I, too, feign initial enthusiasm only to quickly let my attention drift. I, too, give up hope when the wrong words are directed my way. I, too, wonder when I will find home.

For the dogs, I maintain hope.

For myself, I put one foot in front of the other. I wait to see if words will return to remind me why I’m here. I prod myself forward and think about home.

to find a pet, visit
petfinder.com. these dogs currently reside with Bill Foundation.

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Modern Convenience

I find it extremely ironic that the only page that won't load on my iPod Touch via the NY Times app is the technology page.



The teen years and silence. So much is said about how our children retreat, pull inward, keep thoughts to self.

That is yet to be my reality, but silence has descended upon the scene. Silence. My silence.

When my son shares with me the gritty details of teen living, of feelings, friends’ behavior, risks and calamities avoided, I grow more silent. I let him speak and don’t leap in with my words. I wait for the pause in the conversation, read his eyes, see if he wants me to comment. I tread carefully knowing that an unwelcome response can shut the door on future disclosures. And I often misstep, speak against a friend he just railed on only to see him do an about-face and defend the same person. It’s like chiming in to criticize someone’s boyfriend only to see loyalty and love rear up and come charging back at you. It all requires a light touch.

But there’s another silence that enters the teen years: my (un)willingness to share specifics here upon the page of the discussions I have with my son. The cute quotes get tucked away. The overwhelming concerns hide in my conscience. His pain, it all gets more private. Because there really is something unique about this phase, and number one for me is respecting my child. Number one is keeping him coming back to me for as long as he’s willing.

Trust. It is so tender at this age, so easily damaged, such a precious commodity.

“We are a village,” other parents say as they beg to exchange details of our children’s teen behavior, details of what our children are doing when out of sight.

I have some knowledge that I don’t share, a fine line to walk, for this knowledge comes to me from my son, and my primarily responsibility is to keep that line of communication open and flowing. If I witness something first hand, I have every right to report – and I will if a child is at risk – but if the information comes to me via my teen, I must respect his disclosure.

Is this easy? Absolutely not. Were I to hear of escalated dangerous behavior from my son, would I go to the child’s parents? This is the struggle, for I may help one family and never hear another word from my son. I could lose contact with all future disclosures, disclosures that could prove more critical, disclosures of my son’s own behavior that I must be there to hear.

Were my son to share something that required immediate intervention, I would assert the need to share this information. My son and I have talked about this, but it’s dicey. It would be a negotiation, but I would hope to prevail in stressing the need to speak up, in receiving my child’s blessing to help a friend.

Other parents may scream in hearing my reticence to break my son’s trust, but may I ask, “Would you risk shutting down your child’s voice in order to call another parent to report pot smoking?”

But then I ask myself, “What if the drug use is more serious, what do we do? What if I hear about risky sex or other disquieting behavior?”

This is an ongoing conversation, a conversation with self that takes place in my head, in a room of silence. Meanwhile my son’s voice returns home everyday at 3:00.